Fans of ultra-tough gran fondo/cyclosportif events have just been given a dream come true. The French promoter OC ThirdPole has announced a new event called La Haute Route and is the multi-stage gran fondo. The seven-stage event will encompass 700km from Geneva to Nice.
If that concept sounds familiar to you, the event is in broad strokes very similar to the Route des Grandes Alpes trip that I did last summer with Erickson Cycle Tours. Our route was based on the historic auto route through the Alps. This route will leave out the loop rides and out-and-back rides we did that broke up our adventure. Even so, the course will encompass some 700km and Alpine climbs with famous names—not Miley Cyrus famous, but nerdy bike-geek household famous. Think Galibier.
By the time riders reach the Promenade des Anglais in Nice they will have climbed roughly 18,000 meters—some 59,000 feet.
Basics of the route include:
* 7 days in a row, from the 21st to the 27th August 2011
* 716 km over 7 stages
* 14 peaks and 18,000 meters of climbing
* 4 high altitude finishes
* Start: Geneva, Switzerland
* Finish: Nice, France
* 5 overnight host cities : Megève, Les Arcs / Bourg-St-Maurice, Serre Chevalier, Pra Loup, Auron
Registration is already open and is a seemingly reasonable 595 euro before 12/31 and 630 euro after the first of the year.
Every rider will receive:
* Official travel bag (to be used by each competitor)
* Mechanical support (in the race village and during the race)
* Food/drink supplies during the race and at the finish of each stage
* Access to a secure bike park at each stopover
* Cleaning service for the bikes at each stopover
* Massages / rest and recovery at the finish
* Pasta party organised every night
* Transfer of personal luggage from the start to the finish of each leg
* Transfer of bike bags and covers from Geneva to Nice
* Accommodation at different levels and return shuttle (Nice-Geneva) as an option
Honestly, if an entry to this accompanied with a hall pass isn’t the gift of the year, I don’t know what is.
Learn more here: www.hauteroute.org
Even before I knew I’d be joining Erickson Cycle Tours for the Route des Grandes Alpes I began researching a new solution to traveling with a bicycle. For more than 10 years I’ve been using a double BikePro case, which was perfect as long as I was traveling with another cyclist. These days, however, I’ve usually been traveling with only one bike and the way oversize baggage charges have taken off with all the thrust of a Saturn V booster rocket, I’ve been thinking that I need a simpler, less expensive way to travel with a bike.
I investigated each of the airlines to see if anyone going to my destination was still inexpensive, as well as alternative shipping options, dedicated travel bikes such as the Ritchey BreakAway and Bike Friday, having an S&S-coupled bike built for me by Hampsten Cycles or having an existing frame retrofitted with S&S couplers.
I quickly ruled out continued use of my trusty BikePro case as financial suicide. My next choice would have been to have a new frame built by Hampsten, especially after seeing some drawings Steve did. With a slightly shorter, sloping top tube combined with a slightly longer stem, the frame would have packed in the S&S case easily, a fact I’ve come to appreciate more in the last two weeks. However, timeline and expense conspired against us, so I went with Plan B.
My beloved Seven Cycles Axiom has been hanging on the wall of my garage for at least two years, unused. I’m a sentimental fool and couldn’t part with it even though my Felt Z frame weighs two-thirds what the Seven does.
After speaking with Steve at S&S, he encouraged me to talk to Steve Bilenky at Bilenky Cycle Works about retrofitting my Seven. I wasn’t too sure initially; the folks at Seven had noted a number of technical challenges to retrofitting my frame and suggested I consider a new frame instead. However, Bilenky walked me through the procedure, telling me how they take blank titanium couplers and machine them to size. Combined with the fact that their turnaround is quick, I was sold.
At Bilenky a titanium frame retrofit is $850, while steel is only $495. However, when you consider that a steel frame will need a paint touch-up if not re-do, a steel retrofit could be as much if not more than the ti retrofit. The hard case is another $395. Accessories such as tube covers, compression members and cable quick connects can add on another $100 or so.
Considering that some airlines are charging upwards of $200 per flight to transport a bicycle in a normal bike carrier, a retrofit with case and accessories can pay for itself in as few as three trips, all because the case comes in under the magic 62-linear-inch number. While the dollar savings is great, the quality of life increase in being able to take a bike with me anywhere for just $25 per flight means that I can now consider taking a bike along on trips I where would previously have had to go without. It’s hard to put a price on that.
Assembly isn’t as fast as with one of my other bikes in the BikePro case, but I gain added confidence knowing that I’m traveling with a difficult to damage titanium bike, rather than one of my more fragile carbon fiber bikes. All things considered, I’ll take the inconvenience.
Because my Seven frame features a 59cm seat tube (c-c) and a ground-parallel 58.5cm top tube (c-c), I must remove the crankset in order to place the rear half of the frame in the case. The longish lengths of both seat tube and top tube mean that I have to be both careful and deliberate when placing the frame halves in the case; think heirlooms in a moving van.
Fortunately, the folks at Bilenky cut and labeled a set of frame tube protectors made from Cordura, foam rubber and Velcro. The amount of thought I had to put into protecting the frame was nil. All I had to do was follow the directions from Bilenky for the packing order of the parts. To say they have it down to a science is an understatement; it’s a procedure, much like assembling a toy model. There’s a sequence for packing and a precise location for each part; follow it and you won’t have to sit on the case to get it closed.
So that covers the frame and the travel element. However, for a trip with so much climbing over so many days, I was going to need some low gears. The folks at SRAM had suggested I try riding a Red-equipped bike with the rear derailleur and cassette replaced with those from their new Apex group. The combination would give me all the functionality and low-weight advantage of Red with the low gears you can only achieve with the long-cage rear derailleur and dinner-plate cassette from Apex. Game on!
As I mentioned in my post The Void, I wouldn’t ordinarily publish each of the routes for a given tour. Travel companies don’t have a boatload of intellectual property and the specific routes they use often feature often feature a stop here or a back road there that makes the riding more enjoyable. However, most of folks won’t get the chance to ride this tour with Erickson Cycle Tours, so publishing the routes won’t actually hurt their business.
Now that I’ve had a chance to quantify my fatigue I’ve created links to each of the routes we rode in sort-of following the Route des Grandes Alpes from Geneva to Nice. While the particulars of my speed and the duration of my rides aren’t particularly accurate (or interesting), I suspect that some of you may be as nutty for maps as I am and might enjoy these.
Since returning from Nice and wrestling with jetlag I’ve been inputting each of the rides I did on my Alpen odyssey with Erickson Cycle Tours. My plan had been to capture each of the rides with my Garmin 705, but as it went south the moment I plugged the Europe map chip in, that wasn’t possible. It has been painstaking work and has involved peeling some waterlogged maps apart. So it goes.
Under ordinary circumstances I’d keep the exact routes quiet in an effort to protect Erickson’s limited intellectual property. There’s more to a great bike tour than just getting over the right cols. However, the impetus to protect isn’t at work this time around for reasons that require some explanation.
Truth told: I don’t know a cyclist who is more familiar with the roads of the Alps than Glenn Erickson. He has been riding these roads for more than 25 years and his initial introduction to these routes came from former Grenoble resident and cycling writer Owen Mulholland—one of the two foremost English-language experts on the Tour de France (the other being Bill McGann). Yet with that endorsement out of the way, Glenn isn’t looking for more business. He’s in his 60s, has Parkinson’s and is likely to gradually wind down his business over the next five to seven years. All of his 2011 tours are already sold out. He doesn’t so much have returning clients as a very extended family.
As much as I want to recommend Erickson Cycle Tours to you, Glenn has asked me instead to focus on the beauty of the Alps and roads that most tour companies don’t go anywhere near. It’s a selfless act, really; one that has left me befuddled.
The lynchpin of a great tour operation is really the relationship management has with the hotels. That’s where Glenn’s wife, Nancy, comes in. She has been the one to nurture the relationships so that when an Erickson group shows up at the front door of a hotel, tour participants are treated as friends of friends rather than Americans, and that’s quite a difference in some places. Nancy has been the one to handle logistics, making sure that hotels meet Erickson’s standards while also allowing them to maintain an exceptional value—generally $4000 for two weeks.
Glenn and Nancy are something of a two-headed genius at creating tours that offer seamless riding. While their perspective seems none-too-extreme on its surface, there’s one distinction that I’ve yet to see another tour company emulate: You never, ever get in the van before a ride unless you ask. Erickson tours are designed so that you ride from one hotel to the next. Unlike every one of their competitors I’ve ever traveled with, no Erickson ride ever starts with a shuttle to the start of the actual ride. The benefits of this particular operational parameter are almost too numerous to name.
Should you wish to recreate the Route des Grandes Alpes on your own, it’s easy enough to find the route (and we didn’t stick to it religiously, ourselves), but with the routes we used you gain the advantage of knowing where you can find hotels that are both good and affordable. It would be pretty easy for a few friends to rent a van and take turns driving sag from Geneva to Nice. And I guarantee you’ll want a rest day (or two) in there somewhere.
It’s my sincere hope that as Glenn and Nancy transition toward retirement someone steps in to offer tours of a similar appeal.
Of course, there was a selfish side to my uploading all my rides to Map My Ride. I’m a data guy and two weeks of exquisite riding with absolutely zero data wasn’t easy to endure. I wanted to know the grand total on my mileage and my climbing. Early estimations were that we’d ride about 1000 miles climb roughly 100,000 feet.
In the past, my experience in the Alps, Pyrenees and Tuscany was that the riding generally hits a ratio of 100 vertical feet ascended for every mile ridden. On this trip there were many days where we blew that ratio to smithereens. There were days where we had more than 133 feet of climbing per mile.
My final tally was just more than 750 miles ridden and more than 92,000 feet climbed. And while those two numbers are super-accurate, the elapsed times given are very approximate. Between the map checks and food stops our elapsed times weren’t something we were too concerned with and I had no way to accurately gauge.
The Route des Grandes Alpes is a rare itinerary, both for its difficulty and in the rarity of the tour companies that have the ability to actually support such a tour. There’s a market for tours that do more than just bag a few cols; the question is who will offer these routes in the future.
Image courtesy Gary Schwenk
When I think back on the coldest, wettest and, ultimately, hardest days I’ve had on the bike, I can’t come up with any where I was seemingly inches from disaster the whole day. This is one of those stake-in-the-ground days. Spoiler alert: It hasn’t made me feel more PRO.
Wednesday, we rode from our hotel in Albertville to the top of the Col de la Madeleine via the northern route. A whopping 26 kilometers to 2000 meters of elevation. I’d forgotten that more than a few of the kilometers tick by with average gradients of nine or 10 percent. It’s a climb of a level of difficulty that other than the Rocky Mountains, very few places in the United States have climbs that can compare. There’s just no way to prepare for a climb this hard unless you live in the shadow of a mountain, a big one.
And in one of the only events of my life where I found a flat to be a relief, after we had finished our Cokes and slices of pie, I grabbed my bike and discovered—Quelle surprise!—I had a very flat tire. Suddenly, the soft rear tire I had imagined was slowing my progress over the last 4km wasn’t so imagined.
So that’s why I was so slow at the end.
Thursday’s route was simple enough on paper. Leave the hotel in Albertville, climb the Cormet de Roselend, descend into Bourg St. Maurice and then tackle the gentle ascent to Val d’Isere. But paper is for fiction and toilets.
Our group decided to climb the Col de Pré before hooking up with the last 7km of ascent to the top of the Cormet de Roselend. For the record: When someone tells you, “The Alps aren’t as steep as the Pyrenees,” what they are telling you is that they’ve watched Versus and they’ve heard Phil and Paul say that the climbs in the Alps used by the Tour de France aren’t as steep as the climbs used in the Pyrenees.
I’m here to tell you that the Col de Pré is one of the toughest climbs I’ve ever done. Category 1 or not, there were sustained pitches of 10 and 12 percent. What passed for a false flat was six percent. And as I mentioned, it was raining. As a matter of total fact, the higher we climbed, the harder it rained. I don’t know how that works in cold weather. I’ve been places that were hot and the rain evaporated before getting to sea level and I’ve seen snow at 2000 feet turn to rain by sea level, but I’ve never experienced no rain at 2000 feet become driving rain at 5000 feet. There’s a mechanism to this and I need it explained to me.
We reached the pass and headed for the van for food and other assistance. At the time, I was wearing bibs, base layer, jersey, arm warmers and rain cape. My legs were slathered with an embrocation from Sportique that I’ll be reviewing soon. I pulled on knee warmers (knee warmers over embro is a first for me) and one of our guides who was driving the van gave me his Campagnolo wind breaker to add on top of my rain cape. I was still cold—numb toes, even.
The descent of the east face of the Cormet de Roselend was almost recklessly fast because my brakes didn’t work too well. It seemed to take an extra 100 feet to get them to bite. I was sleeted on for several kilometers, which added a novel sting to the rain. Think of it as a cold sandblast at 40 mph. And then there was the Peugeot Clio that raced me down the first pitch, passed me and then left me no room to pass and half the braking distance I needed upon entering each turn. With each successive turn I wondered if I’d have my own personal Davis Phinney moment with its back windshield.
Eventually I did find an opportunity to pass the Clio but by this time the descent was even steeper and what I had yet to realize was that I had so thoroughly burned through my brake pads that the reason my fingertips hurt was because I was bottoming out the lever against the bar. Who knew?
I approached one right-hand switchback only to see a camper swing into view; I braked even harder, to little avail. Just as I was to breathe again a motorcycle swung into view, and another, and another. I realized that my choices given my tepid drop in speed were to turn hard and hope I don’t end up on my hip—which seemed unlikely—or shoot for the outside of the switchback and pass—no matter how hazardously—between motos two and three.
The driver of moto three shook his head at me just as you would for anyone after they had committed an act that, if deliberate, would qualify as the dumbest thing you’d seen this year. I suppose he was a bit frightened. Not half as much as I was.
In Bourg St. Maurice I found a bar and ordered chocolat chaud, twice. My companions arrived during my second, ordered one each and before I could get a sandwich and Coke, were out the door. The caloric math for me wasn’t good. With roughly 30k to ride—and all uphill—I knew my tank didn’t have the reserves, but I vowed to stick with the boys (the buddy system is smart, right?) and make for the hotel. It wasn’t long before I’d downed the last of my Shot Blocks and an Accel Gel.
As expected, I did have to turn to one of my companions with 10km to go and announce that my personal idiot light was on. I made for Tignes, just 4km for our hotel and marched into the first bar I found. Despite the tobacco fog, I marched in and two Cokes and one Nestlé crunch bar later I was big-ringing it through the last four tunnels.
As tough a climb as the Col de la Madeleine was, when I think hors categorie, I will forever associate that phrase with today’s ride, not yesterday’s. I’m told (and I have to rely on others because my Garmin isn’t working) the ride was 60 miles and not the 8500 feet of climbing I tweeted, but a whopping 10,000. That’s 133 feet of climbing per mile—the highest ratio I’ve ever personally encountered.
I assumed at some point I’d reach an existential curiosity about what I was doing. ‘Why bother?’ is a fair question. What I didn’t expect was that I’d be so close to hypothermia for hours on end and that I’d encounter a descent so dangerous that I’d wish, simply, for it to end. When you can’t enjoy one of your favorite pursuits in the world, the questions start coming. And while the questions might be troubling, the answers are even more so. I can’t trust a sun dial built for anything that rises in the west.