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.
ASO has a dilemma. Cycling fans all over the world don’t much like the course for the 2009 Tour de France. The criticism of the course has been consistent: No fireworks. It’s a shame, really. The Tour’s technical director created a course that was intended to make stage 20 up Mt. Ventoux pivotal.
It’s easy to make the case for ASO’s decision: They wanted the outcome of the race to remain in play for as long as possible. It was a response to what they considered conservative racing on previous mountain stages when the leaders would ride tempo marking each other and rarely attacking. They wanted a worthy victor to be found at the last possible moment—on the slopes of Mt. Ventoux.
It’s an interesting idea, but the dissatisfaction the public feels illustrates the problem. You follow the Tour de France to see dramatic racing on a daily basis. If ASO wants a winner-take-all race decided on hors categorie climbs, then they should revive the Classique des Alpes.
Any one stage would have been acceptable in another year’s course. A mountain stage without a mountain finish isn’t a problem, but when there are so many of them they become a pattern, we’re deprived of the detonations that are so thrilling.
Further, had the GC been more thoroughly clarified, if not decided, then George Hincapie would not have been in a position to take the yellow jersey, if only for a day. Garmin had their reason to chase—to avoid a split—but as an example of negative racing, what they did was minor compared to Columbia’s efforts to disrupt the sprint. Chases get disrupted all the time, but everyone expects a sprint to unfold with all possible haste.
To be utterly fair to the ASO, if their goal was drama, then they did, in fact, succeed. In movie making, the worst thing that a director can allow to happen is for the audience to become bored and tune out. In “Psycho,” that Janet Leigh takes a shower isn’t interesting, but our anticipation keeps us riveted. Our expectation for drama has kept us tuning in.
The sense of relief at the mountaintop finish on Verbiers elicited world-wide Twitters of “fireworks.” The shame for ASO is that while the audience is happy, Verbiers provided exactly the thing they wanted to avoid—a GC selection so clear as to determine the final victor.
But that’s the score isn’t it? Contador is almost unquestionably the finest rider in the race. It’s unlikely any GC contender can put even a minute into him in the final TT.
The question remains: Did ASO really miss the mark? After all, you, I, and the rest of the world have been on the edge of our seats waiting for Anthony Perkins to pull back the shower curtain. However, the course does have a significant flaw. By awarding double points to the final climb of each stage, rather than just those final climbs placed at the end of the stage and used for an uphill finish, the organizer has allowed the polka-dot jersey of the King of the Mountains to be held by the least deserving leader of the classification since Laurent Jalabert won it in 2002 (as likable as Jalabert is, he wasn’t the best climber that year, not by a longshot), after finishing the race in 42nd place overall, more than 1:17 down on Lance Armstrong. Franco Pellizotti sits in 46th place, 24.26 down on Contador.
Jalabert’s win was the reason the ASO elected to double points on the final climb of each stage. Had the organizer awarded double points only on Arcalis and Verbiers, Pellizotti would not be in the polka-dot jersey and Alberto Contador would be within striking distance of it, if not already in possession of the famed maillot pois.
We’re more than two weeks into the Tour and the first real shakeout in the GC has just taken place. The ASO rarely makes the same mistake twice, so we’re not likely to see another Tour take this long to separate the gold from the ore.
Contador’s performance on Verbier puts his muscle-flexing on Arcalis in a new light. While his attack on Arcalis did nothing to dispel the leadership tension within the team, he did the team a huge favor by not taking the yellow jersey in the Pyrenees. Astana would have been worked by now if they had spent the last week defending the jersey.
Contador may be possessed of more self-confidence than one might otherwise guess. And though Cadel Evans told the AFP that Bradley Wiggins could still win the Tour, it seems more than likely the only podium spot that’s still in play is that lowest spot. It could go to either Wiggins or Andy Schleck … or maybe Andreas Kloden.
Provided Contador doesn’t lose time in the Annecy time trial, his lead should allow him to ride conservatively on Mont Ventoux. He may be the only rider who won’t have to worry about attacks. Perhaps the most interesting question remaining is if Bruyneel will try to sweep the podium with Contador, Armstrong and Kloden. It would be an historic performance.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.