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
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 left home my mind contained a vision. In it I was fit. I was ready. I was unencumbered by obstacles. I’d ride at threshold until 1km to go, whereupon I would bury the needle and arrive at the col marker out of the saddle and a little out of breath. I would descend with mad Formula 1 skills, drifting my bike around switchbacks and sitting up to eat pain au chocolat as I caught cars.
Sci-fi is fun, huh? The last two weeks of my life have been nothing like that. Nothing. Like. That.
Since Thursday or Friday of last week I’ve been dealing with pain from a nerve I pinched in my neck years ago—during a race, of course. The longer and harder I ride without a break, the worse it hurts and that pain isn’t like fatigue. No, it’s closely related to the sensation you’d experience if someone took a letter opener, heated it over an open flame and then drove it into your shoulder with the aid of a ball pen hammer. And while I arrived with good fitness, it’s one thing to be fit and it’s another to climb the Col de la Madeleine at threshold. I might as well try to drive from New York to San Francisco on a single tank of gas.
Eating and drinking on descents? Um, as it turns out, there’s rarely time enough to get a bottle out of the cage before another bend requiring at least a cursory touch of the brakes to keep me corralled to my side of the road. And just where you are in the road is a matter less of debate than one of logic. The safe assumption is that on an Alpine descent any approaching car will be in the middle of the road. Should you be near what would ordinarily be the lane line separating your lane from the lane of oncoming traffic, you would not fare well unless radical course corrections are among your core skills.
Turns came with such rapidity that I almost never used my 11t cog. I generally exited switchbacks in the 13t cog and would sometimes shift to the 12t if the straightaway was longer than 200 meters.
Drifting? Dude. I’ve been watching too many Fast and Furious movies. The closest I came to drifting was my failure to stop on a switchback that sent me shooting between two motorcycles coming up the mountain. On a scale of one to 10, my pucker factor was 36.
Thursday was our final hors categorie climb, the north side of the Col de la Cayolle. All 25km of it. I can say that the descent off either side is long enough to induce braking-caused hand pain. The climb to our hotel in Valberg wasn’t a big, memorable climb used in the Tour, which is to say it was still more than 12km long and took us to 2000 meters. Quite arguably a Category 1 climb.
For Friday, our next-to-last day of the tour, we took in three climbs. The first was less than six km but the other two were 14 and 15km, respectively. In 70 miles we climbed more than 7500 vertical feet. Somehow we managed to utterly miss showers that coated the region in dripping humidity.
The last big climb of the day was the Col de Turini. For those of you who follow the World Rally Championship, that name might be familiar. The Col de Turini is used in the Monte Carlo rally, which is run in January. Picture savoire faire Frenchman relaxedly drifting sideways through snowbanks with a thin rock wall separating them from the expanse of destiny while screaming crowds inch near the car traveling at speeds to high to be legal on freeways.
My experience might have been different from theirs and even my own imagination, but that day was visceral in a way theme parks can only dream.
When I was last in the Maritime Alps, roughly ten years ago, I did a ride that has remained on my list of all-time greats. That loop, starting and finishing in Barcelonette, was included in the tour I’m doing now. Indeed, it was one of the features that attracted me to this tour.
In broad strokes, the ride heads south from Barcelonette. A few kilometers out of town you turn right and begin climbing the Col d’Allos. It’s a 19km Category 1 climb and reaches 2247 meters. You descend until you reach the left turn that begins the climb up the 12km ascent of the Col de Champs. It tops out at 2045 meters. Then you descend to the left turn that leads to the climb up the Col de la Cayolle. The ascent of the Cayolle is 20km and reaches a height of 2326 meters; as such it is an hors categorie climb. From there you drop back to Barcelonette. Easy peasy, provided you think of 75 miles and 10,500 feet of elevation gain as easy.
I know the jump between feet and meters can be a bit confusing; sorry for that. I’m pulling data from multiple sources and there’s a bit of a culture clash, and, frankly, it’s all I can do to get this post done tonight.
Unlike the climbs we did in the northern Alps, the gradient was more consistent with each of these climbs. My legs say it was generally between five and seven percent, though there were exceptions.
The descents off of each of these climbs were to adult fun what Disney Land was to childhood fun. To do three descents of such variety, beauty and fun on a single day hardly seems possible. I commented to another rider when we stopped for a photo that I was having a “pinch me” moment. I just needed to make sure I really was there, really was having that much fun. Honestly, though, my dreams are never this good.
Were someone to compile a bucket list of great rides, this is a sleeper that should make everyone’s list. The climbs aren’t super-famous, but they each share a rich history and should rightfully be given their due respect. I’ll do another post that comments on some of the history of the climbs I’ve done on this trip. On two occasions today I actually stopped on descents for photos just because I couldn’t believe how beautiful the scenery was and the fact that the roads winding through these landscapes had an elegant line, sweeping and looping like a Bach melody.
Even if I lived here this isn’t a loop I could do weekly. It’s extraordinarily difficult, but the reward that comes from looking out at the Alps from those passes, threading those descents and rolling back to the hotel gives a satisfaction that most races I competed in could never match. Years from now when I’m too old to ride, today is a day I’ll recall and that will suffice for what I can no longer achieve.
I’m currently staying in the village of St. Veran. It lies at the highest elevation of any French community that is occupied year-round. We’re in the Queyras, a region of France so deep within the Alps that even as these mountains go, this is out-of-the-way.
The last two days would rank as two of the harder days of riding I’ve encountered on a back-to-back basis, save for the fact that the day into Val d’Isere was stunningly hard. The ride was difficult by any standard, but the cold, wet, wind and minor bonk put me in the whipping shed.
When we left Val d’Isere (which lies at 1930m) two days ago we immediately embarked on the 16km climb of the Col de l’Iseran. For us it was only 16km (only!), because by staying in Val d’Isere, we were effectively cutting the climb in two. The north ascent, from Bourg St. Maurice, is a whopping 47km. We rather conveniently knocked out the first 31km just getting to our hotel.
As we neared the top of the 2764-meter Iseran, the temperature dropped precipitously and while there were clouds, no rain fell. What did happen was that snow started to fall. It was a flurry, to be sure, and a light one at that, but snow says a thing or two about temperature and if snow is falling, it’s not exactly balmy.
The descent of the Iseran involved far fewer turns than most of the Alpine cols I’ve climbed on this trip and I’m not one to ride the brakes for the sake of it. Without a GPS I would periodically check my speed by seeing if I could get the 50×12 high gear I had to bite. No dice. If I can’t even get the freehub to catch I’m north of 45mph. My fingers would have been more comfortable gripping ice cubes. I kept telling myself that the only thing that would alleviate the numbness was less altitude; the faster I dropped, the warmer I’d get. My high speed also kept me ahead of traffic. The few cars I encountered pulled over to let me by.
A big chunk of the day involved riding down this river valley through Modane and toward St. Michel de Maurienne. Despite a near constant loss of elevation we rode more than 50km directly into the teeth of the wind.
My preference would have been to head for St. Jean de Maurienne and sleep at the lowest altitude possible. Instead, we ascended the 18km to Valloire, but fortunately the last 4km are downhill into the ski town. Of course, that left the Galibier hanging, sword of Damocles style outside the window of our hotel.
We began yesterday by climbing another 17km to the top of the Col du Galibier. The pitches of eight and nine percent come at your legs as a bullfighter—a poke here, a jab there. The final 12 percent stretch to the top of the pass is the coup de grace. No matter how cold it is at 2645m, you stop. You have to. You can’t not get your picture at that sign. It’s like trying not to look at a car crash.
The descent off the Galibier: Big fun. The left turn at the Col du Lauteret and the drop into Briançon in Saturday traffic: Not priceless. As I and one of my companions threaded traffic into town one woman with a baby in her car shut the door on me—nearly putting me into a rock wall—with such verve that a dispatch was sent to Los Angelenos and a collective cheer went up. With her bumper inches from the wall I squeezed through in the debris-filled gutter and my companion suggested that she might do well to have a romantic encounter with one of the regions Turkish denizens. My French isn’t so good; there’s a fair chance that it was less a suggestion than an outright command and the encounter he had in mind might not have been of the candlelight variety.
The north ascent of the Col de l’Izoard starts meters from the south side of town with no ceremony. After riding through town for several kilometers in dense traffic, we made a tight right turn and the road suddenly turned up. The word “shocking” came to mind. I made a U-turn and headed 50 meters back into town for a Coke and tarte citron before letting the firing squad do their bit. Blindfold? Thank you. Cigarette? Yes.
The Izoard was one of the more forested and less spectacular ascents I’ve done. At least, that was the case until I climbed above the treeline. Then it was a stunner. However, marking progress was a challenge. The signs counted up and the math didn’t seem likely to add up to what I thought the actual length of the climb was. While it’s helpful to go from 15km to 16km, the climb was (according to Michelin) 21.5km long and when I saw 25km I knew that not everyone was working from the same set of figures. Climbs get longer when you can’t count them down.
Think back on the narrowest road you’ve ever descended. Now, think back on the twistiest road you’ve ever descended. Add them together. What’s that spell? Casse Déserte. The Casse Déserte is the section of the Izoard that looks a bit like a moonscape and is the highest portion of the road on the south face. Boxers aspire to be this brutal.
It’s, uh, shy on vegetation. Fausto Coppi used this section to help seal his reputation as the greatest climber of his generation. It is in this several kilometer stretch that the memorial to Coppi and Louison Bobet was erected. The monuments were mounted to a rock outcropping perched of above a mortal expanse. Riders climbing the south face enter this section following a very brief downhill and in July it bakes them like the day’s pain.
If I had the fitness, I’d do repeats of the Casse Déserte. It looks like a spectacularly demoralizing ascent and as drops go, roller coasters wish they offered such thrills.
Without needles of cold wrecking my fingers, I relished the drop down the rest of the Izoard. I had a bigger gear, a 50×11, but still couldn’t get it to bite too often. And while I thought that meant I must be close to 50 mph, the road surface and visibility gave me confidence that I was, if not outright safe, then at least under adequate control, kinda like when you have a firm grip on a cobra just behind its head.
The climb up to St. Veyran bore one striking similarity to the climb up the Col du Telegraphe. The higher I climbed, the better I felt. My fastest pace came in the last two kilometers before entering town.
I have no idea what’s going on.
When I do European tours, I ride them for a few different reasons. First and foremost is my desire to see a place that is not les Etats Unis. Second is my desire to have a genuine adventure—to do some hard riding and have some thrilling descents. Also, I like to encounter the frustration that comes with getting lost in a strange place, eat new foods, struggle with a foreign language and meet fascinating people.
In the course of doing all this, I generally hope that I’ll gain some new insight into myself, that I’ll learn something that adds a level of understanding or complexity to my world. Sometimes that understanding comes in the guise of plumbing new depths as a rider, or it may come as a newfound appreciation of foreign cultures and their subtleties. On a few occasions it has unfolded as an existential curiosity about why I bother to ride a bicycle and why I choose to write about it.
To be honest, right now, I’m in a very different place. It’s, shall we say, much more elemental. I feel like some rookie cop who has heard that gang members may shoot at him, but then, when confronted with his city’s mean streets, looks at his partner and says, “Dude, they’re shooting!”
I have gas enough to fill a hot air balloon. I’ve developed diaper rash by the end of the ride most days. Back home, I almost never eat red meat; here, I have some almost every day because the alternative would almost certainly result in bonking. As a result of all the red meat, I smell weird. Not just body odor, mind you, but the gas is foul and even my urine reeks. I’m eating so many calories—or at least trying to—that I’m pooping at least twice and sometimes three times in a day. And yes, they smell like someone opened the fridge a week after the power went out.
I went into this trip with the best fitness I’ve had in years. Three days of cold and wet mauled me, forcing me to burn matches I was saving for later in the trip. Yesterday was the killer, arguably the tour’s queen stage, in which we climbed the Col du Galibier, the Col de l’Izoard and into the town of St. Veran, which lies in the shadow of the Col d’Agnel, about two-thirds the way up.
Or is it really as bad as I think? It took me most of the day to ride 64 miles, but we also climbed at least 10,000 vertical feet including two hors categorie cols. I road at a subsistence pace because the fatigue goes down to the bone, but any time the gradient wasn’t 10 percent, I could get on top of a real gear, not the bailout 34×32 (more on that in another post).
RKP‘s Top 10 Reasons Padraig Rode Like Crap:
- I’ve got a pinched nerve that kills my neck if I go too hard and long.
- My mother called to say she was joining the Jesuits.
- Sleeping at 2000m altitude has eliminated the notion of recovery.
- I can’t process beef protein unless it is accompanied by beer.
- My legs are too tired to pedal a low gear at a high cadence.
- My iPod died.
- This is the sixth day in a row I’ve climbed more than 7000 feet.
- Ugly may only be skin deep but cold goes all the way to the marrow.
- Maybe I shouldn’t stay up until midnight installing bike parts.
- I’m saving my strength for the really hard days ahead.
As it turns out, at least one of the reasons above is really true. First correct guess gets RKP stickers.
The descent off of the south side of the Col de Saisies is a terrific drop with switchbacks and gentle chicanes. However, for those looking for more impressive views and a descent worthy of Mel Gibson’s career, there’s a small road at the end of town that takes a different, far more switchbacked route to the valley below.
I’ve been dreaming about riding this road since the first time I rode it, back in 1999. It’s a double-chevroned affair, pitching between eight and 10 percent most of the way down.
After Monday’s ride, an amusement park attraction like this road was just what we needed.
You won’t see any pictures from Monday’s 80-ish miles and more than 8000-feet of climbing (over the Col de Cou and the Col de Feu) because it rained the whole day (though there were a few minutes here or there in which water stopped actively falling from the sky). I was well prepared, but it’s not the sort of ride I’d want to do for two straight weeks, nor was I willing to sacrifice my camera.
Light rain greeted us at breakfast but by the time we were ready to pull out of Taninges, the rain had stopped and the streets were beginning to dry.
We rolled from the hotel and headed for the Col de la Colombiere, a Category 1 climb used in this year’s Tour de France. In fact, we rode a fair chunk of stage 9’s course. At 16.5km, the Colombiere was tough, but the worst was reserved for the final few kilometers at the top, enough so that the climb averages 6.7 percent. We made a quick stop at our van for food and drinks and began the drop, which, all things considered was probably my favorite descent of the day.
Coming over the top of the Colombiere, I was amazed at just how quickly the road sank and I was reminded of this Graham Watson shot of Dag-Otto Lauritzen coming over the top of the Col du Glandon in 1988. The look on his face says it all.
The next climb we tackled was the Category 2 Col des Aravis. On the whole, it wasn’t so bad; at 7.6km and an average gradient of 5.9 percent, it reminded me of a fair number of climbs I do in Malibu. It was chilly at the top, and we spent just a short time at our van before heading down to the town of Flumet for lunch.
Immediately upon crossing a bridge in Flumet you begin the ascent of the Col des Saisies. This Category 1 climb averages only 5.1 percent, but that figure is deceptive. There are kilometers that average three percent while other kilometers average eight percent. The changes in pitch were disruptive to my rhythm, but honestly, the flatter pitches were welcome.
The best news of the day was that Albertville—no, we didn’t continue on to the Col de la Madeleine—where out hotel was located, was 26km away and nearly every meter was downhill.
We’re taking some liberties with the actual Route des Grandes Alpes. When we ride out of Albertville, the route heads up the Cormet de Roselend, some 24km uphill from the point we finished the descent of the Col de Saisies. That’s not what we’re doing Wednesday.
Today we did a little tune-up ride, leaving our hotel in Ferney-Voltaire (the birthplace of Honoré Voltaire) and riding by numerous embassies down to Lac Leman and the world’s most famous fountain.
After getting all the assorted problems with my bike worked through I discovered that despite purchasing the micro SD card with European maps for my Garmin Edge 705 GPS unit, I discovered that the installation of the new map set was the moment that the GPS chose that opportunity to flatline. Great.
Getting data from rides recorded could be difficult. Need to ask the wife to overnight the Edge 205 to me. Ugh.
I shot the top image early this morning outside our hotel. The field of sunflowers had to be 10 acres. It was so postcard French as to be comical. When I first saw them my reaction was giddy. The white peak in the middle of the photograph, the one coated with a dollop of clouds is none other than Mont Blanc. As I watched it, conditions on the peak pendulumed from clear to shrouded in cloud cover and back.
Today’s ride takes in the Col de la Ramaz among others. There are lots of green lines on the Michelin maps, provided I’m willing to skip the climb up the Joux-Plane. It’s a tough call, but I’m leaning toward the Ramaz, especially as the Joux Plane is better known as a climb based on its southern face and we would be climbing the north side.
Beginning Sunday, I’ll be undertaking the most ambitious bicycle tour I’ve ever attempted. I’m joining Erickson Cycle Tours for the Route des Grandes Alpes. This famous tour was devised by the Touring Club de France the year after the Tourmalet was added to the Tour de France (1911, to be exact), back when all of these roads were as-yet unpaved.
In broad strokes, the route runs from Geneva to Nice. Along the way, it hugs the French border with Italy and takes in the highest cols in the French Alps. In just 14 days I will (theoretically, at least) ride 1000 miles and climb 100,000 vertical feet.
A typical day will involve words like Galibier, Iseran, Izoard, Cayolle or Bonette.
Such is my sense of fun that I’ve fantasized about riding this route for a good 10 years.
I’ll try to update as often as possible, and I’ve got a few equipment-related posts I’m hoping to finish up along the way, but I probably won’t be too prompt about responding to comments.
I’ll also do a post on the bike I’m riding, a rig perfect for traveling to the mountains.
Have fun out there,Padraig