Monday, June 8, 2009

An Alpine cycling adventure - Part I

If I hadn't spent 59 hours and 50 minutes of the last 7 days perched on my saddle exposed to the elements I may be sitting by the pool soaking up the Cote d'Azur sunshine. But as it is the farmer's tan will stay intact while I reminisce on the most spectacular 7 days of cycling that I've done.

Day 1 - Paris to Vezelay, 244 km (152 mi)

Still struggling to get over my jet lag from Canada after a week of late nights and late mornings made the 4.30 am alarm (3.30 am UK time!) uncomfortable to say the least but we were on the road by 6 am as dawn broke over Paris.

Somehow we had managed to coincide our departure from Paris with some sort of French holiday so we enjoyed a remarkably peaceful roll out of the city and on to the beautiful Fontainbleau. What a difference a following wind makes and although we didn't make it into camp at Vezelay until after 9pm we had 244 km under our belts and were feeling pretty good going into day 2.

Day 2 - Vezelay to Champdor, 278 km (173 mi)

Another big distance day but almost unimpeded by hills and again we were lucky with a generous tailwind and the occasional boulangerie.

The day did however have a sting in its tail as we neared the end and were faced with a climb over the 903 m Col de Lebe. For me this was the low point of the trip as my legs and energy system went on strike leading to over an hour and a half of will-sapping stroke-by-stroke pedaling. Crawling into camp just before 10 pm in almost complete darkness after just short of 10 hours in the saddle left me wondering just whether yesterday's optimism was woefully unjustified. Recovery protein/carb drinks and dinner to the rescue.

Day 3 - Champdor to Bourg d'Oisans, 204 km (127 mi)

Cols passed: Col de Glandon (1924 m); Col de la Croix de Fer (2067 m)

Lac du Bourget on the way to Aix les Bains

Perhaps tackling Col de la Croix de Fer from a starting height of 452 m and via the most difficult route having already cycled 100 miles was ill advised. Nevertheless, having discovered that the Col du Galibier was closed after a winter of big snow fall in the Alps we decided to take on Croix de Fer and end our day in Bourg d'Oisans, positioned well for Alpe d'Huez on day 4. The Col de Glandon is around 1.5 km before Croix de Fer so really this evening was all about Glandon. 1472 m of vertical ascent over 21.4 km of road meant an average gradient of 7%. On legs that had done some 600 km in the previous 3 days this was a challenge. I remember thinking that this is spectacular but very, very hard. Tim at one point ate 3 energy bars in one hit washing them down with his remaining gulp of water. We had not started the climb until 5.30 pm and despite grinding it out without a break except for 10 minutes to mend a puncture, we didn't make Glandon until gone 8 pm. Tired, cold and hungry our support crew (Tim's dad and sister) were a welcome sight to say the least. After a quick stop to grab some food, water and extra clothes we made the final ascent to Croix de Fer before heading down the other side of the mountain and into Bourg d'Oisans. Despite the semi-darkness I recorded my fastest speed of the trip here at 73.3 km/h (45.5 mph). The packed campsite in Bourg at this early stage of the season should have given us a clue to the day ahead but this was far from our minds as we once again dragged ourselves through the shower, shoveled food into our weary stomachs and hit the pillow.

Day 4 - Bourg d'Oisans to Briancon; 98 km (61 mi)

Cols passed: Col de Sarenne (1989 m) via Alpe d'Huez (1850 m); Col du Lauteret (2058 m)

The 10 km ride from the campsite to the start of the Alpe d'Huez climb was barely enough to get the blood flowing through the legs again before we hit the 21 famous hairpins up to one of France's oldest ski resorts. But all feelings of fatigue were forgotten when we rounded the corner at the foot of the hill to find several hundred Dutch cyclists going up and coming down. In a highly organised display of charity cycling these men and women of one of the world's flattest but most cycle-crazy countries were taking on the climb up to six times during the day. We weren't to find this out until we reached the top so we were pleased with our progress as we steadily overtook all who stood before us. At every hairpin dozens of Dutch fans cheered on their weary compatriots and handed out bananas and energy drinks. The carnival atmosphere certainly did nothing to dent our morale and the climb was great fun on a sunny Thursday morning.

The party at the summit, complete with DJ and euro-pop was the icing on the cake before we headed off to quieter climes and the beautifully remote Col de Sarenne.

Col de Sarenne was one of the highlights of the trip and a good warm up for Lauteret.

Lauteret itself was a long climb but by now nothing compared to the nightmare on Glandon and besides it was early afternoon, we were making good progress and the weather was great. At the top of Lauteret you have the option of continuing up to Galibier so it was with some regret but not a little relief that we passed the turn-off and the 'ferme' sign. Summit photos with stunning mountain back-drop taken we descended to Briancon via my favourite descent of the trip.

Descents are either highly technical with lots of steep sections, narrow roads and hairpins or are wide open, flowy and fast. This was the latter and by late afternoon we had arrived in Briancon with time at last to wash some clothes and re-group after 4 days of hard riding.

Day 5 - Briancon to Barcelonnette, 101 km (63 mi)

Cols passed: Col d'Izoard (2360 m), Col du Vars (2108 m)

Refreshed from a shorter day 4 and excited for Col d'Izoard, our highest so far, we set off in positive mood despite the threatening sky and enjoyed the long steady climb to the Col through classic Alpine scenery and along perfect, quiet roads to the barren, snowy col.

Climbing to Col d'Izoard

One down, one to go for today. A long, cold descent that left me with a stiff neck, sore shoulders and aching back brought us down some 1300 m and set us up for the big climb back up to over 2100 m and the Col de Vars. On the way down however we stopped in a lay-by and got talking to a local who in the space of 5 minutes changed months of planning by informing us that Col Agnel, Col de la Bonette and Col de la Lombarde were all closed. Not to be daunted we carried on with a pretty good idea of how we would change the plan and buoyed by descriptions of the new route as the most beautiful in the area. We weren't to be disappointed. As we started the climb to Col de Vars the weather became more and more ominous before a light rain turned to a steady downpour soaking us to the skin by the time we reached the 2108 m col where the air temperature was 8 degrees and the wind chill significantly lower. A quick change of clothes and as fast a descent as possible in the torrential rain gave way to the run in to Barcelonnette, France's highest city and a hotel room, the product of a bail-out plan hatched to ward off hypothermia and a miserable night's camping. We happened upon a cycling friendly hotel complete with drying room, bike storage and walls adorned with photographs of the sport's legends through the ages all for the princely sum of EUR 70 for a room for the four of us. The best EUR 17.50 I've spent in a long time!


Simon said...

Absolutely amazing achievement Simon! Congratulations - I doff my helmet to you sir! Chapeau!

nick said...

Quote: "I remember thinking that this is spectacular but very, very hard". Yeah right, Mr. Fergs, I reckon some rather cruder language was going thru your mind mate. Am I right, or am i right?
Mr. Gards