lundi, juillet 23, 2007

07.07.23: Les Alpes, Ups and Downs of life in France

About 20 years ago I went to Colorado and climbed a few mountain passes on my bicycle (Rabbit Ears and Loveland still stick in my mind), and at the time I said (to myself): "wouldn't it be cool to go to the Alps and climb some of the cols that comprise the Tour de France." I never said I was in a hurry about it, so there you have it, last week I did a few of them alps. Col du Télégraph, Col de le Croix de Fer, Col Galibier most notably. Just a week after Le Tour passed by.

Here is what I remember:


We roll out of the hotel at 7:00 AM, the eight of us, after a breakfast of baguettes, marmalade, a little OJ, and café au lait ... we might have a long day ahead of us. I am nervous. No, I am scared. J'ai peur. I have no idea of the magnitude of the climbs ahead. Like I said, it's been a long time since I rode a bike in the mountains.

I ride alongside Robert, usually steady and very strong. About 15 km into the day, I notice he is sweating profusely and breathing hard. Robert, who kicks my ass every Sunday morning is looking a little peaked. It's not even 8:00 AM. J'ai peur. I am not sweating; either I am on form, or I am completely dehydrated. I take a drink. It's all I can do. I regard my heart monitor; I seem to be OK, or it's not working. Nothing to do about it except spin the pedals. Perhaps today is the day I kick Robert's ass. Or not. A few km later, Robert kicks it up a notch. I do not respond. I do not know what is ahead. La peur ne cesse pas. I maintain my pace.

About halfway into the 1st climb I realize I have forgotten my food / energy bars for the day. I am in France. Either this is a problem without solution, or this is a problem easily solved. There is no middle ground here. It's a food related question ... this should be easily solved. 10 km from the summit, there is small resto by the side of the road. I stop for a café, tarte tatin, a re-fill of my water bottles and a few sweet breads to-go. Food supply question easily solved. I'm finishing my café, Jacques, Jean, and Michèle pass. I re-mount and re-join the climb. The clouds hang low; there is no noise; the view is supressed; la peur ne diminue pas.

A few km later I feel a strange rotation pattern developing in my right pedal. I am 5 km from the 1st summit of a 2-day/4 summit week-end and my right pedal has backed out of the crank arm, lodged itself askew and misaligned in the threads. The pedal is not rotating about the same axis as the crank-arm. It is now causing my knee some pain. I un-clip from the pedal, and push the pedal pad with the center of my shoe. Very in-efficient, but at least it doesn't twist my knee on every rotation. I cannot give up in the face of these frenchies. 2 km from the summit, the pedal has nearly liberated itself from the crank arm. This is good news. I can now extract the pedal,and there are just 2 threads remaining in the crank - but it's enough to re-attach the pedal. I torque it down with all the little allen wrench has to offer. J'ai peur, mais je persiste. The pedal holds; I do not quit.

Le col de la Croix de Fer. Altitude: 2068 m (6800 ft). Not too bad on altitude, but the climb is 4800 ft in 20 miles.

The view at the top is very pleasing. Robert was waiting for me at the summit.

I ask another cyclist to take my photo next to the brag sign. Apparently, I forgot to turn the camera on. He is trying to take the photo and he says out loud: "Hey, does this thing work?" They were the first english words I had heard all day. Turns out, he is from Calgary. Speaks english pretty well. Can apparently ride a bike also.

I'm thinking the hard part of the day is over. Not much is as it seems here. Next little climb, having received no significant advance billing, Col du Mollard, is a nasty little climb, not long, not high, but steep and after lunch, was not pleasant. I nearly cracked 100m from the peak.

After, it's all down hill, 50 km, practice high speed turns. How fast do you dare? Noone passed me on the descent. Being overweight is a bonus on a descent.

Evening ... cheap pasta meal in a 2nd rate hotel 5m off the main highway. Two glasses of whine and I am ready for bed.

Sunday ...

I ride out of town with Michel in the early morning fog. The fog deadens the sound, clouds the road ahead in mystery, intrigue. The only sounds are those of mine and Michel's quiet breathing, our calm conversation as we begin the ascent. We can not see ahead 100m. On a bicycle, climbing, that is enough. I know the road rises; beyond that, I do not need to know. We breathe; we chat about nothing; I regard my heart monitor. I am in better condition than yesterday, or the battery is slowly dying. We will see.

My heart monitor has 4 levels: (1) u woose, (2) u r not a woose, (3) r u sure u know what u r doing?, and (4) exploding!exploding!exploding!

I am on level 2. This is good.

I read the names of the all the TdF riders that climbed this pass the week before, painted in the road, encouragment for the pros with big fans. I do not find my name among them. I have no rabid fans with spray paint cans. I am alone. I push the pedals.

About 30 km later, the fog lifts, the sun shines, I believe, in fact, there is a slight breeze on my back. The normal gods who punish people that ride bicycles uphills have taken the day off.
I turn right past the treeline; I look up; yesterday was nothing; today we have a climb. I continue. All the guys with shaved legs pass me. I pass the old ladies with super granny gears. At any rate, I continue. I pass a sign that indicates 500m to the ravitaillement (refueling stop). About 500m later, I pass another sign that says 500m to the ravitaillement. 500 m later, a third. This is a cruel joke. French sense of humour is lost on me. The wind is picking up; the road steepens. 100 m later, I reach the summit.

Col de Galibier. Altitude 2645 m (8678 feet).

This was a climb. This is a view. In the distance, glacier peaked summits. The valley stretches out below me in every direction. The sun is shining. There is a local cheese producer selling artisanal Tomme cheese. All is good and right in the world.

Jean, le président of our local cycling club, asks me to ride a supplementary 6 km with Robert. He assures me there is a great view to be enjoyed, and it is only 6 km extra. I agree. They are always playing jokes on me, those frenchies. The route is steep, hot, and about a 20 km detour. It is afternoon, I have already had a beer, I am tired, I perservere. At one point, I watched another cyclist actually fall over as he couldn't make a turn; don't go too slow. He fell from exhaustion. I redouble my efforts. The view to talk about was to after the mini-col was crested. We descended along a cliffside ... lean too far to the left and it's about 1000 ft straight down. Did I mention that I am afraid of heights? Every km that passes, I have more respect for the TdF riders. And then, and then, it was 50 km of descent. 50 km is a long way to go down. Fast. Perhaps the detour was worth it.

Evening .... much celebrating, as we have proven once again that, although we are human and old, on a good day, we can still push a bicycle up a long steep hill. The good weather in the afternoon was a special bonus. Another cheap meal in a 3rd rate hotel (look up Turkish toilet in your french travel guide sometime, and then share among 5 hotel rooms). I will be happy to make these climbs again next year, but I might try to throw my 2 centimes in when it comes to picking the hotel accomodations. Two glasses of cheap red wine, and I am again down for the count.