Wednesday, July 24, 2013
There is no place I would rather be than riding my bicycle on the backroads of France--specifically on the legendary roads of the French Alps, where the Tour de France is often won or lost. There is nothing quite like pedaling along a perfect ribbon of smooth blacktop as it takes you up above the tree line to a majestic vista, and knowing that Coppi, Merckx, and Hinault did the exact same thing (only a bit faster) on their way to Tour glory.
I've made six cycling-specific trips to France, starting 20 years ago in 1993. There are many great touring companies that put together these kinds of expeditions, but I prefer to book my own. I've almost always gone with my best bud, Dave, and we like the freedom of planning our own trip. There are a couple of keys to doing this: 1) as soon as the Tour de France route is revealed, make your hotel/apartment reservations, and 2) make sure you know what days you'll want to watch the race and then plan accordingly around the other stages so that the race doesn't interfere with your rides.
This year, we flew into Geneva and rented a station wagon big enough to fit both bikes and our luggage. The Geneva airport has a luggage check, which is a great place to store your bike boxes so that you don't have to lug them around for a week. We drove south 90 minutes to Grenoble, and rented an apartment in the middle of town for the first three nights. I like booking apartments through sites like VRBO.com--it's usually cheaper than a hotel, and you feel more at home.
Our first ride left from Grenoble. We went north through the Chartreuse region of France, climbing the Col de Porte, the Col du Cucheron, and the Col du Granier. These are not the high mountains of the Alps, but they are tough climbs, with each averaging 6%-8% in steepness and anywhere from 5k to 15k in length. We then descended into the valley and rode back into Grenoble. Day One totals: 64 miles, 4:30 saddle time, 7100 feet of climbing.
The next day we drove south to the Vercors region of France. We did a loop that included climbing the Col de Carri, the Col de la Bataille, and the Col de la Machine. The last couple of kilometers of the Machine were spectacular:
Day Two totals: 50 miles, 3:30, 5700 ft climbing.
The following day would be our first high-mountain experience of the trip, driving to Bourg d'Oisans and climbing the legendary Alpe d'Huez. This was a Monday, and the Tour de France would be here on Thursday, so the road was packed with spectators camping out for the race, and with cyclists riding up the climb. This made for a high-energy experience. The Alpe is a hard, hard climb. It's 15k at a steady 8%, and it never gives you a break. At the top, we then had to climb the Col de Serenne, which was to be used in the Tour for the first time this year. It's short, but very steep, and the descent was treacherous. Once in the valley, we then climbed to Les Duex Alpes, where Marco Pantani made his famous ascent to win the '98 Tour. Day Three totals: 50 miles, 4:15, 7100 feet.
That evening we made the scenic drive southwest to the tiny hamlet of Barcelonnette. This was my favorite town of the trip--a quaint old-town square, nice restaurants, and beautiful mountains in every direction. The next morning we rode from our hotel in Barcelonnette to the Col de la Bonettte, which is the highest paved road in Europe. It was a long climb, 25 kilometers, and steep, but the views all of the way up were incredible. It's the most spectacular climb I've ever done. I could ride this climb every day for the rest of my life and be content. At the top, you have a 360 degree view of the snow-capped peaks of the French and Italian Alps. Speaking of snow, for the last 5k we were pedaling past huge snow banks--in July!
From the top of the Bonette, we descended back into Barcelonnette and then rode up the Pra Loup climb, which is famous in Tour de France lore for being the last place that Eddy Merckx wore the yellow jersey. France's Bernard Thevenet dropped Merckx halfway up, taking yellow and winning the '75 Tour. It's such a legendary Tour moment that it's still commemorated throughout the region.
Day Four totals: 54 miles, 4:20, 7040 feet of climbing. You may notice that these rides are taking a long, long time. Riding 50 miles in North Texas might only take 2:30 or 3:00, but with these long, steep climbs, your saddle time increases dramatically. For those of you who ride in the Dallas area, you're probably familiar with Loving Hill--well, imagine Loving Hill being 12 miles long. That's what the climbs are like in the Alps. If you're planning a trip like this, make sure you train hard. If you aren't in shape, it can be a miserable experience. I was smarter with my gearing this trip, too. My first trip, in '93, I rode a 53x42 up front, and an 11-21 in the back--that's right, an easiest gear of 42x21, which is insane. This trip, I had a 53x39 up front, and a 12-29 in back, which was great. The 29 came in handy.
Day Five was an off day from riding. It was the day we would watch the Tour de France. We picked the Stage 17 time trial, giving us a chance to see each rider individually against the clock. Through work, I was able to get us each a press pass, which gave us incredible access to the riders in the start and finish areas. We were able to tour the pits before the race, seeing each team's bus and set-up area, and see each team's riders warming up on their trainers three feet in front of us. I'm planning on writing a separate blog post on my day at the race, complete with a ton of photos from the start/finish areas, sometime next week.
At the finish area, we ran into our hero, Greg LeMond--the first (and now officially the only) American winner of the Tour. LeMond was my biggest inspiration when I was getting into the sport in the early 80's, and it was a thrill to see him again.
That evening after the race, we drove north a couple of hours to Bourg Saint Maurice, a ski village near the Italian border, and moved into an apartment overlooking the city center. It rained the next morning, but that afternoon we were able to ride up the Cormet de Roselend, a stunning climb which gave us a view of Mont Blanc on the way up. We descended back into town, and ducked into a bar to have a beer and watch the Alpe d'Huez stage on TV with a bunch of locals, which was a blast! A Frenchman, Christophe Riblon, won the stage, and the locals went crazy--it was cool to see.
Day Six totals: 25 miles, 2:00, 3730 feet.
The next day we climbed two monsters: La Plagne, where Stephen Roche saved his '87 Tour win, and Courchevel. Each climb was relentless--a steady 8%. La Plagne was kind of scenic, but Courchevel was not. The only cool thing about Courchevel was seeing the airport at the top of the mountain and it's crazy-short runway:
Day Seven totals: 61 miles, 5:00, 9800 feet.
Finally, our last day of the trip, and our biggest ride. Dave was tuckered from the previous six days of climbing almost 41,000 feet, so he decided to drive the team support car behind me for the final ride--a 100 mile monster of a day. I had planned this ride months ago, and had been thinking about this ride for 30 years. The queen stage of the Tour de France has often been contested over three "hors de categorie" climbs, meaning the climbs are so tough that they are "beyond category," as though the human mind cannot comprehend their difficulty. It may be a romantic way for the Tour to dress them up, but trust me, they are beasts. For 30 years, I've watched the Tour riders tackle courses like this, and I've always wondered if I could do it. I finally got my chance.
Like Dave, I was a bit tired from the previous week of riding, but I felt OK, and was more-than-excited about the challenge. I climbed aboard my carbon mistress at 8am that morning, and started climbing the north side of the Col de Madeleine. It's 25k in length, and averages 7%. It's also breathtakingly beautiful. I had perfect weather for this ride, and the morning sun bathed the mountain in a brilliant light. Two kilometers from the top, I ran into an unlikely traffic jam: a giant heard of cattle being driven down the road. It was such a unique experience that I didn't mind my momentum up the climb coming to halt.
After cresting the top of the Madeleine, I plunged to the valley below and started the brutal climb of the Col de la Croix de Fer--a 30k climb that seems to go on forever. By the summit, I had been on the bike for over five hours, and I was hungry. I stopped at the small cafe at the top, ate a sandwich and slammed a Coke, and started downhill. The descent was down the Glandon, which was fast and fun. Now, all that was left to do was climb the south side of the Madeleine, and then descend back to the start village of La Lechere. The south side of the Madeleine is "only" 20k, but it's 8%-10% the entire way. It's a quad-buster, and my quads were already spent. I told myself I'd get up that climb no matter what it took. It wasn't my fastest climb ever, and I started cramping near the top, but I made it. I was thrilled at the top. I had a big smile on my face all the way down to the finish.
It was my best cycling experience ever, and the best day of my life. The ride totaled exactly 100 miles (my first century ride in Europe), 8:40 in the saddle (my longest ride ever, time-wise), and 15,900 feet of climbing! I had perfect weather, great support from Dave, and I felt strong the whole way. I had trained a lot for this trip through the spring and summer, and it paid off. At age 47, I felt better on the climbs than I've ever felt before. I wasn't exactly floating up them, but I wasn't struggling, either. I was moving at a pretty good clip, or as good of a clip as you can up a 10% grade.
Trip totals for the week: 404 miles, 32 hours in the saddle, and 57,000 feet of climbing (or, two times up Mt Everest!).
The trip was a success. Our goal was to sleep, ride, eat, and repeat. We did just that.
Regarding the 100th Tour de France: I thought it was a good race, but not a great one. There were some interesting individual stages, but Chris Froome made the overall race a formality. He was far-and-away the strongest. I like what I hear out of Froome in interviews, but as a rider, I think he's a spaz. He has these crazy accelerations when he doesn't need to, he rides with his elbows pointed straight out, and when he bonks he waves his hand like crazy to the team car instead of playing poker. But there is no denying that he's a badass, and he controlled this year's race almost by himself, as his Sky team was not nearly as strong as it was in support of Wiggins last year.
And, despite the terrible publicity around the sport recently, the crowds were still huge. Fans seem to just want to experience the culture and the cult of the sport. The fans love riding their bikes, and they love being around the race, and nothing else seems to matter. TV ratings in France were higher than they've been in 20 years. This 100th Tour did a great job of paying tribute to the past, and the fans ate it up.
Fans of any sport just want to be thrilled. Football fans and baseball fans and cycling fans get overwhelmed by the spectacle of their sports, and it makes them forget the seedy side of things. Whatever thrills you, whatever gets you through the day. Bike racing still thrills me, and nothing makes me happier than riding my bike. This trip did both, and it was the best trip of my life.