Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Alps - Part 6

My body creaked like a barn door when I woke on the 4th morning, aches and pains biting with a vengeance. But I had slept really well and once awake I started relishing the prospect of the day ahead, the sunlight and blue sky streaming through the window boosting my disposition.
In my mind, this was the big one. Two large and legendary climbs over the Galibier and the Izoard, followed by a drag most of the way up the Col du Vars, today had 'epic' written all over it.

I followed my strategy of eating a good sized, but not enormous breakfast, packed my kit and dug my bike out of the hotel's garage. Our machines were by now starting to look a little grimy so we broke-out the baby wipes and set about sprucing them up. A few strokes of the track pump and drops of chain lube later everything was looking and running slick, but once again Tim and I had been left behind by the others. I didn't care so much today however, as the quality sleep had made the world of difference against the previous morning.

We rolled out up the shallow approach to the Galibier, and it was impossible not to feel fantastic. Surrounded by stunning scenery, the warmth of the sun was already beaming through the crisp early morning air, and there was barely a cloud in the sky. I was wearing summer shorts, gloves and jersey, and carrying only a lightweight gilet and armwarmers in my pocket for the upper slopes.
After the first couple of miles Tim started to edge ahead, but it was not the unceremonious dumping I'd experienced the previous day heading out of Val d'Isere. By the time we reached the first big hairpin at Plan LaChat he had a few hundred metres on me, and as he passed heading the opposite way up the valley side I could see that he had put the hammer down hard and was clearly aiming to reel Robin in. By now Tim had taken an almost unassailable lead in their 'king of the cols' duel, and was looking to close-out victory on this very mountain.

I was enjoying this ride already, and knew I'd do plenty of catching people myself. We hadn't been too far behind some of the group, and the good feelings in my legs (and the readout on my computer) were telling me that I was moving reasonably well.

As I rounded the bend at Plan LaChat I found Paul waiting by the roadside with his camera. He was taking a relaxed approach to this climb and had stopped to take pictures of the group as we all passed. I'm glad he did too, as this is one of my favourite shots from the whole trip:

Picture courtesy of Paul Hayes, showcasing my non-climbers legs and backside.

From this point the ascent of the Galibier begins in earnest. The road swings back towards Valloire, and ramps up the side of the valley. There are long sections between the switchbacks here, and as the altitude increases so does the rugged beauty of the landscape. I soon spotted Eddie perched above the road with his camera, capturing the view back down towards Plan Lachat, and continued to winch on. The air still had a chill to it, and it sticks in my mind how crisp and clean and fresh it was.

Picture courtesy of Cycle-High. Gareth, Richard and Russ climb in the shadow of Le Grand Galibier.

Picture courtesy of Cycle-HighRobin climbs in the sun. He still has a few minutes on Tim at this point.

Sometimes when cycling on a cold day, for example on a city commute, the air can be harsh and unwelcome on the chest, but here I just wanted to keep filling my lungs with it. Though I guess that may also have had something to do with the thinning oxygen and sustained aerobic exertion that traversing a big Alp entails!

I gradually caught and passed a few people, and then at Granges du Galibier was greeted by the sight of an ageing gentleman playing with his radio controlled car, a look of deep concentration on his face as he pitted it against the steep grass bank across the road from the old farmhouse. Mountain life clearly keeps you young at heart...

Just above Granges the gradient eased slightly, running up the edge of large Alpine meadow. The backdrop of Le Grand Galibier was breathtaking, so I decided it was time for a rare photo stop in an attempt to capture the magnitude of the place.

Moving again, and past the meadow, the gradient kicked up a notch again as the road swung south, before becoming twisty and sinuous for the final kilometer or so before the tunnel. It struck me that this section would be amazing to descend at speed, and so it was placed on my cycling 'to do' list for a future adventure.

Once past the tunnel and Cote Savoie restaurant (why would anyone NOT want to drive over the top?!) I steeled myself for the final assault to the col. There had been plenty of discussion and trepidation amidst the group about this stretch of road, with gradients supposedly hitting 12% at the point the legs are most tired. I kept waiting for these vicious ramps to appear, but they didn't - or at least not in the way I'd feared. In retrospect, I suppose training in the Chilterns had it's benefits here. While it is hard to simulate the long steady climbs of the Alps, we have plenty of short, sharp blasts of 15% or more. So with good legs that day, and plenty of punchy steep slope experience inside them, the approach to the col was dispatched without too much drama, and it felt fantastic to reach the top.

Photo courtesy of Cycle-High. Another of my favourite shots of the trip, cresting the col.

It is amazing how quickly you get cold once you stop exerting yourself at altitude, so once the obligatory picture in front of the col sign was taken I simultaneously juggled the consumption of a banana with the donning of warm kit.

News of the week's King of the Mountains competition was that Tim had caught Robin, softened him up with a few dummy attacks, and then powered away to take the crown. There were now not enough cols left in the week for Robin to counter, which was a shame for Robin as he was strengthening as the week went on.

As we'd got into the high Alps, another battle had begun to play out. Chris and Gary were both very accomplished cyclists having ridden across the USA together the previous summer, and like Robin they had been building form as the week went on. Both of them had topped-out ahead of Tim (they had left the hotel before him too), and it was Chris that had prevailed in what had sounded like a close-fought victory. But the second he crossed the line he dumped his bike, sprinted to give courier Mike his camera and instructed him to capture what was about to happen...

Not content with finishing ahead of Gary, Chris got down and performed push-ups on the road in front of his exhausted friend as he reached the top.

Picture courtesy of Cycle-High. Chris asserting his authority in the mountains.

Justin quickly spotted the genius of this, and presented Paul with the same welcome upon his arrival. The look of bemusement upon his face was priceless.

The Galibier is a very substantial climb and everyone had worked hard to get over it, but the good weather and frankly stunning surroundings had made every second enjoyable. It is fully worthy of the special status it enjoys amongst cyclists. And the icing on the cake was that the descent to the Col de Lauteret was still to come.

Photo courtesy of Nigel Mosley. Playtime.

This is one of my absolute favourite pictures from the trip, and I would urge anyone that thinks it looks fun to make the effort to ride it someday.

A few of the group rolled out, so I decided to follow quickly, my intent being to pass people early and have as much of a clear run as possible. This worked to an extent, but I was then caught behind a couple motorhomes which cost me 30 seconds or so before I was able to pass on one of the switchbacks. Once through I opened things up as much as I dared and enjoyed the beautiful rollercoaster all the way down to our coffee stop at the Lauteret. The road had been glassy smooth all the way, and although there had been a couple of damp patches the grip had been excellent, allowing me to get low and rail the bends fast.

I quickly spotted our destination, the giant bicycles that the Lauteret is famous for sat right in front of it. I wandered in to a large and empty cafe, and was greeted by an Irish girl who took my order. The large, empty restaurant aside, the circumstances could not have been more different from the previous morning's stop in Bonneval after descending the Iseran. The room and the greeting were both considerably warmer, and I felt on top of the world, rather than the hollow wreck of 24 hours earlier. They also had the salty snacks that I had so desperately craved the day before. I bought crisps and peanut M&Ms, ordered a mug of hot chocolate and went and found a seat in an area of tables large enough to accommodate our group.

Tim wandered in a couple of minutes after I had, and everyone else trickled in behind him. The mood of the group was high after the amazing riding we'd just encountered, and our corner of the room was abuzz with chat and banter about what the Izoard might hold later in the day.

Upon arrival I had warned our hostess that there would be 17 of us, and that people would want to pay separately, but that didn't seem to have registered, because settling-up and leaving that cafe presented the greatest logistical challenge we encountered all week. It was beyond either the capability of their till system, or the wit of the now-quite-unhappy proprietor, who complained about having to cancel and re-enter all the orders again, but eventually we got things sorted.

The next section was a long and gradual descent down the valley to Briancon for lunch. It has been said that it is this town, not Paris, where the Tour de France is won, and with the might of the Galibier to one side and the vicious slopes of the Izoard to the other, one can see why.
The surface was good, and although there was a gentle headwind it was countered by the ever-so-slight downward slope. We set out as a large group, but gradually fragmented leaving Tim, Nigel, Robin, Justin and I out in front. Everyone was conscious of the efforts still required later in the day, so while we weren't hanging around, we weren't pushing too hard either, everyone cooperating nicely and taking their turn on the front. After a while though, the pace ratcheted up, and at Le-Monetier-Les-Bains Robin suddenly dropped the hammer and turned everyone's dials toward the anaerobic setting. Whilst this stretch of the ride was only a transition between climbs, and not the kind of road to he proving any points, this was my kind of terrain and I wasn't about to let him ride away. I was about to respond when Tim came past, placed himself directly in front of Robin and squeezed the dial higher still. I had closed the gap to Robin's wheel and sat in for a minute, with Nigel behind, though Justin had quickly and wisely decided that this was no place to be burning effort and maintained his own pace. Tim's pace ebbed slightly after a couple of minutes, upon which Nigel came through, keeping things steady at this high level, before eventually it was my turn. I moved on through to the front, fully intending to very gradually reduce the pace a little, but when I got there a combination of ego, bravado and testosterone got the better of me and I kicked it up again. After holding it high for a minute Tim came round again, and so it went on for 10 minutes or so, each of us stupidly hammering one another. But it was fun.

Upon reaching the roundabout on the outskirts of Briancon we stopped and waited for the rest of the group as we'd been asked to. All the high-speed nonsense meant it took a while for everyone to get there, though I was surprised at how close behind us Gary, Chris and Justin had been. They must have been having some fun themselves.

We followed the minibus into town as a group, and parked our bikes up outside the restaurant. Two long tables had been set up and we set about placing our orders. Most people were sensibly ordering pasta or baguette sandwiches with plenty of carbs. I had a protein craving however, and went for a steak hachee (sloppy beefburger, cooked rare) with fries. It arrived larger and rarer than I'd imagined, and I did have a fleeting worry about it sitting undigested in my belly all afternoon, but then figured that my stomach had now shifted to 'uber efficient' mode in terms of digestion, and wolfed it down anyway.

After lunch I was ready to leave well ahead of the main group. The slower riders had already gone, so I decided to head out on my own at an easy pace, hoping to enjoy the Izoard as much as I had enjoyed the Galibier. Having checked my map I followed the sign that pointed toward Guillestre, the next large town we were due to pass through, and headed out of Briancon at a steady pace. After a couple of miles I started to wonder why the road had turned to dual carriageway and there were no left turns toward the mountain I was supposed to be ascending. A press of a button on the Garmin showed that I was indeed on the wrong road, although the thing hadn't been bleeping at me for being off-course as it normally would have been. I carried on for another mile or so until there was a break in the central reservation, span around and retraced my steps. From the centre of Briancon I quickly found the right road, angling upward from the outset. I had probably wasted around 20 minutes, so guessing that the main group had left the restaurant around 5 minutes after I, realised I was at least 15 minutes behind the last rider on the road - up in smoke went my plans for a leisurely ascent. I was going to have to get my head down and time-trial one of the most notorious ascents in the Alps!

By this point in the week I had worked out that I was able to sustain a heart rate of around 165bpm for prolonged periods, so set out around this threshold, but wasn't happy with my rate of progress. So I cautiously turned things up a notch, and found that with good breathing discipline I was able to sustain a heart rate of around 170bpm without repeating the horrible experience of the Col de la Colombiere from the first day. In terms of my progress up the mountain, I don't think this gave me more than 0.5mph extra on the gradients we were riding, but I was happier knowing that I was moving as fast as I could possibly sustain.

After half an hour I spotted Eddie's silver van above me at Cervieres, though it took me another ten minutes to reach him. I had half-expected him to be worried about me, but he'd said that the last of the other riders had only come through a few minutes ago - I was gaining ground!

While my heart and lungs had agreed to work together at this new-found level, my legs weren't so easily convinced. I began to feel a few muscle pains, not the lactic burn that you get from pushing past aerobic capacity, but more of a dull objectionable throb. I decided to keep pushing at the same heart rate, and before long spotted Ruben up ahead, the sight of another rider enough to spur me on and take my mind off the ache. The scenery had changed from alpine meadows to coniferous forest by now, and the still air between the trees had a mugginess to it, the temperature rising slightly despite the gain in altitude.

It didn't take long to catch Ruben. He had been having a tough week. He had plenty of cycling experience under his belt, as well as triathlons and even marathons, but by his own admission he had underestimated the scale of our trip and was  not properly prepared. He had only really begun any kind of training in June, and wasn't helped by a new bicycle with a long stem that positioned his handlebars too far forward. On a short ride most people wouldn't find that a problem, but for repeated days in the saddle it's a sure recipe for back and neck problems. I had to respect Ruben for his dogged resilience, and refusal to climb into the van despite hours of torture, and on this climb he was suffering as badly as at any point I saw all week. His whole body was curved over to the right as he put all his energy into his stronger leg, and he was wrestling the handlebars to keep the bike straight. I offered a few words of encouragement as I pulled alongside, but honestly didn't think he'd make it more than another kilometer or so.

I passed Hazel a while later, then Paul. On the upper slopes the tree cover thinned, the road began winding more and the gradient increased. Still I stuck to my discipline, keeping the heart rate at 170 and adjusting my gear selection and cadence accordingly.

Ahead of the trip, with no alpine road riding experience, I asked a few friends what big mountain riding is like. I had a few vague answers as people tried to explain how different it is to climb constantly for the best part of two hours, and frankly it sounded horrible. But I knew that it would he OK, lots of people ride in the Alps, and keep going back year after year to do so, but I just couldn't fathom moving so slowly for such long periods. I even kept the 28-tooth rear cassette I'd bought in its box until the last minute. I just couldn't imagine needing a gear so low, surely I'd be able to return it unused and get a refund?

In this age of GPS cycle computers we are spoilt for choice when it comes to data, and at home I am occupied with my speed, how far I've ridden, how soon I need to get home to the family, and my heart rate. Gradient is an interesting number for comparing local hills with one another, and cadence is a useful reminder to change down a gear on hills. But really it's all about how fast I'm going and whether I'm going to cover the planned distance in the target time.

Big mountain riding turns all of that completely on its head. The primary occupation is the climb(s) ahead, how far there is to go, and how steep the road is. You then adjust your gear and cadence to a level where you can sustain your heart rate, and your speed is just a by-product of these myriad other factors. And that's a good thing too, because it's often a depressingly low number. I'll average 17-18mph for a long ride at home, but in the Alps that's down around 10mph, and on the long climbs I find myself sitting below 7mph for long periods.

But importantly, it isn't horrible most of the time, and I can't wait to go back.

The upper slopes were challenging, steep in places, and the aches returned to my legs, despite sighting and passing a couple of other members of our group. The tree cover had disappeared entirely for the final couple of kilometers, and the air had cooled considerably. Despite this I hit the top drenched in sweat from my effort. Tim, Robin and some of the others had been there a while, understandably given my detour, but I knew I'd put in a decent effort and that they wouldn't have been much quicker in terms of elapsed time. Strava numbers later showed that I was 7 or 8 minutes down on Tim and Robin, but a similar margin ahead of Nigel.

The early afternoon had seen the clouds draw in, and the unique lunar landscape that defines the upper slopes of the Izoard seemed grim and stark in the gloom. The air was as cold as one would expect a 2,000 metres above sea level, and still being damp with sweat I found it hard to get warm, even after adding extra layers. I could see sun in the valley where we were heading to the south, so impatiently snacked and faffed around until Ruben, last man on the road reached the summit. I was frankly gobsmacked that he had ridden the whole climb after the suffering I saw him enduring when I'd passed, but he had bravely ground on.

I was looking forward to this descent, famed for steep slopes and a sinuous path through the Casse Deserte and the forest below, but took a decision to make some more photograph stops in this unique landscape. Like many other mountains, the upper slopes are composed largely of rocks and scree, but on the Izoard these are pierced by enormous rock towers that point jaggedly skyward. A short way down, carved into the side of one of these protrusions is a monument to two of cycling's greats; Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet. I had unwittingly pedalled straight past two monuments to Marco Pantani and Henri Desgranges (founder of the tour de France) earlier in the day, so felt I should stop to take a moment and consider the achievements of these two.

Monument to two legends of the sport. 

It wasn't all flashy carbon bikes on the road that week.

Further down there is a viewing area with some space for cars to park, and from here the mountain is breathtaking, the huge shards looming above.

Which are straight, the cyclists or the cars?

From here downwards I was back in my element, flying down the mountainside and railing the bends. The group was very fragmented with people taking various opportunities to stop for pictures, but I had caught and passed everyone by the time the rocky landscape gave way to forest below. From here the road was very quiet, and aside from a couple of ascending cyclists and motorcycle tourists I had the world to myself. With good surfaces and visibility I was able to make the most of the road and really focus on staying smooth and fast.

Photo courtesy of Cycle-High. Forget the guy climbing, we didn't hang about here...

Lower down, once in the meadows, I waited for a while. I really didn't know how long some people had been taking over pictures and hadn't seen either van for a while. I knew I was on the right road but saw little point in shooting off ahead of everyone.

Carrying on down through the meadows I saw one of the reasons why the southern ascent of the Izoard is regarded as such a hard climb. There is a steep and arrow-straight section of road south of Brunissard that comes just far enough into the climb for it to sting tiring legs, but early enough for those tackling it to know that there is still a long way to go. A real soul-destroyer.

For me today however, it was a descent, and one where I opened up almost to maximum, pushing the speedometer close to 50mph, eventually having to slow for the village of Arvieux. It's not generally considered good form to enter a 40kmh zone travelling in excess of 40mph.

We eventually stopped and regrouped at the junction with the D947, where vans and riders from a La Fuga cycle tour were also meeting. 

To point out that LaFuga are one of Rapha's long-term partners describes them well. Their tours have an excellent reputation, but with luxury accommodation and a price roughly three times what we had paid, they offer a service that only a few can afford or justify. We chatted with a few of the riders, some of whom we had passed on the earlier climb. They were an American group, mostly in their 40's and 50's and equipped with £7k superbikes and pot-bellies. If I can afford that kind of a bike and holiday when I'm in my 50's then I'll be happy, and I'll even accept the waistline as long as it doesn't slow me down as much as it did them.

The next section of road, down to Guillestre, will remain etched in my memory forever. It is a fairly major route with a good surface, but starts with pretty unremarkable views. The gradient is gradual, but enough to help with the pace, and before long the sides of the road rise up to form a gorge. After another kilometer or so a raging torrent of a river appears beside the road, and as the river falls away far below, the road continues its steady descent, carved into the left hand wall, weaving over precipices and through rock arches and tunnels. As a youngster I enjoyed the arcade game OutRun, where you pilot an open-topped Ferrari Testarossa through a variety of landscapes, several of which incorporated such features, and the buzz of swooping along this road took me straight back to that game.

Ruben had seemingly bounced-back from his earlier difficulties, pushing the pace down this stretch at the front of the group. He descended quickly all week, in stark contrast to his climbing. You would expect that from a large or overweight rider who can use gravity to their advantage, but he is of a slight build, so must have been finding a reserve of energy from somewhere once the roads pointed downwards.

After two epic climbs earlier in the day, the final drag up to Vars Saint Marie was hard work. Everyone was content just to tap out a rhythm as the slopes were sustained and we were stopping two thirds of the way up - so no bragging rights on offer for the col. When we reached the village we were directed down a dusty narrow back street, via an alleyway to a modest hotel. What it lacked in size and prestige however, it made up for in character, friendliness and quality of food.

Although we stayed in "nicer" places, La Lievre Blanche was my favourite hotel of the week.
Vars St Marie is a ski resort, but not the type that markets itself to wealthy foreign tourists. It is small, very French and has a nice ambience. The owner of our hotel had kept it open a few days longer than she ordinarily would have at the end of summer, specifically for our visit. This meant that the bar had no beer left on tap, though they had plenty of cold bottles and bags of crisps, both of which we hoovered-up enthusiastically in the bar before dinner. When the time came to eat our appetites were still strong and the food was superb. The starter consisted of a selection of cured meats and cheeses, the main a lovely lasagne, and for pudding we had a choice of 4 homemade dishes. Mine was a chocolate mousse, though the creme caramel and ile flotant were both also fantastic.

I had a room to myself that night, with a small balcony overlooking the narrow street. An epic day's riding over two of cycling's most famous cols, capped with a great meal in a fabulous little hotel. This was a great day and one that will live long in the memory.

To be continued...

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