List of Bike Trips
With all the riding I do, you'd think I would understand and appreciate what the pros do in the Tour de France. Not so, until I rode the route of a mountain stage this summer. I suspected it was hard, but I didn't know how hard until I tried it. I suspected they were fast, but I didn't know how fast until I tried it.
This June I rode for four weeks with a group through Burgundy and the French Alps. Riding every day and averaging 65 miles and 5,000 feet of climbing per day provides some feel for the rigor and discipline involved in the Tour. But it was our free rest day in Bourg-d'Oisan when I really learned what the pros do. Three of our group decided to ride a loop called La Marmotte—or the Five Cols Loop. With 106 miles and 13,300 feet of climbing, this route covers several of the same roads and mountain passes as Stage 8 of this year's Tour de France with 130 miles and 13,500 feet of climbing.
At 6 AM we were on the road, having sneaked quietly out of our hotel and eaten some fruit and bread we had stashed the night before. After a fast and easy 15-mile warm-up on the flats, we hit the first 5,000-foot climb up to the Cols (Passes) du Glandon and Croix de Fer in the cool of the early morning and were over the top on schedule by 9:30. The scenery was spectacular, and I never even glanced at my odometer or altimeter.
The descent was typically steep and scary, and we stopped several times to take photos, pick up pastries, and cool our rims from the heavy braking. My maximum speed was 42 mph, and I am totally baffled by the reported speeds of 60–70 mph that the pros achieve on these rough and twisting downhills.
By 11 we were drafting up the busy N6 highway in the gentle Arc River Valley at 17 mph, and the day was heating up. My legs were already feeling the strain after only one climb and 42 miles, and I was not taking my fair share of pulls at the front. A young man caught up with us and enjoyed our draft for several miles. Connie, our fluent French speaker, learned that he had left Bourg-d'Oisans two hours after we did; but he seemed too serious to stop for photos or pastries. Just then his team van came alongside to give him new water bottles and food while he continued riding.
By 11:30 we were into our second climb—the hot 4,000-foot climb in 8 miles up to the Col du Telegraphe. I was pretty well cooked by the time we reached the top and stopped for food. I wasn't feeling hungry, but knew I had to eat. The pros do this climb in about 40 minutes; I took over 100 minutes. Once again, I understand they are stronger and faster than I am, but it's hard to understand how they are climbing 2.5 times faster. I wonder if they enjoy the spectacular views as much as I do.
After a short rest, we scream down to Valloire and start the final climb of the day—another 4,000 feet in 12 miles up to the Col du Galibier. The good news is that it's cooler at this elevation, even in mid-afternoon. The bad news is that I'm very tired. It's also possible that the elevation of 5–9,000 feet is affecting me, but I'm not specfically aware of any shortness of breath. But we've been on the road 8 hours, and I am tired; did I mention that already?
We're now above the tree-line again, and the scenery is spectacular. Serious cyclists are passing in both directions; this route is very popular. On the first climb I never looked at my altimeter; I prefer to just enjoy the ride. On the second climb I sneaked a look every once in a while and congratulated myself for every 100 meters (300 feet).
After an hour of climbing, I think I can see the col up another few switchbacks; but my altimeter says we've climbed less than half of the 4,000 feet. And my odometer suggests we have another 4 miles to go. I'm hoping my altimeter and odometer are broken, but they're not. As I crest what I had hoped was the col, I see another valley appear with another dozen switchbacks. Maybe that's the col I can see now. I stop to rest and eat. I'm now counting pedal strokes, watching the altimeter more than the scenery, and congratulating myself on every 50 meters. How much gorgeous mountain scenery can I stomach?
After almost another hour I crest what I had again hoped was the col, knowing already that my altimeter was telling the truth; and sure enough, there's a new valley, another dozen switchbacks, and what my altimeter/odometer/brain/heart finally all agree is surely the col at last. I stop again to rest and eat, and then push on. I am more than tired; I am exhausted. I know I can make it, but I don't know when. I alternate between sitting 50 pedal strokes in my granny gear and standing 50 strokes in a bigger gear. One way my butt hurts; the other way my knees hurt. After 100 strokes like this, I check my altimeter and pray for another 10 meters. Damn the scenery. Many of my riding friends must be laughing as they read this.
Soon after 4 we are at the top of the famous Col du Galibier. It's a sharp barren pass with only a tiny parking lot. We take photos, eat more, and remind ourselves to be extra careful as we scream down the other side with bodies so tired. We put on jackets to protect us from both the chill and the blazing sun and head 2,000 feet straight down to the Col du Lauteret—the fifth and final pass that requires no more climbing for us.
Then it's another 3,000 feet down in 25 miles to the end of our day. Since we're riding into a strong headwind, we fly down the first half with no brakes. The second half is less steep, and we draft each other with renewed energy to minimize the headwind. At 5'2" and 95 pounds, Connie creates only about a half draft; but it's infinitely better than no draft.
After 12 hours—9.5 in the saddle—we finally return to our hotel for a quiet celebration. We were thrilled to complete this ride—the most spectacular and challenging one-day ride I have ever done. How the pros actually race up these three climbs is hard to understand, but they will do it in about 5 hours; and they do 3 mountain stages in 3 consecutive days in the Alps. I have certainly gained significant new insight and appreciation for how strong they are. I may also have gained some wisdom—learning about my own limitations. But maybe not; I've recently heard of a route called the Circle of Death in the Pyrenees.
Photos: French Alps above Grenoble, Switchbacks on the Col du Galibier, We made it! over all 5 cols [Note: Tod and Connie are wearing the bike shirt that Lyn designed for the Charles River Wheelmen], Castellane, herding sheep over the Col du Coq, Chartreuse.
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