Monday, September 25, 2023

Epic France Trans Alps Cycling Trip - Part I


I did a week-long fully-supported bike trip through the French Alps with three friends. We hopscotched from one fancy hotel to another, with a full staff in vans supporting us the whole way. The trip was called the Epic France Trans Alps, and basically took us over every major Alpine mountain pass featured in the Tour de France. Not just this year’s Tour, but all of them. That’s 18 categorized climbs, half of them “Hors Categorie,” aka HC, which means “so difficult they cannot be classified.”

If you think this sounds hard, you’re right, though I’m suffering worse now that I’m on an airplane, in coach, headed back to my worldly responsibilities, and the person in the seat next to me has really bad breath. I’m about to start looking for a parachute…

This ride report will dispense with my usual formula of recounting the food and then the riding. There’s just too much to report, and I doubt you overmuch care what order we did anything in. This is just a highlights reel, and every couple thousand words I’ll cut it off and call it a post. (Readers complain I go on too long….)

Rental bike

The airlines are apparently cooler these days about not charging for bicycles, but they don’t take liability for any damage. Plus, I’m lazy, so I rented a bike. On the first day, we supplied the staff mechanic with pedals, saddles, bike computers, etc. and made sure the fit was right. We’d sent in our measurements in advance, and sure enough, the bike fit me pretty darn well. The tires looked really fat, and seemed awfully soft, but I’m told that’s the modern style. I asked three different randos if the tires felt too squishy to them, and they all said naw, it’s fine.

In case you’re a tech weenie, here’s the bike. I’m not going to geek out on the details other than to say it has a carbon frame, hella aero wheels, disc brakes, 12 cogs in the back, a compact double up front, and SRAM electronic shifting. The shifting hasn’t changed much since I first reported on it, here. Over the course of the week, I threw my chain three times, but in each case I was able to shift it back on via lever-taps, without needing to stop. (I did have to restart my heart each time.)

Wine with lunch?!

Since the first ride would just be an hour or so (to shake down the bikes), we had lunch in the hotel restaurant instead of having a picnic on the road. I’ve never done one of these supported tours before, so I kind of go with the flow and just play along like I know the drill. (I know—story of my life, right?) So when the waitress opened a bottle of wine for the table, and my pals elected to partake (“We wouldn’t want to waste it,” Ian said), I went along. I know drinking before hard exercise is absurd (even a small amount that wouldn’t affect motor skills), but I figured what the hell, I’m eating all this great bread anyway, it’ll sop it up. I was a couple sips in when we noticed waitresses rushing around removing wine bottles from the tables. “A mistake was made,” one explained to us, though she stopped short of removing our bottle since we’d started in on it. I guess the wine was only for the staff, not the riders. Oops.

When dessert arrived—crème brûlée—the others turned it down, not wanting to still be digesting as we tackled the Montée d’Avoriaz. I said screw it—I paid for this dessert, and it’s gonna be tasty. I’d muddle through the ride somehow, I figured.

Col des Égos

I knew this first ride would bring out the egos. There were two week-long tours running simultaneously, with the same staff and hotels, but different routes. The Epic one I signed up for has longer days and more climbs than the Trans group would do. Then, within each tour there was an A group and a B group. (My old scoutmaster would have called them “the kickass group and the pick-ass group,” bless his twisted, deeply suspect heart.) I was surprised that fully 15 of the Epic riders declared themselves Group A. Some of these guys looked a little old to me. Sure, they were fit and trim, but come on … it won’t be long before they’ll be offered wheelchairs at airports. I’d assumed going into this tour that I’d be bringing up the rear, hopefully not making everyone wait too long, but now I wasn’t so sure. One thing I did know: everyone was going to go super hard on this opening ride, to strut their stuff. It’s just how the male ego works. Except mine: I vowed (silently) to behave.

In the event, there was little temptation for me to hammer. My (albeit world class) stomach was working pretty hard on all that bread and crème brûlée, and surely the wine didn’t help. Meanwhile, I’d discovered that riding out of the saddle was tricky because my tires were, I now realized, severely underinflated. As I rocked the bike, there was a slight handling latency, the front tire buckling just a bit. It was like trying to sleep on a downy airbed, one of those weirdly thick ones, that when they invariably lose air start to sway a bit, like you’re onboard ship. In fact, my bike and I both felt a bit woozy in general. It was like some foggy, slow-motion dream, rider after rider rolling by me. This one guy passed me in a switchback and said, in a Mr. Rogers voice, “Coming through!” There was something so politely triumphant about it, it kind of rankled, especially since he was so damn old. He looked like he could be 40-something from the neck down, though looking at his face you’d think late sixties at least. But I wasn’t about to mount any resistance to his bold move. I just watched him pedal away and thought: enjoy yourself. Enjoy stomping me. Enjoy your $9K bike. I’ll be back here practicing my resignation skills, being the shit one once again.

As slow as I was going, continental drift was in my favor and I eventually made the summit. Here we are doing a photo op: the East Bay Velo Club 4, plus a couple of new pals, both (conveniently) named Michael. (I thought of not using any names here, but everyone is on Strava and if some serial killer wants to stalk wealthy cyclists he could easily do it without this blog.)

See the Michael on the right, in the neon? We chatted with him at lunch. He’s recently retired, does a fair number of these tours, and rides an old bike with a steel frame that can be disassembled like a sniper’s rifle. He was nipping at my heels all the way up the climb. I figured him for about 60 but came to learn he’s 71 years old, and still tough as nails.

I figured if I tried to descend back to the hotel with such squishy tires I’d probably roll one, so I found the van and asked the mechanic to take a look. Each tire had just 40 PSI! Boy did I feel like an idiot. Once I got those bad boys topped up at 80, my rented Felt felt like an actual road bike, no longer like a beach cruiser. The descent was glorious. Smooth, flow-y road, amazing scenery, an expert guide with perfect lines to follow. Comparing notes, Craig and I were just giddy.


The format of this tour makes a lot of sense, for the ride and my report: if you’re sick of cycling, either because you’re knackered from a hard day in the saddle or from reading too much tedious text on the topic, suddenly there’s this great meal in front of you. We started with this:

France has clearly not (okay, has only recently) gotten the memo about cured meats being carcinogenic. (Then again, they’ve never taken the tobacco threat seriously either.) We ate cured meats roughly three times a day throughout the week, even K who is otherwise a vegetarian. It’s just so good, you never say no to all manner of charcuterie, ham, bacon, you name it. Perhaps it’s a regional specialty. That’s what I decided, anyway; I can’t be bothered to look it up now.

Here is the entrée, some kind of amazing roast pork. I must confess I’ll probably never feel perfectly natural sitting at a table and having something like this set in front of me. That’s just not how I was raised. Don’t get me wrong, my mom is an amazing cook, but our pantry always had different stuff. When was a kid, Mom would use oatmeal to stretch a pound of ground turkey to make burgers for six. Once my patty squirted out of the back of the bun and I didn’t even notice. The only beef we ever got was liver because serving it was considered a mother’s duty back in those days. We got pretty cool cheeses from some co-op, but they were all the melting, cooking kind—not like these soft French ones. Hell, we grew up drinking powdered milk. So when I had this incredible roast pork dish on my plate there was a small part of me that feared someone would suddenly rush out from the kitchen and say, “Stop! A mistake has been made! You must give that back!”

Here’s the dessert, a little cake doodad, possibly flourless, with flawless ice cream. Since we’re on the topic, here is my recipe for flourless chocolate cake.


Wait, you’re thinking: this report has so far delivered only 16 miles of actual cycling action, but at least 6,000 calories of food lore, and now you’re gonna talk about breakfast? Seriously?

Well, yeah. This is kind of what travel is for. As different as the Alps are from the Sierra Nevadas and the Rockies (and don’t worry, I will eventually get into these differences), the French terrain is far more similar to the American than their food is to ours. I can only imagine that a European traveler to the U.S. would be endlessly appalled by the garbage we serve up. A grocery store baguette? Forget it, it’d go straight into the garbage. And a croissant? Spongy, insipid, indestructible, ageless. Eat an American motel breakfast pastry and you’ll end up with a gross film on the roof of your mouth. And don’t you dare eat scrambled eggs from a steam tray … they’ll be soggy or dried-out or somehow both, and won’t taste a thing like an egg, which they’re not—they’re surely poured from a carton. That’s the US hospitality industry for you. Meanwhile, I stayed at an airport Holiday Inn Express in Geneva and had an entirely serviceable continental breakfast. Sure, the croissant wasn’t brilliant, but on the balance was quite worth eating. So I’m going to spend some time on the food in these posts.

This is the croissant I had at my first official tour hotel breakfast. Light, airy, buttery, and flaky enough to make a mess on my plate.

Bread in general can be intolerable in the U.S. Anything you’d get with a so-called continental breakfast in most places would just make you want to cry. Sure, we have great one-off bakeries in the Bay Area, but the quality control if you randomly toured the country would be abysmal. In contrast, you really can’t go wrong in Europe, in my experience. I fearlessly had a pre-made sandwich at the Geneva airport and another at the Zurich airport, both on rather good bread. And it wasn’t just the bread: one of these sandwiches was a Caprese. Can you imagine ordering a Caprese sandwich at an airport in America? The tomatoes would be pink and mushy, the bread like cardboard, the basil flavorless, the fresh Mozzarella soggy and limp. You’d probably start crying. I certainly would.

On the flip side, my pals and I observed something really bizarre at every French hotel we ate at: as good as the bread was, there was never any butter. WTF? Doesn’t everybody love good butter for their great bread? (Exception: I did find one little block of Président brand butter at one breakfast, which I’d thought was cheese. Maybe the hotel did, too.) Even olive oil was never offered, and if the bread hadn’t been so good we’d surely have complained (I mean, other than to each other). At our last dinner there was one little oil/vinegar dispenser going around, but literally just one, and the absolutely world class waitstaff seemed really flummoxed: perhaps not by not having more of these dispensers, but by this one having shown up out of nowhere seeding discontent at neighboring tables.

Meanwhile, I cannot understand the French hotel industry’s inability to cater to Americans’ coffee tastes. Every coffee shop in America has some version of a basic house coffee. Isn’t Starbucks showcasing this globally now? Plus, the archetypal large mug of coffee is featured in countless Hollywood movies that are exported around the world. The concept is not complicated: we drink a dark brown beverage, brewed from coffee beans, in quantities of 12 to 24 ounces, and we call it, simply, “coffee.” It is not cappuccino or espresso or any other kid-size micro-beverage that you drink like it’s a shot of booze. I thought we had this coffee mismatch solved after World War II when Europeans saw our American soldiers watering down their dinky coffee-bean-freebasing drinks and took to calling this larger beverage an Americano, but nobody in the Rhône-Alpes region seems to have heard of this. The machines have all these buttons with weird names like “Café Long” which doesn’t mean anything in any language, or “Café Noisette” which sounds like it would be “noisy” but actually literally translates “hazelnut” which the ensuing beverage did not have the slightest flavor of. Over the course of the trip I tried six or eight different fancy digital coffee machines and a few humans and never did get a normal cup of coffee, not even an Americano. Most of what I drank tasted mainly like foamed milk and at no point did I manage to get the simple black coffee I was looking for. It’s like some vast conspiracy to deliberately fail to understand this simple concept of what non-fussy, non-micro, basic-ground-coffee-bean-based beverages are supposed to be. I never even saw a normal mug, except this one in my hotel room (the purpose of which was not clear, but which I liked due to the cyclist pattern):

To be continued…

Well, I see I’ve pretty much run out of room here, or more to the point you’ve run out of patience. Tune in next time when I promise to get as far as the Col de Joux Plane, the Col de la Columbière, the Col de Croix Fry, and surely another meal or two.

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