Saturday, September 30, 2023

Epic France Trans Alps Cycling Trip - Part II


If you’ve been on albertnet lately, you’ll have learned that I recently did a week-long, fully supported bicycle tour through southeast France, tackling most of the Alpine climbs that are included in Tour de France routes. You’ll also have learned that I tend to get sidetracked by culinary matters, which is great news for those who tire of cycling lore. Well, I’m back, and this time promise to focus more on the suffering—mine in particular (your favorite!). As before, this report doesn’t have a very specific structure … it’s more like a highlights reel, because there were just too many rides, too many climbs, and too many meals to worry about sequencing them properly.


I’m really bad at navigation. I don’t have much of an explorer’s curiosity, and am happy to keep riding the same training routes over and over again. Even when I did a nine-month bike tour with my wife, we made literally zero effort to plot any kind of route—we just started by heading south along the California coast almost to Mexico, then went randomly east or north until we got to Maine. Let’s be clear though: It’s not just that I’m not interested in navigation, it’s that I lack the mental faculty for it. So my biggest fear with this French Alps tour was that I’d get dropped and then get lost, in this strange foreign land where you can’t even get a normal cup of coffee.

Hoping to have my fears assuaged, I asked K, our supported-tour veteran, if getting dropped would necessarily mean getting lost. His reply was emphatic: “If you don’t download the GPX files, you will definitely get lost.” D’oh!

This is kind of a classic pitfall of modern society: you’re expected to be an expert in the latest technology whether you like it or not. Events and itineraries are now communicated via social media—never mind that these vanity platforms were originally designed solely to increase teenagers’ insecurity. Case in point: the bike tour organizers took to sending important schedule updates via WhatsApp, a platform I do not, and shall not, use. On top of all this, I’m suddenly supposed to know what a GPX file is …. presumably it runs on a Garmin (i.e., one of the expensive gizmos I don’t own).

Well, I found the email with all the routes, downloaded a GPX file, tried to open it on my phone, and was offered two apps to try. One of them I hadn’t heard of, but the other was (surprise!) an app I actually use. It’s Sigma Ride, the workout tracking app for my cheap, weird bike computer that nobody else in America has. Well, the GPX file opened right up, which was a pleasant surprise but not that helpful. After all, it’s not like I want to ride around the Alps peering into my phone the whole time. On a whim, I clicked a three-dot icon and saw an option to beam the route into my bike computer via Bluetooth. And, voilà! There it was, the route loaded in my bike computer so it could give me step-by-step directions … a feature I was vaguely aware it might have but had never before investigated. Sweet! Now I could totally get dropped and all I had to worry about was everyone snickering at my frailty behind my back! (You know, the devil I know…)

Col de Joux Plane and Col de la Columbière

I don’t remember much about our first climb of the day, Cat 1 Col de Joux Plane, other than we started up it immediately, with like zero warm-up. That’s okay, because I was raring to go after a great night’s sleep. Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. Actually I hadn’t slept for shit, between jet lag, the room being too warm, anxiety about the big day of riding, etc. Plus, my older daughter phoned me in the middle of the night. Why? Well, my phone had gone berserk and had been texting and re-texting her my Wordle result and some trip photos almost continuously, all night, creating the illusion I was awake and insane and already on my phone. At least, that’s what led my daughter to forget the time zone difference. My roommate was oddly gracious about the whole thing; turns out he was wide awake at the time anyway. I’m not the only one having trouble sleeping.

Anyway, the pace on the Joux Plane was fine. The photo above is from early in the climb. The first descent was beautiful and fast and fun, and my rented Felt FR road bike handled very well—so if you stumbled on this blog by searching on “Felt FR,” and are this close to buying that bike, and don’t mind a 73-degree seat tube angle instead of 72, well, shoot, just go ahead and buy it. It’s a good bike that does not hesitate to dive right into the curves.

Near the base of the Hors Categorie (i.e., “too difficult to even categorize”) Col de la Columbière, as if in some kind of harmonic convergence, my East Bay Velo Club teammates Craig and Ian and I all had to pee at the same moment. (As far as you know, we dutifully used a public restroom and any photo you may have seen of any less responsible behavior was surely Photoshopped.) Following this stop we found ourselves off the back of the group, which by this point had pretty much split apart into tiny clumps, pairs, and individuals. We passed them all, like in one of those car race video games. It was super fun. Craig paced Ian and me, which is bog standard for all the rides we do, as though Craig were our super-domestique … except that in the end he always sails off into the sunset instead of us.

Sure enough, about three kilometers from the Columbière summit, where the climb gets particularly hard, Craig accidentally dropped me. He would never, ever attack; it’s just that he forgets how limited my endurance truly is, and after all he doesn’t have eyes in the back of his head. Sometimes he realizes I’m gapped and he holds up, but other times I’m too far back and just does his own thing. It’s kind of like a cat playing with a snake, and not realizing he’s actually killed it, and then he wonders why the snake isn’t very much fun anymore.


Did you notice something just now? Something very odd for albertnet? Like, how I used the metric system to specify the distance from the summit? Nice catch. As you know from this post, I’m a proponent of the imperial system of measurement, even if this puts me at odds with the entire scientific community. Well, I haven’t renounced those views; it’s just that in the very specific context of Alpine mountain passes, kilometers have their place. It’s because of these cool guideposts you’ll see on every major climb:

If you click to zoom on the above image you’ll note that that sign gives all kinds of info. It gives the name of the climb (which, believe it or not, you can forget if you’ve targeted several in a day and are severely oxygen-deprived); the distance to the summit in kilometers; the current altitude (alas, in meters, which is still not so useful to me since I can’t do simple arithmetic under physical duress); and the average percent grade for the next kilometer. This info is generally very useful (though at times it can seem to be taunting me, like when the end of a climb seems to never come). Do I wish all this info were in imperial units? Well, almost, except that, kilometers being shorter than miles, this arrangement obviously gives me more signs to look at, and a better sense of progress. So I’ll accept this use of kilometer as the exception that proves the rule.

On the final climb, the Category 1 Col de la Croix Fry, Craig and I encountered some lovely cows, bells a-jangling:

I still had great legs on this final climb of the day, which was so satisfying, I cannot tell you. As I said, I’d worried about not keeping up, and embarrassing myself, and trying the patience of my pals and other Epic A riders, but this is not at all what was happening. My legs were totally up to the job. This surprised me because I knew I hadn’t trained enough for this trip. I just can’t seem to carve out enough time, and I’m getting too old to simply wing it—at least, that’s what I’d assumed, only to end up riding just fine. But this satisfaction with my fitness wasn’t only about ageing well. Let’s just say the last couple of years have been hard on me, so to be doing something bloody difficult, but with aplomb, gave me renewed faith in my whole self (even if my competence is in the largely useless realm of amateur cycling). The scenery was pretty glorious, too.

After a sweet, sweeping descent to our next hotel, and a giant snack there involving cured meats, we wandered around the little town of La Clusaz and noted their brilliant open-air market. Check out what you can get from this little vender:

Not to be unpatriotic or anything, but this sight reinforced my growing sense that farmers’ markets in America are a joke. I think that, as with factory outlet stores, farmers’ markets started off well—an actual farmer could sell truly local, fresh produce directly to consumers—but then morphed into a sham when deeply cynical minds realized that once people had latched on to an idea, they’d pursue it indefinitely regardless of whether there was any value in it. So we have people setting up tables at these farmers’ markets with produce they just bought somewhere (which is sometimes still in someone else’s packaging!) and then they actually mark it up because the farmers’ market seems like a “premium” experience that is worth paying extra for. Sheesh.

Bad weather!

Oh, man, the forecast for the third day was not promising: a 93% chance of rain from 5 a.m. through late afternoon. Sure enough, it was already raining when we woke up, and raining when we rolled out. What a grind. I don’t have a good rain jacket, for the simple reason that—as documented here—I don’t ride in the rain. What I do have is this big puffy thing that doesn’t breathe very well, doesn’t wad up small enough to easily fit in a jersey pocket, and isn’t really waterproof. I think of it as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Jacket.

Perhaps halfway up the Cat 3 Col des Aravis the rain let up somewhat, and I had a nice time riding by a lot of cows, their standard-issue bells making the usual pleasant racket.

The respite didn’t last, and on the Cat 2 Col des Saisies, K and I rode through a downpour of biblical proportions, the rain drumming on our helmets and jackets, the road completely flooding. You know how when you’re in a car wash, you sometimes get the sensation of the car rolling forward though you know it isn’t? Same deal: the water rushing past my wheels gave me the illusion of hauling ass up the mountain until I lifted my gaze again. I wish I had photos and videos of this, but of course you can never get that footage … you’re too busy suffering and shivering. There was thunder and lightning, and K wisecracked about opportunistically riding next to me so he’d never be the tallest object.

Here’s a photo of the summit, where the rain had finally let up. K and I are offering our gratitude, or at least a photo op, to Saint Anne, whom we took from this shrine to be the patron saint of travelers. Turns out (based on some very light research) she’s actually the patron saint of unmarried women, housewives, and women in labor. Whatever.

We warmed up at the van, scarfing Cokes, cookies, fruit, chocolate milk, and of course cured meats. We had a decently dry descent and, during a brief stop at one of those darling French villages, stashed our rain gear in the van for the climb.

We began the final climb up the Hors Categorie Col du Pré. Halfway up, the skies got darker again, and Craig and Ian fetched their (slim, scrunch-able, actually waterproof) jackets from the van to have on hand. I decided to take my chances (which gave me the opportunity to noodle on ahead). The climb was a lot of fun. It’s a gorgeous road with a lot of super steep pitches.

The sky grew increasingly tenebrous as we climbed.

The climb went on and on.

This could have been a great photo if the smartphone camera software weren’t so janky:

I mean, look at how small Ian looks compared to Craig—like a dwarf or something! Craig’s head looks as tall as Ian’s torso! And Craig’s front wheel looks way larger than his rear. What is this nonsense? This is why you want a real camera.

With 4km to go, I got my last photo from the Col de Pré … after this, the skies opened up and the rain just absolutely pummeled us. I was soaked to the skin. At the summit, we piled into the van and went through our backpacks of warm gear. Ian had an extra jersey for me, and after some discussion four of us, plus the guide, decided to forge ahead on the descent while the rest of the crew went down in the van. It was a frigid descent, rain flowing over the road like a water slide at a theme park. A road construction crew, decked out like stormtroopers, stared at us dumbfounded. Ian, riding a bike with rim brakes, eventually thought better of the whole enterprise and pulled off to the side to be picked up. When we reached the town down in the valley, the rain showed no signs of letting up, and Craig reported, with fascination, that my lips were completely blue. With only a relatively unexciting flat run-in to the hotel ahead, we bagged it and climbed in the van. The heater was blasting in there. By the time we got to the hotel we’d all been basically poached alive in our wet gear. I hope there are no pets in the cargo hold of this aircraft, proximate to my luggage, as I make my way home. I have never before encountered such stinky cycling gear, and that’s saying something.


We lodged at a strange health spa type hotel in Brides-les-Bains. This is where unhealthy people with unhealthy lifestyles go to get cured by the special waters and various spa treatments, so that they can enjoy robust health going forward without changing any of their unhealthy behaviors. Several of these guests regarded us with a bit of the ol’ stink-eye, as if deeply suspicious of our very presence at their spa.

This place had those fancy outward-facing elevators that are like glass cylinders so you can watch the world go by during your vertical trip. They were also among the slowest elevators I’ve ever encountered, with disconcerting juddering at times. Most interesting of all was the sound they made: think of a giant, like the one atop Jack’s beanstalk, groaning, combined with the sound of a whale calling out across the ocean. The noise was nearly constant. At the request of my wife I’ve attempted to recreate the sound:

Dinner got off to a good start, with a salad that was like 70% Serrano ham.

The entrée, though, was a bit on the small and non-starchy side:

The menu described this as “Veal nut with its juice.” Needless to say, this led to all kinds of sophomoric humor (“testicle of a young bull, with…”). The dessert, or “desert” as the menu called it, was a peach clafoutis, which I guess was supposed to be like a cobbler but was practically frozen. We’d have starved except the very good bread was plentiful (though still bereft of butter or olive oil). But then, breakfast the next morning featured the excellent pastries we’d come to rely on, so no harm done.

At every breakfast I had a croissant and a pain au chocolat, sometimes two, along with a big bowl of cereal, some eggs, cured meats, cheeses, and yogurt. This is how I managed to gain four pounds in a week—the same week I rode almost 400 miles and climbed almost 60,000 feet. God bless these Alpine cows and all the butter they make possible.

To be continued…

Well, that seems like enough for this round. I’m getting cold just remembering all this. Check back soon because I’ll be reporting on the Col de la Loze, which is considered the hardest climb in the entire Alps; the famous Col de la Madeleine; and the absolutely brutal Col du Glandon. And of course I’ll describe our caloric intake as well, to include one of the weirdest and French-est dinners I’ve ever had.

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