Sunday, October 22, 2023

Epic Trans Alps Cycling Trip - Part V


Wow, five blog posts in a row on the same topic? Well, yeah, if that’s the only way to keep my readers from having to wade through a single 15,000-word post. Look, you’ve had a week now to recover from my last report. Besides, what I recount herein is the tale of the hardest day yet: a route so brutal, it was used for Stage 11 of the 2022 Tour de France, ending on the very climb where Tajed Pogacar had his hopes dashed. Did I suffer the same fate as Pogacar? Well, now, hang on … who said I’d ever had any hope(s)?

(If you’ve fallen behind, Part I of my French Alps series is here, Part II is here, Part III is here, and Part IV is here.)


According to the cold cereal industrial complex, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Even so, I usually skip it, and in my reckless youth I’d even do 80-mile rides on an empty stomach. But in France, breakfast was one of life’s great pleasures and I’d have chowed down even if I were planning to spend the day at the library. As it turns out, even a buffet seems impossible for the French to screw up.

Not that it didn’t have its quirks. There was still no butter for the bread, most of the time; there was usually some weird porridge I didn’t have the guts to try; there were so many types of cured meats I’d have had a heart attack if I sampled them all (or at least wouldn’t have been able to mount my bike); and one day Craig went to peel a hard-boiled egg only to discover, messily, that it was raw!

That’s right: at a French buffet, they provide raw eggs and the tools necessary to boil them yourself. Look at the bang-up job K— has done on his. I mean, it’s perfect. And look how beautiful that bread is. And—WTF!—he even managed to find butter! I really need to pay more attention when I’m travelling (and to fire my albertnet fact-checker).

The route

As I mentioned before, our route on Day 6 was very similar to Stage 11 of last year’s Tour de France. (For an awesome 8-minute video recap of that, click here.)

The only difference was that we actually started out heading north to the first climb, and after it we headed way back south like the Tour stage. That’s right, we started out in the opposite direction of our final destination. Why? Because Lacets de Montvernier. This civil engineering masterpiece is well worth going out of the way for: it’s a Category 2 climb, only 2.3 miles long but with an average grade of 10.6%, featuring 18 switchbacks in under two miles. Check out how it looked on the cycling GPS app on my phone:

The crude display on my bike computer provided an even stranger representation:

Here’s a nice stock photo of the Lacets:

K— was feeling his oats (okay, his eggs) and tapped out a sweet tempo. If memory serves, he totally dropped the rest of our East Bay Velo Club cohort.

Here’s Ian, in his stealth non-EBVC cycling costume, savoring the grade as I peer over a switchback.

Craig cruises through a stone-walled section, then stretches his legs while taking in the view.

One of the guides snapped this pretty amazing shot.

Oddly enough, I can’t say it was a very hard climb. For one thing, the weird pain in my gluteus whateverus had finally subsided. Also, we took it really easy, knowing how much we still had ahead of us. After a glorious twisty descent we headed south over rolling terrain, toward the Col du Télégraphe.

Col du Télégraphe

After some time we reached the base of the Télégraphe, a Category 1 climb, and I wisely set out at my own solo pace, having learned the hard way twenty years before not to ride this one too hard. Here’s a nice shot from pretty early on.

Here’s my next and final shot of the Télégraphe, fifteen minutes later. Just look how far down the valley floor is … yet we’d been there so very recently. That’s the Alps for you.

We had a brief picnic at the summit before the 3-kilometer descent to Valloire, where the Col du Galibier starts. This is the oddly difficult descent where Team Jumbo-Visma attacked Pogacar and caught his UAE Team Emirates guys napping, as I recounted here.

Here is one of many excellent cow sculptures we encountered during the week. The French seem to really celebrate their cows, and based on the lovely cheese we’d been eating, I’d say they have a lot to celebrate.

Col du Galibier

If the photo above were higher-res, you could zoom in and see we had 17 kilometers (almost 11 miles) to go. The good news is, we had a very strong headwind.

Oh, wait, did I say good news? It was terrible. The first few miles of the climb aren’t that steep, but sufficiently so that our Epic A group broke apart right at Valloire. There was one dude in our group who had soloed right away. He is a big, strong guy, and it would have been good to have him around when facing that wind. So, I was stoked to realize I was slowly catching him, and figured we could work together until the steep section.

The trouble is, this guy wasn’t having it. All week he’d been kind of the “lone wolf” of the Epic A group, tending to do his own thing. For example, the rest of us had stopped to pee and get food at the base of the Télégraphe but he’d forged on ahead alone. So now, when I passed him, I eased up a bit to let him get my wheel, figuring after he’d drafted a bit he’d naturally return the favor. But instead, he slowed his pace to let me ride away from him. I’ve never seen such a thing. Clearly he just didn’t want company. Okay, fine. I pushed through the wind on my own. It was a cold, strong, biting wind and these miles seemed endless.

“My god,” I thought, “I am actually facing a headwind on the Galibier.” As you can read here, one of my most soul-crushingly brutal and wrenching experiences ever on a bicycle came on this godawful hard Hors Categorie climb … so to have a headwind into the bargain just seemed way over the top. This experience will forever serve me as a useful metaphor: next time I’m up against some quotidian difficulty and am tempted to feel sorry for myself, I can just think, “Hey … it could be worse. At least I’m not facing a headwind on the Galibier.”

The wind got stronger as I very gradually approached the first 180-degree switchback. As I cranked on the pedals, leaned over as aerodynamically as possible with my forearms on the tops of my bars (a position now banned by the UCI), I felt like the switchback was actually drifting away from me, perhaps on a tectonic plate. Finally I got there, took the 180-degree hairpin, and felt the thrill of the wind now at my back, pushing me along the first really steep section of the climb. It was thrilling, perhaps like surfing or being shot out of a cannon. In what seemed like no time at all, the valley floor was way down below me.

Of course, a pure tailwind like that couldn’t last, and the climb was long and steep. And long. And steep. As the road curved this way and that, the wind did everything it could to torment me, just short of spinning me around like a pinwheel. Needless to say, the temperature dropped steadily as I gained altitude. The sun went away for good.

It’s not exactly postcard-pretty up there but the views are impressive.

This is the part of the report that gets really difficult: conveying exactly how much this climb wore me down. Reading is such an easy task; so is writing, for that matter. I’m searching for a suitable metaphor for my dwindling power. You know how when you use a bar of Ivory soap, it gets smaller and smaller until it’s just a sliver, and not only is the sliver small but it’s spent, and just doesn’t deliver suds anymore? Or think of a pencil lead, or the tip of a crayon, that just gets blunter and blunter until it can’t write, it just makes kind of a blur on the paper. Consider a ball point pen that has somehow hung around so long it’s actually running out of ink, and puts frustratingly faint, broken marks on the page, so you shake it violently (like God seemed to be doing to me) to try to get it to work. Oh, here’s another one: think of trying to use a teabag a second time, so that the resulting drink is just weak and bitter. Such was my ineffectual plod up the mountain. Yes, I did keep the pedals turning, but this process seemed to affect the motion of the bicycle less and less.

I saw a random cyclist up ahead who had dismounted and was peering at the sky with binoculars. He was watching birds. I took them to be circling vultures at first, a perception obviously based on my morale. But they didn’t look like vultures, and they were darker than hawks, and their wings were different. I asked the binoculars guy what they were, but in my oxygen-starved state I made the offensive error of asking in English. Grasping the point of the guy’s blank stare, I tried again: “Excusez-moi, mais quel type d’oiseaux sont elles?” Now the guy looked excited, because (I suspect) he was a birder first and a proud Frenchman second. He leafed quickly through a little book (either a bird book or a dictionary, I guess) and it’s a testament to how slowly I was approaching that he had time to do so. He hurriedly said something completely nonsensical, like “They are Canada war knives.” I can’t remember the exact phrase; though I’d really tried to shunt it, my brain was cold and the synaptic signals sputtered and stopped. I nodded vaguely and kept riding, and the guy flipped through his book some more, and then jumped back on his bike and pedaled madly to within hearing range and called out, “Golden eagles!” Ah, so they were, and there were at least half a dozen of them up there, wheeling and cavorting in the wind. I didn’t have the presence of mind to reply, “Oh là là!” but I murmured my approval. I don’t know what was more impressive, actually; the birds or the birder.

On and up I rode. As I periodically looked back down the road, trying to cheer myself by noting my (albeit gradual) progress, I noted that Lone Wolf was gradually reeling me in. I had to hand it to him, he was tenacious, and strong. It took another couple of kilometers, but about three fourths of the way to the summit he finally came by. This time, I decided, I wouldn’t offer to take turns pulling, since he obviously wasn’t into sharing, but I was going to suck his wheel for as long as I could or unless he told me to stop. But there was just one problem: he was riding on the wrong side of the road. Not just a few inches from the center line, but spang in the middle of the oncoming lane! I couldn’t figure this out. I watched, bewildered, through a couple of switchbacks to see if he even had the sense to hug a right-hand embankment to escape the wind, but he didn’t. He was firmly committed to riding on the left.

Others had mentioned this mystifying behavior of Lone Wolf’s in previous days, and now I was witnessing it. My best guess at his reason for doing this is simply that he was embracing his divine sense of privilege. He’s probably a guy who made a lot of money, probably in tech, without needing to collaborate with anybody, and is very proud of that. Thus, he doesn’t see why he should cooperate with other bicyclists, or with traffic laws, and is just determined to do his own thing at all times, on principle. (This might explain why twice during the week, on descents, he made no attempt to hold his line and totally chopped other riders, almost taking Ian out at one point.) Needless to say I stayed on the right, and kept my distance, and eventually Lone Wolf dropped me.

Near the summit the mist increased, and it was blown around cinematically by the wind, and the terrain became even more desolate. It was oppressive but impressive, severe but sublime. And I suppose I should take a moment to point out that I was having a grand old time. Yes, I was seriously suffering, but after all that is the point. I chose this sport, and I chose this vacation, and every difficulty was within spec for a weeklong adventure that was supposed to be epic.

Finally I reached the junction where, with one kilometer to go, you either head left to the summit or go straight to a tunnel that we’d been warned not to take. The fog now was so thick I couldn’t even see the tunnel.

I took the left turn and started that long final kilometer, which averages 9% and—without anything left to provide shelter—I was fully in the wind. Somehow I made the summit. There was no picnic set up. It was frigid up there. The conditions were, to quote Lorrie Moore, “fit for neither beast nor vegetable.” I climbed into the warm van, found my backpack, and started putting on all the warm clothes I had. Here’s my only photo of the summit, taken through the van window.

Ian had joined us and, like Superman, was suddenly all ready for the descent and waiting for me. “Hang on,” I drawled lugubriously, “I just need to find my gloves.” Ian seemed to panic. “I have extras, take them!” he all but shrieked. I’m not sure what his rush was, other than it looked like it could storm at any second (and this was the forecast, actually). I found my gloves and we set out. (Ian lampooned his own impatience later, before I had the pleasure of doing so.)

OMG, what a descent. The road was wet and I didn’t want grit in my eyes so I kept on my sunglasses, though they were all steamed up. Between that and the fog, I could barely see … just the dark road between the white lines. But after a few miles of this, the fog lifted and blue sky appeared, the sun having finally decided to show his face. Everything was suddenly brilliant and the remaining globs of distant mist were tumbling and turning in the wind even as they dissolved. It was so improbably beautiful that I actually started laughing, tears in my eyes. The descent just got sweeter from there and soon we arrived at the little down of Le Monêtier-les-Bains, and stopped just a few blocks from the hotel we’d be staying at that night. The crew set up our picnic here, and we contrived beautiful sandwiches with cheese, cured meat, and great bread which we enjoyed in a glorious spell of sunshine. I was trying to pretend that soon we’d just head over to the hotel, but I knew we had one more climb to go.

Col du Granon

Look, I know this is already a very long post, over 2,500 words so far, which would take (me, at least) well over five minutes to read. Well, boo fricking hoo. This was a long-ass day on the bike, and it takes a lot of text to make a proper report. Just bear in mind that this day’s ride took me something like 20,000 pedal revolutions, and I didn’t get to leave off whenever I got bored or tired or listless. So if you feel like this is just too hard and you can’t go on, fine, go take a bubble bath, call it a night, come back later. Or not. Whatever. I’m not going to break this into two posts because it was all one day and that cumulative effect is what made it so hard.

As we started moving toward our bicycles (I’m tempted to say reluctantly, or was that just me?) it started to rain. We discussed whether it actually made sense to ride another 27 miles in this weather, after all we’d already been through. It was starting to sound like we had a consensus that we should just bag it, and then someone said, “Okay, let’s go” and we found ourselves rolling out, down a shallow descent into another headwind. It seemed like madness, but I’m nothing if not a follower. We continued, our trusty guide driving the pace on the front for us, Craig taking a pull here and there just because he’s a strong and generous guy and actually loves this kind of weather. (His spirit animal is a sled dog.)

We’d been given the basic stats about the Granon: 10/10/10, meaning it’s ~10 kilometers long, climbs roughly 10-hundred meters (that’s 1,000, for the less math-inclined readers out there, which is about 3,300 feet) and averages (needless to say) ~10%. In fact, the tour organizers rank it the fourth-hardest climb of the entire week. For some reason, I was ignoring these stats and pretending this climb would be no big deal, just a little tacked-on thing like the Lacets de Montvernier. I guess I was in denial. At least the weather improved a bit … the rain went away and it was mainly just cold. We reached the base, stopped to throw our jackets in the van, began pedaling again, hit the climb proper, and once again our group fell apart, or at least I fell out of it. Here’s a picture from pretty early on, before my hands became too cold to bother with photography.

The Granon is like being sucker-punched. It’s not that famous, not that scenic, and   isn’t anything I’d psychologically prepared for, but it’s simply relentless. Once it gets going, it never, ever lets up. We’d grumbled good-naturedly earlier in the week about how the road up the Col de la Loze would sometimes dip down, meaning even more leg-wrenching steepness to come, but at least we’d gotten a chance to rest our legs, our backs, our butts. No such respite here. Imagine if your workweek were all Mondays, or all your meetings lasted eight hours. Or imagine going on a walk and every step you took was barefoot onto a Lego. Oh well, at least it was nice and cold up there.

Wait, did I say nice? Damn was I sick of the cold and the wind. Give me 90 degrees and heat any day. At some point, for lack of anything else to help pass the time, I decided to photograph a guidepost, perhaps to show how every one of them casually declared that the next klick would also average 10%. Here’s what I got.

It’s actually not that easy to get a blurry photo with a smartphone … the image stabilization is remarkably good. But right as I hit the shutter button (not the elusive touch-screen one but the physical button on the edge of the phone) a giant shiver went through me. I’ve included the photo anyway because it might do the best job of all in capturing how I felt on this climb.

I’d started out with my vest unzipped, and for a good while I argued with myself about whether to try to zip it up. As much comfort as this would give me, it didn’t seem possible to actually get it done. If I stopped, I feared, I might not ever find the resolve to get going again, or my punch-drunk foot would fail to get my cleat engaged with the pedal and I’d tip over. On the other hand, it seemed implausible that I could ride no-handed long enough to get that zipper engaged, with my cold, numb, barely prehensile hands and this constant steep pitch. What is the minimum speed at which a person can even ride no-handed? I’m no slouch at bike handling—I can actually tie my shoe while riding—but this seemed like the wrong day for a new PR. Still, I could take the wind no longer and decided to have a go. I furiously pumped the pedals, sat up, secured the flapping ends of the vest (here I drifted into the left lane like Lone Wolf), managed to get the zipper end engaged, and zipped that bad boy all the way up without even jamming it. As I slumped forward I even managed to catch the handlebars and get the bike under control again, and back in the right lane. This may have been the finest moment of my life, and if I ever decide to go to grad school, I’ve got the kernel now for my personal essay.

As a victory lap I spent a minute or two, a bit later on, extracting my phone from my pocket and snapping a non-blurry photo of a guidepost. See? The vest works!

Finally, the summit. It was starting to rain again and I didn’t even look for the summit/elevation sign. I leaned my bike on the van, climbed in, and allowed my sinews and skeleton to dissolve the rest of the way until I was just a bag of spent flesh wrapped in clammy Lycra.

Fortunately, only Craig seemed interested in riding back down, across the valley floor, and up the shallow climb back to the hotel. (Our guide, of course, was required to accompany anybody who felt like pushing on, and had a great attitude about it, as though nothing would please him more than continuing the ride even beyond what the Tour de France riders had done.) Did you see what I did just now? In those parentheses? I made it seem like it was completely normal to wimp out and not actually finish the ride. Yeah, what can I say. I suppose you could conclude I’ve fallen prey to the modern practice of self-compassion. But actually, it’s just that I didn’t want to make Ian, M—, and Lone Wolf feel bad by showing them up. Yeah. That’s it.


The hotel was gorgeous and we relaxed in the lounge with some recovery beers. (I generally define “recovery beer” as either a watery lager, or a 25-cl serving, but after this brutal ride it meant “whatever we feel like we wanna drink, gawd!”) Then we walked maybe ten steps to this incredibly long table, built from a very thick slab of wood, like we were at King Arthur’s court or something, but in a non-Disney way. A new friend we made on the trip, KR, visited the concierge or chef or somebody and negotiated a bottle of what he declared a very good local red wine, and although I am generally suspicious of epicures, especially in the realm of wine, it tasted really good to me. And then we were served this delicious corn gazpacho.

Who knew gazpacho could be made with anything, not just tomatoes? The French, evidently. In other news, it turns out a couple of riders were missing from dinner and someone had the brilliant idea to lie and say they’d be arriving shortly. So I inherited a second bowl of soup. The evening was just getting better and better.

Then the main course arrived and it was almost too pretty to eat. OMG, did I really just type that? Nothing is too pretty to eat, and we were starved. This was amazing. Even the carrot.

KR noted, with a tinge of concern, that his chicken looked pretty seriously undercooked. I have to say, he was a really good sport about it … no sign of outrage or anything. I pointed out, to his great relief, that the pinkness was because it was stuffed with (what else?) cured meat (ham or prosciutto, I can’t remember, and with my memory dimming it’s a good thing I didn’t wait even longer to write all of this down). The chicken was also stuffed with some fancy French cheese. I could have died right then and been satisfied with my life, even if (perhaps especially if) I were to be drowned somehow in a vat of that delightfully rich sauce you see above.

That would have been a shame, though, because we hadn’t had dessert yet. It wasn’t anything that original:

That said, I’ve tried a couple times to make flourless chocolate cake and both times crashed and burned, so it’s nice to see (and taste) it done well.

The only slight blight on this delightful night was the tour director coming around to see who still planned to ride in the Epic A group the next (and final) day, given that the forecast was for persistent drizzle, if not rain, all day long. I was sorely tempted to step down and sign up for the shorter route, knowing I’d completely (and satisfyingly) destroyed myself on this brutal day, but my pals promised to hang back with me on Day 7 (at least until Alpe d’Huez). And so, with a heavy heart I committed once again to Epic A. So watch these pages in a week or so for the final chapter of my Trans Alps epic.

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