Sunday, October 8, 2023

Epic Trans Alps Cycling Trip - Part III


In accordance with my new “all French Alps cycling all the time” blog format, this post continues the tale of how I gradually burned myself down to the filter via a week of cycling in the beautiful Rhône-Alpes mountains. Part I is here and Part II is here. Today’s post, covering Day 4, features the fearsome Col de la Loze.

About the Col de la Loze

Simply put, the Col de la Loze is the hardest climb in France. But don’t take my word for it; that’s the ranking given by Pjamm Cycling, a website devoted to the topic. The Col is 14 miles long at an average grade of 7.5%. A quarter of it is above 10%, the steepest bit is 24%, and the top 6 kilometers are a fricking ski run that was recently paved. This is where Tadej Pogacar totally cracked during this year’s Tour de France (click here for footage). My pals and I were kind of dreading this, obviously, but at least it was the only major climb of the day.

Here we are rolling out, a nice mist tumbling around in the distance but the previous day’s rain all gone, thank goodness.

Something was wrong with my butt. I know that’s a strange thing to say, but from my first pedal revolutions I had this strange pain like somebody had bashed my butt cheek with the blunt end of a pool cue, kind of high up on, what, the glut, I guess? Perhaps it was some kind of muscle strain, maybe from the cold the day before and that final, frigid, clenched-muscle descent. Whatever caused it, this pain dogged me all day.

The Col de la Loze is a savage climb, no doubt about it, but at least we weren’t racing. Ian and K and I rode a mild, conservative tempo just to play it safe. Craig put the hammer down and was long gone, with just one other guy from our group with him.

Now, I don’t know what happened, and Craig doesn’t seem to want to talk about it, but partway up the climb, the guy Craig was riding with started to dissolve. I guess the Col de la Loze will do that to you. Check this out:

Weird, huh? I never did find out if this dude got his flesh back.Now, this next shot I was pretty excited to get because it’s really tricky snapping photos while climbing a crazy steep grade:

So yeah, 23%, impressive, sure, but check out my speed: 3.5 mph. That’s just sad. I think once I put away my phone and stood on the pedals, I was able to bring my speed up around 3.6 mph on this stretch.

On and on the climb went, the kilometers very gradually ticking by as we oozed our way up. With 3 kilometers to go, we learned that the next kilometer averaged 12%.

See how easy it is to read all this? And you can imagine how easy it was to type that last sentence. If anything, you may find this account tedious, but man, that’s just because I can’t convey the actual difficulty. Even the photos flatten everything out. Perhaps I could express it better with a formula, which we had seen on the road earlier in the climb:

The funny thing was, my poor brain was so oxygen-deprived when I saw this, I couldn’t perform the calculation. Imagine that! “Climbing stupid” indeed! But you know, it’s the damnedest thing: I still can’t work my way through this equation. Could the climb have permanently damaged my brain somehow? I’ll bet you’re having a chuckle at my struggle here with such a basic Physics formula. I’ll have to find a Tour de France rider to explain this to me.

Here are a few more pics:

Nearing the end, Ian, K—, and I agreed that the grade would surely let up a little, and that the last kilometer wouldn’t be more than 8%. I don’t know why we thought this. We reached the last guidepost and it said 11% … sonofabitch! Well, it didn’t say the “sonofabitch” part, we did—or rather, we said something even more profane. Here we are tackling the final bit. (One of the guides must have snapped this photo because we’re all in it; that’s me at the back, unsurprisingly.)

We made it, needless to say. Here we are chillin’ at the summit.

It was pretty cold up there at 7,559 feet elevation but I’d worked up a good sweat anyway. I have long enjoyed the pleasure of squeegeeing the sweat out of my helmet pad. I managed to capture this in a photo:

I froze my ass off on the descent, being underdressed, but then it warmed up and we had a really good, fast trip over the Cat 2 Champagny-en-Vanoise climb. The group splintered right off the bat, and Craig and Ian destroyed everyone with a blazing pace. We regrouped and then proceeded to a final, uncategorized climb, which we all rode together. Here’s one of those “meta” pictures, K— snapping a photo of himself being photographed.

The day wrapped up with a wickedly fun, twisty descent to our next town. The staff set up a nice picnic next to a roaring river and guess what? There were cured meats involved! Check out this “raw quesadilla” that I whipped up to chow down on (with a chocolate milk chaser, bien entendu!).

Weirdest dinner ever

Our strange hotel (see my last post) was the only we stayed at for two nights, and after the “veal nut” the night before we weren’t that excited about another dinner there; meanwhile, we had something to celebrate (which doesn’t happen to be any of your business). So we made a reservation at the highest-rated restaurant in town. At least, we thought we had a reservation—there were some crossed wires. We headed up there anyway, hoping they could take us as walk-ins. It was in another wellness spa hotel, and although Brides-les-Bains feels like a ghost town, their dining room was booked solid. The helpful concierge, who spoke excellent English, said, “It’s probably for the best because they are serving a prix-fixe diététique menu tonight and you would not like it.” OMG, diététique … I felt like we’d dodged a bullet! It could have been a squash nut with a side of quinoa mist.

The concierge made a phone call, had a brief dialogue in French I couldn’t follow, and then told us, “My favorite restaurant can accommodate you, but they are only serving one thing tonight which is raclette. It is cheese and there is ham and potatoes.” I immediately knew what she was talking about—or, I thought I did. I confused raclette with tartiflette, a dish popular in the French Alps, which is like scalloped potatoes on EPO. (You didn’t think I was gonna say “on steroids,” did you?) Everyone agreed raclette sounded great.

We headed to the place which, coincidentally, was the dining room attached to the pub we’d gone to for recovery beers earlier that evening and the day before as well. So it was kind a full-circle trip (the inefficiency of which bothered me as a tiring cyclist, but pleased me as a curious tourist). The waitress spoke no English but there was no menu anyway … she just carried over this bizarre metal contraption and set it down on our table. It looked like a cross between the scary waffle maker at a crappy motel, a SodaStream fizzy water machine, and a miniature version of the hugging apparatus Temple Grandin built. I was completely mystified until the waitress brought over a giant wedge of raclette cheese, cut from an enormous wheel, and attached it to the contraption (impaling it on something at the base, I believe).

Oh boy, I thought. This is going to be delicious but will take a very long time. It would be very different from tucking into tartiflette, which is as simple a comfort food as macaroni & cheese. I was starving and I’m sure my pals were too; fortunately, cyclists are not generally given to fisticuffs as we’re no good at it. 

After a brief nonverbal dialogue between K— and the waitress, we determined it was time to plug in the contraption (which after some light research I have just learned is called a raclonette). The waitress brought us each a plate of—wait for it—cured meats, along with a little salad and some tiny pickles.

It’s possible this stuff was supposed to be combined with the soon-to-be-melted cheese but I didn’t wait around to find out, and immediately scarfed down the whole plate. There was chatter about somebody wanting more pickles, and/or offering up his pickles, but I was in the zone and mostly tuned it out.

Those metal wings that fold down on the raclonette have heating elements in them, and their proximity to the cheese melts it, outside-in. You collect the melted cheese on a little spatula and then drizzle it over sliced boiled potatoes that show up somewhere along the way. Labor intensive, but well worth it. (It strikes me that raclette is the polar opposite of microwave popcorn, which is the dumbest food concept anybody has ever had.) Gradually I descended pleasantly into a cheese stupor. My French is poor and rusty but I managed to order more potatoes for the table. After a good long chow-down, during which we all exercised admirable etiquette (at least, I hope I, too, behaved, despite my baser impulses), we were all topped up and looked upon the fallen soldier that had been our raclette wedge:

We all wondered what would become of that large deformed stump. It would sure be a shame to waste it. Someone suggested it might be fed to children. I thought of asking for a doggy-bag, but a) surely there is no French equivalent of “doggy bag” because the entire concept is unknown to the French, and b) I would have no way to keep the cheese cool, so my luggage would become a Superfund site.

I described the raclette adventure in a text message to my older daughter, who replied, “That actually sounds like a cheese dream fantasy, cannot believe you got to experience it. I want an excuse to eat an ungodly amount of cheese in a socially acceptable way!” She makes a good point, and I hereby advance the notion that the Col de la Loze was a good excuse.

Check back soon because the riding only got harder from here, and the best pastries were yet to come.

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