Saturday, October 14, 2023

Epic Trans Alps Cycling Trip - Part IV


Well, albertnet used to be a blog about nothing. Now it seems to have become a blog about my cycling trip in France. Part I is here, Part II is here, and Part III is here. One day perhaps I’ll run out of Alpine tales to recount, and meals to describe, but that’s still a long way off. In this post I cover the famous Col de la Madeleine and the relentless Col du Glandon. Is the Glandon also famous, the Madeleine relentless? Yes and yes. Do cured meats figure strongly in this report? Yes!

Col de la Madeleine

Day 5 featured the second and third hardest climbs in the Alps, according to the organizers. We started with the Col de la Madeleine, 14.9 miles long at an average grade of 6.6%. The ride was hard even before the climb began because we had ten miles of gradual descending first, at a motor-pacing tempo behind the tour guide. My pool-cue-to-the-gluteus pain was still there, plus after four hard days of riding I was pretty knackered in general. When the climb started I was dropped instantly from our Epic A group (which had dwindled from ~15 riders initially down to 5, the others having switched to Epic B). Only a kilometer into the climb, my pals (along with some rando you see there on the right) stopped to wait for me at the only intersection, knowing I’m just dumb enough to take a wrong turn.

In this case I wouldn’t have actually gotten lost because a) my bike computer navigation was working fine (see Part II for details) and b) I remembered what the tour leader had said in the pre-ride meeting: “Don’t go towards Pussy!” (Click the above photo and look at the signpost on the right.)

From here I was immediately dropped again and made my slightly dejected, slow way up the mountain. There were lots of switchbacks, and tree-lined ravines to stare blankly into. The cement guardrails were the perfect height to flip a cyclist over the bars.

After some time I came upon Ian and Craig, stopped along the road. Craig had punctured and Ian was hanging out during the repair. I left them for dead and continued on up the road. This gave me the opportunity to watch their gradual progress, switchback after switchback, as they reeled me back in.

They eventually, inevitably, caught me and we rode together for a while, and then with about 7 kilometers to go they sailed off into the distance again. I slogged along solo, and a bit later came across a bunch of cows, their bells making a pleasant sound. Cows and cowbells normally buoy my spirits, but then I saw something kind of disturbing: many of these cows had weird plastic things attached to their snouts.

They looked kind of like the thick plastic ring-thingies you get with expensive four-packs of craft beer. What the hell were they, and did they have to be plastic? For some reason this brought to mind the frightening plastic-faced children in the train tunnel scene of “Pink Floyd: The Wall.” I was starting to kind of dislike the Col de la Madeleine.

That said, it sure was scenic. Check out this view, with Mont Blanc at the left edge of that range there.

I made the summit and enjoyed a brief picnic with my pals. I made a sandwich of good French bread with olive oil, guacamole, and these weird cigarette-sized sticks of cured meat; the package said simply “Galibier.” This weird creation was oddly tasty, under the circumstances. By the way, there tended to be a tub of guac at every picnic, and it was never very good … pretty much whatever you get in a tub at Costco. But then, we can’t expect the French to be great at everything and it’s nice to know the U.S. can still be better at something. (After all, the tub guac at Whole Foods is better than this, albeit more expensive than cocaine.)

Here’s the photo-op. I know “Altitude 2000m” might not mean much to my American readers. It equates to 6,562 feet elevation in Imperial units (or, as my brother calls them, “Freedom units”). Of course those of us who have conquered Mount Evans, with its summit of 14,270 feet, might have a harder time thinking 6,562 is any big deal. But the Madeleine gains over 5,000 feet and it has cows with weird plastic nose things, okay? Take my word for it, it’s grueling.

We had another glorious descent. Permit me an aside here on the topic of risk management. During my nights of poor sleep throughout this trip, as I tossed and turned, I often contemplated the danger of descending and the high stakes. “Oh dear!” my wussified, disgracefully declawed middle-aged psyche would say. “What if I crash?” Probably this interior monologue wasn’t actually about bike safety at all, but was based on some generalized anxiety that needed something specific to latch on to … basically an excuse to fret. Whatever the case, I as I lay there having these self-defeating thoughts I would resolve to take it super-easy on the remaining downhills. Fortunately, this soul-degrading inner voice was somehow vanquished during each ride as my normal, justifiable confidence reasserted itself. That is to say, the descents were glorious affairs, grand and sweeping and flowing and perfect. To paraphrase Faulkner, middle-age might have kilt me but it ain’t whupped me yet.

So, according to the tour organizers, the Madeleine is the third hardest climb in the Alps, and the Col du Glandon—which was our next climb of the day—is the second hardest. That’s a lot to throw at us, particularly the day after we conquered the very hardest climb, Col de la Loze. I had some butterflies heading into the Glandon, which were somewhat assuaged by this amusing sight:

We ultimately decided to brush this praying mantis off of Ian’s jersey, because what if this little insect hitched a ride all the way to the Glandon summit, out of his element and far from his kind?

Our group broke up right away, and I went straight out the back in accordance with what seemed to be the new status quo. I didn’t really mind; I have a talent for resignation (which serves a cyclist well). That weird pain in my gluteus maximus (or perhaps gluteus medius—what am I, a doctor?!) was still bedeviling me. But one of the great things about cycling is that there’s scenery to enjoy, even as you suffer. Prizefighters, for example, don’t get to look upon landscapes like this as they’re being pummeled.

After a few miles I caught up to M—, my roommate on the tour. We paced each other and chatted for a good while until I found myself in a strange dilemma. Riding in the saddle, my glute hurt. Standing on the pedals, I got some relief. But the very low gear on my rental bike (35-tooth chainring, 33 rear cog) was so low, pedaling out of the saddle felt lame—mincing, ineffectual little pedal strokes that barely move the bike forward. My ego couldn’t handle it. So I had to shift up before I could properly ride out of the saddle. Obviously this increased my pace and thus my labor, but burning legs is the proper kind of pain, the kind caused by hard work, as opposed to this blunt stab in my glute that suggested injury. The upshot is that I gradually dropped my pal and thus faced another endless Alpine climb solo. But I’m used to it. Bernard Hinault said once, “No kind of progress will ever overcome the loneliness of the long-distance rider,” and he would know.

As the climb progressed, the scenery changed from what you’d see on a postcard to something more spare, sparse, even kind of bleak—or maybe this was just my psychological state filtering what I saw. All the trees disappeared, and the grasses had a cropped, stubbly look, their green turning to a mossy yellow, suggesting (at least to me) a pallid, wan lack of health, as though the plant life couldn’t get enough oxygen. More and more, the rock seemed to be winning out, beating back the flora. The views were impressive but not exactly pretty. In the final kilometer of the climb (which averaged 10%) a guide dropped back to pace me along.

It was a relief to be near the summit because, as disciplined as I try to be, it’s hard to stop negativity from infiltrating my thoughts, sometimes even of the “can I even make it?” variety. Normally, as discussed here, I am good at stomping down this negative self-talk, but the sheer leg-wringing length of these Alpine grades can start to wear down even the most stubborn resolve. That’s where decades of accumulated suffering start to pay off, with a deeply resigned attitude that embraces the fatalistic notion that there is no choice, no alternative, just the reality of serving out your sentence. There’s almost a comfort in this, eventually; as Dostoyevsky wrote, “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!”

Even as I reached the Glandon summit I had this other quiet voice gradually insinuating itself, with a message I knew was important but didn’t want to hear. We’d been briefed that the Glandon wasn’t our final summit, that we had to head from there to the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer, which I’d been up once before, twenty years ago when I first raced La Marmotte. The Croix de Fer summit isn’t far from the summit of the Glandon, and it’s not a steep pitch, but nothing seems trivial this far into such a brutal day of riding. I pushed the matter out of my mind until the end of the Glandon when it could no longer be ignored: I had another three kilometers to go. I dragged myself the rest of the way and eventually reached the true high point of the day, at 6,782 feet. The iron cross you see on the left there may or may not be the croix de fer. I didn’t have the energy to investigate.

A picnic was waiting at the van, and a staffer volunteered to make me a sandwich. What service! He sawed a couple slices off a perfect French b√Ętard (proving in the process that the expression “greatest thing since sliced bread” is way off-base). He added olive oil, and can I just interrupt this post for a moment to say how much I hate it when a menu at an upscale restaurant employs the abbreviation “EVOO” for “extra virgin olive oil”? When I see that I almost want to head for the exit. Below the menu item “Herb-crusted beef medallions” you see the accompaniments, “Tomatillo-garlic salsify, braised parsnips, EVOO hummus.” Pretentious fuckwits. Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, so some oil, then groovy French cheese (what type? doesn't matter), prosciutto (of course), and the albeit mediocre guac (and again, who cares because this isn’t a chichi bistro). Oh yeah.

If I ever open a restaurant I’ll serve this (with proper guac, of course, or maybe just avocado) and call it “Le Glandon.” I won’t explain the name on the menu and the description won’t say anything about “EVOO.”

There was a corny picture frame thingy up there and I tried haplessly to do a selfie with it. A German motorcyclist intervened and got a passable shot.

As you can see, the day’s effort has both grown and deepened my crow’s feet. Too much more of this and my face might just crack.

We started the descent but abruptly halted because we didn’t have everyone. I took the opportunity to snap one more photo, and as I did so the missing guy showed up and everyone sailed by, so I was chasing like a madman after that. The photo came out well, though, so it was worth it.

The little town of St-Jean-de-Maurienne where we finished up does not have a fancy hotel, so we were at a Best Western next to what looked like a rock crushing plant. It was the nicest Best Western I’ve ever seen, with little bicycle pictures all over the wallpaper. It had no restaurant so we went to this greasy-spoon type pizza joint, all Formica and linoleum, of such barebones tacky aspect it even had advertisements on the menu. In the U.S., this would be your sign to flee immediately, but we’d heard this place was good. The menu was entirely in French which led to some confusion. I almost ordered a pizza with “thon” on it, before learning what thon is: chunk light tuna, like out of a can. If memory serves tuna was a topping on the pizza they called “California,” though I may be conflating this with the Dutch frozen pizza line “Big Americans.” Anyway, I was able to find a pizza with no thon, though I think all the pizzas had some form of cured meat. The food ended up proving out my theory that the French are simply incapable of doing a bad job, even at their greasy-spoons. The pizza was excellent. Fun fact: in France, they don’t cut up the pizza for you. You have to hack away at it with a fork and knife. 

Some of the guys around me made the shock-and-awe move of ordering dueling entrees, such as a pizza and a calzone. It’s rare for me to be out-eaten, but I’d had a big-ass snack right after the ride in accordance with the glycogen window principle of sports nutrition, which has been scientifically proven by my daughter.

Ian ordered profiteroles and they were majestic.

All who know me understand that a) I have a massive appetite, b) I have no fear of saturated fats, c) the idea of “guilty” pleasures or “sinfully” rich never enters my mind, and d) I absolutely love free food. Since I’d already paid for this trip (it’s an all-expenses-included deal), all signs pointed to me ordering a dessert or two. Reader, I did not. I’d had too many gels, too much energy drink, too much chocolate milk, and too much Coke that day to even contemplate any more sweets. This is how you can finally begin to understand how difficult cycling in the Alps truly is.

Check back soon, because I will be reporting on Day 6, the hardest one yet....

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