Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Epic Trans Alps Cycling Trip - Part VI


I’ll bet I know just what you’re thinking: “Damn it, Dana, stop living in the past!” And it’s true, I can’t seem to stop blogging about a week in France that ended over a month ago. The cycling legend Eddy Merckx once said, “Compared to cycling, life is much easier,” and he might as well have added “though less interesting.” Frankly, nothing I’ve done since my Epic Trans Alps trip has been nearly as blog-able as this, so here I go again. But I promise this is the last lap. Here I tell the tale of the final day of the tour, and my unspectacular meltdown on Alpe d’Huez.

(If you’ve somehow missed the rest of this series, Part I is here, Part II is here, Part III is here, Part IV is here, and Part V is here.)


It is only because breakfast is so good at a fine French hotel that I would ever bother to write (home or here) about it. But it was a big deal for me, especially on Day 7 of this tour, because I was pretty convinced the rest of the day would be a fairly miserable slog through the cold and wet. The forecast was for persistent rain and drizzle, and I was pretty well knackered from the previous six days. I went into this meal figuring it would be the highlight of my day. Here’s the view out my window that morning:

This time there was no hi-tech coffee machine; a guy at the bar asked what I’d like. This is a bit like a barber asking me how I want my hair cut: the answer is, “I don’t fricking know, okay? You’re the professional, you figure it out!” As I blogged before, coffee in France mystifies me. I wanted to ask for an Americano but apparently only Americans know what that is. I think I asked for a latte but who cares, when the pastries are really the point? The problem was, for the first time all week, there weren’t any. I was about to panic when one of the hotel folks said, perhaps in French, that the patisserie hadn’t yet delivered them. This is about like saying, “Soon, you can look forward to your happiness quotient doubling.” So I created this basic plate just to tie me over until the pastries.

Pretty tasty for just the opening act! I thought that little wrapped “Président” item would be cheese, but it was butter—the first butter I’d had for my bread all week. The meat was sufficiently tasty that I didn’t feel jaded, despite having eaten cured meats two to three times a day all week. And the bread: well, just look at it … glorious. And then, after a few minutes, the pastries arrived. There was a bit of a stampede for the basket but there was plenty to go around. I’ve never had such fresh pastry and it was as good as it looks. I could have roared with pleasure.

Col de Lautaret

A couple thousand calories later, it was time to face the music. Leg warmers, arm warmers, thermal base layer, long-sleeve jersey, and my big black Stay-Puft Marshmallow Jacket … it all came out. Fortunately I was in good company: true to their word, Craig and Ian hung back with me as we set out on this (albeit only Category 1) climb, the Col du Lautaret. The evening before, upon hearing the weather forecast, I’d considered dropping back to the Trans B group that only does two climbs instead of three, but my pals promised to ride with me to provide moral support, no matter how feeble my pace.

We were surprised to see that several peaks which hadn’t had snow on them the day before now did.

The Col de Lautaret, from this direction, honestly isn’t that big a deal. It’s only 4%, albeit for over seven miles. A bit of a slog, of course, but we enjoyed the view. Here, you can see that Ian’s knickers aren’t even in a twist.

Why do cyclists wear knickers? What’s the point in not taking the fabric all the way to the ankle? Is it to save weight? Or is it to create a cold patch on your leg to help you appreciate that you’re not just in shorts?

Okay, fine, I’ll try to speed up the report or we’ll be here all day. Eventually we reached the Lautaret summit, where it meets the turnoff to the fearsome Col du Galibier we’d braved the day before. I guess all the stickers on that sign are what passes for graffiti in France. (In much of the American West, the sign would be full of bullet holes.)

We set off on a fairly long descent … another fun one, except for the long, poorly lit tunnels. It’s odd … when I raced here in 2003 and 2006, I really enjoyed the tunnels and didn’t remember finding them frightening. This time around all I could think of was running over a rock, crashing, and getting run over.

Col de Sarenne

We stopped abruptly at a turnoff, toward the little town of Mizoen where I’d stayed both times I did La Marmotte. This was the base of the Col de Sarenne, an Hors Categorie climb eight miles long averaging like 7.5%. It starts off pretty harsh, at 12%, but check it out … the sun managed to come out after all!

Soon enough we passed through Mizoen, which is just as darling as I’d remembered it.

You know how when something is really ballyhooed, and you start getting really excited about it, you sometimes start to worry that it won’t meet up with your expectations? You know, like what just happened with “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” that left you disconsolate by not totally rocking your world? Just kidding, of course I know nothing about the Taylor Swift movie and whether or not it lived up to its hype. I’m just mentioning it for the halo effect, to draw people to albertnet. Taylor Swift! Taylor Swift! Taylor Swift!

Okay, so anyway, earlier in the week I had really looked forward to (and dreaded) the Col de la Loze and the Col de la Madeleine, based on their reputations, and of course the Galibier had loomed large since I’d been destroyed by it years ago. But I really hadn’t heard much about the Col de Sarenne, so it had nothing to live up to. So, what a surprise! It ends up being the most beautiful climb of the whole week (which is saying something—we did 18 of them). It sure helped that the unexpectedly sunny weather seemed to be holding up.

The three of us had a very pleasant time, chatting merrily as we pedaled along, not really suffering at all. Craig was bound and determined to get at least one good photo of Ian and of me, and took several hundred. I tried to warn him that I’m not photogenic but he didn’t want to listen. I watched the sky along the summit ridge warily, expecting to see rainclouds move in, but there was nothing but sunshine. And we had no shortage of fun switchbacks:

Do I need to say the views were stunning? I do not.

All this being said, it’s a hella long climb and a couple kilometers from the summit I ran out of water, if not steam. This is where it’s so nice knowing you have a van waiting ahead to replenish you.

(I will acknowledge that in my last post I bagged on a fellow rider for riding on the wrong side of the road, and here above I seem to be doing the same thing. The difference is, the Col de Sarenne is really just one lane anyway, and besides, it was so peaceful and remote up there, with the visibility so good, this behavior wasn’t exactly reckless.)

As we neared the summit, the grade got steeper, and more importantly we had less mountain to shelter us from the wind, which really picked up. I really had to dig deep to push through it, apparently. I say “apparently” because only upon viewing the below video did I even recall having to make much of an effort. I’d just remembered the Sarenne as just a lovely, peaceful climb, until I saw the footage and thought, oh yeah, that was pretty hard.

I now remember feeling relieved when we finally reached the top. It’s like until that moment I’d only been pretending the climb was no big deal; now, surrounded by the majesty of the summit, I felt a tinge of … well, not menace, exactly, but the great power of nature. There’s a starkness to these places even when the weather is gorgeous.

Having failed to get a portrait-with-summit-sign since the Col de Madeleine, I took a moment for this one.

Gosh, look in my eyes there … it really does look like I’d been suffering. I almost look traumatized. Is it possible my sweet memory of this climb is all wrong, having been sugar-coated by the camaraderie I’d enjoyed on the way up? Is that how this works? And do I remember the previous day’s Col du Granon as having been brutal only because I’d faced it alone? Probably not, but … possibly?

Note above that the Sarenne summit is 1,999 meters. It’s not 2,000, and whoever placed this sign felt it important not to round up. No wonder this climb didn’t seem as hard as the Madeleine … it’s a full meter lower!

Here’s a nice aerial shot Ian got of our picnic site, having had the energy, somehow, to scamper up a hill to snap it.

We descended a bit and then had some rollers to climb over, which—being unexpected—made for some psychic discomfort. The long road curled around here and there and eventually brought us to the summit of Alpe d’Huez from the side you don’t normally see. We even did a little of the descent before peeling off to add a bunch of unnecessary extra mileage to our day. We got a sneak preview of what lay ahead.

We rolled up and over some uncategorized climb, then had an oily gravel descent, and then shed some clothing at the van. For the first time, the day was outright warm. We rode into a headwind along a bike path that I think was a false flat, maybe 1% uphill. Our leader was hauling ass, and clinging to his wheel was like motorpacing. Eventually we reached the base of the dreaded Hors Categorie Alpe d’Huez, a legendary climb that has featured in the Tour de France 32 times.

Alpe d’Huez

It had been gradually dawning on me, over the last ten miles, that my energy was basically all used up. We’d ridden for two hours since the Col de Sarenne summit, and I was fried. Whereas I’d felt sucker-punched by the Col du Granon the day before, having failed to imagine how hard it would be, I was fully dreading this one. Sure, you could say it’d be easier this way, Alpe d’Huez being the “devil I knew,” but it was still the devil.

Craig and Ian, having fulfilled their promise to ride with me over the first two climbs, dropped me instantly when this third and final climb started. Alpe d’Huez is almost nine miles, at an average grade of 7.7%, and it starts at over 11%. I started to ask myself, “Can I even do this?” but the answer was immediate and obvious: “I have to … our hotel is at the summit.”

At least the weather was perfect … maybe a little hot, but that would change with the altitude. The scenery was lovely which made the unpleasantness of the climb almost confusing. It was like if I were a teenager again, on a first date, marveling at how beautiful my date is and wondering why she keeps stabbing me in the belly with a steak knife.

There are, famously, 21 switchbacks on this climb, so you can look down at where you were just moments ago, and feel a welcome sense of progress.

It seemed the good weather would hold up, so I got to enjoy the impressive clouds (which we don’t really get in California).

As my power output steadily faltered, the length between switchbacks seemed to draw out. I began longing for the switchbacks, both because they indicated progress toward the summit, and because they tended to be a bit shallower than the straight sections. I gradually nibbled away at the climb. Think of how sprightly a helium balloon is, and now think of the same balloon the day after the party, when it’s wilted and shriveled a bit and is dragged toward the floor by its string. That’s how I felt. Whenever possible I peered over the side to confirm I was actually getting somewhere.

The switchbacks on Alpe d’Huez are numbered, in descending order as you climb, so you can mark your progress, like a countdown. Each number sign commemorates a past Alpe d’Huez winner. I kept a close eye out for this one:

Andy is from my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. He achieved a stunning solo victory on this mountain back in 1992. Is there any similarity between his feat here and mine? Yes, actually: though it’s somewhat hard to tell, and actually even kind of hard to believe, he and I are of the same species. Yeah, seriously!

Well, there’s not much more to tell. Eventually, inevitably, I did make the summit. I have a selfie of how I looked at the finish; it was one of those accidents where you grab your smartphone and go to activate the outward-facing camera but instead you see—gasp!—your own haggard mug. The horror! In this photo I look so deflated and gaunt, it’s like someone had put a 2x4 on either side of my face and pushed them together to squeeze all my water out. (Hell no, I’m not posting the photo here—what is this, Facebook?)

It’d have been nice to collapse at this point, and maybe just sit on the ground for a while, but it was time to remove my saddle, pedals, and bike computer from the rental bike and return it to the staff. Then I checked out the picnic table, with its usual assortment of sandwich fixings, chips, fruit, and drinks, but I just didn’t have the energy to take anything. Instead I slowly stamped my tired way up the long staircase into the hotel. I made it to the lobby and was so blown I actually started to hallucinate, imagining all manner of stuffed sheep in there.

After I found my room, showered, and rested up a bit, I returned to the lobby and discovered that the sheep were real. Well, not real, exactly. I mean, they were fake, of course, but weren’t figments of my imagination after all. Somehow this bizarre lobby made sense in the moment. I hella lounged in a big furry armchair.

Half an hour later Ian, Craig, and I went for a little walk. I can’t imagine why, other than it being a nice evening, and the fact of our being tourists (sshhh!—don’t tell anyone!).


After a beer at the bar we headed to the dining room and before long were served this diced tomato thing with some white stuff on top that could have been cream, cheese, butter, or something in between. We didn’t care; it was delicious whatever it was.

We were starving and there was some good bread, and word got out that somebody had managed to procure some olive oil and balsamic vinegar in little matching decanters. There was much hubbub as adjacent tables started asking for them. The waiters seemed to want to hush the whole thing up. As at every dinner we had in France, the staff seemed bent on everyone eating their (excellent) bread plain.

The next course arrived: a beautiful mushroom risotto.

I tried to make it last but I was ravenous and it was gone in like a minute. We all speculated on what the next course would be. Meat, of course, but what exactly? Maybe a big steak? The night was getting better and better. And then, to our great shock, dessert was served.

I was incredulous. I mean, yeah, the dessert was artful and architectural and all, but WTF?! Where was the entrée? Was this meal really almost over? It was. I suppose the dessert was tasty but I was too distracted by the void in my stomach to properly enjoy it. Kind of like if somebody told you a really funny joke but at a funeral.


Well, I was a bit miffed but not for long … it’s hard to hold a grudge at the end of such a beautiful, unforgettable week of biking and dining across the French Alps. Meanwhile, breakfast the next morning was off the chain. Everything was just perfect—even the grapefruit juice was fresh squeezed.

Before we hit the road for the long drive back to Geneva and the longer flight home, I spent a moment gazing out from my hotel room balcony. Wow … what a trip.


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