Thursday, September 27, 2018

Les Deux Alpes and the Aurais balcony - Mules Alps Tour Day 3

After completing Alp d'huez and the amazing Col de la Croix der Fer the question arose what next?
During our evening meal on Day 2, I was asked 'what was the plan for the next day?'

I had always promised that the third day would be an easy day.

I explained that we would just go up to Les deux Alpes - before returning after lunch.
I was telling the truth and had a set route to prove it to any doubters.
That was Friday night.

The following morning I was up early from our lodgings at (Hotel de Milan) and tried out my 'franglais' on our hotelier Christal. I had just overheard talking to some dutch cyclists about which routes they should take.

I asked her if she liked cycling ?
As I was finishing the last words of the sentence, I realised that it was a bit like asking a Kiwi if they like rugby.
She replied with a hint of distain in her voice.

Christal was a small, fairly squat woman whose appearance belied any obvious cycling physiology.
'Of course' she said, but qualified herself by adding that the local terrain did not suit her. I smiled in acknowledgment of something I could relate to.

She said that her husband would always be way ahead of her on the climbs and would take photographs of her struggling with the gradients.
If that were not bad enough he would cruelly post on them on Social media with captions saying
'Ou est Christal?'
I was totally sympathetic, not being alien to such a position myself.

She explained that she liked to ride on the flatlands, where she was known as Les Disel and that everyone then followed her.
She said that her legs were strong from skiing and patted her thighs in reinforcement.
My soul sister I thought.

I told her that we were going to Les deux Alpes
Et puis ou? (And then where) she replied not realising that I had described todays trip in its fullest detail.
'Et puis nous revenons ici , dam whats the word for...........we come back here for beer' I replied anticipating a smile.

Realising my 'Franglais' was only slightly better than 'Del-boy' Trotters she asked in fluent English  if I wanted to make the trip more interesting.
I wanted to reply by saying 'When in Rome Rodney', but being so close to the Italian border I thought it might confuse her.
'Of course' I replied.

She explained that rather than go on the D1091 to Lac du Chambon that we could turn right on the D220 towards Bons and join the D213 mid way up the climb.
She said that it went through the forrest and was beautiful.

She then pointed over towards Alp d'huez and asked if I could see a road traversing the cliff across the valley from La Garde.
I did notice a faint line on the cliff edge - miles away.
She smiled 'That is the Balcony road from Auris, if you come back that way, its much better and flat all the way'

I delayed informing my fellow Mules about les diversion until we had set off.
I find its difficult for people to argue with you when you are riding single file, with head phones on.

My explanation was well thought out and rehearsed.
Minimalism would be the key.
I explained that it would only increase our distance by 10 km with quieter roads, fewer tunnels and better views.

When we set off it was overcast with cloud forecast for the whole day, there was also a distinct chill in the air. I felt quite smug in my insulated wind proof Rapha brevet, as the others complained of the cold.

By the time we had exited the Tunnel des Commeres along the D1091 I was already lowering the zip on my jersey as the sun surprised us with its appearance.

On turning right towards Bons, my Garmin indicated the word 'Track' rather than road which caused me some immediate concern.
Although Alpine climbs are long they are rarely ultra steep if you stick to the main roads.
This was not a main road - it was a track.
It snaked up through the Forrest like an angry Cobra, aggressive, uncompromising and intimidating - I was no mongoose and not ready for a fight.

The gradient passed 16% at various places and by the time I was half way up my wardrobe selection had now become an issue.
Such was the heat I was generating, condensation now covered my jersey entirely with a sparkling silvery glow. 
If there were any hikers around I could easily have been mistaken for a silverback - Marauding through the thick leafy canopy.
As a child I often got told off in the back of the car for inscribing letters or shapes within the condensation of the windows and now considered what I could have written on the back of my Jersey.
The self deprecating phrases that came to mind were too subtle or too long. I eventually decided on  'Not Cool'.

At Bon we turned right taking the D213 up to Les deux Alpes.
This stretch was very similar to Alpe d'huez in gradient and style, although the road surface had many cracks in it. This was especially hazardous later when descending as they came upon you very quickly.

The weather forecast confounded me as the sun had now fully gate-crashed our ride and grew in intensity. There were none of natures own cumulus parasols to protect us.

Once past the tree-line the condensation on my jersey had started evaporating. By the time I reached the top I was being baked inside-out like some Anglo Saxon Pillsbury Doughboy.

Knowing at least one of my fellow cyclists hated hights, I provided scant detail about the return journey, only that there would be another climb and that there would be a long elevated flat section.

I am not prone to understatement and this was a first for me.

We followed the D213 dropping down to Lac du Chambon before heading back along the D1091 towards Le Freenay d'Oisons. 

There we turned right on the D211a towards Auris.
Again my Garmin said 'Track' a word I now understood.

I was back in the metaphorical snake pit with a multitude of Cobras conspiring to halt my progress. They were aided by the orange globe in the sky which was frying my temperament. 

I rarely swear, as I see such words as a dictional shortcut that hinders more creative expression.
Not this afternoon.........No way.
There were at least 12 x FFS's and several references to Miltons ‘Paradise Lost’

I was disappointed that I was the only apparent protestor. I am sure my friends must have felt the same way, or maybe their consternation was nullified by the mirth at watching me. 

Once at the top everything changed.
Bourg d'Oisons was in sight and all climbing had finished for the day.

However like some Indiana Jones opening, we were now clearly about to follow the famous Auris balcony to La Garde, before our final descent. 

It is a narrow stretch of road that is carved into the side of the cliff face covering about 6km.
Along its length there is at least a 1000 ft of mostly vertical drop, which is separated from the road by a wall. Not a sturdy barrier separating you from instant death, but a pointless one as low as the axle on your bike. In some sections there was no wall at all.

On a few parts the wall had been destroyed. I tried not to think how that might have happened.

My thoughts returned to my morning conversation with Christal  '.......come back that way its flat and very pretty' I smiled. 
French humour at its best

Maybe she could do the Brexit negotiations in place of Michel Barnier and help guide Teresa May through away from her own perilous position.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Col de la Croix de Fer/ Col de Glandon - Mules Alps Tour day 2

After the euphoria of completing Alp d’huez we were back in Bourg d’Oisans after lunch and took some time to explore this rustic Alpine village.
You could not help to notice that the village was full of mainly English or Dutch speaking MAMILS who wondered around in a semi trance like state, with glazed eyes and a fixed smile.
Like some scene from the Midwich Cuckoos they operated collectively. 

They would visit the large assortment of cycle or cycle related shops where they would smile at the shop keepers and show them plastic cards or give them pieces of paper with the symbol‘€’ prominent
The shop keepers in return would give them assorted gifts from their shelves or hangers.

Personally I did not feel that I had been afflicted but when I got back to my Hotel room I had seemingly acquired some additional luggage to eventually take home.

Amongst the visitors we met two brothers (Greg and Richard Williams)
They had travelled all the way from New Zealand to ride the alps. Their delirium was clearly at a more advanced stage as their cycling Jerseys were inscribed with the words ‘The lost Boys’

Using Bourg d’Oisans as a cycling base offers a variety of different and challenging climbs right on your doorstep.
Within my personal bucket list I sought to complete as many famous Tour de France climbs that I could.
As a reward to myself I allowed myself the prospect of several beers and local wine tasting afterwards and the indulgence of purchasing a commemorative road plaque.

These are sold in most cycling shops and feature all of the principal Tour de France Climbs.

High on my bucket list was the Col de la Croix de Fer which allows you a bonus of completing the Col de Glandon at the same time. Their respective peaks are in close proximity.

The  literal translation of Col de la Croix de Fer is ‘Pass of the Iron Cross’

When I think of the Iron Cross I think of watching war films as a child and of the German SS Officers wearing cross shaped medals under their chin. 
Such awards has been around since the 1190, worn by the Teutonic Knights (Crusaders)  an order of Brothers within the German house of St Mary in Jerusalem.

Although I saw myself as a cycling crusader spreading the word of such inspiring two wheeled adventures, I was content enough with my yellow and white road plaques.

On day two we set off north west along the valley bottom (D1091) towards Rochetaillee.
This provides you with just over 4 miles of flat riding to wake your legs up before turning right on the D526 where you immediately pick up the signs for Col de la Croix de Fer.

The road continues to offer little gradient into Allemond where you are confronted with a large dam containing Lac du Verney. Two switch backs take you to the top of the dam providing you with your first glimpse of what lies ahead. 
Looking north towards the end of the lake, the valley narrows as the mountains push up almost vertically into the clouds past the curiously named village of Oz.

Although there were no signs of any witches or flying monkeys there was certainly a feel that you were cycling away from civilisation. 
After passing through Oz my progress was hindered by a rapidly multiplying gradient.
I felt as if my bicycle was now fixed to a front basket containing an oversized dog looking for a free ride. 

Reminiscent of the early stages of Ventoux the route provided long straight sections through dense woodland. The road stretched out in infront providing a constant reminder of its longevity.

At the small village of Le Rivier-d’Allemond the gradient eventually reduces and there is an opportunity to fill your bidon. You should do so as this is the last opportunity until the top.

Believing you are a significant way up the mountain ridge you question you practice your arithmetic.

If the average gradient is only 4.9 % and you have not yet dipped to that level, then how can you appear to making good progress to the top.
The answer is are not.
Well the truth is.......You were,
After solid climbing for the best part of 40 mins, you are now descending down a series of switch-backs to the bottom of the valley. 
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh I shouted, and used a few other words too.

I felt a bit like a stock broker in a bear market, watching my recent investment fly pass me as I descended through the multicoloured trees.

After reaching as low as you can get both in altitude and spirit I was faced with a 16% wall of tarmac in front of me. 
Two other dispirited cyclist ahead of me had obviously made heavy investments too. They had both divorced themselves from their respective bikes and were cursing their reckless speculation.

Having such an audience prompted greater endeavour on my part and as I passed them I smiled saying in the plumiest of voices that this section was ‘A bit of a rib tickler’
Eventually the gradient reduced to between 7/10% which raised the value of my own emotional stock.

From this point you realise that you are in the wilderness with little sign of life. The valley opens up as you get to the magnificent Lac de Grand Maison where you climb above the tree line.
This day was warm and sunny with scattered clouds which now seemed to be in touching distance as they skidded across your eye-line.

I welcomed this open landscape and rugged beauty despite the fact that our destination was now visible upon a very, very distant and elevated horizon.

In all the books and articles I had read it warned me about this last section. Although the gradient reduces further to mainly 6/8% this section is often cursed with strong headwinds.

It was not so this day.
The conditions were perfect.
At about 2 miles from the summit there is a cafe at the left hand junction to Col de Glandon.

We discussed about which Col we would finish first until I overheard that Glandon was actually only about 200 meters away.
'Instant gratification'-  I thought as I jumped back on my bike - not really letting the debate continue.

We then rode the final section up to the Col de la Croix de Fer where there was another cafe which provided our lunch. 
At 6,781 feet the view was breathtaking along with the ‘Gipfelkreuz’ Iron Cross.

I later found out that these religious placements were actually a Bavarian influence placed on the most notable peaks and passes. They would often be accompanied  by a ‘Gipfelbuch’ - a leather bound register within a container to record the passage of persons travelling through.

Our arrival was recorded on Strava, Facebook and Istragram - Oh how the world has changed.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Alpe d'Huez - Mules Alps Tour Day 1

After a hard days cycling I am predisposed to spending time watching TV for an hour or two. I especially enjoy the spring and summer months when I can usually find cycling on some channel.
If somebody told me 20 years ago that I would enjoy watching folk in Lycra riding around the countryside, I would be questioning their perception of me. 

At that time of my life, such an exposure to this type of viewing would be akin to me watching Love Island or Cheshire housewives in the present time.

I am not decrying the appeal of manufactured wannabes  showing off in search of celebrity status - the viewing figures would clearly rebut any logical argument I might present. 

I think as humans we have developed a vouyeristic pleasure
Rejoicing at the achievements of others and also wincing at their pain in failure or defeat.

I generally gauge the quality of my viewing by its ability to draw my attention or in some cases keep me awake.

When watching cycling it always grabs my attention especially the multi stage Grand Tours.
These provide a glut of vouyeristic delights with success, pain and failure served up in dramatic daily portions.

Amongst those there is one stage that towers above the rest the famous - Alpe d’Huez.

With a length of 13.2 km  and an ascent of 1071 meters at an average of 8.1% it is certainly not the biggest, longest or most challenging.
It is however one that attracts the most attention with spectators, film crews and journalists.
Often called the The Holywood Climb, it is one that always attracts my attention.

Seeing riders pedal through parting crowds of drunken dutchmen with thick orange smoke and collective hysteria is more impactive than any scene created in southern California.

The pain and suffering need no sub titles or introductions and the glory is palpable.

As a cyclist such exposure leaves a lasting effect, pushing you away from spectator to dreaming of entering this alpine arena.
This process is is similar to riding down hill without breaks. The momentum builds until you speedily arrive at your destination, not really knowing how you got there.

In my case I was joined in Bourg d’Oisans mid September by some other club members who also had brake issues.

I remember the morning that I first embraced Alpe d’huez.
It was in the same way that I remembered my first kiss, the day my children were born, and when I got married.
I remember the weather, what time it was and what I was wearing.

Like the afore mentioned events I had been offered lots of free and mostly welcome advice, but nothing can really prepare you for such memorable times.

After leaving the village you head towards what looks like a cliff face as you try and fathom how there could possible be a route upwards. Before you get too close, you can faintly make out the ski resort by forcing your head far back into a contorted position.

Each of the 21 switchbacks are provided with a sign numbered in descending order and also feature names of stage winners. With more winners than bends some contain more than one name. 

By the time the time that I had caught up Fausto Coppi at the first hair pin I needed no signs to remind me that I had started a legendary ascent.
The road was adoringly adorned with riders names, good wishes, humour and satire.

The artistry forced me to smile but sadly was not enough to distract my legs from protesting about the double digit gradient.
I had already encountered ‘Deadmans click’
The abject dissapointment when you tap for a lower gear and nothing happens.
You pray that it might be a quick fix mechanical issue, but soon realise that its because you have no gears left.
Despite my snail like pace by turn 20 I had caught up with Iban Mayo and had Lance Armstrong in my sights.

Despite his indiscretions I was not annoyed to see his name on Hairpin 19. He had been involved in many dramas on this slope which only enhanced its legendary status.

One such incident occurred at stage 10 of the 2001 Tour de France (an Alpe d’huez summit finish). Earlier in the stage Armstrong appeared to be struggling inducing his great rival Jan Ullrich power away at the front with his Telekom Team. 
As they got on Alp d’huez Armstrong moved up to join Ullrich before attaching him. After creating a gap of about 20 meters he turned and starred back at Ullrich in a look that has been interpreted as a challenge.
Armstrong always denied this saying that he was trying to locate a team mate.
I remember watching it on live TV at the time which was repeatedly played.
I thought ‘the look’ was a fantastic piece of gladiatorial drama from the uncompromising Texan.

As I got closer to Frank Schleck my fellow Mules who were by now further up the road looked back at me too.
I smiled. It was the look that Armstrong was trying to portray, an authentically sympathetic one. 

As I drew level with Pierre Rolland on hairpin 16 the gradient only had one digit to concern me and I was able to move up a gear.
My head was drawn away from the the road in front of me and my grip on my bars loosened as I was able to adopt a more comfortable upright position.

What struck me most of all was the elevation gain in such a short period of time. The switch backs had propelled me up the cliff face and Bourg d’Oisans now looked like a model village over a thousand feet below me.

The switchbacks continued with a symmetrical regularity where I observed and passed Sastre, Winnen, Hinault and Bugno.
After the switchback 7, I passed  the famous Notre Damme des Neiges church at Dutch Corner. I could clearly hear my own heartbeat and the sound of an Alpine spring. 
The Air was pure and the road clear.

I needed no reminder that all things change at this location on Tour day.
Resident Dutch priest Jaap Reuton rang the church bells when Joop Zoetemelk won in the1960s.

In more recent times the vestry is turned into a bar and you can find ashtrays in the Nave.
A resident DJ attempts to raise the dead by pumping out cheesy pop songs and dance music next to the graveyard.

On this day the only sign of the flatlands was the orange paint and the names of Dutch riders filling the blank tarmac canvas.

Alpe d’huez often joked as the highest climb in Holland because 8 of the first 14 winners were from this land.
Knowing that the majority of Holland sits below sea level, made it particularly ironic.

With the ski resort and summit now in view and the numbers on the switchback corners moving downwards, my spirit rose with the elevation. I finally knew that this particular script would have a happy ending.

After reaching the summit we substituted are usual coffee with Beer. I don't usually drink beer mid ride but this was no ordinary ride as Geraint Howell Thomas so eloquently put it.

Its Alpe d’huez man