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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 needs no sub titles or introductions and the glory palpable.

As a cyclist such exposure leaves a lasting effect, pushing you away from spectator to actually dreaming of entering the the alpine arena.
This process is is similar to riding down hill without breaks. The momentum builds until you speedily arrive at your destination.


In my case I was joined in Bourg d’Oisans 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 had 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’ - when you tap for a lower gear an nothing happens.
 You pray for some 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








Monday, April 30, 2018

The Copper triangle


Long before cycling, in fact long before the wheel itself was invented, man entertained himself through song. The subject matter was varied. Initially recounting tales of heroic acts, or local stories. In more modern times that developed into songs of emotion, of love and loss.
Not only of each other but of places too.
Frank Sinatra brought New York to our gramophones, George Ezra streamed Budapest to our Apple devices whilst various artists sung about Amsterdam no doubt influenced by its green leaf culture.

In 1970 Singer songwriter John Denver got into deep water with the US Federal Communications Commission after singing about The Rockies.
Remitted by a legal ruling to censor music deemed to promote drug abuse,  they were concerned that his song Rocky Mountain High could have only have been making reference to stimulation of Narcotic consumption.


With their offices based on 445 12th Street in Washington DC close to sea level, they may have felt inclined to hold an alternative view if they had paid a visit.
Colorado is High all the time.

With its high plains set flat as a 'frame' for it's surrounding mountains, Colorados lowest point is a staggering 3,315 feet above sea level at the Arikaree River in Yuma County.

To put this in perspective its lowest point, is higher than the highest point of 18 other US States.

Even if they had visited they would have been wrong despite such an apparently obvious reference.
What John Denver was singing about was not the elevation but how it made him feel.

A sense of euphoria and Majesty.

As a child I spent 3 years living in America and although many years ago now I do remember holidays in the Rockies with great fondness.
Returning as a cyclist in 2014 I was blown away by the magnitude and natural beauty of this largely uninhabited terrain.

In 2016 I returned to take part in the Courage Classic Tour.
Founded in 1990 its a charity event to raise money for 'Children's Hospital Colorado'.


The two day tour takes place usually on the third weekend of July each year and is based in the Copper Mountain Ski resort about 1.5 hours from Denver on the I-70W.

It offers a variety of routes and family rides for those wanting to ride, and a beautiful base for hiking, fishing or just absorbing the atmosphere with some local wine.

.

For the more adventurous the 77 mile Copper Loop or Copper triangle on Day 1 is a must for any visitor.
Considered one of Colorados classic alpine rides it crests three of Colorados Mountain passes. Freemont Pass at 11,318', Tennessee Pass at 10,424' and Vail Pass at 10, 662'.

I was privileged to be invited to ride for the ARC Thrift Classic Team arranged by John Sladek, Eric Larson and James Simpson who with many others work tirelessly each year for not only their team but for the event as a whole.

 We set off just after sun up.


Anticipating a scorching hot day I was dressed accordingly, not realising that the thermometer would not start rising until an hour or more after the start.

It was like being in Yorkshire on a summers day 'without thy coat'

My fingerless gloves were just that - 'fingerless' I could see the numb protruding digits, but there was very little feeling.



The route headed south on Highway 91 with an ever increasing gradient up over Freemont Pass.
The climb was long and unrelenting but it at least generated some inner warmth.
I stopped at the top where there was a feed station. I needed no food or drink but just the opportunity to warm my hands before the descent and to allow the sun to get above the mountain tops.
The descent into Leadville came with a cocktail of terror and exhilaration in equal measure.
With the road being wide with good visibility and shallow bends there was no excuse, not to let gravity take its course.
When the Garmin reached 45 mph I got a bit nervous from not being able to trust my numb fingers and reluctantly started to feather the brakes.

Being surrounded by Medics I am sure I would have been ably assisted if I had embraced the Tarmac, but I was there to help raise money, not to ruin their weekend.



From Leadville we climbed steadily north west up towards the Tennessee pass.
The landscape changed with open wide plains, where the now more elevated sun had no problem exploiting with much needed warmth.
I found this section quite strange with such a gentle incline it felt more like a false flat and had the feel of a more rational lowland coastal plain. It belied the fact that we were still over 8,000 feet, surrounded by Peaks close to 14,000'.

Following on from Tennessee Pass we approached Battle Mountain crossing the magnificent Red Cliff Bridge which shadows the Eagle river below.



It seemed that at each lay-by or Junction many locals had come out to cheer us on shouting out with the same gusto and enthusiasm for each rider.




From there its downhill again, descending into Minturn the lowest point of the ride at 7,861'.
You would not think so surrounded by giant peaks all around you.
From here the only way was up.
I got to this point at about mid day and the valley floor acted like a heat conductor. It was hot.
With my breathing already effected by my introduction to altitude riding the heat was trying to get in on the act.

From Minturn you pick up a bike path that takes you through Vail, up and over Vail pass and back to Copper Mountain.

With the combination of the altitude, gradient and heat it looked like a procession of slow moving ants inching towards their destination.


After 6,000 feet of climbing you are ready for a drink.
The beer was great and the company even better.







Day 2 offered various options with a shorter route around the Dillon Dam to Keystone and a longer route adding an extension up to the top of the Ute Pass.

Not forgetting the previous mornings 'frostbite' I took an extra pair of gloves following the fast cycle track down the valley towards Silverthorne and then writing the Dam









The route then headed North on Highway 9 following the Lower blue River for ten miles.
From there we turned east on Colorado Route 15 up Ute pass Road.



From there its all up hill for 5.3 miles. The first 1.2 miles averages about 4%, the next 3.4 miles about 5.6% until it flattens off at the top.

Its then an an about turn facing the imposing Gore Range to the West and a heart thumping descent.





On the way down I was listening to Music on my headphones and had to smile to myself as Mr Denver sung of the virtues of this magnificent playground. Leaning into each corner Imaintained both my speed and the ecstatic grin on my face.


'When he first came to the mountains his life was far away
On the road and hanging by a song'

'He climbed cathedral Mountains, he saw silver clouds below
He saw everything as far as you can see'

There was no Censorship up here





Thursday, March 8, 2018

Cycling Bucket List - Mount Evans - Colorado USA




After cycling for a number of years I soon formulated a 'cycling bucket list'.
It appears as a natural progression for any cyclist who is prone to the seduction of two wheeled adventures.
It was more specific than my standard bucket list although when I compared the two side by side the top ten appeared very similar.
There were the obvious entrants such as Alp D'uez, Venteux, Col de Tourmoulet, and Sa Collabra but many others also grabbed my attention.
In homage to Richard Dreyfus I declared that 'a bigger bucket was required'
The list was dominated by mountain climbs with the notable exception of such classic routes as Paris - Roubaix, London to Paris, Lands end to John O' Groats and The Coast to Coast (UK) 








As and when they were crossed off, other routes or destinations took their place rearranging the table. 
I congratulated myself heartily on my endeavours each time the bucket was engaged, although I soon became troubled.
The movement within the bucket was far too frequent and there was obvious prejudice.

My list was full of accessible rides. 

Although challenging in their own right, each were in the UK or Europe which could easily be accessed either by a full tank of diesel or a cheap budget airline.

It was less of a bucket list but more of a 'what shall I do at the weekend list'

After some 'self scolding', I decided that an urgent review was required. 
From now on the list would not be limited to anything apart from its quantity, and should be declared and fixed from the outset.

After changing the goal posts,  I soon found myself searching for 'The Highest paved mountain in the World'

A storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt Rosalie by Albert Bierstat
The logistics ruled out the top 4 in remote parts of India and Ethiopia, although they were considered.
At No 5 and the highest paved road in America was Mount Evans at a staggering 14,0130 feet.
That was a wapping 3,000 feet higher than the highest one in Europe (Pico del Veleta in Spain at 11,135) 

 Compared to other bucket list entrants it was like taking the Galibier and sticking Alp d’Huez on top. 

So Mt Evans was top.

It was originally called Mt Rosalie made famous by the landscape painter Albert Bierstat who capture the majesty of the mountain before the road was built. 


Starting at the historic mining town of Idaho Springs which stands at 7,526ft (2,294m) 
you start the daunting 27.9 mile ascent, journeying through three life zones, passing forests, lakes and ancient trees. Although the gradient is never too steep, averaging 4.6% and topping out at 10%.





What sets Mount Evans apart from any other climb is the elevation.
Irrespective of your power weight ratio or level of fitness, it's the altitude that conspires against you.
At the top you are adversely affected by HAPE High Altitude Pulmonary Edema where you undoubtedly affected by a variety of different symptoms. The most obvious is being short of breath and short of power in your legs. Its like setting off with bungee attached to your seat post  and the other end fixed to the starting point.
Each stroke you take gets incrementally harder.


I first attempted this climb on October 6th 2014 with a friend of mine Simon. Having already been in the Rockies for over a week and completed the 'Tour de Moon' Sportive in Grand Junction we both felt acclimatised and ready. 
The road to the summit was closed to vehicular traffic which presented both pros and cons. Although we had the road to ourselves we also had no support if things got difficult. 

Effectively we had to be 'sensible' and 'responsible' - not my greatest attributes. 



Unfortunately as we left the protection of the tree-line the wind was registering over 50 mph with the possibility of it being over 70mph at the summit.
On the narrow exposed slopes cycling was dangerous and with the temperature now below  freezing the exaggerated wind chill factor ripped through every layer of you're clothing.
To continue was out of the question.

\


At 11453 feet (3491 meters) we decided to head back. It was the highest I had ever been on my bike and although I was disappointed it was the right decision. I didn't say goodbye to the Mountain I just said 'Ill see you later' as if I were just going to the corner shop for some milk.




On the 21st of July 2016 I returned with a full 'Mule Train' of Dave Rees and his sons George and Harry. Although we had only had four days to acclimatise that was the only factor that was against us.
The planning and preparation left nothing to chance.
Even in the middle of summer the temperature range is often remarkable where it could be 100 degrees at the bottom yet below freezing at the top.

This time we had SAG support from the our great friend, guide and Evans 'aficionado' Rachel Simpson. As well as being all of the above, she has native blood that courses her veins, which is not lost on mother nature herself. 
If you want the elements to be kind to you, usually she can arrange it, although much to her husbands disappointment she can't always influence the Colorado Rockies or Denver Broncos.

As well as her special powers Rachel brought additional drinks and vitals and just as important she was able to carry additional layers of clothing to combat the temperature changes. 


We started soon after sunrise where the weather gods were kind. There was little wind and already the temperature was in the mid 80's. I have never been a climber and am used to finding a comfortable pace dictated by the gravitational pull on my 'organic saddle bags'.

On this climb it was totally different, the pace was directly related to my ability to absorb oxygen.

This in turn seemed to vary depending upon my position on the bike and my concentration on how I was actually breathing.
After some initial experimentation I found an optimum position.

If I rode with a wide stance on the top of my hoods, with my shoulders back and chest out, whilst taking in long slow extended breaths everything was easier.
This position was unusual. 


If you had given me a beret, a string of Garlic for around my neck and  a scruffy dog to follow me then the picture would have been complete.

As we got passed the tree-line I put on an extra pair of gloves, booties and placed some arm warmers around my wrists rolled down in preparation. The air temperature was now into single digits which was in contrast to my core temperature still close to triple digits. 


I was joined on Mount Evans by many goats. Seemingly they had all flocked from neighbouring mountains fighting for roadside tickets to see my performance. 
Tipped off by their cousins the 'Black Sheep' from Masham in North Yorkshire. Tickets had been selling at ridiculous prices on E-Baa
As I rode past them they moved their heads in symmetry.
Either in appreciation of my efforts or maybe they were just was mocking me. 
I decided on 'goat humour'. 

As I was rationalising the argument in my head I was reminded of the side effects of Oxygen deprivation. Im sure none of them induced such thoughts.
 I had got an app for my phone which not only gave the altitude but also provided me with descriptions of the side effects at the various points of altitude. As I was nearing the summit  i decided to have a look to see how I should be feeling.


Not put off by the crosses across the Emojis eyes I rejoiced in the fact that I was still conscious and alive. There were no notes about moving forwards like a constipated tortoise. 

In order to get to the summit you have to skirt around other lesser peaks and various small lakes or tarns. When it does come into view it is way above you! 
Despite the lack of Oxygen I was still able to do some basic mathematics and work out that the gradient would have to change.



The road builders clearly got frustrated or ran out of materials. Whatever it was they clearly finished the last bit on a friday afternoon !!!!

Almost within reach of the summit the road suddenly rears up like an angry rattlesnake.
The surface worn by the ravages of the elements. 
Deep potholes and cracks become added challenges to the final push.





The moment you get off the bike at the top, you know you have achieved something special.

For most of the year this mountain is not accessible.
For the rest of the Year Evans herself decides whether or not she will let you.



When you are be allowed she is sure to show you something special.
At over 14,000 feet you can faintly see the curvature of the earth, Hundreds of miles around you and the full Majesty of Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. 
Despite the pain and exhaustion there were big smiles and a few happy tears.





We could never have dreamed about this without the support and guidance of Rachel Simpson whose influence did not go unrecognised.
She gave me a knowing look, I reckon her and Evans have had words together.