Monday, October 6, 2014

L'Alpe d'Huez, Lac Bassen, Col Sarenne

After the climbs I just described, I did some serious lifting, first riding south from Grenoble to Bourg d'Oisans which involved significant elevation gain except on gradual grades along the D-series roads. Traffic was busy on these highways, and the riding was scenic for sure but not super-fun. Rain, which was forecast for the afternoon, arrived a bit early, and I was happy for the rain coat and rain pants I had packed for my trip. Riding with my stuffed backpack, a floppy rain jacket, and black rain pants didn't make for the Euro-racer experience, but it was effective. I stayed dry and warm.

In Bourg d'Oisans, I had time to pass, and hung out for a bit in the main town. As the afternoon passed the rain picked up and I saw only a few riders. Riding was doable, as it wasn't super-cold (probably around 15C in the town, colder at elevation). But the 60 km I'd done to get there were enough.

The next day dawned surprisingly cold, at least by my standards. In the Oberland Hotel the night before, which had worked out extremely well except for the almost fully nonfunctional internet, I'd met some Australian motorcyclists and we'd chatted about various things. They rolled out fairly early, while I delayed until almost 10 am, letting the clouds clear and the sun to warm things up a bit. Peak temperature there isn't until around 3 pm: the mountains block the sun until relatively late.


After a false start where I forgot to hit the lap on my Edge 500, I turned back, decided to remove my vest as well (a good move!), then began my climb of L'Alpe d'Huez. I'd done this once before, in July 1994, over 20 years ago, but it was much as I remembered. The road is steep by Tour de France standards, 11-12% between the opening few switchbacks, but the switchbacks provide substantial recovery if you let them. I prefer powering through, keeping the effort up, but despite this the lesser grade is a big relief.

The switchbacks are numbered starting from 21 and counting down. The numbers tick down surprisingly rapidly. not in proportion to what I knew was the remaining distance (14 km to the top). These also help a lot: you mark your progress by the ticks defined by the switchback numbers.

Each switchback sign has the name of a rider who won a Tour stage at the ski station. These are easily missed, and I missed most of them. I saw Gianni Bugno, then Andy Hampsten, then ... what happened to the names after Andy Hampsten? Then I remembered: admitted drug users, most notably Lance Armstrong, were removed. I thought Gianni Bugno's presence, his win at the dawn of the EPO era and by a rider who'd hardly be described as a climbing purist, was ironic.

FInally, I reached 1.... then....

Then I reached L'Alpe d'Huez. However, this isn't the stage finish. That's through the ever-growing development at the ski resort. I made the mistake of tracking my Edge 500 here, following a course I'd defined there. With a few somewhat ambiguous turns, I took two wrong turns. The second was most embarrassing, as there were arrows painted on the road, as well as a sign on its side, telling the proper way, but I was focused on the Edge 500 screen. I quickly recovered from these wrong turns, but they corruped my profile data and added as much as 30 seconds total to my ascent (I should check the GPS record).

I reached the traffic circle before the final 300 meters to the finish. I took the proper, counter-clockwise 270-degree route around the circle, although of course the pros take the shorter way. That dulled a bit the fantacy trip. Then to the finish, crossing the line...

But the line isn't the top, nor is it even a plateau. The climb keeps going, passing first some ski lifts where the road has a few cobbled sections, perhaps to slow down auto traffic, then as a narrow roughly paved road which continues to crawl up the mountain.

I'd spent my reserves in my fantasy print, but I throttled back to a more tourist pace and kept grinding up the hill. I could see structures ahead at various degrees of altitude gain, the furtherst well up the mountain, which extended from the race finish at near 1900 meters to more than 3000 meters where the day before's rain had deposited a clear cover of snow. Fortunately the road didn't go that far, at least paved. After climbing awhile I reached an intermediate peak, where a group of pole-toting hikers were congregating. Hiking poles are apparently mandatory in France and Switzerland, preferably constructed with high-modulus carbon fiber.

I stopped to admire the really spectacular view, feeling in general awe about it all. The solitude gained by a relatively short ride past the over-developed ski resort was impressive. Then I noticed that the paved road, which descended past this point, climbed again after, attaining a higher altitude than the one I was at. Even though I was tired, even though it would have been easy to say "enough!", this simply wasn't an option. I had to continue.

And it was more than worth it. The little climb was steep, but was all there was. After that I came upon a group having a picnic, more hikers, and an breathtaking view of Lac Basson and the peaks beyond. I simply had to take a panoramic photo, my first attempt at this with my iPhone. It was truly incredible.

Lac Basson

But I was getting cold. I put on my long-sleeve wind breaker and my sleeveless vest, having taken both along (each fills basically one pocket of my jersey, making for a real capacity restriction which I would not have had on my randonneuring bike). But I wanted something more, perhaps some hot chocolate, something I wasn't sure if I'd drunk since that 1994 bike tour when I'd last done this climb.

at the Tour finish after descending from the lake

Eventually I was able to find my way back to what appeared to be a cyclists oasis among all of the closed ski facilities: a small bar down near the tunnel. I had to follow another rider to get there. There I had a small chocolate, certainly nothing special but accomplishing what I wanted: sugar plus hot liquid with a small dose of caffeine from the chocolate. I felt much better, able to move on to my next goal, Col Sarenne.

The leader of that 1994 tour had been Ed McLaughlin, the president of Chico Velo (Chico, California). I don't remember how I found out about it, but as soon as I saw the tour description, I'd signed up. Three weeks riding the major French passes, during the Tour de France, with multiple chances at watching the race live! It was perfect, providing access to the race while keeping the focus on the riding rather than the watching. I was very lucky to stumble across it.

Tragically, Ed was years later paralized by a collision with a bollard, contributing to my profound hatred for bollards, which try to accomplish something using a most draconian means. I had sent Ed an email sometime after, and after a year, he'd responded. It was a sobering mail, as Ed expressed understandably profound frustration with his condition, but in that email he recommended Col Serenne.

Ed died several months after sending that email, so I felt I had the rsponsibility to do the ride. I need to check my records, but I think we did it during that 1994 tour. Nevertheless my memories were fuzzy of that ride, the day after L'Alpe d'Huez, in part because I badly bonked on Galabier later in the day. The road received renewed interest when the Tour de France did it in 2013, to some controversy due to the precipitous drops if one missed a corner, last year when Tejay Van Garderen threw away a chance at a stage win by showboating for the cameras with a foolish attack on the first of two times up L'Alpe d'Huez, while eventual winner Christophe Riblon paced himself, recaught Van Garderen, then dropped him int he final kilomerers. I was looking forward to seeing, perhaps again, what all the fuss was about, and also to honor Ed by doing a ride he could no longer do.

profile of Tour stage (cyclingnews)

I was warned by my navigaiton friend that Col de Sarrene involved "a few hundred meters" of climbing. I wasn't worried since, despite the effort on L'Alpe, my legs felt okay. So I set off from the group stop, GPS-navigated to the traffic from where the road began, and there it was, what appeared to be a minor driveway, but which I confirmed after checking out the only alternative candidate to be what I wanted. The bold warning signs were impossible to miss, definitely causing hesitation. For example, the airplane icon was, I think, not a warning of low-hanging aircraft, but rather an indication of what transportation mode one would emulate if one took a turn too fast. 20 kph was recommended.

approaching Col Sarenne

A short climb later, the road began descending, and I was immediately awed, although it would get even better later . The road was cut into the hillside, a narrow, roughly paved way. Often on the upper sections I encountered large rocks in the middle of the road, all of which I fortunately managed to avoid except for one glancing blow of what was probably a small one. Other, even more minor roads, were visible from this upper portion, extending line panoramic ribbons. Yet it was clear the direction I was to follow: the main road was unambigous.

I understood why people were concerned about using this in the race, as you clearely didn't want to ride over the edge. But the riders in the Tour are incredible riders, going shoulder-to-shoulder, the pack magically splitting down the middle as they navigate traffic circles at 60 kph in the final kilometers of a sprint. This would be relatively tame in comparison. The leaders would be following motorbikes, and would thus have warning of upcoming corners. The main pack would be riding relatively conservatively, the front-runners also following motorbikes, those behind just riding in the group. This would be no elbow-to-elbow battle for position as if the race ended at the bottom. Rather the race would be decided on the final climb of L'Alpe, and this wasn't anything extraordinary from a handling position. There were rather some places where the consequences of failure were relatively dire, but certainly no more dire than the consequences of failure every time they pass a hard obstacle on the road-side like a stone wall or sign post. It was breathtaking dramatic, but hardly extraordinarily dangerous, from my perspective.

At a fork between the main road and a minor road which was, I think, barricaded off, I began the real climbing to the pass. This was indeed a "few hundred meters", moderately steep, but since I wasn't trying for any sort of time, the sustainable effort I made was forgotten in the presence of the incredible surroundings.

Col Sarenne summit

As I hit the summit two riders were working on a sign marking it: 1999 meters, it said, so I was significantly above L'Alpe d'Huez, but below what I'd reached at Lac Basson. It seemed there was some sort of sportif event which would be passing through. I had noted that climbed hill climbs seemed to be fairly popular on the roads near here, including the advertisement for a running race up L'Alpe d'Huez itself in August. The peak period for these events seemed to be July-August based ont he signs I'd seen.

Then I began the descent. I imagined Tejay Van Garderen and Riblon bombing this descent in his attempt to stay away from the pack at the Tour last year. Horrifying, I thought, until you consider that they were following motorbikes, so would hardly go shooting off any unnoticed corners.

On the descent from Col Sarenne

Eventually I reached a microscopically small town, and later a larger one. At one point a donkey was standing in the road, carrying on some sort of conversation with the driver of a car, who sat smoking, with his window down. I wondered why the donkey tolerated the smoke.


Eventually the driver moved on. The donkey stared at me as I rode by, slowly, and I stared back.

The descent was incredible. At one point I needed to stop in the middle of a switchback corner to take a panoramic shot:


I reached the bottom and returned to main roads. The route back to Bourg d'Oisans crossed a "barrage". It was an impressive sight, the view over the edge of the road triggering my acrophobia.


After more descending, more gradual now but much faster due to the wider roads, including passing through a few tunnels, I returned to Bourg d'Oisans. I stopped at the surprisingly large Casino market for some figs, then got some bread at the boulangerie, was disappointed that the fromagerie was closed and so returned to the Casino for some cheese, then caught the bus to Grenoble for the night before climbing Chamrousse the next day before I had to take the train back "home" to Basel.

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