Tuesday, June 29, 2010

l'Alpe d'Huez Individual Time Trial - last chance for Glory!

Today was my last day of riding here in les Alpes surrounding Bourg d’Oisans. It’s been a great week so far and the weather has been unbelievable! Ironically, as I sit in the community area of the B&B, I’m watching it rain like hell outside.

In fact, the rain started earlier today – I had already done my ride and turned in my bike. I sat down at a restaurant in downtown Bourg for a great meal. I seldom take photos of food, but when this salad was delivered – I had to!

It’s called a ‘salade dauphinoise’. It seems it is a local specialty. I’m really glad I took the photo – not only because it was presented well, but also because my taste buds were truly on cloud 9! I mean I seriously was thinking about how happy my mouth was as I ate this thing. I could have stopped there, but it was followed up with a great fillet, some grilled veggies, some great squash and scalloped potatoes. After all that, I had to go with a Dame Blanche (vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup). It was the best lunch I’ve had since I’ve been here. I’m glad it was on my last day in the Alpes!

So, back to the rain. As I was finishing up my dessert, I looked out the windows across the restaurant and saw water dripping from the awnings. I was really surprised because it had been so beautiful when I went into the restaurant. I double checked out the windows to my rear and sure enough, the road was wet. First rain I’d seen since my arrival a week ago. Awesome that it happened after the bike was already turned in.

I arrived back to the B&B to sunny skies and dry weather. It stayed nice, although it seems the clouds started building as I packed my bag for tomorrow’s departure. When I sat down outside to write my blog, I got a few sprinkles, then in about 15 minutes, the skies opened. Thankfully, I got myself and the laptop inside without any trouble.

So, where did I ride today? Of course, it started with the time trial up l’Alpe. I’ll get to my effort on l’Alpe, but first I’ll share some photos I took today.

To descend from l’Alpe, I selected a different route that took me through a small ville called Villard-Reculas. Thankfully, it was pretty much a descent along this route, as I wasn’t really interested in pushing it hard by that time. What made it best was the different perspective I got as I stopped for photos of the switchbacks leading up to Alpe d’Huez.

Here’s a view of a small ville called Le Rosay-Chatelard (it might be La foret de Maronne??):

Another view of that same ville, but now you can see the switchbacks and a little more of the terrain.

Here’s a view of Bourg d’Oisans in the valley, the mountains surrounding it. Look to the left side – you can see the first couple of switchbacks heading up to l’Alpe.

As I continued past Villard-Reculas, the road continued to descend towards the town of Allemont. We rode through this town on our way up to Croix de fer, and I took (I think) a photo or two of the lake in this next photo. The sky is really beautiful – I wish I had the skills and equipment to really do this view justice.

Not sure of which ville this is, but I really thought it was cool with the church standing out so prominently (it was actually more prominent in real life).

The ride was really easy back into Bourg d’Oisans and the guy at Au Cadre Rouge gave me a 10% discount on my week long bike rental (155 euros for the week).

So, what about the individual time trial? I had to see if I could better my previous time (set on the first day of riding) of 1:07:39. To put things in perspective, Marco Pantani holds the course record with a time of 36:45 and Lance Armstrong did it in 37:36 in 2001 (5th fastest).

Here’s a link to the top times up l’Alpe.

I knew beating my own time was my goal, so as I rode the 5k to the base of the climb I tried to get warmed up. Of course, it would have probably been better to do more warm up than just 5k, but hey, I am who I am, and I decided that 5k would be enough.

As I passed the start line, I reset my computer on my bike. This would make it much easier to get my final time at the top – usually, I just mark the time and do my best to remember it. This can be a little difficult if it is an odd number of seconds. Today, there would be no mistake.

The first part of the climb – maybe the first two switchbacks are pretty long and pretty steep. It pays (as with any time trial) not to go out too hard, so I tried to simply set a solid pace. I had immediately switched down to the small ring to prevent losing my chain (as I did on the first attempt). I also changed the view on my computer so I wouldn’t be watching the time – I ended up switching it over to the total mileage on the year. Thankfully, I didn’t take note of what the odometer said, so I didn’t distract me during the climb.

After the first two switchbacks, the grade eases a little, so I tried to kick it up a gear or two whenever I could. I also kept from tracking my progress by not really looking at the signs on every switchback.

These signs are pretty cool actually. I took a couple of photos of the signs as I walked down from the top yesterday. Here’s one of them:

This was one of the few that actually has a US rider on it. Many of them actually had names of guys from the Netherlands.

I did my best to maintain a strong effort. If I felt my respiration / heart rate was dropping, I kicked it up another notch. As my friends know, I don’t use a heartrate monitor, so it is really all about my perceived effort. Somewhere there is a balance between going as hard as possible and having enough left to finish the climb. I tried to find that balance.

Somewhere maybe around switchback 9 or so, I started feeling it in my legs. This was good and it was bad. It was good because it took this long before I started feeling it. That means all that walking I did yesterday (maybe 12 miles I walked yesterday) didn’t have a super negative effect on my ride thus far. It was bad because of course I still had 9ish more switchbacks to go!

I did feel things were going well – at times I had kicked a gear or two (and sometimes 3) and stood up to gain more speed where I could. Of course, that was generally on the easier grades (generally, ‘easy’ on l’Alpe is about 7%)

I knew I was getting closer when I saw the first photographer on the course. I think he sits around switchback #4. From there, I did start watching the signs because I wanted to be ready for that last switchback and the final stretch home.

The second photographer was at switchback #2, and she got a couple of good photos of me.

See if this link works for the photos (look for photos 7606 – 7611).

I was feeling pretty good at this point, and I knew I didn’t have a long way left. The photographer wished me Bon Courage! as I passed. I had one switchback to go, so I kicked it up a couple of gears and stood up. Of course, I couldn’t go the entire remaining distance in that gear and standing up, so I sat back down, selected a gear to give me a high cadence and kept pushing.

As I rounded the last switchback (or the first – depends on who’s counting), the road gets really steep. Here’s another photo I took yesterday on my walking descent:

Not sure the photo does it real justice, but you’re really feeling it at this point. I stood up again and pushed. I passed a number of people as I came up this section. I was still feeling good. The section is long, but it crests about 100 ft before the finish. I pushed to the finish and as I crossed the final few feet, I switched my computer over so I could see the ride time.

It was pretty good – I did manage to beat my previous time. You always hope you’ll do better, but when I do the calculation, I trimmed nearly 6% from my previous time. Interestingly, the seconds rolled up to 0 just as I crossed the line. Of course, that meant the minutes increased by one. The final time: 1:04:00. It will have to do for this trip. The distance for the climb is 7.5 miles (12.1km).

What’s left to say as I prepare for my last night here in les Alpes? It really has been fun. I’ve enjoyed the people I’ve met, I’ve had incredible weather and the scenery is amazing. I’ll miss it, but perhaps I’ll have another chance to make a visit sooner than later.

Next up – a couple of days in Paris before my return home.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

La Berarde

What is ‘La Berarde’? Here’s what my little guidebook says about it:

“This route will take you to the village of La Berarde, an old shepherds’ village, which is at the end of the road and literally at the end of the world! You will be cycling along an extraordinary road in the midst of a high mountain landscape! The silhouette of the peaks which stands out against the sky and the pure fresh air will invite you to put your feet up and just revel in this indisputably great natural wonder.”

It was a great little ride – 68km (42.3 miles) with 1000m (3280ft) of climbing. The climbing came in several forms. In some areas, it was a relatively gentle grade winding alongside the glacier fed river. In others, it steepened to quickly gain altitude. The guide book also says:

“After Bourg-D’Arud, a slope of 11% incline over 3km will lead you to the ‘Plan du Lac’ and the ….”

This was the steepest part of the ride, and I was testing out my knee a little. I didn’t push it too hard though. It felt ok, but I am really, REALLY, glad I have a triple on this bike. While these climbs are certainly doable with a compact crankset (and as Jamie proved also with a full crankset – if you are something beyond human), with my knee, I was glad to be able to take some stress off by using the small ring.

Here’s a few photos from the ride up

I did pass through several small villes on the ride. These little villes are very cool. Buildings are situated at the very edge of the very narrow road. In some cases, there is a traffic light on each end of the town (we saw this on yesterdays ride in fact) and only one direction of traffic can pass through that section at a time. In these small villes I passed through today there was no lights, but the streets were that narrow.

Sometimes too, the ville is located directly on the slopes of the mountain so the road switchbacks through the town. Really cool. Saw this today as well.

There were a lot of riders out there today. There was some kind of big event for cyclists who had come up from Grenoble. I chatted with one woman (in French of course). They had started in the small ville of Rochetaillee with a turn-around in La Barade. I am really having fun being able to converse with people here.

I had other opportunities for conversations as well. Most others were rather short, but it felt good to chat with these nice folks. It is even more fun I think when I have a chat with a person in French, then I hear that person talking to someone else in English.

At La Barade, I found a snack bar and had a croque monsieur (a grilled ham and cheese sandwich) and a portion de frites (fries). Of course, I sampled a couple glasses of ‘pression’ (draft beer) with the sandwich and fries while I read my book.

Once I finished my lunch, I found a shady spot near the river where I could sit and read a few more chapters. The water in these rivers out here is just awesome! The color is almost a teal color as it comes directly from the glaciers / snow banks high on the mountains above. I tried to capture it in some photos, but they just don’t do it justice.

Like many of these rides out here – especially out and back rides like this one, the ‘out’ is uphill, while the ‘back’ is downhill. This ride wasn’t all up on the way out, so it wouldn’t be all down on the way back. However, the up on the way back was nearly not even worth mentioning. In sections, I could just coast down the mountain without even touching my brakes. In other sections, where there were switchbacks, I kept my head about me to make sure I can ride another day.

Tomorrow I’ll re-visit l’Alpe d’Huez. This time, I’m going to take a shuttle to the top (without my bike) and find some trails to do some hiking. It should be fun.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

An 'easy' 100km

Actually, it was a little over 100km and in fact the term 'easy' is completely relative to the other rides that are in this area.

Yesterday was a complete rest day. After la marmotte, I felt is was necessary to kick back and relax for the day. I found a great place right downtown Bourg d'Oisans next to the river to sit and write about la marmotte.

It was super peaceful. One pretty cool thing - as I sat there writing my blog, I watched a guy in the river removing trash. This is something I don't see in the US (at least I haven't seen it). I thought it was really cool that the town would take such pride in their natural surroundings.

It took a while to download all of the photos for la marmotte, but I think in the end, that ride deserved all the time I spent working on the blog. Can I say yesterday was an epic day of writing???

Today Jamie and I took off to do part of a sportive called la Vaujany Sportive. In france, the organized group rides are called Sportives - although much like la Marmotte, it is also timed so I'm sure it ends up being a race.

La Vaujany Sportive has three routes. I had thought I would do the Parcours Master which is 173km, but after our loop of la marmotte (almost), I decided that the Parcours Senior is more interesting. In fact, we didn't do the complete senior route, we did a more scenic and slightly easier route called 'Le tour du Matheysin par Laffrey'. This route is listed in my little guide book as being 93km (looping out from BdO) with an elevation gain of 1250m (4100ft).

Because we are staying at the B&B which is 5km outside of BdO, of course we have to add 10k to that distance. No real change to the elevation gain though. Our hosts suggested we do the loop backwards from what the guidebook indicates. This allows us to start and finish on a descent! How's that for great? The other advantage is it puts us descending the busiest road early in the ride rather than climbing it at the end of the ride.

Nothing exciting about the descent of that busy road. The scenery is great, but no real time for photos when we're trying to stay out of the way of the cars. The descent was probably close to 15 miles. The road was pretty straight, so again, nothing super exciting about it.

Once we found our left turn through Sechilienne, the road turned up as we knew it would. This was perhaps one of the easiest climbs I've done. Reminded me a lot of Caesar's Head. Similar in distance and similar in grade. One big difference - this climb pretty much kept that same grade the entire distance to the town of Laffrey. I felt pretty good after my rest day, and kept the bike in the middle ring for the entire climb. I stopped once for a photo before resuming the climb.

After Laffrey there was a little more climbing, but not bad. Then, we ended up in this beautiful rolling countryside for a good number of miles.

This was the easiest riding I have seen since I've been here. Still, the rollers were there and they were a little bigger than what you might find in Greenville county.

We finally made the final turn for the col d'Ornon and started our final climb of the day. Like the earlier climb, this was a constant grade that was relatively easy. Again, I kept it in the middle ring, but Jamie set the pace all the way to the top.

A brief stop for a couple of photos before we began our descent. The descent was something on the order of 8-9 miles and it was a great descent. As per everywhere you go out here, the views are awesome. Here's a couple of shots:

I like how the little village is set right on the side of the mountain. Also, in the last picture (click on it to enlarge) you can actually see the line of the road built right into the edge of the cliff. It is near the top. Awesome.

One problem for me. My right knee gave me a couple of shooting pains today. A little ache I can deal with, but these were not good signs. I'll have to take it easy no matter what ride I do tomorrow. There is a relatively easy ride of about 52km (32 mi) with only (remember, it's all relative!) 1000m (3280ft) of elevation gain. It is out and back, so I figure if my knee starts to hurt, I can always turn around.

Friday, June 25, 2010

la Marmotte (almost)

So, what’s la marmotte (a marmot in english)? What I can say it is a pretty cool looking little animal that you can read all about here. However, there is also a ride (or more likely a race since it is timed) also called ‘la Marmotte' (sorry, best link I could find on quick notice). If you go to the link you’ll find this ride covers the following: Col de la Croix de fer, Col du Telegraph, Col du Galibier, Col du Lauraret AND l’Alpe d’Huez for a total distance of 174 km (108miles) with 5000meters (16,400ft) of cumulative elevation gain.

I’d like to say I rode the complete Marmotte route, but in fact, myself and my new friends Thijs and Jamie rode the loop part not including l’Alpe d’Huez. We were advised by our hosts Alan and Lynne (of le velo jaune) to get a relatively early start as it is a long ride with a lot of climbing. They prepared an early breakfast for us and 7 of us set off.

From left to right: Adam, Peter, Andrew, Thijs, Jamie, Representing the Greenville Spinners Racing team – me, and our host Alan

The plan for the group was to start with the 27(ish) km (17ish miles) climb up to Col de la Criox de Fer. From there, Alan would turn around with Andrew, Peter and (maybe Adam) to find another interesting route to return to the B&B, while Jamie, Thijs and I would continue on La Marmotte route.

From the B&B the road goes down past Bourg d’Oisans until Rochetaillee, then it starts a gradual ascent through Allemont and past Lac du Verney. From there it begins to get steep. I’m talking Paris Mt from the furman side steep (and more in one or two short places). If I recall correctly, that Paris Mt climb gains you about 240m (800 ft) in 4km (2.2 miles). To get an appreciation of the climb to Criox de fer, you have to stack about 6 Paris Mt climbs on top of each other. That’s to say you gain 1550m (5085ft) in that 27ish km (17ish miles).

At one point, you actually have to descend from the small ville of le Rivier d’Allemont to cross the river therefore losing precious elevation. Of course, the steepest part of the climb is coming out of that descent so you better take full advantage of your momentum! We stopped to refill water bottles and re-group at this small ville. I snapped a few photos while we were there.

From there it is all uphill with no breaks – in fact, in that last photo, you can just see a small section of the road going back up after the descent. Some variance in gradient but it stays somewhere in the 7-10% range (I’m kind of guessing here based on conversations with our hosts and the effort required to complete the climb) until you arrive at the switchbacks below the dam at Lac de Grand Maison.

Once you arrive at those switchbacks, the gradient lets up a little and thankfully, I was able to reel Adam and Thijs back in. I had been watching their backs for the entire climb.

As far as Alan and Jamie – they were gone. I mean seriously gone. Alan was a machine riding up at a very quick pace, then descending to check on everyone. Jamie just put her head down and motored those big gears up the mountain. That is until we stopped to re-group at the other side of Lac de Grand Maison – then she went back down to check on the others.

Some images from the area around the lake

Thijs and I took a short break until everyone caught up, then the group finished the last 5k (3mi) or so to the col. Again, it got steeper, but not quite as bad as earlier in the climb. The terrain changes as well as you now are beyond the treeline.

Gaining the Col was a great feeling. Partly just because it was a tough climb, but also for the view.

We took a pretty long break at the col – partly to fill water bottles, but also because Adam had to make his decision whether to continue along La Marmotte or head back with Alan, Andrew and Peter. His decision was to head back and later he said he was glad he did.

Of course, that left it to Jamie, Thijs and myself to make the descent of Criox de fer into the ville of St Jean de Maurienne. This was one hell of a descent. All total, I think the descent was about as long as the climb (again somewhere in the 27km – 17mile range). I didn’t snap any photos, but this road took us along the mountainside with an overlook of an incredibly deep gorge. It was one of those times where I couldn’t really look to the right – I have this crazy terror of one day driving (or riding) off the side of the road!

We made our way through St Jean, then we had to get on a major route through the valley. Thankfully, there is a bike lane, but when the big trucks are passing you at 70 or 90kph (45-55mph) it is a little disconcerting. However, these folks are actually accustomed to sharing the road with bicycles so it really wasn’t a problem. The fact it was also downhill was helpful as we were able to carry some speed.

We finally arrived at our turn in St Martin d'Arc to begin the ascent to Col du Telegraph. When we talked about this to Alan, he said “Telegraph is not even worth talking about”. So, we thought it would be a relatively easy climb.

Boy were we wrong! This climb begins immediately as you exit St Martin d'Arc. We went from flat (in fact downhill) to 8+% grade immediately! This climb did not let up at all until 12ish km (7.5miles) later. In that distance, we climbed to 1566m (not sure of the elevation of the town). So much for ‘not worth talking about’!

As with everything, what goes up, must come down and before we could begin the climb to Galibier, we had to descend into Valloire. As you can see from the previous image, we descended from 1566m (5138m) to 1430m (4692ft) before climbing 1170m (3840ft) to Galibier which sits at 2600m (8530ft). Recall, this is after already cumulating something on the order of 2700m (8860ft)! This ride was definitely turning into the most epic ride I have ever experienced.

After the descent into Valloire, the road turned up again. We were surprised that it wasn’t more steep. We had expected the first part of it to be quite steep but none of us were complaining. The distance from Valloire to Galibier is on the order of 17km (11miles), but not near as difficult as Croix de Fer. What made it difficult is the distance and climbing we had already done.

Of course, there’s the elevation. Sitting at 2600m (8500ft), the air was getting pretty thin as we made our approach. I haven’t really said much about this during my trip, but it has to be the reason I don’t feel the power in my legs that I feel at home. Perhaps my muscles are starving a little for oxygen thus making them feel weaker than normal. Hey, sounds good to me, so I’ll stick with it!

As we made the climb, Thijs and I ended up riding together. We had some great chats along the way and made a few stops for a gel or just to simply rest for a moment. I have to say Thanks to Thijs and Jamie for riding along on this ride. Their presence made a huge difference. Not only for the company, but also because they shared some of their food with me. The PB&J sandwich on Telegraph was excellent!

Here’s a couple of shots on the approach and at the Col:

Check the look on my face – do you think I was hurting a little?

Some more views from the Col:

One of the interesting things about that altitude was also the temperature. The sun had hidden itself behind some clouds as we got close, and the wind had picked up a little. It was cold even though we were putting out a lot of effort on the climb. Of course, poor Jamie, she arrived at the top long before we did and we found here tucked away out of the wind (as best she could get) just shivering her butt off!

I had thought we had one last climb to get to Col du Lautaret. You don’t know how happy I was to find we descended directly into Lautaret!

That means from Galibier all the way to the B&B (with one short exception) it was all downhill. That is about 42km (26 mi) and 1900m (6230ft) of descent!! You can bet we made good time for that 26 miles!

We arrived back at the B&B and Lynne put together an awesome dinner of Pasta for us. We were starving and the food is (and has been) excellent!

Ride summary: ~10.5 hours total time, ~8:20 ride time (confirmed from my computer), 162km (100.6 miles) and 3900m (12,800ft) cumulative elevation gain.

So, in my last blog, I asked if I had bitten off more than I could chew? Well, as you have read, it was a mouthful, but I did manage to chew it, however, at the finish it felt more like it had chewed me!