Saturday, August 16, 2008

European Cycling 2008--Thursday June 19th

From Courmayuer, Italy, you can see a small sliver of Mt. Blanc in France, the highest peak on Continental Europe at almost 16,000 of elevation. There is an incredible tower of rock visible behind a rock wall in the foreground, and the swirling clouds and mist collecting around this protuberance makes it stand apart from the rest of the view. Even though it is not the summit, it is much higher than the other pieces of mountains that you are looking at, but its distance from town makes it look similar in height. The view of the actual summit of Mt. Blanc is hidden from view, but to the north of Courmayuer is an incredible cirque of ice encrusted alpine peaks.

When Tracy and I visited Chamonix, France 10 years ago, we rode an aerial tram almost two vertical miles up from town to the Aiguille du Midi station on Mt. Blanc which serves as a launch point for alpinists and extreme skiers. We then rode a four passenger gondola car for almost an hour, across and above the Mer du Glasse, a huge glacier that contains the longest lift-served ski run in the world. Given that this car is suspended over one mile above the ground, and is supported by only three towers during its long horizontal run, the wind and the nervous ten year old in the car with us made for a rocking and swaying trip. Considering that Tracy claims to be afraid of heights, it was nothing short of a miracle that she seemed relatively unfazed as we slowly traversed the incredible valley below.

After stepping back onto terra firma at a ski area restaurant called Helbroner at 10,000’ elevation, we were now in Italy. We enjoyed an outdoor pasta lunch overlooking some of the most stupendous scenery on the planet, as several topless women sun worshippers relaxed on the adjoining patio. Now that was truly the good life! I can honestly say that I have never taken a voyage (at least one not involving exercise) that was as spectacular as the ride from Chamonix to Courmayeur.

After lunch, we downloaded on a normal ski lift, and caught a bus from Courmayuer back to Chamonix. This trip took us through the Mt. Blanc tunnel that bored through the mountain. Nine months later, 41 people would die in this tunnel in a fire triggered by a burning Volvo truck:

After I described the Chamonix to Courmayeur excursion to my friends Tim, Laura, and Katie (Laura's friend who joined us in Como), we were keen to take the lift up to Helbronner, hopefully for dinner. Alas, we learned Helbroner was torn down the year following my trip with Tracy, and a much larger ski area closer to town has replaced the one that existed back then.

Having already ridden through a number of ski towns, Tim and I were pretty sure that Courmayeur would be as quiet as Val Gardena, Val d’Isere, and the others. There were actually only two restaurants open in mid-June and we were told the better one would open at 7pm. When we arrived at precisely 7, the owner said for us to come back at 7:30. We actually were seated around 7:45. Ahhh…Italy, where the only thing precise is the preparation of the food, which as usual was excellent.

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