Thursday, September 25, 2008

European Cycling 2008 Sunday, June 22nd

Alpe du Huez-descend to Croix de fer start-car to St. Jean Maurienne

18.5 mi 4172' climbing

After a solid breakfast, we escaped from the hell of the Milan Hotel, and rode the few short miles to the foot of the Alpe Du Huez. I knew that the start was hard from watching the Tour, but 1.5 miles at 10.5% always seems so much easier on paper.

Think of the Zoo Hill, or the climb up the north side of Squak Mountain, only a lot steeper. Now consider that you are starting your day with this following many days of grueling mountain riding.

Imagine Lance Armstrong hitting this section on the wheel of George Hincapie, as he powered up it in the big ring, or Carlos Sastre attacking and winning the 2008 Tour on this very strip of blacktop, and how easy they made it look. Well forget about that last image, because the Alpe is a hard climb, and the start is seriously hard.

Ok, it was hard, but not as hard as I had expected. Perhaps because we had been doing so many climbs that were much longer and almost as steep, Alpe du Huez felt like just another piece of the puzzle.

I rode up this bottom section with Tim just up ahead of me. Almost immediately, we started passing other cyclists, and I guess subconsciously, one has to make a decision as to how important it will be to not be passed. I actually managed to pass everyone I saw except for Tim, who as usual was taking no prisoners.

While there were a lot of obviously very serious cyclists on very serious bikes, not everyone fit into that category. Even more so than on other famous climbs we did in Italy and France, the Alpe appeals to everyone. I must admit that the people I saw inching their way slowly up the climb didn’t appear to be suffering; they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. And why not? How often does one get to climb one of the three most famous climbs used in the Tour, along with the Galibier and the Tourmalet?

I guess I used up a little more energy than I needed to, and it was due to the “Man in Black”. There are 21 numbered hairpin turns on the Alp, with the first turn named #1. Somewhere around number 10, I noticed a cyclist dressed all in black standing near his bike as I entered the left hand turn. As I rolled by him, I took a cursory look back in my little mirror, and I saw this rider do a running mount onto his bicycle. He kind of looked like a cowboy in a western movie, as he ran to his bike and dove onto it. He was going to use me as his “rabbit”!

Unless he was by the side of the road for a lot longer than it takes to enjoy a nice view, I had to figure that I had caught him, and it just seemed almost criminal for him to use me as his incentive to get himself up the climb. I was probably 50’ ahead of him, and he was gaining on me as I maintained the same effort that I had been at before I went by.

About four years ago I started using a helmet mounted mirror in order to keep track of the riders on the weekly group ride I lead. It was easy to glance in the mirror to check if everyone had cleared the red light, or made the last turn. Being well aware that the geek factor was huge, I originally intended on using it only on that ride. After discovering how effective it was riding solo, I just stuck with it, figuring that the increased safety factor overruled the geekiness. I took some consolation from a story about a very successful local Cat 1 racer who used a mirror to monitor the riders that he dropped.

In this particular situation, my mirror was worth its weight in gold. Not only did this cyclist give me motivation to ride a little harder than I really wanted to, he unwittingly became a participant in a very cruel game I played.

I had noticed that when we would hit a section of easier grade, he would slowly gain on me, and when we hit a steeper section, I would pull away from him. Without the mirror, I wouldn’t have known how far back he was, or where his “weakness” lay.

I thought I would lose him, but he was hanging in there, and this went on for a good 10 minutes. At about the same time I was tiring of the game, I saw my opportunity. I was entering a blind steep hairpin to the right, and I could tell the steep pitch continued above the turn. After cruising around the turn, I applied extra pressure to the pedals when I was hidden from his view. When the “Man in Black” exited the turn, I had significantly increased the gap, and I saw his head drop immediately. I persisted with the pressure on the pedals, and he cracked like an egg. Not to sound mean, but it served him right!

Despite all the times watching the tour riders on the Alpe, I didn’t know where the official "top" was (it looks different with the fencing, and the throng of people), and I motored right on by Tim and just kept on riding. The road actually continues on up quite a way up past the standard finish line at a little village, and Laura had driven on ahead as she was looking for Tim and me.

Having descended the monster that is the Col de la Croix de Fer the day before, I had to admit that I was having elements of doubt creep into my mind after we finally hooked up. I’m not sure if it was the day in, day out heat wave we were experiencing, or if it seemed redundant to climb what we had descended the day before. Maybe it was just time for a break. I made the decision to do the descent of the Alp du Huez to the northwest, the bottom of which winds up at the start of the Croix de Fer climb to the north. At that point, I was going to get in the car, and skip the climb. For whatever his reasons might have been (possibly misery loves company, and he wouldn’t have any), Tim came to the identical conclusion.

Back at the same hotel we had stayed at on Friday night, I was luxuriating in the cool air of my room, while it was about 90 outside. European showers are certainly much better than they were ten years ago, but air conditioning is still very rare. My clean room and comfortable bathroom were in stark contrast to the almost prison cell block décor that was the Hotel Milan in Le Bourg.

Tomorrow we would ride and descend the Galibier, and today we replaced our brake pads. The few miles we had done in the rain in Italy had pretty much destroyed the new brake pads I had installed right before the trip. Since the only thing that is more important than good brakes when descending these mountain roads is a lot of common sense, we weren’t taking chances.

After it cooled off a little bit, we all went for a little walk around St. Jean de Maurienne. This being Sunday, it was a total ghost town, and about the only thing open was the little café we stopped at. Later on, we had a wonderful meal sitting outdoors at a traditional French restaurant. I had cold smoked salmon on a bed of bread, vegetables, and lettuce, and accompanied by cold soup. Just what the Doctor ordered on a smoking hot day, although the hot frites tasted pretty good too.

After dinner, I relaxed in my cold cave of a hotel room, and pondered tomorrow’s double HC climbs of the Galibier and the Izoard.

Quality 10
Difficulty 8 (would have been a 10+ with the Croix de Fer)
Route 10
Scenery 8

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