There is a hill, reknowned to be the toughest cycling climb in the world, that makes grown men cry on National television; a road that meanders through 21 switchbacks in an unlikely crack in the steep alpine walls surrounding the tiny municipality of Bourg d'Oisan: l'Alpe d'Huez.
It is 5 AM on Sunday morning when the clock offers a first sacrificial ring up for negotiation; two thoughts race through my head: "Am I crazy ?" and "What's wrong with me ?" Having rapidly satisfied myself that I still am, and that I can hopefully avoid finding an answer to the second question for at least 24 more hours, I set the clock for 5:20 and go back to sleep; I call this little game of mine Gestalt Chicken. As a way of avoiding self-paralysis, it works wonders.
Cycling training started early this year: I joined the Ste-Julie Velomanes in March for a training week in the Shenandoah region of Virginia, putting as much vertical mileage as I could between the cruel morning call and a surprisingly early sleep. For 6 days I did well on the flat sections, splendidly in the downhills, but rather poorly in the climbs; granted, I was the only one without a sexy little bike, riding instead what has since been nicknamed Cheval de Troie (nee Sa Fidele Monture, in honor of Don Quichotte's horse) after the lightweight and manoeuverable mythical horse of the same name. I usually bring Troie to work on my seasonal month-sized trip to Grenoble. This time, Troie can't come: work scheduled a flight with Air Transat, and their baggage allowance will not allow for a boxed-up Troie to come with me. I could probably bring a boxed-up ashphalt refinisher all pimped-up with bike pedals, but certainly not Troie: It is that light. And manoeuverable. It is a freaking tank. I completed my spring training by pushing that tank up Camilien House three times a day, three to five times a week, so much so that my last few day before departure got occupied with the desperate search for new pairs of jeans.
For a cyclist stuck in Grenoble (a city with all the size and febrility of Brossard) without a bike is both cruel and unusual: the city is surrounded by mountains and mythical climbs. There are few cyclists here (if the next step after short flats were kilometre-long 12% climbs, would novices ever start ?) but those usually met (more precisely, those passing me by as if I was motionless) in the hills are surprisingly good. The hills are there, everywhere you look, tantalizing me morning and night. I feel like a hyperactive bulimiac on a sugar low roped up to a chair in a candy store. Luckily, this is the time of Soldes d'Ete, a highly regulated and time-limited period when the French government allows for sales to happen; stores go nuts cutting prices on old and new inventory; bikes stores too. I show up at Go Sport (the Sport Expert of the area, specialized in everything and therefore nothing) to eye up the cheapest road bikes I can find. I spot a Spego 110 TP 06 model, with an excellent entry-level frame (7005 alu, good geometry, perfect toothpaste-like soldering job), good grips, pretty good Campagnolo Xenon rear derailleur and controls, abysmally pathetic front Suntour derailleur (easily worth a dollar or two, before the sales), and somewhat dubious wheels. The salesman serves me a line of blue sky about the frames being built and assembled in the area (if this is the case, the welder was surprisingly proficient in Chinese but little else); a bike equipped this way usually goes for about $950 in Canada. This one is 459 euros before sales, 369 with taxes after, about 300 with tax refunds. Basically, less than half the canadian price, and well within my tax-free travel allowance upon return. I order my size. It will be there Monday, the salesman says. This, of course, is France, and I give this promise little credit. I call Monday: not there. Tuesday: not there. Wednesday: not there. Thursday: "Yes, it is here; we've had it since Monday !" claims the very same salesman. Uh-uh, of course. It finally gets delivered on Friday, with dubious hasty adjustments that I correct myself. I've been without a bike for more than three weeks now, and these stretchy bootcut jeans dont feel all that necessary anymore. I have four days left before departure, and all of these feature the same forecast: violent thunderstorms in the afternoon, following noontime temperatures between 34 and 38 celcius. I train every day, hydrating like crazy, playing hide-and-seek with the unfurling thunderous clouds, getting back home just in time for the break of weather hostilities. Between Thursday and Saturday, I have lost three pounds (and most of the alignment on those cheap wheels, which have become lax and wobbly to the point of collapse). Everything hurts nicely. At 6:53 AM, I board the bus for Bourg d'Oisan. There are three of us in it, and I am the only cyclist.
Everyone will tell you that ride from Grenoble to Bourg d'Oisan is best bussed, as the road is hostile to cyclists. In reality, a bike path accompanies the road to the midpoint city of Vizille, then bike clubs riding in packs take over for the rest. The path there is beautiful, an eerie solitary road at the base of a valley, steep, varying mountains on both sides, partially masked by morning fog. The trip from Grenoble to Bourg d'Oisan takes about an hour (VFD Bus 3000, 5.10 euros each way, bikes welcomed if space is still available under the bus). The city of Bourg d'Oisan itself is a touristy micro-town of about 10,000 people, with a large pedestrian shopping core lined with restaurants, bike shops, and the odd ski shack. It is to this cycling hill what Arusha is to Kilimanjaro, or Namche to Everest. A by-way, with no other visible industries beyond tourism, heavy with cyclists in summer, somewhat occupied with skiers in winter (the Alpe d'Huez road is the access point to Huez-en-Alpes and Deux-Alpes, two major skiing resorts). You can't clearly see the road from there, but you can guess at the driving lines through the occasional concrete slabs in the forest, and the passing cars later in the day. In two days, Tour de France will pass here, with Galibier and Huez the most determinant, separating etapes of the race. People have been camping on the shoulders of the roads for a week now: lots of motorized homes, some tents, some bikes, lots of beer, some loud stereo system blasting late-90s techno on this thin Sunday morning. The road is covered with inscriptions, praises for some riders, the record times of others (36 mins is the world record), insults to some, notes of wives and children to riders of the Tour, in various languages, spoken as well by the campers (some language in which the letters H, K, and L have limited Scrabble value seems dominant, a place where one having lined up too many vowels on the barquette would give up and claim that the game is unfair... Dutch ?). Despite all this, one does not feel like they are riding on carpets intended for others: this is a place that loves cyclists. Early this morning, at 7 AM on the hills, some are already descending. The bus driver, at first incredulous that this lost-looking Canadien is actually aiming for the hill (many simply show up to gawk from below and circle the town a bit), offers directions and return schedules, and sends me off with genuine warm wishings. This place loves people like me. I love this place.
My plan so far is a highly detailed strategic outline of things to come. It goes like this:
1. Show Up With Bike
3. Trudge Back Home
So: Show Up With Bike: Checked.
I am not sure that my three eggs with goat cheese and saucisson campagnard chunks (whatever protein I could locate in the minifridge that morning) will be enough of a prep food for this ride (it is high enough in protein to get me awake, has enough fats to provide energy for a long part of the ride, but is completely free of carbs that will be sorely needed); just in case, I pack 3 Carb-Booms (remaining Virginia gifts from a company competing with my trusty PowerGel, Carb-Boom tastes a lot better but has no caffeine), 1 PowerBar, and 4 wheat germ bars (fast dissolving food that doesn't require much digestive energy). The first stop is the Camping. In cycling history, this camping matters in an odd sort of way: by shenanigans or just happenstance, it is where the climbing ride chronometers always start. The owner of the camping even has a clever money-making device, an automated time stamp (with matching stamp at the arrival) called Velodateur that marks specially-casted postcards he sells for the cheap sum of 3 euros. This is really a clever, but not overbearingly expensive, gimmick. I snap a card up. The thunderstorm of yesterday afternoon has killed all the relays: the gentleman goes out to prod at the electrical circuits and relays of it all as I finally start to discern the early switchbacks. Holy Cromoly every one of them seems to have the inclination, and at least twice the length of, the hardest bit of Camilien Houde. And there are 21 of them. Over 12 kilometers of road. This is insane: we therefore have things in common. I straddle the bike, and aim up. It would have been smart to include Warm-Up in the above plan, but it is now too late now that Mr. Chronometer has called upon Mr. Machismo and Mr. Misguided Ethos to shut Mr. Good Sense up: I can feel some muscles complain at the brusque wake up call of the cold crisp morning air. Sorry dudes.
At the curving top of every switch, there is a decreasing number, an altitude indicator, and some other odd inscriptions (like Hiver-Ete, written under the altitude number, which looks at first like one is stating the surprisingly obvious fact that altitude is season-invariant, but is probably a clumsy attempt at reminding riders that there are things to do here as well when the tires start slipping); some plaques commemorate the greats and the tragic who came by here; I don't stop to read: I'd hate to find one that describes how one died of a suddenly exploding heart at the top of his pace or something equally er, heartening. But if you are intent on stopping for breath (I sure am !), these plaques must provide for a wonderful way to hide your blue cross-eyed convulsing face from onlookers while providing a smidgeon of legitimacy to that pause. I will definitely elude grace and huff and puff in full public view wherever I please.
They say the first two switchbacks are the hardest. They lie. The first 11 are hard, then the 8th, and, for wholly psychological reasons, the last three. The 7th and 9th are no picnic either. The rest is merely easy by comparison, with an inclination comparable to the Berri hill between Ontario and Cherrier. I think those who claim that the first two are the hardest have probably heard stories about people who gave up early (many do); frankly, the hill is hard enough that I can't hold any kind of judgment against anyone with the good sense to turn around. My sensectomy (what loved ones delicately call bullheadedness) will prevent me from being this clever.
The first segment is a well-engineered 30 degree kilometre-long piece of road, bordered with a concrete slab on one side low enough to catch bumpers but way too low to provide credible vertical impact resistance to cyclists, as I am reminded of by the oncoming rider, happy with a finished ride, loudly buzzing by me as his tires leave a hot streak in the air; buzzing ? Yup: the little bit of extra textile on his jersey is flapping so hard the whole of him sounds like a moth would if lodged in your ear. Pretty fantastic speed. Can't wait to go down. Only 20 switchbacks to go. The second is a mirror image of the first. By the time you've started the third, you are as high over the city as you would be from Club 747. This is where I decide to hold a first Moment of Grace (aka desperate gasp for air, watching my heart rate monitor go down from the high 170s, oblivious to anyone else, perhaps even to myself), which I will repeat surprisingly often over the next few switches.
Already at the corner of the third and fourth the first campers can be found, enjoying breakfast on card tables, looking at passing cyclists like bored journalists at a never-ending amateur fashion show. More cars start going up, which brings to mind how great of an idea it was to catch the first bus and avoid traffic; many cars here run on diesel, with a knack for passing by just as you draw that critical breath. I don't know how the Tour de France riders do it, ensconced between cars and motorcycles, but I'd bet that quite a few of them would be big supporters of hydrogen or electric cars. The fifth switchback proposes a new threat: race riders ride the center of the road; that being used by cars right now (something that will end once and for all when I finally dominate this puny universe, har har), cyclists are stuck sharing the side of the road, under the crumbly hangling cliffs and their occasional gift of a falling pebble. I'm not that fascinated with the organic feeling of discovering the impact of silica on calcium, so I find additional motivation to shlep it up. Somewhere on the 6th we finally leave the city of Bourg d'Oisan and meet the city of La Garde en Oisans. There are no houses anywhere around; the hill is too steep. There may be one or two in the woods, but this could be it. I am thinking that the mayor must be a very lonely person, but with fascinating debates no-one will ever hear. Pauses and pushes to the long 10th witch and the final midpoint of 11 (I'd rather round up than down, so that I know that by any calculations I have finally reached that hallowed inclined ground), where La Garde en Oisan finally ends and some other semi-credible city begins (this one has a few houses along the route, the inclination of which finally abates on the z axis enough to provide for habitable space). More cars, more campers, and near the 8th a pleasant surprise: an enterprising photographer is taking digital snapshots, encouraging passersby and offering them a card where one can buy prints of their exploits. Smart idea. Did I mention that thee eggs with cheese was a terrible breakfast ? At this point, my stomach is empty and my muscles are pumping lactic acid by the gallon; my pace is not this fast: 8.5 kph on a climb (I see good riders passing by at 12), but I've already burned upwards of 3000 calories. I snack up and start again, hoping for the 3/4 point, also occupied by a photographer. From then on, one can see the city of Huez en Alpes, a huge complex of restaurants, shops and condos (like a St-Sauveur on stilts) overhanging above the road, the first buildings hinting to the fact that the last bit of climb will still be very long. There is an unwritten rule of climbing that is also valid in trekking and other sports challenging verticality: don't look up. The scenery, though, of the upcoming glaciers (those on the faces across the valley are already below me), the festivities (stereo-trucks are already pumping outdated records -- did I really hear Ace of Base !?? Atb ?), and the general revelry of TDF paraphernalia and logistics calls for the eyes, and wipes one's reserves of stamina in no time flat. I start noticing that the ground is shifting oddly, the sky along with it. At 5600 calories, I may very well be about to faint. I push harder, to a fake finish line (don't stop here... the real one is a kilometre ahead !) bordered by terrasses where local dwellers and exhausted cyclists are enjoying crepes and orange juice (this is so cruel), as cyclists battle traffic and a nasty climb under an encased overpass, the next-to-last little climb before the barren official arrival, lined by old people in garden chairs clapping the victors (this feels so good). The images shot here on Tuesday will be amazing. I stamp my Velodateur card (2 hours, 9 mins, 11 seconds) and aim for zombie land: there is 45 minutes missing here; I've blanked out, staring in the void, there's not an ounce of energy left.
Above the station some rather high peaks loom (including Pic Blanc at 3300 meters, accessible by telecabin); the fare is stiff, but I take it; underneath, mountain cyclists are enjoying the downhill rides from the glaciers: I should have hitched a mountain bike to my back. This looks like so much fun ! 30 minutes later, I am staring at the glacier summit, and a field of peaks dotted on occasion by a few enterprising souls miles away from each other. There is incredible beauty here, including the sights of Deux Alpes, a small village located at the bottom of a valley built into the top of a mountain. People are gasping for air, but I am still surprisingly acclimatized from this winter's climb of Kilimanjaro. I'd love to spend a night here. People are dressed in Gore-Tex and wool; it is probably a testament to my physical alienation that I am not freezing yet in my wet cycling shorts and jersey. As the storm gathers, I aim back down: there won't be any time to snack up here. My caloric output now reads 6400. I buy a jersey one size too small (a good thing to do when losing weight), then head back down. By this time, my wheels have become incredibly wobbly. I do not trust them one bit. Three of the spokes are barely holding to the rims; I stop by a bike shop, expecting the most expensive wheel-tightening repair I have ever seen (this place isn't cheap, and the clientele is pretty much captive), but get a send-off from the repair guy with well-wishings and tightened wheels, all for free. I take stock of the dark masses about to pound the newly deserted streets and can feel some of the first glacial drops falling. I line up the bike with the city, and plunge down.
The bike is still a bit wobbly, so I avoid my favourite game of car slalom (going ahead of descending cars in between ascending ones to bypass these clumsy gassy machines) and get in between a blue minivan and a small Corsa Twinport whose drivers is frantically looking in the mirror. The wheel start vibrating so bad that they whistle; I'll top m speed at 55 to 60 kph. The brakes are good, though, but after the first 15 switchbacks my already light head is further intoxicated by the smell of melting rubber: the wheels arealready regalvanized, if I smoked I could light a cigarette off of these things. The drop now is dead serious. As I stare into the thickening crowd of noon climbers, though, I notice quite a few hopeful oddballs: tandems, bikes with babies, mountain bikes; if it rolls, people will try to push it up that hill. I roll back in town as the clouds have engulfes half the hill; I have spent 7800 calories. A full kilogram. Dead man biking. I roll off into the city, park my bike, and get ready to enjoy two beers and a meal from a fast-serving restaurant (Les Negociants, which quickly serves cyclist-friendly meals; for some reason, most restaurants catering to cyclists have it all wrong and presume that we want to be served fat food slowly; after the climb and the speed, thoug, one is still on the beat, with buzzing gestures; I want to be served fast; these guys get it).
All beered-up, having snapped a few postcards to be sent to friends and my own bike shop, I finally reach the bus terminal on slow wobbly hazy motion. All around, the city whispers lovely things to cyclists: this hotel has every one of its balconies emblazoned witha Tour de France team jersey; this other one features a sculpture to cyclists; these drivers are careful, waving to cyclists not with obscenities but with niceties. I love this town.
Trudge Back Home: Checked
Climbing's an art, and I'm a mere dabbler. It is not this unbelievably painful torture piece that people envision: it is hard, granted, but every good climb is a completely exhilarating moment, only made slightly better by the mesmerizing descents that follow. After a while, when spotting the Berri, Atwater, Beaver Hall or Camilien House hills, you'll understand, too, the special form of sanity that inhabits those who yell enthusiastically towards them. If you are curious about climbing techniques, a few web sites written by some of the top pros can be found; I heartily recommend Graeme Street's (www.cyclo-core.com) for his fantastic daily e-mail tips.