Thursday, October 25, 2012

Another Big Tour de France Climb

Last Saturday my legs were ready for another road bike climb of epic proportions.

In the same region as Alpe d'Huez, this climb has been featured 16 times since its introduction in the TDF in 1947. The top of the col is at 2067 meters, a full 200 vertical higher than Alpe d'Huez.

Col de la Croix de Fer.

I opened my eyes and saw that it was light. In fact, the sun was shining. Maybe the God of Weather had decided that me and Roddy had been punished enough on Alpe d'Huez. Then I realized the implication of it being light out - my alarm should have gone off while it was still dark! I sprung out of bed and into a flurry of small preparations.

By the time breakfast was ingested, my jersey was stuff with snacks, and the water bottles on my bike were filled with sugary energy drink, the day had really dawned, and I thought that maybe this would be must easier than Alpe d'Huez. We had the weather on our side.

I biked over to Gières to meet Roddy and the two Germans, Jonas and Andreas, who joined us now that the sun was shining.

From the left: Roddy, Jonas and Andreas are ready to go!
We pedaled up the well-known hill to Uriage, enjoying the sun and the road and anticipating the day ahead. In Uriage, Jonas and Andreas requested a stop to buy more snacks. Andreas bought an entire baguette and stuffed it in the back pocket of his jersey. I bought a Kinder Bueno, immediately demolished it, and 3 Lions which I saved for later. My theory is to keep my blood sugar so high all the time I can't possibly bonk.

German disguised as a Frenchman
The bike from Uriage to the base of the climb was basically the same as Roddy and I had done for Alpe d'Huez - minus the rain.

(Slightly blurry) action shot of Roddy and Andreas on the road towards Vizille.
The kilometers flew by, as did the beautiful, deep valley that I had seen almost none of on my previous bike ride through there. We reached Allemond, and climbed up to Lac de Verney. We had turned into a new valley, and although the mountains seemed even bigger the slopes were gentler and covered in colorful trees.

We had reached the start of the climb.

A quick snack near Lac de Verney
Once we hit the climb, I realized I would be doing the next 30 km alone. The boys quickly disappeared up the hill, and I couldn't justify racing to catch them at the beginning of such a larger climb. And so there will be more selfies!

The road was pleasantly isolated, winding its way up through the forest.

Follow the leaf-strewn road
If the day was great, I was not. Five minutes into the climb, I wanted to give up. My legs were leaden, I was on my lowest gear and struggling to keep a high enough cadence to move forward. The following selfie is an expression of how one feels when one has 30 km of climbing left and feels as though this is impossible:

What. Am. I. Doing.
I kept climbing though. I kind of hated myself for a while - for not enjoying the day enough, for being a whimpering puppy who just wanted to turn around, bike home and lie down. But if the boys were going to the top, then I was too.

Col de la Croix de Fer is psychologically very different from Alpe d'Huez. There are no 21 numbered switchbacks with the altitudes signs. Col de la Croix de Fer starts with a seemingly endless road up through the forest, with no indicators as to how far you've actually gotten. You then arrive in the tiny town of Rivier d'Allemont.

Rivier d'Allemond - look at those mountains.
Then the road does a couple of switchbacks. Downhill switchbacks. Downhill?! I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn, but then I remembered that there had been no turn off. I was on the only road through the valley - and it was descending steeply. At the bottom of the descent the road crossed a river, bringing a welcome draft of cold air as I crossed it. I saw that the side of the valley I had come from was boulder-strewn, and the road probably descended to cross the river and take the other side to avoid avalanche danger.

I started to think about the boys. How long ago had they descended the switchbacks? Were they waiting for me at the top already? What if I was way slower than them? How long would they wait?

The road climb painfully steeply upward again, and I ground stubbornly away on my smallest gear.  It then mellowed out and opened into a whole new world of scenery. I had turned another corner in the valley, and a shafts of light illuminated the mountain tops and slivers of the hillsides below.
Incredible light.

I was alone, just me and the mountains. And then I heard a noise. Vroooooom... Suddenly three motorcyclists came flying passed my, snapping my tranquility in two and leaving me with the brutal reality of my aching legs. I really don't like motorcycles.

It was then that I encountered The Sign. It looked like this:
The second line reads: Col de le Croix de Fer 11
This how I felt when I realized I had 11 kilometers of climbing left:

I figured this would take me somewhere in the vicinity of a hour. Breath in. Breath out. Pedal. That's one of the beauties of cycling, really. It takes almost now effort to force yourself to turn the pedals one more revolution, even if you're tired. And then you do it again, and again. And all of a sudden, in the distance, you see the iron cross marking the top of the col.

Shortly after cross into the region of Savoie, with the Lac de Grand Maison in the background. I can see the top!
The last kilometers were more barren as I climbed above tree line, and more and more spiky alpine mountains popped up. They were also relatively flat, but still quite a grind because I saw the top long probably a few kilometers before I actually got there. And I was met by the familiar smiling faces of three tired cyclists.

The boys with the Alpes stretched out behind them.
"That was like three times as hard as Alpe d'Huez!" I exclaimed, and Roddy agreed with me. It turned out the boys had only arrived about 5 minutes before me (actually 9 minutes according to Strava). Then I felt pretty good about myself.

I ate the rest of the my snacks, and put on some more clothes before we took a couple of photos using timers:

The iron cross for which the Col is named, and the proud climbers.
On the way down I stopped to snap a few photos I didn't feel like taking on the way up:

Lac de Grand Maison in the afternoon light
The long descent was really rewarding. I felt like the climb disappeared into nothing as I whizzed down all the meters I had struggled up. When we reached the village of Riviere d'Allemont (after climbing up the switchbacks we had ridden down on the climb), we decided that the nothing would do but we had to have a celebratory beer.
Andreas, diggin' it
Jonas also picked up some crazy goat cheese from a farmer who had a shop in the village.

Best beer ever. The goat above my head is on the building of the shop where we bought the cheese.
The ride back was speedy and pretty much unremarkable, except that I kept getting hungrier and hungrier, to the point that I would just draft someone so all I had to focus on was the wheel in front of me.

We stopped for snacks in Vizille, and a got a mini quiche and some sort of chocolate pastry that disappeared mysteriously before I was able to photograph them.

The patissier in Vizille in charge of the caloric needs of 4 cyclists who have done 135/150 km.
We celebrated in the evening with tartiflette, wine, and goat cheese, and I went to bed early, thoroughly satisfied with my Saturday.

 - The Wild Bazilchuk

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Two Wild Bazilchuks in town: Food porn

Last week I had two visitors: my mom and her exuberant friend Susan. I have met many foreigners in my time here in Grenoble, but very few who got as excited about the mere idea of being in France as these two miscreants.

"We're in France!" they would squeal. And then insist that we should drink wine. Just because they were in France.

Needless to say, this lead to a week of culinary and cultural indulgences the likes of which a poor bike dirtbag like me hasn't seen yet in France. Who knew something other than biking was fun?

Two happy travelers share French (!) wine thirty.
We ate a lot of good food, so much that I don't dare to present photos of it all in fear that the reader might actually faint of jealousy. A few Grenoblois culinary secrets, however, should come out.

La Petite Idée is my personal favorite restaurant in Grenoble. Let's see what Susan and mom thought of it:

Mom tries the escargot. Best. Snails. Ever.
Susan samples a surprisingly hot butternut squash soup.
Can you say filet mignon?
World's lightest lemon meringue pie.
The next evening we went to Bombay, an Indian restaurant with good reviews on Tripadvisor. When we found the restaurant, we say that there were a bunch of people milling around outside, and immediately assumed that there was a line. Oh no! Mom peaked inside, however, and there were no customers there. Odd. Finally on of the waiters walked by, and Mom waved at him. He looked startled, and finally came to the realization that the door the restaurant had been locked. That's why we have no customers! he must have thought.

So we got to enjoy more food.

Mom and Susan try beer inside of wine. 

Most. Filling. Curry. Ever. I am embarrassed to say that I could not finish it.

Mom and Susan ARE IN FRANCE!
On Saturday, we went into Lyon, a city rather like Grenoble only bigger and without the mountains I'm always raving about. We visited the incredible Halles de Lyon, where they have every sort of food you can imagine. It's sort of overwhelming; there are so many good things to eat that it's hard to pick one! I had a spinach and chevre tart while Susan and mom just took pictures and walked around the football field-sized market.


Susan at one of many cheese places.

Candied fruit.
 Later we wandered over to the old city to check of the famous traboules, and up to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière on the hill.

The river Rhône flowing through Lyon.
The rose tower in old Lyon
Cool view up through the interior of one of the big traboules.
On Sunday, me and Mom sent Susan home and climbed the previously documented Le Mouchrotte, enjoying gray but clear weather - we saw Mt. Blanc in the distance! I sent Mom home on Tuesday, leaving me feeling slightly lonely after a week of such great company.

Luckily, the mountains will always be my friends. It snowed in Belledonne on Monday night! As much as I've enjoyed the bike season, I'm ready for the ski season.

Drool picture of Belledonne. Ski season, come to me!
Me and my friend David revisited my favorite castle - and this time went closer to check it out.

Château de Bon Repos, with Grand Veymont featured prominently in the right half of the picture. 
Me, Casper and the Château

More drool pictures of snow covered mountains. 
We finished off the ride with some cool, twisty singletrack through the leaf-strewn forest. I have no pictures, because I was having too much fun.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Alpe d'Huez

There's a certain feeling I get early in the morning before I'm about to do something particularly difficult  and/or stupid. At 7 o'clock yesterday morning, it was still dark out, and I had plenty of time to prepare for the day ahead. I ate a leisurely breakfast of eggs, yoghurt and coffee (not mixed together), and wandered back to my room to do an equipment check. By this time the sun had risen - and I noticed that it was grey and drizzling.


I checked Facebook to see if I had received messages from any of the other exchanges students I was supposed to meet. No go. As far as I could tell, everyone was still ready for the long day ahead, and I was not about to throw in the towel before walking out the door.

By 9 o'clock I arrived at the agreed meeting point, and found Roddy, a Scottish exchange student. Everyone else had looked at the weather, rolled over, and gone by to sleep. At least there's someone as stupid as me out there. And we pedaled off into the light, grey drizzle.

Our goal was Alpe d'Huez, legendary climb of the Tour de France. We wanted to see the hill that makes cyclists or breaks them, the site of epic battles between the big guns of the peloton. My image of climbing Alpe d'Huez is something like this:

Or it could be something like this:

Or even this this:

I was excited not only to tread in the masters' foot (or wheel) steps, but also to feel their pain. We would be doing the ascent from Grenoble itself, which turned out to be a noble 134 km (Only 9 km shorter than the shortest non-time trial stage of the Tour this year!). If you are going to play Tour de France, do it properly!

The first 20 km rolled away quickly under my bike, starting with climb to Uriage and descent to Vizille, which I've done a number of times. Although it was raining, it was pretty warm, and that early on a Sunday there where almost no cars.

From Vizille, we scooted through Péage de Vizille and out onto the highway up the dramatic, deep valley towards Bourg-d'Oisans. The road climbing extremely slowly, and the rain turned from a drizzle into more of a driving downpour. The beautiful valley around us was shrouded in clouds.

"This is more like Scottish weather!" Roddy exclaimed.

The closer we got to the base of the climb, the more my anticipation grew. We talked a lot about the climb: how hard we thought it would be, how fast we thought we could do it. Two and a half hours and more than 50 km from Grenoble, we reached the base of the mountain.

On the climb, we both went at our own speeds, and so I quickly lost Roddy. Alpe d'Huez consists of 21 numbered switchbacks, each of which has a sign with the name of a stage winner. The first switchback on the way up is labeled 21, the second 20, and so on - a countdown to the top. This of course that means you don't have to remember how many switchbacks you've done; you just watch the signs.

The first couple switchbacks were the steepest, but great fun. I was bouncy and excited; I was conquering the great climb of the Tour de France. I felt like this:

The first of what will be a series of selfies. Out of breath but excited around switchback 17.
The roads were plastered with partially washed out graffiti, cheering on riders or commemorating groups of friends who had visited. I could image all the people lined up the road, screaming. In July the sun would be shining, and you would actually be able to see the mountains around. I wished I could see the view.

On the way up you pass through some small, charming French towns. In the weather we had, buildings would just appear suddenly appear in the mist.

Switchback 16, and Eglise Saint-Ferréol
At a certain point the novelty of the climb wore off. I was wet and my legs were heavy. Then I felt more like this:

Still having fun?
It was a little frustrating that I didn't know how far it was between each switchback - the stretch between switchback 6 and 5, for example, was particularly long and frustrating because I had promised myself a snack at switchback 5, and it seemed to never appear.

Switchback 4. Ready to get this over with. 
Switchback 1. I think I might be almost at the top!!!
The end of the climb is actually kind of anticlimatic. After 13 km of an average of 10% grade, the road kind of flattens out and passing through the stunningly unappealing town of Alpe d'Huez. So after the last switchback, you actually still have about 2 km to go. The top is just a turn around point surrounded by stores, all of which were closed in the off season.

I cruised down to the base of Alpe d'Huez village to meet Roddy at the only open café. We were the only customers. He had reached the top in 1:41, 7 minutes before me.

Bowls of yummy soup, and Roddy in the background.
I wolfed down a sandwich and bowl of soup, while discussing the finer points of Scottish cuisine with Roddy. For the record, he really likes haggis, which is says 'has a unique flavor'. When I asked him what he thought about the texture (of eating intestines), he said (quote, add Scottish accent):

"The texture is... interesting."

We took the descent quite slowly because of the slick, water covered roads, even stopping to take some photos. It was also really, really cold. We were both completely soaked, and I couldn't feel my feet by the end of the descent.

Roddy, his bicycle and the French equivalent of "Welcome to Alpe d'Huez"

Sylvia and switchback 7, also known as Dutch corner

Towards the bottom Roddy managed to get a flat tire, and while waiting for him I noticed that the clouds were coming off the mountains. They were big mountains. I tried to get a picture, but wasn't at a great angle.

The mountains trying to clear off at the base of the climb.
From the base we had a 30 km runout to Vizille, which seemed completely different than in the morning (to me). The clouds had lifted, it wasn't raining, and we could see the valley much more. Roddy punctured again (!), leading to a lovely stream of curse words. I took the opportunity to eat about 6 cookies and snap some photos.

Roddy changes his inner tube in the (welcome) sun,  mountains towering above the valley.
From Vizille I felt good because I knew the stretch of road we had yet to cover quite well. The only problem is there is a hill in the middle, a short climb up to Uriage. This last climb that only gains 100 vertical was the hardest part of the day. My legs where completely gone.

Please, no more.
From Uriage the last kms were all downhill, and I cruised back to my residence.

The trip to Alpe d'Huez makes a great, challenge day trip from Grenoble (for those interested in all the stats, check out the Strava track). I would love to go back and do it again in better weather. I also think I could improve my time just by knowing the switchbacks a little better.

But now it's time for a rest day!

- The Wild Bazilchuk