Col des Mosses – Verbier – Col du Grand St. Bernard – Col du Petit St. Bernard – Col du Romme – Col de la Colombiere – ITT (Annecy) – Alp D’ Huez – Col du Glandon – Col de la Croix de Fer – Mont Ventoux
Dave, Simon and myself followed stages 15-20 of the Tour de France 2009. We rented a van, threw bikes, tents and sleeping bags into the back and followed the race through France, Switzerland and Italy. What follows is an incomplete and unreliable memoir of the trip.
Day One: Severity – Hard
We started out from Martegny after camping in a farmers’s field.
The cols beckon
Dave unwrapped his sparkling new Wilier Le Roi. A beautiful bike in team Lampre colours. Simon saw Dave’s new Le Roi and raised him a Cento Uno. Both had compact chainsets. My old thing with standard chainset and 12-25 rear cassette, albeit recently cleaned, was the proverbial ugly sibling in the corner with a finger up its nose.
Start of the first day. Legs good. Head good. 2 things will change.
We headed up Col des Mosses, returned to Martigny, and then headed up to near the summit of Verbier where we watched Alberto rip the legs off all and sundry. Probably bit off a bit more than we could chew on day one. Col des Mosses was very scenic to ride. Verbier was steep like Fitz’s only with switchbacks and no hint of a summit. It stung a bit.
We were all glad when we stepped off just below the summit, laid on the grass (for a couple of hours) and watched the race go by. Pedals were not turned in anger on the 20km ride back down to Martigny.
Waiting for the riders on Verbier.
Day Two: Severity – Hardest
This was a rest day for Tour riders. We struck out from Martigny for the summit of Col du Grand St. Bernard. At over 2400m, this was the roof of the tour, well above the tree line and in amongst the summer snow. If Verbier stung a bit, this was more like a slow whole body wax. It was about 40km to the top. The last hour or so topped out above 10% – it was the steepest climbing of the week, but also the most rewarding. Spent long periods with eyes rolled into the back of the head, staring forlornly at the back of my skull, aspiring to a 40 cadence.
We found coffees and ice creams at the top before bombing back to Martigny. Slinging through the tunnels at over 60 on way down was a highlight.
It was Dave’s birthday, so we went out for dinner in Chamonix.
French a la carte on the back of Grand St Bernard. Do I hurl now or later?
Day Three: Severity – Middling to hard
The tour riders rode Gd. St Bernard and then Petit St. Bernard. We settled for Petit St. Bernard alone. The climb was done in a couple of hours from Courmayer in Italy. Afterwards, we found a sunny pizza and beer place where we whiled away a few hours before climbing up to some nice switchbacks to watch the riders go through. Michael and Ness joined us for the day, having parked and walked from a village part way up the climb.
The polka dot jersey (Pellizotti) hunting for points in the KOM
The rainbow jersey (Ballan)
The green jersey (Hushovd) in the autobus.
Day Four: Severity – Hardest, then hard. Summer storms require new classification: ‘mildly epic’.
Col du Romme was merciless. It rained and stormed, started steeply and never let up. We pressed on through the storms and were rewarded with stunning riding and scenery. Another sunny afternoon passed in another beer garden before the riders went through, with some exciting racing that saw Contador and the Schlecks shell ‘Mr I’ve won this race 7 times so I can wear yellow any time I like’.
Romme hurt more than Alp D’ Huez. Col de la Colombiere was magnificent. It’s wasn’t so steep that you couldn’t enjoy it. For me at least, it epitomised summer alpine riding. First there is pain. Then it rains. Then your mind turns into a cotton wool ball. Then it goes blank. You drift away. Angels appear by your side. They smile and run along beside you for support, encouraging you to go on. In German.
Looking down from the reposoir to the start of Colombiere.
Hallucinating on the Colombiere
Day Five: Severity – 1hr Paceline
ITT. We rode the course from 5.45am on the morning and managed to bypass about half of the climb (which on the ITT course turned out to be quite brutal). The big units in the bunch came to life, lead by Simon in his full club skinsuit. He was chanelling Magnus Backstedt, but there was a little Borat as well. After a few coffees and croissants we spent the day milling around the start and finishing schute, which were about 500m apart.
How’s the serenity…
Simon managed to swing VIP passes to the grand depart, which got us into the hospitality area for wine and nibbles and a nice cordoned off spectator area right at the start line.
Oh yeah, and we followed Daniele Rigi around the course in the team car! Did I mention we followed Daniele Rigi, from the Lampre team, round the course, in the team car?!! The week was going from bad to worse.
Daniele Righi in the final shute from the team car. (Did I mention the team car?)
The yellow jersey (Contador).
After a day like that, what else can you do? Go out to a French restaurant for dinner of course.
Day Six: Severity – Hardest, then middling. Moderately epic due to thunderstorm on descent.
The pro riders went flat. We went to Bourg D’ Oissans. Alp D’ Huez lived up to its reputation. I managed it in an hour flat, counting off each of the 21 switchbacks along the way. The nicest coffee in France was near the summit, courtesy of an Italian.
We found a traverse road that took us across to Col de Glandon and Col de la Croix de Fer (col of the cross of iron – ominous…), which we knocked over during the afternoon. The weather closed out on us just below the summit of Croix de Fer, thankfully on the descent. Everything went dark. There was thunder, lightning, then rain, then driving rain. Then high wind (horizontal stinging rain), about the same time that the road went underwater and our brakes surrendered. Then hail. Magic alpine scenery, but scary, scary descent.
The Alp D’ Huez switchbacks
Col du Glandon
Day Seven: Severity – Hard
Le Geant De Provence. We camped next to a vineyard. Mont Ventoux lives up to everything you read. It never ends. Its cold, bleak, and it’d hold you in contempt for seeking to conquer it if it knew you existed, but it doesn’t know you exist. No matter how long you sit in the saddle and no matter how many corners you come around and ogle the needle, you never get to the top. It breaks you slowly, pedal stroke after unrelenting pedal stroke.
After a while you start to question yourself. Then you question everything.
I stepped off, crushed and broken, with 6km to go. My back was killing me, my legs were giving out and I was going backwards. Then I looked at my back wheel. The brake blocks hard up against the rim. The broken spoke. Nice. After that it got easier.
1 of 500,000 on the mountain.
There are many more photos and experiences to share – it was a marvelous trip. I’ve learned a few important lessons from Dave and Simon. Next time I’ll focus on both riding and drinking. Like any good GC rider, too much specialization in one area compromises your overall ability, as evidenced by Simon and Dave’s ability to hit the Château Neuve de Pape after the Mont Ventoux stage. Secondly, I definitely need a compact chainset. Third, I thought I’d heard pretty much the last of Michael Jackson. As it turns out, not by a long shot.
Who’s up for next year??