Kurt's Bike Trip in France - Part V: The "Tri-Col" Ride

Still grinning after yesterday’s ride, I woke up this morning to mostly cloudy skies and concerns that rain may alter our plans. On tap for today were 2 more “classic” climbs: Col du Lautaret and Col du Galibier. (The latter is just 5 miles beyond, and 1,800 feet above, the former.) To get to the base of Lautaret, though, required us to go over a smaller climb, Col de la Serenne.

We shoved off from the hotel shortly after 9, and worked our way up and over to Col de la Serenne. Had it not been for a rough road surface, it would have been a spectacular ride (it still comes in as pretty darn good) for the road was not busy at all, and it took us through some beautiful scenery and villages. It was cloudy most of the way, but no rain, so all was good. After reaching Col de la Serenne (a “short” 2 mile climb with an average grade of just over 7%), I descended through two “picture postcard” villages, Clavans and Mozien. When you imagine what traditional mountain villages look like, you essentially envision these two places… really quaint, quiet and charming, with hardly a hint of modern architecture, and the omnipresent church and its steeple in the center of town. I descended a little bit more after Mozien, and met up with the van at Lac du Chambon to ditch some “keep me warm” clothes, and begin the ascent to Col du Lautaret, about 15 miles away at the end of a climb averaging just over 4%. The skies cleared at this point and it was comfortably warm for the ascent.

The first half of the climb paralleled the Romanche River and took us to the village of La Grave, where we had lunch. For the second day in a row, our guides picked a very scenic place in which to get off our bikes for a bit and take in some food. Had it not been for the “business at hand” I could have easily have sat there the rest of the afternoon. But there *was* work to be done, so before my legs got too stiff, I got bike on the bike and began working my way to Col du Lautaret sitting 6.5 miles away.

I went through Villar d’Arene en route, and eventually away from the Romance River into a pair of switchbacks. The Col do Lautaret (6,752 feet above sea level) was just another 2.2 miles beyond them, and I got there, unfortunately, with the weather changing (for the worse) and views down the valley in from which I just came limited. I didn’t stay here long; just long enough to through my rain jacket and arm warmers in my back pockets, snap some photos, and take a nibble of some food – I wanted to reach Galibier before any rain came, and by that point, that looked like a near certainty.

The climb up to the Col du Galibier began at the Lautaret. It was 5 miles long, averaging 6-8% most of the way; the kicker is the last half mile or so, which averages 10%, and reaches 12% just before the summit. The climb, like Alpe d’Huez, was also part of this year’s Tour de France, and the road indicated as much… there were riders names painted *everywhere.* I could feel the weather continue changing for the worse as the climb progressed… the sun was nowhere to be seen by this point; the air was getting cooler, and not solely because I was going higher, either; and there was more of a breeze as well. I was comfortable riding in just the regular get-up of shorts and jersey, but I suspected I would need quite a bit more for the eventual descent. The weather definitely did a number on some amazing views, but I still kept on thinking… “You know what? You’re climbing the Col du Galibier… THAT’S amazing.” One “view” I did get was a little bit below the summit, with it being of a memorial to Henri Desgrange, the man credited with starting The Tour. After the memorial came the final half-mile push up the steepest part of the climb. I topped out at 8,678 feet.

By now it was noticeably cooler, well beyond “borderline cool,” so much like my stop at Lautaret, I stayed long enough to stretch the legs some, eat just a little, take some photos, and put on my arm warmers and windbreaker vest. I would have liked to stay to welcome my tour-mates, but I was getting too cold, and there was still a lot of riding and descending to do. I told the one tour guide where I’d be in the Lautaret rest area, and would wait for him and the others there.

Down I went, passing by my tour-mates on their way up, and stopping a couple of times to snap some quick photos… ones for which I didn’t want to stop on the way up. In short measure, I was back at the Col du Lautaret area, and got myself into a restaurant, sat next to a window to keep an eye on the weather (rain appeared to be moving up the valley) and ordered some hot chocolate. Some time passed and I was joined by two of my tour-mates, who were also keen on getting something warm in the stomach. And it wasn’t long after their arrival when we were joined by the remaining members in our group, and, unfortunately, the first drops of rain. We were all content being inside and getting some warm food and drink, but we all knew a decision had to be made soon about whether or not we descend by bike, or by van. The rain stopped for a little, so we paid our bill and got ready to get on our bikes. The rain began falling again in that short time, and our collective enthusiasm for descending in the cold and wet – on wet roads with cars, through switchbacks and tunnels – likewise descended. We flocked to the van, and loaded our bikes up top and ourselves inside.

Before beginning our four-wheeled descent, though, a cyclist, who obviously noticed we were about to leave and get off the Col, ran over and asked the guides if there was space for two more people and bikes. Luckily for them, there was, so he and his female companion loaded their bikes and climbed aboard for some warmth (the woman’s teeth were chattering) and the ride back down the valley. There happened to be a bar and restaurant at the drop off point and they treated us to a drink as of way of saying “Thanks.” As coincidence would have it, though, by this point the weather had cleared, but it was too late in the day to get back on the bikes and descend the rest of the way to the planned end to today’s ride. So for the day, I ended up doing about 40 miles, with 6,000 feet of elevation gain (had the day gone to plan, it would have been 62 miles and somewhere around 7,000 feet of elevation gain.)

We discussed tomorrow’s weather situation at dinner tonight… rain is practically certain in the morning, so the question is when it will taper off. Some forecasts say around noon; others not until 5:00p or so. We’ll rendezvous at 11:00a tomorrow morning and make a determination then… if it’s good, I think the plan is to do the Col du Glandon and Col de la Croix de Fer; it it’s not, we’ll hope for a 1:00p departure for some other lesser-known climbs; if it’s looking *real* bad, we may hoist the white flag for the day. But, as my friend Jamie says, “That’s tomorrow guy’s problem…” so, I’ll have to see what tomorrow brings and go from there.

The map for today’s route can be found here. Like before, if you want to see the elevation profile, go part way down the page (below the map) and click on the link called "Show" under Elevation Graph.

Misc. Tidbits
- The Col du Galibier is the most frequently climbed mountain in the Tour de France.
- Now that I’ve been on it, I’m amazed how fast the TdF riders take the descent off the Galibier. The road isn’t perfectly smooth; there were little undulations in it which made my bike move around just a little. And I was doing 35 mph or so; the Tour riders blast down it in the 50-60 mph range.
- I meant to mention this in yesterday’s Alpe d’Huez write-up, but fortunately, I was reminded to write about it by another sighting today. And what I mean by that is… Near the top of AdH yesterday, I was approaching a man riding his bike and something looked strange about it; there was something on the rack over the back wheel. As I got closer, I realized it was a dog! This man had a small, metal, open-topped crate on his back rack, and it that crate sat his dog, what appeared to a young border collier. He was chugging his way up the mountain, and the dog was just sitting there, looking around as if it were a normal day. And, perhaps for this duo, it was, for shortly after I began the ascent from Lautaret to Galibier today, I SAW THE SAME MAN COMING DOWN THE GALIBIER WITH HIS DOG ON THE BACK! Incroyable!
- The tour group I’m in is great, and quite a mixture. There’s Luis from Switzerland, who was born in Mexico, and has also lived in Canada and The Nederlands; Fernando, who was born in Puerto Rico and now lives in Florida; and Dave, from Minnesota, who was born in Mexico and is quite fluent in French and Spanish, so can converse with *anyone* in the group. Fernando let us in on amazing factoid the other day – Alpe d’Huez was his first climb… ever… anywhere! He said for his training he spent about 90% of the time on an indoor trainer (which can’t exactly simulate the needs of climbing.)

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