A Note About the Levi’s GranFondo Contest Going On Right Now: I started the week by poking a little good-natured fun at Levi Leipheimer. Then it got nasty, when he brought in his tough-talking lawyer.
And a huge congratulations to the winners, the top ten of which are listed here!
- Paul B of Vancouver: Africa Trip
- Jan H of Belgium: RadioShack Trek Madone
- Karen L of Vancouver: Tour de France Trip
- Michael D of California: SRAM Red Group
- Christoph S of Germany: HED Ardennes SL Wheels
- Tim O of Austria: Lance Armstrong’s podium-worn yellow jersey
- Joel P of California: Bike and an afternoon with Gary Fisher
- Jeanette D of North Carolina: Specialized BG S-Works Road Shoes with Boa Systems Closures
- Jeremy S of Florida: Ben King-signed jersey
- Johan M of Florida: 16Gb White iPhone
Belgium? Austria? Germany? Even ultra-exotic Vancouver? The prizes for this vacation are going all over the place!
Believe it or not, we’re still doing award-notifications, so just because you haven’t been contacted doesn’t necessarily mean you haven’t won something.
A Final Note from Fatty Describing What the Next Several Posts Will Be About: A while back, I did a contest where we raised money to help Andreas Knickman in his fight against bone cancer. The prize on offer was incredible: an entry in one of Andy Hampsten’s Cinghiale tours in France or Italy.
Andy then surprised The Hammer and me by also giving us a great deal on a tour. We decided to go on the same tour Laura — the winner of the contest — chose: a week of climbing famous roads in France.
For the next several days, I’ll be telling the story of this vacation.
Fatty Goes to France, Part I: The Treachery of Lake Bourget
Let me start by saying this: I am not cultured. I am not a world traveler. I am not savvy to the ways of Europe, nor to any place that is sophisticated. For example, it is only recently that i discovered h’ordeuvres is pronounced “orderves,” and is what you’re supposed to call it when you spray cheez on saltine crackers.
I am, at heart, a yokel.
So when I traveled to France, it was with no interest in learning how to like stinky cheese. Or how to stick my nose in a wine glass. Or how not to be grossed out by the very concept of fois gras.
I just wanted to ride my bike. A lot. Uphill. With Andy Freaking Hampsten.
So this really, really, really long ride report (I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing this will be an eight- or ten-part series) isn’t going to be about food very much. Nor about wine. It’s going to be about riding some of the most amazing stretches of road I’ve ever been on.
Also, I will probably at some point describe in detail how freaked out I was to discover that I had just unwittingly eaten foie gras.
We flew from SLC to Chicago to Zurich to Lyon, which takes a lot longer to do than to say. Then we — towing two suitcases, a bike box containing two bikes, and a wheel case — got on the Rhônexpress.
Frankly, we were feeling pretty proud of ourselves. All we needed to do now was ride the train, get off at the last stop and roll / carry our stuff from the train station to the hotel.
Then, as we rode along in our jetlagged stupor, an amazing moment: a brilliant flash of light with a simultaneous crack that sounded like thunder, but much, much louder and closer.
The Hammer and I looked at each other. Was this a normal part of the French train experience?
No, as it turns out, this was pretty unusual: lightning had struck our train.
The train coasted to a stop, then, a few minutes later, started up again and rolled — slowly — to the next stop.
The conductor made an announcement on the PA that would have been easier to understand if I knew French. Then most everyone got off, except us.
We asked each other: was this because it was a popular stop? Or because the train was broken? Should we get off too? Or wait and see?
We chose to wait. More than anything, this was because it was now raining, hard, and we were reluctant to step into the rain with the moving-van’s-worth of luggage we were hauling.
At this point, a wild-eyed man with a wild-haired beard stepped onto the train and pantomimed for us. We needed to get off this train and get onto a different one.
So we did.
If I had been asked to assess my confidence as a percentage on whether it was the correct train, however, I would have probably gone with 37%.
But it was the correct train. And we got off at the correct station. And exchanged currency we understood for currency that we treated as if it were monopoly money (€2.90 for a bottle of water? Sounds good!).
We checked into the hotel, got a decent night’s sleep (thanks, Ambien!), and then — the next morning — got on a bus with all our stuff and — along with the other 25 or so (I never counted) tour-ers (I say “tour-ers” because I don’t want to call us “tourists,” even though that’s what we were, on at least two different levels) rode to Aix-les-Bains.
We unpacked the bikes — everything was fine — and built them up.
We were ready to ride.
But first, we’d need to sit down for lunch — all five courses of it. If I cared about fine dining, I’d probably remember what we ate. As is, I mostly remember thinking, “I am going to gain thirty pounds during this trip.”
A Nice Little Ride
As we gathered together for the beginning of the ride, I looked around. It was a distressingly fit-looking group. I sized up the riders, and became concerned. Was I about to have my corn kicked? Most of these people had been on tours with Andy before and knew he has a fondness for climbing. I really had no idea whether I could hang with them.
Luckily, I had on my Fat Cyclist jersey, the perfect inoculation against riding with others who may or may not be faster than you. After all, if they pass you, well, you’re the guy in the Fat Cyclist jersey and so they have nothing to brag about.
If, on the other hand, you pass them, well: they just got passed by someone in a Fat Cyclist jersey.
I had looked at the ride map and decided today wouldn’t test me too hard anyway.
It was just a ride around the lake. A chance to get our legs used to riding again after all this plane, train, and bus travel.
Probably not a lot of climbing.
Before we took off, Andy addressed the group. “A lot of you like to hammer pretty hard when you ride,” he said. “You maybe sometimes stop to eat some Shot Bloks, and then keep going.”
“Well, guess what,” continued Andy. “Now you’re on vacation.” At the moment he said this, I noticed something: Andy was the only person there wearing baggy shorts.
“When we stop for an hour for a picnic lunch,” concluded Andy, “Chill. Enjoy it.”
I was struck by the truth of this: I was actually on a biking vacation. I resolved to — at least most of the time — keep my head up, my heart rate down, and to have fun.
Although I also reserved the right to go hard and indulge my Tour de France fantasies whenever the mood struck me.
The Part Where I Actually Describe The Ride
We rolled out, nice and easy, on a beautiful bike path by the shore of the lake.
The group rode along, talking, getting to know each other. All of us relieved that the bad weather of the day before — and even through the morning when we arrived — had turned into blue skies.
We rode out of town, through narrow streets and over a few cobblestones. I looked at The Hammer, and said, “Hey, guess what. You and I are in France. Riding our bikes on a beautiful day through a quaint French village, on a group being led by Andy Hampsten.”
We both started laughing. It just sounded unbelievable.
A Surprising Turn of Events
Then — honestly, without warning — the road turned up. “I thought we were just riding around the lake,” I said, to anyone who would listen.
And we were. It’s just that the lake has a big ol’ mountain right on its shore. And to get around, you’ve kinda gotta go up.
And as it turns out, this was a good thing, because The Hammer and I found out that we didn’t have too much to be concerned about, hanging-with-the-group-wise. More to the point, The Hammer turned on the gas and rode up from the back of the group up to the front, and I hung on. “Isn’t it nice to be riding at low altitude?” The Hammer asked. “It’s so easy!”
I would have answered, if I could.
There were switchbacks. And there were more switchbacks. There were surges. There were fades. There were people who gave other people “The Look,” after which people who were given “The Look” responded by riding past the giver of “The Look.”
As it turns out, it’s more important to have “The Legs” than “The Look.”
And in short, I had completely not understood what the ride would be like. Far from flat, the elevation profile was like this:
That’s about 1300 feet of climbing in about four miles. And I loved every bit of it. So green. Such nice pavement. Such cool old houses.
The Hammer and I got a picture of ourselves near the top:
And took photos of an abby, hundreds of feet below, on the shore of the lake.
And then I began to gorge myself on the cookies and pastries the follow van had brought along. “Hey,” I thought, “I’m on vacation. I’ll eat egg whites and avocados when I get back home.”
A Lesson From Andy
We descended back down to lake level and regrouped. Andy was watching as people rode up; he mentioned he was getting a sense of how people rode, where the groups would form, and so forth. He then interrupted himself to pull someone aside and say, quietly, “You really need to stop cross-chaining.” The rider didn’t know what Andy meant or what cross-chaining is, so Andy explained. Not sarcastic, just explaining.
It occurred to me that Andy isn’t just an ex-pro who happens to do tours. He’s actually a natural guide and leader who also happens to be one of the real heroes of the cycling world.
We started rolling again, and this time Scot Nicol — AKA Chuck Ibis, the founder of Ibis Cycles — took the lead, pulling a large train of folks. (Yes, that’s right, Chuck Ibis — an MTB Hall of Famer — was one of the guides on this trip.)
And he took it upon himself to show us what he could do. Which is to say, he pulled us — without taking any breaks or letting anyone else take a pull — at around 24mph for the next ten miles.
As it turns out, Chuck has some legs.
Very Important Things
And then, suddenly, a detour. Andy moved to the front of the group and guided us to a lakeside fair. Where we watched a powertool-wielding pirate make stump sculptures.
And then Andy found a cheese seller and promptly forgot that the world existed. Here he is as I yelled at him to smile for the camera.
Not satisfied, I asked Andy and Scot to give me something I could work with:
Hey, I think I see a scar on Chuck’s left shin. Where do you suppose that came from?
Andy bought some cheese, and then moved on to the next booth where he bought some wine. And let me tell you, when Andy is thinking about / shopping for / consuming cheese and wine, he goes into a meditative state that is as terrifying as it is beautiful. I mean, I never focus that much on anything.
The problem was, he had no easy way to carry the wine he bought. The solution? Turn the bottle upside down and put into his bottle cage.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that from the casual way he did this, he’s likely done it before.
At the end of the ride, we had gone around 33 miles, with around 2100 feet of climbing. Not really a big ride. And in fact, it would be the shortest ride of the trip. But it gave us a taste of what to expect the following day, where we were told there would be “extra credit” options for those of us who liked climbing.
And then we had a five-course dinner, completely eliminating any chance of my having some kind of caloric equilibrium for the day. “I am not going to fit in my jerseys by the end of this week,” I thought.
But hey. We were on vacation. I was going to chill. Enjoy.
And if necessary, I’d buy a couple larger jerseys at a local bike shop.
PS: A huge thanks goes out to our camera-toting guide, Arnaud Bachelard, for many of the photos in this (and upcoming) posts.