Fatty Goes to France, Part I: The Treachery of Lake Bourget

09.14.2011 | 11:32 am

201109140906.jpg 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.

But now everything’s cool, with a chance for you to win a trip to Levi’s GranFondo. Please, please donate. Or Levi will punch me in the throat. Again.

Get details here, or just go straight to the donation page here.

A Note About the Grand Slam for Zambia: The Grand Slam for Zambia was a monstrous success — we wound up raising $153,936, enough to buy 1,125 bikes. That’s astounding.

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.

When casually standing at the side of lakes, I often smile and cast my eyes skyward. This is only one of the reasons I am so photogenic.

We unpacked the bikes — everything was fine — and built them up.

Andy helps one of my fellow tour-ers build up his bike, while on the right, I kowtow to the toolbox.

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.

I’m pretty sure we’re riding across what must have been — judging from all these chalk outlines — a truly horrific crime scene.

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:

The awesome thing about a black jersey is it hides your gut, even when you’re breathing too hard to suck it in.

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.

Look, a dolphin is trying to escape from that tree trunk!

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.

I’m pretty sure Andy’s giving me “The Look.” On the left, Chuck Ibis is cooling down following a monster pull.

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.

The Math

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.


  1. Comment by davidh-marin,ca | 09.14.2011 | 12:03 pm

    It sorta of looks like you don’t fit in the jersey at the start of this tour. Then again, I’m sure the camera is just distorting the image.

  2. Comment by NYCCarlos | 09.14.2011 | 12:05 pm

    Great ride report, Fatty! Welcome back.

  3. Comment by will | 09.14.2011 | 12:20 pm


    Relais du Mont du Chat (not col du Chat) starts at the foot of Lac du Bourget. Le Cycle magazine (a French cycling magazine), once called it possible the hardest climb in France.

    Details of the climb:

    Tomorrow morning for you?

    Enjoy the trip

  4. Comment by J. Wall | 09.14.2011 | 12:23 pm

    Awesome report. Can’t wait for part deux. Welcome back.

  5. Comment by Cyclin' Missy | 09.14.2011 | 12:38 pm

    I majored in French in college and spent a year there after I graduated. I’m so excited to hear about your trip! Some day, I hope to do a biking vacation in France with my hubby. Awesome.

  6. Comment by Jenn | 09.14.2011 | 1:00 pm

    I’ve been waiting all week for this! Thanks for taking copious notes (or having an active imagination, very good memory, or both)!

  7. Comment by Wife#1 | 09.14.2011 | 1:04 pm

    Fabulous post, though I think I would be happy with just a bunch of pictures with your hilarious captions!

    Horrific crime scene
    Dolphin escaping from tree trunk
    Black jersey to hide the gut

    DYING here… LMAO!

    Can’t wait for the next chapters. Yay!

  8. Comment by Amanda | 09.14.2011 | 1:06 pm

    I kinda hate you in a completely green with envy kind of way.

  9. Comment by Scott R | 09.14.2011 | 1:29 pm

    I’ll just second Amanda’s thought. I look forward to the rest of the 20 part series.

  10. Comment by Dillon Bikes | 09.14.2011 | 1:34 pm

    Great Post! I’m looking forward to hearing about the rest of the trip! This has inspired me to get off the couch and go ride my bike.

  11. Comment by GiroJenny | 09.14.2011 | 1:49 pm

    Great post. We toured with Cinghiale (Italy Climbs 2009) and the 1st day out with Andy is such an eye-opener. You totally captured it. Can’t wait for more!

  12. Comment by LauraS | 09.14.2011 | 1:55 pm

    Like being there all over again, except for the fact that I was off the back pretty much all the time – but who cares! It was awesome!

  13. Comment by Wife#1 | 09.14.2011 | 2:27 pm

    Open Comment to Chris Horner…
    On closer inspection I just realized that Fatty did not include your donation of a signed CH jersey in his ‘Top 10 prizes’ list above. Inconceivable! Yet said list includes shoes, an iPhone and a Ben King signed jersey? What the heck? Insanity. I think maybe all the stinky cheese has further addled his brain. Nonethless, don’t wait for Levi to take him down, you need to get into this action yourself. You may need to punch him in throat yourself, or get Jens to do it, in retaliation for this most egregious insult. Here is the list he called “Top 10″ (as if!):

    •Africa Trip
    •RadioShack Trek Madone
    •Tour de France Trip
    •SRAM Red Group
    •HED Ardennes SL Wheels
    •Lance Armstrong’s podium-worn yellow jersey
    •Bike and an afternoon with Gary Fisher
    •Specialized BG S-Works Road Shoes with Boa Systems
    •Ben King-signed jersey
    •16Gb White iPhone

    Just another cycling fan trying to keep the sport honest

    FYI, People get to pick which prize they want, in the order they’re drawn. I’m pretty sure, though, that by calling attention to this you’ve just ensured that Chris Horner won’t want to do any more contests with me. – FC

  14. Comment by Liz | 09.14.2011 | 3:01 pm

    Excellent! Take as many chapters as you need to; great account. The scenery is breathtaking. So different from the lovely scenery you are accustomed to, no? Thanks and looking forward to the rest.

  15. Comment by Annoying Know-It-All | 09.14.2011 | 3:42 pm

    “abbey” as in “abbot”, not “abby” as in “Abby-normal”

  16. Comment by davidh-marin,ca | 09.14.2011 | 3:46 pm

    Hey Fatty! Will we get a guest blog from Dr. Laura and The Hammer? I would love to hear their take on this adventure. And maybe one from Scott Nichols Ibis Chuck, to hear what really happened.

  17. Comment by davidh-marin,ca | 09.14.2011 | 3:52 pm

    Chris. What my wife (Wife#1) is trying to say ( and has repeated here before) is she’s looking for some signed Chris Horner socks.

    Comment by Wife#1 | 08.1.2011 | 9:55 pm

    “But do we have the Chris Horner socks yet? You know, something so epic that it will sway all those on the fence to jump up and say “By god, I must donate $134 for a bike immediately… Chris Horner’s socks!”

    It could happen.”

    You create the challenge, she’ll open the checkbook.

  18. Comment by Paul Guyot | 09.14.2011 | 6:45 pm

    Well, this sucks.

    I now officially hate my own life… and it’s only the first report.


  19. Comment by Clydesteve | 09.14.2011 | 6:47 pm

    Fatty – what Amanda said! Just keep drawing this out as long as you like!

  20. Comment by rich | 09.14.2011 | 8:30 pm

    Awesome post…..can’t wait for more…..
    completley and totally jealous…..

  21. Comment by MattC | 09.14.2011 | 8:37 pm

    Hey…who’s this ‘fatty’ guy who’s hijacked Paul’s blog?


    Or AM I?

    Welcome BACK Fatty!

    I echo what Clydesteve and Amanda said. Being as I’ll prob never get over to Europe w/ my bike (unless we hit the lotto), I have to live vicariously. Spread the reports out as long as you can.

    And watch yourself in Santa Rosa! Do they make Kevlar throat protectors? You can prob get something similar yet effective at a paintball shop.

  22. Comment by Wife#1 | 09.14.2011 | 8:50 pm

    @Fatty – au contraire… the awesomeness that is Chris Horner will never fail to deliver for a good cause, you know this to be true.

    I think you need to do his Gran Fondo next year though! ;-)

    New contest opportunity for 2012!

  23. Comment by roan | 09.14.2011 | 9:02 pm

    So far pretty laid back, I like the slow pace of a 8-10 part series, gives me more time to dream. Fatty with your Fat Cyclist Jersey on tour…any comments from the locals ? I’ll echo an earlier comment, I’ll probably never get to Europe with my bike.
    And I would gladly pass on foie gras for goose egg whites and avocado picnic with anyone publicly saying “I am, at heart, a yokel”. Way to man-up man !

  24. Comment by Bee | 09.15.2011 | 12:31 am

    I’m just curious to know how you fit two bikes into one bike box- I had one bike firmly packed into one bike box on the flights I just took. You clearly have bike packing secrets the world must know.

  25. Comment by skippy | 09.15.2011 | 12:40 am

    Great scenery in that area as well as challenging climbs and the sun always seems to shine when you are on the bike !
    All the years riding the Tours in this area w/out a camera and yours are thus the first that i have been able to save .
    Anyone will enjoy riding this area since there are so many English speaking cycling tourists that visit and the lake and neighbouring area is surrounded by climbs of all grades .
    Last february i was able to enjoy Mt Ventoux whilst others were skiing Chamonix !

  26. Comment by a chris | 09.15.2011 | 2:22 am

    We’ve done the wine-in-the-bottle-cage thing, too, after grocery shopping by bike. I guess in Canada or the US you’d need a brown paper bag to hide the indecency of the naked bottle. :(

    Not wanting to be a schoolmarm here (like I can help it), but it’s “hors d’oeuvres,” right? Like “hors catégorie.”

  27. Comment by Eva | 09.15.2011 | 2:44 am

    Grand Slam for Zambia… If you really do the math that’s over 1148 bikes actually… Even more awesome!

    Enjoying the multi-chapters France report. Take your sweet time…

  28. Comment by Johan Mokhtar | 09.15.2011 | 5:26 am

    Hey I am Johan M. Oh wait . . . I don’t live in Florida.

    Glad you helped get so many bikes to Zambia.

    Great write up of your touring adventure. Looking forward to more.

  29. Comment by Trey | 09.15.2011 | 6:03 am

    Alas, my younger brother is in France for the second time in two weeks as I type…it’s about 2pm his time, sadly he is not a cylist.
    As a member of the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux, Fatty, I am so happy you and the Hammer had this opportunity. I am so looking forward to more of your reporting but did the Hammer (as at Leadville) also file a story? Would love to read her take. Also, like another reader I had to look…when exactly did the Runner become the Hammer?

  30. Comment by Buy cycling jerseys | 09.15.2011 | 6:07 am

    Great article Fatty – nothing like traveling to a foriegn country where you don’t speak the language to broaden your horizons!

  31. Comment by Doug (Way upstate NY) | 09.15.2011 | 6:15 am

    You should have updated your weight log as you went :)

    Looks like a nice ride to get your legs under you.

  32. Comment by Cookster | 09.15.2011 | 6:56 am

    Speaking of Fat cyclist jerseys, things must be getting close for twin six to deliver. Yes take you time on the report and tell us all about Bucky, err The Hammer and yourself in France.

    @ MattC kevlar is a balistic cloth and won’t really help with a punch but the fibreglass/resinous materials will defend must better.

  33. Comment by The Bike Nazi | 09.15.2011 | 9:53 am

    Good to have you back Fatty, although Paul’s posts were fun to read. I am so jealous of your trip!

  34. Comment by bikebakeandbeyond | 09.15.2011 | 10:42 am

    It’s nearly 1pm US eastern and Part 2 has not yet arrived. I want a refund of my subscription fees. After all, I’m paying my local cable company big bucks for the internet. Some of that must surely be trickling down to Fatty, no?

  35. Comment by The Hamer | 09.15.2011 | 11:31 am

    Am I the only one that noticed Andy has hairy legs? If HE’S not shaving, maybe we should all reconsider.

  36. Comment by Andrew | 09.15.2011 | 10:15 pm

    I’ve gotta comment on this one, how often does fatty start with comments like these ‘I really had no idea whether I could hang with them’.
    Only to follow with statements like this ‘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.’
    Then he caps off his self doubt with a closer like this ‘As it turns out, it’s more important to have “The Legs” than “The Look.’
    So lets talk Legs. Fatty’s legs are in reality that far removed from Levi’s, especially considering we are talking about a man who does the Leadville in sub 9. I thought I’d give you a comparison to get your perspective on this:

    Levi’s Legs

    ‘The FatCyclists Legs’ aka Fatty’s

    A Fat Cyclists

  37. Comment by not much further... | 09.20.2011 | 5:46 am

    Ha ha wife#1 – I chose the chris horner jersey (ticket 12) and am so excited! Am waiting for it to arrive in the UK as we speak….

    I too was knocked off my bike (last year) in a triathlon in Florida and finished the race with a head injury. Took me a year to recover, but I did a half ironman again this year (and Livestrong Davis with FC) so it was fate that the prize was still available and of course I had to go for it! Sometimes things are just meant to be…..

    Team Fatty (London)

  38. Pingback by Rosh Hashanah (& Some Other Things) | The Reluctant Grownup | 09.27.2011 | 1:21 pm

    [...] reading about the adventures of a couple of extreme endurance athletes whose blogs I follow.  Both The Fat Cyclist and Jill Homer have taken amazing European trips in the last month – Fattie and his wife went [...]


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