From time to time, life presents you with momentous decisions. Should you move to a far-off city, or stay close to home? Should you take an interesting job with an untested company, or keep the job you have? Should you have pizza for dinner, or a burger?
On the third day of riding in France, our group was presented with just such a decision. Not the pizza-or-burger option (alas), but something equally momentous.
We were given the choice of either a beautiful, carefree day of riding around the lake, surveying gorgeous scenery and exquisite villages of breathaking antiquity.
Or, if we preferred, we could ride the Mont-du-Chat (pronounced “shot,” I think). A ride which — as Bruce, one of the guides, put it — is “brutally hard and has no redeeming qualities, other than being known as one of the hardest climbs in France.”
Most of the group chose the beautiful day of riding around the lake.
Guess which option The Hammer and I — along with six others in our group — chose.
Honestly, it wasn’t a hard choice. Part of why I was here was to indulge my Tour de France fantasy; I had been open about that. And that fantasy included, at least a couple times, going as hard as I could up famous climbs.
Preview of the Climb
It’s useful to know what the elevation profile looks like for the Mont-du-Chat climb:
Yeah, and that’s pretty much what it feels like, too. When it starts going up, it’s obvious, immediate, and steep. Like, it averages around 10% for about eight miles.
And it doesn’t really ease up ’til you get to the top.
Here’s another useful thing: a map of our ride for the day:
In particular, this is what the climb looks like:
Quite a few switchbacks there.
Climbing the Mont-du-Chat
Our group had ridden out to the base of the climb together. As we rode this flat, seven mile section, I explained my plan to The Hammer. “I’m going to go at my absolute limit on this climb, OK? I want to see if I can hang with Shawn.”
Shawn was one of the youngest people in the tour, and a seriously fast guy on the bike, especially when climbing. As in, he took 2nd in the 2011 Mt. Evans Hill climb.
So, as soon as the road turned uphill, he and I took off. Without a doubt, in my head, we were racing.
The problem was, this race was happening in my head exclusively. More to the point, my absolute maximum effort was — more or less — his “brisk tempo” pace.
And so we talked. Or rather, he talked. I gritted my teeth and rode like it mattered. Not for time — I hadn’t even checked my stopwatch at the beginning, and had no way to compare my effort against anyone else’s.
I was just riding at my limit because, once in a while, it’s great to find out what that limit is.
Well, whatever that limit is, it’s well under whatever Shawn’s limit is. My sufferfest did not equal his sufferfest.
Even as I rode — suffering alone, though not riding alone — I noticed a couple of interesting things:
- The guide was joking when he said it had “no redeeming qualities.” Maybe he was just trying to scare away all but those of us who really really really wanted to do this ride. But the truth is, it’s a beautiful road, on a beautiful mountain, with a beautiful overlook at the top. I’ll show you all three of those in a minute.
- I really like the way famous climbs in France are marked. Every kilometer, there’s a marker giving you all kinds of helpful information: what the grade is for the next kilometer, how far you have to go to the summit, and the current altitude. Here I am at the 2Km marker:
“What?” I hear you say. “You say you were riding at your absolute limit on this climb, but you stopped to take pictures?
Well, no. I didn’t. Shame on you for even thinking this. When I’m in the all-out-riding mode, there is no force in the world that could get me to dismount and take a photo.
So I’ll explain how I got this particular photo in a moment.
We continued up — me at full-tilt, Shawn in his ‘having fun and sorta kinda riding hard’ mode, ’til we got to the top, where we’re greeted by the site of the gorgeous Mt-du-Chat radio tower:
I was so cooked. I stopped, straddling my bike — too tired to swing a leg over and get off for real. Resting my arms on my handlebars. Hanging my head. Willing whatever breakfast was to stay put.
“Hey,” suggested Shawn, brightly, “What if we cruise back down a little, take pictures of the others as they come up, and then finish the ride up with our wives.”
Yes, someone else was suggesting we pull “The Elden Move” . . . to Elden.
So we did. We rode down to the 2Km marker (though I should point out that we intercepted Andy well before then; he was right behind us, in spite of the fact that he was dawdling along and had big panniers full of cookies and bread and cheese and probably a full change of clothing).
And that’s how we got the photo of me at the marker. And one of Shawn, too.
Yeah, clearly we have the same body type.
We then took photos at one of the hairpin turns. Here’s The Hammer as she comes around:
In Praise of Armwarmers and Windbreakers
Once we got the photos, we rode back to the top — that’s why my elevation profile at the beginning of this post has a little divot.
And then we began to get cold at an alarming rate. It was a cloudy day, and windy too, way up there.
So you can bet that I felt pretty proud of myself for, at the beginning of the ride, recommending to The Hammer that we carry armwarmers and windbreakers in our jersey pockets.
Just look how cozy and comfortable we look:
Oh, and we got a photo of us with Andy Hampsten, too, who was looking rather dapper in one of the three changes of clothing he had brought with him that day.
Note to self: hire a better photographer.
While at the top, I asked The Hammer, “So, what did you think of this climb?”
“It was fine,” she said. “About 3/4 as difficult as climbing Mount Nebo, I guess.”
And the truth is, The Hammer is right. The mountains we climb right out our front door here in Utah County are every bit as epic as the hard stuff in France. Perhaps epic-er.
The difference is, though, the riding in Utah isn’t in France.
Do I make myself clear?
We had finished the hard part of the ride, but still had a lot of riding ahead of us. Including a big descent down the other side of Mont-du-Chat.
It was cold at first, but warmed up by the time we were about halfway down.
And that’s when I saw something I’ll never forget.
I was bombing down, trying to keep Andy in sight, and feeling quite proud of the fact that I was succeeding.
Which was when he sat up on this extremely fast, twisty downhill, and rode no-handed. His arms stuck straight out, like he was playing “airplane.”
It was a beautiful, silly, completely insane moment.
We now went on a scenic tour around the lake, exploring the roads that went by beautiful vineyards . . .
. . . and pretty little villages . . .
. . . with narrow alleys:
It was actually in this little village that we hit our maximum climb grade for the whole trip. Andy had asked a local kid where we could find a store to buy some snacks. The kid directed us up a road.
A road which became steep.
Very steep indeed.
As in, my Garmin showed 36% for a second.
Eventually, though, it did wind around through most of the town and lead us to a store. We got there at the exact moment the kid who had been giving us directions arrived, using a much shorter, direct route.
Very funny, kid.
We snacked, and then rode a few more miles alongside a beautiful canal / river.
As we rode, I began reading signs out loud, in spite of the fact that I do not know French or even any of its pronunciation rules.
I’m pretty sure I got everything right.
Then we got back to our hotel in time to change and walk over to a park, where our tour guides had set up a beautiful picnic.
We still had some of the afternoon and the whole evening to kill, so The Hammer and I walked into the city. Me reading signs aloud, both of us pointing out similarities and differences between here and where we live.
Mostly, things aren’t too different. I mean, sure, language stuff and the way that automobiles there seem to have a hard-and-fast rule that they must yield to pedestrians.
But by and large, lots of similar stuff. Except one very, very strange store.
See, we wanted to load up on food to take to our hotel room, to sustain us after our seven-course dinner. And then we walked into this:
A grocery store containing nothing but frozen food.
I felt like I was in a Star Trek movie.
This was to be our last day staying in Aix-les-Bains (at the Aquakub, in case you’re curious). The next day, we’d be riding 100 miles to the place we’d be staying for the rest of the tour: La Grave. From there, we’d have easy access to the Alpe d’Huez and Col-du-Galibier, rides we’d be doing later that week.
“100 miles. Pish-posh,” The Hammer and I scoffed. “A 100 mile ride is just not that big of a deal.”
We were so wrong.