Have you ever sat down and thought about what a memory is? Me either, until it was time for me to start writing this blog post, at which time I began thinking about my fourth day of riding in France, when my group rode from Aix-les-Bains to La Grave.
And I found myself thinking about what a memory is. Or really, what a memory is not.
See, a memory of a ride can’t be a recollection of the whole ride, because that would take too long. Instead, your brain has to pick out certain unique moments and maybe munge together groups of similar moments. And then you call that edit of your experience your memory.
And if, for some reason, there’s something special or powerful about that memory, it may become the dominant memory you have for a certain kind of activity. Or maybe you’ll even begin to associate that memory with certain words.
For example, my dominant memory for the trip to France comes from the ride I’m about to tell you about: climbing the Col-du-Glandon.
And — maybe it’s too early to say, but I think it’s true — my new mental picture of “road climbing” is associated with climbing the Col-du-Glandon.
In other words, this fourth day of riding affected me pretty powerfully.
It Starts Out Easy
The plan was simple. We got up in the morning in our hotel in Aix-les-Bains, dragged our luggage downstairs, where the tour guides would pack it all into a bus and drive it to La Grave, where we’d be staying for the rest of the tour.
Our ride for the day, meanwhile, would be to cover that distance by bike. 107-ish miles.
Honestly, I didn’t think it would be a big deal. Neither did The Hammer. We’ve reached the point where 100+ miles on a road bike is not a frightening prospect.
And the first 50 miles was, in fact, pretty flat.
We rode along bike paths and through little villages. Around roundabouts chained to roundabouts.
I wondered, aloud, what “Rappel” meant, since it appears on so many road signs.
We stopped a couple hours into the ride at a field bordering a vineyard at the base of a mountain.
The day had that autumn feel to it — warm sun, cool air — and was just perfect for a ride. We were cruising. Not really going fast. But not dawdling either. I repeat: we were cruising.
And then, about 45 or so miles into the ride, lunch in a beautiful little park at the edge of a village.
Right after lunch came the part that I now associate with “road climb:” the Col-du-Glandon.
If you take a look at the elevation profile for the day, you’ll get an inkling of why:
You see how the elevation kinda does nothing for 55 miles or so, and then suddenly goes a little bit nuts?
Yeah. That’s the Col-du-Glandon. 5000 feet of climbing in 13.7 miles.
But you know, I’m worried that I’m selling this climb as a horrible experience. It was not. It was an amazing, perfect, beautiful climb, that just happened to go on forever.
It starts with more of what we had become used to: moderate-grade climbing with occasional villages to spice things up.
But then it opens up to a wide mountainside, and you can look up and see switchback after switchback after switchback.
And you know that, eventually, you’re going to have to ride all of it.
Here’s what it looks like when you’re looking down on it:
And here’s The Hammer, going past one of the kilometer markers considerately placed to let you know you’re making progress.
My favorite moment of the climb came when, after several kilometers with an average grade advertised at 11%, one of the markers promised an incline of 9%.
“Oh good,” said The Hammer. “Just nine percent for a while.”
And she said it without any irony whatsoever.
The Hammer and I rode this whole climb together. Sure, I could have indulged my inner cycling dweeb and decimated myself by being a minute-point-five faster, but I decided: one of the nice things about a riding vacation together in France is riding together.
Aren’t I smart?
After an eternity of switchbacks and smallest-gear climbing, we reached the top. Which called for photographs in heroic stances.
The Other Side
Do me a favor and scroll back up to that elevation profile earlier in this post, and then come back to here.
Pretty bomber, isn’t it?
So when I say that I really don’t remember the downhillishness (including what looks like a drop off a cliff on the elevation profile) of the descent down the other side of the Col-du-Glandon, you must understand that there was some seriously beautiful scenery taking my mind off of that descent.
We finished the descent proper and rolled on relatively flat roads to Le Bourg d’Oisans — the gateway to the Alpe d’Huez. Somewhere on that relatively flat road, though, I faded.
By the time we reached this little town, in fact, I was cooked.
The Hammer was feeling pretty wiped out, too. This, however, was put aright by purchasing pretty much the entire contents of a bakery, and two cans of Coke, each.
The Hammer asks me to point out the awesomeness of her Smartwool jersey. Perfect for temps that go from warmish to coldish and back again. (And I would like to acknowledge the awesome restorative powers of Coke.)
We now felt good enough to take a couple of hammy pictures.
Climb to Home
We were tired. We were ready for the day’s ride to be over. But there was a problem. We still had to ride to La Grave, which is where our hotel was situated.
And La Grave is 2000 feet higher than Le Bourg-d’Oisans.
So we started riding. What else can you do? (Well, theoretically we could have bailed out and gotten in the van, but neither of us really liked that idea).
There’s something distinctly painful about starting to ride — uphill — when your body thinks it’s done for the day.
But you know what? There’s something very cool about having your legs, after five minutes or so, get back into the rhythm. And something even cooler about discovering that you do, in fact, have it in you to keep riding.
The Hammer and I were in a group of five or six riders, chugging along. Up ahead, there was another group of five or six riders.
I had no intention of bridging.
Then I saw The Hammer getting close to another of the riders in our group. I thought perhaps she wanted to get around, maybe take a turn at pulling. So I looked back, saw that there were no cars coming and said, “You can go.”
And she went.
Or, more specifically, she just rode the entire group off her wheel. Not so much an attack as a statement of authority.
I stood up, put my head down, and chased, catching her about the time she finished bridging to the faster group.
“What was that for?” I asked.
“You told me I could go,” she replied. “So I went.”
Clearly, I need to be careful about what I tell The Hammer.
When I’m tired, I use close-to-home comparisons to help me bring the remaining part of a ride into perspective. So it was a nice surprise when The Hammer, out of nowhere, said, “Really, all we have left is a climb up the South side of Suncrest.”
I thought about it. We had about 1200 feet of climbing left. Which is about the amount from our house to the top of the South side of Suncrest. Which we do not really think of as a big deal.
We got to our hotel in La Grave –The Edelweiss (of course) — right about as it got dark.
Tired. Hungry. And a little bit in awe of the epic ride we had just done: 105 miles (or so), with 10,500 feet of climbing. (And don’t forget that there was no climbing whatsoever for the first 55 miles.)
I was glad the next day was a rest day.
PS: A number of you have mentioned that you wish you had The Hammer’s side of the story. Well, honestly you’ve been getting it, kind of. The Hammer wrote a letter home every day we were gone, and I’ve been using it as source material while I write these posts.
That said, I think I will start posting her letter from the day along with my own post, since she does in fact talk about some things that I don’t, and sometimes has a different perspective on the same events.
Here’s her letter home, describing our Aix-les-Bains to La Grave ride:
Wow, wow, wow! I can’t even begin to put into words the ride we went on yesterday! Absolutely the most gorgeous ride ever!
We left our hotel in Aix les Bain at 0845. Our end destination would be in the Alpes in a small ski village named La Grave. We knew it would be around 100 miles, but had no clear idea on how much climbing we would be doing! We woke to another day of perfect weather, just a little chill in the air!
The first 50 miles were pretty flat. We rode on a bike path similar to Provo River bike path and in the bike lane on the road through many small villages and cities. We passed the only 3 stop lights I’d seen in our journey so far!
We rode in a long train and hardly expended any energy. Lunch was in a park next to a water fountain. After lunch, the first real climb of the day began. It was called the Col du Glandon and I’m sure it’s been in the Tour de France at some point!
It was a 14mile climb with 5000 ft of climbing! The average grade was around 9% and toward the end-the last 1 1/2 miles it was 15%. Blake, that is similar to the last switchback before the Squaw peak lookout that you love so much!
I actually enjoyed the climb. Elden and I rode together and passed several other riders from our group in the process! It was most satisfying!
The van met us at the top and we snacked on French cookies and took a lot of pictures. Then we put our windbreakers on and started the descent. This is where I can’t describe in words the beauty that was all around me! I was in awe!
We rode past a high mountain lake, beautiful flowers and mountain goats!! I thought I had died and gone to heaven!
When we finished the descent, we saw a sign that said the town we would be having our next break in was still 12k or just over 6 miles away! I was exhausted and my back hurt and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it on the 4 French cookies I had eaten over an hour ago! I tucked in behind Elden’s wheel and began a mini sufferfest!
We eventually pulled into the village of Le Bourg d’Oisans, home of the Alpe de Huez and a great little pastry shop-(according to our guides)! I bummed 5 euros off of another rider to buy a coke and downed 3 pieces of tart and finally started feeling better!
I also got a chance to use one of those fancy self-cleaning toilets. I wonder what happens if you get caught in one when it starts it’s cleansing cycle?
Le Bourg d’Oisans is where the climb to the top of Alpe de Huez begins. We will be returning on Thursday for that adventure!
After resting and getting refueled, a group of us headed out for our destination and bed for the night–La Grave! We had just hit the 90mile mark and 7500 ft of climbing! LaGrave was stll 15 miles and 2500 ft away from us!!! AAGH!!
The last 15 miles were grueling, but beautiful! We rode through several very long dark tunnels that were rather surreal. These miles passed rather quickly, I think the others in the group were suffering more than Elden and I!
We eventually arrived at our hotel. It’s old and quaint and has a funny smell, but it’s charming and home for us for the next few days!
The village is nestled up against the mountains. There is a huge peak and glacier looming over us! It is very pretty! After a nice shower, we all met up for dinner which consisted of pumpkin soup, lamb with kidney gravy, some kind of au gratin potatoes and string beans, followed by a course of cheese (the French love their cheese) and some kind of “puff” filled with ice cream and covered with chocolate sauce for dessert!
It’s now Wednesday morning and our official rest day! I scoffed a few days ago at the thought of a rest day–even brought my running shoes to go for a run! I have now reconsidered the error of my way and am officially resting my weary legs.
We have a load of wash in the washing machine and am seriously considering a nap and it’s only 11:30am!
Tomorrow: A longish video interview with Andy Freaking Hampsten.