A Note from Fatty About the GranFondo Contest: Congratulations to Michael K of Southern California; he and his girlfriend will be getting the full-on deluxe treatment at Levi’s GranFondo this weekend!
I haven’t drawn the other three prizes yet; I’ll do that today. So just because you haven’t heard from me doesn’t mean you haven’t won!
A Note from Fatty to People Who Are Going to The GranFondo: Hey, we should all go to the Armstrong Redwood State Natural Reserve on a hike on Friday afternoon, and maybe go to the Gran LaFonda handmade bicycle show Friday evening. Send me an email so I can put a list together and get ahold of you with the where and when.
A Late Start
The day started rainy. Like, miserably coldly rainily rainy. I was trying to be philosophical about it, though. Trying to tell myself things like, “Well, I knew it would have to rain on at least one of the rides.”
That wasn’t helping, though. The Alpe d’Huez was the most famous of all the rides we’d be doing in this trip, and I wasn’t all that excited about
racing riding it in the rain.
Andy announced that we’d start the ride a little later, because the weather report showed that the rain might be slackening — or stopping altogether — within the next hour or so.
And, amazingly, it did. But it was still cold, still looked like it might start raining again, and we had a 2000-ish foot descent from La Grave to get down to Le Bourg d’Oisans, the village at the base of the Alpe d’Huez climb. So we bundled up: Smartwool base layer and and armwarmers, tights, jersey and rain jacket.
The ride plan was actually a little shorter than some of the other days: drop down to Le Boug d’Oisans, climb the Alpe d’Huez, drop down the other side, and then climb back to La Grave.
just 53 miles, with around 7000 feet of climbing.
By the time we got to the village — “the Bourg” as we called it — the sky had cleared. The day had turned warm.
Things were looking much better. We ditched all our cold-weather riding gear in the follow van (having a follow van is the ultimate in cycling luxury).
We were in no hurry to get started on the climb, though. After all, it was (now) a beautiful day, we had a lot of riding ahead of us, may as well relax for a bit.
So here’s The Hammer, relaxing at a cafe:
And here’s Andy Freaking Hampsten, looking at a photo of some famous guy racing the Alpe d’Huez:
And here he is taking a closer look and realizing it’s him:
And here’s me, considering the possibility of glory on the Alpe d’Huez.
Or something like that.
Fighting the Urge
After hanging around for a while — some people bought local jerseys at a bike shop, but The Hammer and I did some currency conversions in our head and got serious sticker shock, and hence bought nothing — it was time to get started.
It was time to climb the Alpe d’Huez. I swear, I got a little tingle just typing that.
After attacking the Mont-du-Chat climb without The Hammer, and then riding the Col-du-Glandon with her, I had pretty much decided that it was more awesome to ride and experience these things together. But as the small group I was riding with — Shawn, Heather, The Hammer, and I — got near the base of the climb, I reconsidered.
“I really want to ride this at my limit,” I told The Hammer.
“I really want to enjoy myself and take pictures,” The Hammer told me.
“Do you mind if I go for it?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she replied. “See you at the top.”
I saw the sign that indicated the base of the Alpe d’Huez climb, punched my GPS’s Lap button, and Shawn and I started the climb.
The Hammer took a picture of me as I went.
As far as the climb goes, well, it’s steep. I mean, check out the elevation profile, beginning at about mile 20.
The thing is, though, only the first couple kilometers feel really brutal. After that, the switchbacks come pretty often:
And those switchbacks give you a nice twenty-second reprieve.
Now, the most distinctive — and wonderful, as far as I’m concerned — feature of the Alpe d’Huez is that after the first couple kilometers, the road is painted with names. Everywhere. All the way to the summit.
And since my head was down, looking at the pavement, those painted names were pretty much the only thing I saw.
I didn’t stop for pictures. I didn’t talk with any of the people I passed. I didn’t take a good look at the church on Dutchman’s Corner.
I just rode my heart out. Tried to be as fast as I could possibly be. And, for what it’s worth, I think I did pretty well. I passed dozens — maybe hundreds — of cyclists. Meanwhile, not a single person passed me. Even Shawn dropped off, leaving me to get to the top alone.
Luckily for you, however, The Hammer did take pictures during the climb, and has a much more lucid recollection of it. So you’ll definitely want to read her recap of the day at the end of this post.
I looked at each switchback sign — on the Alpe d’Huez, switchbacks are numbered — counting my way to the top.
I was hurting so much. I wanted desperately to get to the top, to finish.
Simultaneously, I didn’t want this climb to end, ever.
Putting in a truly maximum effort does crazy things to your head; the pain is canceled — kind of — by pride in what you’re able to make your body do.
All the way up the climb I read, everywhere “ANDY, ANDY ANDY.” Such was my dementia that for about two thirds of it I thought, “How cool that they’re still honoring Andy Hampsten by painting his name on the road.”
And then I remembered there’s more than one Andy, and mentally facepalmed.
A couple of times during the climb I tried to do mental comparisons to where I normally ride. And to be certain, there are just as demanding — in fact, even more demanding — climbs all around my house.
But there’s something about the celebrity of the Alp d’Huez. Turning yourself inside out where the icons of cycling have turned themselves inside out.
Knowing this was (probably) a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, I went harder than I think I could have otherwise.
And then, there was the banner. The finish line. I rode under it, resisting the urge to throw my arms in the air, because there were a lot of people sitting, watching from a nearby outdoor cafe and I didn’t want to look like a fool.
The Summit, Take 2
I stopped, rested for a few minutes. Then I realized: I had forgotten to stop my stopwatch. So I punched it then. 56 minutes. Minus a few minutes for forgetfulness, so 53-ish minutes or so.
I felt a little bit bad that I had missed my opportunity to get an accurate measurement of my finishing time, but at least I knew that the Alp d’Huez takes, more or less, about the same amount of time it takes to get to the top of the Alpine Loop back home. Which made sense, because the effort and amount of climbing are about the same, too.
Then the thought occurred to me, I should turn around and ride back down to where The Hammer is, and finish riding up with her. I rode down the (surprisingly short) distance to where she was climbing up, and we finished the climb to the Finisher’s banner together.
This time, though, we took pictures. Here’s The Hammer as she approaches:
And here she is, under the banner, asking if I got the shot when she threw her arms up in the air.
The answer, of course, is “no.” I did not get that shot. But she was fine with this one.
Then I handed her the camera so she could get a shot of me going under the banner:
Whoops. Hit the trigger a little soon. So she asked me to go under again.
Summit, Take 3
By now, all the people in the outdoor cafe were laughing their heads off at us. I couldn’t understand why. Sure, we were obviously doing touristy photos, but thousands of people probably take this shot at the summit every day, right?
And that’s when Shawn caught up with us and said, “You’re not at the summit yet. That’s another kilometer uphill.”
Oh. In other words:
So. We got back on our bikes and rode to where the real summit is. Which does not have a banner, nor a little podium prop like the fake summit. It’s kind of plain, actually.
I contend that the fake summit is more awesome than the real summit of the Alp d’Huez.
Picnic and Back Home
We weren’t done with our riding for the day — far from it, really. We still had a climb of about 600 feet to get to the descent, called “Route Pastorale du Col de Sarenne.”
Which called for a picnic on the summit of the Alpe d’Huez. Here’s me, eating:
And me, getting something else to eat:
And me, eating some more:
Gee, I wonder why my nickname’s “Fatty.”
Next, we rode up to the highest point of the day’s ride, the Vallee du Ferrand:
As we began the descent, I was astonished at how steep sections were, and how long of a descent we were taking. Look at that road winding on and on below us:
My “Every descent implies an ascent” alarm went off inside my head, and I hoped we wouldn’t be descending for too much longer.
Oh, and here I am, somewhere along the descent, holding a giant rock:
By the time we climbed the road back to La Grave and our hotel, I was wiped out. It was only afternoon, but I was ready to eat and then get to bed.
The vacation had settled into a routine: Wake, eat, prep, ride, eat, rest, eat, sleep. There wasn’t much time for anything else. And I couldn’t have been happier.
We had two more days of riding. The final day would be the Col du Galibier.
But the day before that, there would be a disaster.
The Hammer’s Take
Here’s the letter — and photos — The Hammer wrote about our day on the Alpe d’Huez.
Well amazingly the rain abruptly stopped and after breakfast we prepared to descend into the city of Le Bourg d’Osians. This is the gateway city of Alpe d’Huez and home of one of Andy’s favorite bike stores. We bundled up in all of our warm bike gear and raced down the valley to Le Bourg. The temperature was quickly warming up and we didn’t need the warm stuff for long. That is the advantage of having a van following you, you can pick and choose what you want to wear.
Here is Elden contemplating what type of pastry he would like to try before heading out for the monster climb of Alpe d’Huez.
Elden had forewarned me that I would be riding up Alpe d’Huez on my own. He really wanted to ‘pour on the gas’ and see how fast he could climb to the top. He wanted to feel like a pro racer as he switch backed up the road.
I, on the other hand, wanted to take in the experience–take pictures, enjoy the view, etc.
Alpe d’Huez consists of 21 switchbacks and is approximately 8 miles long. Each switchback is labeled with a number and the elevation. It also has a name of a cyclist that won an Alpe d’Huez stage in the Tour de France and the year he won it. It is very helpful as you climb up the mountainside.
Here is a picture of the first few switchbacks.
I was warned that the first 3 switchbacks were extremely steep (10% grade) and after that it mellows back down to a 5-8% grade. I started off with 3 other riders (Elden being one of them) and they quickly dropped me. I didn’t mind, I was enjoying myself. I wasn’t going slow either, there were plenty of other bikers on the road and I was quickly passing them.
After the first few kilometers, the road wasn’t as steep and I really turned on the power. If I was running the RAGNAR, I would have counted the bikers that I passed and would refer to them as “road kill”. If this had been RAGNAR, I would have had over 50 road kill. I was burning up the Alpe d’Huez!
THis is switchback seven, also called Dutch Man’s Corner. You can see the base of the ski resort-”the top” in the saddle of the two hills.
On Dutchman corner, there is a small village-complete with old church and cemetery.
Here I am posing with Andy Hampsten’s switchback sign! Only 5 more switch backs to the top!! Yeah!
The sign says I’ve made it…at least to the closest side of the village. I still have a few kilometers before I reach the top.
I met Elden here. He had made it to the top and returned to ride with me. What a sweet man.
Look at all the switchbacks that I have done…just a few more left
The roads were still painted with encouragement from fans from the last Tour of France. Too bad my name is not Andy or Frank or Alberto!
Yeah! Elden takes the stage! But not really….This is a fake finish line to get you to stop in the village and buy a beer. The top is still a few kilometers to go!
It’s Lisa who Wins the mountain top finish of the Alpe d’Huez! We celebrated by drinking the most expensive coke of our lives…4 euros for a can of coke! ($6).
The descent down the back side of the Alpe d’Huez actually started off with a 600 ft climb! The road was pretty messed up too. It had big cobblestone trenches built into the road to help with drainage. It made for a vey hairy descent once we hit the real top!
Elden starting the switch backs down the back side of the mountain:
Taking in the view:
One of the many mountain lakes we passed on the return trip to La Grave. The water is a peculiar bluish green!
The water from the glaciers and snow come rushing off the rugged mountain sides!
Now we’re about to head out on today’s ride — it’s supposed to be an easier day, since tomorrow we ride the Col du Galibier — another famous Tour de France stage!