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.
Yes, I often ask The Hammer what she’s going to wear on a ride, and then dress the same. Isn’t that precious?
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.
Talking in a rotating two-across paceline.
Why, I believe that Stanley Tucci and Patrick Dempsey are taking a turn pulling. Will wonders never cease?
And then, about 45 or so miles into the ride, lunch in a beautiful little park at the edge of a village.
Honestly, that’s not a backdrop or anything. It’s just how the place looks.
Beautiful drinking fountain in village, as required by law. Beautiful wife not required by law, but definitely a nice addition.
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:
Steeper than it looks. And I think it looks pretty steep.
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.
“No, I’m not sucking my gut in. What would make you think I’m sucking my gut in?”
OK, that’s more of a Vanna White pose than a heroic pose, but I like it.
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.
And the thing is, neither of us are especially good photographers. I.e., this is what you get with a point-and-shoot.
There is nothing quite so wonderful as a windbreaker when you’re starting a descent on a cold day and you’re all sweaty from the climb. Not that The Hammer sweats.
I don’t know what these are.
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.
Okay, maybe this was a staged shot. The sentiment behind it was genuine.
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.
Between the jersey and the armwarmers (which she stole from me), The Hammer is pretty much ready to shoot the 2011 Smartwool catalog.
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.
A Note from Fatty: This is part 3 of my retelling of the cycling trip in France we recently finished with Cinghiale Cycling Tours, led by Andy Freaking Hampsten.
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.
An (Astounded) Note from Fatty: I really thought that all the Levi Leipheimer drama was behind us. You know, the drama that started with a letter I wrote to Levi, then continued with Levi’s attorney’s response, and — I had hoped — concluded with the GranFondo folks acting as the voice of reason.
The upshot of all this was fairly awesome. In exchange for supporting the charities associated with Levi’s GranFondo, a Friend of Fatty and a guest will get to come to — and get the full VIP treatment at — Levi’s GranFondo. Further, a couple people will win totally deluxe GranFondo kits: helmets, jerseys, shorts, armwarmers, hats, socks. The works.
That contest is still open, so click here to donate, or click here for more details.
Anyway, yesterday, I was astonished to get the following letter from Odessa Gunn, Levi Leipheimer’s wife, asking me to please post it on my blog.
Of course, I was more than happy to oblige.
A Letter from Odessa Gunn
It has come to my attention that you and the rest of Team Fatty are working together to raise money for the charities associated with Levi’s GranFondo. I think that’s wonderful, and I would like to provide an additional prize for your contest.
But first, a little background.
Here’s Levi’s Tour de Suisse yellow jersey.
As you can see, he’s signed it and everything, which is a little weird, because he’s totally planning on keeping it for himself.
Levi’s pretty proud of earning this jersey, and rightly so. I mean, it’s kind of a big deal to win the Tour de Suisse.
The thing is, though, that jersey is starting to get on my nerves.
Why? Because — and I swear I am not exaggerating at all here — he wears it all the time. And I’m not even talking about wearing on his bike, either.
Let me show you what I mean.
In the past few days alone, I have seen him wearing this jersey while:
1. Watering the plants, dusting, vacuuming, doing other chores.
I know, I shouldn’t complain about what Levi wears when he helps around the house. But wearing that jersey while cleaning the toilet? Really?
2. Working on bikes.
Not a lot of people know this, but Levi is a pretty good mechanic. Neighbors are always coming to him with their bike questions, and he hopes that someday, when he retires as a pro cyclist, he’ll be able to get a job at one of the local bike shops.
But why, I have to ask, does he have to wear that jersey while working on bikes? Grease is so obvious when it gets smeared on that yellow.
3. Taking a nap
I know, I know. It looks like Levi’s fallen asleep here after getting back from a ride. But he hasn’t. He’s just fallen asleep while watching TV. He hasn’t been on his bike all day. Honestly, he hasn’t ridden in weeks.
Yesterday, I snapped.
“For crying out loud, Levi,” I said. “Could you please wear something else?”
“I really like this jersey,” Levi mumbled back, not looking me in the eye.
So I decided to take matters into my own hands. Which is where you and your readers come in.
Today, Levi and I had a conversation. “Why don’t you give that Tour de Suisse yellow jersey away as a prize in that Team Fatty contest? You don’t really need that jersey, and the Forget Me Not Farm and other causes in the Fondo could use the money it’ll help raise.”
“No,” said Levi, petulantly.
“Oh, come on. You’ve got plenty of other jerseys. You’ve got a closet full of jerseys. It wouldn’t be a big deal for you to give this one away.”
“But this jersey is my favorite,” Levi complained.
I could see this line of reasoning was going nowhere, so I switched to a different tactic.
Before long, he saw reason.
So, Fatty, you can see that making this jersey part of the prize list for your contest is really doing me a big favor.
Someday, Levi will thank me. Maybe.
And I promise, I’ll have that jersey washed and pressed before sending it to the winner. Trust me, it needs it.
A “How to Win” Note From Fatty
OK, folks, you heard the lady and saw the jersey. Now in addition to the other prizes — such as a trip for two to Levi’s GranFondo, or a full GranFondo kit — you can also win Levi’s very own, signed, favorite-thing-to-wear-all-the-time yellow jersey from this year’s Tour de Suisse.
How do you get a chance at winning it — along with the other prizes? By going to the Team Fatty Donation page over at the GranFondo site, and donating any multiple of $5.00.
For every $5.00 you donate, you get a chance at each of the prizes, which now include:
- Levi’s Yellow Jersey from the Tour de Suisse. I believe you have all the information you need about this jersey at this point.
- A VIP Trip to Levi’s GranFondo for two, which includes airfare, lodging, dinner at the Festa del Fondo, the invite-only group ride with Levi and a small group of people, and tickets to ride at the GranFondo itself. This is, in fact, a seriously impressive prize.
- One of two GranFondo kits, including a Capo jersey, shorts, armwarmers, a hat, and socks, and a Giro Aeon helmet.
So. Donate now. Or Odessa will pin Levi’s arm behind him again.
What would you expect from a ride in the French countryside? If I had ever stopped to consider that question, I might have imagined the ride we went on our second day in the Aix-les-Bains area, as part of our ten-dayish biking vacation in France with the Andy Hampsten-led Cinghiale Tours.
Sadly, however, I am — as I stated yesterday — a yokel. And so I had never thought about how a 69-mile ride with 6800 feet of climbing in France might be a different experience than a ride with similar distance and elevation in Utah.
This ride would fill up that particular hole in my imagination. From now on, whenever I think of the French countryside, I’ll think of the sights and sounds from this ride.
I’ve described before the sad, sad state of my sense of direction. What I have not described — at least, I don’t remember describing this — is that my memory of roads traveled is no better than my sense of direction.
Which means that while I might have a really vivid mental recollection of many parts of a given ride, you wouldn’t want me to be the guy who guides you on that ride again.
Which is my way of saying that I probably should not be on Andy’s short list of people he considers hiring as a guide at Cinghiale. Even though I am very charming.
The above three paragraphs are not really my point, though, and if I had an editor, she would be entirely correct to delete those paragraphs (and this one, too).
Unfortunately for you, I do not have an editor, and so you have to read everything in the order it occurs to me.
Anyway, the point I did want to make is that I was fairly startled to see that our route from this ride looks like this:
And I wasn’t just startled for a single reason. No. I was startled for three reasons. The first — and most obvious — reason for my startlement is that this route tracing looks like some kind of evil dragon/snuffleupagus hybrid.
What, you don’t see it? Here, I’ll help:
No, that’s not right. That image is conveying all the wrong things. This is better:
Now it’s a friendly dragon/snuffleupagus hybrid (notice the eyebrow change and the not-sharp teeth?), and instead of breathing fire, it’s eating candy corns.
That’s more what the ride was like. A candy-corn-eating, square-tooth-having, friendly imaginary creature.
OK, this post is getting kind of strange. Please give me a moment to collect myself.
The second reason I was startled was that when I looked at this route on a map, I realized I had no idea which direction we had traveled this route: clockwise or counterclockwise.
Finally, I had no idea that the “extra credit” part of the ride some of us chose had us cover so much extra ground (out to Ecole, then to Aillon-le-Jeune) without actually having us go anywhere.
Though I guess that was kind of the point, now that I think about it.
Impressionism, Or Something Like It
The point I’m edging up to here is that this ride wasn’t really about going anywhere — we clearly didn’t take the most direct route, and we weren’t focusing on going fast.
This ride was about seeing. And hearing, too. And, in general, just being overwhelmed at how privileged I was to be experiencing such a beautiful ride.
Really, I’d have a hard time describing the order of what I’ve seen, because we were all over the place, and memories start to blend together a little bit. But I would like to share some impressions. And photos.
I don’t even know how many quaint villages in the French countryside we rode our bikes through that day.
Five? Seven? Maybe even more?
Regardless of how many there were, there were certain common attributes to each of these little places. First, it seemed that so many of these houses had flowers in every possible place:
Next, the houses were old. I asked The Hammer if she had seen any buildings during our ride that looked like they were fewer than fifty years old. She hadn’t.
Without exception, each of these little villages had a large, old church as its centerpiece:
And every village had a wonderful little fountain and trough, decorated with flowers, where we could refill our bottles with cold water. Like this:
And it was good (as in, I never got sick), cold water, too.
Though I wouldn’t have wanted to scoop water from the trough. Greenish, in case you hadn’t noticed.
I’ve long held that pretty much everywhere in the world starts out as beautiful. Desert, mountain, plains, everywhere. Nature is, by default, spectacular.
Sometimes, of course, people mess it up.
Other times we tame it a little, but mostly just to add some finishing touches. And that — more than pretty much anywhere I’ve ever been — is how the French countryside appeared to me:
Mountains everywhere. Some farmland. Really nice, well-paved roads. Cows on the sides of the road with bells around their necks — together making a sound like windchimes.
I kept looking over at The Hammer and said, “We’re in France. In the countryside. On a perfect day. With nothing to do but take it in and have fun for the next week.”
And then we’d both start laughing. It’s not often that everything seems just perfect, so when it is, you’ve got to enjoy it.
This second day was loaded with climbing. About 6800 feet of it, in about 69 miles (it’s possible I have already mentioned this). Here’s the thing, though: I never really noticed it much. The Hammer and I were riding for fun — not to set climbing records.
That said, the elevation profile is worth checking out:
And while we were definitely in the mountains, those mountains started about 3,000 feet lower than the mountains The Hammer and I live in (our house is right at 4912 feet). As we rode, The Hammer observed, “Isn’t it great to not have your lungs burning at all on a climb?”
“Yes,” I agreed, my lungs burning only a little bit.
After a full day of climbing and picnicking, we got to an overlook at a ski resort — the high point (literally) of the day. 4000 feet below, we could see the lake, where our hotel was.
The above image, by the way, is probably the most spectacularly ineffective photo I have ever seen at demonstrating a dramatic 4,000 altitude difference between where you are and the water below. You’re just going to have to believe me that it would take more than a short walk across a flat grassy field to get to the lake over there.
While I was taking this picture The Hammer started laughing. I looked down and saw why: a very small dog had lifted its leg and was peeing on my bike’s rear wheel.
So I got my revenge by peeing on the dog.
OK, not really.
Improbable Is Not Impossible
From this overlook, we had a ten-mile, 4,000-foot descent back to our hotel, in one giant, unbroken, twisty bomber downhill.
It was glorious. Beautiful. A perfect descent.
It was also something that you did not want to interrupt to take pictures. So you’ll have to trust me.
But the problem is, the tour group had broken up into several group-lets during the long climb, so that The Hammer, one other rider, and I were the only ones together. I believe that I’ve already mentioned what a comical sense of direction I have, and — alas — The Hammer is not much better (this is actually a good thing in our relationship; it means neither of us ever gets mad when the other gets lost or fouls up directions).
Naturally, the guy riding with us had no idea how to get back to our hotel either.
And so we went with a simple premise: since our hotel was lakeside and thus the lowest place in the area, we’d always turn downhill when presented with an option.
And you know what? This method worked perfectly. We got to the hotel without a single wrong turn or double-back.
And thus wound up as one of the first groups to arrive at the hotel. Later we’d find that most of the other grouplets got semi-lost once they got into town, having used their sense of direction rather than the arbitrary “go the direction water would flow” technique.
We were so proud.
So . . . Cold . . . Must . . . Eat . . . .
The group ate at the hotel restaurant that night, out on the patio. Honestly, I do not remember what we ate, but I do remember that it was around eighteen courses, each the size of a single beanie-weenie (but not quite as filling).
And then there’d be forty-five minutes of waiting for the next course.
As the night wore on, I had two distinct impressions:
- I became increasingly cold. Thankfully, I had filled my suitcase with pretty much nothing but jerseys, shorts, and every SmartWool product imaginable. The Hammer and I excused ourselves multiple times to go add another layer to our clothing.
- I became increasingly hungry. After riding all day, you — or at least I — are more interested in calories than cuisine. I started the evening hungry, and found that the precious, artistic courses weren’t enough to even keep up with my hunger, much less beat it back.
I decided that I am probably not a good bet for fancy food in general, and especially not when I enter a restaurant thinking about meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
Like I said before, I am a yokel. I was in France for the riding, not the food.
Stanley Tucci and Patrick Dempsey
Let me conclude this post with a photo of me with Brian, one of the riders on my tour.
I post this because I’m pretty sure that when people saw us together, it looked like Patrick Dempsey and Stanley Tucci were vacationing in France together.
Which they may be, as far as I know. But I’m pretty sure Brian and I could kick their respective butts, riding-wise.
PS to the ladies: Brian is a practicing doctor, is very fit, is good-looking (The Hammer kept saying so, ’til I asked her to please stop), has a thick, full head of hair, and is single. Act now.
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.
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.
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