Saturday, July 23, 2011

Some Final Thoughts about France


I began the day having to find the beach and swim in the Mediterranean. Monday on Alpe d'Huez and today would be the only two really nice weather days I had in France.

I found the beach and went for a brief swim. The water was much colder than I expected. It was the Mediterranean Sea, after all.

I parked along a beach access road and decided I would follow a bike path to the town I could see about 4-5 miles away. I followed the path until it came to a small town and then to a harbor.

I turned and went back and flew right past the car without realizing it. The path ended and I entered a town and spent 30-40 minutes wandering about the small beach town, enjoying seeing the carnival atmosphere and wondering where in the heck I was.

I was lost. I stayed in the town looking for a way out and couldn't find any. Three or four times I thought I found an exit only to be fooled. The entire time I had believed that that I was on the right beach road but had yet to come back to the car. Along the beach with hundreds of cars parked along the road, they tend to all look alike. I finally decided that I had passed the car so I would have to turn around and find it.

I remember a private tent or building on the beach and could spot it in the distance. I went by it and figured I was close to the car.

I passed the car.

I just went by the car again. Two kids on bikes were on the bike path, which was next to the road, blocking my path and laughing. They were about 11-12 years old and were challenging me to a race. I didn't know French but I knew they wanted to race. I guess all Frenchmen race. I gestured back and pointed to my grey hair. They continued.

Then I came to an opening in the barrier which separated the bike path from the road. I went through the opening and just took off. The kids never had a chance. I was gone.

Inside I laughed but I still had to find the car. I soon realized I had been here before, turned around, and found the car. Thoughts of spending extra time in France because I lost the rental car now left me. I drove on to Toulouse.

At the airport Novotel I watched the TdF on French TV. Then I went to return the rental car to the airport. I removed everything from the car except my bike as I would bike back. I followed the signs to the airport and a big "oh shit" moment hit me. I didn't have the car's Garmin with its French maps. And I was on a limited access highway that did not permit bikes. I hoped it wasn't far but soon went 7 km and made many turns then three or four roundabouts. And there was no way I could find my hotel using surface streets. And it was getting dark.

When the women working at Hertz couldn't help me I went inside the airport to the information counter and called the hotel and had them come pick me up. I took the wheels off and sheepishly put the bike in the hotel van. What a way to end cycling in France.

Back at the hotel I carefully packed the bike and then my two suitcases. My 4:30 wake up call would come soon. And although I was first on the shuttle at 5:30 a.m., I needed all that time to catch my 7:30 a.m. flight to Madrid. Only once I boarded the plane could I really relax.

In the airport at Madrid I was in my comfort zone. After all, Ashley and I ran through this airport one year ago only to miss our international flight by five minutes. Or less.

I found the Iberia Business Class lounge with their wonderful spread of free food. What a nice way to end this trip.

This is the best ice cream in the world.

I came to France thinking that I would ride perhaps 500 miles. I rode 276. But I did climb up the famous Col du Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux, and Alpe d'Huez. Now I don't know if I will ever return. I hope I do but if I don't I have great memories, both with Trek Travel last year and with my solo venture this year.

Vive le France!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Goodbye Mountains


It was cold and rainy at the Col du Lautaret which is the last Col before Galibier. I knew my options were to either climb Galibier in absolutely miserable weather without knowing if more snow was falling like yesterday, or to go over to Italy and ride the climb to Sestriere and watch the Tour go by. So I left.

I figured I didn't really need to climb the highest finishing climb in the Tour de France (2645 m, 8678 ft) in these conditions. Besides, I have climbed America's highest paved road, Mt. Evans, Colorado (4300 m, 14,000 ft). Take that, France!

I borrowed a spoke tool from Trek Travel on the Tourmalet and returned it here

I got so chilled yesterday I didn't want to risk doing it again, especially with a 5-hour drive ahead of me. On Sunday, 200 cyclists had to be rescued off Galibier when the snows blew in and they weren't prepared. I left Lautaret in the cold rain and first drove down towards Briançon and saw many cyclists headed up the mountain. 

Partway down the mountain I abandoned the idea of watching this stage of the Tour in Italy. I knew traffic coming back through Briançon would be a nightmare and I was just too tired to stay that late. Garmin's ETA was never close to reality in the Alps because the roads are not conducive to traveling 90 kmh which is what Garmin uses to calculate time.

If I could do it over I would have stayed one more night in the Alps (tonight) then used tomorrow as an all-day drive day (7-8 hours). Or paid more for a connecting flight from Grenoble instead of returning from Toulouse.

When I turned around to head back to Montpellier I went back up the mountain. I saw many of the same cyclists I passed headed back down. I think they realized how nasty the conditions would be.

On the way back to Bourg d'Osians I saw and talked with one of the riders from Evolution Cycling Club in Reston. Seems they had a group of six riders here this week.

Turtle. I remember him from a group ride two years ago.

Near Grenoble I saw a man fixing a flat (bike) in the rain. I did a U-turn and pulled up with a floor pump. He knew no English but gestures said it all. He was happy to have someone stop with a real pump.

Just helped this Frenchman by lending him my floor pump

So I left the Alps behind today and am now on the Mediterranean coast of France in Montpellier. I am staying in a 15th century building. A Best Western.  

 Actually, my room was part of the old butcher shop.

This entrance is just to the right of the main entrance to the hotel

I went for an afternoon ride trying to find the sea but couldn't. How big is it anyway if I can't find it?

I'm sure close but don't know the connecting roads

On the map it appears that I was close but so far away. It looks like only a highway which does not permit bikes, crosses over to the beaches. I'm probably wrong.

Montpellier is the fifth largest city in France. Not sure why I wanted to come to a city. With tram construction and a traffic pattern that predates city blocks, it is pretty difficult to navigate. It gave both my car Garmin and my bike Garmin fits trying to route me to my hotel. But it is a nice city.

Interesting grass in the trolley tracks

Reflecting, I climbed the Tourmalet, to the summit this year, and from both sides as I went down to the point I had come up on  from the other side last year. I got chased by the Devil. Twice. And cows. And llamas. I climbed Mont Ventoux in 50 mph winds at the summit. And I climbed Alpe d'Huez. That's a pretty complete week.

Last year when I signed up for the Trek Travel tour of France I was glad to bike Pla d'Adet, Aspin, Tourmalet, Azet, and Pyresourde. But I always felt that I haven't been to France until I biked up Alpe d'Huez. Now I have.

This has been a great trip although I have ridden far less than I planned as I have driven far more than I planned. But the great climbs made it worth it even if I left one on the table. It can stay there.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Col du Lautaret


I checked out of the hotel with the intent of beating the rain and the cold to the summit of the Col du Galibier. Depending on which direction one crosses the Galibier, one has to first summit the Col du Telegraph or the Col du Lautaret. From La Grave it would be the Lautaret.

The forecast for La Grave, which is at a much lower elevation was for only a high of 50 degrees (10 C) and rain. It called for "heavy rain," up to in inch in the afternoon.

View of a glacier from La Grave
I hoped that I could beat the weather. I would be wrong.

Light rain started almost immediately as I left La Grave. At 4 km I thought about doing the prudent thing and turning back. But I didn't. I also knew that I was climbing the entire time so my return time would be four to five times as quick once I made the decision.  

I kept climbing and the weather kept getting worse. The winds and rain both picked up and it was cold. On the Tour de France broadcast later that day announcers on EuroSport were saying it was the worst weather they have ever seen for the Tour. And they weren't on the climb to the Galibier.

I sensed I was getting near the summit and I saw many campers pulled over in anticipation of Thursday and Friday's stages which will go through here. I saw a camper with a Colorado flag. I had seen it on the slopes of the Tourmalet and then met the owner (renter) of it in St. Gaudens. With rain coming down hard and cold too, no one was stepping outside to say hello.

I continued 1,000 meters to the top then stopped and took a picture. Although I had a full jacket, arm warmers, Under Armour, full length gloves, shoe covers, and leg warmers, I was freezing. I turned around and could not wait for the descent to end.

Another summit sign for my collection

I was freezing, literally, as I was cold and soaked. Shaking at times, I descended as fast as I could to get back to La Grave. Of course the faster one goes the colder it gets from the wind chill but the sooner one gets back to the start.

In La Grave I went back to the hotel, and although I had already checked out, I grabbed a clean towel from their cleaning cart, and ducked into a shower stall. (They had some rooms with a private bath and also a public bath area - private stalls.) I quickly got out of my soaking wet clothes, and changed to dry clothes. I did not stop shaking for 40 minutes.

I got in the car and decided to drive up to the Galibier. If figured that may be the only way I would ever see the summit. I knew the rain was very cold as it was hitting me but didn't realize how cold until it hit the windshield. The rain drops were forming a splat pattern. Snow.

I normally don't make wise decisions when riding, especially when I'm tired. But today was one of my wisest.

On my drive to my next hotel, which was at the summit of the Col du Lautaret, I had been so cold I didn't even notice that I had just biked to it. I decided I would drive up the Galibier. The snow was falling heavily and the road was soon covered. Driving an unfamiliar car with a stick shift, I was getting scared being on this road. I looked for a spot to turn around but any open space was already occupied by campers. So I drove carefully to the summit.

I saw one guy on a bike trying to make it up but on my way down I didn't see him. He must have wisely turned around or went over the edge. While it would have been hard pedaling up in the wind and 2" of snow on the road, it would have been far worse descending.

I never want to be defeated by a climb but was sure happy I didn't attempt this. Foolish and perhaps deadly.

I made it to the summit of the Col du Galibier, but not the way I would have chosen.

I came to France to ride the Col du Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux, and maybe more than anything else, Alpe d'Huez. Anything else, including Col du Galibier, is just icing on the cake. I don't need more icing.

Only later did I learn that on Sunday, 200 cyclists had to be rescued from here.

Just the 7-mile climb, does not include the descent, which was recorded as a separate trip.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Alpe d'Huez


The first, and probably last, beautiful day I have had in France. Forty seven degrees (9 C) at start, Brian Hutchins and I rolled downhill for about six miles to the base of the climb.

Bridge behind the chateau where we stayed

Brian worked with me in Washington, D.C. for a number of years but had taken a job with the International Postal Union, a United Nations agency, in Bern, Switzerland. I contacted Brian and asked if he would meet me for the climb and was very pleased when he did.

A View of the Alps

The climb is beautiful. There are 21 hairpin curves and each is marked with a sign. The lower section seemed steeper than the higher section. We passed many cyclists and got passed by many. Probably got passed by a few more than we passed. They cheat.

Near the top they were setting up barricades about 3km from the finish already. It was weird to ride through them. Although four days before the Tour comes by, every spot where one could stop and park a camper had already been claimed. 

No Space for more Campers

At a curve in the village of Huez, was a large contingent of Dutch fans. This was the famous Dutch Corner. They had one week's supply of beer and were already partying even though the race didn't come through until Friday. They had their music BLASTING and were having a great time.

Dutch Corner

<--UP       DOWN-->

Unlike the fans in the Pyrenees, very few fans on this Alp cheered as we went by. However, in contrast to even the Tourmalet, there may have been 100 times as many cyclists going up the Alp. If they cheered everybody they would soon lose their voices.

Brian Hutchins (L); Barry (R)

Although Brian and I rode together most of the way, once we got inside the barriers he tailed off and I reached the summit maybe 500 meters before he did. I'm not bragging or anything. For years Brian was one of the fastest players in our lunchtime Ultimate game on the Mall but the truth is I bike a lot more than he does. This was a more my element.

Barry - Inside the barriers

At the top I was able to wait for him and get a picture of him coming to the summit. Maybe I should have let him go first and take my picture.
Brian Hutchins at the summit
Once on the summit, we did a little shopping and went to lunch. Then came the fun descent back to the valley.

Col du Tourmalet (to the summit this year); Picture with the Devil; What the hell (I can say that), a second picture with the Devil; A TdF Route directional sign; Mont Ventoux; and now Alpe d'Huez. If I do nothing more in France, I will still be very happy.

Au revoir!
And later, a Special Commemorative License Plate

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mont Ventoux


I met two guys from West Chester, Pa. (near Philadelphia) in Bédoin, which is the little village before the base of the climb. We agreed to ride together until James and Brian decided that I (1) had already ridden too many climbs this trip, (2) was suffering from sleeping in the car last night and having no breakfast*, and (3) was much older than them. They had just arrived and were looking to follow the Tour. Too bad they didn't wait for me because I had lots of useful tips. Philly fans.

Traffic circle outside Bédoin

So I started the climb on my own. It started raining part way up. Still, I was in short sleeves until I pulled on my vest with about 10km to go.

The lower wooded section is beautiful. Climbing higher I saw few riders but did pass one from Denmark. Apparently his wife was with him for support. She would pass, go ahead 200-300 meters and wait until he passed her.

Visibility near the top dropped to 10 meters. On the last turn to the summit I was hit by 50 mph (80 kmh) winds which ripped my glasses right off me. Goodbye glasses. The wind blew me across the road but I stayed upright, worried only about a descending car.

Couldn't lift the bike the wind was so strong

It was only about 50 meters more to the summit. I stayed at the summit no more than 2-3 minutes. I think severe hypothermia would probably set in by spending no more than an hour there. It was nasty on top. The temperature was probably 40 F (5 C) and the winds seemed to be sustained at about 50 mph.

I was content to take a picture of the summit sign but three women from Germany drove up and offered to take my picture. Thus I have photographic evidence of being here.

I had passed the memorial to Tom Simpson just a couple hundred meters from the top. I did not want to stop and lose momentum so I kept going. This memorial is to drugs, no? Tom was high on amphetamines and alcohol and pushed himself beyond the limit of his body and died on this mountain during the Tour de France. But yet, he's a hero.

At the Tom Simpson Memorial

On the way down I stopped to take a photo. Seems like the thing to do is to donate a water bottle. I didn't.

A guy going up saw me taking a photo and offered to take mine. He did then I took his. I also gave him a push to help him clip in and get going again.

My photographer. Does he look like a turtle?

Despite being dropped by my Philly friends, I was passed by four cyclists going up and I passed 17. On the descent I was passed by no one and passed four more cyclists and two cars. I was freezing on the descent (I did put on arm warmers), went through sleet then just pouring rain. I went as fast as I could safely go just to get down quickly.

Oh yea, Frenchmen must have a complex because they sure like to paint penises on the road quite a bit.


*I had made a reservation at a bed and breakfast near Mormion. There was no house number for a street address. Garmin got me close then had me go up a back alley that soon narrowed and wasn't big enough for the car. I asked three different families who were walking and none seemed to no for sure where it was. Eventually, I found it, and took just my backpack to the door.

I used the door knocker. Heard a dog bark but that was it. They had a bell with a long rope. I pulled it repeatedly. No answer. I was scared. I was literally in a back alley.

I found my way to the main street and there was a pizza shop about to close with a couple sitting out front. I started talking to them and found out they're from England. He was kind enough to use his iPhone and call the place for me. Answering machine. He then sent an email. After 15 minutes the pizza shop closed and the owner went with me and he too, and no luck getting an answer.

I drove to the major city, Carpentras. I found a Best Western that was about to close for the night (11:00p) and a sign on the door advertised they were full. I asked anyhow if they knew of other vacancies. The desk clerk told me that every hotel he knew was full since there was a festival in town.

I asked if he would be so kind to let me log onto his WiFi and send my wife a message that I was OK since I hadn't messaged her at all today. Of course I was scared to death but wouldn't tell her that. He walked outside with me and secretly handed me a slip of paper with codes to the WiFi signal. He showed me the imaginary line where I would be outside of camera range because he would get in trouble if his boss saw him helping me. (True)

I thanked him, got my laptop as the rain started to fall lightly, and ducked in a protected area close enough but not able to be seen. I found the signal but could not connect. Damn shame.

I got in the car and started driving. I looked for "all lodging" on the GPS and it brought up campgrounds as well. I thought that might be an option. One was close and a bit secluded. I arrived and went through a security gate. I parked then explained my situation to a young man who quickly ran and got his sister because "her English is perfect." It wasn't, far from it compared to many people I met in France, but it was adequate. And it was 10 times better than my French. Her mother, the campground owner came over as well.

They were full. I offered to rent a site but they had none available. Then she asked if I had a tent. Well, no. All I was looking for was to park for the night and sleep in the car. Someplace safe from criminals and the police (in case it was somehow illegal).

They willingly agreed and offered me a blanket and pillow. And a shower. I declined all but the owner brought me a blanket anyhow. I'm glad she did.

It wasn't a relaxing sleep in the Fiat and morning came soon enough. I went to meet and thank the owners and this time there was a man there. I returned their blanket and couldn't thank them enough.

He had fresh croissants delivered and I bought one for my breakfast then decided to drive to Bédoin rather than bike there because I was very unsure of the direction. Thus I had suffered from sleeping in the car last night and having no breakfast, save for a croissant, which is hardly the energy food for climbing such a mountain.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Thor de France


Yesterday I had a problem with a loose spoke on my rear wheel and the wheel was out of true. I blamed the wheel rubbing on the brake for my dragging up the Tourmalet and really suffering up that climb.

The local bike shop in St. Lary opened at 9:00 a.m. so Adrian Register and I decided we would see if they could true the wheel before today's ride. They couldn't. Since we didn't get on the road until after 9:00 a.m. by the time we reached Lourdes we knew our original plan of a 70-mile loop ride would not occur.

We wanted to ride and to see a stage finish and by the time we got rolling we knew our best course of action would be to ride out and back. We would have to keep an eye on the time to be back by the time they closed the roads at 2:00 p.m.

Team Radio Shack

Surprising, less than 10 km from Lourdes, we were on a flat part of the course when I spotted the tell tale signs of evil. Freshly painted on the asphalt were the Devil's pitchfork. I looked up and saw him and stopped. Photo time.

Many people come to the Tour and hope to see the Devil. Getting a picture is an extra bonus. I got a picture yesterday and now, another one. I told Adrian no matter what happened, I was happy. My day was complete. My Tour was complete.

The Devil with Adrian Register

We rode out to Argeles-Gazost where the road turned up. Steep, but this was not the climb up the Col du Soulor. We hit a plateau and went through a small town. I got laughing as I passed a house where some kids, probably ages 10-12, we're yelling out "hello" to passing riders. They were practicing their English. So I greeted them with a cheery hello as well. And they were pleased.

We were watching the time and it was shortly after 1:00 when we turned up the climb to the Soulor which would lead to the Aubisque. If we continued we would be stuck in place so we decided to turn around and get back to Lourdes.

At Lourdes we were able to ride inside the barriers until the 1km flag. At that point the course was closed. We walked our bikes for the final kilometer but it was very slow going through the massive crowds. We found the team buses and our plan was to be at the chute where they pass through although we couldn't get close to that.

Back in town, we took up position on the barriers to watch the caravan go by. It was quite comical because seemingly anything thrown to a French kid would bounce off their hands and into mine. It helped growing up playing sports where we used our hands. And as I did last year during the Tour, anything I caught I handed it to a kid.

After watching the caravna go by we moved to the 1K "kite." Here we could see them fly by and watch the race on TV.

The 1K Kite before the race

There were a number of Norwegians on our corner but Thor Hoshovld had to overtake two French riders to win. I knew the Norwegians would cheer when Thor made his break but it seemed like everyone was cheering when Thor went ahead with 2k to go.

When we saw Thor fly by, we made our way to the team buses to see most of the riders come back.

1K Banner and TV

It was a different way to see the tour but got us close to many riders. 

Frank Schleck

And I got a picture with the Devil.

Roster on Team Bus Leopard Trek
Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck, Fabian Cancellara, Oliver Zaugg, Bruno Pires
Jens Voigt, Dominic Klemme, Fabian Wegmann, Robert Wagner, Linus Gerdemann
,Davide Viganò, Daniele Bennati, Giacomo Nizzolo, Maxime Monfort, Wouter Weylandt
Jakob Fuglsang, Anders Lund, Martin Mortensen, Martin Pedersen, Brice Feillu
Will Clarke, Stuart O'Grady, Stefan Denifl, Tom Stamsnijder, Joost Posthuma
BOLD = Riders at TdF