Currently somewhere over the Atlantic ocean…
I am returning from a trip of a lifetime: a week in the Alps tracing the history of many a Tour de France. This has long been on my bucket list, so when the opportunity arose, I said, OUI. I went with a group of twenty-some-odd triathletes as a ‘training camp’. For me, this was a DREAM.
We settled in to a Blackrock Skilodge Chalet in Chamonix. Our guide, Kevin of Vaudagne Velo, mapped out four rides for us, each featuring at least one challenging climb. I don’t race, but if I had to classify myself as anything, I am a climber. It just came naturally to me when I started. Hills are where I am comfortable being uncomfortable. I can’t say the same for myself on a flat road, where I often feel pressured to stay with a pack and I struggle with vacillating in and out of zones. On hills, I am not afraid to be by myself for an hour. I’m comfortable on my own, setting my own pace and rhythm, not pressured to keep up with anyone.
Le Bettex and Col de Jeux Passy - 59.8 miles, 7,999’
We began with a long descent to the valley floor, a preview of what we would have to climb to get back home.
The first climb took us to the top of a ski resort called Le Bettex. Kilometer markers that indicate the average gradient are helpful. And the fact that Kilometers are shorter than miles helps too. At 9.8 km long with an average of 8% this climb was described by locals as a nice mellow climb. Meh, Category 1, NBD. This gave me an idea of what to expect for later in the week.
The second climb was a bit longer, and more challenging, maybe for that reason. For the first few km’s, I benefitted from fresh legs but the fatigue set it on the second half. The skies had cleared up and the sun was on our backs. At the top, parapunters launched themselves off a cliff. So there we were, exhausted and spent and ready for what we consider a thrill: descending on two wheels while others chose a different way back to the valley floor.
A lovely winding descent back to the valley floor and then it was time to climb back up to the chalet. Along the way we came upon an enthusiastic local rider on an old steel framed bike dressed in bib shorts and a cotton t-shirt flapping in the breeze. As we passed him, he hopped on our wheel, riding with us as we crested a hill he said “and now we go down!”
A massive headache crept upon me back at the chalet, and sore knees told me that this was going to be a challenging week.
Barrage d’Emmoson HC - 61.7 miles, 7,905’
A quick warmup up on the Col de Montets, where we made the day’s only taxing decision: one or two climbs. I chose two. A quick trip up to the Swiss border, another fun descent, a then quick right hand turn and up up up.
The Barrage d’Emmoson is as brutal as its name sounds. No km markers, just staring at my Garmin waiting to the tiny blue dot creep towards the top. Long, steep, straight stretches of road connected by even steeper hairpin turns. Coming around the last bend, we were greeted with a nice headwind which felt like a giant hand on my chest. The descent was a reminder of how hard we had to work to get to the top: tights turns and pitches that didn’t allow you to let it go.
Col de la Colombiere HC - 84.8 miles, 9,318’
This was by far my favorite ride. 17km, a long winding way through peaceful hamlets, cows, churches and just so much beauty. Every stretch seemed to offer a panoramic view more stunning than the last, which made me almost forget about the work to get to the top.
Col de Joux Plane - 81.9 miles 7779′
The final and hardest climb of the week. 12km of steep road, averaging about 8%. My body had had it. In some ways it had acclimated to the sudden increase in mileage and it I was beginning to recover faster, but it needed a rest (like, more than an 8 hour sleep). I churned away in my easiest gear and my heart rate remained low and steady, refusing to rise. My heart literally would not allow my body to work any harder. I stood up in the saddle and had zero acceleration. Things hurt. This was a struggle. I just had to settle in and accept that it would be a slow effort, that my bike and my body were out of gears. Finally, after slipping in and out of the woods, the last kilometer was cruelly unmarked but the top was within sight. More chairlifts greeted us at the chilly lunch spot. Kevin told a story about a client who had finished that climb, got off his bike, and broke down. He was simply overcome by emotion after what he had done: that he had ridden the Alps. I’ll admit, it seemed silly at the time, but that feeling came to me the next day when I was packing to go home. I was exhausted, but overcome with a wave of emotion that it was over: good and bad feelings. I had ridden the Alps, which was something I had been wanting to do for years. There was the joy of accomplishing that dream, the intense gratitude for being able to do it, the sadness that it was over, and the sheer exhaustion.
As with any adventure, I came away with a few kernels of knowledge:
1. Embrace the unknown. We all knew the routes ahead of time and I took a brief glance at the profiles. I knew they’d be hard but that’s all I knew. Not knowing where you are, where the top is--it encourages me to find a pace that’s steady. I just settle in and maintain. It’s a vacation after all, where the objective is to get back to the chalet unscathed, have a couple glasses of wine, good food, and do the same thing day after day.
2. But don’t go it alone. I can’t imagine being hot on a climb and wishing I had stopped for water, or being starving and wondering where the food is. I was glad to have SAG support and a guide who really knew the roads: not just the roads, but the drivers, traffic patterns, etc. I was also glad to be with 20-something other riders. Even though we quickly spread out at the beginning of each ride, and I often found myself alone or in a small group, it was comforting to know that everyone was suffering together. It was also great to know that we would have a collection of stories about these rides to tell when we got home.
3. Soak it all in. Take in not just the moments on the bike, but all of the little things -- interactions with new and different people, moments and nuances of temporarily immersing yourself in another country and culture. Don’t get so lost on Strava segments and zones and watts that you miss the bigger picture. It’s not just about riding a bike, it’s about seeing the world from your bike.