Thursday, June 3, 2004

Bourg St. Maurice, France

Friends: I called upon my emergency wool cap for the first time two days ago when we climbed the recently reopened 7,000 foot Col de San Bernardo over the Alps back to France in a driving rain storm. The last two miles of this infamous climb were lined with snow banks twice my
height. The rain was softening the snow banks causing them to calve like glaciers, their calvings turning into piles of treacherous slush on the road. The most huge of them blocked two-thirds of the road. One never knew when another might come crashing down. It was brutal.

Even before the long 15-mile, 3,000 foot climb had ended, I had to stop and put on extra layers of clothes to stay warm despite the extreme effort it took to keep climbing. Usually I'm shedding clothes on such a strenuous ascent, but these were extraordinary circumstances. I didn't even bother to put my helmet back on for the bitterly cold descent, as I needed to preserve all the body heat I could with the hood of my jacket pulled tight over my wool hat. We could have avoided this climb if bicycles had only been allowed through the seven-mile long tunnel a few miles away, and might have risked making a run for it if we had known how horrendous these conditions were going to be.

After about 13 miles of descending, with dark closing in, I stopped to camp, leaving one of my water bottles along the road for Jesse to spot. I had no idea how far behind he might be. I was shivering and rushed to put on dry clothes and wrap myself in my sleeping bag. I was above the road in a forest, and as I ate, kept my eye out for Jesse. Unfortunately, he missed the water bottle and my whistle. I suffered an even worse misfortune the next day when I failed to notice a sign warning that the road ahead, over a 9,000 foot pass, was closed, or not open yet. So I got to climb up to the renowned ski resort of Val d'Isere, twelve miles and 2,500 feet higher up the road, and then fly back down. I didn't realize my mistake until after I'd passed through Val d'Isere and some carpenters working on a house shouted the bad news at me. I should have been suspicious that there had been so little traffic coming down the road. I'm under no pressure to be anywhere, so it was no tragedy, other than an unnecessary expenditure of a huge amount of energy.

I camped at 6,000 feet last night, just above the snow line. The pass beyond Val d'Isere will open June 15, the usual opening date, too, for the Road to the Sun in Montana's Glacier National Park. Now its on to L'Alpe d'Huez. I saw a hard-riding cyclist in a U.S. Postal Service uniform fly past in this town, but I didn't recognize him or have a chance to verify he was riding a team issue bike. He could well have been a legitimate Postie, and not just someone wearing their colors, as the team will be competing in the week-long Dauphine-Libere race starting nearby this weekend. I hope to see the time trial stage on Mont Ventoux, about 300 miles from here, a week from today.

Later, George

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