Monday, June 7, 2004

Orange, France

Friends: L'Alpe d'Huez is such a popular pilgrimage site for cyclists, some enterprising photographer hangs out at the second bend below the summit snapping photos of every passing cyclist for them to purchase. He hands them a card with a number on it and the address of his shop at the summit. He was plenty busy this past Saturday, as there was a non-stop procession of cyclists making the climb, and Jesse and I were among them.

This most hallowed of climbs gains a startling 2,700 feet in less than eight miles up to a sprawling ski village at 6,000 feet. We'd both tackled longer and higher climbs in the past few days, but none of such sudden and sustained steepness and spectacular beauty. It was a brute, but a stunningly beautiful brute, with sensational views of the snow- streaked, chiseled peaks all around, and also back down the valley to the small town of Bourg d'Oisans, where the climb starts.

Part of the climb's fame is due to its 21 sharp bends, each with a sign counting down the number of bends to go and giving the altitude and also a winner of the L'Alpe d'Huez stage of The Tour de France from over the years. It was first introduced to The Tour in 1952 and was won by the Italian great Coppi. It was so demanding that it was not brought back until 1976. Despite its popularity, it is not included every year. It was the first mountain-top finish in The Tour's history, an addition that has dramatically enlivened The Tour ever since. Seeing the names of its winners (Hinault, Hampsten, Pantani, Bugno, Kuiper) at each bend in the road, is a sharp reminder of the frenzied battles that have been fought right there, heightening the majesty of the climb and injecting some needed juice into the legs. No signs were needed to remind any of us that on July 21 the cycling world's attention will be focused on this climb. For the first time ever the L'Alpe d'Huez stage will be a time trial. It could well decide if Lance will become the first to win The Tour six times.

Craig from Chicago, who we visited on this trip, would love the climb, as he would have an endless supply of cyclists to chase down. His tongue would be hanging to his knees if he gave in to all the chasing he could have. Neither Jesse nor I were doing any chasing, as we were the only ones with loaded bikes. I was able to latch on to a trio of Dutch cyclists for a spell before I decided it best to resist my own chasing impulse. It was early in the climb and I feared that if maintained their pace, I could well bonk before reaching the summit.

I humbly dropped off and for the rest of the climb let the non-stop parade of cyclists on their sleek and unencumbered bikes go by without accelerating, giving them just a mere "Bonjour." I was reciprocated with a "Bonjour" from most and quite a few "Bon Courages," as well. Not everyone knew the expression, as there were quite a few nationalities out there, including a strong contingent of Dutch cyclists glaringly decked out in orange or a Rabobank jersey, and, of course, plenty of Germans. There was one group of Germans large enough that their tour leader painted exhortations to them on the road, just as fans do for their favorites. There were still faint

"Lances" and "Jans" painted on the road, left from The Tour's last visit. The Germans even had family members cheering them along the road.

It was largely a male thing. I saw only three women among the several hundred cyclists. And it was mostly cyclists not serious enough to shave their legs. There were a few on mountain bikes and even one fellow rollerblading with ski poles. Most plodded along without pausing, though I did pass a couple of portly sorts on my descent who were walking their bikes. We all had to descend the road we had climbed, as the road ends at a ski resort. There are some dirt jeep paths that lead elsewhere, but not appropriate for the road bikes that most of us were on.

The climb passed through a couple of small towns with churches that rang their bells on the quarter hour. Near the top was a vast meadow full of cows, many with bells of their own. The sprawling ski town at the top was mostly shuttered up, just as at Val d'Isere. I can't report on my time, as I stopped for pictures and also to scout out potential camp and viewing sites when I will be back here in July along with several hundred thousand fans from all over Europe and the world. There aren't a great many wide spots in the road, so I don't know if there will be space for all of us. There are some truly choice vantage points enabling one to look down and see a couple miles of the course and several of the switchbacks, that could well be claimed days ahead of time.

For six days after returning to France via the dreaded Col de San Bernardo, I've had at least one category one or beyond category climb. Jesse and I didn't meet up again until L'Alpe d'Huez and then got separated again. He's been learning the final great lesson of bike touring, "He who travels alone, travels best." Now it's on to Mont Ventoux for Thursday's time trial in the week-long Dauphine-Libere race, Lance's final tune up for the Tour. Tyler Hamilton and Iban Mayo, who finished fourth and fifth last year, will also be on hand. Ventoux ranks right up there with L'Alpe d'Huez in difficulty and mystique. It will be packed with fans.

I am down out of the Alps, and for the first time in a week I have had a day where I have climbed less than 4,000 feet. Mont Ventoux stands alone, a towering presence that commands so much respect it is often referred to as simply "The Ventoux." When we passed by on our way to Cannes a month ago its top was still snow covered and its three roads to the summit closed. Its summit is just a bit higher than L'Alpe d'Huez, but the climb will be much longer and without such spine-tingling views. Down out of the Alps, summer has arrived, my first 80 degree day. The heat will compound the challenge of the climb. For now I have two days to explore various Roman ruins in the area and give my legs some rest. I also need to decide where to next. I will follow this race to Grenoble, where it ends on Sunday. Then it will be three weeks until what brought me over here in the first place commences. The cycling in France has been so agreeable, I could just spend the time further exploring this country. There is much much more to be seen. But Switzerland and Austria and Germany beckon as well. I'm already plotting a possible circuit, that could include the week-long Tour of Switzerland, another tune-up race for The Tour.

Later, George

No comments: