After three days in the Alps Maritime, climbing over one pass after another, I feared my legs might be depleted and not have enough left in them to get me over the Col de la Bonette, the highest road in Europe at 9,000 feet, and the ultimate goal of the first stage of my post-Cannes training for the Tour de France, less than a month away.
The Tour de France never sends the peloton into the Alps or the Pyrenees for more than two or three days, often with a rest day sandwiched in. I could understand why. My venture into the Alps began in Nice up the Col d'Ese, frequently the last test of the spring time Paris-Nice week-long race known as the Race to the Sun. This past spring Bradly Wiggins sewed up his victory by winning a time trial up the Col d'Ese, which was fresh in my mind having watched it with friend Robert.
Its first few miles are past homes and businesses before escaping the city up and over a ridge on the road to Monaco and Italy. After completing the Col d'Ese, I had enough time before dark to continue on to the Col de la Madone, Lance Armstrong's favorite climb when he was based in Nice before he had enough of the French and fled to Girona, Spain for his European home. He and the other pros based in the area used the climb as a test of their conditioning. Tony Rominger, the Swiss champion, long had the best time up the climb until Lance finally topped it. Tom Danielson of Garmin, who finished seventh in The Tour last year, now holds the best time. The Col de La Madone was such an integral part of Lance's training that Trek named its top of the line bike for it. I could have camped in an abandoned building at the summit, but preferred to descend to warmer temperatures.
Earlier in the day I saw a Madone when I went in search of the Roche Marina Hotel owned by Stephen Roche, the Irish rider who won the Tour de France in 1987. The hotel was along the Mediterranean in Villeneuve-Loubet just before Nice. When I had trouble finding it I stopped in at a L'Etape hotel. The man behind the reception desk was wearing a cycling jersey, set to head out on a ride on his Madone, propped up against the desk, when his shift ended at three. He knew Roche well, but said that he had sold his hotel last year to some Russians and they were renovating it. Even though there would be no Roche memorabia, I still went to see the hotel. The renovation was still going on and it had been renamed, leaving no evidence of its bicycle past.
The Roche hotel was one of several cycling sites I had on my itinerary. Next were the Cols d'Ese and Col de la Madone. Then it was the Col de Braus the next day and the marble slab at its summit honoring Rene Vietto, legendary Tour de France rider from the 1930s. The six-mile climb is an officially sanctioned bicycle route with large signs every kilometer giving the elevation and how many more meters to the summit and the grade of the next kilometer. A handful of cyclists without weight on their bikes passed me by.
After the descent of Col de Braus, the Col de Turini awaited me, a 15-mile climb to over 5,000 feet, almost twice as high as the other climbs. There were no kilometer posts on this climb to let me know my progress. As I was still regaining my conditioning, I stopped a couple times on this climb to rest and eat and read my book.
The towns were small with only small grocery stores with not much selection in this lightly settled region. I was thrilled to spot a mini-Carrefour supermarket after I descended the Turini just before Roquebilliere. It was 6:30. After stocking up on groceries I plopped down outside the grocery store for a quick snack before riding another hour and then camping. While I was eating, a woman came by and asked about my travels. She quickly reverted to English when she heard my French, and introduced herself as Edith. She asked if I would like to spend the evening with her family. She had three little girls in tow and said her husband was a touring cyclist and had just published a book about a six-month, 6,000 mile tour from France to Jerusalem (projetoptimum.blogspot.fr). There was a poster of the book on the back of her van.
I was delighted to accept her invitation. They lived less than a mile away. I tailed her to their home and then joined them in the van to drive to the town's indoor climbing gym where her husband was working out to let him know he had a guest for dinner. He was a fine fellow I took an immediate liking to. He was a kindly, gentle soul so common among touring cyclists. There is the occasional one who has let their ego get the better of them, but not so with Anthony.
He had been so overcome emotionally by his trip six years ago, that it had taken him several years before he could talk or write about it. When he set out he intended to go around the world and be gone for three years. Along the way he occasionally gave lectures to students. When he gave one at a French school in Athens he met Edith. It was love at first site. Edith instantly knew that he would become her husband. He spent two weeks in Athens, but couldn't give up his trip just yet. Five days after he left Athens, Edith met up with him in Thessaloniki, and confirmed their love.
Anthony continued on through Bulgaria and along the Black Sea before taking a ferry down to Turkey and continuing to the Middle East. Just as happened to me, he was robbed at gun point in Turkey. He was grabbed by several drug-addict punks on motor cycles in a small town one hundred miles north of the large city of Adana. They put a gun to his head and demanded his money. He said he had none, just a credit card. They didn't believe him and rummaged through all his gear, not finding the fifty euro emergency note he had. So then they escorted him twenty miles to the first town big enough to have an ATM machine. He withdrew twenty dollars for them and said that was as much as he could withdraw. They didn't believe him and further threatened him.
There was a slight diversion and he was able to escape, sprinting a kilometer back to the house where they had stashed his bike. He was an 800-meter athlete and did the best time of his life getting to his bike. Then he rushed to the bus station, knowing that he couldn't continue on the road as there was only one road out. He hid as best he could and was forced to take a bus for the one time on his trip. The experience was the most terrifying experience of his life. Other than that, his Turkey experience had been one of his best. More people invited him into their homes than anywhere else.
He and Edith wondered how often I had been invited into people's homes in France. They were shocked that this was just the third time I had had such an offer in nine years of bicycling all over France, but also not surprised. Even when they rode a tandem pulling two of their daughters in a trailer for 750-miles from their home in the Alps to where they grew up in Brittany a couple of years ago, no one invited them in. Few touring cyclists venture into their region of the Alps. I was their first guest.
We were up until after midnight lost in conversation. It masked my exhaustion from my hard day of climbing. I certainly felt it the next day, suffering a rare bonk from my inadequate sleep. I made it over the Col Saint Martin and began the 7,000 foot climb of the Bonette when I could continue no further, quitting just beyond Isore after making a thousand foot dent in the climb. I had hoped to gain at least another thousand feet, but didn't have the energy. I stopped 22 miles and nearly 6'000 feet from its summit. When I woke in the morning I felt refreshed, though my legs were rather leaden. Once I started the climb I knew I would have to finish it. I wasn't sure if there would be anywhere to rest along the road as I neared the summit, as Anthony warned there would be high snow banks lining the road.
It was seven miles from my campsite to the last town before the summit. Its grocery store didn't have much to offer. Luckily I still had a can of ravioli and bread and peanut butter and honey and some madeleines. The grade ranged from five to ten per cent. Once I reached 6,000 feet, higher than Mont Ventoux or L'Alpe d'Huez, I was above the tree line. At 7,500 feet, five miles from the summit, I passed a ghost town that provided shelter from the cold wind. I paused for a last rest and feed. A mile later the snow started to appear. There were high snow banks, but only in patches, so if I needed to rest I could slip off the road and plop down.
All the while I had in mind the last time the Tour de France crossed the Bonette in 2008, only the fourth time in The Tour's history, as the road is so out of the way it is difficult to incorporate into the race route. I hadn't ridden the Bonette that year as it would have prevented me from getting to L'Alpe d'Huez in time to meet my friend Julie.
After I reached the summit and began the descent, my thoughts were focused on Christian Vande Velde, as it was along this stretch that he suffered a crash and lost two minutes. He finished fourth that year, three minutes and five seconds behind Carlos Sastre. If not for that crash, he would have finished third, just seven seconds behind Cadell Evans.
It was understandable that one could crash on the descent, as it was highly technical with many 180 degree turns. I never let it out enough to go faster than thirty miles per hour. It was fourteen miles and 4,700 feet down to Jauiers. An over-sized bicycle hung on the town's welcome sign along with a plaque saying it had been a Ville Etape in the 2008 Tour.
I could have turned left and gone over the Col de Vars, another beyond category climb, but my legs needed a respite from the climbing, so I went left and headed to Gap on a mostly flat route with strain-free cycling. But I am not done with the Alps. I will swing back into them in a couple of days before I reach Grenoble for a few more climbs with plaques I wish to pay homage to that have evaded me over the years.