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When coasting just isn't enough

On Saturday it rained long and hard, and Monday isn't predicted to be much better.  But today was made for riding.  The sun was shining, there were few clouds in the sky, and the temperature was a vernal 23 degrees.  After testing the waters the previous Sunday with a 120km loop that included a 13km climb up the spectacular Gorges du Nan (with more than 1000m elevation gain), I decided to go for gold and do Alpe d'Huez.  That climb is very similar to the Gorges du Nan in terms of gradient and length, but adds a little challenge in that the base of the climb, the town of Bourg d'Oisans, lies 550m higher than Grenoble.  A nice little warm-up.

15km from my home, I passed through Vizille with its château and beautiful park.  Here it was, according to local lore, that the French revolution really started.  The museum is full of big old pictures and interesting stories, and it is free.  Since I had visited it a week earlier, I had no reason to stop today.  I followed the big road, which was slowly moving towards the mountains that seemed to grow higher and come closer to the road, a picture of impending doom.

At 20km I entered the Romanche valley, which looks like a grossly oversized version of Salt Lake City's Big Cottonwood Canyon with the waterfalls and lush vegetation of Kauai transplanted onto its slopes.  I don't think I have ever seen so many shades of green.  Absolutely marvelous.

The first intersection of note came at 23km.  On the left starts the road up the Col de Luitel, reportedly one of the most hideously steep climbs around Grenoble.  This is the pass where, in 1958, Charly Gaul laid the foundation for his Tour victory.

At 25km, the Massif des Ecrins, the mountains surrounding Bourg, came into view.  Its glacial summits were reflecting the afternoon sun straight at me in a very intimidating way.  Just below the peaks was a layer of clouds, as it happens frequently around here.  It seems that the clouds aren't very keen on floating around the sky aimlessly.  Rather, they like to surround the mountains, and gather close to them.  Never up at the top, though, always halfway down.  So you can have a somewhat cloudy day and still see the white peaks clearly in the distance.  Just like today.

At 30km, the road became steep.  It was about time.  I wanted the elevation gain of the approach to be stretched over as many kilometers as possible so as to conserve my energy for the real deal.  I was lucky that a hard tail wind was blowing me up most of the time.  Sometimes it was almost scary especially considering that I would have to return after Alpe d'Huez into an equally strong headwind.  I wasn't sure the gradient would make up for it.

The closer I got to Bourg, the stronger the tailwind seemed to get.  I was flying by the signs to the Col de la Croix de Fer and later the Col d'Ornon at almost 50km/h.  I know that I have the bad habit of going too fast when the going is easy and then not having the endurance for long hard climbs.  I was praying that it really was the wind, but I was getting freaked out about the return all the same.

Just behind the little town of Bourg a friendly sign sent me off the main road and promised arrival in Alpe d'Huez in only 13km.  It didn't say anything about the 21 hairpins and 1100 vertical meters.  That was for me to discover.

The climb tries to make a point right at the beginning, starting with a solid 11% for the first five hairpins.  It felt like someone kicked me in the stomach and then just left his foot there.  The flip side is that once you've survived the first part, the worst is over and you'll make it to the top.  There is only one more steep section around hairpin 10.

Right from the beginning I could tell that my legs weren't in a very good shape.  The climbing was hard.  Mentally, though, I was top.  I was suffused with positive thoughts.  I'm really finally living here.  This is my turf, these are my mountains.  I couldn't help but grin while I was working myself into the zone, this special state where the outside world ceases to exist.  I tried to keep count of the hairpins, but some I missed completely.  18, 17, 14, oops, what happened here?

Some way into the third quarter I was out of my seat quite a bit.  My forces were waning, and the climb was still long.  That's when I started to soak up the atmosphere.  Names written on the road.  Virenque and Jan and Lance were there.  The presence of the Tour is palpaple, stories of victory and defeat are hanging in the air.  This is one of the most famous climbs in the world.  Someone once quipped that you only quit here after blacking out multiple times.  I suppose that you only get off your bike when you fall off.  As long as you can keep yourself on your bike, you're getting up there somehow.

Once in the resort of Alpe d'Huez, the road levels off a bit.  With a little more than 1km to go, I was dropping into bigger gears and testing my limits, just hoping for my calves not to cramp up.  When I finally crossed the line on the road by the sign that said Arrivée du Tour de France, this mad grin was back on my face.  I did it.  A drugged up Pantani was much faster, and my 1:07 leaves much room for improvement, but for a first try I was quite happy.  I had hoped for a 13km/h average, and that is exactly what I did.  Now, Alpe d'Huez doesn't exist anymore.  It's just another mountain I've climbed.

Back in Bourg it was prime time for ice cream and a coffee.  I certainly needed to boost my energy for the way back.  A Clif bar is a good thing, but one only takes you that far.  Unfortunately, some sort of bike festival was going on, and the town was overrun by bikers of the lazy kind; those who need to burn gas to propel themselves instead of energy bars.  Leather-clad folks were taking up every last chair in the many cafes and also standing around everywhere.  Well, well, I would have to wait for pasta at home to feel good again.

First I had to get through the section with the brutal headwind, though.  This was harder than Alpe d'Huez because of all the pain and suffering and no reward at all.  Demoralizing, and I had run out of water.  I was bent deep down over my handlebar trying to ignore the wind – and ignoring everything else in the process.  I didn't notice a fountain to refill my bottle for another 18km.

After Vizille the terminal suffering started.  I had finished the gradual descend, but the headwind wasn't finished with me yet.  The last 15km were endless.  Finally, though, after 130km and almost five hours of riding, I was back at home.  The feeling in my legs, the warm softness, was the best part.  I turned my TV to Rai 3, but had already missed the end of the Giro's first time trial.  Nevertheless, watching Paolo Bettini and Mario Cipollini discuss David Zabriskie's stage victory was a great way to end a great day, even though I didn't understand a word.

16 May 2005