Friday 27 July 2007

The Tour of the Vosges Mountains

July 1, 2007: Canada Day in Mulhouse, France

When I lived in Germany I took part in many organized rides, often of daunting length and usually in wretched weather. Unwilling to pass up this experience with my friends, I found a local club ride last year in the Black Forest and promptly blew up on the course. This year I thought that discretion was the better part of valour and I found a shorter course offered by the ACS Peugeot Citroën Mulhouse on the website of the French cycletouring organization, FFTC. The weekend of June 30/July 1 the club was holding a variety of rides, ranging from 89 to 227 km, and I contacted them to see about signing us all up for the 174 km version, the Col Vosgiens, for Sunday. For many in the group this would be the day after they had landed from the United States, whereas the Thin Man and I would not be suffering from jet lag as we will have come in by train from Berlin.

There was plenty of grumbling as we all get up at 5 am and piled into the van for the 45 minute drive to Mulhouse and the start. The evening before we had put the bikes into the rental van, a Ford S-Max, and amazingly were able to put five bicycles into the vehicle, all with their wheels off and carefully stacked in the luggage area. And there was room for the five of us in the car as well, although we had to put one of the bikes across the rear seat on our laps. We were clearly inspired. Even more impressive, we were able to find the Citroën Peugeot sports complex without any difficulty. Chill, who was staying in Mulhouse, had reconnoitered the area the evening before and had gotten lost several times but we took the exit he suggested. As we switched to a smaller route from the autoroute, I noticed a sign (in the other direction!) to the sports complex and we were soon there.

Registration had opened at 4 am for those wanting an insanely early start for the 227 km randonneur ride but our plan was to leave closer to 7 am. There were very few cyclists around at this point and the helpful volunteers registered us in no time flat. French rides are divided into cyclosportif, where times are taken, and cyclotourisme, which is more relaxed. For many of the events if you are not an FFTC member you must show a doctor’s certificate, as well as signing the usual waiver. But things were pretty low-key in Mulhouse and we did not need any additional paperwork. Before rolling out we stopped for breakfast and then headed past the front gate. The weather looked very good and the roads were well-marked, so we quickly got into paceline mode and headed past the rather industrial suburbs of Mulhouse for the Vosges Mountains to the east.

We soon left the suburbs behind and found ourselves in forest. Most of the mountains are part of a national park and the area is very green and sparsely-populated. We began to climb gradually, enjoying the scenery and the excellent, traffic-free road. The group broke up fairly rapidly, as the Thin Man, Steve Z. and Anti-Gravity Jon are faster climbers than me, Chill and Dr. Chef, but I felt good and knew that there was no need to hurry as we had a long day ahead.

Our first climb took us to the food stop at Col Amic. This area had been heavily contested in World War One and there are some very large cemeteries around. It must have been very difficult to construct trenches and fight in the mountains. The Vosges marked the boundary between Germany and France pre-1914 and the first action in the war in the West took place here. Although there was much less fighting in this area in World War Two there are memorials everywhere to the soldiers lost in both wars.

At Col Amic (825 m above sea level) we loaded up on drinks and bananas; the volunteers were starting to pack up as we left. We continued our ride upwards to the highest point on the ride, the Grand Ballon. I tried to ride as steadily as possible and could see a line of cyclists stretched out ahead as we worked our way up to the top. A brief photo stop at the summit (1324 m) and we had a pleasant downhill ride. We put some speed into it, and unfortunately I began to cramp in my left leg. I pulled off to massage the muscle, and Chill stopped too and we then proceeded together. I was worried that the cramp would get so bad that I could not continue but I drank a lot and worked it out and gradually felt a lot better. We took some pictures and then continued, enjoying the views of the mountains all around.

The next stretch took us through narrow forest descents to La Bresse, where we were again among the last at the food stop, but we quickly sped onwards and found ourselves at Fresse sur Moselle, where a large group of cyclists, doing various lengths of the ride, had assembled for lunch. It was a busy place and while the food was not memorable we were able to relax for a while.

Now the route took us along the young Moselle River on a bicycle path and we rode with some of the locals and soon had a paceline going. There was an older rider (with a pot belly!) and although he was not a great climber he could set a good pace on the flats. There was one final climb at a reasonable grade along a major road, but from there things were generally downhill to the end. We had a wonderful descent but it was starting to look like rain.

The area we were passing through was more heavily-settled than in the mountains and we were particularly taken with the little town of Thann. We blew down to our last food stop, in Leimbach, and there the Thin Man discovered he had a flat tire. Tire repaired, we pressed on but it turned out that the problem was not solved and we stopped to fix it again. Unfortunately, the weather had now changed and it was starting to rain. Dr. Chef jumped onto a paceline going by, Steve Z. and Anti-Gravity Jon were far ahead, and I stood under a garage roof while Chill provided encouragement to the Thin Man. We soon were on our way again and before we knew it we were rolling through the outskirts of Mulhouse and back to the sports complex.

It had stopped raining and we rolled in and got our carnets stamped–although Chill’s had turned into paper mush by this time. My actual riding time was 7 hours and 18 minutes and I was starting to feel pretty tired. I bought a medal as a souvenir and everyone had something to drink and some snacks and a group photo before we piled back into the van and headed back to our gite in Hunawihr.

We got cleaned up and celebrated with a dinner at the restaurant next to the gite and slept very well that night.

1 comment:

Will said...

That Pot Belly fat guy made me laugh.
What a determined guy.

On paper, this should have been the hardest ride of my life, but the scenery, company, and the event made it really enjoyable.