Sunday 31 August 2008

Tour d'Enfer Day 6: A Long Day Indeed (Part One)

Briançon is the hub for a lot of rides over great climbs. With our time ended in the town, we packed up the bags and loaded them on the bus and then began to ride out into the bright morning sunshine. The plan for today was to do the longest ride of the Tour d’Enfer, around 100 kms, and include two more famous climbs.

Our first climb was the Col de l’Izoard. A part of the Tour de France since 1922, it has appeared in the itinerary more than 30 times, and the first men over the top are legends of the Tour: in 1923, it was the mercurial Henri Pélissier, whose stormy life eventually came to an end when his girlfriend shot him, apparently with some justification. Sylvère Maes, Gino Bartali, Jean Robic, Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet crossed first multiple times, and other great names included Bahamontes, Merckx, Thévenet, van Impe and Chiappucci. The last man to cross the Izoard first was Stefano Garzelli in 2006.

The ascent begins right in Briançon proper, as you pass by a big sign for the col and then start climbing almost immediately up a steep little grade. This was a bit of a nasty surprise but the road levelled off somewhat and we began a steady climb up from the town, with a view of the valley to the left. The route was wooded and green and the road was marked with milestones indicating the distance covered and the grade.

The climb is considered a Hors Categorie (HC) and is 20 km (12.43 miles) in length, with an average grade of 5.7 percent. From Briançon’s altitude of 1220 m you climb to 2361 m (7746 feet) ASL , a vertical gain of 1141 m (3743 feet).

The first six kilometers or so were actually fairly easy. Today would be special in that the road over the Izoard was going to be closed to vehicular traffic and we saw a considerable number of cyclists on the road, although the majority of them would be leaving Briançon en masse after us. I was feeling very refreshed in the coolish morning air and we made good progress. We passed a number of local cyclists but looking back down the valley we could see the fast guys on their way.

We came up to the fork in the D902, with the left turn taking you to the village of Cervieres (1636 m). Off to the right we saw a bicycle propped up next to a sleeping bag. This was a lazy cyclist who was still asleep but obviously wanted to start partway up the climb. We left him to his dozing and soon came to a small rustic hotel, compromised of a number of rural buildings. It was just beyond this that we came to the “Route Barée” sign, with a barrier blocking the road to cars, no that there had been many cars up to this point anyway.

It was now starting to get pretty warm and the climbing was beginning to get more serious, with the next 7 kms (4.3 miles) averaging more than 8 percent. The horseflies now made their appearance, which was most unwelcome. It ruins your rhythm to try and speed up and drop them but they are not only irritating when they fly around you, they inflict nasty bites. The fast guys were now catching up to us, and I discovered the simple expedient of riding close to them as they passed and the flies all went over to them!

A number of serpentines took us above the tree line and past the Refuge Napoleon, a small inn not far from the top of the pass. We soon arrived in front of the impressive monument at the top of the col and our first pass of the day was accomplished. Of course, this called for the usual variation of col sign photos. Greg took a nice picture of me, and then one with me and Heike and Frank and our Specialized bicycles. This was the first day when I saw a number of French riders with Specialized bikes as well; the brand is not nearly as visible as a supplier to two pro teams would be expected to be in Europe.

Local riders congregate in front of the museum
The cyclotouristique riders had assembled in large numbers and were consuming rather odd and unlikely food, such as cold cuts. It did not look much like the kind of food you get on a ride in Germany or the US but everyone looked pretty fit so I guess it works.

Making my way through the hordes of eating cyclists, I was able to get into the little cycling museum at the top of the Izoard. With an 86 year long presence at the Tour de France, the Izoard features in many legendary battles. The museum, which was staffed by one very bored looking man (presumably from the local tourism office), had some interesting bicycles. The best was a velocipede, the kind of iron bike with the pedals attached to the front wheel and which nobody would have ever been able to ride up the pass. There were a lot of posters (“The History of Brakes,” “The Role of Clermont-Ferrand in the Bicycle Industry,” and so forth) but it seemed that nothing had been added since the pass was crossed by Pascal Richard of Switzerland in the 1989 Tour de France. Since the museum looked like a volunteer effort by a regional cycling club they will probably get around to it someday.

The descent was quite entertaining, with an average gradient of 6.9 percent all the way down to Guillestre, 16 km (10 miles) away, but the first half of the drop must be closer to 9-10 percent. The D902 took us through the Casse Déserte, “the Broken Desert,” which is a region of steep, barren eroded sandstone, familiar as a backdrop in old photos of the Tour de France. Just below the summit there is a small monument to Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet that I looked for but I ended up riding right past it, to my immense irritation. I saw some cyclists turning off the road but did not see a reason for it, but at least some of group had the chance to visit it. Bobet had the measure of the Izoard, being the first across it on three occasions, while il Campionissimo did it twice.

The road plunged downwards, with nice steady curves that I could really open up the speed on, and we tore past the village of Brunissard, entering the Queyras Valley, and travelling through dramatic narrow rock canyons that make up the Guil River gorge. This region of the Alps was one of the last to be opened to tourism and is not very built-up.

We rolled into Guillestre, a small town that had once been the scene of many border conflicts between the French and the Italians. We turned into the town proper, which required a brief descent, and came to the central square where we stopped for a coffee. Several of the other Tour d’Enfer participants joined us and then we started up the road for the second climb of the day, the Col de Vars.

The first climb of the day, completed
(profile from

Back to Gatineau Park: Riding with Tom from Pennsylvania

Canada's House of Parliament, Ottawa River view

About two years ago, I participated in the Fat Cyclist's weight loss competition, not only defeating Fatty in the weight-loss arena but also doing well in a side bet against Tom in Pennsylvania. Tom and I have been corresponding on and off since then and I was delighted to learn that he would be coming to Ottawa to compete in a short distance duathlon at Mooney's Bay.

He arrived yesterday afternoon and picked up his race package and then we met up at his hotel and went for dinner in Ottawa's Little Italy, going to eat at the slightly schizophrenic Pub Italia, which is a kind of combination Italian restaurant and Irish pub. It has a rather kitschy decor but is a lot of fun. You can see outside or in a kind of conservatory, where we ended up. The waitresses are all quite young and, um, adorable (sorry, no photos!). But we were there for the malt-based, high-carbohydrate pre-duathlon preparation beverages and with our pasta we enjoyed two large pitchers of draught Creemore Springs lager, Tom's Serious Introduction to Canadian Beer. For dessert we had an unusual sort of lemon-meringue tart thing wrapped entirely in phyllo pastry.

A very Canadian balloon goes by...

I had the rare chance to sleep in a bit this morning, and while eating breakfast watched a number of balloons flying overhead as part of the Labour Day Weekend Gatineau Balloon Festival. The Mr. Peanut balloon was too far away to get a good picture, unfortunately. Tom completed his duathlon this morning and we got together after lunch. I gave him a brief driving tour of Ottawa before we crossed the river and found a place to leave the car near Gatineau Park. Tom was riding his Quintana Roo TeKilo time trial bike but at least he had a 12-27 cogset so I figured the hills would not be too much of a problem.

We rode up through the woods on the bike path to the park entrance. We were soon on the road inside the park, enjoying the gorgeous weather and chatting. We soon overtook an attractive Quebecoise, who was riding a hybrid bike. She asked me the directions to Champlain Lookout, and I suggested that if she turned left at the next intersection she would get there by a steep but shorter route but that if she continued along the way we were going it would be a lot longer and she would have to climb Camp Fortune Road. She decided to take the shorter route and thanked us. Tom and I continued on towards Pink Lake.

Tom comes up to Pink Lake

I was feeling pretty good and spun up the hill nicely but Tom fell back a bit. I waited at the entrance to the Pink Lake lookout parking lot but it took a while for him to appear. He said that his legs were dead and that he was pretty cooked after the duathlon, unsurprisingly. We then hatched Plan B, which was to just continue along the road until we reached Camp Fortune Road and the climb, and would turn back rather than go up to Champlain Lookout. We could then ride a bit along the Ottawa River and the flatter bikepaths there.

We soon caught up with Quebecoise again, who had missed the intersection and was continuing along our road. She had actually ridden most of this yesterday and was unconcerned, saying that she had all day. She seemed to be going quite well but I would not want to be riding a hybrid up to Champlain Lookout myself.

Tom and I swept downwards to Meech Lake Road and crossed it, rolling well. A cyclist passing in the other direction made a strange gesticulation and we figured something must be happening up ahead. Sure enough, in our lane was a great big snapping turtle, with a long spiky tail. It looked at us as we rode by and although I did not want to see it get run over, the road was not heavily travelled and it could be seen from a distance, so I was not too worried about it. Furthermore, I am aware that snapping turtles are very aggressive on land and I did not want to lose any fingers moving it to safety. It was the first turtle I have seen in Gatineau Park, so I can add this to my list of interesting creatures--red squirrels, chipmunks, woodpeckers, herons, bears--seen there.

Shortly after this bit of excitement, a police vehicle passed and blipped its siren. It was a black SUV, followed by a Cadillac limousine and then followed by another SUV. It was the Prime Minister, probaby going up to Harrington Lake, the summer retreat. I recognized the vehicles as the same that I saw outside Willson House on Meech Lake, where I had attended a cabinet meeting last week.

We soon came to the second intersection with Meech Lake, and a few cyclists passed us, heading up towards Camp Fortune. We turned back at this point and were curious where the turtle had gotten to but there was no sign of it anymore. However, the Quebecoise came from the other direction and asked how far it was to Champlain Lookout. I told her it was about 7 kms to go and she seemed undaunted by this, or by the fact that it would be mainly uphill.

Tom and I cruised back and were overtaken by a rider wearing a polka dot King of the Mountains jersey. This was too much for Tom, who decided we had to choice KoM down and we rode more swiftly but when we got to another climb this foolishness ended rapidly.

Proof that we did our ride! Tom on the left, me on the right

After enjoying the rolling hills for a while, we stopped briefly at the entrance to the park and had out joint picture taken by a passerby before rolling quickly down through the woods. We joined up with the Voyageur bikepath and headed west, crossing the Champlain Bridge to the Ontario side and then heading east along the bikepath, pausing in front of the War Museum and then riding along the path at river level behind the Supreme Court and Parliament. The weather was glorious and a lot of people were out and about; Tom had lived in Chicago and thought that the bikepath there along Lake Michigan was used far less than what he had seen in Ottawa.

Now, I need a picture of me in front of the Mexican legislature and I have the NAFTA trifecta!

We walked our bikes over one of the locks on the Rideau Canal and made the steep climb up to the Alexandra Bridge, crossing over and then rejoining the Voyageur bikepath. We stopped behind the Museum of Civilization to look across the river at Parliament, and Tom took a picture of me in my Fat Cyclist pink lemonade jersey that I will post on Flickr, to go with the one of me in front of the US Capitol. We soon were near the entrance to Gatineau Park and the car.

I dropped Tom off at his hotel as he wanted to get back on the road to Pennsylvania, but I made sure that he was equipped with sufficient Creemore Springs malt-based, high-carbohydrate recovery beverage. It was great riding with him and I hope that we can do it again soon. Not only does he have to get to Champlain Lookout with me but he has to bring those cans back for the deposit at Brewers' Retail.

Altogether we rode 57 km and climbed about 670 m--a most enjoyable Saturday ride!

Friday 29 August 2008

Thursday Night Time Trial: Revenge!

After suffering the pains of terrible cramps and the indignity of being told my time was not taken as it did not appear I was actually racing, I went back last night to try again. Conditions were excellent with very little wind and after my lengthy warm-up I hit the course. Unfortunately, things started out badly with a mechanical issue as my chain jumped to the small ring and stayed there! I fumbled a bit and was seriously considering jumping off and pulling it back on when it slid back of its own volition. Of course, I was spinning so fast that my speed immediately jumped to 47 km/h! My heart rate was 172 bpm and stayed there for most of the course. Max was 181.

I passed my 30-second man not far before the turnaround (big deal--he appeared to be riding a mountain bike!) and found that I could keep my speed around 38-40 km/h on the leg back. No sign of cramps until I got to the last 400 m when they began to return but at this point nothing was going to hold me back.

Final result: a new Personal Best of 22:43, which gives me an average speed of 39.6 km/h. I need to knock off 13 seconds next Thursday to finally get to the magic average of 40 km/h. I think the prospects are good: except for disaster last week, I have improved my speed at every time trial this year. I am once again ahead of 71-year old Hermann the German (barely).

The season will not last much longer. By the time the 80 riders finished and we got our results it was already become dark. We have two tts left at this rate.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Traffic: It's Not Quite What We Think

I just enjoyed reading a review of Traffic, a new book by Tom Vanderbilt at It explains a lot about the behavior of motorists, although the irrationality of the whole thing will not be comforting to cyclists. For instance, building roads straighter makes them more dangerous. And I liked the reason that you will two Starbucks across the street from each other: traffic patterns are so poor that since it is so difficult to do a left turn against traffic it is easier just to build another coffee shop! I think this one is going on my reading list...

There is an interview with Mr. Vanderbilt at as well now.

For a list of fascinating facts about US driving, check this out. And just remember that the most commonly dropped object on Los Angeles freeways is...a ladder!

Saturday 23 August 2008

Saturday Along the Ottawa River

View from the Eastern Parkway

After my time trial experience on Thursday, I had a very easy spinning ride on Friday. Today’s program called for 1-2 hours of cycling, not exceeding 75% of max heart rate. The weather looked excellent so I left home by 9:30 am and headed out on the Eastern Parkway.

There was little traffic on the Parkway, although even more groundhogs than usual were munching the grass. There were some runners jogging along the gravel path directly next to the river but otherwise it was all very peaceful.

After turning around at St-Joseph Blvd. as usual, I passed by the Rockcliffe Airport and stopped to look at the interesting airplanes that had arrived for the weekend of vintage aircraft and cars. Peering through the chainlink fence as I did not feel like paying anything for admission or cutting my bike ride short, I saw a very nice Hawker Sea Fury in civilian markings, a very rare DeHavilland Fox Moth, a Tiger Moth and several nice biplanes. There was a C-47 (the military DC-3) and a classic 1930s executive plane, the Stinson Reliant, identifiable by its very distinctive “gullwing” design. While I was watching, a Nanchang CJ-7 trainer arrived as well. I took some photos but the links were pretty close together.

I continued my ride through Rockcliffe Park, riding then past the Prime Minister’s Official Residence on Sussex before turning onto the MacDonald-Cartier Bridge to cross the river. This route meant that I would not have to go through the Byward Market or over the busy Alexandra Bridge, with its nasty wooden bikeway. The M-C Bridge only has a sidewalk for crossing and it is not very nice either but at least there is nobody else getting in the way. At the far end you come to Jacques Cartier Park where there is a frisbee golf course set up. The park is fairly large and I rode the bikepath heading west, past a big open spot where, of all thing, a religious revival event was taking place. Passing the Museum of Civilization, where I stopped to look at some modern sculptures by a Montreal architects that are supposed to resemble people, the bikepath continued westwards, past the turn to Gatineau Park and onwards towards Aylmer.

There was another piece of art, overlooking one of the old match factories alongside the river. This was the outline of a boat, with two iron wolves walking around it. Apparently the boat skeleton represents Culture and the wolves, curious yet fearful, are Nature.

There were a few other cyclists on the path, and the usual annoying rollerbladers who take up their side and yours as well, but it was an enjoyable ride. There were some families out and only a few other people on racing bicycles.

Les Cedres

I passed the rapids and soon came to the marina at Aylmer, but continued to follow the bike path past the beach at Les Cedres to its end before turning around.

I took a very brief look at Aylmer, but there is really not much to see. It is pretty well all residential. Near the marina is an old inn, built in 1830 by the founder of the town, Charles Symmes, and it is now a regional history museum but seems to be undergoing extensive renovation as it was last fixed up in 1978. It is an attractive grey stone building with an extensive porch and will look good when it is fixed up again.

Retracing my route, I was home in time for lunch, having ridden 72 kms at a relaxed pace.

Today's ride

Friday 22 August 2008

Time Trial Night in Ottawa: I blowed up real good!

Energized by my riding in Europe and the Cheat Mountain Challenge, I decided to go out for the Ottawa Bicycle Club 15 km time trial once more, with the plan that I will go every week now instead of biweekly. I really want to break the 40 km/h average that has so far eluded me. I managed to get out of work early, pack up the Dreadnought and the wind-trainer, and got early to the parking lot at the Aviation Museum.

I had a very good 40 minute warm-up, and although I was a bit thirsty (it was a sunny day) at the start line I felt good. Out of the gate I felt like a turbine and after a km or so I looked down and saw that I was going 44 km/h, with a HR of 178. I very gently eased off and although my HR came down to my usual 165-9 the speed stayed pretty well the same. I also realized that I was riding into a very slight headwind/sidewind, which is unusual for this course. My cadence was high and I felt lots of power. I felt that I would easily beat my previous best time of 23:01, and I could once again be ahead of 71 year-old Hermann, who during my holidays had improved his time to 22:51 and was starting one minute behind me. Conditions were ideal.

Going up the little hill to the turnaround I did not lose much speed and the turn went well, as did the brief downhill where I was back up to 43 km/h or so. Following the gentle left curve it was apparent that I actually had a slight following wind and I was hammering along very nicely, with my 30-second man in sight, when at 10.6 km I was seized with a horrific cramp in my right calf, so bad I almost lost control of the bike for a moment. I had been on the road for exactly 15 minutes so I was figuring that with the following wind I had an excellent chance of coming in under 22 minutes but the cramp ended that. I had to back right off to keep from locking up and I was passed by the next two riders starting behind me. The cramp kept coming back and my speed was dropping way down but I kept on going. Of course I had begun to use the left side more so at around 13.5 km those muscles started to cramp as well. I crossed the line in a lot of pain at 24:32, but I was so focussed on keeping going I forgot to call out my number. As soon as I could walk again, I went back to the timekeeper who told me that I had crossed the line so slowly they did not think I had been racing and didn't take my time. Just as well, I guess, since it did not feel much like racing for the last third but some kind of ugly survival ride.

So this was a bust, but you always learn things on a ride. I have discussed what could cause the cramps with my coach and I think I may have a hydration or fuel issue since I seem to be doing everything else right. And for 2/3 of the course I enjoyed the excitment that comes from going really, really, really fast. Better luck maybe next week--this racing thing is hard! I will got a signed postcard of Fabian Cancellara to cheer me up.

A New Kind of Bike Tour: Selling Houses by Bike

In what appears to be a wholesale adoption of cycling by the mainstream press, including the business media, the Wall Street Journal today had an article about realtors taking clients around to houses by bicycle. Although there are clients who were cyclists and most concerned about accessbility to bike paths for commuting, there are others not used to cycling who enjoy doing this as a way to get a better feel for the market. The article points out that in Northern winters or for longer distances it probably doesn't work, but for a quick way to get a feel for a neighbourhood what could be better than cycling around it?

Thursday 21 August 2008

Tour d'Enfer Day 5: Welcome to the Galibier!

Lost Boys Riding the Col de la Telegraphe

The view climbing from St-Michel-de-Maurienne

There are certain climbs so strongly identified with the Tour de France that any true cyclist is moved by the mere mention of them. To me the three greatest are the Tourmalet in the Pyrenees, Mont Ventoux, alone in Provence, and the Galibier, the monumental ride in the Alps. When planning the Tour d’Enfer all these months ago I was thrilled to think that I would someday ride the Galibier, a bigger thrill than the Alpe d’Huez and probably equivalent only to the Stelvio, the Giro d’Italia legend I rode in 2005.

What makes the Galibier so special? First crossed by the Tour in 1911 on what must have been a real goat track, the pass has been a regular feature of the race and identified with the greatest heroics of cycling. Gino Bartali became a star here in 1937. Since 1947 it has been on the Tour route no less than 31 times–it should have been 32 but the terrible weather in 1996 meant cancellation of most of the long stage from Val d’Isère, including the Galibier. This was the stage where Bjarne Riis took the Yellow Jersey, dashing Miguel Indurain’s hopes for a sixth Tour de France. And it was last crossed by the Tour yesterday, July 23.

The Thin Man on the Telegraphe

The Galibier is attended by lesser passes to the south (the Col du Lauturet) and the north (Col de la Télégraphe). If you consider the town of St-Michel-de-Maurienne to be the start of the climb, leading then over the Télégraphe, the climb is 34.8 km (21.62 miles) long, averaging 6.1% with a total gain of 2120 m (6955 feet). The maximum grade is at the summit itself and is 10.1%. Often the highest point of the Tour de France, the summit is at 2645 m (8677 feet) ASL

Now accustomed to German order and efficiency, we had our bikes loaded into the trailer rapidly and left Briançon early. Udo drove us around the mountains on the route we had driven in on, passing through the Frejus tunnel again and stopping after 90 minutes or so just outside St-Michel-de-Maurienne at a supermarket. Barry’s dream of bananas came true as we loaded up the bus with fruit and downed a few before assembling our bikes and then finding a washroom, an occasional challenge on this trip. But we were rolling out in the cool morning air along the N6, which was fairly busy but caused no anxiety.

Lost Boys unable to resist a col sign

The directions for the day were simple: turn left on the D902; climb the Télégraphe; climb the Galibier; turn left on the Col du Lauturet and roll down into Briançon and back to the hotel. The road had been closed earlier in the day to vehicles, which we were to learn is fairly common around here when the Tour de France is in the vicinity but Udo came on our route with the bus as the noon opening of the road at the other end would take place while we were riding.

Dr. Chef in Valloire

It was a truly beautiful day as we began the steady climb, with some nice curves in the road that took us high above the River Arc. We had a break at the summit of the Télégraphe, and some of the group stopped for a coffee, but the rest of headed onwards on the short descent towards Valloire and the beginning of the climb to the top of the Galibier.

The Galibier is impressively long and you have a great deal of time to contemplate the scenery as you roll relentlessly upwards. The landscape opens up around you and for a good part of the ride you are riding on a plain, surrounded by the high mountains. Up ahead we could see a paraglider flying near the peak. After we passed a bend in the road at Plan Lachat around the 23 km (14.3 mile) mark the road pitched up to around 7% and kept on going. The last 8 kms of the climb are brutal, averaging around 8.1%. The summit featured one more little pitchup, bringing the grade to over 10%–ouch! We had left the paraglider behind us: we were now far above him!

The last section of road had lots of curves and a surprising amount of traffic. The road split at 2556 m ASL as larger vehicles were required to take a short, single-lane tunnel instead of going up to the summit. Oddly enough, the tunnel had been on the original road across the Galibier, so all the early Tour heroes would have ridden through it. It was closed in 1976 for reconstruction (opening again only in 2002!) and the current summit road was built, taking us up to the 2645 m ASL. On the last turn, I passed a car and trailer that seemed to be stuck. It was blocking traffic and other drivers were trying to reposition themselves. A heavy, metallic smell was in the air and I suspect that the driver of the car and trailer had burned out his transmission.

The view from the top was fantastic, with snow-covered mountains around us, although there were the usual summit crowds with motorcycles and cars and even a guy with massive arms riding a handcycle. After catching our breath, if that is what you can call it at 2600 m, we launched out towards the Col du Lauturet, with the road beginning to drop at 12%. Before negotiating a fantastic set of hairpin turns we passed the southern portal of the tunnel and there saw the monument to Henri Desgrange, founder of the Tour de France. A wreath is put there every time the Tour crosses the Galibier and it was sitting there, marking the peleton’s passage the day before. But enough resting: time to descend!

Frank at speed

The descent to the Col du Lauturet was fantastic. Less technical but still full of turns, it was exhilarating to get up some speed for nearly 9 kms. Frank was ahead of me but for once I could keep him in sight as the road was better for someone with my limited bike-handling skills. Heike joined us at the crossroads. We decided to let the others eat at the top of Lauturet and we would just head back towards Briançon and stop en route.

Frank going even faster

We shot down the rather busy N91, whipping through a tunnel without a second thought, and rocketing along the Vallée de la Gusiane, the little river on our right as we easily kept pace with the cars. After 10 kms (6.2 miles) of pure speed we came into the charming little village of Le Monêtier-les-Bains, only to discover that since it was mid-afternoon the pizzeria that Frank had been looking for was closed. We drank some beer at an English-style pub, which, it turned out, also had no food. But our resourceful waiter organized lunch for us at the local creperie, but our food was brought over by the man from the restaurant so we did not have to move!

Well-fed, we continued on the N91 , again downhill all the way, and passed St-Chaffrey, where I had begun the climb up the Col du Granon (had it only been yesterday?). Soon we were back in Briançon, having enjoyed another epic day. On this, our last evening in Briançon, we sat outside for dinner and had excellent beer. The Badger and I walked around the old town and we found an Italian artisanal ice cream place and celebrated our conquest of one of the greatest climbs ever.

A few years ago I watched on television as Michael Boogerd of the Rabobank team crossed the Galibier to win that day’s stage, grinning like a madman. Anyone riding across the Galibier on the kind of day we had would have done the same.

Wednesday 20 August 2008

Eat like an Olympian! Become a Gold Medal Glutton!

Michael Phelps in action in Beijing (photo by T. Haines)

Congratulations to Michael Phelps for his amazing success in the swimming pool. How does he do it, you ask? Besides the hours of training, the superior motivation, the world-class agility, he follows a special diet. You can do this too, and a writer at the Globe & Mail did it with hilarious results. Read about it here (warning: not for the digestically-sensitive) and realize that it is not easy to consume 12,000 calories a day. Now that Mr. Phelps has won more medals than anyone ever, he might want to cut back a little on the fried egg sandwiches in his future life. Could this diet have been something to psyche-out opponents? Does he really eat no fruit? It interesting to compare this to diet designed for a person who is essentially a sprinter in the water with the diet of a pro cyclist, where fueling for endurance is key.

Monday 18 August 2008

An Appalachian Interlude: the Cheat Mountain Challenge

Cycling did not end this summer for me with the Tour d'Enfer. Although I will continue to be posting on it, I did take this weekend to go to West Virginia for the Cheat Mountain Challenge ride.

In early September 2005 I rode the inaugural Cheat Mountain Challenge, a 100+ mile ride through the beautiful scenery of Pocahontas County, West Virginia. The ride began and ended at the Snowshoe Mountain ski resort. It was a great ride, but the weather was not all that good, with very heavy fog to start the ride and more fog at altitude. In addition, I was not all that thrilled about my hotel which had a very 1970s feel to it at inflated ski-resort prices. In 2006 I signed up again but did not go as the weather looked bad and in fact was pretty terrible, so those who did participate had their epic ride made even more so by cold rain.

The date of the ride has been moved up to August and although there is always a risk with weather I thought I would try again. This time I would have to drive down from Ottawa, meaning I would have a 13 hour drive instead of the 4.5 hour one from Washington, DC. And since I don’t like riding alone, I thought I would enlist agreeable, like-minded individuals. I have been reading Donald’s Daily Draft, a blog written by a newsman from Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina for some time and thought he would be a good recruit. He jumped on immediately, and with some encouragement from his friend Kim, Ralph “the Badger” came on board as well, feeling fit as a fiddle after crushing the Alps in the Tour d’Enfer. Kim was coming too, with her beautiful new Specialized Ruby, although as a new hard-core cyclist she would be doing a more modest ride. Young Jeff, always game for a wrenchingly-hard ride, made up the remainder of the party.

Rather than stay in the crummy hotel again, I booked a cottage at the Cass Scenic Railway State Park, located about 16 kms (10 miles) from Snowshoe Mountain. The state park was created in 1961 and must be the only old lumber town entirely in a park. Young Jeff and I had ridden through Cass a few years ago and I was curious what the company houses would be like. The pictures looked good and the price was reasonable so I made arrangements.

Armed with the largest bag of oatmeal to cross the border, along with bananas and a range of other foodstuffs (not forgetting the important malt-based, high-carbohydrate recovery beverages), I set off after work on Thursday, driving across the border at the Thousand Islands and making it as far down I-81 as Dickson City, on the edge of Scranton, Pennsylvania. I checked into a budget hotel at around 11:30 pm, and had a short night’s sleep as I wanted to be up and out early the next morning.

On Friday, I was on the road by 6:30 am and heading southwards. There was a lot of repaving on the Interstate, with lane closures, but I made quite good time. I gave my mother a call on my cellphone to announce that I had crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and was now back in my dear Southland. I turned off just north of Staunton, Virginia and took the quiet roads westward to Monterrey, from where I had ridden the Mountain Mama Century in 2007, and then across the state line, via Frost and on to Cass. There was on-and-off again rain while I drove but it was not unpleasant and by the time I go to Cass around 2:30 pm the sun was shining again.

Home Sweet No. 137

One of the famous Cass steam locomotives was at the depot, ready to pull out with a crowd of sightseers. I easily found the park office and picked up the key to company house No. 137, on Front Street, a gravel road overlooking the Greenbrier River. I parked the car and unloaded my gear. The house, painted white like all the rest in the town, was a two-storey cottage, with the kitchen, dining and living room on the ground floor. Upstairs were three bedrooms and one bathroom with a shower. It was simply furnished but quite clean and attractive. The kitchen has the necessary complement of cutlery, crockery, glasses and pots and I regretted not bringing more food since we could easily have had our own pasta party. The house had a full-frontage covered porch with a bench and a swing. On either side of us were houses with four bedrooms, characterized by their different roof line.

Cass: where Lefty Meeks has cut hair for six decades

I went outside to call everyone to let them know which house we were in and discovered that Cass has no cellphone coverage. So much for the modern world! So I just unpacked my bags, put things in the fridge and then went for a walk. I walked past the Community Center, which was a converted church, then the Masonic Hall, which was founded in 1903, looking in at Lefty’s Barber Shop along the way but Lefty was out for a doctor’s appointment and the place was closed. It was too bad as the Governor gave him a citation as a Distinguished Citizen a few months ago. Lefty, who is 89 years old, has been cutting hair in the same location since 1948. I visited the Company Store, which had been the nerve center of the town, and took some more photos of the train as it departed before I walked through the little museum and then looked briefly at the diorama, an HO scale model of the town in the late 1930s, when it was at its height.

On the way back to the cottage I came across a tour group. More accurately it was a state park guide and two visitors so after I asked if I could come along I enjoyed the formal tour of Historic Cass, including a visit to the jail. The town had been begun in 1901 to take advantage of the stands of primeval forest on Cheat Mountain and the surrounding hills, first for pulpwood and later for timber. Once the railroad arrived the place flourished, employing up to 3,000 people. It had a dozen logging camps on the surrounding hills, served by trains hauled by the steam-powered geared locomotives known after their inventor, Ephraim Shay. Shays were all built in Lima, Ohio and, although slow, were able to climb grades as steep as 11 percent, far beyond the capacity of a normal locomotive. The Cass Scenic Railroad has the largest collection of Shays in existence and I saw two of them. There are a number of steam train excursions offered daily, including one to Spruce, an old logging camp that is being restored as well.

Cass' Main Street (note the boardwalks)

We were staying in a workman’s cottage, typical of the housing of the town, and classified by the lumber company as a Class 3 house. Where the managers lived, on so-called “Big Bug Hill,” the houses were fancier. We saw the elegant home of the doctor and his clinic, both of which are slated for renovation to add to the roster of 20 houses available for visitors. We also went into the big mansion on the top of the hill, the former summer home of the Luke family, which was in the paper business and helped found the community and the company that is today packaging giant Mead Westvaco. The Luke house was large, but has not been occupied for decades. Plans to restore this and the other houses are active but money is always an issue. The West Virginia governor had visited Cass a few days earlier and expressed enthusiasm for the park’s future plans.

After the tour, I was back at the cottage when a white car pulled in and Donald, known inevitably as “Duck,” came out. We had never met in person before or even spoken on the telephone but here we were sharing a cycling holiday together. After he put his bag in his room I suggested that after the long drive he needed a malt-based, high-carbohydrate recovery drink and we toasted each other for a good ride ahead. A bit later Ralph and Kim arrived and we all decided to head up to Snowshoe to register for the ride and have some dinner.

We reached Snowshoe quickly but there was a bit of confusion as to where the registration was; there was a “beer, blues and barbecue” event going on that was the focus of the place. We learned that we would have to drive down off the mountain to the Welcome Center at the foot of the hill, which we did and were registered in only a few minutes. Back up the hill (the final painful climb of tomorrow’s ride) and we had dinner at the excellent, but not inexpensive, Cheat Mountain Pizza Company.

As we drove back to Cass around 9:30 pm, taking care to avoid the vast number of deer popping out of the woods everywhere, we saw a car with a roof rack and a bike on it go through the town at high speed and up towards Snowshoe. We realized it was Young Jeff and we were worried that he had been at the cottage and waited for us and was annoyed we were not there. We had left a note on the park office bulletin board for him since our phones would not work. After a while I went to look for him and eventually caught up with him in Cass. It turned out that he wasn’t sure where we were staying and had gone to Snowshoe to do an Internet search. In any event, we were very happy that he did not have to sleep in his car. A few more recovery beverages and it was time to sleep.

On Saturday we ate bagels and bananas and made a dent in my huge bag of oatmeal (not much of a dent, actually) and the one of raisins to fortify ourselves for the day ahead. We drove to the Welcome Center, leaving Cass at 7:20 am and got there in plenty of time. Kim was willing to be a volunteer and she was soon at the registration desk, where she appeared to be the only volunteer. She ended up spending the whole day doing things for the ride. A different introduction to our kind of cycling, I guess, but her assistance was very welcome.

Lost Boys ready to roll: from l: Duck, Young Jeff, Badger, Cannibal

We met up with Mariette and Rick, two cyclists we knew from the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club, and ended up riding with them. The 8:00 am start melted a bit and was closer to 8:20, but everyone was in high spirits. There had been 117 riders when I did the trip in 2005, and 129 made it last year. I was impressed with the number of Specialized Tarmacs. I seldom see other ones but it looked like one-quarter of the riders had them here, including Duck.

A legendary road...

It was foggy as we set out, as is typical of the mornings here, but the forecast was excellent. We had a pair of escort trucks that took us the first 8 miles or so before we took a right turn onto Back Mountain Road. Young Jeff and I had ridden on this road for its full length, starting in Durbin, and it has to be one of the finest cycling roads in the United States. Narrow, with lots of twists and turns, excellent paving and great scenery, it has no traffic to speak of. The only problem was that right at the turn I had to stop and clear off my glasses as the fog had made it impossible for me to see anything.

The Duck takes everyone's photo! (pictures by Donald)

After catching up with our little group we had a fine time speeding down Back Mountain Road, although Rick really needs to adjust his singing brakepads. Eventually we had another right turn that took us onto what passes for a main road in West Virginia: it looks like a main road as it is marked with a centerline and in perfect condition but there are almost never any cars. Young Jeff and I organized a paceline here and pulled the group along to a food stop, where we took off our armwarmers and unzipped our windvests in preparation for the climb up into Watoga State Park. Mariette was having some shifting issues, so she and Rick stayed back so it was just the four of us climbing along the excellent road in the sunshine. The temperature was ideal, the road superb and Duck entertained us royally with a song about moonshine, perfectly suited to the surroundings. He even managed to take some photos of us with his cellphone camera and did a pretty good job of that as well.

Me in action (photo by Donald)

Once we entered the park the road became quite narrow and steepened up in parts, with little hairpins. We passed some cyclists who had whipped by us earlier in a paceline and were looking a bit the worse for wear but I really felt good on the climb and we had fun. We rode right past the food stop on the top and after the steepish bit that begins the descent we entered one of my favourite sections of the whole Cheat Mountain Challenge: tearing down the road alongside the river, curve after elegant curve ahead and no need to touch the brakes. It seems that it goes on forever but unfortunately it does not. The Badger thought that he would bring Kim back to ride this and you have to believe us when we say it would be worth it.

We knew the big challenges were still ahead and eased our pace a bit as we approached the long, hard climb around Mile 55. This was to take us up to the Highland Scenic Highway/Rt. 150 and we all did the climb very comfortably. We stopped at the food stop and reloaded and it was here that I realized that I was beginning to get tired. We continued to climb and were soon on the Scenic Highway. It was quite a bit colder here, and windy as well and I started to slide off the back of the group. As we approached the next rest stop I was seized by cramps in my quads. This happened just as one of the assistance cars came by so I was able to reload with Gatorade but I felt my legs turning to lead. I had to ride at my own pace now, although Jeff came back and said that he too was feeling the distance and the climbing. As we pulled into the rest area to recover, we caught up to Duck and the Badger who were already busy eating. A few moments later, Mariette, who had managed to overcome a big time gap due to the mechanical issue, rolled up at the stop, followed by Rick and both of them looked far better than I felt.

We had a rip-roaring descent about halfway along the Highway, but I could not match my previous best speed here of 90 km/h, topping out at only 77.5 km/h. In 2005 I probably weighed about 20 pounds more, although I think I was probably tired then too. The next climb was painfully long but eventually we reached the stop sign at the end of the Scenic Highway and turned left. I had hoped to recover on the rollers that were coming as we rode along the Slatyfork River but I could not maintain the pace and was hit by cramps again. This time it was my calf muscles and soon it would be the adductors. I was really struggling, and was getting annoyed by the heat and the fact that I had put my gelflask into my pocket open and upside down with the result being stickiness everywhere. Jeff and I made it to the Welcome Center where we checked in, and then we each rode the daunting 10 mile climb up to Snowshoe Mountain. I was worried that I would not be able to do it at all but after a while I felt better and was cheered up by the fact that I was actually passing other cyclists!

At the end! (photo by Kim)

The 10 miles came to an end mercifully quickly–much faster than I managed it in 2005–and I felt good enough to come roaring uphill to the finish line. The others were all there to cheer me on and that helped too. Disappointingly no medals were being given out this year, so Jeff, Duck and I turned around and rode back downhill to our cars at the Welcome Center. This was a lot easier than the trip up and I actually enjoyed myself, hitting 70 km/h in parts and relishing the cold breeze and the agony on the faces of the cyclists who were still making their way up. We drove to Cass for a well-earned malt-based, high-carbohydrate recovery drink and a shower, and chatted about what a great ride it had
The group photo at the end--we all look pretty good! (photo by Kim)

Around 7:15 pm we got back in the car to go to the Elk River Touring Center to meet Mariette and Rick for dinner, driving past a very large bear that seemed to be interested in the contents of a pickup truck, as well as seeing the usual vast number of deer. Although I was not very hungry when I had come back to Cass, by the time we got to Slatyfork I was ravenous, and thirsty as well. I checked later and according to my software, the Cheat Mountain Challenge had used up 7900 Kcalories for me.

Getting ready to eat everything in the place (photo by Jackson the Waiter)

Elk River was a hoppin’ place. Jeff and I had stayed there before and it was full of mountainbikers. The restaurant was doing excellent business and I enjoyed my spicy Thai noodles. But my legs were pretty sore, so I figured that going for an early ride was probably not going to happen on Sunday.

Getting back to our cottage, we saw a wedding reception in progress at the Community Center two doors down. It was a formal event: the bride was in a traditional white gown and a number of the wedding guests were drinking beer in the back of a pickup truck and they were wearing their best black t-shirts. And that was about it for entertainment in Cass that evening, although we did watch Michael Phelps win his eighth gold medal at the Olympics, as well as watching the astonishing 100 m dash of Usain Bolt, who not only broke his own world record but grandstanded to celebrate his win before he even finished!

Sunday everyone slept in a bit and then we had more oatmeal before packing up as the rule was we had to checkout before 10 am if we did not want to pay for another night. Duck was the first to go, heading directly for home. Kim and the Badger were off to Watoga Park to ride the great road there and I showed Jeff the town of Cass after we turned in the key. We took in the lecture at the diorama, which was actually very informative (we really enjoyed the part about the lumberjacks (also called “woodhicks”) and their excursions to East Cass, outside the company limits, where they could “seek their entertainment” nudge nudge wink wink). We watched the train come in, and then we loaded up our cars and took the winding road back to Staunton.

Our favourite Mexican restaurant, the Baja Bean Co., was clearly the place to be as this lunchtime it was packed. We had our traditional burritos and then repaired to the Daily Grind for some coffee. Jeff rolled out first, while I took a few minutes to seriously clean my windshield and change the six CDs in the player. At 3:15 pm I got on I-81 and began the long trip north.

The weather was very good and I did not meet any slowdowns. I had the car on cruise control and happily listed to an eclectic selection of Bruce Springsteen, Beethoven overtures and Aaron Copland and Schubert. Before I knew it I had come to Syracuse at 10:30 pm, so I decided to press on rather than stay overnight at a depressing budget hotel, reaching Ottawa at 1:45 am this morning. I had taken today off anyway and did not feel compelled to go to work. My laundry is all done and I have some Fat Tire Ale in the fridge (thanks Ralph!) for this evening.

This profile gives one pause...

The Cheat River Challenge details: we rode 178.26 kms (110.76 miles) with 3430 meters (11,253 feet) of climbing, far more than on any of the days of the Tour d’Enfer (which I will get back to writing about tomorrow!). It was a challenge indeed but cycling the quiet, beautiful roads has to be the best pastime of all. I am grateful for the opportunity to do it and that it was made even better by the friends, old and new, with whom I had the chance to travel.