Sunday 3 August 2008

The Tour d’Enfer Begins: July 20, 2008

My new book and my spare bicycle

We all enjoyed an excellent get-to-meet-you party hosted by Will and Doreen the evening before our ride, and I was pleased, as Chief Disorganizer of the Tour d’Enfer, to be given some wonderful gifts by the group, including an excellent book on the Route des Grandes Alpes, an autographed and inscribed copy of Johan Bruyneel’s book about managing the USPS/Discovery pro teams and, best of all, a miniature wire model of my Tarmac E5, complete down to the Mario Cipollini zebra-striped handlebar tape, and with “Le Cannibal” printed on the top tube and my name on the wooden base. This was very kind of everyone, and it made all the time and planning and anguish over the last seven months organizing this trip worthwhile–and we hadn’t even started the riding yet!

Loading up for the first time

The Tour d’Enfer, with its complement complete, rolled out in Udo’s bus, punctually from the hotel and somewhat less so from Will’s, where most of the bikes were and which required taking apart before being placed in the big bike trailer. The Germans were not so impressed with our punctuality but as the trip went on we became very efficient at loading and unloading the bus. Soon we headed down the A40 autoroute southwards from the Geneva area through Bonneville and Cluses, where we turned northwards on the D902 towards Morzine, a well-known ski resort and a popular destination for the Tour de France.

Frank gets ready to roll on his SL2 superbike

Udo found a temporary parking spot near the tourism office in Morzine and the bikes were unloaded and built up with despatch. We were totally stylish as everyone was wearing the special Tour d’Enfer jersey and we looked like a real club–and we know that according to Eurocycling Rules of Etiquette that looking good is even more important than going fast. Everyone was anxious to get going after the long bus ride and clapped enthusiastically when I announced that the Tour d’Enfer was now officially underway.

Looking stylish in our matching kit

We actually headed away from town for a few kilometers to warm up properly before turning around and starting the actual first climb of the trip, the Col de Joux Plane. Of course, it had to be a Lost Boys adventure, so I immediately led everyone to the wrong turn in a traffic circle as I carefully followed my GPS indicator the wrong way.

The Col de Joux Plane is yet another of the famous Tour de France passes, notorious in recent Tour history as the location where in 2000 Lance Armstrong suffered a bad day from not eating enough and losing time to Marco Pantani, although the infamous Richard Virenque won the stage that year. Pantani set the record for the climb, which was done in the opposite direction to what we were doing, coming up the road from Samoëns in a mere 33 minutes. The pass road is not heavily travelled but we were all surprised a bit to see how steeply it began. People were going off the back pretty quickly but I did not feel too bad and managed a fairly steady pace. The first two kilometers are quite difficult, at a grade of between 9 and 10% but then there is some relief and the climbing is then fairly steady for the remainder of the 10.5 kilometers (6.5 miles) to the top, averaging 6.5%. I tried to pretend that I was on the climb on Skyline Drive to Dickey’s Ridge, a similar distance but somewhat less steep, and with a lot less to look at. As is typical of a group like this, the riders split up quite soon by speed, with the hammerheads off the front, followed by a slower group and then those taking lots of photos at the tail end.

The weather was quite good and we took a lot of photos, enjoying the excellent views as we reached the summit at 1691 m (5500 feet) ASL, having climbed around 710 meters (2300 feet) from Morzine. Udo was there with the bus and after getting extra clothes for the descent we headed down to our rendezvous point in Samoëns, which calls for a drop of nearly 1000 m (3200 feet), plunging down at an average of 8.5%! The Tour de France has climbed Joux-Plane eleven times, beginning in 1981 and most recently in 2006, and six of those times it was categorized as “Hors catégorie,” the famous HC that all cyclists who love climbing crave. I suspect that the slope up from Samoëns was the reason for the HC designation.

We came cruising down the hairpins and joined the majority of the group at Samoëns for coffee at a little outdoor café, popping in next door to get some cheese paninis. The idea was for everyone to come together here and then work as a group on the flattish stretch through Cluses before beginning then next climb of the day. This road was not only flat but it was about the only route on which we could get lost as we passed through Cluses. Although the group did split up a bit there were no incidents and we soon found ourselves at the foot of the Col de la Colombière. I rode this pass in 2006 from the Grand-Bornand side and did not find it terribly difficult. This direction, however, was much tougher. Although the pass is not all that high at 1613 m (5300 feet), it climbs 1108 m (3600 feet) in 16.3 kms (10.1 miles). It has been in the Tour de France eighteen times, most recently in 2007 when Linus Gerdemann won in dramatic fashion, taking the Yellow Jersey and then blowing up the next day.

Seattle Scott, laughing at the rain

Nine kilometers (5.5 miles) into the ride we noticed that the clouds were gathering and it was getting dark. There had been a forecast for possible thunderstorms and since the weather in the mountains is changeable we were worried that we were going to run into some unpleasantness. We reached the village of Le Reposoir, where a Carthusian monastery had been founded in 1151, subsequently suppressed in 1793 and which still exists as a Carmelite establishment we could see in the distance. At this point the rain began to come down, so we ducked under a convenient roof to wait. Our little group included me, Eric the Super Belgian Cyclist out riding with us for the day, Seattle Scott, the Thin Man and the Badger.

Still raining...

After contemplating the rain for a while and listening to the thunder, things seemed to improve and as Eric thought it could not get worse–he was wrong–we got back on the road. After a few minutes of riding we were joined by several others of our group who were sheltering under a tree who took courage when they saw us riding.

The next few kilometers were actually quite unpleasant as the skies opened up and the rain came down in buckets. I dislike it when my socks get wet and they were immediately soaked but on we went. Needless to say, the views were unappreciated as we could not really see anything but we kept on riding. Of course, after Le Reposoir the road goes up more and more steeply so I tried to concentrate on the climbing rather than on how miserable I felt. After a while the rain relented and I thought we might dry out somewhat by the time we reached the restaurant at the top of the pass, but it was not to be as I heard something hitting my helmet–now we were riding into hail. Great!

This too let up soon to be replaced by more cold rain but I knew the end was near and doggedly kept on going. I barely even noticed that the last kilometer averages more than 10%, with pitch-ups to 14% as I was keen to get indoors. We finally rolled up to the same restaurant where I had enjoyed a nice cold drink in the sunshine two years before.

There were several of our group already in the restaurant, drinking hot chocolate and dripping by the smokey little fire, but unfortunately one of them had sent the bus down to rescue the other riders who were not going to ride in the rain. While this was a good idea, it meant that those of us who were soaked could not get our dry clothing. The restaurant was not very warm and by the time the bus came I was starting to shake from hyperthermia but as soon as I could pull on my warm sweatshirt everything looked better.

Everyone agreed that there was no point attempting the descent in the rain and we all thankfully got in the bus that took us to the Hotel Beaulieu in La Clusaz (not to be confused with Cluses). This was a cozy establishment in a little ski resort and we sorted out our wet gear before going into the dining room for a nice dinner. The bikes were put into an underground garage, brilliantly arranged by Udo and Frank in perfect order.

An epic profile for the day

It had been a truly memorable day, and with the rain the Tour d’Enfer lived up to its name. The forecast for tomorrow was better, albeit calling for cold, but today was to be the only bad weather on our ride.


Donald said...

Good Times... good times. I look forward to hearing more at the Cheat Mountain Challenge. Hope you're feeling better.

Sprocketboy said...

This was the only bad day we had--and even then most of it was okay-- and I was dressed suitably for the remainder of the Tour d'Enfer. It was truly amazing, and everyone agreed that it was the best cycling trip ever. I'll tell you all about it at Cheat Mountain over a suitable beverage for the telling of tales.