Thursday 7 August 2008

Tour d'Enfer Day 2: Three Passes in One Day

Leaving La Clusaz

After an excellent night’s sleep, and drying out the cycling shoes with the room blow-dryer (probably not recommended for leather, but it works fine for the artificial stuff), we faced a new morning that was cool and clear. Although there was some concern about the temperatures at altitude, the weather looked promising and after breakfast we took the bikes out of the storage room and put out suitcases on the bus.

It was decided at the dinner the previous evening that given the differences in riding speed, the best way to proceed on the trip was to have the slower riders start earlier, followed by the fast group an hour or so later and have Udo in the bus driving sweep and meeting us at the top of each climb. This was to be our plan for most of the remainder of the trip and worked out well, although two riders ended up forming a group of their own after they slept in and departed after the bus did!

I led the slow group out of the hotel and was immediately on a downhill stretch of road with some traffic on it. I quickly realized that I had to get across the road but by then I was riding by myself. The GPS took me directly through the weekly market in La Clusaz, which I had to navigate on foot, but I soon found the sign pointing me to the first climb of the day, the Col de l’Aravis.

Arthur and Ralph, taking in the scenery

We were actually entering this pass road about halfway up from its start in Thones, missing out on 440 m of climbing but it was supposed to be a pleasant warm-up climb. I realized that for the first time on the trip I was actually riding alone and it was a nice sensation to cruise entirely at my own pace. I soon came to the first easy hairpins and enjoyed them as I climbed in a mid-range gear. I rapidly overcame a cyclist who was bobbing a bit and not keeping a very steady line. When I passed him I realized that he must have been 80 years old, white-haired and not very frail-looking. I hope that when I reach four-score-years I too will be still challenging the Alps!

My first day modelling my new kit!

Pretty soon I had caught up to our group, and remarks were made yet again about my navigational skills. It is the “Lost Boys” tour so it was only truth-in-advertising. But we were all enjoying the wonderful gentle climb and we rapidly gained the summit of l’Aravis, having gone from 1040 m (3400 ft)ASL at La Clusaz to 1486 m (4875 ft) ASL at the top. Except for a short section of around 8.5%, most of the climb was in the 6-6.5% range so it was not very challenging.

The chapel at the summit of Col de l'Aravis

We enjoyed fine views, and there was a lovely little church at the summit, along with the requisite restaurant and souvenir shop selling local products. In addition to the postcards, chocolate and liqueurs, this place also was offering cowhides, of all things. We did our photography thing and then headed downhill before starting our second climb of the day. There was a short tunnel after the summit and later on one of our group, the irrepressible Andrew Junior, would come to grief against its walls and bend up his front wheel. But for now we just had a beautiful day ahead.

Ralph's first trip to Europe

The descent was superb and took us along a narrow canyon, the Gorges de l’Arondine, as we whipped along the D909 to the village of Flumet. Each time we ducked into the shadows it became quite cold at speed but we covered the 11.5 kms (7.1 miles) comfortably. But by the time we arrived in Flumet we figured it was time for a coffee and found a little place. Across the street was a very traditional-looking meat shop and I insisted on taking Ralph’s photo out front. The proprietress came out, delighted that we were photographing her shop, and insisted we come inside to do some pictures. She gave Ralph a salami to hold and our day was already worthwhile!

After coffee we rode out of the village and began the pleasant climb of the Col des Saisies. This was a bit more difficult than l’Aravis but I felt very strong and set a good pace, riding with Greg and Larry as we continued upwards, passing a small ski area and enjoying the nearly traffic-free route. The climb is 14.8 kms (9.2 miles), at an average of 5%, and goes from 910 m (2985 ft) ASL at Flumet to 1657 m (5436 ft) ASL at the summit, giving us 747 vertical m (2450 ft) for this climb.

After my pathetic sprint attempt

We rolled up quite steadily and the road levelled off at the top, where Larry challenged me to a sprint, about the only one I tried on the trip and which I was pretty unsuccessful at as I was still using my 34-26. There was a fairly big community of restaurants and tourist traps at this little ski area, which was established by an Austrian in 1936. We took the obligatory photos and looked at the memorial to the French Resistance and the United States. Beaufort, where we were headed for lunch, was a hotbed of the Resistance and on August 1, 1944, the flat plain at Les Saisies was the site of Operation Ebony, a massive parachute deployment of 889 containers of equipment, dropped from 78 US Air Force Flying Fortress bombers, in two waves of 36 aircraft, that had flown from the London area. A commando group of seven US Marines also parachuted in, with one of the group fatally injured on landing. The maquis fighters had cut off communications and intercepted a German squad coming from Albertville. The drop, executed in broad daylight, brought in enough equipment to supply 3,000 men. We were to see numerous monuments to the Free French, marked with the Cross of Lorraine, on this trip.

At les Saisies we put on our armwarmers, leggings and windvests and zipped downhill to our lunch rendezvous in Beaufort where several members of the group were already waiting. Udo and the bus soon joined us and here we learned of Andrew Junior’s mishap. Luckily we had a spare front wheel so he would soon be able to join us on the road again.

Now began the challenge of the day: the glorious Cormet de Roselend, 20.32 kms (12.6 miles) of climbing, at an average grade of 5%, which is a bit misleading as there are some good sections of 9-10% on this gorgeous climb. It has been included in the Tour de France nine times since 1979, most recently in 2007. I rode it myself in 2006 but from the other direction.

Leaving Beaufort, the climbs begins quite gradually but soon settled into a steady 8% or so after six kilometers. I was riding with Ralph and Heike and we were soon lost in our thoughts as we ground our way up through the magnificent scenery, passing high waterfalls and looking out over the deep valleys below. We passed an intermediary col, Col de la Meraillet, at 1605 m (5265 ft) ASL and found ourselves circling the Barrage de Roselend, a large reservoir behind a big dam. Another eight kilometers of climbing brought us to the summit of the Cormet de Roselend at 1967 m (6453 ft) ASL, and another photo opportunity.

Putting on our warm gear again, we now began one of the most exciting descents of the Tour d’Enfer as we began the exhilarating 19.35 km (12 mile) drop of 1154 m (3786 feet) down to Bourg-St. Maurice. It was very technical, with countless hairpins, and the road, while in good condition, was quite narrow so we had to be on the lookout for cars. It was great fun and we both stopped by a concrete abutment that was marked in yellow paint “Johan was hier”. I had seen this in 2006 on the way up and had thought nothing of it but now I realized that it was here where Johan Bruyneel went over the side in the 1996 Tour de France. Ralph and I had some fun at Johan’s expense and then continued down towards Bourg-St-Maurice, where we joined the others for beer and waited for the bus.

Once everyone had assembled, we took the bikes apart, loaded up the bus and Udo drove us to our next hotel, in the ski resort of Tignes. The drive along the D902 was absolutely spectacular and we even passed several cyclists en route. We crossed the dam at the Lac du Chevril and soon found ourselves in our comfortable 3-star hotel, enjoying excellent accomodation and soon a good dinner.

A challenging profile

It had been a truly wonderful day, one of the best ever I have had in cycling. We covered three passes (four, technically), with my bike computer indicating 93.91 kms (58.35 miles) of riding and 2682 m (8800 feet) of climbing. Superb!


Lily on the Road said...

What an exciting tour.

Thank you for the "pictorial".

What a wonderful way to see the world. Thanks for bringing closer to "home" for all of us to share.

Groover said...

Wow. You make me wanna quit my job and go on a cycling tour around Europe. Now. Amazing photography and great writing. Thanks for sharing this adventure.

Will said...

I agree that descent of Roselend was beyond amazing. I am glad that only Bruyneel went over the edge - and none of us