Briancon ready for the Tour de France
July 23, 2008
After three days of climbing on our Tour, and the two days days of riding around Geneva before that, I was surprised to find that my legs were feeling quite good. But today was the Official Rest Day of the Tour d’Enfer and I was looking forward to recovering and to watching the Tour de France, which was scheduled to pass directly in front of our hotel around noon. Everyone split up to do their own thing: several of the group left early to ride up the Col du Lauturet and watch the racers go up there; others went further, up the Galibier; and Steve Z., as the racing monster he has become, rode all the way out to the Alpe d’Huez, 150 km round trip, to watch the conclusive climb of the day’s stage. On the other hand, some of us just decided to simply stay off the saddles and meander around Briançon, enjoying the sunshine and the atmosphere.
Dr. Chef and I looked in at a nice bike shop around the corner from the hotel, and then we walked into the main square and sought out a laundramat. This was actually fun since we got to try new washing machines, which were all centrally-controlled. Very cool. I wish that in my previous multi-day trips in Europe I would have had access to something like this. Afterwards I walked over to an excellent newspaper shop and bought some French cycling magazines, as well as a big stack of postcards, and then discovered a very nice artisanal bakery (not that there seems to be a shortage of these in France) where I stood in line and bought a palmier and a mille feuille. Prices are definitely much higher than in Germany but, well, can you put a price on the best pastry in the universe?
The publicity caravan: promoting a period film "Faubourg 36", accordions and all
The police were out in force to organize the course through town and after putting my purchases in the hotel room I staked out a nice spot on a flower-bedecked roundabout and waited, palmier in hand, for the action to begin. The crowd was good-natured, with lots of children around. After an hour, the publicity caravan made its way through Briançon, showering us with all kinds of tacky junk. How many plastic keychains do you really need? The child in front me apparently needed plenty as he was on a mission to grab everything he could, including wanting to yank things out of other people’s hands! I did not make an effort to get anything but somehow ended up with a Laughing Cow musette bag. I am sure that our guys on the mountain roads would do much better than here in the crowded town. Seattle Scott was standing with me and he scored a few things for his son, but ended up buy a bag of Tour de France official souvenirs from the vendors who drive by in a big truck with loudspeakers.
The publicity caravan was much shorter than I recall from 2006, but there were still lots of cute girls throwing out the junk. I did not see a lot of new caravan vehicles, and this time the giant coffee pot was gone but it was entertaining nonetheless and pays the TdF’s bills. And then there was another pause as we waited. And waited. And waited.
Finally the first helicopters appeared overhead and the race announcer told us that a four man breakaway was on its way, and the peleton was 2:30 behind. The motorcycles came through and we were treated to a close-up view of the breakaway, which included Team Gerolsteiner’s excellent Stefan Schumacher, and a few minutes later the main field came through. They would still have to climb the Col du Lauturet, the Galibier and the Croix de Fer before the final showdown on the Alpe d’Huez which, of course, Carlos Sastre went on to win and by doing so took the Yellow Jersey and, ultimately, the Tour itself.
After watching the racers zoomed by, the majority of Tour d’Enfer participants in town repaired to a café in the main square and enjoyed lunch while watching the race on a big screen. A good time was had by all.
Inspired by the beautiful weather and the sight of the Tour de France, I decided that rather than take a rest day I would get on the bike and ride the nearby Col du Granon, which made an appearance in the 1986 Tour de France and was where Greg Lemond dropped Bernard Hinault and went on to secure his first TdF win. I persuaded Greg from Indiana to join me and we set out around 2 pm, rolling downhill from the hotel and turning right onto the busy N91. We came to St-Chaffrey where I asked two mountainbikers if we were on the right road to Granon, which, in fact, we were and we soon found a sign for the pass and began our climb.
This is an extraordinarily brutal climb, probably one of the toughest on the trip. From Briançon to the summit is 16.77 kms, but the grade until St-Chaffrey is only around 2%. Then things get very serious for the remaining 11.5 kms, with an average of 9.2%. It is quite relentless, with no flatter parts for recovery. We stopped several times for photographs as the views of Briançon are excellent as you climb above the valley. There was a surprising amount of traffic as people drive up the Col to go hiking, parking either at a refuge or at the summit. No other cyclists were out today, which was unusual for this trip as we met French cyclists from all over.
After an interminable struggle we passed some military buildings and the grade dropped to only 6.8% as we reached the summit. We had climbed 1053 m since St-Chaffrey and our altitude was 2413 m ASL. Greg and I enjoyed some ice tea in the restaurant and then walked around to enjoy the view before turning around. The pass is actually a dead-end but mountainbikers can cross the ridge and continue down the other side and rejoin a road. I could see why the Col du Granon would never be used in the Tour de France again: just moving all the equipment up and down the tiny road would be a logistics nightmare, let alone getting racers and spectators off the mountain.
The return trip was not easy. It had taken us around two hours to get up, and around 45 minutes to get back to St-Chaffrey. The steep, narrow road made descending an exercise in constant braking but the road surface was actually quite poor, something I had not noticed on the way up as I had been going too slowly to feel the bumps. It was with some relief that we rejoined the N91 and shot back into Briançon at high speed. There was a lot of traffic but we were able to thread ourselves through it and find the awkward turn (near the MacDonald's!) to get directly back to the hotel.
Greg is an excellent photographer who would not take anyone's photo unless they took off their sunglasses first. Looking good in my Fat Cyclist pink lemonade jersey
On the way I stopped at the bicycle shop and celebrated my conquest of the Col du Granon by buying a miniature kilometer-stone with the name of the pass and the altitude. They had ones for the Lauturet and the Galibier but the Granon was particularly special to me. The lady in the shop was impressed as the Granon is considered by local riders to be quite difficult.
At dinner everyone had a great time talking about the Tour de France and our day’s activities. There was a big round of applause when Steve Z. appeared in his cycling gear in the restaurant, having ridden in directly all the way from Alpe d’Huez. He told us all about his ride up the Alpe, in the company of another cyclist–Jonathon Vaughters, the director of the Garmin-Chipotle pro team. For the rest of the Tour d’Enfer, Steve happily referred to “my good friend Jonathon” anywhere he could in conversation, but then again he deserved bragging rights.