Tuesday, 30 September 2008

One-Tenth the Speed of Sound!

On September 18th, Canadian Sam Whittingham raced the Varna Diablo III to a world record speed for a human-powered vehicle: 83.22 mph, or 132.5 km/h. This is equivalent to one-tenth the speed of sound.

Sam lives in British Columbia and runs Naked Bikes, building custom frames. One of his creations was "Best in Show" at the Handbuilt Bicycle Show in Portland this year and was purchased by Lance Armstrong. He has raced for the Canadian national cycling team and set previous records in other iterations of the Diablo.

Congratulations to Sam and the Varna team!

Monday, 22 September 2008

End of the Summer Time Trial

Doug: he's no slug, finishing second overall

The Ottawa Bicycle Club has regular Thursday night 15 km Open Time Trials, and on Tuesdays has one for women. Both series have now ended for the season but there are occasional 40 km events as well and the final one for 2008 took place today, the first day of Autumn. So, goodbye to summer! I think that the course had been run twice so far this year and someone mentioned to me that it was pretty flat.

I have been suffering from sinusitis for several days and woke up at 3:30 with a splitting headache, that I tried to control with a lot of codeine. I did not sleep very well afterwards so it was pretty miserable to get up at 5:45 am but luckily I had packed the car last night. I drove a short distance to pick up Doug, a fellow-OBCer who needed a ride to the course. It was pretty cold but sunny and the time passed quickly as we drove along the 417 highway and within an hour found ourselves in the village of Fournier. We were probably the first cyclists as we did not see anyone at all around but backtracking we found some of the others and followed them to the little park where we could park and get registered.

After signing up, I set up the trainer and plugged in my MP3 player to warm up. I got so involved that I forgot to pick up my number and get my start time; I noticed a crowd had formed around the registration table so I ran over in my cleats. It was a bit embarrassing as everyone was getting ready to start. My number was 18, indicating I would be the eighth rider out. There were 23 riders, less than the Thursday group but still a good turnout. There were two riders who had come from last week's Ontario championships as the top provincial time triallists in their age categories, among other fast riders.

I was not going to be one of the fast riders. My head was still aching but I was optimistic as I lined up at the start. A good launch and I was off, hitting 47 km/h. Needless to say, this did not last long as I discovered I was heading right into an ice-cold 11 km/h headwind and my speed bled off rapidly.

The course was not really all that flat and I seemed to spend the first 20 kms battling the wind, the rough road (I had thought it was smoother and had really pumped up the tires) and the incline. My turnaround was a bit slow but on the way back I found I could push up the speed to 40-42 km/h at a reasonable heart rate, but I was already very tired from the outbound leg. I passed a few people, and was passed myself right at the finish line. I came 4th out of six riders in my age group, but the first three were very fast.

Waiting for the official times

My time, 1:05:30 was nothing special (although it actually is my fastest 40 km tt of the year!) and as soon as I crossed the line my head hurt brutally, but at least I had one more time trial under my belt. Doug had ridden brilliantly in only his second 40 km time trial ever, and came second overall at 56 minutes. We packed up and a group of the cyclists went to a truck stop near the highway where I enjoyed an enormous cheese and mushroom omelette, hash browns, toast and tea. Although I had had some breakfast at home I was ravenous!

Gunther (blue jacket) and Alex (in yellow) are our dedicated officials

We are very fortunate to be able to ride time trials regularly and I am appreciative of the timekeepers, Gunther and Alex, who keep things working so well. I learned a lot this year in the time trials and look forward to improving next season. The club has a lot of excellent time triallists and I hope to benefit from their experience.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Ian Hibell, cycling adventurer, 1934-2008

Ian Hibell in April 2006
(photo by backintheworld, Creative Commons)

There has been a small flurry of activity to mark the passing of Ian Hibell, a cyclist who took his bicycle everywhere and wrote about it. Taking a two year leave from work, he returned to the office a decade later but was soon off on new trips. One of those endearing English eccentrics, he was a true adventurer: the first man to ride from the top to the bottom of the Americas and the first across the Darien Gap in Panama, he also rode from Norway to Capetown and pretty well everywhere you could ride (or barely) on the planet.

Into the wilds of Darien:

He rode the equivalent of ten times around the equator, according to the respectful obituary in the Economist. His book, "Into the Remote Places," was published in 1984 and has been out of print for many years. Perhaps his untimely passing, a victim of racing motorists and a hit-and-run incident in Greece, will renew interest in it by a publisher and we may read yet again of the man from quiet Devon, going through the wild and trackless wastes of the world, who never stopped riding.

Resononance-FM's The Bike Show featured a podcast about Ian Hibell recently in which his friend Nic Henderson reminisced about his friend. You can hear it here. Mr. Henderson also has a simple page dedicated to Ian Hibell, including information about his bikes (and the special self-designed mud-scraper!).

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Book Review: A Dog in A Hat

A Dog in a Hat
by Joe Parkin
Velopress, 2008
ISBN-10: 1934030260
ISBN-13: 978-1934030264
240 pp.

We all have in our own imagination ideas of what pro cycling is all about. When I was at the Tour de France in 2006 I was impressed by the professionalism of everything: the course organization, from barriers to route markings; the television coverage; the team buses–including the one I passed that smelled like a laundromat as I walked by since they were using the on-board washing machines! A Dog in a Hat, the story of an American professional cyclist racing in Europe from 1987 to 1991, has none of these things and it probably gives a better impression of what pro cycling is really like, even today, than the rarified snippets we get from the top-level teams.

Joe Parkin was racing in California as an amateur when he met Team 7-Eleven racer Bob Roll, who told him to go to Belgium to race if he wanted to get serious. The hard-working Mr. Roll, who also wrote the, uh, colourful introduction to the book, is famous for his cycling work ethic and odd behavior, and was right: it is hard to imagine a place where cycling is taken more seriously than Belgium.

So the innocent author makes his way to Europe to Brussels and moves in with the Albert Claeys family in Ursel. Albert, who owned a bar and sometimes drove a truck, was well-known as a sort of godfather to American cyclists in Europe, helping them to get established and find a team, as well as providing a bed.

The book describes in entertaining detail what it is like to be at the bottom of the pro ranks. Mr. Parkin had dreams of becoming King of the Mountains and felt that his talent was most suited to the shorter stage races. But it quickly becomes obvious just how difficult it is to even finish a race, let alone win one. As time goes on, Joe Parkin comes to the realization that he will not be King of the Mountains but has to accept that he is a good worker, a domestique, and that his role is that of a support rider.

Along the way this naive American, who on first hearing Flemish mistook it for Russian, becomes a kind of Belgian-American hybrid, absorbing the language and holding his own in the cycling culture. This is a culture that prizes toughness above all, and in his spare style he talks about the mud, the crashes, the disappointment. At the lowest level the environment is terrible, with talentless teammates, hotel rooms so awful it makes you laugh, and not much money when it actually does get paid. He has no papers to allow him be in Belgium, something that does not trouble team management very much, even when it means he will be deported. He does not shrink from describing the all-pervasive use of drugs in cycling, and the fixing of races. This is bare-bones racing: to get changed for the kermis, the standard Belgian town race, he and his teammates would strip down in some local's living room. They were keen to get the special jerseys (overall, sprinter etc.) in races because it gave them one more clean garment.

The description of the drug use would be hilarious except for the ultimate repercussions. Riders will take anything with minimal concern: the reactions range from getting faster to getting stupid. Doping controls seem minimal at best and team management does nothing to discourage illegal practices.

But as he improves Joe clearly enjoys being a professional–a European pro. Racing against amateurs in the UK’s Milk Race or in races in the United States he is contemptuous of their lack of skill and discipline. When writing to team time trials, he talks of the focus and teamwork needed to succeed. He is proud of being able to control a race, going ahead and setting the pace and hauling back breakaways. Probably his greatest contribution was helping his team leader, Luc Roosen, win the 1991 Tour de Suisse. But in the end there is no new contract forthcoming (even though some of the team leaders consider pooling enough of their own money to let him ride at a minimum wage!) and he returned to the States. In 1992 he watched his teammates ride the Tour de France on television. He never went back to Flanders, and after doing some racing in the United States and then switching to mountain bikes he ended his career in 1997.

At the time of his Belgian adventures, Joe Parkin was one of only a handful of North Americans in European pro racing, all in the shadow of the mighty Greg Lemond who was considered such a superior cyclist that he was seen as some kind of freak, beyond any national classification. The title of this book, “A Dog in a Hat,” is a translation of a Flemish expression meaning something unusual–Joe Parkin was told while racing to look for changes, to look for the dog, to indicate what was happening in the race. As an American racing for a European team in the late 1980s Joe Parkin was a kind of dog in a hat himself. The cycling public is served up stories about Lance Armstrong’s victories over and over again as if the Tour de France is the only race but this plain, self-deprecating memoir has the ring of authenticity at the other end of the sport where even today not all the riders are being paid, the hotels are still bad and the races just as hard.

Available at VeloPress and amazon.com.

Canyon Speedmax CF at Eurobike

The German mail-order bicycle company, Canyon, unveiled its latest time trial machine at Eurobike 2008. Canyon, based in Koblenz, will be the supplier of bicycles to Cadel Evans' Silence-Lotto team in 2008.

Clearly not having this bicycle is what is keeping me out of the top ten at the Ottawa Bicycle Club time trials. Time to start saving up...

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Tour d'Enfer Day 9: 'Allo, Allos! And Goodbye, Tour d'Enfer...

View from the Col d'Allos

July 28, 2008
: and so begins the final day of the Tour d'Enfer, at least as far as cycling up climbs go. We will ride as we see fit today and tomorrow everything will be packed up for the long bus ride back to Geneva.

After breakfast everyone wandered off on their own, either in small groups or individually. A number of the Tourists d’Enfer had ridden the Col de la Cayolle on the day I walked into Barcelonnette and the report back was that it was very picturesque and a reasonable ride. I decided to go for broke and ride the two remaining passes within easy distance of Le Sauze: first I would turn right at the fork in the road and do the Col d’Allos, and then after returning downhill I would take the left fork and try the Col de la Cayolle.

My legs felt good as I enjoyed the screaming descent from Le Sauze for the last time and I quickly rolled through Barcelonnette, a sleepy place at this time of the morning. The road was smooth, there was very little traffic and I made good time, spinning gently and enjoying myself. Just outside of town the D902 turned south and I began to climb gently.

As I came up to the crossroads I saw a sign showing the direction to my two cols as well as to Pra-Loup, a ski resort off the to right that has also been the destination for a number of Tour de France stages. I thought that if I felt good after the two cols I might consider doing Pra-Loup as well, a climb of about 4 kms.

I was now riding the D908 and was heading on the road to the Col d’Allos (pronounced by the locals with the “s’, or “Ah-loss”). I was not sure what to expect but I do not think a pass could have been more different from yesterday’s Col de la Bonette.

Unlike the mere four times the Tour de France has gone over La Bonette, the Col d’Allos was included in every Tour from 1911 to 1939 and having hosted the Tour a total of 33 times it must count as one of the most popular passes, although it has not been used for the race since 2000. Calculating from Barcelonnette, the pass is 17.5 kms (10.9 miles) long, and climbs from 1132 m (3713 feet) ASL to 2240 m (7349 feet) ASL, for a gain of 1108 m (3635 feet). The pass looks fairly easy, at least on paper, with an average grade of 6.3 percent.

I could feel the climb hurting my legs as I gently swung through the curves. There seemed to be some variation in the grade, from around 6 percent to 3 percent and then up to 8 percent. Not only did this make it tricky to establish a rhythm, but the curves were constant and the road had become extremely narrow. The occasional cars that came through took up almost all of the road so it was necessary to be careful.

After about 11 kms (6.8 miles), the road passed began to leave the forest behind and it was carved, spectacularly, into the side of the mountain. I passed a mountain biker and shortly after a road cyclist, who soon joined up with me. He was a Frenchman from Saint-Malo, the Breton city famous to Canadians as the birthplace of Jacques Cartier the explorer. He was riding with his son (the mountain biker) and was riding the various passes around Barcelonnette for a holiday. We chatted for quite a while; I told him that it must have been hard for him to acclimatise as Saint-Malo is at sea level and the area around it very flat, quite different from the scenery we were enjoying. He laughed and said that he always came for three weeks and the first week was very hard. He was in his late 30s and rode very well and as we came closer to the summit I could no longer maintain his pace and let him go ahead.

I passed a charming little restaurant on the right and then was digging in for the last bit of climbing as the road reached for the summit. I caught up to my new friend and we took some pictures and then several other Tour d’Enfer riders came up as well. It was cold at the summit and after our photos I said goodbye to Monsieur Saint-Malo, who was continuing on the descent on the other side towards Allos, and turned back for coffee at the restaurant.

It looked like a mountain refuge and was almost as cold inside as outside. There were four or five of us and we enjoyed our hot chocolate or coffee and excellent homemade cake. On the outside of the building was a punchclock, similar to that I had seen in Switzerland. The tourism office in Barcelonnette promotes a seven-climb tour of the area to cyclists and at places like this you punch your special touring card. I am not sure what you get when you have done all of them but this was my fourth climb in the area already.

I rode out with Greg from Indiana and the Badger but the descent back to the crossroads was very technical, with exceptionally tight and narrow curves so I soon gave up trying to do it at any great speed but just relaxed and cruised through the scenery. Across the valley I could see the road to the Col de la Cayolle, my next goal. The sun was shining, I had already climbed over 1,000 metres for the day and my legs felt good. Although not the most difficult or the longest, I have to say that the Col d’Allos had to be one of my favourite passes of the tour. But then again, I felt that way at the end of each day!

Once I reached the crossroads, I turned right back onto the D902, riding through the Gorges du Bachelard. The scenery was quite wonderful, with grey stone cliffs all around me. A few moments into the ride, Dr. Chef came rolling towards me. He told me that Michelle was just behind and that they had really enjoyed this stretch of road. He continued on and as I came up to a curve Michelle appeared and we chatted for a bit before she headed back down the road towards Barcelonnette. It was now becoming quite hot and I ate an energy bar and drank half the contents of one of my bottles.

The Cayolle averages only 4.1 percent but makes up for this by going on for 29.15 kms (18.11 miles), with a total gain of 1109 m (3094 feet). The road was, in spots, even narrower than the one up to the Col d’Allos and there were a few times I had to wait for cars to sort themselves out before I could continue. The road continued to climb gently but was in the narrow gorge for a good distance.

I was passed by a string of little mini-bike motorcycles and then crossed a bridge carved into the side of the hills but I was beginning to tire under the sun. Riding all by myself, I could feel my motivation start to slip away and I realized that my legs were getting very tired. I determined to ride on for a bit more and passed the village of Fours St-Laurent, with its little church. The road continued to climb and about four kilometers later I pulled off the road and rested for a moment, refilling my water bottle from a spring beside the road.

I knew that the last part of the climb was the hardest and I still had about 7 kms (4.3 miles) to go. I was tired and a bit sore but what made the decision to turn back easier was the appearance of a wall of black clouds up ahead. I know that storms can show up very suddenly here, and they can also be very localized and after seeing the massive thunderstorm from the comfort of our hotel I was pretty sure I did not want to enjoy one on top of a mountain. So I decided that I had ridden enough today and that since I was on holiday I was allowed to enjoy the downhill ride back to Barcelonnette and feel no guilt about not completing one climb on this trip.

The road back was enjoyable, except for those few occasions when oncoming cars caused problems. I was rapidly back at the crossroads, and decided to pass up Pra-Loup as well (Chill told me afterwards that the climb was not very nice, but there was a giant wolf statue on top). The road back to Barcelonnette was all downhill and I stopped there to treat myself to an ice cream to celebrate the day’s ride. Several other Tour d’Enfer folks were in the Place Manuel but I decided to cut my stay short and head up the nasty hill to Le Sauze once more. It had been a good day: 2553 m (8376 feet) of climbing over 79.63 kms (49.48 miles) so I had no complaints.

Andrew rides his own Tour d'Enfer: go, boy!

Our last evening at the hotel was pleasant; we enjoyed beer and each other’s company. It was the last time for those who wanted to use the ridiculous ski-bob track next to the hotel and we went over to cheer the Thin Man on.

The next morning we packed the trailer with our bikes for the last time and Udo took us on the long, slow road towards Gap, passing the truly spectacular Lac de Serre-Ponçon as the D900B took us high above the landscape. From Gap we headed northwards along the N85 to Grenoble, where we connected to the autoroute that took us on to Geneva, stopping only for lunch at a highway rest area.

Once the bicycles were unloaded at the hotel and everyone got themselves arranged, we met at possibly the worst restaurant in France, one of the Buffalo Grill chain, which was like a vastly over-priced Ponderosa Steak House. I was satisfied to have a large beer to celebrate the successful conclusion of the Tour d’Enfer, with everyone having arrived safely and with minimal issues, mechanical or otherwise to mar the trip. We had been fortunate with the route, the weather and, most of all, the company. With my riding in Switzerland before the Tour d'Enfer included, I calculated the I climbed almost 19,000 m (62,300 feet) over some 700 kms (435 miles) on my holiday. Not exactly as restful as some people expect vacations but a great experience all around for us.

After my return to Canada I felt terrible symptoms of withdrawal, missing the regularity of our climbing schedule, the great scenery and the camaraderie. Consideration is already being given to a route for 2009: anyone for il Giro d’all Inferno?

Day 9 of the Tour d'Enfer's profile

Friday, 12 September 2008

Thursday Night Time Trial: the end

Well, I went off yesterday to do my last Ottawa Bicycle Club 15 km Open Time Trial. I felt great, had a good warm-up and hit the course at high speed. There was a variable wind but I felt good at the turnaround and shortly after passed my 30 second man. He stayed with me for a while but when we had to overtake two non-racing cyclists on the Parkway I stomped on it and left him far behind.

In spite of this my time across the line was 23:05, 10 seconds slower than last week which was already 12 seconds slower than the week before. I was very disappointed not to reach the 40 km/h average I had hoped for this season, having managed 39.6 km/h in my best race. I will just have to see if I can build up some strength in the gym and then try again in Spring. I was exhausted after the race and slept very soundly but am stiff and sore all over today so it was not from lack of effort. I am still hopeful but I have yet to prove that in cycling sufficient training can overcame lack of inherent talent.

I am puzzled as to why I was so slow and won't make any excuses but it was definitely much colder than in previous races. Looking at the results this morning I see that for most of the racers there were only a few Personal Bests.

One more chance at redemption comes on September 21st when I go for the flat 40 km race.

Lance Armstrong's Comeback

The press has been full of speculation about Lance Armstrong's return to the pro peloton. There is no question that while winning his unprecedented string of Tour de France victories he was a fierce competitor and an extraordinary athlete. His presence brought enormous attention to the sport of cycling which, for Americans in particular, was seen as a fringe activity. And this high profile has enabled him to do great things for the cancer community.

He has claimed that he is coming back to the sport as a way to focus on the fight against cancer, although I am not certain how this will work or what can be added that has not already been said. His first Tour victory, in 1999, was the emphatic statement that an endurance athlete could not only beat cancer but return to the highest level of the sport.

Lance Armstrong will be nearly 38 years old at next year's Tour de France. Other cyclists have managed some impressive wins at that age, but not many and not the Tour itself. I suppose if anyone can do it Big Tex can.

But maybe he is coming back because he just plain likes to ride his bike. Michael Barry, the Canadian riding for Team Columbia (and winner of yesterday's stage at the Tour of Missouri) was a teammate of Armstrong's at US Postal and had this to say in the New York Times.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Infrastructure: the missing key to US bicycle acceptance

The good folks at TerraPass have a commentary on a Washington Post article about the need to develop good infrastructure to encourage cycling. I was impressed that 12 percent of trips in Berlin are now done on bicycle, which must represent a considerable increase from when I lived there in 1998-2002. It is interesting to reflect on the fact that Germans are ten times more likely to use a bicycle to go somewhere than Americans, and three times less likely to get hurt while doing so.

Mr. Antony Lo, the President of Giant, the world's largest manufacturer of bicycles, commutes 130 miles/210 kms a week to work. He is probably smiling as he rides since Giant's sales have doubled since 2000, and are up 24 percent in the first half of this year.

Another great statistic from the Post article:

On any given workday, more commuters park their bikes at train and subway stations in Tokyo (704,000) than cycle to work in the entire United States (535,000), according to the Tokyo government and the U.S. Census.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Time Trials Unending

Back in the real world of Fierce Old Guy racing, I did the Ottawa Bicycle Club's 15 km time trial on Thursday. Conditions were not as good as the previous week and although I rode well (and the chain stayed in place this time!) I lost a bit of time to the headwind coming back and clocked 22:55, or twelve seconds off the pace from last week.

Today I did the Almonte Bicycle Club 40 km time trial in Calabogie. It was pretty cold in Canada this morning and the wind picked up a bit, so again conditions were not as good as in July. I was consistent, I guess, with a time only 3 seconds slower than the last one: 1:06:13. This is a beautiful course, but hard with the climbing and also with having to get up at 5 am to go and do it! There was a very fast field on the course today, with ten cyclists coming in under 60 minutes.

Two time trials left in the season: one 15 km on Thursday, and then the OBC's End of the Season 40 km time trial on September 21. This is reputed to be flat flat flat, so let's see if the wind plays along.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Tour d'Enfer Day 8: to the Roof of the Alps

Today's ride profile

We are too lucky for words: yet another perfect day! This time our menu is two more climbs, but one is fairly small. After breakfast, we ride to the nearby town of Jausiers, which we had passed after coming down from the Col de Vars, and then turning to the south.

I have made a slideshow of our ride that day:

The first climb is another superb ride, the Col de la Bonette. A very long climb at 25 kms (15.5 miles), it is not terribly steep at an average grade of 6.6 percent. Oddly enough, it has only seen the Tour de France cross it four times: in 1962 and in 1964, when the legendary Federico Bahamontes, “the Eagle of Toledo,” was the first man over the top–the first year from the north, the second from the south; in 1993 the Scot Robert Millar enjoyed a solo breakaway; and a few days before we rode here a South African rider for Barloworld, John-Lee Augustyn, was the first across from the south, winning the “Souvenir Henri Desgranges,” the prize that goes to the rider who crosses the highest point of each year’s Tour de France. Shortly after crossing the summit, he fell off his bicycle after misjudging a hairpin turn and went down the side, sliding along the shale for 30 metres before being rescued by spectators and rejoining the race. The 5,000 Euro prize would have been some consolation.

The only prize for us today was the enjoyment of riding this beautiful pass. Beginning at the settled community of Jausiers, we soon left domesticity behind as we climbed at a very steady rate. The climb is unusual in that it has so many twists and turns that you do not get a good feeling for where the summit is. At 13 kms we passed a small restaurant, La Cabane Noire, carved into the side of the mountain, and at soon afterwards a small lake where some people were fishing. I felt very good and quite relaxed in the climb, which had very little variation in the grade.

The road travels through the Mercantour National Park. The trees eventually disappeared and there was only the green hillsides and the grey rocks around us as we passed some old French barracks and then came to an intermediate summit, the Col de Restefond at 2690 m (8825 feet) ASL. A few cars passed but it was not a very busy road and we mused about riding the road all the way to Nice and the Mediterranean. Soon the vista opened up even more and it became cooler. We made a turn to the right and there ahead of us we could see the summit of the Col de la Bonette. But even better we could now make out the ridiculous road that circles the Cime de la Bonette.

The Col de la Bonette is at 2802 m (9192 feet) and is the second-highest paved pass in Europe, after our old friend the Iseran. Locals were miffed that their pass was second-best so they took out a bulldozer and cut a road around the peak next to the Col. With this silly loop it could now be said at its highest point, 2860 m (9383 feet), that it is the highest paved road in Europe even if it doesn’t go anywhere.

We came to the pass, where there was a lot of traffic from the Nice side. There was a footrace on and the runners were going up the Cime de la Bonette in a clockwise direction so we decided to go the other way. What looked like a silly loop was much more than that as the road pitched up sharply, probably to close to 10 percent, as we huffed and puffed in the thin air.

It was with great joy that we reached the big stone marking the highest point, giving us 1647 m (5400 feet) of climbing for the day so far. We managed to get some photos although a lot of paramedic types were around to help the runners, and after admiring the impressive mountain views we continued on the loop and back to the pass.

Downhill now and with plenty of warm clothing we accelerated rapidly down the mountain back towards Jausiers. At the speeds we were going it was easy to feel the cold and when we came to La Cabane Noire we decided it would be a good thing to stop for some hot chocolate. Clearly the staff were completely overwhelmed by all the customers and it took a while to get looked after (not an unusual occurrence in France).

After warming up we continued. I was riding with Frank and Heike and as we approached Jausiers we stopped for photos in front of a display of old bicycles decorated to celebrate the passage of the Tour de France. It was actually hot so we had to start taking off the windvests and armwarmers and long-fingered gloves you need for descents here. We passed the first houses on the outskirts of town, seeing the strange house, inspired by King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein castle, built by a local silk baron. We crossed the Ubaye again and were in Jausiers, which was still decorated for the Tour de France, where we stopped for lunch.

Jausiers, which only has around 1,000 inhabitants, is quite charming. Some of our team popped into the local bike shop and bought very nice “Col de la Bonette” bandanas which, in green and blue, nicely matched our special Tour d’Enfer jerseys.

After a simple lunch of pasta, I decided to do the second climb of the day with the Andrew the Thin Man. We rolled back out on the D900, following the river, until we came to La Condamine-Châtelet, where we turned left and began the torturous climb up to Ste-Anne-la-Condamine. This is a very small ski resort. The road was very poor, with a lot of loose gravel and some very hard grades, not to mention what must have been the most persistent horseflies of the entire trip. A small bridge took us over a waterfall and then there was more climbing. Eventually we came to a small chapel dedicated to Ste-Anne, at which point the road turned to gravel.

There were several cars sitting there that had brought up a group of Italian mountainbikers but there was not much for us to look at. If we could have continued on the dirt road it would have taken us to a tunnel through the mountains 10 kilometres away but that was not so attractive so we turned around and headed back, carefully making our way back down the nasty descent and enjoying another time trial ride along the D900 (this time without the headwind) through Jausiers and then back towards Barcelonnette. Of course we still had the final climb up to Le Sauze but Andrew and I had a nice chat about opera and I really did not notice the effort. The others told us afterwards that we had missed the turn to the Ste-Anne col sign but that was okay; we felt that we had added the climb to our list and that was enough.

We all gathered around the television in the bar that evening to watch the final time trial of the Tour de France. Carlos Sastre was able to hold onto his lead and of course the next day road to Paris wearing the Yellow Jersey a final time.

Tour d'Enfer Day 7: Finally a Real Rest Day

Villa Lafontaine, Barcelonnette: an example of a "Mexican villa"

After yet another good night’s sleep in the mountains, we awoke to a fine day. Between the Tour d’Enfer rides accomplished up to this point and the rides around Geneva I had done beforehand, I thought that I would enjoy a day off and let my legs recover for the big ride planned for Day 8.

Breakfast at the Hotel l’Équipe was one of the few disappointments on the trip as there was very little food and what there was did not win any prizes for being particularly appetizing. In the old days in France breakfast was something like a cup of brutally strong coffee and a cigarette, but times have changed and after being spoiled for choice in Germany it is hard to deal with a breakfast that is clearly not up to cyclists’ caloric needs.

Dr. Chef, Michelle and I decided to walk the long and winding road downhill to Barcelonnette and look around there. I had written a mass of postcards and needed to get stamps and mail them so I had a good reason not just to sit at the hotel and look at the mountains.

The view from Le Sauze, walking downhill

The walk featured excellent views but oddly enough the drivers who were so courteous to us when we were on our bikes seemed determined to run us off the road when we were on foot. The only rational explanation we could come up with was that although there are many people who hike in the area they are off on trails and the motorists are simply not used to coping with walkers.

After descending the curves, we were on the long flat stretch of road that would take us to the bridge over the Ubaye, and we passed a paragliding school that was in session. This is a very popular sport in the Alps and looks like fun. We stopped for a few minutes to see some of the landings. There was a small Robinson helicopter flying around as well and it seemed that they were using it to take the paragliders up to the top of the mountains but we could not be certain of that.

Crossing the bridge, we were on the D900 again and taking care to watch for traffic we came to Barcelonnette, which is about 3 kms from our hotel. It is a town of about 3,000 people and clearly the most important in the region, with lots of hiking and camping (and cycling!) in summer and as the largest town near three ski areas in winter.

The town was founded in 1231 by the Count of Barcelona, who was also the Count of Provence, and hence the name. The Valley of Ubaye seems to have had an active textile industry, including silk, and was probably wealthier than most Alpine regions in the 19th Century. It was early in that century that two natives of neighbouring Jausiers, the Brothers Arnaud, packed up and headed for the New World, first immigrating to Louisiana and then going further south into Mexico, and this set a trend for the following decades. After 1890 there was a return to Barcelonnette of its wandering citizens, now wealthy from their business dealings, and they built a series of elaborate mansions in town, known for their eclectic combination of architectural elements as “Mexican villas.” One of them has been converted into a regional museum. In addition, in 2004 Barcelonnette twinned with a Mexican town, Valle de Bravo (destination of the monarch butterfly migration, oddly enough) and there is an annual Latin American Festival in town as well.

Regional speciality: fruit tarts!

While Dr. Chef and Michelle wandered about the town, I went into the post office. It was around ten minutes before noon and there was a big crush of people to get their business done before everthing shut down for the vital two hour French lunch break. All I wanted to do was buy stamps for my cards but it seemed everyone else had incredibly complex multi-layered banking transactions and it took ages. I finally staggered out--the door was firmly locked behind me--and I met up with the others. Michelle was looking for a bike shop but our directions seemed confused. We did come across the weekly market, however, and Dr. Chef cleverly loaded up with cheese, sausage and bread to supplement our pathetic hotel breakfast.

Place Manuel

We found a nice Italian restaurant where we could sit outside in the street, which was more like an alley, and had a fine lunch, before we slowly walked in the direction of the bike shop which we found after passing the row of celebrated Mexican villas. The shop had a good selection but there was nothing we really needed in the end so we simply walked back into the centre of town, la Place Manuel. Dr. Chef and Michelle decided to hang around town but I thought I would walk back to the hotel and watch the Tour de France and sit on our balcony for a while. Of course, I first had to have an ice cream before tackling the 3 kms back.

Almost back to Le Sauze

Cycling uphill the day before had been hard, but it seemed even harder on foot. But it was a gorgeous day and I had nothing else to do. When I finally got back to the village of Le Sauze, I bought some cold drinks and pastries at a little shop and then went back to the hotel.

Barry of Oz had arranged to have a massage the night before and when he asked if there were any takers for the next day I was the only one. The masseur said he would send his associate and I was the butt of a few jokes when a nice young woman arrived at the hotel. We adjourned to my room where she gave me an excellent leg massage and I was able to practice my broken French, which she luckily was able to follow. She said that the smaller towns in the valley (she herself was actually from Barcelonnette) were seeing an outflow of young people as they sought work in Gap and larger cities. This is typical of rural Europe but I would have thought that the ski resorts would have made a big difference but I think because they are so seasonal it is not enough. In Le Sauze, there were a number of small hotels around ours that were clearly closed up for the summer. I have read that in some towns where the Tour de France goes through they open up hotels just for this and close them a few days later.

Of course, Dr. Chef walked into the room while I was having the massage and I think he was a bit startled to see the masseuse working on pantless me but I found it quite funny. I was very glad that Barry had taken the initiative to find out about a massage since I find that riding in the mountains tires out your muscles so much it really extends your abilities if you have one. In 2005 when I rode in Switzerland I had a massage from a huge Dutchman with a crushing grip who applied what I still believe was napalm on my legs; the next day I felt terrific and the soreness and fatigue I had felt the day before was all gone, and so it was again in this instance.

We had been very lucky with the weather during our trip and were warm and comfortable in our hotel when we saw big flashes of lightning across the valley and around the peaks. This was followed by a heavy evening downpour but there was plenty of beer at the bar and the Tour de France to talk about. Our group occupied most of the hotel so it was like having our own house in the mountains.

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

Now for the second task of the day: the Col de Vars. This pass has been included in the Tour de France some 33 times, so a lot of exciting action has taken place on it but it seems to be overlooked when considering the “great” climbs. As we were to learn, this was no pushover.

Riding with the Badger

Leaving Guillestre full of coffee and looking forward to riding on into the sunshine, we soon joined up with some of the other Tour d’Enfer crew and began our gradual climb. The incline was fairly reasonable for the first kilometre but then we were suddenly going up on an 8.5 percent grade. The road twisted and turned and we had good views of Guillestre, soon far below us.

At one curve we stopped and admired the view, but also noticed a small memorial stone. It was dedicated to the memory of a postal employee, Monsieur Court, who apparently went over the edge with fatal consequences in January 1938. Considering most of these passes are closed in winter, it was surprising that he would have been out there at that time of year, but neither rain, nor sleet nor hail etc.

We continued to make our way upwards. The road was not sheltered by trees and it was becoming quite warm, and the road showed no sign of flattening out anywhere. Michelle asked me how far we had to go and I said “not much further,” but of course it turned out I was totally wrong. Relief did come around Kilometre 8, when the grade dropped down to a more manageable 4 percent and then we found ourselves on a plateau. As we came into the village of St-Marcellin, we discovered some other Tourists d’Enfer sitting down for lunch and we joined them.

The waitress was clearly having a good time with the boisterous cyclists and we contributed to the confusion. The menu was somewhat limited, with mainly local specialities. As a vegetarian, France was not always the most appealing destination to me at lunchtime but the waitress was happy to get the cook to make up a cheese omelette with frites for me, a meal in which I was joined by Ralph the Badger. Most of the others ordered steak/frites, but Tim the Tornado said he would go with the burger. I was surprised that a hamburger would be on the menu and when I looked I saw he was referring to the “Assiette Berger,” which translates out to “the Shepherd’s Plate” and was a cheese-and-bread collection. Foreign travel is full of discoveries...

Refuge Napoleon

Dr. Chef and Michelle rolled up but decided to forego lunch and keep going up the climb. After enjoying a nice piece of blueberry tart, we got back on the bikes and began to climb again. I was riding with Indiana Greg and we set a nice pace going up the climb, which was not as steep as it had been closer to Guillestre but was still hard since we were feeling a bit stuffed from the meal. We passed a small ski area, Ste-Marie-de-Vars, and saw a sign inviting us to a restaurant inviting us in for “fooding and drinking.”

The road continued to be around 7 percent grade as we came up to Vars Station and I was getting tired in the heat. Greg rode on ahead and Ralph soon came up to me and we rode together, passing the next Refuge Napoleon and the little lake in front of it before finally coming to the col sign. I think that I had underestimated how hard this climb would be as the profile looked reasonable compared to some of the other climbs we had done on the trip. But in the end we had ridden 19.4 km (12.4 miles) from Guillestre, climbing 1111 metres (3645 feet) to the summit at an altitude of 2109 m (6925 feet). Having a full stomache and adding in the heat probably made it all that much harder, without forgetting that we had already begun the day with an Hors Categorie climb!

Me descending (photo by the Badger)

I felt better having reached the top and looked forward to the fantastic descent ahead of us. This was an excellent one, with lots of nice, open curves and great scenery all around. It was cooler now as we descended into the valley, dropping quickly down the road, which is much steeper on this side. We were finding sections of well over 10 percent and the cool air really revived me. Ralph was close behind me and when we came to St-Paul-sur-Ubaye, a small village that apparently featured a 12th Century church, I suggested that we turn off the road and look around.

The baker at the St-Paul market

St-Paul was enjoying market day and we looked at the stalls in the village, set up in the square beside the church. There was a range of meat products, cheeses, liquers and bread. We tried some of the baker’s olive bread and then he persuaded me to buy some of his special high-energy cyclist’s bread. This was like very hard gingerbread and he suggested breaking off small pieces of it during a ride and washing it down with some water. It would provide an energy replenishment and supposedly will be good for months. We shall see.

The Badger and I looked into the church, which is an excellent example of a mountain-style church begun in the Middle Ages and featuring a shingled roof and a Romanesque bell tower. We walked around the tiny village for a few minutes and I took a picture of the Badger in front of the 1714 fountain. Then we got back onto the main road and aimed our bicycles towards Barcelonnette and our hotel.

Fort Tournoux

After leaving St-Paul we came to a short tunnel but after a week in the mountains I had lost my fear of them and thought nothing about riding straight through it. The road was very quiet, and we found ourselves riding past the Berwick Redoubt, a massive stone citadel. Our route continued downhill, running alongside the Ubaye River. Ralph was clearly fading so I went out front and pulled. As we joined up with the D900 the traffic, which was coming from Italy, was getting heavier but the road was good, with probably a 1-2 percent drop. I went into time trial mode, going steadily along at 44 km/h or so. Well, that worked until we passed the impressive Fort de Tournoux, which was built from 1843 over twenty years and saw action in both World Wars, and ran smack into a brutal headwind.

The last stretch of D900 took us past La Condamine-Châtelard and on through Jausiers. The wind was dry and hot and peppering us with nasty bits of sand or gravel. We finally saw Barcelonnette ahead and immediately found the sign for Le Sauze, where our hotel was, and turned left on the straight road, getting out of the wind.

While it was nice to get out of the wind, we discovered now that we had a very nasty climb ahead of us: 2 kms that appeared to be going straight up. Ralph and I dragged ourselves in the summer heat up hairpin turns at a snail-like pace and finally pulled into the parking lot of the Hotel l’Équipe. We were met by some of the others and made our way in for a cool shower and a well-deserved beer.

Several of the other cyclists had ridden into Barcelonnette and were picked up by Udo and the bus rather than ride this last brutal hill. This was probably a good idea as they enjoyed ice cream in the town square!

Today's profile, with a sting in the tail

Over dinner we had a great time, reliving our individual adventures for the day. Day 6 of the Tour d’Enfer had been a classic, with 103 km (64 miles) and 3,120 m of climbing (10,236 feet), incredible scenery and one good workout.

Blazing Saddles: Another Book Review!

While I was at the Tour d'Enfer this July, my friends at www.pezcyclingnews.com ran my review of the latest history of the Tour de France, the entertainingly-named "Blazing Saddles." VeloPress has been very actively expanding their booklist recently. Recommended!

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Politicians on Bicycles: the Triumph of Senator Kerry

With the US election looming, I was highly entertained by a recent post by Garmin-Chipotle's Jonathan Vaughters on the team website. As a Canadian I cannot vote, of course, by my job requires me to watch developments south of the border.

In the last Presidential election in 2004, Senator John Kerry was ridiculed for riding an effete Serotta bicycle, in comparison to the manly, all-American Trek mountain bike of President Bush. Of course, the critics also thought that the Serotta, made in Saratoga Springs, New York, was an Italian bike, but anyway. The only photo I saw of Sen. Kerry with the bike showed him wearing a pair of baggy shorts and looking kind of dorky, so I assumed he was not all that serious a rider but could easily afford his expensive bikes.

It turns out that at 65 Sen. Kerry is lean and mean and quite the avenue animal. Jonathan, who accompanied our own Stevie Z. on the Alpe d'Huez during the Tour d'Enfer recently, rode with the Senator in Colorado after loaning him a spare David Millar bike and it was an eye-opening experience, as you can read here. But in addition to riding well, Jonathan relates that Sen. Kerry had a lot of good questions and comments about cycling and its place in America, as well as concerns over doping. He is apparently knowledgeable about racing and its history. Must have been a fun ride, and the Senator looks good in his team kit. Shaved legs and all.

Eurobike begins on Thursday!

On September 4, the very trendy Eurobike trade show opens in Friedrichshafen, Germany. I have always wanted to go to this, but when I lived in Germany there were no days for the public but now September 7 is open for all. Friedrichshafen, which was bombed to oblivion in World War II, is the only fairly unattractive place on Lake Constance but has the marvellous Zeppelin Museum. Sigh; maybe next year...