Saturday 6 September 2008

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.

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