Friday 5 October 2012

There and Back Again: the Romandie-Verbier Classic

September 2, 2012

My plan to come to Switzerland came about rather spontaneously.  I had considered the Gruyère Cycling Tour as I knew the region was quite beautiful and friends who had ridden it before recommended it as well.  The organizers run a number of other events, including the pro Tour de Romandie in Spring, and they now have come up with a two-fer: sign up for the Gruyère Cycling Tour and the La Romandie Classic from Aigle to Verbier a week later and there is a considerable reduction in the registration fee plus you get not one but two Swiss cycling jerseys.

I looked to see how distant the rides would be from each other and whether I could rent an apartment rather than be subjected to the high cost of a Swiss hotel.  This looked possible and I realized I could drive back to Germany on the Canadian Labour Day (which we have free in the office) the day after the Romandie ride, meaning I could get ten days in Switzerland by only using up five holiday days.  Coupled with a very reasonable car rental it all sounded like a plan.  It was great that Dan from Zurich could join me for the first ride the day after I arrived but it is not always easy to get other people to commit so sometimes you just need to take the opportunity you have.

I found a nice apartment fairly conveniently located near Bulle in Charmey and Sixt came through with a super little car, an Opel Astra with a hatchback and lots of space and, to my delight, an automatic transmission.  The drive down was easy enough, except for a traffic jam near Bern, and I had planned my grocery supplies well.   As I have related here, my Gruyère Cycling Tour experience was very positive and my ride up the Jaunpass two days after and then the Chateau-d’Oex loop the day after that were terrific but Thursday, Friday and Saturday were write-offs for cycling due to the genuinely terrible weather.  I am not sure I have seen three days of continual downpouring rain before, with no break of any kind.  I took as much advantage of the time off as possible to do some reading and quite a bit of writing and on Saturday to visit the Swiss National Bicycle Museum in Brügg, near Biel (report to follow), and the one-time Roman settlement of Aventicum (now Avenches) near Lake Murten.  And I had the chance to watch some good coverage of mountain stages of the Vuelta de España on the French Eurovision channel.

The Roman Museum in Avenches and the amphitheatre

Roman temple ruins in Avenches

Roman theatre ruins in Avenches
The weather reports on television were not good for Sunday, although on Saturday night the rain finally stopped and the clouds began to break up.  I set my alarm for 6:00 and got everything ready the evening before so could do the one hour drive to the start in Aigle early and get my jersey and start number.  I had a moment of panic when I received a text message from the organizers indicating a 9 am start rather than the announced 9:30 one but decided to drive in early anyway.

After a quick coffee and packing two of the world’s toughest Kaiser rolls with Camembert and jam in a bag to eat on the drive, I left Charmey right on time but soon discovered that that my GPS had been extremely pessimistic about my arrival time and it soon became apparent I would be there by 7:45.  Oh well, lots of time to look around the UCI World Cycling Centre, the start location.

UCI World Cycling Centre (Centre Mondial du Cyclisme, or CMC)

As I was driving I was scanning the heavy clouds and saw a few breaks, which became more pronounced as I descended down to Lake Geneva and drove past Montreux.  The CMC (Centre Mondiale du Cyclisme) was very easy to find and I even had a parking space right next to it as one of the ridiculously early arrivals.  When I went to pick up my registration materials, the man behind the table looked shocked that I had ordered an XL jersey.  “You are too small for this size!” he exclaimed in French.  I thought he was joking but it was clear from when he spoke to the other people manning the table that he was very concerned.  A girl pointed out a changing room where I could try on a jersey but I explained that I had ridden the Gruyère Cycling Tour the week before and that they were using the same Santini brand jersey (with a different design) and that XL had worked out fine then.  Everyone looked very relieved and I was happy with my jersey, plus the Vaudois bag it came in, along with a Verbier-St. Bernard baseball cap and some other useful things.

The CMC has an impressive indoor track and is a good facility, having been built a dozen years ago.  There is a lot of storage for track bikes and out back there is a practice area for BMX riders.  The administration of the UCI is housed in the building but I did not see anything else, such as a museum or Hall of Fame.  There were washrooms and, I was delighted to see, showers.  The availability of showers after a ride is a fine practice of organized bike rides in Germany and, clearly, Switzerland.
I returned to the car and spoke with two riders who were unpacking their bikes from a Volvo SUV.  As seems to be the case so often in Switzerland, you keep trying until you find the right language.  The older of the two riders spoke French with a heavy accent, but then he switched to English as he actually came from Norwich in the UK.  Of course he spoke German as well but given our comfort level in English we stuck with that.  We did the usual bike talk and took some photos.  They were going on to Verbier and planned to ride back.

This brings me to the somewhat difficult logistics of the la Romandie Classic, which I had not focused on much when I registered.  The ride, following part of a stage route from the 2009 Tour de France which saw Alberto Contador triumph and take the yellow jersey for the remainder of the race, begins at the CMC in Aigle but actually ends in the ski resort of Verbier.  This is Parcours A, the longer ride of 56.32 kms that features two timed sections, one very short one in the village of Vollèges and a much longer one of 8.14 kms from la Châble to the finish in Verbier.  This would mean a total of 1119 m of altitude gain over the ride.  At the top in Verbier was the pasta party offered to riders, the issuing of prizes and the opportunity to take a bus back to Aigle.  Parcours B ends at la Châble after the short time trial and riders doing this can then take the cable car up to Verbier rather than grinding up the 600 m vertical in 8 kms.

Looking at the profile in June and not wanting to compare my climbing to that of Alberto Contador in any way, I chickened out and just signed up for Parcours B.  As much as I loved the Wintergreen Ascent uphill time trial in Virginia, some  time has passed and some weight has been gained since then and I did not want to ruin the holiday spirit by blowing up in the Alps.  As my intent on these rides is much more touristique than sportif and I don’t care much about my time, I decided that I would simply do the shorter ride and then turn around at la Châble and ride back to Aigle on my own, giving me a 100 km round trip for the day.  It sounded as if other riders had people picking them up in Verbier but since nobody was there for me with a support vehicle and as I had not booked the bus and am not a big enthusiast for pasta parties anyway, I thought I would just go back to Aigle, shower and drive back to Charmey in time for another brutal mountain stage of the Vuelta on television.

At the registration, a chart showed the expected weather.  With the 9:30 departure (the correct time), there would be an 80% chance of rain, continuing to noon.  The weather looked better in the afternoon in this forecast.   But when I was at the car getting ready it looked much better than this.  I jammed my rain jacket in my jersey’s middle pocket, put on my arm-warmers and hoped for the best.  Of course, for the rest of the day there was no sign of rain whatever but lots of sunshine instead.
At 9:30 there was a very civilized roll-out by over 400 cyclists with nobody in much of a hurry.  We were accompanied by escort motorcyclists and UCI cars as well, and as at the Gruyère event, every intersection was manned and we were given priority through red lights.  As the first section saw a few gentle rollers, the group broke up fairly quickly and soon we were in little bunches as we passed through Bex and then St-Maurice.  It was here that I discovered that while there was no rain, there was a brutally massive headwind blowing and as I dug down I worried about how hard this was going to be after all, even if the climbing of Parcours B did not look excessive.

As I was thinking about this, a Swiss rider came up alongside and suggested that we “relai,” a term I was not sure I understood for a moment then realized it was a paceline offer.  There were two other riders along as well and we began what was probably the world’s most disorganized paceline as the Swiss would move from the back to the front rather than work a rotation but it did make the ride bearable and I saw my heartrate drop to sustainable levels again.  One of the riders could not keep up and was off the back almost immediately but eventually we did manage to do the paceline properly and were making excellent progress.  

At Km 30 in Martigny the flat part ended, as did the headwind, and we now began to roll uphill.  To my surprise, I kept up with the others with no difficulty and we were passing people all over the place even though the pace seemed reasonable to me.  Eventually we directed to a side road and began another little climb that took us to the food stop at Km 38 in Bovernier where I lost the others.  Of course, with everyone wearing the same red-and-white jersey this was easy to do.

There was a surprising number of riders stocking up on bananas and water, so I clearly was not so close to the last riders as I had thought.  But the crowd reduced itself very quickly and I headed back out myself.  At first I found two cyclists to follow but realized I felt quite good and powered past them easily.  The grade was such that I actually could switch into the big ring on my compact crankset and set a very steady pace upwards.

We passed the village of Sembrancher, continuing on the main road, and then there was a left turn to Vollèges, where I saw a giant inflated Migros arch.  “This could be interesting,” I thought and suddenly realized that I was entering the time trial area.  As I passed over the timing mat, I could not help but accelerate into a climb.  “This could be really painful,” was my next thought.

I knew that the timed section was only 1.36 kms but there would be some good climbing in that space.  I did not gear down to make it easy as I did not want to lose much speed but almost immediately I went anaerobic and people all the way back in Martigny could probably hear my gasping and wheezing.  There were cheering people in the village, which really helped my motivation, but I did not dare look at my heart rate.

The road became flatter and I thought that the timed section could not possibly be much longer so I slammed it into a much higher gear and accelerated, passing several other riders who were really suffering.   My fans went wild and suddenly I was over the timing mat, which was not marked with an arch.  I slowed down and my breathing returned to normal pretty soon and I was recovered enough to enjoy the next part of the ride, with some very photogenic scenery, and even a nice downhill segment that I could ride at over 60 km/h.

Up ahead was la Châble already: 48 kms and over 600 m vertical completed in two hours, including the food stop!  I was directed around a corner and there was the next timing mat but I explained I was only going this far so the official directed me to someone in the direction of the cable car who took my transponder but let me keep my race number.  I rode down to the cable car but nothing much was going on there except for a few confused riders circling about so I rode back up to the roundabout at the entrance to town and headed back down the main road to Martigny.

With no pressure, I stopped a number of times to take photos but really enjoyed the descent.  Although there are some fine vistas, I preferred the scenery of the Gruyère ride, with its little roads but as a rotten descender the Romandie Classic main highway was absolutely meant for me.  Flawless pavement, big wide curves, not much traffic: I was going downhill at a steady 45 km/h for long stretches.

In Martigny I had the chance to look around and discovered two interesting things I had not seen while riding in the paceline on the way up: the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre constructed during the reign of the Emperor Claudius and the St-Bernard Dog Museum, whose canine inhabitants I could hear barking.  The museum also appears to be dedicated to local arts and culture since the dogs in themselves probably would not make up an entire museum.  There were lots of people enjoying the terrace restaurant at the museum but I decided to keep going.

Of course, the brutal headwind that had hurt so much going into Martigny on my way up from Aigle was now a brutal headwind that would hurt for the next 25 kms in the other direction.  No paceline this time, although I saw the odd rider in the Vaudoise jersey, but nothing to do for it but head down and press on.  I took a brief break near a sign directing me to a 17th Century salt mine but instead of going there sat on a bench, ate some cereal bars and watching the paragliders performing over the airport across the road for a while.

One final push and I rolled into the CMC by 2 pm, with just under 100 kms and just over 800 m vertical on the clock.  I went into the deserted building and had my shower and then enjoyed a leisurely drive back to Charmey.

Checking my telephone later, I discovered another text message from the organizers with my time trial result.  To my amazement, I placed first in my age category for the Parcours B participants with a time of 6:59.3.  I probably did not have much competition since I think most people went on to Verbier but sometimes you should be happy with what you get.

No rain today and now this.  I celebrated my impressive victory with a plate of Swiss rösti fried potatoes, two eggs and a beer.  It is good to be on holiday!

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