Alps – Day 1My last night in Munster was (again) a long one; again no sleep...Merde! Not sure what the deal is with Munster, even with beautiful and serene landscape, I just couldn’t seem to relax. With rain threatening my attempt at climbing the most challenging climb, Col du Platzerwasel previous days, as luck would have it, I rolled out of bed at 6:30am to find dry roads and cool fall-like temperatures (read COLD).
Quick bite to eat, a thorough cleaning of my pristine polka-dot bike and out the door I went with leg and arm warmers (and a vest I’m not sure why I packed). After a ridiculously cold decent from the hotel by hands were numb... awesome.
Made my way to centreville in Munster then continued onward to Sondernach, the base of Plazterwasel. Now whoever the jerk was that coined the term “false flat” (a road that seems flat but actually goes up in grade) needs to think of something a little more realistic, how about “positive hill”? For kilometres you are gradually feeling the burn more and more and then you hit the base of the climb and you’re like “I’ve just BEEN climbing, now I have to climb this?!”. Platzerwasel is steep. How steep you might ask, well it’s close to 10% over about 8km, never mind the 8km at 3% to reach the base. Anyway, mission accomplished, got up and over Platzerwasel, passed along the Route des Cretes where I was greeted by half a dozen mooing cows along the road which makes things tricky when you want to get by them quickly without being gored and/or chased. I was sort of feeling like a cow myself at that point; slow, cold and needing to be put out to pasture (apparently a Lara bar doesn’t cut it as a power-breakfast before a 2.5 hour ride).
Descended Col de la Schlucht one more time, yet this time the road was still wet so that makes things dicey at 60 km/h and found my heart rate at 150bpm for different reasons than the previous decent: fear of “hitting the deck” - missing a turn and falling over a barrier or becoming a hood ornament of oncoming traffic; all good times. Made my way back up the final climb to the hotel and had my last breakfast consisting of bread, bread and oh, more bread.
Driving down to the Alps is always an amazing journey.
When you pass Chamonix en route to Grenoble, you start to see the ‘big mountains’ which line you on both sides. You can’t help but be completely fascinated by the sheer magnitude and ruggedness of the Alps, plus the fact that you see snow on the tops makes it all the more interesting.
After 5.5 hours in the car I finally hit the last stretch of road that takes me into Bourg d’Oisans, the base of Alpe d’Huez. Driving on the D1091 you are literally driving between mountains on either side and the last 30km are one of amazement and vocation. Such beauty, you can’t help but fall in love with these mountains. It’s funny, as I’m driving to the hotel and approach the last few km’s I start to feel excitement; it’s almost mystical and defintely emotional. Maybe it’s the history of these mountains, my past here, what it showed me, how it changed me or the fact that here I was, back again 5 years later. When you see these mountains (and the roads that wind up them) you feel inspired; you can visualize the riders struggling, you know their pain, you’ve been there, you’ve felt it: it’s real.
It’s a very visceral feeling when I see the Alps.
As I drive up to the summit (and my hotel), the road is littered with riders that have come from all over the world to take a crack at the most famous climb in the history of the Tour de France, Alpe d’Huez. With 21 hairpins, an average grade of 8%, 14km in length and an altitude of 1850m, Alpe d’Huez has provided a battleground for Tour riders since 1913 where the race has many a time been won and lost on this single climb of 21 stages (now that`s significance).
Funny, I've never seen so many people riding; attempting to tame the mountain. Many middle aged men, fathers and sons (guaranteed makes me emotional every time), women, daughters. You see them riding mountain bikes, road bikes, hybrids, folding bikes, pretty much anything with two wheels...Then you have the spectators that have already begun assembling; securing their position on the side of the mountain that is lined by nearly a million people for the stage.
When I`m here there`s a sense of `belonging`. Being a bit of a misfit, it`s comforting that I`m not the only person that thinks it`s `fun` to go ride up a mountain (and then blog about how amazing it was to want to die for nearly an hour). There`s definitely a camaraderie, and mutual respect amongst riders in Europe (and by most drivers). It`s not about the bike you ride or how much it costs/weighs, how matcy-matchy you (although I’ll take my favourite bike kit over an Armani suit anyday) , the lightness of your 5000 dollar carbon wheels, it`s about you doing something that is between you and you alone. The only person standing between you and the Arrivee sign at 14km and 1850m is well, you (well, you and the mountain).
So I`ve come to France to prove something. To prove that I can, that I will and that no one can stop me.
If the Tour de France is won and lost on some of these magical and mystical climbs, I`m sure there is something that I can learn as well. Sure I have personal best times to beat, maximum speed limits to break and that awesome pro outfit that leaves me looking like a pro, yet, there`s more at play here. I see these climbs as a metaphor for my life. Everyone has choices in life. You can quit, give up, roll over, blame someone, make excuses OR you can get on your bike, make your way to the summit and plummet down the other side with confidence, direction; riding the bike like it truly is an extension of ‘you’.
The past few years have left me a bit empty; in dire need of some riding, some thinking and a subtle reminder that in the mountains it`s a true test of one`s testament and will to survive that makes you successful (and a very healthy V02 max). It strips you to the bone and leaves you and your soul on the road with nothing to prove to anyone but you. Blood, sweat and tears.
So when someone asks me, `why would you ride your bike up mountains, how can that be a `vacation’? I simply tell them, it may not be a ‘physical vacation’ but for me, this is the only time I stop thinking and re-learn how to feel.
Mario Cipollini, arguably one of the most successful (and egotistical) Italian sprinters was once quoted saying “The bicycle has a soul. If you succeed to love it, it will give you emotions you will never forget”.
I can’t agree more with Mr. Cipollini.
Whether it’s pain, knowing you have 2 more hours of suffering, the fear of crashing on a descent, the agony of having crashed, the frustration of an injury that leaves you sidelined or a time you just can’t beat, the joy and excitement of having won a race, reached a summit, achieved a new personal best, or simply that you set out to do something you didn’t think you could, these are but a handful of emotions.
It is my wish that everyone find something that they can savour with every ounce of their being. Cycling was an unrecognized passion that started at 5 years old. It left an indelible blueprint that may have (at times) been temporarily forgotten but will never leave my DNA. One day I hope to be fortunate enough to be back here climbing up this mountain with my son and/or daughter.
Almost forgot to mention that I rode Alpe d’Huez today... surprised? Didn’t think so.