July 31, 2010

Tour de France style

Back from the first part of our holiday, and dare I say, they were close to perfect. OK, there were just perfect, no restrictions. 

No surprise as for the choice of location: the mountains. Now, one may think we could have just stayed home in that case. True, except for the following:
1. we were going to Serre Chevalier, in the Ecrins Massif in the Southern Alps, which, apart from being a stunning place, is close to my heart because that's where Martin proposed 4 years ago, after a wonderful, harduous, super long hike (how romantic), sitting in front of wine and saucisson (how less romantic).
2. this part of the Alps is just perfect for any outdoor sports you may think of: MTBing, cycling, running, climbing, hiking, you want it, you can have it. 
3. Last but not least, my parents have had the great idea, a few years ago, to buy a holiday place there, which means we could get to spend time with them, and use Granny's offer to look after Malo while we were doing our antics: no frustrations born from having to limit the amount or kind of sports would do, and no guilt from leaving him either, since we knew he was going to get more than his fair share of kisses in our absence.

This being Tour de France time, and this part of the Alps having more than its fair share of famous passes, cycling had to be high on the agenda for the holiday (as if I needed an excuse to be on the bike).

I start in style and with my Dad, climbing l'Izoard on Bastille Day, having been sent off by Malo wearing club colors.
 
What is best than a "hors cat├ęgorie" pass as a warm-up ride? That warm-up goes rather well, giving me comfort that I am not too rusty, despite a low-mileage season due to becoming a mum, which has followed a another low-mileage season due being in the third trimester of my pregnancy at the peak of the cycling season (bad timing, I know).  Most of my (very limited) cycling training this year has been done with the Chariot. On these days out, it was clear that Malo and the Chariot's combined weight did make any hills, no matter how small, pretty challenging and thigh-burning, but clearly a good training for serious hills. A little one in a Chariot, maybe that's what Armstrong forgot when planning his last Tour's training.  And maybe that what I should do: instead of soon going back to working in finance, dragging my sorry feet: set up a coaching service instead, boot camp style, where tough, big, guys will go for the ultimate training session, pulling my son up the steepest climbs around  Annecy.

So rusty I don't seem to be, and certainly less so than a lot of guys I overtake on the way up (admittedly some of them old enough to be my dad... oh wait, it was my dad).  Some of them are clearly pissed off ("what, a woman overtaking me, how dares she?"), some of them very gentlemen about it, greeting me by a "going strong, Madame", as I passed them... On a side note, I will never get used to being called a madame, even at 37, even married, even now a mum. Girl, maybe, madame... brings images of pearl necklaces, strict suits (yes, I know, in another life, I used to wear those), and most of all, boring sensible behaviour, ie not exactly me. Anyway, Madame or not, I must admit: it is a great ego booster to overtake guys on a "hors categorie" pass, and one I shamelessly enjoyed.

Icing on the cake: the photographers posted in the middle of the road as you are about to reach the top, who make you feel like you're just about to win one of the Tour's stages...  until you go on their website to realise that to purchase the proof of your stellar performance, you need to fork 12€, quite a rip-off, when, surely, they should be the ones paying to get a shoot of my butt, shouldn' they?

The view from the pass is stunning, but you'll have to take my word for it, given that I forgot my brain and my camera that morning. On one side of the mountain, luxurious green, a forest and flowers everywhere. ON the other side, a desolated and stunning landscape, all jagged ridges, camel colors slopes and nothing else. Stunning, and the main reason why I wanted to climb up there. No disappointments here, and I won't ask for my money back.
After the satisfaction of reaching the top comes the ride down. I can't say I have ever, ever, enjoyed that bit. As much as I love the hard effort of a steep climb up, I am absolutely terrorised by the downhills, and if I say I actually regularly manage to go faster on the flat than on the downhills, that will probably say it all. I can try to find good excuses, such that I am really short and therefore my bike slightly too long, making for a not-super-comfy riding position on the way down, when it comes down (down... ah, ah) to it, let's face it, I am a wimp.

A few days later, and to carry on with the Tour de France theme, we go up the Lautaret and Galibier. The great thing with Galibier is that it is hard. 15%-steep hard in some places, preferably towards the end of the climb. And the next best thing about it is that here is no way round it: no matter which side you chose to climb, you need to ride up another pass before you can tackle this one.

I have started early in the morning to avoid getting insanely hot, as we're right in the middle of a heat wave,  Early morning or not, it is already boiling, and, as, having arrived at the Lautaret, I am waiting for my Dad to start the Galibier climb together, I feel weird: not tired at all, but my eyes do not seem to accommodate anymore. I fear for a moment that I may have to bail out from climbing Galibier, which would not been good news since we delayed our returning to Annecy so that I could do it.  So I set off again as soon as my Dad arrives, and, strangely enough, I can see normally again after a  couple of minutes,  and conveniently before starting the steep bit and the hairpins. Maybe that was just the confirmation my body is not designed to stand still. 

 
Once again, I overtake several guys on the way. No girls, unfortunately not because they were faster than the guys, but because there are no female cyclists... Plenty of women driving cars to meet their partners, who are cycling, at the top, but no female cyclists. Now, what's that about? I know cycling shorts are not the most flattering, I know cycling helmets are not designed to keep freshly blow-dried hair all nice and neat, I also know only too well downhills are scary (but let me tell you a little secret; a lot of guys find them scary, too), but come on, surely I am not the only one not to care...

Once again and more importantly (for my soul if not for my ego), the view, radically different from that of Izoard, is also stunning, the Ecrins Massif and its overhanging glaciers seemingly only a few inches away from my face. Can't get enough of it and find it a real shame the climb does not last longer. Note to myself: maybe I should just cycle slower, next time.

 
My bike computer having chosen that day to run out of battery, I never know how steep it is, and, not feeling like I am making a huge effort, I keep wondering if the hardest parts are still too come. But then comes the very steep last km (which many cyclists may have wonder in despair why they needed to climb it, since it  you can avoid it with a tunnel taking you to the other side of the pass), and I can claim my moment of fame in front of the "Col du Galibier" sign. Although, to be fair, I can't help being slightly disappointed: after all, this is supposed to be one of the hardest passes in the Alps, and I was expecting hoping, to suffer a bit more...



But the truly fantastic part of the ride is that, this time, there is no need to suffer torture on the way down,  for I have been cute.  In a purely altruistic way, I suggested Martin drives up to meet me at the pass and do the super scenic mountain bike ride down to the valley, while I forget for once my love of cycling downhills, and put my bike in the car to take it back to the flat. Aren't I just the perfect wife?

So here it is, I have tackled three of the most famous French passes, and can tick the boxes. Now, since they did not feel that difficult, and since it is always nice to have a new challenge, I guess it means I have no excuse not to do them again next year, with then-2-year old Malo in the Chariot, to add to the fun, and to the weight! Unless, of course, I have by then rented him out for somebody else's training.