Postcards from the Alps I

Yesterday was sunny and fresh first thing in the valley. After a hearty breakfast, we set off destination the top of the Galibier. It starts gently enough with the gradient rising slowly up to 7% towards the top of the Lauteret.  We were heading into a strong headwind and I sheltered, whenever I could, behind groups of other riders. My beloved became impatient and waved me through saying I could ride behind him.  This is where he disappears 300m up the road providing no shelter whatsoever from the wind. I ground away.

Despite the layers and my winter 3/4 thermal bib shorts, I was chilled to the bone. I needed a warm drink, a comfort break and a spell in the warm sunshine. Out of the wind it was quite toasty and I began to thaw out. Although the Tour wasn’t  due until Thursday, the world’s stock of camper vans was massed all over the upper slopes of the Lauteret and all the way up the Galibier.  Judging by the registration plates, Luxembourg was closed for the forseeable future.

We set off up the Galibier. Whenever we’ve ridden here in the past, the weather has been simply scorching. Not so today. I began to regret not packing all my winter cycling gear. Yes, I’d checked the weather forecast but this cold wind was lowering the temperature by at least a further 10°. The meadow grass on the mountain was lush and green, full of colourful wild flowers. Indicating that there’d been no scorching temperatures this summer.

The view from the Galibier is magnificent, you can see the peloton advancing from miles away. However if, like me, you’re not overly fond of heights, it makes you feel nauseous. I plodded on as the gradient rose to 8%. But the road surface is good and it’s a fairly regular climb. I was amazed to see riders in short sleeved shirts and shorts: must have been Northern Europeans. This year’s professional jersey of choice was Leopard Trek: those Luxembourgers again. 

Easily the worst bit was the descent. No it wasn’t dangerous, it was freezing cold. Again, we took a short break at the top of the Lauteret to thaw ourselves out before launching back down the mountain. It was a very rapid descent, largely becacuse my hands were too cold to apply any pressure to the brakes. The lower half of my face was blue and the tips of my fingers white. Only after a reviving scalding hot shower, wraping up warmly and eating dinner did I start to feel warm again.

That evening we watched a report on the news where over 200 cyclists taking part in a 120km sportif, which went over the Galibier on Sunday, had been stranded at the top on account of the weather and had spent the night there. They had withstood snow and hail until the local fire brigade halted the race. Similar weather conditions had been encountered by those doing the 2nd Etape du Tour in the Massif Central. Only 2/3rds of the entrants had taken part and less than 50% had finished. In both instances, I would have been a DNS rather than a DNF.

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