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.

Again and again

Two days in the Hautes-Alpes and my allergies have flared up again with a vengeance. I’m not sure exactly what is causing me to wheeze like an asthmatic grandma but clearly there’s more of it in the hills than on the coast.

Despite the hacking cough, sore throat and watery, pink eyes, I had an enjoyable time tackling some of those legendary cols around Briançon, watching a couple of stages of the Critérium du Dauphiné liberé and catching up with friends. I was staying in the same hotel as the team from Française des Jeux who must have been pleased at Christophe Le Mevel’s 10th place on GC and Sébastien Joly’s 3rd place on the final stage.

While this is not my first trip to Briançon, it was my first opportunity to tackle the Galibier and Izoard. Previous trips had been spent riding shotgun for my husband while he trained for L’Etape du Tour 2006 (Gap to L’Alpe d’Huez): successful completion of which netted Euros 80,000 in goods and cash for charity.

When we first moved to France in search of a different pace of life my beloved had hoped to improve his backhand slice and golf handicap. In reality, running a global business means being available 24/7. So when he did have the odd hour or two, he would hop on his bike and ride. Sensing he needed more of a challenge than a 35km round trip to Antibes and back, I applied, on his behalf, for a place at L’Etape du Tour. This is generally the most difficult stage from that year’s Tour de France, run on closed roads for 7,500 amateur cyclists. I confess at the time I didn’t fully appreciate the enormity of the challenge, and, more fortunately, neither did he.

Bearing in mind his travel and work commitments, I spent hours on the internet looking for the best kit, the most suitable bike and put together a training and nutrition plan, which I heavily policed. I masterminded his fund raising and wrote articles on his endeavours for the trade press. He joined a local bike club doing as many club rides and events as possible. His first trial run was scheduled for early May and we stayed in Briançon, in the same hotel we had booked for the L’Etape.

Another pit stop

Over the long week end Richard covered a significant part of the parcours, climbing both L’Alpe d’Huez and the Col du Lauteret. The Col d’Izoard was still impassable but he did cycle up it as far as possible. This gave him enormous confidence that with a further 10 weeks’ of training he would be able to complete the parcours within the allotted time.

I drove back from Briançon looking like a rabbit with myxomatosis and only after 48 hours at home my symptoms have subsided a little. Regrettably, I had to banish all thoughts of the Cimes du Mercantour and only now am I reflecting on a disappointing month of training. However, I do need to get rid of the congestion to get my training back on track and to that end I have been dosing myself on Vicks Vapour Rub, an old favourite, and some cough medicine from the Pharmacy which tastes no where near as good as Benylin. I could easily have become addicted to that stuff and used to swig it straight from the bottle, no spoon required.

My next goal is the club organised circuit race in early August. I took part last year and was lapped 3 times on the 9km circuit. The ladies, all three of us, raced with the Grand Sportifs (men over 55). Fellow club members advised me to stay in the bunch and in my big bracket. I would have been happy to comply but they raced away from me at the start, up the hill and that was the last I saw of them until they lapped me again and again and again.