This morning we evacuated the hotel early to get on the road to head to our next climb. Overnight we had thunderstorms, but now it was sunny which is how it stayed for the first hour and a half of the three hour drive. Then, it turned cold and rainy as we entered the true region of the French Alpes. As we progressed towards our destination, it got worse. Not the kind of weather I was interested in as I am now a “Weather Wimp” after living in California for so many years.
However, once we arrived at the rendezvous in a parking lot at a Costco like retail big box store, the sun rose and revealed the Alpes in all their glory to us.
The long ride (The Avid ride) included three climbs today. Lacets de Montvernier, Col du Telegraphe and the highest elevation of any road in the Alpes at Col du Galibier before a descent into La Grave to our next hotel. Yes, I was up for the Avid version today and exceptionally excited about each of the climbs.
The first was quite special. Kind of a novelty climb. Some call it the most beautiful road in cycling. The Lacets de Montvernier. Translated it means “The shoe laces of Montvernier.” It has 17 switchbacks and rises 908 feet in just 2 miles. The grade is consistently tough between 8% and 9%. However, each turn gives you a little break so it doesn’t seem that intense since you get 17 little breaks.
I stopped to take photo of this unique elevator climb. You can see the switchbacks to the right of my head. However, I also pulled a photo from the interwebs so you could see a view from above to provide another perspective. It was an immensely fun little climb that our guide Stefano joined me for.
As I have described earlier, I am slow compared to most of the others in the group. Stefano was very nice to hang with me, but I got a kick out of him literally whistling a song and texting on his phone with one hand while riding next to me and waiting for me to complete the ride. It was nice of the young Italian to tolerate the old man. Italians must have been taught some respect for the elders I guess.
Skipping the Lacets was an option for the group today since the whole ride was long and Galibier, in particular, was exceptionally challenging. To my surprise, much of the group skipped the Lacets in exchange for a boost down the road. I think they completely missed out on a legendary experience. You come to France to climb the switchbacks, and other than Alpe d’Huez, I just clipped off 17 in just two miles.
Following the Lacets, the next climb was up to Col du Telegraphe. An average 7.5% grade over a 7 mile distance from where I was. A shorter climb in comparison to others we had done, but a solid uphill grade and a good warm up for Col du Galibier.
In comparison to the previous day on Mont Ventoux, this one was as Stefano would say, “A Bump.” Solid grind, but not crippling or draining. In addition, it was sunny and cool. Very refreshing.
I was feeling good. Solid riding. Nice warm up climbs. Great weather. And, it was time for lunch at the top of Telegraphe following my altitude sign photo op. You guessed it, Jambon de Fromage sandwich.
When I arrived, the group was there, but once I ordered my sandwich they were leaving. Most of them had received a big boost by skipping the Lacets putting them way ahead of me. The others were the better riders that were usually way ahead of me. This made me a distant last.
I noticed that Hersh was a bit nervous. Something I had not seen to that day. I asked him about it and he was worried about the weather. It can turn at any time in the mountains he explained. At that moment it was perfect out, but I could see some larger clouds off in the distance. Knowing he has been doing this for 12 years, I followed his lead and ate my Jambon de Fromage as fast as I could.
I made my descent through a couple of villages including one that was clearly a tourist area with hotels catering to the first week of the European holiday period. It was busy. Families shopping up and down the street, people backpacking, getting tans on blankets, hiking and as I rolled out of the village the attention turned to this interesting straw sculpture area. It was literally the perfect sunny weekend day.
I left the straw sculptures and began the climb up to Col du Galibier. That’s when the weather began a rapid turn. That darn Hersh knows his weather patterns in the mountains after 12 years of being a guide. It got dark fast. It wasn’t raining, but it was dark.
I could see the switchbacks that began the primary climb up Galibier ahead of me about a half mile and that’s when the rain started. With the first stream of steady rain drops, I remembered that Hersh said if there was any thunder and lightening he would become a taxi and start pulling people off the road for safety. Within seconds of that memory flashing in front of me, the thunder and lightening started to do the same booming through the French Alpes.
I was almost to the beginning of the switchback climb, but knew I still had about three or four miles of it to go to the summit. As I looked up the switchbacks, I could see about two miles of it. There were no trees and no buildings. Thus no shelter. Chancing it up there was probably not a good plan. I had just passed a small bar in building likely centuries old and could probably find shelter there. However, I could see a larger ancient dwelling ahead of me that was clearly my last chance at safety.
I pulled up to the old stone establishment and found it to be the perfect situation. This was an old brasserie with creaky floors, low ceilings, food and plenty of beer and wine to get me through storm. I had it made, and I had a good number of Euros with me too. No reason to panick. I can just post up here with a stein of fine grog and some soup.
The proprietor came over and nicely told me the perfect place to park my bike and invited me to hang some of my wet stuff on a chair next to one of the tables. There were no other customers there so the place was mine.
I waited in the doorway watching the switchbacks for the Trek Travel van in case Hersh was driving down it. I tried to send a text and an email to him, but there was no cell phone service. No problem. I have warmth, beer, French food and Euros to pay for it right? Life is good.
At that moment, the proprietor returned to inform me that they were closing. I looked at my phone and it was 5:00pm. The French close their restaurants at 5:00pm which I have now found is a time when I am usually hungry. They re-open at 7:00pm generally. I asked him if I could still wait outside the door for my friend after he closed and he confirmed that I could.
Even with the closing, I was just out of the rain huddling against the door. That was, until the winds shifted with the second thunderstorm that rolled through. Now it was blowing against me. Episodes of Survivorman started playing through my head. I had a rain jacket, but my jersey was wet underneath it. The perfect situation to get hypothermia echoed in my head from listening to many narrations by Les Stroud on Survivorman. I needed better shelter and dry clothes. I ran around the other sides of the building looking for better shelter, but couldn’t find anywhere I could still be either found or be able to see Hersh driving the van.
As ran back to huddle in the doorway to contemplate my options, out of nowhere this huge herd of sheep and goats came around the corner eating there way towards me. This was quite the sight. Stranded, middle aged, non-French speaking, cycling guy huddling in the doorway of a remote stone brasserie in a thunderstorm in the Alpes with hundreds of sheep and goats descending upon him eating everything in their path!
I came to the conclusion that I had two more options. I could coast back down about a 1/4 mile to the other medieval stone place to see what their shelter would offer me, or I could chance it to get all the way back down to the last village that was about 4 miles away. By this time the livestock had retreated, and the lightening had stopped, so I hopped on my bike and shot down to the next turn of the ages inn.
Nope, France is France I guess and 5:00pm is 5:00pm. Must be a union thing or something. The place was closed. However, the eaves on this doorway were longer and the roof line was only one story so it was improved doorway huddling. Plus, I could still monitor the switchbacks for Hersh.
The Hershmobile would be good right now as that short ride made me wetter and colder. I now started shaking from the cold. Fortunately, I was distracted from my peril by the ever roaming sheep/goat herd that was now eating their way towards me again. Just before they got closer, an SUV pulled in. A woman got out, lifted up the back hatch and out jumped a dog that began to work the sheep. She was apparently the owner of the livestock and for about 15 minutes I got to watch some fine sheep herding by a real sheep dog. It helped pass the time.
That’s when the third thunderstorm showed up. I was really cold now and shaking. I had made the decision that once this one was over, I would make a break for the village as I could tell I was losing body temperature. It began to subside and that’s when I saw it. The Hershmobile was headed my way down the switchbacks. I rolled my bike out to the road, stuck out my thumb and climbed aboard to find other passengers from my group that had also been rescued at the summit. In fact, we had to go back up and get a few more that tried to descend on the other side only to find the winds and rain so strong they were literally getting blown over.
As we crested Galibier, it was another amazing sight. Cold, wet and windy but amazing. One this cow seemed to enjoy and not be affected in the least bit by the weather.
The descent down Galibier would have been amazing. This photo gives you and idea of the views and the road was in perfect shape.
As we rounded a corner, or two, or four, a glacier came into view which would be the backdrop of the rest of our days in the Alpes.
We descended into La Grave where we happily entered our hotel L’Edelweiss.
A charming old hotel owned by a Scot. This must be the reason why instead of checking in at a lobby, you actually checked in at the bar.
Hot appetizers were waiting for us as well as a nice warm meal that night. That is, right after my hour long massage that I had pre-arranged. A good end to an ugly and potentially bad day.
The totals for the day included 38 miles, a respectable 7,381 feet of climbing, 1 close encounter with a herd of livestock and another Jambon de Fromage sandwich in my belly.