Sunday, July 10, 2016

Climbing the Col du Tourmalet

This summer saw me fulfill some lifelong dreams, among them getting the chance to climb the legendary, mythical Tourmalet.  My new wife and I rode up from the St Marie de Campan side of the beast, where Eugene Christophe had repaired his fork back in the 1913 tour.  Everywhere in France, it seems, is covered with history.

The day was very hot, and Beth and I climbed at a slow pace, stopping several times, including at the ski area of La Mongie.  The gradient, once underway, is brutally unrelenting, with the road’s km markers always letting you know what you are in for over the next km.  Most of the way up is fairly wooded and covered; however, the forest opens up above La Mongie into Pyrrenean meadows as the road twists and winds its way up.

In the forested section below, the road is mostly straightforward, but higher up and it twists and turns the way good mountain roads so often do.

One can just make out the La Mongie Ski station at the center of the picture.

At the top, there are placards and monuments announcing the history of the place, as well as a souvenir shop selling jerseys and other trinkets.

The Octave Lapize memorial at the top.

The clouds were rolling in as we descended, and a couple of hours later, the area erupted with violent thunderstorms bringing hail the size of sugar cubes.  We were both very glad to be sheltered and eating at a fine restaurant by this time.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Watching the Tour from the Col du Peyresourde

Stage 8 of the Tour promised to be a monster, climbing four cols in the Pyrenees.  We parked in a small village and planned to ride our rented bikes up the final test of the day, the Col de Peyresourde as far as our legs, the fans, and the gendarmerie would let us.

 We rode up a few miles and the gendarmes stopped us from proceeding further on bicycle, so we walked for a little while and came to a steeply graded section of the route just after a switchback,   which allowed us to look down the mountain to see the riders approaching before they were on our section.   I had never ridden with so many cycling enthusiasts everywhere cheering us on.

The first group winds its way up the Peyresourde.
Sky led the first group containing all the major contenders up the climb.  After seeing the riders whiz by in no time the day before, we were happy to be able to be much closer to the action.

Team Sky leading the peloton, as per usual.

The men in black seemed to be setting a steady pace, not quite setting fire to the group, but putting it on a slow simmering boil.

Eventual winner, Chris Froome, taking a swig from the bidon.

It’s difficult to pick out the individual riders, even at the slower pace of climbing, when they’re in the groups, but looking through the photos afterward reveals who’s in each group.  It was rewarding to see that I got a pretty clear shot at future winner, Chris Froome.  Indeed, it was on the descent from this climb that he took the maillot jaune.

Great French Hope, and eventual second overall, Romain Bardet.

I was also able to get a fairly decent shot of the man who would place second, Romain Bardet.  Unfortunately, not all of the big names are represented in the photos, as they are often behind teammates or other riders.  Such was the case with Quintana, Contador, and Sagan.

Once the first group rode by, riders started appearing at irregular intervals, sometimes in gruppettos but often alone, which offered the chance to see some very distinguished riders whose specialty just isn’t the high mountain stages.

Multiple World Time Trial Champ Tony Martin falling back from the first group.

Multiple World Time Trial Champion Tony Martin was using his signature mouth agape “basking shark” breathing technique to come in just behind the lead group.

The other Great French Hope, Thibault Pinot had been in the early break.

We had heard whispers in the crowd about great French hope Thibaut Pinot being in the early break, but it was apparent the move had not paid dividends for his GC hopes.  He came through to great cheers from the locals in the crowd, though it was clear they were disappointed by his position relative to the others.

Tom Dumoulin looked to be pacing himself.

Vuelta nearly man and Dutch hope for a future grand tour win, Tom Dumoulin, seemed to be pacing himself and not really suffering.  He would go on to win two stages of this Tour.

Maillot Jaune, Greg van Avermaet suffering.

Future Olympic Road Race gold medalist Greg van Avermaet was the bearer of the maillot jaune that day.  He looked to be in a world of hurt while toiling behind one of the groups.  It appeared that he had gone very deep into his reserves to retain the yellow jersey on a day that didn’t really suit him and was now meeting the man with the hammer.  Perhaps the effort on this day helped prepare him to hang with the group on the Olympics course that also wasn’t supposed to favor him.

Spartacus, in his last tour, pacing one of the groups.

Multiple Cycling Monument champion Fabian Cancellara paced up one of the groups containing many riders who weren’t suited for the terrain, on his Spartacus branded Trek.  He, too, would go on to Olympic gold in his preferred discipline, the time trial, and this would be his last Tour as he’s to retire at the end of the season.

A great place to dip one's feet.

Making our way back down the mountain with the hordes of folks driving, walking, and riding down was quite nervous and hair raising, but being on bike was definitely the correct call, as the cars and camper vans were stuck behind At the end of a hot, sunny day of riding and spectating, it was a great relief to dip our feet in the cold mountain river back in town.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Watching the Tour Stage 7 Unexpectedly After Driving Into the Route

After years of looking for the right partner (and learning lots about what isn’t the right partner), I finally found the one and found myself on the summer trip of a lifetime with her to France for our honeymoon.  We rented a Citroen in which to bounce around the French countryside and catch a couple of Tour stages, but on this day, just as we were about to take a turn at a small French village, we encountered a road closure and discovered that our planned route was also the Tour’s for Stage 7.

A sleepy French town awaiting the ariival.

We wandered around the town a little and got to see how the locals handle it when the Tour comes to their town.  When the caravan came through, some of the vehicles would stop and sell touristy knick knacks, which meant that I finally achieved my lifelong goal of getting a polka dot hat and t-shirt.


This was a flat stage, so the breakaway came through and was gone in no time flat.


And then the Team Sky led peloton took only slightly longer to buzz by in a whir of wind and wheels.

Small Pyreneean Town.

Once the race had passed and the traffic cleared, we jumped back in the Citroen to make our rendezvous with our bike rental in the Pyrenees.  We drove on the opposite side of the river valley as the race, and encountered some very small roads that were only slightly wider than the Citroen, before crossing the bridge and waiting for the race to pass again.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Old Blewett Pass

I wanted the backroad experience of riding the Old Blewett Pass highway without the hassle of sharing the roads with lots of big, heavy highway traffic on the main route, so I drove down the approximately 15 minutes from Leavenworth to the Scotty Creek Road.  There were some nice shaded empty campsites next to the creek to park and change at.

From the campsite, the gradients begin right away; however, they never make up their minds for very long about how steep they want to be – this road is definitely graded much less consistently than the main highway.  It’s a delightful little two lane road that twists and turns and bucks up with little regularity.  It’s also very sparsely trafficked, as I rode up on a Friday afternoon preceding a holiday weekend and encountered no cars, 3 motorbikes, and a couple of fellow cyclists.

There is some cost to the lack of traffic and the fact that this is a route that time has left behind means that the road is quite unmaintained, with gravel across the road in places, as well as some fairly substantial pot holes that could taco a road bike wheel in no time.  Such road conditions were duly noted on the way up, and I reminded myself that I would take the descent cautiously, as the speed of descending combined with rock walls in close proximity, steep drop offs, irregular pavement, and varied areas of shadow and light could be treacherous. 

I huffed and puffed and made it to the pass just as I was starting to feel good this hot summer day, where a couple of the motorcyclists who had passed me on the way up had stopped to take in the views.  I had climbed it from the east side, and wanted to descend to the west, but I had an event that evening so just started my descent.  I made good on my promise to take the descent slowly, recording a top speed of only 20 mph, enabling me to win at rule #1 – Returning home safely.