Monday, July 21, 2014

Les Deux Alpes

On July 9th I took a short trip up to Les Deux Alpes.

View Les Deux Alpes in a larger map

When I planned this trip, I scheduled a few days in La Grave, but I didn't have anything specific planned for Wednesday, July 9th. I thought I might need or want a rest day, but as it turns out I was feeling pretty good, so I decided to take a short ride up to Les Deux Alpes, visiting a climb that has been used in the Tour de France, although pretty rarely.

The day started dry but cool, which made the descent toward the lake relatively comfortable. I was wearing the heavy jacket I bought yesterday, which helped quite a bit. Just after crossing the dam and turning onto D213, the road begins a gentle climb up to the ski resort. After a couple of hairpins dutifully numbered, you reach the pretty little village of Mont-de-Lans, where I stripped off my outer layers.

Les Deux Alpes is a year-round ski resort, and the road is wide, well-paved and has a consistent and moderate grade. It runs through a very pretty wooded mountainside, but after Mont-de-Lans there are few views of the surrounding valleys.

The neighboring village
As I reached the top, it began to rain heavily. I hadn't actually known before I got there that it was a ski resort, so I was surprised to see that it was huge, a long line of hotels, restaurants, and ski shops. I put on the heavy jacket I bought the day before, but the rain was still cold and I hadn't even started the descent yet. After a while I walked into one of the ski shops, bought ski gloves and yet another jacket, put all of my warm-weather gear on together, and started the descent.

Despite the rain, the wide road was a pleasant descent, and by the time I got back down to Mont-de-Lans it was warm enough to strip off a layer or two. I continued down to the dam, then back up the now-familiar climb to La Grave.

Elevation Profile
This day's ride was just 31 miles, with 3566 feet of climbing. My analysis program broke the climb into two parts, the first part 2 miles long and the second 3 miles, both averaging about 7.5%. The most difficult kilometer was in the second part, at just 8.4%.

Alpe d'Huez and the Col de Sarenne

On July 8th I climbed Alpe d'Huez, and enjoyed a ride over the Col de Sarenne.

Since I got to France I've been waking up annoyingly early, like 04:00. Tuesday was no different, but in this case I fell back asleep and missed breakfast. I ate yesterday's spare packaged sandwich instead.

The morning was rainy and cold. The first part of the ride is a descent, and the rain started shortly after I did. Once my feet were soaked I was once again bitterly cold on the bike. My shivering was making it hard to keep the front wheel steady.

Looking back along D1091
I had never been on the section of D1091 between Lac du Chambon and Bourg d'Oisans. The detour on D211a had always seemed more interesting, but I was wrong. D1091 passes through some of the most dramatic landscape I've ever seen, in a valley bordered by steep granite mountains. Definitely worth a visit, preferably on a bike but a car could do in a pinch.

After a quick tour through Bourg d'Oisans, I started up the climb. Not many riders on the road today, but the familiar tour van was there. I stopped for a while at the church at hairpin #7, a little above La Garde, to eat and enjoy the scenery. The rain was mostly holding off, and while it was cold when stopped it was pleasant while climbing.

With the paucity of riders on the road, I was a little surprised to see that the souvenir photographer was nonetheless at work. There was no one near me and I ride very slowly, so she was able to get about five shots of me. And yes, I bought one, even though they're overpriced.

I stopped at the "false top" for a coffee bite to eat at Bar L'Indiana (passing by L'Alaska and La Nevada). When I went to leave it was once again raining hard, so... hey, another coffee.

I climbed up to the real top and took some selfies, which came out poorly. The riders connected with the tour van were just arriving, and one of them was overcome with emotion at finally making it to the top, which just reminds you how special this experience can be.

On the road toward the Col de Sarenne
So now it was over toward the Col de Sarenne, the route the Tour de France took in 2013 in order to climb Alpe d'Huez twice. This route starts by heading out among the hotels on the east side of the village. As I passed by the last of the hotels I could see dark, ominous clouds rolling quickly toward me over the mountain. I didn't have warm enough clothes to deal with any kind of real storm, and I turned around.

My first thought was to wait it out in some cafe. But one of the first stores I came across was a ski shop having a sale, so... shortly afterward I had bought a new, warm jacket with a hood. Armed with the new equipment, I left again for the Col de Sarenne.

If I recall correctly, there's at least one sign indicating that you're headed toward the Col de Sarenne. Beyond that there isn't the normal signage you see on French roads, but it's hard to go wrong. Just don't descend back to Bourg d'Oisans and you'll get there.

The last part of the climb to the Col de Sarenne
The road passes by the airport (which is not recognizably an airport), then descends a few hundred meters into a lovely, isolated valley. The views here are a reminder that the Alps are vast, and one tends to see little slivers of it. At one point you cross a little stream and then begin this side of the climb, mostly in one straight section. From this direction it's about 3 km long and just a couple hundred meters of climb. It's generally steep at  7.8%, but at least consistent.

The Vallée du Ferrand
If the road up to the pass seemed isolated, after the pass you're in a different world. The road on this side is tiny and not in ideal shape for a descent, an effect heightened by the usual potential of long falls over the sides of the road. And did I mention that in this section it began to rain heavily?

The thing about this descent is that you're not just losing the few hundred meters you just climbed -- you're actually losing more than 1000 meters, essentially descending the mighty Alpe d'Huez climb, but on this little road. It just goes on and on. The first part of the descent winds through hairpins, but then a little further down the sections between turns stretch out quite a bit and you can get some speed up.

After passing through the pretty little village of Mizoen, the road meets the main valley road D1091 at one of those  "I wonder where that goes?" intersections. Similarly, the water coming down through this valley emerges here in the form of the giant fountain that sprays into the reservoir.

Lac du Chambon, as seen from Mizoen
By rejoining D1091 here I saved myself a few hundred meters of climbing, although I missed the chance to experience that lovely part of the valley in the opposite direction. I tramped back up to La Grave, my hotel, and dinner. Which started with a welcome tomato soup, then a steak with a 35 cl bottle of a local gamay, topped off by a chocolate tart.

Elevation profile
This day's ride was 49.8 miles, with over 6,400 feet of climbing. The most difficult kilometer was in the middle of the Alpe d'Huez climb, in which it averaged 9.3%. As I've mentioned before, that's based solely on climbing; the most uncomfortable kilometer on this ride was one of the early ones, shivering on the descent toward Bourg d'Oisans. And surely the actual most difficult kilometer was part of the descent of the Col de Sarenne. But you get the idea.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Grenoble to La Grave

Monday I rode from Grenoble to La Grave, completing my transition into the Alps.

View Grenoble to La Grave in a larger map

Yesterday's ride from Lyon was certainly a transition day, and this was another one. After the traditional French breakfast, the day started with... waiting. I thought I could charge my camera with its USB cable, but that wasn't working. So I decided to wait until the (very close-by) FNAC opened at 10:00 so I could buy a charger. I found one that would work, but was expensive. Maybe it was a bargain, though, since the TSA apparently changed the rules in the previous couple of days, and if my camera couldn't be turned on I risked having to leave it behind.

So it was that despite being up quite early I didn't get moving until around 11.

Hot springs in Uriage Les Bains
A side road off D524

I knew I wanted to revisit the old town of Vizille, which I had passed through in 2012, but since there was a lot of climbing today I decided to avoid D5, the direct route, in favor of the flatter D524. D524 turns out to be a very pretty road, passing through some picturesque mountain villages before entering Vizille next to the chateau.

Entering Vizille

I would have preferred to spend a little time in Vizille, but daylight was burning so I passed through and began the long slog up D1091. As you can see from the elevation profile below, this road just goes up, gradually increasing in grade, until it hits the plain that contains Bourg d'Oisans at about 700 meters.

At the second hairpin on D211
All along the way it was threatening rain. I thought about stopping in Bourg d'Oisans for lunch, but since it was still sunny I instead just bought two packaged sandwiches at the Casino supermarket (one of the few open on Sunday), and started up the Alpe d'Huez climb.

When I rode through this area in 2012, I chose an odd hotel nominally in La Garde, a micro-village on the Alpe d'Huez climb, but actually across a gorge and 2000 feet of climbing away. That was inconvenient, but the positive side was that it introduced me to D211a, a little road scratched into the side of the mountain, offering stunning views of the valley below. I wanted to revisit that road on the way to La Grave, which meant climbing up the bottom third of the Alpe d'Huez climb to La Garde, then taking D211a as it peels off.
Looking east, near the base of the Alpe d'Huez climb. You can just barely see D211a about 2/3 of the way up the mountain.

The climb felt pretty good, despite my full pack. I was definitely slow, and it rained a bit, but I felt OK. I turned off on D211a, then began its long climb. In 2012 this always ended at the road up to the Maronne, so I hadn't realized that in this direction the road just keeps climbing, right up to 1200+ meters. Ugh.

Looking back toward Bourg d'Oisans from D211a
When I got to the relatively level part of the road, the part with shear drops to the valley below and consequently great photo opportunities, fog was falling down the valley and it was getting much colder. I stopped to eat one of the packaged sandwiches. At one point I noticed wisps the fog rising above the road, which I thought would make a good picture. By the time I fished my phone out of the bag I was already in pea soup. Ugh. No more good pictures today.

Riding that spindly little road in practically no visibility was a little worrisome. There's barely room for a car, and the guard walls are pretty low. Overcook a corner, and you're Wile E. Coyote. But my real concern was the weather; if it got much colder I didn't know what I could do. The weather certainly rolled down the valley quickly.

I continued on, and at a four-way intersection I took the wrong turn, entering D211g and the tiny village of... maybe Les Cours? A little lesson in French road numbering: A letter suffix already indicates that the road is a glorified track, and once they get to G, the road is just an afterthought. Accordingly, D211g is tiny, not so much a road as a series of connected driveways. OK, this was obviously wrong. I climbed the steep ramp out of the village to the main road... and made a wrong turn. In fact, it wasn't even the main, minor road -- it was D211e. As it turns out, I did about half the climb up to the ski station at Auris d'Oisans before I decided that surely I would have remembered this from 2012. I should have finished it off, but I was worried about the time, and besides the fog precluded views once I was up there.

So I turned around, following D211a back down toward D1091, the main road through this valley. I knew the hotel was at an elevation of about 1450m, so I was disappointed to rejoin D1091 below 1000 meters. Lots of climbing ahead.

From this point, the ride was a slow cold slog up the hill. I managed to reach the hotel at about 18:30, with plenty of daylight (for what little that was worth) and in time for dinner. So not too bad.

Elevation Profile
Monday was a little over 58 miles, with 6600 feet of climbing. The most difficult kilometer was at the start of the Alpe d'Huez climb... but of course that doesn't take temperature into account.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Lyon to Grenoble

Yesterday I started my cycling tour by riding from Lyon to Grenoble.

View Lyon to Grenoble in a larger map
On paper, this first ride was long but relatively flat, and would serve as a shakedown ride for the rented bike.

Being unable to sleep, largely due to the time change, I got a pretty early start and was on the road by 8:15. After adjusting the bike's saddle height (a few times), I headed south-east out of Lyon. I think I missed the nice parts of the city. My path took me through generally industrial areas (including a giant Renault truck factory) and poorer neighborhoods. The built-up area seemed to go on for ages; it was past Heyrieux before I was finally in an open space.

Downtown Heyrieux

The countryside was lovely, as usual, but this ride was longer than I expected. As it turns out, it was the second-longest ride I've done in months, and had plenty of climbing. Plus it was a little warmer than I'm used to; still quite pleasant, but I went through plenty of water. It's not bad, but slightly worrying as this was meant to be an easy day.

Which brings up the point that everything is closed in France on Sundays, including grocery markets. But gas stations are open, so I stopped at a combination gas station/bar to buy water and a much-needed tea in La Frette. Almost immediately afterward, I got my first glimpse of the Alps, standing huge and snow-covered on the horizon.

Signs on D1085 note that it was be closed for Stage 13 of the Tour de France, which heads into Grenoble before finishing in the nearby Ski resort of Chamrousse. I took D1085 until dropping off onto the side road into Moirans, and from there down to a trail next to the Isere river. The trail was lovely, but there must have been violent storms recently, since it was covered with broken branches. In fact, in about four places it was completely blocked -- you had to climb over or ride around.
L'Isere river from the bike path

The trail follows the north side of the river right into the city. At one stage it hugs the graffiti-covered retaining wall of the A48 highway, which as I passed was being redecorated by five separate painters. My hotel, and the refreshing shower it represented, were just across the river.

Elevation profile
This first ride was just over 72 miles, with 2000 feet of climbing. It was a bit of a sobering introduction to this tour. We'll see what tomorrow holds.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Back in the Alps

I'm taking my second cycling tour of the Alps. I did a similar thing two years ago as part of a family vacation, but this time I'm here alone so cycling has taken center stage.

On the previous trip I started in Grenoble, and took a clockwise tour over the Col du Galibier. This time I started in Lyon, because it has an airport, and I'll be taking a counter-clockwise trip over much of the same terrain before extending the tour up to Annency.

With a more demanding work schedule I wasn't really able to train properly for this trip. Two years ago I was routinely taking long rides to Santa Cruz, but this time most of my training was in the form of my commute. That's not too bad; it's 27 miles, and included either Mt. Eden and Pierce, or more recently Redwood Gulch, all with a loaded bag weighing me down. So that's something.

I realized early on that I wasn't going to be able to put in the miles, so I decided I would need to lose weight. Last time, despite putting in lots of miles, I never lost meaningful weight. This time I actually focused on that, and was able to drop enough weight so that my body plus my fully-loaded bag actually weighs less than just my body did two years ago. I hope it helps.

The packing list from the previous trip is only slightly updated for this one. I'm using literally the same Topeak bag, the one I used two years ago and on my everyday commute. I don't think they sell it anymore, which is a shame -- it's very flexible. I'm typing this on the same notebook computer I brought two years ago, which has seen little use since then. A Chromebook might have been a good alternative, but I want to run a little software I've written, so a Linux machine is a must.

Two years ago I packed one pair of pants and one polo-style shirt for dinner. I found that constraining, so this time I packed one long pair of pants, a pair of shorts, and a button-down shirt. I bought all these special for the trip, looking for clothes that were physically light and resistant to wrinkles. It turns out the secret word is: Golf pants. Looks arguably acceptable, completely unnatural fibers, perfect for my purpose.

The main difference in my packing is something I left out: my bike. My wife managed to track down a place from which to rent a road bike, in July in the Alps. Amazing. And while I was a little worried about it, it has turned out to be amazingly convenient (I'm writing this on day two of the trip). In fact, the bike was waiting for me at the hotel when I checked in. That saved me from having to lug a bike around the airport (and in fact saved me from having any checked bags at all), and a two-week rental cost less than the airline's bike fee.

The start of the trip has been nearly perfect. The flights, while long, were on time. As it turns out the Lyon airport isn't all that close to Lyon, as my taxi bill attests. It's only slightly farther to Grenoble, so I could have started and finished there. But no complaints so far.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Hamilton and Livermore

Today I finally did something I've been meaning to do for a long time -- I cycled the Mount Hamilton/Livermore loop.

View Livermore in a larger map

I've done this ride once before, but lately every time I get to the top of Mount Hamilton I find some reason to turn around. This time I got to my Berryessa parking spot at about 8:30, on a day clear and warm but not hot. I managed to climb to the top of Hamilton in good order, and once at the top I felt good, with no excuse to cut the ride short. So after filling my bottles and having a couple welcome cans of juice, I started the descent on the backside of Hamilton.

Joseph D. Grant Park, green despite our dry spring

47 miles to Livermore
At some point along this descent, I think I broke a front spoke. I mean, I know I broke a spoke; I think it was in this section.

I rode through the valleys behind Hamilton in the enjoyable company of a fellow rider. We split up at the Junction when I stopped for a tuna sandwich and he continued on. The road after the junction starts climbing, and at this point the wind started to make itself known, too. The wind would be the dominant feature of the rest of the ride along Mines Road, always managing to be in my face despite the turns in the road.

Mines Road, heading off into the wind
When I got to Livermore I continued toward the center of town, where the Livermore Wine Country Festival had closed down the main streets. Looked pretty popular. I continued toward Pleasanton on Stanley Boulevard, again directly against the wind on this exposed road. I've never been to Pleasanton before, and since I stayed on Stanley as it turned into First and later Sunol Road, I guess I still haven't really seen it. The road appears to pass near, but not through, downtown.

Calaveras Reservoir
Sunol Road turns out to be a very pretty little road, and since it parallels 680 it appears to be little used. It led from Pleasanton down to Sunol. Is that little store the totality of Sunol, incidentally? I continued down Calaveras Road, saw the seemingly relatively healthy Calaveras reservoir, and then dropped back down into town, and the end of the ride.

Today's little jaunt was a satisfying 103 miles, with 7700 feet of climbing. All the climbs are gentle, so the most difficult kilometer was near the top of Hamilton, at just 6.5%. I'm pretty happy to have finally completed the loop again, but now I'm wondering just how long it's going to take before I can climb the stairs normally.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Aztec Ridge

Last Sunday, being short of time, I rode my bike around some neighborhood roads that were new to me. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I think I rediscovered what I like so much about cycling.

View Aztec Ridge in a larger map

We were planning a family thing in the afternoon, so I only had until about noon for a ride. It was going to have to be short. Meanwhile, there are a bunch of nearby roads that I've long been intending to explore. In particular, every evening on my commute across Kennedy Road I pass by Teresita Way. On the map, it looks like you can get to Teresita via Cypress Way, so I decided to try that out.

To add a little spice, I decided to ride up Harwood, over the hill to Santa Rosa Drive, which I've also never seen. I had ridden up and over Harwood once before, on a mountain bike, but on that occasion I took the Rocky Ridge trail down to Shannon.

Hardwood is quite steep near it's top, but it's not very long -- all told, I recorded a one mile climb of about 8.5%, but that included part of Santa Rosa Drive. At the top of Harwood there's a short gated section, with a walkway. I'm not clear on the legal status of that section of road, but no one yelled at me while I was on it. Santa Rosa Drive is a series of steep little ramps winding among fabulous homes, ending with a dive down to Shannon.
The view from Cypress

At the end of Shannon I went down the road to pick up Loma Alta Avenue, on my way to Cypress. I've been on this stretch of road before, but turned down Phillips Avenue toward home. This time I continued up Cypress, which turned into a lovely, shaded, isolated little road. I had intended to take Blackberry Hill Road over to Teresita, but in the event I missed the turn; it looked more like a driveway. Cypress just climbed and climbed, to my continuing surprise, reaching Aztec Ridge at an elevation of 1,400 feet. It was also quite steep -- the most difficult kilometer of the ride was in this section, at 13%.

A one-lane road in the hills
The map says that Aztec Ridge links up with Teresita via Blackberry Hill. It doesn't; there's a gate. So after consulting the map again, it was down Cypress to the missed intersection, and over to Teresita. In the middle of that stretch, there's a little one-lane private road, possibly Mireval Road, that's awfully pretty.

After the steep drop down Teresita, I followed my normal route home over the remainder of Kennedy.

Virtually all of the riding I've been doing lately has been commuting, and far too much of that has been repeating routes, exactly. When you do that, you tend to mentally note the time for each ride, and an enjoyable ride becomes some sort of training exercise. That's no fun. This ride reminded me of how great cycling can be, even on short rides near home, when you are exploring new places and seeing new things.

This ride was just 15.7 miles of concentrated fun, with 2200 feet of climbing. Cypress turned out to be the big climb of the day, very nearly 2 miles at 9.5%, including that last kilometer at 13%. And there was still time to have lots of fun with the family in the afternoon.