Monday, July 30, 2012

Summit to Saratoga Gap

Yesterday I went for my first bike ride since returning home, riding up to Summit Road and over to Saratoga Gap.

View Summit to Saratoga Gap in a larger map

I'm still somewhere between Paris and California time, so I got up early but waited until about 8:30 to head out, since any earlier would have been too cold.

I took the familiar route over Kennedy to Los Gatos, then enjoyed the ride up Old Santa Cruz Highway to Summit. It was great to be back in the fog and among the big trees. I didn't have enough time to head down to the coast, so I just rode up Summit all the way to Saratoga Gap, then quickly descended and returned over Kennedy.

Elevation profile
This turned out to be about 48 miles, with about 4500 feet of climbing. The most difficult kilometer was the one that included the segment of Mountain Charlie Road between Old Santa Cruz Highway and Summit, with an average of an 8.3% grade. A short ride, but a check-out ride for the bike (nothing apparently damaged), and a welcome return to the Santa Cruz mountains.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mont Ventoux

Today I rode my bike up Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence.

View Mont Ventoux in a larger map

I've been a little worried about this ride, especially since a guy at the top of Alpe D'Huez told me how tough it was. It's about the same elevation as Alpe D'Huez, but you start 600 meters lower. Depending on how you count it, it's between 14 and 20-some kilometers long, and it's got 9 straight kilometers whose lowest average grade is 8.6%. It's also famously exposed to the sun, and it was supposed to be pretty hot today. This could be nasty.

I wanted to get an early start, but I had to move my stuff to a new room before I left. As it turns out, the room that should have been mine had a broken bathroom, so I was staying in a double room. But now they needed that double, so I had to move into a room whose bathroom was still in pieces, apparently in mid-repair. OK, not ideal, but they had all day to get it back together.

18th century aqueduct in Carpentras
I got moving at about 9:30, riding amongst traffic out of town on the Avenue du Mont Ventoux. Oddly enough, that wasn't the road I really wanted, but it intersects after a few hundred meters with D974, which would take me right over the summit.

I had looked at a ride profile generated by, so I knew that the road climbed very gradually and wouldn't descend at all until the summit. Often I don't like this sort of low grade climb because it just makes me feel slow. But in this case I was happy for every meter gained on this easy grade, since it was one fewer that would have to be earned on the steeper grades to come.

As I entered Bedoin, I started to see lots of cyclists, making these skinny roads very inconvenient for drivers. I stopped at the grocery store to get some drinks, then headed up the road. At this point the roads runs among vineyards and the grade is still slight.

Eventually the road gets much more steep, but as compensation enters the pine forest. As with the other climbs I've done here, there's a lot of car traffic on the hill, and today I was noticing that the Diesel exhaust was especially nasty.

Climbing through the woods on Mont Ventoux
Despite the traffic I rarely saw any incidents, but there was one on this section. A car behind me slowed, waiting for a descending car to pass so it could get past me. But the descending car, for reasons unknown, slowed to a crawl just as it reached the ascending car, effectively blocking the road. A descending cyclist had to go into a two--wheel skid to avoid the descending car's trunk. I couldn't afford to weave out of my line at that point, so I couldn't turn around to see what happened, but I didn't hear contact. I think the descending car got moving quickly enough.

About 6 kilometers from the summit is a little rest stop called Chalet Reynard, packed with cyclists on their way up or down. I had been worried about whether my water would hold out, so I stopped to buy two cans of tea and three little bottles of water. I left well hydrated, and lighter by (gulp) 12 euros.

Entering the moonscape just past the Chalet de l'Eau Très Chère
After the chalet, the ground is increasingly covered by chalky rocks, and trees are much more sparse. We're on the bald top of the mountain, and you can see the road wind up to the tower at the summit. There's nothing up here to baffle the fierce wind. As you change direction, it might blow at your back, making the grade seem easy. Turn a corner and the wind's in your face, forcing you to inch up a 10% grade in a full aerodynamic position.

The Tom Simpson memorial
Mont Ventoux has climb markers (almost) every kilometer, and again I got to the 1 KM remaining marker wondering how all that road I could see ahead of me could be just one kilometer. This time, I was right. Unless I'm missing something, the marker is off by at least a few hundred meters.

Within this elongated last kilometer is the memorial to Tom Simpson, who died somewhere along this section of the road in the 1967 Tour de France. There were plenty of people paying their respects, as well as a motley collection of offerings. Just today there was an interview with Paul Sherwen in l'Equipe, partly covering Simpson's influence and death, even though this year's tour isn't coming through here.

The scene at the summit
I had always pictured that scene with an unforgiving sun beating down on a rider in an alkaline landscape. I don't know what it was like on that day, but today the wind was so strong up there that it was disorienting. You couldn't hear anything but the wind, shouting in your ears. It was a warm day today, but you didn't feel the sun's heat at all. Of course the wind dehydrates you even more.

Eventually, you reach the summit. Apparently the building and its tower are some sort of weather observatory, but frankly I'm not clear on that. There's a little store, and at least on this day there were stands selling jellied fruits and sausage. Well, why not?

D974 snaking up Mont Ventoux
The views are extensive, but distant, like you're looking out of an airplane window. Unlike the other climbs I've done on this trip, this climb actually takes you to the summit of the mountain, not just a pass. And even more unusually, this mountain is relatively isolated, although technically part of the Alps. It's a little like how Mt Diablo relates to the rest of its range. In any case, this means you can see for miles all the way around, to the limits of the haze.

Looking north, over the orientation table.
Mont Blanc is out there somewhere.
To me, the two most interesting views were of the road I had just climbed, and the view on the north side of the mountain, which reminds you that this really is part of a range. I would have taken more pictures in that direction, but the wind was so strong that it felt like it could blow the iPhone right out of my hands.

I went down the north side of the mountain, toward Malaucène. The descent was pretty shaky until I got under tree cover, at which point there was really very little to limit my speed. The road is smooth and there's plenty of visibility. I'm a pretty timid descender but nonetheless comfortably maintained 45 mph, only slowing down to avoid interacting with cars too much.

Chappelle Notre-Dame du Groseau
Toward the bottom of the hill I noticed a little sign for a 13th century chapel. I suppose this kind of thing litters the landscape around here, but for me it's well worth burning some brake pad to stop and take a closer look. I looked around the front of the chapel for a while, and spent several minutes reading the brief tourism sign (my French ain't so bon). All the while I was, of course, the only person there. Amazing.

Shortly afterward you get to Malaucène, which is basically a few blocks of cafes catering to cyclists, surrounded by a very old town.

Outside of town you climb at a gentle grade for a little while, then basically descend all the way into Carpentras.

Elevation profile
Today's ride was about 48 miles, with over 6200 feet of climbing. My analysis program identified two distinct climbs: the first started just outside of Bedoin, and ran for almost 2 miles at a 5% grade. The second started at St. Estève, and ran 9.8 miles with an average grade of 8.6%, climbing over 4400 feet without much of a break. The most difficult kilometer was very near the top, with an average grade of 11.4%.

With this climb, I basically ended the challenging portion of my cycling vacation. All my climbs are done; any rides in my future will be for sightseeing only. That's a little sad, but my butt and my knees would be happy about it.

La Garde to Grenoble

On Sunday I completed my circuit of the Grenoble area by riding from La Garde to back to Grenoble.

View La Garde to Grenoble in a larger map

This ride was a little like one of those intermediate Tour de France stages, between mountain stages, much like Monday's TdF stage. Just getting from one place to another.

I had no particular reason to hurry, but on the other hand I had no reason to tarry, so I ended up leaving the inconveniently located hotel at 8:30. Unlike the previous two days, the morning was dry. As I was leaving, a group of Dutch riders, all in matching jerseys, were getting ready. As I headed down the hill at a leisurely pace, several of them passed by.

Heading north on D1091
Just as I had the previous two days, I went down the Route de Maronne (there's no other way to go), headed toward La Garde on D211a, and dropped into Bourg D'Oisans on D211. I went through town and exited on what felt like the same road, but according to the map it's D1091b, which a little later merges with D1091. This is the same road I took down from the Col du Lauteret a few days ago, continuing through the Romanche valley.

The valley is awfully tight, but the road never gains any elevation. I suppose that ought to be obvious from the fact that it's following a river.

Monument to the Maquis of the Oisans
D1091 heads north for a while, then peels off left, toward the west, at the intersection with D528, the Route de Savoie. That road heads up to the Col de la Croix de Fer, the highest point of this year's TdF. I'd love to try that. Maybe next time.

Unusual architecture in Livet
Somewhere along here the road begins a gradual descent, so most of the ride is done with almost no effort. The valley, like the Maurienne, is industrial, although it seems like a lot of the plants here are long closed.

The road bends toward the west, and the river becomes a trickle. Where does all that water I saw earlier go?

Eventually I came to Vizille, a larger village.It has a chateau, so I thought I'd ride through town to get a view, although I wouldn't be taking a tour in my cycling get-up. Vizille is much larger than the other villages I've been passing through on this ride. Its downtown is that nest of organically-arranged one-lane roads that's so charming, as long as you're not in a car.

A hint of the Chateau of Vizilla


I got a few shots of the chateau, which is apparently worth a serious visit, then headed out of town on the Route Napoleon. Or one of 'em, anyway; lots of roads around here have that name. In my case it was D5, which makes a stiff little climb up a hill before descending into the suburbs of Grenoble.

Once in Grenoble I headed more of less straight for the hotel, about a block from the train station, but found myself there too early to check in. So I rode around near the river a bit, then headed back to the hotel and checked in. Dinner was at Chez Pierre near the train station, where I had a sort of gourmet pizza.

Elevation profile
Today's ride was a pleasant 38 miles, generally downhill. The only climb was the one immediately after Vizille, which was apparently 1.5 miles at an average grade of about 7%. If this ride was an intermediate stage, then the next day was a rest/transfer day, in which I rented a car and drove to Carpentras.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Alpe D'Huez

How was your Friday the 13th? Me, I spent it riding my bike up to Alpe D'Huez. It was fun, in a kind of dream-come-true way.

View Alpe D'Huez in a larger map

When I planned this trip back in the dark days of early winter, riding up to Alpe D'Huez was always the centerpiece. Since then other parts of the trip, especially the less tangible parts, have increased in importance. Like, for example, just being here. But this climb has been special to me for a long time, since Greg LeMond's exploits got me interested in the Tour de France. When I finally realized that it's not that much more difficult than some of the climbs I've been doing back home, actually riding the thing became a very important goal for me.

But it was raining yesterday, so I skipped it. Not really, but the absurd thought crossed my mind.

After breakfast it was still threatening, but not actually raining, so I headed out. And by out, I mean down. Down the Route de Maronne toward D211a... and then just before the junction I had a flat. There was a distinct hole in the tire, but whatever had intruded was gone. I normally ride with one spare tube and a patch kit; the first flat gets the tube, and any subsequent flats test my spotty patching skills. Rain means more likelihood of flats (or is that just my superstition?), so I decided that job #1 was to get another tube, just in case.

After dropping 600 feet on the Route de Morenne, I took D211a and immediately dropped another 700-800 feet to La Garde. That's sobering; I'd have to come back up this hill later.

Bourg D'Oisans
At La Garde, D211a meets up with D211, the road that climbs to Alpe D'Huez. The Road, in caps, in this context. I intimidated myself by descending the rest of the way into Bourg D'Oisans, the town at the foot of Alpe D'Huez. I passed by dozens of riders on the way down, and then dozens more in the charming little town. I saw a bit more of the town than I might have otherwise because I had to make several stops before I found any tubes. Eventually was properly equipped, so there was nothing to do but start up the hill.

The start of the road to Alpe D'Huez
Alpe D'Huez is certainly unique. At the base of the climb many riders were milling about, and there was a palpable sense of event. An American rider was filming himself declaring his modest goals for the ride, groups of similarly-liveried riders were coming past, shouting "Depart!" in excitement as they passed the sign. Cyclotour vans were common, and there were at least two movies being filmed. This isn't just another bike ride.

The climb has numbered signs on each of the hairpin turns, but does not have climb markers every kilometer like Galibier does. I missed that. The hairpin signs note the altitude, and famously the name of a Tour de France stage winner (or two), but don't tell you the grade of the following section.

As I passed the first couple of signs I realized that the altimeter on my Garmin 500 was way off, reading some 150 meters too low. It was correctly set when I started off, darn it.

The road up to Alpe D'Huez, in the lower,
cliff-climbing section

Climbing to Alpe D'Huez
The road was very busy, obviously with cyclists but also with cars. And while it's not especially skinny, it doesn't have bike lanes or any other special accommodation for the river of bikes heading up (until the top-most section, anyway). But as usual, the drivers were attentive, cyclists slightly less so, and I saw no incidents.

There was, as one might expect, a variety of riders. There were certainly plenty of skinny young cyclists blowing by. There were lots of big, strong, fitness-oriented athletes. A surprisingly large number of (apparent) couples. Several young children. And there were one or two riders even slower and fatter than me.

I think the climb has three distinct parts. First, there's a set of very steep runs up the rocky face of the mountain. This section is characterized by severe rock faces covered with wire mesh to contain falling rocks. At an elevation of about 1000 meters you get to the tiny village of La Garde, and somewhere along here the road becomes much more pleasant, with trees, babbling brooks and grass. And yet it's still steep. Finally, after you pass by the town of Huez at an elevation of perhaps 1500 meters, you have the resort of Alpe D'Huez in your sights most of the time, and the terrain itself becomes much less steep. The road's still steep, but it's now climbing a hill, not a cliff face. The first section is full of harsh, unforgiving sights, but the other two sections are really quite beautiful.

The next section of road rises at an
intimidating angle
For most of the climb, you can see the upcoming sections of road. I've always found that a road viewed from a distance never seems very steep, but the opposite was true here; you see the next section of road angling up at an impossible grade, not to mention height, and wonder how you would possibly get yourself up there.

Adding to the event quality of the climb, there were two photographers taking action shots of riders as they passed by. One was just after Huez and the other around hairpin number 2 or 3, near the top. In one case you can view and purchase images online, and in the other you have to go to a store in Bourg D'Oisans. I can reliably report that the on-line version is wildly overpriced, and yet I bought a copy anyway. I visited the shop this morning to see the other pictures, but they were excruciatingly... well, accurate.

Mission accomplished!
The TdF stage finish is 2 KM further on
As you get into the resort itself, there are a few opportunities to screw up. First, there's a turn in the road. It actually heads for the finish, but it's not the correct route. Second, there's a banner indicating the end of the climb. It's in a convenient location, right next to bars and restaurants, but as other signs tell you, the Tour de France stage continues for another 2 kilometers.

It's a little tricky to follow those two kilometers. On Friday, for example, I had to wind through a street market. Later, after you pass hairpin number zero, there's a turn that has you descend for a bit before you hit the final 300 meter climb, with its finish very near the ski lifts at the top of the town.

There were a few people at this second line, including representatives from Trek Tours. I asked someone to take my picture next to the "Arrivee" sign, chatted with a fellow rider about Mont Ventoux, then went back down to the more popular finish to have a sandwich and a coffee (it was quite cold).

The church in Huez
Eventually it was time head back to reality. This is a good descending road, whose only problem is the traffic, both bikes and cars. I was in no hurry, but felt comfortable at any speed.

On the way down I took the opportunity to slowly coast through the town of Huez. It's a cute, tightly packed mountainside town. If you forget to set your parking brake in Huez, you're definitely shopping for a new car.

D211a, looking east. The Route de Maronne
turnoff is just ahead.
Eventually I got back down to La Garde, where my hotel (nominally) is. I headed back up D211a, then back up the Route de Maronne. This part of the ride felt very difficult, partly because the skies were now clear and it was immediately hot, and also because it actually was difficult. This climb, from the La Garde intersection to my hotel, was nearly half as long as the Alpe D'Huez climb, and only slightly less steep!

The Route de Maronne, approaching the hotel

Approximate elevation profile. I lost 600 feet
somewhere early, but the relative numbers on the
climbs are correct.
This ride was only about 27 miles, with 5000 feet of climbing. The most difficult kilometer was the first one on the Alpe D'Huez climb.

So, what did I do today, Bastille Day? Same exact thing. Had an absolute blast.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Valloire to La Garde

Yesterday I rode from Valloire, over the Col du Galibier, to La Garde, near (but not too near) Alpe D'Huez.

View Valloire to La Garde (ish) in a larger map

The view from my balcony in Valloire.
The climb begins right here.
I wanted to get a reasonably early start on the climb, because I had visions of baking in the hot afternoon sun on the tree-less climb. I got going at about 9 AM, and was basically on the climb up Galibier as soon as I left my hotel.

The D902 road, which I had taken into Valloire and which forms the town's main drag, is the road up to the Col du Galibier. From Valloire it heads almost directly south, snaking among towering mountains through a valley presumably gouged by passing glaciers.

The first part of the climb to the Col du Galibier,
running south up the river valley
The climb up Galibier is normally considered 18 KM at an average grade of 6.9%, but the first climb marker I saw was at 16 KM. An 18 KM climb would indeed begin in Valliore, but there's a substantial flat section after a few kilometers. My analysis program decided the climb was really closer to 13.6 KM with an average grade of 7.6%.

Speaking of climb markers, I found them very helpful. They help you address the climb in small, manageable sections. And of course the fact they're metric means the math is simple. That helps, because when I'm climbing any math seems daunting.

Looking north from the bridge at which point the road
begins snaking up the mountainside.
Plan Lachat is the buildings to the right.
The structure of the Galibier climb is simple: the road heads almost straight south up a river valley until it reaches Plan Lachat at about 2000 meters elevation, at which point it zigzags up the neighboring mountain toward the southwest. Once it begins the zigzag section, large portions of the road are visible, both from below and from above. There are no trees to block the view, partly due to the tree line and mostly (I suspect) due to inhospitable soil.

Climbing up Galibier. The pass itself is barely
visible on the left side of the picture.
I was very worried that the altitude, combined with my heavy bag, was going to make this climb miserable. The heavy bag took its toll, but I don't think I ever noticed an elevation effect. I was also a little worried about baking in the sun with no shade to be had, but in the event it was quite cool.

This climb isn't part of this year's Tour de France, but echoes of earlier races can be seen with the names painted on the road. Most of the names seemed old; I saw Kloden a lot, and Levi, and then even Zabel! When I saw Riis I thought perhaps I had gone so slowly as to go back in time, but since Saxo Bank was written nearby I assume it was encouraging his team management, or perhaps driving, not his 1990s riding. More than any of that, however, were completely incomprehensible encouragements, mostly in German or Dutch.

The last kilometer, snaking up the hill past the tunnel.
Near the top of the road there's a tunnel for cars, and 1 KM more to climb for cyclists. Standing there, seeing all the switchbacks heading up, I wasn't as much intimidated by the grade as I was incredulous that it could be only one kilometer. That last kilometer is relatively steep, but for me the sign made it easy; no matter how hard it was, it was only 1000 meters.

The pass area, from the hill above
At the top there's the usual sign and a small parking lot. And a few dozen cyclists. I took the obligatory pictures and then walked around for quite a long time, taking in views the likes of which I've never seen before. I saw Mont Blanc. I saw glaciers, a first for me. Every one of the mountains I was seeing was larger than any I had ever seen before. I hiked up above the pass area itself to find an orientation map, identifying all the peaks. Absolutely amazing.

Eventually, and a little reluctantly, I put on my jacket and headed down the south side. I stopped briefly at the gift shop near the tunnel entrance (there's one on either side) and got a souvenir climb marker, then settled in for the long descent.

The glaciers above the Col du Lautaret
The D902 road ends at an intersection with D1091. This is the Col du Lautaret, which is a pass (ie col) connecting the Oisan area to Italy. It's the high point of that route, but since the road to Galibier continues up from here, it's not a distinct mountaintop. It does, however, have several nice little restaurants, and I stopped for a lovely omelette for lunch. From my table I could see the glacier called Lautaret, which might have explained why it was so cold.

The church in Villar D'Arene is
a major fixer-upper.
After lunch I settled into a long period of coasting into a stiff breeze that kept my speed quite slow. I stopped to take pictures of the ruined church at the Villar D'Arene, and enjoyed the amazing scenery.

Along this road I ran through my first tunnel, which was a pretty terrifying experience. Well, the first one was OK because I was closely following a car, and therefore I didn't feel like I was going to be collected by someone coming up from behind. But I couldn't see the road, regardless of my light. In one long tunnel there were sections without lights, and I could just barely detect my light on the road. But whenever a car passed in the other direction I lost my night vision, and was again blind for a few seconds. Luckily I was going downhill through these things, so I wasn't in them long.

Looking down at Bourg D'Oisans from D211A
I chose my hotel poorly. I wanted to be near Alpe D'Huez. I don't remember how wide my selection was, but I ended up choosing a place in La Garde. If you look on a map, you'll see that La Garde is partway up the Alpe D'Huez climb. Not too bad. But my hotel was not in the tiny little village itself; it has that address only because La Garde is the nearest village. In fact, my hotel was on the other side of a deep gorge, and 400 meters higher in altitude. This puts it 600 meters higher than Bourg D'Oisans, the town at the bottom of the Alpe D'Huez climb.

D211A hugging the ridge next to Bourg D'Oisans
I therefore left the D1091 road, which goes into Bourg D'Oisans, and took the D211A up the ridge toward my stop. The first part of this road was terribly steep, and in fact the most difficult kilometer of the day, a day that had included a climb up the Col du Galibier, was on this section of road.

After passing through some expensive residential areas, the road became more remote and ran along a steep ridge north of the Romanche river valley. I felt a little put-upon for having to climb so far to the hotel, but ultimately the views from this road were stunning, and worth it. In fact I had planned to ride the D219, a similar road on the other side of the valley, just to have this sort of experience. Maybe now I'll take an extra trip up Alpe D'Huez instead.

Finally, even this obscure road was too much, and I turned off onto the Route de Maronne, a road so tiny that it doesn't even warrant a number.

The Route de Maronne, heading through the
Foret de Maronne
This road reminded me very much of the one-lane roads through the Santa Cruz mountains back home. Its shade provided some welcome protection from the late afternoon's increasingly hot sun. I had to chuckle when I saw that some of the hairpins in the climb through the forest had been named, much like the more famous hairpins on the Alpe D'Huez climb.

I finally got to the hotel and, after a tremendously filling dinner, got to sleep.

Elevation profile
This ride was just 43 miles, with 6400 feet of climbing. I had worried about the Galibier, but in the end I think that on a good day I could manage the Telegraphe and the Galibier in one shot, like most riders do. I just need more reasonable accommodations on either side.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Allevard to Valloire

On Tuesday, I rode my bike from Allevard to the ski resort of Valloire, and in the process climbed two Tour de France passes.

View Allevard to Valloire in a larger map

The day started with breakfast in Allevard, in the Hotel du Dauphine. The standard buffet was laid out in the dining room, an inexplicably large room in the back of the hotel. The building, being old, has a lot of quirks, one of which is that the dining room holds 20+ tables, but is only reachable by walking through the lobby, the sitting room, and a back hall. The breakfast itself was the standard fare of croissants and coffee, which is fine, but I'd love to see some fruit or scrambled eggs one of these days.

D525 near Allevard
I got out just before 9 AM, and headed north on D525, toward La Rochette. This road was absolutely gorgeous, running along woods and something that, back home, would be a major river. OSM calls it Le Bréda, and incidentally calls D525 the Rue de la Mirande.

D525 meets up with D925, which I took north into La Rochette. This road has signs up indicating that the tour was coming through on the 13th, so the road would be closed. In fact, I'm riding the TdF route in reverse, more or less.

La Rochette is a charming but small and, well, slightly run-down village. I had a good time getting lost in its little streets and seeing all the old buildings that may have been built by the Neanderthals, for all I know. But too many shops were closed, and the town didn't seem too lively.

Along D207
Eventually I found my way along to D207, which climbs over this mountain to get to the Maurienne, the valley of the river L'Arc. To be honest, getting there was the only goal; it would be too long a ride to go around to the entrance to the valley further north. That meant that I would climb the first hill that I've actually heard of, the Col du Grand Cucheron. In fact, this would be the only climb on this year's Tour that I would also climb my tour (although I climbed it in the reverse direction).

The road runs through an industrial area, then begins a climb through a generally residential area, and then becomes rural. Along this stretch I started hearing lots of cow bells, in this case actually attached to grazing cows. Musically, it's better to have one good cow bell, played with gusto, rather than many uncoordinated bells.

The first climb marker on the
road to the Col du Grand Cucheron
At about 2500 feet the road flattened considerably and started winding among pretty little villages. But then I saw a climb marker, and everything changed. The marker tells you that you have 3 kilometers to climb, and the next kilometer averages a 9% grade. I knew, at this point, that I still had nearly 300 meters to climb, so the last 3 kilometers were all going to be like that. It was at this point that I really started feeling the 20+ pounds sitting in my bag, not to mention the extra pounds I carry under my skin.

After much huffing and puffing I finally made it to the top, and took the obligatory picture next to the sign. Well, an obliging Frenchman did, at least. The only other ride was taking a... nature break, and I didn't want to bother him. I put on my jacket and headed down.

Almost immediately I had to stop to absorb the view. From the descent, you can see the valley floor and the whole line of unbelievably tall and steep mountains on the other side. It's a fantastic way to enter the valley; it hits you all at once just how lucky you are to be there.

Looking over the Maurienne for the first time, from D207
As a descent, the road is good and I could have gone a lot faster than I did. But that heavy bag was affecting my balance, and besides I hadn't pumped up my tires now for 10 days, so they probably had no more than 60 PSI. And I was in no hurry. I stopped several times to get pictures as the structure of the valley revealed itself.

The river and highway squeezing through
the L'Arc valley
D207 ends in an extended rest stop called Epierre, where the reality of this tight little valley becomes clear. Through the bottom of this V runs a river, a highway, train tracks and a surface road. The surface road is called D1006, and again I thought that since there was a major highway running parallel, that this road wouldn't have much traffic. Wrong again; it had no shoulder, and lots of traffic, again largely respectful, but loud. It's just a lousy cycling road, but I don't see any alternatives. Maybe it's better on the weekends.

I wasn't all that fond of this part of the ride. Not only is the road loud, but it climbs very slightly. Not enough that you notice, but enough to make you wonder why you're going so slowly. So it seems endless.

The bell tower in
My plan was to stop in St-Jean-de-Maurienne, where the 12th stage of this year's Tour de France will start, three days after I passed through. I missed the proper turn into town, and had to backtrack through what turned out to be a gated community. This valley is aluminum country, and very industrial. While I had high hopes for this town in the middle of cycling heaven, hosting a stage start soon, it turns out to be another small town weathering a tough era for heavy industry. Its charms were lost on me. But it was also hot when I got there, so maybe I was just grumpy.

After riding around the main part of town and buying some water, I got back on D1006 and was pleasantly surprised to find a bike path. That helped a lot. Before long I had reached St-Michel-de-Maurienne, at the foot of the Télégraphe climb, which turns out to be much closer to what I was hoping St-Jean-etc would be. I still haven't got the hang of lunch, so I bought a sandwich at the grocery store and sat in the shade next to the first climb marker to eat it. Meanwhile dozens of riders passed up and down the road.

Having eaten, it was time to get moving and begin the long slog up to... well, the middle, really. Most of the riders heading up would climb the Télégraphe, and then follow it with the Galibier. I'm only doing the first one, and will stay overnight between the two climbs in a town called Valloire.

The first climb marker, at the intersection
The road up to Valloire is called D902. The first climb marker is immediately next to the turn from the main road, so the first few kilometers are still climbing through town, on the other side of the river. Eventually you enter the woods, and on this hot day I was happy for any shade I could get.

Somewhere along the way the road runs through the Aire de Pique Nique, with several groups of really nicely made tables on the side of the road. This is where I should have eaten my lunch. Live and learn.
Hairpin on the climb to the Col de Telegraphe

The grade is pretty consistent, but it was late in the day for me, and I was getting run down. I managed to make it to the top, and again got the obligatory picture. At the summit you can see the Maurienne on the one side, and the Valloire valley on the other. Amazing views.

Entering Valloire. The road to the
Col de Galibier continues directly south
After that it was a pleasant descent into Valloire, and the supreme joy of finding my hotel. Strong riders at this point would continue right up the Galibier (and maybe then onward to the Alpe d'Huez), but for me, it was time for a shower and dinner.

Elevation profile
This ride was about 63 miles, with 6000 feet of climbing. On my tour, it was the longest transition ride, and therefore the longest ride I was actually required to make. On the following day, which is today as I write this, I was deciding between a very long ride (over the Col de la Croix de Fer) and a shorter ride (up to La Toussiers - Les Seybelles, the finish of tomorrow's stage). I'm a little worried about tomorrow, dragging my heavy bag up to 8500 feet, so instead I chose a third option: a nap.

Grenoble to Allevard

On Monday I started my French bike tour by riding from Grenoble to Allevard.

View Grenoble to Allevard in a larger map

I had arrived in Grenoble the previous evening, lugging my bike in its box from the plane to the TGV train. As it turns out, that was the right idea; there would have been no place to put a constructed bike on the train, despite the little bicycle logo that appeared on the RailEurope web page. Still no idea what that meant.

Looking west from D1090, north of Grenoble
I unpacked and rebuilt the bike Sunday night. The biggest challenge with packing a bike is that the TSA will unpack it, and repack it with their usual level of competence. In my case, the bike arrived unbroken. I had a bunch of fiddly parts in a sealed plastic bag, and the TSA had left that open. But all the parts were still in the box, so I was OK.

Streets of Grenoble
After a barely-adequate breakfast I hit the streets at about 9:30. Grenoble is a small town by population, but it's pleasantly urban. I didn't have a feel for how traffic worked, but there were lots of bike lanes and lots of bicyclists. In town, all the bicyclists were commuters, on comfy town bikes and without helmets. I wouldn't see another lycra/helmet/road bike goofball like me until I was well out of town. While I was making calculations at every intersection, these commuters would glide gracefully through the town. Eventually I found that just following one of them, whenever possible, was the best idea.

From the map, the D1090 road looked like a good choice to head north up the valley. There's a parallel highway, so I thought it would be pretty quiet. Not so. There was a ton of traffic, but it was always polite. And since it was normally small cars (not SUVs or pickup trucks), there was plenty of room. Nonetheless, when I came across a winding little bike path, I took it.

At some point I decided that I would ride up to Pontcharra, then approach Allevard from the north, taking the long way 'round the hill between the main valley and Allevard. So I got back on D1090 and headed north. When I got to Pontcharra I rode around the whole town twice, trying to find a suitable place for a sweaty rider to get something meaningful to eat. I ended up at the supermarket, buying a packaged sandwich.

The church at St. Maximin
Back on the bike and feeling pretty good, I decided to take the D9 road around the hill, rather than the (apparently) flatter D925. This road climbed steeply at the beginning, then at a moderate grade up to 1800 feet or so. It passed through charming, tiny little villages along the way.

Having rounded the hill, the I descended into Allevard. I didn't know what to expect, having just picked a hotel out of in complete ignorance. The town itself was perfect, with a nice square surrounded by cafes and a suitably imposing church. The hotel was in a very old building, but was fine; the worst part was that I had to wait until 6 PM to check in.
The square in Allevard

Dinner was down the road at Les Trianons, and was spectacularly great.

Elevation profile
This first ride was about 43 miles, with 2200 feet of climbing. I was very slow, both in moving speed and in overall average. The slow moving speed is partly due to the heavy bag I'm carrying, but mostly due to me gawking at all the fantastic sights. Just as planned.