Saturday, August 2, 2014

Lessons Learned on my 2014 French Cycling Tour

Having returned from my second tour of the French Alps, it's a good time to reflect on what went well and what could have been better.

An elevation profile of the entire trip.

The Bike

For this trip I rented a bike from I was of course worried that it wouldn't show up, in which case my plan B was to rush out somewhere in Lyon and buy a bike, then hope to sell that bike for whatever I could get at the end of the trip. I was also worried that the bike might show up late in the day, making the first long ride to Grenoble rushed and awkward.

My ride, a Giant Defy 1, was waiting for
me at the hotel.
In the event, neither happened. In fact, while I was checking into my hotel one of the clerks heard my name and said "I think we have a bike for you." What a relief. And honestly, what service from both Cyclomundo and the hotel, the Hotel Novotel Lyon Confluence.

The bike was a Giant Defy 1. Cyclomundo also provided a bag of goodies like a helmet, a lock, flat pedals, some tools, a water bottle, tubes and a small pump. That was mostly superfluous for me, but I did end up using their pump instead of the one I brought, as theirs was slightly more compact.

The Giant was actually Cyclomundo's lower-end bike. I chose it because it had an aluminum frame, and thus seemed more likely to accommodate my rack. That worked fine, in part because I brought along a seat tube clamp with rack mounts. The frame also had mount points on the stays, so it would probably have worked either way. I brought my own pedals, as one must, and in retrospect I might have been slightly more comfortable had I also brought my own saddle.

The bike was in good shape, although the brakes were quite worn. I would later come to find out that while they looked good, the wheels carried a layer of fine dust (brake dust?) that left me a mess after repairing flats. But that's certainly understandable.

When I left the hotel I left a bag containing all the extra Cyclomundo stuff, and also the few things I brought that I wouldn't need on the trip. I suspect this is something that all hotels are willing to do, but nonetheless I was grateful. It was especially convenient for me because I was returning to this same hotel. That was very helpful, and not something I had really been thinking about when planning the trip.

At the end of the trip I just left the bike at the hotel's front desk. I imagine that Cyclomundo picked it up later. I never even saw anyone from Cyclomundo in person.

The two-week rental, plus a fee for delivering the bike to Lyon, came to less than $500. That's much less than the fees I paid in 2012 for bringing my bike on the plane. That year I also had to make disposable cardboard bike boxes on both sides of the trip, which would not have been feasible this time, so a bike bag would have been an additional expense. Meanwhile, it was incredibly freeing not to have to lug a bike bag through the airport and find transport to/from Lyon that could accommodate such a large package.

Some people are very picky about their equipment, or have an unnatural attachment to their particular bike. For them, renting a bike would be uncomfortable. I'm not like that. You shouldn't be, either.

I was surprised that anyone had a road bike to rent in July in the Alps, and I'm surprised the experience went as well as it did. But given all that I think renting was the vastly superior way to go.

The Flights

In 2012 I traveled to and from Paris, taking the train down to Grenoble to start the trip. This time I flew to and from Lyon, which of course meant that I flew through Paris and connected.

I made these plans, and indeed the reservations, before I knew whether I would rent a bike or bring my own. Consequently I needed to be able to ride from wherever I landed. I also left plenty of time between flights in Paris, to clear customs with potentially bulky baggage.

That plan was fine, and I got to see Lyon. But while I can look back fondly on the rides to and from Lyon, they were long and not especially eventful. In retrospect flying via Geneva might have been a better idea; closer to interesting terrain and the lovely Annecy. But armed with the knowledge that I would be renting a bike, flying into Paris and taking the train to Grenoble, as I did in 2012, might have been the best bet.

The Route

After the 2012 trip I felt like I had been too cautious in my planning. I averaged about 40 miles and 4500 feet of climbing per day, and had a couple of built-in rest days. This time I felt like I did better, but having said that I averaged 52 miles and 4700 feet of climbing per day -- basically the same. The main difference was just that this tour was longer, and had only one rest day, reluctantly taken due to semi-broken bike.

At the end of every day's ride, I felt tired but not really drained or worn out. I suspect dehydration really wears me out, so the cold and rainy beginning of the tour probably helped. I could certainly have gone further any particular day, but most days I was able to watch the last part of the Tour de France stage on television, and I was always recovered in time for the next day's ride.

The Romanche and Isere valleys (i.e. the valleys of Bourg d'Oisans and Moutiers, respectively) were both beautiful and pleasant. The valley of the Arc (the Maurienne, home of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne) is beautiful too, but also very industrial and heavy with traffic. In the future I'll keep that in mind as I plan where to pass through, and where to linger.

The Hotels

Hotel rooms in France are inexpensive, in my experience. I stayed in nine different hotels, of varying size and quality, and in all cases the prices were probably half of what I would have paid for similar rooms in the U.S. For me, far along in years and less price conscious than I once was, it meant that I could choose highly rated places, enjoying the pampering with still-reasonable prices. I used to make my reservations, well in advance, and none were lost or confused.

Twice I went without dinner. Once was in Briançon, because the hotel had no restaurant, there were no good restaurants nearby, and I was tired and lazy. I had plenty of options there, and going without dinner won out. The other time was in Tournon, because the hotel had no restaurant, and there were no viable alternatives. That was bad planning; I knew that the hotel was isolated, so I should have paid more attention when I booked it. In any case I should have stopped at a store earlier on that Sunday to stock up on plan B food. Lesson learned.

Packing and unpacking every night can get tiresome, so occasionally staying more than one night is helpful. It also means that you don't have to carry all your stuff on the bike, which helps.

I stayed mostly in small family-owned places, but also a few major chain hotels. The chain hotels on the whole tended to be quieter -- no squeaky floors, for example. As a rule they have more modern facilities and services, like hair dryers (which for me were sock dryers), laundry services (which I never used but should have), and even swimming pools. All the places had good showers and televisions, for some reason. The family-owned places can be charming, but you must be mentally prepared for compromises. That was fine for me, traveling alone. Ensuring that you at least occasionally find yourself in a full-service hotel can be enough to get the chores done.

The Clothes

I brought two sets of riding clothes -- bib shorts, jersey and socks. That worked fine for the plastic clothes, but the socks rarely got properly dry. By the end of the trip they were getting funky.

This time I brought specially-purchased off bike clothes. The dark golf pants were lightweight, looked OK, and packed tight. The one button-down shirt held up pretty well despite not being washed for two weeks. That took some discipline: I wore it only to dinner, always with an undershirt, and never in the warm part of the day. Unlike 2012 I also brought some non-cycling short pants, which were very welcome for walking around town.

As it turned out, I was ill prepared for the cold, wet weather, and had to buy lots of stuff along the way. I suppose that was an acceptable gamble. I now have extra sporty jackets that I'm unlikely to need. At least they were reasonably priced.

The Gear

For this trip I brought even more gadgets than I had the last time. I brought the same netbook computer as I had in 2012, which again seemed necessary but may not have been. It allowed me to offload photographs and videos every night, but extra SD cards would have served the same role. I liked having it, and I used it to record notes about the rides, but it wasn't essential.

This time I brought a GoPro camera. Yeah, I was one of those guys. I wouldn't do it again. I took movies of several descents, and while they are technically great (the movies, not the descents), even I can barely tolerate watching them. I also used the GoPro to snap a short sequences of photos. I've posted a couple of them here, but I took hundreds, and virtually none are worth a second glance. Ultimately I think the GoPro is better for documentation than photography. It's almost always better to just stop, take out a decent camera, and frame a proper scene.

My "decent camera" was a Nikon Coolpix S6500. It's compact, I'll give it that, and it has a good optical zoom for such a small camera. It's software is slightly flaky, such that it occasionally took a while to start and several times took much-too-dark photos. In the sunlight, with polarized sunglasses, it's hard to notice that problem and re-take the shot. I think I still like the photos taken by my old Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3 better.

I used a program called GPSCorrelate to assign locations to the photos taken by the Nikon and GoPro, by correlating the timestamps of the photos with a GPX track produced by my Garmin 500. It worked quite well.

I bought a small flexible tripod so I could set up the camera for timed photos. That worked well, and would have been more useful had the weather allowed more photography in general.

On the 2012 trip I had an iPhone, and now I carry a Nexus 5. I like the new phone better overall, but its battery use is much worse and it only has 16 GB of storage. So this time I did something really smart: I brought my daughter's old, obsolete 5th generation iPod Nano for listening to my audiobook while I rode. That spared the phone battery, and the iPod had plenty of space for all my music and even a few videos, too. In at least one case I could use the television to watch the videos on the iPod; had I thought of that earlier I would have loaded more video. The iPod is also very small and practically weightless.

Using the iPod meant that the phone was only used for occasional photos and for looking at the map on OsmAnd+. At the end of each day the phone battery was always perilously low, but it never quite ran out.

I had five devices -- two cameras, the iPod, the phone and a Garmin 500 computer -- that all used USB cables. One day I had lost the power adapter for my netbook, which was doubling as my only "wall wart". On that day, I was able to recharge everything by plugging them into the television. Yay, standards. But those devices had four different USB connectors and thus required four different cables. Boo, "standards".

I used the same Topeak MTX bag as last time. I make heavy use of this bag, and I don't think they make it anymore. The similar bag they sell now seems too small to hold a laptop, which I did on this trip but more importantly I need to do on my usual commute. I'm not sure what I'll do when this one finally falls apart.

One of the handiest things I brought was a small assortment of velcro bands. They are light, pack in any space, and I used them for everything -- they made packing bulky clothes feasible, and I even used them as a belt.

The Preparation

In 2012 I took the time to put in some serious miles before my trip. This year I was much busier at work, so my training consisted almost entirely of my commute. Over the winter that was just a straight ride home, but gradually it expanded to include a trip up Mt. Eden, Pierce and Kennedy roads, and then later substituting Redwood Gulch for the first two climbs. That was almost every night, but less than 30 miles and less than 2000 feet of climbing, at the most.

Realizing that I wasn't going to be able to put in the miles, I resolved to lose some weight, starting appropriately enough on January 1st. For the first time in my life, I regularly weighed myself and tracked the results. That worked better than I expected. Just before I left I weighed myself, fully dressed and carrying all my gear (even the stuff I would leave at the hotel), and the total was less than I weighed in 2012. I suspect that helped a lot.

The Conclusion

Everything worked suspiciously well. Not having a support vehicle, I feel like I have to plan a little more; my natural inclination would be to improvise. But having said that, the planning worked quite well.

I love riding on these famous climbs, but honestly I think riding around less-familiar (to me) parts of the San Francisco mountains or the Sierra Nevadas (the ones here in California) might be similarly gratifying, and a lot less hassle. I might try a more-local tour next time. We'll see.

No comments:

Post a Comment