From The Saddle: Sharon Road 06/24/2012
Last week I went back to the races in the Ardennes as a fan. No passes and no privileges, just someone else trying to get a look at the pros, the bikes and to soak up the atmosphere. The ambient story around a race and how it changes from country-to-country is something I was hoping to capture. The more races you attend, a cadence and pattern emerges that seems to be present in all of them no matter where you are, although each will present its own unique personality. Amstel, the Dutch classic, was organized chaos from the start village to the finish. Flèche Wallonne is one of those races that make cycling such a unique sport; how we can get so much access to the stars stuns me. It is the working class race of the Ardennes, the start village sandwiched between a factory and a football stadium. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is ASO getting reading for the Tour. Planned, controlled and everyone kept at arm’s length, at least at the start village. This didn’t seem to stop the riders reaching out to fans, and the course—well that is a whole other story. I pulled a selection of the shots that I got here, but I have enough that I hope to do a book, so that is the plan. Not sure how long it will take, but it is now in the works. More to come on that; in the meantime I would love to hear what you think of the shots.
That bottom right-hand corner of Belgium has a very unique feel, very different to the rest of the country. Let me dispel any myths that Belgium is flat, bar a few bergs. The climbs of the Ardennes are hard enough to test the legs of any of the mountain goats, and the races are long and hard enough to make most race strategies go out the window. In these races, the strongest usually win—they basically wear you down. Their personality carved out of being sandwiched between France, Luxembourg and Belgium has created some not so subtle cycling rivalries. This was demonstrated best when the Nissan/Trek car containing Bruyneel got “bathed” in beer coming up La Redoute, and one drunk young fan removed a nice deep section Bontrager wheel from the roof of the car as a souvenir. Gilbert was born on La Redoute, so the local support is somewhat opinionated, especially about the two brothers from just over the border in Luxembourg.
The weather, not usually a cyclist’s friend in the Ardennes, adds a whole other dimension to riding there. Usually when the drive into a region is marked by a large number of wind turbines, it is a pretty good pointer as to what conditions to expect. This year the low temperatures added to the mix. Standing on La Redoute, the weather was changing so much I started to fear the race would get cut short. We ran into Chris Horner in Brussels airport, on his way back for the Tour of California, who described L-B-L as one of his most epic days on a bike. He abandoned with hands so frozen he couldn’t use his brakes and shifters. Chris Horner is no soft lad. Planning for the weather there is near to impossible. The starts were marked by riders signing on in the sun, then rushing back to the buses to get shells and layers before the neutral rollout. In the space of one 15-minute section at Flèche Wallonne we saw sun – rain – hail – sun. There were numerous stories of riders stranded in the hail too far from team cars on the narrow roads to get shells to cover up, leaving them wet, cold and hungry on some of the hardest parcours in Europe. The site of a cold and bonking Nibali seizing up in the last KMs of L-B-L was hard to watch.
When asked what it was like upon completing his first Catford Hill Climb, one rider exclaimed “It was the best two minutes of suffering all season“. Traditionally held on the first Sunday in October, this uniquely British style hill climb is a chance to close out your season with an adrenaline pumping, gut busting effort, mixed with a little “Alpine” atmosphere to push you along. These time trials shouldn’t be mistaken for the European monument climbs of the Alps, or even the American icons of Mt. Washington or Mt. Evans. They are unique in their length, type of effort, and setting. Run amongst the hedgerows and country lanes of England, often no wider than the width of a car, they usually average out at around 12.5% for about 1km. They are venues to win winter bragging rights amongst the cycling clubs of your region.
It is not too hard to define what type of rider excels at these types of challenges. The effort is explosive, and the type of rider the French would call “Dynamique” has probably got what it takes. An ability to suck up the pain is undoubtedly needed, but then again what type of climbing doesn’t need that. Track riders are often seen taking to the hill on fixed gears (I mean riders who actually ride on the velodrome), and powering their way through. Road riders strip down their bikes, get in the drops, and hold it for as long as they can, often crumpling into their saddles just before the top. To take a tip out of Cancellara’s training regime for the Belgium monuments, no out-of-the-saddle climbing until March is probably a good way to prepare. Power is the key to success.
One of the oldest events in the UK, The Catford Hill Climb has roots right back to 1887, and earns the auspicious title of “The Championship Of All England”. To give you a sense of the effort, it is held on York Hill and is “707 yards” (646m) in length. The average grade is around 12.5%, with a few bursts of 25%. The record for the climb stands at an impressive 1min 47 seconds, and has stood for 19 years. One note of interest, when the ride started back in 1887 the bike weight limit was 35lbs, even back then riders were obsessed about there bike weight. Riders travel in from all over the country and make the trip worthwhile by competing in the “4 climbs” series, stretching over the Saturday and the Sunday. The UK has seen a resurgence in the format over the last few years, with the introduction of the Urban Hill Climb organized by Rollapaluza in London. Unlike New York, London actually has a few pretty decent hills, with Swains Lane in Highgate providing the course. This year they had 120 riders tackle the 800m ascent with a height gain of 71m.
These events have been occupying my thoughts in the last few months as I have been riding around the hills of Litchfield County and the Berkshires, and it made me think why the format hasn’t caught on here, or in Europe for that matter. The region certainly has the hills–Great Hill Road or Geer Mountain Road come to mind. I also think I know enough riders who would throw themselves up a gradient in search of a little glory and maybe a little prize money. So the research starts now for us to host a Fall event next year in the Berkshire hills. The “Suffer between the hedges” hill climb time trial. I will work on the route and find the prizes. You bring your legs, lungs, and the lightest bike you can muster (no weight limits here), and we will take it from there.
There is a quote by Ernest Hemingway that has stuck with me ever since I first heard it over two decades ago. When I first heard it back then I had spent most of my life on the roads of the north and west coast of Ireland, and I was about to start making my first trips to Europe.
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through, as you gain by riding a bicycle. “
A few weeks ago I was back on some of those same west coast roads. We were driving along the N15, when on what I thought then was a hunch, I took a right turn down what looked like what could be at best described as a “Lane”. All in the car turned with looks that said “where the hell are you going?” (apart from my wife who trusts these instincts now). At that point I had no real idea, other than I knew we were pointing towards the sea.
This became a lesson in you never forget the great roads when you have suffered over them on a bike. Those days when you are out clocking miles, and have the time to explore and discover random roads and lanes stay with you in ways that are not always apparent. Roads that when viewed from the saddle reveal things that are disguised when in a car. The Borough Road down to Mullaghmore is one such road.
It is a typical west coast Irish road. Too narrow for two cars, with a variation between high hedges and low stone walls. It has a terrible surface, that surprises you with holes that can break a rim in two. Surrounded by Peat bogs and the Donegal Mountains these types of roads always present you with something special when you reach their end. Just after a left hand split you go up a rise on Castle Road, past Classiebawn, the former castle of Lord Mountbatten. At the top of that rise you are presented with a view (above and below) that even in your subconscious decades later pulls you back to that very spot. A road that I probably did 10 or 20 big gear hills up, and stopped at the top to suck in the Atlantic air and take in the view. I have memories of being in this spot and literally being blown of the road by Atlantic winds. Memories of grinding into a headwind on the flat, in rain that makes your BB creak for a month. Roads like this made me tougher. Here we were back at the same spot on a glorious fall day with it all coming back, and acid in my legs from muscle memory. Hemingway was so right, you learn and remember the contours of a country best when you suffer over them on a bike.
It was the best of days and the worst of days all rolled in to one. I started the 2011 La Marmotte by rolling out of our hotel up on Alp D’Huez at 5.30am on a clear and crisp morning. I was in one of the first waves of riders out of a field of nearly 7000, most of which I was hoping never to see. As it turned out I saw nearly every one of them.
Descending Alp D’Huez is an interesting way to start a day. The wind chill is considerable, and I think I may have chattered a filling out and swallowed it on the way down. On reaching Bourg at the bottom we snaked our way around various barriers and side streets to our start zone, and the waiting began. There was a lot of bike checking-out going on, and debates about who had the biggest veins in their legs (the big fat one at the back of my right knee is a stunner). Eventually there was movement up ahead, and after three failed attempts to clip in I was rolling over the start ramp with someone already bitching in my ear. The warning from our La Fuga crew was a good one, “Beware of men on expensive Italian bikes and wearing white shorts”. Beware indeed.
Clean kit, minus blue latex sealant
The apparently customary 30mph “warm-up” ensued to the bottom of the Barrage at La Fonderie. There were elbows, there was wheel stealing, there was cursing in 6 different languages, but nothing unexpected that you wouldn’t get in a Park race in New York. By the time we got over the two 8% ramps of the Barrage the “White Shorts” with way too much information had burned off the early morning testosterone and things started to settle down. We moved on to the first serious test of the next 108 miles, The Col de Glandon. It is a 23km climb of considerable reputation, and those that had done their research knew to treat it with respect. Pretty much the only sounds around were heavy breathing, the clicking of gears, and the occasional fart, followed by a lot of laughter. All around settled in for a stiff start to the day. Some stopped for the first nature break, standing for an hour in the early morning cold will do that to you. We all wound our way up through the forest to the Isére Savoie at 16km by which point everyone had found their pace and group. I looked up the bends to the summit where we could just see a small line of cars silhouetted on the summit ridge. The sun was out and the arm warmers were pulled down, things were looking good.
One of the 6000 that passed us on the descent of The Glandon
I broke the summit in a shade under two hours and even though I was riding easy, that was quicker than I had expected. I rolled over the top passing the water stop and headed into the first bends of a famously dangerous descent (it was rumored to have been neutralized due to a fatal accident on it last year). My bike felt a bit weird on bend four, it didn’t slow as it should have, even for carbon rims. On bend five the rear end did a strange “snaking” movement under me (I later discovered from the Mavic service guy that was my back rim going “Douce” – soft when I translated it later). Straightening up out of bend five there was a very loud cracking sound, a bit like popping bubble wrap, and then there was no brakes. I wasn’t slowing down, and the bike started to aquaplane at 38mph. Crap! Is what I thought seeing the 38mph on my Garmin, a blind drop-off at bend six was what was in front of me. I wrestled the bike right and away from other riders and into the mountainside verge, hoping that what I could see would be a softer stop than what I couldn’t. After much cursing and grinding of teeth I came to a stop covered in blue latex sealant from my Hutchinson Tubeless tires and a lot of shrubbery from the verge. All in all ok, not really hurt, and blessed from some instinctive bike handling.
On quick inspection it obviously wasn’t just a blow out. My back rim had separated along a carbon seam and the wheel had started to collapse. The separation had then rotated into my back brakes, shredded my pads and locked the wheel up. Race over. I stared up the mountain for a good 15 minutes thinking A) Fuck. B) All that training… and C) How do I get back down, or up from here? I made my way down to the next bend where there was an official and pointed at my back wheel saying “Je suis finis. La voiture balai s’il vous plaît” (In English – I am scuppered mate, let the Broom Wagon know). Ten minutes later the same thing happened to a very tall rider from Belgium on a Focus, well at least I would have company. We sat for 2hrs 35mins on that bloody corner, and watched nearly 6000 riders go by. We also counted 11 blowouts. I had 5 Euros on making it to 15. After what seemed like an eternity a very large coach came slowly down the mountain, closely followed by our La Fuga van. Nick jumped out and shouted something about “We can get you going again! We have wheels, and we can steal these brake pads of that bike”. Was he really suggesting going on? It hadn’t even occurred to me that we might be able to fix this, and I wasn’t feeling particularly motivated at this point. Then Nick said “You didn’t come all this way to go home…” that Nick knows how to press a button. I was back on in 15 minutes and flying down the Glandon with a fellow Irishman who had equally bad luck on the descent. Over 3 hours later we were back in the game. At this point we were the Lantern Rouge.
As we rolled through Saint-Etienne-de-Cuines there were a few surprised looks from the officials as they were shutting down the coarse and starting to take up the time chip readers. We really were last on the road but riding with purpose, to mostly not be the last on the road. The ride along the valley floor to Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne was not much fun. We picked up another rider on the way and the three up us pace lined into a considerable headwind. It was a two-thirds Irish to one-third Danish express. It felt endless, and I was out of water. On hitting the bottom of the Telegraph I left my new friends and stopped at a shop to get water and a coke, otherwise it would have been lights out. Refueled I settled in to a nice pace up the Telegraph and started picking up riders. Some people were really suffering. There was a sniper somewhere in the trees as there seemed to be random bodies and bikes lying on the roadside. I kept my head down and pushed on. I was actually feeling really good and the top of the Telegraph came pretty quickly. Bring on more Coke. It is a beautiful climb and one I wouldn’t mind riding again without the tunnel vision I rode up it with.
I stopped at the food stop before the Galibier and filled my pockets with those little sugary sweets and ate 4 “cakes” that really tasted of nothing. The Galibier beckoned. I was worried about the Galibier. I have ridden it before and know it is brutal, but by this point I was amongst a lot of riders and not feeling so bad for myself. I was still riding with a little bit of anger that made me tackle the first part of the climb maybe a little too fast. Then I made that fatal mistake; I stopped. La Fuga had set up our van and feed station about 5 km from the summit. It felt good to refuel and reassure everyone I was still in there and riding. It also made me smile to see our two mechanics sitting on deck chairs in the hotel bathrobes to protect them from the sun. Getting back on I had lost the drive that got me there. That last section to the summit where the air is thin hurt. Pedaling squares I think is the term. After what seemed like a disproportionately long time for the distance covered I rolled over the top and stopped to layer up, I had beaten a large mental block and was confident of seeing the Alp. Now for one of the longest most beautiful descents you could ever hope to ride.
We benefited greatly from the Tour doing both sides of the Galibier this year, with freshly laid asphalt making riding super smooth. It looked like someone had just rolled a big black carpet down an Alp. It was the nicest surface I have ever ridden on, the Pro’s will eat this up. The descent was over all to quickly and I was at the turn onto the D1091, a road I know really well. This was the fastest part of the ride, straight enough to mostly not have to worry about corners, and a gradient that allowed you to push the big ring with a nice high cadence. Plus, the three Belgium guys made for a nice fast pace line. We were flying, and riding like there was money at the end of this thing.
A couple of the La Fuga crew on the warm up day before La Marmotte
Arriving back in Bourg I was presented with a scene of chaos. People were on their way down after finishing. Some were staring up the road leading to Alp D’Huez with shocked looks on their faces…and others were just getting on with it. The first four ramps and bends are long, steep and brutally mind destroying after nearly a hundred miles. It definitely isn’t the hardest of climbs, but what it lacks in gradient and length, it makes up for in reputation and mind games. Numbering the corners doesn’t help; it is like a very slow count down clock to the acid filling up in your thighs. There is also not a lot of change in the scenery, so dare I say it and hurt the feelings of this icon, it can be a bit boring. This one was really hurting people. I started to recognize riders from the start. The guy on the Parlee with the Light Weight wheels had bailed on corner 15. He looked like he was going no further. Some of the “white shorts” that were sprinting up the Glandon were now lying in the shade of the walls on the corners, cooked. I won’t say the going was easy, but I felt better than I imagined I would at this point, until 7 corners to go. Then I died. I ran out of everything, other than stubbornness. It felt like someone was holding a hand on my forehead. I have never sat on at 7mph before, but that was what was required. Thank you to the guy from Melbourne who’s name I missed, you got me to corner 3. From there the sound of the finish village and the end got me home. There is something about the sound of a voice over an announcement system that can lift your cadence. I even managed a little sprint and bunny hop over the finish line. Done.
My time? I am guessing. Point to point on the chip it put me in the 12 hour range, but that included all my mishaps and waiting on the roadside. A fair guess probably puts me in the 8.30 to 9 hour time zone. Riding with a group I might have been able to take at least another 15 minutes off. Calories were interesting, 7,626 of them, feet of climbing, 16,023. It is truly an epic coarse, and for all those that finished, chapeau! That is quite a notch to put on your seat post. Most importantly thank you Nick from La Fuga for getting me back on. I’m really glad you did.
I just returned from my first trip to Austin Texas, and it is no coincidence that I spent at least one hour of each day I was there in Mellow Johnny’s. It might be one of the best shops I have ever been to. They have the right balance of product, space and coffee (they serve Stumptown our favorite), all rounded out with some of the best and most helpful staff you could hope for. The space is in the old warehouse district and used to be a beer warehouse if I remember right. They have rides pretty much leaving the shop every morning with a mixture of levels. We were lucky enough to have our very own personal Mellow Johnny’s guide in Russell, who may well be the tallest cyclist outside of Holland (he is 6′ 7″ and his custome Land Shark has the largest headtube I have ever seen). He took us out into the Austin farmlands onto the “Flemish Loop” on a damp and hazy moring. Sitting behind Russell on a 25mph wind in your back return leg, is like sitting behind a Vespa motorpacing. There is no wind. Nothing. Just a hole that pulls you along with minimal effort. He is a “Super Dom” of pure quality, who to quote him “loves being second in command“. I wish I could have spent more time there, the riding seems great, plus I met two riders proudly sporting Elcyclista kit. That brought a smile to my face. It is so nice to see the kit out there and meet fellow riders who love design.
Some beautiful work, and a nice idea from Neil at Crayonfire, he set about doing an illustration for each stage of this years Tour. The illustrations tried to capture the personality and geography of each stage, like the sample above for the Saint Gauden stage. Check out the full set here and order then up.
THE NEW PHOTO ESSAY OF THE IZOARD IS HERE »
It is rated a HC climb for a reason, as all the great climbs should be. It is breath taking in its beauty, and the effort it takes to conquer it. The 14km of the climb are the roads that have made legends in our sport. Coppi, Bobet and Thevenet in the glory days of steel. Chiappucci, Van Impe, Botero, and Garzelli in the modern era of lightweight and carbon. It is a very unique place, with a harsh beauty that bakes you in the summer sun and I can only imagine would batter you in a rain storm. The day we climbed it was a blistering 93 degrees. There is no place to hide, no shade, no respite. For the few weeks around when we were in Guillestre the stunning ravine section along the Guil river just out of the village was closed for repaving (apparently there is this race called the “Tour” going through there). Instead we were treated to a steep 5km climb detour that took us up and over the ravine and dropped us down at the Barrage, which marks the start of a steady 10km climb up to the foot of the Izoard. Nobody really mentions the 12km of climbing before the 14km of climbing. That happened a lot on this trip. Just because it might be slightly easier doesn’t mean it is not climbing. It is good to mention these things when trying to convince others to ride HC climbs.
The early part of the climb did make me ask what all the fuss was about? Then again we had been spoiled already on this trip as far as scenery goes. The road after the village of Cervieres is an 8-9% drag strip up the valley into a headwind, and if you are brave enough to raise your head off your front wheel what you will see up above you is the imposing peaks looming over the Casse Deserte. When you get yourself around those hairpins that last corner before the Deserte will do one of two things to you. It is the sort of view that will stop you in your tracks and will make your heart sore, or drop it down right into your cleats. There in front of you will be one of the most desolate beautiful scenes in the Alps, and a perfect view of the last 5km 0f 9-10% of climbing through the iconic Casse Deserte to the summit. You really need to ride the Deserte twice to take it all in. It is like a huge natural amphitheater that has seen some of the greatest showdowns in cycling. They couldn’t have picked a more perfect stage for maybe this years Tour decider. I can’t imagine what this climb would have felt like if I had the Col D’Angel in my legs as well.
A special note for my wife Nina. This was her challenge of the trip, her first HC climb. We couldn’t have picked a harder day with the heat and the headwind. She made it! Did it at her speed and took it all in. Couldn’t have been prouder seeing her crest the summit next to the Coppi monument.