Sunday, July 27, 2008

July 18, 2008 – Alp d’Huez

I awoke realizing that last night concluded my camping and today would be my last day of riding. My emotions were mixed. I was happy to be sleeping in a hotel and giving my weary body a break from the mile after mile of riding. I was sad because my journey across France was winding up, and in my two weeks or travel, I had grown to love the people and the places that I visited each day. I would miss meeting new people, practicing my French and learning new words, eating pain au chocolat, taking photos of the French countryside and riding through quaint villages. My tour de France would be coming to an end soon.

Today, we had a challenging ride ahead – we would climb up Col d'Ornon and then finish our tour up Alp d’Huez. Yet the ride would be short at about 32 miles.

I started early and planned to climb easily up the col so my legs would have some stamina left for Alp d’Huez. I decided that today would be all about riding – not about taking photos along the way. Then the beauty of the alps captured my imagination and I had to stop. Particularly beautiful was a field of poppies. I wasn’t content to just take a picture of the flowers; I set my bike down, scaled down the hill and took a photo of the poppies with the mountain in the background. It was a bit of work – but it was worth the effort! (In hindsight, I never regretted any of the time I spent taking photos. My only regret was the photos I didn’t take.)

The last part of the ascent up Col d’Ornon was quite steep. I was riding with Wes at the time the climb began, who also stopped to take photos of the poppies, and both of us had to stop chatting and focus on climbing. The steep part was only a few miles, and then we stopped for lunch at a bar at the top of the mountain. The top was sunny and many of my biking companions took advantage of the reclining chairs. The bar served food, but I wasn’t ready to eat, so I ordered a Coca Light and relaxed in the mid-day sun.

After our stop, we gathered together for a group photo – all except Ian who was eager to get his climb up l’Alp started.

We descended the col and regrouped at l’Bourg-d’Oisans for lunch. I ate at a pizza place with Drew, Ann, Frank and Luke. I had pasta with butter and parmesan cheese. The rest of my group had pizza. Some had wine and even desert. I marveled wondering how someone could actually drink alcohol and eat rich food prior to a major climb. The others who didn’t eat with us had sandwiches down the road.

This was a village with biking at the forefront. Instead of Christmas decorations, the town was decorated in biking jerseys – most likely honoring the upcoming visit of the Tour de France riders. Once we left l’Bourg-d’Oisans, our climb up Alp d’Huez was only a mile or two away.

On the last big climb up Mount Ventoux, I had needed to stop a few times to complete the climb. That morning at camp, Luke told me, in his high brow English accent, “A proper cyclist wouldn’t put a foot down during the climb. If you do, it doesn’t count.”

Luke hadn’t even attempted the climb up Mount Ventoux with us. (He had said he had completed it before.) So why would it matter what he determined was a proper cyclist? Still, his words stuck in my head, and I was determined to ride up the Alp without stopping.

I had heard that the first part of the climb would be steep for the first few miles. After that, it leveled out some and a rider could recover a bit on the 21 hairpin turns. Still, the climb is 8.5 miles with an average grade of 7.9%.

The first part was steep – and I immediately shifted into granny mode. Surprisingly, it didn’t quite shock my body as the start of Mount Ventoux had done a few days earlier. I wasn’t riding fast, but I was riding steady.

I passed Becky as I first started the climb, and my legs were feeling fairly strong – for a while. Then I started tiring. The combination of more than 700 miles or riding and climbing mountains had chipped away at my fortitude. Shane buzzed by me quite quickly. He was looking strong. Then Duncan and Karen passed me by. I was getting a little discouraged at my slow pace, but then I thought who cares? It’s not a race. My goal is to get to the top without stopping.

Alp d’Huez was part of the Tour de France, and as I ascended, I noticed campers already parked on the side of the road for the tour stage that would be held on July 22 – just four days away. The road was quite busy with traffic – much more busy than Mount Ventoux had been. I also didn’t notice the support I had seen up Ventoux. One woman near a camper actually told me to “quit” – at least I think that’s what she said. She had a thick Dutch accent. Maybe she said quick – but I was far from riding anywhere near quick.

The hairpins did provide relief from the climb. There were also some small villages that I passed through that provided a flat course for a brief while. I looked forward to having a bit of a breather. I also liked counting down the kilometers as the signs showed how many were left to the top. This climb was hard – but it was so much easier than Mount Ventoux.

As I neared the top, a photographer was there to take my photo. He was cheerful, asking me where I was from. That perked me up for my final climb to the top.

When I got to the top, I saw my biking friends sitting outside at a bar right by the bike shop. They gave me a cheer and told me that the finish line was about 20 feet away. I crossed the finish line and circled back to join the group.

I finished in an hour and 22 minutes. I had met my goal and could make the claim of being proper Alp d’Huez cyclist! (My time is not too impressive considering that the record for cycling up Alp d’Huez is 36 minutes, 50 seconds by Marco Pantani in 1997. Lance Armstrong has the second best time in 38 minutes, 1 second when he won his memorable time trial up the alp during the 2001 Tour de France.)

That evening was our big finale. We would have a big dinner and sleep in a hotel! I was lucky. Since I was the single female customer I had a room at Hotel Le Castillan to myself. I felt I was in the lap of luxury. A bathroom with towels, soap and shampoo. A real bed with sheets. Free Internet access. Even a blow dryer – so what that I had to hold the on button down when I dried my hair!

I couldn’t resist taking a bath, and I soaked in the tub for more than an hour. (The bathtub seemed to be much narrower than U.S. tubs.) After my bath, I found an ironing board and iron in the basement of the hotel to press my flowered back and white silk skirt and black shirt. (Learned the word for iron in French is fer à repasser.) Tonight was our dress up night, and I was eager to primp a little after two weeks of biking and camping.

Before dinner, our group was on the deck having a drink. I arrived late, and Luke commented. “Nancy is looking hot.”

I smiled and exaggerated a hip swinging walk. I saw Ian reclining in a chair, and I sauntered over to him, sat on his lap and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. He was a bit caught off guard, I think, but everyone, including him, laughed.

We had a dinner of salad, pasta, veal and bread. The pasta sauce tasted a little like tomato soup, but I was happy to have some carbs this evening.

After dinner, we were invited to go to the town disco. I declined and was the first one to retire to my room. I couldn’t wait to sink into my cozy bed and have a good night’s sleep.

Total miles: approximately 32

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