Sunday, July 27, 2008

July 19, 2008 – On Top of the World!

I slept soundly at Hotel Le Castillan at Alp d'Huez, but I awoke before 8, ready for breakfast, as had been my habit over the past two weeks. A buffet awaited downstairs. I loaded my tray with cereal, fruit, bread, yogurt and a café au lait. My metabolism was still in high gear.

Several of my riding companions were downstairs at breakfast. Four of us decided to take the gondola to the top of the mountain. Aside being a wicked bike climb in summer, Alp D’Huez is a ski resort in winter. The gondolas were open year round.

Wes, John, Luke and I arrived at the gondola and Didier took our tickets. Three mountain bikers joined us in our ride up. There were steep trails down, and they used the gondolas to reach the top of the trails. From high above, we watched some mountain bikers descend. It looked very intense.

We reached the first stop of the gondola and continued on. Then we had to switch gondolas for our final ascent to the top of the mountain – Pic Blanc. It took about a half hour to reach the summit, and when we exited our gondola, we were chilled by the cool air at 10,800 feet (3300 meters).

I had thought the views from the top of Mount Ventoux were panoramic – and they were. The views we were seeing now was the difference between a big screen television and a movie screen. We were high above the world and saw the tops of mountains – hundreds of miles away. A brochure I read said that from the top of Pic Blanc, one could see 20% of France. There was a telescope on the top, and I looked through it to see the white, rocky top of Mount Ventoux.

While the air was cool, the sun warmed us. We walked around and used such trite adjectives as “amazing” and “beautiful” and “spectacular.” Words failed to capture the majesty of the view from the top. For me, it was a special moment. We had ridden across France – through the vineyards, river valleys, lush fields of Provence, the cols and the Alps. Now we were on top of the world. That’s how I felt about the views and the journey.

After our visit to Pic Blanc, it was time to wish four of our comrades farewell. Wes, Ian, Luke and Shane would be staying on with the Wide Open Road tour to spend time riding in the Alps and to see the Tour de France. Becky, John, Duncan, Karen and I would be taking a bus to Grenoble for travel the next day.

Our bus left after 5, and it was late. We waited in the heat outside the bus station. Finally, the bus arrived about 20 minutes late. We gave the driver our tickets and headed down the mountain and 21-hairpin turns that we had climbed up the day before.

My goal was to take photos on the way down so I could capture some of the steep roads that I hadn’t taken photos of the day before. I was seated on the right side of the bus, and the first turn was on the left side of the bus. I went over to the next seat and snapped a few photos.

Meanwhile, my water bottle had fallen off my seat and rolled to the seat in front of me. The man sitting there, picked it up. He was an intense looking man with shaved hair except for a bit of hair in the front that was rolled up.

“Great. That’s what I wanted,” he said in English with a French accent.

I moved back over to my seat.

“Can I have my water bottle?” I asked.

“No. I’m going to keep it as a souvenir,” he said in a firm voice.

I really did want my water bottle back – but I was getting nowhere with this conversation. I was starting to feel sick from the bus ride as the driver was taking the turns fairly fast.

“I really need it – pour mon velo [for my bike],” I said.

“Too bad. It’s mine now,” he said.

“Would you autograph it for me?” he asked.

Seeing my opportunity to get the bottle back I said, “Yes!”

“No, you won’t give it back,” he said.

Finally, he smiled and said, I’ll give you your water bottle back.

His name was Robert, he told me. I introduced myself. He talked to me and John (who was sitting behind me on the left side of the bus with his wife Becky).

He had been at Alp d’Huez doing some military training. Originally Swiss, he was now a French citizen and was in the French ski patrol in intelligence. He was formerly part of the French Foreign Legion. (This is starting to sound made up now, I realize, but it is true!)

Robert and I talked about the people in France. He thought they were rude and snooty. I told him my experience sharply contradicted his.

“That’s because you are so gorgeous,” he said. "Who wouldn't want to talk to you!"
I smiled - caught a little off-guard with his compliment.

He asked me where I was from and where I worked. It was unusual to have someone ask so many detailed questions, and so I kept my answers nonspecific. He was in intelligence afterall.

“Can I have your email address?” he asked.

“Why don’t you give me yours,” I answered.

Every time I tell this story, people ask – are you going to email him? My answer – I doubt it. Some random guy on a random bus who lives in France – what is the point?

We arrived in Grenoble in less than an hour. We said goodbye to Robert who was catching the train to Geneva. (John later said he thought that Robert had “taken a fancy” to me. I love the English expressions!) The five of us headed toward the hotel. I could tell immediately that this hotel was not as nice as our hotel the night before.

Later, we met for dinner and ate at an Italian restaurant. The food was good – I had pasta with truffles (a special kind of mushrooms).

After dinner, we retired to our rooms. The temperature was sweltering. Grenoble is in a valley and the mountains surrounding it seemed to keep the heat and air stagnant that evening. I was hot, and opened my window as there was no air conditioning. I slept without clothes, trying to cool off. All night, I heard the screeching sound of trains from the depot across the street and the sounds of noisy people partying. I had tired of camping, but that was heaven compared to this stifling hot room. Give me the fresh air, cooing of the doves and the snoring of my neighbors any night.

No comments: