There and Back Again

There and Back Again

Day#3  L’Alpe d’Huez

Total Distance:                                25 km / 16 miles with 1,033 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                         1 hours 50 minutes

Average Speed:                                13.6 km/h

Group size:                                         3

Temperature:                                    31°C

Weather in a word or two:           Hotter


 

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The Ride


I awoke rather groggily to find someone had broken in during the night and filled my legs full of concrete and it took me a while to get moving. When I did, I found Crazy Legs busily flitting around and dressed to ride.

“Whassup?”

“I’m going to ride up the Alpe.”

I needed to ride to try and rediscover where my legs were.

“Wait, I’m coming.”

“How long do you need?”

“15 minutes.”

“Ok.”

As we reached agreement, Captain Black emerged, blinking and yawning. Rest had obviously done him good and Twatty MacTwat Face had reverted back to being Old Faithful. I told him the plan and he hauled his ass into gear too – 3 for the Alpe!

It wasn’t much longer than 15 minutes later and we turned right out of the campsite, pushed the pedals around half a dozen times and found ourselves once again on the first ramp up the mountain to L’Alpe d’Huez.

I took the first couple of hairpins out of the saddle and turning a modestly large gear, until feeling returned to my lower extremities and the stiffness stated to dissipate. I then dropped onto the granny ring, and plonked myself down to spin slowly upwards.

Behind me Captain Black got half way round the first hairpin and was shocked to find just how hard it was. Just before he turned round to head back, thinking he obviously hadn’t recovered from the day before, he finally looked down and realised he was still on the big ring. There was a sudden, resounding, clunking, wince-inducing clang of stressed and tortured metal that reverberated around the mountains, as he changed down under intense pressure and finally found instant relief and his climbing form.

The three of us worked our way slowly up the mountain, pausing frequently at various shady vista’s and viewpoints, picking out the past winners signs on the corners, taking photos and chatting with other cyclists.

The signs were a roll-call, highlighting some of cycling’s great and good (and occasionally villainous) – both past and present, ranging from the imperious, il campionissimo, Fausto Coppi in 1952, right up to Thibaut Pinot in 2015.

I found signs commemorating wins by Bernard Hinaut, Gianni Bugno, Stephen Rooks, Frank Schleck, Pierre Rolland, Carlos Sastre, Andy Hampsten and Hennie Kuiper among the more famous and celebrated of the winners.

Lance Armstrong’s name is still up there (twice) despite having his Tour victories annulled, along with two for the equally dubious and questionable Marco Pantani, who still holds the record for the fastest ascent of the mountain in an astonishing – no doubt rocket-fuelled, but still astonishing time of under 38 minutes.

I have to admit though, that even taking time to hunt them out and read the signs, I still missed one or two, including Joop Zoetemelk’s 1976 sign which I’d vowed to desecrate in honour of Lucien Van Impe. (Only kidding, nice Dutch folk!)

As previously mentioned, I found the signs totally underwhelming – so much so that I didn’t even bother photographing any of them – but here’s one I prepared earlier (or pinched from the Internet anyway).


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As we were making our way around one hairpin, our bête noire from Saturday made a reappearance, as a bumbling Harley Davidson blatted loudly up the road and awkwardly around the bend, leaving a trail of greasy exhaust fumes in its wake.

“Your bike’s shit!” an indignant Crazy Legs shouted after the motorcycle, unfortunately just as another rider pulled up alongside him. This rider gave him a long, quizzical look before deciding he was in the presence of a sun-touched Englishman and he didn’t need to defend the honour of his Cannondale SuperSix. Just to be sure, he accelerated smartly away to avoid further insult to his bike and Crazy Legs can at least take a little credit for spurring one rider on to set a good time.

At the village of La Grade we stopped in a welcome patch of shade, where an elderly rider and his support-vehicle-driving wife were sitting enjoying the views. Our talk turned to decomposition rates as Captain Black enjoyed a belated breakfast banana and Crazy Legs described in intimate detail how the discarded skins turned black, slimy and wizened along the way. “Speaking of black, slimy and wizened,” he declared, starting to reach down the front of his shorts, “My knackers could do with a bit of relief.”

“Hey, nice day, isn’t it?” the support-vehicle-driving wife drawled, stepping in with a nice bit of deflection.

“Oh, hello,” Crazy Legs responded, quickly withdrawing his probing digits and thinking fast, “I thought you were Dutch …”

It turned out they were American, from California, on holiday so the husband could enjoy a second-crack at riding the Alps. We then had a brief chat which concluded rather awkwardly when the wife offered sympathy over the “terrible, tragic things” in the UK and we had to ask whether she meant the terror attacks, the Grenfell Tower fire, or being lumbered with lame-duck, Prime Minister who would sell her own mother cling to power.

She meant the tower fire, which is obviously a cataclysmic tragedy, but not something we were ever likely to be personally invested in and it seemed an odd, discordant thing to bring up with total strangers on a bright sunny day, half-way up a mountain in France.

We kept going and stopped again at what we think was Dutch Corner, afforded the opportunity to look down and appreciate how far we’d climbed, the vista opening out to show the road below, twisting and turning sinuously through multiple hairpins as it snaked up the mountain. Crazy Legs recalled watching the Dauphine from this vantage point in 2010 as a rampant Alberto Contador made multiple impressive attacks before breaking clear to win the stage.


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Reg in repose © Clive Rae

As we pushed on the other two slowly drew ahead and I was happy to trundle along at my own pace, slowing down and swinging right across the road to peer myopically at the signs on the hairpins and try to pick out past Tour stage winners.

More snaps from the photographers, the long drag upwards, a sarcastic slow-hand clap from the inflatable King of the Mountains and I was across the finish line and taking a seat next to Crazy Legs and Captain Black in the same café we’d stopped at the first time up the Alpe. Captain Black won the race to first beer of the day.


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© Griffe Photos

And then we spaced ourselves well out for the fun of the descent. It was to be this, more than anything, which gave me an appreciation of just how big a task cycling up a mountain actually is – it took almost 15 minutes to whirr down to the bottom and every hairpin I thought was the last one was followed by another and then another. Looking back around the corners was also the first time I appreciated just how steep some of the ramps actually were, it’s not something you get a good impression of while struggling up them.


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Captain Black assures me that tiny speck in the road is me descending the Alpe © Anthony Jackson

And then, sadly it was over, we were done and back at the campsite and climbing off for the last time.

By this time my legs no longer felt like concrete, maybe more like hard cheese – a Cheshire or a Red Leicester perhaps. Either way an improvement of sorts. We broke the bikes down and packed them up, then picked up Steadfast and wondered into town for a few drinks and a late lunch.

The patron of the bar was apparently quite upset she couldn’t offer us any food, “Je suis desole!” but we were happy with baguettes and cornets des frites to accompany the beer. The Hammer joined us, fresh from a ride up to Allemont and then finally Goose appeared after a day alternatively spent walking and lazing by the pool. A few beers and we wandered up to the Dutch restaurant for the last supper.

All this time we talked an unending stream of nonsense (as usual): how Pierre Latour somehow acquired the name Roger, the immorality of any sport that needs judges to decide a winner, Tyneside legend Dave the Dwarf, once spotted drinking in the incongruous company of towering Scottish lock forward Doddie Weir. This led to an attempt to calculate how many dwarves you could reasonably expect in China’s 1.4 billion population and serious concerns about where all the Chinese dwarves are hiding.

We learned that Goose had been inspired by tales of a granny who was arrested for pointing a hairdryer at speeding cars in her village during a (seemingly hugely successful) attempt to get them to slow down. He revealed he had then taken this as inspiration for his own brand of traffic vigilantism, patrolling the streets around his home and leaping unexpectedly out at any motorist he suspects of speeding, arm raised, hand out while intoning a very simple, authoritative and stentorian: “No!”

We managed to calculate bills and work out a way where no one (hopefully) felt out of pocket and discussed doing something similar next year, or the following, although Crazy Legs declared he’s more or less done with the Alps, so we thought up a few alternatives such as Spain – the Pyrenees or Basque region, Tuscany, or perhaps, radically even somewhere flat like the Netherlands.

And then we wandered back, packed and slept, woke and showered, loaded the van, endured an unfriendly chalet inspection, settled our bills, waved off the Hammer and set out for home.

Swiss custom officials were strangely no happier to see us go than they had been to see us arrive and Heathrow customs officials managed to outdo them in terms of inertia, apathy and glowering disaffection.

We bade “bon voyage” to Steadfast, returning to his home along the south coast and the Goose wandered off in search of the best deals he could find on Toblerone. While we waited for our connecting flight, Captain Black stood us a round of coffee’s and had to double-check the price several times before he realised he wasn’t in Geneva airport and didn’t need to take out a second mortgage to pay for them.

The “barista” asked for his name and he momentarily confused me by saying Ant rather than Captain Black, or just the Captain. He obviously confused the barista even more as the coffee’s arrived with “Hans” carefully scribed on every cup.


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©Anthony Jackson

“Oh no,” I suggested to Crazy Legs, “That makes you Knees and me Boomps-a-Daisy.”

We then sat around discussing the worlds woes and how to correct them, until Crazy Legs looked at the flight board and realised our gate was closing in 10 minutes and we were in real danger of being left behind!

A quick, power-walk through the terminal had us tagging onto the very back of the queue, before clambering aboard our connecting flight to Newcastle and home.

At the other end we kept an intent and anxious watch on the baggage carousel, waiting for the arrival of bike bags and boxes and getting a little concerned as time dragged on, the crowd started to thin and the conveyor belt slowly emptied. Then Goose took a step backwards and fell over our bikes which the ninja baggage handlers had delivered by hand and stealthily dropped off right behind us.

Home, safe and sound and largely intact.

So, two days of travelling, Thursday 15th June and Monday 19th June bookended 3 days of riding, the Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Over the three days we were out on the bikes for 22½ hours, rode 251 kilometres or 156 miles in around 14 hours with almost 6,900 metres of climbing including, L’Alpe d’Huez (twice), the Sarenne, Lauterat, Glandon, Croix de Fer, Télégraph and mighty Galibier.

BA Flights form Newcastle to Geneva via Heathrow cost £160 each.

Budget Car van hire, plus fuel was £478.24, or £95.65 per person (5 people)

Two chalets at the Cascades Campsite, Bourg d’Oisans, cost £698.41, or £116.40 per person (6 people)

The total cost for my trip was around £372, plus meals, food and drinks.

Having been back a couple of weeks now, I can honestly say if someone offered me the exact same trip, with the exact same rides (even including all the pain and misery of the Circle of Death) I wouldn’t hesitate and I’d sign up immediately.


YTD Totals: 3,844 km / 2,304 miles with 46,068 metres of climbing

 

Van Impudence!


An ode to grace …

So, there I was, awkwardly adrift in the cultural hellhole that was the early ‘70’s on Tyneside and entranced by an exotic sport held mainly in distant countries and with no media support to fuel a burgeoning fascination. In a time long before even World of Sport began their token showing of less than 1% of the world’s greatest, most gruelling, sporting extravaganza, the Tour de France, options for following races were as limited as your chances of buying a white Model T Ford.

The only Tour updates in those days were an occasional list of stage winners and, if we were very lucky, an updated top 10 GC, all hidden within the dreaded “Other Results” buried in the back pages of the Sports section of daily newspapers and usually secreted under all the football stuff that had already been reported elsewhere.

The cycling results were so small and so barely legible that they would have given actual small-print a bad name, and corporate lawyers a hard-on that could last for weeks.

Beyond these barest, most perfunctory of details, we restlessly devoured stage reports in Cycling (this was so long ago that it was even before the profound and dynamic name change to “Cycling Weekly”) to try and get a feel for the drama and the ebb and flow of the ongoing battle, but what came through was a generally disjointed and less than the sum of its parts.

For the young cycling neophyte the biggest treasures were a series of books published by the Kennedy Brothers following the narrative of each Grand Tour, imaginatively titled “Tour ’77” or “Giro ‘73” (you get the picture).

Although published weeks after the publicity caravans had packed away their tat and as the gladiatorial names garishly graffiti’d on the roads slowly began to fade, these books told a compelling narrative of the race, from the first to last pedal stroke, replete with some stunning high quality photos.

Opening the crackling white pages you could inhale deeply and almost catch a faint whiff of the sunflowers, Orangina and embrocation, as you were instantly transported to the side of the road to watch the peloton whirring by.


 

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It’s in one of these Tour books that I first stumbled across a full-page photo of a boyish, fresh-faced young man, posed with some faceless fat functionary to receive a completely bizarre gazelle-head plaque. This may have been a prize for winning a stage, or the mountains classification, having the most doe –like eyes in the peloton, successfully passing through puberty, or something like that.


 

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What struck me most though was that this hardened, elite, professional athlete didn’t look all that different from me – he wasn’t all that tall, very slight of build and looked so young – creating the impression of an instant underdog.

I would also later learned that under the jauntily perched cap was a head that would be subjected to some criminally bad hair moments too – instant empathy, although I never sank quite as low as having a perm.

It was hard to believe this rider was capable of comfortably mixing it up with the big, surly men of the peloton, with their hulking frames, chiselled legs, granite faces and full effusions of facial hair. Not only that, but when the road bent upwards he would fly and leave everyone grovelling helplessly in his wake.

The young man is Lucien Van Impe and the accompanying chapter of the book is titled Van Impudence, and relates in detail how he defied the hulking brutes of the peloton and their supreme leader King Ted, to wreak his own brand of cycling havoc in the mountains.

It was here that began my long-standing love affair with the grimpeurs, the pure climbers of the cycling world, those who want to defy gravity and try to prove Newton was a dunce.


 

Cyclisme : Tour de France - Alpe D Huez - 1976
An Astaire-like glide

Watch any YouTube videos of the time and you’ll see the big men of the Tour grinding horribly uphill, their whole bodies contorted as they attempt to turn over massive gears and physically wrestle the slopes into submission.

Merckx, indisputably the greatest cyclist of all time is probably the worst offender, and looks like he’s trying to re-align his top tube by brute strength alone,  while simultaneously starring in a slow-motion film of someone enduring a course of severe electro-shock therapy.

Then look at Van Impe, at the cadence he’s riding at, the effortless style and how he flows up the gradients. Woah.

His one-time Directeur Sportif, and by no means his greatest fan, Cyrille Guimard would say, “You had to see him on a bike when the road started to rise. It was marvellous to see, he was royally efficient. He had everything: the physique, fluidity, an easy and powerful pedalling style.”


 

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A decent time trialist on his day, this is Van Impe during the 1976 Tour ITT – in yellow and on his way to overall victory

In his book, Alpe d’Huez: The Story of Pro Cycling’s Greatest Climb, Peter Cossins writes that, “Van Impe’s style is effortless and majestic. Watching him, one can’t help but think that riding up mountains is the easiest thing in the world. His is no heavy-footed stomp, but an Astaire-like glide.”

Many cycling fans prefer the rouleurs and barradeurs, the big framed, hard-men, the grinders who churn massive gears with their endless, merciless attacks, dare-devil descending and never-say-die attitudes.


 

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Van Impe wears the green jersey of the Giro’s best climber with much more aplomb than the highly suspect perm

Others seem to like the controllers who grind their way to victory, eating up and spitting out mile after mile of road at a relentless, contained pace, regardless of whether they’re riding a time-trial, a mountain stage or across a pan flat parcours.

For me though pure poetry lies in those slight, mercurial riders, who would suddenly be transformed – given wings and the ability to dance away from the opposition when the road tilts unremittingly skyward.

Even more appealing, they’re all just a little skewed and a bit flaky, wired a little bit differently to everyone else or, as one of my friends would say, “as daft as a ship’s cat”. The best can even be a little bit useless and almost a liability when the roads are flat, or heaven forbid dip down through long, technical descents.

The power of the Internet and YouTube in particular has even let me rediscover some of the great climbers from before my time, the idols who inspired Van Impe, such as Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes.


 

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Gaul and Bahamontes

This pair, the “Angel of the Mountains” and “Eagle of Toldeo” respectively, both had that little bit of extra “climber flakiness” to set them apart. Bahamontes was terrified of descending on his own and was known to sit and eat ice-cream at the top of mountains while waiting for other riders so he had company on the way down.

Gaul’s demons were a little darker, once threatening to knife Bobet for a perceived slight and for a long period in his later life he became a recluse, living in a shack in the woods and wearing the same clothes day after day.

As Jacques Goddet, the Tour de France director observed, Van Impe also had “a touch of devilry that contained a strong dose of tactical intelligence” and was referred to as “l’ouistiti des cimes” – the oddball of the summits in certain sections of the French press.

Goddet went on to describe the climber as possessing “angelic features, always smiling, always amiable,” and yet Van Impe was known to be notoriously stubborn and difficult to manage, requiring careful handling, constant reassurance and a close coterie of attendants who would cater to his every whim away from the bike.

Cyrille Guimard, who coached, cajoled, goaded and drove Van Impe to his greatest achievement, Tour de France victory in 1976, described him as “every directeur sportif’s nightmare.”


 

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Van Impe doing what he does best

While I’ve enjoyed watching and following many good and some great riders, it’s always the climbers who’ve captivated me the most, although just being a good climber doesn’t seem to be enough. In fact it’s quite difficult to define the exact qualities that I appreciate – Marco Pantani and Claudio Chiapucci never “had it” and nor does current fan favourite and, ahem, “world’s best climber” the stone-faced Nairo Quintana.

There has to be a little something else, some quirk or spark of humanity that I can identify with and that sets the rider apart and makes them a joy to watch and follow. Of today’s climbers I’m most hopeful for Romain Bardet – he seems to have character, style and a rare intelligence, but only time will tell if he blossoms into a truly great grimpeur.


 

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“Always smiling, always amiable”

From the past, our very own Robert Millar of course was up there with the best (although my esteem may be coloured by intense nationalism). Andy Hampsten, on a good day, was another I liked to watch and, for a time the young Contador, when he seemed fresh and different and believable.

Still, none have come close to supplanting Van Impe in my estimation and esteem. He would go on to win the Tour in 1976 and perhaps “coulda/shoulda” won the following year, if not for being knocked off his bike by a car while attacking alone on L’Alpe D’Huez. See, that sort of shit happened even back in the “good, old days.”

By the time Van Impe’s career was finally over (including a retirement and comeback) he’d claimed the Tour de France King of the Mountains jersey on a record 6 separate occasions (matching his hero Bahamontes) and a feat that has never been bettered. (Fuck you Richard Virenque and your performance enhanced KoM sniping, I refuse to acknowledge your drug enabled “achievements”).


 

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On the attack, in the jersey he became synonymous with

In contrast, both during and after his professional career, Van Impe never tested positive, never refused a doping test and has never been implicated in any form of doping controversy – he’s either incredibly, astonishingly lucky, clever and cunning, or the closest thing you’ll ever get to the definition of a clean rider.

So, if you follow the Kitty Kelley premise that “a hero is someone we can admire without apology,” then Van Impe resolutely ticks all the boxes for me.

During his career he also managed to pick up awards for the most likeable person in the peloton and the Internet is replete with video and images of him as a good-natured and willing participant in some weirdly bizarre stunts, such as his spoof hour record attempt – proof he was an all-round good guy who never seemed to take himself too seriously.


 

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In this bizarre and apparently hilarious (if you speak Flemish) YouTube clip, Van Impe is seen challenging Moser’s Hour record

In all Van Impe completed an incredible 15 Tour’s, never abandoning and was an active participant and presence in all of them.

He won the race in 1976 and was 2nd once and 3rd on three separate occasions, finishing in the Top 5 eight times. Along the way he won 9 individual stages and achieved all this while riding for a succession of chronically weak teams and competing when two dominant giants of the sport, Merckx and Hinault, were in their pomp.

Van Impe was also 2nd overall in the Giro, winning one stage and two mountains classifications on a couple of rare forays into Italy.

Not just a one-trick pony though, he could  ride a decent time-trial and won a 40km ITT in the 1975 Tour, when he handily beat the likes of Merckx, Thévenet, Poulidor and Zoetemelk.

Even more surprisingly for a pure climber he even somehow managed to win the Belgian National Road Race Championship in 1983 after coming out of retirement.

I’m not sure if this represents Van Impe’s skills and talent, a particularly favourable parcours, or simply the nadir of Belgian cycling. Maybe all three?


 

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Belgian National Champion

In October this year Van Impe turned 70 and until recently was still actively engaged in cycling through the Wanty-Groupe Gobert Pro-Continental Team. He lives with his wife, Rita in a house named Alpe D’Huez, a reminder of the mountain where he set the foundations for his greatest triumph and perhaps suffered his most heartbreaking defeat.


 

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An elder Van Impe – still active in cycling

Not bad for the one time newspaper delivery boy and apprentice coffin-maker from the flatlands of Belgium.

Vive Van Impe!