Day#2 – Going off Grid
Breakfast of Champions
A decent night’s sleep was fortified by a sterling breakfast where our supremely attractive and very friendly waitress seemed to delight in adjusting her décolletage and pouting into the dining room mirrors solely for the edification of the hotel guests.
By 9:00 the Oberlanders were on the road in the bright sunshine and heading for our rendezvous at the foot of the Alpe. It was a pleasantly warm start on a day when the temperatures would soon climb into the very high twenties. Not quite as scorching as yesterday, but plenty hot enough for pale-skinned Northerners.
I was astonished to find we had a full house, our entire collective was up and ready to go and we were, very briefly, all together as we started to climb. The first few ramps soon took care of that and it wasn’t long before we were scattered all over the road. From this point on we wouldn’t be together again as a group until we sat down for our evening meal.
Big ring, inner ring, granny ring. I dropped down at the front, while the chain inexorably rode up the block at the back. It didn’t take long and then, that was it, I was out of gears. Most of the others stretched away as I settled down to the task of spinning upwards in my own time, knowing I had over an hour of work to do to reach the top.
Despite a full service and a brand new bottom bracket, the bike had developed an annoying creak whenever I put any power through the cranks, which would have been just one more excuse for my light-spinning approach. Or at least, it would have been if I felt I needed one. As it was, I contained the creak to the few moments when I stood out of the saddle, more to keep the blood flowing everywhere than out of any real necessity to climb faster. (The creak seems to have completely disappeared on return to the UK, which is rather confusing.)
Gianni Bugno Smells
The first few hairpins were pleasant, but the higher we climbed the more exposed the road became and the temperature was rising, probably at a faster rate than I was. Around the pair of Gianni Bugno hairpins (#6 and #7) the smell of burning brakes and clutch were unmistakable, although there was very little traffic to account for it.
Unfortunately, much of the traffic that there was, consisted of heavy, construction vehicles, as it looks like more ski accommodation is being thrown up right across the mountain. It made for some interesting overtaking manoeuvres that played out in extreme slow motion.
Steadfast was climbing at around the same pace as me, so was always in sight, but otherwise I don’t recall passing any serious cyclists and can only recall a handful passing me, it was a quiet day on the Alpe.
I was pleased to see the photographers, always camped out near the top, an indication that the end wasn’t too far off and judging by the number of (in)action shots they took of me, I think they were glad to see me too. I still couldn’t summon up a wave or a smile though.
All The Way to the Top
Up through the village, I scanned the cafe’s few occupants, hoping we’d decided to make this our official end point. No such luck, it looked like we were heading to the official Tour finish line higher up the mountain. I joined up with Steadfast going through the underpass and hoping he knew the route – I think I’ve been a different way every time.
His instincts proved right, we found the rest of the gang camped out at the display of past winners. That still wasn’t good enough for them though and they made me climb another 300 metres to the official sign, before we press-ganged a bystander into the obligatory group photo.
Other than Goose’s hilarious positioning and pose for the photo, the strangest sight on the day had to be the girl on a mountain-bike being towed up the climb by an indefatigable Jack Russell. We don’t know if it got a Strava PB, but the Big Yin claimed the pair had overtaken him quite easily.
As for the Big Yin, there was no sign of him. I took a can of cola (Coke to you and me, but maybe the French reserve that term for a certain white powder?) from the snack van and slumped on one of the picnic tables for a rest and to replenish liquids while we waited.
“Watch that doesn’t bite!” the Ticker warned me, pointing at a greenish-yellow insect that had landed on my knee. I flicked it away. Too late, a bright bead of blood bloomed on my skin. Guess the butterfly yesterday was just to lull me into a false sense of security.
Drink consumed and with still no sign of the Big Yin, we rolled back to the cafe in the town, thinking he might have stopped there. Nope, not there either.
“Café au lait, si vous plait?” Crazy Legs asked the waitress.
“Un?” she enquired.
“Deux – trois – quatre – cinq – six – sept,” we all individually added our orders in turn and then she turned to Goose last of all. We waited … tension building … he opened his mouth …
“Huit!” he finally barked. Internally I gave a silent cheer, but then … “Gracias!”
We’re the Fuquari
By the time we’d finished our coffee and were ready to move on, there was still no sign of the Big Yin. I messaged him. He’d been through the village, past the cafe and was (supposedly) on the road to our next destination, the Col de Sarenne.
A little later we received a screenshot of a map location with a red dot in the middle of a featureless nowhere and a plaintive “where am I.” We had no idea either. It turns out that, as we headed east toward the Sarenne, the Big Yin was working his way ever northwards until he reached Lac Besson where a local confirmed that no, he wasn’t on the road to the Sarenne, or indeed anywhere near it.
Down by one, we pressed on. The road was much, much rougher, narrower and more gravel-strewn than I recall. It would have reminded me of home, except I don’t think the clartiest farm track in the outer wilds of Northumberland is quite as bad, or certainly not as consistently bad over such a long distance. Traction around the corners felt like a bit of a lottery demanding caution and I was just waiting for a puncture as we rattled and bounced over pots and fissures and cracks, but it was worth it as the scenery was utterly spectacular. Luckily the route was also quiet and we only encountered a single car and a handful of cyclists as we dropped down and then started the climb up to the col.
The climb split us up again, as everyone took it at the own pace, allowing the Hammer time to clamber up above the road and frame me in splendid isolation against an empty landscape in what he termed his epic Rapha shot.
Behind me, Crazy Legs had run out of energy and said he was climbing so slowly that a butterfly had do-si-doed its way through his spokes totally unscathed. He was delighted to finally reach the Col de Sarenne sign, doubly so when he noticed its height was given as 1,999 metres, so he could taunt the Ticker that he hadn’t managed a climb over 2,000 metres yet.
The Men Who Stare at Goats
The Ticker wandered away to check out some goats in a nearby enclosure and returned fully impressed with just how generously well-endowed they were(?) Meanwhile, in the silent, pale blue high above us, vultures and buzzards circled effortlessly around the peaks.
We didn’t take a group photo around the Col de Sarenne sign, but several shots were added to the collective pool, our favourite resembling the perfect album cover for some moody, mid-80’s synth band, (think Blancmange, or maybe China Crisis.)
Crazy Legs announced he was turning back, ostensibly because his legs were empty, but in reality just so he could enjoy the plush, super-smooth descent of the Alpe. In retrospect, we probably should have done the same. The descent off the Sarenne was awful, a steep, narrow and broken track with multiple tight switchbacks, each one swathed in an unstable delta of loose gravel and melting tarmac. There was no opportunity to let the bike run as I followed the Hammer and Ticker down, almost constantly on the brakes. By halfway I was shaking out my hands and trying to gain some relief from the pressure of pulling hard and long on the levers, while from both above and below me the descent was punctuated by continual warning shouts of “gravel!”
On one uncharacteristically long straight, the Hammer called out for space from a French rider who was grinding his way upwards, head down and on the wrong side of the road. The Hammer appeared to get a mouthful of abuse for his warning. I don’t know, maybe the road was so bad it just made everyone tetchy?
The hairpins eased toward the bottom and things became a little easier and almost enjoyable. Then thankfully we were down, although it took a while to finally regroup and recover. The next order of the day was finding somewhere for lunch, which wasn’t looking all that promising as we sped through a number of small, seemingly shuttered hamlets, before stumbling on Les Filles in Mizoën.
They managed to pull together a table for the seven of us inside and served us excellent and inexpensive quiche and salads along with copious drinks. Duly fortified, we had a fast, much more pleasant descent down to a stunning vista above the barrage at Lac Chambon, before clambering into the next valley and taking the road northwest and back to Bourg d’Oissan.
Bomb the Base
Salt-encrusted, sun-baked and empty-legged, most of us sought out a bar in the town for some liquid recovery, while Goose determined he needed more cycling and set off toward Le Riviere d’Allemonde, as if drawn there by some strange, unspoken compulsion …
Sitting down in the shade with a well-deserved beer, I was astounded when Buster unzipped to reveal that even in the extreme heat he was wearing a base layer under his jersey. I expected him to claim some sort of scientific mumbo-jumbo about its benefit in wicking away sweat to maintain core temperature, but he admitted it was just so his chest hairs didn’t poke through his jersey in an unsightly manner. Has any man ever suffered more to try and look good on a bike?
Unmuzzled at La Muzzelle
With remarkable foresight, Goose had booked us into a restaurant in town for the night, La Muzzelle and managed to secure a table for all nine of us. It wasn’t positioned exactly to his liking, but he somehow managed to endear himself to the staff while re-arranging their seating in the middle of a busy dinner service.
He then stress-tested his own claim that everything he says passes through careful filters by declaring his dislike of tattoo’s in front of our heavily tattooed waitress and while completely ignorant of any indelible body art his dining companions might be sporting. He then followed up by positing that bald blokes are much more likely to have accidents where they bang their heads.
In amongst this deluge of “carefully filtered” observation and (rocket) fuelled by our waitress introducing us to the local liqueur, Génépi, we tried to come up with a plan for the next day.
We already knew the traditional Circle of Death (5 cols, 170km and 4,250 metres of climbing) was a no-go because the Galibier was closed for resurfacing prior to the Tour. This had been confirmed by the Collapsing Cyclist group from the previous night, who’d ridden it despite being told it was closed and had to force their way back down through the newly laid tarmac. For their troubles, they’d then said they’d spent hours chipping the dried bitumen from their wheels and tyres with multi-tools, not an exercise we were at all keen to indulge in.
The consensus seemed to be to follow our original plan and ride up to Riviere d’Allemonde for ravitaillement, keeping both Crazy Legs and Goose happy, then take in the Glandon/Croix de Fer BOGOF. From there, depending on how people felt, we could split, with those wanting to head out further perhaps taking in Les Lacets de Montvernier before returning by more or less the same route.
Once again we had somehow cobbled together a plan, a rendezvous point and a start time. We were all set for the next day.
|Day & Date:||Friday 17th June|
|Time:||3 hours 27 minutes|
|Average Speed:||16.1 km/h|