Part 3: In the High Mountains
Words and photos by Donald Powers
Tuesday, 13 July 2010. [Stage 9: Morzine-Avoriaz – Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, 204.5k.] The Col de la Madeleine is a beast of a mountain. We rode the 18.5k to the summit of this out-of-category climb from the small town of La Chambre. Every few hundred metres I would pass a gendarme standing in the shade of a tree alongside the road, quietly observing the steady stream of cycle pilgrims toiling up the slopes of this mountain. At the summit (pictured 50m behind me) there was a stall selling crépes and drinks for those without budget worries – i.e., not me.
Angus’s camera was one of the heavier items in his backpack, along with his laptop. Here he puts it to the good use it was made for. At the Tour, it is initially tricky deciding how much of your energy to spend taking photos of the cyclists riding past you and how much to spend actually appreciating them in the moment with your naked eye. My camera’s relatively poor picture-quality helped me make this decision.
The Col de la Madeleine is one of the giants of the Alps and was a popular choice for roadside spectators at this Tour. We settled for a spot some 400m down the road from the summit, perched on a bank overlooking two switchbacks (pictured here). Alongside us, a Dutch couple lazily read their books in their little blue tent. I tucked into my padkos – juice and the ubiquitous baguette (pictured here lying on my backpack). A short walk up and over the bank we were sitting on opened a grand view of the grassy slopes and surrounding peaks. For the brief while I was out of ear- and eyeshot of the roadside Tour spectators, it might have been any other quiet summer’s day in the Alps – silence, a faint chill in the moving air, the sun warm on the skin. At times like that, my life in South Africa seemed very far away indeed.
But the Tour waits for no man. On the Col de la Madeleine we missed out on the freebies thrown from the race caravan because we were sitting too high above the road. By the end of the Tour we had acquired a goodly stash of knick-knacks (keyrings, bandannas, etc.). Today we had a great view of Contador and Schleck (pictured here) marking each other up the road from the rest of the peloton.
Friday, 16 July 2010. Our original, rather ambitious plan had been to use one of our days in the Alps to drive to the foot of two famous climbs not used in this year’s Tour and ride them. We had in mind the Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez, but riding the first proved enough of a challenge for one day. It was a joy to ride mountain roads largely empty of other cyclists and motortraffic. Although we rode without backpacks, it was still mighty difficult negotiating the ascent of this mountain with our gear ratios. In his book Tour de France: The History, the Legend, the Riders (2009), Graham Fife notes how Henri Desgranges (father of the Tour de France) once remarked that, compared to the Col du Galibier, the Tourmalet, the Bayard and the Laffrey cols are like ‘colourless, common-or-garden gnat’s piss’. Perhaps an exaggeration, but I could believe it. On one of my four stops to catch my breath on the ascent, I waited for Angus (pictured here) to rejoin me. Riding this and other mountains, there was always a special pleasure in stopping at the side of the road and taking in the view as I caught my breath. Since this is not something I would do on a training ride, these were moments to savour.
The Col du Galibier becomes progressively more rugged as one approaches its summit (altitude 2645m): steep gravel slopes and icefloes replace vegetation, and the surrounding peaks seem to serrate the blue sky. On the road in chalkscrawl are the names of recent Tour heroes: Virenque, Beloki, Mancebo, Ullrich. At the summit, we stood and admired the view in the company of other loose groups of cyclists and motorcyclists. In this stark landscape there was some comfort in sensing that one was part of a fraternity of the bicycle.
Descending the Galibier was as exhilarating as the view from its summit. We ate our lunch at a picnic spot on the Col du Telegraphe, which one must climb from St Michel de Maurienne to get onto the Galibier. As we were packing our bikes in the van, a man came tooling past on a pennyfarthing. Surely he had not just ridden up the Telegraphe on that antique piece of equipment?! Imagine descending the Galibier on that thing!