This is the first of a 3 part story. A stories about life and friends mostly.
After 26 hours of travel to left behind our quiet life in Oregon, Abby Watson and myself landed in the French alps as the sun was setting. There is something which can carry thru the craziest sleep deprivation: adrenaline. The landscape of the French alps coming out of the ground, steeper and higher as we going deeper into the chains of mountain definitely help keep the level of stoke high.
Spoiler alert: we did listen to FUN RADIO all the drive which consist on a mouchy mix of summer hit and techno European classic. (if such a thing exist).
8 hours before we were doing a quick check at our European headquarter – loading the car with our precious socks, bikes and a couple bags and we started heading down to probably the biggest project of the summer for The Athletic in Briançon: Bringing our precious socks to the public of l’Étape of the Tour de France and in the same time, Why not summit a bunch of the most iconic mountain passes of the alps on our bike?
The next morning, we let ourselves wake with the sun rising, filled ourselves with the first real food and real coffee we had in days and asked the hard question: which ride should we do today? The answer was clear, the Galibier seemed so evident that we didn’t even questioned the fact of riding 32km of climbs at once. My experience in the valley of Briançon was limited at a similar ride I did 6 years ago, it was one of those days: I rode three time: at 4am, at 10 am and at 9pm. It was blurry enough to not know and feel confident about my ability to do it, again in the same state of sleep deprivation.
Galibier is a pass that you can summit from 3 different ways: 1 - through the village of Valloire, going up the col of the Telegraph, 2 - coming up the Lautaret pass from the village of Bour d’Oisans by the North, or 3 - from the South, our option while staying in Briançon.
We stuffed a couple bills of euros in our pocket, a camera and some snacks in case, as it happen sometimes in Euroland without you realizing it: everything is closed and you are bonking.
The valley is quiet and the sound of the water on the rock of the river bed is in harmony with the sound of our chain stroke after stroke. When you start to climb for 32 km there is a feeling of the unknown that accompanies – I guess a bit as in life in general, you know you won’t live forever but the end seems so far away that it’s better to not think about it. Also, the excitement levels are so high that Abby and I, are mostly quiet compared to our early Portland rides where we only have one hour to catch up with a busy life between job, dogs, family, or to break terrible or exciting news, depending the week. We looking up at the masses of rock, and as we ascend the mountain, discover a beautiful milky blue lake and a dramatic glacier. Every corner is a new angle to appreciate the beauty of mother nature. The only thing we don't see is the top, but we surely moving toward it.
Abby knows I’m legendary for pushing the gas for the first couple hours and then blow up since I retired from me pseudo professional cycling career. So, yes, I’m pushing the pace and maybe you had that before: no sleep, poor food, elevation and heat and it tickle your legs and your brain. In two words: pure excitement. I suggest a pit stop as we pace through an abandoned tunnel where the route used to go. It does feel good, without counting details like, drinking, eating and adjusting the saddle height. Plus staring at this dark tunnel — I get it, I can see the other end — still scary.
We agree, at this point, to slow down since we only are half way up. There is something universal about cycling which you can apply to life in general and that I personally have a tough time remembering: it never get easier, so keep some under the pedal for later.
I’m shutting down the Prefontaine in me this day, because today is not a suicide pace day. There is indeed a lot of people who died here, if I believe the number of crosses on the side of road and it reminds me — mountains don’t apologize.
There is an enormous number of cyclist pairs climbing or going down this hot spot of cycling, called La Route Des Alpes. People are friendly, they wave and smile, how could you not be? We pass and get passed, some hop on the wheels for a minute, sometimes we do the same to them. We are still not seeing the top and are starting to guess. Is the route that line up there? With this tiny white point moving so slowly towards us? Passing a restaurant we spot the cutest dog who runs to meet us and throw a piece of wood in front of us which is a reason to stop again, we play fetch a couple time and let him lick our salty legs and leave wondering if French dogs speak French?
Finally the sign of the Lautaret summit appears next to a field of buzzing alpine flowers. The beauty is surreal, so far yet so close. Time for real snack number one: chocolate croissant is pretty much all I wish I had. It screams energy! It was baked this morning! It will be eaten here and now, it had a good life. We realize that the Galibier summit – him – he is an other 9km away and higher so we keep moving pretty quickly.
The last bit of those 9km is the south side of Galibier and consists of a narrow and windy road with soft pavement. There are obscure inscriptions painted on the road which clearly belongs to racers who retired years back. As a staple of passes in the French alps, the closer from the summit we get, the steeper the road becomes. I’m thinking, 10 m of elevation every 100m – but we are now seeing the top and hearing what sound like the finish of the weekly time trials of the North side of Galibier – a time trial open to everybody – your local weekday training crit if you will.
We hesitate and crack for a tourist shot by the sign. The way down is smooth and tight, and also, I listened to my husband to ‘’be careful and not pass the cars going downhill’’ – There is something to say about riding a cyclocross bike with slick tires in those kind of corner, it’s smooth and nice (Thank to my Boone 7! From Trek ;-) – So I stay behind the car. I get it, some people need cars to get up there, and I fold my impatience and put it away in a corner of my brain. The Need for Speed is always real, and I dig deep into my meditation training to put it away.
The ultimate moment of the day is to hit the restaurant for a local speciality of potatoes and cheese and dry mountain ham. We don’t leave any chances at the plate we order and we stay there long enough to get cold despite the blasting rays of elevation sun. Listening and observing the spectacle of tourists of all kind who like to get lost in those mountains and look at the glacier with their binocular from their restaurant chair.
It’s getting cold and I Ringtail Up before 20km left of descending to rejoin briançon and head to the Village of L’Etape to meet the customers of The Athletic Community at the booth. There is no need for pedaling, and my forearm are heating just holding my bike in line. I’m already looking forward to dinner and tomorrow's ride under the beating sun of the Southern Alps. Isn’t why we ride our bike? To live two lives at the time?
Thank to Jeremy, Abby, Helena and William to deeply adhere to Jack's philosophy which allow them to keep up with my high energy, twisted wild spirit and approve of the crazy beats I always take.
Thank to Trek Bicycle to allow us to be seriously geared up for these adventures.
Next - Part 2: Nevache, Le col de L’Echelle et le maquis de la valleé de la clareé.