Margaret and Dick   


August '05: Les grandes vacances (Vacation, French style)

Our friend Jean-Claude, who crafted the routes for the 2004 traverse of the Pyrenees, proposed a week of cycling in the Alps.  We (neighbors Neil and Lorna, JC and wife Sonia) would share a gite (a house rental) in a location central to the Alpine climbs he had picked for us.  I greeted the proposal with trepidation, since vertical climbs of 6,000+ feet are not my idea of fun on a bicycle.  The alternative was joining Lorna and Sonia on shopping expeditions.  I resolved to make it work, and we reserved. 

We packed the basics (bike gear, clothing, pillows, wine) and hung our bikes on the back of the car.  We are clearly not up to French standards on this vacation thing.  Most cars on the road were packed to the ceiling, with additional gear on the roof.  Our chosen week coincided with the heaviest period of French vacation travel.  The gregarious French take their grandes vacances en masse, July for some, August for others.  On crossover weekend between July and August, the entire country appears to be on the road.  Authorities rated our departure weekend orange (pretty nasty) and our return weekend – the dreaded crossover weekend – black.  Radio Trafic reports traffic conditions, with continuous updates in French and twice-hourly reports in English on the main routes from England to Spain.

Our gite was in Montdenis, in the community St Julien-Montdenis.  JC had warned us we would not be staying exactly in the main village.  On the map, Montdenis appears right next to St Julien.  In fact, it was a vertical kilometer above the village, accessed by a vertigo-inducing road that winds up the cliff.  The trip up or down took 20 minutes.  Neil counted 28 switchbacks; Sonia counted 802 white stripes along the centerline as she tried to distract Lorna from panic.  As a passenger, Lorna covered her head with a newspaper, but she rose magnificently to the occasion when it came time for her to drive.  I’m not afraid of heights, but when I looked over the edge and saw ant-size cars below, I felt quite queasy and didn’t look down again.

The picture-postcard views from the deck of our gite compensated for its isolation.  There was certainly no chance of going out to the store for bread in the morning or to a café at night.  Montdenis counts 500 residents in summer but only five families in winter when villagers risk being snowbound.  The gite was newly renovated from the old village schoolhouse, which closed 40 years ago when improved transportation allowed kids to attend school in St Julien. 

The caretaker explained that this gite was village property, generating rental income for the community.  Defying our image of a rural peasant, this villager was very intelligent and curious.  Had we seen the space shuttle Discovery pass overhead last night?  We had not – who thinks about NASA launches on vacation in the Alps ?  He did.  Having watched the launch on TV, he correctly calculated that the orbit would take it right overhead for access to an emergency landing strip at a French air base.  He had estimated the time it would take to orbit, then got up out of bed to see it again.  Surprised, I asked him what he had done for a living before retirement.  Professor?  No, not at all, a woodworker.  He never went to college but got turned on to learning when serving in the undercover ‘special services’ (“I can tell you now”) in the Army.  Since then, he’d been autodidacte (a nice French word for self-taught).  Not just anybody chooses to live in a little village perched up on a cliff. 

But how on earth did people ever decide to live up here?  It was the cows.  Probably the cows led the way up to summer pasture.  The village on the mountain is still cow-country for the permanent residents.  We heard the cowbells nonstop and saw kids and a herding dog moving groups of cows to new pastures.  These kids have a summer job, and the herding dog is happy to be doing its thing.

Margaret will fill you in (below) on the cycling accomplishments of the strong folks.  I did three climbs in the five days, culminating in a climb to the col de Glandon.  I walked the last brutal kms where the slopes exceed 10%, but I made it. 

Cycling the routes of the recent Tour de France was strangely moving.  Two weeks ago, the Tour had passed over many of the same Alpine passes we were climbing, albeit at three times our speed.  On the winding steep climbs, fans had painted colorful slogans to encourage their favorite riders.  Ulle, gib gas” (“Give it the gas, Ullrich”) for the German perennial runner-up, similar for other stars, and of course “Go Lance.”  After years of suspicion about Armstrong’s strong performance, the French accepted Lance as a great champion and an asset to the Tour de France. 

Our return to Limoux on crossover weekend started early Friday (“red”) to avoid the worst bottlenecks.  Lighted signs on the autoroutes offered words of wisdom:

“Remain zen.”

“You are alive.  Stay that way.”

“For your safety, automatic speed traps.”

“Today, speed limit lowered from 130 to 90 km/hr” (from 80 to 58 mph).

Radio Trafic reported traffic slowing at Montpellier due to a demonstration at tollbooths for some social or labor unrest.  No explanation of who or why, perhaps to avoid encouraging others.  The newspaper would later report 750km (450mi) of traffic jams on the autoroutes that weekend, horrific but not record-breaking. 

Our vision nearly 10 years ago of a simple life in France included buying the cheapest, smallest car that would accommodate us and our two bikes.  As we wander further afield, we’re faced with some of the realities of the simple life:  it’s tough to drive in the scorching Mediterranean summer without air conditioning.  It’s time to think about a new car.  Maybe a bigger car so we can pack lawnchairs and tables, coolers, food processors, heck, even the cats.  When in Rome...


Margaret’s cycling report:

We did one HC (hors categorie, beyond-category) climb each day for five days.  The Alpine cols have a different personality than the Pyrennean cols that we’re accustomed to:  longer climbs, higher elevations, smoother roads.  And of course each col has its own character.

Day one – col du Mollard, col de la Croix de Fer (from St Jean de Maurienne), total climbing 2,300m (7,500 ft) in a distance of 38km (24mi)

The climb up the col de la Croix de Fer was closed for work on the tunnels, so we followed the detour that took us up the col du Mollard.  This added 400m (1,300 ft) of climbing and a dreaded “valley of the flies” between the two cols.  We stopped at a café at the col de la Croix de Fer – spectacular setting! – where JC and Neil introduced me to what became the official drink of our Alps cycling:  a Monaco, beer with grenadine syrup.  Trust me, it’s the right thing to drink after a long hard climb.


Day two – col du Telegraphe, col du Galibier (from St Michel de Maurienne), total climbing 2,100m (6,800 ft) in a distance of 36km (22mi)

A nice easy pace for this giant, with four hours of climbing.  JC and I paused at scenic café for water – straight out of the mountain – and craned our necks to see an intimidating set of switchbacks and Neil far above us.  Fortunately the switchbacks were not as murderous as they appeared.  The scenery from col du Galibier was jaw-dropping beautiful.  We stopped at the café on the way down.  I learned I descend better after a Monaco.


Day three – col de l’Iseran (from Lanselebourg), total climbing 1,400m (4,500 ft) in 33km (20mi)

Dude, where’s my oxygen?  This is one of the highest cols in the Alps at 2,770m (9,000 ft).  En route, a young woman in tennis shoes on platform pedals passed JC and me with apparent ease.  “I’m finding a new sport,” said JC in disgust.  (Ah, but where did she park?)  We were divided on whether the view from col de l’Iseran or col du Galibier had more spectacular scenery. 


Day four – col de Glandon, col de la Croix de Fer
(from St Etienne-de-Cuines), to
tal climbing 1,600m (5,100 ft) in 23km (14mi)

The climb up the col de Glandon began pleasantly, with several flat or slight downhill areas, then became a brute for the last 5km.  I was speaking in tongues by the time I reached the top.  The café at the col de la Croix de Fer was within sight, so we couldn’t resist cycling over to enjoy for its amazing ambiance again.


Day five – col de la Madeleine (from la Chambre), total climbing 1,500m (5,000 ft) in 20km (12mi)

By this time we were accustomed to killer climbs, and la Madeleine seemed gentle compared to the rest.  After the spectacular views of the last four days, la Madeleine did not quite measure up, but a café at the top was a welcome end to our week.

We elected not to make the two-hour drive (over the col du Galibier!) to Alpe d’Huez, whose 21 switchbacks arguably make it the most mythic of the Alpine climbs.  We resolved to come back on another occasion, with fresh legs, to tackle that and other climbs in the same neighborhood.

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