Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A memorable ride in the Alps (part two)

A pretty Air Canada attendant who had looked after him throughout the flight from Toronto escorted Michael out of the arrival lounge. Around his neck was a large “Unaccompanied Minor” label. It was great to see him. I had been somewhat nervous about him traveling alone at eight years old but he had had a wonderful time. When he had left Toronto my wife, Clare had checked him in with our tandem. At the airport we then met our companions for the next couple of weeks. Clare’s brother Ralph and his wife Trish had flown in from Vancouver with their tandem. The bikes arrived safely and we were soon pedaling across Paris to the Gare d’Austerlitz where we took the TGV back to Grenoble. The tandems followed on a regular train. No bikes are allowed on the high speed TGV.

Back in Grenoble we had a day for the newcomers to get over their jet lag while we waited for the tandems to arrive. We were then on our way into the mountains again. Ian rode with us for the first day before returning to Canada.

Preparing the tandems in the hotel garage.

Michael let it be known early on that he wasn’t going to let his aunt and uncle beat us to the top of any pass. Ralph and Trish are known to be rather competitive and we had some great tussles for ‘KOM’ points. There were some good climbs over several passes as we made our way south towards Provence and our major objective the dreaded Mont Ventoux. Ventoux is an extinct volcano shaped like a massive cone rearing up from the surrounding forests and lavender fields. The upper reaches are bare white rock and in summer sun it is an inferno.

The two tandems set off into the Alps.

Mike and Michael tackling an early climb.

Ralph and Trish Lapp on their loaded Lejeune.

As it was now October we were not going to have hot weather to contend with. We spent the night in Sault, a village close to the base of the climb and in the morning explored the village market before setting off. Michael was anxious to start the climb but I think that the rest of us set out with some trepidation. We all had heard how tough the climb is and climbing on a tandem is never easy. We thought it prudent to leave our heavy panniers in the hotel and planned to pick them up after the climb. We took the climb steady and had a number of unscheduled stops. In 1984 most serious cyclists rode tubular tires and many of their cast offs were scattered along the side of the road to this cyclist’s shrine. Michael must have inherited some of his father’s ‘waste not’ habits and wanted to stop and collect all those punctured tubulars. In the end we came to a compromise, we would cut out the valve section and he could collect those. By the time we reached the summit he had a dozen or so Ventoux souvenirs. The first half of the climb through the trees was quite warm but when we left the shelter of the trees we were hit by a strong cold wind. By the time we reached the Tom Simpson Memorial it was blowing really hard and we feared a very cold descent. We stopped there to pay our respects but I was rather disappointed by the litter and poor state of the memorial. Cyclists had left discarded tubulars there along with water bottles and other cyclist’s articles. I suppose they thought they were making some sort of tribute to Tom but to my mind a far better tribute would be to keep the area clean and tidy. I understand that recently the memorial has been refurbished and that it is now better maintained.

The summit was reached with us all in pretty good shape although rather cold. Michael had certainly carried his share of the work and was elated to have climbed the famous mountain that he had read about in cycling magazines. The restaurant at the top was closed so we had to start the descent back to Sault without getting warmed up.

Michael and the trusty Lejeune at the summit of Ventoux

The wind was behind us and the road was slightly down hill as we spent the afternoon heading for Carpentras. The speed of the two fully loaded tandems kept creeping up and there was obviously going to be a big sprint for the town sign. Ralph and Trish now had the bit between their teeth and were giving Michael and me a bit of a rough time and I must admit we sat on their wheel for a while. The speed was really high as the two loaded tandems thundered towards the town, the ’captains’ staring intently ahead for the Carpentras sign. I can’t remember who won the sprint but I do remember that it was a great way to finish a memorable day.

The next day we rode to the medieval town of Avignon where we did some sight-seeing before taking a train to Cannes and then spending a few days riding along the coast. Although we were out of the mountains the riding was still quite challenging along the very hilly coast road. The weather was beautiful and we spent a good few stops building sand castles on the beach. Although Michael was half the size of any of us he was certainly a definite equal part of the quartet. In fact somewhat more than equal as his French was fluent and more often than not he was the translator for the group.

The coast road did add a little excitement when Ralph and Trish, while descending at speed, had their front brake cable break. Ralph can be congratulated for bringing that fully loaded tandem to a safe stop with one rear, not too efficient, Mafac cantilever on a steep hairpin descent.

Another interesting episode was when trying to find a nice beach near St Tropez we ended up at a nude beach. Ralph and I found it very entertaining but Michael found it “Yucky” and Trish sat staring straight out to sea.

Our cycling ended in Marseille where Michael and I boarded a train back to Grenoble and Ralph and Trish went straight through to Paris. I had left my single bike in Grenoble and had to pick it up before continuing on to Paris. A rail strike made the journey quite arduous and Michael and I arrived in Paris at 1AM. We wandered the streets for an hour or so trying to find a hotel but everywhere was “complet” due to the rail strike. Eventually a hotel manager allowed us to sleep on his restaurant floor along with about twenty others. He supplied us with blankets and pillows but insisted we were gone by 6 AM, as that is when the hotel owner was to arrive. For that rather uncomfortable three hours he charged me 100 Francs. However it was better than wandering the streets with an eight year old in tow.

We had an early breakfast in the railway station before picking up the tandem and single bike from the baggage department. By this time we were in the peak of rush hour and I had to get a fully loaded tandem, complete with eight-year-old stoker and my Mariposa touring bike across town to the Gare du Nord. What else to do but ride the tandem and trail the single bike with my right hand. This left me with a left hand to apply the front brake to slow the whole lot down. Fortunately the route is fairly flat and no difficulty arose. Drivers were very courteous and gave us plenty of room even while negotiating the chaos of the Place de la Concorde. We arrived at the Gare du Nord in plenty of time to catch our train to London and so ended a wonderful vacation in France.

That was the last time that I was on Ventoux but Michael has raced up a few times since whilst competing in the Dauphine Libere. I hope to go back, ideally with my son but perhaps this time on single bikes.

A bit about the bikes.
We rode two French Lejeune tandems. They were not fancy but did the job very well. They were equipped with 650B wheels and light Wolber tandem tires. We had 15 gears with TA triple chainwheels with a bottom gear of 36x28. We had installed the drive chainwheel on the front bottom bracket with a long chain going right through to the rear. The long chain line made it possible to use all fifteen gears efficiently. The brakes were Mafac Tandem cantilevers. Michael and I carried all our gear in two Kirtland rear panniers and a handlebar bag. Ralph and Trish had additional front panniers. Both bikes had fenders and generator lighting. Michael used 150 mm cranks with the saddle right down on the top tube.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A memorable ride in the Alps (Part one)

The recent TV coverage of the Tour stage finishing at the top of Mont Ventoux brought back wonderful memories for me. I have only ridden that mountain once and that was back in 1984 with son Michael on a tandem. Michael was eight at the time and I think that both Michael and I remember the trip as the best vacation we have ever had.

I had been over in Europe for a couple of weeks before the Ventoux trip. I had gone over with then business partner Mike Brown and good friend Ian Austen to visit the International Bike Show in Cologne, Germany.

While at the Show we had an interesting meeting with Alex Moulton who was there promoting his recently introduced AM series of suspended small wheel bikes. It was an interesting meeting for Mike and I as we had been selling a lot of the AMs and had, up to that point, sold more than any other dealer in the World except one in Germany. We were very enthusiastic about the bikes but had one major criticism, that being that the range of gears available with its single chainring set-up wasn’t suitable for loaded touring, particularly in mountains. We had modified a number of them with brazed-on front derailleurs and double chainwheels and also painted a few in brighter, more appealing colours than the standard grey. In fact Ian Austen was riding a bright yellow AM modified with a wide range of gears. Dr Moulton thought we were ruining his bike design and we got into quite a heated argument. He contended that his standard seven gears were ample for any type of riding. I often wonder if he would have changed his mind if he had seen the terrain we were to ride over in the following few days.

After the Show we took a train to Basel in Switzerland intending to ride from there to Grenoble taking in as many mountain passes that we could. Cold, torrential rain met us in Basel so we got back on the train and got off a bit further South in Geneva where we were met by bright skies and warmer temperatures.

Our first day took in the climb up the Salève just outside Geneva and finished at a wonderful country hotel, which we came across purely by chance. We were the only guests and our host served us a spectacular meal. A nightly ritual for the rest of the trip, we pored over our maps with highlighters in hand and planned a route through the Alps taking in as many passes as we could manage towards our destination, Grenoble. Eager to discover, we sought out the smallest mountain roads shown on the maps as dotted lines.

Some of the mountain roads were interesting both going up...

and coming down.

The next few days were filled with a succession of climbs through some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable. I cannot remember the names of many of the passes but some were little more than goat tracks across the peaks. Mike and I were riding our Mariposa touring bikes equipped with triple chainwheels but Ian was riding his near new, bright yellow Moulton. Its seventeen-inch wheels were perhaps not the best choice for those rock-strewn tracks despite the bike’s suspension but Ian was certainly pleased that we had installed the wide range of gears.

Although there was plenty of snow the weather was good.

Mikes Brown and Barry climbing yet another pass in beautiful weather.

A memorable day finished a few kilometres from the top of the Col de la Croix-de-Fer. We arrived at the base of the climb at the end of a tough day that had taken in a few passes including the Col de la Madeleine. We were all tired and as we turned off the main road onto the Col we agreed that the hotel advertised as being a couple of kilometers ahead would be our place for the night. We were on the climb and it was getting dark but when we arrived at the hotel we discovered that it was closed for the season--it was now early October. The sensible thing to do would have been to freewheel back down the pass to the town at the base but we looked at the map and noted that there was what appeared to be a fair sized village about fifteen kilometers further up the mountain. On we went with our generators barely lighting our way as we plodded slowly up the climb.
Everything in the next village was closed but someone suggested that we might have more luck at a ski village further on. On we pushed only to find that all the hotels were closed there too. There was, however, a pub open with a bunch of somewhat inebriated guys sitting around the bar. After explaining to them our predicament, one fellow insisted that we follow him. He climbed into a car and we followed on our bikes eventually arriving at another closed-up hotel. However, this time, the owner was present and when our inebriated guide explained the situation we were welcomed with open arms. The rest of the evening was wonderful. Our guide called his mates from the pub and they all joined us for a raucous evening with a substantial meal and many beers.

Two Mariposas and a Moulton at the top of the Madelaine

The next couple of days took us over a few more spectacular cols but by far the most breathtaking was the Galibier. A day or so before we arrived at its base there had been a heavy snowfall closing the road. Fortunately, the road opened up the morning we arrived as the sun was shining bright and had melted the snow from the road surface. As we neared the summit I looked down across the valley where everything was pure white except the black ribbon of road up which we had climbed. Having climbed a bit faster than the others that day I stood at the top of the mountain and waited for them to arrive. That moment is clear in my memory 25 years later. I was in awe as I looked down at what is now the most spectacular view that I have ever seen. It was absolutely silent and the only movements were the gusts of snow being blown from the peaks. During the hundreds of thousands of kilometers I have ridden this moment stands out as one of the most exhilarating. Climbing up into such a majestic environment was captivating.

My Mariposa at the top of the Galibier

Mike Brown parks his Mariposa next to Ian's Moulton.

At the top, we went into the restaurant for a coffee and sandwich. (Still to this day I have the small bottle of liqueur called 'Genepi du Galibier' made from the local herbs, which is claimed to be the cure of many ailments. On the label is a line drawing of the restaurant where we ate. The booze is so medicinally good I have yet to finish it). As we went to leave the proprietor handed us newspapers to stuff up our jerseys for the descent. We certainly needed the paper, as the wind was brisk and the air frigid. While in the restaurant the sun had gone down behind the mountain and the temperature had dropped at least ten degrees Celsius. I had no gloves and used socks and plastic bags to keep my fingers from freezing on the long descent to Bourg d’Oisans. There the hotel presented us with a hearty, warming meal of goat stew washed down with a presentable red wine served from a large earthenware jug.

There is still some left in the bottle 25 years later

The next day we had a relatively easy but wet ride to Grenoble. Here we were to part ways. Mike Brown took the train to Paris and onto London. Ian stayed in Grenoble for a bit more cycling and I took the TGV up to Paris to pick son Michael and the tandem up at the airport for the second part of the trip.