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.


AH said...

Wonderful story and photos! I'm looking forward to part 2 -- and to climbing the Galibier some day!


Krys Hines said...

I want to try some of the booze...

OAP said...

Great story as usual! I'll stay tuned for part 2.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great story .Looking forward to many more.

fred said...

Lord of the ChainRings!

Incredible stuff. I'm intrigued at the conversation with Moulton, and his considering your mods as heresy.

Once you have to dismount your machine, obviously you've lost your mechanical advantage.

I was about to pose some questions to Mike, but thought I'd best do some background reading first, I lost track of the SA internal hub back at the four speed, and so I trip across this site, and lo and behold, there's a link to this forum!


The planetary gear system will never be as efficient as a direct drive derailleur, in fact losses can be quite substantial, but doubtless, for many persons doing commute riding, it is by far the most preferable system. One only has to glance at the pathetic state of many persons derailleurs to realize that, let alone the chain dynamics, etc, albeit there is always the one gear that locks to the case (a direct through 1:1 ratio)

Before I query Mike more on Moulton's views, I must read more, but suspect Mike's view has been proven the more correct over the years....

Who wants to get off their bike and push it? I'm intriuged by the width of the gears available, as a 'standard alpine', 4:5, should cover most eventualities with a 7spd.