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.


ntb said...

I love reading your stories about your time with your son Michael.
I grew up in Toronto, and I used to go to Bicyclesport frequently looking at, and wishing that I could buy one the great bikes there.
Now, years later I have and can buy any bike I want, I enjoy riding with and watching my sons race.
I try to give my own sons a history, and a culture about this sport, and I'm inspired by your stories.
I hope that I can create the experiences, and memories for my kids that you have done for your family.
Thank you for writing, and keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for another great adventure.

fred said...

Ditto for the previous two posts. Only had time to read half the latter latest blog, must run this dog with me, but these blogs truly get the juices and memories flowing.

I have to comment on this though, and Mike was leading up to it:
[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 see the same thing in many cycling areas, and just like mountaineering, there is a *huge* responsibility to take back the garbage one brings. With foldable tires, there is absolutely no excuse, they weigh next to nothing in the big scheme of things.

Like Mike Jr, I too can't resist checking out discarded foldables, albeit nowdays they are foldable beads. I've found many with the crcass thread fully intact, but with a very slight tear that can be bonded with a boot. (between threads, not across them) No longer up to spec for a riding tire, but more than good enough for an emergency spare at reduced pressure. At close to $75 a pop, many of those discards are worth considering as repaired back-ups.

And those that are hopeless? Trash bins, not open countryside. God knows as cyclists, we see far too much litter at the side of the road as it is. Discarded foldable tires are a serious tripping hazard as well as visually/environmentally toxic.

Krys Hines said...

He's certainly raising the bar on parenting, isn't he? K

P. K. Koop said...

I rode up Ventoux this summer and people are still leaving heaps of crap on the Simpson memorial. Yes, the rationalization is leaving a "tribute" but personally I think "making one's mark" is a more accurate description of the psychology behind this.

And really, this is a completely separate issue from the litter discarded by cyclists mentioned by Stephen Saines. These are delibarate, not careless leavings, and it was the same story at Oscar Wilde's grave - I doubt cyclists were to blame for that.

Uh, yes I guess it bugs me ... could you tell?

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