September 2005

Friends in High Places
LaGrangers in the French Alps
by Susan Stahl

The thing is, I wasn't even wearing a LaGrange kit that day, the 4th day of my 9-day tour of the French Alps, after nearly 30 kilometers of hard climbing on a hot August day to the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer. I leaned on my bike and debated whether it was worth the trouble of getting the LaGrange vest out of my jersey pocket for 2k of descending and a quick climb to the adjoining Col du Glandon for lunch with the rest of my tour group. Seeing no sign of the other riders, I took in the views and exchanged pleasantries in mutually bad French with a German cyclist. Still no sign of the others and it was windy and I was sweaty so I put on my club vest.

I had barely started descending the steep straight col, focusing all my energy on avoiding tourists, car doors, and wandering livestock, when I heard, from the other side of the road, in a faint French accent "LaGrange! LaGrange!" I'm thinking, "Huh ... they really like my vest!" But I slow down anyway and ... holy cow, if it isn't our very own LaGrangers Sam and Melanie, who married and moved to Paris last fall!

Susan Stahl with Sam and Melanie

They looked fantastic, and very happy, and they were riding and camping in the Alps with a French friend. "Small world" doesn't even begin to describe it: why is it that, even if you are having the time of your life traveling abroad, there's nothing more thrilling than the seeing an unexpected familiar face? Anyway, many exclamations, kisses, and photos later we parted, and I was sad that I couldn't hang out with them longer. But I also felt pretty good about my day: I had reached the top of both Cols about 30 minutes before anyone else in my group AND I had run into some wonderful people I knew from home: I tell you, I pretty much owned that mountain that day!

This was a highlight day for sure but the rest of the trip was also pretty swell. Touring the Alps with a company called VeloSport Vacations (I reviewed their Pyrénées tour in the February 2005 LaVoix), I climbed the Alpe d'Huez, the Col de la Madeleine, and the Col de la Columbière, among others. We started in southeast France in Uriage-les-Bains (near Grenoble), and worked our way north, staying a couple days each in Albertville and La Clusaz (a charming and family-friendly ski resort in sight of Mont Blanc), ending at the postcard-perfect Lake Annecy (near Geneva).

But let me hasten to end your suspense: Yes, I beat Sheryl Crow's time up Alpe d'Huez ... by a good 20 minutes. (And yes, we were all truly a bit worried about this ... even the Cat 2 women in the tour group.) Honestly, though, for those who haven't been, the Alpe d'Huez, along with most of these climbs, was not much harder than, say, Yerba Buena or Piuma-except the Glandon and the Madeleine. The aforementioned Glandon/Croix de Fer climb was very long, and very steep in places, but there were some descents to break it up, and the whole route was so excessively beautiful, with turquoise-colored mountain lakes and Heidi-esque pasture scenes, that I almost forgot the pain as a new and gorgeous panorama unfolded around each turn. Also, you can stop partway up and fill your water bottles with clear cold eau potable de la montagne at the village fountain, and this, combined with bright clean mountain air, is better than any sports drink for strength and endurance.

The Madeleine, was, however ... how does one say? ... frickin' hard. Giddy with success, having enjoyed unexpectedly quick ascents up several famous Alps, having run into more old riding buddies than at Peet's on a Sunday morning, and having soundly trounced Sheryl once and for all, I neglected to study the trip notes adequately the night before the Madeleine. OK, I took a quick peek at the gradients-7, 8%, a couple 10's-nothing we haven't all seen on any old right turn off PCH, right? Well, it was ALL 7's, 8's, and 10's-with nothing less in between - for 20 straight kilometers. That, and the fact that the village at the top of the mountain I stared at for over an hour turned out to actually be the 3rd village from the top of the mountain ... merde alors ... you get the idea. Much cursing, much mashing (and just between us), a bit of traversing later, I got to the top, a little less cartilage behind my kneecaps than I had started with, but triumphant nonetheless! Ça monte!

Glorious Alpes
The VeloSport folks did a great job again: they know cycling and they know France. Not as adventurous (or as economical) as going on your own, but they provided a great combination of challenging riding, expert guidance, and relaxing accommodations. I rented a bike from them too, which worked out beautifully since the slightly longer wheelbase of their Fuji Provence made for more manageable descents than my responsive but squirrelly Lightspeed Tuscany would have, plus the Fuji came with a triple already installed (and a 24-hour bike mechanic). Truly, the only stress on this vacation was cardio-vascular.

Feel free to email me with specific questions about the trip (or to muse over how cool it was to run into LaGrangers in the middle of the Alps!).

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