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Day 5 – Stage 17 – Embrun to Chorges ITT – Alpe d’Huez

Posted by on July 28, 2013

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Up at the crack of dawn to prepare for riding the Col de Sarenne and Alpe d’Huez. I was still a little upset that we would be doing that and not the Col de Lauteret and the Col de Galibier. Becky was all ready to start an email campaign, but I talked her down from that.

Breakfast at 7. Cafe au Lait, meats and cheeses, chocolate croissant, croissant with spun honey, and a bowl of muslix. I was getting used to this.

Back to the room and get changed into my kit. Today was Castelli day. I wasn’t sure about not wearing my Danny Shane climbing kit, but I figured I needed to get used to wearing something else. I did make it a point that I really needed to do laundry tonight; I was running out of underwear and cycling gear.

After my normal rushing around to get everything ready, I rolled out to the bus.

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Our hotel from the outside, during the day… Not bad:

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View from the back of the bus looking down the hill…

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I have very long arms.

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Some lavender looking down the mountain.

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There’s our bus.

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After having a discussion with Gilles and with Brackie, I came away with a better feeling about riding today. If I did want to ride Alpe d’Huez tomorrow, I could ride down early tomorrow and ride up again. Still was a little miffed about the Galibier, but..

Anyway, we all suited up and and headed off towards the Col de Sarenne. Nothing feels better than cold legs and climbing right away, especially at altitude. But the views of the back side of Alpe d’Huez were amazing.

All these campers were probably up here for a week:
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Then it was a decent descent towards the foot of the Col de Sarenne. Scarry as all heck, since there were NO barriers to keep you from going down the side of the mountain.

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Then we hit the climb, which from Alpe d’Huez is listed as a category 2 climb. It certainly wasn’t easy. At about the 2/3rds way there was a fellow who had fallen over. Since there were so many people standing around, I felt his situation was well under control and kept going. Later it was said he might have had altitude sickness and went wonky, but others saw blood and thought it was a nasty crash.

I then pulled up to a scene straight out of Heidi:
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A couple of houses, with one perched at the top of the Col, 1999 meters high. And the scenery:
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At the top of the Col there was a growing group of people, mostly talking about the gentleman who was on the side of the road, but also talking about the Tour and cycling in general.

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Waterfalls? Check.
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Rugged rock formations? Check.
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After basking in the scenery, it was now time for what Tony Martin, the World Time Trial champion called “Dangerous” and “a bad road,” the descent down the Col de Sarenne.



As an amateur, I’m fully in agreement with Mr. Martin. That was even scarrier than what I had just descended. Lots of switchbacks, but that wasn’t the problem, it was the road surface. Right before you needed to brake hard, it was quite broken and bumpy, which meant you weren’t able to consistantly provide uniform pressure on the brake levers, so you’d skip around. So after the first switchback, I remembered my mantra:

  1. I am not a professional cyclist.
  2. I am not being paid to ride this bike.
  3. I am not being paid to race this bike.
  4. I would really like to make it home to see my Wife.
  5. I really would like to make it home to see my daughther.

With that in mind, I slowly and nimbly wound my way down the descent.

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The scarry part came just after I took those pictures. A lorry and a car pulled up into the switchback I was standing in, so I clipped in and continued my ride… right into the oncoming path of a street cleaner. Had I not been riding slowly due to the other cars, it might have been some extreme brakeing required. I squeezed to the left, got up some speed, and then a road closure gate. So, So glad that the car, truck and cleaner made me hyper-aware that something was awry, it would have hurt to hit that gate. I also realized that from this point back to the summit, everyone who was going to be up there had to walk from the gate. Such dedication.

The lower slopes of the Col de Sarenne were a little less “technical”, though I couldn’t pick out the right lines through the corners due to the limited sight lines now that there were trees in the way.

Oh, and cows… With Bells…
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We stopped to regroup at Clavans Le Bas. Bathrooms and a mountain-fed spring.
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A little uphill and a little descent…
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and eventually we made it to Mizoën. Postcard beautiful Mizoën. I could see myself owning land here, it was that incredible. Church on a hill, beautiful houses, and the view.

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Eventually I had to tear myself away from Mizoen, like a bandaid off a hairy arm, because Alpe d’Huez was still ahead of me on the day.

We rode the last bit of road down to the D1091 at Lac du Chambon, a dammed up part of La Romanche river. It’s a good place for hydro up here; all the water streaming off the mountains gets caught into pipes and comes out with a terrible pressure.

Gilles had the support van at the bottom, so I topped off my water, and had a madeline, and some really good chocolate.
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Will had been on the phone with one of his friends, whom he was hoping to see while we were in the area; his friend was working with another tour group as well. I mentioned to him that we should instead turn left and go up the Col du Lauteret, to the Galibier, when he mentioned that his friend was up on the Galibier and it was nasty raining up there. Plus Brackie said that he hated riding up the Lauteret, as it was highway road all the way up. So I guess this made it ok that we weren’t going up there.

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So before my legs cooled down too much due to the three stops in the last 20 minutes, it was time to get on down the road.

The ride down to Le Freney-de-Oisans, and Le Clapier was more stunning rugged beauty, even if there was nothing between the railing and a 500 foot fall. Scary bit of handling there, but it as Hors Categorie Beautiful.

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There were also a couple tunnels to ride through. This was a first for me, I hadn’t ridden my bike through any tunnels before. The first one was relatively short, yet some yahoo wanted to lay on his horn the entire length of the tunnel (250m), scaring the crap out of a couple of us. I had thought (benefit of the doubt) that it was just a very paranoid and cautious person, but Brackie said that stunts like that would find a water bottle thrown at the car with normal European Riders.

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We rallied one last time in Le Clapier20130717_104938

The road from Le Clapier into Bourg d’Ouisans was for the most part a straightaway with a minor downhill pitch. So we got into a paceline and sped down the road, though some inconsiderate bastard decided rather than wait for the 5-6 guys to pass, he’d just hop up on the side of the road and make us all swerve while he tried to get up to speed. Inconsiderate is not the word I wanted to yell at him for basically freaking us out.

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Down into the roundabout and then up towards the hill. The anticipation was causing me butterflies. I even turned down a chance to take a picture with the group at the base, I just wanted to start into Alpe d’Huez right away.

Everything that I had read about Alpe d’Huez focused mainly on the Virages (switchbacks), and that it hit you hard right at the start. This was no joke, as it was at least 10% from the get go.

It was a bit of a different atmosphere though, being the day before the Tour was to come through. We were just a few in the thousands that were riding up the mountain at the time, as compared to Mont Ventoux, where there were people riding it, but they were few in number. Also at the beginning (which oddly helped me out) was an accident of some sort; I think someone might have crashed on the descent, so the ramp up to the first switchback was cut in half as my mind did not have to completely focus on the agony of climbing, but just trying to stay upright, and keep from hitting a car, and wonder of what had happened. Needless to say, I was very surprised by how “quick” I got to the first switchback.

What they don’t tell you is that each switchback (unlike Ventoux) is flat, so you have a momemnt or two to catch your breath, get a swig of water, spin some lactic acid out, before the road bites you again. I had to stop to take pictures (when else will I be back?) and to change the battery in the GoPro.

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I grabbed onto the wheel of someone in a Team Sky kit, and used him as a pacer for a bit.

As I approached the hillside town of Huez, I saw a lot of water running down the road, and wasn’t sure what to make of it, whether to be upset that I might lose traction, or what, until I heard a kid’s voice “L’Eau?” I looked up to my left and saw a kid with a hose standing on the porch of a chalet asking if people wanted water to be sprayed on them. I grinned and nodded yes and got a small spritz of water to help cool down. It was a little hot in the sun on the lower switchbacks, and it was quite welcome.

And like other mountain sides, there were free flowing potable mountain water springs if you wanted to stop and fill your water bottles, though I had been warned that you could get the French version of Montezuma’s Revenge (Napoleon’s Revenge?) if your digestive system wasn’t ready for the change in bacteria.

So after grinding up a bit more, it was time for the highlight of the day: Dutch Corner.

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Dutch Corner is Corner 7, which, oddly, has an Italian’s name on it. Why corner 7? It’s the lowest corner that has enough real estate that you can set up a beer tent, park some cars, and pack in a good deal of people. Corners 8-21 aren’t as big as 7, plus there’s this neat church and graveyard that give it some further appeal.

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My thought was, other than the obvious, what would it take to be buried there on corner 7?

There are some Dutch that embrace the corner, there are others that call it Drunk and Disorderly Corner, it was a blast. I bought a beer (2 euros, cheap!) and partied a bit with the Dutch. Then I bought beers for Will and Brackie, and Keith as he showed up to enjoy the scene. I think that was the most beer I’ve had in one spot in quite some time.

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I’ve now become a fan of Dutch carnival music.


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After the second beer, and the change in the weather it was time to get get back on the bike. I had no luck with the GoPro for the second part of the ascent, so I had to take more pictures with the phone.

I didn’t want to get back on the bike; I wanted to spend the rest of the day on the side of the mountain, either with the Dutch, or with bike fans, but I needed to get the bike back to the hotel so it could get loaded on the bus.

My legs also did not want to get back on the bike. Like fishing sinkers they were, leaden, slow and cold, it took quite a bit of riding to get them warm again. Coupled with the cold and spitting rain, it was going to be quite the struggle up the last 6km or so.

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Obviously the grade had lessened a bit, so I could actually have the spare energy to take these pictures.
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Here’s team Saxo Bank looking for talent…

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Once I got into the town of Alpe d’Huez, I saw the non-riders of the tour taking pictures at the beginning of the town. I knew that this was not the finish line, because from having watched other climbing videos, I had to go under some building first after making a left, and then another right and left… so I gave them my best thumbs up and powered up the last 10% of the climb.

I did a bit of a sprint, but was not in the sprinting mood, as the enormity of what I had just accomplished started to break on me like waves at the sea shore. Between bouts of giddy laughter and tears, I clear went on way past the finish line, until I ran out of road by one of the ski lifts.

I unclipped from my pedals, stretched a bit, and cried again, remembering my mother and sister and what the last couple of years have come to. I so wished my mother could have been here. This was her kind of place. Lots of little shops to walk through, beautiful scenery, and a lot to experience. She would have been up all the lifts, and would have had to borrow a couple memory cards because of all the pictures she’d have taken, most of them of flowers or vegitation.

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So I cried for her and I cried for my sister. I knew at some point while she was at the Univeristy of Colorado she did ride the Tour; she had a degree in Art History and French. She would have loved to have been here. Anything adrenaline here at Alpe d’Huez, she would have done. She’d have kicked my ass riding the Alpe, then would have had time to run around the village, and probably would have rented a mountain bike and done the downhills.

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I cried for them because had they been alive, I wouldn’t be here, at the top of Alpe d’Huez. I wouldn’t have seen my own mortality, nor would I have had the fire lit to lose the weight and get in shape. I would have been watching the Tour at home on the couch.

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Rather than go back and be sorrowful about things I couldn’t change, I took hope in that I was somehow able to bring them and their memories here on the mountain with me. That through the good and the bad, and the last 6 months of both their lives, that I kept them close and was able to have them be with me here.

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Since there was more road to ride, I kept going, almost up to the next Col, but something said stop… Oh yea, most likely everyone was waiting for me back at the finish line…

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So I had a nice 2 minute descent back into town..

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Stopped to use the rest room at 1852 meters…

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…and finally found Gilles at the Arivee line.

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After some celebration, I had to go back to the hotel, get changed, and then we were going to go find a pub in which to watch the rest of the Time Trial.

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Back at the hotel.. Stood on the balcony just in the afterglow of my accomplishment, in such a serene and beautiful part of the world.
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Showered, dressed, and met everyone for the walk down towards the pubs.

On the top of Alpe d’Huez, in the big parking lot next to our hotel, there was a big 50 foot screen showing the time trial, with a lot of people packed about enthralled with what was going on. We walked past this, down to where the group had been taking pictures of me at the foot of the town.

We walked down the burg that was going to be part of the first pass through Alpe d’Huez, which Brackie said was a lot like the hills in Belgium; about 1km long and about 100 meters of climbing.

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At the foot of it, there was a family painting support for Team Saxo Bank.

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The fence was yet to be coralled into a route, allowing access to the touristy part of town.

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Here’s the underpass I knew I had to go through to get to the finish:

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We stopped at Cycle Huez, which is run by a pair of brits who were friends of our tour, to buy a couple T-shirts and my obligatory Alpe d’Huez jersey.

After stopping in 4 different pubs, there was literally no room for our 20+ group of folks to watch the ITT (which at this point in time TeeJay Van Garderen was in the lead). We walked back towards the burg, with the expectation of just hanging out with the rest of the town and watching it on the 20′ screen.

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So what would become a normal ritual for the rest of the tour: I would hang out with the guides, Jourdan, Brackie, Gilles and Will, and kind of listen in with my 11th grade understanding of French. We stopped at a British pub called the Underground, hoping to get a Guinness. They, of course, failed to oblige, being right out. So we were forced to drink the German beer they had on tap. Gilles and crew watched the France 2 streaming version of the ITT on his Iphone, while I listened into Eurosport UK being played on the televisions from inside the bar. MMmm Beer. My third of the day. I don’t think I’ve had 3 beers in a month outside of France. Usually when I’d visit my uncle at the Oyster House, it was a single beer, or maybe a second, but never 3 in a day.

Eventually, clad in my finest grey Shopify hoodie, I sauntered back to the big TV.

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Standing outside a bit, it started to mist and rain. This was of ongoing concern, because there were rumors that if it was really raining tomorrow, they’d cancel the climb up the Col de Sarenne (and subsuquent descent) and the second climb up Alpe d’Huez, really putting a stinker on the Queen stage of the race.

I did what any tourist does when given a rainy day; go shopping. On one end of the parking area was a big ski shopping center, complete with knick-knack shops, cafes (filled to the brim), ski shops, ski shops, and a slowly emptying grocery store.

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I went looking for Madelines, because that’s what I thought my wife wanted me to bring her back. There was one bag left in the store, and because of the change in altitude, the bag was plump, and I couldn’t feel whether or not the individual ones were wrapped or not, so I put it back on the shelf.

There were two things that I was happy to find. First being Powerade! Let the hydration begin! I picked up a couple bottles of that, and found…French Pocky!

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It’s called Mikado here in France, but still, it’s Glico, so I had to buy it and try it… It was normal pocky, true and true.

I went back out to finish watching the ITT, for Froome was on the road, chasing after Contador. I made it down close enough to watch Jean Christophe Peraud crash, with a big reaction from the crowd. That had to hurt, it hurt me just watching it, and then to find out that he had crashed on his training ride on that same corner and was riding with a cracked collarbone just made me want to pass out in sympathy pain myself.

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And the crowd’s reaction to Froome winning the ITT:



Dinner was back in the hotel this evening, so I went back and started hand washing some laundry. Jourdan called me at 6pm to let me know that dinner was moved up from 8pm to 7:30pm. Dinner was awesome as usual. And I went back upstairs to continue doing laundry. I figured that at 1800 meters, things would dry out quickly, but due to the storm that was incoming, or that I wasn’t wringing things out enough, things just weren’t drying quickly, not even my jerseys and bib shorts. I had everything strung out and hung up trying to dry, and was about to get to bed (it being just after 11) when the phone rang again. I figured it was Jourdan to tell me we were changing the time for something for tomorrow, but the voice was Gilles, and he was about to lay something heavy on me:

“Pete, you need to come down to the bar, I’ve got Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwin waiting here for you, and if you don’t come down right now, they’re going to bed.”

Well, what’s a cycling fanboy supposed to do, ignore something like that?

It seems that right after dinner, the Acadians all went for a walk, found a couple of the night clubs…wanting for entertainment, and ended back up at the hotel bar, when someone spotted Paul, Phil and Bob at the hotel bar, as the NBC folk had already driven up from Chorges to be here for the next stage, and they happened to be staying in our hotel. Someone chatted them up, and for the next 3 hours they all spent a rowdy time drinking. Before they all went off, the Acadians regailed my story to Phil and Paul who said they had to see me to believe it, which got Gilles involved because he knew my room number.

I told them most of my story, and they were amazed that I had lost 45kg in one year and had ridden up Mont Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez in that span of time. We also chatted a bit about Ted King, since I was still wearing my “Je ne suis pas Ted King” t-shirt. I did have to point out to Phil the “ne pas” part.

The next hour was spent rubbing elbows with a couple of the most famous voices in the sport. Both Phil and Paul were quite friendly, happy folks ready to share a story, humble, and happy to just be hanging out with normal people.

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I re-learned a lesson that I had forgotten oh these 17 years: Always go out and party with Acadians; you never know what will happen.

Oh, and it was going to be difficult to sleep anyway, all the trucks from the previous stage were coming up the mountain:

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