Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bicycling tour photos and videos

Since this blog's entries are in reverse chronological order (latest first), I'll end with a brief description of the trip.

We spent 16 days riding through the French Alps (with a day each in Switzerland and Italy) and at Mt. Ventoux in Provence, following parts of this year's Tour de France, and crossing many of the famous and very difficult mountain passes that have been in so many previous Tours such as the Col du Galibier.

There were 14 riders, our guide and van driver Alan, and his girlfriend and our cook Dagmar. Many of us met on previous tours in the Alps and Pyrenees led by Alan, and liked each other and the rides, so we keep coming back. Dave, Wendie and I have been on all four, in 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2009, and several in the group have been on two or three of the four trips. We are already talking about what to do next - maybe the Dolomites (Italian Alps)....

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Look Ma, no guardrails!

Ever since my first mountain descents I have wanted to record them with a video camera. I tried a FlipVideo in Colorado, but it bounced around way too much. For this trip I got the new Contour HD video camera from VHoldR and mounted it to my helmet for a couple of the descents. It worked great! When you watch these, I suggest clicking the Full Screen button to get the full effect.

The first video is the descent from Col du Petit St. Bernard at the Italian/French border down to Bourg St. Maurice, France. The climb up from Italy was beautiful, but you wouldn't want to watch a video of that because I was going 6-9 mph most of the way. I followed Mark down, pedaling a good part of the way as the road was smooth and not too steep. This was the end of the 2009 Tour de France stage on July 21, so we were a few days ahead of them. This was recorded in SD mode.

Video - Descent from Petit St. Bernard

The second video is the descent from Col de l'Iseran going south. We had climbed up from Bramans, through Val d'Isere. The pass had been closed the day before due to snow, and you can see some fresh snow on the side of the road. We took it easier down this descent so we could enjoy the scenery more. The camera was set to HD mode, so you can see a wider angle view over the sides.

Video - Descent from Col de l'Iseran

When you see how long and how far down the descents go you get a good idea of what it is like to climb these same mountains.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


July 26 - On Sunday night we went out to a French restaurant as a group to talk about the trip, thank Alan and his crew for organizing everything, and start talking about what comes next (the Dolomites?). The restaurant menu was a bit more complicated than what we would normally find out on the road for lunch (three choices - sandwich avec fromage (cheese), jambon (ham) or jambon et fromage (ham and cheese)), so the waitress was a little overwhelmed with all of the confusion over what we thought we were ordering. But we all had a great time before heading back for one last night in the tents.

In the morning we scurried around packing and then piled into two vans for the few hour drive up to the Lyon airport where we said our final goodbyes and headed home. It was a great trip!

Hot riders

Most of us on the trip are pretty serious riders, and several are Masters or Category 2 or 3 racers. The racing license categories go from Cat 5, the lowest, up to Cat 1 or Pro (for those that get paid and do it full time). So many of the people had power meters on their bikes to measure how hard they were working, and many had heart rate monitors and GPS units on their handlebars.

The power meters measure how much power you are putting into the bike in Watts. I keep about a 200 Watt average while climbing, a pace that lets me keep going for a long time without getting out of breath or my heart rate going above 145 or so, though my heart might be pounding a little at the higher elevations where the air is thinner. Some of the racers in the group can average in the high 200's on the climbs, but I can only do that for the shorter (mile or so) climbs where I'll let my heart rate go up to 160-175.

The human body is about 25% efficient riding, so that means that it needs to burn 800 watts to put 200 into the bike. The other 600 watts is heat! Imagine the heat from ten 60 watt light bulbs and you can understand why we can ride up mountains with snow on the side of the road yet still be in short sleeves. On flatter roads you generate a cooling breeze, but not so much at the slower speeds we go uphill, so the colder air at the top was often welcome. But as soon as we stopped on many of the mountain passes we would need to put on long sleeves, vests, jackets and full gloves to hang out there and for the descent. Then part way down the mountain you need to take it off again as the temperature goes back up. Ventoux was hot, but most of the passes in the Alps were pretty cold. Even with all of the layers on, my bike had a noticeable wobble on the Grand Saint Bernard descent into Italy because I was shivering so hard in the cold mist. Then at the bottom you are looking for a cold drink again...

Day 14 - Last rides at Mt. Ventoux

July 26 - As the Tour de France ended in Paris, we had our last day to get some rides in before packing up to leave. Some did various loops around the area including some beautiful towns in Provence and a gorge that everyone kept raving about but I didn't ride. Most of us went up Mt. Ventoux, following the route that the pros had done the day before. (There are three ways up Ventoux, and this, the Bedoin approach, is the hardest.)

The ride up was very hard, but those of us that had done it before agreed that it was easier than the last time, likely due to the cooler temperatures. It had been 100-105 degrees when we were here in 2006. I only burned 1600 calories to the top this time, taking a bit over two hours.

Mt. Ventoux is a legendary climb partly because of it's uniqueness and dramatic landscape. It is known as the Giant of Provence because it sticks up higher than anything else around there and is visible for 10's of miles around. The bottom 1/2 to 2/3 of the climb is in a forest (no pictures from there, it's just a steep road with lots of trees) and then it opens into what some compare to a moonscape with nothing but white rocks. The trees had been cut down many many years ago (some said for the French Navy ships) and the top never grew back. So you can see the distinctive white peak as you approach the mountain and forest, and then when you exit the forest you are completely exposed to the sun and wind at the top.

The climb averages about 9%, with the forest section varying between 8 and 12%. We had to breathe in the diesel fumes from the cars and trucks going up and the burning brake smells from the cars and campers coming down. One you get out of the forest you can see the rest of the climb looming before you, with the tower at the peak.

I had a big bowl of pasta at the top, with an incredible view of Provence below, and then made the fun descent back down the mountain and to the camp to watch the finish of the Tour on TV and have a last Magnum bar (ubiquitous ice cream in France) before we started packing.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Day 13 - more Ventoux race day photos

Day 13 - Mt. Ventoux race day!

July 25 - The Tour de France has had stages that finished on Mont Ventoux many times before, but this year is unusual because it is the 2nd to last stage. Usually there are a few flat stages before the finish in Paris, so the overall yellow jersey winner has been decided. But Ventoux is such a significant climb that we expected the winner to be decided here. As it turned out, Contador had a large lead over Lance Armstrong and the Schleck brothers, so he was almost certainly the winner unless something went wrong.

The day was cooler, but very windy (as it has been for the last few days of our trip) and this kept the attacks on the hill down. With a 20-25 mph headwind on a very steep 10% gradient the last few miles, if anyone tried to get away their competitors could just slip in behind them and draft, so they stuck together for the most part.

Some of us rode up into the massive crowds lining the roads up the mountain, but most of us stayed in town. The race route ran right through town, by our camp, and the winery next door. We staked out spots in front of the winery where they had a huge TV screen set up, so we watch the racers fly by and then moved to the parking lot to watch the TV coverage of the climb. It was fun to sit there watching with the mountain visible right next to the TV.

In previous tours we always saw the racers go by on a steep uphill. It's easier to see them because they go slower and are more spread out. But in town today there was a slight downhill so they were probably going about 25-30 mph when they went by. The mass of the peloton created an incredible wind as they whipped by, literally inches away from us.

For a couple of hours before the racers reach you, the crowds are entertained and revved up by the long lines of motorcycles, team cars, sponsors cars and the caravan of sponsors floats. Lots of swag is thrown out to the spectators along the road, including candy, hats, shirts, sausages, water, keychains, etc.

Day 12 - Mt. Ventoux

July 24 - The pro Tour de France is arriving in the area tomorrow, so the area is buzzing. Cyclists are everywhere, and the camp is crammed full. We are staying in the same camp until the end of the trip, so we all did our own things - rides in the area, resting, washing clothes, etc.

Mont Ventoux is an impressive site, looming above the camp and the town. The climb from here is about 14 miles and I burned 2000 calories to get to the top when we were here in 2006.

Day 11 - Sisteron to Mt. Ventoux

July 23 - We completed the trip over to our final destination, Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence. We saw the sunflowers and lavender fields the area is known for, and could see Mont Ventoux from about 20 miles away. Our route took us through Sault, on one of the ridges of the mountain, and then followed the Tour de France route from there to our camp in Villes sur Auzon, south of the mountain.

The pro Tour will arrive on Saturday, July 25th, so the area is already buzzing with bicyclists from all over, and the roads up the mountain are lined with campers and tents.

Day 10 - Jausiers to Sisteron

July 22 - After three of our toughest days, we were scheduled to have a rest day, but the schedule had been shifted due to the snow in the high passes earlier. But we had a rest of sorts with a comparatively easy ride from the high Alps over towards Mt. Ventoux in Provence, spread over two days. It was a nice change of pace and view, with more farmland and lower passes.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Day 9 (2) - Briancon to Jausiers (more pics)

Day 9 - Briancon to Jausiers


July 21 - This was the day that the pro Tour de France was riding the Grand and Petit St. Bernard passes that we had ridden a few days earlier, so we all wanted to get to the next camp quickly to watch on TV. However, we first had to cross two mountain passes, the legendary Col d'Izoard and the Col de Vars.

Many people were so tired from the Galibier and l'Iseran the previous two days that they took a shortcut to bypass the harder Izoard pass. I did both and was exhausted by the end of the day, but made it in time to watch the last hour or so of the Tour.

Jeff, Mark and I stopped at a grocery store for a quick parking lot lunch to save time. The race team riders in the group skipped lunch altogether.

It was amazing to watch the pro Tour complete their stage in about 4.5 hours. We took about twice that long, spread over two days!

Day 8 (2) - more Galibier photos

Day 8 - Galibier!

July 20 - Bramans to Briancon. After a descent into Saint Michel de Maurienne, we started the long climb up the huge Galibier, one of the toughest climbs in France. The route first goes over the Col du Telegraphe, down into Valloire where many of us stopped for a quick lunch, and then the long slog up to the Col du Galibier. It was steeper, more desolate and windier at the top, so it was a pretty dramatic climb.

After a steep and scary descent (more heavy winds) down to the Col du Lauteret, we descended the rest of the way into camp. Check out the photo of my GPS altimeter for the hill profile showing the Telegraphe and Galibier passes.

The Galibier was probably our hardest climb of the trip. Wendie rode the whole way to the top without stopping, and then collapsed over the bike in tears of joy for finally finishing.