Sunday, April 22, 2012

Chalet Reynard

Bédoin, April 15, 2012

If you are among the initiated, the title of this post and Bédoin are enough (or do I have to explain Mont Ventoux?); I nearly hear you click your tongue. If not, I recommend to mentally replace the title by "On Vacation (continued)" - and to continue reading.


As mentioned here, I followed the Tour de France since my early teenage years and learned about the Mont Ventoux well before Tom Simpson's death on this climb, in 1967. When I looked up some information about amphetamines, I found more than a reference to Tom Simpson, and more than I wanted to know. Maybe the teenagers of today could indirectly learn something from that part of cycling history?

But don't let me get side-tracked. The point is that the Mont Ventoux climb, while not the most difficult one in the world, certainly is the most legendary. For about fifty years I have been dreaming of riding it. As unlikely as it sounds, I have never been able to make it happen, despite all the time I spent in the geographic vicinity (only about 150 miles away) since 1970. Instead, I kept reading about it and decided long ago to some day join the list of well over 4000 cyclists so far who climbed the Mont Ventoux three times in a day on each of the three routes (from Bédoin, Malaucène and Sault), and be awarded the official title of Cinglé du Mont Ventoux (crazy of the Mont Ventoux).

The realization of that project will have to wait. I believe I was well enough in shape last summer, but the calendar constraints didn't permit an attempt. I know I am not in shape for it now, and not by a long shot. But I have time. The oldest "graduate" who achieved the distinction was over 80.

Meanwhile, on our most recent vacation trip (visiting with family and friends, sight-seeing the french countryside), I finally managed to lure Ghislaine to the Hotel des Pins in Bédoin and to bring my bicycle along. The meteorological conditions were threatening and generally unfavorable. It was uncertain whether this first acquaintance with the charming little town of Bédoin would allow me to actually try the Mont Ventoux climb by bike. All the more that in the afternoon of our arrival, we took advantage of the dry roads to drive up to Chalet Reynard by car and get to know the place together. More than once the thought crossed my mind that this might have been my only chance to ride - there were enough dark-grey clouds and pessimistic weather forecasts for the next day, and I didn't have enough bad-weather equipment (not to speak of the lacking physical and mental conditioning) to attempt an ascent (and, worse, the subsequent descent!) under cold rain with severe gusts. Besides, Ghislaine would have known how to block me from doing it. I found some consolation in the idea that by staying relaxed, generous and attentive towards Ghislaine's preferences, I was working on my karma.

The road was closed above Chalet Reynard, about 6 km from the summit. That means, we didn't get to see the most attractive portion of the climb and didn't get to the top. On the other hand, it was so cold and windy that we didn't mind that much.

On a rare sunny moment, just above the road closure
Instead, we sought refuge in the famous Chalet Reynard:

 and enjoyed a coffee with a crêpe aux marrons:

In the evening, back in the hotel restaurant for dinner, I unintentionally overheard the intriguing conversation of the three men on the table next to ours. Much of it was in Italian, some of it in English and the rest (to order the meals) in French. Clearly, they were cyclists and planned to attempt the ascent for the next morning. It didn't take long and they offered to take a picture of Ghislaine and me, in order to build a connection and to make us push our tables together. We learned that the trio consisted of Pietro, his driver Luigi, and a client Steve ("Stepano") from Perth, Australia. And climbing the Mont Ventoux was on the list of the client, of course. I must have bragged enough about my own history with bicycling that they insisted I join them for the ascent, next morning: start at 9:15 a.m.. Luigi would carry the additional clothing for the descent; and at worst, we could even use the van for the downhill if the conditions were too bad!

We had set the alarm, but I woke up well before by the scary sound of horrible winds in the pines around the hotel: uh-oh! Still, around 8 a.m. I walked out into the parking lot to prepare my bicycle - and I saw the embarrassed Lake Como Cycling trio ready to set out. Pietro apologized profusely and explained that they had to make the decision to leave without me, right away, because - he turned around and pointed at the sky. There was a huge wall of wind-driven black clouds in the West. I shuddered, reassured Pietro, Luigi and Stepano, and ran back to our hotel room. "Sorry Ghislaine, you'll be alone for breakfast. I am leaving immediately. The guys are already up the road!"

In my haste, I forgot to take the camera along - you'll have to take my word for what I am telling you. 

The Mont Ventoux climbs are probably the most thoroughly documented climbs of all. Here is the route from Bédoin, reputed as the "classic" one and the most difficult:

Altimetry from Bédoin

The first six kilometers are not only easy (with nice views back down to Bédoin and the surrounding vineyards), but Seigneur Mont Ventoux received me with an extremely generous tailwind - I felt like flying and became very optimistic. The road steepened at about the same time as it entered the forest, which shielded me from the wind to a large extent. This was good, because now the wind would often be in my face, and I didn't like that. The temperatures were low, very low, and I had kept my clothing light for the ascent; but I produced a lot of sweat dropping down nonetheless, even while feeling the cold creep up from my toes and fingers. Around km 9, two things happened: a) I had to resign myself to shift into my lowest gear (don't ask!); b) it started to snow. The snow was light and didn't seem to reach the ground. There was too much wind which just made it swirl around my face.

The sustained climbing and the lack of form made that I felt some muscle twitching - the precursor of cramps. I had to scale back my ambitions if I wanted to stay on the bike. At about that time, Pietro and Stepano came back down, followed by Luigi in the van. I calculated that they must have turned around at Chalet Reynard. Even though cyclists could go through the road closure and continue to the top, it was a somewhat extreme proposition even for well-prepared cyclists, given the howling winds out in the open on the last six kilometers and the low temperatures. In addition, the descent would be hellish. As for myself, I had given up a while ago already on any intention to even try. It had became painfully clear that I was not in shape for a full Mont Ventoux ascent this time, regardless of the conditions. I had to be content with reaching Chalet Reynard.

And I was! Childish as I am, I did not forget to take my time for the 15 km: 1h55. That should be easy to improve, next time ...

During the last kilometers, I had the nice surprise of being passed (at about twice my speed) by some 40 amateur racers: I had no idea there was a race going on. While I put on my additional layers and equipment for the descent and noticed the stiff fingers and cold feet, in a corner of Chalet Reynard, I watched them turn right onto the road that descends to Sault; so, no pure hill climbing, but a full-fledged road race!

On my way down, I must have produced a lot of heat on the rims from braking; but the priority was to reduce the wind chill and to keep my core temperature at a tolerable level. I crossed many more cyclists grinding uphill, one dad with his teenage son on a tandem, plus a runner, and maybe a hundred hobbyist cyclists. Climbing the Mont Ventoux is popular even under not so good weather conditions!

On arrival at the hotel parking lot, I met Pietro, Luigi and Stepano again; they prepared their departure for a long drive back to Lake Como. I couldn't help blurting out, jokingly: "That was easy!" But when I got off the bike, I could barely walk - my extremities appeared stiff. I needed a long, hot shower ...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

On Vacation

Andon, March 31 - April 9, 2012

Given that I am in retirement, my choice of the title for this blog post may appear frivolous (shouldn't I be on permanent vacation?) It is true that, according to people who think they know, I have always been unclear on the concept of vacation. My definition "Work is when you would rather be elsewhere; vacation is when you can do what you want" didn't mesh with the understanding and the expectations of my surroundings. But it allowed me to assert that I really worked only very rarely, and that I had vacation time even more rarely. Then again, the more profound and more embarrassing question is: What do I actually want to do? All I can say is that there is no single answer; my priorities for "vacation" have been changing a lot over time, and certainly continue to be changing.

This time, I owe my vacation time entirely to my wife Ghislaine. She took the initiative to reserve a week in a somewhat remote gîte, a little bit over an hour in the backcountry of the Côte d'Azur, at an altitude of around 4000 ft, with super clean air (no coughing all week long!) and unlimited opportunities to hike (together) and to ride the bike (alone).

Given that I am still very far away from a decent conditioning, my bike riding was necessarily limited: after 20 - 25 miles my legs were tired enough, and I needed a day off to recover - only four rides with barely 80 miles total! In my defense, the area does not offer many flat stretches, and I actually sought out the climbing because I like it. What counts much more than impressive distances and elevation gains, however: It was a week that made me (and my wife) happy. We tried to extend our week, and managed to add two extra days (because of reservations, there was no availability beyond that). And we decided to come back for another week at the end of this month.

Come to think of it, maybe a reason for our happiness lies in those *short* biking distances: only about two hours every other day. And because my ambitious (even though pathetic) climbing gave me sore and tired legs, I was perfectly happy and not so routinely impatient with Ghislaine's more contemplative approach to our daily hiking experiences. Not that I don't want to regain the ability to ride long distances and get back into good shape again; but there could be a lesson in it for me ...

Here are some pictures:

The house where we stayed

Looking over to Caille from the Col de Cornille 

My bike just loves to get its tires onto snow!

First "col" of the week (220m in well under 3 km)
Great views and very easy 

One of my favorites (not quite 300m in 4.5 km - fairly easy) 
Buffalos in Haut Thorenc - not far from the Col de Bleine. "Wild and Free"

Gréolières village - ruines are always good for a photo

To recover from bicycling, I took Ghislaine on hikes: here above the Col de Bleine
In the background: the ruines of Castellaras where we hiked up a couple of days earlier

We hiked on the flats between Andon and Caille when the weather was rainy

The friendly and pretty cows of Thorenc looked at us in disbelief
But we got to see marvelous rainbows in exchange (here looking towards Castellane)
Last day: ride to Gréolières-les-Neiges, view from Vista Point. Fresh snow in the Alps!