Sunday, September 9, 2012

On the Roadside Again

Le 1000 du Sud 2012, September 5 - 8

Willie Nelson certainly did not think of randonneuring when he sang "And I can't wait to get on the road again." But I did think of his song when I picked the title for this post. So there is both forward-looking envy and some melancholia in my mind as I am writing this. Looking back into Life is not perfect, I now sense a bit of resignation in that title from a year ago already, in hindsight. I still don't know when - or even whether - I am going to get back in shape for long distances again. I do know I will have to write off the current year.

At least, I managed to participate again in this year's 1000 du Sud as a volunteer; and this included fourteen memorable hours on the roadside manning a secret control at km 760, on the way to the Col de la Couillole. For many, it may be hard to understand that I was excitedly looking forward to those mostly solitary hours. But for me, it meant an opportunity to stay at altitude in clean air (much more precious than you think!), enjoy the scenery, and provide support to fellow randonneurs who still consider me as one of them.

View from the control location (photo borrowed from here - check out the other pictures there!)

And this was my spot

But this was on Friday. Before, on Tuesday afternoon, I showed up at the start and finish location in Carcès to help with setting up tables and chairs etc. for the traditional pre-ride dinner.

Let the guests arrive!

Jean-Claude and Papou proudly present ...

Sophie, the head of Provence Randonneurs and the organizer of the brevet, must be doing something right: The number of participants increased since last year from 31 to 45! The French filled less than half of the roster; the remaining registrations came from Germany, Italy, England, the Netherlands and the USA, which was represented by Robin L. from the Eastern Pennsylvania Randonneurs. 

Robin made me the gift of admitting that he decided to come and ride the 1000 du Sud mainly because of my Wine and Cheese piece in the American Randonneur.

The start time of 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning left enough room for a leisurely breakfast and some more socializing.

Under a cloudy sky (but with a favorable weather forecast),  Sophie set up a table for the start control:

and as soon as the bells from the clock tower rang 8 a.m., the 45 randonneurs were on their way.

I helped with cleaning up L'Oustaou per toùti (the house for all) and found some additional reasons to extend my stay in the "green Provence" until I really had to drive some 50 miles back home. How I wished I could have been on the road again with my friends, or at least stayed in Carcès ...

By Thursday afternoon, I had loaded the car with what I anticipated to need for my "secret control" assignment, and drove about two hours up into the Alpes Maritimes

The red dot at the top indicates the control location
I'm borrowing some more photos from Sophie's collection to give you an idea about the scenery (I had my hands full with driving on the narrow, twisty roads and didn't take any pictures):

Originally, I had planned to sleep in the car; this way, I would be on the spot even for very fast riders who might pass as early as 3 a.m.. But my spouse Ghislaine didn't like the idea and insisted I get a place to sleep (and a dinner, and a breakfast) at the Fripounière, located right next to the Col de la Couillole. The only problem was that I needed to get out of bed before 3 a.m., to drive down about two miles on the west side of the pass to a spot where I had cell phone coverage, so I could communicate with Sophie who was at the previous secret control and gathered information about the riders as they passed through, so I could estimate when to expect them. And so I slept in the car anyway - until I was awakened by the first rider shortly before 5:30 a.m.. He said he had indeed hoped to get through the night without a sleep stop; and then he would have been at my control possibly even before 3 a.m.!

The sunrise was glorious, and I felt lucky to be where I was. I had all the morning for myself - the next riders showed up after 11 a.m. only! - and used the time to practice my Zither playing out in the open air (did you notice the instrument on the table in the third picture from the top?). I only put it away when "rush hour" occurred, around noon. The big majority of randonneurs passed before early afternoon; they were well within the time limit, despite an extremely demanding route with about 50,000 ft of elevation gain, including the Col de Cayolle at nearly 8,000 ft!

Zither, food and control stamp on the table

I then counted down the last four or five remaining randonneurs; as long as they would pass before 5 p.m., they still had a fighting chance to finish within the time limit of 75 hours. They were also the ones who could use a couple of uplifting words. From my own experience, I knew very well how they felt, severely exhausted, with empty and badly hurting legs. Then again, I wished I was in their shoes. To repeat the obvious: even if I had been in my best shape from earlier last year, I would definitely not have been able to be where they were at that time of the ride!

Eventually, by around 5 p.m. my rider list was all signed and stamped, and I could pack up and leave. I knew from Sophie that several other riders had "opted out" earlier from chasing the clock; they took more recovery time in the first or second night and wanted to finish the ride "touristic style." Given the extreme nature of the parcours, Sophie anticipated and actually encouraged that approach for riders who were at risk of missing control closure times. As much as I would have liked, it didn't make sense to wait for them. They did not expect to find me there, anyway.

I went back to the Fripounière, used the remaining two hours before dinner time for a rewarding hike around the neighborhood, and fell fast asleep in my bed as soon as I had finished dinner. On Saturday morning, I drove back to the finish in Carcès, but arrived "hors delai" (past the time limit); I had underestimated the time it would take on the narrow, winding roads. Also, I didn't hesitate to stop and enjoy the scenery; I did it "touristic style." I had hoped to still catch up with some participants on the road, but didn't see anybody: all those who came through my control finished within the time limit! Given the difficulty of the route, a finishing rate of 30/45 is pretty good; and this is without counting the hors delai finishers. Sophie certainly was happy with this successful third edition of the "1000 du Sud." And I was happy for having been part of it, even though on the roadside again.

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!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

It's Magic!

Shell Beach, February 2012

Yes, I did do some (minimal, but satisfying) training since my last post; and no, I am not ready yet to sign up even for a short 200k. But at least, I feel healthy again. It appears that my repeated and extended stays in Shell Beach do a lot of good to me.

So, why don't I get in more bike rides, then?

Well, you see, this time I was being called upon to act in a movie (and otherwise help with the production in various ways); and that took so much time and energy, there was none left for bike riding!

Let me explain.

My daughter Fabienne has been mentioned several times in this blog already, alone or with her sister Valerie (check out this or this). Given that it's considered very bad taste (where I come from) to brag about one's children, I won't. It's just a fact that they happen to be talented in some areas, with Fabienne being a good bit more show-offing than the others and more determined to pursue a rather artistic life. Her list of "professions" includes (in no particular order) violinist, dancer, actress, writer, graphic artist and singer, which makes it hard for her to select a specific career. Consequently, the parents were hardly surprised when they learned that she and friends had decided to make a movie (a short film of about 15 minutes) to be entered in competitions. They were only surprised when they learned that they would be somehow involved in the project ...

Fabienne wrote in short order a script (after all, she is also a UCLA graduate in English and Film) with working title "It's Magic!" She knew or found all the many expert friends and connections it takes to make a (low budget) movie, and after an initial location scouting trip with director and camera, brought the whole crew of well over twenty competent and passionate movie makers in various denominations to - Shell Beach!

Before coming to Shell Beach, Fabienne and Nayda spent several days casting to find the best fit for the various as yet unassigned roles - a long story in itself, way too long for this blog! In the end, it all worked out, except for the role of a "sweet, french-speaking grandpa." The auditioning candidates all looked too much like criminals. Now what? - Yes, you guessed right. Fabienne promoted me from retiree to actor, and director Nayda approved. According to the script, I was still at least five years too young, so I didn't shave until after the shooting. I don't think it made me look older; rather, it made me look more like a criminal. But I didn't have anything to say, other than my lines; and that's what I did.

I know that for people like Fabienne (and many others, I'm being told) it's a dream to be in front of a camera, acting as if it were. I am a little sorry to say that there is no future for me in this line of work. The required enthusiasm and passion just isn't there (it's elsewhere, for me!). But the whole experience of accompanying, watching, assisting the big crew for several days in a row, meeting and getting to know all those brilliant, creative, talented, passionate, generous present or future professionals was priceless. I felt motivated myself (regardless of my missing predestination for acting or the whole movie business), and I was finally able to understand Fabienne's favorite environment much better.

It may sound shocking to them, and they may not quite get the "compliment", but I did find parallels to what I for myself appreciate in randonneuring. Those movie people think nothing of getting up at ungodly hours to set out for a long day of indulging in their passion and they think nothing of staying up late at night and keep going until the same ungodly hours. They put up with unfavorable conditions (to put it mildly) smiling, and they don't mind eating a cold lunch at 5 p.m. (with nothing since breakfast, because there was too much pressure to get the job done in time) on the sidewalk in front of the theatre, barely protected from the battling rain:

They feel a connectedness with their likeminded just as the randonneurs do during a brevet, and they demonstrate and live camaraderie at its finest. In other words: I liked it!

When, in addition, the situation called for carrying rather heavy equipment (they have use for lots of heavy-duty sandbags and weight-lifting accessories to weigh down the tripods and camera cranes and jibs) up and down some serious stairs:

to set up the shooting of Fabienne's dancing on the beach (see third picture from the top), the randonneur apprentice was more than happy to oblige and even do some extra up-and-downs, faster than necessary, just for the heck of it. The DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) in the legs two days later was a sweet recompense.

But he still would rather be back on his bicycle.

Photo credits: Some of the above pictures are from set photographer Nick Altamirano.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


January 2012, Shell Beach

There is a reason for the question mark in the title. Quite simply: I feel am not there yet, in opposition to my idealistic and naive expectations, and in contrast to what I suggested ten months ago. Then again, I did hint at that time already that - who knows - the big life style change might bring along some psychotic disturbances.

Over the last year, I was fortunate enough to accumulate some of the most rewarding long-distance rides ever. True, I missed the last of my three big goals for 2011; but even that miss came with its own rewards. In parallel, however, I have not been so fortunate in some other areas, mainly related to my lifelong fragility of the respiratory tract, in particular during the last third of the year. Some special other circumstances (not everything belongs in a blog) made that my last post, over three months ago, became a thinly disguised admission of, shall we say, discouragement.

That's the moment to say Thank You to my friends who called me up or otherwise let me feel, more or less cautiously, that they wanted me to be back on the bike and in shape again, soon. I am particularly grateful to those who managed to inspire me with new goals and who shared their own doubts about how far and for how long we randonneurs and unconditionally excessive long-distance riders really should go with our common delightful obsession. 

And so I am back on the bike. Here is proof of it. 

For this first little ride since the finish of PBP, I had to borrow Fabienne's bike (I had left mine in Europe). When she emailed me the question how her bike was doing, I sent her the above picture in response, with the caption "It's under the cow." - I rode out from Shell Beach (which has been mentioned many times before in this blog; e.g., scroll down to the end of this) to test my legs and lungs on the See Canyon climb (nearly 800 ft in 1.5 miles). I didn't expect to perform well, and I didn't. But the climb gave me good sensations and made me very happy ...

This was nearly two weeks ago, and since then I tried to maintain a minimum of rather casual training, mainly for the purpose of improving my health. However, there is currently so much else going on in this retiree's life (traveling back and forth for family obligations between Mountain View, Shell Beach and Los Angeles, among much else; I do have plans to reveal some of it later in this blog) that the "training" involves more setbacks than improvements.

But, no complaining: the obligations are often quite sweet, and the fact that I have lost the focus on preparing for and achieving ambitious goals on the bike makes me spend more time on thinking and philosophizing about my raison d'être in this stage of life. It's a matter of reshuffling priorities. I know I am not alone in this situation.

Since I committed myself to become a randonneur apprentice, about six years ago, I have achieved more than I could have reasonably expected, even though I did not succeed at everything I attempted, and even though I didn't get to attempt everything I wanted. The failures were precious as well, because they made me experience where my limits are. The scheme of RUSA awards appeals to some childish desire to gather brownie points; I admit that I gathered enough of them to become an Ultra Randonneur. I even received gentle comments which questioned my denomination of apprentice, given the substantial list of completed brevets and randonnées.

The above might sound a little as if I was trying to motivate my retirement from randonneuring. Not so quick!  I still want to maintain my ability to safely, healthily and not too slowly ride long distances on a bicycle and I want to be ready again for Paris-Brest-Paris 2015. And I honestly believe that randonneuring is inherently a never ending apprenticeship.


With all this being said, I plan to include in this blog over the coming months more and more subjects which are not related to bicycling. I want to demonstrate that the randonneur apprentice does well to deemphasize the focus on long-distance bicycling events and to expand his horizon to unrelated endeavors.

Because that turns out to be now my fundamental understanding of being in retirement ...