Monday, 21 November 2011

Alpine experiences - Stage 2

Taninges is a small town, with one main avenue heading up a shallow gradient to a junction where it converges with the valley road that runs perpendicular to it. This junction is at the heart of the town and has several minor roads leading off it. Nothing unusual there for a junction! However, off to one side, there is a triangular statue which forms a roundabout of sorts that can be used, or not, as the mood takes you. There are no traffic controls and road markings are as good as useless. This 'roundabout' is a cause of mayhem, even without english cyclists appearing. And it certainly wouldn't help matters if those cyclists had just had a tiring journey and were still getting used to riding on the opposite side of La rue.
Imagine this but busier, with some queuing and then trying to approach on a bike, clipped in to your pedals
So yes, stupid junction me and my brother (English cyclists) impending mayhem. Junction survived, we attempted one road out of the town centre. This quickly turned into a dead end. We then realised we forgot something and so had to confront this void of vehicular conformity thrice more that day!

Anyway, as you will see below, my light weight brother (gravity is more kind to him) decided that rather than go up the boring (easy) pass road [red], it would be better to go up through the old town road [blue]. Proper roads! What followed was some of the steepest gradient I have ever ridden. It certainly highlighted the fact that I was over geared, riding a 39 x 25 as my lowest gear. I was struggling within 1 mile of having set off.
[If you look at how the red main pass heads off to the West for quite some way before switching back to then head East for a time. If you compare this with the blue route to the same northerly point, you can maybe start to grasp how steep this road was. This East West East sweep is built in, to neutralise or minimise the extreme gradient of the lower part of the mountain.]

I don't know what I was thinking, taking such a high geared bike to the alps, but I suppose when you're mentally planning for your greatest riding undertaking, you don't want to do anything but take your best bike. I think over all it was the right decision. Gearing is not the only aspect to consider in the high mountains. Having a weildy bike below you, with good brakes, really is a blessing when you are likely to be descending at high speed for up to 40 mins and although it may have had high gearing, the lower weight and greater efficiency would be a benefit over the many hours of climbing - at least this is what I was telling myself whilst grinding up that first 25+ % gradient.

There is something satisfying about trying to go slow enough to keep your heart rate below your red zone, whilst still going fast enough not to keel over. This all within 15 mins of starting! If only I could say that it was the view that took my breath away!

The road gradually got easier as we gained altitude. I have to say I still had no idea what to expect when it came to duration of climb. My brother had always said to me that alpine gradients are around 8% average which doesn't seem that much until you work in that you are looking at hours of continuous 8% gradient. It is all very well knowing these facts, but until you experience it, it is very difficult to get an impression.

The example my brother used to use as the best example near where we lived was a climb along the North downs way up to a place called Ranmore Common just outside Dorking. It is undulating, similar in look to alpine roads and about the right average gradient. A fit rider can climb it in about 10 mins. We'd be doing the equivalent of close to 20 times that in one continuous climb at points in this 'holiday'...but I digress.

So we continued up the old town road, which went straight up and then swung toward the main pass, at the point at which the water course cut itself a sheer path between the two peaks. Crossing a bridge onto the main road, the gradient got shallower again and the road surface smoother. My brother was hugely unimpressed by how boring this route was and how busy the traffic was, but I found the merits in how mesmerising the flow of the river was as it waltzed its way below the asphalt on it's relentless gravity driven mission down the mountain side. - I have to say, that to be able to actually sit down in the saddle at this point was a bit of a treat for me.

Making better progress, we came out at the truly uninspiring and deserted ski resort of Les Gets. Getting the pronunciation correct, for my delirious and immature mind gave me a 20 sec distraction. I felt strangely fresh body wise and was surprised to see the pass start making its way down hill so soon. My brother is convinced we missed the summit road. No matter, we had bigger fish to fry that day!

Our first proper descent was a bit forgettable, but I suppose the area was not that inspiring. I almost cut it from my memory. We spent a bit of time rolling through Morzine. Pretty surreal to be there. I love the alpine cabin/chalet style and this was my first experience of a classic ski town rather than a commercially created resort.

I didn't feel as good after that first bit of descent and our first full on climb of the trip was only minutes away - It was hard to distract myself from this fact and there was almost a bit of tension, not in an interaction sense, but more in an expectation way. Hard thing to describe, but the type of feeling that lifts if you just deal with the impending doom of the task to come - man up - and get on. Working this out at the time though was not easy. This mental distinction, I found very hard to get a grasp of throughout the trip, firstly because I generally don't think that deeply about things, lolloping emotionally through life and secondly because there was a baseline fatigue that made any type of thought formation difficult.

The Col de Joux Plane. A climb of tour de France fame. At only 1700 vertical metres it is not one of the monsters of the alps, but is known for it's difficulty nonetheless. We were actually attempting it from the 'easy' side from Morzine. 10.9 kilometres (seven miles) at an average gradient of 6.5% with the steepest gradient being 11%. Again though, it started very steep out of Morzine and I for the first time started properly suffering. I was looking at my brother who was much better geared and really wishing I had the lean physique that he was no doubt enjoying (well...) in an environment that suited him down to the ground.

Don't get me wrong, I am no heavy weight. At as good as 6 ft tall, and 75 kilos, I am probably a good example of average to skinny build, with a fair amount of muscle mass. My brother on the other hand being maybe an inch or two shorter hovers around the 60 kilo mark. In stone terms, that is around 11 and a half vs 8. Stacking four bikes on his shoulders would just about even us out in weight. A crazy thought and something I frequently reminded him of as he danced on his pedals in front of me.
With cycling, as with many sports there is no substitute for body type. There is a reason that 'climbers' tend to be the small wirey guys in cycling, because they don't require so much in the way of muscle mass to have a good power to weight ratio. In building muscle to gain an advantage, I'd also be strapping weight to my bones. It is so much about physique. I was jealous!

In the end though this wasn't a competition or at least not with each other. We were competing against the mountain. We were here to conquer and that we did. I was tempted to write on describing to you our experience further up the Joux Plane, but I spent time editing a video of our trip, so why duplicate effort when in this case, the video would probably do more justice to our experience. The first 2.18 of the video is the Col de Joux Planes. Check out the hairy descent! Enjoy!


  1. Great write up Ollie.
    I seldom think properly about cycling, but reading your descriptions (and generally hearing them from you), and watching that descent video, really get me thinking that it is something I should try one day. Plus, my figure is nearly as demure as Andrews.

  2. @Anthony
    Thanks man. Riding in the alps truly is one of those BIG experiences. Something I know you would appreciate and you'd certainly float up those mountains. Plus I'm sure you'd have the mental strength to deal with the grind.