Tour of the Alps 2002

In early 2002, Keith asked me if I wanted to join him on a bicycle tour of the Alps. I'd been dreaming about doing just that, so I jumped at the chance. A couple of his friends who live in Colorado, Kirk and Judy, agreed to join us.

The plan was to fly to Paris, take the TGV to Grenoble and ride from there to Nice through the mountains. We decided to stop of a few days in some places to be able to explore the area without having to carry luggage on the bikes all the time; Keith, Kirk and Judy also decided to rent a car to ferrying luggage, bike cases, etc from place to place. Being car-phobic, I opted out of driving the car but did accept their very gracious offer to haul my small bag of gear around on the longer days.

The Internet is an invaluable tool for finding out information about an area and also for researching accommodations and air fare options. For me, one of the big inspirations was Jobst Brandt's Alps tour reports on the Trento Bike Pages; the Trento Pages also contain a repository of reports about touring all over Europe with much excellent information. There are a lot of other useful sites that can help in route planning, including the Virtual Alps. Private e-mail from Jobst, Serge Servadio and others experienced in the Alps was invaluable and prevented a few blunders even before we got started.

I flew Continental Airlines from Minneapolis-St. Paul to the hub at Houston, and from Houston to Paris. The flights were awful, quite frankly, with cramped conditions and poorly air conditioned planes making the trip long and miserable. I am 6'3" and while fairly thin I can barely fit into an standard economy class 777 aircraft seat- either in terms of width or leg room. Whatever sadist designed these things was 5'8" tall and 135 lbs. The airline industry ought to be ashamed for packing people like sardines and then having the gall to charge plus-size people for a second seat when the seats are barely large enough for non-obese people.

On arrival in Paris on June 20, the weather was warm and humid. I took the Air France shuttle (also poorly air-conditioned; the French seem to prefer to be very warm) from Aeroport Charles de Gaulle to the Gare de Lyon station. From there I took the Metro to the Bastille station, about two blocks from my hotel, the Hotel Castex. Hotel Castex I was very happy that my luggage consisted of only my bike bag and my Carradice saddlebag. After checking in, I took the Metro from the Bastille to the Champs Elysees and found the Institut Geographique National on the rue Boetie, where I bought some 1:125 000 scale maps for the trip (nos. 4,5,6 and 73). It was there that I discovered that making change is an art not yet fully developed in France, something that would be reinforced several times throughout our tour.

After talking with Keith on the phone regarding plans for getting to Grenoble, I went out for dinner. Walking down the Boulevard Henri IV, I crossed the Pont Sully to the Ile de St. Louis. Strolling up the Avenue de St. Louis, I shopped for a restaurant by eye. One caught my attention with two white birds in a cage sitting outside the entrance: l'Auberge de le Reine Blanche. It was a small restaurant with, as it turned out, a small staff led by Mme. Francoise Genty. I had the salade de crottins chauds fondus sur toasts, followed by the magret de canard aux cerises avec haricots vert et pommes du terre, and capped off with the charlotte aux poires maison avec creme anglaise et chocolat chaud. The entire meal was wonderful, but it was the pear cake in a vanilla creme sauce (I had to have them hold the warm chocolate sauce) that was the stop-time-and-knock-your-socks-off moment of eating in Paris. Mon Dieu! I'd go back to Paris just to have that again. My first French dining experience lived up to the hype and then some. Magnefique!

21 June 2002: Getting out of town

The next day found me again at the Gare de Lyon, this time inside of it trying to sort out the TGV situation to Grenoble. The staff at the Gare were very helpful and most spoke English fairly well- while apologizing for not speaking well. Their English was far better than my horrible French! Throughout the trip I found the French very helpful and friendly, and frequently multilingual. I speak French badly enough that it seems to encourage them to speak English! Keith found me in the ticket line and we got our railpasses validated, and then we went to the platform where Kirk and Judy were waiting. We had a couple of minutes for introductions before the train was ready for boarding.

The TGV to Grenoble took about 3 hours- a wonderful quiet smooth ride. We sailed across the middle of France at a deceptive speed; the scenery was very different from America- more very small towns with distinctive regional architecture. Being a cheapskate, I rode second class while Keith, Kirk and Judy rode in first. One thing I noticed is that the French minded their own business, unlike riding the Amtrak with Americans who tend to chat with everyone around them. The Alps began quite abruptly, rising dramatically out of the rolling plains sort of reminiscent of the mountains around Jackson Hole, Wyoming. At the gare in Grenoble, where it was very sunny and warm and quite different from Paris's weather, we assembled Keith's and my bikes while Keith and Kirk took care of the rental car. Keith and I opted to ride from Grenoble to Bourg-d'Oisans, being about 50 km or so according to the maps. Kirk and Judy both decided to drive and to unpack their hardshell bike cases at the gite in Bourg-d'Oisans. Keith and I put our bike bags in the car, along with Keith's luggage. I had my Carradice saddlebag.

Getting out of Grenoble was easier said than done. Using maps and guidebooks, I had scouted out a very simple route from the Gare to the D5, which goes south out of town and through Vizille, the birthplace of the French Revolution, and avoids the higher-traffic N91 near Grenoble. Unfortunately, the roads I had chosen turned out to be bus lanes and one-way streets going in the wrong direction. In fact it was almost impossible to find a street going in the right direction! All streets seem to lead into downtown Grenoble and only a couple lead out. We stopped at a banque to change money, which was impossible to do in Paris for some reason. After casting about a bit for directions, we found ourselves more or less accidentally on the correct road and found our way out of town on the D5.

At the southwestern edge of Grenoble, we stopped at a supermarche to get water, as it was quite hot by now, and while Keith was in the store I stayed with the bikes. An older French man approached me and started chatting. It quickly became obvious that my conversational skills were not so good and he asked me what language I spoke. When I told him "anglais" he shrugged and noted that he spoke French, Italian and some Spanish but no English. That didn't stop him, however, and he asked me where I was from. I said "Etats-Unis" and he smiled, shrugged a Gaullic shrug and then said with half-smile "Etats-Unis? Perdu, non?" I wasn't sure if he was referring to me or the U.S. as a whole. He than pointed to my bicycle gloves, which were red and black, saying "noir et rouge, noir et rouge." He then pointed to a red and black flag lapel pin and repeated "noir et rouge." He smiled, waved and walked off. I have no idea what the significance was. It was an unusual encounter, as well, in that the French don't seem to be inclined to walk up to strangers and start talking to them.

Valley The map showed no elevation information, but it was soon apparent that we were going to be climbing out of Grenoble for quite a ways. This was my first experience bicycling on French roads, and right away I noticed that French drivers seemed to have no trouble accomodating bicyclists on the road. In situations that would have baffled or enraged American drivers, the French simply waited or drove efficiently around us. This was to be repeated daily throughout the tour- I have in fact never felt so safe on roads as I did in France.

At Vizille, we joined the N91 which had moderately heavy traffic on two lanes with mostly no shoulder. The road wound between two mountains and after Rochetaillee followed along a the Romanche River bottom. It was a bit of a slog almost all the way to Bourg-d'Oisans. The scenery was a wonderful distraction, but I was a bit concerned that my fitness was not what it should be or that altitude was taking a toll (I had no idea that we were only about 700 meters above sea level nor that we were riding up a false flat, the scenery giving no indication that we were in fact climbing).

Bourg-d'Oisans was a delightful village, unashamedly yet charmingly accepting of tourists. We went right into the heart of the centre ville Bourg-d'Oisans and found a patisserie for a snack. Keith got vague directions to the gite which was in Vert, a suburb of Bourg-d'Oisans. We rode along a smooth lane next to an emerald green, crystal clear stream: the Vert from which the town gets its name. The lane wound between the buildings of Vert, the edge of the road being right up against the foundations. We saw a sign to the gite and pulled into the yard. The gite was a charming old half-stuccoed and half stone country house. Mme Pauline met us in the garden and immediately made us feel very welcome with her warm and gracious presence. She apologized profusely for her English (which was actually pretty good) and was relieved to find out that Keith and Judy were both fluent in French. Kirk and I, on the other hand, were not so good with the language.

Gite We spent the evening assembling Kirk and Judy's bikes and getting ready for our first ride. One of the other guests at the gite was a compact, wiry Belgian gentleman named Fons, a cyclosportif of many years standing. He mentioned he had ridden l'Alpe-d'Huez 123 times and was the winner of La Marmotte in 1979. His fastest time up l'Alpe-d'Huez was something like 48 minutes... very good for a non-professional rider and faster than many pros ride it. At 57, Fons looked like he'd still be plenty fast up the hill and he confirmed that he could ride to the top in under an hour still. He was there to train for this year's La Marmotte and several other cyclosportif rides in the Alps in the next couple of weeks. Fons has his own Website in Flemish. You can read his exploits in La Marmotte in 2002 and previous years.

We had supper at the gite, Mme. Pauline turning out to be a splendid chef who delighted in serving regional delicacies especially of the Romanche and Ubaye regions. We started with a glass kir in the garden, before going indoors for the meal. Most congenial! Not knowing what to expect- being unfamiliar with dinner served in many courses- I ended up overeating. Since the French eat late, we pretty much finished supper and went straight to bed, where I ended up having heartburn and had to prop myself up with pillows to get some relief. Lesson learned: pack some antacids next time! The Alpine air through the windows was crisp and soothing, and we all slept like babies.

33.2 miles (53.12 km) in 2:28:12.

On to Day 2

Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict