La Grimpée du Galibier bike race
July 26, 2000

Distance: Approximately 36 km.
Climbing: ~2120 m.
Map: Michelin #244, Rhône-Alpes
Télégraphe/Galibier Profile: Atlas des Cols des Alpes, Volume 3, P. 150

I woke up at 6:30 still feeling the effects of yesterday's ride - a little stiff and slightly elevated heart rate. Oops. Oh well. Down to breakfast.

After breakfast I went out on the bike to find the race registration. It was pretty brisk, say low 50's, and the streets were still wet from the rain yesterday but the sky was clear. I'd understood from email correspondance with the organizer that the start was on the main drag somewhere in the town but riding up and down the N6 for a few K's in either direction from the hotel turned up nothing. I was concerned that something was wrong when I noticed a rider near a parked car in the lot across from the hotel. I asked him if he was looking for the race and he said he was and that he was going to check a parking lot on the D902 right at the bottom of the climb. I hadn't bothered to check there. Duh.

At registration I was suprised to find out that one of the folks there spoke perfect English. Come to find out she's a college student (Swarthmore) studying in France for the summer. She got my questions about water handups and support answered and I was soon ready to go.

The plan was to set a pace that I knew I could keep easily to the top of the Télégraphe and save something for the last section after Plan Lachat. This was the only sane plan since my biggest climbing day of the year up to that point was the day before. ;^) Seriously. One day at home I'd ridden 10 repeats of the Great Blue Hill. That was my biggest climbing day of the year before coming to France. (10 times 1.4 K @~9.5% for a total of 1324M of climbing.)

It was starting time and the weather was coming around quite nicely with temps rising to the 60's or so. Just right. I rode back to the start area and it soon became apparent that although there weren't many riders here those who showed were serious. I felt conspicuous as one of the only riders with unshaven legs. I quietly lined up towards the back of the group.

After some pre-race announcements (which I understood not at all) we were off. The fast guys attacked the hill from the start. I stuck to my plan and held a steady pace that wouldn't take too much out of me. Nonetheless I started passing riders soon after the start. Always happens.

At a point where the climb eases a bit, around where the road to Valmeinier breaks off, I was caught by two guys without dossards (racing numbers) who were evidently racers out on a training ride. Along with them were a few of the guys I'd passed. They weren't going all that much faster than I was so I latched on to the back of the group trying to keep contact without spending too much. It wasn't that hard and we rolled along picking up a few more on our way to the Col du Télégraphe, led most of the way by the two non-dossards.

I was sure that I was going to get decisively dropped on the descent to Valloire given my history as the worst descender in any randomly chosen group of cyclists but managed to keep perfectly in touch on the first, admitedly easy, first few K's. Then, on the slightly steeper second half, I let them slip away a bit as I had doubts about the integrity of the glue job on the front tubular. When the road leveled as it entered Valloire I was still in sight of the last guy in the group. Phew!

Slowing half-heartedly I looked for the fountain that the race director said we could find near the information booth but saw nothing and decided to press on. I still had a bit of energy drink in the bottle and decided it was better to try to regain contact with the group and depend on the water handup at Plan Lachat.

Picking up the pace for 2 or 3 km. I caught up with the group on a flat stretch just above Valloire. They were taking it easy, probably saving it for the hard part of the climb after Plan Lachat. That was fine with me since I was starting to feel the effort. Out of the trees we feel the first rays of prolonged, direct sunlight and although it isn't warm I swear I feel it baking my skin. Altitude? Thining ozone layer? Dunno.

It's after 10:00 AM and we're passing cyclo-touristes who have likely stayed over night at Valloire before conquering the Galibier. Some have the lightly loaded bikes typical of credit card touring and some the full diesel truck treatment. I see the very same two fellows who I remember from yesterday climbing the Télégraphe and am glad to see they made it. Allez! Courage!

Looking back down the Galibier at Plan Lachat.

By the time we reach the flat stretch just before Plan Lachat only myself, the 2 non-dossards and two others remain. I need some water now and am glad the water handup is coming. Unfortunately it turns out to be half-filled bottles (plain old plastic soda bottles, not cycle bidons) of eau minerale con gas. Oh well. I guzzle it down and stuff the bottle in the back pocket just as the road makes a sharp right and crosses the little bridge that begins "the hard part" - 8 or 9 K of 8 or 9 percent.

I put it into the 26 immediately trying not to go too hard. I'm certainly feeling it now and after a short while there are only four of us left of the original group that crossed the Télégraphe together. The two non-dossards are there along with myself and one other guy. He's been doing this surge-and-fade thing. Now he's pushing on the front opening a small gap. Now he's back in the group. Now he's off the back. Eventually he's off the back for good. And then there were three.

And I'm not feeling too well myself. Not long after Plan Lachat I had started to feel the beginnings of a hamstring cramp. By about half way into the hard part staving off the leg cramp becomes the paramount object. Although it's not the way I normally climb I find that riding the steep, inside of the switchbacks at slightly lower rpms aggravates it less. Easy does it. Turn it around. Easy. Easy.

We're moving along painfully slowly and at times the speed slows to 10 or 11 kph. I can only assume that the 2 buddies are in similar difficulty since they haven't dropped me. At one point, feeling guilty for riding the back of the group since being caught before the Télégraphe, I go to the front to take a pull into a headwind. Yeah, like it makes a difference at this speed. I look back and I've unintentionally gapped the guys so I slow and wait for them to come back. Oops. Sorry.

Even though we're all clearly tired we still try to pick it up a bit on the gentler sections. Yeah. We love this, or else why would we do it? But still there comes a time on a day like this when you really want the top to come. For me that time has come. My mind is in the end game - wondering how much farther it is until the top, nursing the hamstring along. Then we see the summit of the col above. The odometer reads 33.5 K and the course is supposed to be 35 K. Hmm. That's more than 1.5 K. Damn.

The Galibier - close to the top? Is that snow-capped peak La Meije?

It turned out to be a bit more than 1.5 K but not much. We slog along together and the summit comes closer. The last K, as the profile predicts, is the hardest one. We ride until there's no more up left, well, no more paved up anyway. And it's a wrap. My time, a blistering 2:12:08.

It's cool as can always be expected this high up but not cold and the sun is shining through clear blue skies with only a few whispy clouds. Nonetheless I put the rain cape on as soon as I clip out to fend off a chill. Time to relax, look at the scenery and begin to enjoy the feeling that one can only get from completing something like this.

Climb stats:

Section of course Split
Start to Télégraphe
47:23
Télégraphe to Valloire (descent)
7:28
Valloire to Plan Lachat
37:44
Plan Lachat to Col du Galibier
39:33
Start to Finish
2:12:08

Looking north (the way we came up) from le Col du Galibier.

The scenery is some of the best so far - typical of the "awesome" high passes of the alps - barren gray and brown rock, distant snow covered peaks and of course a serpentine road snaking up above and down below.

On talking with the two buddies they tell me that they thought the race started at 9:30. Oops. It was actually 9:00. They got to the start late and got onto their bikes as fast as they could but the race had left already. Their time was 2:10 so they lost around two minutes. Oh well.

After lingering a while I get on and descend back to Valloire for the awards ceremony. I wanted to see how fast the winners did it in and where I fit into the picture. Not that I have any pretensions of greatness or even of mediocrity but hell I just wanted to know. I'm quite hungry and there's a snack stand set up near the awards area. I decide to splurge and get a ham and cheese sandwich French style. It's "jambon blanc" and roblochon cheese, which seems to be like Brie (I'm a cheese Philistine though so I could have this all wrong). These two are put inside a foccacia type bread and folded over and put into something like a waffle iron and seared until the bread is blackened. Very tasty.

Well the results are posted by now so I go over and take a peak. The race was won by Frederic Fichard in a time of 1:45:59. My own ride, some 26 minutes slower, was good enough for 29th out of 60 finishers. Yeah, top 50%! Looks like my aspirations to mediocrity were well justified.

Later that year I got a letter from a cycling acquaintance, François, who lives in Switzerland. In the letter he tells me that he knows the guy who came in 13th place. He's 50 years old and did a time of 1:58:43 and this coming back after "a very serious accident". François also says something about him entering eighteen 24 hour races in the 70's and winning every one.

My Grimpée du Galibier diploma

After socializing at the post race ceremony I returned to St. Michel-de-Maurienne, got cleaned up and scooted across the street to the "Quick-Snak" place for a grande Salade Niçoise. Afterward it was time to take care of some touristic duties. I wanted to buy a bottle of white wine for my parents who, contrary to the trend, prefer it to red. I asked Mdm. Barbarot, the wife of the hotel proprietor, if she could recommend a good regional white and she graciously brought me two sampler glasses of different varieties, compliments of the house. We're conversing in Franglais with Mdm. Barbarot doing her best in English and I in French. The one called Chignin Bergeron, was a bit sweeter and I guessed my folks, who like white wine after dinner, would like it. I asked Mdm. Barbarot if she knew where I could get a bottle in town and she told me how to find the local wine merchant and wrote down what to ask for on a piece of paper. When I asked her if she knew about how much it would cost she appeared serious, telling me that it was very expensive. Now I'm preparing myself. OK, expensive, $50+ per bottle. She then tells me it's 50Fr which, at the time, translated to $7.50. I tell her that folks in the states regularly pay twice that for a bottle of French wine and thank her for helping me.

After buying the wine I relax on the patio of the hotel with a glass of it from the hotel bar until dinner. Then it's dinner and an evening walk and it's time to get some sleep.



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