Briancon, France. Ride 1.
The plan was 90 miles and 13,000 ft of climbing. The route would include about 40 miles of ‘rolling hills’ (8 category 4 climbs and 1 category 3) before reaching the start of Agnel (HC) which we would climb, turn around, descend, then climb the Izoard, descend the other side into town and home sweet home. NBD right? It was a daunting plan but the 5 of us were excited to conquer a tough day in the saddle.
Since there were no grocery stores open when we arrived Sunday evening, we took a morning stroll to the local bakery first thing in the morning. I have to admit, I was a little jealous I had to avoid all the gluten! The bread was just piled up and the desserts were shiny with sugary glaze. Sigh. Oh well. The men loaded up on basically one of each and we headed to a cafe for cappuccino and then to the market for real food ingredients. All this was accomplished before 9:30am. Not bad. We made our way back to the house to put things away, kit up and eat. Breakfast was a bowl of raw oats with figs, banana, dried fruit, coconut, nuts and milk. The temperature was mild; 60s I believe with a chance of light rain in the early evening. Arm warmers got stuffed in my back pocket along with a sandwich, bar, and gummies. I packed plenty of food because when in foreign areas, it is always unclear what food stops will be available (especially being gluten free).
We rolled out of town and along a scenic stretch of road that passed in and out of small towns, up and down hills, and along mountainsides. We were all happily riding together at a casual pace. Around mile 35 we stopped in a village café for drinks and refilling water. The stop was a bit too long and my legs felt stiff returning to pedaling. The next section was a grinding 2% incline for roughly 10 miles. These low grade inclines are not my favorite. They make my legs feel dead and are mentally taxing. Not a good 10 mile lead into the biggest climb of the day: Agnel, a 13 mile mountain climb at an average grade of 7%. This is what I like! Long, climbs. They’re so much fun! I really enjoy having the time to get into a comfortably hard rhythm. It was more hard than comfortable, but I was definitely enjoying myself. One of our guys had opted to skip this climb and turned off early to climb the smaller (but not small – get there later) Col d’Izoard and return to Briancon. He was smart. Shortly he after he peeled off, it started to rain. Not pouring, but a light and cold drizzle. More annoying than anything, but we al shrugged it off and kept on riding. As we climbed, one of the other riders dropped back. He was the most recent arrival and likely had a bit of jet lag fatigue going on. I figured we’d see him at the top and didn’t worry much about it. The climb is mostly barren. It just goes on and on. The grade of 6-7% is my favorite. Not sure why, but my legs are just strong at that grade. So the three remaining riders were just doing our thing to get to the top, staying pretty close to each other for the first half, then getting more spaced out the more fatigued we got. It was still drizzling but instead of being an annoyance, it was starting to cause concern. My arms were goose bumped and stiff. “They’re just arms!” my adrenaline amped up climbing mind repeated internally. I should have learned. I should have recalled R2R2R and been reminded of the danger of being so exposed to the elements. That we were in the mountains in a foreign land and anything could happen. With maybe 8k to go the straight climb turns to switchbacks. Its very depressing. We were warned by Patrick, the experienced Col rider in our group that this climb would get you at the end. That your mind would play tricks on you, thinking you were closer than you really were. It was true. I would be able to see the top, I’d be heading right for it, then I’d be turned around, weaving up a mountainside in the opposite direction. I could see Luke off in the distance ahead of me, but in what seemed like minutes he was out of sight. The rider behind me was not visible. I couldn’t really feel my arms. But they didn’t hurt. I just knew they were wet and cold but I didn’t feel like I was in a bad way. It took 1:33:51 to reach the top, enough for 8th place female (in rainy conditions!).
At the top there such a sense of accomplishment and joy. I couldn’t stop smiling and just had to snap a few photos. The view was amazing. Signs plastered with stickers from all the cyclists who had been here before and a sign signifying the France/Italy border… too cool not to take it in! Marty reached the top, paused for 1 photo and turned around to descend. It felt like only minutes of standing up there before heading down as well. I had put my arm warmers on before starting the descent but it was too late. Within the first mile I was frozen. My arms were shaking and I tried to keep going… but I was gripping the brakes, descending almost slower than I had climbed it (at least it felt that way)! I couldn’t control my shivering and was too frightened to go fast as my entire bike was shaking under my cold body. Maybe halfway down Luke stopped to wait for me in one of the villages. He was cold too. We huddled together for a few minutes to try to stop shaking but then had to keep going. He went off quickly but I was crawling. My breathing was shallow and I had started gasping for air. My fingers and face were numb. There was another village (and by village I mean a scattering of stone homes and maybe goats) and it took everything not to get off my bike and lay down on the cobbles. It was still miles to a real town and even then, who would be around to understand English and help us? I was the only one with a functioning phone in France and it had shut off due to cold. I knew if I got off the bike I would be in real trouble. So I kept rolling. In the last mile or so Marty had come back up to check on me and rode the rest of the way with me. At the bottom I saw Luke coming out of a café with food and I rode over, barely able to unclip and get off my bike as I hobbled into the café and sat down, shaking. The guys ordered coffee which came out as a shot of espresso and I clutched that little thimble of hot liquid for warmth. I drank it. I drank Luke’s. I ordered another. It took a long time to be able to breathe again and stop shaking.
Phew. I made it! Except that the ride wasn’t over. This was only mile 68. 22 left in the plan. While I figured I could probably manage getting to the Izoard and climbing that, as my body would warm up with the effort… I was very concerned about descending. It was dark with clouds and would be dark by the time we would be arriving back to town… seemed like a very bad idea. My phone turned back on and I saw there was a text from one of our friends, he was too cold climbing and turned back for home. Smart! Damn stubborn determination gets me into trouble sometimes. I texted him our situation, but before I could ask for a ride, Marty had gone out into town to see if there were cabs. There weren’t. But somehow he managed to convince a young guy with a ‘van’ to drive us the 20 miles to Briancon. Luckily we were able to fit our bikes into this tiny vehicle and were saved. So much for 90 miles. This ride had beaten all of us.
Lesson learned on day 1: Toto we’re not in Kansas (Ohio) anymore. Time to take this place seriously.