Phew. Well, I’ll say I gained a newfound respect for two people today. One of them is Conor Dunne, my partner in crime during this bike tour, as I realised how incredibly difficult it is to ascend alpine passes carrying an extra 20 kilos.
All I could think to myself today is “how the hell could anyone make it through an entire Grand Tour carrying this much weight?!” So, really, chapeau Conor, because schlepping nearly 90 kilos up a hill is NOT easy – and that is the weight he’s routinely carrying around.
The second is more a group of people – bike packers. Or bike tourists. Or anyone who rides bikes with a ton of shit strapped to them for that matter. Because what I learned today is that riding a bike with a bunch of weight added to it is not easy. It is very, very hard.
I learned this lesson quite quickly. We started our journey out of the Café du Cycliste, a cycling centric café and clothing brand that just happens to be two doors down from our apartment. They are our friends and the cycling hub of Nice, so we figured what better way to start our journey than a coffee with company. But even on the 1% grade on the sidewalk out of town, I realized what a tough day we might have in store.
3,400 meters of climbing is hard with nothing weighing you down. It’s exponentially more difficult with giant bags hanging every which direction off of your steed. We ran into a couple of other pros leaving town, who were quite amused to see us loaded down with gear as we pedaled into the unknown.
We made it to the top of Col de Braus without a great deal of trauma but I soon learned that I could not really climb out of the saddle. To be able to type this article more easily, I made the decision to bring my laptop along. And let’s just say it’s no MacBook Air.
I’m sure anyone who has bike packed before finds it absolutely hilarious that I would bring a full sized laptop along, but my reason is twofold: one, I can write much more easily than hammering away on a minute iPhone screen.
And two, in case one of us needs to get into contact with a team, we have a platform on which to do so. Because while part of the purpose of this journey is to forget about the world and our woes, we are also aware that we need to do everything possible to keep ourselves available and in it.
The problem with the laptop is that it does not fit very far into my oversized saddle bag – it probably doesn’t make it a centimetre past the halfway part of the pack. So, each time I get out of the saddle, the weight of my laptop wags like the tail of a golden retriever. Uncontrollably.
I have to time my bike sway and sort of bounce as I pedal. I look more like a five year old trying to stand up on his bike for the first time: not sure which direction to go, far from stable, but still somehow making forward progress. It’s quite the comical scenario.
After Braus we hit the Col du Brouis, another popular one for many of the riders in our area, but for me, my first time. It was beautiful, it was regular, and it was the nicest climb of the day solely for its relative lack of difficulty. It also happened to be sweetened by a restaurant at the top.
You see, one of the sad things about training intensely and seriously all the time is we don’t get to enjoy so many of the sweeter benefits of cycling, like getting to eat whatever you like. While training, we bang down energy bars, gels, and the like. Some of us even weigh our food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So today, rather than take the usual bar, gel, or what have you, we stopped for a full lunch. And when I say full, I mean it – an all you can eat buffet.
Conor was in heaven when he saw that at the top of our second climb of the day, and I’m sure the proprietors reconsidered their offer as soon as we left. Fourteen euros each and let’s just say we ate our money’s worth. Conor had six quiches, five pieces of bread, two helpings of bulgur salad, four slices of paté, a gazpacho, and a coffee.
I might have had half that and still felt full. At least we had a descent for digestion.
Finally we hit the last climb of the day and the real destination of our ride – the Col de Tende. Conor found this climb on the internet and assured me it was well paved all the way to the top. He chose it for its switchbacks – too many to count. It surely put Alpe d’Huez to shame and made me question why the Tour or Giro had never been up it. What a spectacle.
I also kept questioning how the metres left to climb did not seem to sync with the distance left to go: 500 meters of elevation gain in 3 kilometers? No chance. Until we made the next turn and hit a vertical wall of gravel. Previous question answered.
So with my not-so easy road bike gear on my one chainring bike, I had to hit it and leave Conor behind. Sorry Conor! I knew going as quick as I could would be the only way I could make it to the top, as each time I dipped under a cadence of fifty, the weight of my packs caused my bike to sway.
Finally, we made it to the top, with only one rockslide to jump before summiting. And when we got there, I have to say, it was worth the view. After a quick few photos and some video, we were off on our way, with 70 mostly downhill kilometers to go.
Once we were in the lower valley road, we began to rotate, rolling at speed, sharing the workload. Shortly after, we entered our seventh hour on the bike, and Conor asked me what we would do for food.
“I figure we get there, get changed, and go to dinner as quickly as we can,” I suggested.
“No, I mean: now?” he asked. I was unsure what he meant, considering we only had a short thirty kilometers of easyish road left to ride before arriving at the Agriturismo we had booked for the night. And then I realized, my friend and ride companion was succumbing to the all too well known demons of the hunger flat.
If it were a normal training ride, I would have pushed on, cracked him, and made him make it home suffering in silence. But not this time. No, not when you have an entire week of these rides ahead of you. I knew we must stop for food. If we did not, we might still be ride companions, but no longer friends.
Then I realized it was a Sunday. In rural Italy. So I took the front and put my head down, pulling my tall teammate in the draft, eyes darting every time we saw a business in search for food. After fifteen minutes or so, we found one, we fueled up, and we returned back on our way.
We rolled into the hotel after seven hours and thirty minutes on the bike for a solid day. A little over ambitious to start with but why the hell not?