Tough Cycling

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Others

Orville and Wilbur Wright not only manufactured bicycles, they were active cyclists who took long rides and participated in bicycle races. Wilbur describes one fun ride around the Dayton area of 31 miles. Orville won races and medals.

My son Don, is an aeronautical engineer who works for the FAA, enjoys riding bicycles and belongs to a racing team in Seattle.

This year he journeyed to Europe to participate in the 2006 Tour De France pre-race over the Alps. Some 8,000 cyclists took advantage of the opportunity. The route included three beyond category climbs, and one 1st category climb over a 104-mile ride including the leg killing combination of ascents and descents of the massive Galibier and Le Telegraph passes.

The official start of the race was at the bottom of the L’ Alpe d’Huez. As I am wrote this, I watched the Tours 15th stage in which Floyd Landis won the Yellow Jersey on this mountain. The 13.8-kilometer ride to the top includes 21 hairpin switchbacks. An estimated 1 million spectators watched.

Floyd Landis went on to win the yellow jersey in Paris for the Tour.

Here is the story in Don’s words:

“Whoo, I made it! Three beyond category climbs, a 1st category climb and 104 miles – more difficult than any single stage in the Tour. I think it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I’ve concluded that a 39×27 is not a low enough gear for 16,000+ feet of climbing at grades of 7-11% for miles on end. A compact crank, or at least 38 x 28, would have definitely helped.

The start was pretty disorganized. I stayed in a hotel at the top of the Alpe d’ Huez. The start was in Bourg d’Oisan, at the base of the Alpe at 7:15 AM. We had been told that there was a free shuttle if you sign up in advance, but none of the people I talked to knew anything about it. That turned out not to be a big deal as it gave me the opportunity to descend the Alpe, something I had only done previously in a driving thunderstorm.

I flew down the switchbacks, passing plenty of other riders and a few cars, and was having a great time. It had taken me a little over an hour to go up it a couple of years ago; it only took 15-18 minutes to go down it.

The start was supposed to be in waves of a thousand every fifteen minutes or so. With a number of 3726, I figured that I would be starting around 8 AM. They directed all the riders down this side road into a big disorganized mass. At one point there was a diversion for numbers higher than 600. (There were more than 8,000 riders registered for this insanity.)

I saw a number of riders less than 600 take that lane, as it was not backed up like the main lane was. We progressed forward very slowly, then finally were able to get on our bikes and ride forward, still very slowly. At one point, the lane for the riders with numbers greater than 6,000 re-merged with the main lane – all the riders who went down that lane actually got a shortcut!

Suddenly, I was riding under what looked to be the start banner and realized that I had just started! Sure enough, it was around 8 AM.

We had about 10-15 miles of flat road before the first climb. People were generally going pretty slow, so I spent a lot of time trying to find my way around and through large groups of cyclists. We went by a couple of intersections with median strips where they had a policeman waving yellow triangular flags over their heads like at the Tour de France. Pretty cool.

When we started up, my plan was to take it easy up the first two climbs, hopefully saving something for the Galibier and the finish up Alpe d’Huez. Even though I was trying to go easy, I was steadily passing scores (hundreds) of riders who were basically spread across the entire width of the narrow road. Motorcycles with the race kept going up the left side of the road, trying to maintain a little space over there for any traffic that might be foolish enough to be coming the other way.

At the top of the Col du Glandon (which we did instead of Col de la Croix Fer because of road maintenance), things came to a halt. I followed some other cyclists who had gotten off their bikes and were hiking over the Glandon on foot above the road. There was a water stop at the top of the mountain, and I thought that was what had caused the jam-up. When we got back to the road on the other side of the mountain, there were police blocking the road.

The descent off of Glandon is very steep and tricky, with a sheer drop-off on one side. The police said that there had been an accident involving 5 cyclists. I never heard what had happened or how the cyclists were.

I ended up being delayed over an hour. I later heard a number of cyclists called it quits at that point and turned around. I was worried about how they would start us going again, and did not relish the thought of descending the Glandon with thousands of other cyclists at the same time. Fortunately, they let us off in small groups. As on Alpe d’Huez, I was not impressed with the descending skills of the other cyclists. I flew down that thing, again passing hundreds of cyclists on the long descent. The switchbacks were tight and unforgiving, but they were easy to see and slow down for.

On the flats between the Glandon and the Col du Telegraph, I again could not find a group going the speed I wanted to go. I couldn’t even find a group that was maintaining 20 mph. Finally, after passing a lot of groups, one group latched on to me, then some of their guys took some pulls. (Most of the riders were content to let anyone pull forever.) One guy finally came up and pulled for the last few miles at 25 mph – just what I was looking for. And he didn’t mind staying up there. At one point, I went up alongside him and told him we were doing a great job –- he just said that he flats.

At the base of the Telegraph, I was out of water, so I stopped at a bar to get some. It took me about 10-15 minutes just to get a water bottle filled. I started up the Telegraph, thinking that it was the shortest and easiest of the climbs, again passing other cyclists at a good clip. After a little bit, I came upon a sign that said 10k to the summit. I was hoping it was going to be more like 5k at that point, as I was starting to feel it. At 3k to go, I was really running low on energy, and for the first time, although I was still passing a good number of cyclists, I was also being passed by several groups.

Finally, the summit, and another good, though much shorter descent before the next climb, the monster Galibier (above 9,000 feet in elevation). I knew I was in need of some solid food (gels and Power Bars just weren’t cutting it at that point). I stopped at a little kind of drive-in food stand that was selling sandwiches and pizza. Pizza sounded good to me, so I ordered one. When it came, I didn’t realize how big it was going to be. I wolfed down half of it, then offered the rest to the other emaciated riders waiting in line for food. Then it was time to start the Galibier.

I remembered the Galibier from having ridden it a few years ago as very long, but not very steep. However, with the amount of energy I’d already expended, and the heat, which was making it very difficult to stay hydrated, it seemed a lot harder this time. It was here that I decided that my gear selection was inadequate – my normal cadence in my lowest gear resulted in a speed of about 7 mph, 6 mph was okay, but I was starting to get bogged down. 5 mph was a really slow cadence, and if I was under 5 mph, I felt like it was time to stop.

All those people I’d been passing had lower gears that would allow a higher cadence at lower speeds, saving their legs a bit for the distance. I ended up having to stop 2 or 3 times on the way up the Galibier. It was at this point that I started wondering if I was going to complete the ride. (Actually, I’d been wondering that since the day before when I took a little recon ride that my legs didn’t like too much, and started wondering about my gearing.) At the top, I took a quick stop for more water and some orange and banana slices that they had. I knew that it would be pretty much all downhill from there until Alpe d’Huez.

Again, the descent was loads of fun. The first part is more technical (and more exposed). I remember that the other time I’d done it, I thought I would never want to do it in a race because of the exposure – if you missed a turn on some of those turns, it was a long way down. But this time, maybe knowing what to expect, I didn’t think it was bad at all. The descents were definitely the most fun part of the whole event and well worth the price of admission by themselves.

I was again passing large number of riders, but when the road finally straightened out a bit, a group latched onto me and we started riding together. It was a good thing, too, because it was a headwind the whole way back. Even though it was downhill, when the grade lessened, the headwind was making it a bit difficult to go it alone. After a slight uphill that detached a number of in our group, five of us finally started riding in a continuously rotating paceline, which was necessary due to the wind.

We all stopped at the final food stop at the base of Alpe d’Huez. It was about 4:15 PM. If I hadn’t been delayed an hour at the Col du Glandon, I would have still had a shot at a gold medal if I could get up the Alpe in about an hour. Well, I could do that on fresh legs, but not on toasted ones like I now had. I was kind of glad that I didn’t have a shot at that because all I wanted to think about now was surviving.

It took me about a ½ hour to eat, drink, fill water bottles, and convince myself that I had better get started. I knew that the first 4 switchbacks were the hardest, at grades over 11%, so I set a goal of making it to switchback 17 before thinking about stopping (The numbers get smaller as you ride up the Alpe).

I didn’t make it. I had to stop at 18. Then I started having some chain skipping problems, so I had to stop a couple more times to deal with that. The places that I had remembered it as being less steep were still very difficult. What had taken me over an hour a few years ago (when I was not trying to go real hard) took me nearly 2 hours (1:45 to 1:50) this time, including about 3 or 4 stops. Some riders were walking their bikes, but most had those infuriating low gears that they could continue to ride in even though they were going just slightly faster than a walking pace. It was sure faster than I was going while I was stopped, though!

It eases off in the last couple of kilometers as you go through the alpine village at the top. The last kilometer really eases off, then it goes a little downhill through a roundabout, then around a left hand to an uphill finish. I was waiting for that and really kicked it up for the finish, jumping to the big ring for the little downhill and sprinting past some riders on the finishing uphill.

It was kind of cool in that they had the final 1 k blocked off with the Tour de France type fencing, and there was a grandstand set up with people cheering you on. There wasn’t any 1 k kite or banner, but the finish banner was pretty neat.

As soon as I crossed the finish line, I stopped and bent over my bike. Then I noticed that the place where your timing chip actually recorded your finish was a few feet further on, and all the people I had just passed were going by me to the electronic finishing lanes.

Oh well, what else? I rolled forward to the electronic finish and got my official time – 10 hours and 33 minutes – good enough for a silver medal (which you had to purchase).

Well, that’s it for my excellent adventure (for the old guy from Newcastle, Washington).”

Comment: I would say so! For a guy in his late 40s, his performance was simply amazing.

Previous post:

Next post: