Archive for the ‘Mountain Biking’ Category

Ride Report: Gran Combin

August 26, 2012

Needless to say, I’ve been dragging my feet on writing this report. Le Blog has come otherwise to a standstill and this post blocking the floodgates. So here it comes, an incomplete sketch as it is.

Lessons Learned:

1. Alpine mountain biking demands total corporeal focus: You must simultaneously hold your bursting lungs inside of your chest, stalwart your legs against collapse, and be sure of your step. Your eyes will be bright in the beaming reflection of all that surrounds you, and, you will be carrying your bike.

2. Alpine mountain biking is subject to the whims of that capricious clime: Be prepared for everything. As this, this is the stuff of myth, expect nothing less. You will discover that your pride is nothing compared to the mountain.

3. Alpine mountain biking is not for the faint of legs, arms, mind, or heart.

…………..Day 1……………….

Fionnay, Switzerland.

Around each switchback on the drive into Fionnay, I prayed like mad for sun. Just around this turn, it will be sunny. Just around this turn the rain will stop. It didn’t.  A quarter of an hour later we found ourselves circled round a wooden table in an empty café, a map splayed out before us. Seven clean faces stared back at me over espressos,  excitement painted with the anxiety of venturing into some deep unknown. Rain, rain. A thunderclap, des tonnere et eclair. Allons y!


I watched the back wheel in front of me roll into the puddle, splash, roll out. I followed, but not closely enough. In an instant my own front wheel vanished before me. In concussive hues I saw myself from above, projected in slow motion. I saw it all: the bike flipping, the mud splashing up, my back and the bike on top of me, submerged five centimeters in mud, and then, darkness.

Can someone pull my bike off me, please?

I was covered in mud and hence jumped in the next alpine lake we came across. It was, predictably, very cold.

Col de Mille

Soon enough it became too steep to ride; the altitude and the rock strewn, treacherously slippery trail did not make it easier. We walked, we climbed, we forded streams and relayed the heavy bike up the mountain. Everything was wet and everything was happening in slow motion.

At the refuge there is woodstove, a woman, and a girl. In the pasture outside a donkey grazes happily; callous to the chaotic weather. As we remount our bikes to descend down the sodden mountainside, I’m left wondering if they rode the donkey up.

Col du Grand Saint Bernard

It is truly a pity to have gone over the Grand St Bernard pass and not to have seen any of it; Once we were forced to abandon the trail and take the road up the on the Swiss side, the rain came in from everywhere. Visibility was at best a couple of meters, and I didn’t even realize I was at the Col until buildings appeared beside us: Shops, restaurants, and the hospice, the fabled hospice! I can imagine it was all very beautiful, but I cannot say for certain.

Once over the Italian border the road curved gently down the mountainside and the sun shone onto undiscovered country. My brain, in its predictably campy fashion, was busy dancing about the Roman Empire. For a moment I managed to forget that everything, everything, is wet; all that matters is the road, the road, the flowing road! And, where, oh where, are the elephants?


Allora, allora. the waitress said. She pressed her hands together, smiled hugely,and took our orders. I’m outed as a vegetarian, but it hardly matters: there’s food I can eat, here it is dry, and the hotel has enormous wool blankets. Heaven.

……………………..Day 2…………………..

We awoke the next day to find the sun, as promised by the Italian Optimists. Oh the first climb was glorious and long, a nameless browngold road winding 14 kilmeters through Italian suburbs with names I cannot remember before spilling out into the mountains. Even from the first kilometer I wanted to go hard. I was in the climbing place, a place I personally have only recently discovered exists within myself: Yes, I now can say, in complete and utter honestly, that I love to climb. And so I climbed.

It wasn’t long before Stefano caught up with me and asked me what I had eaten for breakfast. Muesli, I said. What I did not say was that, really, my pace (admittedly far from blistering) was not sustained by the solely by the muesli. Instead, I was really propelled by some locomotive of imagination, generated by the scenery, by taking off my helmet, and by secretly pretending for the entire climb that I was one of these guys:

Bartali, Coppi. Coppi, Bartali.

Ride the bike!

Frenêtre du Dunand

A near vertical ascent, a climb, the bike across the back. At the pass (2797m) you could look down on the glacier and hear the ice cracking through the millennia.

Downhill, downhill: Across the Swiss border again and into rocks bigger than my fork can handle, a few sections of flow, and a trail hugging the edge of the glacier. We rolled over the tops of waterfalls and through lantern lit caverns. We ended up at a dam at the edge of a slender turquoise lake. Our descent to from there was warm and brief Fionnay, back to the car, a piece of tart at Relais du Grand Saint Bernard, which I didn’t know I needed until I took the first bite, and a ride back to Geneva.

Vive les alpes!


How lucky am I, to have friends who dream up such insanity?!

andare in bicicletta: a preview of Gran Combin

August 4, 2012

“On a bike your conciousness is small. The harder you work, the smaller it gets. Every thought that arises is imediately and utterly true, every unexpected event is something you’d known all along but had only forgotten for a moment. A pounding riff from a song, a bit of long division that starts over and over, a magnified anger at someone, is enough to fill your thoughts”

…..Tim Krabbé, The Rider

In the Alps the mind of the rider can expand, I find, to fill whole valleys; It leaps out of the body and alights tauntingly on distant peaks, it races devilishly up the pass ahead, it plunges into frigid turquoise ponds and goes crashing, whirling down waterfalls, daring the rider to follow. On the grade, it contracts again and is contained simply by the slow measure of hapless panting, by the sound of the crank turning over, by the number of stones in the road. Looking down, the legs are moving in slow motion, but the lungs and heart are working double time. Everything and nothing matters. Oh, but the world does not exist beyond this moment! A click and a latch, up and out of the saddle, a brief acceleration, a phase lock, a resonance: the sweet spot. Ride the Bike, Ride the Bike, Ride the Bike.


Coming soon: A ride report from Le Tour de Gran Combin, a two-day, two-country mountain bike traversal of the local Alps.

I fill the year

June 30, 2012

three past birthdays, in prospective.


Befann mig i Stockholm hos en kompis och hennes familj…vi cyklade till stan och gick på Skansen i hela dagn. En tidresa genom århundraden samt genom barndom, kan man säga. På kvällen, lagade jag mexikansk mat åt familijen. Det blev inte helt rätt, men gott ändå. Svenskarna var förstårligt nyfikna: Vad gör man med pannkakan? frågade pappan medans han tog en tortilla. Det var ingen pannkaka, ju! Och två dagar senare blev det midsommar på härtzö… bärplockning, svampplockning, sjunging matlagning. Solsken, märkligt. Bada, åka kayak, fika, spela kort. Och om igen. Solen gick liksom aldrig ner och jag kunde inte sluta le.


Installing Labview on my boss’s computer. Making a cake and failing. Absorbing the capricious central European summer. Blogging cryptically about it.


As the air thinned around us it seemed all the more that the world would rift open. Surely it did, at some point, or else none of this would be here. We kept going, bikes on our backs, until there was nowhere higher to climb. At the Col I looked back into the valley we crawled first up into and then out of–the waterfall, the place where the pines stopped, all the impossible little blossoms–and for a minute there was no sound. What I’ve been taught for years was suddenly made breathlessly real: these peaks haven’t changed much over some number of minutes beyond the scale of our imaginations. In the face of the Col, the time we keep on our watches, in our calenders, in our bodies, in our buildings and books and birthdays, ceases to be of consequence.

Some amount of seconds later, the wind again was making sound. It was time to descend.

Photo credit, route credit, and insanity credit: S.B.

Switzerland, it’s pretty great.

tout-terrain, tout-puissant

February 20, 2012

He’s your prototypical cycling dude de un certain âge: His head is shaved or balding or more probably both, he’s wearing neon framed sunglasses and if I could see his calves I’m sure they would leave me with no doubts that he could destroy me up a hill on any given day. He is of course, the dude standing behind the table at the Specialized demo I’ve just rolled up to. And, naturally, I’ve just signed my life away for the sake of riding bicycles.

“Bring her back in an hour and try another one,” he smiles and extends a 2012 Specialized Epic 29er in my direction. I’ve never really even ridden a full suspension bike before, let alone a top-of-the-line, brand new, perfectly maintained one. He doesn’t know it, but I’m fighting back tears of joy.


Holy Moses, this bike is eating the trail for breakfast. My internal monologue becomes fixated that phrase: Eating the trail for breakfast. Eating the trail for breakfast. I keep repeating it with each turn of the crank.  I’m climbing a fireroad named BFI. I’m not sure what the letters stand for, but after a few minutes I can hazard a guess: Big F***ing Incline. My heart is exploding, but it hardly matters because this bike climbs like a hardtail and still manages to, yes, eat the trail for breakfast. En breve: it climbs with hardtail efficiency, but, ahem, better.

At (what I thought was) the top of the climb I turn around to greet the Pacific, glimmering and vast, two blues meeting, the horizon. California weather so flawless sometimes, it truly is almost disgusting. A guy on a Santa Cruz downhill bike about to head down the trail finds it in his heart to yell, “You’re outrageous!” as he passes by; Apparently this isn’t the normal way up. But no, it’s not me that’s outrageous, I want to yell back, it’s this bike, you see….the bike climbed it I didn’t climb it at all!

Next up: single track and downhill. I am shocked (that was indeed a pun) to find that I am riding, or more accurately, the bike is riding up and down things that would have knocked me off of my ol’ Marin: Rocks, berms, switchbacks, washboard fireroads. Emboldened by the existence of a rear shock and a functioning set of brakes, I come to the conclusion that yes, a bike like this would be an absolute game changer. Is it really supposed to be this much fun? Really? Are you sure this isn’t cheating?


I ended up trying an Epic and a Safire (read: spending about 2.5 hours test riding bikes waaaaay outside of my price range. Shhh, don’t tell the sales guys.) Survey says: Epic > Safire.

Ride Report: El Moro Highlights

February 12, 2012

“Seriously, you’re out here tearing it up on a fifteen year old bike?” He asks in disbelief. It’s not the first time I’ve rolled up to a circle of middle aged dudes for a group ride. But it’s the first time I’ve done it on a mountain bike, and first time I’ve done it in Orange County. And geez, these middle aged dudes seem cool but they all have really nice bikes. A brand new Stumpy, a Santa Cruz with shiny blue rims… none of them are hardtails and none of them are more than a year old. I don’t think they think I’m serious.

“Ahem, seventeen,” I respond. I’m not sure why I feel the need to correct him. “Seventeen years. It was top of the line in 1995, I’m telling you.” Of course, what I really want to say is: My bike is about as old as your kids. I bite my lip and look down at the good ol’ Marin with pink riser bars, Mon cher.

“And, it only cost me $248,” I say, smugly.

“Your entire bike costs less than my seatpost!” He’s wearing sunglasses, so I have to imagine his eyes getting bigger. I just smile. Ha, trust me, buddy, I realize that. He goes on, without (I swear!) an ounce of sarcasm:

“It’s OK, once you make your millions in physics, you’ll get a sweet new bike, right?” I just keep smiling and nodding, and this time, I feel no need to correct him.


After a quick fire road up and down, we veer off onto an overgrown single track named “Lizard” as I am informed. Lizard is a technical little beast with a fair share of twists and turns, a few erosionally challenged sections, one hike a bike, and even a little bit of slickrock (!). Aside from being a little slower than the dudes and having my foot fall out of my shoe once (yeah) I make it down and even manage to have a little fun.

One Lizard is out of the way, we start to climb. Miraculously, I start to pass people. Vive le Hardtail! When we reach the top of a long uphillish rolling section, I stop and take off my jacket and one of the guys rolls up behind me.

“Hey, you can really climb! You’re a climber, eh?” He says enthusiastically.

Wait, what? Me? Climber? Have I entered a parallel universe?


How come I never knew this was here?  I keep asking myself as we wind trough the drizzly, rainbow hued chaparral, up and down switchbacks that give tamarancho a run for its money, into shaded thickets and out again, brushing the edge of Laguna Canyon, under the 73 freeway and up to a gloriously long fireroad climb cresting with the Pacific on the other side. El Moro, the “Irvine Side,” where have you been all of my life?


“Whoa…a girl!” yells a mountain biker on the trail below me as he waits diligently for our group to clamber down an unrideable rock face.

Honestly, I’m used to being in the minority here. What I’m not used to is being pointed out like some kind of rare fauna. All at once, it finally hits me: I haven’t seen another girl on a bike all day. In the Bay Area, sure there are still fewer female mtb’ers than male ones, but at least they exist. And, to boot, a lot of them are really, really good. Orange County ladies must be more into tennis, or something. Immediately I feel a little inadequate as the sole representative of my sex on the mountain. If only S. or J. or even M. (the great and all powerful) were here, I think, then they’d see a girl who can really ride!

“Show these cocky guys who’s boss!” yells the guy at the bottom.

“Not on this stuff,” I yell back as I get off my bike, hoist it over my shoulder, and step carefully down the rock. I am mercifully immune to doing stupid stuff for the sake of dumb pride. It must be a girl thing.


In all, easily, it was the most fun I’ve had on my mountain bike in a long time. See you next weekend, dudes, I had a blast!

Ride Reports: OC mountainbiking

February 3, 2012

So, apparently I go on road rides on my mountain bike now. Anywho…here goes.

Oh my God, I think. I see them ahead, a couple on Boyfriend & Me matching Felt road bikes, not to mention wearing semi matching Felt kits. Really folks, really? I’m on my trusty (weeeell, sort of) Marin team Edition from 1995 with pink handlebars, and I’m passing them on the dirt path that is next to the sidewalk. I feel momentarily badass.

I never thought I’d say this, but: thank God for Orange County. Here at least I can still beat *some* people. I am after all a Collegiate Womens’ A mountain biker* and we all know that “beating people is fun.” A big thanks for the confidence booster, OC.

Sadly, Mountain bikes aren’t geared like road bikes and I spin out on the downhill as Boyfriend & Me whizz by. Don’t worry, I caught them on the flats.

When I reach Castaways, a short but steep hill that used to make me feel like I was going to vomit during high school volleyball workouts (or as I liked to call them, ‘torture’) I discover that really, it’s not that bad. In momentary triumph, I decide to do some intervals on it, this of course being nothing short of miraculous considering that nowadays I’m likely to not climb anything more than once if I don’t have to on the grounds that such activities are “Sisyphean.”

Right after my third interval, Boyfriend & Me finally catch up. I resist the urge to yell over my shoulder: “Hey I did this three times! and I’m gonna do it again.” Probably a smart move.

Later on, along a pedestrian path, I weave in and out of elderly couples, joggers and small, hairy dogs. My front break is really squeaky, so every time I try and slow down a little bit, it sounds like I’m coming to a screeching halt. People walking their unruly dogs look at me apologetically. I start to feel bad too, until suddenly, a teenager on a hybrid with disc brakes and…time trial bars?…. appears. He’s going pretty fast and frighting many grandmas and small, hairy dogs. I feel like much less of a menace.

But really, time trial bars? Whhaaat?

About a mile from my house my front wheel starts resisting turns. Yup, it’s flatting. A slow leak. I pull off to the side and pump it up as unsympathetic passerby pretend not to notice me.

Soon I’m back on the bike and I’m almost home. I see woman walking along the path wearing ike running shorts and really white tennis shoes. She must be on a bluetooth or something, because she’s talking, although as I ride up behind her I can only see the back of her head. Her ponytail bounces up and down. As I pass, I hear only a snippet of her conversation: “I’m a big girl with tiny panties…”

I reapeat: Whhaaat?

Strange things in this County of Orange. Straaange things.


*Ha, funny story, which I will save for later.


Race Report: Stanford Short track

October 18, 2011

I went hard up the hill the first time, then I just kept going hard and didn’t pull the breaks on the downhill. After the first lap, no one was ahead of me…or even behind me. Wait a minute, I thought. Surely, this has never happened to me before. I was at first perplexed, at second amazed, and at third inspired. Pin it to win it (and not by default)!

After the race we stopped, setting sun be damned, at a pumpkin patch in the Salinas Valley, a long and narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up it until it falls at last in Monterey Bay…

Long live the Mountain Bike, and long live California, my most beloved!

Parkfield och Nobelpriset: Switching Gears

October 5, 2011

Bullet pointed recollections of the last four days, in which I oscillate drastically between worlds.


  • Problem set, problem set, lab, problem set, group meeting, ACE hardware, under the sink and into the car…
  • We take the scenic route to Parkfield, the Earthquake Capital of California, and one of the biggest races of the collegiate mountain bike season.
  • We get to Parkfield quite late. It’s cold. Commence night 1 of sleeping on the ground next to the stupid Reno Santa Cruz people.


  • Cross Country race was fun, if a little short. I know I’m not fast enough to be an A-racer, but I’d almost like to upgrade simply to be able to ride longer. Get my money’s worth. Ah well, with very little time to train, I ‘spose I’ll just be happy with 2nd in B’s and a pint glass full of rootbeer.
  • I am faster than Katie Hall (at dual slalom).
  • 60 servings of pasta to 16 people
  • Pixie bikes should not be sold to men between the ages of 18 and 30. For safety reasons.
  • Humboldt has a…techno car?
  • Kestlefest needs a new bike frame, a knew knee, and some shirts with sleeves on them. Oh yea, and some deodorant.


  • Holy heck there was a rattlesnake chillin’ on the short track course
  • I made it up the stupid climb out of the creek all but once.
  • Greatest Burrito Ever, King City CA
  • A liter of Horchata. A LITER.


09:00 I call my mom to let her know I’m alive, if feeling a little under the weather.

Mom: Hey, how’d your race go?

Me: I got second!

Mom: Cool! Did you win any money?

Me: I won a pint glass!

Mom: Uh. great?

16:00 I’m taking the easiest midterm of my life in Wheeler auditorium. We finish at 17:00, and stay afterward for a the lecture. It’s about children in El Salvador who have rotting teeth because they are being fed massive quantities of junk foods and candy, and about how horrible candy companies are for marketing to children. My friend sitting next to me pokes my arm. I look over and he’s offering me a Swedish fish candy. I die a little on the inside. Of Irony.

19:00 My head is screaming and my nose is a faucet. Stupid Parkfield. Stupid Dirt.


04:00 In the morning, sitting awake in my room on a conference call with Geneva. It’s raining outside, and still, very dark. But it’s midday in Sweden, and the Royal Academy just announced the prize in Physics. I turn to my old friend google and…Oh my God, I know who that is….

13:00 The entire Physics Department and then some has converged on 1 Leconte Hall. It’s not everyday someone in your department wins the highest honor in Science. I’m standing in the hallway with thirty other people because I can’t get a seat, but I can still hear. It’s all acceleration and supernovae: anecdotes of all-nighters at the Keck telescope, of futile searches for the sun’s companion star, of the ‘holy shit’ moment when you discover something and can’t convince yourself that it’s real. Don’t worry, I took notes. More on that later.

14:30 Undergrads are cordially uninvited to the champagne reception. Instead I go to lab to languish in stochastic misery.

22:54 I’m sitting miserably at my desk, headache having recommenced after twenty minutes of staring at my computer screen to write a stupid blog post.

//time to throw in the towel//

Stage 19, Part 2: Col du Galibier

July 28, 2011

We rode up, and up and up…and up.

Continued fromPart One.

Col du Galibier is a 17 km climb, though the first seven kilometers are more gradual (and by gradual I mean solidly around 5 to 7%) and lead you to the base of the real mountain. On a the day of a tour stage these first kilometers climb out of an Alpine valley and though makeshift villages of motorhomes and cars. All roads and paths are all peopled, and fanatics draped in the flags of their respective nations are huddled around small tvs and radios listening to the race. I can’t help but think: 1. Goodness, I didn’t know there were even so many cycling fans in the world! and 2. If half the population of Norway is here, then surely this must be the entire population of Luxembourg. Within these first kilometers, a few people on shiny road bikes pass us, but no matter: the Mtb badass factor automatically makes up for it.

But the truth is, we didn’t realize just exactly what we were in for until we rounded the corner of the valley and the zigzag path the road takes up the mountain made itself apparent before vanishing into shrouded heights. At this point the summit is still invisible and there is nowhere to go but up. We start climbing, really climbing, and I can’t shake the feeling that we must be leaving the surface of the earth. Riding clear into the sky. Are we on the moon?

Climbing an Alpine pass is not just like riding up another hill. It is ascending into the otherworldly. Air thinning around you, the altitude begins to take effect and every kilometer becomes something like a battle. Having stupidly not eaten enough, I begin to daydream about food: there’s a crushed coke can on the side of the road and for about a minute all I can think about is the saccharine, bubbly concoction. Soon enough I’ve forgotten all about coke and I somewhat dizzily muse about how I will eat pancakes for dinner. You know when you reach the pancake fantasizing stage, the small ring is an unfortunate but merciful reality. Slow going, it is, and even lacking pancakes, but knowing I’m following the wheel of the tour peloton (sort of), I have never been so happy climbing in my life.

Faint sounds of running water are just audible over my own breathing and the crank on the bike turning over slowly, methodically. We seem to be chasing a stream that in places dives beneath the ground only to reappear again a kilometer later, trickling out of  the mountainside. Counted among the plants hardy enough to grow at such altitudes are low grasses and small flowers, sporadic dots of color between piles of slate, effortlessly concealing their true grit with the façade of fragile beauty.

We slow down a bit to catch race report from a couple of die-hard Luxembourgers in a motorhome with a radio (who had also painted “ANDY! FRÄNK!” in alternating blue and red letters on a nearby outcrop). Pierre Rolland had taken the stage and the white jersey; a man reborn on the slopes of Alp D’Huez as yet another new hero for French cycling, if only for his temporary vanquishing of the formidable Contador. Certainly there is no love at all for poor Contador in France, as the mocking letters ‘Adios, Contador!’ painted on the road beneath us silently confirm.

Seven percent grade is still climbing, but it feels like reprieve when you’ve been riding the last several at nine. Reprieve is shortlived, however, and the last three kilometers throw themselves into wild switchbacks in the 10% range again. At once I understand completely why they call they call this kind of a mountain Hors Catégorie.

We don’t even notice it was cold until we realize we can see our breath, our suspicions confirmed by the sudden appearance of ice on the left shoulder of one of the switchbacks near the summit. I experience a brief flashback to the coldest ride of my life before the road mercifully crests and folds over the Galibier. From the summit the world opens up and our feet, and we can even look down the other side of the mountain, “the easy way up”, where Andy Schleck had his solo victory just the day before, Alp D’Huez looming somewhere in the distance.

“Heaven must be somewhere close,” is all I can think to say, followed shortly by “I think I’ll put on my jacket now,” my voice little more than a raspy exhalation formed into intelligible sounds.  the high is ultimate and everything: Altitude, adrenaline…the rush of having just completed the longest climb in France on a mountain bike made for eleven year old boys to huck off curbs as they ride to elementary school…as well as a whole new kind of respect for the tour racers.

We had made a pact before we left that we wouldn’t let the Alpine air get to our heads at the top of the Galibier and give into the urge continue on to Alp D’Huez, some 50 kilometers distant. Fortunately that was an easy pact to keep, though I did think: if there were a car and some food waiting at the top of Alp D’Huez, I might be more than tempted.

I’ve made some remarks before about the descents in the Jura being epic. Such remarks were lies. I am fully aware that ‘epic’ is a far over used word amongst mountain bike folks, often finding themselves lacking a better word, but I can say with complete confidence and fullness of meaning: Descents in the Alps are EPIC.

Both my breaks and my fingers (gloves…not…warm…enough!) being at minimal functionality, I was quite literally going as fast as I physically could. Apart from a few warm moments spent behind a motorhome, I ride down the mountain whilst alternating one hand on the bars and one hand inside of my jersey for warmth and trying to ignore the numerous bodily extremities in which I had lost feeling. Wildly unsafe, yes, but constant danger, bitter cold and Alpine highs make you braver, and I ride the descent of my life.

We did have to climb again to get back over the summit of telégraphe. I would’ve complained if I hadn’t simply been thankful to be warm. Once telégraphe was summited for the second time, the descent is warm and winding, woody and mostly free of cars. We didn’t end up taking any mountain bike short cuts on the way down, despite the somewhat haughty talk of it on the way up. In the interest of returning the bike in once piece this was admittedly a wise decision. Still, I can only imagine what wonders those unmarked paths hold. One day, I’ll be back. Me and the Alps are unfinished business.

Once back at the car, changed, and sitting eating the much anticipated recovery muffin, I realize that my face hurts more than my legs because I literally haven’t stopped smiling for the last eight hours. I also can’t stop thinking how lucky I am that my eyes have seen such places, how CERN seems so much more than 2 and a half hours away, how far I’ve come since my summer two years ago spent suffering through Quantum Hell, and how the poor craptastic tank of a mountain bike had aspired to more than it was ever, ever, meant to be. Running through my usual mental litmus test for happiness, I come to the conclusion that I’d really rather not be anywhere else in the world at this moment.

Especially not night shift at CERN. Which is exactly where, in an torpid tale of misfortune and woe, Daniel found himself five hours later. God, at least for now, I’m really glad I don’t have more responsibility on this experiment.
Although, for a few days my workaholic professor was giddily under the impression that I too, had pulled the whole ‘ride the Galibier and then go to night shift’ trick. Maybe I should’ve just let him keep on believing.

Vive le tour! Et vive le vtt!!!!

to be continued…

Ride Report: Stage 19, Part 1(telégraphe)

July 26, 2011

“Oh my God. Look at the Alps. Just look at the Alps. Just…Look.”

Guess where this ride report begins?

As I’ve mentioned before, our lab has a small but solid contingent of tour de France devotees, so much so that we stream it into our control room sometimes. One of the devotees, Will, had been planning for a while to drive out with his wife and sister (also tour fanatics!) watch stage 19 and 20, an outing I practically begged to be invited to. But there was another adventure in the works: another tour devotee, Daniel, had the crazy awesome idea to go ride part of the stage, and wanted know if I was in for it. Daniel has been working on this silly experiment for a silly long time and is moving back home to Brazil in a couple of weeks. Hence, stage 19 of this year’s tour, a mere two and a half hour drive from Geneva, seemed a lot like the last chance for either of us to see the tour live and to ride the Col de telégraphe plus the Galibier, which combined constitute the longest climb in France. Of course I was in for it. Obviously. No question.

We’d been floating the idea for a while, but the realization of it was of course dependent on things like antiprotons and ultra high vacuums. Weather, also, was also a factor. In the preceding days the forecast had told us various truths and lies, including: snow, near freezing temperatures, partial sun, full sun, and the inevitable rain. It wasn’t until 15 hours beforehand that we finally bit the bullet and made the car rental reservation.

And then there was my bike problem: the person who loaned me my bike has  indeed returned to Switzerland, and the bike that has been my means of transport and fun for the last months is now surrendered to him. Work is always crazy, so attempts to access the bike rental place were thwarted due lack of time and funds, and my chances of borrowing Joel’s bike for such a venture were slim to none. My only option seemed to be to beg for day use of the craptastic tank. He graciously obliged. Craptastic tank it would be! While waiting in downtown Geneva outside the rental car agency, I decided to photograph my bike situation, just so you all could see how truly great it was:

You get the idea.

Remembering  the title of Lance Armstrong’s book (which I’ve never read) “It’s Not About the Bike,” I convinced myself that well, it had been so many years spent waking up early to watch stage finishes and dreaming about the Alps while in school or at work during summers that I wasn’t about to let poor bike quality steal this opportunity from me. I was actually more than fine, even a little proud, about the prospect of doing it on a mountain bike. Daniel, solidly on team hardtail and knobby tires for “philosophical reasons” would do it on nothing less.

But this brings us back to where this post should have started: the Alps. So much of beauty is in contrast; When you spend a good portion of your life thinking about things so small they’re invisible, there’s something truly to be said about peering out the windshield and discovering that everything in your field of vision is mountain. It is constitutes a saturation of senses, and we drive for a while awestruck and caught in that inconceivable brand of speechlessness. It’s easy enough to overwhelm yourself trying to imagine the force it must have taken to thrust whole sections of the earth up in impossible angles, or tracing the faint arc of a rainbow forming between the clouds clinging to dizzying cliffs and already tasting the fragrance of the air. Surely, you think, a grin slowly curling up the edges of your mouth, this place must be like nowhere else in the world.

Such magic cannot even be vanquished by a frantic phone call from CERN. One of the PhD students lost a wrench under the experiment to pull of  the magnetic field. On this experiment, it (whatever ‘it’ is) never ends.

But oh, the Alps, the Alps. As I have remarked before: Mountains Suspended in Sky.

We park the car in St. Michel de Maurianne, a village at the base of the first climb of the stage (a bit more than 11 K from the top), and are instantly surrounded by all kinds of tour fanfare: Carrefour signs, French people eating breakfast, Dutchmen on fancy bikes, and half the population of Norway (God care for Norway right now, seriously, it’s been a rough couple of days). A category 1 climb, the Col du telégraphe starts out like it means it: with an 8% or more grade for the first several kilometers. As usual with me and climbing, the key is to just hit a good rhythm and keep going. Neither of us has bike computers and are thus mercifully spared the knowledge of exactly of how slow we are going.

Part of the way up the Col, the we are greeted by the unmistakable clamor of Cow bells, which we sort of ignore until we are startled the accompanying cries of “Go team ……. !” Our coworker Will, and his sister are sitting on the side of the road next to a stars and stripes, as well as an Aussie flag they’ve unfurled for Cadel. After quick stop and a chat, our legs are magically refreshed by the knowledge that we have friends on the mountain.

A couple of kilometers from the summit we’re stopped by a guard who informs us that we are not allowed pass this point. Fortunately for us, a group of Italians is nearby and one of them, in alarmingly staccato and hand gesture filled French, convinces the guard to allow us to continue if we walk our bikes. the Italian dismounts and begins to clickclac his way up the mountain in his carbon soled shoes.

It’s walking, but hey, we’re happy to still be making time up the mountain, so we follow suit. Daniel makes some crack about how for the Italians, it’s not good enough to break the law; they prefer to bend it. Just as my mind is about to go the direction of ‘geez, talk about bad stereotypes,’ a cheerful (and rightfully so!) Aussie pushing a road bike walks up next to us and remarks, as if on cue, “Now, only an Italian could’ve make that happen.”  We all have a good chuckle, and a few minutes later a man riding a bike that matches his kit, europro in the flesh, zips by whilst proudly professing something in Italian about how stupid the police are. All I can think is: I love the world.

Midway up telégraphe: Half Dome, much?

Once out of eyesight of the guards, we also begin to ride again. Ride again, that is, only to be stopped right before the summit. Ideally, we would have liked to continue to the Galibier, but the guards at this point were more attentive and would not let riders past, even if said riders were Italian and ‘walking their bikes.’ So it was decided: the top of telégraphe would be the place we’d see the guys go by.

But first: the Caravan. Possibly the most bizarre commercial endeavor of all time, the tour caravan consists of weird floats from even weirder companies manned by weirder yet people chucking cheap freebies at the crowd. It’s mainly just a way to keep spectators entertained while waiting for the riders, but good lord, the people on the floats throw out goods as if they were ninja stars. More than a couple times I find myself fearing for my life as packets of laundry detergent and chocolate milk powder and key chains and the likes were chucked at my eye level out of speeding vehicles.

We surrendered all of the free crap that we managed to grab (not that much to begin with, actually) to this happy pack of French children next to us on the side of the road, the greedy little buggers.

And this was not even the strangest car. 

After the caravan had passed, everyone was on high alert for the arrival of the riders. We find a place were the road going up the opposite ridge is visible, and wait anxiously for the first signs of the peloton. the whir of the tv helicopters begins to fill air…

“Här kommer dem!” the woman in front of me yells. “Här kommer dem! Här kommer dem! kom o titta!” I echo, spotting a distant cyclist and shouting over my shoulder, not realizing at first that this is in fact Swedish. Nevertheless, the sentiment is relayed before I can correct myself (“I mean..Here they come! Look!”) or comprehend the bizarre occurrence of screaming in Swedish at a Brazilian while wearing a Cal kit on this mountainside in France. When it finally hits me, I look down and sure enough, as fate would have it, a blue and gold flag is neatly rolled up and leaning against the roadside wall where the woman and her family are standing. My happiness at this moment (as if this were even possible) increases a hundred fold.

Attacks began early on in the stage, and even before the cyclists reached us the peloton had absolutely exploded. Unmistakable at the front: Andy Schleck and Contador at his shoulder. Contador is a picture of focus, hawklike and menacing. If there ever was a ‘zone,’ he was in it. Andy Schleck is dancing on the pedals and looks, as always, like he’s a smiling twelve year old boy (not far off, actually). All of them are inhumanely fast, and surprisingly shiny (baby oil? the myth must be true…) Seeing these guys in action was nothing short of witnessing Gods (or, ahem, drugs) among men, even if I was more than a little perturbed that Cadel Evans didn’t appear to be in the lead group.

Le next group to pass contains the man in yellow, the malliot jaune: Voekler, who in the span of a couple of days had become a true hero for French cycling. the crowd, even the non French among us, erupts into an avalanche of “ALLEZ” s for the Frenchman with the German name. It’s hard not to be swept up in such joyous madness. Allez thomas Voeckler! Allez thomas Voeckler! Allez allez allez allez!!

After the yellow jersey group come the sprinters, dragging their tree trunk legs up the mountain. I catch a fleeting glimpse of thor Hushvod’s rainbow world champion Jersey and dissolve breifly in to fangirlness.

“Courage! Courage! Courage!” is the cheer of choice for the stragglers who have dropped off the back of the last pack. I can’t help but wonder if they’re loving the cheering or loathing it. Certainly having been in such a position before (last up a climb), I know the feeling of wanting to punch every single person cheering square in the face. When you’re in that much pain, even the most goodnatured encouragement can sound a lot like bitter, sarcastic mocking. Similar sentiments were completely embodied by Contador later on in the day’s stage, when he totally decked an unruly spectator on the slopes of Alp D’Huez:

Respect, Contador. Respect.

Before getting back on the bike I chatted it up with the Swedes, who said they flew into Switzerland and rented a car to spend their summer holiday following the tour. No Swedes in the tour this year, I remark. “Jaaaa, men det är kul ändå!” Is the beaming reply. Ah cycling: bringing Western Europe and some parts of America and Australia together.

We returned to our bikes and in a seated, granny gear sprint through a maze of lingering spectators and errant children, powered across the King of the Mountains line at the top of the Col du telégraphe. We continued down the mountain with the all too short descent into the Alpine valley and toward the formidable base of the Galibier. Our view of the tour for the day may have ended, but the ride, the ride was just beginning.

to be continued…