Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Quick and dirty tips for your ultra-light bikepacking trip in France

Information on climbs:

  • Website that states what Cols are open: http://www.sport-passion.fr/parcours/etat-cols.php  (The German http://www.alpenpaesse.co is not always correct!) 

  • The German website: http://www.quaeldich.de has all information possible about a pass. Even as a non-German speaker, coloring and numbers tell more than any word. Just click on "Pรคsse" (meaning pass) and search for a specific pass or explore by region. Once you click on a pass and scroll down, you can see the elevation gain, profile and much more in detail.

  • For bike tourists on a budget, try www.warmshowers.org, a free “coachsurfing” website specifically for touring cyclists. I have used that site in New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii and Switzerland and I had always fantastic experiences!

  • Otherwise, if you stay in a remote ski resort for a week+, they might have a great offer. I stayed in a 3 Star studio apartment in Modane, for 140 Euro/week. (In other places, I paid 50-70 Euro/night for a one person private bed and bathroom)
  • I always navigated via paper maps (they never run out of battery) of at least 150000:1. I would not get anything bigger (like 200000:1) as the less-travelled cycling roads might not be on the map anymore.

  • Download the maps.me app. From there you can download maps for specific regions.

  • You can also make specific regions offline in Google maps.
  • The meteo earth app is fantastic as you can follow every single cloud and rain drop.
  • Always switch your wifi off while on the road, the battery lasts sooooo much longer.
  • If you don’t speak French, I would get an offline French dictionary app. Otherwise smiling does most of the job.
  • Some stuff to know in regards to the bike might come handy like assembling your bike out of your bike bag and changing a tube. 
 Enjoy your trip!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Under the spell of Mt Ventoux

With my current “film-the-most-epic” climbs mission, Mt Ventoux was a no-brainer since it is in this year’s Tour de France.

And this climb is special in so many ways. 

First, its an entire pilgrimage to get to the climb. And that was only the beginning.

Since it is the only bigger mountain in the region, you don’t exactly need to get a map to find it. 
And if you still don’t see it, just follow anything resembling a cyclist, bike-racked car roof or just the Dutch camper vans. Every soul is heading to the mountain.

There are 2 unique ways heading up Mt Ventoux. Of course, I had to climb the one in the Tour de France – from Bedoin. (Just for the number junkies:  21.2km/1599m climbing, 7.5% grade average) It is seen as the hardest ways up.

Being not in the mountains anymore, the atmosphere has changed. The mountains emanate this mystic, reserved feeling where you are never quite sure you are accepted -  the moody weather, the sheer vertical disparity and the mooching Yetis (oh wait, wrong mountain range). In contrast, Mt Ventoux radiates this intriguing, welcoming “hey, look, you can see even the top, come on up!” message lulling cyclists in their spell.

It got me too. I had to ride up.

The scenery of Mt Ventoux is basically an American/Italian climate sandwich: Bottom: Rome (Italy). Very Mediterranean flair with old stuff around, a lot of terracottan color. Middle part: Bend, Oregon (USA): Green, smell of pine trees and yes, even pine trees. Top: Tucson, Arizona (Desertish color), wide views and the tower as mirage.

In the Alps, I was climbing my own pace taking it all in but this time, there was so much happening, no time for tranquility. The mountain was covered in English, German and Dutch cyclists, drivers and camper vans. I made it a game to guess what nationality the cyclists were depending on their riding style. I can tell you, time does go by that way!

With all the trees around, there was no view expect the steep pavement ahead of you so keeping yourself entertained was a good idea.

1300m of elevation later, it all changed.

It opened up. No trees. Green turned to white. And that notorious tower in your vision.

Super small in the background - the tower and finish of Mt Ventoux

For the good or bad.

Although you clearly headed in that direction, the tower just didn’t get any bigger.

That meant, time for some serious distraction. The guess-nationality game lost its appeal.

But holy moly, the view definitely made up for it!

As far as you can see.

We were all of a sudden so close; the tower was right there. Something else concerned me though. I looked at my bike computer.

There is a point in both roads up to the tower that makes you realize how much vertical meters you still have ahead of you

We were short of 100 vertical meters.

Yep, and that’s where the 11% gradient appeared – in the last km….after almost 2 hours climbing. 

Although you could see the final km from far away it never appeared to be that steep. I guess when you have been climbing 8-10% the entire time, 11% doesnt seem that much steeper.

Finally, the tower came into eye height. The elevation gain on the bike computer matched with the elevation of Mt Ventoux.

And I joined all the English, Germans and Dutch on the top.

For those who need some serious sugar reload

There were several ways going up but only two routes that are truly unique (and don’t overlay with others).  So of course, curiosity made me climb up that as well. Just for the record, it is tough too!

Mt Ventoux

Great panorama

Monday, May 23, 2016

What happens when you underestimate Alpe d'Huez!

I am currently in France chasing all the epic climbs.
And it goes without saying, there are a lot!
I am on a mission - filming them for the indoor trainer app called FulGaz.

But there is a problem with spending an extended period of time in the mountains - you become addicted to elevation gain.
At first, it was one little climb - 700m vertical gain that blew you away.
Then it was 1000m, a big one.
Then two climbs, etc.

Well, two days ago I was on the "hell, I am going to do a big day today - two 1500m climbs, Col de la Croix de Fer from both sides".

After that ride, I also decided I never would do this climb again. (It was just not my gradient.)

In the evening I checked my ride and I saw Alpe d'Huez was so close to that route! It was one of those climbs I was planning on filming anyway so how could I have missed it!!!!

I have to go back!

24 hours later I came to this epiphany I could just add Alpe d'Huez to the 6.5 hours ride the day before.

What is one more climb?
(I might want to add that I am not a big Tour de France follower so I heard about Alpe d'Huez and that there is such a big hype about it but there is a lot of hype about a lot of things, right?)

So two days after the Col de la Croix de Fer ride, I was back climbing it again. (Here goes my promise never to climb it again!)

But then, the most essential part of my mission failed. The camera gave me a no-go!

Half way up the first col! (Just a side note for the flatlanders: Just going down the mountain to repair it is not just a 10 min turn around, we are talking about hours!)

So after climbing the reminder of Croix de Fer, I had to make a monumental decision. Heading back and call it a day or keep going?

I decided to keep going.  I have been riding with a failed power meter, only three gears, a badly-to-be-greased chain and other unidentifiable bike noises for the past two weeks. A broken camera will not make me turn around. Basta!

So I descended the other side of Croix de Fer and four hours later and 1800m vertical meters in my legs I found myself in Bourg d'Oisans - the start of this self-proclaimed, tough climb.

Well, yes, it did start tough.

But then I thought it was only 10km of climbing and 1100m of ascent.

Oh wait, what?

It was starting to sunk in. This might not be the random neighborhood climb.

There were count-down markers for the corners in the... ahem... corners.
Not sure about its intentions....was it meant to devastate or encourage you?

20 corners to go.

I lost my faith in them by corner 19. Either I was already so in the red zone that I made up corners or the count-down person was vicious! Not every corner had a corner sign! (Let's talk about mental abuse here!)

Plus, my vision got so blurry that I couldnt make up the number anymore!

In short, I was losing it.

And what set me off completely were all those cyclists who were flying down the mountain.


Excuse me! I am suffering here, have a little bit more empathy. A more pitying face would be  appropriate!

Anyway, by corner 15±3 I decided not to look up anymore.

No smiling cyclists anymore.
No untrustworthy corners anymore.
Staring at the pavement was just fine by me!

But another misery was setting in.

I now could exactly follow my progress seeing if any pavement is moving under me.

Was I moving?

Suddenly I heard someone yelling: photo, photo!

I looked up. Yes, there was a photographer in my snail-pacing way to take a picture.

I let him do his job.

Then he wanted to give me a business card.

I think he could see my eyes behind my glasses because he immediately retracted.

At some point, and do not ask me what corner, I looked up and saw two villages above me.
Oh my god! That must be heaven or hell, well, actually both.

Of course, Alpe d'Huez was the one further up.

No time to look up anymore. I had a job to do. Staring at that darn pavement and hoping it would keep moving! 

Then signs of "Tour de France this way" appeared in my tunnel vision.

Then the corner signs disappeared.

It must be going straight or only uncornery corners now!

And I made it into Alpe d'Huez.

I was confused.

Where the heck is that damn "Arrivee" sign?

I asked frantically, distressed two coffee-drinking coffee drinkers.

"Another few meters uphill."

So I climbed those "few" meters....and I still couldnt find that one-and-only sign I would recognize from miles away!

At the seemingly end of the village I turned around and was looking for the sign. More distressed.

And by chance, I found this small, piddling sign which did not represent the size of this massive effort! They must change the sign!

(Well, you might look at the sign and say, ahem Monika, this is a pretty big sign. But I say, if you stare at the pavement for more than an hour, this sign is not exactly in your vision!)

I took my obligatory col picture. I felt disturbed, mentally and physically abused. Why would someone play with you and your legs for such a long time?

And then I descended and Alpe d'Huez became a bit friendlier. I didnt know that it actually had a view:

But back to my mission, I still need to film this climb!

Next time (meaning tomorrow), the corners, the smiling descending cyclists, the photographer and the pavement need to watch out for my Vendetta! This is not how I will leave it with Alpe d'Huez!

Oh wait, the story is not done yet. I forgot that I had to climb back over Col de la Croix de Fer (1500m elevation). And if Alpe d'Huez was misery, this was absolute hell. I was mentally so exhausted that those 50m road sign reflection markers every, well, 50m kept me going.

I think the video says it all:

And just for the record, this is the ride:

Monday, May 9, 2016

Ultralight backpack cycling adventure in France - Part 2 - What I carried

Greetings from Geneva!
I just got back from five days of ultralight backpack cycling in Southeast France.
You might wonder where Part 1 of this trip is? It is coming (I only have 18 hours before my next flight to Nice for the same adventure in a different region). But on request and with only limited time, I want to share what I carried on this trip and what it requires so it works.

I am sure that style of cycling has a name but I havent come across it yet. What I mean with ultra light backpack cycling is a combination of road cycling and bikepacking. You can go as fast as you would do on a normal road ride (and not dragged down by weight, panniers, etc) but have all the essentials that you are never bound to a place and dont have to do loops.

You just go wherever you feel like. As I do like the comfort of a real bed, I stayed in hotels, with a kitchen if possible. I ate out only once, when everything was closed - it was Sunday AND public holiday, so absolutely zero chances that something would be open in France. But I will get to this in a later part of this story. Below is the list of what I carried in my bag:

- One light shirt
- One light leggins
- One tiny sleeping pants
- Toothbrush
- Travel-size tooth paste
- Travel-size laundry soap
- Maps (as needed)
- Wind jacket
- Phone/Garmin/Light charger (had all the same plug-in, dont forget to bring the right adapter)
- Passport
- Debit Card
- Cell phone
- 1-2 bananas

Always/mostly worn during the ride:
- Bandini
- Arm-/Legwarmers
- One jersey and one bibs
- Wind jacket
- Winter gloves
- Glasses with photo-chromatic lenses
- Toe covers
- Helmet
- Cycling shoes
- Socks

On my bike: 
- Two front lights (I never rode in the dark but essential for tunnels, fog, etc)
- Rechargeable rear light
- Bike computer Garmin 520
- Saddle bag (one tube, lever)
- Frame pump
- Two water bottles (there are plenty of fountains around to refill)

No shoes besides my cycling shoes and nothing spare or extra. If I lose it, it becomes more adventurous. I forgot my phone/Garmin/light charger in one hotel. Luckily, the following hotel let me borrow a charger. (It was Sunday, so nothing was open to buy something).

When I look at the list, it seems like an awful lot and thus heavy. But since it was mostly light clothes, the weight tended to evenly distribute itself on my back so I never felt it on my back. I carried it up a lot of cols and never experienced any back pain.

I didnt bring any food besides 1-2 pieces of fruit. With one exception, it works for me and I love stopping at supermarkets (Intermarche, Casino, Carrefour, Lidl, Netto, Aldi) and pick up a fresh piece of fruit or whatever I fancy at that time.

Of course, with so little stuff to carry around, there is a bit of post-ride routine involved. Where ever I felt like, I want to stay, I went either into a Office du Tourisme or straight into a hotel and asked for a room (usually between 50-70 Euro. It always had to be near a supermarket). Then, I go into the supermarket and buy food (I left my bike inside the supermarket and had an eye on it). If I didnt get a hotel with kitchen, it had to be salad or I got a roast turkey. If I got a kitchen, options were limitless. (3 our of 5 times I got a kitchen)

After the supermarket run, I got into the hotel and washed my clothes while trying to figure out how to get them dry until the next day. Creativity was in high demand. Easy ways were there was a heater or a hair dryer or balcony. But I also pinned my clothes with knife and fork into the air conditioner to have them hung right in front of them.

After the laundry routine, I finally could prepare food. By then, 1-2 hours have passed since I decided to be done riding. While eating, I studied the map and had some rough plans where my next destination is. Except the last day (where I had to get to Geneva), I never got where I intended to get. Sometimes, I found a better route, sometimes, I didnt like the chosen route and usually I got lost anyway.

After all this post-ride activities, it was time to relax.

Of course, this is not the golden formula for such kind of cycling. It worked for me well and I will do exactly the same during the Nice trip. Feel free to ask, suggest or tell from your experiences.

In the next parts of this adventure I will cover what makes this type of riding so awesome and what my routes were. I also will write about all the lessons learned from this trip.

Bye for now, I am off to Nice!