Southeastern France - September, 2005
Bonjour from France
Sep 12th: At present we are at the Blanquefort vineyard in Provence . How did we end up here? Last February we were invited to a wine tasting party by our friends Bob and Beth who own The Wine Store in Colorado Springs . The party was designed to showcase the wines of Tina and Benoit who own the Blanquefort vineyard, and we ended up having wonderful conversations with them. Given that we knew at that time that we planned to cycle in Provence we asked if we could visit them. Not only did they graciously reply positively, but we were told that our rough arrival date of early September would coincide with their grape harvest. So here we are, learning about their wine and getting ready to pick grapes first thing in the morning. Today we literally spent time stomping grapes with our feet so that some initial analysis could be done related to the grapes acidity and potential alcohol content once the fermentation process has been completed. In addition their home is as amazing as the winemaking process. There is documentation that buildings were on this site in the early 11th century. The present buildings date to the 17th century, and additions have been made in the 18th and 19th centuries. Tina and Benoit's renovations over the past decade since they have owned the vineyard are equally as fascinating.
Our route since we left the Torino area took us past beautiful wine country in Italy , over Colle San Bernardo, and down a 30 km descent to the Mediterranean Sea . Reaching the Med was our third significant milestone over the past 8 days with the previous two being the passing of 3,000 miles on August 26th and 5,000 kilometers two days later when we climbed over Colle Sestriere.
The sea was not only a welcome sight, but also a great time to cool off given the hot temperatures of these later summer days. We have spent the past week plus riding the coast line along the Italian and French Riviera, both of which are absolutely beautiful. Being on a loaded bike tour is not the time to really spend time in a large city. In fact, the traffic is often so nerve wracking after riding on little traveled back roads that our typical reaction once we arrive in a big city is leave!! This was the case as we passed through Monte Carlo , Nice, and Cannes . However, Nice had a great bike path on the promenade bordering the sea so this made for much more relaxed viewing of the city. We have both said that we will have to make some specific trips to Europe in the future targeting what the big cities have to offer, but this current tour on bike isn't conducive to that type of tourism.
The coast road in France from Napoule to St.Raphael was as if parts of Colorado or Utah were by the sea. Magnificent red rocks as if from Garden of the Gods or Moab lined the coast, with the coast road bobbing and weaving, dipping and rising, to provide a multitude of different perspectives. The interesting thing was that our first few days riding by the sea the waters were exceptionally calm. Then the day we rode this section of road a storm was coming in and the waves pounded the rocks with breathtaking force. When we arrived in Agay, which means "favorable" in Greek, we ended up staying 3 nights because of the most intense rainstorms of our trip so far. The campground had a beautiful covered patio with views of the sea. We spent many hours cooking and relaxing there as well as tracking the storm. Agay is at the curve of a large horseshoe shaped bay so much of the beach was protected from the high winds. Still, we felt very fortunate as many campers had significant flooding in their tents, yet we had none. In addition we befriended another couple, Elmar and Henrike from Stuttgart . Collectively we had two superior dinners with them as we combined forces with two camp stoves making for more diverse meals than we have had in a while.
Symbolically it felt appropriate to leave Agay as rain started to fall, but we were fortunate to have the opportunity to dry out our tent prior to our departure. After 30 kilometers we literally passed a line of clouds and emerged into the sunshine. It certainly felt ironic that the next morning with exceptionally clear skies we packed up a wetter tent due to condensation than the day before when we left Agay.
Our trip to the vineyard took us over our first three French Cols (passes). They were all small by our standards but still fun to start climbing and descending again. When we leave this comfortable vineyard and the warm hospitality of Tina and Benoit we are targeting the high cols of the French Alps. Hopefully the weather will be in our favor for the remainder of September as we make our way back to Geneva Switzerland . That will likely be the next opportunity we have to send an update.
Sep 28th: It has now been almost two weeks since we left the cozy confines of the Blanquefort vineyard. We were trying to figure out a way to take the bed with us but never figured that one out! That was a good thing, as you will see. Our last couple of days at the vineyard were spent helping to harvest the grapes. The machinery used to take the grapes off the vines fascinated us. From there they were taken to the processing point adjacent to the house where the grapes were separated from the stems and then moved up to a machine that crushed them to make the juice. The juice went back down through a filter and then was transferred into the holding tanks to start the fermentation process. On our last full day at the vineyard we helped harvest the grapes by hand as some of Tina and Benoit's older vines can't be harvested by modern machinery (or are too remote to get the machine back there). This whole process has given us a much greater appreciation for what goes into making a bottle of wine. We left the vineyard with hopes that Tina and Benoit will come and visit us in Colorado Springs in 2007 and we can host another wine tasting party at our house with their wines.
Our travels from the vineyard gradually brought us to the high Alps of France. There have been many milestones on this journey so far, but reaching the Alps had been a major goal since the early planning stages 3 years ago. The terrain felt very varied as we headed north. Each day included significant amounts of climbing which, on a loaded tandem, can take a lot of time based on the slow pace we maintain while ascending. This, in conjunction with the decreased daylight, made for some shorter daily distances than we had in earlier parts of our trip. The most beautiful day was when we rode along the Grand Canyon du Verdon. The Verdon River over the ions has created Europe's largest canyon slicing the limestone plateau to a depth of 700 meters. Unlike the Grand Canyon where the road takes you there but you have to get out of the car to see anything, the spectacular roads that border both the north and south rim afford astounding views throughout the ride. We took the road on the south rim. There were some significant climbs and descents prior to the long climb up to the Cirque de Vaumale where the sights into the canyon were incredible. In the distance we could also see that day's destination point, the Lac de Ste-Croix. The 12km descent passed the Col d'illoire on its drop to the lake. We set up camp and had an exceptionally refreshing swim in the glacial silt colored waters.
The next day was notably cooler. I journaled that “yesterday was summer, today is fall” despite the fact that it was 4 days from the autumnal equinox. For the first time in a long time we donned arm warmers and tights during part of the ride and wore our warmer clothes after showering at the campsite. The following day almost felt like it went from fall to winter. We had a very nice start to the day riding past numerous apple and pear orchards, rolling hills and quaint villages. In the afternoon we started climbing Col D' Espreaux to an altitude of 1160 meters. It was actually ideal cycling and climbing temperatures but when we got to the top it was clear that the storm that was following us as we ascended would soon catch up to us. In addition the clouds in front of us looked as bad as those behind. We stopped just long enough to put on our rain jacket and take a picture with hopes that we would make it to Veynes, the town at the base of the pass, prior to the heavens opening. We weren't so fortunate. However, we were lucky enough to get down the steepest and curviest parts before the rain started. We put on our rain pants and then the exceptionally cold rain came down in buckets. The gradient of the descent lessened and we passed another touring cyclist who was off the road taking shelter underneath some trees. No time to stop to chat as hypothermia was a concern. It was good to be able to pedal to assist with maintaining body warmth. We arrived in town, found the first hotel we could, and dripping wet asked to see the room. The proprietor rolled his eyes; no doubt envisioning these two drenched beings flooding the room, but complied. Much to our delight not only was the room more than adequate for our needs, but it also had a kitchen that allowed us to cook the soup we had been carrying with us. We both could have stayed in the hot shower for ages. When I asked where we could put the tandem the manager pointed to the wall inside the restaurant situated below the hotel rooms. All the tables were anointed with nice tablecloths, wine glasses etc. We looked at him questioningly but he again pointed to the wall. We carried the bike into the restaurant, dripping as we went and gingerly placed it against the wall. A couple of hours later I went down to check on the bike and see what was happening in the restaurant and I laughed when I saw another bike leaning up against the wall behind ours. There was the touring cyclist we had passed as we came down the col. We struck up a nice conversation and we all felt fortunate to have a good shelter.
The following two days the clouds hung low and the temperatures never rose much above 10 degrees C. We felt lucky that even though it was cold, we did not get rained on. Because we were doing more climbing than descending as we headed into the high Alps we were able to keep reasonably warm through the day. We altered our route on the second day as there was no point in taking the shorter route that would have brought us over a col when the views would have been that of going through a cloud. We took the longer more gradual route to Le Bourg-d Oisans, which is the town at the base of the Tour de France's most celebrated climb Alpe d' Huez. Upon our arrival the information center's weather forecast for the next day was for clearing. Seeing a few small patches of blue through the clouds gave us hope this would be the case. We set up camp and found that the campground had a large room where we could eat our meals and stay warm. That was an absolute coup. It was nice also that the campground was nearly empty but for a few hearty cycling souls.
The next day could not have been more perfect. We waited until the skies cleared and the temperatures warmed up before starting our ascent up Alpe d' Huez. The record for this 13.8km climb up to the 1860-meter summit is 37 minutes 35 seconds by (the drugged) Marco Pantani (who died a few years back of an overdose). The climb is known for its famed 21 numbered switchbacks and up to 13% gradient as it winds its way to the finish line at the ski resort. On a scale of 1-5 on which The Tour rates the difficulties of climbs, Alpe d' Huez is ranked “hors categorie” or above categorization, i.e., very steep. True enough. Each switchback has a sign saying the number, the altitude, a previous winner of the stage and what year he won. We stopped at all of the even switchbacks on the way up and the odd ones on the way down to take pictures. We soaked in the views overlooking the valley and felt blessed to have such optimal conditions to undertake this ride. Our ascent took us over two hours and we literally enjoyed every pedal stroke. For the obsessive/compulsives in the reading audience there are actually 22 switchbacks, the last is in the ski village. Why it isn't considered part of the numbered group is unknown to us. The descent was great fun taking about a quarter of the time of the climb including the photo stops.
We decided to spend three nights at this campground allowing us time to explore and attempt more cols unloaded. Our next day's goal was to tackle the Col de la Croix de Fer from the southwest. We got nearly half way up the 30km or so pass when Janet indicated that her knees were starting to hurt a little. Given that our goals were to ascend several more cols that are commonly done in the tour over the next few days it made no sense to continue, especially since we were scheduled to ascend this col from the other direction. While turning back on a climb is difficult for both of us as we are two crazy sorts that really do enjoy climbing, it turned out to be exceptionally fortunate that we did.
On the 23 rd we got up and going early. Our day's planned ride was to take us over 3 cols two of which, Col du Lautaret and Col du Galibier, are very significant. The third, Col du Telegraph is easy from the south to north direction. This would be a day that totalled well over 2000 meters of climbing with 45 of our 82 kilometers traveled being of the ascending variety. For the 3 rd day in a row we were blessed with clear skies that warmed nicely as the day progressed. Absolutely ideal for this type of riding. After a 5km warm up, the road ascended sharply as we headed up the Col du Lautaret. About 35 km later we summitted this pass which included a few minor downhill sections to provide breathers and yet more opportunities to climb. The last 10k brought us above tree line (it's funny to see that at about 6000 feet when tree line is about 11,500 feet in Colorado). From the top of this col at 2057m one can take a right down to Briacon or make a left and climb the 9km to Col du Galibier at 2645m. So up we went. I don't know why or how but we both felt exceptionally strong going up this climb. It was funny because our pace was slower than earlier in the day, but the kilometers seemed to click off quickly. When we got to the top there were signs saying it was a 12% gradient from our direction and a 10% gradient coming up from the other side. The Tour de France came up the other way this year… I guess they wanted to take it easy on them!! Once at the top the views were incredible. We could even see Mount Blanc, Western Europe's highest peak, emerging through the distant clouds. An orientation table a short walk up from the summit had us picking out the mountains in our view from a 360-degree perspective. Wonderful. The winding and twisting descent had us moderating our speed. The upper part of the road near the summit had writings all over it encouraging this years tour riders, a traditional part of spectator participation on the tour's major ascents.
After going over the easy (from our direction) Col de Telegraph we descended again toward the base of this pass and the village of St. Michel. About 8km from the town we heard some significant clicking coming from our rear wheel. It didn't take us long to discover the cause: two significant cracks in the rim hitting the brake pads. Immediately we knew that this part of our tour was over. Our hopes to go over other famed tour cols including Col de la Croix la Fer, Col de Glandon and Col de Madelaine were dashed. We released the rear brake and now only had use of our drum (slowing) brake and front brake. We climbed aboard and slowly headed down the steepest part of the switchback-laden descent. Constant braking on the front rim forced us to stop frequently to let the rim cool. During those times we walked the bike a few hundred meters and climbed aboard again. Over the kilometers the rear rim's cracks got slightly larger. Finally, a kilometer from town we got a flat. Inspecting the front tire we found a tear near the bead. We suspected the constant heating and cooling of the front rim from this descent likely impacted both the tire and inner tube to the point of failure for both. While I fixed the flat Janet went into town and found a hotel one block from a train station. We were safe, unhurt, and happy to be where we were.
Upon further reflection of our circumstances we focused on all of the positives that have come out of the situation rather than lamenting the goals we won't achieve. How fortunate we were to have turned back the previous day. If we had gone all the way to the top of la Croix de Fer then would our wheel have cracked 30 kilometers earlier as we were nearing the top of Galibier? That would have been a terrible place to have been stranded. How lucky were we to be within walking distance of a town that had rail transportation? How fortunate were we to have gone just shy of 4000 miles on this trip to date and have this be our first major mechanical problem? And how lucky can we be to have been able to call our friends Fred and Brigitte near Geneva who were storing our suitcases, tell them of our problems, and have them welcome us into their home again for a full week never once making us feel like we are imposing on them.
These past few days we have been spent doing lots of research on rear wheel options. What a coup to have this time and consistent access to the internet and email to get this kind of information and feedback. We have been in touch with bikes shops in Colorado Springs, Melbourne Australia, and New Jersey. Thanks to all of them for their time and information. Given that we won't be cycling on the tandem again until we reach Melbourne Australia in December we have some time to play with. However, our goal is to get this resolved before we leave for Nepal. In the meantime we have been relaxing, getting out on a few rides using Fred and Brigitte's bike, and today will reach another milestone of surpassing 4000 total miles since we left the states. Finally, thanks to our good friend Barry who is staying at our house. He has been working like a racehorse to stay in touch with us, do some shopping, replace Janet's car battery, go to bike stores and make sure that we have nothing to worry about on the home front. Both of us can't imagine anyone better to take care of those needs.
On Saturday we leave for Malta where we will meet my father and stepmother for a week of relaxation and exploration of this small island. Then we fly to Vienna for a few days prior to leaving for Kathmandu Nepal on October 11th . It is hard to believe that nearly 4 months has passed since we left the states. Our trip continues to get better and more amazing with each twist and turn. We send our best to all of you. We miss our family, friends, and home, but continue to love the adventures that this journey provides.