It is early morning. My dash clock reads 7:10 AM. On cruise control a familiar scenery zips by outside the car’s windshield. Tall Italian cypress pine trees (the thin obelisk shaped ones) stand rigid and alert at each side of the motorway. Like guardians of the road. Up and down the road rolls and on the far horizon a crease in the surface of the earth becomes visible. The ‘Geant de Provence’ announces its presence from far away (I’d read it is visible from 100 km on a clear day). A commanding sight inducing excitement and a slight sense of trepidation.
After exiting the small village of Malaucene at the foot of the Ventoux the road starts to ramp up. I’d decided to leave the car behind and cross the valley of Ventoux to Bedoin, a sleepy village from which I would attempt my first ascent. There’s a minor climb separating the two villages which I would need to scale. Nothing major in the grander scheme of things. Yet doubt creeps up as the steepness of the road I was on did not relent and I pass a roadsign announcing Col de Mt Ventoux: OUVERT. I had evidently missed a turn and was unintentionally heading straight up the mountain.
After a short descent back into Malaucene and hike through the valley I arrive in Bedoin. My bicycle computer springs alive to announce that in a few hundred meters the Strava (app for tracking rides) segment of Mt Ventoux kicks off. This is it.
Halfway up and the road does not relent one bit. Inspite of it still being early it’s searing hot in the forested first part of the climb. I’m participating in a colorful cacophony of cyclists of all ages, shapes and sizes struggling up the gradient. Traditional road bikes, mountainbikes, tandems, trekking and foldable bikes, hikers, cars and motorcycles are all attracted by this mountain and crawl their way to the top.
The trees give way to the barren crest of Ventoux around two third of the way up. It is from here that the steepness of the climb diminishes somewhat. But by this time I could already feel the effort and the start of altitude.
The unlucky will be welcomed by a stiff breeze once truly entered into this moonscape. Whipped by the famous Mistral winds that can wreak havoc on even the most determined and lends this mountain it’s name. For Ventoux comes from the latin Ventoso and means wind. But this day was not to challenge us additionally. Instead, the lack of breeze left me battling my way up in sweltering heat and decreasing oxygen.
Summoning enough mindspace to narrowly dodge the crazed lycra clad men and women who’d made it to the top prior, I dismount and lean my bike against the white washed walls of the building that supports the large red-white striped antenna at the summit. I stumble over to the nearest souvenir shop to grab an icecold coke from the fridge, sit down to gulp the nectarlike sugar down and take it all in.
The view is tremendous and I spend the first 10 minutes just staring at the vast valley beneath catching my breath and composure. All the while people keep popping up on either side of the mountain pushing their pedals to squeeze the last drop they have before succumbing on their handlebars in a flurry of mumbles and expletives. Tourists with offspring and canines who stumble unprepared on this scene are observing from a safe distance with a mix of curiosity, astonishment and bemusement written across their faces. It’s MAMIL (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) galore up here.
It’s an odd gathering with not nearly enough space for all and I decide to take a few pictures and then fairly soon after make my way down the mountain again.
93km/h is what I see flashing by on my display at times while I am tucked into an aerodynamic position. Not nearly the speed record I’ve read about on two wheel descents, but on skinny tires and only a helmet for protection feeling pretty damn supersonic nonetheless. The road surface is smooth and wide, with no real surprises in the long sweeping bends. Only a handful of times do I need to brake hard for a hairpin. Other than that I can just let rip and find myself in less than 15 minutes back down the other side in the village of Malaucene where I had started the day.
I scale this giant climb once more from this side. The weather has turned gloomy at the top and I don’t linger much. Ventoux is a moody mountain. One moment opening its arms and welcoming you with sunshine and vast expanse, then in a span of hours turning gloomy and recluse. Shrouded in cold wet cloud, a further barrier to overcome, like an insect repellent to the tiny fragile humans trying to gain access to it’s guarded treasures.
Ventoux marks a point in time. A circle completed from when I started this journey. It’s closure. Yet it doesn’t end here. There are new adventures, new journeys and opportunities in the near and distant future. On and off the bike. I am not hanging up my wheels, far from it. Yet this blog served as a support to a distinct chapter in my life: rekindling an age old passion and living it to the fullest, without holding back. It has taught me to enjoy, foster and communicate with passion about passion. Passion that taught me that to be human is to be full and present in whatever you do without escape and without compromise. It inspired a determination and conviction to move mountains.
In mijn vroege jeugd woonde ik in Epe, aan de rand van de Veluwe. Zolang ik me kan herinneren stonden er altijd racefietsen in het schuurtje in de tuin. Mijn vader was een enthousiast wielrenner. Het heuvellandschap van de Veluwe is bij uitstek geschikt om te trainen. Door zijn enthousiasme werd mijn interesse in het fietsen al heel jong gewekt, al deden mijn broer en ik dat eerst nog op gewone fietsen.
Toen er een ware mountainbike-rage overwaaide uit de VS moest en zou ik ook zo’n fiets. Ik ging er hard voor sparen. Mijn ouders zouden dat bedrag aanvullen als cadeau voor mijn 11e verjaardag. Maar ik kon niet wachten en maanden ervoor mocht ik de stoere tweedehands mountainbike kopen die ikzelf had uitgezocht, met veel versnellingen en van die mooie dikke banden. Ik was supertrots en heb er veel op gefietst. Maar na een tijdje was de lol eraf omdat ik met mijn vader mee wilde als hij ging trainen, en daar had je toch echt een racefiets voor nodig. Mijn vader zwoer bij Gazelle, dus werd het een Gazelle, een blauwe met drie versnellingen, wat ik eigenlijk een beetje weinig vond. Ik besteedde veel tijd aan het onderhoud en het sleutelen aan mijn fiets om alle onderdelen te leren kennen. De fietsvakanties met mijn ouders en mijn broer in de Eifel waren nog gewoon een beetje lekker fietsen, maar ik wou meer. Ik wou ook meedoen aan de Elfheuvelentocht op de Veluwe die mijn vader elk jaar reed, en dan ook meteen het langste traject, 150 km. Ik moest nog twaalf worden.
Om in conditie te komen begon ik al maanden van te voren serieus te trainen. Ook ‘s avonds, bij mijn vader ‘aanklampen’ zoals dat heet in wielrennerstaal. Daar ligt de kiem van mijn racefietspassie. In de uitdaging om hem bij te houden, leerde ik het trucje dat je vrij dicht achter je voorganger moet blijven waardoor jij in de luwte fietst. Toen ik er op die Elfheuvelentocht de laatste 30 km helemaal doorheen zat, fixeerde ik me op het achterlicht van mijn vader, wat maakte dat ik dat laatste uur in een soort trance kwam. Nu ik daaraan terugdenk, was dat waarschijnlijk mijn allereerste ervaring met een soort meditatieve staat, al ontbrak een gevoel van ruimtelijkheid. Ik voelde me meer mentaal en fysiek gefixeerd in het hier en nu. Die allereerste toertocht heb ik, mogelijk als het enige kind dat meedeed, helemaal uitgereden. Daar was ik natuurlijk apetrots op en ik kreeg veel complimentjes. Later heb ik dat traject nog twee of drie keer gereden, op een gegeven moment wel op een fiets voor volwassenen, de racefiets van Grete, mijn stiefmoeder.
Nadat mijn vader het drukker kreeg met zijn bedrijf haakte hij af, maar ik ben nog een aantal jaren solo blijven rijden, dat heeft me zelfstandig gemaakt.
Omdat mijn vader en stiefmoeder in de kelder van ons huis in Zutphen een boeddhistisch altaar hadden waar zij regelmatig beoefenden, ben ik uit nieuwsgierigheid op mijn zestiende met mediteren begonnen. Ik begon met de voorbereidende oefeningen. Zij begeleidden de beoefening en ik deed een beetje mee, als het ware op een kinderfiets. In 1998 namen mijn ouders voor het eerst ook de kinderen mee naar een retraite centrum in zuid Frankrijk, wat voor ons toen nog een soort vakantie was.
Dan komt plotseling mijn vader te overlijden. Het eindexamen van de havo, een jaar later, heb ik nog wel gehaald, maar ik had totaal geen vertrouwen meer in het leven en mijn rol daarin. De rots in mijn leven was er niet meer. Het werd me duidelijk dat ik niet maar gewoon kon doorgaan met mijn leven, zomaar in een baantje stappen of een of andere studie gaan volgen. Mijn puberteit was voorbij en ik kon niet verder zonder eerst een antwoord te vinden op de vergankelijkheid waarmee zijn dood mij zo hardhandig had geconfronteerd. Nu ik mij niet langer op hem kon verlaten, moest ik een nieuw steunpunt vinden. Geleidelijk aan realiseerde ik me dat het boeddhistische pad mij de waarachtige steun en het begrip zou kunnen geven die ik op dat moment zo hard nodig had. Ik was namelijk erg onder de indruk geraakt van haar gedachtegoed, het leek me op het lijf geschreven. Omdat mijn vader mij met voldoende middelen had achtergelaten, stond niets me in de weg om mijn hart te volgen, mijn spullen te pakken en voor drie maanden naar zuid Frankrijk te gaan. Daar ontstond de diepe wens om mij voor langere tijd in het boeddhisme te verdiepen. Dus schreef ik me in 2001 in voor een eenjarige retraite in bij een retraite centrum in Ierland. De ervaringen die ik tijdens deze retraite opdeed, zijn het fundament gaan vormen van mijn pad.
Vanaf 2002 woonde ik overal en nergens en gedurende die wonderlijke nomadenjaren reisde mijn fiets steeds met me mee. Waar ik ook was probeerde ik altijd zoveel mogelijk kilometers te maken.
Maar wanneer in 2006 een driejaar-retraite in Frankrijk begint, verdwijnt de fiets voor een aantal jaren uit mijn leven.
Deze retraite ging echter geheel niet volgens plan. Het was mijn bedoeling om mee te doen aan de strikte optie van de retraite, waarbij je drie jaar lang het terrein niet verlaat. Maar na een aantal maanden stak mijn leraar daar al een stokje voor. Ik werd door hem uitgenodigd om met hem in de winter mee naar Australië te komen om te helpen in de organisatie. Dat was geen straf natuurlijk, maar wel een indicatie dat mijn driejaar lange retraite er heel anders uit zou gaan zien dan ik had verwacht. Een bonus was dat ik, door die onverwachte vrijheid, buiten de lesperiode naar Nederland kon om mijn moeder en vriendin te bezoeken. Het zal altijd gissen blijven hoe ik eruit was gekomen als ik aan de strikte vorm van de driejaar-retraite had meegedaan. Zoals ik er nu op terugkijk, heeft deze grotere bewegingsvrijheid mij – juist omdat ik nog zo jong was – enorm geholpen om het leven dat nog voor me lag niet uit het oog te verliezen.
Als we nu doorspoelen naar 2014, woon ik met Mala, die al 10 jaar mijn vriendin is, vlakbij het Westerpark. Met al die joggers een plek die uitnodigt om ook te gaan hardlopen. Als ik in Australië bezig ben met het organiseren van Awake (een manifestatie voor jongeren – red.) ga ik trainen voor de halve marathon van de City Pier City loop in Den Haag, die ik samen met mijn broer wil gaan lopen. Maar op een dag gaat het met mijn knie goed mis tijdens een warming up en moet ik een paar maanden kalm aan doen. Als na terugkomst blijkt dat mijn broer een racefiets voor zijn verjaardag heeft gekregen, begint het bij mij weer te kriebelen. Een tweedehands racefiets is zo gekocht en voor ik het weet zit ik er weer elke dag op. En in plaats van mijn knie te ontzien, gaat de sluimerende passie voor het fietsen een heel eigen leven leiden.
Het fietsen geeft me een enorm gevoel van vrijheid en grenzeloosheid, van puur plezier en avontuur, maar ook van lichtheid door de eenvoud ervan. Gaandeweg raak ik er steeds meer aan verslingerd. Fietsen betekent voor mij niet alleen vrijheid, het geeft me ook een mentale ruimte die me niet ontnomen kan worden. Het is ook elke keer weer een avontuur, niet alleen wat bestemming betreft, maar ook qua innerlijke ervaring. Als je een alpentop beklimt en met maximale inspanning zo’n uur of anderhalf omhoog rijdt, dan dwing je jezelf om het vol te houden, en dan kunnen er momenten onstaan waarin lichaam en geest volledig samensmelten in een staat van opperste concentratie en focus.
Tot het gaatje gaan is een vrijwillige keuze, maar het is wel alsof je uit vrije wil je vinger tussen de deur klemt. Je leert je pijndrempel steeds meer te verhogen, terwijl je volledig opgaat in die krachtsinspanning. Door die intense concentratie ben je alles even volledig vergeten. Het is jij en je fiets, de berg en de wind in je gezicht, het zoeven van de banden op het asfalt, de zachte ruis van de ketting. Je benen doen zeer, maar het maakt niet uit. Het unieke van de hele situatie neemt de overhand en geeft je een tweede adem. Als je om je heen kijkt is het ongekend mooi en totaal onwerkelijk. De woeste natuur komt binnen als een mokerslag. Je kan wel janken van blijdschap en toch moet je verder. Je kan het niet vasthouden. Je moet nog een heel eind. Op en neer gaan je benen, de ene pedaalslag na de andere.
Je gedachten vervagen en komen dan in alle hevigheid weer terug. Ik ben hier echt! Je zou jezelf wel willen knijpen. En dan, langzaam maar zeker komt de top in zicht…
It’s winter and in the Netherlands it finally starts to show. The mercury has dropped sub-zero. The Christmas break is in full swing and surprisingly so, is the cycling scene. Traditionally from end of October until beginning of March cyclists take a well deserved break from going on two wheels, or adopt a variety of other physical activities to compensate for the lack of miles out on the road. Running, swimming, strength training just to name a few. Yet nowadays increasingly the trend is to ride on during the winter months. If you live in the southern hemisphere this won’t be much of a challenge, but with us, up north, decreased amount of daylight, sub zero temperatures and the accumulation of fatigue from a long season, all conspire against zipping up against the cold and ‘going out there’. Yet humans are a crafty bunch and for the spirited a challenge always presents an opportunity.
Step in the boys and girls at Rapha..
Rapha is a relatively young company based in the UK that produces arguably the best performance and stylish cycling garments on the market. Albeit not cheap, none of the quality gear really ever is. It’s a challenge to take on established brands, but Rapha succeeded and then some.. Yet succeeding at this level is not all. Rapha challenge themselves to be innovative on all frontiers of the cycling experience. You can travel with Rapha specific training camps, weeklong or one day events, they promote a community of like minded riders by rolling out chapters in major cities, ther are social gatherings, clinics, workshops. And then there is the annual Rapha Festive 500 challenge.
The Rapha Festive 500, or short Festive500, is a challenge created a few years ago by Graeme Raeburn, Rapha’s lead designer. Graeme decided he wasn’t going to sit around during the days between Christmas and New Year. Instead he thought it ought to be interesting to try his hand at emulating the winter training on the level of what he thought would be ‘what professional riders’ do. Turns out he aimed way too high.. Graeme laid down the gauntlet for the next year. On the inaugural Festive 500 in 2010, which was also a white Christmas, just like the year he had started out, 94 riders took up the challenge. The idea caught on and last year, 72,283 riders signed up. Only 13,311 completed the full distance. You can read more about his story here: Rapha Festive 500 origins
So in short the Festive 500 is all about riding your bike during the few days between Christmas and New Year and setting yourself a minimum target of completing 500 km in 8 days and occasionally taking on the extremer winter conditions.
I decided to take part in this years challenge again. I had already completed it once, but conditions were very favourable and weather wise not so much of a test. The story below is the account of this years ‘highlight’ of the challenge. Which occurred, as it often does, more by happenstance than premeditation.
Part 1. ‘Why I am so mindless sometimes??’
On the Saturday prior to Christmas eve, me and some of our local Rapha team members decided to kick off the Festive500 challenge with a lovely ride along the western coastline of the Netherlands. I couldn’t join from the beginning as I had some business to attend to in the morning and the guys had decided to take an early train to The Hague and ride northward. The winds were strong that day and it would allow them to be pushed along nicely while clocking up the miles needed. I joined them halfway at Wijk aan Zee, 30 km or so from Amsterdam after battling through the strong westerly gusts. We had a coffee and some apple pie in a deserted local cafe where Christmas songs were quietly wailing in the background before setting off further north.
Gert Jan our experienced tour guide, navigated us along all the beautiful coastal and dune roads of the ‘Noord Holland’ province. The wind was strong that day and not always dead center from behind which, at times, made us have to lean into the wind or be blown off the road. It was fun though and we were gunning up and over gravel dune paths, forest roads and motoring along the stretch of newly laid ‘dune-highway’ from Schoorl to Petten. Our destination was Den Helder, a city on the farthest point of mainland with it’s tall lighthouse and other landmarks typical for a fishermen’s town. Here, after enjoying some lunch, we would board the train back to Amsterdam and be back to our families in time for Christmas eve dinner. The last stretch of tarmac between the sea and the northern dike of Den Helder is wide like a small landing strip. Due to the arctic gale blowing, we were able to ride ‘full pedal to the metal’ for the last kilometers. We were sprinting until our lungs burst and reached speeds close to 70 km/h.
The lunch that followed was uneventful and before long the landscape was zipping by from our train windows. The bikes were stacked neatly against one another when a slow but steady feeling of dread came over me. ‘Where is my bicycle computer’?….
Part 2. An Epic ride
It’s 08:30 AM on a Thursday morning and I am on my bike riding the very same roads I had less than a week prior. I’m heading back again to Den Helder to collect my bike computer. I seized the opportunity to carve out another long bike ride. Sure I could’ve had the owner of the seafood joint send me the computer by mail, but that would be way less exciting. Besides, the wind was favourable with a steady southerly and I needed to log more miles so it all seemed to make sense. I had tried to get a few others to come along, but all attempts failed. I like the solitude sometimes, so it wasn’t for the worse that I was heading out on my own. Yet before long I am flat on my face in front of a pedestrian heading for work. The man looks at me with a mix of pity and restraint amusement and after pausing for a second assessing my silly predicament, walks on. I lost control of my bike on a slippery patch of ice on the bike path while turning a corner. I carried hardly any speed when the front wheel just went and I crashed on my side. Straight back onto my feet I check if all is still okay with my limbs, clothes and bike and decide to continue, albeit a bit jittery. It’s an odd sensation but for the first half an hour after a crash you’re faith in yourself, the bike and the road is at an all time minimum, often causing you to have another crash.
It’s very misty and the minuscule droplets of rain freeze onto my clothes, making me look like a modern frosty the snowman on two wheels. Arrived in Wijk aan Zee it’s time for a snack. I am feeling good and park the bike against a bench to stretch the legs a little. While I am eating my cereal bar a couple of elderly people with kids walk by. ‘A well deserved snack, ey?’ she says while I politely smile back at them. ‘And continue straight onto London from here’ she jokes and walks on. ‘To London? How far would that be?’ I find myself thinking while I swallow the last piece of the cereal bar. I shrug off the thought. ‘Ridiculous idea!’ I think to myself. ‘How are you going to pull that off?’ While being amazed at my adventure junky mind I set out for the next leg of my ride. When taking a few sips from my water I notice small shards of ice among it. When I look down on the bike, slivers of ice have materialised on the forks and the metal parts exposed to the wind. ‘Wow, it’s cold alright’ I think, increasing the pace to keep on top of staying warm. But somehow the ladies comment seems to stick and it comes back to me a few times while I continue my trek up north. ‘Obviously I can’t go to London, but how can I make an equally big ride out of this one?’ I am thinking this partly because I still need to complete at least 200 km of the Festive500 ‘and it’s always nice to log one ‘epic’ ride’ as part of the challenge, and partly because I like to ‘just go crazy’ a bit once in a while. Last year, during a day with a near southwest storm forecast, I had conjured up the idea to ride from Vlissingen in the very south west of the Netherlands to Amsterdam in one go, covering over 200 km and averaging 34,5km/h… So while I am pedalling over dune tops and past natural lake formations a thought starts developing in my mind: ‘What if I just ride back home instead of taking the train?’
At the cafe on my next stop a nice fire crackles away in front of me while I have some coffee and cake. The waitress for some reason unbeknownst to me has added a small shotglas of brandy with whipped cream to my order. ‘Probably, she felt pity when she saw my frozen state’ I think while I gratefully down it in one go. The warmth spreading through my abdomen is soothing and I start to smile with mischievousness. ‘It’s not even noon and here I am resorting to alcohol’. The waitress asks if all is to my liking. ‘Yes, very much so, thank you’, I croak. ‘what happened to my voice’ I think? Seems like the chill factor has affected my vocal cords and I now sound like I have been letting my hair down the previous night. She laughs and inquires where I am headed. Her eyes widen when she hears what my plans are..
Turning out of Den Helder I am full of confidence. I am thinking this will not be too taxing on my body so long as I keep the pace steady and my heart rate far away from the red zone. ‘It’s only 90 km more, you’ve passed the halfway point already’ I think full of confidence’. On Google maps the roads seemed uncomplicated and straight forward. Nothing difficult just long straight roads. But the wind pushes hard and an hour in I start to feel the toll of the constant effort I have to make. Obviously I am at a point of no return. In fact I had been at the point of no return the moment I forged the idea in my mind of ‘just riding back home’. I am also constantly getting lost because for some reason this far up north they don’t seem to bother about the otherwise always so well placed road signs at the junctions of the bicycle paths. And since I only picked up my bike computer an hour ago I had had no opportunity to plot a route and let the navigation do it’s magic. To make matters worse extensive road repairs are in full swing and existing bicycle lanes have just.. well.. vanished! I have to switch back numerous times to forge new routes. It’s getting frustrating and I get pissed off. ‘Fuck Bram, you’ve been in this spot numerous times and still you haven’t learned’ ‘Why the hell did you not just get on the train’ I think while I try and read my google maps for where to go now. The now arctic wind blowes down my neck and my mood takes a turn for the worse. It’s still at least 70 km to go and it’s 2:30 PM. In 2 hours it’s sundown.. I only have a back light, I didn’t bother about a front one. ‘Get to Hoorn’ I think. ‘That’s all there is to it now’. ‘From there I know my way even in the dark’. I could also take a train from there. Although in the back of my mind I already know that once I get to Hoorn there’s no way I will board a train so close to home. So I get on with it and just put my head down and go. Steady pace, smooth cadence.
Onto the beautiful ‘Zeedijk’ I ride homeward. Hoorn has come and gone and as I look back it’s skyline is now growing smaller. It’s 4 PM and in everything you can sense that the day is drawing to a close. The temperature is slowly but surely decreasing. It had been -1 to -2 most of the day, but now my computer reads -2,8. Ooof.. I am feeling the fatigue and cold accumulating. It’s approximately another hour to go, but it feels like all strength has now left me. I fixate my gaze out in front of the road and focus internally on my pedalling, trying to maintain a steady rhythm. My fingertips are frozen from lack of circulation and constant exposure to the cold winds in spite of the gloves I am wearing. I flick on my back light so as to not get hit from behind by a car.
The last half an hour is a mix of painful cold and fatigue and at times, apart from the occasional lonely street light here and there, complete darkness. It’s also blissful joy and a sense of pride knowing you are on the verge of completing a memorable ride. You against the elements. I love that stuff. Even the tough aspects of the ride become an ornament and embellishment as it makes the impending accomplishment all the more savoury. It’s interesting to see where your mind goes in those moments. Switching back and forth between exhaustion and exhilaration.
At last at home! I am trembling all over while I sit on the couch with a cup of tea clasped between my hands and with a huge grin on my face. ‘That was all worth it!’ I think while the first words for this blog post already rise up to the surface of my mind..
It’s the beginning of October and the length of day is steadily decreasing. My mood seemingly following the movement of the sun, retreating day by day, as if to brace myself for the long Dutch winter ahead. I’ve always had a hard time accepting summer’s end, but now autumn (or 7 consecutive months of winter, depending how you want to look at it) has come knocking. Still, I am not prepared to give up and give in on summer just yet.. Imagination is a powerful thing and I intend to harness it to recall one last summerly bike adventure on an island in the middle of the mediterranean. Before its vivid memories fade too, like those autumn leaves outside my living room window.
Indulge me whilst I cast my memories back to only a few weeks ago..
The sea is warm like bathwater as me and my wife take one of our many swims in the gorgeous bay of Port de Sollér. The sun is out and it’s hot. 31 degrees is the forecast for the next couple of days. We have a house right above the village and away from the hordes of German pensioners that occupy the towns main square. The bay is not far from our house but not near enough to walk to and from. Fortunately we have a car at our disposal. Mallorca is an island where you need one if you want to move about, especially if your at the foot of the Tramuntana mountain range like we are.
The first couple of days I decide to take it very easy. My wife and I are glad just to be sleeping in, swimming, sunbathing, reading, hanging out together, eating fruit salads in the morning and enjoying delicious Mallorcan wine in the evening. As I am also catching up on some lack of proper rest I decide to take a nap whenever my body tells me so during the day. After a few days my energies seem replenished and I decide to go and collect a rental bike from the local bike shop.
On the bike the next morning, disaster strikes in the first downhill turn after nearly an hour of climbing. My front tire is completely flat before I know it and the rim is driving hard over the asphalt while I feather the steerer to stay in a straight line. I come to a full stop inside the shrubs on the opposite side of the curve. My heart is pounding and my head is racing to get a grip on the situation. After a few moments I walk the bike to the nearest gras patch to sit down and inspect the wheel. ‘A blowout like this can only mean it’s going to be a big hole’ I think to myself as I recall the speed at which the tire deflated. Within seconds all air was gone. My suspicions are confirmed when I discover that the casing of the outer tire has ripped where it latches onto the rim of the wheel. I draw the short straw today. The state the tire is in warrants only one choice; that of turning around and making it home in one piece. As I start fiddling around I become aware how cold it is up here. I am wearing only a thin bike jersey and shorts. The strong winds blowing over the peaks are bone chilling. Up here my Garmin reads 11 degrees instead of the 22 at 7 AM in the valley. I get a move on replacing the tire, knowing full well that perspiration and cold are not a happy marriage. I inflate the tire only with the bare minimum to get me down the mountain safely, afraid that if I raise the air pressure too much, the newly placed inner tube will cut again and I am left stranded on the side of a mountain road early morning. Frustrated that my attempt to tackle the famous Sa Calobra climb I had set my sights on had been thwarted, I turn around and head down. The delight I normally feel when descending down the mountain, being rewarded for a long effort uphill, is nowhere to be found. I descend for at least half an hour while almost continuously applying the rear brake. With the front wheel in such a bad state I want to keep my speed at a minimum and the bike upright. I wasn’t going to touch that front brake again until I was safely back home.
After receiving a new front wheel and tire at the shop, I parked the bike at home. I was going to go for a swim and wait for the nearly 32 degree heat to dissipate before giving it another crack in the evening.
This time I opted for a different route. Sollér offers great options for short, medium and long treks through the mountains as the town is situated in a bowl-like valley surrounded by a variety of mountain passes connecting Sollér to neighbouring villages. I chose to go up the road to Deià, a picturesque hillside village overlooking the sea, west of Sollér. It follows the MA-10, the main artery through the Tramuntana mountain range. From Deià the road continued on to Valdemossa, which apparently is rated the most beautiful town in Mallorca by Tripadvisor. And I could see why when I coasted through.
From Valdemossa you roll all the way down to sea level. You leave the mountains for a little while to join the road back up toward the Sollér pass. The roads in these flat parts are also in very good shape, but arrow straight and pretty boring what scenery goes. It’s perfect for a recovery ride or to transfer to another part of the island, but don’t expect anything more from them.
After half an hour on the flats I arrived at the foot of the col de Sollér. Here the roads forks in two, one road leading into the ‘cars only’ tunnel by-passing the climb, the other to the ‘old’ road winding up the mountain toward the summit. I had two guys catch up with me at the foot of the climb and the first 5 minutes we rode together. Chit chatting a little about cycling in Mallorca and cycling in general. Soon enough though their pace was too high for me and I had to let them go. They gradually disappeared further after each bend. I selected a steady rhythm and enjoyed the scenery instead of going hard. I would save my legs for another day. The climb itself is very mild. It doesn’t get hard anywhere and the average gradient of 5.5% confirms that. The road is a hairpin paradise as it gradually works itself to the top. The top itself is nothing to write home about, there’s a cafe and someone’s house, but from this vantage point you get a panoramic and unobstructed view of the Palma region and beyond onto the sea. In the meantime the sun was dropping low and all the way to Palma the island was basking in golden light.
The next morning we’re off to Inca, a city closer to the center of the island where Mallorca’s largest street market is arranged every week. Hand crafted leather bags and shoes, wooden artefacts and more are on display in thousands of stalls. All in all it’s rather monotonous and apart from buying some espadrilles (Spanish cotton woven loafers) We stroll around for a few hours and then decide to head to Port de Pollença and the peninsula of Cap Formentor on the far north-east side of the island
A few days earlier my wife and I had discussed the option of renting a bike for her too so we could go out together for a nice trip. But as the mountains we were in are tough on two wheels, we decided to rent her an assisted bike instead of a regular road bike. Luckily in Port Pollença we found a shop that had exactly that.
You think you can stay with an e-bike when you’re trained a little and then suddenly you realise that you can’t when she slowly pulls away from you with that familiar sound of the electric motor whirring away in Turbo mode. So while she was shooting up the road I was left in the dust and on my own. We were heading for the lighthouse on the very tip of the peninsula of Cap Formentor. The road is never flat and the scenery is stunning. Rocky outcrops alternate with forested areas. You pass remote lagoons and occasionally get to take in the vast views to the other side of the Pollença bay and beyond. For us it was a lot of fun to ride together, enjoy each others company and the beautiful surrounding. The e-bike was the perfect solution. She could join for a 50 km loop with a bike that gave enough support so that we could get over the hills and ride a nice pace as well. Her big smile a silent confirmation: It had been a good day.
The day before our last I wanted to give another attempt at the famous Sa Calobra climb I had set my sights on earlier. It’s essentially a single road from one of the other inlets 30 kilometers east of the Sollér valley. From Sollér there is only one way to get there and that is up and over the Puig Major pass, which is also the highest summit in the whole of Mallorca (discounting the military road to the very top which is not open to public).
The temperature dropped mid-week and is now a much more agreeable 23 degrees. I left in the morning and am working my way up the MA-10 climb toward Puig Major. This is a quiet and beautiful road winding up around 13 km to the summit. I am in the zone, not climbing to hard but hard enough to break a sweat and to get my system ready for the next climb proper. I pass the place where I punctured a couple of days ago and smile as I am now equipped with less dodgy material and can continue on untroubled. The road leads past two giant artificial lakes and then drops down rapidly toward the turnoff to Coll dels Reis, the last climb before the descent down to Port de Sa Calobra.
The Italian engineer, Antonio Paretti, had been specially requested to design the road. The story goes he was inspired by ‘the knot in a man’s tie’. Consequently the road was realised in 1932. It’s a fast descent. And a very technical one at that. Kissing the ravines and the rock face the road winds around like spaghetti in a bowl. In around 20 minutes I’m down, shooting past the parking lot and straight to the waterfront where I park the bike and sit myself down for a cortado (short milky coffee) and a pan amb queso (cheese sandwich).
After the break I turn around and start the climb. It’s a beautiful climb back up to Col dels Reis. Not as stunning as in the pictures, but still many vantage points offering incredible views. It’s a harder climb than most others in Mallorca though. With a length of 9 km an average of 7.2% you have to stay focussed and measure your effort. Blowing off your doors at the start due to over excitement is a distinct threat. Once back on top the rush gets you no doubt. ‘Sa Calobra is in the bag’. On top of that I had ‘good legs’ and was able to post a pretty decent time that day in 40:04 minutes after emptying the tank. Unbelievable to think that professional riders post times of around 24 minutes.
After cresting the top of Col Dels Reis and having caught my breath again I continue eastward on the MA-10 toward Monastir de Lluc. Our travel guide from Lonely Planet had recommended the old monastery as one of the ‘must see’ spots of Mallorca, but I was left a little disappointed upon arrival. The reality is; it’s a monastery. Other than a grand but sober looking building and some beautifully manicured gardens there really wasn’t much else to see. So I decide to have one of the pack of cookies I had brought along and order a freshly pressed zumo de naranja (Mallorcan orange juice is an absolute must try, it’s heavenly!) before turning around and back home. It’s a long slog back up to Puig Major from Monastir de Lluc and I start craving lunch but otherwise I get on fine. The road down to Sollér is a high speed roller coaster. The road surface is just soooo smooth, wide and well designed. And contrary to a few days ago when I had to slam on my back brake in order to prevent me from going to fast, I could now allow myself to gain momentum and fly down.
The next day I returned the bike back to the shop very satisfied. It’s not that I was finished with riding in Mallorca, not at all. On the contrary, there were plenty more routes to explore, but I wasn’t in Mallorca exclusively to cycle, I also wanted to soak in some more sun on the beach and swim, read, relax, eat delicious food and hang out with my wife until our return back home. It proved to be a wise decision. The island is a cycling paradise and by all means cycle, but Mallorca offers many a great off-the-bike day as well. Go for swims in the many secluded inlets that the Tramuntana mountain range is sprinkled with. With the Cala Deià and Torrent de Sa Calobra being the outstanding choices nearby. Go for a day on the town to Palma and visit the Cathedral, museums and the ancient Arab baths. Leave the car behind and take the heritage train ride from Sollér to Palma right through the mountains. It’s a unique experience in itself. Visit the white beaches and Azure waters at the bay of Pollença and bay of Alcúdia. Or visit the stunning island of Sa Dragonera natural park, in the very southwest. And so on..
Flying out above the island on our return I marvel at the beauty of Mallorca while it slowly disappears behind us. I am surprised how quickly we’ve crossed the mediterranean when I see the coastline of Spain underneath us the next time I look out of the window. We fly over the Pyrenees and in the distance I see Andorra with its mountainous profile. I grin when I notice how I’ve not even returned from my latest adventure or the contours of the next are already taking shape..
Early monday morning during a month where not too much is happening holiday period-wise and with work opportunities few and far between I receive a whatsapp message from Marcel, one of my cycling buddies I have known a little over a year. ‘I’m thinking of heading down to the mountains to ride my bike later on this week’ he writes. My heart jumps in excitement and instant envy. ‘Which mountains you’re heading?’ I write back. ‘Don’t know yet to be honest’ he replies. ‘But maybe the Swiss Alps. Or maybe I might tack on a few more hours of driving and go all the way to Italy..’ ‘One of my assignments got canceled and I have a few days available and I want to go’. I am silent for a few moments and write back: ‘I would’ve loved to come’ Already sensing what may come next and in split seconds weighing my options. ‘Could you?’ He asks, adding: ‘Leave on Thursday and be back on Tuesday’. A stunned looking smiley appears a few seconds after to emphasise the spontaneity of the situation and unusual twist it presents. Me thinking this is a much needed break in a period of seemingly going in circles trying to attract new clients, I answer: ‘Let me check with the company I work for next Monday and get back to you later today..’
Miles are flying by as we head down south on the German motorway. The larger portion of our journey will be on these roads and once again I’m astounded at how vast the land of our eastern neighbours is. Our choice of transport is a small VW Polo in which we struggled to fit everything. Bikes, tents, luggage and food had to be positioned and repositioned to make it all fit, much like some intricate real-life puzzle.
The idea is to let our Tom Tom navigation guide us all the way to a small camping in the eastern side of the alps, nearby the Stelvio national park which name is derived from the famous summit pass that lies at it’s heart.
Halfway through Germany Marcel returns from a quick sanitary break to share the somewhat troubling realisation that he has in fact, of all things, forgotten to bring his passport. After half an hour of slight anxiety fuelled brainstorming we conclude that we must veer off course to avoid Switzerland altogether. The original route included crossing Switzerland. Our reasoning is that we cannot be sure there will be no request to present our passports at the Swiss border. Switzerland after all, is not part of the EU. With such a long trip we don’t want to take the gamble and risk losing a chunk of time having to reroute from the border all the way around and via Austria. Instead we opt for a safer bet to avoid the country altogether and head eastbound while we still can, in the direction of Stuttgart. From there we keep heading southeast and into Austria. This is no shorter route and our diversion adds a couple of hours to our itinerary but at least we will be able to pass freely. The trip resumes without much difficulty and after passing the border the rolling south German landscape makes ways for the steep inclines of the Austrian alps. I cannot help but chuckle inside some time after as, despite all our efforts, our navigation ends up sending us right through the south-eastern most tip of Switzerland anyway. Luckily these are remote roads in between high peaks and the patrol station at the Austrian-Swiss border is unmanned and free to pass. Then, after a good 15 minutes on Swiss roads a second border patrol station pops into view. This time there are officers out and I can sense both our hearts sink. ‘Will we now be found out?’ I think. I slow the car down and get ready to make a full stop as one of the officers locks his gaze with mine. ‘Uh oh’ I think. ‘This is not great’ The officer keeps moving toward us and out of view while we pass a car standing still. When he emerges on the other side we turn out lucky. After showing initial interest he seems not to care too much about two young men with bikes in the back and, looking bored, waves us on.
Our first part of breathtaking country side turns out to come sooner than we thought. I had been to Switzerland before but only now do I get to admire its genuine countryside, and it is stunning. The mountain valleys and lakes. The world heritage train track snaking through the valleys and over the passes. The lush green meadows and the gentliest looking cows with their loud clanging bells. The deep blue skies overhead and giant boulders strewn like confetti in the fields below. Icing on the cake is the perfect smooth tarmac throughout our two hour lasting encounter; A cyclists delight. ‘Unreal’ is the word surfacing time and again, although it doesn’t do justice to what my eyes are beholding.
Toward the end of our Swiss venture we cross the breathtaking Bernina pass while the sun sets it’s peaks on fire. Without realising it we have ascended above 2000 meters and during our brief stop at the side of the road we can feel the cold of altitude. It’s only 3 degrees and we decide to press on. The descent that follows is long and steady seeming to go on forever, taking us through small villages and past lakes until after a sharp turn suddenly and unexpectedly the Italian border is upon us. ‘We made it’.
I wake up the next morning frozen. It had been cold at night and I hadn’t been sufficiently dressed given the evening before it had been quite hot. While I emerge from my tent I half recall why it had been so long since I’d been out camping last; if the circumstances (or your own preparation) are not ideal it can be quite torturous. I head over to the camping cafe in search of coffee and warmth. Upon return I find Marcel has awoken and we take the car to head down the road into Edolo, our nearest village, for breakfast.
Edolo is a tiny town in the Camonica valley in the province of Brescia, Lombardy. And typical for a small town as this, it only has one main street. The town’s layout reminds me very much of the towns and villages I’d become familiar with during the time I lived in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in France. The river Oglio runs right through the center and it’s passage through the town is beautifully enhanced by large hand laid stone slabs making the river bed resemble a giant smooth-looking water slide. The backdrop of the village is layered and breathtaking. The river with behind it the old ohcre-coloured church tower followed by the terracotta upper village, green mountaintops and blue sky make it instant postcard material.
We found a small bar where we ordered Paninis and coffee from an elderly waitress. It had been a gray and chilly morning but now the sun had finally announced it’s presence and we gladly soaked up it’s warming light. We had arrived before pretty much anyone else, but while we waited for our order the terrace quickly filled with locals and motorcyclists passing through. For us it was time to make a plan for the day. Neither of us had been in the region before and although broadly speaking we had an idea of which iconic climbs we would like to target, we hadn’t really done our homework yet, something that would become very apparent out on the road a few hours later.
‘This was supposed to be a warm-up ride’ I think when my heart rate surges beyond my threshold again and again. I really have to give it all. What we thought up in the morning to be a good ‘transitioner’ is turning out to be a killer. The Passo di Gavia from Ponte di Legno is no child’s play and we’re finding out the hard way. It’s chilly and there’s headwind toward the top. I’ve just exited a scary as can be tunnel, where I genuinely feared for an accident as I crawled up the pitch black interior, navigating through potholes and pockets of sand that had gathered over time. Luckily nothing happened. I am having a drink and something to eat. I also have to steady myself as my head is spinning. ‘Welcome back to altitude’ I think. At nearly 2200 meters it doesn’t come as a surprise anymore that I feel light headed. ‘It’s happened before and it’ll go’ I think to myself. I am waiting up for Marcel. He is a little behind and I want us to take it easy. To take a break and eat and drink something before we continue. The road surface gets worse when we set off again. It’s very rough and there are proper cracks in the tarmac where you can get your front wheel stuck in. It’s becoming hard to keep going but the summit is now not far anymore. Just before the top I’m being pipped to the line by a rider I had passed a little earlier but now that effort is taking its toll. After reaching the top a few seconds later he and I indulge in some chit chat and he introduces me to his riding buddies. The guys have flown out all the way from the States just to ride in Europe. They have some interesting looking bikes that can be folded in half thanks to a special joint connecting the lower and upper tubes. ‘You guys can just drive everywhere by car, but we need to fly our bikes in if we want to get anywhere’ he says half complaining and half proud to be the owner of a smart solution to a common problem. Pretty neat.
In the evening we take the bikes and go for pasta in Edolo. Having almost given up finding anything half decent we end up in a not too shabby restaurant. My leg is hurting a bit again from recent injury after the massive cold start to our climbing adventure. I’m a bit worried it will get worse over the weekend, but decide to draw conclusions in the morning. Our pastas are delicious and the views onto the horizon serve us with a gorgeous backdrop. We talk plans for the next day and order dessert while puffy clouds are set alight like marshmallows above a fire by the setting sun. ‘Buon nott’ greets the waiter in what I can only work out to be a local dialect while we get back on our bikes and soft pedal home to a good night’s sleep.
‘Damn it’s hot!’
In stark contrast to the previous morning the sun is now scorching me out of my sleeping bag. In anticipation of another cold night I had layered up and was now swimming in perspiration. I get out my tent and stretch my body, reaching with my hands for the sky. ‘Hmm I feel pretty good’ I think to myself as I observe the existing state of affairs. My body and in particular my leg had been able to recover well from our efforts the day prior and I was definitely feeling ready for another challenge.
In line with our slightly meager preparation is the fact that our camping lies more or less in the wrong valley in relation to the ‘correct’ side up the climbs on our list. We want to ride a loop and not simply up and down the hill but when plotting a route in this area it’s neigh on impossible not to collect an insane amount of elevation. Too much for us mere mortals to keep going for three consecutive days. So with a mix of dissapointment and relief we put the bikes in the back of the car and head over to Bormio, north of the chain of mountains that seperate us and the mountain pass we have set our sights on for today. The Passo della Stelvio is not simply a high mountain pass separating the strongly Süd-Tirol influenced part of Italy from the rest of the country. It is also very popular in the region as a tourist destination. Beyond the Italian borders it’s recognised by cyclists and motorcyclists alike as one of the most beautiful road designs in the world. In fact the BBC’s top grossing motoring enthousiasts program ‘Top Gear’ dedicated an entire episode in search of Europe’s ‘driving heaven’ and concluded at the end that Italy and Switzerland’s Stelvio pass had to be ‘non plus ultra’ for petrol-heads. Something we would find out in a less pleasant manner a little later. 48 consecutive hairpin bends wind themselves from the valley town of Prato up to the top of the pass. The road surface is in very good shape and wide enough for traffic from both ways to pass freely. Broadly speaking the climb consists of three parts. The valley road which is typically hot but not very steep. The forested area which is pretty steep and also very hot. And the open mountainside road which continues to be steep but less hot and offering incredible views onto the snowcapped Ortler Alps to take your mind of the effort at hand.
Motorbike after motorbike flies by from behind.
The road is very busy and these guys are blasting full throttle up the hill. I knew it would be busy as it is August and a Saturday, but this is becoming a little too much and too noisy to my liking. I feel uncomfortable and am starting to sense that I’m being perceived as a bit of a nuisance to the other road users. ‘Get out of the way you pesky bicycle person’ I imagine Jeremy Clarkson (BBC Top Gear) shout in my ear in his typical shrill voice. The speed differences are tremendous. I go 10-12 kph, they at least 50, touching 80 before a near standstill at the next hairpin.
Aside from the infernal noise and speeds I find myself pedalling along nicely and take comfort in the knowledge that I have found a good sustainable rhythm which I know I can keep up until the top. The forest turns out the be the hardest part of the climb. Both mentally and physically you can loose heart as it’s still a long way to go. But it now makes way for the open road after a gradual turn to the right. From this point the summit is in full view and I can see it’s still pretty far to go.
I notice someone standing at the side of the road next to a water stream emerging from the rocks. When I pass him he smiles and greets ‘Bongiorno!’ He gestures to the stream of water and holds up his water bottle. ‘Molto bene’ he says in an accent I cannot place. Persuaded by his charm and my boiling head I dismount and lean my bike against the stone wall at the side of the road. While I fill my bottles the friendly rider waves goodbye and continues on. At first I hadn’t noticed but the stream is channeled into a small basin and I gladly take of my helmet and sunglasses and wash my entire head and face, neck and chest with the cooling water. I instantly feel better. Turning around I take in the stunning views and feel a mix of joy and gratitude for just being here. The road is less busy now and leaning against the stone wall I take my time to eat something and catch my breath. Not long after Marcel pops into view. He decides not to break his rhythm and presses on. I follow his lead.
The top of the Stelvio pass (Stilfserjoch in German) is a total circus. You can hardly get past all the bikers, cyclists and Bratwurst stands that crowd it. I roll downhill a little and stop for a mandatory photo at the summit sign. The guy whom I asked to take my photo asks for a return of favor and gets on his knees in front of the sign. His wife is next to him and he turns to her with hands folded together while still on his knees. I don’t really know what is going on but I guess he’s thanking her for having let him ride. She looks sheepishly at him and then to me. I laugh and think that some guys not only have to conquer the mountain they also have to ‘win’ their wives over. But in this instance it’s clearly all fun and games. When I get back to the top I see Marcel riding past and call for him. He tells me he has just bumped into our Dutch friend Michel whom we’d met at our camping the previous day. Michel is doing a monstrous trek through the Alps with his touring bike. He tells us he is one third of the way and will have completed 2200 kilometers with over 80.000 meters of elevation when his journey ends at the Alpe d’Huez in France. We share some food before we say our goodbyes and Michel continues on. We go up the highest point of the road near Albergo Tibet and marvel once more at the view.
Much like my experience living in France, all the Italian towns and villages seem to celebrate their ‘Fête de village’ in August. We head down for a nice pasta dinner and find the old center of town in Bormio is bustling. There’s live music out on the streets and much to my astonishment I witness an Italian version of line-dancing performed by women in gold glittery costumes and cowboy hats on a stage erected in the middle of the main shopping street. The music is loud and blaring and even though we intended to find a restaurant where we can sit outside for our dinner we opt for a cosy looking pizzeria instead. The place is exactly what we’d been looking for. A neat, all-wood furnished interior with the exact right kind of vibe. It’s busy and it’s occupants are a mix of family holiday goers and couples young and old. The pasta I order is godsent and although breakfast and lunches had been under par throughout the weekend, the extra kilo of weight put on after our trip in spite of all the exercise is evidence of how much I’d enjoyed the rich foods that were on offer at dinner.
Aprica is a ski resort that strikes me with a bit of a film set feeling as we pass though it on our third and final day. A busy looking façade with lots of tourist shops and cafes but somehow a bit ‘hollow’. It’s a minor mountain pass itself and has been the backdrop of a number of Giro d’Italia stages in the past. Most recently in 2015 when it marked the finish of a particularly hard day where the riders had battled their way up the infamous Mortirolo climb before descending to the finish line. It had been a thrilling stage where an up-and-coming young Italian and a Spanish rider in the autumn of his career held a vicious battle for overall victory on the general classification. The Spaniard’s experience proofed to be decisive as, after a 50 second deficit due to a flat tire, he stormed up the ridiculously steep incline of the iconic mountain, caught and dropped the young Italian just shy of the top before finishing in a lead group three minutes ahead of the young Italian. All this played through my mind when we were scouting the area. We had decided upon a beautiful loop in which an attempt to master the hardest side of the Mortirolo would be included. I was excited.
From the village of Tirano in the Valtelinna valley we ride the first portion on flat roads. This is familiar terrain for us and it is a very welcome relieve to all the undulating terrain we have been on so far. After 30 minutes we take the turn of the main road into the village of Mazzo di Valtelinna. It’s another hot day and we stop in a back alley to sit in the shade. The shade is nice and cooling and we fill our water bottles at the village fountain. We’re analysing the climb on our small smartphone screens in what I am not quite sure is an attempt to mentally prepare or to feel discouraged even before we have started. ‘It doesn’t drop below 11% from kilometer 3 to kilometer 9’ Marcel concludes. ‘And there are sections of 14% and more’. Little do we know that the climb is just murderous straight from the word go. As soon as we leave the village it ramps up sharply and simply doesn’t seize to until a kilometer or so from the top.
It takes us an hour and a quarter.
My feet are dangling over the edge and into an ice bath supplied by a steady stream of mountain water. It’s blissfully refreshing and I feel like a small boy on holiday. I’ve taken my jersey off and washed all the sweat of my tired body. ‘It’s done’ I keep thinking in disbelief. ‘the Mortirolo is mastered’. I can see Marcel is euphoric as well. It’s been hard unlike anything else I have done on a bike so far and a few moments of near capitulation while on the absolute rivet had almost gotten the better of me.
There’s a number of riders dragging past and we encourage them loudly with cheers and clapping. It visibly infuses them with motivation like it had me when halfway up I passed a big family lunch gathering in their orchard cheering me on. Getting up and chanting: Dai, dai dai! (Come on!) I love that Italian spirit. Cycling I noticed, is really part of the social fabric here.
Lunch in the Albergo a kilometer down the road is in contrast to the cycling tips website uneventful and dull. Pasta with barely any sauce coupled with an american size can of Coke. People on the terrace offer admiring glances full of curiosity. We’re clearly not from the region with our tall and rangy bodies. Our bikes too, are offered an inspection by an elderly man on a bench.
It’s a long way back to the car and after a short time up the mountainside we decide to crack on. The road back up from Monno to Aprica through the Camonica valley, although long, is not steep and I decide to give one final full on push uphill. I manage to develop a good pace and enjoy the speed I can achieve unlike the crawling uphill a few hours prior.
A grumpy looking waiter is at first reluctant to let us have a seat at his terrace when we arrive in Tirano for dinner. He mumbles and grumbles but we ignore him and take our seat near the rail tracks crossing the main square of Tirano. Tirano being the final destination of the St Moritz-Tirano train route I mentioned earlier. Pasta is again on the menu and pizza as desert. It’s a first time experience with the Primi and Secondi Piati that Italian restaurants typically serve and although I can’t say I don’t like it, I end up eating a little too much. We wave back to the excited children hanging out of the coach windows when the train passes through the square as rain clouds billow over the peaks in the direction of where our camping is. The sun has set and the evening is growing darker. Time to find our sleeping bags.
We leave early the next day and seem to take the good weather with us again. By the time I arrive home our adventure already appears dreamlike. The cocktail of long travel, fleeting memories and fatigue blending all into one.
So there they are: the Alps! Boy oh boy have I been waiting (and preparing) for these. From pretty much 10 months out and on every wet winter ride my thoughts were on these mountains and getting ready for them. In the last months I started realising that each pedal stroke would make the difference on these climbs. So I trained a lot and I trained very hard..
We left Maastricht very early morning on a Thursday with five guys and two cars. My parents had kindly lent me their Volvo station wagon with which I had driven to Maastricht from Amsterdam the afternoon before. Our host in Maastricht had bought a 4 x bicycle carrier rack especially for the occasion which we fitted on the back. We had tested car and equipment to the minutest detail so we would not come up with any surprises on our short but action packed weekend.
Off we went..
The drive to the Alps is a rather uninteresting undertaking. Apart from the sketchy roads in Belgium, the best approach is to forget the entire thing quickly, 10 hours by car is not my cup of tea. The only upside of the days close confinement on four wheels was, that we (the riders), could get to know each other a little more. Up until the very day of departure some of us had never met each other! As these things often go, one friend invites another friend and a group of keenly interested riders form. But often not necessarily already known to one another. Our group was made up of two Dutchies, two Poles and one Portuguese, making a fine balance of East, West and South Europe represented.
We arrived at our hotel in Allemond, located in the Isère departement of the Rhônes-Alpes region in south-eastern France around 3 pm. We parked the cars, dismounted the bikes and went straight up to our rooms. We were given somewhat perplexed looks and confused reactions when we returned to the lobby in full cycle kit half an hour later. Thinking that we let no time go to waste we were getting ready for our first ride up the Alpe d’Huez! The hotel owners, who are a kind and helpful Dutch couple and whom I am sure have seen all kinds of ‘nutters’ pass through, were responding to our half an hour transformation with somewhat surprise. “Zo hee!” “you guys haven’t even arrived yet and are already going out on your first climb?!” The man came out into the courtyard where we were preparing ourselves for departure and asked us after our remaining plans for the weekend in a manner of polite chit chat. But then I saw his face change into a mix of confusion and slight trepidation. “That is a pretty full on schedule you boys have for tomorrow” “The pass on the col du Galibier (2645m) has only been opened since yesterday and there are still high mounds of snow up the top”. “Cars cannot go there yet and you’ll need to go past the wall of snow they’ve removed to clear the road”. Truth is he was probably right to be cautious, as none of us had ever ridden the 170 km loop that we were aiming to ride, nor crested that many high mountaintops in one single ride. But he quickly detected the determination in all our eyes and wished us “a very pleasant stay”.
DAY 1 Hollywood mountain
Maarten and I decided to go for the ‘easy’ side up Alpe d’Huez. The others for the ‘hard’ side. The road Maarten and I took goes directly upward from our hotel via a dam next to a retaining reservoir. From there you enter a forested area where the road starts winding up in the typical snake-like pattern of steep mountain roads. Hairpin after hairpin of almost deserted tarmac stretched out in front of us as we gradually made our way up. You then cross over via de pas de la confession to the main ascent of Alpe d’Huez. Alpe d’Huez is known for it’s many attempts by cyclists of all ranges, sizes and shapes and has in my opinion somewhat lost it’s beauty as it has gradually turned into a bit of a ‘Hollywood mountain’. This is very evident from the cyclo-tourist focussed reception you find up the top. Every bar and shop seems to have a life size poster with ‘I made it!’ in front of it where you can take selfies and bask in self-admiration for having climbed, a surely tough mountain, but in comparison to the true giants directly surrounding it (Glandon, Galibier) nowhere near difficult a climb. Yet as a leg opener for what was to come and after an early morning start we were more than content to have ticked this one off. We took the same route as we’d come up and were sailing down the mountain. Once back in the valley the heat of the day hit us in the face again. Something you don’t notice when you’re high up an Alp. I looked down on my bike computer and it was still reading 25 degrees. We changed, showered and took our place at the table specially reserved for us in the restaurant of the hotel. We received a typical cyclists meal, with tomato soup as a start, chicken breast with green beans and pumpkin for the main and something sweet which I don’t recall anymore as dessert. After dinner and after a couple of beers and planning for the next day it was literally lights out for me.. the adrenaline and excitement of being in the Alps swiftly made way for a profound fatigue. It had been a long day and fatigue from work and an event I had helped organising the week prior were all quickly washing over me..
DAY 2 This is it
When the alarm rang at 5:30 am I was thinking to myself we were ‘bloody crazy’ for starting out so early. After all, this was a holiday! Then, after a few moments of seriously considering to turn the lights off again, the excitement kicked in when I realised what lay ahead of me and I surrendered to the fact that it would be a holiday in a perverted, cyclists kind of way..
We took the same road up past the retaining reservoir we had taken the day before. Yet this time we took a left turn and after a few minutes started our ascent of the Col du Glandon (1924m). This climb features occasionally in the Tour de France and is also part of a sportive for the more advanced cycling enthusiasts called ‘La Marmotte’ (referring to the area’s higher mountain regions which are inhabited by Marmots). To be honest I had a real hard time straight away. The gradient was a tasty 10% average for the first hour and I hated it. I have found that I can climb quite well on any gradient below 9%. On those climbs it’s not difficult for me to find a steady rhythm and spin away for a long time. Anything above 9% and I basically loose my rhythm, have to push and jerk too much on the steerer and find that my larger (thus heavier) body is like a Dutch car and caravan combination struggling uphill on a Belgian motorway in the Ardennes; gradually losing momentum while stuck in a low gear. Definitely not the nimble, ‘dancing on the pedals’ stuff that the lightweight guys are capable of.
The other thing you find out almost immediately is that subtle (and not so subtle) differences in fitness and strengths within the group are amplified dramatically on long climbs. As a result it was normal that our group splintered into single riders all following the same route but not necessarily riding together that much. We did for most of the course try and meet up either at the summits or at the bottom of the descents to continue the route together. Marcin (who we all agreed on must be illegal import from another planet) took off like a rocket straight away. He ended up riding the entire thing solo.
After we crested the col du Glandon we descended into a tiny village called Les Roches le Chatelet where we refilled with water. From there we continued on downhill until we needed to take a right onto a not so pleasant semi-motorway to get to Saint Michel de Maurienne. By this time of the day the temperature had gone up around 27-28 degrees and we were boiling. The cars and trucks racing by over the false flat road made us uncomfortable and uneasy. We rode single file all the way to Saint Michel. There, at the foot of the next climb, the col du Télégraphe, another Hors Catégorie climb often appearing in the Tour de France, we finally had an opportunity to take our leg warmers, arm warmers and other extra layers of clothing off. And so we set off to tackle the second mountain of the day. Col du Télégraphe was the only climb of the day I actually liked. The gradient is steady and not too crazy and the summit stays well below 2000m so no issues with the reduced amount of oxygen available. I was really coming into my own on that climb.
After summiting the Télégraphe I directly took the 2 km long descent down to Valloire. Valloire is the last village before the 17 km long climb up to the Col du Galibier. I found a local market where I purchased 6 bananas of which I ate three straight away and refilled my bottles at the square’s fountain. I send a whatssapp message to the group saying I was already in Valloire and would be waiting for them there. We had previously agreed to have lunch there or so I thought because after half an hour of waiting I realised the guys must have stopped elsewhere. Turned out we had a misunderstanding and they had started lunch already on the top of the Télégraphe. After we met up in Valloire they decided to start out with the climb already as I was still having my lunch. Soon enough though we were all together again and taking on the mighty Galibier. One of the highest paved roads in the French Alps.
After having set out together the individual differences started to play a role again and I decided to press on alone spinning a lightest gear as possible and gradually but steadily working away on the kilometers ahead. The views and sceneries with mountain streams, jugged rocks, glacial avalanches and bird of prey circling above were just mind blowing any place you looked and had a real pacifying effect on my strained mental state. Something I was very grateful for since the heat and continues rise in the road can really wreak havoc on your spirit.
But then even the magnificent views could not soothe me any longer. I was starting to have issues with the altitude. As I was now well above 2300 meters I struggled for breath and my heart rate was too high. I started to become nauseous and had to repeat a kind of mantra internally of ‘do not vomit, don’t go vomiting’. Up until then I had ridden a strong pace and I decided to back off. I brought my bpm down from 170 to 160 and slowly but surely my body found it’s balance again. By now grass had made way for thick ice walls and the green meadowy landscape was replaced with rock and snow.
The final kilometer with 10% average gradient is cruelly also the steepest of the entire climb. It’s like the mountain’s last punches before bowing it’s head and giving in. Once atop you are treated to a cocktail of elation, awe, fatigue, astonishment and pure bliss, all while you’re trying to act cool like it’s no big deal to the other riders around you.
Then follows the long, long descent down to Bourg D’oisans via Col du Lauteret (another TDF climb), through the picturesque village of La Grave and past the artificial lake Lac du Chambon. Stupidly enough I hadn’t refilled water atop of Galibier and after more than an hour of descending though the headwind and ever rising temperature I was suffering from a severe case of thirst. Luckily in Bourg D’oisans there were plenty of options to refill and I downed a can of fanta and a 1/2 L bottle of water and set off again to complete the last 10 km of our trip. Back at the hotel I changed clothes, showered and put on some comfy clothes and came down to join Marcin for well deserved beer(s). He had arrived 3 hours before me already. Maarten, Robert and Nuno arrived not much later and we retreated to our rooms for a deserved rest. Dinner was uneventful other than that we made plans for the next day and I could tell by the looks of everyone that we were all happy to have an early night..
Day 3 Reconnaissance de L’alpe d’Huez et Col de Sarenne
Originally we had planned to throw in the climb of the Col d’Izoard to our cycling madness and we thought it’d be a good idea to leave this until Saturday. However, the evening before we realised it’s a very similar climb to the ones we had already ticked off and on top it would be a three hour long drive to get there. So instead we chose to climb Alpe d’Huez again and attach the col de Sarenne which is easily accessible from Alpe d’Huez to our loop. Col de Sarenne features a fine descent through some breathtaking landscape albeit on a pretty dodgy road. I had been advised by a cycling buddy from Amsterdam not to leave it out. It turned out to be golden advice. The climb from Alpe d’Huez up to col de Sarenne turned out to be a jewel and was postcard material wherever you looked. Going down the other side was sketchy stuff as the tarmac was old and tattered to say the least and full of gravel pockets, yet the jaw-dropping views on the valley and snowcapped peaks made up for it more than plenty. Reaching speeds of well over 80 kph in the downhill was easy and simply a matter of not clenching the brakes more than necessary and before too long the daredevil in me stuck it’s head around the corner. Shooting past the tiny villages of Clavans le Haut and Clavans le Bas it was endorphin and adrenaline fused ecstasy but it was also raggedy edge stuff and on a few turns I nearly overcooked it. Still I loved it to bits and couldn’t help myself exclaiming a few loud yelps of pure pleasure on the way down.
At Mizoën next to Lac du Chambon we turned back again to the foot of Alpe d’Huez for a final attempt on the ‘hard’ side of this Col. At the start I was alone with Marcin who once again left me like a piece of turd at the roadside when he took off to try besting his record of the ascent (he did and posted a 79th best time on Strava. Incredible stuff considering 23000+ people have attempted it including some of the big name pro riders). I on the other hand had to settle for a slow pace, controlling my effort and keeping fingers crossed I was going to make it at all. After having ridden 300+ km in just three days and nearly climbed 9000 m elevation I was at the end of my strengths and halfway up the mountain I was hanging on for dear life. One moment feeling like ‘I’ll do this no worries’ and the next ‘Shit! will I even make this bastard?’
Eventually mental resilience is a good thing to have and to get up the last 6 bends I relied on my never say die attitude that I discovered when I was an 11 year old boy riding with my dad for 150 km through the hills of the Veluwe on a 26 inch 3 gear Gazelle road bike. (Thank you dad for introducing me to this great sport. My thoughts were going out to you on those high mountains a lot and I am sure you would’ve been so proud!)
Coming down for the last time was blissful. In part because I knew it was all behind me now and in part because I still couldn’t quite believe it had gone so well and that the months of hard and focussed training bore such beautiful fruit when perfect weather, good companions and life long lasting experiences all fused together into one.
But now I just wanted to go home. I swear I was so empty that the last little ramp of 300m out of the village of Villard Reculas toward the final descent felt like the toughest climb I had done the whole weekend…
Thank you Maarten, Marcin, Robert and Nuno for an unforgettable trip!
The Klimclassic is a fun route that I did with a couple of my friends back in May. The parcours starts at the very southernmost city in the Netherlands: Maastricht. The Maastricht area is also considered one of the cycling meccas of Holland. Hilly terrain instead of flat roads. Lots of gorgeous landscapes, picturesque villages and that distinct southern easygoing -ness. No city speed and aggression here. Combine that with gorgeous tarmac, tough gradient ramps and a peoples passion for the ‘koersfiets’ and you realize why the area is a favourite training ground for cyclists of all shapes and sizes.
However, our route took us straight out of the Dutch Limburg area, into the Belgian Limburg area and further down south where the hills of Limburg make way for the steep ramps of the Ardennes. And boy were they steep…
The first real test came around 60 km in. Completely unexpected we literally hit a wall that goes by the unassuming name of ‘Vois des Charts’. It’s essentially a back road between houses but you see straight away that the gradient is violent. It never drops below 11% and after 2 km of struggling up I found myself developing pain not in my legs but in my arms from jerking on the steerer!
The remaining route took us further south and right through some of the most popular Belgian cycling roads. Climbs like ‘la Redoute’ are iconic climbs where both the pros and the enthusiasts test their capabilities against one another. Sometimes scoring up to 23.000+ attempts. The ardennes have quickly developed into one of my favourite ‘local’ terrains to ride and test my legs. You cannot go undertrained (or you will surely pay the bill for it) so it offers a nice and easy way to add some diversity to your spring training on the flats and a great way to hone your form for the bigger goals ahead of you in summer..
A few pictures of a sportive that we took part in as part of our preparation for the long weekend in the Alps coming June.
The route started in the northern part of Belgium and descended through to the southern hills or ‘bergs’ of the Ardennes that are notorious among many cyclists and often talked about with both reverence and terror in one breath. A few of those really steep and long climbs were included in the parcours, including the famous ‘La Redoute’ with it’s average gradient of 8,5% and ramps of 20% over the course of 2 kilometers. Real ‘calf (the leg muscle) biters’ as we call them in Dutch..
The weather was not in our favour. It was cold, pretty windy and along the 200 km route we were thoroughly soaked with a few icy showers. Brrrrr… However, once you’re out and about and cruising through the stunning landscapes of the northern Ardennes you realise pretty quickly that there is nothing quite like it.. It’s glorious, blissful freedom and adventure and the sense of achievement makes everything worthwhile.
All in all, a very nice day and a great way of kicking of a romance with that area which will see me return many more times to further enjoy the countryside, the Belgians passion for cycling and not in the least the tasty Belgian beer on offer after a hard day out!
Below is the route we took. Originally 160km, but we got lost and had to trace our route back making it into nearly 200 km in total.
Back in rainy old Amsterdam now, layering up against the cold again.. Less than a week ago I was still enjoying the stunning and exhilarating landscape of the largest of the small group of Canarian islands, situated just a few hundred kilometers off the coast of west-Africa.
Tenerife is a popular tourist destination in general. With the British holiday go-ers on the south of the island, the germans on the north and everyone else scattered all over the rest of the island. What many don’t know is that Tenerife has grown to become, arguably, one of the most popular destinations for professional road(race) cyclists to do their winter preparation for the upcoming season. As a results many enthusiast (like myself) end up renting a bike from one of the local shops and share the hills with local riders, amateurs and professionals alike. Making it into a colourful and mixed scene out on the roads. I must say I really, really enjoyed that.
I was positively surprised at how respectful local drivers are of cyclists sharing the road. Particularly on the climbs where the cyclists do not carry that much speed, they courteously stay behind the rider until there is a very clear opportunity to pass them. When doing so they leave a rich space of at least 2 meters between themselves and the cyclist so as not to scare him/her. Amazing! In contrast: My nation is called a ‘cyclists heaven’ but by no means are car drivers this respectful and considerate out on the roads where I am from. Something to observe and learn from.
Anyway, the point here is that mid-week during my stay with my lovely better half I mustered the courage to attempt the ascent of the Mt. Teide from the north-eastern side by starting in one of the island’s most beautiful and oldest towns, La Orotava.
Of course, I left from home and would cycle a loop until I was back home. If you take yourself even a little bit serious as a cyclist you cycle from begin to end. So same rule applied to my attempt. I started in San Juan de la Rambla, where I was staying and rode the first 20km to La Orotava without any worries. There the climb from almost sea-level to the highest point of paved road started in earnest. This part of the climb is 6% in average gradient for a whopping 37 km straight. Something this kid from the low lands had never attempted before. Understandably I was quite nervous to see what would happen.
But things went well.. very well.
One third up the climb the last opportunity to fill up with water presents itself in the form of a little town called Aguamansa. I duly filled up my two bidons and continued on, only to stop after a couple of minutes to put on every extra layer of clothing I had with me as the temperature had rapidly dropped from a comfortable 19 degrees in La Orotava, to a shivering 3.5 degrees in the shadow of the mountain at around 1000m elevation.
On I went.. ‘keep the pace steady’ I kept telling myself. I rode the climb based on a particular heart rate zone I was familiar with and knew I could maintain for a long time. This way I could keep up a nice speed yet not go overboard. I wasn’t allowing myself to blow up and struggling the rest of the climb and the rest of my ride. The other thing I kept telling myself is ‘to keep eating at least one piece of food every 50 minutes’ When you do a long distance ride up a high mountain your body burns a tremendous amount of calories. When you are riding your bike for 7-8 hours straight it is essential that you re-fuel at set intervals so as not to run out of energy and hit a wall. So I kept eating and drinking diligently which worked out well.
At around 1800m elevation I started to develop a light headache. The thought ‘lack of oxygen due to high altitude’ crossed my mind. The head ache wouldn’t give way and I started to be a bit light headed and nauseous too. Definitely less oxygen available to my brain. No real cause for alarm, just not a pleasant state to exercise in. I kept a close eye on it, but after a while the head ache and nausea eased off and then disappeared completely.
After this brief setback I crested the summit and was cruising along the impressive crater rim. Here the gradient is much less steep and you can pick up speed again. It’s still another 10 km to get to the cable car station where you can hitch a ride to the ‘pico’ of the Teide. A jaw-dropping height of 3500m. The road up to the foot of the cable car station is the highest paved road in the whole of the island, so I wanted to make it up there too, to include it into my ride.
After a short rest and a couple of silly selfies I continued on to conclude the ride. Supposedly the fun part was now starting, a swooping 1 hour long descent, but luck was not on my side. Against all odds (and fair warning by the local roadies) I chose the worst of all four possible descents you can take to come down from the mountain. The road from Bauca Tauce to Chio is by far, far the worst of the four and to be frank one of the most shocking (literally) pieces of road I have ever had the ‘pleasure’ of riding on. The first 50 minutes of the descent (average 45-55 km/h) were just gruesome. The road was broking up in multiple places with potholes and loose stones everywhere. I had to ride with my bum off the saddle, using my legs as shock-breakers for most of the downhill as my spine would have been pulverised if I’d stayed in the seat. Skinny tires and potholes are never going to be friends… Just 10km before the bottom of the descent the road turned into smooth tarmac again and the grin on my face returned. Lazy left and right handers alternated and I was flying. No feeling like riding a bike downhill fast with a stunning landscape greeting you around every corner as you descend down further and further.
At Santiago del Teide I enjoyed a much needed chicken caesar salad for lunch with a large glass of coke. I refilled my water at the petrol station and continued on through toward home crossing though the Masca area, which contains some of the most hard and steep climbs in the whole island, with ramps up to and above 20% gradient.
After I left the peaks of Masca behind I was well on my way home. The last little climb I had to do before I could just coast down toward home was a road leading back up to 500m elevation up and over the ancient port of Garachico, a little coastal town that was covered entirely by a late volcanic eruption in the early 1700s before being rebuild again from the ground up. The Garachico area provides ample opportunities to take stunning scenic pictures. From here it was pretty much downhill for the last 15 km and after a long day out I arrived home safe and sound, filled with memories that will last a lifetime.
Recently I met a wonderful little cycling group through my local bike shop. The bike shop organises local group rides, training clinics and cycling vacations. I was asking where they usually travel to and I couldn’t believe my luck when I found out they are organising a group cycling holiday at the beginning of September to Mont Ventoux! So here’s what they do: They put the bikes in a big van, head over there, spend a week exploring the region by bike (eat good food and enjoy the sun too of course:-)) then top off the excursion by ascending the Mont Ventoux from all 3 sides. I was sold! Funny thing is they were so easy when I asked them if I could join their vacation and they just said: ‘It so happens that the group will head to the hills so why don’t you join us tomorrow so you can get to know everyone?’ basically I joined them the next day and we had a lot of fun out there. I was so happy to have met these guys and each single one turned out to be easygoing and welcoming. Big smiles for me all the way.. Only cloud in the sky was my crash halfway through that day, yet I only sustained a couple of flesh-wounds so it still all good. Let the training begin…