Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Positively positive

This winter the cold and snow have wreaked more havoc than usual; frozen diesel, frozen pipes, frozen earlobes (badly fitting hat whilst cross country skiing plus windchill = frost nip and very red, puffy ear lobes for 2 days!). Even one of the local snowploughs ran off the road and got stuck on the Col d'Ornon, not something you see every day (photo right)!

After a couple of weeks of very cold temperatures here (daytime averages of about -15'C and as low as -23'C here in the village), the thermometer has finally crept into the positive zone. So far we have topped out at an impressive +10'C this week.

The sun was shining yesterday and the forecast in Grenoble was for highs of 5'C+. Time to get the bike out then! Sounds chilly but we have become a bit hardy this last fortnight! So, well wrapped up and sporting my new 'lobster' gloves (which have been a welcome revelation to my poor old digits), I set off with a neighbour on the cycle path.

Grenoble cycle path follows the Isere river for roughly 37km and it's pretty pan-flat save a few bridges, ideal for breaking yourself in gently. So, my riding account is now open with a 53km ride and 100m height gain, a nice, easy start.

Our regular cross country skiing this winter meant that the comeback was not nearly as tough as it has been in the past. It really has been great for staying bike fit; leg strength and cardiovascular fitness all pretty good, better than expected. When I come back to the bike after winter I usually get really sore shoulders and neck for the first few outings, I had none of that yesterday as the skiing and action of poling has even kept my upper body in reasonable strength too. Unfortunately, the painful bottom from 2 hours on the saddle has not been avoided though!


Monday, 6 February 2012

Hitch hikers guide to the Lignarre Valley...

Sometimes, despite all the preparation in the world, things just don't go to plan. Sunday was one of those days. Sometimes though this is not always a bad thing...

I was due to take part in a cross country ski race close to Gap. A 10am start on a 30km course, fairly hilly and technical, one of my favourite events of the year.

Temperatures have plummeted here this last week so the night before Guy kindly waxed my skis for cold snow conditions, good thing too, when I left the house at 7am it was -19'C. I had prepared a bag full of post-race clothes; fleeces, hats, scarves, gloves, woolly socks, the works. I had a flask of tea and a packet of biscuits too, I'd even put a neoprene sleeve on the tube of my Camelback in the hope of stopping it turning into a solid lump.

Around 11km into my trip I arrived in Le Perier, a wide, bowl-like part of the valley, a trap for cold air and consequently a few degrees cooler than at home, -22'C in fact. The minibus ground to a halt as the diesel froze up. I was able to start it up again and get to the next village, Entraigues, where I was hoping that a small uphill section would be enough to warm the engine up. Unfortunately it was still too cold. The point at which the ghost was finally given up was pretty precarious - just after a blind bend in the road. I was however able to make progress in reverse gear so re-traced my steps for about 600m to a car park where I knew the sun would reach later in the day (the plan worked as we recovered the van after midday and thankfully the diesel had thawed!).

Next thing was to put on every stitch of clothing that I had with me; the things I already had on plus my post-race kit; 2 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of trousers, 2 thermal base layers, one fleece, one down jacket, 2 woolly hats, 2 scarves... after donning this lot I emerged from the van looking every bit like Michelin Man. The Camelback pouch of isotonic drink was ditched in favour of making space for the flask and biscuits. Time to hitch a lift home. Trouble with being a Sunday + early morning + rural area + freezing cold day = not much traffic.

Finally, salvation came in the shape of a white transit van and a very chirpy driver. To my surprise there was no seat for passengers but I was happy to sit in the back on the boarded floor. Even happier when I realised that I had just hitched a lift with a 'boulanger' on his delivery round to the local villages. The inside of the van had an amazing aroma of freshly cooked bread, which it was - the driver/baker had got up at 3am himself to make it all. My perch was only a few feet away from some delicious looking cakes and pastries, the wobble of the custard slices had me in a trance all the way up the valley, I was in cake heaven!

It really was one of the most sociable and pleasant mornings I've spent in years. At each village the driver would sound his klaxon (not quite 'The Dukes of Hazard' but close!) and from the depths of each little hamlet people bundled in warm clothes would emerge for their Sunday treats. I realised that it's not just in England where the weather can be the first, and sometimes only, topic of conversation on brief meetings. On Sunday every single customer greeted us with a number that corresponded to the lowest temperature that they had registered on the garden thermometer - one lady even had thermometer in hand as proof! -26'C was the record and I can believe it.

So, as I waved goodbye to the baker in his van just a short stroll from home, I did so with a real spring in my step and smile on my face. I had had a smashing morning and met some really lovely people who live in our valley and it was only 9:45am, the cross country ski race had not even started yet!

Mind you, come lunch time I did feel a bit stupid when I realised that we had no bread for our sandwiches!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Different but the same

Ever wondered what the roads around here look like in the dead of winter, when the painting from The Tour is hidden beneath snow and ice and is being slowly eroded away by salt and constant grating of the snowploughs?

Here are a few telling images taken during the last week or so. The first is the road at Brunissard, that leads towards the Col de l'Izoard - where the climb really starts. At present it is pisted for snow shoe walkers and cross country skiers. Last Sunday I ventured a few hundred metres up the slope on my cross country skis but was not bold enough to take on the full extent of the climb to the Casse Deserte and on to the summit. The trouble with the skis is you don't have as many gears as you do on a bike! Maybe another day....

This next photo (right) is the Alpe d'Huez Tour finish. As you can see, a wall of snow on the pavements and all of the hotels full of skiers; a much livelier, if colder, place in the winter.

Finally, the Col du Lautaret (bottom right). Well, you can just about see it in the background there behind Guy. I took this on Tuesday afternoon from the warmth and comfort of our minibus. We were travelling home and this was the quickest route, though the highest at 2058m. Guy had to get out to de-ice the wipers en-route as the snow was freezing to the windscreen in a blizzard and foggy white-out.

The Alps are a different beast in winter in comparison to the summer months. It always amazes me that after such harsh and extreme conditions, the landscape, flora and fauna can recover so quickly and give us the brightly coloured, sunny scenes that us cyclists are more used to experiencing on these mountain roads.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

La Traversée du Queyras

We popped over to the Queyras region for the weekend - just the other side of the col d'Izoard for you cycling fans - and I took part in a curtailed edition of the annual XC ski race there; it was 21km over a couple of loops near Arvieux (the hard bit on the Izoard on a bike). The full event is usually 50km so I got off lightly....maybe next year Helyn might want to do it? She is quite a bit tougher than me....

We were in the area to celebrate Helyn's birthday and, despite some patchy weather, we all enjoyed it - even little Alice. I skied with her for about 100m in my arms - and I think she liked it. I also thinks she likes watching bike races on TV and being held upside down, but that may just be fatherly wishful thinking....