This is What it’s Like… The 53T Hilly Century Ride… On Purpose.

Since my new 39T Zipp chainring won’t be arriving until next week and the current one is completely out-of-order, and because I have absolutely no front brakes… Really, I should just be holding tight, waiting for the new products to infuse my bike back to working order. But then I thought this Sunday was the perfect opportunity to try first hilly century ride in Southern France. The notion lacks some basic logic and reasoning (which normally I am all about… I lost track of the number of classes I’ve taken with the word ‘Logic’ in them…).

Locals in the village of Collobrieres before entering into the hills

Locals in the village of Collobrieres before entering into the hills.


But alas, like a lover with crazy eyes, the Provence countryside has eroded my ability to think with any sort of reasoning – and after devoting an entire Saturday to touring Provence (by car) with my GF, I found it difficult to sleep at night. Dreams of sharp guardrail-less corners overlooking the Med’ and rows of grapevines passing by with such beautiful rhythmic succession that I imagined myself hypnotized by it all.

My thoughts drift as I attempt to sleep… “The wheelset won’t be arrive until Monday… if the delivery guy can find the flat (so far with other deliveries they haven’t and the packages are now in the long customer service queue of those parcels ‘lost in transit’)… so no front braking… ok. But the chainring might not come until late next week… errr… but what if… what if… I just throw caution to the wind and ride a hilly century (~165km and almost an exact mile of climbing, 5300ft/1615m)… could I do that?” I paused. A lonely cricket in the courtyard who I swear is mocking my need for sleep continues it’s illogical mind numbing chirps.

“Maybe. Or… pffft, yeah, no problem. 53T is tiny, right?”… and I dose off with my alarm clock reset for 7am. The cricket pauses and cracks a devious grin.

I awake and eat a boatload of stuff as I peruse CyclingNews, Twitter, WordPress, stuff from work… eventually I get full enough and bored enough to ‘donne le chamois’. I look at my bike. The small ring looks like some sort of early 80’s MTV video… I say to myself, “Easy fix… ZipTie!”

I successfully ziptie the warped chainring to the large chainring so it wouldn’t rub on the chainstay. Of course, a ziptie on the teeth of your chainring is a pretty definitive sign that you won’t be using that gear today. For non-cyclists out there (I know there aren’t but I’ll amuse myself with the idea, any non-cyclist would probably give up on this post long ago…) [prove me wrong, write a comment!] the 53T chainring is used primarily when going downhill or in a fast sprint. The 39T is for hills and moderate riding.. and there were many hills to come!!

My GF was still sleeping and I tried to adjust a few things without the super-loud DT Swiss freehub waking her. I pack as I usually do, a tube, CO2 cartridges, tire lever, chain tool, tire boot patch, and a few euros. I also back my cell phone as my GF and I are suppose to do some touristy stuff after I get back.

The first 20 miles are flat so the 53T is great. Bikers are out in full-force for Sunday morning but they always seem to be going the opposite direction. A few teams I spot look pretty good… I try to memorize the names on the jerseys to see if they have any group rides… CCVC was pretty fast with plenty of fast looking bikes and riders… I tried to decrypt the acronym.. Cyclo Club V… C…

I think to myself, “Maybe I’m too slow to catch people… maybe I suck… oh *#&$ here comes the first 8% grade…” I roll the dice for the first time… “Come on 53!!!!”

Tuned out to be fine, but it was only a small climb of 1km or less. Finally I hit Collobrieres… a charming village who’s world revolves around 2 orbs, the grape and the chestnut. The central square is very charming and my GF and I even took some pictures, and strolled about the tourist shops with ice cream in hand – just to make sure people knew we were tourists. Less than 16 hours later and I was hammering in the 53T through their quiet village…

The first big climb was only about 1000 ft and not too bad with a 6-7% grade. I finally passed a few cyclists but the grey hair flowing from under the rider’s Giro helmet did not boost my ego. I finally reached Grimaud… perhaps one of my most favorite villages in Europe (Fornalutx in Mallorca is another)… but they are pretty different as Grimaud is best explored on foot and Fornalutx is best explored on bike.

At this point I could either turn around and make a nice 80 mile out it, or try to make a long loop where I’ve never explored or knew the exact distance or difficulty but should be around 100 miles (162km). Like a drunken sailor… I order another and push on…

“Would I be late? Would my GF be mad? Can I really do 100miles in the 53 with another huge mountain ahead? Will my power fade? Will it be so twisty that I’ll really need a front brake to survive? Will my GF kill me if I’m late?”

But then, the questions are suddenly overshadowed by music in my head. Whenever Offspring songs from the album ‘Smash’ come in my head… there is no turning back!

After a 3 mile climb and short descent my GPS tells me turn onto a country road… leaving civilization behind. A sign blocks my lane completely saying something about the road being blocked in 5km. “Ahhh, if it’s construction I’ll find a way around it…” I thought.

The next 5km were awesome! Beautiful scenery in a forested preserve only int interrupted with a few vineyards. If I peered really hard to the north I could spot some huge mountain peaks… Les Alps, I presumed. My intuition was right and the sign did nothing more than keep tourists off the road and make for a very calm ride though this unspoiled stretch of Provence countryside. But then it got ugly.

The road pitched upwards violently and the ice-smooth pavement changed to MTB worthy bumps. My GPS showed the grade to be 6%… “Still ok”, I thought. But then 7%, then 8% then 9%…. I soldiered on as my cadence dropped below optimal levels. Suddenly, my cross-chaining in the 53T backfired and the chain ghost-shifted to the ‘out-of-order’ 39T ring. I tried to shift back up… but the chain had warped the ring enough that it found a cozy home between the 39T and the 53T ring. So I stopped.

Apparently the chain, and the 1 revolution of pedaling in the 39T, had broken my precision ziptie application and broken it off. Without a ziptie, the ring would rub on the chainstay. At best it would add another 20 watts required to pedal the bike; At worst, it could become so warped that instead of hitting the metal protection plate, it would hit the carbon frame… most likely breaking it… an expensive error. I tried to steal a ziptie from my helmet cam mount but I didn’t have a sharp knife (best for unzipping without damaging the tie I think) but all I had was a set of house keys. I fumbled for a while but quickly discovered that they have huge man-eating horseflies in this neck of the woods that are so smart that were going for my vein near my ankle repeatedly. The solution needed to be good, and FAST… for the horseflies and so I could get home a reasonable time.

Finally I managed to ‘re-warp’ the 39T so it didn’t hit the chainstay and resumed climbing the rough 8% grade. At around 1650 feet (1000+ from starting the climb) it was over and the descent began. Not too bad, but the lack of front brakes, rough roads, and the fact that the distance from the edge of the road to a 500+ foot drop was only inches, left me a bit cautious. The vistas of the surrounding mountain range on these turns (with no guardrails) were so beautiful, however, that I enjoyed the lack of ugly metal protection.

I battled a stiff headwind on the final 25 miles that drained my reserves and my spirit as the clock ticked away far beyond my planned arrival (I also left 1 hour late, which didn’t help). But finally I made it, 101.2 miles with 5327 feet of climbing and a head wind on both flat sections (damn sea breeze).

I arrived home and quickly showered and changed for our trip to the beach and a landmark we had been meaning to see. Then my GF said perhaps we should go to a different village instead… (requiring much different requirements, like driving there and knowing where to go). But then she said, “no, probably just [the landmark] and the beach. Or, no..” I changed while she fretted about our destination but what I changed into did not conform to GF standards so I was instructed to change at once to something more ‘beachy’. After seeing my new ‘more beach-worthy’ and less formal attire, I was then instructed to switch back, as “the first was better”. We walked at a brisk pace (aka mach speed) to hit the landmark and then climbed around the seashore rocks for 2 miles to get to the beach, dangerously close to sunset. Finally, we laid down the towels next to the lapping sea and we fell next to each other.

“If you weren’t so late we would have been here earlier [and gotten more sun]..” my GF quipped.
“Yeah, sorry about that, the last 2 hours all I wanted was to be home.”
[Scoffing sounds. Then silence for a few minutes]
“So tell me about your ride.”
“Oh it was beautiful, you would have loved the scenery, vineyards, mountains, secret spots, no tourists…”
“That sounds nice.”
“And, I did the whole ride in the biggest gear!”
“Uh huh.”
“I’ve never officially done that before so…”
“So it sounds stupid,” she fired back.
“… yeah…I know. Sorry about being late.”

We gazed at the clouds and listened to the sea breeze against our ears. I busted open a french grammar book and did 30 minutes of exercises including a few oral exercises that I tried with GF. Soon after, my mind also threw in the towel. Then the sun eventually said it was time for a rest and we packed it up after a hour or so of beach lounging… bringing my yearly total up to 1 hour. I’m clearly a fare-skinned beginner. We got home and I prepared a spinach salad with tapenade simmered zucchini, olives, artichokes, dried olive spices, and anchovies while my GF tended to the local trout with Herbs de Provence and lemon zest. To top it all off, I uncorked a bottle of wine that I was very curious about, a 2009 Pinot Noir from the Southern Rhone Valley that instead of red, was a very light pink rose.

Pas mal. Pas mal.

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5 Responses to This is What it’s Like… The 53T Hilly Century Ride… On Purpose.

  1. WSE says:

    Wow, you’ve had some interesting times in the last few weeks. Just caught up on your journaling today. Quite a number of thoughts came up from your adventures, but here’s a few:

    – first, a wino, non-cycling related Q: I didn’t realize anyone was doing pinot in the S. Rhone … who’s the producer and what did you think?

    – second, a Reynolds comment: I guess it’s a good deal you purchased the Reynolds protection plan, but geez, who would think a wheel would go belly up so quickly? I realize you put a lot more miles on your equipment than I do, in much more challenging settings, but seems the DV46 didn’t last at all; not even as long as it’s little brother, the Assaults or Attacks or whatever it was you replaced. Seems rather appalling, really.

    – third, in English, what exactly was going on with the local team you climbed with? Was this some special event, or is it every weekly ride the team completes with a village celebration at the top of the last climb? If so, welcome to heaven. Have you rounded up some information about the other area teams and rides yet? Sounds like Johnny the Biker found a great place to settle down for a while.

    – fourth, a recomendation: go to the beach with your girlfriend more often, you dip.

    • thewaywardcyclist says:

      Hey Dan, yes the Reynolds lasted from mid-May to the end of August. However, there is good news. I wrote about the reason for the failure and Reynolds excellent customer service: Read it here.

      Funny to mentioned the wine. I am actually gathering some data to compile a nice little wine tasting post. Currently I am exploring any different domaines and vintages so I can make an interesting read out of it. It’s hard work really. 😀 So far I’ve covered some famous names that you can find in almost any supermarket in North America as well as some local wines from Bandol and some surprisingly good cheap finds that only cost about 2€ But actually you are good to catch my error… we have been sampling many Roses from Southern Rhone but the Pinot Noir Rose is actually from Burgundy. Specifically it was a Frederic Magnien Bourgogne Rose of Pinot Noir 2009… which probably only runs about $12 in the US and about 4-5 euros here.

      For the group ride… on the website it said “pointage” at the top of the mountain which I thought meant there was some sort of friendly inter-club competition for points… or a french version of “Town Line Sprint” as you can translate it as ‘points’ or ‘tally’. Perhaps it is a bike-specific term because obviously that is not what it means. I’m not sure if there is a single word used in English for it. Because almost every town and village has one (or two, or five) cycling clubs and the towns are fairly close together, one club will organize a little picnic (or lavish feed zone where you stop and chat) and invite all the other clubs to come. It’s a nice way to actually get to meet the riders who you’ve noticed on the road but never got a chance to talk to or see them without the mask of their sunglasses and helmet. Most of these clubs consider themselves cyclotouring clubs and not ‘race clubs’. Therefore you get a much more diverse and colorful array of folks who come together and enjoy the refreshments and check out neighboring clubs. The bonus is that when a club has their turn to organize an event, they usually select a really nice riding area close to their village so it’s a great way (for tourists like me) to find places to ride (not that it’s hard to do around here).

      Looking at the schedule for fall, it appears there is one of these soirees every 2-3 weeks. The second one I went to had refreshments at the bottom of the climb. The climb up was really fun because although we rode as a group alone for 90 minutes to get to the climb, we were suddenly surrounded by cyclists from a dozen clubs. The climb was a great way to prove which club was the strongest. 3 guys from our group stayed with me and we were dueling with 6 pretty fit guys from a club dressed in all blue. They even had a woman who was very impressive on the climb, passing the majority of the men. Eventually riders dropped off one-by-one and it was just me and one “blue guy”. We did turns setting the pace and were blowing by riders left and right. Eventually we got to the top when it was his turn at the front and didn’t feel it was necessary or polite to try and challenge him at the summit. Our club regrouped at the top and eventually the clubs separated to return to their respective villages. I’m not an official member of the club just yet but I probably should contact someone about gaining membership so I don’t feel like a freeloader.

      And yes, now that tourist season is fading, more beach sessions are definitely in order!

      • WSE says:

        Great to hear Reynolds is taking care of the problem. Seems like it’s never a guarantee with some of the companies who produce super expensive cycling goods, so it’s very nice to know Reynolds stands behind theirs. As to the group rides, I can only wish we had those sort of cycling traditions around here. Village living has many downsides, I’m sure, but it is clear one big upside is the sense of community and friendly camraderie-competition with the other villages especially when that comes from a far more cycling-obsessed culture than what we have in the U.S. Good thinking not beating the blue guy. I was going to mention that winning your first outing with the local club is probably not the best method for making friends among the locals!

      • thewaywardcyclist says:

        Yes, the first “victory” was by accident… I didn’t know the top was coming! This one was better as I could see it from a few hundred meters away. It’s interesting to note that I was probably the youngest rider in our group. Some very fit older French gentlemen out there!

  2. mrtm says:

    interesting blog – comment posted for more posts

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