If you go to the lengths of looking up this word in a cycling dictionary its masked by the blasphemous symbols #%#*@!&$.
I thought back to previous January’s in my cycling history. Yes we all want to start the year on the right foot, we might even make ‘training plans’ for the New Year and ways in which we will trump our own feeble performances from the previous year. Goals. Milestones, Victories. Plotted out in pure perfection. “This will be the year!”. You gear up, knowing that it’ll be chilly (it’s January after all which will keep all those other losers at home watching Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin footage until April at least…) and you push off. 5 minutes later, the -5°F temperature whispers the phrase in your ear:
“Did you really think you could dance with me?”
Sensing your impending and unintentional cryogenic freeze, you hammer home with such amazing fervor that would possibly qualify you for a spot on the newest Pro-Tour Team selection (unbeknownst to you because your winter bike or MTB doesn’t have a wattage meter). Safe and sound you arrive home and let out a big ‘ahhh’ as your spouse/non-cycling family member looks on and says “what the… you spent 50 minutes getting ready and finally left 2 minutes ago… geeez you’re such a wuss.”
It’s true that winter riding should never be confused with statements that may include: “heroic riding”, “epic victories”, “fastest time ever”, or “bludgeoned the entire club to death leaving them in sobering agony – audible only for a fleeting moment as my gap became so vast that their whimpers were overshadowed by the Megadeath song in my head”.
That doesn’t happen in January.
And a quick look at my cycling history reveals that actually, nothing happens in January. No rides. Nothing. Trainer rides a plenty and some XC Skiing round out the bleak month. The lone exception is when I visited my parents and an ice storm caused the power to go out for 2 weeks. You can use your imagination as to exactly how boring life can get when you have no electricity or hot water and the sun sets at 4:45pm. As such, I ventured out on my mountain bike and had 2 amazing rides on 2 feet of snow with a crusty and fast surface to ride on and chew through… much like a Butterfinger, or for our Czech and possibly European readers, a Fidorka
The hard outer coating transformed unridable territory into magical rolling snow-glass. It WAS epic. It WAS 6 miles. It LASTED until 4:45pm. Bed time. No hot shower for you!
Now I’ve taken this game over to Southern France and although it is very possible to ride every day, there are certainly days when it gets a bit frosty. Today was one of those days.
I looked at the forecast and the mountains out my window that showed signs of snow and decided this was a full-alert cold weather riding day. The forecast said it was 48°F but there are many mountains and cold valleys on the route that defy forecasts. I opted for my coziest jacket on hand, a full windstopper jacket – probably a size or 2 too large, but I’ve never-ever been cold wearing it. Next up was the decision for the legs… I reached for a pair of Pearl Izumi Am-Fib shorts that I haven’t warn in several years but also could never remember being cold in them. Add to that, 2 bib shorts, regular jersey, arm warmers, full fingered gloves, and ear bandanna thing and I was good to go.
It was a bit warm for most of the ride and the oversized jacket had always been a leading cause of many ultra-slow rides due to it’s ability to catch wind (WindStopper says it all) and I generally don’t ride fast unless I’m already riding fast. (good rule of thumb)
Nothing too crazy on this ride with the exception of the dreaded north side descent of Col de Babaou. Even when temperatures are good this descent is awful with it’s incessant turns and perpetual wetness that feeds green slime and moss that work in concert to try and put a spoiler on an already glorious 75 mile ride.
This was the scene that greeted me today and old kit that I never wear but suddenly makes sense in this terrain (it may look like slush, but that’s rock hard ice):
Not too bad, I guess, but if every curve on the descent for the next 4 miles was like this, I’d surely be in trouble (or at least sideways with a foot out on all turns).
Luckily the snow deteriorated and I simply had to combat the usual slimy wet moss switchbacks.
Earlier this week, I did the same ride. I was feeling like I was boring myself by doing the same route again, but it is an epic ride on all accounts. Temperatures were warmer but I only saw a few cyclists the first 50 miles. I’ve found a new website that tracks times (or chrono’s) up every Col in France. Naturally I decided to try my luck and give an effort up the climb. To my surprise, even with leg warmers, arm warmers, 2 bib shorts, heavy vest, digital camera, tons of tools… I still managed to post the best time up the Col at 13:30 (beating the previous best of 15:09). I was so happy with this that I planned to ‘spin out’ the next 70 miles and revel in my accomplishment of beating the previous best time posted by my feeble self earlier in the week.
The next Col started and I realized that I had passed the ‘official’ starting point of the climb (which was much earlier than what I would consider the ‘start’). But since I wanted to play by the rules, I decided to turn around so I could get a ‘baseline’ time up the climb – even though I’d just ride tempo most of the way.
While circling back to the start, I saw a group of cyclists also heading up. They all had matching jerseys. My initial thought was “great, if I try to ride hard they’ll think I turned around just to race them”. I heard some ‘Eyyyy’ from the group as I passed. However, I immediately realized that would not be a problem when I spotted ‘Cofidis’ on their jerseys. I somehow remembered on a random article on CyclingNews that Cofidis was holding their training camp in Var starting on…. “what was the date…, oh Jan 19th, that’s today!”. The Cofidis team car passed not too far behind and I finally made my way back to the ‘official’ start of the climb so I could turn around and start my timer. By this time, Cofidis was out of sight. The last time I spotted a Pro Tour team was in March on Mallorca when I came across the Milram team also going the opposite way. I got to the point when I was scheduled to turn around and there was no hope in catching them with a 2km uphill lead. I thought this would be similar. Out of sight…
Surprisingly, I was actually able to close the gap. With the team approaching, I forgot all about the ‘TT’ and busted out the camera to take a few photos. The team car pulled over so the managers could relieve themselves while the team began the climb. I took several photos as the clouds crowded overhead which sadly didn’t not come out as my camera appears to be functioning much like a Sud de France retiree – only able to be productive under the sun. I found myself in an awkward stage where I didn’t want to ride up behind them and disturb their training (or more importantly, look like some sort of recreational cyclist looking to prove himself to the big boys) so I just kept a safe distance and respected what they had on the agenda. The climb is about 3.5 miles at 6-9% grade and the entire climb snakes around, making it difficult to see those in front.
By the time I took several photos and put the camera away, most of the team had attacked up the climb, leaving only 2 guys within visible reach of 300m. I finally caught one of them and rode behind him for a while judging his pace and contemplating cycling etiquette and if it was ok to pass a guy on the first day of spring training. It’s hazy now, but ultimately I decided it was acceptable. I took a pull in front of him and he held my wheel for a while as I could hear him behind as we marched up the rough tarmac and switchback roads – no wider than the average SUV though it was 2 lanes. At some point, I detected he was no longer on my wheel so I decided to look for the second rider. I pushed as hard as I could with legs already full of lactic acid placed on credit from my previous PR climb and asked for an additional loan to make it up this climb without exploding catastrophically like a typical weekend warrior cyclist would.
Luckily my legs held out and I reached the top in 16:06 which was 1:12 faster than the previous (amateur) record set in 2009 and another PR. I never did catch the next Cofidis rider but the rider I passed finally arrived more than 1 minute later. At the top, all the riders were gearing up with vests and jackets for the descent. Sorry about not getting closer or better images, I really don’t feel comfortable in a paparazzi role especially when these guys are basically ‘on the job’. Tried to respect that without being… well an *&#*$@^&%^.
Back when I was a teenager, I remembered a conversation I had with some of my friends while we were trying to build some epic singletrack behind my house.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if we accidentally discovered some secret singletrack where pros like Miles Rockwell, Tinker Juarez, Missy Giove, Allison Syder, and Julia Furtado were hammering on pristine singletrack?”… while we bushwhacked our way through dense brush and spongy loamy soil. Although we fought against nature with our machetes for days on end, we never did find the secret training ground of the pros.
It’s fun to be a kid again, even if only for 16 minutes and 6 seconds.
Here are a few more photos from January expeditions: