Col du Galibier

Eight years and 30 pounds ago I brought my bike with me to Grenoble and caught some stages of the '99 Tour. I rode up l'Alpe d'Huez on the day Guerini got knocked off his bike by some guy named Eric. I rode all the cols around Bourg d'Oisans. But the most memorable climb -- climbs -- I did was Col du Galibier. Since they're going over Galibier today I'll tell you the story.

I did an out and back from Bourg d'Oisans to  Valloire and went over Galibier west to east and then the other way. Actually I got scared going through a tunnel between Bourg d'Oisans and Col du Lauteret -- those tunnels are long and dark! -- turned back, got my car, and drove myself to Lauteret, and relaunched from there.

Going west to east was dang scenic. Sunny Alpine scenes, wildflowers: you know the Graham Watson photos. Coming from Austin, which is hilly but lacking in Alps, I had been been afraid these climbs would kill me. But this climb was long but gentle and I was in no hurry. The west side is green, sunny and warm.

I pulled past the Henri Desgrange memorial just to the west of the pass, and congratulated myself as I crossed the top at 9000 ft.

The east side of the col is twisty and tight. I took it pretty slow. It straightens out and follows the stream valley. I reached the village of Valloire very comfortably, and continued just a few miles more to look down over the Col du Telegraph. Guess what: there really are telephone poles going down the pass. From just east of Valloire, looking out over the descent of Telegraph, I knew I could never make it back up Telegraph and back to my car. So I just turned around there, went back through Valloire and towards Galibier.

A pleasant day so far. But now in late afternoon it began to drizzle and the tmeperature dropped to 40F. I'm climbing up the steep, lunar, twisty east side of Galibier, in freezing rain, as Lance had done three days earlier on the way to the win in Sestriere. As every Tour any time they cross Galibier east to west has done. Giant painted penises decorate the road. I'm climbing for a slow, cold, numb hour. Praying for the top.

So I make it to the top. Hallelujah, right? Downhill all the way from there. Except, these long sweeping descents you see Il Falco do on TV are really scary. I'm really unskilled at that. So I'm braking the whole way down the hill, afraid to go more than 12 mph. Also, I'm soaked from ascending the east side, and going faster that 10 mph freezes you solid. So I can't feel my fingers but I'm using them to brake.  Somehow.

Did I mention that at 9000 ft your muscles feel really flat? A weird flat feeling I've also felt in Colorado at altitude.

I edged my way down the mountain, and made it back to the Lauteret and then back to Bourg d'Oisans, where they know how to serve up a meal to a weary cyclist.

So I'll be watching the stage today over Galibier, with a little extra respect.

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