I was pretty happy to come up with the bread basket and the ice-skating rink as a way to write about one of cycling’s legendary climbs.
I slept on top of Alpe d’Huez Friday night, and in the morning we woke up and walked out and had breakfast at a little café called, in that French way that can make something like a pinecone sound mysterious and magical, “The Apple of the Pine,” but then our bread came out in a little wicker basket covered over with a white cloth, and embroidered on the cloth was the word, “pain.”
We’d driven in from Lyon Friday, in the dark, the first time the four of us doing The Crazy Bet had ever been all together, and so of course we were giving each other shit, and smacktalking and sandbagging at once, and telling the funniest stories we knew about cycling to make sure we would like each other. This went on until the Mercedes van we were in passed by the rectangular sign with a red slash across the words “Bourg d’Oisan.” Alpe d’Huez raised itself up in front of us, jumping up before us as if it wanted to play a joke and surprise us, then standing there in our way, looming up far above the limit of our imagination and anticipation, so steep, so sheer it seemed ready to topple over onto us. You think for an instant that you’re going to run into it, a head-on collision as if it’s a brick wall.
We’d stopped talking. Somebody noticed that, and commented on it, and in our continued silence we all agreed that the observation was true. Maybe there was a coughing little laugh, a few random attempts at conversation, but for the most part we all stopped talking, at the first switchback, number 21, and we just stayed like that all the way up to Switchback 1.
I’ve ridden steeper climbs, and longer climbs, and steeper and longer climbs. But there is something about Alpe d’Huez that shuts you up.
You’re not supposed to say what it is. It’s not cool to say so. But it’s there.
I was afraid of Alpe d’Huez.
I wasn’t scared – which to me feels different, is more of a panic, an instinct, a flight response. What I’m calling fear is closer to respect, personalized with the knowledge that the object of your respect can jack you up bad.
For years now, I’ve carried in me a respect for cycling so central to who I am that it sounds silly when I try to talk about it. Or pretentious. But it is real, and it is in me, a heart-and-guts appreciation of what it takes to be a practitioner of the sport — so much so that, for instance, I am never one of those guys who lies about a ride’s average speed, or mileage, or altitude gain. I have been lucky enough to get tiny tastes of what it takes to average 27 mph plus a little for an hour in a pack, or to climb five cols in a day, or simply to have the stuff to sit in a pack among the real things on their easy day, so I never pretend my way toward that beauty. I think this is for a simple reason: I have worked so hard to be so damn mediocre. Maybe if I were better I could afford to be more cavalier.
I also respect the stakes of cycling — the risks we take. My friend Ken, who blew a corner and slid under an oncoming truck two summers ago, still doesn’t do anything more than neighborhood rides with his daughter, still limps a bit when he walks. Just a week or so ago a new one to our pack, a kid named Dan, went wide on a European mountain corner and paid for it with three vertebrae and his lungs’ ability to inflate.
But it wasn’t solely respect that silenced our van, or made that basket of pain seem so much funnier than it really was. It was fear. I know that, but I don’t know, even now, even after the two rides of the Crazy Bet, even after I did in back-to-back days climb Alpe d’Huez and Hautacam, and climb and descend the Glandon, Telegraph, Galibier, Tourmalet in blistering sun and hypothermic wet . . . I still don’t know what it was I — we — were afraid of. Was being afraid part of the fun? Did we create it to make the experience richer? Was it real? Is it essential? And, I guess, is it just me?
In the early mornings, even in July, the ice-skating rink up on the top of Alpe d’Huez is frozen solid, and if you sleep up there you will be woken by the pick-up game shouts and the clicking of sticks of ice-hockey teams. When you look out onto the rink you also see figure skaters whirling and gliding. As the sun comes on and hits the ice, the rink pools up in the middle, an oval lake that grows larger through the day. By six p.m., a young, blonde girl, maybe 12, shuffles around the perimeter on borrowed skates, taking steps rather than sweeping along, holding onto the wall as she goes, her reflection trailing her in the blue mirror of the melted rink, then, as she makes a turn, sliding ahead of her. In the morning the ice is frozen again. It seems to matter to me.
Originally published in the July 7, 2008 Sitting In