Day 6: Bourg D'Oisans to Briancon (123km, 2970m)

We woke up, ate a hasty breakfast at 7:00am and dropped off the key with the landlord, but in our excitement to climb Alp D'Huez (1860m) forgot to mention the clogged sink. The official "depart" banner was only a kilometer away from where we stayed, so we got there relatively quickly, and took our pictures at the bottom. From here, we climbed a steady 10% over 21 switchbacks, each numbered and labelled with the name of one or more famous cyclists who had won on the climb. (Lance Armstrong's is not one of them, since he has never won on the Alp D'Huez)

In the cool morning air, we made good time, and to my surprise Mike was lagging. However, he caught up soon and said, "I found a big piece of bitumen between my brake shoe and the rim. No wonder I felt so slow despite having no load." Yet after that, he still slowed down a bit, so I plowed on ahead at maximum effort, aware that I would pay for it later in the day.

Mountains cast long shadows, so it wasn't until an hour later that I was forced to stop, this time to put on sunscreen. Mike pulled up a bit later, and I gave him the sunscreen: "If I can carry it up this high, you can carry it up the rest of the way." I waved goodbye and rushed on.

When the switchbacks counted down to 1 there was a long straight away to the "Arrivee" banner across the road. There, I discovered that I had done the climb in 89 minutes. I would SMS Lisa later in the day and ask her what time Lance Armstrong did, and after a bit, she would tell me it was 39 minutes! The difference between Lance & I is the same as the difference between Joe Couch Potato and I.

Mike wasn't here yet, so I kept going up to explore a bit, and found a grocery store and a few ugly ski stations. When Mike arrived, we bought some bananas and then took a few photographs at the banners before searching for the route Col de Sarennes (1996m). After several wrong turns and asking multiple folks where it was, we finally found a single track road leading past a helicopter field and a campground. From here, it looked exciting, since the road had wide drainage gullies running through it, which made riding it downhill something you had to do slowly and with full alert.

We then ran across a massive herd of sheep which were taking over the road. Yet, sheep being sheep, when I moved in amongst them they quickly gave me room. After riding along them a bit, I found the cause of the stampede --- a farmer and his sheep dog was rounding them up and moving them in the direction opposed to us. Once past the farmer and his dog there were no more sheep and the area became the incredibly isolated country road that I expected. We saw a few cars driving along some unpaved roads that crossed the Col, but not actually on it. The road was quite steep, so despite our unloaded status we moved quite slowly. At the top, the descent was no less labored since the road was very steep and there had been quite a lot of rock fall all over it, which meant that we had to weave our way around the stones.

It was steep enough that I worried about the brakes overheating and stopped a few times to give the rims time to cool. After about 500 meters of descent, the pavement became better and smooth enough to take the corners fast, so we started going faster. We stopped at a small town to refill our water supplies, where a man stopped to talk to us in English. Then a swift descent followed by a steep short climb which we hardly noticed because we had had a nice steep descent that built up enough momentum to make it up, and then a descent to a reservoir where we rejoined the main road.

Despite our general high spirits, I was dismayed by the amount of traffic on the Col du Lauterat going the opposite direction. The descent back to Bourg D'Oisans was easy enough, with a few flat retrogrades, but descending with a load isn't the same as climbing with one, and I was sure I wouldn't enjoy the difference.

Back at the house, we saw our bags waiting for us with a note attached expressing the landlady's displeasure with our treatment of the facilities. Mike wrote a note back replying that everything was fixable with a chemical cleaner and/or a plunger. Mike said that there was something wrong with his wheel so I took a look at it. Sure enough, it was out of true. "Did you hit something?" "Well, I wasn't exactly braced for the first couple of drainage gullies on Col du Sarennes." OK. A few turns with the spoke wrench and the wheel was perfectly straight again. For some reason that works with wheels that I build (or that I help to build), but it never does with wheels I buy.

We rode back to town to dine at an Italian restaurant where we were waited on by a waitress who looked Chinese. So I asked her, "Est que vous Chinois?" When she nodded I switched to mandarin and we had a bit of conversation. I told her that she was the first Chinese I saw in France. She said there was actually quite a Chinese community in Bourg D'Oisans, most of which was involved in the tourist industry. I nodded and ordered a spaghetti. We ate lunch quickly, and then made our way out of town, reversing the direction from which we came.

I will say that I did not enjoy Col du Lauterat (2058m) at all. The road isn't narrow or steep, but the afternoon heat along with the amount of traffic made it a chore. We climbed steeply at first back to the reservoir, where we had some ice cream and took some salt pills, and after that there was a series of rollers where we seemed to lose just as much altitude as we gained. Then, along the river, we went through a series of tunnels which would in other times be a pleasant respite from heat but here seemed to just amplify traffic noise.

Mike was determined to get to Briancon (1330m) today, however, so we kept plugging away, kilometer after kilometer, until the road finally levelled off at the Hotel des Glaciers, so often mentioned in Jobst's travel reports. I have no pictures of Col du Lauterat except this one, since for most of the ride I was too miserable to even think about wanting to record the pass.

At the summit, we let two large semis pass, one of which was carrying cars ("Getting hit by one of those is like getting hit by 7 cars at once," said Mike). We then caught up to them and drafted them all the way down the hill at 50kph. In the draft, it was easy to imagine that with the easy 4% grade we could overtake them, but I knew the power it would take to overtake them and stay ahead of them would be more than I could do. In normal circumstances it would have been frustrating to sit behind trucks holding on to brakes, but given the headwind coming up the valley and my general state of weariness, it wasn't a bad idea to go slower than normal.

After the road got flatter and less twisty we lost the draft of the trucks and discovered that we had a long tail of cars behind us, which were no longer content to sit behind us now that there was open road ahead of us, so a bunch of cars overtook us, only to be stopped at the next traffic light in which we would catch up and overtake them again. The road was still pointed downhill, and with some pedalling we were moving in excess of 35kph.

After we came within sight of Briancon and I saw some big stone buildings high up on a hill. Thinking that was the old town I was dismayed, but then resigned myself to more climbing. Following the signs to tourist information, however, we didn't do too much climbing before hitting the old town. It turned out there were only 2 hotels in old town, so we tried the closer one, which charged about 65 Euros for the two of us for one night for the last room in the house. Too tired to contemplate too much hunting around, we took it.

Old town Briancon was set on a hill with beautiful views of the valley around it. Looking at the views from it, I was happy to have arrived here for the evening, everything else forgotten. Mike had a sudden craving for Indian food, so we had Indian food that evening, which while tasty wasn't quite enough food for either of us, but somehow we made do.

"Mike, so what do you think of Briancon?" "Well, my images of these cathedral towns is that there are always car chases and shootings in them from the movies, so it's a lot quieter than my image of it." I laughed. We went to bed early, thinking that the church bells would keep us up half the night, but the day's work had worn us out, so we both slept soundly all night.

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