September 2008

Chas and Chris finish Alpe d'huez

From Spain it was on to Grenoble, France. Beth & family have moved there for work and as long as I’d made the trip this far, might as well pay a visit, right? So from Barcelona it was on to Lyon by plane and then a fast TGV train ride down to Grenoble.

One of the ideas that Kem and I had when we originally planned the trip earlier in the year was the lofty idea that since we’d be in Grenoble and it wasn’t too far away, we too could try our hand at riding up Alpe d’huez. The fabled stage of the Tour de France that climbs at about 8% grade for 14K over 21 switchbacks has become something of a mecca for bicyclists. Something to test your mettle. There’s a great picture of the route up the mountain here.

My cold/sniffles had begun to subside enough that the semi-thought out idea of riding up Alpe d’huez during the week I was in Grenoble could perhaps take place. Chris was taking the day off on Wednesday and it would all depend on the weather and how I felt come Wednesday morning. Things aligned well and the opportunity presented itself. The weather was fantastic come Wednesday morning and I was feeling pretty good. Chris was up for giving it a try and now all we needed was to figure out how to get there and get the bikes there. Chris had a bike rack for the top of his car but had yet to set it up so he got busy.

Meanwhile, I needed to reassemble my bike. It had been all boxed up for the trip from Barcelona. That took an hour or so. By mid day Chris had gotten the bike rack all assembled and on the car. We were off. Did we really know what we were doing? We had no idea.

Chris figured out how to get there and snaked us up the valley to find the base of the mountain. We just parked along the side of the road. We saw a few other cars there and figured it was OK. As it turns out there was another rider just taking off. His wife or girl friend was taking pictures and off he went. We took a few pictures at the base too. Then we headed up.

Unless you ride up the valley some beforehand, there’s not really any warm up involved. Rather, you round a bend and there it is, the ascent begins. The road surface is littered with names painted on it. There’s stuff painted from start to finish. No doubt a lot of folks as well as pros do this ride.

We knew it’d be chilly at the top so we brought backpacks with extra stuff to wear for the descent later. (We were optimistic we’d make it to the top.) I wore tights and on the way up they probably weren’t necessary. It was a sunny day and while not hot, the exertion alone warmed us to the point where we didn’t need a lot of clothing.

It goes without saying that you need to be pretty fit to do the ride up to the top. But you don’t have to be Lance Armstrong to do the ride. That is, as long as you don’t really care how long it takes and you’ve got a decent bike with the right gearing. I geared things such that I was just on the edge of being winded and hunkered down for the climb. We stopped a couple times to gawk at the view and take some pictures – it’s very pretty – and otherwise just crawled up at a steady pace. We were there in something around 1:45 min. Not exactly speedy but then we weren’t racing and by the time we’d warmed up and got into a rhythm, it was just a fun ride.

Near the top we encountered a professional photographer that was taking pictures of us tourists making the trek up. He’d hand you a card and if you want you can buy the photos he took.

At the top we got another couple riders that were doing the same thing to take our picture. Funny thing was one of them was from Colorado, one from Utah. Like I say, a mecca for cyclists.

We didn’t hang around too long. It was in fact chilly up there and we were cooling off fast. We got the extra stuff on from our back packs and headed down. We encountered several more people – several with similar jerseys that appeared to be from Japan – that were making the ascent. The ride down is quite a rush. The grade on the way up is consistent enough that at some point it doesn’t seem that steep. But on the way down, for some reason it seems steeper. Kinda like when you’re skiing and you head down that first run of the day. It seems kinda steep, right? Anyway, you need to be on the brakes a LOT on the way down. Those switchbacks come up fast.

There was a lot more traffic on the road than I expected there would be. There’s a lot more populated places on the route and at the top than I would have thought there would be. It’s a pretty big ski resort up there. Anyway, you really need to keep to the right. Going up it wasn’t that much of an issue. Going down it was more interesting ’cause you’re going MUCH faster.

So, would I recommend the ride? Absolutely. If you get the chance, take it and make the ascent.

Alpe d'huez

The guys in Osor

Our last day of riding was a tough one. Not that the ride was that tough, but my cold was in full swing. Jill referred to it as “The Grip” and that was a pretty accurate name. I brought up the rear since I was sneezing and otherwise honking my sinus juices across the countryside.

The route was to be a loop ride – from Girona out to Osor and then back. To Osor was to be about 45K. The van would be in Osor though and as we mounted up for the ride I was pretty sure I’d take the van ride back.

The ride up to Osor was quite a nice one despite my cold. A couple of climbs, the longest being the one up to Osor, but very pretty and heavily wooded country. The last part of the route up to Osor snaked up alongside the Riera d’Osor. In otherwords, a little river.

We snacked on a picnic lunch up at Osor and then I vanned back. Later others would say they wished they joined me only because the route out in the morning was the prettiest part and the afternoon added nothing.

Note the picture of the guys in Osor. I’m dressed as if it’s winter. Not sure if I had a fever or not but definitely was feeling some chills. My hair’s all out of whack. I manage to plaster on a smile for the camera. Would you guess the two big guys here used to play some college football? You’d guess right.

I managed a nap later in the afternoon but I wanted to join everyone for the final dinner out. I’m glad I did. We met for drinks for a bit and then went to a wine bar and had ‘pica pica’ (a little of this a little of that) for dinner. We started with some Cava (Spain’s sparkling wine) and then salads and then some meat dishes, one after the other. A really nice red wine named Tinta Fina of cabernet and merlot and by Valtravieso was served. It came from the Ribera del Duero region of Spain.

We all managed to clean up pretty good for our last dinner out. Here’s a picture of the group. That’s me on the right. You wouldn’t guess I was all that sick in this case but I think the meds were kicking in.

Note that Marty Jemison had joined us for dinner. He’s the namesake of the tour company and was back from the custom tour that had been going on concurrently. It was great to meet him. Was a really nice guy. He’s the guy 2nd from the back on the right side of the picture.

Dinner in Girona

Sunrise in Calella

In contrast to the cool and rain we’d gotten the day before, we woke on Saturday to some really fantastic weather. I was up early and down to breakfast as soon as they opened. No good reason – I wasn’t feeling too great. I snagged the picture here of the sunrise out the window of the hotel restaurant.

My cold that was coming on hadn’t improved. It was coming on gangbusters. I was still up for riding though. Breathing hard in those circumstances can actually make me feel a bit better and I’d come this far… I certainly wasn’t going to be going at 100% though.

We gathered for another group photo before we took off. We were quite the multi-colored bunch that morning. The players, from left: Larry & Cindy, Chris (guide), Celeste (married to Joe over on the right), Julie, Hallie, me, Joe and Jill Jemison. Of the group, I was the only without a Utah connection. All either currently or formerly lived in Park City or Salt Lake. Word of mouth for the Jemison tours is apparently strong there, though I recall Jill mentioning that the Utah ties of this tour group was pretty rare.
Our Girona cycling group

The ride for the day was really a great one. Lots of rolling hills, pretty countryside and quaint old villages. Being the weekend, there were a fair number of Spanish riders in small groups out riding as well. Some were enjoying our coffee stop that morning as well.

Our route on this day took us back from the coast at Calella inland to Girona. It was going to be long enough we had time for both a coffee stop and lunch. I wish I could tell you the names of the little towns we pulled into and stopped but since I didn’t write them down at the time, I’ve got my visual memories only. But I do remember we went through Madremanya. I think we had lunch there. Our coffee stop was fairly early on and by the time we got to lunch I was pretty well ready for some food.

At the lunch stop, Jill had arranged to have some salads and pizzas made. Both really hit the spot. I think I had 3 pieces of pizza despite the warning not to eat too much because we’d be climbing after lunch and past tours suggested that people often over ate before doing another one of these 10K-like climbs. We were joined at lunch by a collection of scrappy local cats. At least 3 by my count in and out between our legs. A bunch of scrawny beggars. They seemed to know I’d be an easy mark. When it was apparent the anchovies weren’t all going to be eaten I snagged some and not surprisingly the cats really went for it.

Despite all the pizza, the climb afterward turned out fine. As climbs go, this one was probably one of my favorite of the bunch we’d done. The grade was not steep – just steady. At times I could ride it in 2nd or 3rd gear (middle chain ring). At intervals throughout the climb the road was painted with the word “Hincapie”. Apparently it’s one of his favorite rides and Jill thought it might have been his wife that had painted the encouragement on the road.

At the top of the climb the view was great. I took some pictures but they really don’t do it justice so I haven’t included them here. What you couldn’t see in the pictures was that in the far distance you could see the Mediterranean. Cool.

Dinner on Saturday night was at an excellent creperie. They were made of buckwheat. I had the 4 cheese one. Wow, a whole lotta cheese. Almost too much – but then, you can never have enough cheesy goodness.

Looking down on Llafranc
On the road to Begur
Coffee stop in Begur

Our ride up to Begur probably turned out to be my least favorite. Mostly that’s because the weather wasn’t great. It was overcast and eventually it rained.

We didn’t actually have that many miles planned for the 12th, but the first two thirds of it was pretty challenging. Almost right out of the gate we were climbing. Most of our climbs up till this ride we’d been doing pretty tame grades – they were just long climbs. These by contrast were short and very steep. Actually, more akin to my neck of the woods back home in Austin. More like “Big View” and “River Place”. No mention of what the grades were, but it was steep. The views of the coast though were great, so we took the good with the bad.

We had a nice long coffee stop in Begur after all the climbing though. There were lots of shops in Begur and several people took the time to shop a little. That made the coffee stop longer than average. Kinda wished we’d moved on sooner. We were there long enough to completely cool down. The sun had not come out, there was a breeze blowing and the weather seemed to be changing – and not for the better. Occasionally I could feel a rain drop. Just one, then two. I thought: “we should get going”.

Finally, everyone was assembled again and the group headed off. We got maybe a couple miles and the rain came. Not just a sprinkle, a full on cold rain. I didn’t really have the right gear on based on what it was like when we left. Wow, I was cold quickly. Chilled to the bone and pretty wet. I mentioned to Chris and he magically pulled a small rain jacket out for me. It helped. Chris seems to always have what you need when you need it.

Thankfully the rains did not last long. But long enough that our route was insufficient to warm me back up. Mercifully, the route back was mostly down hill and short and it wasn’t long that we were back to our hotel. I made a bee line for the hotel room and a hot bath up to my chin. Ahhhh!

Unfortunately though, within the day, the chill was enough to bring on a sore throat and cough that got progressively worse. Ugh!

Pictures here include one shot after our initial climb that looks down over Llafranc (foreground) and Calella de Palafrugell, where we’d come from that morning.

Then, a shot of Chris and Larry taking in the view at the top of another hill. And a final shot of the group at our coffee stop in Begur.

Girona Tour Group
Coffee stop
Jill hams it up
Chris jukes
Lunch stop
Salad at El Pati
Soup at El Pati

The ride up from Tossa de Mar to Calella has been my favorite of the bunch. The climbs were not massive, the scenery was nice and we made a couple of stops for coffee/food along the roughly 50 mile route. I’m not positive on the distance, but that’s what I’m remembering.

It was ‘jersey day’ so we all wore our tour jerseys on this day. Makes us look like something of a team. We look all bright and shiny in the first picture here. It was taken before we all saddled up and headed up the coastal road again.

It didn’t seem like we’d ridden all that long – though it must have been at least an hour to an hour and a half at that point – that we pulled in for a coffee and snacks. There’s a nice group photo of us here taking a break.

Sept 11th is National day (Fiesta Nacional de Cataluña) and the weather was nice and still pretty warm so there were lots of people out and about. We were told a lot of people make it a long holiday weekend before the kids head back to schoool the following week.

There are a couple of pictures here of our ride leads I took as we rode along that afternoon. Both hammed it up for the camera a little. Chris juking to his left while Jill stuck her tongue out. Everyone was having a pretty good time on this straight flat section knowing that lunch was not far away.

Our early afternoon route took us to Peratallada, a small and very old village. Up one of its stone streets arrangements had been made for our group to have lunch at El Pati. The name is apparently a reference to the patio dining there. The place is actually both a hotel and restaurant. Our group had a big circular table you can sorta see here in one of the pictures. We started with salads and also had two cold soups. One was a more typical tomato based gazpacho and the other was made of almonds, grapes and olive oil. If it had a name, I don’t remember it, but it was fantastic. It was creamy without being heavy. I’ll be seeking out more of this stuff in the future that’s for sure. The soup and the salad would probably have been enough since we had a fair bit of riding left to do that afternoon, but more food was on the way. We had a rice dish served with rabbit.

Suitably stuffed, we saddled up and hit the road again. Ugh, I’d eaten too much and we’d relaxed too long. It took awhile to get going again. Eventually we landed at our destination for the evening, Calella. It’s one of many small towns along the coast. Our hotel was the Hotel Mediterrani. It’s the larger white building in the middle of the picture below. It was nothing fancy but the location was great and the breakfasts turned out to be really good. It was right across the street from a nice beach, which you can just sort of make out in the picture below.

Hotel Mediterrani

Seven at the beach
Chas heads up coast of spain

Our 3rd day was an option day. You could pass on riding and just hit the beach if you wanted, or you could do a shorter ride with Jill, or you could do a longer ride with Chris. A couple folks did the shorter ride but the rest of us went with Chris on the longer ride.

The ride was 90K and pretty challenging. We started right at the beach across from the hotel and headed back up the coast road the way we’d come the day before and yes, you guessed it, rode back up the hills we’d come down the day before. It was a thrilling descent the day before and quite the workout to go back up. Great views along the way though. Then the 10K descent on the other side into Llagostera. We just did a quick water stop there this time though and then headed north.

I don’t exactly know what towns we went through on the way over, but eventually we crossed over the coastal range again and descended into Platja d’Aro. Eventually we wound our way down to the beach and found a cafe to have a snack.

The rest of the ride took us down the coastal road about 25K or so and back into Tossa de Mar. The route hugs the coast with great views along the way. Thankfully, though there’s a fair bit of traffic on this coastal road, the drivers are pretty darn courteous. Moreso than we would expect back home. You just have to keep single file and hold a line near the right side of the road.

Dinner was on our own Wednesday night and a few of us took the recommendations of the woman behind the reception desk at the hotel and headed up to Castell Vell. The food was good. I got the ‘Turbo’ (fish) special and some onion soup. I thought this place was over priced though. I didn’t get all that much – fish and soup – and still payed over 30 Euro. That’s about $45 for the folks back home.

The picture below is of the beach at dusk not far from where we had dinner.

Next up… on to Calella.

Tossa de Mar beach

Mmm, cappuccino
Coffee in Llagostera
Tomatoes and Mozzarella
Sunrise in Tossa de Mar

Unlike our first day’s warm up ride, this would be a bit longer ride today. I was up early and down for breakfast. Breakfast seems to get started kinda late here. Typically has seemed to be about 8:30. The same was true on Majorca – though they would start things as early as 8:15. Lots of the usual European selections for breakfast: juice, coffee, croissants and some other pasteries and breads, some kind of eggs (boiled, scrambled, fried), sliced meats, sliced cheeses (Manchego and Swiss often), cereals… anyway, lots to chose from. All served buffet style.

We checked out and loaded up luggage and were off by 10. Early on, more riding thru the urban streets of Girona, but it didn’t take long before we were out in the countryside. Pleasant riding on country roads. Not too much traffic. The sights and especially smells of agriculture abounded. Plenty of joking about the overwhelming odor of pig manure. It’s the country, that’s what you can expect.

Girona appears to be in a valley. To the east – the direction we were headed – you need to pass over a range of pretty big hills to get to the coast. I’m not sure I’d call them mountains, but they are certainly mountainous. Before we hit these we pulled into a small town named Llagostera. We headed for the central square and stopped in for coffee and snacks.

One of the great things about the Jemison tours are they take time out for coffee and/or lunch stops. You don’t just pound until the ride’s done. I got a cappucino. You’ll see it in my pictures. Around here they seem to make their cappucino’s with whipped cream, not just milk foam. Anyway, it hit the spot.

The riding had been pretty easy up to this point, but soon after our coffee stop, we headed into the hills. It was a long climb. The longest we’d done up to that point anyway. About 10K of something in the neighborhood of 5-8% grades up winding roads. Very pretty country. It wasn’t long before pretty much everyone was huffing a bit. The weather was warm and we were working up a sweat. While it was a long’ish climb, the grade really wasn’t that bad. Below is a shot of the fun winding roads we did.

Chris on the road to Tossa de Mar

Chris, our ride lead, provided a very consistent pace for us to fall in behind. I stuck to his wheel until maybe 8K into it and then started to fall behind a little. Celeste, who lives in Park City and rides at altitude, had little trouble. All in all though, the group has kept a very consistent pace, even on the hills. In my experience, that’s fairly rare on bike tours like this.

Once we crested the hill, the descent down the other side was fantastic. The grade was steeper on the other side: 14% toward the top, and the distance down to the sea shorter. Maybe 5-6K. What great views of the Meditteranean from up there though. We stopped at several points and took some photos. Back and forth through winding roads and pretty scenery. It’s very rugged, rocky country. Our descent T’d into a road that hugs the coast line. From there we headed south to Tossa de Mar. The coastal road is “undulating”. Meaning we still had several interesting climbs to get in to Tossa de Mar.

As we crested that last hill into Tossa de Mar, we stopped for a ‘photo op’:

Tossa de Mar

Sept may be the shoulder season for this area, but there are still a lot of tourists. We wound our way through the narrow streets full of shops and people just strolling around until we got down to our hotel next to the beach. We stayed at the Hotel Diana. You’ll see pictures here.

The group snagged a table on the patio inside to get room keys and some snacks. Everyone tried a little Sangria as well. That’s a light colored/bodied, chilled (iced) red wine with chunks of fruit in it. In this case, pears, apples and oranges. Refreshing. A couple people had beers. You see a lot of San Miguel and Estrella Damm – both Spanish.

My room was great. Simple and small but it had a great little deck with a couple of chairs and a great view of the sea. The bathroom had a very cool window beside the shower that let in a great breeze. You’ll see a picture here that I took one morning of the sunrise out that window.

I was starved and grabbed a quick snack of tomatoes & mozzarella. Tasty. Included a shot here.

I didn’t spend too much time down at the beach. It’s beautiful to look at, but I’m not much for swimming, but I did wander up and down it for a bit. The ‘sand’ is much coarser than it looks from a distance. More like tiny stones. Not entirely foot friendly – at least unless you spend a lot of time bare foot. Of course there were plenty of folks on the beach that seemed to like it just fine.

Later the group went to dinner at a place that our ride lead Chris had chosen. It’s a family run pizza joint a few blocks from the hotel. Wish I could remember the name. We had salads and pizza. Excellent stuff. Chris later took us on a walk around the area. Not for too long though. Most of us were pretty tired. There’s an old fortress at one end of the town up on a rock outcropping. We walked up there and looked out over another small beach on the other side. The sea was illuminated by the moon. It was a pretty spactacular view from up there. I took a picture of it, but it’s on the internal memory of my camera not the removable memory and I don’t have the cable.

Next up, option day…

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