A Lesson Learned: The Alpe d’Huez and the Col de Sarenne

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Me at Alpe d’Huez

One of the stages in this year’s (2013) Tour de France did several things that had never been done before.  First,  riders climbed the classic Alpe d’Huez twice in one day.  They accomplished this by doing something else that had not been tried in the Tour de France.  After the first climb of Alpe d’Huez they descended the Col de Sarenne, looped back around on the D1091 and rode to the finish at the top of Alpe d’Huez the second time.  The Col de Sarenne had never been ridden in the Tour before because it was thought the road was too narrow and too dangerous.

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The descent on the Col de Sarenne

Several years ago my wife and I had the chance to ride for five days in the French Alps.  Our plan was to ride as many of the climbs that are often used in the Tour de France as possible.  With that in mind we climbed and descended Les Deux Alpes, the Col du Lautaret, the Col du Galibier and, of course, the Alpe d’Huez on our first two days.

Like many cyclists, we had been dreaming of these climbs for a long time and were thrilled to have the opportunity to actually do them ourselves.  But after two days we discovered something unexpected.  We were a little bit bored and a little bit disappointed.  The climbs were difficult, but they were not all that difficult.  The roads, for the most part, were wide, well maintained, and filled with cyclists along with cars and trucks that respected cyclists.  The scenery on the climbs was a bit on the bland side.  Often the road getting to the climb (the D1091 in most of these cases) was gorgeous but the climbs themselves presented more or less generic alpine scenery.

View on Col de Sarenne

View on Col de Sarenne

We passed many other roads winding off into the mountains and began talking about alternative routes with people who lived in the area and with cyclists who were familiar with the local road network .  Almost every one of them recommended the Col de Sarenne.

We took their advice, abandoned our original plan, and rode the Col de Sarenne the first thing the next day.  It turned out to be exactly the right thing to do.  The Col de Sarenne is a spectacular climb and descent.  We found it to be markedly more difficult and immensely more interesting than Alpe d’Huez.  The climb was tough, the scenery was breathtaking, the descent was heart stopping.  We loved it.

For the rest of the trip we rode routes that were recommended to us by people who knew the area.  Every single route we took provided us with special cycling experiences ranging from wild and extraordinary scenery, to difficult and enjoyable climbs and descents, to a small, beautiful village at the end of a road deep into a gorge.

Laura at the beginning of the climb up the Col de Sarenne

Laura at the beginning of the climb up the Col de Sarenne

We learned an important lesson on this trip.  If you’re going to be doing some riding in an area with great cycling opportunities, talk to the people who live there and ask for their recommendations about where to ride.  They will certainly tell you about the famous or well-known rides but if you’re lucky they will also tell you about rides you’ve never heard of that may well end up providing your most cherished memories from the trip.

A New Strategy in the Tour de France?

Sagan wins stage 7 3Peter Sagan is a polarizing rider.  On the one hand his juvenile attempts to draw attention to himself with last year’s ridiculously self-conscious displays on the bike when he won a race and this year’s grabbing of the podium girl’s ass and his proud display of his “My cock + your pussey = good times”  t-shirt are an embarrassment to himself, his team and his sport.  On the other hand, he is an immensely talented and unique cyclist.  Sagan is a top-tier sprinter who often falls just a bit short of winning against sprinters like Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel (although he has and can beat either of them on occasion).  However, unlike any other top-tier sprinter in recent memory, Sagan can ride with the leading group over Cat 2, 3 and 4 climbs.

Sagan’s unique combination of sprinting and climbing abilities opens up the possibility of a very different approach to winning the points jerseys in the three grand tours.  Traditionally the sprinters competing for the points jerseys have relied on winning sprint stages behind strong lead out teams.  Sagan’s Cannondale team demonstrated an entirely different approach to locking down the points jersey in the 7th stage of this year’s
Tour-de-France-2013-Stage-7-profileTour de France on July 5th.  Stage 7 featured a Cat 2 climb about half way through the stage, a little more than 100 km from the finish.  Cannondale took the lead and drove the peloton with a hard pace over the climb.  Sagan could do it; Cavendish, Greipel and the other sprinters could not.  The sprinters fell about 2.5 minutes behind Sagan and the Cannondale-led peloton.  Their teams fell back to try and bring them back to the peloton after the climb, but Cannondale set a ferocious tempo and when 90 minutes of chasing did nothing to close the 2.5 minute gap, the sprinters gave up.  The result was that Sagan had no strong competition and he won both the intermediate sprint for 20 points and the stage for 35 more points while his competitors for the points jersey won nothing.

Cannondale may have demonstrated a unique approach to winning the points jersey that is perfectly tailored to the talents of their unique sprinter.  Compete in the sprint stages but don’t build your team for them.  Sagan is a talented enough sprinter to finish in the top 5 on most Cannondale 2sprint stages without the benefit of a strong lead-out team.  Build the team to do just what they did today; control the peloton and ride hard tempo on intermediate mountain stages.  Sagan loses a relatively small number of points to his competitors on the sprint stages  but he gains a massive point advantage on stages that feature any kind of categorized climb that is difficult enough to defeat the pure sprinters.

A team built along these lines with Sagan as the team leader is going to be very difficult to beat for the points jersey in any of the grand tours as long as the other sprinters can’t climb and come to these races with custom built lead-out teams.

Wiggins, Froome, Team Sky and the 2012 Tour de France

One of the saddest days of the summer: The Tour de France is over for another year.  Some in the media and in online commentaries have complained that this year’s tour was boring.  They tried to sell the idea that Team Sky was torn by internal competition between Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.  They claimed that Froome humiliated Wiggins by waiting for him on the final climb on the Peyragudes.  That’s not how it looked from here.

(Analyze, plan, test, evaluate, revise) iterate, train, execute.  Win.  That’s what Team Sky’s Tour de France looked like to me.  I thought it was brilliant. But more than that, I thought the entire Sky team carried out their Tour de France with integrity, dignity and class.

Bradley Wiggins showed himself to be everything you would want in a team and race leader.  He didn’t just ride for himself, he rode for his team.  When was the last time you saw the man in the yellow jersey at the front of the entire peloton going under the 1K flag on the final lap around the Champs-Elysees leading out his team’s sprinter?  Rather than ride safely in the peloton Wiggins performed the same service for Cavendish on Stage 18’s sprint finish the day before the final time trial that Wiggins needed to cement his overall victory.

When Cadel Evans (who was still in contention as one of Wiggins’ main rivals) flatted because some moron threw nails on the road on the Mur de Péguère, Wiggins tried to slow the peloton down so that Evans could catch up.

In his press comments Wiggins always praised his team.  While this is the standard response riders give to the press, Wiggins appeared to mean it, unlike some others who sound like they are reciting a memorized script.  Moreover, Wiggins appeared to be genuinely pleased on the road when his teammates did well.  While he showed triumphant emotion at the finish of the penultimate day’s time trial when he locked up the Tour victory, he never engaged in self-conscious displays of ego or self-aggrandizement. Compare Wiggins demeanor with Thomas Voeckler’s seemingly self-absorbed “Adore Me. Worship Me” freewheel to the line in his terrific Stage 16 victory, or Peter Sagan’s self-conscious what-victory-display-should-I-do-today-to-draw-attention-to-myself behavior during the first week of the Tour.

Wiggins’ behavior reflected that of his team.  After a foolish tweet by Chris Froome’s girlfriend, the media reacted like a bunch of hysterical little girls with their panties in a twist about internal division within Team Sky or about Sky sacrificing Froome for Wiggins.  Team Sky responded in a way that I wish more people and organizations would when the media creates ridiculous tempests in teapots.  They basically told the media they were being silly and then disengaged and ignored them.  The TV commentators’ indignant and self-righteous “We’re not making this up!” response was hilarious and seemed an apt demonstration of just how lame the media can be.

As for Froome, when asked about his role on the team, he appeared to answer honestly when he said he thought he had a chance to win the Tour, not taking that chance and possibly becoming the first British rider to win the Tour was a personal sacrifice, and it was a sacrifice he was going to make because he was there to ride for the team and the team was there to win the tour with Wiggins.  Of much more importance, he rode the truth of what he said.  Some interpreted his waiting for Wiggins on the Peyragudes as Froome humiliating Wiggins by showing the world that he was the stronger rider.  What I saw was a loyal rider supporting his team leader and doing exactly what he said he was there to do.  After watching him in this Tour de France, if I was putting together a professional cycling team I would take one Chris Froome over ten Frank Schlecks on the basis of personal demeanor and integrity alone.

I thought that throughout the 2012 Tour de France Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Team Sky behaved with irreproachable dignity, integrity and class. They gave professional cycling exactly what it needed after years of doping allegations and controversy. Brilliant.