The day following my mini-mutiny was to prove the most challenging, for me at least. Though I can’t recall the name of the town we rode to nor the route, if in fact I ever actually knew them, I can remember the day. Again we rolled out and stayed together for the first part of the route. After a sandwich for lunch, Alan, Kenji and Debbie (the other lead Chinese guide) made the wise decision of putting most of the group on a train. Debbie went with that group and the rest of us, with Hari following in the van, continued on. I had no idea how much further we had to ride nor where we were bound for. A strange situation for a guide to be in but that’s how it was. At a certain point we began to climb and continued upward for a long time. The road was beautiful, no traffic and a steady gradient. We kept a nice pace, these were the strongest riders of the group and it was becoming good fun. I was a bit surprised when we topped out that there wasn’t a pass but a high plateau instead. We continued pedaling, keeping a tempo as the terrain leveled off. We rode and rode, before long I received word that we were near the town where the others were arriving. Once in town we detoured to the station to greet the rest of our group as they climbed off the small regional train. I assumed, wrongly, that this must be where we were staying. I learned that from the station they would be taking a bus to the city where we would be for the night. So we got back on our bikes and continued onward. By then it was late afternoon, we were in more or less the middle of nowhere.Slowly other riders began climbing off and getting in the van as their strength waned and then finished. I marveled at the van’s ability to hold all of our stuff; the trailer was packed to bursting, bikes and luggage filling every square centimeter. Luckily the van had an ample rack on the roof and that’s where our abandoning riders had their bikes put. We soldiered on into the Swiss twilight, with me wondering where this hotel might be. At a certain point I rode up next to Alan and asked him how much further, “the next city” is all he said. We were really pushing it now, riding as fast as our group’s energy allowed us to. I noticed that even Kenji was looking concerned, it was the latest we’d been on the road thus far and darkness wasn’t far off. And then we saw it, in the distance, a city’s lights. But it still took us another 30 minutes of hard riding to reach it, by then evening darkness had enveloped us. Before getting to our hotel we had to negotiate this smallish city and found our way to a sort of extra-urban industrial/office park area, bristling with a forest of building cranes. Apparently the economic crisis is different here than in Italy, where much construction has come to a halt. We hurriedly unpacked everything and hustled to shower and change for dinner.
Back down in the lobby I learned that we were walking to dinner. Where, was all I could think, out here in the middle of black un-lit nowhere was there a restaurant for 30+ people? I soon found out, as we strolled 30 minutes to what must normally be a lunch spot for office workers, my stomach grumbling the entire way. Picking our way carefully back to our hotel in the semi-darkness, I could barely believe how tired I was. I fell into bed and was sound asleep in minutes, even Hari’s riotous snoring didn’t disturb me.
The next day was the final riding day, hallelujah. Our first stop was the UCI Headquarters in Aigle. I was curious to see this place having heard so much about it. Alan was a personal friend of former UCI president Pat McQuaid and still worked for the organization in their women’s development program. Over the years I’d heard plenty of stories from him regarding the workings of the UCI. Of course it took us the better part of the morning to reach the UCI center but it was well worth it. The building is structured around an impressive velodrome with the offices and everything else all tucked neatly in, surrounding it. There is even a nifty BMX track outside and of course, a major bike path rolls right past it.The upper part of the velodrome is a sort of museum, lined with posters recounting the story of professional racing through the decades. We took a long visit moving from one exhibit to the next, reading and photographing everything. A lone rider circled the track silently as we walked about. I should mention that it was a Sunday morning and we simply walked in, the only person present in the building besides the rider on the track was a woman working in the cafeteria. Just in case you were curious, all traces and references to a certain American rider whose initials are L.A. have been removed. Sort of reminded me of Lev Trotsky in the old USSR, once a hero of the revolution, by the time Stalin was in power his image had been removed from all official photographs. Though I’m not inferring any connections between what happened to LA and what happened to Trotsky. LA hasn’t had to flee in fear of his life and I doubt seriously if he’ll be assassinated in Mexico with an ice-axe the way Trotsky was.
It took longer than anticipated to get everyone out of the building and back on their bikes. Again we were starting the bulk of the ride near mid-day and we had to reach Chamonix that afternoon.The bike path running by the rear of the UCI building was great, what else would you expect? Unfortunately we set off in the wrong direction and only discovered the error about 10 km further on. Turning around we roared off heading south-west on the final stretch of the week’s adventure. Soon I was noticing a familiar grumbling coming from my stomach, it was well past 1:00 PM and we were more or less in the middle of nowhere. How was Alan going to save the day here? I had faith though, he had managed to find the most amazing lunch places the entire week. As we began approaching the hills that would eventually become mountains, I noticed a dearth of towns or villages. Alan blasted off the front in search of food, our outrider on a mission. Twenty long minutes later as we came around a curve we saw him motioning to us, “follow me” he yelled and rode off towards some nondescript buildings a few hundred meters away from the main road. Even my practiced eye would have glanced at this cluster of buildings without discerning any sign of a restaurant. Alan on the other hand had done it again, this time he had scored a pizzeria. Not only a pizzeria in the middle of nowhere, well past lunch time in Switzerland, but one equipped with a wood burning oven AND an Italian pizzaiolo. (The person making the pizzas) You’ll forgive me for not having any photos of this place. As we took our seats the wait for pizzas was short, they began to arrive pronto, already sliced. We didn’t have to await single pizzas this way but ate as they came, reaching in a grabbing a piece. The number of pizzas was impressive, I was awed that this guy would have had that many balls of dough ready to go and the oven at the right temperature to turn them out assembly line fashion. I felt like a new man after that lunch. This was food that my body knew and fully appreciated. I was now ready for the final act, the Col du Forclaz. Fate decreed however that the curtain would close with some drama and the mountains are the best place for drama on a bike. As we gradually climbed into this corner of the Alps the all too familiar sight of dark clouds was gathering above us. I was thankfully near the front of the group as some of the stronger riders, natural climbers, decided to have a go at the climb. My radio crackled in my ear, telling me it was my job to stay with the riders and meet the rest of the group at the top of Forclaz. Grazie! I wanted to yell. With any luck we would get there before the rain did. And with my cajoling and encouraging them, we did. Though we were caught in a violent rain/hail storm the last kilometer, rushing into the restuarant at the pass. The temperature dropped significantly in a matter of minutes, strong wind sending the rain almost sideways as thunder crashed. I felt a bit guilty about the rest of the group that I knew was being lashed by the storm, some of them with very little in the way of foul weather gear. I on the other hand had my Rapha vest as well as their rain jacket, please forgive this plug for their clothing but it really works excellently.
Of course it took forever before the entire group was on top. So long that the initial storm had passed and another one was moving in. Knowing that we had a long, cold descent awaiting us, I did my best to hustle people to prepare for it. Amazingly the two Chinese guides were relaxing, drinking coffee and chatting as we watched the dark clouds move closer. Alan and I insisted at this point, a full scale mutiny was forming. We convinced the weaker, older and the most tired riders to get in the van and got the rest of them rolling. I noticed Kenji and Debbie hurrying to pay their bill as we left, descending away from the pass. The cycling Gods smiled upon us that afternoon, the storm passed over us without unleashing its fury and our descent was almost rain free. Though the roads were still wet from the previous rainfall, drenching us to the bone. Still, no one went down, we got off the climb and onto flatter terrain and were closing in on Chamonix. Sure, we were wet, cold and totally wiped out but the final kilometers flew by without any issues. Once we reached the hotel we had to deal with getting everyone’s bike disassembled before dinner. The proverbial fire drill.
I went straight to bed after the goodbye dinner, too tired and needing some downtime to participate in the wild final evening. A long day of travel was in front of me the following day, by train no less. Alan needed the van for another week, they had a second group showing up late the next day, again in Zurich. I would have four days off before beginning a 10 day stint of guiding on home roads. That will be the next story.