September 27, 2012


Our tour ended, perhaps not surprisingly, with a touch of chaos. Somehow, the post-ferry logistics for meeting up with our host (and our luggage) had been left to chance.

Standing at the curb in front of the passenger terminal in Marseille, our group watched our distracted host turn left half a block away ... never to return.

It took a couple of hours to sort things out. I had allowed myself more than five hours to catch my flight, and that turned out to be sufficient. The rest of the group, seasoned travelers all, had wisely booked flights for the following day. They were more concerned about my flight than I was. From my perspective, missing my flight would just present the next problem to solve.

The greater source of anxiety for me was not my seat on a plane; it was how to get my bicycle back home.

When you plan to fly with your bicycle, the airline advises that you contact them within 24 hours of booking your ticket, to let them know. I did not do that. I thought they just wanted me to pay the (exorbitant) bicycle fee, and there was plenty of time to give them my credit card number.

Waiting was my second mistake. My first mistake was booking a flight out of Marseille on a "regional jet."

When I did call the airline, the agent reviewed my itinerary and told me that the regional jet could not take a bicycle. Her response to every question I asked was the same: the jet could not take a bicycle. No, they could not put it on another plane, my luggage has to travel with me. [Except when they fail to transfer it to your connecting flight?] "What I am I supposed to do?" "The jet cannot take a bicycle," she repeated.

At that point, changing my flight would require a hefty change fee, plus the (higher) cost of the new ticket. To fly on a large jet, I would need to leave the following day; so, add the cost of a hotel room and food. Not to mention the 200€ fee for flying with a bicycle. Shipping it would actually be cheaper.

Before the trip, I had contacted After an uninterruptible lecture on why it would cost less to take the bike with me, I finally got a word in to explain my predicament. When I told them I needed to ship it from Marseille, they said they had no broker there and could not help me. (Their website lists France as one of the international destinations they service.)

I had better luck with, eventually. Via email, they confirmed that they could help me. Trying to set up the reservation was difficult, until I realized that I had to fall back on Internet Explorer; their forms do not work in safer browsers (i.e., Chrome, Firefox). had not been my first choice, after reading comments on the web that described their process: Your shipping labels would arrive via email shortly before your shipping date. That gave me pause: How would I find a place to print the documents, overseas?

This was a nail-biter almost to the last moment. Despite repeated, somewhat panicked, email messages to, they did not send my shipping documents before I boarded the ferry in Corsica. When the ferry docked the next morning, it was an immense relief to find the documents in my inbox.

Now, how would I print them?

When I reached the airport, I was lucky to be paired with a really nice taxi driver. I handed him the address for the Federal Express depot (near the airport, of course), and he agreed to wait for me, avec plaisir.

I threw myself on the mercy of FedEx. I held up my smartphone, displaying the image of the shipping label. The representative graciously had me forward the message to his email address (and printed them for me).

The next time I travel with a bicycle, I will take care to book myself on jumbo jets.

The next time I travel with a bicycle, I will call the airline within 24 hours after I book my reservation (when it might be changed without penalty).

The next time I travel with a bicycle, I will stay an extra day after a tour ends.

This trip had more than its share of rocky moments, but I still had a wonderful time.

September 26, 2012


There are so many beautiful places left to explore, but the time has come for us to leave Corsica for the mainland (and ultimately, to return home).

To catch the ferry in Ajaccio, the group was evenly divided between two routes. One group preferred to retrace the route that led us to Calzola; the other group relished the idea of seeing new terrain along the coast. The inland-route group was certain that the coastal route offered no less climbing. The coastal-route group shrugged.

I cast my lot with the coastal group. There, the rolling terrain would give me some downhills to compensate for my slow climbs. The inland route would start with a sustained climb; I would fall behind long before reaching the top, and the rest of my journey would be solo.

Ironically, as we wended our way toward the coast, we found the steepest climbs of our time on Corsica. "Ow," my legs protested.

The views, and the cheers, were worth the pain. Passing through small towns, we were greeted with:
Allez, allez, allez!
The locals are getting ready for next summer: For the first time in its history, Le Tour de France will visit Corsica, where the race will open with three stages. Banette will be an official supplier—as we all know, cyclists need their carbohydrates.

We stopped for lunch in Porticcio, my last chance to enjoy a savory galette, followed by a Nutella-choco crêpe. Here, we hoped to catch a small ferry to the harbor in Ajaccio—and thus avoid a trip on the unpleasant national road.

Alas, the ferry had shut down for the season. There was no alternative route. When the rest of the group headed straight onto the divided section of the highway, I hesitated. Now I understood the signs, and I understood the frontage road bypass. If they did not see me follow, would they worry?

I crossed my fingers, hoped for the best, and ... took the bypass. Imagine my surprise when I popped back onto the main route and saw the rest of the group ... behind me!

Despite some poor coordination, we found our leader (and our bike cases). The harbor at Ajaccio is a much less intimidating place than the port at Marseille.

We unclipped for the last time, having covered 40 miles and climbed some 2,285 feet. Now it was time to pull out the tools, to break down and pack our bicycles for the journey home.

Over the course of this adventure, I biked more than 550 miles and climbed nearly 43,000 feet. Yet, there is so much of this island that we did not see.

Corsica is a cycling paradise, as the world will soon discover when Le Tour arrives next July.

September 25, 2012


As we prepared to head off on our bicycles for the day, one of the other hotel guests was curious about our itinerary. Another rider was trying to explain where we had ridden yesterday. "A Aullène," I interjected. He raised his eyebrows and tilted his hand at a steep angle, acknowledging the climb. I smiled, "Oui."

The group was divided today. Rather than following our leader on an expedition to Grosseto, I opted for the mellow group that planned to stay local. We were eager to visit the prehistoric site of Filitosa, where evidence of human habitation dates back more than 8,000 years.

We turned left out of the inn, looking for a side road that we never found. Which meant, of course, some extra-credit climbing.

It was not hard to find Filitosa; the tour buses gave it away. That is one way to see a foreign land, and it beats sitting at home on the sofa. But there is so much that the pre-packaged bus riders will never experience.

Filitosa is a significant archaeological site, in private hands—embellished with a somewhat tourist-y feel. Nonetheless, it is impressive (and eerie) to amble over the same rocky fields and duck into the same rock shelters that provided cover for inhabitants during the Bronze Age. We learned about menhirs, and enjoyed the opportunity to examine the imposing, carved monoliths at close range.

Much to my surprise, I spotted a woman who had to be from the Bay Area—she was wearing a Beat the Clock bicycle jersey, which surely meant that we had a mutual friend. Was this the same woman I saw on the road yesterday, in an Alto Velo jersey? [Yes!] Chasing after my group, I was disappointed not to catch her yesterday. We chatted and posed for a picture together—which I promptly sent off to our astonished friend.

Not to be outdone, two of the other people in our little group met someone from their home town; many years ago, they had attended the same high school—a year apart.

Really, what are the odds?!

Porto Pollo is the nearest town, so we headed there for lunch before returning to the inn. For the day, we traveled a comfortable 23 miles, with 1,325 feet of climbing.

September 24, 2012


Our designated destination was Zonza, which we understood to be a prototypical Corsican town. The route, of course, headed uphill.

After the first 14.5 miles, we were only halfway to Zonza and had already climbed 3,200 feet. This did not bode well.

There were a couple of bail-out points along this route. We faced our first decision point after crossing the Col de St. Eustache. We could see a significant descent, followed by a climb to the next town.

What terrain would we face after that, if we continued to Zonza?

One rider favored turning back at this point, but we had ascended for miles on a road that was in poor condition—the rest of us had no wish to descend it. With a chance of rain in the forecast, there was anxiety about the weather. Clouds were rolling in, and the winds were strong on the far side of the pass.

We continued to Aullène, and then agreed to bail out. I suggested that we find lunch here, since it was already 13:00, but our leader promised we would have lunch at a nice restaurant. We conferred on the route and headed downhill: D69 to N196.

Once I lost my downhill advantage, a paceline formed. I hammered along at nearly 17 mph, but the group pulled away from me; I faced the headwind alone.

I reached an unexpected turning point—the intersection of D69 and D268. Proceeding straight onto D268 seemed like the right direction. To stay on D69, I would need to turn left. An arrow for D69 pointed to Sartène. An arrow for D268 pointed to ... Sartène. I did not want to head toward Sartène, which was clearly not along the direct route toward the coast.

At this intersection, it would have been nice for the group to wait for me. Or for one person to wait for me. That is what I would have done.

I pulled out my map and studied it. Carefully. Then I studied it some more. I chose to proceed straight onto D268, and found the group at a nondescript restaurant less than a mile later—at the intersection with N196.

We ordered our lunches at the same time; everyone had finished (pizza) before I was served (salad). Their impatience was palpable.

I released them. "I will find my way back," I told them. They offered that we start together, but what would be the point of that? I would fall behind immediately.

Biking on the national road was not fun, especially when I was adjacent to fast-moving traffic on uphill sections or contending with construction zones. I pulled off the road a few times, just to get a break from the traffic. I studied the map, looking for alternatives; there were none.

Sixty miles, 4,545 feet of climbing.

On the plus side, it didn't rain.

September 23, 2012

Porto Pollo

At the end of yesterday's ride, I was completely spent. After stashing my bike, I more or less collapsed in the hallway, next to my luggage, until I learned my room number. Two women (other guests) regarded me with some disdain as they passed.

I have certainly completed longer rides. I have completed rides that entailed more climbing. For some reason, Saturday's ride took a lot out of me.

I had absolutely no intention of riding the next day.

A good night's sleep made all the difference.

In earlier times, our inn had been a mill where they pressed olive oil. We were out in the countryside; the closest town was nine miles away.

Porto Pollo, and its beach, beckoned. It helped that the road to the coast followed the river, and was essentially flat.

We had the place nearly to ourselves, even though it was a warm weekend day. It is the off-season, and the locals must be busy with the routines of daily life. We found a spot of shade near some trees, floated and splashed and swam in the sea, and had a nice lunch at a beachfront café.

In other words, we enjoyed a relaxing day, one that would be typical for many a vacationing tourist along the Mediterranean. Except that our version required 18 miles of bicycling, with a whopping 250 feet of vertical ascent.

Tomorrow, we will return to our regular vacation routine.

September 22, 2012


To prepare for today's journey, I did my homework. I asked Google Maps for a route to our next hotel; although it was car-centric, it was also bikeable. Studying the map, the rest of the group had settled on the same route. There just aren't that many alternatives for getting from point A to point B on Corsica.

I studied my paper map and wrote out a primitive cue sheet. The signs at intersections consist of arrows labeled with the names of the nearest towns—not north/south/east/west. It is important to be familiar with the places you will see along the way.

For me, the low-stress approach would be to go it alone. I promised to call for help if I needed it. As I pedaled away, I overheard a veteran of these tours (no longer able to bike):
She is very courageous.
The road out of Porto started with a seven-mile climb; a Google Streetview car passed me here. Were the cameras rolling? Time will tell.

The road dipped back down to sea level, and then offered 20 miles of rolling hills along the coast before the next sustained climb (five miles). If the natural beauty of Les Calanche de Piana was not enough, we were distracted by the spectacle of an exotic car rally. Lots of those red cars (by Ferrari), one Ford GT, one Audi R8, some Aston Martins and Corvettes. And one vehicle that I recognized by the sound of its engine before it came into view, a Lamborghini Diablo.

After pedaling for more than three hours, I started eyeing cafés in the town of Sagone. I stopped at the third one, eager for the melon et jambon listed on their chalkboard.

Unfortunately, it was not yet noon. Apparently, the guys at the table out front were lingering after petit déjeuner. The proprietors would start serving lunch a midi, or vingt-deux minutes from now.

One does not toy with the rhythm of life in a small European town.

I could not afford the time to wait; I needed to find a place farther down the road after noon, or in the next town.

Instead of my cherished melon et jambon (12€), I found a reasonable pasta salad at the U Express supermarket for a mere 3.58€. In fact, this turned out to be the deal of the century: it was on sale, and rang up at a mere 1.79€. I stopped at a nice spot along the shoreline to enjoy my little picnic. After handing my camera to a French couple for a photo, they wished me bon appétit as they pulled away.

Navigating the outskirts of a major city was the significant challenge of this route. Riding on a national road was not bad in the countryside; getting past Ajaccio was another matter altogether. A matter of a divided highway.

I lacked the requisite knowledge to interpret the road signs. There were circular blue signs depicting bicycles and pedestrians. There were circular red, white, and black signs depicting bicycles and pedestrians. In the US, such a sign would carry a diagonal slash to indicate "prohibited."

I stopped. I studied my map. I needed to travel one kilometer on this portion of the road. Traffic was moving fast. There was no real shoulder, but there was some room to the right of a dashed line—not quite as wide as a standard bike lane.

I took a deep breath and started pedaling. The circular blue sign would have led me onto a peaceful frontage road. The bicycle sign with the red circle meant that bicycles were prohibited. The drivers must have thought I was insane. It was just one kilometer.

Soon, I turned onto D302—the quiet road that would take me straight to our hotel, near the hamlet of Calzola. This involved the final long climb of the day (8.5 miles). I crossed the narrow bridge over the river Tavola and turned into the inn's driveway.

I had climbed 6,235 feet over 72 miles, without a single wrong turn.

September 21, 2012

Ota Porto

Given the prospect of a long ride to our next town tomorrow, most of the group opted for a day off.

A day off the bike, that is.

In the morning, we would hike.

We returned to Ota, stopping for a close look at the Ponte Vecchiu—a bridge we had seen from the road above, yesterday.

We continued to the nearest trailhead for Tra Mare e Monti Nord, which passes into the spectacular Gorges de Spelunca. The steep, rocky trail was challenging, but why would anyone want to hurry, here?

We relaxed on the river bank at the Pont de Zaglia before retracing our steps. These stone bridges were built to serve a centuries-old route of significance—we were hiking through history.

Returning to Porto after lunch, I visited the local market to stock up for tomorrow's journey. It was also time to swap out my booted tire; my friends were concerned for my safety on the bike, and generously gave me the spare tire they had brought along. [Note to self: next time, bring a spare.]

There was even enough time for a quick cruise before dinner. It was immediately obvious that my limited vocabulary is devoid of nautical words, but the coastline needed no narration—especially in the long rays of the late afternoon sun.

September 20, 2012

Col de Vergio

Here's the thing about Corsica: The only place that is flat is the sea.

After yesterday's challenging journey, I was not convinced I would ride today. But then, what would I miss?

Our host pointed to a lake on the map; it seemed impossibly far away. "First we follow this white road, then we take this yellow road ..."

From sea level, there is nowhere to go but uphill. Take a glance at a topological map, and this will be abundantly clear.

We inundated the tiny local market in the town of Ota. Shortly thereafter, our group of eight began to shrink.

The first two riders were determined to turn back after we had climbed 2,000 feet. Methinks it can be a bad thing to have too much data.

We stopped for lunch in Évisa. I took one look at the enormous serving of pasta in front of me and pronounced it too much to eat.

I then proceeded to eat it. All of it.

Three more riders turned back. I got a short-lived head start on the remaining two (our host, and one of our most hard-core cyclists), and then settled into my own comfortable pace. We would all turn around at the summit; the distance to the lake was too great.

I was startled when a small wild boar scrambled out of the brush and ran across the road; they're fast! On the way down, I paused when I met a small group of them. Two youngsters were engaged in a circular romp in the middle of the road, while the adults foraged in the roadside grass. Like the wandering cows and sheep, they ignored me and I continued on my way.

After stopping to marvel at a spectacular gorge, I noticed a tour bus edge around a sharp bend on its way up the hill. The stretch of road between us was little more than a single lane wide, and I definitely did not want to be squeezed against the low stone wall at the edge of the gorge. I tucked into a wide spot and waited for the bus to pass. The driver was attentive and waved to me in appreciation.

With today's climb of 5,015 over 44 miles, I have climbed nearly 10,000 feet in two days. Evidently I am stronger than I thought.

September 19, 2012


As I was climbing out of St. Florent, a fighter jet swooshed overhead. That confirmed it—we did hear a sonic boom yesterday in Nonza!

I met the first raindrops twelve miles into the ride. I donned my rain jacket and did the only thing I could do: keep moving forward. I prefer not to ride in the rain, but today it was necessary.

When the rain became steady, I took shelter under a tree and pulled a shower cap over my helmet. As soon as I got back on the road, the cap slipped and flew off.

Water pooled in my shoes, as I had regrettably elected not to bring my shoe covers along. On the outskirts of L'Île-Rousse, I found an overhang for another break from the rain. I poured the water out of my shoes, squeezed what I could out of my socks, and ate the demi-baguette I had saved from breakfast.

Oddly, I did not feel miserable—cycling makes you wet, rain makes you wetter. If the weather injects "cold" into the equation, that adds up to a different result.

As the traffic in L'Île-Rousse inched along, I considered dismounting and walking on the sidewalk—it would have been faster. As I approached the far edge of town, traffic began to flow and I pulled aside to let the vehicles pass.

Then, just as I reached the end of town, I heard a voice ... the voice of a guardian angel, calling my name! Our host knew that I would call if I got into trouble; his wife was more pragmatic. She also knew to utter the magic words: that she had already sagged two of my friends forward. (No need for me to be stoic and ride the whole distance.) We loaded the bicycle into the car, and she boosted me forward 16 miles.

The Up Side: I was out of the rain for a while, and now ahead of the rest of the group.

The Down Side: I was transported forward along the flattest part of the route, through the only towns where I could have found lunch.

The rain let up, and I soon entered a wide, beautiful valley. The Corsican countryside is a very quiet place. Miles later, when I reached the summit of the pass, I paused for some photos. Just as I prepared to descend, the first riders from our group came around the bend.

Continuing ahead of them was a lucky move; a few miles down the road, the silence was suddenly broken. Pffft...BAM! Fortunately, I was not on a curve. Fortunately, I was not moving all that fast. I came safely to a stop; my front tire was flat. I edged it off the rim and started searching for the cause; my pit crew caught up to me in no time.
Did you find the hole?
Where's your tube?
Forget the pump, here's a CO2 cartridge.
The tube had poked through a slice in the tire and blown out; I had clipped a rock miles earlier but thought no harm had been done. I supplied a tire boot and we were soon on our way.

Opinions on the repair ran the gamut from "you need a new tire" to "looks completely rideable, don't worry about it." Now that we were heading downhill, I backed off on aggressive cornering, and speed. I lagged behind the group, but arrived in town to find them backtracking in search of our hotel.

For the day: 4900 ft of climbing and 69 miles (16 in the rain). No regrets about the additional 16 (rainy) miles I skipped.

September 18, 2012


For most of us, it was time for a day off the bike. We decided to return to the town of Nonza, which we had seen briefly on yesterday's journey up the coast.

We visited the historic Tower of Nonza and the church of Sainte-Julie before descending the ancient stone steps and rocky path to the beach. Deceived by the distance, we had expected to find a black sand beach. The town is perched on a cliff more than 300 feet above sea level; the beach is a wide expanse of smooth black stones.

The road traversing the hills was fresh in our minds from yesterday's ride; from the beach, it looked quite daunting. Yes, we climbed that! We celebrated with a picnic lunch and a dip in the Mediterranean, relishing the chance to relax.

Tomorrow morning we would move on from St. Florent to the town that would serve as our next home base; tonight there would be much plotting and planning. I had agreed to accept a ride forward (over the first climb), to avoid falling too far behind the rest of the group. During a quiet discussion at dinner, I recognized the need to abandon this plan. Although we now had two cars, only one carried bikes. Unlike some of my fellow riders, I was in good health—merely slow. The rack, and the cars, would already be full.

Our route would take us into the mountains, and the weather forecast showed a 20% chance of thundershowers.

A long, challenging day on the bicycle loomed large.

September 17, 2012


I could have asked our host to intervene with the hotel staff; instead, I asked Google Translate.
Le lavabo de ma chambre est bouché.
My accent must have been passable, for they not only understood me—they assumed I could understand them. I imagine they apologized, and context helped me recognize that they needed my room number. [Of course.] Luckily, it was a number I knew: onze. Best of all, when I returned to my room at the end of the day, my sink was no longer clogged!

The plan for today was to ride north along the west coast to Baragogna, cut across the island and ride south along the east coast to Santa Severa, then head back to the west coast to return to St. Florent.

Our group of riders was shrinking day by day; two guys were sick, one with a frighteningly severe case of (suspected) food poisoning that would ultimately require an antibiotic.

When we reached the town of Pino, we had already traveled 30 miles. The planned loop would add another 30. Reality set in for two of us: we were not up for a 90-mile day, without even factoring in the additional climbing this loop would entail. We declared victory over lunch and headed south. Would the other four riders get back in time for dinner at eight?

The rugged coastline reminded me of the views along our own Pacific Coast Highway, and I was more than content to gaze out at the Mediterranean for a couple of hours as I returned to St. Florent.

The roads are often narrow, with tight blind curves hugging the cliffs. As a rule, I found motorists had the skills to drive safely and were also courteous to cyclists. Twice, I heard a driver accelerating to pass me when I could see an oncoming car; in both cases, the driver understood and immediately backed off when I thrust out my left arm to hold him off.

Along the way, I stopped at a boulanger et patisserie for the treat I had earned by climbing some 4200 feet over 59 miles. Our four intrepid explorers climbed more than 7,000 feet over 93 miles, and they did make it back in time for dinner.

I made it back in time for two scoops of ice cream before dinner (praline and Nutella).

September 16, 2012

St. Florent

Shortly after dawn, the ferry docked at Bastia, on the northeastern shore of Corsica. Geared up for the day's ride, we pedaled off the ship and found breakfast at an open-air café on the edge of a park. Workers were busy setting up canopies for a sports festival; cycling did not seem to be represented.

We had ample time to reach our destination on the other side of the island, our hotel in St. Florent. Once we were on the route, I relaxed and slipped behind the group to enjoy the spectacular views. Armed with data (a paper map, and Google Maps on my GPS-savvy smartphone), I was not concerned about getting lost.

I caught up with the group at a roundabout, where they had stopped at a salon de thé. I chose a juicy pear galette, and surprised myself by requesting une serviette. With my pathetically limited vocabulary, how did I remember that word?

At this crossroads, the group was divided. Some wished to follow the planned route, along D62; others wanted to cut it short, following the more direct D82. One rider pointed authoritatively toward another road (D5), saying that was the way to follow the long route. A glance at the map showed a turn from D5 onto D62.

I exited the roundabout straight onto D62. Thinking I had mistakenly followed the "direct route" riders, I turned back and chose D5. I should have (but did not) study my map.

Merrily I rolled along, stopping to admire the distinctive 12th-century Église Saint-Michel in Murato (currently under restoration). Had I studied my map, I would have turned here to return to D62.

I did not study my map.

D5 followed the ridge line, heading ever-so-gently toward a summit. The wide vistas were stunning. I paused to let a small herd of shaggy sheep pass, as they headed for an opening in the fence along the road. The large and vocal males were in charge; the rest trotted dutifully along. Unlike me, they knew where they were going.

At the top, I found an elderly couple enjoying a picnic—complete with table and chairs. They were eager to offer me some water, and happily snapped a photo of me when I asked. They heralded the descent ahead; I replied that I loved descents.

The road on the other side of the summit was a bit steeper, and in poor condition; I descended cautiously. I passed a cluster of houses at a crossroads, continued along D5, and (finally) thought it might be a good idea to look at my map.

At this point, I was about seven miles off-course. And downhill, having summited at the Col de Bigorno.


I returned to the summit and retraced my path to Murato. On the climb, some passing motorcyclists saluted me with a thumbs-up. I was not concerned about being alone, or being lost; but I was concerned that the rest of the group would fret about my whereabouts, since I was now lagging more than an hour behind any expected arrival time.

According to my excellent IGN map (No. 175), I was looking for D162. Back at the church, I was convinced I was standing at the intersection—but there were no signs.

There was, however, a middle-aged French couple picnicking (you guessed it, with table and chairs) under a tree. "Bonjour, excusez-moi," I approached them. I pointed to the map, and to the various roads. "Ici?" They confirmed my hunch. "Merci, merci beaucoup!"

Having learned my lesson, at each subsequent intersection I studied the map for good measure. I rolled into St. Florent before anyone got seriously worried. My route covered about 52 miles, with some 4,720 feet of climbing.

A day to practice orienteering, to be forced to communicate in French (however primitively), to be self-reliant.

I am glad I got lost.

September 15, 2012


Our journey today would take us from the heart of Provence to the harbor in Marseille, where we would board the ship to ferry us to our next destination: Corsica.

For this there was a plan, and the plan was this: By the time we load the luggage into the trailer and get going, it will be 9:30 or 10:00. We will bike to Aix-en-Provence, where we will catch the train to Marseille. There is no reason to hurry; it is only 40 miles, and trains run all day. We can take four hours to get to Gare D'Aix-en-Provence. Pack a small bag for the overnight ferry; we will not have access to our luggage.

Plan? Was there a plan?

Suddenly, everyone rushes to load their luggage before breakfast. After scarfing down the usual croissants and yogurt, everyone rushes away from the table. Expecting to carry my small bag all day, I learn that it should go into the car. Now. The car is ready to leave. Away it goes, taking with it my passport, money, documents for the ferry. Anxiety is mounting.

Next we rush to get on the road, and we are on our way before 9:00—earlier than we leave on a normal day. The group takes off at a brisk pace; I am rolling at 16-17 mph and they are pulling away from me. We need to stay together; we are taking a fairly direct route to Aix-en-Provence, but it strings together a series of tiny roads and bike paths that are loaded into the lead rider's GPS.

I appreciate the anxiety about not missing our transit connections. But I am working so hard to keep up I can't even grab a sip of water.

I realize that I should probably give up the idea of future trips with this group. It is not fair to expect them to wait for me if I can't match their pace, and struggling to keep up is not fun for me. I wanted a cycling holiday, not a stage race.

On the narrow exit from a roundabout, the group heads onto an adjacent path. In my haste to follow, my front wheel catches the side of the low curb and I go down. Of course, the main impact hits the same spot that took the hit two weeks ago. The bandage on the still-raw spot on my right elbow (mostly) contains the bleeding from this fresh impact, and now I have a skinned knee.

A concerned motorist stops. "Ça va," I wave him off.

We make it to the train station in 3.5 hours. And I am really not happy.

Bored with sitting around after lunch but feeling too dejected to do any real exploring, I head off to La Poste for stamps.

Returning to the café, across the street from the train station, I find only two guys waiting for me. "Hurry, we have to catch the 14:30 train!" [It turns out they don't leave every half hour, and the next train will leave at 16:00.] But it's already 14:31?! "No, it arrives at 14:30, it leaves at 14:50."

We dash onto the train, then move forward to find the right car (with hooks to hang our bikes).

The ferry terminal is less than a mile from the train station in Marseille. Piece of cake?

Marseille is the second-largest city in France, and the harbor is a major international port. in the best of circumstances, this gritty neighborhood would not be a place for cyclists. At present, a long section of the road is torn up for construction, reducing access to one-way traffic.

We arrive at the specified gate; they direct us to continue down the road to a passenger terminal. With our bicycles, we are not foot passengers; they send us back to the original gate. And so it goes, a group of semi-frantic, non-French-speaking cyclists, bouncing from gate to gate and mixing it up with port traffic in search of the right gate to board our ferry.

At last, a kind security guard drives slowly ahead of us to lead us to the right place—which involves briefly entering (and immediately exiting) the freeway.

We arrive at the ferry with 1.5 hours to spare. The 16:00 train would have spelled doom. Everyone is completely stressed out.

The ferry is more like a cruise ship. We follow the motorcycles, riding our bicycles up the ramp. Locked together, a crew member ropes them to the wall.

We proceed to our cabins to shower and change our clothes for dinner.

In the morning, we will wake up in sight of Corsica.

September 14, 2012

Mont Ventoux

A few hardy souls in our group had tackled Mont Ventoux on Wednesday; although they escaped serious rain, they rode in the clouds and saw nothing at the summit.

If the rest of us were to ride this legendary climb, today was the day. After yesterday's winds in the valley, we were prepared to be denied. The wind speeds on Ventoux reportedly exceed 56 mph on 240 days of the year.

Our hosts delivered us to Bédoin; the pass was open. I settled in for a long ascent. It was not particularly windy ... at the bottom.

Some Dutch cyclists on mountain bikes gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up as they passed. There are always cyclists on this route, and I received plenty of encouragement from fellow riders, their support vehicles, and everyone else.
Allez, allez, allez!
Along the way, pedestals indicate the distance remaining to the summit and the average gradient over the next kilometer. "Reminiscent of gravestones," I thought, and then pushed that out of my mind. These road markers are common in France, absent the gradient details.

Taking a break in the last few kilometers, I was passed by an older Frenchman whose wife was leapfrogging him in their car. After my brief rest, I soon passed him effortlessly. Despite my limited vocabulary, I got the gist of his reaction: Not good for his morale!

I passed a weary couple who were walking their bikes. "Fini," they called out.

I paused by the memorial to Tom Simpson; 45 years later, people are still leaving mementos.

About one kilometer from the top, I rounded a bend and met the full force of the wind. On the barren upper mountain, it had been blowing steadily at 20+ mph, with gusts in excess of 50 mph. Here, I was blown to a complete stop. Stunned, I unclipped from my pedals and gripped the brakes to avoid sailing backward.

The only possible way forward was to walk, and that alone was a challenge. Approaching my French friend's car, I shook my head to express my amazement with the wind. "Col de Tempêtes," his wife explained, pointing to the sign on the stone wall.

After about a tenth of a mile, the mountain offered some shelter from the gale and I remounted the bicycle. The final few meters to the top are steep and chaotic: pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles moving in both directions along a narrow driveway. To be safe, I dismounted and walked up.

I expected to reach the summit in three hours; excluding breaks, I exceeded that by four minutes, penalized by walking into the wind. From our starting point, I recorded 13.3 miles and some 5,180 feet of climbing.

I descended with abundant care, reaching town in about 38 minutes. Tucked into an aggressively aerodynamic position on the bike, I was mightily buffeted by the gale near the top but managed to compensate for the wobble it induced.

The fastest pro rider has summited Le Géant de Provence in less than 56 minutes; that is, a mere 18 minutes longer than it took me to descend it. Just to keep things in perspective.