The countdown is on. Next week I leave for the UK to pick up my bike that's living there, and once its oil and brake fluid are changed, its tires pumped up, its chain lubed, and it gets packed up, I'll be off for the continent, and a trip to the Alps.
Why the Alps? So many reasons that it's hard to know where to start, but I'll start with density. The Alps have been inhabited for millenia, and in that time thousands of villages and towns have been built, and those have been connected by roads. There are few places where so many beautiful villages with spectacular views are connected by so many challenging and fun roads. No other place that I've experienced. Yes, you can find great mountain passes and beautiful scenery in California. Yes, you can find even higher passes in the Colorado Rockies, and higher yet in the Himalaya. But if you want to ride all day, day after day, on new and spectacular roads, the Alps offer that up like nowhere else. That's without even going into food, culture, history, architecture, scenery, and the many other wonderful attributes of the Alps. For me, it's mainly about the riding, and the Alps have that in spades.
For the next few weeks (months?) most of my posts will have something to do with alpine riding, either in direct reference to roads we're riding or experiences we're having, or having to do with the riding skills one needs for having fun in the Alps. From my first trip to ride the Alps during the 2006 Centopassi, after every trip I've found that my riding has improved. Fast riding on high alpine roads serves as a crucible in which the flaws and impurities in one's riding technique get burned away. Why is that? While there are many roads in the Alps that are open and flowing and gorgeous, the really fun ones are high, narrow, frequently bumpy, technical, and very, very exposed.
The signature technical characteristic of high alpine roads is the switchback, or hairpin turn. This is a turn that passes through something close to a 180 degree direction change. Sometimes the radius of these turns is rather open, but other times - and Stelvio Pass comes to mind with its 60 hairpins - the radius of the turns approaches zero, meaning the surfaces to the two ramps of the switchback effectively touch as they pass one another. These turns require a rider to make a very tight turn in a very constricted area, often with other road users - cyclists, motorists, tour buses - sharing the same space as the turn is made. The skills necessary to do this require visual discipline, precise speed control and road positioning, and there are few places here in California that will introduce a riding to this kind of riding in anything like the frequency and intensity in which it's encountered in the Alps.
Stay tuned, because I'll be writing about how to ride these turns during my posts from the trip, particularly the variety that appears to be most challenging for many riders - the downhill, right hand, hairpin - in upcoming posts.