Appearing ahead of me on the climb as he slowly pedals the same road I’ve been riding for the past hour, he must have known I was coming for a while. With a friendly, welcoming smile and a glint in his eye, he asks, “Have you seen the green flash?”
The day had started out as normal: after our third coffee and second (maybe third?) croissant in the small town of La Chambre, nestled deep in the French Alps, the late summer sun had burned off just enough of the morning mist for thoughts of moving to solidify into action. Yesterday’s ride over the spectacular Cormet de Roselend and Col de la Madeleine is in our legs and we’re in no rush; it’s not a race. We know we have enough time to get to our destination, the town of Alpe d’Huez on the other side of the Col du Glandon.
There’s no timetable, no traffic to beat and no deadline to hit.
Like riding that perfect break on a surfboard, or carving through fresh powder on skis, riding a bicycle up in the high mountains brings that sense that this is what they were made for – that you’re in their spiritual home. Names of tour legends pass beneath the wheels, faded spray paint on the road from years past: Anquetil, Pantani, Induráin. Modern day heroes are marked too: Bardet, Dumoulin, Froome. You don’t get this on the flat tarmac of sprint finishes – it’s in the mountains that legends are made and their names live on.
It’s not about racing today, though.
The repetitive motion of pedalling quiets the senses, allowing the mind the space to roam. There are no thoughts beyond where I am, everyday worries receding to the back of my mind as I focus on the ride. By the end of the day, I’ll have found solutions to concerns I didn’t even know I had. My mind is miles away as I realise I’m alone, my two companions dropping off the pace a little. I’m reminiscing about the past, making plans for the future, experiencing the present, when in the distance I can see another cyclist. He is riding a little slower than I am, so I move out a little and sit alongside him. We ride together a while, our conversation the only sound other than cowbells and the occasional bubble of a stream as we pass over bridges.
“Have you ever seen the green flash?” he asks. My new companion explains the ‘green flash’ to me, a natural phenomenon that occurs just at the very first moment of sunrise as the uppermost edge of the sun emerges above the horizon. The moment when the sky briefly flashes green, when you realise you’re the first to see the light sent from 150 million kilometres away.
“You might see it tomorrow. You might not see it for 30 years,” he says as he takes the turn at a junction and I push on. “There’s no rush.”
I reach the summit and wait for the others. We descend, flying down the mountain road towards the valley far below. Topping speeds of 50km/h, with only 25mm of rubber between us and the hard tarmac, the mind is fully immersed in the ride, a different form of meditation. Reaching the bottom of the Alpe, we ride together to the town, the 21 hairpins taking us up to a well-deserved rest.
The post-ride beer tastes good today – we’ve earned it. Almost 3,000m of climbing, all under our own steam. The feeling of satisfaction in realising we can cross mountains purely through the propulsion of our own feet on the pedals is an intensely powerful experience. All we can hear around us is birdsong, all we can see is majestic granite peaks bathed in late afternoon sun. To realise you can ride up a hill for an hour and still be far, far beneath the highest summits puts perspective firmly in your lap.
We rise early the next morning to try to catch the green flash. The view from the balcony is nothing but mist, mountains and silence. But we’re too late, the sun has risen and the green flash was for someone else today. But out here it doesn’t matter, we’ve come to realise that. There’s always time, we’ll catch it one day. There’s no rush.
This article was written by John Sanderson, a regular contributor to our Journal.
Have we tickled that adventure bone? Take a look at our series of iconic climbs and get planning. As Eddy Merckx would tell you, “Ride as much or as little, as long or as short as you feel. But ride.”