The Alps, Windjammers and Etxeondo
The Alps, Windjammers and Etxeondo
It’s not a cycling club, it’s a community of like-minded people. The Amsterdam-based Windjammers have been riding together and organizing cycling camps since 2006. This year’s 2022 camp is special. 40 riders from many different places and backgrounds came together in the French Alps to tackle the mighty alpine cols and to see the Tour de France come in real life. Diversity in nationalities and cultures embody this camp’s composition; Americans, an Australian, Brits, a Dane, many Dutch, a French woman, an Irishman, a Welshman, and also two Basque riders. They found each other through the love for cycling and the communal spirit of the Windjammers. Together they ride and together they make memories.
The camp’s opening stage was a ride from Mountain hotel Saint Roch, 20 kilometers southwest from Briançon, the base camp for the week, and the group headed for the nearby Col du Granon (2413 meters elevation). It is this col where the Tour riders will have a summit finish two days later. Not a climb very well-known but don’t be mistaken, it’s a tough one. With the final 11 kilometers at an average gradient over 9% the Tour de France GC riders should be alert. Today’s riders were alert too; with many people coming from the Netherlands where hills are hard to find, this mountain was a rude awakening for some. The hors catégorie classification does not lie. Steep gradients and a scorching heat, that was acclimatization in full force. Some of the riders busted up the mountain to go for a good time, others were pacing themselves for the days to come. 40 people, 40 climbs, 40 stories; that’s the beauty of these group events, people compare notes on how they experienced the ride. The breathtaking views, the narrow windy road (how will that be when the Tour goes through?), the stinging flies halfway up the mountain, that last bit of shade under the mountain’s tree line, the many other riders also checking out the Granon, the paragliders going down at eye level, the names on the tarmac, the unzipped jersey to cool off, the tasty lunch at the summit organized by hotel hosts Anne and Simon, the group photo on top of the world, and the sensation of descending from the fresh mountain air into the valley’s furnace.
What makes a group a group? There is no membership nor a monthly fee, it is all about the willingness to put your best foot forward to make it pleasant for the group and to hand a helping hand when needed. A mechanical problem was fixed by the local Intersport repair shop, the impacted rider escorted by two others to keep him company. One of the American riders’ bikes went missing in transit on the flight over to Europe and thus one of the spare bikes was reset to his measurements; handy guys in the group, that’s how they fix it.
And then there is the kit. A team jersey ties the group together. An event logo adds personality. Yet it’s the fresh white socks that do the trick. There is this weird and fulfilling sensation of putting on a brand-new pair of socks on a big day out on the bike. Nick, one of the Windjammers veterans, commented on how they rolled with a group of five to the local Briançon ice cream shop Mastro Gelataio, all kitted out in the same gear and four of them even on the same bike. A team feeling accentuated by the team kit; it just makes the ice cream taste even better.
Another group went for a Briançon coffee stop before riding back to the hotel with a valley headwind and another 7k climb back up to the hotel. By now it was proper hot; the public water tap was happily used to not just to refill the bidons but also pour water over head, helmet and jersey. And then this was the ‘easy’opening day with 80k and 2000 elevation meters. Chef Anne prepared fresh ravioli as the post-ride dish, fuel for the body because tomorrow is another day. In 2011 the Windjammers also had a camp in the Alps, an edition marked by an emotional ride up the Col du Télégraphe with one of the early members, Holger Bismann, who suffered from cancer. It was his last-ever bike ride. Holger passed away later that fall and in 2012 a group of Windjammers friends rode from the Pyrenees to the Alps with Holger’s ashes; his ashes were spread on the Col du Télégraphe at the same spot where a year before his cycling friends collectively pushed Holger up the mountain. This week, 10 years later, the group goes back there and will have a moment of reflection.
And then the pros, the real deal. On Wednesday and Thursday the campers have the opportunity to see the pros go at it at the Tour de France; it will be a huge happening and well worth experiencing it. Just the sound of the tv helicopters will get the fans in the mood. And seeing the pros ride over the same roads at sometimes twice the speed as most mere mortals is both humbling and exhilarating. Cycling connects people like few other sports do, whether you’re an aspiring racer or a bon-vivant tourist rider. The group dynamics are special and the majestic mountains in the French Alps could not be a more beautiful décor. Yes, these long mountain climbs are hard, yet suffering is temporary, memories last a lifetime.