Author Archives: BVarey

Mushroom Hunting in Paris

Not The Cruellest Month

According to T.S. Eliot, April is the cruellest month. 

Well, he may have been a great poet, but Eliot was a rotten meteorologist. 

A lot of nice things happen in April, at least where I live (France, and hence the northern hemisphere, when April is in the spring), and it has always seemed a very forward, uplifting time to me. 

If I had to nominate the most difficult month – and I still wouldn’t call it cruel – I would have said November. 

Compare the two: My Mom was born in April. Likewise VC, SD, JL, AM and many other of my friends. That is hardly meteorology. But still, so many nice people, what’s not to like? April, and the period surrounding it, is a time for hopeful anticipation, because it provides the transition from cold winter, through spring and into warm summer. 

November is the inversion of all that (although I do know some nice people who were born in November). It is too late for Indian Summer. Any colourful leaves have long since fallen. The clear, vibrant cold days of full-blown winter have not yet arrived. Any precipitation falls only as rain.

Around my house, nothing ever really dries out properly. The bathroom is chilly, the house, in general, difficult to heat. It is the month where the sun struggles most. When streams and rivers are most likely to overflow their banks.

For this and other reasons, I was feeling rebellious this November, and decided to take a quick break in Paris, a city I hadn’t visited in a very long time. 

To begin with, I resolved to remain light-on-my feet and book at short notice when the first period of four to five clear days was forecast. But as the month wore on – that November weather again — it was obvious those good days were unlikely to happen, and in a “to hell with it” moment late one Thursday afternoon, booked the whole thing, transport, hotel, kennel for the dog and all, and at 06:00 on the morning of the next day, was shaking the rain off my shoulders while standing in a train that was just pulling out of the station at Aime. I felt a bit like Bogie, in the train scene from Casablanca, but somehow in reverse. Unlike him, I wasn’t leaving Paris. That train would take me to it. 

And I wasn’t heartbroken.

To Paris. 

To the City of Light.



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On Saving the Planet and the True Calculus of Transportation

In October 2023, I finally took the plunge, and made one of my regular trips to the UK via train rather than plane. It was a first for me.  I wanted to help somehow save the planet.

Initially, it didn’t seem like such a good idea. 

By crude calculations, the train would take more time and be more expensive. A lot more expensive. The cheapest train tickets I could find were three times more costly than flights from Geneva to London. Saving the planet suddenly seemed like a rather costly proposition. And a flight would have me in London very early in the morning. The train could only get me there around midday. So how could I justify the train?

But my friend VC urged me to be logical and look at the door-to-door times, the true costs when you factor in parking, fuel, péage, stress, useful-as-opposed-to-wasted time, and so on. 

Despite her admonitions, it still seemed a losing proposition. But I did it anyway, for the first time in October, from home to London and back via local train and Eurostar. In November I did Paris by TGV.

And it was brilliant.

A planet worth saving?

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Tour des Stations 2023 – An Impressionistic Approach

The Marmotte

On the 5th of August 2023 I did another Marmotte, once again the Tour des Stations, based around Verbier, Switzerland, and was going to write it up.

But my cycling blog entries are all starting to sound alike (if even your friends won’t tell you, you have to tell yourself), so this time around I thought I’d do something different, drop the narrative arc, and just offer some impressions, some vignettes. All scrambled up. So…

A Scary Opportunity

The first descent:

It was cold on that first climb to the Col de Lien, I saw 4ºC on the bike computer. I passed the col and got a kilometre or two of descent under my belt, and for a while felt very alone, before a swarm of hornets passed: the best riders from the second pen had caught me up, and were leaving me behind.

At an intimidating speed.

But I saw the scary opportunity, and latched on to two riders. Their speed was well out of my comfort zone, but being in front, they proffered a kind of x-ray vision of the route ahead: as they disappeared around turns, I could sense from their braking, or lack of same, whether anything was coming up and if there was danger ahead, well before I could see it myself.

Descent to Sion

Perfect for a fast descent

You had to trust, you had to leap, but ohhh, was that leap fantastic.

It was the best cycling descent of my life.

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Réboussolé : Cycling Tour du Mont Blanc 2022

Why – What – Where – When

Why?

When you train many months for a big event, as I did for the Marmotte in July 2022, and then finally do it, although there may be a great sense of achievement — it all depends on how it went — there is inevitably a very flat period afterwards. 

You are what the French call déboussolé: “boussole” is the French word for compass (in the sense of that little magnetic direction-finder, not the pointy, hinged thing-gee you used to stab yourself with accidentally in math and drafting class). You’ve lost your compass, your sense of direction, as the thing you are aiming for is now behind you. There is nothing in front. You’re left with the question,

Compass

Compass – the painless kind

What next?

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Negatives Without Positives

The title of this piece sounds quite a bit more depressing than it actually is. 

I am not talking about situations with no upside, but simply words that are in common use and carry a negative prefix (“negatives”), but where their base – the word without the prefix, or the word with what is normally the opposite prefix (“positives”) – has fallen into disuse. As we shall see, the principle can be applied to suffices as well.

To borrow a term from zoology, the type species for Negatives Without Positives (NWPs) might be uncouth: you certainly can be uncouth, but you can’t be couth.

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It Doesn’t Get Easier, You Just Go Faster (So If It Feels Easier, You’re Not Going Faster)

I will explain the excessively long title towards the end of this piece. For now, straight into the detail.

In November 2021 I signed up for another big bike ride, the Marmotte Grandfondo Alpes. I did it in 2019 with BW and AS, my first-ever such big event. It is 175km with 5,000m of climb, and covers some of the classic Tour de France cols: The Glandon, Télégraphe, Galibier, and finishes with the Alpe d’Huez climb. Race date was 3 July, 2022.

This summer has had some great weather, and the same was predicted for the race weekend. Friday I dropped Mister Snagsby, the dog, off at the kennel and by 06:30 Saturday morning, I was on the road. I took an over-mountain route, traversing the Col de Madeleine and then over the Col du Glandon, which in fact covered part of the route of the Marmotte, albeit in the reverse direction. So I was able to reconnoiter, look for sharp turns and bad road surfaces.

It was only then it occurred to me that I’d missed a trick: if I had bought a can of spray paint on Friday, I could have stopped at strategic points and painted “Go, Brad, Go!” along the route for the next day’s event. Sort of self-encouragement. When you have a fanbase of one, and that one is you, you have to improvise…

The views from the two cols were stunning. From the Madeleine it is actually possible to see the Matterhorn, distant, but unmistakable.

View from the Col de la Madeleine, 2000m

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Fran Varey: Mom’s Life

Mom at 94

My Mom died on 26 August 2021. It fell to me to write the obituary, which, as a task, is at once both an honour and an impossibility. The reason for the former is obvious; the reason for the latter is that no words can capture and condense a person’s life.

Mom’s Life

Mom was born in Toronto and spent all her early life there. As a child, she was particularly close to her father, Ed Sproule, and it would appear it was from him she inherited her great love of walking. One of her earliest childhood memories was of him coming home each Friday, having been paid, and giving her some small coin so that she could go down to the shop and buy the fish and chips for dinner.

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Big Wrathful Drops

Marmotte Grand Fondo Valais 2021

I had spent some time in November 2020, looking for a new cycling event to try in 2021. But with covid, lots of events had been cancelled, and in the end, I settled on the Tour des Stations, the same event I had done the year before. It runs from le Chable, below Verbier in Switzerland, over the Col de Lein to Sion, and after several tough climbs (and treacherous descents), finishes in the Col du Croix above Verbier. 

Or so that was the plan.

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Marmotte Grand Fondo Valais 2020

I signed up for the Marmotte Grand Fondo Valais this year. It is a cycling event in the Valais canton of Switzerland, starting in le Chable, the village below Verbier, and finishing, 145km and 4,750m of climb later, in Verbier itself.

In the vineyards in early morning.

In the vineyards, morning

The day after, I wrote up my experience and sent it off to my closest friends.

It occurred to me it wouldn’t make a bad post, so it appears below. Capitalised two-letter pairs in the text (for example SD), are the initials of my close friends, so they know who they are when I am talking to them.

One additional comment: The Swiss organisation was fantastic. The Swiss welcome warm and inspiring.

Dear All

Despite the fact that hardly any sensible human being can be interested, I thought I would write up my big bike event this year, the Marmotte Grand Fondo Valais.

Here goes:

The route starts in le Chable, which is below the ski resort of Verbier, and after many cols and several different valleys, finishes in Verbier.

I had taken lodgings in Verbier itself, and drove there on the day before, the Friday. The drive was fantastic, over the Col du Petit Saint Bernard above Bourg Saint Maurice, then on to Aoste in Italy, over the Col du Grand Saint Bernard to tumble into Switzerland, on to Bourg Saint Pierre, le Chable, and Verbier. SG will know the Grand Saint Bernard monastery, from more than one Haute Route; SD Bourg Saint Pierre (“Bivouac Napoleon”?) from another.

The weather was brilliant, but intensely hot.

I got to the hotel early, scouted out Verbier, and descended to Martigny for bib collection. 1,700 people were to start, half the number anticipated before coronavirus. This was just the third year of this event. So the sales displays were rather limited, compared with Marmotte Alpes last year. A Specialised bike weighing in at 6.8kg (and SF12,000). Some power bars and sports drinks. A bit of cycling clothing. And (I did not fail to notice), a mobile bar where they were serving the local craft beer. The woman behind the bar was a young Swiss, and we got to talking. Places we’d visited, things we’d done. I mentioned I had worries I would not succeed the next day. She expressed confidence in me, so I said, “…afterwards, you can visit me in hospital”. She paused, and said, “No. Afterwards, I’ll give you a beer.” She had quite a bit of poise for someone who must have been about 22 years old.

I was in bed early and slept well, aiming for a 04:40 wake-up to get down to the pen in time for a 06:40 departure. But I was wide-awake at 04:00, so decided, “Why not?”, showered, ate and headed out.

The route down to le Chable was the first challenge. It was pitch dark, there being only the Moon and Venus (and my feeble LED) to light the way. By the time I arrived my “dossard”, the number you affix to the front of your bike for timing, had come away on one side, so I found a race director who had the wherewithal (okay, Duck Tape) to fix it. No time to even look at my watch, I got to the division point between pens, and someone looked at my number and directed me through a gate. I was very much in the back and too far away from the loud speaker to hear what was going on, then all of a sudden the group started to move. Surely too early? But the pressure to not ask questions and move was enormous, so off I set. 

After 5 minutes I knew straightaway I was in the wrong group. These guys headed off at speed. I should have noticed in the pen, because these people were nothing but sinew and muscle, veins and tendons. And 100 years younger than me. I had set off with the ultras (who would ride a mostly different route than me) 40 minutes early!

By then I was pretty sure I would be disqualified for cheating, but thought, in the end, I’m not trying to win this thing, just get round. If they disqualify me, so be it. I carry on. I’m doing this for me. So for the first hour, I was all on me Jack Jones, having been left for dead by the group who was trying to do 100km more than me that day.

The big difference was, they knew they could do their thing; I wasn’t so sure I could do mine….

Climbing

Climbing…

All by yourself, in the twilight, your mind wanders, and I was convinced, what with Swiss technology and precision, that some security vehicle would pull up in front of me, and they’d physically pull me from the race. For a (as I can now see, wholly unreasonable) large amount of time I feared I’d be accused of cheating while actually wearing the Canadian flag on my jersey. Shame…..

The very best rider of my proper group pipped me after an hour and 20,  just as we got to the top of the col de Lien, 800m of climb under our belts. Do the math: he was 40 minutes faster than me over the same distance.

The descent into the Sion Valley was humbling: all the very best riders in my proper group went zipping by like hornets; it is impossible, really, to stay out of the way of someone coming up behind you, at high speed, on a sinuous route, the first kilometre of which was on gravel. And even worse, when the surface was good, and they had more confidence.

On the way down, my bike started making a strange noise, like rubbing. It was in sync with the wheel turning, and so at first I thought it was just a brake pad touching a microscopically mis-aligned wheel. But it started to get worse, so I stopped and gave the rear wheel a spin by hand. Definitely rear-bearing. Second time in two weeks, as I had just had the bearings replaced. Given the smallness of the bearing and the largeness of the wheel, I reasoned it probably couldn’t seize completely, and so wouldn’t throw me, and — because I sure as hell wasn’t giving up then — I would ride to failure if need be.

I felt tremendously strong in the flat of the Sion valley, and had to rein myself in several times. 220W max on the flats was my strategy. Eventually, I noticed a curious thing: the rubbing — now grinding — noise, coming from the bearing, only happened when I was in the top gear of the front crank. I spent a lot of futile time wondering why that might be, and only later realised how stupid I was being.

The flat of Sion ended when we started the 1,000m climb to Mayens de Vernamiège. The climb profile was highly varied, and I soon started to worry about the steeper parts that lay ahead. I was aiming for 180W, max 190W on the climbs, and was very much having trouble not overshooting that pace on the lesser (8%-10%) slopes. I felt I was building up a big glycogen debt. What was to become of me when we hit sustained 10%-12%?

Ambiance was great. By this time, besides the fact that they had left me far behind, the ultra group were following a different route, and it was interesting to see the morphology – yes, the morphology — of the riders who were passing me change, as the elite riders in my group — all of whom I had a 40min head start on — passed me and the middling riders caught up. Finally, people started to look a bit like me!

A really fast 500m descent followed, and nerves came back into play. I had to lay on another 1,000m of mostly continuous climb, before the next big descent. The sudden change from descending to climbing started off really badly, and I pretty much came to the conclusion I had no hope of finishing. Two thirds of the overall climb yet to do, the temperature moved quickly from 16 to 30, and I struggled to find a pace that suited me.

And then, somehow, it did suit me.  After the Mayens there was a fast descent of 500m before the next continuous climb of 1,000m to Thyon. I settled in. The short climbing passages of 12-13% suddenly made the 10-11% bits pretty manageable. A fair trade. The 6-10% passages positively a holiday. Hey: I could do this. Maybe.

There was a longish-passage (1km?….  …. probably less) on the way up to Thyon that was a consistent 15%. It was debilitating, but not sure how, I stayed on the bike. I was worried that not walking it might have been foolish, a glycogen debt I would never repay. But when it finally ended, a couple of riders went by, saying that was the worst bit over. I countered with, “But there is another passage of 19%, and yet another of 20+%”. Thank god for the people who know what they are talking about. The reply: “Yeah, but they are only 100m long each, max…”.

Interlude:

The ambiance  was really great. The teams of people at the feeding stations were universally kind, encouraging and agreeable. The people at the side of the road shouted encouragement, and some sprayed us grateful riders with the garden hose, when temperatures hit 42.

In the heat

In the heat…

I finally had insight into my bearing problem; the fact that it only occurred when I was in my big crank was actually a proxy for speed. I’m only ever in that gear when I am descending fast. The crank gear was immaterial; the problem was speed, rpm of the wheel, and so heat related. The bearing would hold up, at least in the climbs. In the descents, I would just have to keep my fingers crossed….

I had the curious phenomenon of being passed many times by the same riders. Given that I passed very few people myself, I can only conclude my no-nonsense “eat-drink-say thank you-go” strategy at the feeding stations buys a lot of time. Or these races are populated by doppelgängers. 

I am a vocal (and probably fairly annoying) participant in these events. I shout out “bravo!” at the people who pass me. I offer encouragement to those I pass. I thank the people who man the feeding stations, and thank ever more loudly the guardians of intersections, who ensure that I pass through an intersection, in descent at high speed, without getting flattened by someone in a Fiat 500. This behaviour is curiously rare. My sense is that 80% of the people really appreciate this enthusiasm, and 20% hate it, no middle of the road. I’ll stick with the 80%….

Back to Riding:

After Thyon, there was a blistering uninterrupted 1,000m descent. It was gut-wrenching to lose all that altitude, only to know you had to add it all back on. In fact exactly, plus a further 175m.

By this time it was really hot, and quite a bit of me had had enough. I started to decompose. My hands began to cramp up on the descents due to braking. And then on the climb, it was like an anatomy lesson: different sets of muscles would check in with a brief, malicious cramp, a twinge to say “I can have you any time I want you. Why shouldn’t I? Look at what you’ve put me through….” 

A curious thing: although lots of different muscles were firing mini-cramps, they seemed to fire in pairs, and respect each others’ pairings   If my right vastus lateralis would twinge, the left one would go shortly afterwards; my right adductor magnus would obligingly wait until this couplet was over, before singing its own little song, soon to be replied to by the left. Why the hell did they seem to respect pairing? But they did….

Anyway somewhere in all of that I must have done the 19% passage without realising it. It must have been very short, because I stayed on my bike. But when the 20% passage loomed, it was so completely and obviously and utterly unachievable, that I got off my bike well before I fell off, and marched for 100 meters.

Some very well-meaning Swiss were at the top of this passage. They didn’t appear much like cyclists (SD, MD, AK, AM – More like the curly cigar brigade at the Mühle), but they were there to help riders get back in the saddle on what was still a very steep slope, and push. It can be difficult to restart. That was kind of them, but I declined, and very, very awkwardly managed to get rolling again, under my own steam. 

The last 5km were an eternity. I had cramps everywhere. Although nothing like as bad as the carnage on the Alpe d’Huez climb last year, the now-gravel road was littered with people having to take a pause. The heat was intense; glycogen in short supply. Although there were markers for how many km were left, I began to distrust them: that previous bit just seemed like so much more than 1km….

And then, all of a sudden, it topped out. Like the end of delirium. A victory arch, people, cars, bikes, tents, music. I could stop my legs from turning.

The thing was done.

Finishing

Finishing

I asked almost straightaway to see a race director, and explained that my false start in the morning was unintentional. I was wearing my Canadian jersey, and assured him I could never knowingly cheat with the Canadian flag on my heart. I doubt he particularly believed this part (although I do), and said it didn’t matter. The time I was credited with would simply be the duration between my depart time and my finish. Cheating couldn’t enter into it.

I thanked him, turned my back, and had a very brief tearful moment. Some of you will understand that.

They were controlling the descent to Verbier; I got the sense there must have been an accident in one of the previous two years. So about 50 of us were lead down by a security motorcycle. I had the agonising experience of passing my hotel — in descent — and thinking, “I’ve got to put the altitude back on, just to go to bed.”

At arrival, there was music (no Van Morrison), some trinkets and a finisher’s medal that looked a bit like it was designed for the Bee Gees.

And a portable bar serving the local craft beer. And the same woman.

“Remember me?”.   

“Oui, bien sur. I knew you you would do it.”

That was a very good beer she gave me.

*****

I don’t even need to re-read this to know that it is one of the most self-indulgent bits of writing I’ve done in a long time (and as BW and AS can attest, that is against some pretty stiff competition). 

But I am 63 now, and don’t know how many more Marmottes I have left in these legs. Said legs seem to be just as strong as always, but are somehow getting just a little bit shorter every year. 

But probably I’ll try again next year. 

And if I succeed, expect a report far worse than this….

Love to you all

Brad

On Fermi Calculations

Big Falling Fermi Confetti

Take a piece of standard paper. Rip it up, roughly, into an 8 by 8 grid, which will net you 64 pieces of over-sized confetti. Hold them in your cupped hands at chest height, and let them fall to the ground.

What can you learn from doing this? Well, for one thing, it can help you estimate the strength of Trinity, the first atom bomb test explosion.

No, really, it can.

But I’ve left out two things. You have to have been at the observing site at the time when Trinity was actually detonated. And you have to be Enrico Fermi.

Enrico Fermi 311x300

Enrico Fermi in front of a machine he invented for toasting bread.

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