Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Better part of Valloire

And so the slog begins. Galibier is a beast of a climb that drags upwards through a valley for several miles before switching back and upwards into the clouds.

I first heard of the mountain pass quite late in life at a bar in Toulouse while watching Le Tour. The Frenchman describing the next day's stage just said 'Col du Galibier' with such emphasis on the middle syllable that I couldn't help but wonder at its legend.

Watching that stage, and subsequent Tours de France, only added to the mountain's mythology. It was the one part of the Marmotte that I was genuinely afraid of and the highest point too, at 2645 metres above sea level. I've been on planes flying lower than that. When I'd started out at St Michel de Maurienne just before the Télégraphe, I was more than 2 kilometres lower.

If anything, the trail up the valley broke me into it gently and I was surprised at how high I'd already come by the time I reached Plan Lachat, more or less the halfway point of the climb. But it was here I had to stop courtesy of a return of the troublesome stomach issues that had seen me stay at the previous water stop for so long. I got chatting to an Irish guy in a Livestrong shirt while in the queue and asked him whether he'd be doing it again next year. No way, he said, pointing at the ramp that seared up from Plan Lachat and formed the first part of the route up the Col after the stop.

After several minutes, I saw Martin grinding up the valley, so motioned him to stop. We filled the water bottles, stretched out and contemplated the task ahead while munching down energy bars and topping up the gels.

Once on the ramp, I found the going surprisingly manageable. Maybe it was the altitude, but the further I climbed, the lighter I felt. The scenery was growing ever more spectacular and unearthly. People have compared it to a moonscape and I'd tend to agree in some parts. Except the bits where torrents of melting ice were cascading down the roads.

Higher, further up and along the road I pedalled, feeling inexorably drawn to the feed stop that was waiting for us just one kilometre below the summit. I knew water, gel, food, energy drink and a few laughs would be there, so ploughed on past crawlers and walkers ever closer to the peak.

Snow was more prevalent the longer the climb went on and it was on the other side of a huge drift that I finally saw the Veloventoux van. I guzzled and glugged like a caveman possessed for a good few minutes before calming down a bit and admiring the view. I felt almost overwhelmed by what I saw. Both the distance, height and terrain I'd covered were genuinely awe-inspiring. It was at this point I felt confident I'd finish the race intact. And as if signalling my more relaxed outlook, several loud blasts of wind entertained the gathered flock and many of the passing cyclists too.

Following a quick stop for some obligatory snaps just after cresting the summit, we began the 40-kilometre descent I'd been looking forward to for some weeks...

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