Monday, 26 July 2010

Savoie faire-well

Let's just get one thing clear - going downhill on a bike isn't as easy as it sounds.

OK, so you don't have to pedal, power-to-weight ratio is really not an issue and it doesn't feel like every sinew in your body is about to splutter into uselessness. But it's an art nonetheless and takes a huge amount of dexterity, hand strength for the all-important braking and, above all, a flagrant disregard for what could happen.

Doesn't feel like much in a car on the open road, but hurtling down a mountainside at 40+ miles an hour on a bike along tightly bending roads is good enough for any speed-junkie.

So there you are. Blasting along the greatest descent in Europe surrounded by the stunning Savoie countryside. And you're looking at 100 yards of tarmac ahead of you the whole time. Knowing that a puncture or one lapse in concentration could see you rag-dolling along the road or careering off over the edge into the abyss. It's a situation where vision and line of sight is everything.

Hold that thought. Is it in there? Good.

Now imagine you're gunning it at more than 40 miles an hour along that twisty, turny road when, all of a sudden, someone turns out the lights and you're cycling blind. It's at this point the road gets rough and you need both hands on the bars to keep it upright. The buzz-saw of a million car exhausts is ringing in your ears. At odd intervals, you can just make out the whites of sad-eyed monsters creeping inexorably your way in a game of what is, for you anyway, suicidal chicken.

Welcome to my world in the tunnel before La Grave. I had been warned about it, but even my hopefully nightmarish description above doesn't do it justice. I have genuinely never been more scared on a bike than in the first few moments of the tunnel. There was no lighting to speak of, save a row of smogged-up bulbs overhead that were giving out about as much of a beam as a fading tea-light. I was doing a silly speed and the road began to bobble, so both hands were gripping the bars firmly, which probably didn't help.

Neither, I admit, did the sunglasses I was wearing, but I had no opportunity to remove them, so there they remained. A virtual blindfold I was unable to shed. I couldn't see the lines down the centre of the road. I couldn't see where the tunnel wall was. God knows what would have happened if the road had deviated from the gun-barrel straight. What seemed like years later, a dim light appeared at the end of the tunnel and I pedalled hard for it, hoping above hope it wasn't the light of an oncoming juggernaut.

Coming out of the tunnel was like being born again. I had been given life and it was precious. And I aimed to keep hold of it for a bit longer, so I pulled over and removed the offending sunglasses in preparation for the next few tunnels, which thankfully weren't as long.

Once through them, the road smoothed out and became a joy to ride on. It perhaps would have been even better without the freak, torrential 15-minute downpour that summoned up the road grease like a blackbird tapping up the morning worm.

A quick comfort break and banana stop at the bottom of the descent gave me the chance to stretch my legs and wait for Martin, which didn't take long. We hacked our way further along the valley past a glorious looking dammed lake and on towards Bourg d'Oisans, taking turns in a good, swift group that boosted our progress.

Up until we were stymied by my chain coming off after a routine gear change. Thanks, Shimano. No, really.

But it was all downhill to the bottom of the Alpe from there along nice, smooth roads. So determined was I to reach the timing mat before the cut-off point that I shouldered most of the burden of the headwind on the front of a long line of riders. But I felt strong enough to tow the rest and, as I'd been helped out earlier in the day, it seemed only fair.

The stop in Bourg d'Oisans was confusing, with plenty of people strewn around clearly going nowhere. Could they really be stopping now with just one more climb to go? Our water bottles filled, we made our way over the timing mat and pulled over out of the now searing heat in the shade afforded by a small hedge. Here, we topped up on gels and fruit bars in readiness for the final assault...

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...

Friday, 16 July 2010

Télégraphe road

Fortified by a couple of half bananas and a fruit bar, I hacked my way through a jungle of riders to the edge of the abyss - a 20-odd kilometre descent of the Glandon.

What goes up must come down. And down and down and down, judging by the road that sprung out down the mountainside before me like a deranged tarmac slinky.

The race organisers neutralised it - basically turned the timing chips off - so people would go down a bit more steadily. By all accounts, it can get quite hairy and certainly the top is what they call technical. Which means steep and twisty, as far as I can tell.

Martin had already fallen foul of it, puncturing as a result of an inner tube blow-out thanks to overheated rims caused by excessive braking. I tried to stop as I flew past at a daft lick, but it would have been dangerous to do so. Once off the tops, it really was a case of The Long And Winding Road. I lost count of the switchbacks and hairpins negotiated and was genuinely grateful when I saw the signs for St Etienne des Cuines, which signalled the end of the descent.

More fool me. What followed was possibly my worst time in cycling. Approaching 15 kilometres of main road in searing heat and a block headwind the size of Wales to boot. I did my level best to tag on to the end of groups, but they were all moving too quickly, so I wrestled the bike along by myself, feeling every inch like I was being blasted backwards.

I also began to feel the effects of too many energy drinks and bars, which were weighing heavily on the stomach. Cramps ensued, but thankfully respite was at hand in the form of a water stop replete with portaloos. You could say I outstayed my welcome there.

By the time I emerged, having taken an aeon to put my jersey back on, Martin had arrived, so we ploughed on to the base of the Col du Télégraphe in tandem. For the first few hundred yards, I exchanged pleasantries with a Dulwich Paragon rider, but felt stronger after the gel I'd ingested so span on ahead.

Known as being the easiest of the Cols, it lived up to its billing. But what a climb. Forested at the outset, the road snakes ever higher through thinning trees until you can look to your right and see just how high you've climbed from the plain below. An inspiring sight. Cresting the pass without stopping felt like an achievement by the time I got there. But I eagerly sought shade and a comfy seat on arrival.

Fatigue was beginning to set in now and Martin was certainly feeling the effects of little sleep, so we stopped for some time before hitting the descent - a nice 5 km drift down into Valloire. And you can relive that descent vicariously through the medium of internet video below.

Yes, yes, I know it looks slow, but that's just the video. Honest.

But I'd be forgiven for taking it easy over that stretch, as the gruesome Galibier was waiting in the wings...

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Glandon the run

A pitifully weak, nagging high-pitched bleep ushers in the big day with the kind of whimper I expect to be emitting by the end of it.

Muesli is eaten. Near tasteless pasta forced down. Coffee deals a gentle nudge to the ribs. Slowly, activity trumps torpor and we're waiting, bug-eyed, at the top of the Alpe.

From the off, Mark plunges down the mountain like a man on rails. I do my best to follow, but wimp out of some of the turns as I've much less confidence in the descent. But bravado or, more likely, fatigue from braking takes precedence and I match him on the lower slopes, reaching the bottom mere seconds after him and a good few minutes before the other two.

This means we start slightly ahead of Martin and Nick, but it's not long before they catch me and I hitch on to the back of the train they're in, heading for the first climb. These first few kilometres are tackled with unnerving ease, but this is shaken away by the sight of the first ramp up to the reservoir. It's a short hike, but it signals the beginning of a roller-coaster of mainly ups, with the odd down mixed in to keep it interesting.

Yet again, I save my first cereal bar for the bottom of a long climb, wheezing through the oats as I gasp in the air. My fellow Marmottees think I'm in serious trouble and I'm sure they wonder what I'm doing there. But I'm surprised at how easily I seem to be ascending, passing many competitors as I tap away at a fairly decent lick. Good old Westerham Hill has clearly served its purpose. But what's different is that this is like eight of them stacked up in a row, so by the time I crest the first false summit, I know I'm in a bit of a fight.

Luckily, there's a couple of kilometres' dip before the next climb, the bottom of which gives me the chance to shed the gilet. Unfortunately, halfway up the 12% ramp, my load lightens and I'm shouted at by passers-by. I've dropped the gilet, along with several energy bars, so I have to stop. Dismount. Walk jelly-legged downhill. Fold up the gilet and stow it properly. Then try to clip in on a steep gradient. I half pedal at least 100 yards before my left foot finally clips in, but the ire stoked by my stupidity sees me past the most severe slope and on to the steadier incline.

It's at this point I pass a man with one arm and one leg missing. He's cycling up the hill on an adapted bike with one pedal. I'm astounded and amazed. To enter the Marmotte is the reserve of the fairly daft or the braggadocio. But this is real drive and triumph over adversity stuff that puts my efforts into stunning context. I resolve to quit moaning and just get on with it.

And this perseverance is rewarded by incredible views over lakes, mountains, valleys and horizons. The Col du Glandon wheedles its way through daisy-strewn alpine meadows the like of which I haven't seen since Heidi was televised in the mid 1970s on children's television. The view keeps me going and I've practically forgotten the pain as I see the feed stop at the top.

I've conquered one alpine pass. Only two more remain before I scale the Alpe...

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The long dud Friday

Alpe d'Huez is like a Glastonbury Festival of cyclists. They are everywhere, crawling around the place in nervous anticipation with a combined £10 million worth of bikes beneath their legs in preparation for the big day.

Registration and preparation are the order of the day, but Martin and I, along with Mark who's in our apartment, want to get some hill miles in our legs to test the bikes out. We decide on the Col de Sarenne, a 7km pass that skirts around the edge of the 3320-metre Pic Blanc and out towards the Barrage du Chambon.

Once out of the confines of the paid-for roads, however, we discover it's more of a mountain bike route. Mark and I press on, but Martin heads back having seen enough poor road surfaces to know that punctures are never too far away.

The rough road plunges down into a gorge before rising up to its peak of 2,000 metres. It's dreadful, but I need the psychological boost of an alpine pass in my legs, so I graft up the 11% gradient till I reach the summit. Mark has gone beyond and down into the valley, but I stand at the top and drink in the fresh mountain air. It's fairly thin, but feels innately healthy. I see Mark sprinting back to the top up what looks a horrendously steep incline and decide he'll be in a different class come tomorrow's race.

We drift back and prepare to register, which takes none of us anywhere near as much time as we fear. The temperature is rising fast, so we seek solace indoors and watch the football. Given we're setting off to Bourg d'Oisans - where the race starts - at 6.30am, we take an early dinner of pasta at Smithy's Tavern while watching the Scottish Andy Murray lose to Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon.

Our evening is mercifully brief - we don't even see the end of the Uruguay v Ghana quarter final. A few hours' nervous sleep awaits before our longest day. I'm still totally unaware of how I'll handle the miles and the mountains and the tension is building. With luck, the nerves will be shaken off by a brisk descent from the Alpe in the morning.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The silence of the lambs

Six grown men and their bikes in a minibus head along the péage from Valence to Grenoble, chatting enthusiastically about cycling, the countryside and the weather.

The atmosphere is relaxed, jovial and polite. Names are exchanged; questions are put. Once the minibus has joined the queue of traffic through Grenoble, however, there is only quiet. Terrain has turned from rolling valley to sharp, sheer inclines and craggy ruggedness. We're in mountain country and those of us planning to cycle in it are silenced by the scale of them.

I have to remind everyone that we'll be riding over the passes that skirt and hug these huge rock formations rather than going straight over the top of them, but it's cutting no ice. These things are frightening. We are the lambs to the slaughter and we're rendered silent by the enormity of our fate.

That or we've run out of superlatives to describe our surroundings. Once we're out of Grenoble, it becomes simply breathtaking.

But by far the longest silence is saved for the first ramp of the Alpe d'Huez. Our guide, Craig, from Veloventoux warns anyone who hasn't been here before to close their eyes, though none of us do. A clay-grey wall rears up like a striking concrete cobra as we round the bend and I'm dumbstruck.

It snakes on for hundreds of metres before switching backwards and upwards again, spitting gradients of sickening venom as it slithers skywards. We've come less than a kilometre and I want to go home already.

There is little let up in the slope and our collective jaw rests snugly in our chest as we reach the peak. We must climb this after 100 gruelling, mostly uphill miles. It's the first time I genuinely believe I haven't done enough; that I'll fail.

More on the psychological struggle in the next instalment tomorrow...