Monday, 9 August 2010

Huez wally?

Twenty-one switchbacks to go, as So Solid Crew may have rapped if they'd been into cycling at all. And been at the bottom of Alpe d'Huez, with its 21 hairpin bends that lead you to the top.

A wholly unlikely scenario, I'll grant you. But then if you'd asked me this time last year if I'd be bowling up the first of the Alpe's ramps after 100 miles in the genuine belief I could make it, I'd have blinked and inwardly questioned your sanity.

As it was, I began to question my own in the sapping, insistent heat. Climbing hills, and ipso facto mountains, on a bike is both physical toil and a huge mental test. Your legs are in pain and they're telling your brain to stop, get off and push. Your lungs tell you there is no more oxygen left and that you should stop, get off and push. The limbs you've bent over a bicycle all day complain like a clutch of bored teenagers on a trip to a church of interest in the picturesque Breton countryside with their parents. And they too advise you to stop.

Then your mind chips in. Why are you doing this? Can't you see this is damaging? Stop now while you can. Look. Other people have stopped. Some are walking. So can you. It's so much easier that way. You haven't got the strength. You haven't got the energy. You are not cut out for this. Stop. Get off. Push.

But a small part - one that's been honed over the last six months of training - blocks out the common sense and drives you ever forward. Marshals the lungs to gulp in air, chivvies the leg muscles to carry on contracting and expanding. Tells the limbs they're fine. Shouting down its larger, more insistent brother.

And it wins. We count down the hairpins as we climb. I had wanted to make a note of who each corner was named after, as each bears the name of a previous winner of a Tour de France stage that's finished at the top. But my mind was too busy telling me to stop or urging me on, so that just didn't happen.

At the village of La Garde, a saint had rigged up a curtain of water across the road to douse the baked as they ascended. We stopped at hairpin 11 to take on more energy gels and bars. Then again at turn seven where the water stop provided much-needed liquid and a soaking from a French army private armed with a hose.

By turn four, I needed to take on more energy, so stopped under the shade of a minute tree for the last energy gel I'd secreted away for just such an eventuality. The last few switchbacks barely registered as we neared the summit and I felt I could put in a sprint by the time we saw the roundabout before the finish.

And so, it was done. Sheer elation on crossing the line, followed by a healthy stretch and the polishing off of water. An obligatory photo at the finish line, then back to soak in a bath and head out for a celebratory beer or two.

More than a month later, I'm finally finishing the blog as well. Much has changed since I set out.

I have lost about a stone in weight, most of which is still off. I have a swanky bike that's way too good for me, but which I need to grow into. I've developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the hills around north Kent/south east London. I've used up an awful lot of brownie points that I'm keen to pay back. I'm considerably fitter and healthier. I've become quasi-addicted to quinoa and a dab hand at making flapjacks. I have no fear of any hill.

In practical terms, I've raised more than £1,500 for Macmillan Cancer Care and just over £100 for Coral Cay Conservation. That's thanks to some lovely and generous family and friends, without whom, etc. I am genuinely amazed to have raised so much, so a big thank to everyone who coughed up. If that wasn't you, I'm delighted to say you can still do so by visiting my Justgiving site.

And I did what's generally regarded as the hardest sportive in the world. I am, justifiably, proud of this.

I am also wondering what the next challenge will be. Would I do it again? I'm not sure. I'd like to post a competitive time, but I'm not sure I've earned the right to train that hard again.

Perhaps I'll leave it another year and see.


  1. Thanks for a really excellent blog of La Marmotte. Am setting my sights on it for 2011 and this gives me a great insight into the scale of the challenge as well as the majesty of it.
    Well done for completing it.

  2. Thanks, Simon. And good look with your effort. I'm considering going back next year too!