At the end of June, myself along with a group of 5 other members headed off to France to cycle some of the iconic and extremely tough Alpine mountain passes, following in the tyre tracks of the famous "Tour de France" riders! This challenge was planned to include one of my best friends, Mark Porton, who was diagnosed with a rare and pernicious form of Leukaemia last July. When he was given the news that he was in remission, we planned the trip as a major goal for him to focus upon as he is a keen cyclist...however, at his first regular check, three months after being told me was in remission, Mark received the devastating news that the leukaemia had come straight back. He has been positive as always following this bad news, and we decided that we should still head out on the trip to show him some support! This is our story...
Well, seventeen hours after leaving Cheshire, we have landed in the picturesque village of Le Rivier d'Ornon. And what a spot. Very French, super narrow streets, river flowing at the bottom of the road, tiny village shop. We have definitely come to another world. Just a glance out the window and we can see fabulous rolling, green mountains, backed by the snowy, really high, rocky Alpine peaks.
A long drive later and some team bonding and now we are here. We have been planning the rest of the trip and the rides we can fit in the time available. Looks like we might be making an attempt on Alpe D'Huez tomorrow - hallowed ground, the most famous climb, the greatest cycling theatre of all. Just what we have all dreamed of all those months ago when we planned the trip........
Day 1 - a 'gentle' warm-up
Everyone agreed that for Day One we should take it easy because the consensus plan for Day Two was to tackle the mother of all sportive routes, La Marmotte (108 miles, 17,000 feet of ascent...... and yes we did agree to do this while in a pub).
So for the easy day the obvious thing to aim for was the most famous climb in the Alps, Alpe d'Huez itself! Crazy? Actually no. There was a logic in that we could tick it off while fresh in case we "failed" on Friday and couldn't ride a bike by Saturday.
This route has been on my "bucket list" for about 20 years. Not sure why it has taken me 20 years to get here (!) but perhaps the wait makes it more sweet. Following a bit of a ride down from the house, a warm up along the valley road and a visit to the tourist office to get our official timing chips we arrived at the bottom of the climb. As you can see from the photo the French have really made an effort.
We decided to take an "every man for himself" approach and ride individually - just after this sign, you turn slightly to the left and wham! It's gonna be this steep?!!
Suffice to say, within a few hundred yards, we'd pretty much split up and were riding in our own zone. I was surprised how steep it was, and it continued like this for 4km but it was never anything other than relentless. And I loved it!! A dream come true. Smell of burning car brakes coming down, cow bells, sounds of crickets in the grass, sweat in the eyes, amazing views - all senses in full effect.
Up and up and up we went. Ticking off the hairpins. Percentage signs painted on the road showing the rapid progress - Or not. Plug away, plug away, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes, 50 minutes. You seem streams of bikes coming down and loads of fellow sufferers on the way up. One even had the cheek to over take me!! Anyway, when you get in to the ski resort you have (obviously) nearly arrived. Unfortunately they are digging up all the roads and there are vicious edges to the unmade tarmac and diversions all over the place. Most of us went slightly off route, but eventually make the arrivee. I hope they finish the roads by the time the Tour arrives in three weeks.
We had a quick stop at a cafe, which had a very après ski vibe, but with Lyra instead of Goretex!
And so to the descent. Max speeds around 50mph - Mr Staker even made 38mph although his rims were glowing by the time we got to the bottom. Finally, we had the 5 mile ascent back up to the accommodation.
Not an easy day then, even though we "only" did 40 miles.
Good Morning Day 2
Nothing much to say for now other that it is now 6:30am, we've already had breakfast and we are heading off down to Bourg d'Oisans. We will be plodding up the Col de la Croix de Fer, climb one of La Marmotte, a mere 15 miles!
Weather forecast is ok, but very cold for the time of year. The top of the climbs will be down towards zero unfortunately, with loads of snow around on the Galibier. However, we were very lucky and had plenty of sun, despite the low temperatures.
After a few steady miles along the valley, we commenced the Col de la Croix de Fer - with the Galibier getting the day's headlines, it would be easy to underestimate this climb - don't!! It is absolutely massive. Not only is the ascent enormous, the distance enormous (15 miles), but there are a few descents too, losing hard-earned metres just when you didn't need to. Anyway, having closed in on Croix de Fer, we diverted off to the Col du Glandon to do the "official" Marmotte route. And then the descent! Wow.......
Next, the Col du Telegraph - special, tree-lined, beautiful, the endless Alpine hairpins soaring in to the sky above the valley floor. Stunning.
Following the summit of the Telegraph, down to Valloire and a 'regroupment', followed by coffee. JB thought he might give up (didn't). Donovan looked like was suffering but up for the challenge of the Galibier. Stein staggered in complaining of cramp.....
The Col du Galibier. Now we are talking. Nothing you can do in the UK can prepare you for the Galibier. It is an awesome place, a wild, open wilderness with the (very) occasional ski/rambler. No trees here. Barren. Rocks. Snow. An amphitheatre of suffering. How far can a road keep going up? Answer: a freaking long way. Nigh on 12 miles itself, coming straight after the 8 miles of the Telegraph. Talk about the Queen Stage. We agreed to go in groups for mutual encouragement.
In the early part of the climb there are quite a few miles of modest inclines and the distance ticks along nicely. This is a problem. As you go along it gets steeper and steeper and steeper. Oh yeah, throw in a load of snow to give you a chill, and, you guessed it, make it steeper. The last few k's go from 8%, to 9%, then finally ramps up in the snowy heavens at 11%. Fantastic!
The top. Dunno what the temperature was but it bloody freezing. We couldn't stay long as it was sooooo cold. 2,645m is really high - and given the general air temperature in the region, it was icy cold up there so we needed winter gloves and multiple layers on top to withstand the cold on the way down.
As I said, nothing in the UK can prepare you for the climb. Equally on the descent. How does 30 miles down hill grab you? Awesome doesn't do justice. Manchester to Liverpool is 34 miles, although there are no hairpins.
Unfortunately Mark, ultimately, had a bad day in the saddle and was the ONLY ONE who didn't do the Galibier -and after Alpe d'Huez the day before, successfully completing the Croix de Fer and the Telegraph, it's not exactly like he was slacking.
Starting up it ok, he eventually succumbed to the most terrible bout of cramp in his quadriceps. I know the feeling, it's horrendous. Suffice to say, Mark had to resort to Alex and the broom wagon. The record will show a DNF against his name but this should not in any way be seen as a poor performance. In years to come it will probably turn out that the rest of us were on EPO.
Day 3 - split pack
Following yesterday everyone is in various states of shattered-ness so there are several different plans, some of which involve riding bikes, some of which involve lying in bed.
I decided to join Alex and Mark and we were rolling back down the mountain by about 9:45am heading for the bottom of Alpe d'Huez and a route that went part way up, then along what sounded like a splendid, relatively flat balcony road. The weather was distinctly British (heavy drizzle, low cloud, around 7 degrees C) - not exactly what the doctor ordered but gave an "alternative" feel for what riding in the Alps can be like. We decided that following the dry, bright weather of the previous two days, we wouldn't grumble too much!
We rode up the steep, first few hairpins of the Alpe, then off to the right along a lovely country road, more reminiscent of the UK for a while as we climbed up on a single track road through the trees - the weather added to the UK feel. After a while more climbing, we rode up in to the clouds. Looking back through the mist, I couldn't help thinking, "Who's that? it's Roche, it's STEPHEN ROCHE!!!" In fact it was Mark and Alex.
What we expected to be relatively flat section turned out to be up hill for ages! We were greeted by some fantastic views of the valley at the top, where it stopped feeling like England!! A lovely descent followed and before we knew it we were at the dam at the bottom of the climb to Les Deux Alpes. Given that Alex had been as best described as "steady" so far, I thought it was very brave of him to accept the challenge to take on yet another alpine climb, this one being 5 miles up to the ski resort at 1,650m.
This road had the best surface of the climbs so far, silky smooth black tarmac from top to bottom. Anyway, we ground our way up and "some time later" topped out at the ski village. A quick stop for a pizza and an espresso.
Back on the bikes and the rain was teeming down for the descent on that silky tarmac. Despite the rain and cold it was still great, majorly enhanced by Mark's suggested diversion off on a minor road part way down. Wow. Best descent so far (other than Alpe d'Huex IMHO), brilliant.
Back in Bourg we were fortunate to spot the Tardis. The other guys had decided to have a run down the valley and go on a leisure drive. This was perfect timing for Alex as he was able to drop off his hire bike and get a lift back to the house after a tough 36 miles. Credit to Alex as over the three days he'd done some significant climbs considering that he hadn't had a chance to train to the level needed to scale these monster climbs.
Back at the foot of the Alpe, Mark and I had no other choice but to give it another go. In very different weather from Thursday, off we went again, riding together. Through the drizzle, then dense fog we ticked off the hairpins again. You can understand why they put bells on the cows - I could have done with putting one on Mark so I could find him in the mist.
1h 20m later we were back at the top and actually above the clouds! Down again, up to Col d'Ornon - 66 miles, job done.
Ok, ok, there was one other story. In the greatest next day recovery since Floyd Landis, Mark Stein found the inspiration from somewhere to get Mike and JB to drive him half way across the Alps to Valloire so he could conquer the 17kms of the Col du Galibier. Despite the horrendous cold and gloom way up in the mountains, Mark did a great ride and got his tick. En route there were very few other hardy souls, Mark's only company being the marmottes and a Spanish couple who suggested he drink a can of Coke when they rested near the Pantani memorial. This proved to have an almost miraculous effect and Mark flew up the rest of the climb. Thank you to Doctor Fuentes and his wife for supplying this wonderful "energy drink".
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