Day 7 The Alps
We woke in the beautiful town of Bourg. A town overshadowed by huge mountains and dominated by cycling. At 7:15am, the three "stragglers" rode off. I was leading as I had a Garmin GPS and was trying, in the half light, to follow the pink line on the screen. I failed. After two miles, we realised that we had set off in entirely the wrong direction and had to turn around and start again. By the time we were back at the start, the better riders (and there are many) had left and so we faced a long and lonely day in the hills.
As the gradient increased, the athleticism of my two companions showed and Roddy Spencer and Steve Fletcher moved more swiftly upwards than my colossal frame could manage. I turned the pedals slowly in my lightest gear and moved forwards; agonisingly slowly but forwards none the less. The sun rose over spectacular landscapes but I stared at the tarmac ahead and the data displayed on my cycling computer. My heart was still beating, I was moving, the gradient was increasing and my cadence was woefully low. Tunnels were cold, dark and disorientating and lorries rushing through them were scary. Gradually the gradient lessened and then turned into a descent. I changed up my gears and pedalled easier and faster. I was exhilarated after my first Alpine climb.
And then I realised something about underwriters and brokers. I had been told that we were doing a 20 mile climb at an average of 5% gradient. I had not been told that the average gradient consisted of some descents and so as I descended I was allowing the actual gradient after the drop to rise more swiftly than 5%, considerably more.
Hours passed. At a speed of less than 4mph, hours do pass. Suddenly I saw some of the "faster" riders perched outside a café enjoying a break. I carried on. I passed Roddy beset with a mechanical problem. I carried on. The faster riders passed me later but occasionally I would pass some resting ones as I carried on climbing until I saw the support vehicles surrounded by a group of riders. A camera was pointed at me and I struggled to zip up my jersey and failed.
A rest and food and a choice. An 8 mile detour up Galibier or on. I chose to go on as did a number of others. Roddy chose to go up and conquered one of the iconic Alpine climbs only a few days after discovering how gears worked and having botched a mechanical solution by disconnecting his rear break, a brave move before Alpine descents.
My first Alpine descent was horrible. I bottled it and came down clawing at the breaks.
Lunch at the bottom and then a gentle climb. Another 20 miles. Another road decorated with names of Tour legends. Heat was the problem as I plodded away. Others rode faster and then rested. I was keeping pace in my tortoise-like manner.
The climb up L'Isier took me around four hours. Heat and altitude took their toll. I left something of myself on that mountain but thankfully below the tree line.
Eventually the summit was reached. A huge feeling of achievement. A huge debt of gratitude to everyone who gave me support and help.
And then the descent. The most horrifying 20 miles of my life. I cannot even bear to describe it. Roddy did it without brakes.
The Alps continued.
I have never felt so tired as I did this morning. The morning routine. Shower, chamois crème, bib shorts and jersey. Cram food in. Pack, load bags, check bike, fill pockets, fill bottles and off early; earlier than the good riders.
The plan was for us to ride together. I was too slow and Steve and Roddy dashed off up the hill. Steve is the oldest member of the party. He is also a lot stronger than me. I was soon over taken by others as we climbed the Col de Var. A game plan had been adopted where other riders were taking breaks in order to keep in touch with my slowness and be around to support me. A beautiful, if long, climb through the ski resort and up to a wonderful summit and café break.
Another horrifying descent. I cannot do Alpine descents. Fear of roads which have nothing on one side and that descent through hairpins over voids means that I went slowly down burning rubber on my brakes with increasingly heated rims. A puncture; my first of the trip. I was really scared. I eventually, long after the others, reached the bottom and ate a quick lunch before the afternoon's entertainment.
Col de la Bonnette.
La Bonnette has only been used four times in the Tour de France and most of those in days when drug use abounded. It is too hard, especially from north to south. It is, at 2,802 metres, the highest mountain pass in Europe. The scenery, I am told is awesome but I did not see much of it. The gradient rose as high as 12%. With huge encouragement and support, I managed to lift the 17 and a half stone of my obesity to the top despite soaring heat and altitude issues, sheep wandering onto the road ringing their bells, German motor cyclists bombing up and down and classic car rallyists belching oil laden smoke behind them. I made it.
What goes up must come down and this was the scariest descent of them all. I held my brakes firmly in my hands and my hands went numb. I stopped frequently to revive them. Once when I was stopped in a lay by a peloton of very fast riders shot by followed by a support car. The car suddenly braked and then reversed 50 metres up the hill to where I was. The driver got out and said that he could not pass me without saying that my bicycle frame was the most beautiful frame in the world. It transpired that he had met Ben Serotta, the maker, recently in the States and believed that the Titanium Serotta Legend was the perfect frame. He saw mine and wanted me to know. I thnaked him and explained that I was a middle aged over weight cyclist who probably did not deserve such a wonderful object. And then I remembered. "But then again" I said "I have just climbed the Col de la Bonnette"."Exactly" he replied.
After the down a vicious four mile ascent at an average of 7% to the hotel and a weary but happy final night dinner.
Tomorrow, the ride to Nice and Monte Carlo.
Oh, and if you see him, please remember to ask Neo Combarro about how he managed to bunny hop a dog...
NOTE: We are doing this for charity so go to http://www.combatstress.org.uk/pages/cs_tv_advert.html
If youre interested, heres the route:
Port to Hotel