Monday, 20 June 2011

That Was The Week That Was...

That was the week that was…

Clearly, I’ve not been too good at updating this blog of late. It’s been almost a year since my last post, in fact. I’ve heard it said that bloggers should post regularly or not at all, but in this crazy rush of days I find Twitter a far less labour-intensive outlet for my fleeting thoughts. To be honest, I’m also finding the whole concept of blogging increasingly difficult to justify. It seems to imply that one’s diary is interesting enough to deserve a public audience. Judging by many blogs, this concept is woefully inaccurate.

That said, last week I took part in a cycling trip so epic, I feel it warrants the dusting-off of my blog, in the interests of posterity if nothing else. Les Veloistes Gentils – the LVGs for short – are a gentlemen’s club of bike nuts who congregate each summer to ride across some suitably epic mountains whilst raising money for various causes. Think of them as the Fireflies without the swanky Colnagos, although we’re working on that. The club has grown organically over the last four years, often via the social and business networks of my erstwhile line manager, a certain Mr Mark Pinsent, AKA Pinny, AKA @markpinsent, AKA @veloiste. Previous trips have included a relatively-flat London to Bordeaux and, last year, Geneva-Avignon via Alpe d’Huez and Ventoux. Which sounds like it was quite the opposite, frankly.

My only previous experience of the club, save for some Xmas social drinks, was a snatched weekend in the Pyrenees last October, where we managed to tick Tour de France regulars the Soulor, Aubisque, Aspin and the iconic Tourmalet across 48 rather hardcore hours. The other three guys also managed to conquer the Hautacam, whereas I was sick in a hedge halfway up and retreated to the sag wagon, ably driven by LVG stalwart and all-round knight of the road Howie.

The 2011 LVG route was their most ambitious ever, again starting from Geneva but this time aiming for Antibes on the Cote d’Azur. Geographers amongst you will notice there are a few Alps in the way between these two towns. More than a few, in fact. The route Pinny devised suggested some 612km across the ground (380 miles in old money) and a frankly ludicrous ascent equivalent of cycling up Everest. Twice. Not most people’s idea of a holiday, admittedly, but then we’re not talking about most people. We’re talking about LVGs.

The week began at a hotel that can best be described as functional, close to Geneva airport. The bikes had already been very kindly carted under the Channel by Matt and Jon, two of our number. All we had to do was drink probably a little more than is advisable the night before an epic ride, reassemble our (t)rusty steeds, collect our racy new team strip (c/o Gabbi's design skills) and try to get heads down for a decent night’s sleep. Not easy with all that adventure in prospect. The fact we also appeared to be sharing our hotel with members of the Omega Pharma-Lotto pro team, perhaps heading home from the Dauphine Libere race, only added to the sense of excitement. Naturally, game recognises game and they wished us well for our own endeavours. At least, I think that’s what they were saying, but I don’t speak Flemish. All I do know is that they looked ludicrously young and skinny. Riding a bike for money is not an easy game.

I’m writing this blog as much for my own recollection as anything else. One day, I will look back and marvel that I was ever stupid enough to take on such a challenge. In the meantime, my thoughts are below. Enjoy. Or not, as the case may be.

(127 km/2,610m ascent)

Day one saw us roll out of Geneva early, bound for the ski resort of Crest Voland just beyond Megève. In our way lay the first major col of the trip – the 1,613m Col de le Colombière, traditional gateway into the high mountains - a regular fixture on the Tour de France (20 appearances to date) and a climb of two halves, steepening to 10% for the final km. 

Pausing by Lake Geneva for the traditional before/after group shot, we headed south across the French border and into the hills, pausing en route for the obligatory espresso. I can’t remember a huge amount about the Colombière, except that the first big climb of a trip is always a killer, not helped when I managed to inadvertently jump half the peloton, who had kindly paused to wait for me halfway up the climb in Le Grand Bornand. Cue widespread lack of amusement when they cycled up behind me at some roadworks an hour or so later. Oops. Of course, I had taken the classic route and they had clearly cut the corner. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The rest of the climb – 11.7km at an average grade of 5.9% - was tough enough but went largely without incident and, summit photo duly despatched, before long we were speeding down the other side of the col towards the upmarket ski town of Megève, where Parisian high society decamps in winter. The climb up to Megève was a bit of a sickener, if I’m honest – not a proper col by any means but thick with traffic, poorly-surfaced and bereft of inspiring views. Arriving into Megève, the heavens opened and it was time to don waterproofs – a rare event, as it would turn out. The final climb to our overnight stop in the pretty ski hamlet of Crest Voland was a real sting in the tail, our charming little chalet hotel being reached via a series of what felt like 10% switchbacks. Chugging down the first of many recovery shakes, we settled on the sun deck to contemplate the day’s events and the monster that lay ahead the following day. Plenty of calories would be required and plenty of calories is exactly what we got, in the form of rather phallic Alpine sausages and mountains of those spaetzle noodles of which are Germanic cousins are so fond.

Replete with food, we retired to the bar for the first episode of another important LVG tradition – the nightly vote. Central to LVG iconography is a small Alpine cowbell, the type that race spectators ring during big mountain stages. Each night, all riders would nominate someone to carry the bell, hung below their saddle, for the whole of the following day. Crimes can range from something as seemingly innocuous as having dodgy mechanicals to more serious, nay treacherous crimes like lack of sportsmanship and mislaying team kit. More of this later. All joking aside, the whole bell thing is actually a great way to let off steam about petty issues, avoiding any more serious needle, which come in useful when 15 blokes are sharing one small van, various cosy little hostels and, oh, most of the mountain roads of the Western Alps.

Importantly, carrying the bell is a blessing as well as a curse.  LVGs speak in hushed tones about its mythical, performance-enhancing properties.  Forged in the fiery bowels of Mont Veloiste, one bell to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.  More of this later. 

And so to bed, for tomorrow would be an epic of, erm, epic proportions.

(169 km/2,692m ascent)

“Haven’t they got wings, our men who have been able to climb up to heights where even eagles don’t fly? … Oh Sappey, Oh Laffrey, Oh Col Bayard, Oh Tourmalet! I shall not fail in my duty to proclaim to the world that you are like an insignificant and common beer compared to the Galibier: all one can do before this giant is doff one’s hat and bow.”

(Henri Desgrange, L'Auto, 1911)

The day of days. We already knew day two would be the toughest of the trip, involving as it did a century ride over the Col du Télégraphe and its big brother, the infamous Galibier. What we didn’t suspect was that, by the end of the day, one of our gallant number would fall prey to one of the Alps’ most vicious predators. More of this later.

The day began with a lovely, cruisy descent through pine forests and waterfall galleries before heading into Albertville, host town for the ’92 Winter Olympics, on one of those billiard-smooth cycle paths the French do so well. The next section comprised a bit of a slog up a rather industrialised valley, passing quarries and a Rio Tinto Alcan bauxite mine, pausing in St. Jean-de-Maurienne for lunch, served as ever from the back of Howie’s van. Fortified by baguettes, cheese and chocolate in various proportions, we headed up the Télégraphe. Fronting-up at 11.8km and a tidy average slope of 7.8%, in any other range this climb would be pretty significant in its own right. Here, in the throne room of the mountain gods, it represents a mere amuse bouche before the even more serious business begins. Extra excitement was added by a whole load of resurfacing work happening in preparation for this year’s TdeF. One near-death experience with a black Peugeot – I KNEW those French swear words would come in handy one day – and a whole lot of molten-bitumen-and-gravel-stuck-to-tyres later, we made it to the top of the warm-up climb.

It’s a cruel bugger, the Galibier. Whether approached from the north (via the Télégraphe) or south (via the Lautaret), it requires a stiff preliminary climb before a load of hard-earned ascent is wiped out by downhill sections and the fun/horror really starts. Either way, the Galibier needs little introduction – from the north side, 18.1km at an average of 6.9% for a total ascent of 1,245m. Snowdon is 1085m high, by way of comparison. Again, I don’t remember a huge amount about the climb. I find that the mind shuts down during times of intense physical stress and prioritises muscle over memory. What I do remember is that the Galibier is not a climb of different chapters, unlike the Tourmalet. Most of it is already above the treeline, there are few chalets to break the monotony, none of the scenic drama of the Izoard for example, just hairpin lancets and steep ramps that keep on coming, relentlessly. Often the highest point on the Tour’s itinerary, its slopes littered with the mythology of bike racing.

I wasn’t massively confident of making it to the top under my own steam, if I’m honest, even having conquered the Tourmalet last year. I had to stop at the van a couple of times to refill bidons, stuff more calories down my gob and generally quell the screams of protests from my quads. Eventually, at snail-like pace, I made the col, where the other LVGs had were waiting in typically gentlemanly fashion, despite the chill breeze and rather surreal backdrop of fat German bikers and tourists in old Mercs. The high-point of the tour had been reached and it was with some relief that, after salvaging my lid from the van after a fashion, I set off on the long descent towards Briançon.

I have never been the most confident descender, to put it mildly. And these are not roads to be trifled with, rock walls vying with sheer precipices for the role of assassin. At least French roads are generally far smoother than our potholed UK versions, but unless one has mastered that ‘brains off-brakes off’ mentality of the best fell-runners, frankly some of these Alpine descents are pant-moisteningly scary. The Lautaret in particular has something of a reputation as a goat track, having been visited by the LVGs on last year’s ride, when snowfall had closed the Galibier.
Imagine my horror, then, when I rounded a hairpin to find the van stopped in the middle of the road and one of our number, Marc ‘Cap’n Jack’ Sparrow in obvious pain by the side of the road, his bike upended in a ditch. Managing to get him into the van, despite his clear discomfort, the fact he couldn’t even lift my painkiller tablets into his own mouth was worrying. Looked like a broken collarbone, classic over-the-handlebars job. Although it wasn’t funny at the time, the fact Marc’s crash had been caused by a marmot running under his front wheel did lend the whole event a somewhat surreal air. Only later did we learn that this is a known problem on the slopes of the Galibier, apparently accounting for a number of motorcyclist deaths each year. We’d all seen marmots frolicking across the slopes but who knew they were secret killers. Whilst Howie sped down the Lautaret towards Briançon hospital, Tom ‘Bezza’ Berry and I were left to pick our way down the mountain, thanking lucky stars that at least Cap’n Jack had not been catapulted off the other, precipitous, side of the road, quite possibly to his doom.

In other circumstances, the long descent through the ski resorts of Serre Chevalier would have been unalloyed pleasure. As it was, after a long old day on the hill and lagging well behind the main group by now, they felt like a bit of a slog. Eventually, Bezza and I rolled into Briançon, where news of Marc’s rather unfunny comedy accident had already spread. On the plus side, the hospital had already patched him up. As suspected, it was a broken collarbone and his active participation in the tour was sadly at an end. To his huge credit, though – he was commendably philosophical about the whole thing, electing not to hot-foot it straight to the coast for recuperation but to stay as Howie’s navigator for the remaining days. The whole ‘chapeau!’ thing is overused these days, but was certainly justified here, even if he will probably be hearing marmot jokes for the rest of his life.

With the Sparrow safely back in the nest, a few beers were administered and again I failed to claim the bell vote. Disappointing, as with my relatively weak fitness levels and general talent for cock-ups I’d expected to have it permanently welded to my bike for the week. My time was coming, though, oh yes.  I could feel it.

(107km/2,950m ascent)

“Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.”

(Mark Twain – Taming the Bicycle)

It had not been a good night. Outside the hotel, a shrill car alarm shrieked at 10 minute intervals, well into the wee small hours. Why do all sirens sound different in France? Do they have different ears to us Brits? Inside the stuffy rooms, sleep was at a premium. Briançon, it turns out, is the highest city in the EU at 1,326m. A situation that makes it ideal for Alpine touring but not so great for decent kip. Ditto cheap hotel beds, stuffy rooms and those rubbish, sausage-like pillows. Someone had to help Sparrow get dressed. Marmot comedy aside, broken clavicles are no fun.

Not to worry. After the previous day’s Queen Stage, surely we had a rest day to look forward to? You know – lie-in, lazy brekkie, chance to catch some rays on the terrace, tour the old town, visit Vauban’s citadel, right? Wrong. We had places to go, people to see and more Alpine dragons to slay. Recovery days are for wimps. Apply a liberal coating of rule #5 and harden the fuck up, Jennings. Especially as the day’s first big climb, the storied Col d’Izoard, literally kicks-up right out of downtown Briançon. No rest for the wicked.

Tackled from the Briançon (northern) side, the Izoard requires a 20km climb at average grade of 5.7% for total ascent of 1,141m. Topping out at 2,361m, it is no pushover. Fortunately, the Izoard is everything the Galibier is not. A great Alpine col in its own right, replete with its own folklore, but a far more palatable prospect than its rather forbidding cousin up the valley. The Izoard rewards the cyclist with changing scenery, an amazing summit moonscape called the Casse Deserte and a memorial to the great Fausto Coppi and his sparring partner Louison Bobet. The Galibier has a car park. Oh, and a road tunnel. If the Izoard is the good-time girl everyone wanted to sleep with at school, the Galibier is her unlovely older sister who probably went on to become a barrister.

Pretty straightforward ascent compared to the travails of the previous day, marred when I was overtaken by a couple of members of a club I *used* to cycle with back in London. Expressing allegiance to any other fraternity whilst wearing the LVG colours is a heinous crime, I now realise, and would see me finally claim the infamous bell at that evening’s kangaroo court. On the plus side, I was out on my own for pretty much the first 10km of the Izoard. Very rarely do I make a solo break, especially in such esteemed company. Funny, the thoughts that run through one’s mind at such times. Volumes of cycling literature have been devoted to the romance of the lone break, the cruel and inevitable reeling-in of the breakaway, the strange feeling of having flown the nest and yet being pursued by a hunting party, always at your heels, albeit with the distant sounds of deep-section Zipps rather than Foxhounds. It was with some chagrin that I was slowly overhauled by most of my team mates over the final 10km, but I was still delighted to have escaped at all, given my place in the grand scheme of things. 

Back to the descent, which again was somewhat life-affirming (the polite term). In the same way that it’s pretty much impossible to train for Alpine-style climbs in the UK, so it is similarly tricky to train for Alpine-style descents. Hairpins (lancets, the French call them), tunnels, precipitous drop-offs, Gallic drivers and – yes – the occasional marmot – are enough to keep one on one’s toes. Or, in my case, on one’s brakes. Back and front. Often simultaneously. Must. Get. Braver. On the plus side, the views are quite simply incredible, proper widescreen stuff, and the road surfaces on even the most exposed stretches are better than most town centres in the UK. And they are long – crazy long. The descent southwards off the Izoard and into the town of Guillestre is 15.9km long and averages a whisker under 7%. My eyeballs were pretty much bouncing off the inside of my shades as we paused for lunch.

I can’t remember much about the slog out of Guillestre, which suggests it was probably a slog. All week, my worst moments unfailingly came after lunch. Howie’s catering is impeccable – I suspect it’s more a case of the sudden stop-start required of the legs and metabolism. Big meals force the body to divert blood supply away from the legs and into the digestive system. Hence, they don’t do lunch on the Tour. Unfailingly, I felt crap after lunch, but this third day was to be my lowest ebb. Not great timing, for ahead of us lay another biggie, the Col de Vars. 19.4km at average 5.7% to an altitude of 2,111m. On paper, nothing too horrid, but I HATED it. Not least because the early switchbacks were tackled in temperatures that felt akin to the surface of the Sun. By the time I crawled through what the last of a long line of ski hamlets stretching up the valley, I was dying. I'd had a run in with the man with the hammer.  He'd hit me hard. 

Reader, I properly bonked. I had to stop in a bus shelter and choke down one of those (fantastic) Honey Stinger stroopwafels and have a little word with myself.

All the way through training, all the way up the Galibier, I promised myself I would not get into the broom wagon. Didn’t care where I finished, just wanted to complete the whole thing under my own steam, however slowly. Wanted to be able to trace a line from Geneva to the coast and, in years to come, think ‘I cycled that once’. On the Vars, I came perilously close to abandoning this goal. I had my excuses lined up for Howie and, had he not been sans mobile signal at the top of the col, I would probably be sitting here now feeling annoyed that I didn’t soldier on. As it was, the gods of Bouyges Telecom intervened to save the day. Finally, finally – I reached the col, so late that I passed Howie coming the other way with a rescue party. The other guys had been there long enough to have a drink in the summit refuge, change their kit, enjoy a three course meal and grab an hour’s nap. They didn’t look best pleased but hey, I made it and it’s not a race. Well, maybe a race against oneself. A perennial fight for supremacy between legs and the brain.

Another long descent into Barcelonette, where again I failed to catch a wheel and had to toil alone into a stiff breeze for an hour. Finally, the last climb of the day – Pra Loup. 9.4km at average 5.3%, topping-out in another sleepy, off-season ski resort. A mere molehill, unremarkable in most respects. But a molehill with previous, it turns out. For, back in 1975, this sinuous road played host to one of the most dramatic moments in Tour history, when France’s young pretender Bernard Thevenet finally broke the great Eddy Merckx, grabbing a three-minute lead that would eventually take him all the way to Paris in the maillot jaune and end The Cannibal's stranglehold on La Grande Boucle. An iconic photo of the time depicts a pretty girl in a bikini on Pra Loup, her banner proclaiming: 'Merckx is beaten!  The Bastille has fallen!'

Hallowed ground, then.

I was worried about this final climb – I worry about every climb – but a recent resurfacing had drawn its sting and my legs felt oddly strong. Just as well, for Pinny had found a chalet hotel near the top of the gondola, necessitating an almost comical number of switchbacks before finding the place. Not helped by having to stop midway whilst shepherds led a flock of what must have been a thousand sheep across our path. A more French scene, one couldn’t imagine. This, I now realise, was part of the famous ‘transhumance’ – the seasonal movement of Alpine sheep from the sheltered valleys, up onto the high mountain pastures (Alps, they are called). So we were actually kind of lucky to witness this ancient tradition.

First impressions of the hotel weren't great, it's fair to say. Ski towns in general look even uglier in summer than they do in winter. This place looked pretty shabby but an old phrase about books and covers springs to mind. We dined like kings (filet de porc avec les pommes Dauphinoise, I think) and - after the aforementioned bell ceremony, presided over by Elvis and culminating in a nail-biting face-off between J-L and I - we all slept like babies.

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