A Short Story About Buster & TREK

Quite simply, my sister Lucy LOVED her bike.

She had a habit of giving everything a nickname, including me (I became ‘Brother Ben’ and most of her friends never even knew that wasn’t actually my name)! She called her bike Buster and he was, without doubt, her pride and joy.

Buster lived on a stand in the lounge (as all ‘best bikes’ should), next to Allan’s BMC, until the awful events of February…

A few months later, Allan was talking to Lee Stockman of TREK UAE and a plan was conceived to build a replica of Lucy’s bike and to refill that empty stand. They wondered about the possibility of customising the bike and adding Lucy’s name and logos to it? And what if it could be ready in time for Allan to ride on Lucy’s Rapha Cent Cols Challenge in October 2015? Wow, wouldn’t that be something.

TREK USA embraced the idea and in collaboration with Lee and Allan, they set about creating an exact replica of Buster – Allan and Lucy rode the same frame size. There was a problem though: some of the colours used on Lucy’s 2014 bike were no longer available. “No problem” said Brian DeZiel of TREK USA, “we have the facility to complete one off paint schemes in Wisconsin and our creative lab will get working on it straight away.”

Allan added Lucy’s name and the Union Jack. He also added her elephant, designed following her victory in the 2014 World Elephant Polo Championships. The rainbow colours were her nod towards cycling’s own World Championships. And he added his own personal message to himself on the top tube: “Lucy’s Cent Cols: All or Nothing.” Brian and his team delivered on every single request.

Bespoke paintwork from Wisconsin...

Bespoke paintwork from Wisconsin…

Fast forward a few more months and Lee took delivery of the frame and set about recreating Buster, part by part.

Lucy's World Champion elephant.

Lucy’s World Champion elephant.

Now there are two bikes in the lounge again and the second is every bit as special to Allan as the first was to Lucy.

A huge thank you to Lee, Brian and everyone else at TREK who worked on this project: it’s quite simply an amazing thing that you’ve done, on lots of different levels.

SGL, September 2015

 

The finished article. Amazing. Thank you Lee, Brian and all involved at TREK.

The finished article. Amazing. Thank you Lee, Brian and all involved at TREK.

L’Enfer du Nord (Paris-Roubaix) April 2015

L’Enfer du Nord

“Paris-Roubaix is the last test of madness that the sport of cycling puts before its participants. A hardship approaching the threshold of cruelty.” Jacques Goddet, former Race Director.

My alarm went off at 4.15am and all the fears from the previous evening came rushing back. It’s not often that you feel scared riding a road bike, but as I pulled on my Team SWR shorts and jersey, I was genuinely nervous.

The reason was simple – today I was going to attempt to ride the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, the amateur version of the iconic professional cycling race. First run on Easter Sunday in 1896, Paris-Roubaix has various nicknames, but the two that describe it best are L’Enfer du Nord (Hell of the North) and the Queen of the Classics. So, it has a reputation for being both difficult and brilliant. To a professional cyclist, winning Paris-Roubaix is a career game-changer. Recently, I’d wanted to ask Sir Bradley Wiggins one particular question: would he swap his 2012 Tour de France win for a Paris-Roubaix trophy? I had a funny feeling he might, even though the general public would be incredulous.

“Paris-Roubaix is the best race in the world. Getting to the velodrome – whether I am the winner or the last one – that’s all I want.” Sir Bradley Wiggins, February 2015

Paris-Roubaix is one of the five annual ‘Monuments’ of one day cycle racing. Incredibly, it doesn’t contain any hills. Instead, it involves 253.5km of racing, initially on roads as it heads north from the town of Compiegne, a non-descript suburb of northern Paris. However, everything changes at 98km, when the race hits the first ‘secteur’ of pavé – ancient cobbled farm roads, laid hundreds of years ago. The secteurs vary in length from a few hundred meters, to almost four kilometers. There are 27 of these gruelling passages in the final 155km, adding up to a total of c.53km and each one acts like a mountain climb, breaking the riders up in a relentless war of attrition, until only the strongest, most skilled and most fortunate head the front of the race.

The mythical cobbled sectors of the race are lovingly looked after by Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, a voluntary group set up in the 1970s to prevent local mayors and farmers paving over them! Each cobbled sector is ranked out of five stars for difficulty, with only Trouée d’Arenberg, Mons-en-Pévèle and Le Carrefour de l’Arbre receiving full marks.

To win Paris-Roubaix, it’s said that a professional rider needs incredible endurance, power, razor sharp bike handling skills, perfect equipment and a good degree of luck. I suspected, even as an amateur, I would need a little bit of each of these things, just to reach the famous velodrome in Roubaix, where the race finishes with a lap and a half of the hallowed oval track.

“These bloodied and battered warriors struggle through the rain, the cold, the mud, on roads better suited to oxen cart than bicycles. But for the victor there is glory, immortality and a place in history amongst the giants of the road.” John Tesh, broadcaster, describing the race for CBS’s coverage in 1987.

I headed downstairs to join 20 or so other riders for a very early breakfast. We were all being looked after by luxury cycling travel company La Fuga and our hosts were already on hand to make sure we had everything we needed. Tom was looking after logistics, John had already coached us the night before on how best to ride the cobbles and Fish, master mechanic, had tended to each of our bikes.

I was hoping that I had brought the perfect bike with me – a Specialized S-Works Roubaix, complete with disc brakes: the very same bike that had been ridden to victory in this race in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012. I had made three modifications from standard road-riding guise: I’d double wrapped my handlebar tape in the hope of reducing some of the bruising to my hands, I’d added wider, 28mm tyres which offered more air volume, thereby absorbing the bumps better, whilst also allowing me to run lower air pressures (85psi versus my normal 120psi). Finally, I’d removed the lightweight carbon fibre bottle cages and replaced them with sturdy aluminium versions which could be crushed down tight onto my water bottles. I was hoping the bike would be strong, compliant and able to survive the impending onslaught.

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A couple of hours later, I found myself lined up on the start line with hundreds of other cyclists. We had purposefully arrived early and secured ourselves a place in the very first group to cross the start line, the theory being that we wanted the cobbled sections as clear of other riders and vehicles as possible: the more crowded the cobbles got, the more dangerous they would become.

The previous day had been beautiful, with dry roads and warm sunshine, but a cold front was now rolling through and the stiff westerly wind had brought rain with it, adding considerably to my sense of foreboding: it’s not often you start a road bike ride with a real fear of injury.

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The starter’s gun fired and we all rolled away. I’d noted the clothing of various people in my group, but was instantly mixed into a melting pot of Dutch, Spanish, Italian, French and Belgian riders. With wet roads and dirt already flying up off the wheels in front, it instantly felt like I was going to get the complete Paris-Roubaix experience: mud, attrition and suffering.

Our amateur route missed out the first 83km of the professional’s route, so at 15km, I took a deep breath, accelerated slightly and flew into the first section of cobbles. This one, secteur 27, was called Troisvilles and had a three star rating. Nothing that anyone had told me before, nor watching the race on TV over the past 30 years, had prepared me for the brutality of those first cobbles. You’re instantly being pounded by the ceaseless bumps and it feels like you’re riding up a thousand curbs in succession. The cobbles were wet and even in the first 200m I saw two crashes, five punctures and three lost bottles! The selection process had started! Some 2,000m later, I emerged back onto a road and it took ten seconds or so for my legs and arms to stop tingling and to start pedalling normally again. “Twenty-six more of these? No chance!” flashed through my mind.

” The best I could do would be to describe it like this — they plowed a dirt road, flew over it with a helicopter, and then just dropped a bunch of rocks out of the helicopter! That’s Paris–Roubaix. It’s that bad — it’s ridiculous.” Chris Horner, professional cyclist.

Taped to the top tube of my bike was my own personal guide to the secteurs, numbering and naming each one from 27 down to 1 and giving me the length, difficulty rating and distance to the start of the next one. Viesly was up next in four kilometers: just enough time for a drink and little else!

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The night before, John Deering, the esteemed cycling author and one of our hosts at La Fuga, had given us various pieces of advice. Two things in particular had really stuck in my mind, namely to accelerate onto each section of cobbles and try to hold that speed throughout, in an attempt to ‘float’ over the bumps. Secondly, John had also encouraged us to ride the cobbles themselves, rather than taking the ‘easier’ option offered by the smoother grass verges which sometimes appeared on either side. In fact, the secret was almost invariably to ride the ‘crown’ of the cobbles – the middle point of the gently convex pavé, where you would expect to get the smoothest ride and therefore the fastest passage.
Each section passed in a blur, much faster than expected and the intervening road sections never seemed very long. Every one was different – some were rougher, others slightly smoother, some went up and some went down and some were dead straight, while others contained 90 degree corners, always covered in gravel and dirt.

I realised that I’d settled into it and despite the ever present danger, was actually beginning to enjoy myself but then, just before the ride reached the first of three ‘five star crunch points’, the worst possible thing happened: it rained. Heavily.

“A Paris–Roubaix without rain is not a true Paris–Roubaix. Throw in a little snow as well, it’s not serious.” Sean Kelly, the two-time Irish winner, in 1984 and 1986.

So I found myself on the four-star Haveluy, secteur 19, with mud adding another layer of complexity to affairs. Then real disaster struck: for some inexplicable reason, a van was driving slowly up the pavé ahead of me, leaving me with no choice but to leave the crown and take to the verge to avoid it, but I had to put my right foot down to avoid crashing. Something had happened to my cleat though and I found myself unable to clip back in with my right foot. I rode another 500m or so and decided I was going to have to get off and take a proper look. So I found myself sitting in a field of Flanders mud, trying to pick dirt out of my Speedplay cleat with a stick and cursing the idiot in the van.

“Hell, these innumerable straight, laborious, tortured and gutted roads and paths spiked with glistening and slashing cobblestones, where one is astonished to see bicycles hurtling along, and where one doubts that a single racer will get through unscathed.” Yves Berger, writing in 1982.

I wasn’t sure whether I had fixed it, so I remounted and set off on the second section of Haveluy. Clipping back into my pedal seemed to take much more force than usual and my foot suddenly disengaged a couple of times. This was now properly dangerous – in the end my foot would probably fly off into my front wheel and I’d be somersaulting head-first down the pavé. I tried twisting my foot more than normal and the pedal seemed to engage. Success! But maybe not – I tried unclipping but couldn’t.

So now I was riding a really difficult set of soaking wet cobbles and if I crashed, my foot wouldn’t release. It was the equivalent of heading down a black run, knowing that one of your skis was locked to your boot. I’d been concentrating hard since secteur 27, but now I knew the very definition of utter focus – a crash was out of the question – I’d probably break my right leg. Somehow I managed to exit Haveluy without mishap, but I knew that arguably the hardest secteur of all, the Trouée d’Arenberg, five-stars and just six kilometers away, was looming rapidly. I decided I would have to take the shoe off, but if I stopped, I’d be unable to unclip and would fall over. I consider finding a likely grass verge, but decided a fall of any type was risky, so in the end I spied a likely lamp post in a small village, jumped my bike up onto the curb, braked to a complete stop and leaned, stationary, against the post. I could now unzip my overshoe, undo my shoe and get off the bike in my socks. Anyone watching must have wondered what on earth was going on!

I had to wrench the shoe off the bike, but still couldn’t really see what the problem was, so set off again. This time, my cleat seemed to engage with the pedal reasonably well, so I focused my mind back on the task of staying upright and tried to prepare for Arenberg.

The Trouée d’Arenberg is the most legendary pavé in the world. The 2,400m of cobbles were laid in the time of Napoleon. They’re large, irregular and have ‘wheel swallowing’ gaps between them. They drop slightly at first and then gently rise again to the exit point. The ‘trench’ is dead straight and has a ‘vanishing point’ exit. The forest on either side contributes to the uniqueness and keeps the cobbles damp and mossy! In the professional race this is where the first crucial selection is made and it’s a true bunch sprint to get to the entrance in a reasonable position. A crash or a puncture at this point spells the end of your race, since there will be no coming back to the leaders. The favourites always stay near the front and by the time they exit Arenberg, a select group has usually emerged.

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I stuck to my game plan, accelerated slightly as I saw the sign for Arenberg and hit the cobbles at around 40kmh. I was instantly bounced all over the place and had to really fight to keep my bike straight. “Savage” flashed through my mind, followed by “this is properly dangerous!” I could see mud oozing upwards from between the stones and heard a huge crash behind me, as a number of riders went down. Then, my right foot popped off the pedal again and I had to work really hard to stay upright and relocate the pedal without losing too much speed. A crash was unthinkable – these cobbles had massive edges and would do real damage, far worse than any normal road surface. The pounding seemed to go on forever. It was very marginal. Somehow, I exited Arenberg with one leg doing most of the work and without falling.

“From the bone-jarring chaos that has consumed the last five minutes of your life, all of a sudden you emerge on to an asphalt road, non-descript and probably a very poor surface; after the forest it feels like a carpet made of the softest velvet and the silence is deafening.” British rider Roger Hammond, writing for Rapha in 2011.

I tried to think clearly as I started the three kilometer road section back south westwards into a strong headwind. Could I reach Roubaix with only one pedal working? I doubted it. Halted briefly by two separate train crossings, I still failed to come up with a solution and rode the Wallers secteur with the same recurring problem. The next secteur was Hornaing: three-stars and 3,700m long. My foot popped out of the pedal five times and I realised that my race was probably over. I dismounted again as I exited the pavé and removed my shoe, but still couldn’t see a clear problem. I set off again but then spotted a man standing next to what looked like a mechanics van and pulled in. “Do you have a screwdriver?” I asked him. He turned out to be Sam, running Le Domestique Tours and as I sat on the ground and worked away with his tools, he sprayed my other cleat with lube. I disassembled the entire cleat and rebuilt it. Somehow, one of the engagement springs had been driven into the pedal body, but I’d now put it back in place. Sam added some more lube and I set off, thanking him profusely and telling him that if I didn’t return, it had worked.

And it had! I could clip in and out with ease and my spirits soared. I was back in business and seriously motivated. I checked my bottles, ate a Bounce Ball and a packet of Clif Shots and put my head down: 15 sections and c.75km to go. Perhaps I could reach Roubaix after all and I realised that I was smiling.

The cobbles no longer felt dangerous – after Arenberg with one leg, nothing would feel so precarious, so I started to pick up the pace. Sector 10 was my next big test: Mons-en-Pévèle. Five stars and really hard, at 3,000m long and into a very stiff head wind. The upside of course was that the rain was long since past and the wind had rapidly dried the cobbles, which was just as well because some of them were extraordinarily polished and staying on the crown was a real challenge.

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Somehow, I was managing to keep upright and avoid any further mechanical issues, including punctures, but all around me was destruction: of tyres, wheels, bikes, bodies and minds. Exiting each section, you’d see a large group of riders who had either stopped, or who were crawling onwards at a really slow pace. It was similar to the way I’d expect to see people high on a Himalayan peak: physically exhausted and mentally impaired.

I was lucky therefore – I was feeling good, I was increasingly confident on the cobbles and John’s advice kept me steadfastly riding the crown, even when all around me people were slinking off into the verges in the hope of finding a faster, or safer passage.

Le Carrefour de l’Arbre, the final 2,100m five-star section, was just as difficult as expected and even the last couple of pieces of pavé, at Gruson and Hem, seemed hard, but finally all that remained was the velodrome.

“I don’t care. I proved to myself that I was a man, because I suffered, but I still finished. I finished.” Christian Raymond, after finishing twenty minutes behind champion Rik Van Looy in 1961.

All day I’d been riding a piece of history, but it never felt more so than when I entered the velodrome and turned the right hand corner onto the track. Ahead lay just one and a half laps of the most famous finishing oval in the world of cycling. I rode straight up to the highest point of the banking, determined to savour every moment and finally crossed the line in 6’32”.

“At the end of Roubaix, you feel like you do at the end of a three-week Grand Tour. I love it.”
– Ian Stannard of Team Sky, speaking to the Guardian before this year’s race.

Only then did I realise how deeply tired I was and almost immediately I could feel the first twinges of cramp in my thighs. It was starting to rain again and I headed to the La Fuga tent to collapse in a heap and hear how everyone else had got on – I hadn’t seen anyone I knew all day!

Amidst reports of success, crashes, broken bones, destroyed bikes and trips to hospital, I remembered that there was one final thing to be done. Another prized oddity in professional cycling, the Roubaix velodrome showers are as traditional to the race as the cobbles themselves. Plaques with the names of previous victors adorn each shower, a monument to the toughest men in the sport.

“You get into the velodrome and go into the showers, and De Vlaeminck, Merckx, Hinault—all these legends have been in there before you, and you’re scrubbing mud out of your ears. It’s all part of the adventure.” Stuart O’Grady, the first, and still only non-European winner of the race, speaking in 2007.

Perhaps fittingly for such an epic day, I was in luck and found Roger de Vlaeminck’s shower empty. He won the race four times, pedalling his way into legend. I slowly stripped off my SWR kit, now covered in mud and dust and contemplated one of the most extraordinary days I’d ever spent on a bike. I stayed in the shower for 15 minutes, soaking up the warmth. Outside, it was still raining: a perfect day at Paris-Roubaix.

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“In the showers we often discussed our misery… It was an apocalyptic vision, seeing all those wounded men who sit down but can’t get up. That steam everywhere. It’s extraordinary.” Jean-Pierre Danguillaume, a seven time stage winner at the Tour de France.

It’s said that most riders develop a love-hate relationship with the race. Many say they’ll never come back after riding it for the first time, but almost all do.

I can’t wait.

Sir Guy Litespeed, Team SWR – April 2015.

Lucy 1964 – 2015

Lucy Monro 1964 – 2015

Lucy died on Friday 13th February in a tragic accident, whilst riding the Dubai Roadster’s Coast to Coast Challenge. She founded Team SWR (named after Stuff Worth Reading, one of the magazine’s that she published), in late 2013 and was our beautiful, inspiring, passionate, committed and talented leader. She was ‘The Boss’; our ‘mother hen’ and we were ‘her boys’.

Lucy grew up in the UK, moved to Bahrain in 1993 and then Dubai in 1995, which soon became her home. Her childhood love for animals gave rise to a long term career in the equestrian world and she published Spirits of the Sands, a portrait of the Arabian horse in its homeland in 2003, following which she co-founded Equestrio magazine, where she worked for the last ten years as Editor and Publisher.

Riding Aswad

One of Lucy’s strongest traits was compassion. So many people have told me stories of how she helped them, dropping whatever she was doing to sort out their problems and this extended to extraordinary humanitarian efforts in the aftermath of the Pakistan earthquake in 2005 and also her work with The Citizens Foundation to help build schools there. All of her pets have been rescue cases and she even saved a turtle one day on Dibba Beach! The turtle, aptly named Dibba, was nursed back to health and released into the ocean, complete with a radio transmitter. Some 8,000km later, Dibba was tracked to the coast of Thailand!

Along with horses, elephants became an enduring passion for Lucy. The World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) came about largely to help draw awareness and funding to the plight of elephants and their mahout families in Nepal and Thailand. Lucy was covering the annual WEPA World Championships one year when they were suddenly a player down. She put down her camera, climbed aboard and never looked back. Late in 2014, her team, the Tigresses, won the world championships and she earned her rainbow colours. She was so happy and so proud.

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She came late to cycling, only buying her first road bike in the summer of 2013, but she approached her new found passion in the same way that she approached life – full speed ahead, with complete commitment, enthusiasm and a broad smile. It was possibly her perfect sport, allowing her to combine her natural physical talent with her love of mountains, photography and writing. Team SWR rapidly developed from it’s UAE based core, into an international team, with riders in the UK and Switzerland and a brilliant group of committed sponsors including Rakbank, propertyfinder, Silverback, Mulebar, Gu, Parmigiani, Aqualyte, 2XU and Dubai Physiotherapy Clinic.

Lucy’s palmares was quite remarkable: less than six months after her first bike purchase, she and Team SWR rode the Spinney’s 92 in Dubai, followed just three months later by the Dubai Coast to Coast Challenge, a 220km ride. The vast majority of cyclists never break the 200km barrier, so to do this in her first year was quite simply audacious and amazing. She went on to enter two successive Liwa rides in the Empty Quarter, placing 8th in her category just a few weeks ago, as well as completing a further Coast to Coast Challenge late last year. She was training hard and had entered Dubai’s inaugural UCI Gran Fondo and had trips planned to the Swiss Alps and the Italian Dolomites in July.

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Lucy died doing something that she loved, surrounded by her Team. She leaves a great big empty hole in so many lives, but we also have a multitude of wonderful memories of our time with her. We will all remember how she encouraged, helped and supported us and we will forevermore ride in her honour. Wherever you are now Lucy, may the sun shine and the wind always be on your back.

Guy Townsend, Allan Greenfield and All of Team SWR: March 2015.

CCC Dolomites – Reflections

It’s c.9.00am on Wednesday and I’ve withdrawn into a very small place. The floor is comprised of smooth black tarmac, the walls are made of slow pedal strokes, straining legs, heavily laboured breathing and merciless punishment and the ceiling is dark pine forest, streaked with a bright blue sky. I’m three kilometres into the ten kilometre climb of the Monte Zoncolan and it’s 18 – 22 per cent, throughout.

The Zoncolan: 11km at an average of 14%.  For long sections, it's much steeper than the average.

The Zoncolan: 11km at an average of 14%. For long sections, it’s much steeper than the average.

(Click on any of the photos to enlarge them and then use your Back button to return).

It’s actually taken me a while to work out that it’s Wednesday. Days don’t really mean anything anymore. What matters is that this is Stage Four of the hardest derivative of the Cent Cols Challenge (Dolomites) and it’s reputed to be the hardest stage and the Zoncolan the hardest climb. I came to Italy with questions about what I could do and how much I could really endure and suffice to say I’m getting the answers, from arguably the hardest event in amateur cycling.  

Things ease a little and I look down at my computer: 14 per cent. When 14 per cent becomes easy, you know you’re in deep. Everyone is suffering. Depending upon your level of talent, you simply suffer for a shorter or longer period. But everyone knows the pain of the Zoncolan.

Under any circumstances, this climb would be horrible, but in the previous three days, I’ve already spent 32 hours on the bike and climbed almost 16,000m. I’m probably at 60 per cent capability from the outset, as evidenced by the fact that my muscles are too weak to push my heart rate much beyond 145bpm – which normally means ‘tempo’. Today it simply means ‘dead tired’.

After 1hr 30mins of this punishment, at a glacial average speed of just 6.6km/h, I reach the summit. Ahead lies another 165km and a further 5,000m of climbing. Welcome to the Cent Cols Challenge and welcome to the Dolomites.

This says it all: follow the luminous yellow sign to the Zoncolan.  Or better still just STOP!

This says it all: follow the luminous yellow sign to the Zoncolan. Or better still just STOP!

I was one of 27 riders attempting the 2014 edition of the CCC Dolomites and I knew exactly what I was getting into. My 2012 Tour ride had laid the groundwork for coping with multi-day events, but friends who had ridden other versions of the CCC in the Alps and Pyrenees had left me in no doubt that the ride would be far harder than the Tour and the outcome uncertain.

However, it was only on the evening of Stage Three, when I finished in the dark for the second day in a row, that I quietly admitted to myself that I’d potentially bitten off more than I could chew. I felt physically capable of completing each day, but the extra-steep Dolomite gradients were reducing my average speeds by more than I had allowed for and my days were becoming far too long, with two consequences: darkness (and often rain too at that time of day), and a reduction in my recovery and personal admin time (you need as much time as possible in the evenings to eat, stretch, wash kit and of course, sleep. I was eating into this time with every late finish and it was a vicious circle).

7.45 am, Stage Two.  Life's still fun and the sun's shining.  I don't know that I'll only finish in the dark and several people won't finish at all!

7.45 am, Stage Two. Life’s still fun and the sun’s shining. I don’t know that I’ll only finish in the dark and several people won’t finish at all!

Dark thoughts haunted me daily from then onwards. “I can do this”, was always quickly countered by a fresh battle with the next mountain and “maybe I can’t do this.” But around me, other riders were dropping like flies and that only hardened my resolve to continue. On Stage Six, some of the really strong riders started to fail and I remember thinking I was lucky to still be riding. But as Seneca said in AD 65, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

And I had prepared really, really well, perfecting my equipment and creating mini-CCC experiences for the previous couple of months, with back-to-back riding in the mountains, always going further than was comfortable and creating time pressure at the end of each day. As the CCC intensified, I realised that this preparation was my crutch and I leant on it heavily.

Stage 7. I don't know it yet, but I'm now suffering from lymphodema.

Stage 7. I don’t know it yet, but I’m now suffering from lymphodoema.

Stages Two, Four, Seven, Eight, Nine and Ten were the defining ones for me:

– Stage Two because that’s when Loren Schaeffer and I first rode together and formed our strategic and mental alliance: we would ride to the finish every day, we would not quit and we would look after each other on the road: it was a powerful aid to us both

– Stage Four because of the Zoncolan and the Tre Cime: iconic, HARD climbs. There were also two options to cut things short and I resisted both (even though it was dark, raining and the hotel was beckoning), along with Loren and Dale Rogers (for which we were jointly awarded ‘Rider of the Day’ for refusing to quit)

– Stage Seven because it was ‘book-ended’ by really horrible, steep climbs and because it was then that I first noticed the swelling in my legs. It didn’t hurt, but it was concerning because I’d never experienced it before. Only when I got home was lymphodoema diagnosed: it’s a condition of the lymphatic system resulting in localised fluid retention and tissue swelling. But why was it happening to me?

A few days earlier, I’d realised that I had a chest infection – breathing was painful and I’d developed an evil cough. Other riders had the same problem and it caused at least two or three people to climb off their bikes and abandon the event entirely. Lymph vessels route lymph fluid through nodes throughout the body, the nodes acting as filters for harmful substances. They contain immune cells that help fight infection by attacking and destroying germs that are filtered through the lymph fluid. My lymphatic system, already overloaded by my chest infection, simply couldn’t cope with the tissue damage I was inflicting on my legs and stopped flushing out the fluid. By the time I got home, my knees, lower legs and feet were swollen and my toes were numb. It took three days of iced baths and elevation to clear out approximately four kilos of retained fluid and restore my legs to how they normally look!

– Stage Eight simply because it was huge: 214km and almost 6,000m of climbing. The chest infection and lymphodoema must have been playing their part as well and it took me 13hrs of riding to complete, finishing in the dark and rain with the other two riders who simply refused to give in; Loren from San Diego and Dale from Perth

Stage 8: Rapha Kings of Pain jersey was apt for 13 hours in the saddle.

Stage 8: Rapha Kings of Pain jersey was apt for 13 hours in the saddle.

– Stage Nine because it was similarly intense: c.95km of the day was uphill and Loren and I ended up benighted on the summit of the Mortirolo. Less than 12 hours later we would see the same summit at dawn.

– And Stage Ten because it was hard to the very end and a defining moment: succeed or fail. Lance Armstrong’s quote played through my mind every day and defined the final push: “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”

I simply refused to quit. I had come to ride every col and was resolute in that plan. I knew my preparation and equipment had made it feasible and I also felt that if I kept turning the pedals and eating and drinking along the way, I might just succeed.

And that’s how it ended up. Of the 27 starters, nine achieved their 100 cols and eight of us climbed all 104 cols on offer. The fastest rider, Rasmus, completed the course in 90 hours: talent and panache in action. By contrast, I took 110 hours! As I said, we all came with questions and we all suffered. We just did it for different lengths of time.

If they weren't on Strava, you'd never believe these figures!

If they weren’t on Strava, you’d never believe these figures!

If I’d failed, would I have tried again another year? No, was my conclusion during the second half of the event: I had brought the very best I had to the ride and if it proved inadequate, it wouldn’t be any different in 2015. I had found my limit: 5,000 – 6,000m of climbing, day in day out, was on the margin of what I could cope with.

I’d always wondered where my limit was and was genuinely delighted to discover it! Phil Deeker, the man who conceived and organises the CCC is very brave: no one else dares to organise events like these, where even really strong riders will fail, where you’ll ride the equivalent of sea level to Everest Base Camp every day and where roads will be substituted by gravel tracks and rocks on occasion. By way of comparison, the Haute Route Dolomites, which claims to be the hardest sportive in existence, takes in half the distance and 40 per cent of the climbing, in seven days. I will be eternally grateful to Phil for creating something that answered my questions.

Phil Deeker on the final evening.  Thank you Phil.

Phil Deeker on the final evening. Thank you Phil.

Back home, my love for riding bikes was undiminished: I got back in the saddle after 48hrs! It did however take me three days to clear the lymphodoema problem and in the immediate aftermath, although I was mechanically sound, I was deeply tired. But I was also utterly relaxed, fulfilled and content with what I’d achieved. Now, four weeks later, I’m almost back to normal and beginning to feel strong again on the bike. My toes however, remain numb.

I hope you enjoyed the blog and the pictures and thanks for all the encouragement and support along the way. SGL 🙂

I LOVE Road Trips

SGL, August 2014.

My final pre-CCC training block was three days in Wales, 8th – 10th August: a three day odyssey (see map below) – epic rides linked by epic drives!  Just what a road trip should be…  Wales has always provided the backdrop for my final training ahead of a big event: the roads are deserted, the climbs hard and scenery beautiful.  For me, it’s the training equivalent of ‘coming home’ and ‘comfort food’, mixed together!

All in, I drove 980 km, rode 520 km and climbed 9,500 m.

Day One (click on the photo to view it and then use your Back button to shrink it back): Bala – Machynlleth – Barmouth – Bala: 182 km, 3,072 m and a major landslide!

Lake Bala.  And a bike...

Lake Bala. And a bike…

 

Would be a lovely place to live!

Would be a lovely place to live!

Looking down to the start of Bwlch y Groes

Looking down to the start of Bwlch y Groes

 

Bwlch y Groes - hardest climb in the UK?  Quite Possibly.

Bwlch y Groes – hardest climb in the UK? Quite Possibly.

 

From the top of Mach Mountain, looking north.

From the top of Mach Mountain, looking north.

Best coastal road in Wales?

Best coastal road in Wales?

Barmouth from the Towyn Coast Road.

Barmouth from the Towyn Coast Road.

Barmouth Bridge - always a treat to ride across this!

Barmouth Bridge – always a treat to ride across this!

Some pics from Day 2: The Devil’s Staircase:  174 km, 3,518 m and quite possibly the hardest ride I’ve ever done in the UK (SO much steep climbing and uber remote).

Ystwyth Valley on the Elan Mountain Road

Ystwyth Valley on the Elan Mountain Road

On the way to the Devil's Staircase and feeling nervous!

On the way to the Devil’s Staircase and feeling nervous!

Just in case the 25 - 30% wall in front of you wasn't obvious...

Just in case the 25 – 30% wall in front of you wasn’t obvious…

The rewards: roads and views to die for.

The rewards: roads and views to die for.

The section between Beulah and Tregaron: 80 km long, 2,000 m of climbing and no food or water stops - because NO ONE lives here. Unsupported and solo = bonk material.

The section between Beulah and Tregaron: 80 km long, 2,000 m of climbing and no food or water stops – because NO ONE lives there. Unsupported and solo = bonk material.

 

But with roads like this (and the odd timer lorry), who cares…?

But with roads like this (and the odd timber lorry), who cares…?

My Welsh Odyseey 2014: crazy long days, great drives on quiet roads and riding as good as anywhere in the world.  Wales, you rock.

My Welsh Odyseey 2014: crazy long days, great drives on quiet roads and riding as good as anywhere in the world. Wales, you rock.

And then there was Day 3: N.O.G.A.R.D. (also known as the Dragon Ride, reversed): 164 km, 3.200 m.

Brecon Beacons from Bwlch Cerrig summit: Hurricane Bertha is looming out west.

Brecon Beacons from Bwlch Cerrig summit: Hurricane Bertha is looming out west.

Brecons + Bertha = dark and moody in the mountains.

Brecons + Bertha = dark and moody in the mountains.

Romans must have made this one.

Romans must have made this one.

 

Yes, that really is a road in the UK: Bwlch from Cymer.  Awesome.

Yes, that really is a road in the UK: Bwlch from Cymer. Awesome.

 

Looking north from the top of Rhigos: NOGARD almost finished: just Sarn Helen to go.

Looking north from the top of Rhigos: NOGARD almost finished: just Sarn Helen to go.

 

Tour du Mont Blanc

(Click on any of the photos to enlarge them and then use the Back button to shrink them again)

July 2014: it’s Thursday afternoon.  The sun’s shining, the water’s a deep blue colour and as I pull into the wave I know that it’s going to be a good one.  I turn immediately and take off down the line, running my right hand along a beautiful, clean wall of Atlantic surf.  But then someone drops in on me and I’m forced to exit awkwardly, tweaking my right hip abductor.  I head for the beach to stretch it off and pray that it’s nothing serious, because in a little over 36 hours, I’m due to start a two day ‘Tour of Mont Blanc’, circling Europe’s biggest mountain by road.

I’ve had this ride in the back of my mind for a long, long time and even toyed with attempting it in a single day, either solo, or by entering the 300 km sportive that takes place every July.  But on local advice I was keen to ride the loop in an anticlockwise direction, whilst the sportive goes clockwise and I also wanted to add a couple of extra cols.  Plus, additional advice from Cent Cols friends suggested that the training impact of two big days was better than one huge day.

Friday, 3.00 pm: So 24 hours after leaving the beach in Devon and with a very slight limp, I find myself in Terminal 5, looking at the departures board and cursing British Airways: the flight’s delayed by c.4 hours.  The plan was to arrive in Chamonix, nestled under the northern slopes of Mont Blanc, by 8.00 pm, rebuild our bikes, eat dinner and be in bed by 10.30 pm.  Instead of which, I and the other two riders, Kev Mellalieu and David Alexander (aka FULL D.A.), end up building bikes at midnight, whilst eating pizza.  It’s not a good start.

Saturday, 6.30 am: It gets worse the following morning, when I look out of the hotel window and it’s raining.  Hard.  I resign myself to a wet weather, high mountain epic and dress accordingly.  If things really do come in threes, maybe I’m done: the hip tweak (which seems better this morning), the previous night’s delay and now the rain?  Only time will tell…

 

TTT and Team Sky: Tour de Suisse,2014: we must be in good hands.

TTT and Team Sky: Tour de Suisse,2014: we must be in good hands.

We head downstairs for breakfast and a rendezvous with our support crew: Jimi Thomson and Janine Collins of the Swiss based bespoke cycle guiding company, Two Tyred Tours ( www.twotyredtours.com ).  Jimi is an old-hand, having guided bike tours for over 14 years and it shows immediately as he beckons us over and shows us a video forecast of the rain front that’s currently soaking Chamonix: the rain heads eastwards and we should be dry by lunchtime.  Our spirits lift immediately – nice work Jimi – and breakfast tastes so much better!

9.00 am: we roll away from our start point in Cluses, following a short, 30 minute transfer down the valley in Jimi’s custom fitted van.  Amazingly, it’s already stopped raining and I think I’m over-dressed!

Three go off on an adventure...

Three go off on an adventure…

After no more than 500 m of flat road, we hit our first climb – the Cat 1/HC Col de la Colombiere (16.3 km, 1128 m gain, 6.8% av, 11% max).  It’s a brutal way to warm up and sure enough I feel nervous, slightly creaky and both DA and Kev clearly have the legs on me.  We top out together though and settle into our first Alpine descent, reminding ourselves about braking points, grip levels, apexes and lean angles.  It’s so different to descents in the UK and I remind myself to take it easy, settle into it and speed up as the day goes on.  I’ve never been a great descender, but someone once told me to practice the things I was bad at and I’m delighted to find that as the trip goes on, I’m pretty much keeping up with the others, who are two of the fastest guys downhill I’ve ever ridden with.  My technique is way better now than it used to be (thank you Phil Deeker and DA) and a carbon frame really helps – my Litespeed used to flex underneath me, sending (terrifying) shimmies through the frame and slowing me down.

10.45 am: we stop briefly in Grand Bornand, at the foot of the Colombiere and Janine shows us a glimpse of just how well we’re going to be looked after: honey and cream cheese sandwiches, cut into bite size squares, fresh fruit, nuts and chocolate croissants have all been laid out on a folding table!

Between mouthfuls, I quickly change into dry weather gear and we roll away again and up the Col des Aravis (7.5 km, 436 m gain, 4.6% av, 8% max).  Kev and DA again have the legs on me, but only by a few minutes and the day still feels young.  We regroup at the top and descend to our lunch stop in Flumet.  Jimi and Janine have found a suitable spot and set up a folding table and chairs, where, once seated, we’re served a hot pasta meal, followed by tea and coffee!  I knew Two Tyred Tours would be good, but this is extraordinary!

Hot pasta, table and chairs for lunch!!!

Hot pasta, table and chairs for lunch!!!

1.00 pm: also with us on the trip are my sister Lucy and her partner, Allan.  They live in Dubai and only ‘found cycling’ a year ago, but have thrown themselves into it with utter commitment and their palmares in their rookie year is already putting plenty of long serving roadies to shame.  Amongst other things, Lucy publishes the Swiss Watch Report and has also founded a rapidly growing cycling team of the same name and hence we’ll be in SWR team kit for parts of the ride (see https://www.facebook.com/pages/Team-SWR/391340557659955 ).  Lucy and Allan are on something of a ‘busman’s holiday’, applying their journalistic and photographic skills to covering our ride.  But they’ve also brought their bikes with them and Lucy joins us for the next couple of cols, namely the Col des Saisies (14.7 km, 747 m gain, 5.1% av) and the classic Cormet de Roselend (21 km, 1227 m gain, 6% av, 8% max).

Lucy climbs brilliantly and we summit the Saisies in a little over an hour.  DA then gives her a lesson in descending, which gathers an extra twist when a thunderstorm hits and suddenly we’re all soaking wet and the roads are slick.  But we all make it down safely and Lucy promises to practice what DA has preached*.

From L to R: DA, Kev, Lucy and SGL on the Saisies.

From L to R: DA, Kev, Lucy and SGL on the Saisies.

3.30 pm: Jimi is worried that time is marching on – we still have 53 km of climbing and 90 km total to ride, if we’re to reach our overnight stop, across the Italian border in La Thuile.

We start up the Roselend together, but all agree that Lucy, climbing slightly more slowly, should ride at her own pace and Kev, DA and I should push on.  But the Roslend is a long climb and it still takes time.  The first section is steep, hard and wooded, but about 13 km in, it opens out a little and the views back down the valley become stunning.  Then we reach the lake and the character of the climb changes entirely: now it’s laid out in front of us, open and stunning.  Kev has dropped the hammer and disappeared up the road, but DA is alongside.  We circuit the north side of the lake and then start the long zig-zags under an immense rock wall, before cresting the small gap to the left of the wall and climbing the final few km to the summit.  It’s tempting to linger, but it’s cold, we’re running out of time and behind us, the sky has turned an inky black and lightning flickers in the far distance.

Hammer time - Kev attacks!

Hammer time – Kev attacks!

Lucy is planning to finish her epic two cols at the top of the Roselend (and bags 4th place on Strava – a brilliant solo ride and amazing effort from someone who’s only been riding bikes for a year!), so Kev, DA and I don warm gear and descend immediately.  Jimi is filming the descent from his vehicle and when rain hits us, he manages to get footage of us riding through the arch of a rainbow – amazing!  See

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=765431153513931&set=vb.606346652755716&type=2&theater

6.00 pm: after a 23 km descent on wet roads, requiring complete concentration, we arrive in Bourg St. Maurice.  Jimi pulls up alongside and tells me he lost me at 85 kmh!  Smiling, I apologise for holding back a little on the slick roads!  Janine immediately offers us more sandwiches and homemade lemon drizzle muffins – she’s a gem.  But I’m now really worried about the time and Jimi shares my concern.  We have 3 hours of daylight left, but our finish line in La Thuile is still over 50 km away and that includes the 32 km climb of the Col du Petit St. Bernard (31 km, 1375 m gain, 4.4% av, 6% max).  The issue is that Jimi and I both think it could take us the thick end of three hours to climb it and that’s too long.  We agree to simply set off and see how far we can get before the light fails.  I also toy with the idea of setting an automatic stop time, where we climb off our bikes and head to the hotel in Jimi’s van, with the idea that we can return the following day.

The climb is very long – not many climbs are 30+ km.  But, it’s also a very consistent, easy gradient and we push on, vowing to stick together: either we all make it, or we fail together.

Three or four km later, I feel far more optimistic about our chances: we’re averaging between 13.5 and 15 km/h and that suggests we can summit by 8.15 pm, which would leave us just enough light to descend to La Thuile.

We pass Jimi’s van a little later and I tell him we’ve decided to “go for it” as we ride by, whilst also passing him my waterproof jacket and anything else I think I can jettison to save weight!   He phones ahead to the hotel to promise them that we’re still coming and pushes our dinner reservation back to 10.00 pm!

We just keep on working away at it, talking about a hundred different things and imagining how good the beer’s going to taste at dinner!  Eventually, we pass through La Rosiere and then turn the right hand bend that reveals our goal – the summit of the Col is visible from 7 km below and the border control buildings appear starkly silhouetted against the darkening skies, like some sort of sinister castle.

8.20 pm: finally we crest the summit, aided by a strengthening tail wind.  In the background, a storm is approaching and the temperature has dropped to little more than 7 degrees.  The light’s also failing, so we grab our jackets back from Jimi’s van and then scream down the other side into Italy.  It’s late and the border guards have all gone home!

The descent is brilliant – the road’s deserted at this late hour, much of the tarmac is brand new and there are plenty of corners to dive into.  We arrive 15 minutes later in La Thuile, grinning from ear to ear.  Jimi leads us to our hotel and we literally ride into the basement before getting off our bikes and heading upstairs to sort ourselves out before dinner.  I follow a very familiar routine: anti-inflammatories, recovery shake, unpack, shower, lay out kit for tomorrow, repack, stretch and then we all head off to dinner.

There’s little doubt this is one of the biggest days I’ve ever ridden.  The total distance of 173 km is nothing remarkable.  Nor is the 9 hrs in the saddle.  But 90 km of cumulative climbing is extraordinary and to date, the most I’ve ever done in a single day: to put this into perspective, an Etape du Tour rarely gets to 70 km of climbing and my 3 x Ventoux day was still only 67 km.  Prior to setting off, MapMyRide had suggested the day would have 6,200 m of climbing, which again would have been the most I’d ever done in one day, but Strava’s Corrected Elevation is even more extreme, at 7,336 m!  Whatever the truth might be, it’s been an epic day.  And tomorrow, we have to do it all again.

 

Sunday, 7.00 am: my alarm is definitely a rude awakening.  My eyes feel heavy and my legs are stiff, but a couple of painkillers help.  Breakfast is excellent and by the time we roll away at 9.00 am, I’m feeling remarkably OK!  The valley is cold, but the sky is a wonderful deep blue colour and the day promises far better weather than yesterday.  Jimi has been checking the meteo and agrees it should stay fine.

SGL: Ready to go.  DA: wake me when I need to ride my bike.

SGL: Ready to go. DA: wake me when I need to ride my bike.

Jimi briefing us on the location of the first feed stop!

Jimi briefing us on the location of the first feed stop!

In stark contrast to the previous day, we leave the hotel and ride downhill for the first 50 km, into the Aosta Valley – the gateway to Northern Italy.  Initially the road is steep and we’re slicing through hairpins again, but then it flattens out and for the only time on the whole ride, we enjoy about 30 km of chaingang, although DA drops into his familiar tuck, elbows in and I hear the sound of his chain hitting the 11 tooth sprocket, at which point it’s all Kev and I can do to tuck in and hang onto his wheel.  We cover the 50 km from the La Thuile to Aosta in well under an hour!

The Grand St. Bernard: epic scale.  And to think Napoleon took an entire army over this!

The Grand St. Bernard: epic scale. And to think Napoleon took an entire army over this!

Our first climb of the day is the highest, longest and by far the hardest climb of the entire circuit: welcome to the Col du Grand St. Bernard (32 km, 1878 m gain, 5.9% av, 12% max).  As we turn away from the main road and through the outskirts of Aosta, DA and I pull up at a pedestrian crossing to allow someone to cross.  We both switch into track stands, but my front wheel touches his rear and before I know it, I’m on the tarmac, feeling really stupid.  Maybe things come in fours?  I jump straight back onto the bike and we set off up the climb.  It’s hot and the entire 32 km are laid out in the sun.

I want it to end.  But I don't want it to end.

I want it to end. But I don’t want it to end.

As I discover later, the climb is simply mammoth and just keeps coming, with every major section revealing yet another one above it.  I generally don’t like to break climbs, but Jimi has set up a feed stop after about 10 km and it’s extremely welcome.  We relax for a few minutes, adding sun block, eating and drinking coffee, which Janine has brewed on the spot: the level of support we’re receiving from the TTT team is simply brilliant and I’m already thinking up new adventures to share in 2015 and beyond.

DA: too cool for skool.

DA: too cool for skool.

We set off again a few minutes later and climb up and away from where the main road goes through a tunnel under the mountain, thankfully taking most of the traffic with it.   The climb rises into a series of natural amphitheatres and the rock scenery and overall scale just gets bigger and bigger: it’s a genuine ‘high mountain’ climb and I’m loving it.  To think that Napoleon led an army over this, over 200 years ago!!!

Kev reaches the col after 32 km and 1845 m of climbing!

Kev reaches the col after 32 km and 1845 m of climbing!

Finally, after 32 km and 1845 m of continuous climbing, we reach the summit – DA first, then me and then Kev (who’s stopped to snap an amazing panoramic shot).  Lucy and Allan take more shots and then Kev heads off-road, to an unlikely looking monument.  DA and I raise an eyebrow, but follow anyway and the resulting pictures are brilliant, if slightly posed!

The very top!  Our bikes didn't appreciate the off-roading required to get there!

The very top! Our bikes didn’t appreciate the off-roading required to get there!

2.00 pm: it’s time to roll on – we still have three more climbs to come.  We add front and rear lights and head into Switzerland and then down, for yet another stunning descent.  Lucy and Allan, having driven the entire route to check it out, just a few days previously, had warned us of tunnels on this descent and sure enough, we were really glad to have lights and be visible.  It’s a huge drop to the valley floor and takes us over 30 minutes to reach Orsieres and our rendezvous with TTT and yet another stunning, lunch of hot pasta and meats, fruit, coffee etc.

Descending the Grand St. Bernard.  Very quickly!

Descending the Grand St. Bernard. Very quickly!

3.30 pm: Lucy kits up and joins us for the next climb: Champex (9.5 km, 569 m gain, 6.1% av).  It’s a lovely climb on a small, quiet road and we make good progress to the summit at Champex-Lac, where an annual market/fete is in progress and bagpipes and Scottish dancers welcome us to the town!  Lucy swaps with Allan and we head down the descent, with Kev filming video clips from his handlebar mounted video cam.  Jimi’s never driven this way before and Lucy and Allan had skipped it on their recce, as the daylight had failed.  It turns out to be one of the best descents any of us have ever done: steep, consistently twisty and technical and we’re all loving it!

6.00 pm: somehow we all make it to the bottom intact, where we rejoin the main road to Martigny and roll to the start of the Col de la Forclaz (16 km, 1050 m gain, 6.6% av, 10% max).  After a quick snack, we head upwards once more.  This is a major route and it’s a holiday weekend, so we have to ride in line and hug the wall to our right.  Friends had warned me that this climb would feel tough and sure enough, they’re absolutely right – it’s got traffic, long straights, poor views and is consistently steep. Basically, it’s a grind.  Allan does brilliantly to keep pushing on at our pace and finally, after a brief stop to repair my front tyre when it inexplicably blows out (and off the rim!), we hit the summit.  I ponder what might have happened if my tyre had let go approaching any of the hundreds of hairpin bends that I’ve already negotiated, at speeds around 70 – 90 kmh.  It doesn’t bear thinking about and I vow to scrap the Pianni rims as soon as I get home (I think the hook on the rim is inadequate).

The summit of the Forclaz: it's in the bag now.

The summit of the Forclaz: it’s in the bag now.

7.45 pm: I’m not really sure how, but time has marched on and the day suddenly feels pressurised again: our light’s failing.  We head straight down the brief descent and into our third country for the day: France, where Jimi, with immaculate timing, presents us each with a Coke!  All that remains is the Col des Montets (8.2 km, 377 m gain, 4.7% av) and we crunch through it as quickly as possible, DA and I just ahead of Allan and Kev.  At around 8.15 pm, we crest the final rise and stop on the summit, to add clothing for the descent into Chamonix.

The final descent is as fast as all the others and we have a little added pressure: following in a car is Petra Wiltshire: three times Women’s World Downhill Champion!  She’s a friend of Lucy and Allan’s and also knows our hosts and she’s driven over from Champery to join us for a celebratory dinner.  Suffice to say, we make rapid progress to Chamonix!

8.45: and suddenly it’s all over.  We’re back where we started in the centre of Chamonix, shaking hands, grinning from ear to ear.

Team SWR's newest recruits - finally back in Chamonix, in failing light.

Team SWR’s newest recruits – finally back in Chamonix, in failing light.

Follow Ups:

* Lucy bagged a Strava cup on an Alpine descent, just a few days later!

– I can’t recommend Two Tyred Tours too strongly.  Amazing support from some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

Call them - you're in for a treat!

Call them – you’re in for a treat!

– British Airways ‘failed’ on the way home as well – our flight was over 4 hours late.  Again.  Hopeless.

What is the Cent Cols Challenge?

Back in November last year, I pulled the trigger and committed to attempting a Cent Cols Challenge (CCC) – the Dolomites version, commencing on 31st August – and my entire year has been focused on preparing for this.

I first heard about the Cent Cols a few years ago, via the Rapha website – they’d sent a team to ride the inaugural Alps version, which had been dubbed the ‘ultimate sportive’ and likened to ‘ten Etape du Tours, back-to-back’!  Sure enough, the Rapha team declared it uber-hard.  It sounded beyond me: it was ten days long, parts of it were timed i.e. racing, and if the pros had declared it super difficult, what chance did I have?  So, I forgot all about it.

But when I signed up to ride the 2012 Tour de France route, the lead rider turned out to be Phil Deeker – the man behind the Cent Cols Challenge.  The concept had arisen from a personal challenge he’d set himself a few years earlier – to ride 300 cols in 30 days.  Solo.  He’d wobbled on day two, but then settled in and eventually completed the task in just 28 days.  A truly remarkable feat.  In the course of the ride, he’d taken in the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Cevennes, ridden about 4,500 km and climbed 82,000 metres.  Epic in every respect.

A few months later, once the dust had settled, Phil faced a choice: do something even harder (!?), or share his experience, somehow, with others.  He chose the latter path.  Each mountain range that he’d covered became a separate event, comprising 100 cols in ten days.  And so the Cent Cols Challenge was born.  First came the Alps, in 2010, then the Pyrenees in 2011 and finally the Dolomites in 2012, instantly labelled the hardest of the three (steeper climbing, worse roads, more unpredictable weather and more overall ascent).  Currently, Phil runs three CCCs each year (Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites) and in 2014 he’ll also add Corsica and then Spain in 2015.  He now has a loyal following of CCC riders, eager for the next challenge and the 30 places on each CCC tend to fill up fast.

In Phil’s own words “ The CCC sportive is based on the ‘randonnées permanentes’ of the Club des Cent Cols.  To become a member of this Club you have to climb 100 Cols, five of which must be over 2,000 m.  For me this provides a very definite goal for the CCC riders.  Of course, not all the cols are of Ventoux stature, some demand 20 km of climbing, some only five.  Nonetheless the CCC requires you to climb an average of 4,000 – 5,000 m [or more] over 200 km daily, for ten days.  By riding effectively, and being pretty fit, the riders can bag a ton of Cols and feel pretty good about it and they will also be riding some of the most beautiful routes in Europe.”

So, the aim of each CCC is very simple: climb 100 separate cols in 10 days, with a single rest day at the mid point i.e. after five days.  Any one of the days is considered really difficult and some of the riders will almost certainly fail.   As someone who likes to approach a challenge confident in my ability to complete it, this is really messing with my head, in the same way that the Tour de Force did in 2012.   Each day is c.200 km or more, with between 4,500 and 6,000 m of cumulative climbing – the total cumulative climbing for the event is in excess of 50,000 m!  Phil builds in a buffer of a few extra cols, to hopefully allow those who struggle at the end of any single day, to catch back up.  Anything serious though, such as an injury, a crash, or just ongoing failure due to fatigue, would almost certainly see a rider fail.  So, I’m approaching the CCC with an all too familiar mixture of anticipation and dread!

Perhaps the hardest fact for me to digest is that each CCC is considered significantly harder than the Tour de Force that I completed in 2012 and the Dolomites version is (to date), the hardest derivative.  To put it into perspective, the Tour de France was 3,500 km in 21 days.  The CCC will be 2,000 km in 10 days.  But the real challenge is the constant climbing – the Tour rarely stays in a mountain range for more than 3 days.  The CCC never leaves it.  My cumulative ascent on the Tour was 50,000 m in 21 days.  The CCC is the same amount of climbing, but in half the time.

After riding the Tour de France route, there are few places to go for a harder challenge.  Yes, I’d love to ride the Giro, or the Vuelta, but no one organises them.  The CCC is the logical progression therefore.  Suffice to say, I’ve bitten off a huge mouthful this time and will have to prepare as well as possible if I’m going to be successful and even if I can get to the start line in good shape, the outcome is far from certain.

SGL, June 2014.

NB.  The Cent Cols Challenge is organized by Rapha Travel: full details at www.centcolschallenge.com

Ventoux

SGL, October 2011

For the last five years or more, Ventoux had sat at the very top of my list of ‘must do’ climbs.

I didn’t know anything about the climb until I read Armstrong’s autobiography in 2003, in which he described Ventoux as the hardest of the road climbs used by the Tour de France. That instantly caught my interest, but its isolated position in the far south of France, sat alone in the Provencal plain, meant I’d never had the opportunity to climb it. Could it really be harder than Alpe d’Huez, or the Tourmalet, or Hautacam?

Then, back in the autumn of 2009, someone mentioned the ‘Club des Cingles du Mont Ventoux’. Entry to the Club was simple – Ventoux has three separate (road) climbs, radiating from the summit like spokes from a wheel and named after their respective start towns. If you did all three in one day, you became a member. Simple. The Club was started in 1988 by Christian Pic and has over 4,000 members: just over half are French, followed by Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and the US. Inexplicably, it’s quite rare for Brits to do it. And so the plan formed in my mind.

I started to gather info on the ‘Bald Mountain’ or the ‘Giant of Provence’ as it’s also known. On paper the membership route looked tough. It wasn’t the 136 km that was the problem, but rather the fact that half of this was climbing. The classic route from Bedoin was 21 km at an average of 7.5%, from Malaucene the same, and the third ascent was 26 km at a merciful 4.7%. Mont Ventoux is 1,912 m at its summit and the vertical distance for each route was 1,610 m, 1,570 m and 1,220 m respectively, for a total of 4,400 m of climbing over 68 km. As a comparison, 2008’s Etape du Tour was only 2,612 m over 39 km. Cinglé in French means ‘crazy’ and has the synonym fou – ‘mad’. The Club des Cinglés du Mont Ventoux is literally a club for ‘mad crazies’!

The most famous ascent was from Bedoin so this would be my first climb – it was supposed to be the hardest, so I’d do it while I was fresh. I’d then descend to Malaucene, turn around and climb straight back to the summit – reckoned to be almost identical in difficulty to the Bedoin route. From there, I’d descend to Sault and then retrace my steps back to the summit for the final time, before eventually descending to Bedoin.

Although the climbing was significant, it was undeniably a short day and I couldn’t see why it was such a tough ride. Certainly some of my previous days looked much tougher, with similar amounts of climbing and a lot more distance thrown in.

However, I then did a rough mental time calculation: a reasonable (amateur) ascent was reckoned to be c. 1 hr 45 mins. If I allowed two hours for each one, plus 45 minutes for each descent, then I was looking at 8 hrs 15 mins. That was a long day. Factor in that 6 hours would be spent climbing and I started to understand why it might be tough. Even my Tourmalet day in 2007 probably hadn’t involved more than 5 hours of climbing and that had natural breaks in between where you could eat, drink and spin for a while.

Even so, it still didn’t seem all that daunting until I checked Wikipedia one day to see what it had to say about Ventoux. One thing struck me in particular: for more than 240 days of the year, wind speeds at the summit averaged above 90 kmh. It had even been recorded above 300 kmh on occasion! Reading around some more, the general gist seemed to be that you overheated on the wooded, sheltered, but incessantly steep lower section, before emerging into the ‘bare’ lunar landscape at Chalet Reynard with 7 km to go, at which point the wind blew you off the road, or at least made life really difficult. The death of Tommy Simpson in the 1967 edition of the Tour, just 1 km from the summit, did little to help Ventoux’s fearsome reputation and when I said goodbye to Tom [my son, then aged 11] on the Monday morning, all he said was “good luck, don’t die!”

The final thing to do before departure was to set up my attempt for accreditation by the Club. I checked the web and found the details and wrote to Christian Pic, and also transferred €20 to his account. He sent me my card for stamping and some instructions that offered various bits of advice, the key one being that verification stamps could be found in almost every shop in the start towns and in two places at the summit – the restaurant and the ‘magasin’ or souvenir shop.

Tuesday 4th October

I woke early, had breakfast at 7.45 and went down into the car park to pump up my tyres. Another guest, a Dutch lady in her mid 50’s was also preparing to ride away and she asked me to put some air into her tyres with my track pump. I willingly obliged and wished her luck. She asked about my ride and I explained that I was trying for all three ascents – she raised her eyebrows and wished me luck too, before riding away. I put my shoes on and left the hotel at 8.30 am.

I was in Bedoin within 5 minutes and immediately found a magasin that had just opened. My French colleague, Thibault, had coached me to say “Pourais avoir le cachet s’il vous plait?” which translated into “Do you have a stamp [for my authentication card] please?” The girl behind the counter produced a stamp straight away and I was off again – the whole thing had taken no more than a minute.

There’s a roundabout in Bedoin that’s considered the start of the climb and as I went around it, my watch said 8.42 am. The day was beautiful – not a cloud in the sky and light, cool winds from the north east. As I climbed out of the town into open countryside, the day couldn’t have been better. It was cool, chilly even, but I was quickly spinning fast enough to work up some heat and the fact that I was only wearing a jersey didn’t seem to matter.

Few climbs are as well documented as the one from Bedoin. Every twist, turn, camber, ripple, gradient and the surrounding terrain has been described, eulogized and immortalized in cycling literature. The first 6 km are easy – lower chain ring stuff, but easy. The surface was perfect. It was late in the year, but I was riding through vineyards and if you’d added a little lavender and a few sunflowers, it would have been impossibly perfect.

I was careful not to work too hard and purposefully kept changing up to one gear easier than I really needed. In this way, I avoided any early lactic acid and kept my cadence high. The gradient steepened from time to time, but would then even out again. I caught and passed the Dutch lady, probably going twice as quickly in reality and then reached the first crucial point of the climb at Saint Esteve, where the road turned sharp left and the gradient literally went from 4% to a solid 10. What follows is a long, long 9+ km of ascent through the forest with the grade always 9% or over. Some 17 km away, the summit loomed ominously. The road disappeared into a dense cedar forest and all views vanished. This was a place of legends: mercilessly steep and continuous for almost 10 km to Chalet Reynard. It was a place noted for it’s lack of wind and searing, stifling, airless heat, but I was lucky: it was late in the year and a cool breeze was blowing, so my only problem was the gradient.

I stayed seated and spun the pedals. Up through the forest. It was silent, nothing moved, except the odd car. Although consistently steep, I was fresh, it was cool and I was riding well.

I didn’t see another soul until close to Chalet Reynard, where the road briefly leveled out. I emerged from the tree cover and suddenly there it was, 7 km to my left, the summit. White, barren, windswept limestone screes. The road cut a clear line across this landscape. There are seven ‘zigs’ and ‘zags’ in all. Each zig, in a generally westerly direction, was steep – at least 10%. Each zag, to the north or north-east, caught the headwind: it was an evil combination. The wind was light in reality, but if it had been blowing hard, the zags would have been really tough. As it was, the wind was being kind to me, although it definitely carried an autumn chill.

Nearing the top, I caught and passed my first cyclist of the day and thereby became the first person to reach the summit from Bedoin. I worked this out a few days later when I checked the website of the local photographer – I’d surprised him just before the final bend and he jumped up, snapped some shots and gave me a card with his web address on it. Looking at the shots a few days later, I was the first rider photographed.

I felt slightly shaky as I reached the magasin at the summit at exactly 10.36 – meaning a time of 1 hour 54 minutes for the first ascent. The owner was just opening up, but stamped my card. I drank some water, ate a gel and a bar and headed straight down the other side of the mountain towards Malaucene. Two things then happened: I started to shiver and my bike started to shimmy. One was probably causing the other, but the shimmies surprised me – they just seemed too violent. I rode around them a little, but still made good time on the descent. It’s a wide road, with very steep drops in places and I was around 40 – 50 mph the whole time! A couple of sections of 12% offered notable accelerations and Malaucene arrived within 20 – 25 minutes: remarkable really.

I was however, too cold and knew that I’d have to find a gilet – it had been a bad mistake to leave mine behind in the hotel. Fortunately, there was a bike shop right at the bottom of the descent and within 5 minutes I’d bought a gilet and had also stamped my card. At 11.15 I turned around and started the climb back up.

The night before, I’d decided that I would have two gels on each ascent and three bars on each descent, plus some ride shots. However, in reality, the descent, coupled with the shimmies, was just too intense and I hadn’t eaten anything at all since leaving the summit, nor drunk enough. I started to drink more and took on some gels. But I’d committed a cardinal sin and started a deficit that would be hard to rectify.

When planning the trip, I’d sought advice from David, a cyclist friend who had a second home an hour north in the Ardeche and went to Ventoux two or three times a year and therefore knew the mountain really well. As luck would have it, he’d agreed to join me for the final climb. The plan was that David would meet me after my second ascent and then join me for the descent to Sault and the final climb back to the summit.

David had texted me earlier that morning to say that he would cross the mountain via the Malaucene road and sure enough, only a couple of km into my second climb, a small white van pulled alongside and a banana appeared out of the window! We said hello and David offered water, which I foolishly declined. He headed on towards the summit. My gradient steepened and for the first time that day, I felt like I was working hard. I was catching more sun now, the temperature was rising towards 30 degrees and the gradient was relentless, with long stretches up to 12%. I ate a Clif bar, but struggled to chew when working so hard and reminded myself that the gels were for the climbs and the bars for the descents.

The climb seemed to go on forever and I felt pretty ropey for much of it. It was hot, I was tired, sweating profusely and clearly hadn’t eaten enough. I also realized that I should have carried more water (only one bottle was full when I started out from Malaucene) – I was now having to ration my water, which was ridiculous.

Eventually, the road flattened slightly, which signaled the final stretch to the summit was just ahead. I emerged from the trees, back onto the barren rock screes. The wind was much less of an issue from this direction, but it was light anyway. The views of the Alps to the north-east were amazing.

I eventually reached the summit after 2 hrs 15 mins of climbing. The route from Malaucene was exactly the same length as the road from Bedoin and the gradients were officially no worse. The general consensus seemed to be that the climb from Malaucene was a little easier than the one from Bedoin. But not for me. The Malaucene climb had really sapped my strength and I recognized the slightly shaky feeling when I dismounted at the summit for what it was – a mild bonk. The time was 1.30 – it had taken me 2 hrs 15 mins and probably 15 – 20 mins longer than it should have done. I’d certainly suffered and only experience had really helped i.e. the knowledge that things always get better if you just keep going and eat and drink as much as possible.

David was ready and waiting for me and we headed down to Chalet Reynard. This time I had a gilet and the experience was so much better – I was warm! My bike however was still shimmying, and since I wasn’t shivering, it had to be my brand new HED wheels. So when we stopped briefly, I reset the wheels squarely in the dropouts, which sorted things out. I gulped a little coke when David offered and checked my stock of bars.

We forked left just below the Chalet itself (the right fork returned to Bedoin). The descent was easily angled, but long and the road surface was ropey – bumpy, broken in places and the road was narrow. Eventually, we emerged from the cedar forest into open countryside. The weather remained nigh perfect – 30 degrees, not a cloud in the sky and light winds. We reached the bottom of the descent to find that Sault was actually 100 m above us on a small rocky outcrop. I took off my gilet and we climbed the few hundred meters into the town centre. The Office du Tourisme seemed like the best place to get a stamp and sure enough my French worked perfectly.

We set off again straight away and were quickly starting the climb back to the summit. This was a long one though – 26 km at an average gradient of 4.7%. David was clearly way fresher than me and I admitted to feeling pretty screwed! He pulled alongside and proceeded to talk at me for the next 2 hrs – it was the best possible way of taking my mind off how I felt. He turned into the perfect ‘domestique’ keeping an eye on me, encouraging me to drink and handing me a gel every time he noticed our average speed dropping. It was hot, but the day was beautiful and we were riding our bikes on Ventoux. Life was good.

Before I knew it, the gradient had eased and I found myself in my big chain ring! Sadly, this didn’t mean that I’d become a cycling God, but rather that we were approaching the brief easy section near Chalet Reynard. The gradient jumped immediately, but I knew this stretch from the first ascent this morning and it was fine. The wind was light, the day didn’t seem too hot and I was now riding on a combination of David’s gels and ‘finish-line adrenalin’. I looked at David and said, “it’s in the bag.” He smiled. We passed the Tommy Simpson memorial again and then the Col des Tempetes, the most wind exposed spot before the summit, but the Gods were being kind to me today and the wind barely registered against our onward path.

The final ramp kicks up to 10% and beyond, so even the final few yards to the magasin and the final summit were tough. The owner was outside and simply looked at me and said “trois?” I agreed: “oui, trois.” I collected my last summit stamp with a big grin. The climb had taken 2 hrs and 10 mins – pretty good really, given the length and what had gone before! Interestingly, no one had passed me all day, despite the fact that there were cyclists everywhere!, so I was probably faster than I felt at times.

I descended back to the Simpson memorial, paid my respects and sat on the steps for a few minutes, savouring the achievement and the unbelievable view to the south, out across Provence to the Mediterranean.

The descent back down to Bedoin is one of the best anywhere in the world: fast, twisty in places, with perfect tarmac. It turned into one of the best 20 minutes of technical bends and speed I’ve ever found. It was extremely good, even rivaling the descents off Hautacam and the Soulor. Through the forest the temperature rose dramatically and I noted that insects were bouncing off my arms, legs and helmet – someone later explained that the forest was popular with bees and it wasn’t uncommon to get stung on the descent! I literally flew down the final 4 km to Bedoin. I picked up my final stamp, recorded the time and rode slowly to my hotel.

I was now a member of the Club des Cingles du Mont Ventoux – Number 3991 to be precise.

NB. A few weeks later, whilst writing this and gathering material, I read another account of ‘three in a day’ and like me, the rider found the Malaucene climb to be the worst part.

NB. My Garmin said:
Distance: 137 km
Riding Time: 7 hrs 58 mins and 27 secs
Average Heart Rate: 140 bpm
Max Heart Rate: 169 bpm
Average Speed: 17.3 kmh
Max Speed: 82 kmh
Average Cadence: 59 rpm (but the long descents would have skewed this downwards)
Ascent: 4,345 m

La Doyenne

Saturday 20th April, 2013

4.00 am.  My alarm goes off.

It’s cold in my room and I feel terrible.  I’m tired.  Really, deeply tired and maybe a bit sick too.

I flex my ankles and then my calves – everything feels tight and sore.  I haul myself into a sitting position on the edge of the bed and take a drink, along with a couple of pain-killers and a vitamin tablet.  I’ve already ridden 550 km and 10,000 meters of ascent in the last few days, but there’s a bigger problem still ahead, for in three hours time I’m going to attempt to ride the entire route of La Doyenne: the original and Queen of the Classics – Liege-Bastogne-Liege, 276 km and 4,640 m of ascent.  I stand up slowly, wince and pray the pain-killers kick in fast.

6.30 am.  We roll away from the start line in Liege: me, a friend (Pitsi) and 800 other riders.  It’s still dark, so navigating the city’s roads and cobbled sections is easier said than done, but it’s the pro race tomorrow and their direction arrows show up clearly enough.  Almost immediately, the road starts climbing and although it flattens from time to time, it barely seems to go down at all in the first three hours.  Grey becomes green and we head south into the beautiful Ardennes hills.  Dark forests, small villages and narrow ribbons of tarmac, snaking into the distance.

9.00 am.  The route splits: left for the shorter (155km) version, or straight on for the full monty.  We go straight on.

9.30 am.  Dochamps and a wave from Mrs Deeker!  I’m still feeling awful and so many people seem to have overtaken me.  I can’t really be this slow can I?  I glance down and finally spot the temperature on my Garmin: 1.2 degrees centigrade.  Well that might explain things.  I cling to the hope that if I just keep spinning, eating and drinking, things might improve.  It’s tenuous.

Somewhere on the climb out of La Roche-en-Ardenne, I lose Pitsi.  The plan had always been that we would try to stick together until Bastogne, but that’s pretty close now, so I keep my head down.

10.30 am.  Bastogne.  The half-way turning point that isn’t even close to half-way.  I’m on my own now.  Cyclists everywhere, but I don’t know a soul.  And this is the first real milestone: turning back north.  And straight into a really stiff headwind.  I find a likely bunch in which to hide and bide my time.

11.00 am.  Bizarrely, four and a half hours in and I’m beginning to feel better.  The roads roll incessantly and the wind is ever present, but I’m finding some rhythm at last.  The Cote de Saint-Roch (1.0 km, 22.5% max, 12% av) gives a stark warning of what’s to come, but suddenly no one’s coming past me anymore and I feel slightly more confident.  It’s warmer too – almost 5 degrees now!

12.30 pm.  Vielsalm.  I’m 165 km in and somehow, against all the odds and all logic, I’m feeling OK.   Normally this sort of distance would signal the end of a long ride, but today discards all reference points.

12.40 pm.  And now the real work starts: 10 legendary climbs, spread pretty evenly over the next 115 km.  It would be a tough outing even starting fresh from here, but with six hours already in my legs, plus the previous week of punishment, I’m amazed I can still ride a bike at all.

12.45 pm.  The Cote de Wanne (2.6 km, 15% max, 7% av), feels slow: it’s open and I’m really catching the wind.  But the evil, steep, Cote de Stockeu (1.0 km, 24% max, 13% av) feels faster, bizarrely.  Brutal cobbles and the horrible Cote de Haute Levee (3.9 km, 20.5% max, 5% av).

2.00 pm. I’ve promised myself a gel after every three climbs and it seems to be working.  Keep spinning.  No one’s passed me since the hard climbs began.   I’m slowly winding things up and really trying hard.

3.00 pm.  Sunshine and the beautiful, alpine-esque Cote de Rosier (3.9 km, 12% max, 6% av).  The Col du Maquisard , steep, twisty, dark forests (2.4 km, 11% max, 6% av).  A photographer snaps me in my Molteni jersey.  The Rules say my rainbow bands are in poor taste, but I’m paying homage and I think Eddy would be OK with it.

Mont Theux, two climbs in one, straight, steep and too many cars (1.1 km, 18% max, 9% av).

3.45 pm.  Under the motorway and a place of legends reveals itself: the properly steep Cote de la Redoute (1.6 km, 25% max, 9% av).

Another gel, drink again.  Keep going.  This is where the pros often attack, so I try to dig deeper.

Big, fast descents reveal just how high the climbs are.

The Cote du Hornay (1.1 km, 12% max, 6% av) and then the double climb of Cote de Colonster (2.9 km, 10% max, 6% av).

Into Seraing: it’s fair to assume the Liege tourist board didn’t pick the route.  Except, bizarrely, they did!  Green becomes grey, hills become factories and fields become urban grime.  It reminds me of scenes from Mordor, but it’s also what makes this race so special.  The transition back to Liege and the feeling that the finish is finally within reach.

5.45 pm: Emptying whatever’s left in the tank, which isn’t much.  The Cote Saint Nicolas (1.1 km, 20% max, 9% av) – a street climb like no other.  It really hurts.

6.09 pm: I almost clip a curb in my dash for the final drag to the finishing line in Ans, which is so much steeper and longer than it looks on TV.  And then I’m there, across the line and done.  Really, really, completely done [in].

La Doyenne.  It really was.  276 km, 4,800 m, 11 hours and 39 minutes and without a doubt the hardest day I’ve ever spent on a bike.