All Photos courtesy of Kevin Mellalieu, Jimi Thomson/Two Tyred Tours, Riccardo Green & Sir Guy Litespeed. Click on any of the images to view fullscreen and then use your back button to return to the text.
The Cottian Alps: a remote, high range of mountains on the border between France and Italy. When the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia wants to throw in something really high, remote and maybe even gravel, this is where it goes. Epic: a word used too often nowadays, but in the case of the Cottian Alps, it’s genuinely warranted.
A squiggly line from Torino to Monaco, some 700km long and 18,000m high.
Five days only, mid-June 2016.
Kev Mellalieu: 50 something, a seasoned mountain man and RAPID descender; Riccardo Green: 30 something, another seasoned mountain man and loooong day climbing specialist; Allan Greenfield: 50 something, more used to the desert flat-lands of Dubai, but a Kiwi by origin and hence loves the mountains; Tom Townsend: 16, rookie-blade, new to the mountains and multi-stage riding; Emma Wood: 18, another rookie-blade, also new to multi-stage riding and mountains; and Me, Sir Guy Litespeed.
Prologue: One week prior to departure…
I knew that there was a problem, as soon as I saw Michael’s name on the incoming call screen: he was buried at work, advising on an imminent multi-billion dollar deal and had no choice but to pull out of our trip. I could hear the regret and anguish in his voice: “Gutted.” Silence.
There was a silver lining though: his employer was picking up his costs, so if I could find someone to step in, there was a free place on offer.
I quickly ran through names in my mind: who might be physically ready for a trip like this, with just one week’s notice AND free to come along? Impossible.
I threw out three or four invites, already knowing the answer. The responses were an echo of each other: “wow, that sounds amazing”, followed by “but I’m really sorry, I can’t come at such short notice.”
Fair enough. I nearly gave up. Then I thought of Emma.
Emma lives nearby and rides for High Wycombe Cycling Club, (HWCC) – I first met her last summer and like my son Tom, she was just getting into cycling. Fast forward a year and Tom and I had ridden with her enough to know that she was strong, fast and a very smiley, ‘can do’ personality. I also knew she was probably free, having just finished exams. I sent her a note. I gave her the briefest of outlines and suggested I pop over and talk to her and her parents, after which, she could either say yes, or no.
She said yes.
Her following five days were a blur of booking flights, arranging insurance, buying and borrowing various bits of kit, bike packing and nail biting!
To say that Emma (and Tom for that matter), were ‘in at the deep end’ would be a massive understatement. Over the years however, I’ve formed a view that people with the right physical conditioning can achieve things far beyond what they and others might imagine possible. But, only if they really commit and ‘put themselves in the path of the challenge’. Our ‘Cottian Alps Espoirs’ were about to test that theory to the max.
I’d realised in the last 12 months with HWCC just how little I knew about so many aspects of cycling: time-trialling, race licences, chain-gangs, crit races. It was all new.
However, the one thing I did know a lot about was multi-stage mountain riding and particularly, after Lucy’s Cent Cols in Autumn 2015, I knew how to prepare and nurture ‘multi-stage mountain newbies’. The decision to take Tom and then Emma, to the Cottian Alps, was therefore an educated judgment call, rather than recklessness (or so I tried to convince myself)! They would be surrounded by four very experienced riders and supported by one of the very best guys in the bespoke bike tours world: Jimi Thomson of Swiss based Two Tyred Tours. Together, I felt we could shepherd our Espoirs* through the mountains and mitigate most of the risks. * Espoirs is a French word, used in cycling to describe young, up and coming riders. The literal translation is something like ‘future hopes’.
Scene 1: The Finestre
Just three kilometers up the very first climb, Emma announced, with a mixed tone of awe and nervousness, that this was already her biggest ever climb. She had 300m vertical showing on her Garmin. I smiled to myself and winked at Rich, beside me. Tom meanwhile was channeling his nerves straight into his legs and marking Rich attentively, keen to make sure that he was on the pace!
We were climbing the early slopes of the Finestre. Unknown in cycling circles until it’s inclusion in the 2005 Giro d’Italia, the Finestre was the catalyst for the entire trip. I’d spent the last 11 years dreaming about this 17km, 1,700m climb. What makes the Finestre so special is the last 7km, because the surface becomes gravel. At least, on race day it looks like gravel, because the road is groomed and flattened slightly. In a non-Giro appearance year, it’s just a regular mountain track and gravel would be too kind. It’s stones, mud and rocks, with occasional smooth sections of gravel in between!
I’d read that it would easily rank in most people’s Top 10 Best European climbs, alongside mythical names like the Galibier, the Tourmalet, the Stelvio and Alpe d’Huez. I’d also read that it was hard, with an average gradient nudging 10%. As a ‘first ever mountain’ for Emma and ‘second ever mountain’ for Tom (Ventoux was his first!), it was the stuff of dreams. Or maybe, nightmares? Either way, it was likely to be memorable…
I spend my winters pouring over maps and dreaming of roads and climbs I’ve yet to visit. Once I have an outline plan, I send it to Jimi and he works on turning it into a proper route, with overnight stops. Together, we then sense check our daily distance and climbing, tweak the route if it looks too easy, or too hard and then I invite likely accomplices, resulting in a totally bespoke trip for five or six riders. This trip, from Torino to Monaco, was effectively five dreams, joined up to create an amazing point-to-point, five day road trip. To say I was excited, heading up the Finestre, was an understatement.
The road section of the Finestre was steep – consistently 10 – 15%, for 10km. If it hadn’t been for fresh legs, I think we’d have found this really hard, but as it was, we coped pretty well, all arriving at the gravel section within a minute or two of each other. Running point were Tom and Rich, with Kev and I a few minutes back, distracted by too many photo opportunities and using Emma and Allan as our cycling models. The ‘gravel’ section was consistently 8 – 10% and required complete concentration and plenty of power. Picking the right line was crucial and you had to move all over the track, constantly. We were lucky to have it dry – the weather in the Alps so far this Spring had been awful and it had rained relentlessly for the last six weeks or so.
But on this day, the sun shone, our tyres threw up nothing worse than dust and we all cleaned the climb, sans punctures. It’s amazing what a road bike can do if you let it. Paris-Roubaix, Flanders, Tro Blo Leon, the Finestre.
The next lesson for our Espoirs was descending. It’s virtually impossible to replicate a big Alpine descent in the UK, so this really was back to basics. With some super-fast descenders (Allan, Kev, Rich) to guide them, Emma and Tom started to learn how to do it. Going fast is easy, but going fast, safely, through corners is another thing altogether: sudden breaks in the road surface, gravel, cambers, blind bends, traffic, stray animals, rocks. My biggest fear for our learners was a downhill crash and I kept impressing 100% concentration on them.
Safely down in the valley, it was now properly hot – 30 degrees C and rising. We stopped for our first proper (Italian) espresso of the trip and Kev and Rich decided to break off for one of Jimi’s ‘extras’: an optional out and back climb, or loop, for anyone who wanted to test their legs yet further!
Allan, Tom, Emma and I continued on to Pinerolo and from there to our finish town of Saluzzo, via a couple of short but punchy climbs in temperatures now nudging the mid 30s. Fittingly, our final km to the hotel involved impossibly narrow streets, cobbles and a 30% ramp! Kev and Rich rolled in an hour or so later, looking like they’d been ‘tested’ by the heat! For Emma, this was her longest ever ride. Tomorrow’s stage would be harder still.
Scene 2: The Agnello
My second dream was the Agnello. Every picture I’d ever seen of this climb had snow in it! Three words seemed to sum it up: long, high and beautiful. A 60km climb, to 2,744m. It would be the longest continuous section of uphill that I’d ever ridden. Admittedly, the first 40km were pretty gentle, but the final 20km and in particular the last 10km, really made up for it. With my Garmin consistently showing 10 – 15%, this final section, heading up into the snows, was genuinely challenging.
Tom had asked me a few months earlier whether you could actually feel the altitude on the highest passes and I’d said “no, not really.” But I had been wrong and with five kilometers still to go, I rode up alongside him to tell him “yes, you can categorically feel it”!
The Agnello, particularly from the Italian side, should be on every cyclists ‘To Do List’. It is simply, epic.
With stops, it took us over five hours to reach the summit and suddenly the day seemed like being a long one. Kev and Rich had sped off after the first feed stop, aiming to add the out and back climb up the iconic Col d’Izoard and in the process, 5,500m for the day! The rest of us added extra clothes and headed down from the Agnello for about 30km to Guillestre, where we basked in warm sunshine, eating sandwiches and ice cream 🙂
Next up was the Col du Vars, another HC climb: 21km long and very hot, with temperatures back into the mid 30s. Emma, who had started the day feeling a little creaky, discovered that it was possible to recover as the day went on and with about 10km to go, she made a break for the summit. Jimi drove up alongside Tom and I with a raised eyebrow and a “she’s gone” comment. A Coke a few kms below the summit had a similar effect on Tom and I took a stunning shot of him nearing the col in the early evening sunshine.
The following 30 minutes will stay with me forever. In just 24 hours, Tom and Emma had worked out how to descend a mountain fast and I found myself grinning from ear to ear, as we flew down the final 20km to Barcelonette, with the Espoirs cornering like pros. The descent off the southern side of the Vars is worth seeking out – it’s superb! Meanwhile, behind, Kev and Rich caught Allan and the three of them shared the same descent and arrived at the hotel just a few minutes behind us.
Scene 3: The Cayolle – Champs – Allos Link-Up
Dream #3 was something I’d read about in Daniel Friebe’s book, Mountain Higher. He described the natural loop formed by the cols of the Cayolle, Champs and Allos as one of the top three link ups on European roads and I’d been thinking about it for years.
So far, our weather had been near perfect. In truth, it had actually been a touch too warm at times, but as someone who rides through a British winter each year, I’d told myself a long time ago never to complain when the sun shone. However, the temperature was rising by a few degrees each day and we were now into solid mid 30’s (in the shade) and well beyond that in the sun.
Setting out from our start and finish point of Barcelonnette however, all seemed well and we rode together for the first 10km of the Cayolle. It’s a long climb at 30km and it quickly struck me how beautiful it was, rising first through a narrow gorge and then emerging into a beautiful Alpine valley. Tempted by photo opportunities, Kev and I were soon at the rear and leap-frogging each other up the valley as we stopped in turn to capture yet another stunning image. I therefore missed the attack by Tom, with Emma following his wheel for all but the last km or so. It seemed our Espoirs were in good shape.
The upper section of the Cayolle was truly stunning and as I neared the top of the climb, surrounded by peaks, meadows, wild flowers and waterfalls, I realised that I had a problem: how to squeeze it into my ‘Top Five Best Ever Climbs’ when I already had twelve contenders!
The summit was cool enough, but by the time we’d descended a thousand meters to the valley below, it was pretty warm again and over lunch, Tom asked me how heat stroke worked and whether you could ever drink too much when riding in temperatures as hot as the ones we were now experiencing. We talked it through and came to the conclusion that he should be drinking at least 750ml of fluids per hour and Riccardo contributed some ‘Salt Stik’ tablets to help.
It was here that I made my only real mistake of the trip, in that I didn’t specifically have the same conversation with Emma and I failed to check exactly how much she was drinking.
An hour and a half later, at the summit of the Champs, the answer became clear: not enough. Thankfully, Rich had shepherded her up the climb and despite feeling sick and pretty wobbly, she’d kept spinning her pedals. She arrived at the summit smiling, but Rich shot me a look which conveyed “she’s not smiling inside” and I immediately had a quick word with Allan. He’s something of an expert on cycling in the heat, living in the Middle East and riding right through their summer in temperatures nudging 50 degrees and beyond. He went straight into action with cold water and iced towels (as ever, Jimi was right on hand with the van) and although we lost some time, when we set out to descend, we were confident that Emma’s core temperature had dropped and impressively, she was still riding her bike, when others might have climbed in alongside Jimi at that point.
The stats on our loop looked relatively innocuous: c.130km and 3,500m, but in the heat, this was not proving to be an easy ride at all. It’s also very remote and without Jimi, we’d really have struggled to acquire enough water to undertake it safely.
The descent off the Champs is ‘technical’: be warned. The road surface was marginal for most of the way and in places, it almost disappeared completely. All credit then to Tom and Emma for navigating it without incident – their learning curve continued to be pretty much vertical!
With Emma clearly in need of recovery and an easy finish, the route offered no such thing! The 30km climb to the summit of the Allos was something of a drag, which she dealt with by riding ahead with Rich – it was a good tactic, as we’d all discover later.
With the sun beginning to dip behind the mountains and the temperature finally falling, Tom and I waited for Allan and Kev to join us at the summit. We had a restaurant booked for 8.00 and nothing between us and that except a 20km descent: life seemed good.
However, rounding a bend at speed, I suddenly came across a line of stationary vehicles, stuck behind c.2,000 sheep! I’ve never seen so many sheep. They were being moved down the road for c.4km to new pastures by a combination of dogs and half a dozen shepherds! Jimi caught us up and we all agreed to just sit it out. The restaurant agreed to delay our booking and we alerted Emma and Rich that we were stuck – they’d been allowed to walk through, but we decided against trying to do the same.
Eventually the sheep turned off the road and we finished a stunning day, although not before I’d punctured and almost spun out on the very last and very fast, final corner. The margin between ‘all good’ and ‘all bad’ is often very narrow.
Scene 4: The Bonette
Back in 2009, I rode the Route des Grandes Alpes from Geneva to Nice. It’s a brilliant route, full of stunning climbs, but one had really stuck in my mind and ever since, I’d always quoted it as the best climb I’d ever done. However, time dulls the memory and I’d ridden an awful lot of cols since 2009. Perhaps it wouldn’t live up to expectations?
The Cime de la Bonette. It had all the right ingredients: at 24km it was long enough to be meaningful, it was steep enough to be a proper climb and it ended at the highest paved road loop in Europe. Over half of the climbing occurred above 2,000m. It was a proper climb in every sense.
The bigger immediate question though was Emma, who arrived at breakfast looking pale. She’d clearly suffered from mild heat stroke the day before and was debating whether to ride or not. To her credit, she came back a few minutes later in her riding gear and we agreed to see how she felt after the 10km valley road to the bottom of the climb.
Kev and Rich had left early, keen to add an extra loop that Jimi had prepared as an option, while the rest of us cruised to Jausiers, the town at the foot of the climb. The sky was a deep blue, there was very little wind and the temperature was rising. Tom set a wonderfully steady pace and Emma simply held his wheel. I yoyo’d my way up the climb, taking pictures and simply absorbing where I was.
Just half way up, I knew that the Bonette was going to stay at the top of my list. It’s an amazing climb. Once again I was struck by the three distinct pieces of the climb: the hot lower slopes, leading up to and under a rock wall; then the Alpine meadows, opening up beautiful views ahead and finally, the upper mountain, devoid of vegetation. The scale and the altitude make a remarkable finale. We regrouped at the Col and then headed up the 15% ramps of the loop road which take you to the Cime. It’s slightly contrived, but the snow banks made it worthwhile and being on top of the highest paved road pass in Europe with Tom, Emma and Allan was pretty special.
The rest of the day was good, but inevitably, the Bonette had stolen the show. A steep summit finish woke us back up though and for Kev and Rich, 185km and 5,500m in, it was probably a painful finale!
Scene 5: The Madone
There was always a danger, since our previous days had covered climbs like the Finestre, the Agnello and the Bonette, that a trip like this would end too quietly. However, the Madone was yet another dream of mine: a legendary climb, made famous by the ‘Armstrong years’ and Trek naming a bike after it. By the time we rode onto the lower slopes, it was baking hot. But despite this, we clearly all had the same idea: last climb, full gas.
The pace was fast and I had to work hard to catch, only to then get dropped a couple of kms later. Kev seemed to have the jump on everyone, but gradually, Tom reeled him in, with a hilarious shout of “Kev, I’m coming for you” from 50m behind.
When you ride a route for the first time, you usually work out what you’d change to make it better next time. But in this instance, besides a different hotel on the fourth night, there was nothing to alter. This was undoubtedly one of the best trips I’ve ever ridden. The photos speak for themselves. I’m planning a return in 2017. It’s as simple as that.
P.S. Inspired by a glimpse into big rides and what’s possible if you set your mind to it, Emma went on to ‘Everest’ a climb in the UK in August. She’s the youngest woman in the world to do this – by six years!
My list of ‘Top Five Best Ever Climbs’ is as follows:
1. Bonette from Jausiers
2. Ventoux from Bedoin
3. Susten from Innertkirchen
4. Finestre from Susa
5. Manghen from Molina
6. Cayolle from Barcelonnette
7. Gavia from Ponte di Legno
8. Agnello from Chianale
9. Stelvio from Prato
10. Puy Mary from Recusset
11. Croix de Bauzon from Jaujac
12. St. Gotthard (Tremola) from Airolo
13. Galibier from Valloire
There’s an obvious problem with this list, I know: five does not equal thirteen! Besides that, the notable point is that five of these climbs were on this route. Quite simply, although this wasn’t the hardest ride I’ve done, it was certainly one of the best. It was a treat from start to finish: the stuff of dreams. Thank you to Tom, Emma, Kev, Allan and Riccardo for sharing it with me and to Jimi Thomson of Two Tyred Tours ( www.twotyredtours.com ), for making rides like this possible.
SGL, Summer 2016.