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