Three is the Magic Number

A while back my friend Ollie from work said he wanted to ride up Mont Ventoux for his fortieth birthday. I mentioned that my friends Jo, George and Oli had, a couple of years before, ridden all three road ascents and joined something called Le Club Des Cingles Du Mont Ventoux. I pointed him in the direction of Jo’s account of that day. The next day Ollie said he was up for it and thus a plan was hatched. We invited along our mutual friend Norm and Ollie’s mate Elliot. A few days before we left Jo handed me a piece of Ventoux rock to take back to the top with strict instructions to only put it back after the third ascent, and collect another one for the next time.20160910_051827Halfway up the first ascent in the dark it dawns on me that I don’t have the rock. F*ck. It was with all my stuff when I laid it out last night. I then realise that it must be lying on top on my mitts which I’ve also forgotten. These things are easily forgotten when you get up at 4.15 in the morning. Annoyingly I noticed I had no mitts on about two kilometres after leaving Bedoin so could have easily spun round and grabbed them which would have made me realise I also didn’t have the rock, but I didn’t as the weather forecast is good enough to think I won’t need them. However I am now half way up a mountain and have a dilemma. I could turn round but that will hold everyone else up. I also consider that after the ascent from Malaucene I could drop back to Bedoin and collect it, ride around to Sault and then start the final ascent. Again that means holding the others up or forcing them to ride extra kilometres or I end up riding half the day on my own. Also that would mean I’d have to then ride back down to Sault and around to Bedoin in order to collect all the descents as well as ascents. Plus I will have only carried it for one ascent. Nothing for it, I have to continue without it. After all it’s just a bit of stone. It’s not though is it. It’s a story, part of a narrative, and I’ve just inadvertently added a blank page. Blank pages are OK though, just means there’s more story to write. That’s how I’ll explain it to Jo when I ‘fess up. Which may be when (if) he reads this.
20160910_065355 By the time I’ve worked through this dilemma in my head the darkness is receding and we arrive at Chalet Reynard. Somehow the climb through the forest didn’t seem as bad as I was expecting. I won’t say it was easy but I’ve been in my lowest two gears since the bottom and haven’t overdone things, and the black silence of night hid the gradient from our view. The darkness may be fading as we spin towards day but the silence remains. We have the mountain to ourselves and as we hit the barren moon like section that any cyclist would recognise the sun breaks the horizon and lights the tip of the mountain in subtle tones of pink and orange. I glance over my shoulder and the sky is on fire. Two corners from the observatory at the top the view to the east looks as though Provence is errupting from a gigantic volcano. We stop for a moment just to look. The summit beckons.
20160910_072134 20160910_074016After a quick celebratory “that’s one done” it’s jackets on for the descent to Malaucene…and wowsers! What a descent. I had a feeling it would be from talking to Jo and George about it previously. I also knew this is the climb where George blew up spectacularly on their Cingles attempt so guessing it was pretty steep in places. It’s not overly steep (well, not when you’re going down at least) but it has long straight(ish) sections where you can see all the road and pick your line and absolutely fly. Head down, arse up, WHIZZ. I stop on a couple of corners to take photos but generally just make WOO!! noises and have fun. I do clock other riders climbing with helmets hanging on stems and jerseys undone. This, along with the speed I career past them, indicates that the climb may be a little bit of effort, and that it must be getting warm.20160910_080218 20160910_085749We spot a patisserie on the junction in Malaucene at the bottom of the descent so decide to stop here for a second breakfast. I order an apple pastry and a hot chocolate as well as collecting the first stamp on my brevet card. Breakfast is supplemented with an energy gel. I hate the things and rarely use them but I fully expect the next 20 odd kilometres to be tough. I’m not surprised when it turns out to be exactly that. The long fast sections coming down are as expected on the return back up the mountain, interminable grinds with frequent out of the saddle efforts to push the gear over a bit more easily. The views are beautiful and we are still able to keep a conversation going so the going can’t be too difficult. Conversation may be overstating the case somewhat. Look round, “You alright?”, deep breath, “Yeah”, stare at ground a bit more. The flies have come out to play but (un)fortunately Norm forgot to apply any insect repellent before we left so they swarm around him until he looks like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. It makes us laugh. Well, maybe not Norm. 20160910_093528The sun is climbing in the sky and the temperature is following suit. Jersey zips are undone and water bottles go tepid. However we make steady progress without anyone suffering too badly. Half way up we stop near George’s rock to regroup and squirt more gels down our necks. After another long straight section, that could be far harder if the sun was high enough to shine over the trees shading our side of the road, we stop at Chalet Liotard, six kilometres from the top, for cold Orangina and bidon refills. 20160910_11195620160910_11311020160910_114052The last section is in the full glare of the sun and the temperature is starting to bite more than the gradient. Or I thought it was until I get to the last twisting section, and I remember how fast this bit was coming down, all squealing brakes and overcooked corners. I stop a couple of times to take photos…ok, for a moment of relief before carrying on to the summit. Two down.

This time we don’t have the top to ourselves. It’s absolutely rammed with cyclists and is noisy so we don’t hang about once we’ve discussed whether to eat lunch here or at Chalet Reynard or maybe in Sault. We decide on Chalet Reynard so after getting our brevet cards stamped we don jackets for the swift descent to lunch. Well it would be swift except the road is full of cars and bikes and motorbikes. And sheep. I mutter under my breath about cars getting in my way on the corners. I also realise that lunch is definitely needed, I feel slightly lightheaded. I’ve done the two hardest climbs on a handful of pastries and a couple of gels. Table found, menu open, omelette, chips, salad, cup of tea, close menu, thanks. We watch as a convoy of Porsches head up into the moonscape. There are motorbikes destroying the quiet everywhere. Lunch done we head for Sault.20160910_130400From pre-ride chats and internet searching I’m aware that the Sault climb is the ‘easiest’ as Sault is higher above sea level than either Bedoin or Malaucene and the climb is spread out over a longer distance, hence the overall gradient is shallower. This is obvious from the need to pedal downhill to maintain a swift pace. A couple of corners tighten more than I expect and the speed with which I enter them forces me to drift across the road, fortunately each time there isn’t anything coming the other way. Which is good as most of the motorbikes (still destroying the quiet) are taking the racing line everywhere and are often found on our side of the road. Exiting the woodland we find ourselves on a plateau with Sault visible above and ahead of us on a small hill. The scent of lavender hangs in the air. The short switchbacked inclination into Sault seems a bit unnecessary given what we’re attempting.20160910_141512In Sault we regroup outside a bakery for a stamp and cold drinks. I sit on a stone step and reflect internally that I feel far better than anticipated and that this final climb could be quite enjoyable. My main concern is the heat. It’s now early afternoon and the temperature is in the mid-thirties. Anything poured into our bidons becomes warm within minutes. Dropping from the village back onto the plateau I see the observatory glowing in the distance, bright white in the blue sky. One more time. Here goes.20160910_135543I don’t know if it’s the heat or the annoying constant roar of motorcycle engines or the accumulating tiredness in my legs but the climb quickly becomes my least favourite of the day. Drinking warm water isn’t helping. I thought this was supposed to be the easy one. We yo-yo off and back onto each others wheels all climb. We split into two pairs, Ollie and Elliot and me and Norm. Again we all keep chatting so we’re not going too deep, it’s just a bit relentless and hot. Very hot. The convoy of Porsches zoom past us. We stop under some trees and eat snacks and laugh at Norm and his collection of flies. A shadow drifts across us and rain drops start to fall. Big fat globules of cooling water that leave splash marks on the road that look like squashed berries. The air smells of warm tarmac and warm foliage. I like it when it rains like this. Not too long after this the gradient eases enough to big ring the final section back to Chalet Reynard. We stop here again but just long enough to regroup. A load of Ferraris drive past. And more motorbikes. I miss the quiet of this morning but six more kilometres of climbing and we’re done. And we’ve done this bit once so know it’s not too difficult. I forget to factor in that that was with fresh legs and half the ambient temperature.20160910_160548 20160910_161559We set off and within minutes Elliot punctures. Not bad, the first one of the day and I don’t mind a sit down. It starts raining again. I don’t mind this either. Soon we back on the bikes and heading up hill. I’m struggling now, proper struggling. I stop a lot. To take photographs I tell myself. I’m lying to myself, I know exactly why I’m stopping, but there are only a few kilometres left and I know I can ride them, after all I’ve done it once today. I remember the 600km audax I did two weeks ago and think that maybe there’s a trace of deep down tired in my muscles. Doesn’t matter, I can do this. I can. I’m aware that I’m staring at my stem a lot but it’s only when I notice the kilometre to go marker I realise I’ve not seen any markers since five kilometres to go. I must have been looking down a lot. The others have stopped at the Tom Simpson memorial so I stop too. I pick up a stone and put it in my pocket. As I don’t have Jo’s rock to swap for it this feels dishonest as I drop it into my pocket. There’s that dilemma again.20160910_162219 20160910_163313wp-1473754548358.jpgBack at the summit it is quieter again, just a few cyclists milling about and chatting, not the crush it was last time here. We see a couple that we last spotted on the road into Sault who are also doing the ‘Cingle’. We chat and discover they are from Avignon and joke if they are now riding home (they’re not, very sensible). Photos are taken under the summit sign and jackets pulled on for the last time today. 20160910_164805It’s decided that we’ll all head back int Bedoin at our own pace, no stopping or waiting, we’ll meet up outside a bar in town. Ollie and I disappear off the front shimmying through the curves and bends in the forest. Oh, this is what it looks like. Blimey, it is quite steep. I’m glad we did this in the dark. I make WOO!! noises on the fast straight bits and giggle internally through the wiggly bits. It gets warmer and warmer as we descend and I really could do without my jacket but I’m having too much fun to stop. Zips are undone, jacket and jersey flap behind me. We pull up outside the bar opposite our B&B, right on the roundabout at the start of the Bedoin climb, and wait for Elliot, who arrives a few minutes later, and Norm, who doesn’t. We order cold beers and wait a bit longer. Half way down a beer and still no sign of Norm. We try calling and texting but no response. Has he crashed, or had a mechanical, or got lost? The last is almost impossible, it’s just one road. The other two are possible. He still doesn’t arrive, this is worrying now, a puncture shouldn’t take this long. We may have to pick straws to decide who will ride back up to find him. Another gulp of beer first. Then he arrives. He had a flat within metres of leaving the summit and then pulled out the valve fixing it. We order him a beer and get our cards stamped. We’ve done it.img_20160911_082307Later that evening I realise I’ve lost the rock I picked up at the top. I think I may have left it on the table outside the bar when I was sorting through my pockets slightly dizzy with effort and alcohol and contentment. This must be Mont Ventoux’s way of telling me I must return another day.

 

GPS record: https://www.strava.com/activities/707273340

 

Thanks to Norm and Ollie for the photos of me nearing the summit on the first and final ascents.

six hundred

I can feel tears welling up. My sunglasses are in my jersey pocket so there’s no way I’m going to hide this. I drift backwards from Jo’s side. I look at the trees, and my stem, and my feet turning the pedals, and back at the trees. I wipe away a tear with a filthy, snotty mitt. I am utterly exhausted. It’s suddenly hit me that I’ve decided to pack. The shear scale of what is left of this endeavour has overwhelmed me like a wave and I’m too tired to keep my head above the water. Doing the sums I know it’s possible to complete the audax in the time allowed but chances are when we get back to Hailsham it will be too late to get a train home. The thought of having to turn around in order to ride the extra 35 kilometres home is more than I want to think about. I really don’t want to pack though. It’s my first 600 and it would complete a Super Randonneur series for the season. More than that though I don’t want to let Jo down. He didn’t enter the audax, he’s just come along for fun, well, maybe not fun, we did a pinky swear about trying something really stupid next year so this is a test, and it’s a test I sense I may be about to fail. I’m the one that is supposed to be able to do this. Jo has never ridden more than 200km and it was my idea to ride 600 and I said it would be OK. I can reconcile myself to bailing on the audax but to not ride 600 kilometres? I can’t stop, not now, not this far in, giving up is out of the question. I reckon we’ve ridden about 540 kilometres so far and it must be about another sixty to home from here. We’re near Petersfield and if I can get there then I can get to Midhurst and if I can get there then I can get to Petworth and if I can get there then I can get to Storrington and if I can get there I can get to Steyning and if I can get there I can get to Shoreham and if we can get there we can have a pint by the river and we can say we did it. We can say we rode to Wales and back and we will have ridden 600 kilometres, further and for longer than either of us have ever ridden. It’s been ridiculous and it’s been brilliant and it’s not quite over. I ride back up to Jo and tell him the new plan hoping he doesn’t notice the emotion cracking my voice.

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https://www.strava.com/activities/692622452

Bunking Off

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all that bivvying has paid off as George displays a mastery of being able to sleep anywhere
all that bivvying has paid off as George displays a mastery of being able to sleep anywhere

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Jo gets a little over-excited by the Draw Cats magazine with free pencils
Jo gets a little over-excited by the Draw Cats magazine with free pencils
Vic gets a little over-excited borrowing the Diverge after breakfast
Vic gets a little over-excited borrowing the Diverge after breakfast

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"What time is it?"
“What time is it?”

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Orangine and Nutella crepes at the seaside
Orangine and Nutella crepes at the seaside
salad, steaks, Leffe, pink plonk, apple tart, creme caramel, more Leffe
salad, steaks, frites, Leffe, pink plonk, apple tart, creme caramel, more Leffe

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one last beer before home
one last beer before home

 

Brighton Big Dog 2016

Having decided not to race this year’s Brighton Big Dog I helped taping out the course, then faffed about taking photos, filled tea urns for a bit, and then helped untape the course. Stunning day for it this year, mostly sunny for spectators but shaded over for an hour or two mid-afternoon so it was a bit cooler in the woods for the racers. Saw and chatted with lots of friends, and drank tea and beer with them too. Photos were mostly badly exposed and out of focus so dropped them into Lightroom and applied every filter I could think of. Full set on flickr.

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Cogidubnus Cheese and Cake Double Century

“Please take a banana. I hate them.”

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I chase wheels through the southwest fringes of London, from Richmond station over the Thames, out through Bushy Park and over the Thames again by Hampton Court Palace and then through leafy suburbia. I know that I am riding a bit harder than I want to be and should be. There’s a chance I’ll pay for this later. I ride in various clumps of riders but eventually settle into a loose group with a couple of guys in Audax Club Hackney caps, one of whom I later discover is called Ludwig, and a woman called Judith, and we ebb and flow through the green belt.

Crossing a main road the trees wrap around and close in on me as I start to climb. Branches and foliage overlap and tangle above me. It’s instantly recognisable as the start of the North Downs. Sunlight sparkles like constellations through tiny holes in the dense verdant canopy overhead. Spots of light scattering across the road as if I’m riding through a light shower of photons. Looking up brings to mind ancient beliefs about the stars in the night sky being light from our sun piercing holes in a dark dome over the Earth. These roads aren’t as old as those beliefs but exposed tree roots and sunken ways give away a history, thousands of years of footfall carving these routes through the hills. I climb up and down and across the downland, gently climbing the dip slope and cascading down the escarpment side.IMG_20160806_101539 IMG_20160806_101322

After the first control at The Milk Churn in Rudgewick I ride on alone out towards Petworth on roads between roads I know. One of the best thing about audaxing is finding the bits between the bits you already know, piecing together new routes like a jigsaw map. I’m into the weald now, the not-so-lumpy clay bit that sits in the gap between the chalk hills of the North and South Downs. Maybe not so lumpy but sharp climbs are found, sapping energy from the legs. The lanes are still as dark as on the North Downs. Signposts and junctions are obscured in undergrowth and branches, lanes linking and intersecting others that I vaguely know, I’m riding a bit far west for it to all be familiar.  Names printed in bold on the routesheet appear on signposts but we never quite touch them, we skirt around them, sticking to the edges, out of sight in the unknown spaces between the known.

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Over Duncton Hill the landscape opens out into the familiar forms and colours of the South Downs, it feels like home even though I’m a way from home. Out in the open with no shade from trees I realise how warm the day is. At East Dean I cross paths with Felix on his Blue Riband that he’s had since 1961, with no gears and no bar tape. We chat and ride together past Halnaker Windmill and Goodwood then around the walls of Chichester to the next control at Fishbourne.

Fishbourne Roman Palace. Distant memories of school trips flicker across my brain. Not specific memories but simply knowing that I did come here some time in the past. Somewhere in a shoebox there’ll be a leather bookmark with the name gilded in gold, the things I collected before accumulating records and then bikes and distances. The cafe has the look of a temporary classroom. It only enhances the feeling of being on a school trip.

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Again I leave the control alone to head north and west, further away from home and not the shortest line back to London. Direct routes don’t enter into the language of audax. The landscape widens out and the greens fade to yellows and golds, wheat and stubble on the flatlands before I start to climb back over the South Downs. I cramp on the way up to Harting Down, a sure sign that I’m not drinking or eating enough which I already know. I knew I’d pay for going a bit hard out of London too. It’s a long slow climb before I drop sharply down the scarp edge through the trees into a land of blind corners and wild flowers in high hedges.

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I’m back in the shadow of the South Downs traversing the weald. Somewhere between Midhurst and Petworth I pass the first village shop I’ve seen since Fishbourne control and pull over to grab a snack and an emergency can of Coke. I refill my bidons with refrigerated bottle water whilst reading the notices on postcards in the shop window, “Potato pickers needed”. I wave as Felix and then Ludwig and Judith ride past.

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Soon after I’m climbing again and I’m plunged back into deep green tunnels that smell of warm earth and bark. My second visit to the North Downs. Barhatch Lane I know by reputation only. I’ve never ridden it before and to be honest still haven’t. The sign announcing 21% at the bottom is not what I want to see with 160 kilometres in the legs and as soon as the incline increases I clamber off and walk a hundred metres or so. I can walk as fast as I can pedal anyway. Fortunately the next control is a pub in nearby in Peaslake. Pete from Milltag, who I rode my first audaxes with a couple of years ago, is manning the control so I sit in the sun and chat with him whilst downing yet more Coke and a packet of crisps.

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Leaving the pub I’m immediately back in the dark of sunken lanes and when I arrive in the village of Shere I realise that Coombe Lane must be the next climb. It’s by no means the hardest climb along the escarpment of the North Downs but there’s something about this hill I don’t like. It may be that I have invariably only climbed it when audaxing and with many kilometres in the legs. Yet again it doesn’t disappoint and I cramp as I turn the final steep corner. Yeah, I still hate this hill.

Over the top I take a turning I’ve never taken before which leads me onto a open ridge. The skyline of London sticks up from the horizon to my right and to the left Guildford Cathedral stands over the town (In hindsight I realise this was the first time I’ve seen Guildford Cathedral without the soundtrack to the Omen playing in my head). Where the horizon curves across the front of me I can see dark lumps which I figure are the Chiltern hills, or maybe even the North Wessex Downs but surely I can’t see that far? All of Surrey and Berkshire must lie in front of me. I grew up somewhere out there, not far from Guildford, I must have climbed this ridge many times as a teenage cyclist, but I’ve never seen this view before. Out there are places my younger self knew but this view surprises me, it’s almost uncanny.

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I descend from the ridge back into suburbia and follow the last few routesheet instructions until I’m back on the same roads I rode out on this morning. Ludwig has been sitting a couple of hundred metre ahead of me since the road into Esher but there’s little strength in my legs to catch him. Eventually I jump on his wheel along side the Thames in Twickenham. By the time I reach Richmond again I’m empty. I climb off my bike feeling exhausted and a little faint, so close to bonking. Ludwig buys me a pint and I order a pizza.

All thoughts of riding back to Brighton are instantly banished from my mind.

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This was the inaugural running of the Cogidubnus CC 200km audax organised by Marcus Jackson-Baker. More info can be found by clicking either of those links.

My route (including a couple of wrong turns)

 

Alpine Weekender

Thursday

“Not here, you need to be at the North Terminal”.

I really should have checked my boarding pass before I joined the huge queue to drop off my bike bag. Thirty minutes later I’ve dropped my bag at the right terminal and find my way to the departure gate for Geneva. A few hours after this I’m in a van with some of the other riders on my way up to Morzine in the French Alps for a weekend of cycling and Tour de France watching organised by Rpm90.

On arrival at the chalet introductions are made between riders and the Rpm90 crew. I don’t know any of the other riders but I know most of the Rpm90 team as they are local friends. Bikes are unpacked and rebuilt for a 40 kilometre spin in the afternoon before a three course meal, wine and chat in the evening.

Friday

Rain is falling as we eat breakfast. There is muttering about the planned ride.

We head out of Morzine in the dry though, arm warmers on to take off the chill of the morning mountain air. We gently climb to Les Gets where arm warmers and gilets are thrown in the back of the Rpm90 van or stuffed in back pockets. Dropping into the valley of Le Foron at Taninges we follow valley roads until the climb towards a lunch stop in Megevette starts. After lunch we loop around a couple more valleys, first heading north before turning south back towards Morzine. A few kilometres short of Morzine, in the town of Montriond to regroup to decide what to do next. There are a few options; the flat(ish) ride into Morzine, up the hill to Lac de Montriond and down to Morzine, or the 11 kilometre climb of to Col de la Joux Verte and the long, fast descent back to the chalet. Along with most of the others I opt for the big climb, which will add 20 kilometres to the 80 already ridden.

The road angles up out of the town before levelling as it skirts the edge of the lake. Then the climbing starts again, initially quite steep through a series of hairpins through the forest before steeper and tighter switchbacks up to the “goat village” of Les Lindarets. Which each turn the view back down the mountian is more beautiful, the filtering of sunlight through cloud effecting delicate and subtle patterns on the hillside greens. The road flattens again for a short section through a ski station before ramping up again for the final 6 or 7 kilometres to Joux Verte.

Popping out on the main road from Morzine just below Avoriaz we are greeted by the Rpm90 van where we can grab cans of coke for sustenance, and jackets to keep warm on the fast descent. Before this though a few of us climb the final couple of kilometres up to the empty ski resort of Avoriaz at the summit for a coffee. It seems daft not to ride to the very top seeing as it’s just there. As we leave the town we see Morzine far below sitting in a puddle of sunlight, and can see the road to the chalet. We seem to reach that road very quickly on the rapid descent, far, far quicker than we climbed up here in the first place.

We’ve timed it perfectly, it starts to hammer down just as we unclip.

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Saturday

A helicopter appears around a corner out of the gloom and the anticipation rises exponentially…

We’ve been waiting atop Col de Joux Plane for five hours. We sweated our way up in sunshine but the forecast storms arrived not long after. We have been cowering in whatever clothes we carried up with us, bin bags, and bright yellow Tour de France branded capes, in the hope that the rain may ease. Every time the sky seemed to lighten, the edges of cloud distinct rather than a shroud of grey around us, there was hope it might stop. Then there would be a flash almost instantly followed by a crash of thunder. The storm is simply swirling around us. We have no idea what is happening in the race.

…the sounds of excited and drunk fans sweeps along the roadside towards us, just ahead of the TV cameras, in turn just ahead of Nibali, Pantano, and Izagirre who crest the summit in a mess of noise and rain, jerseys filthy from whatever the alpine weather has thrown at them all day. There’s no time for gilets or jackets to be grabbed and put on. This is the race for the stage. They disappear out of sight, sucked along in the tunnel of noise of cheering and slapped hoardings. It goes quiet(er) again but excitement lingers in the air. Who will be next? What’s the gap?

Motorbike headlights emerge from the grey corner and the wave of crowd noise starts again, quietly in the distance blown around in the wind, then louder and louder as it nears us. Team Sky are next, guiding Froome safely to the finish. I don’t remember who else was in the group and I’ve still not seen the highlights of this stage. What’s actually going on in the race is secondary to just being here, to witness.

Riders continue to come past in dribs and drabs, spent domestiques and those dropped by the earlier breakaway sitting in the no mans land between the contenders and those being chased by the time cut. The race has been blown apart by the parcours and weather. These riders don’t even have camera bikes to keep them company. Official tour vehicles and team cars squeeze past them to catch what is happening further ahead. These are the heroes, the unsung ones, the ones who do this day in day out for someone else’s glory.

The grupetto appears and slides past silently, their joy that this is the last mountain of the tour seems to have been heavily dampened by the conditions. We think it’s over but then the solitary figure of Bernie Eisel appears. However he’s not last. The broom wagon metaphorically nudges Tony Martin up the last little bit a few seconds later.

Then it’s over. And the rain stops.

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Sunday. A tale of four mountains.

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It’s our turn to ride the queen stage of this year’s Tour, to follow in the wheel tracks of the riders we cheered on yesterday. There are four climbs all with varying Tour histories, steeped in legend and reputation – Col de Aravis (40 Tours), Col de la Colombiere (21 Tours), Col de la Ramaz (4 Tours), and Col de Joux Plane (12 Tours).

Like the pros we have team support and domestiques – two Rpm90 vehicles and Jo and Dan on bikes with us. We’ll try to keep together over the first climb as far as the bottom of Col de la Colombiere where inevitably we’ll split into two groups. Before we start I know I’ll be in the second group. There’s no way I’ll get through today if I try and smash my way round. As if I could smash my way round anyway.

Col des Aravis

The Aravis is a pleasant introduction to the day to come. The sun shines on the names painted on the road, a reminder that just yesterday the peloton rode these very same roads. After an initial ramp from the village of Flumet the gradient eases and then drops for a kilometre or so before a bridge over L’Arrondine river where the road starts to rise again, through the village of Les Giettaz and beyond into mountain pasture and meadows. At the top we regroup at a cafe for a coffee and to decide which group we might want to ride in. The plan being we’ll aim to get to the bottom of the Colombiere together before dividing. This doesn’t quite work and we split somewhere between here and there. I’m in a group with Tom, Andy and John with Jo on domestique duties.

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Col de la Colombiere

The climb itself is lovely but oh man, the descent! It’s spectacularly fast swoopy and brilliant and twisty and terrifying and goes on forever and ever and ever. Sublime.

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Col de la Ramaz

The bottom section isn’t so bad but the sun is beating down, the heat sapping energy needed to climb. I can smell warm tarmac as I twist and turn through switchbacks. In my head I’m Contador dancing effortlessly on the pedals but I know the reality is more an overweight Froome mauling the bike whilst staring at the stem. Out of the tight turns and trees into a gorge and it all goes revolting. Rocks and weather are closing in on me and I’m hating every second, the tunnels are no better as the sound of motorbike engines echo and buzz around me. It only adds to my annoyance, anger even. This is shit. No, I am shit. Every pedal stroke is pain. It’s an ugly bit of mountain in more ways that one and is followed by a scruffy bit, but then turning a corner, literally and metaphorically, it opens out into a picturesque plateau. Pain and hate subside in direct proportion to the easing incline. Sunshine returns along with my happiness. Three down, only one more to go.

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Col de Joux Plane

By the time we hit the Joux Plane I am running on little more than fumes. It doesn’t start well with the first couple of kilometres being at an abrupt angle up though the houses on the edge of Samoens and then it all becomes an arduous slow motion blur. Our little group has separated on the lower slopes and I am hanging off the back, staring at the tarmac just ahead of my front wheel. Tom I can see ahead when the road straightens for long enough, John has disappeared. Andy and I sit about 20 metres apart, Jo riding back and forth between to make sure we’re okay (or rather that we don’t give up). I tack into the gradient on one particularly steep part, out of the saddle, breathing heavily. I am sure the views from up here are stunning but I have tunnel vision focused on the bit of road in front of me. There would be some photos of this climb if I wasn’t concerned that the effort required to pull my phone from my pocket will inevitably end with me lying crumpled on the floor.

Into the the trees and it starts to rain. My gilet is in the Rpm90 van that is up the road somewhere so I grab Jo’s as he is wearing his rain jacket. More hairpins and the smell of wet pine, then we’re on the side of the mountain again. The view is obscured by cloud again, much like yesterday. The road snakes for a few kilometres and every corner I think, I hope, is the one we saw the helicopter come around yesterday. That would mean less than a kilometre to go and once I get to Mint Sauce I know it flattens enough for a brief respite. But no, there’s still two or three kilometres to go. By now everything hurts but I am gaining on Andy who is gaining on Tom. I concentrate on pedaling, there can’t be much further to go. I might even be able to big ring the last few hundred metres like the riders yesterday. I try and fail, clicking back down again before slumping over my bars as I cross the white King of the Mountains line painted across the road. I stare at my feet and swear quietly to myself.

As we set off for the final descent I realise my front disc brake has failed. It makes a hideous squealing noise but otherwise is completely ineffectual. Having ridden down here yesterday I know that it is going to be sketchy as hell with just a rear brake, especially in the rain. Marvellous, I was hoping for an easy ride back into Morzine after that last ascent. Thus follows eleven kilometres of me dragging the rear brake almost all the way, occasionally needing to let go so my cold hand doesn’t cramp, picking up speed at an alarming rate before clasping the lever again. Jo and I stop under some trees and I pull the front cable through the caliper vainly hoping it starts working. It doesn’t. Three corners on Jo grabs at my rear pockets to stop me falling off the side of the mountain, before riding just in front of me elbow out so I can lean into it to scrub yet more speed off. Into a sharp hairpin nearing Morzine I bounce my right foot along the grass verge so I make it around upright. Tired and cold I stumble and shuffle down the mountainside into town. I thank Jo for helping me to not die.

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Monday

A bracing swim in Lac de Montriond before saying goodbye to the mountains.

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Thanks to Nick from Rpm90 for organising a brilliant weekend, and to Angela, Jo, Dan, and Nick’s mum and dad for team support all weekend (special mention for Angela for shouting/screaming encouragement and handing out Haribo all the way up Joux Plane). Thanks also to all the other riders; Andy, John, Tom, Dan, Mark, Greg, Simon, and Matt.