Burning Heart (and lungs, and arms, and neck and legs…..)
21 July, 2015
Disclaimer: If easily offended, stop reading now (its not that bad really, the underlying message is one of amazement and joy, and anyone who's cycled will realise fruitier bits reflect reality!). If you still want to read about unbelievable experience, strap yourselves in and I’ll begin….
Thursday 16 July – Travel Day
The day started at delightful 4am to catch a flight to Heathrow then onwards to Geneva.
Knowing I’d be milling around in Geneva for a good few hours before the train to the Alps, I decided to purchase a book to pass the time. A little known fact about me is that apart from my ATT and CTA tax books, the only books I’ve read since school are the A Song of Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones to the uneducated amongst you). Tax and Game of Thrones, the two things I love most in the world.
Hoping for some inspiration, I purchased Chris Froome’s autobiography “The Climb” for a bargain £4. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on which way you look at it, I only read up to when he was 16 years old…….i.e I hadn’t got to the bits when he was cycling in the yellow jersey in the Alps during the Tour de France.
The descent into Geneva was beautiful, coming in over the lake, the imposing Alps and Mont Blanc on the horizon, the excitement was building. However, the heat in Geneva was ridiculous. I had received reports from the fellow riders returning from the TDF that the heat was bordering on dangerous. Maybe my Ali G skullcap wouldn’t be enough after all. It’s fair to say, at this point, I was bricking it.
The train journey from Geneva to Saint Jean de Maurienne was uncomfortable in the heat but the scenery was amazing. I was getting very excited now. This however was soon curtailed not long after I stepped off the train. I hadn’t even managed to get 100m down the road and the pull handle of my suitcase snapped off. Arriving at the hotel sweating my t*ts off after humping the suitcase across town didn’t bode well for two days cycling up mountains. But at least the sweat helped me blend in with the riders who were arriving back at the hotel after what was one of the hottest and hardest days of the tour so far.
“So how’s Jonathan getting on?”
“He’s had a really rough day, after yesterday, he was exhausted and he’s in the van”
It’s fair to say, at this point, I was double bricking it (note – Michael was ok, I had seen him roll in looking fresh as a daisy, haha).
I sat down for my first meal, met the fellow riders and a few lads who were doing my stages. And then Jonathan arrived back. He was totally gone. Like he had seen a ghost. He had given everything in the Alps the day before and heroically managed 90 miles in the heat today before sensibly calling it a day.
It’s fair to say, at this point, I was f*****g s*****g myself.
Friday 17th July – Stage 18 Saint Jean de Maurienne to La Toussuire
A reasonable start time of 8am, it was warm, I had filled up at breakfast but I had still had no idea what to expect.
As we turned off the main rode after 5 mins of riding and the incline gradually increased I knew there was no going back, this was the Col du Chaussy, at Cat 1 climb, 15.5km at 6.3%. No messing around, I was in at the deep end.
The Chaussy itself was quite a nice climb, not too hard, not too steep, I chugged my way up at a decent-ish pace, I wasn’t at the back (this was to change, see below) and had a chat with one of the TDF staff which really settled me down. One stop for a pic, 2 hours later I had made it to the top to be welcomed by some French guys stopping for a slash next to the summit sign. Lovely stuff. Wafting away the remnants of their toilet break, I got a pic, jumped on the bike and descended down to the first feed station.
It was getting seriously hot now, fortunately I had lathered myself in factor 50, but the heat was immense. Me and my new mate Adam from London span along the valley, only the Col du Glandon/Croix de la Fer next we thought, just the 23km at 6.9%......
To paraphrase Michael, there is only one word to describe this ascent of the Glandon….brutal.
In the Alps, those helpful Tour de France organisers have kindly put markers at the roadside counting down the km to the top. These markers also tell you the average gradient for the next km. Now, this is all well and good when it says 5%. However, when you’ve just done 5km at 6% and you see 8% or higher, suddenly these signs don’t seem so helpful after all.
It’s at this point I think I should address the gradients on the mountains. In the UK you get short, steep hills that take about 15 mins to get over. Hartside Pass at 5% for 5 miles is quite literally a piece of p*** in comparison.
So, cycling in the Alps. They say it’s not the steepness that kills you, it’s the length of the climbs, the relentlessness, the roads that just keep on going up as far as the eye can see.
Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, it’s also utter b******s. Here’s a little table I’ve devised to explain how the gradients work (credit to Jonathan Carr for his input):
0% - 4%: Flat, easy, get a bit of freewheeling in to recover
6%: Hello cheeky, best put some effort in here like
7%: Yeah, this is tougher now
9%: F**k me, please end soon
10%: F*****g hell, make it stop
11%: Just f**off
12%+: There are no words to articulate the pain.....
I’ve already sent this to the UCI; they have agreed that this is now the official Gradient Table for three grand tours and will be included on the website for the Vuelta in late August.
Anyway, back to the Glandon. We stopped off at a café after about 12km for a coke and a magnum. The heat was unbelievable, keeping hydrated was essential and we had made slow progress so far. There were a bunch of hardy souls from the TDF doing the same and we all rolled out together to take on the next 10km.
As the trees stripped back, the heat increased, the sound of cowbells rang in our ears and the wind was nowhere to be seen. And the gradient went up. 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Progress was painfully slow, my legs and lower back screamed in pain.
In the mountains, it’s every man for himself. Adam stopped about 2km from the stop at the steepest section and I ploughed on. Riding every last millimetre, I made it to the top within seconds of my target time of 4.5 hours …….(!)
As I rolled into the second feed station, it dawned on me that Adam and I were the last on the road. Some people had sacked it off early doors on the Glandon and the sweeper van was picking up the signs.
We descended from the Croix de la Fer down tomorrows’ route and encountered what people would call a “punchy” Cat 2 climb, the Col du Mollard, 5.7km long at 6.8%. I knew as soon as I hit this climb it would be my last for the day. My legs were aching, my back was killing, and I knew by the time I got to the last feed it would be too late to do La Toussuire.
What doesn’t help is the stalking from the sweeper van!! Lovely guys doing a sterling job but when you look back down the mountain and see a white transit trying to hide behind a tree so as to appear inconspicuous, it’s a bit demoralising.
So as I rolled into the feed station I knew my day was done. A few guys decided to give the 6.1%, 18km La Toussuire a bash, including a heroic Adam with help from Phil Deaker. But I climbed into the van and as we ascended, I knew I had made the right decision. I lived to fight another day, Alpe D’Huez tomorrow. All cycling buffs know it’s not the best or the hardest climb in the world, but it’s something that has to be done, and it’s something I had come out to do.
Last word for Adam – he came in as it got dark, totally done in. Great effort considering his predicament on the Glandon.
Saturday – Stage 20 Modane to Alpe D’Huez
A 8.30 start this time, which I’m told was a luxury on the tour. The first 25km passed incredibly quickly, probably something to do with the fact I really needed to visit the little boys room for a number 2.
No toilets at the feed station so it was onwards we go onto the climb up the 29km 5.2% Croix de la Fer.
Mercifully, there was a public restroom after 15km of climbing. Hearing stories from other riders about their toilet troubles on the road, mine seemed trivial in comparison; I was fortunate enough to be cycling within reach of actual civilisation rather than the middle of nowhere, but still, it wasn't a very comfortable morning. Anyway, I must’ve dropped at least a stone after my toilet stop as my climbing pace picked up and we chugged on towards the second feed.
Once again the stalker van was upon us; it appeared that as it was the last day, everyone else was feeling good and going way quicker than Adam and I (apart from the legend that is Bill…more on him soon).
Progress up the final 6km of the climb was hard, steep and hot. But the Glandon yesterday had given us inspiration/experience and we managed to get up there in a steady 4 hours.
As we climbed, we had our first on the road encounter with scouser Bill. An absolute hero lifer, who had kept plugging away for three weeks.
“Alright Bill? I thought you were ahead of us?”
“Nah mate, I stopped for a f*****g pizza. No way I was cycling up there on a f*****g empty stomach”
The descent off the Croix de la Fer was simply awesome, reaching speeds of 70km/h I was overtaking caravans and slow French drivers. The roads were long and sweeping, rather than the technical hairpins of yesterday and you could sit back and enjoy. I managed to get some amazing photos of the Alpine lakes and some precious recovery for the final push.
As I rode through the town of Bourg d’Oisans looking for the final feed, I see a tall lyrca glad figure sticking out his arm with an ice cream in his hand……Bill was fully immersing himself in the local produce today like! I got off and enjoyed a coke and ice cream with Bill which really perked me up after the long drag along the valley floor. I met Adam at the last feed and we set out to tackle Alpe D’huez.
Being so frequently used in the Tour de France, the hairpins, the epic battles of years gone by, it is one of the most famous climbs in the world. The cycling purists may turn their noses up, but to the man in the street, the general punter, it’s the one they know. 13.8km at 8.1%, 21 hairpins all numbered and daubed with the names of famous winners, I felt fresh and ready to embrace the challenge.
The first 2km are over 10% and the heat was like putting your head in an oven. Unbelievably tough we battled onto hairpin 20 for a rest. Adam was struggling at this point and I was helping all I could. Again progress was slow and we were joined by a random guy, fittingly called Guy. He had made a habit of selectively choosing which parts of each stage to do, and he had saved himself for the Alpe. He offered some light relief, stories of his detours, his singing and what he was going to do to his wife later kept our minds off the relentless gradients.
After about 45 mins, the clouds closed in and the heavens opened. Full on thunder and lightening, water cascading down the roads, we were soaked, knackered but absolutely loving it. You couldn’t make it up.
As I ploughed on with more energy in my legs, I was getting into a rhythm until I took an inside line on a corner approx 0.5km from the infamous “Dutch Corner”. Puncture. I couldn’t believe it. First one ever. On the last climb, of the last stage. In the p*****g rain. Just my luck.
But being the backmarkers has its advantages……..the stalker van had now been replaced by effectively our own team car. In the biblical weather, it seemed fitting that my saviour was a mechanic named Gideon. He jumped out, changed the inner like a pro and I was away again within 10 minutes.
Fuelled with determination and with the Rocky IV soundtrack running through my head, I absolutely nailed the next 4km. I had let Adam go up the road, the lad was suffering but chugging along. I caught him just as we came to the barriered section and we rolled up the final 3km together. Getting cheers from the TDF riders in the bars as we went past was nice, but I’ll admit I was jealous, I wanted to be there getting slaughtered too!!
And then it was done. Over. We had made it. We got some pics, shared a manly embrace and rolled back down to hotel. Absolutely amazing. The morbidly obese lad from Dunston had just cycled up the Alpe D’Huez. Who’da thunk it?
There was a final ride into Paris which was something of an anti climax for me after the Alps. But whilst I might not have appeared to enjoy it at the time, it was great to see all the Leathers riders, friends and family there waiting for us.
I’ll leave details of the night out in Paris off the blog, but let’s just say when a dubious looking middle aged Frenchman who you meet in a bar at 4am says he knows where else is open, you know its time to go home, especially when the bar is apparently for transsexuals only……
Things I’ve Learned
- Cycling up mountains is hard
- Cycling in the heat is hard
- Cycling is hard
- My a*** hurts
- My left hand is mangled
- I’m tired
- Cycling the full route (Michael) is a superhuman effort
I’m very humbled and honoured to be given the opportunity to do something so memorable and worthwhile. If you ever get the same opportunity, say yes, you’ll not regret it, you might even enjoy it so much you’re already looking towards next year………...
Lots of love – The Dunston Chris Froome