G2MC Ride Report
Before the trip, I was not sure if I would be able to say this upon conclusion of the ride, but I am happy and relieved to say that I returned home with both knees intact. There is no shortage of exuberant reports on amateur bicycle rides in the French Alps, particularly on the famous climbs such as the ones we did. When one is pedalling up the famous climbs, one tends to utter quite a few expletives whilst superlatives take over one’s rhetoric after the job is done. The pervasive difficulty is that no photos or words can possibly describe the experience adequately. I am not prone to hyperbole, but this is one experience that tempts me to use stylistic devices normally avoided in a documentary report. Therefore, I write this knowing that it will not do justice to the experience shared by 17 nutters of a certain age dressed in Lycra and doing something about which sane people would ask, ‘why would you do it voluntarily?’
My 16 MAMIL friends and I arrived at our respective answers, but it’s a bit like the massive climbs: you have to get there yourself because you won’t be able to answer it properly until you have actually done it. Even then, the answer will make sense only to yourself and those who shared the experience with you. Yes, it does sound a wee bit ridiculous, but it is the honest truth.
I arrived at our first hotel in Archamps not knowing what to expect and most definitely underprepared, with a vintage bike that has a rear drop-out width of 125 mm and weighs 12 kg without the two 750 ml water bottles (I previously mentioned that it is 11 kg, but 82 kg, bike plus me, minus 70 kg, me, actually leaves us with 12 kg…). I have been to the Swiss Alps many times and drove or walked up and down long steep bits like the Albula Pass. However, I had no notion of cycling up or down large mountains. I found out the only way one can, the hard way.
I was amongst the company of some very experienced cyclists. Lionel from Zürich is a tireless mountain goat who grew up in Valais and had once cycled from Switzerland to Argentina via Russia and Alaska. Mark from London has done the l’Étape du Tour, the amateur cyclo-sportive along the Tour de France segments, the last 10 years. Mike lives in one of the Alpine villages on our route. The boys from Bermuda race for their respective local cycling clubs at the weekends, whether road racing, time trials or criterium. Fortunately, there were no muppets in the group; everyone was up for a laugh, never taking themselves too seriously at any point, unlike the sour group of Scots that we encountered along the way.
Stage 1 from Archamps to Chamousset entailed climbing the Col de Leschaux in the morning and Col du Frêne after lunch. Stage 1 was supposed to ease us in with shorter, more forgiving climbs in preparation for the hardcore climbs that we will be doing in subsequent days. Except that I, along with a few others, found it hard to believe that it was meant to be an ‘easy’ day. If this was easy, then what is tomorrow supposed to be like?
Some of us either found parts broken upon arrival at Archamps like Jason did or discovered mechanical failures on the way to Chamousset like Matt and Rich did. The last thing anyone needs on a trip like this…
Stage 2 was one of the two days that I feared the most: Col du Télégraphe and Col du Galibier. First lesson: do not attempt an hors catégorie climb after a big, heavy lunch.
Setting off from Chamousset and having climbed the Télégraphe, we arrived in Valloire utterly famished despite the 2 feed stops in the morning. We lunched at a simple restaurant that served us a small green salad and a large portion of the world’s heaviest lasagna, followed by dessert. We wolfed down the whole thing, and some of us enjoyed some red wine or beer. Without giving our stomachs any time to digest the large intake, we started climbing the Galibier shortly after the meal. Huge mistake.
18 km of climbing with a tonne of bricks sitting in one’s stomach = not a good situation. I wish that I could blame it on altitude sickness or thinning oxygen, but the altitude simply isn’t high enough to make those excuses stick. Lunch was a mistake. Furthermore, I had thought that my heart was reasonably strong, but I was proven woefully misguided as I spinned up the Galibier.
I almost blew out my right knee riding in the north of England on the way to Edinburgh last year. This year, I was determined not to hurt my knee and took all precautions: keeping my knees warm with either 3/4 bib shorts or merino knee warmers, not getting out of the saddle when pedalling, no mashing and maintaining a higher cadence at lower gears. Perhaps I was overprotective of my knees and instead passed the problem to my heart which was not up to the job, spinning at higher cadence.
My legs, including the knees, were absolutely fine; I could easily kneel or squat at the end of each day without feeling like I was going to tear my calves or quadraceps. However, going up the Galibier, my heart rate was going through the roof, and it felt like my heart was coming out of my mouth. This led me to stop at every one or two kilometre markers along the second half of subsequent climbs principally to allow my heart rate to come back down to a manageable level.
Even though there were plenty of miles left in my legs, my mind gave up with 6.5 km remaining to reach the summit of Galibier, so I hopped into one of our support cars to hitch a ride to the top and waited for Charlie to grind up the last few kilometres. I had not slept at all the 2 previous nights, so that may have had some effect, but it was mostly a psychological thing.
Just before getting out of the saddle, I saw a couple descending on a tandem bike. Climbing the Galibier from the other side is easier, but certainly not easy, especially on a tandem. And, to do a long, steep descent on a tandem? Brave stuff.
When going up the Galibier and other climbs, one cannot help feel that those who built the roads got a bit impatient towards the end, at the top. The gradient tends to increase towards the last bit, which means that the road could be made slightly shorter. Or, is that just my imagination? 10% gradient at the end of an 18 km climb is a bit cruel, no?
The hors catégorie climbs are also popular with motorcyclists, having had to twist the right handlebar grip all the way up the mountain. There was a group of them at Galibier snapping away in front of the Col du Galibier sign like we did, but it was evident that what they saw and felt was completely different from what we saw and felt. It was as though the motorcyclists and the cyclists existed in parallel universes. That is, until one of them fell over with his 1000 cc bike whilst trying to roll the bike to the sign for a photo op, and we had to chortle at the sight. Not very nice, I know, but it was rather comical…
I have not had much experience in climbing, which also meant that my experience going downhill was also lacking. Going down a steep descent and managing the numerous switchbacks requires skill and concentration. After an exhausting climb, it becomes a little more difficult to maintain concentration, particularly if it is a long and picturesque descent. A couple of switchbacks after the start of the descent from Galibier, I took my eyes off the road for a split second and found myself staring at an oncoming car. Luckily, there was still time to get back to my side of the road to avoid a head-on collision.
Another HC climb for Stage 3, up to Col d’Izoard… It was arguably the prettiest segment of our itinerary as it was rather more lush with lots of trees, flora and fauna along the way. It also meant that there were plenty more bugs, especially flies. I had several groups of about a dozen flies feasting on my perspiration all the way up, which was a less than pleasant reminder that I needed to regularly replenish the salts as well as the water that I was losing.
As I descended from Col d’Izoard and passed the Fausto Coppi monument, I noticed that I had a puncture in my rear tyre. I replaced the tube, used a CO2 canister from Charlie to inflate it, and then topped up the pressure with a track pump when Pete, our mechanic, came along. Off we went, and I made another mistake at lunch, consuming way too much food even though this time, we took our time before setting off to climb Col de Vars in the afternoon.
Col de Vars was picturesque like Col d’Izoard, just lower and therefore shorter. It also meant that I was popular with flies on the way up. Fortunately, they were not the biting kind…
Halfway down the descent, I had another puncture in the rear. At this point, I just could not be asked to replace the inner tube again, so I just waited for Pete to catch up and hopped on his van to get to our hotel in Jausiers. I thought that I had failed to rid the cause of the first puncture and therefore ended up with the second one on the same day. However, Pete examined the punctured inner tube only to find that the puncture was on the rim side rather than on the tyre side although he could not find anything with the rim, rim tape or spokes that could have cause the puncture. Mystery…
Stage 4 was the big day: Col de la Bonette. Despite having slept a total of only 2 hours the last 4 nights, I was feeling quite strong and looking forward to scaling Bonette. The climb started almost immediately after we left our hotel in Jausiers. Although I knew that it will be the longest and highest climb on the itinerary, I had not registered previously that it is 23 km.
On the way up, a crazy native out on a run overtook us. His breathing was as calm as that of a sleeping baby. What floored us was the fact that when we were descending on the other side, the chap was running back up, still breathing as though he was seated and playing chess.
We also saw a couple of mad chaps descending on skateboards, wearing full-face helmets, elbow guards, knee pads and heavy gloves. I wonder how they ended up…
As we approached the summit, I had not realised that we were actually heading further, to Cime de la Bonette rather than just to Col de la Bonette. When we reached the latter, I found one of our signs pointing north rather than one of our support cars with snacks and beverage ready for us. The additional 500 m is lethal: steep, winding climb along a dark, evil looking cap. It is the longest 500 m after having thought that one had already reached the destination. I was about to give up, get out of the saddle and walk up the last 300 m when 2 women overtook me. That gave me the incentive to grind up the last few bends to the summit of the Cime. Being at the summit felt like being on top of the world. Despite ‘Top of the World’ being St Moritz’s slogan, being on Cime de la Bonette really looked and felt like it.
We were extremely fortunate with the weather during our 5-day ride, particularly on day 4, as we knew that Cime / Col de la Bonette was closed only a week ago because of snow.
I elected not to ride the initial descent to Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée because I was not confident that I will be able to maintain concentration during the long, steep and technical descent to the pretty little village. I got into a support car and drove down to meet the boys in the village. From Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée, it is a moderate descent to our lunch spot in Saint-Saveur-sur-Tinée, so I got back in the saddle and joined the pace line only to get yet another puncture in the rear halfway to our destination. Another puncture on the rim side with no detectable cause… The trouble with these things is that they dampen one’s spirit without one really noticing it. The subsequent climb up Col Saint-Martin was a slog.
As we approached the Mediterranean, the rise in temperature and humidity was palatable. Climbing Col de Turini and Col de St Pancrace on day 5 was a lot less comfortable, but I was in much better form, having actually slept for a few hours the night before. We lunched in Peille, a lovely village that looks like it came straight out of a Hitchcock film. Knowing that the remainder of the way to Monte Carlo was all downhill, we stuffed ourselves with what are possibly the best pizzas in France, al fresco overlooking a valley. Pleasant company, beautiful location and fantastic, simple food — what else does one need?
We had a pace line of 17 riders on the way down to Monte Carlo — a spectacular sight as well as being fun. However, it made it very difficult for motorists to overtake us along a winding mountain road, and we unintentionally invited one or two near misses when a motorist tried to overtake us, only to face an oncoming car. As Lionel commented later, we should have formed clusters of 4 riders with 500 m of open space inbetween each cluster, allowing motorists to overtake us without risking anyone’s safety. Lesson learned.
We arrived in sunny Monte Carlo in the mid afternoon and had our celebratory beer in the Casino square. We attracted a fair amount of interest from tourists who took photos of us, some even asking to be photographed with us. I guess they don’t have MAMILs back home??
Many thanks to Gideon, Claude and Pete of Classic Tours and our ride doctor Jeff for their tireless support on the ground. I am well pleased that Jeff did not need to open his medical kit at all.
I would also like to thank Barney Ingram of Rapha Racing for giving me the single most important advice for the trip: ‘think circles’ and ensure that my pedal strokes are evenly round rather than drawing squares in order to maximise efficiency, power and endurance. (So, Barney, what to do about the heart doing all the work whilst the legs having an easy time?:-))
Last but certainly not least, I would like to thank all my sponsors who have made this endeavour worthwhile.
The 17 MAMILs are Alistair, Charlie, Hank, Ian, Jason, John, Kevin, Lionel, Mark A, Mark D, Matt, Mike, Nick, Ollie, Richard B, Richard O and me. You can read more about our ride at Charlie’s blog.