I returned in one piece after managing not to end up in the broom wagon / sweeper van even once, which was my rather modest performance goal. In a multi-day group ride like this, it is vital that one is amongst good company because it can literally make or break a ride. Fortunately, we had a fantastic group of 23 riders. Many familiar faces, as well as some new faces, were amongst the riders. There were 4 guys named Mark (plus Markus) this year, one of whom resembles Eddy Merckx, a rather intimidating look in road cycling circles… We were also happy to see familiar faces from Classic Tours: Gideon, Claude and Pete. It was like putting the old band back together. Julian, our new ride doctor, turned out to be the thumping new bass player.
We set off from our hotel in Alpignano, just outside of central Turin, at 7 am on Day 1.
We were all smiles, full of anticipation and optimism despite knowing that it will be quite a lot of work although just a bit clueless as to how much work.
We were told that the only major climb on Day 1 is one of the toughest in Europe. It looked suitably menacing even from afar.
The last 8 km of the 19 km climb up Colle delle Finestre is unpaved, which is where things got a bit interesting on road bikes. When I entered the unpaved sector, I thought, I have gone up and down the strade bianche in Chianti twice, so I know how to manage this. Except that in Chianti, they have neat little pebbles that are more or less uniformly sized. Here, there were proper rocks and deep sand. And hairpin curves. No hairpin curves in Chianti… I fell once because I hit a big rock whilst trying to clip back in after a quick break and a second time because I was unable to negotiate a hairpin in deep sand. Mind you, this was going up, not down, so I was going at about 2 km/h when I came off. Just a few scratches…
The support configuration includes one of the 3 vehicles being behind the entire group. The driver takes down the navigation signs from the various posts and trees. The ride doctor cycles behind all the riders, just ahead of the rear car. In other words, he is the last rider at any given time unless he is saving some energy sitting in the rear car.
I was riding alone for most parts of the unpaved sector, and I somehow thought that I was probably in the middle of the pack. Not realising that everyone had overtaken me either in the early part of the ascent or shortly thereafter, I started to wonder where everyone was, particularly because I am the weakest rider amongst my friends. I thought, huh, they’re taking it very easy the first day….
Where is everyone?
Then I looked down and saw Julian pootling up several switchbacks below. And not a soul between Julian and me… The others, they were doing this at the summit:
The weather on Day 2 continued to be clear and comfortable as we climbed Colle del Sestriere, entered France, climbed Col de Montgenèvre, descended into Briançon and climbed Col d’Izoard.
Mark B, Richie, Jason and Hank
I remember having my exposed bits covered with flies the last time I went up Izoard, and this time was slightly better although there were still a few too many to remember all their names. I am of two minds whether it is better to go up an unfamiliar climb or to go up one where I know it gets a leeetle bit tough after a certain bend. Izoard also seemed a lot more difficult this time, and I later realised that it was the first climb of the day last time whereas it was the third climb on this day. I tried to mask the grimace with a smile here, but the smile is just so fake…
Tim came off on the descent from Izoard when he swerved to avoid an oncoming motorcyclist at one of the switchbacks. The motorcyclist stopped, looked back and then carried on as if nothing happened. Tim had landed on his chest but picked himself up and continued riding. Most other people would have shattered a couple of ribs, but the good urologist is indestructible.
I am not much of a beer drinker. Perhaps because of that, when I do have beer, I prefer to have one that is worth having. Most French and Italian beers are as flavourless and characterless as those sold by large American brands. The exceptions are the stronger varieties like La Rossa by Moretti but this French Alpine beer, la Tourmente (Torment?), tasted so good after the 3 climbs despite the measly 4.6% alcohol content. I wonder if it would taste as good if I had one in Belgium on an ordinary day…
I have started to notice that Markus lights up a Marlboro Red at every summit and every feed stop. And climbs like a tank engine… How does he do that?
The weather on Day 3 turned a bit grey and cold as we headed back to Italy. As we climbed Col d’Agnel on the French side, we could not see the summit because it was covered in thick fog. At that altitude, is it a fog or a cloud? It felt like I could almost see God’s toes and find out whether ‘we used the same colour varnish on our toe nails’…
Bruce on Agnel, Hank on Agnello
The 30 km descent on the Italian side was spectacular if a bit tricky and bumpy in places. I almost overshot a couple of switchbacks with nothing to stop me from taking a nice long tumble down the side of the mountain…
We broke up the descent with a feed stop at about halfway. It was so cold that everyone arrived shivering even if wearing a soft shell jacket. Bruce descended with just a jersey and arm warmers, no jacket; something about being young and recently married, or perhaps it’s just about being South African… It took me a couple of minutes to regain feeling in my fingers (not a good state when needing to pull on the brakes), but I think Kevin had it worst because he has only 7% body fat. He spent a few minutes sitting in one of the support cars with the seat heating switched on.
the freezing descent
There were about six others sitting on the bonnet of the car trying to steal some warmth from the engine and looking like a flock of parrots huddled together after finding themselves in the walk-in frigo. I do not know what the ambient temperature was, but the windchill factor when descending at 60 to 70 km/h must have been significant. It was freezing.
Charlie, Mark B and Übermountaingoat Lionel atop Colle de Sampeyre
As I was descending from Colle di Sampeyre at about 50 km/h, I saw a pair of cyclists on their way up, probably going at about 10 km/h. As we passed each other, a female North American voice boomed from one of them, ‘WHERE ARE YOU FROM?’
A description that became something of a standing joke was ‘virtually flat’ or even better, ‘virtually all downhill’. The last 10 km of the day was described by someone as being ‘virtually flat’ but turned out to be a mild but constant climb. After 2 sizeable climbs and right before late lunch, it seemed like the world’s longest 10 km. Over an excellent pasta lunch at our hotel in Acceglio, Olli was saying how lucky we were to have had tail wind on the last segment because if we had head wind, we would have started crying. I could not have described it better. The next morning, as we descended back down part of that last segment, we all realised that we didn’t just imagine it as being a real slog. Virtually flat, it ain’t.
My right knee and lower back had been screaming on Days 2 and 3, but they abruptly stopped complaining on Day 4. It was very fortunate because Day 4 was advertised as being the toughest day, and it delivered in spades. It was also an eventful day but not in a good way.
The first climb was Colle della Fauniera, aka Colle d’Esischie, aka Colle dei Morti.
It was a gorgeous but very tough climb. Luckily, I finally found my rhythm after three days, so I was in pretty good form.
The road up Fauniera is poorly maintained and narrow. As if to rub salt into the wound, there were some very steep but short segments whose gradient reaches 17% but felt like in excess of 20%. It was a bit hairy, but worth every minute.
A little more to the left, Mark. A bit higher. How’s this, Charlie? Oooooh, that feels goooood.
I think that people who take or make phone calls without a hands-free device whilst driving should be given a 3 nights’ accommodation in a maximum security prison for a memorable experience mingling with the other, longer term residents. Those who read or type messages whilst driving should be granted a 7 nights’ accommodation. Alternatively, they can be sent to cycle up Fauniera 5 times a day (up and down the Marmora side) for 3 consecutive days and 7 consecutive days, respectively, with extensions of 1 day for each day that they are unable to complete 5 ascents in a day. I think it’ll do the world a bit of good.
looking a bit like Mr Bean…
In the final 2 km of the descent from Fauniera, Gregoire came off after hitting a pot hole whilst reaching for his water bottle. He was in a group of four, with Mark B, Markus and Olli, but fortunately he was at the rear so no other riders piled onto him. Hilary and I arrived moments later, followed by Julian a minute or two later although it seemed like eternity at the time. Julian quickly diagnosed the injury as a broken collar bone. Whilst we were waiting for a support car to take Gregoire and Julian to the hospital for an X-ray, he almost lost consciousness because of shock. I felt helpless just standing around watching, feeling like I should be doing something, and not knowing what to do. The latest word from Gregoire is that the fracture is spread too wide, so he will need to have surgery to get a pin inserted.
I learned later that shortly after the descent started, a Daihatsu rolled off the ledge and ended up a crumpled ball of metal some distance down. Mark A saw it happen and many others saw the aftermath. I was so focused on the narrow, deteriorated road that I did not see any of it, or the emergency service that turned up immediately, as I freewheeled down at 70 km/h on some stretches. Miraculously, the two in the car survived the accident. Gregoire ended up at the same hospital as them and learned that one woman suffered a couple of broken ribs, but otherwise, they just had cuts and bruises.
The numerous switchbacks of Colle di Tenda are impressive in photos, but I actually found the climb a bit stale. The road condition was excellent throughout, and I wouldn’t describe it as easy. However, it was not memorable; I cannot really put a finger on it. We witnessed the third accident of the day at the entrance to the tunnel crossing to the French side when 2 motorcyclists collided as the bright yellow Ducati turned without indicating. Nobody was hurt, only the Ducati rider’s pride and few bits of his bike.
a few more lumps left for Day 5
We ended Day 4 in the picturesque village of La Brigue. A group of us went out for a nightcap after dinner. I was not really in a state to think about what to drink so I asked Richie to order whatever he was having. He was having pastis. On a slightly chilly evening. Well, I do know one thing in life, and that is not to argue about alcohol with an Irishman. So, I just went along. If I am having pastis, then I would prefer to have something like an Henri Bardouin rather than a Ricard or a 51, but again, I wasn’t going to argue with the Irishman. In any case, I think everything would have tasted the same given how drained I was. And, too tired to argue with the granola-powered Irishman.
The weather forecast for the previous 2 days had been threatening rain and thunder, but we had somehow managed to avoid the rain. As we set off at 7:30 on Day 5, the rain clouds caught up with us and decided to come along for about 4 hours, soaking us to the bones whilst we climbed and descended Col de Brouis and Col de Castillon; most of us did not bring a rain jacket, counting on the Castelli rain jacket to arrive along with the rest of the kit, but the consignment containing the rain jackets went missing somewhere between their distribution centre and our Turin hotel. My old Rapha rain jacket hadn’t been reproofed in a long time, so I brought it as a warmer wind jacket as it was useless as a waterproof… It was not raining so hard that visibility was significantly impaired, but it was proper rain.
After about 2 hours, we took a coffee break in Sospel. We piled into the establishment whilst dripping rain water all over the floor, chairs, tables, the bar counter et al, and ordered rounds of hot chocolates, espressos and cappucinos.
I have to say that it was a hysterical scene. Charlie already had his head down on the counter. Jonah was looking cozy in his shocking pink… whatever they are — one day they were arm warmers, another day they were leg warmers… Multi-pupose hose. Mark D on the right was wise enough to bring a rain jacket (no, that is not a sheer nightie that he’s sporting — perish that thought, it’s not good for you.) and was also clever enough to have a swig of brandy to warm up. At 9:30 in the morning.
The village drunk spotted the MAMIL Attack and popped in to see what just hit his village. The first thing that the old geezer asked was, Are you extraterrestrials? Well, I did, and still do, think that cyclists in their universally hideous helmets and colourful skin-tight kit look like aliens. The only difference between the past and the present is that I also dress that way occasionally these days. Cycling helmets are hideous. It’s just that one is uglier than the other. Once you are into the cycling scene, you do get a bit more discerning about the types and degrees of ugliness. But they are all ugly. Sometimes it takes a few drinks for the truth to roll off the tongue whilst wearing a big smile.
Which Cols are we climbing today?
Last year, when lunching in a French village above Annecy, there was a group of local pensioners celebrating a birthday. They got curious and asked us where we were from. In order to keep the story simple, we said that we were all from Bermuda rather than going through the whole list of locations. Strategically brilliant, but tactically naïve, it turned out. Their reaction was, Where?? So we had to give a whole explanation of where Bermuda is. In hindsight, mentioning a place they never heard of probably only confirmed their suspicion that we were from another planet.
Predictably, the village drunk’s second question was, Where are you from? Jason, a man with a wicked sense of humour and a kind heart despite being a practising lawyer, obliged: He is from England, I am from Bermuda, and he is from Belgium. And the old geezer looked at me and said, No, he’s Thai. He then shuffled off to the other end of the cafe / restaurant to examine the other aliens. Jason and I agreed that the Thai comment was a bit random, but soon started to notice all the lotus flower and Buddha decoration in the place… We’re in a Thai restaurant! Not so random an observation after all. His inductive skills told us that he might be the village sage rather than the village drunk…
When we set off again at around 10:00, I immediately started shivering and felt like I was about to faint. The hypothermia tempted me to turn back round to get in the sweeper van, but I decided to get into a higher gear and start pedalling out of the saddle. It worked a treat in getting warmed up. It also helped that Nick, the fittest 59 year old I know, along with Tim and Alistair zipped past me, giving me some incentive to, as they say, HTFU. Nick always looks as fresh at dinner as he did at breakfast. I want to know his little secret.
As we started climbing Col de Castillon, steam was rising from our backs, making us look like, to borrow Charlie’s words, turd on wheels. However, the descents were freezing. With a few debris and tiny gravel at strategic locations, it was probably not very prudent to be zipping down at 60 km/h in the pouring rain. Scenes from this year’s wet Giro d’Italia stages where riders were coming off on wet descents were looping in my head. But how else would we have done it? I could almost feel the brake cables stretching as we went round the numerous switchbacks. I lost focus for a second and started braking a little late approaching a bend. The rear wheel locked over a patch of tiny gravel and skidded. Luckily, I was relaxed (Hoooweee, rather than Oh Feck!) and allowed the bike to regain traction naturally.
We stopped for lunch in Gorbio, a little village where there hasn’t been a resident dentist in living memory. By this time, the sun had happily returned. The village was celebrating the 300th anniversary of an elm tree planted in the village square. The natives were all dressed in period costume, and there were bagpipes blaring in front of the church. There was a group of a dozen German tourists who appeared to be from a rather more exotic, fictitious country or perhaps celebrating their own little milestone. And then, a group of soggy aliens cycled in, parked the bikes all over the village square, taking off our shoes to drain the water, peeling off our wet jackets, gloves, knee warmers, overshoes and socks, wringing the water out and laying them on the bikes and fences to dry. I wish I had a photo or two of the scene as I don’t think I have ever seen something so surreal, so bizarre. And, I wasn’t just a detached observer…
After lunch, it was ‘virtually all downhill’ to Monaco. Happy faces. And, after all this, Mark B, seated 4th from the left in the rear, went straight to London to compete in the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final. Madness.
Special thanks to Charlie for organising the ride and to Lionel for designing the leg shredding route. A very special thanks to Lionel’s wife Hilary, who signed up thinking that there would be at least one other female rider (who pulled out at a late stage), for putting up with a bunch of Lycra louts and always being pleasant and charming. Last but not least, a big thank you to the Classic Tours staff: Gideon, Claude and Pete on the road as well as Louise and Natalie in the London office. And, of course, we cannot forget Julian our good doctor who, prior to this ride, never experienced running out of magic pills during a charity ride. If you need a GP in Newcastle, be sure to look up Dr Bromly. Julian Bromly. Just ask him to give you whatever pill he has stashed away in a pocket of his Rajasthani clay stained Rapha lightweight jersey, and you’ll be sorted, whatever ailment you may have. If he refuses, then you can wind him up by calling him Jules.
You can read Charlie’s ride report over at g2mcblog.com.
This fundraising ride was made possible in substantial part through the kind generosity of Rosy Blue. The remainder of the cost was borne by me.
If you would like to help stem child labour in India through positive means that will have a lasting effect, then please consider sponsoring me. Many thanks.