Alpine Adventure

The question that first comes to mind is simple: Where to start? Its been a very busy few days. Last Saturday I embarked for the second time, on a week long cycling holiday to the French Alps. Just to cap it off, the day after returning from holiday it was time to go back to University – yet another adventure. I’m going to try and avoid waffling on too much (though I can’t make any promises) and hope this post provides some mild entertainment.

It’s surprisingly tricky to organise a cycling holiday – simply transporting bikes proved to be a significant challenge. The price of hard bike boxes put them out of our range, for now at least, fortunately a friend lent my Father & I a pair of soft carriers – these would hopefully do a good job. I opted to bring my training bike, its not flashy or expensive and as such I wouldn’t have to worry about it picking up some minor damage in transit. My Father instead went for his best lightweight bike – transporting this was going to be nerve-wracking.

Never before have I seen such an acute case of paranoid overpacking – bubble wrap, industrial quantities of insulation foam, bags of old clothing and even (luckily empty) egg boxes were utilised. In some ways it was actually rather impressive, it would take far more than a careless baggage handler to scuttle our plans.

In addition to the bikes themselves, we had many other essentials to bring – you can probably imagine. Spare tubes, nutrition products, tools and just about every piece of cycling kit that either of us possessed was carefully packed (that is to say thrown into a suitcase that had to be sat on in order to zip it up properly). On our last trip, around a year ago, the food in some of the French Hotels had been questionable in some cases – large quantities of protein snacks were therefore also thrown in.

The flight itself was mercifully uneventful, aside from the inevitable screaming child and sitting next to a rather large gentleman whose shower may have not been used on that particular morning. Upon arrival, we were strongly reminded of the shortcomings of foreign airports – to cut a long story short there was much time lost and frustration levels were high to say the least.

Having escaped the airport, we were introduced to to the other members of our group, with whom we would be riding for the following six days. As is usually the case, we were composed of a wide ranges of ages and abilities, everyone seemed friendly which is always a major bonus. On trips like this, around 75% of the enjoyment is dependent on your riding companions.

It was a long drive to our overnight stop. A small alpine chalet close to the top of the famous Col du Telegraphe. Having unpacked the bikes we all sat down for the first meal of the trip, much like those that were to follow, it was very large and satisfying. One of the great highlights of Cycling trips is that of guilt free eating – its crucial to try and replace the calories you have burnt after a long day on the bike, in order to avoid what cyclists refer to as ‘the bonk’ (running out of energy and having to climb into the van).

The riding over the next few days was truly spectacular, if I tried to paint the full picture I’d be writing for several days – which wouldn’t be conducive to a good first week of Uni work. To that end, I’ll try to keep it to a few highlights.

Day one began with ascending the last 3km of the Telegraphe. It was an early start – the empty road coupled with the sunrise and a fresh pair of legs made for something truly special, made better by the surprising lack of mechanical problems. The first big climb was that of the Col du Galibier, easy for the first few kilometres, then getting steadily harder, culminating in a steep finish. Being unacclimatised to the high altitude, this also worked to make it a tough one – it was disheartening to see how low my power output was, for a very high perceived exertion. If nothing else, this week was set to seriously improve my fitness.

The thrill of descending mountains is difficult to put into words – your life is truly in your own hands, go too fast or get the line wrong going into a technical corner and its a long, steep drop which will at the very least result in serious injury. Couple that with gusts of wind and you have a serious adrenaline rush.

That day also involved two other climbs. Firstly the Col d’izoard (the clue is in the name), with a lunch stop at the summit, followed by another descent. Finally the Col du Vars, not one most people have heard of – yet it turned out to be truly savage, 17km of climbing, much of it steep. The suffering was made greater by an unusually high temperature (around 30 celsius) and the fact it came after two large climbs earlier in the day – the large bowl of pasta for lunch didn’t do much to help either. Cresting the summit bought a real sense of achievement, spurred on by the thought of a recovery drink and hot shower – it wasn’t long before I reached the hotel. For various reasons, I finished the day on my own – ahead of all but one member of our group (more on him later). It made a nice change to be the quick one, on flat UK roads I’m not the most rapid but up in the high mountains my small size gives a useful advantage.

Day two was shorter, only 110km as a pose to 170. Beginning with an ascent of the Col de la Bonette – which was, at one time, the highest paved road in Europe. The scenery was remarkable, above the tree line its possible to see for many miles – though the view consists almost entirely of other forests and mountains. The climb itself was more straightforward, less steep and sporting a few tight hairpins which provided brief moments of rest. Only in the last kilometre, when the gradient rose sharply, did the legs begin to protest.

My riding companion for this day, and as it turned out, the remainder of the week was a Frenchman, an ex-Pro ski racer, this man was seriously fast – I was told he had barely ridden his bike during the summer, truly one of life’s natural athletes. Luckily, he had ridden the same routes during another instalment of the trip earlier in the year – his sense of direction proved very useful on many occasions. In the high mountains, my Garmin regularly lost signal, coupled with poor map reading skills this would have rendered me totally lost!

The day ended with another tough climb I had never heard of, the Col du Cuiolle. Rising through a gorge and passing through a small village set into the mountainside, it made for a fitting end to a spectacular ride. Yet again the temperature was high, it took many energy products and regular water stops in order to make it to the top. At one point I came very close to cracking – the support van would have been unable to reach me and as such this was a big worry. My only choice was to carry on and hope it would cool down towards the top of the climb. Thankfully it did – reaching the Hotel that day was a big relief.

Day three bought a welcome break from the high mountains – 140km consisting of mainly undulating terrain and a few minor climbs. The lunch stop was a big highlight, nothing like a large Pizza as a means to refuel for the coming day! Today did bring up one minor concern, during an ascent of the Cole du Buille (3km at 17% gradient – the one climb during the week that resembled those that can be found in the UK), my right knee began to throb. By the end of the day both knees were hurting – I fond myself hoping the pain would pass and that I would make it to the end of the week. My mistake had been a characteristically stupid one, bringing a bike fitted with a 52-36 chainset coupled to an 11-28 rear cassette (for any non-cyclists, this gearing copes easily with anything in the UK but isn’t the best for European Cols, ideally you want a smaller chains or an 11-32 cassette).

Day four was the one ‘flat’ day of the week. I was initially worried when looking at the road book, seeing that the route involved several main roads – the type that I would avoid at all costs if riding back home. Fortunately my concern was unfounded, French drivers are far kinder to cyclists – giving you a wide birth and often warning you of their approach. We had initially decided to ride as a group – going at a ‘steady pace’. Of course, in practice, this didn’t happen – we Cyclists struggle to resist the temptation to go hard & fast, and as such a three man ‘breakaway’ soon formed. The three of us then began to test eachother, putting in hard turns on the front and occasionally sprinting away from the others when the urge came. By the lunch stop we were already exhausted, with around 60km still to ride we had well and truly paid for our antics. Suffice to say, during the latter part of the day the group stayed firmly together.

It was towards the end of this ride that one member of the group spotted something in the distance – the top of the legendary Mont Ventoux, which we were due to climb later in the week. This was the primary objective of the trip. The mountain seemed to grow larger and larger on the horizon, striking fear into our heart. It has featured in the Tour de France many times – with much triumph, tragedy and just about everything in-between having taken place on its slopes.

That evening we arrived in the small town of Bedoin, close to the base of mountain. The hotel was a real find, off the beaten track yet the perfect place from which to conduct the remaining rides. The rooms were large and cool, the food generous and filling and the bike storage secure. During dinner that night, the conversation grew ever more grim – I doubt there was a single member of our party (aside from our hosts and those who had done the trip before) who didn’t experience degree of apprehension, even fear, regarding the upcoming challenge.

It was with Ventoux in mind that I decided to take the next day off – in order to recover as much as possible. An emergency trip to a local bike shop was also necessary, fitting my bike with easier gearing so as to spare my protesting knees. The remainder of the day was spent eating and resting, attempting to conserve as much energy as possible.

So it was that the big day dawned – I found myself prolonging breakfast for as long as possible, preying that my legs would be up to the task. We set out from the hotel as a group, no early attacks today. Soon after the foot of the climb we all separated – the only way to tackle these long climbs is to ride at your own pace. My French companion and I had soon lost sight of the others.

That first ascent was surprisingly pleasant, the mountain was busy which provided a welcome distraction. The lower slopes were forested, which made for a perfect temperature – the road was littered with graffiti, the names of various TDF riders coupled with the odd political slogan. Once above the tree line the sunlight hit, the surrounding landscape now almost white – the summit now visible, just one long and winding road along which to proceed. I made the mistake of looking down, just being able to make out Bedoin, now seemingly very small. Making it to the top bought a sense of relief, yet there was little time to take in the achievement – after all, it was only a third of the work done.

The next stage involved descending the other side of the mountain, down to the town of Malaucene. Yet another spectacular descent, though not helped by the motorbikes insisting on passing very closely. We soon reached the bottom, turning round and beginning the second climb. It began easily, yet with around 12km to go the gradient increased, remaining between 8 and 12% for the next 6km if memory serves. It was now that I realised a mistake had been made, I’d forgotten to refill my water bottles. This had the potential to be a serious problem, the midday heat could easily have resulted in dehydration which could in turn of lead to abandonment of the climb. Fortunately a Cafe situated 5km from the summit provided the necessary relief. The last section of the second climb was thankfully straightforward, an easy run up to the summit. “Two Down”, I thought – “only the last climb to come.”

Following a longer descent we arrived at the base of the last climb, the small town of Sault. By now the temperature had risen strongly and my legs were beginning to feel fatigued. The third ascent may not have been steep but made up for it by being 27km long (as a pose to 20 for the previous two). The first few kilometres were fully exposed to the heat, making for an uncomfortable 30 minutes or so. Fortunately we soon found ourselves engulfed by forest once again, providing a very welcome break. The gradient was very friendly in comparison to that of the earlier climbs – making for a fast time.

We soon reached the junction that marked the point of 7km to go (that between the road to Bedoin and that to Sault, the final part of the climb is held in common between the two approaches). With the end in sight we pushed on, my legs tiring yet keeping going. I’ll never forget what it felt like to reach the summit for the final time – it was quite crowded, music playing and a few market stalls set up to provide food & drink to the many cyclists giving the famous mountain a go. I had done it – Ventoux 3 ways, in a reasonable time of 6 hours 40 minutes. Photographs were taken and celebratory energy bars eaten (sadly I hadn’t thought to bring anything else with which to mark the occasion).

The descent back to Bedoin is known for being a fast one and today proved not to be an exception. Just as the traffic on the mountain began to decline, it was possible to see for many miles – allowing for some serious fun to be had in order to round off what had been a truly remarkable experience.

Dinner that night was something of a celebration, though not a very lively one oweing to the days efforts. Champagne flowed (all of one glass) and the chocolate cake tasted better than ever. Special mention must be given to one member of our group. In his mid fifties, with little time to train, he had completed the three ascents in around ten hours (thats a very long time to spend on a bike), rarely have I seen such determination and perseverance.

That, as they say, was that. It was time to pack the bikes up and say our goodbyes to France. I have to say it was one of the best, if not the best cycling I have ever experienced. Good food, good hotels, good support and most importantly a friendly group of people to ride with – what more can you ask for? Its even made me consider the option of living and working in France at some point in the future, how could you ever get bored when that kind of cycling is on the doorstep?

Now of course, its back to reality. Time to start thinking about the upcoming year at University, and of course the last road race of the season. Just in case anyone is interested, here is a link to the website of the company that organised the trip, I’d give then a 5 star recommendation: http://www.colconquerors.com/index.php.

On that I’ll leave it.

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