Living the dream
Like most cyclists, I always imagined how it would feel to ride those climbs in the Tour de France that I saw every year. What would it be like to follow in the footsteps of all those great riders? This year, I finally got the opportunity to find out, on some of the climbs anyway.
I got together with Mike Rennison and we decided that we would take a week out and go to France to see some of the action, though my main aim was to ride the mountains. We chose the last week of the Tour, as not only did it have the best climbs, but would surely be the most exciting time to see the pro’s. That proved true as the first two weeks were pretty dull
Our first stop was in Kent, where Mike wanted to take part in the National Disability Championships taking place there. There was a circuit race on Saturday afternoon and a time trial the next morning. With good prize money on offer, we hoped Mike’s hard work would boost the holiday coffers. There were very few competitors in the circuit race and they were staggered in three groups. From memory, only two riders went off first, then three more, then three more in Mike’s group. The defending champion set off over a minute ahead of Mike so it was always going to be tough reeling him in. Despite finishing first in his group, Mike was unable to catch all early starters and finished just outside the medals in fourth, but getting a nice cheque to pay for our shopping in Dover the next day. The following morning, Mike lined up in the time trial, but due to space limitations, he had no TT bike and had to ride on his standard bike and not a tri bar in sight. This proved too much, and he had to settle for sixth place in a very complicated and confusing handicap system. Lack of TT equipment meant he ended up behind people he had ridden away from the day before. Still, a few more euros were added to our funds.
So into France, and immediately the less crowded roads and better weather were in evidence. Our target on the first day was to reach the place Mike goes skiing. It also happened to be on the Tour route this year. He always wanted to do the climb on his bike, so he got his chance. We didn’t get to Les Carroz on Sunday despite making good progress, we had to finish the drive on the Monday morning. We parked the car near the bottom of the climb and headed off to do the Cat 2 climb which the pro’s would do as part of their route the next day. If my memory serves me right, it was named Col d’Araches. The climb was in the region of 6-8% gradient and we rode it together. After 6 km we reached the point that the peloton would turn left, but we carried on up the hill to Les Carroz and then carried on still further to Flaine, the ski resort at the top. I had 26 km on my computer at the top, though 3 or 4 would be flat before we got to the climb. We went back down and had something to eat, then in a while I wanted to ride up again at my own pace for the first 6 km. Not a wise move on a stomach full of recovery drink and rice pudding. I did go up a little faster than before and even managed to keep my food down on the way.
After my ride, we packed the bike and headed off towards Switzerland. The highest climb on the Tour route would be to Col du Grand St.Bernard, and we wanted to be there. From the start town it was apparently 54 km to the top of the Col. We went a little outside the town to park, then began the ride up the route. It wasn’t as hilly as appeared on the profile, early parts being flat, but that changed later. We rode 40 km and arrived at the summit, I would say most of it was 5-6% until the last 5 km which kicked up a little more. We went down to view the race near the 1 km sign with the best view of the roads below. After a long wait, two breakaway riders went by, Karpets and Pelozotti I believe, then a few more chasers. We had to wait quite a while before Cavendish appeared, being dragged up by team-mates near the tail end of the field. I got a good photo of him as he passed, and soon we were on our way back down the mountain, trying to dodge roads full of fans on foot making the long walk back down. The descents are pretty scary, and I for one am not a fan of going downhill at speed, especially on twisty roads. One reason for this became apparent on one bend. I was just behind Mike on the descent and we approached a turn. we both braked and Mike’s front tyre blew, right on the bend. He lost control and went down picking up a few minor bruises and cuts. Luckily it was a slow bend and we were already going snail’s pace. We were both to be more cautious after that. A major problem was heat in the rims from continual or hard braking. I had two flats that same day due to it, and Mike had another the next day. On the ride home we were able to do a few hard bit and bit efforts on the flatter roads. A couple of Frenchmen had the audacity to go by us as they were doing the same thing. We let them go, and as they weren’t getting away anymore after a few miles we decided to catch them up. The hammer went down and the next thing we knew we were on our own again. We were already back at the car and changed by the time the two appeared sheepishly riding by having been taught a lesson.
Wednesday was to prove the most difficult day as far as gradient goes. We had two 1st category climbs to get over. We parked the car right at the bottom of the first one on a small “pull-in”. Some events on the day proved just what a small world it can be. We were just making final adjustments and getting food and drink ready for the ride, when I heard a voice behind me say “Hiya”. I turned to see someone I didn’t know from Adam, but he had recognised my Cleveland Wheelers top and walked across the road to chat. He proudly proclaimed to me ” I designed that top”. It seems he was an old CWCC member who came up with the idea of a more snazzy design. I remember he was called Adrian and that’s all I remember. He headed back to his wife and continued on his way up the hill along with many others on foot.
The ascent was the steepest we had encountered so far, not only steep but very twisty roads and huge drops into the valley at the side. We had only gone around a couple of bends and already the town was miles below us. This was the Col du Romme It wasn’t long, maybe 8 km, but it was steep, in the 8-10% range. I rode alongside or just behind Mike, letting him go at his own pace. I was already worried on the way up about going down the same way. We had a back-up plan in place in case of such a problem and we both agreed we’d rather find a more gradual and less twisty way back to the car. With the Romme behind us we headed downhill to the next climb, the Col de la Colombiere another 1st cat. On the descent it started to rain, not only that, Mike had another flat tyre. We checked his wheels, his rim tape was all twisted up and basically melting with the rim heat build up of braking. We couldnt untangle the rim tape, all we could do to stop the inner tube going down the spoke holes was to put a patch over it. It worked for the rest of the ride, but the next day Mike changed to his spare wheels for peace of mind.
It rained quite heavily on and off as we climbed the Colombiere. We stopped maybe two or three times on the ascent to shelter, and maybe that’s why it didn’t seem so tough to me. It felt like the easiest climb we had done all week, it wasn’t even long, I think 6 km at most. In my opinion the Romme was much more difficult, and Mike agreed. In a way I felt disappointed. I knew the name of this climb and yet it proved no harder than four times up Clay Bank at 80% effort. While the Romme gave the impression of a 10% climb, the Colombiere seemed more like 7-8%. Maybe my view will change if I go up on a hotter day without a breather on the way up.
After the action was over, we followed the peloton over the top in search of a gentle downhill to get home. The stage would end in Le Grand St. Bornand. We were both delighted to find a nice route with less twists via Petit St. Bornand, a nice downhill followed by flat roads through the valley back to the car. We were even able to get a spell of “Time Trial effort” going on the way back. As we cooked our meal, cars were still coming down from the summit. A voice from a car shouted “Hi, I saw your Cleveland Wheelers shirt, I’m from Stokesley”. Truly a small world.
With the rather overcrowded Annecy time trial as the Thursday stage, I for one preferred to go and do something more challenging that pushing shoulder to shoulder with Americans trying to get a peep at blurs going by at 35 mph. We headed off to the Mecca of cycling, Alpe d’Huez. Mike is already an old hand at going up this epic climb. On arrival we decide to drive up first, and it will give me a look at the route before I tackle its 21 bends. This was to be my first “solo” ride, as it was the one I wanted to time myself on the ascent. We headed down to the bottom on our bikes having parked near the finish line in the large car park. Mike being a downhill specialist and on his trusty spare wheels, went on ahead and was already around the roundabout and starting the climb as I limped down, I got a flat again just after the last bend luckily. The heat in the afternoon was almost unbearable, and here we were attempting to ride up the iconic climb. I set about fixing the puncture and Mike stopped to see if I was OK.
Puncture fixed, Mike carried on up the climb as I fiddled to secure my crash-hat to the bars somehow, as I didn’t want to be wearing anything on my head going up there, it really was baking hot, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, it was blowing a gale too. A couple of minutes after Mike left me I headed off in the opposite direction to the roundabout which signals the beginning of the climb. As I rounded the roundabout, I set my mileage to zero and started my stopwatch. I wasn’t sure of the exact place to start the watch, as it turned out, I started it a little early, but only a couple of seconds early. The first couple of minutes is flattish, then you get to know what a Hors category climb is all about. I was sweating buckets. The gradient is only supposed to be 7.6 on average, I was expecting to hold 14 kph comfortably as I do up Clay Bank sitting in the saddle, but it wasn’t to be. Most of the time i was hovering between 11 and 12. I was constantly wiping sweat from my eyes. i hadn’t sweated so much since I rode a similar climb in the Philippines, but that was only 7 km long, and this was 14.5. The only kind of recovery I found was on many of the bends, which seem to level off, especially towards the outside. I took a wide turn on each one and at the same time a mouthful of water. I started with 1.5 litres and it only just lasted, i could have done with a little more. I passed Mike who was really feeling the heat too. I was sure he would be stopping to put his head under one of the waterfalls at the side of the road, but he promised me he didn’t. I wouldn’t blame him, they were very inviting. I kept passing rider after rider, but the numbered turns seemed to be going by very slowly. Eventually I got to what is the first finish line, my time was 60:25, I carried on to do the full climb as done by the tour riders, on through the tunnel, and a little more climbing before the route turns right and downhill over cobbles and a mini-roundabout, and on to the final roundabout, where it is left and uphill to the finish line. I stopped the clock exactly 65 minutes. Not bad in the heat and gales. In better conditions i would hope to be getting nearer to 60. I had a warm down and was getting food when Mike arrived in view. I went over to the side of the road to cheer him on the last few metres as he sprinted for the line. His time was 1:21:20. It was a PB for him and he’d attempted this climb three already times, so a great effort in the conditions.
I hoped to do another ride that evening, Col du Galibier but the weather turned to rain after we parked the car a few km from the bottom, and with Ventoux looming the next day, I decided to call it a day and we had supper.
Another warm day but not quite as hot as Thursday when we set off on our ride of the “mythical”climb. We had deliberately set off a little later in the day. it was around 5.30 when we left the car park at Mormoiron. I’d have left it later, but Mike was worried of failing light before we got home. Mormoiron is 7 km from Bedoin which is where the climb to Ventoux begins. From there it is 22 km to the summit. I missed the actual start point of the climb, so I can’t be sure of the exact time it took me, but I have a rough idea. Next time I’ll know better having seen the marker on the road when I came back down. The route was already full of camper vans who had probably been parked up there for days, if not for most of the Tour. Flags of all nations lined the route. I was surprised how many Aussies we saw. It was encouraging and a little amusing to hear some of the comments shouted out from fans lining the route. Of course I couldn’t understand them all, but I got the general idea. At around 5 km into the climb itself or maybe a little less, I started to up the pace and Mike said he was going to back off a bit as it was still quite hot. I headed on alone, weaving through all shapes and sizes of riders, some pulling kids in buggies, some young, some old, some fit and some obviously novices stopping to rest. The encouragement continued from the roadside “Allez” “Forza,Forza”. I carried on, latching onto three cockneys who were going not much slower than I was going. I didn’t try to race by , I just kept to my own pace and sat among them for a while. I was surprised just how steep Ventoux is. It’s not as steep as d’Huez in the books, but in reality the lower slopes seem to be. It might even be steeper, or maybe I just had tired legs from the day before.
I found myself drifting to the front of the three southerners, then off the front. I heard their disgruntled comments as I slipped away and they couldn’t decide if they would try and stay with me. It didn’t take them long to decide not to try, using the excuse that I was lighter, or so they were presuming, and that’s why I was leaving them in my wake. They didn’t look overweight to me and they were all younger too. I was tempted to ease up and ask their weights out of interest, but I ploughed on. More than an hour gone and the end was nowhere in sight, I didn’t even know how far I had gone or how much further I had to go. I just knew I wasn’t to the “moonscape ” so I still had a fairly long journey. There were km posts and altitude posts on the roadside, but they didnt help, as i didnt know the altitude or what the last km post would read. All I could see were cyclists and camper vans and all I could hear were drunken Dutchmen and the odd ghetto blaster here and there as people had parties along the route.
I didn’t really notice when it happened, but suddenly the trees disappeared. I was aware that I had arrived on that famous barren landscape. At least I knew the end was in sight, literally, you can see the observtory at the top from a long way off. My legs were running out of fuel. I could see my pulse had been dropping for quite a while already, though I was still working hard. I just hoped I wouldn’t “bonk” before the top. I noticed how the road had levelled off now. it wasn’t as hard as the lower tree lined slopes and I was able to click up a gear. On some bends there was even a downhill, it gave me fresh heart and I clicked up another gear and really upped my effort as I passed those who had done too much on the lower slopes or had run out of energy or water. Some had given up and were pushing their bikes for the last part. With 2 km to go, the road rises a little steeper again. By now we had cloud cover and a break from the heat. I was concentrating totally on my effort and on the road in front, so much so, somehow I forgot the Tom Simpson memorial which of course I wanted to see, but I hoped to be back up the next day with my camera anyway. At last the final turn, and wow it’s a steep turn too and very uphill to the top, but thankfully short. I pressed my lap timer. 2 hours and 3 mins from our car 29 km away. 1 hour 32 from the first line I saw painted on the road, which I found later was already past the start point, I estimate around 1.40 would be my time for the climb itself but that part is guess-work. It was cold on top of the mountain by then, no sun, and a few raindrops appeared. I put on my cape and headed down after eating some malt loaf to re-fuel. At 2 km from the summit I saw Mike on his way up. I rode beside him, he had little or no water left and was pretty tired out. I was going to ride back up with him, but realised he’d probably catch me on the way down anyway. I turned and headed steadily back down to Bedoin.
Our last day, no ride planned, just watching the ascent of Ventoux by the pro’s. Mike had made his Wiggo sign a couple of days ago, we rode to a fairly open part of the route so it might be seen by the helicopter cameras. We pinned it down to a grass bank with rocks, and settled down for a long long wait until the caravan, and then the first riders. Thousand after thousands of people passed by us on their way to the summit or higher vantage points. I saw later that the organisers claim half a million were on the slope that day. I wouldn’t be surprised. It seemed like all the world walked by. As soon as the last rider had gone by, we got on our bikes and picked our way through the people and cars to watch the finish of the stage on the big screen in Bedoin. We had to climb on top of dustbins to see, there were so many people there too. It was a great atmosphere. The applause and cheers as Schleck attacked again and again, Pelozotti too. The crowd really appreciated someone going for it. It was disappointing to see Wiggins keep dropping off the back, but at least he had a go and wasn’t far behind the more experienced road racers.
We set off back to the car 7 km away as soon as the leaders finished, we had another TT burst on the way to blow the cobwebs out. As soon as we got to the car we got away from the area as soon as possible to miss the certain road chaos which would soon follow. It was bad enough when we left, in an hour or less it would have been impossible to move on the roads. We got onto the motorway roads and stopped at a parking area to cook our last meal and get changed ready for the long journey back to Blighty.
Geoff Robinson – August 2009