I’ve recently returned from a long weekend of cycling with friends in the Alps. This holiday was long in the planning to give adequate time to negotiate with partners and bosses, and to organise the accommodation, flights, hire car and bikes. Between all of these logistical challenges there was also the slightly more important task of training for such a weekend.
The chat in the lead up to the weekend was full of bravado as we discussed the epic proportions of our upcoming Col conquering. In reality, it’s extremely difficult to train for high mountains when you live among low hills, so none of us really knew how we’d fare. I had been to the Alps a few times previously, in particular riding up Alpe d’Huez a couple of times. Both times narrowly missing out on a sub-hour time (the narrowest being an 11 second margin) so I had some unfinished business.
We took it steady on day 1 with a 70 mile ride over the Col de la Morte and Col d’Ornan, the latter part being the same route that the Tour de France had taken the previous day. Despite roughly translating as the ‘Pass of the Dead’, the Col de la Morte is a fairly comfortable ascent that traverses steadily up the mountain at a consistent 7% gradient for just over 7 miles. With a mixture of cockiness and nerdiness, Will and I instigated a game of “Heart Rate Top Trumps” to try and gauge who was finding the pace easiest. What do they say about pride coming before a fall?
After lunch at the top of la Morte we headed down into the beautiful valley for some exhilarating riding, the highlight being a long sweeping bend onto a narrow bridge over a deep gorge. Magical roads. The Col d’Ornan still stood between us and our chambre d’hôte and I decided to test myself a little harder up the final climb. The Ornan is a peculiar climb consisting of a long, straight 6 mile approach with a varying gradient of between 2 – 5% before a series of switchbacks over 3 miles of increasing gradient up to around 8%. It actually ought to be a fairly easy climb, however the difficulty comes in the way that the road is always much steeper than it appears due to the vast and open landscape removing any points of reference.
Day 2 was to be the litmus test of our pre-trip bravado as we attempted to take on the route of the infamous Marmotte sportive, albeit minus the unnecessary ascent up Alpe d’Huez at the end. 100 miles and over 12,000ft of climbing is surely enough of a challenge for any sane person.
After an early breakfast we headed up the Glandon, a staggeringly beautiful and long climb. Heading over the Glandon was the point of no return as we dropped into a deep valley on the other side of the highest Alpine mountains. We all rode on. Before attempting the double-whammy of the Telegraphe and Galibier we stopped for lunch. For me this is where it all started to go a bit wrong. I had no appetite and had to force my way through half a bowl of pasta. We made it up the Telegraphe as a peloton but my stomach was beginning to cramp up. At the foot of the Galibier, the “Giant of the Alps” I had to stop and tell the guys to meet me at the top. Ahead of me was 11 miles at 7% average on an empty and cramping stomach.
I suffered. I forced myself to keep going, only allowing myself breaks at every other kilometre stone. Two thirds of the way up I stopped at a cafe for a Coke and to steel myself for the final few miles of pain. At one point I got off my bike and actually tried to walk, but after about 20 metres I realised the absurdity of trying to push a bike up a mountain in cycling shoes and climbed back on. Several times I contemplated asking a passing car for a lift. But slowly I kept ticking off the kilometre stones until I met Mike at the top who’d also had a bit of a tough time on the way up. Our greeting was an emotional hug. I thought I was going to cry. It was cold and windy so we got a quick photo and then made our way down to the meeting point with frozen faces and fingers. Fortunately all that lay ahead of us was 30 miles of unbroken descent back home. Halfway down I’d recovered enough to start enjoying myself again.
I still haven’t quite decided whether I should remember suffering this hard and ultimately conquering a huge mountain as a sign of my doggedness and determination. Or whether I just rode my bike pathetically slowly for a couple of hours. And walked up a hill, oh the shame! Maybe there’s a bit of everything in there.
For the final day we all planned to ride up Alpe d’Huez in our quickest times. I felt somewhat better at breakfast and managed to eat a decent amount which gave me enough confidence to try. However, my stomach started to give a few angry reactions during the first few hundred metres of Alpe d’Huez so I reduced my effort and just took it steady all the way to the top. I rode at a conservative average heart rate of 150bpm, getting to the top in 1 hour and 3 minutes. Despite being tinged with a bit of disappointment I was mostly pleased to make it all the way up without stopping.
Alpe d’Huez – still unfinished business!