Part#1 – Getting to the Go
It seems an age ago, way back at the start of the year, when Crazy Legs first outlined his ambitious plans to re-enact Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps and put out a call for volunteers to fill the role of lumbering, slow-witted pachyderms, transported from their natural habitat to an exotic, alien and dangerous place, seemingly for the express purpose of becoming over-worked, over-heated and dying in pain, far from home.
Even so, how could I possibly have refused such a call? What club cyclist doesn’t dream of testing themselves on the mythic, Grand Tour climbs, roads replete with the ghosts of past champions and freshly stained with the multi-coloured daubing’s celebrating cycling’s current crop of racing aspirants?
A plan then was hatched and agreed for an extended weekend break in France, in July, running from a Thursday to the Monday, which coincided happily (if not deliberately) with the Cyclone weekend. Having carefully negotiated permission to go, I signed up alongside Goose and Captain Black, and we formed the original Four Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List.
British Airways flights from Newcastle to Heathrow and then from Heathrow to Geneva were booked well in advance and for what seemed a rather reasonable £160. Then, I more or less forgot about the whole venture.
Behind the scenes though, others beavered away tirelessly on my behalf. Crazy Legs found us two chalets, with three berths each at the Cascades campsite in Le Bourg-d’Oisans – basic, cheap and cheerful chipboard cabins, with two very strict rules you especially needed to adhere to:
Rule#1 – Do not take your bike into the cabin, as the curtains have a magical, magnetic effect that can draw chain oil through thin air by osmosis and then print it directly and indelibly into the fabric.
Rule#2 – And, no matter how strong the urge, don’t pee in the eponymous waterfall. We don’t know what the exact consequences of this misdemeanour are, but all indications are that they are dire.
Even better, Le Bourg-d’Oisans lies right at the bottom of the magnificent L’Alpe D’Huez, a snaking 14-kilometre climb through 21 numbered hairpins, each named after past Tour de France stage winners. Dubbed the Tour’s “Hollywood Climb” it’s regarded as the most famous of all the summit finishes, at least amongst casual cycling fans, if not the cognoscenti.
Location sorted, Crazy Legs then began formulating a loose itinerary with rides on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which included a monstrous “queen stage” in the middle, vaguely based on the Marmotte Granfondo route and taking in the Col du Glandon, Col del la Croix de Fer, Col du Télégraph, Col de la Galibier and Col du Lautaret. Eek.
Meanwhile Goose set to work arranging hire cars big enough for sundry riders and bike bags, both of which seem to be characterised by odd, angular and pointy, sticky-out bits with minimal padding, that make them rather awkward to accommodate and transport.
Along the way, Crazy Legs somehow coerced his brother-in-law, Johann the Steadfast into coming along and providing the gravity and thoughtful, moral ballast this type of expedition sorely needs. The Hammer signed up for the fun too, but was intent on making his own travel arrangements, which I suspect involved chauffeur-driven limousines, private jets and helicopter transfers.
The BFG also agreed to come, work permitting, but then wavered and then havered and firm commitment eroded to a maybe-wait-and-see, before finally crystallising into a, hmm-maybe-not-this-time. His loss.
As the days ticked down and the departure became more real and imminent, I had to start thinking seriously about how this might work and more importantly, how I might actually be able to survive with body and mind unbroken.
Despite over a century of years between us, Captain Black and I were very much Alpine climbing neophytes and neither of us knew what to expect, or if we would be able to cope. I was particularly concerned about how aged creaking joints and ancient brittle bones were going to react not only to the length and severity of the climbs, but tackling them three days in a row – my body tends to dislike longer distances with sustained efforts and seems to take increasingly longer periods to recover as I get older.
A couple of weeks beforehand, chatting nervously about bike set-ups and the like, Captain Black queried gearing for the trip and was pondering slapping on a 32-tooth cog or something similar. (He didn’t and I think may have learned to regret his decision).
I remember saying I felt good to go, as I ride a sneaky, triple-compact chain-set, something the venerable Toshi-San urged me to buy to avoid placing too much strain on ageing knee joints as I slowly returned to cycling from decades of inactivity.
In the past couple of years, I think I’ve only used the smallest, granny ring a couple of times – once when battling a headwind on the rather fearsome Rosedale Chimney in North Yorkshire, the other time when trying to drag my sorry ass up the Heinous Hill, hollowed out by the bonk after a long club ride. Now I was hoping it would be my ace in the hole in case I needed it once or twice, just to see me through any sticky patches I might encounter. Ha-ha-ha.
I guess the trip had actually been playing on my mind more than I realised, as I’d started to pay just a little more attention to calorie intake, nothing particularly strict, just cutting out one or two sweet-treats and snacks along the way. Combined with an increase in commutes on the single-speed, my weight started to slowly drop and I went from 70 kilos at Christmas to around 64 kilos just before departure – reasoning I needed all the help I could possibly get and even small, incremental gains might just balance out in my favour.
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs parcelled out his hard-won wisdom like a parsimonious miser down to his last few pennies and you had to pay attention to catch all the useful bits: lights for the tunnels, rain jackets and arm warmers for descending through the snow line at the tops of the Col’s and a pillow case to avoid using the paper ones provided in the chalet’s. Paper pillowcases?
I missed the memo about the lock so you could leave our bikes outside the cabin. Ironically, we got away with it, while in Crazy Legs’ chalet they assiduously kept to the no bikes inside policy, yet still had to argue long and hard with the rather hard-faced, “Les Inspecteurs de Chalet” on the last day to ensure their deposit was returned. I suspect this was some kind of Brexit payback.
With a week to go, I borrowed a hard case bike box from the Red Max and spent Tuesday night breaking down and packing a rather startled Reg. Against airline advice, but on the recommendation of the cycling community and various forums, tyres were left inflated, but off came the wheels, handlebars, saddle, seatpost and rear derailleur and hanger. The bike was packed around with foam pipe insulation and all the spaces filled out with kit – shorts, jerseys, shoes, socks, helmet, tools, tubes, gels, energy bars, a towel and toiletries.
In fact, I did such a good job that the bike case was 28kg’s and earned me a big orange “Heavy!” warning sticker alongside the pretty pink “Fragile!” one at check-in. Like a red rag to a bull, I suspect the latter simply taunts baggage handlers to see just how much disdainful, ham-fisted flinging about they can subject your prized possessions to, but I may be wrong.
As it was, when I met up with Crazy Legs, Goose and Captain Black, early on Friday Morning at Newcastle Airport, I was only lightly burdened with a small, half-full rucksack containing a few T-shirts, money, travel documents and an Elsatoplast for emergencies.
“Is that all you’re taking?”
“Sorry, didn’t realise we were dressing for dinner, I must have missed the memo.”
“No dinner jacket?”
How gauche… what will the natives think? I somehow felt I was letting down the whole of the British Empire. Appearances must be maintained you know, eh what?
A bizarre discussion about sandals then ensued and we learned Goose recommended swimming in his, as he liked the odd sensation of his feet floating higher than his head. A later conversation about him not having brought his swimming costume and considering swimming in his bibshorts had me worried the buoyancy of his seat pad coupled with his super-floating sandals meant we were going to find him drowned in the camp pool, feet and arse sticking up in air and head forced under the surface like a giant mutant, bottom feeding duck. Or goose.
We sat at the gate for an interminable age as the British Airways gate crew boarded everyone in stages. First the Platinum and then Gold Executive Club members … then mothers with children and those needing special assistance … then Silver and Blue Club Members … then Sapphire and Emerald Alliance Partners…
We were already bored when they announced they’d next like to “invite” all Euro Travellers to board next. Bloody hell, when do we get a turn, we wondered, before one of us looked at the Boarding Pass and realised we were those self-same, Euro Travellers – the pointlessly polite name for “everyone else that’s still waiting” or, in other words the hoi polloi of cattle-class.
The flight down to Heathrow was short and uneventful, but we learned of a failure in the Terminal 5 baggage handling system and there were warnings that hold luggage couldn’t be guaranteed to make it through the transfer. Bah.
Along with Crazy Legs, I’d cleared the plane before the next announcement that all the baggage handling problems had seemingly been resolved and only earlier flights had been affected, but Goose and Captain Black were able to relay the good news. With Fignon’s crossed and hoping for the best, we hopped onto our flight for Geneva and waved goodbye to Blighty.
With some relief we found our bike bags waiting for us in baggage reclaim at Geneva airport having managed to arrive ahead of us, primarily because they didn’t have to queue for an age under the sullen, dismissive and utterly disinterested glare of grumpy Swiss custom officials. These guardians of Swiss border integrity had obviously been told they were legally obliged to let in a bunch of foreign nationals, but no one said they had to be happy and welcoming about doing it. You’d think if they hated their jobs so much they’d find something else to do with their lives.
(Actually, having the exact same treatment from their British counterparts on the return trip makes me think this is just a Customs Offical’s default setting. Perhaps they’re even trained to project this generally bored, sullen, world-weary and unwelcoming demeanour and it goes with the territory – regardless of the, err … territory, if you see what I mean.)
Not only did we find our bikes in the baggage hall, but we also found Steadfast, who’d arrived on an earlier flight along with his bike bag, but was missing the rest of his luggage. Reluctant to commit to riding naked, the good news was he’d been promised his missing bag would arrive on the next available flight, the bad news was that we’d have a 2½ hour wait to see if British Airways could keep a promise.
While Crazy Legs caught up with Johann the Steadfast, we decided to send an advance party out to see if we could sort out the car hire to minimise any further delay once the misplaced bags showed up. I tagged along with Goose and Captain Black, both of whom had either bravely volunteered, or perhaps been unwittingly press-ganged into serving as expedition drivers, and we made our way landside and out to the car hire desk.
I stood guard on the baggage while the Goose and Captain Black became embroiled in long and convoluted discussions with the car hire rep. The upshot was that Goose managed to parlay our original booking of two Opel Zafira people carriers into one 9-seater van. I couldn’t tell if this was skilled negotiation on Goose’s part, or a result of us having caught Budget Rental Cars on the hop and they didn’t actually have the two Zafira’s to give us.
As it was, he only had to point to me perched precariously atop a mound of rucksacks and bike bags for the car hire rep to realise he wasn’t going to be able to fob us off with two standard saloon cars. We agreed we’d have a look at the 9-seater van and check that everything fitted in, or else, as Captain Black intoned ominously, channelling his inner Terminator, “We’ll be baack!”
Actually, we all agreed, the 9-seater van was probably the better option, only 1 driver needed, only 1 vehicle to fuel, only 1 set of road tolls to pay. It all depended on us being able to squash 5 bike boxes in back.
A short shuttle bus ride to a gloomy, hot and airless underground car park and we found the van. Things were looking good. Half an hour later and having found and discarded the car manual (it was in German) we had the back seats folded in half and began experimenting with various ways of fitting 5 bike boxes in. An hour later and following much crawling around on the floor and forensic inspection of the seats by torchlight, we finally got the seats folded more or less flat and this gave us yet more variations for packing the back.
Another hour broiling and choking on exhaust fumes and we got the good news that the bags had arrived and Crazy Legs and Steadfast were on their way. We went with van loading variation number#17 and we were finally off for the last part of our journey.
Now though, we were negotiating the centre of Geneva in Friday evening rush hour, the traffic was heavy and we were weaving from lane to lane trying to pick our way southwards. At one point Crazy Legs winced away from the shriek of disk brakes near the rear window as we almost broadsided a cycling commuter.
The cyclist admonished Goose’s driving by wagging a suitably laconic finger at the windshield and pointing to his head. Oops, sorry, citizen.
Finally free of the city, we were soon travelling on more open highways and Goose and the Sat-Nav sparked up a volatile and short-lived holiday romance. This lasted only as long as the fourth time the strident Fraulein indicated vee should leave zee motorway at zee next junction and zen immediately join it again, all in order to avoid non-existent traffic jams.
His love-hate relationship quickly reaching its limit, Goose stabbed the Sat-Nav on-off button and silenced his nagging, Teutonic co-pilot. Crazy Legs volunteered to pull up Google maps on his phone, but first the entire back row of the van had to re-enact “We Are the Robots” as a tribute to the Kraftwerk concert he’d seen the night before.
Ahead, the mountains slowly, slowly rose out of the horizon and then swept round on either side to hem us in, as the sky became nothing but a cap of deep blue high above the furled rock. And then we were there, finally pulling into the campsite that would serve as our base of operations for the next few days.
The Hammer had arrived long before our weary, delayed group and had already booked us in, so it was simply a case of dropping the bags off in the chalet and heading to town for some much needed refuelling. Bike building could wait until the morning.
The long day travelling, the heat and a couple of hours breathing in the fumes in an underground car park conspired to give me a massive, thundering headache and accompanying waves of nausea.
I began to feel noticeably queasy and had to wander away from the restaurant table at one point, dangerously of the verge of throwing up. I managed to poke down maybe a third of my pizza before we wandered back and I dropped a couple of Nurofen and fell exhausted into bed.
Tomorrow we’d be climbing up l’Alpe and I couldn’t help think my preparation had been less than ideal…