Time for one last hurrah, one more brief spin out, before breaking down and packing up the bike for the return home. Steadfast and the Hammer have disappeared for solo ride’s, off up the valley, the Big Yin is, I believe treating himself to a ride up the Col d’Ornon, while Caracol is riding Oulles and the Col d’Ornon as a warm up for another assault on the l’Alpe d’Huez.
That leaves six of us for a slow-paced amble back up the Alpe, complete with multiple stops and a vague plan to arrive at the top in time for a relaxed lunch. From there, thoughts go no further than a quick zip back down the mountain to the campsite.
Not a very taxing day, but for me it’s going to be enough. I remember doing the exact same thing last time around when, the day after the Circle of Death, I felt someone had poured concrete into my legs. Things weren’t as bad today, but I was still mightily tired and anything beyond a slow-paced amble was completely beyond me.
All traces of the bad weather from yesterday had blown over and it looked like being a good ‘un, the sky a backdrop of deep blue, scratched with a few gauzy, high altitude contrails and dotted with bright, primary coloured highlights from a handful of drifting paraglider wings.
So, up we went, slowly spinning the legs back up to speed, as chains rolled up cassettes, again and again and again. And again. We initially rode en bloc, at a comfortable pace, enjoying the sunshine and chatting away quietly.
We stopped every three or four corners to enjoy the views and watch the sparse, but steady flow of riders heading up, or zipping down. Crazy Legs felt our presence kept those descending honest, as no one wanted to misjudge a corner and mess up in front of a critical jury of smart-arse cyclists.
We greeted and encouraged those clambering upwards, they were almost unfailingly cheerful, despite the rigours of the task they’d assigned themselves. What is it about bikes and mountains that makes us want to ride up them and makes us happy to do it, too?
After exchanging pleasantries with one fellow-Brit, he then looked behind and shouted down words of encouragement to his companion, toiling upwards in his wake,”Come on, Paul.”
We immediately took up the chorus, encouraging Paul to greater efforts,
“Come on, Paul!”
“You can do it, Paul!”
As he drew level, no doubt wondering who this bunch of piss-taking, miscreants were, Kermit gave it one last shot.
“Come on, Paul,” he paused for dramatic effect, “We’ve heard so much about you!”
As we dissolved into giggles, Paul hauled himself past and around the corner, shaking his head and no doubt cursing the lolling, goggling, gaggle of lazy, smart-arse cyclists, who didn’t even have the ability to ride up on their own without stopping at every corner.
Undeterred, at some point we resumed our super-relaxed ascent and I found myself riding alongside Ovis as the others stretched away out in front.
We were just discussing whether riding up a mountain was actually a good choice for a recovery ride, when Ovis jinked into my path. This forced me toward the low wooden barrier, that was all that stood between the road and a precipitous drop over the other side. I had visions of him body-checking me over the edge as he quipped, “Oh yeah, try recovering from that, then!”
Apparently though, this was just my paranoid delusions and we pressed on without any further overt attempts on my life.
At the next stop a German couple seemed hugely amused by our antics and banter, I suppose for them it was almost as entertaining as spotting a troupe of wild Barbary apes cavorting across the Rock of Gibraltar. They must have eventually decided that we were mostly harmless and possibly even trustworthy, so they co-opted Ovis into taking a few photos for them.
On we went again, all the way up to the village of Huez, where a little leafy shade perfectly framed what we determined would be our final stop before the summit.
Running Up That Hill
After another suitably elongated rest, replete with idle chatter, off we went again, slowly catching and passing a runner pounding her way resolutely upwards. Crazy Legs had a brief chat, learned she was a visiting American and she gave him the answer to his most burning question: what would she do once she got to the top? She said she was just going to turn herself around and run straight back down again!
I can’t help thinking running down a mountain would be as punishingly hard, if not actually harder, than running up one. And I thought cyclists were crazy …
Once more our group became naturally stratified by the slope and I found myself riding at the back with Ovis as we rounded the photographers. Yet again I got undeserved grief for hogging the limelight.
We had a bit of a chat about the possibility of extending our trips over a few more days, but given I was so deeply tired already, I wondered how enjoyable that would actually be. Perhaps we would need to plan a rest day in the middle, or, Ovis suggested, maybe we’d just need to avoid mega-long, multiple mountain marathon’s, like yesterday’s “Circle of Death.”
Then we were on the long straight up through the first ski chalet’s, following the road as it dog-legged left around one last corner and riding across the official-unofficial finish line with its barriers and bunting and podium.
Done. That was it for the day, there was never any intention of pushing through the town and up to the actual finish this time around. We clambered off and joined the rest of our group who’d already staked out a table in our favourite bar.
Here we would enjoy a few cold drinks, have a bite to eat and generally watch the world go by on two wheels.
One rider wandered past clad in a specially made, one-off, bright pink jersey, featuring a bigger than life, sublimated image of Donald Trump’s snarling face, all sneering mouth, tiny, piggy eyes and ridiculous, Shredded Wheat hairstyle. The rider was at pains to tell anyone who’d listen that he wasn’t a fan of the 45th President of the US of A, but then, we wondered why he’d gone to all that trouble and expense of making and wearing the jersey?
Crazy Legs told him an orangutan-orange jersey would have been much more appropriate, which seemed to be the only sensible response to this particular horror.
A few of our mob wandered off to do some souvenir shopping, while I sat with Crazy Legs, watching a large group of strapping, young men, all of a similar age and build, ride past. They all wore identical, understated kit, all-black, save for one red, white and blue, tricolour sleeve. I suspect they were from the armed forces, maybe French Marines or similar, speculation that was reinforced when one of them strode past later, with shiny metal prosthetic’s where an arm and a leg were missing.
We then idly wondered if perhaps we’d just been presented with the ideal way of coming up with a tasteful club jersey that could still pay homage to our established, traditional and sadly lurid, club colours of tangerine and green.
Crazy Legs reminisced about the last time we were here, when he’d had to break the news to a disbelieving Englishman that, although he’d crossed the unofficial-official finish line, with its barriers and bunting and podium, he hadn’t actually completed the climb.
We’d watched him quickly run through all the stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and finally acceptance and resignation, before wandering away disconsolately. I’m not sure he liked us after that. He certainly didn’t seem inclined to hang around and chat.
It’s all downhill from here
Well fed and watered and with souvenir jersey’s and t-shirts safely tucked away, we rolled out and started our final, glorious, sweep down – a last twenty minutes of unabashed fun.
Around the first few curves and we passed Caracol pounding up the other way, cheering him on. He never did manage to better his time from the first day, but then again, after yesterday and his testing idea of a warm-up, it wasn’t a great surprise.
Back at the campsite, the bike broke down and packed away without any problems. I wandered into the chalet next door to find Crazy Legs and Steadfast watching the Tour de Suisse on their TV. I have to admit, despite wandering past it for 3 days, it hadn’t actually registered with me that we had a TV.
He wins it by a chin
It wasn’t a particularly interesting stage, but it did allow Crazy Legs to indulge in his rather unconventional dislike for the ultimate winner on the day, Luis León Sánchez Gil. Apparently, it’s all about the chin, as he bears no particular malice for the riders results, team, nationality, history or other physical traits and positively admires LL’s “older twin brother” (ahem), Samuel “Samu” Sánchez González…
Crazy Legs was only appeased by a brief cameo from one of his all-time favourite riders, Domenico Pozzovivo, who he much admired for his openness and honesty in clearly demonstrating he doesn’t give a rat’s arse, whenever he can’t give a rat’s arse.
Once the Tour de Suisse, boo-hiss pantomime was complete, we wandered into town for a Last Supper at the Dutch bar, once again deflecting the owners offer of a table for ten inside and even managing to persuade him we were trustworthy enough to fit ten chairs around a table for eight.
We had an extended discussion about where we could cycle next year with, naturally, no real conclusions reached.
We then tested Caracol’s knowledge of dead minor-celebrities, during which we (rather alarmingly) learned that much-beloved-by-grandparents, comedy double-act, Cannon and Ball were behind the book, “Christianity for Beginners.”
Someone wondered if Cannon and Ball were still working as a double-act and it was my sad duty to inform everyone that this was no longer the case, as I was pretty sure I’d heard that “Cannon fired Ball.”
That seems a suitably low enough point to draw a veil over this particular evening. We finished up and wandered back, only to be distracted by the moon rising over the mountain peaks. A suitably picturesque grand finale.
We were up early the next day to clean out the cabin, wash everything down and brush and mop the floors. This time around the nit-picking, cabin inspection Nazi’s were apparently on a day off, so we all passed muster quite comfortably, loaded up the vans and away we went.
Eye of the Spider
Our return trip was spent in much the same way as the inbound one, keeping an eye on the directions for our stalwart, designated driver, Kermit, while tuning to various radio stations to try and keep us entertained.
The highlight was undoubtedly Survivor, belting out one of their ultra-cheesey, Rocky theme-songs. (No, not that one). Google informs me (sorry, I’ve never felt the remotest desire to actually watch a Rocky film), that the song in question was Burning Heart, from the motion-picture, Rocky IV.
We listened in hushed awe as the complex, poetic imagery of this magnificent opus unfolded, until Biden Fecht turned to me, perplexed.
“Did he just sing ‘climbing up like a spider?'” he asked, somewhat bewildered.
“Ah, I think the actual lyrics were ‘rising up like a spire,'” I sadly had to inform him. Much more mundane. But then again, I was sure I could find a use for the phrase “climbing up like a spider.”
Wholly inadequate French signage had one more mean trick to pull, before I could escape its malign influence. We completely missed the turn-off for the French side of Geneva airport and ended up passing through customs at the border and trying to return the car to the Swiss side.
Luckily the car rental rep put us right, tapping the correct destination into my phone’s Sat-Nav with such efficiency and aplomb, that I couldn’t help conclude we were not the first to make this mistake and he’d probably had to do something similar for hundreds, if not thousands of confused travellers before us.
We back-tracked through customs again and immediately slowed to a crawl. We knew the junction we needed was here somewhere, but it was remarkably well hidden.
“Across there,” I was finally able to declare, pointing across the two lanes of traffic queuing to enter the customs checkpoint.
Kermit somehow forced us a way through to where an anonymous, unimpressive and almost apologetic, small, Secteur Français sign pointed the way.
We turned onto a characterless, unremarkable B-road that resembled nothing so much as the delivery entrance to a shopping centre, but we were at least re-assured by the appearance of the first car rental signs. What a bizarre route into a major international airport.
It wasn’t much longer before we could abandon the van and make our way into the airport to check our bike bags and boxes onto our return flights.
Things went smoothly enough from that point and it wasn’t long before we were airborne on the first leg of our trip home. The Big Yin send a couple of photo’s to our group chat, but they were too clever for me and I had to ask for a direct interpretation.
They showed, he explained, the passenger cabin altimeter and corresponding view out of the window as we reached 2,400 metres above sea-level – or, in other words, the height we attained at the top of the Galibier.
Steadfast left us at Heathrow, while the rest of us transferred onto the Newcastle flight via the Terminal 5 Wetherspoons pub. And then we were home and all our bike bags and boxes belatedly appeared, as the airport ground crew had to manually carry them up all the stairs from the tarmac. They didn’t seem all that pleased about it.
Still, all the bags were there and everything seemed intact, which was a major advance on last year.
So, another enjoyable trip and, even with the same rides, a different experience from two years ago.
By the numbers …
My flights, from what I can recall cost me £160, the three bedroom chalet/cabin was £115 each, van hire, fuel and road tolls around £100 each, so the trip cost about £375 plus food and drink.
Across the 3-days we managed 249 kilometres, or 155 miles, with 6,831 metres of spectacular climbing and descending. Yet again, another brilliant trip, conceived, planned and successfully executed by our very own Tour Director, Crazy Legs.
7:40 Saturday morning and five of us are lined up at the gates to the campsite ready to embark on our mini-epic: The Circle of Death. Not bad for us, as we’re only running a couple of minutes behind schedule, but it would have been much more impressive if all eight of us managed to be there.
We suspect that Steadfast and Ovis have pushed on ahead, but have no confirmation. When queried, Crazy Legs reports they’ve definitely left the chalet, but they’re not at the gate, and we can’t find then en route to the gate, so our suspicions seem reasonable.
We’re still missing the Big Yin, even though he’s hard to miss, but then he appears riding up from the direction of the town, having been who knows where. The six of us form up and set off after our early break-away companions.
Huh, Club Run Pace?
Once through the town, the Hammer seems keen to wind up the pace, but I’m conscious of the fact we have a long day ahead of us and don’t want to start out at break-neck speed. I deliberately let Caracol’s wheel go and watch the gap to the front pair widen, working on the assumption they’ll eventually look back and hopefully adjust their speed to suit.
None of the others push past me to take up the chase, so I assume they’re happy with a more relaxed start too. The roads are relatively quiet, the cycle lane’s are wide, well-surfaced and good, so I’m happy to bool along, taking in the sights, fields of lavender and wild poppies, a gleaming river off to our right and a backdrop of snow-mottled mountains, wrapped in tattered ribbons of cloud.
At the next, small hamlet, the front pair finally look behind and the speed at the front gets knocked back. We reform into a single group and are together for the dramatic zig-zagging climb up the face of the dam at Allemont.
The road then has us skirting the Lac de Vernay, before we start to climb, up through densely wooded hills and the first distance markers for the distant summit of the Col du Glandon appear.
Its remarkably peaceful on the road, with only the whirring of chains, an occasional bit of chatter and rhythmic breathing of my companions to provide the backdrop to the fluting, piping calls of unseen birds in the woods around us.
As the gradient varies, the Big Yin starts to yo-yo off the back, until Kermit drops back to ride with him and we continue to work our way through the trees, the road always climbing. It’s hot and humid under the canopy of the leaves, the sun is starting to burn through the cloud cover and is promising better weather than yesterday.
Then we burst out into the open, with spectacular views of the peaks off to the right, as we enter Le Rivier d’Allemont, our first port of call for a welcome jolt of wake up coffee.
You Say Tomay-toe
We catch up with Ovis and Steadfast, already royally ensconced in the cafe and enjoying the early morning sunshine. The Hammer plans to break his fast here and politely asks for a savoury crêpe, but instead, gets a lesson in French cuisine.
“Non, pas une crêpe, c’est une galette!”
Ah, OK, pleased we cleared that up.
Before we finish our coffee, Ovis and Steadfast are up and away again, obviously hoping to maintain their advantage over the peloton. We slowly move to follow, finish up and settle the bill, while the Hammer wanders in to find out how his crêpe galette is doing.
They haven’t even started thinking about it, let alone cooking it. Well, you know you can never rush an artist and his work. The Hammer cancels his order and in a show of Anglo defiance buys a Mars bar instead. Haute cuisine? My arse.
Ring of Fire
This is the first time the Hammer has brought his own bike rather than hire one and he admits the bike is brilliant, but the copyright for the saddle seems to belong to Torquemada and it’s causing him exquisite pain. “Ring of Fire” becomes the unofficial theme song, not just for the day, but for the rest of the trip.
Back on our bikes, we climb out of the village, then there’s a brief and joyful swoop down and over the river, before the road starts to relentlessly climb again. I drop back to pace the Big Yin and the rest slowly pull away from us.
Up we go, climbing above the dam, which they spectacularly routed the Tour up a couple of years ago and onto the balcony road high above the Lac de Grand Maison.
As we climb I notice the first snow banks, dirty and crusted by the side of the road, but still surviving well into June. It makes me wonder what we might find on the Galibier.
I hate the next bit, a too long descent where all you can think about his how much altitude you’re losing and how much work you’ll need to do to win those precious metres back. As the road inevitably starts to climb again, a photographer is waiting to ambush us and capture our distress and stupid gurning faces, just in case living through that horrid transition once, from descending to steeply uphill, wasn’t quite enough.
The Big Yin spots and points out what I take to be a marmot, scurrying through the meadow in a flash of russet and yellow and then we’re past the scenic pastures, as I escort the Big Yin up to the summit of the Glandon, barely giving him time to catch his breath and take in his surroundings, before I hustle him into turning around and we drop down to start the clamber up to the Croix de Fer.
We find the others there and waiting. The Big Yin puffs out his cheeks and declares that if Buster was expecting an easy day, just making it to the Croix de Fer would disabuse him of that notion.
Someone snaps a pic of me. Weirdly, I almost look happy …
We then reiterate that this is the point of no return for anyone who wants to turn back, once you’re on the descent, you’re committed. No one does, they’re all committed. Or, at least they should be.
We’ve got maybe a 25km downhill run, once we tip over the other side. Caracol leads us off and is quickly several hairpins below me, as I watch him gaining rapidly on a white camper van. Luckily the driver realises that cyclists are descending considerably faster than he can manage and he doesn’t try to get into a drag race, moves aside and lets Caracol slide swiftly past.
A handful of seconds later and I’m whistling past as well, just letting the bike run and riding in the Hammer’s wake. We literally rattle through a couple of sleepy, one street towns, the road surface as rough and chewed up as anything at home in rural Northumberland, and start skirting the noisy tumult of the fast-flowing L’Arvan river.
We stop briefly to regroup, right next to where someone has ingeniously formed a map of our twisting descent on top of the wall, using nothing more than the decapitated corpse of a snake. Are we heading toward that pool of dried blood where the head used to be?
There’s an unwelcome and rude bit of climbing on a 4th Category hill, we dart through a tunnel or two and then it’s a long, straight descent from Pierrepin to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. I max out at 71km/h down here, without even trying, but still some way behind the likes of Michal Kwiatkowski, Lilian Calmejane and Tiesj Benoot, who averaged 84km/h down the same stretch.
Reforming at the bottom, we decide to push on to Saint-Michel-De-Maurienne before stopping for lunch, at which point we’ll only be a handful of metres away from the foot of the Col du Télégraphe.
This is one of the worst bits of the ride, along the valley floor on a dual-carriageway. Even though the bike lane is good and the traffic relatively light, it’s an uncomfortable, somewhat exposed ride. To add to our woes, its hot, the sun is beating down hard and we’ve lost the cooling breeze of descending.
Perhaps trying to get this bit over with, or maybe sensing that a food stop is imminent, the speed at the front ramps up. I wonder if they’re considering a cafe sprint, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort to keep up and, as I’m on the back and there’s no one relying on me to hang on, I ease back and let a gap grow.
I rejoin the group in the same cafe we stopped at last time, although it was much more pleasant this time around, without the presence of raucous,beer swilling, fat bikers and with the street free from scores of filthy, fume-belching, Harley Davidson riders, having an inane competition to see who could rev their engine the hardest and loudest.
There wasn’t a great deal of choice on the menu and most of us go with a burger of some description. They’re good, but massively heavy and probably not ideal for what’s to come next. We wondered what Team Ineos “coaching guru” Tim Kerrison would have made of our selection and where burgers might sit in the pantheon of marginal gains.
The Big Yin suggests we’re at the halfway point and technically, in terms of mileage, yes we are. I don’t bother to tell him that the worst is yet to come.
The burger’s lying like a lead weight in my stomach, but at least we’ve had plenty to drink and all the water bottles are topped up. We’re just about to start rolling, when Biden Fecht finds he has a puncture.
Steadfast and Ovis decide to press on and the Hammer follows, as I hold up Biden Fecht’s bike and let him slide out his rear wheel to change the tube. After a bit of prevarication, the Big Yin determines he too needs a head start on the climb and sets off too.
I hang around long enough to help roll the tyre back onto its rim, then assured everything is in good order, leave Biden Fecht, Caracol and Kermit to force some air into the new tube, while I start my own ascent of theTélégraphe.
The climb is both longer and harder than I remember. There’s also fewer trees and much less shade than I recall too. It’s perhaps the hottest part of the day and it’s baking. I try to ride as close as possible to the rock walls at the side of the road to maximise the shade, but it doesn’t help all that much.
Electra-Glide in High Viz#2
On the first slopes I’m passed by a woman who powers past churning a massive gear, limbs gleaming with sweat and working hard. In contrast, I’m then passed by another who coasts effortlessly by on an e-bike, barely working at all and so relaxed and unflustered by the heat, that she’s wearing a high-viz jacket zipped up to the neck.
I think e-bikes are the future, I can see myself riding one when (surely it won’t be long now) I’m too weak and decrepit to keep up on a club run without mechanical assistance. I also have this glorious vision of a government that gives everyone an e-bike, makes public transport free and then bans cars. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?
I can’t quite see the challenge of travelling all the way to France to zip up and down mountains on one though – especially when you’re young, healthy and look fit enough to climb up under your own steam. But then, what do I know?
I’m starting to close on a trio of hard-working Englishmen, when Caracol storms past. He bridges across to the three ahead, slides by and they immediately give chase, while I chuckle to myself ruefully, thinking that’s not a wheel they should be trying to follow.
One of them, in a Bianchi jersey, is almost immediately blown out the back and abandoned by his companions, who disappear around the bend, out of the saddle and flailing along in high pursuit.
On the straighter bits of road I keep catching glimpses of the Big Yin, Ovis and Steadfast climbing ahead of me, as I reel them slowly in. A kilometre or so later and I’ve caught the Big Yin, he’s completely cooked in the sun and starting to suffer like a dog. He mutters that he’s really struggling as I push past and continue upwards.
Three or four kilometres from the top and I keep catching glimpses of Ovis and Steadfast, tantalisingly close, but I’m unable to bridge the gap. I’m starting to develop an irrational hatred of their blue and yellow and orange jersey’s – always hanging there, tantalisingly close, but out of reach.
Cutting across the steepest, shortest inside of one corner, I manage to close to within maybe 20 metres, when they spot Bianchi man ahead and accelerate to try and catch him. I’m not able to get any closer and as we finally approach the summit, the gap begins to go out again.
You’re Awesome, Man
Still, not much further. The summit is aswarm with Americans who’ve ridden up to where their local guide is waiting with a van laden with anything and everything they could possibly need, food, drinks, towels, blankets, spare clothing and, who knows, maybe a soigneur or two and fistfuls of performance enhancing drugs.
The riders are loud and overly-familiar in that endearing, over-whelming and almost childlike, way that Americans seem to have, something that makes us Brits inwardly wince a little.
“You’re awesome man! You can do this! Believe in yourself! Go! Go! Go! This is unreal!”
“Err, OK. Thanks old chap… I think.”
I spot the rest of our crew sitting outside the cafe and make to hang my bike on one of the nearby racks and go and join them.
“Non, monsieur, privé, privé.” The guide from the American party is warning me away from the bike racks? Because they’re reserved for his clients? WTF? Is my bike going to contaminate theirs? Are they suddenly going to break out twenty more bikes and fill up the entire rack? I shrug, roll the bike away a couple of metres and lean it against a wall. It all seems a bit over the top.
Death on the Mountain
I grab a cold drink inside and join the others. As with last year, Caracol is struggling with the heat and looks flushed and glassy-eyed. Even worse, the Big Yin finally hauls himself to the top of the climb looking grey-faced and declaring himself as sick as a dog. The heat and the climb have clearly got to him, he’s not sure he can go on and needs an escape route. He slumps to the ground and lies there like a fresh cadaver, trying to recover, while we discuss options.
After a while he slowly rises, like a monster from the slab, and wanders down to the guide from the American party. They look like they have room in the van for one more and plenty of space for another bike too. I suspect though that I know the outcome of their chat, even before it begins and so it proves. Privé, privé. And no succour for the sick and needy.
Wile we watch an AG2R squad, accompanied by their team car, briefly stop at the summit of the climb. I hadn’t realised just how vibrant the blue on their kit was, it always looks quite dull on the TV and is much better in real-life. Sadly, the same can’t be said of the brown shorts, which remain a crime against humanity.
We determine that the best plan of action would be for the Big Yin to wait at the cafe until he’s recovered a little, roll down the valley to the town of Valloire and see if he can get a taxi from there, either back to the campsite, or over the Galibier where he can meet us at the cafe on the Col du Lautaret. I’d just been to a cash-point the night before and had €100 or so stuffed in my back pocket which I handed over to fund his rescue mission.
Then our reduced bunch is off descending to Valloire, which is mercifully free of fat, hairy bikers this time around. We pick our way through the town and are soon climbing again and heading for the pinnacle of our route, the monstrous Col du Galibier.
Overhead, the sky darkens and quickly fills in with grey cloud, the temperature plummets and we start to get peppered with chilling rain. Even worse, a cold wind is blowing straight down the valley and into our faces.
Caracol winds up the pace and slowly rides away from the rest of us, as Steadfast and Ovis take manly turns at the front until, as the road noticeably kicks up, Kermit takes over and drags us along behind him. The pace is slow enough that there’s probably no benefit in draughting and there’s not a great deal of shelter from the wind. Nevertheless, it’s easier to follow and just concentrate on holding onto the wheel in front.
We drag our way up to Plan Lachat, cross the river and the real climbing begins. We forge on, into a gathering darkness and occasional lashing rain showers.
Are Friends Electric?
Through some tight-hairpins and the e-bike rider is back, whizzing past us as we strain upwards, like a high-viz mosquito.
“That’s cheating! It doesn’t count,” the Hammer calls after her fast retreating figure. I assume it’s a joke, the e-bike rider though has seriously misheard and is lurking at the next corner.
“What did you call me?” she demands. Oh, dear, someone seems overly sensitive.
“I said that’s cheating and it doesn’t count,” the Hammer replies, truthfully.
There’s a bit more verbal to and fro, when she claims she’s not trying to prove anything and then concludes that the Hammer is just “a horrible man.” Ah well, if she’d asked I could have told her that for nothing.
Once more, she whizzes away, while Biden Fecht calls for a bit of peace and calm. We keep working our way upwards.
The snow is starting to build up at the side of the road, occasionally hiding the kilometre markers. I don’t know whether this is good or bad, it worries me when the time between sightings attenuates, suggesting we’re going slower and slower, but it can also deliver a pleasant bonus, such as when I miss the 6 km to the summit marker and suddenly “leap” (I use the term loosely) from 7 km to just 5 km to go.
Ha-ha, just 5km to go.
We’re becoming more spread out on the road, Kermit spearheading our push for the summit, with Biden Fecht just ahead of me and Steadfast a few metres back, as I ride alongside the Hammer in companionable silence. I’m struggling to keep the wheel pointed straight up the road and seem to be weaving a slightly undulating, wavering path, twitching constantly as the wheel rocks a little from side to side. I’m tired.
At some point the Hammer drops back and somehow finds the energy to snap a photo as we enter the snowfields. My once pristine white socks are already grey, soaked through with rain and road spray, I’m probably wet to the skin, but keeping warm with the effort.
As I remember it, the final few kilometres look really daunting, with the road rising to a sharp crescendo, twisting up and away over your head. Still, it means that the end is in sight. Steadfast eases away past us, obviously spurred on by sight of the summit, while I keep plugging away with the Hammer, as the road cuts through the snow banks, which rise on either side of us until they tower overhead, easily twice my height.
A couple of Englishmen descend from the summit to take a few photos of each other climbing against the backdrop of the wall of snow. A nice memento, that I haven’t the energy, or will to reenact. Just as we pass them, there’s a dull crack and a flat rumble that slowly fades as it echoes around the mountains. Thunder?
“Have you got a sprint finish in you?” I challenge the Hammer. He suggests it would be more appropriate riding over the summit side-by-side à la Hinault and LeMond. Thank goodness for that, I think a sprint might have finished me off.
Riders on the Storm
Kermit and Biden Fecht are at the top, taking in the sights and pulling on jackets for the descent. Kermit pushes away and starts down, but Biden Fecht is distracted by a bright, actinic flash away in the distance.
“Is that lightning?” he asks, just as another rumble of thunder answers for him.
I also notice our e-biker, being wrapped in blankets and towels from her support vehicle as she’s force fed a hot beverage. She’s obviously gone well beyond her limits … or something.
The sky is turning black and ominous, while over to my right, the distant peaks are rapidly dissolving into a grey blanket of rain. I hurriedly pull on my light rain jacket, arm warmers and thankfully, some long fingered neoprene gloves that I’d only shoved in my pocket as an afterthought.
The Hammer and Biden Fecht seem intent on watching the storm come in. I’m just intent on getting out of there.
We would later learn that this is the same storm that capsized and damaged boats on Lake Geneva, where a tourist drowned after her yacht was swamped. 70 mile an hour winds and torrential rain had lashed the city for hours, causing enough floods and incidents to almost overwhelm the emergency services.
It was the same storm that brought a tree down on a German camper in the Haute-Savoie region, killing him outright.
It was the same storm that inundated the finishing straight of that days Criterium de Dauphine stage, so winner Wout Poels literally left Emu Buchmann and Jakob Fuglsang in his wake as he sprinted to the line. It was so bad that the organisers considered enacting UCI extreme weather protocols midway through the stage.
It was the same storm we were now caught in 2,645 metres above sea level, with nowhere to shelter and a fast, exposed and twisting descent with sheer drops off to the side to contend with.
On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness
As I pushed off, the freezing rain came lashing in and I was instantly soaked and shivering. It was grey and gloomy, so I turned on my lights, reasoning that, at worst, their intermittent flashing might help locate my broken body if I went over the edge. Ahead of me a camper van was running with full lights on and really struggling with the hairpins. I braked hard, cut inside and undertook it on a bend, this wasn’t the time for niceties.
I told myself I was probably safe from lightning strikes, insulated from the road by two ridiculously thin rubber tyres. Nonsense of course, but I semi-convinced myself and couldn’t really see an alternative.
Then, it was just a case of trying to get down the mountain as quickly and as safely as possible, letting the bike run on the straights, but braking hard and trying to be cautious on the corners, where sheets of water were washing across the road surface.
Halfway down and my shoulders were already aching with the constant effort of pulling hard on the brakes that had lost their immediacy in the wet. I shot past a truly miserable looking Kermit, who was taking a more cautious approach, but with the drawback of greater exposure to the cold and the wind and the rain.
Ahead of me, Ovis had been halfway down when he said his front wheel started shaking so much he was convinced his headset had suddenly disintegrated. He’d slowed a little to try and asses the damage, before he realised his bike was fine, he was just shivering so violently he was having trouble steering.
Later, Caracol reported that after clocking a temperature in the mid-20’s on the Télégraphe , it had been no more than 3℃ on the descent of the Galibier, even before taking into account the windchill.
I finally spotted the cluster of isolated buildings formed on the summit of the Col du Lautaret, swooped across the car park of the Hotel des Glaciers and found a space to abandon the bike amongst the dozens of others lined up there. I climbed off stiffly and made my way into the Irish bar. (Although none of us realised it was supposed to be an Irish bar, until the owner told us!)
I stood dripping on the threshold frozen, wet, shivering uncontrollably and momentarily dull-witted and confused, as I scanned the tables for familiar faces, before realising our group were sitting right in front of me. Perhaps I was shaking so hard my eyes couldn’t focus, or my companions were shaking so hard there faces all blurred together – I don’t know how else to explain my temporary befuddlement.
I stripped of gloves, helmet and rain jacket, sat down, then almost immediately stood up again to pace about and try to control the uncontrollable shuddering. I wandered into the toilets and plunged my hands into a sink full of hot water. It helped. But not much.
At the table, we ordered hot drinks and I get a mug of cocoa, that I couldn’t actually lift without spilling everywhere. I left it on the table to drop my head and occasionally sip from it, like a dipping bird.
Thankfully the remainder of our crew, the Hammer, Biden Fecht and Kermit all made it down safely behind me, but all of us were equally blue and shaking and we sit huddled miserably around the table, trying to warm up and devouring hot drinks and food while the rain continued to lash down outside.
At the next table, a large group of Italian cyclists were chatting and laughing and having a whale of a time, despite being caught in the same downpour we were. Either they’re more hardened to these extremes, or they were dressed considerably better for the conditions.
I couldn’t help thinking we must look like Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, trapped inside meagre shelter by a savage storm and just waiting the inevitable end.
We check our phones to try and determine how the Big Yin was doing. He’s left a message saying he’s feeling a lot better and didn’t come all this way to ride around in a taxi, so he’s set off to ride the Galibier.
In this weather?
But also, ever so slightly bonkers.
We contact Crazy Legs, safely back at the campsite and he agrees to drive out to us, in case we need a rescue mission to bring the Big Yin down off the mountain.
An elderly Englishman and his son dash inside and out of the rain, in as bad a state as we were, or probably worse as neither has a jacket to their name. The bar owner hands the old fellow a big, fluffy, towelling dressing gown, as we look jealously on.
The Italian’s pack up to leave. Apparently they’re happy because the day’s riding is done for them and they don’t have to go back out and ride in the rain. Much to the bar owners disgust, they wheel their bikes into his lobby, before starting to break them down to pack into their van.
In other news, Vailloire is twinned with Newcastle upon Tyne
We’re starting to get a little anxious about the Big Yin, when the big galoot suddenly materialises out of the rain in the car park. He hustles in to join us and we demand to know what on earth possessed him to continue to ride.
“Oh, once the rain started and the temperature dropped, it just felt like being home in Newcastle, so I kept going.”
His madness would continue, as he’s determined to finish the ride now.
Kermit and Biden Fecht though have had enough and have decided to wait for Crazy Legs and the voiture-balai. That leaves at least one spare berth in the car, but, strange, masochistic bunch as we undoubtedly are, no one wants it.
Stack Up, Baby, Stack Up (with apologies to A Certain Ratio)
We’ve sheltered so long from the storm, that we’re well-behind schedule now, with around 40 km still to ride, albeit most of it on a fast, downhill run. The Hammer decides that when we leave, we need to do it as quickly as possible, with no faffing about. So, we all get ready and stack up at the door, like a well-oiled SWAT Team about to breach and clear a room.
We get a “Go!” and we’re dashing through the still falling rain for the bikes and setting off. It’s every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.
This would be a brilliant road to ride, in the warm and dry, when you’re not on the limits of your endurance. Even with these limitations, it’s still kind of fun, almost all downhill with long sweeping curves and wide, open roads.
We all actually need to pedal though and as hard as possible, to try and generate some warmth and we’re all travelling at different speeds and well strung out. I’m also hoping that the lower we get, the warmer it will be.
I’ve got a feeling Caracol is away out front and out of sight, while I’m trailing Ovis and the Hammer, with Steadfast and the Big Yin behind me.
Coming to one of the tunnels I slow, while I fiddle to get my lights on and, by the time I’m out of the other side, the road ahead of me is empty. I look back. There’s no one in sight behind me either. I keep going regardless, it’s too cold to stop and wait and it’s meant to be a fairly straightforward run back, so hopefully I wont get lost.
There are a few more tunnels to contend with and I’m in two minds about them. It’s good to get a break from the rain for a while, but the air in the tunnels seems much chillier. I’m still occasionally shivering, but at least its no longer the full-on, uncontrollable shaking following the Galibier descent.
I think I recognise the detour we’d taken last time, set up when one of the road tunnels had collapsed and they’d routed us around the lake. It had been a pleasant diversion and Steadfast had talked about possibly using the same route today. It was closed though, so even if we’d wanted a more scenic amble it wouldn’t have been possible.
The actual tunnel has been repaired, or maybe completely rebuilt and it was plush, long, well-lit and with a super-smooth road surface. I blasted through onto a long, straight road, as completely empty ahead of me as it was behind.
I hit a town, at speed, neck on a swivel, desperately looking for a sign or some directions. Finally I spot one, another classic of French minimalism, attached high up on a building and almost completely blending into its surroundings.
It points the way to Bourg d’Oisans and I take up its mute invitation. I keep hoping the sun might break through and warm me up a little, but even as the skies clear a little, the sun is starting to sink and never generates much warmth.
A bit further up the road and a car with steamed up windows pulls up alongside me and Biden Fecht’s head pops out the back.
“D’you want a lift?”
I’m good, I tell him and wave them on, re-assured that I’m definitely on the right road.
Crazy Legs would later tell me when he’d picked Kermit and Biden Fecht up, they’d both been shivering so badly they couldn’t lift their bikes into the back of the car. He’d put Kermit in the front, in charge of the heater, which he’d cranked up to the maximum 29℃, where it had stayed for the duration of their journey, while Crazy Legs had sweated and chugged bottles of water to try and avoid extreme dehydration.
I finally recognise the route we took back from the “pelmet ride” yesterday and then I’m onto the final stretch, past the town and turning, at last, into the campsite.
Kermit and Biden Fecht are back in the chalet and look to have recovered from their ordeal. I learn that, sterling and stalwart fellows that they are, Crazy Legs and Buster have cooked us dinner and we wont have to drag our sore, sorry and abused bodies into town to forage for food.
Before that though, I have a pressing appointment in the camp shower-block, where I spent 40 minutes and gallons of hot water trying to feel human again.
Soaking wet kit is hung out to dry, before I make my way to the chalet next door, find a chair and slump down.
Buster hands me a piping hot plate of pasta and sauce … I don’ think it’s seemly to cry, so I just ask him if he’ll marry me on the spot.
I wake hale and hearty after a reasonable night’s sleep, much to everyone’s consternation as, based on past experience, they were expecting a shambling, pallid, hollowed out, shell of a man to emerge after a night of intense sickness.
I cram down a cereal bar and set to work re-assembling the bike. It seems to have survived its passage through three airports unscathed. The same can’t be said of the bike bag, which bears a large rip across the bottom. It’s more cosmetic than crucial, but annoying nonetheless.
It takes half an hour or so to build the bike up and then I’m good to go. (Lying to the British Airways baggage handler and assuring him my tyres were deflated helped. Contrary to popular myth, they didn’t explode in the hold and I’d read that keeping them inflated could help protect your rims, so that’s what I did. )
My cabin companions are not so lucky. Kermit finds his headset cap is missing, or more precisely, he suspects it isn’t missing, it just hasn’t travelled with him and is sitting proudly on display, in the middle of his kitchen table at home.
Even worse, he then discovers he’s forgotten to pack his pedals.
Meanwhile, Biden Fecht has assembled his bike, but his rear derailleur seems askew and is making his chain rattle like a rusty anchor dropping through a ships scupper.
An urgent trip is scheduled to the bike shops in Bourg d’Oisans, to be there as soon as they open. The van is loaded up with the bikes and away they go.
While we wait, after about seven years of riding with me, Crazy Legs finally notices how stupidly long my stem is. I explain it’s a consequence of having gibbon-like arms and I immediately become Mr. Tickle to Crazy Legs. Oh well, it keeps him tickled while we wait.
Then, Buster determines his derailleur is playing up. Shifting up the cassette is a decidedly hit-and-miss affair and then, after a bit of (supposedly) remedial fiddling, just a miss affair. Climbing the Alpe under the best of circumstances is a daunting prospect, doing it without leg-friendly, climbing gears sounds like utter madness, so Buster too departs for the local bike shops.
The rest of us are ready to go by the time Biden Fecht and Kermit return. Their trip has been a success, but they’ve still got a degree of fettling, preparation, essential male grooming and breakfasting to do. Crazy Legs suggest the rest of us make a start, while he hangs back to wait for Buster, Kermit and Biden Fecht and then they’ll follow in a second group.
It seems like a reasonable plan, so the rest of us saddle up, clip in and ride out.
At the entrance to the campsite we’re passed by a camper van trailing the unmistakable odour of burning clutch. Ah, the traditional smell I’ve learned to associate with l’Alpe d’Huez. I’m confused when we turn left onto the main road though, heading away from the climb and out into the town.
This diversion, it turns out is our warm up, a quick blast through town, an equally quick turnaround and then we’re heading for the Alpe. Ah OK, guess that makes sense, but I’m not sure it was all that effective as a warm up. We pass the entrance to the campsite and almost immediately begin to climb.
The first few ramps are by far the hardest and a shock to the system. It’s no surprise to hear a chorus of clunk-clunk-clunk-clunk-fuck! as everyone quickly finds they’ve run out of gears. The Hammer starts to open up a lead and I follow at a more relaxed pace, with Ovis and Steadfast in close attendance. The Big Yin and, more surprisingly, Caracol are hanging back.
Approaching the third hairpin and our way is blocked by a cyclist and what appears to be his support car. Neither of them are travelling all that fast, as the cyclist takes the longest sticky bottle hand-off I have ever seen. I’m talking minutes here. If the riders already struggling this much, I’m not sure how he’ll cope with the remaining hour plus he’ll need to climb the mountain.
We finally forge a way past the cyclist and support car and settle into a steady rhythm. It’s cool, the roads are wet and the air damp. I seemed to have found a pace that’s comfortable for Ovis and Steadfast and the three of us form a tight knot as we push upwards, occasionally swapping turns on the front.
At some point in the early stages of the climb Caracol glides past and slowly disappears up the road, en route to a sub-hour ascent.
I remember to occasionally rise out of the saddle, just so I don’t get locked in to one posture, and I count down the hairpins, once again squinting at the tiny signs to try read the TdF stage winners. I find a sign commemorating Joop Zoetemelk’s win, but its for his 1979 triumph on the mountain, not the ’76 version, where he had the temerity to beat Van Impe.
Armstrong’s still up there (#boohiss) but then again, so is Pantani (#boohisstoo). I quite easily spot those for the most recent winners (perhaps they’re a bit shinier?) – Turbo Peanut (as a website has fabulously nicknamed one of the two, great French hope’s for the Tour) and Geraint Thomas, the very first Brit (or Welshman if you prefer) to win a TdF stage on the Alpe. Still, I miss more of the signs and their associated names than I actually see.
It’s cold, overcast and a little rainy, but there’s never a point when I actually feel cool and the backwash of chilled air from the few streams that tumble down the hillside before ducking under the road, provides brief, welcome relief.
Names and messages of encouragement disappear under my wheels at regular intervals, scrawled across the road surface in spidery, mostly white lines. The majority seem to be aimed at everyday club riders, rather than the pro’s. None of them make much of an impression.
We’re too early in the morning for the first of the photographers, but the second one gets a few shots of our compact trio and I get complaints as I’m on the front and supposedly hogging the limelight. I don’t know … what do these people expect to happen when they choose to ride alongside someone so obviously charismatic and photogenic?
Meanwhile, back in reality, we’re onto the last, long and straight drag up to the village of Huez itself. We turn the corner and drive across the unofficial-official finish line, opposite the bars already busy with cyclists. Then of course we keep going, because, despite the finish line and the flags and bunting and the photo-podium, we know this isn’t actually the finish of the climb.
We head through the underpass, made famous by all those TV broadcasts of the Tour and continue to climb upwards. I took a wrong turn the last time and ended up completing a circuit of an immense empty coach park, right next to where the last few ski chalets petered out. I then had to drop downhill until I met Crazy Legs climbing up the other way, turn around again and follow him to the official finish.
This time I’m glad to have Steadfast in tow, assured he knows the right route. I’m also forearmed with instructions from Crazy Legs to turn right at the big boulders … except the boulders appear to have been removed and even Steadfast seems unsure of the way.
We zig and we zag our way across the mountainside, until we find what we think is the right road. In our defence, all of them, including the “right” one, look remarkably bland, characterless, municipal and indistinguishable from each other. We spot Caracol and the Hammer waiting, know we’re on the right track, so I kick hard and jump away from my two companions to finish with a bit of a flourish.
I needn’t have bothered, for whatever reason, but most probably operator error, my Garmin covered an entire 1 second of my ride from the campsite to the summit, so Steadfast had to “tag” me onto his Strava file and I shared the same time as him.
The actual finish is marked by the smallest, most easily overlooked, tattiest and most unprepossessing of signs. Perhaps it’s no wonder most people stop in the village, it’s certainly not worth the extra effort to get up here and see.
Inadequate signage seems to be a recurring theme in France-land. They’re not big on signs and what signs they do have are not big. I mean, I’m not asking for some of the visual graffiti you find in other urban landscapes, but there’s a fine line between discrete and invisible. A case in point, it’s not until we actually start to head back down to the village that I see a few “Route de Tour” signs directing you to the official finish. They’re small and blend so seamlessly into their surroundings that no one else in our group even seems to notice them.
I complained last time about the signs naming the hairpins on the Alpe being paltry and utterly underwhelming – they’re really difficult to read when riding up (and obviously impossible to read when swooping down). I still feel the same way – and personally think these near mythic rides and riders deserve celebrating with a grand gesture, not an afterthought.
Once we ‘ve all arrived safely, we press gang an innocent bystander into taking the obligatory group photo …
And then we head back to Huez to join the other cyclists in the cafe for some well-earned refreshments and to wait for the rest of our crew to appear.
The first through is Kermit, looking mildly startled by the sudden burst of cheering and applause that erupts from the side of the rode as he scoots past, failing to spot us. He’s followed in close order by Biden Fecht, Buster and Crazy Legs, all crossing the “finish line” in a burst of wild cheering and applause, before disappearing through the underpass and away.
It isn’t too long before they’re back and we’re a united group again. We order lunch and another round of drinks, the sun breaks out and we can sit back and relax for a while, watching all the coming and going’s and admiring some of the glossy, sleek bikes lined up in the racks at the side of the road.
We learn that all the local bike shops in Bourg d’Oisans are good, helpful and friendly. They’d fixed all our bikes and happily sold Kermit a brand new pair of pedals, that perfectly match the over-looked pair from home that he finally rediscovers in his bag later that day.
Buster’s problems were caused by a badly frayed gear cable, which could have snapped at any time, including halfway up a mountain. The mechanic also insists on changing out his worn brake blocks, which seems sensible as, I think even Biden Fecht might blanch at descending l’Alpe D’Huez without brakes, despite his past experience with such things.
As we’re sitting there, some sprightly, older feller, with a strong Central European accent, asks if he can borrow the posh, shiny and expensive-looking Cannondale hanging on the rack in front of us, apparently so he can be photographed with it. It seems like a harmless, but strange request. We explain it’s not our bike and he wanders off, before returning again, with the same odd enquiry.
“I’m sponsored by Cannondale,” he explains, “but I’m riding my Pinerello today.”
What? Yeah, right. Get-away …
We reiterate that it’s not our bike. He takes it anyway. Too weird.
We start to discuss our options, with no one in favour of a direct return to the campsite. We could continue on to the Col de Sarenne, which we did last time, or, the Hammer suggests we could descend almost to the bottom of the Alpe, to the village of La Garde and then take the road that clings to the side of the mountain, the Balcon d’Auris.
A Road By Any Other Name
The quartet who did the Sarenne last time all feel it wasn’t that great a route, so we agree on the balcony ride. It became a route whose name seemed to change every time we talked about it, until it became a bit of a running joke and was referred to variously as the balcony ride, the ledge ride, the mantelpiece ride, the pelmet ride, the shelf ride, the terrace ride and even, at one point, the skirting board ride.
It would add another 25km, or so to our total, heading along the “Route de la Roche” as we climbed from just over 700 to almost 1,600 metres, with a maximum gradient of 13%.
This road clings precariously to the side of the mountain, with a low, stone parapet the only thing shielding you from a long, vertical drop and doing nothing to restrict brilliant views right across the valley floor. In places the road narrows to about a cars width, but thankfully, on the day we rode it, is mostly traffic free. I think we only encountered one car on our great traverse, although even this produced a modicum of uncomfortable tension as it squeezed past.
Things were going well until just before the village of Le Cert, where we ran into a roadblock and route barrée signs. For once these signs were quite prominent and unmissable. Here we paused for a rest and to assess our options.
Should we ignore the signs and press-on, hoping that whatever disruption there was we could get through, or walk around, or should we follow the suggested diversion that could take us well out of our way and potentially lead back up the mountain.
One option discussed was to send Kermit on ahead, to see if he could get through, “our canary in a mine” as Crazy Legs put it. In the end we just bit the bullet and followed the diversion. Looking at the map afterwards, it seemed to add a kilometre or so to our journey and just a touch more climbing, before we were back on track and on the long snaking descent down to Le Frency d’Oisans.
Here, we took a wrong turn, up toward Lac de Chambon, but quickly realised our mistake and we turned back again, eventually rolling down into the valley of La Romanche, from where it was a straightforward run, following the river to the camp.
Back to “that Dutch bar” that evening, we spread across a couple of tables, while the owner desperately tried to persuade us to sit inside, where he had a criminally underused table that would actually seat ten together. We explained that we were British, so never got a chance to sit out at home and wouldn’t give up the option now.
As we ate, other packs of feral-looking Englishmen with lean looks, hungry eyes and odd tan lines circulated, or shuffled into the seats around us. It wasn’t as busy as a couple of years ago, but there were still plenty of cyclists in town.
We spent a good few minutes counting the hairpins on the Alpe, handily depicted on the restaurant place mats, concluding there were more than 21, before conversation turned to plans for tomorrow.
Along with the Hammer and Steadfast, I was happy to accompany any of the others brave (or foolish enough) to attempt the Circle of Death, a monster loop which is basically the Marmotte route minus the final ascent of l’Alpe D’Huez, yet still ran over 100 miles and with 4,000 metres of climbing.
From past experience this was going to be 9 hours of riding, plus re-fuelling and rest stops and first time we’d done it had been a struggle to get home before daylight ran out. We determined to have a little more discipline in planning and executing the stops and I pushed for as early a start as possible. We agreed to meet and ride out at 7.30. Ulp!
Crazy Legs and Buster decided to go on a shorter ride, to the Croix de Fer and back, with a few additional bits tagged on. They only mentioned a dozen or so times that they were looking forward to a long lie-in and much more relaxed start. Bastards… did they think they were on holiday or something?
Wednesday finds me piloting a car utterly packed to the gunwales through a downpour of truly Biblical proportions, as I transport Thing#1 and sooo much stuff back from University. Her First Year Is done, dusted and in the bag. Already. It seems like only yesterday we were taking her down and years are becoming too short a currency to measure time by. Like the old Soviet Union, I think I need to start thinking and planning in 5-year cycles.
The electronic ghost of Josh Ritter’s riding shotgun and providing the soundtrack, warbling about steamboats, gold leaf pyramids and wearing an iron albatross on his bonnet, as I find the outside lane of the motorway and accelerate. A pigeon spirals lazily down from an overhead gantry and lands directly into my path. There is a dull thump, the pigeon disappears and I suspect I’ve left a sodden corpse in a feathering pile somewhere in my hissing wake.
Arriving home I find the pigeon corpse is actually deeply embedded in the front grille of the car, it’s wings spread-eagled (spread-pigeoned?) outwards, like some grotesque and macabre hood ornament. My own personal albatross? I hope it’s not an omen, as this particular ancient mariner is packing to journey southwards…
Thursday Morning, 7 A.M.
Seven o’clock in the bleary morning, the very next day and, more by luck than good management, I join a line of skinny blokes, carting over-large bags through a relatively quiet Newcastle International Airport. Four of us, myself, Crazy Legs, the Hammer and Steadfast are returning to the scene of past crimes, hoping the good citizens of the Haute-Savoie have forgotten about us, or forgiven the trail of desecrated and devastated toilets we left across the region two years ago – a serious international incident at the time that had left the OPCW scrambling to respond.
Having been blooded in our Pyrenean Expeditionary Force last year, Kermit and Caracol have signed up too, along with rookies Buster, Biden Fecht, the Big Yin and Ovis, bolstering our numbers and replacing missing comrades, Goose and Captain Black.
Clearing check-in, baggage dump and security, nervous flyer, Buster heads for the nearest bar for a little Dutch courage, with the Big Yin in tow. The rest of us desport ourselves in the café to indulge in idle banter, hot beverages and breakfast bites.
Ten of us, in total then, are heading to the Cascades Campsite in Bourg d’Oisans, our base of operations for various sorties into the high Alps by velocipede.
Lord have mercy on our souls.
Maps and Legends
In the cafe, the Hammer unfolds a large map of our Area of Operations and points out lines of supply, strongpoints we need to conquer and various lines of retreat. Rides are discussed, but with it being a much bigger group, there’s plenty of scope for different options. Personally though, I’m planning something similar to two years ago, with only minor variations:
Day#1 – an ascent of Alpe d’Huez with additional bits tagged on to test the legs and the bikes.
Day#2 – the Circle of Death, a 9-hour monster loop taking in the Col du Glandon, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and Col du Lauteret – 165km with over 4,000 metres of elevation gain, seemingly always destined to end with a race against the sinking sun. Caracol has determined finding travel insurance while suggesting you are going to be engaged in an activity known as “The Circle of Death” is somewhat problematic and has been seeking a more user-friendly name for this ride.
Day#3 – a leisurely amble back up the Alpe, for lunch at the top, ideal for shredded legs and a bit of sight-seeing and souvenir shopping, before retiring to the town for a congenial round of celebratory, ice-cold beverages.
Donald, Where’s Your Trousers?
Clothing restrictions for using the camp swimming pool are discussed, with the Hammer insisting that in France, for some unknown reason, only budgie smugglers will cut it. Swimming shorts and anything else that doesn’t make you look like a pallid version of Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast are strictly verboten. Or interdit, if you prefer.
Biden Fecht expresses disappointment that he wont be allowed to wear his traditional kilt to the pool.
“But, you’re not Scottish,” Crazy Legs insists.
Biden Fecht declares he’s of mixed-race and questioning his ethnicity is akin to extreme racial prejudice, venal bullying and personal harassment.
And so the banter begins…
Chatting about films, Ovis reveals he’s always getting Matt Damon confused with “that other actor.” His observation is somewhat spoiled as he can’t remember the actual name of “that other actor.”
“Is it Denzel Washington?” I ask, helpfully.
“Is it not Jackie Chan?” Crazy Legs wonders.
Caracol tells us he’s left behind a small leak in his kitchen, with nothing but a bucket to collect the intermittent dripping. We naturally spend a good ten minutes conjuring up a series of disaster scenario’s he’ll find when he returns to a devastated and destroyed home. He’s far too laid back to bite.
And then the gate is called and we’re all shuffling off for the first stage of our journey…
Leaving On a Jet Plane
… which proves relatively uneventful, especially as this time Crazy Legs manages to avoid being trapped in his seat by an overlarge, ridiculously solid, prop forward looking to make a name for himself with a French rugby club.
We are disgorged from the plane, pass down a bland, corporately decorated corridor and are spat out into Terminal 5 at London Heathrow, in the Departure Hell (sic) opposite the giant Starbucks. We then trail Crazy Legs from one end of the airport to the other, sensing he has some unspoken mission that’s driving him ever onward.
He’s looking for the Starbucks…
We reach the end of the terminal, a series of desolate, empty and uninhabited gates and then start to backtrack. The Hammer wonders if I might like to visit one of the champagne and oyster bars, the perfect repast, he suggests, for someone who’s been as sick as a dog the first two times we’ve made similar trips. I (very) politely decline.
We backtrack, all the while Kermit complains about the amount of walking we are having to do, obviously concerned about saving his legs for travails ahead. Still, at least this year he isn’t trailing cabin baggage large enough to smuggle a small child in, so manages to skip along relatively unburdened – even if he does have to take two steps for every stride the Big Yin takes.
We finally find the Starbucks (again) and settle in to kill a little more time. Here we learn Steadfast has made it in safely from his home on the south coast and will join us, once he’s finished wallowing in the somewhat more rarefied atmosphere of the Executive Lounge. He proves understandably reluctant to smuggle any of us chancers in with him, or even liberate any of the free goodies on offer and bring them out to us, so we’ll not see him until we’re at the plane.
Band on the Run
We meander to the gate for our Geneva flight, where we queue with a group of extraordinary Italian gentlemen. Their leader appears to have modelled himself on a cross between Al Pacino, circa Dog Day Afternoon and John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He has big floppy hair with enormous chads, Ray-Ban aviators, open-necked shirt with a collar wide enough to park a car on, over a tan leather jacket with lapels that somehow manage to dwarf the shirt collars. He’s also wearing an enormously wide pair of flares containing enough loose material to re-upholster a small sofa, should you ever want a purple paisley sofa.
His collection of mid-70’s styled colleagues, sport an arresting array of big hair-do’s, cravats, gold chains, wide-lapelled, leather jackets in lurid autumnal colours, flares worn with belt-buckles the size of dinner plates, platform shoes and everything else bad from fashion’s darkest, most tasteless era.
We surmise they are possibly wearing what is considered the very latest, cutting-edge, haute couture in Geneva – it seems a logical assumption, the place does seem to be 40 years behind the rest of Europe, but, it’s just as likely they could be a highly sophisticated Italian stag-party.
We’re scattered throughout the plane for another largely uneventful flight and I pass the time between reading and sleeping.
War Without Frontiers
At the other end, the glowering version of passport control from two years ago seems to have been replaced with one of studied indifference. I’m not sure this Mark 2 variant is an improvement. “Welcome to Geneva and have a nice day. If you must.”
By the time I’m through, into the Baggage Hell, the bike bags and boxes have miraculously appeared and all have been accounted for. I realise that, like cats, cyclists don’t take well to herding, but I thought we had a general consensus as, after extended dallying, we finally make for the exit and the car rental desks.
I was wrong. At the other end though we score a measly 6 out of 10 for togetherness, Buster, the Big Yin, Kermit and Biden Fecht have all disappeared.
Frantic texting reveals that Kermit has hired his car from the French side of the airport and, as I’m travelling in his party, I’m in the wrong place. I have to work my way back up and through the terminal, passing the Big Yin and Buster heading the other way. I then get to experience the humourless, unwelcoming security and passport control all over again. Joy. Luckily, I still have a boarding card for my inbound flight on my phone. If I’d had a paper one, I might well have discarded it once out of the airport and I don’t think I’d have been allowed through again.
Later, Crazy Legs reveals the League of Extraordinary Italian Gentlemen are actually a band working a 70’s pastiche angle. Pastiche? I prefer shossage rowlsh, as a much funnier person than me once commented. At the car rental desk the assistant is warily eye-balling their instrument cases and, assuming Crazy Legs and Ovis are part of the band, trying to work out what sort of hellish, exotic and bizarre instruments, they might have packed into their over-sized, square boxes.
Having re-crossed the frontlines, I join up with Kermit and Biden Fecht on the French side of the airport and after trawling up and down several flights of stairs we finally locate our rental van. We load her up, I figure out how to work the Sat-Nav and we consign ourselves to the tender mercies of our French guide.
Elle à dit
Apparently, hiring a car from the French sector of the airport saves you paying a €40 vignette, or road tax to use Swiss motorways. Sadly, it also means you don’t get to use the Swiss motorways. And, while the car should come pre-equipped with a breathalyser kit, supposedly a legal requirement for any driving in France, as far as I can tell, isn’t actually enforced. The downside of missing Swiss motorways is a seemingly endless circumnavigation of the entire airport on minor roads, before you begin your journey proper.
We settle down for our two hour plus, elongated road trip, occasionally re-tuning the radio as the signals fade in and out and enjoying an eclectic mix of Euro-pop (only Mylène Farmer, The Dø and a French version of Snow’s, pseudo-reggae, “Informer” distinguish themselves) some golden oldies and, appropriately, if somewhat bizarrely, “Airport” by British one-hit wonders, The Motors.
Interspersed in-between the music are some truly execrable, unlovable radio ads, “Oui! Oui! Aussi!” – which serve only to advertise that the complete dearth of creative ad talent at home, is matched by an equal paucity in continental Europe.
We occasionally get sit-reps from the other groups who are encountering heavy traffic trying to leave Switzerland, but still seem well ahead of us and likely to arrive in Bourg d’Oisans long before we do.
Still, as if triggering a slow-motion Venus flytrap, the mountains start to rise up on either side, still resolutely snow-mantled and the sky retreats until it’s just a patch of bright blue directly overhead. We trace a fast-flowing, turbulent river upstream and into Bourg d’Oisans and I recognise “that Dutch bar” as we cut through the town centre. I direct Kermit to the campsite, past the counter which shows how many cyclists have climbed the Alpe d’Huez today.
We see Crazy Legs on our way in and learn everyone’s convening at “that Dutch bar.” Grand. We know where that is. We park up, quickly dump our bags in the cabin and head into town to join up with our compadres. The bikes can wait until the morning.
We’re all present and correct, a solid 10 out of 10 and it seems an auspicious start. What could possibly go wrong?
Total Distance: 40 km / 25 miles with 1,286 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 2 hours 17 minutes
Average Speed: 17.5 km/h
Weather in a word or two: Hot
Sunday morning and we meet up at the campsite entrance ready for our last day of riding. “Time for business,” Caracol mutters, setting Crazy Legs off on a Flight of the Conchords song:
It’s business time…
Hmm, business time indeed, but first we had to wait for the Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob to clear the campsite entrance with their farting, spluttering machines. Once they’d buzzed off, trailing a cloud of exhaust fumes and waves of pungent aftershave, we mount up and ride out.
It promised to be another hot, hot day, with traffic surprisingly busy for a sleepy Sunday morning, so we had quite a delay getting out the campsite. Not that we were in any great hurry, we only had one goal today, the Hautacam and back by the most direct route and preferably in time so the boys could watch the England vs. Panama kickball game.
We snaked our way through the village, crossed a bridge over the turbulent and swift-flowing, Gave de Pau and almost immediately found ourselves heading uphill. We were planning on passing through the summit of the Hautacam and its traditional Tour de France finish and pressing on, right up to the top of the Col de Tramassel. I would understand why when we got there.
So on the menu today was a hors catégorie climb of around 16km and up to a height of 1,190 metres, running at an average gradient of 7.5%. Kermit told me it no lesser a rider than Alberto Contador had described it as one of the hardest climbs he’d ever faced, although I couldn’t find any source to support this. Anyway, I would question Contador’s judgement, after he allegedly claimed OGL was one of the greatest descenders ever to ride a bike (that’s according to OGL anyway.)
Through the village of Ayros, the gradient stiffens and the signs warn the next kilometre is at an average of 10%. We’re already slightly strung out along the road, but at this point the gaps start to seriously attenuate. Caracol and Kermit skip lightly upwards, while I lumber in pursuit of the Hammer, closing in on the steeper sections, but falling back again when the road levels – (“levels” being a purely relative term, I mean of course where the slope eases ever so slightly). The rest of our group are strung out at various points behind.
Just after the village of Arbouix, Captain Black bridges across to join me and I share his company for the next few kilometres. The gradient hits 13% through some hairpins, as we catch and pass another couple of Brits. I beg them to tell me it gets easier, even if it’s a lie.
Following the road around the perimeter of a narrow field, a couple of bare-chested farm labourers are struggling to clear out some bushes. It looks like dry, dusty and hard work. Meanwhile, just by the side of the road, their small dog lies dozing comfortably in the shade of a leafy, green tree, seemingly intent on proving that it retains all of its mental faculties and feels no need to join the Englishman out in the (near) midday sun.
I read somewhere that the Alps are more uniform than the Pyrennees because Napoleon (once an artilleryman, always an artilleryman) had their roads engineered with regular gradients. This was to ease towing gun carriages up and down the mountains, thus enabling his need to invade sundry other countries and kill lots of their citizens.
I’ve no idea if this is true, but even by Pyrenean standards the Hautacam seems to have a point to prove. It goes out of its way to be as irregular and erratic as possible, with ramps of various pitches all jumbled together within its kilometre sections, making the average gradients all but useless when judging how hard the next section will be.
At one point, a sign declaring a 7.5% average became somewhat more foreboding when it is immediately followed by a sustained and prolonged downhill section. We knew we would be paying for this brief respite just a little further on.
“In the granny ring yet?” Captain Black enquired as we topped another steep ramp. I assured him I was and had been for a long, long time. Despite this I seemed to be climbing out of the saddle with more power and without spinning my legs quite so futilely. I attributed to the extreme steepness of the slope. Hmm…
We hit sections of 15% and 16% and the Captain slowly started to pull away. I found myself alone, again. Naturally.
As a distraction, I start counting pedal strokes between the kilometre markers and reckon there was about 750 of them, although if I’d miscounted, or even double-counted I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised.
On one, aggressively steep section, I pushed the right hand lever hard left. It was already against the stops and I knew it, but I had to try anyway, just in case a new gear had miraculously manifested.
I then glanced down and found I was still in the middle ring. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but immediately dropped onto the granny ring, although the worst of the climb seems to be behind me. I was now out beyond the tree line, rattling over another Passage Canadien and could see the road twisting and turning across the open pastureland ahead and a long trail of riders clambering up behind me.
(In)Sole of the Mountain
Off to the right I saw the totally incongruous sight of a solitary, discarded insole by the side of the road Who? What? Why? When and how? Answers on a postcard, please.
The gradient has eased back to an 8% average and, as I pass the summit sign, the road yawns wide open. It feels like I’m riding across the deck of an aircraft carrier, a flat sea of empty, rather dusty, black and featureless tarmac, capped by nothing but a blank, blue sky overhead.
When the Tour de France finishes up here, this area will be transformed into a busy finish hub, with cars and caravans, coaches, tents, barriers, crowds and the works. Right here and now though, it’s all a bit disorientating, just a big empty car park. I feel as if I’m suffering a mild attack of agoraphobia and I stop pedalling and coast, looking around for where to go next.
The two Brits I had passed further down the slope work their way up and past me and I wait to tag onto their wheels and tentatively follow, trying not to make it too obvious that I’m not quite sure where I’m going.
They find a road out of the car park and we’re back on track and set to climbing again. Another 1.5 kilometres or so up the road from the Hautacam is the summit of the Col du Tramassal, and a café promising cake and coffee. What further incentive does a man need?
I’m still feeling pretty good, so roll the chain down the cassette and attack the last few slopes, rising out of the saddle and bursting past the two Brits, who must have wondered what the hell I’d been snorting back there in the car park.
Around a final shoulder of the mountain, the road zigs and zags upwards toward the cafe, a natural amphitheatre, where our front-runners are now sitting along the crest of the slope, enjoying the sun while they look down and cheering everyone through the final few hundred metres.
I join them to encourage the others in, take a few photos and to admire the fantastic views of the Col d’Aubisque and the other snow-capped peaks across the wide-open valley. It is utterly stunning up here and it only takes a thoroughly enjoyable ride to experience it.
4 Days of Bullshit
We retire to the café terrace where the question du jour is why the bear in the TV series, BJ and the Bear, was played by a monkey? We decided that the pilot probably cast a proper Grizzly in the lead role, but it proved too hard to control and savagely mauled its co-star. We then imagined the Hollywood producer-types trying to determine how best to replace the Grizzly and save their series?
“I know guys, what about an alligator? Mountain lion? Ok, ok … how about a camel?”
I have a chat with Crazy Legs who asks if I’ve enjoyed the trip. “What, four days of unadulterated bullshit? What’s not to like?”
“Ah,” he suggests, “You’ve got a blog title already.”
Briefly Airborne & Then Done
For some reason, I’m the first off on the descent and lead the way for the first three-quarters or so, until the Hammer edges in front. As we sweep through one of the villages, I hit a speed bump and become briefly airborne.
As the road straightens, Caracol surges past, pedalling furiously and we drop onto his wheel. The three of us ride full-bore all the way back to the campsite, opening up a big gap on everyone else.
And we’re done. I can’t help thinking I’ve got another mountain or two left in my legs, but I’m pretty sure that’s just bravado.
Lost in Translation
We retire to the bar to watch the football, where England record a handsome victory, albeit built on a rather homely looking performance.
We also get the short-end of a cultural exchange with the barman. We helpfully tell him Crème Anglaise is custard in English, but he fails to reciprocate in like fashion when Crazy Legs enquires after the French equivalent of the term “built like a brick shithouse.” I guess somethings get lost in translation.
We stayed long enough to watch the start of a Grand Prix, typically the only interesting bit of these races. Sure enough, there was the usual carnage and crashes off the grid. We left shortly afterwards to ponder why they had soft, super-soft and ultra-soft tyres (I guess hard, medium and soft doesn’t sound dramatic enough, but what they’ve chosen sounds like different grades of toilet paper?)
The campsite bar is closed Sunday evenings, so we need to head into town for ravitaillement. Goose wanders off as our advance party to scout out food and drink options, while the rest disperse to start packing up our bikes.
Reg breaks down and packs away handily and with surprising ease and I wander around the campsite just to fill in some time. Here I find Caracol, struggling to fit everything into his bike box, and looking gaunt and washed-out again. He cries off from the evening’s excursion and retires to his bed, still seemingly suffering the after effects of heat stroke and his exertions across the three days.
The rest of us congregate on a chalet porch to finish off any remaining supplies and then take a two mile or so walk into the town to find Goose.
Goose Gets Paella
He’s discovered in a bar with a friendly waiter who Goose insists is Spanish, despite the lack of any kind of supporting evidence. He’s now communicating with his “new best friend” in pidgin-Spanish, even though the waiter speaks perfect English (and probably Spanish too.)
The bar is good, beer is good, company is good and the menu looks good . The only downside seems to be a bunch of English cyclists, all uniformly dressed in tuxedo-printed cycling kit (hilarious and original) and straw Panama hats. Rightly or wrongly (and I’m still leaning heavily toward rightly) we take an instant dislike to them, but luckily they’re just there to pour a few beers into their faces and soon wander away.
After days of wanting a paella, talking about paella and how best to prepare and cook paella, Goose finally gets to eat paella, which he declares is very good, very big and suitably filling.
Along with Crazy Legs, I choose the cassoulet, which is also tasty and big enough for hungry cyclists. The rest have various pasta dishes, all of which are deemed at least adequate, except for Steadfast’s lasagne, which is about the size of a choc ice and soon disappears without touching the sides. We wonder if he hasn’t accidently ordered from the children’s menu.
Goose Invents Ebola
With a big clean-up of the chalets scheduled for tomorrow, Goose describes an advert, that seemingly only he has ever seen, of someone cleaning a kitchen work top with a chicken breast. He also revealed a dark and distant past part-time job as a “professional” cleaner. Apparently, he was somewhat less than diligent and claims to have inadvertently invented MRSA and maybe Ebola too.
Carry On Regardless, Part 1.
For some reason talk turns to Carry On films, which, through the power of Google, Kermit reveals number an astonishing 31 titles!
Unfortunately, he then starts listing each one individually:
“Carry On Sergeant, Carry On Nurse, Carry On Teacher, Carry On Constable …”
“Ok, we get the picture.”
He “carries on” undaunted.
“Carry On – Follow That Camel, Carry On Doctor, Carry On Up the Khyber, Carry On Camping….
“No really, stop now.”
“But, I’m almost finished. That’s Carry On! Carry On Emmannuelle and … [dramatic pause] … Carry On Columbus.”
He takes a deep breath, “Several other films were planned and scripted, but unmade…”
We discuss options for a trip next year, perhaps somewhere we can fly direct to from Newcastle and doesn’t include a long car transfer. Perhaps that way I won’t suffer that first night travel-sickness-thing again? (Or whatever it is.)
We have lots of ideas, but nothing is decided, well, other than to cross off Goose’s suggestion of Chernobyl as a destination. I’m sure the roads are lovely and quiet, but there are sadly no direct flights to Boryspil Airport in Kiev and even if there were, it’s still a 3 hour drive from there to Pripyat.
We wander back to the campsite. Ably assisted by good food, red wine, beer and the cumulative efforts of several days riding, sleep comes easily.
In the morning, we clean out the cabins and handover the keys. Unlike last year, there’s no forensic inspection and no accusatory interrogations and we’re free to go without even a cursory glance at our, nonetheless spotless accommodation.
We plan and execute a quick detour to take in crepes atop the Col de Peyresourde. It looks like a fantastic climb from the west and it would make it onto my bucket list if I had such a thing. The crepes were good too. I’ll be looking forward to the Tour’s super short, Stage 17 this year, which starts at Bagnères-de-Luchon and immediately tackles this route.
Then it’s the long drive to the airport, arriving in plenty of time for check-in.
Carry-on Regardless, Part 2.
As we wait to check-in Kermit starts to get antsy about his big, red, oversized carry-on bag again, convinced he’s going to be stopped and charged for exceeding his baggage allowance. He starts eyeing up the ground crew, trying to determine which one looks the most benevolent and identifying the stern, stone-faced ones he hopes to avoid – a sort of baggage Russian Roulette.
Before we make it that far, an announcement informs us that the flight will be busy, so passengers are invited to check hand baggage into the hold for free. Kermit breathes a sigh of relief. Nonetheless, he gets a ticking off from the ground crew for having such a ridiculously large carry-on bag and somehow manages to feign both innocence and remorse, as he’s relieved of his big, red burden.
I’m the last to check-in and everyone else has disappeared by the time I make my way to the over-sized baggage drop off. Five minutes on intense, unfriendly scrutiny and unnecessarily prescriptive instructions from a taciturn, French baggage handler and the bike bag goes one way and I go the other.
I catch up with the others, just before boarding and notice we’re sharing the flight with some Panama hat wearing, English cyclists that may just have tuxedo-printed cycling kit tucked somewhere in their luggage. Crazy Legs even gets to sit in the same row of seats as one of them, but is luckily buffered from direct contact by another innocent passenger playing piggy-in-the-middle. As such, his curled-lip disdain goes unremarked.
Leaving the plane, I can’t help but notice all the HSBC adverts plastering the air bridge, welcoming us to Heathrow and extolling our “United Kingdom.” I can’t help wondering if this is supposed to be ironic, or is just very badly misinformed.
De-planed (as they insist on saying in the business) we all congregate at the other end, minus Steadfast, who has already taken a flyer into the seething morass that is a hugely overcrowded, glacially slow Heathrow passport control.
We’re about to plunge into this very maelstrom ourselves, when Captain Black spots signage directing us elsewhere for our connecting flight. We find ourselves in some kind of placid, quiet backchannel, quickly passing through a fully-automated passport control system and then smoothly released into the general departure lounge.
We stop in the Wetherspoons for some food and then we’re on the last leg and being hustled on to the plane for the short hop back up to Newcastle. Well almost, Goose gets stopped at the gate and we pause to laugh at his startled, rabbit in the headlights act as he screws up the facial recognition sensors and then desperately tries to get them to recognise him.
At the other end, our baggage arrives in dribs and drabs and we depart piecemeal. As such I’m well on my way home before Kermit realises his bright green bike box isn’t going to put in an appearance.
“It’s Big & Green and Nowhere to be Seen” : Kermit
Kermit’s bike box is eventually tracked down to Zurich and is finally returned to him a few days later. Before this, however, it seems to have been fed through a threshing machine and both box and bike are badly damaged. An insurance claim is on-going, while in the meantime, Kermit has to resort to his winter-bike, at a time when we’re enjoying the longest spell of fair weather we’ve had for years.
I have a feeling though that even this isn’t going to put any of us off signing up for similar adventures if offered next year.
Chevauchée Pyrenees Totals: 228 km / 142 miles with 5,570 metres of climbing
YTD Totals: 3,741 km / 2,324 miles with 47,054 metres of climbing
Col d’Aspin (west side) Col du Tourmalet via La Mongie
My Ride (according to Strava)
Total Distance: 125 km / 78 miles with 2,707 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 6 hours 4 minutes
Average Speed: 20.6 km/h
Weather in a word or two: Baking
Early morning, feeling better for a good night’s rest – or at least a sustained period of unconsciousness – I still can’t face a proper breakfast, but cram down a cereal bar and as much water as I think I can hold.
Today is going to be our “Big One” – although not quite on a par to last year’s Circle of Death, it is going to be a long day in the saddle and promises to be red hot too. Hopefully I’ll fare batter. Kermit is up and fuelling on multiple bowls of cereal and the Breakfast Club are just returning from their sumptuous petit dejeuner.
We congregate at the entrance to the campsite and wend our way through a sleepy Argelès Gazost, crossing the bridge over the permanently tumultuous, Gave d’Azun. Its spray gives a pleasant, brief interlude of comfort cooling, then we’re through the town and out onto open roads under a hot sun.
The Hammer seems to be on a mission, or perhaps chasing a personal Strava segment, either way he’s winding up the pace on the front. It’s too much too soon, so in tacit, unspoken agreement with Crazy Leg’s, we give up the chase and back off to let a gap grow. Finally, the Hammer realises he’s ploughing a lone furrow and we slowly coalesce into a single group again, a cycling embolism … a slow moving clot.
Heading east, we pick our way through the anonymous commercial outskirts of a quite unremarkable Lourdes, well, at least the portion of it we traverse, well away from any of the religious razzamatazz and what we’ve been led to believe is a vast array of astonishingly nasty and tacky religious tat.
Then we swing south along a valley, following the course of the river L’Adour which Google tells me actually rises from our ultimate destination, on the slopes of the Col du Tourmalet.
We’re about 35km into the ride and the road is already starting to rise as we hit the town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre and get caught behind traffic filtering into the town centre.
Ribble Rousers Meet Again
While queuing behind the cars, a group of cyclists’ weave through the traffic and pass us. It’s the two Ribble Rousers and the cheery Dutchman on his town-bike we’d met on the Col d’Aubisque yesterday.
We find a café by the side of the road and settle in for perfectly polite elevenses. Here we have a brief chat with the Ribble Rousers, one of whom couldn’t have been half bad as he was a fellow Vittorian.
They were on their last day, just winding down and pottering around before leaving for a 14-hour, 1,500km drive home (eek!) to the Midlands. This had to include a detour via a local bike hire shop, after one of them somehow managed to destroy his gear hanger on a descent, luckily quite close to where they were staying. Naturally, whatever gear hangers the local bikes stocked, none of them had anything that would fit a Ribble
Hold on there, Bald Eagle…
We settled down for a relaxed coffee or two, each one served with a slice of the local delicacy, nougat.
“Ah, nugget!” the Hammer proclaimed, adopting the full Geordie-kid pronunciation of “noo-garr.” Brilliant. In a small corner of my heart, it will forever be nugget. Toblerone? That’s nugget, mate. Snickers? That’s nugget too. And who could forget the short-lived Texan bar in the eighties, it sure was a mighty chew.
Goose was found once again rhapsodising over cycling caps, for him the revelation of last year’s trip. They are now an essential part of his kit, worn under his helmet to protect his bare noggin from the sun.
Crazy Legs queried if Goose would turn back the clock, given the choice and return to having a full head of hair.
“I’ll have to mullet over,” Goose quipped. Ba-boom. (A front-runner in the Bad Dad Joke of the Day competition, but not the winner.)
He then revealed he never did have a mullet (“business at the front, party at the back”) – but had been known to sport an outrageously enormous flat-top. Now there’s a photo I’d like to see – if only because I can’t imagine it.
By way of the Hammer complimenting Captain Black on his baby-smooth skin and obviously first class moisturising regimen, talk turned to Steadfast’s Arse-Butter™ – which he revealed came in two varieties – Standard or European. The difference, apparently was the European version gave you a bit of tingle …
“Ooph! Have you tired that Tea Tree Oil shower gel,” Goose exclaimed. “I can’t use it, it’s too nice!”
Did he really just say that out loud?
With enough nonsense talked to keep us going for a while longer, we paid our dues and got back to the serious business of the day. We were already climbing on grades of around 5% as we reached the small village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, where the group decided to split.
Still suffering horribly from his chest-infection and problems breathing, Crazy Legs decided to skip the Col d’Aspin and just ride the Tourmalet. The Hammer decided this was a good plan and having himself already conquered the Aspin, decided he’d tag along too.
As a vital prelude, they decided a stop in the bar on the corner of the village square for further ravitaillement was in order, before attempting the climb. Meanwhile, the remaining six Aspin virgins set off for the lesser of the two peaks.
Six Virgins of the Aspin and the Kenny Clone
As the road climbed out of the village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, we passed an old bloke in a bright orange jersey, riding a touring bike, his reflection glowering at us in his mirrors as he ground his way uphill. The road dropped down and while we saved energy and free-wheeled he pedalled furiously past, only to get caught and left behind as the road ramped up yet again.
He repeated this performance a few times, until the climb stiffened and there were no more downhill interludes for him to attack. We dubbed him “Kenny” in honour of our own Szell back home, whose particularly fond of charging to the front on downhills, before fading horribly on the subsequent climb and just getting in the way. I had a feeling we’d see “Kenny” again, before the day was out.
Up we went, with nothing too testing to start with and it was a very pleasant climb, even chugging along well off the back of the group.
The ascent from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan is about 13km long and adds another 650 or so metres to the height we’d already gained, at an average gradient of 5%. The Aspin tops out at 1,489 meters, the climbing stiffens at the top with the final 5km averaging about 7.5%.
It really is a pleasant climb to begin with, up through a lush, coniferous forest that provides lots of welcome shade. In many ways it reminded me of the Col du Telegraph, although minus the thoroughly annoying Harley bikers we’d encountered on that climb last year.
Passing through the ski station at Payolle, with about 6km to go, you are out of the trees into open pastureland, with the ubiquitous Alpine cattle clanging away on all sides. At the ski station the road briefly levels out to a false flat, before kicking up appreciably and then it starts to wind all about the mountain looking for the path of least resistance.
Despite these desperate manoeuvres, it still averages over 10% in places and a kilometre or so from the top there’s a final ramp approaching 20% just to test already tired legs.
Cow Lickin’ Good
There’s nothing really at the top, besides fantastic views down both sides of the mountain. Oh, and the cows, lining up to lick any, apparently delicious, salty-sweaty cyclist who gets too close.
We dropped into the grass at the side of the road, resting up and taking our fill of the scenery. It was at this point that someone voiced what we’d all been thinking, “Did Crazy Legs and the Hammer know something we didn’t and should we be concerned that the only veterans of these mountains had decided to skip their chance to climb the undeniably pretty Col d’Aspin?”
We finally pulled ourselves away from the views, donned jackets for the descent and started to retrace our way back down the mountain to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan and the route up the Col du Tourmalet.
As we tipped over the crest and started to gather speed, up huffed “Kenny” – he’d made it. Chapeau to that man.
At the village, we followed the example of Crazy Legs and the Hammer, stopping for a few drinks and a quick baguette in the bar just off the village square, before filling our bottles at the water fountain, where all the local cyclists were congregating.
With a Mighty High-Ho, Silver!
Then, with a mighty, High-Ho, Silver, or maybe just a tiny whimper, depending on what you want to believe, we started our ascent of the Col du Tourmalet.
If the Aspin reminded me of the Telegraph, then the Tourmalet was the crazed, bastard half-brother of the ferocious Galibier. Likewise, it was still marred by banks of dirty snow lurking in the hollows on its upper slopes, as sure a sign of thuggishness as the wispy moustache on the over-sized, over-developed, pre-teen classroom bully.
“The Col du Tourmalet is a legendary place for cycling, steeped in history and steep in slope” read one of the many descriptions of this beast that I found. It was the first climb above 2,000 metres ever used in a race and is the most used col of the Tour de France. By the time the peloton crests its summit this year, they’ll have been up it on 86 separate occasions.
You’d have thought they’d have learned by now.
Apparently, the name “Col du Tourmalet” is often wrongly translated into English as “Bad Trip” – it might be factually incorrect, but nevertheless seems entirely fitting. At an elevation of 2,115m it is often referred to as the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees.
Starting from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, the eastern climb is 17.2 km gaining 1,268 m at an average of 7.4%, while my Strava recorded a maximum of more than 18% on one of its many, variable slopes.
So, upwards we went and downwards we started counting the kilometre markers to the summit, again my speed seemed to vary wildly depending on the slope, or the thankfully light, but still noticeable wind.
We were soon split up and scattered over the road, and even though there was generally only a couple of hundred metres between everyone, this represented massive gaps in terms of time.
I remember passing the sign for 10km to the summit, glancing down and noticing I was riding at about 5mph and running through some quick and very rough calculations … 5 miles an hour … that’s about 8 kilometres an hour … that means it’s only going to take … another hour and a quarter.
Only going to take another hour and a quarter? Only? An hour and a quarter? Climbing all the way?
We must be mad.
At 7km from the summit, there is, apparently a memorial to Eugene Christophe at the spot where his forks broke in 1913. Nope, I can’t say I noticed.
At 6km to go, I passed through the first avalanche shelter. I didn’t trust myself to reach down and grab a drink, while keeping the bike moving in a relatively straight line, so I pulled over to the side of the road for a drink and a rest.
At this point Steadfast rode past me and I was last man, tail-end Charlie again. I remounted and rode on.
Riding with the Ghost of Gerard Manley Hopkins
At 5km to go I was passing through the ski town of La Mongie, on what I thought was one of the hardest parts of the climb. The streets were wide and open and steep and, try as I might, I couldn’t go fast enough to put the spectacularly ugly ski apartments behind me and out of sight.
Like a random collection of brown Lego bricks, dropped from a great height, this monstrous collection of jutting angles was an affront to the eyes and horribly marred the otherwise spectacular scenery. “When we hew or delve: After-comers cannot guess the beauty been,” as I like to think a suitably apoplectic Gerard Manley Hopkins might have commented as he rode past.
At 4km to go I notice an Italian tricolori off by the side of the road. A bit closer and it resolved itself into an abandoned pizza box and badly gnawed pizza. Even in my oxygen deprived, single-minded focus on keeping the pedals turning, this distracted me and raised some serious questions: Who would want a pizza out here? How did the Deliveroo rider react when told he had to make a delivery three quarters of the way up the Tourmalet? And who the hell is moronic enough to litter this astonishing landscape with fast food cartons. Arse hat.
Hot Foot to the Top
At 3kms to go, my right foot became almost unbearably hot and I developed a shooting, stabbing pain through the big toe. I stopped and let the pain slowly ebb away.
At 2kms to go, I can look up and see the summit and it’s lined with the dark shapes of a troupe of llamas, like an army of rapacious Zulus looking down on Rourke’s Drift. My wildly floating thoughts had become detached from their moorings, perhaps in a futile attempt to ignore the pain signals my body has been incessantly firing at it. I remember hoping they weren’t an, as yet unheard of breed of feral, carnivorous llamas, then wondering if a dalai of llamas was a suitable collective noun. I know, I know. Sorry.
With less than 1 km to go, I pass a young ingénue with pigtails, looking suitably cool in a long-sleeved white jersey and pushing (?) her bike down (?) the mountain. I theatrically puff out my cheeks and slowly draw a finger across my throat. I’m cooked.
“Well done, keep going, you’re almost there,” she calls out in perfect, but slightly accented English.
She’s not lying just to encourage me, either. Round one last corner and I’ve suddenly reached the summit and the unprepossessing silver-grey sculpture of the Géant au Col du Tourmalet. It’s done.
I find the rest of the crew relaxing on the terrace the picturesque café at the top and wander inside to confront the horribly unfriendly staff and buy some food and drink. Even as a fully-paying customer, they refuse to fill my bidon for me, though they will sell me a bottle of water so I can do it myself. Pah!
I learn that Caracol had suffered on the climb even more than I had. Bordering on serious heat stroke, he’d been forced to take refuge in the shade of one of the avalanche shelters to try and recover. He still looked pale and raw-boned, but seemed over the worst of it.
Captain Black reported encountering the pizza-eating poltroon at a point that coincided with him unleashing a majestic and nostril-burning guff, a gaseous discharge of such epic proportions and expanding so rapidly from ground zero, that he then struggled to outpace it up the slope.
We decided the pizza-poltroon had caught a whiff of this unpleasant miasma, determined his pizza was suddenly on the turn and abandoned it in its half-eaten state. The Captain was immensely pleased to know that I though I could still detect a lingering, unpleasant smell as I passed the same spot, some minutes behind him.
As the slowest descender, Kermit begged the indulgence of being first off on the descent, reasoning we would catch him before the bottom anyway, so it would reduce our waiting time. Captain Black followed, then Goose and Caracol.
Still soaked from my efforts on the climb, I pulled on my light, windproof jacket, zipped up, counted to ten and set off in pursuit.
Down Side of Me
Well ,this bit was certainly fun, with the wind snapping at the sleeves of my jacket so they fluttered with a noise like ripping silk, I was quickly up to speed and leaning sharply round the corners.
Ahead of me and still a couple of bends away, Goose and Captain Black were slowed by catching Kermit and, braking late, I rapidly closed the gap and followed them around him. I dropped into their wheels until I had a chance to slide past further down the mountain, just before the characteristics of the road started to change. Gone were the tight hairpins in favour of sweeping bends and long straights, where you could just let the bike run and quickly build up speed.
I tucked in tight and as low as I could get and started pulling back the flying Caracol, hitting 74.9km/h at one point and slowly closing the gap, churning away on the big ring whenever the pace threatened to drop. I was on terms before the descent ran out and then we were both braking hard as we swept into a built up area, before stopping to allow everyone to regroup.
Luckily, there was very little climbing left to do and the run back to the campsite was mainly flat or slightly downhill. We made good time and were very soon home and hosed.
After showering, we congregated on a porch for pre-prandial drinks and nibbles, learning that Crazy Legs had been bonding with his new chalet neighbours, a contingent of exuberantly raucous, French motor bikers, of the mid-life crisis variety. Eeh, the devils.
Around, 30 or 40 strong, the bad news was we’d be sharing the bar and our evening meal with them. The good news? The campsite was finally going to fire up the truly enormous paella pan that had proved so intriguing to Goose.
We learned he was the proud owner of his own, oversized outdoor cooking apparatus. This he claimed was called a wok-i-wok, a cast iron behemoth complete with metre wide wok or paella pan, incorporating a giant pizza stone and barbecue grill, with the whole assembly easily convertible to a patio heater, potters wheel, garden waste incinerator or portable forge for some crude iron working.
All, shipped direct from China for a mere £150, although Goose reported that sadly, they no longer seem available. (I guess it would have been churlish of me to suggest I wasn’t surprised, as I could actually only think of one, single person who might be interested in buying such a monstrosity.)
But the revelations were by no means complete, as we then had a masterclass in the cooking the perfect giant paella in a wok-i-wok, giant paella pan. The secret apparently is all down to layering – all ingredients have to be prepared in advance and then layered into a extra large Lakeland, Tupperware pail (I think this was a grandiose way of saying a bucket) – but, and here’s the trick, they have to be added in the reverse order to which they’ll be used.
Talk turned to the local cattle, complete with their clanging bells, which Goose presumed were only put on the Alpha Males of the herd. It was time to strike for Bad Dad Joke of the Day and with no shame I accepted the challenge – “I don’t know why they need bells, they’ve all got horns.” (I don’t think I’ll be invited back next year.)
A suitable point to retire for dinner…
In the bar the giant paella pan had been fired up for the Mid-Life Motorcycle Mob, piquing the interest of Goose, who naturally had to get involved and share tips and secrets with the taciturn cook. He was especially intrigued by one ingredient a huge quantity of a bright red elixir, which he guessed was some super-exotic, local speciality, that would give the paella a unique flavour and character.
“Non,” he was told,”Ee’s just food colouring.”
Oh well …
The paella was just for the Gallic Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob, not for the British Mid-Life Crisis Cyclists, we had to choose from the standard menu, but had some consolation in prime seats to follow the Germany vs. Sweden World Cup game.
Crazy Legs seemed to have found a new hero in Polish footballer, Łukasz Piszczek, whose name he thought was brilliant. I felt it was a name that was likely to give Chris “Puff Daddy” Froome sleepless nights.
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs fell into conversation with a Dutch couple, who kindly queried after my health, having seen me looking like a zombie extra from the Walking Dead at dinner last night.
Match ended and paella despatched, the Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob broke out a guitar for an impromptu sing-along. Perhaps expecting some French culture, things got off to a bad start with a raucous rendition of Volare and then the Gypsy Kings Bamboléo.
“Well, it’s not Jacques Tatti,” Crazy Legs observed dryly (or Jackie the Spud as he’s known on Tyneside.)
Sing-along degenerated into massed chanting. A couple of “oggie, oggie, oggies” which then gave way to something that sounded disconcertingly like “Sieg Hiel.”
As the guitar was picked up again and the mob launched into an off-key, off kilter version of La Bamba, we suddenly remembered we had to be up early tomorrow to ride up a mountain and quietly slipped away.
Col du Soulour from Argeles Gazot/Col d’Aubisque east side from Soulour
My Ride (according to Strava)
Total Distance: 63 km / 39 miles with 1,577 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 3 hours 15 minutes
Average Speed: 19.5 km/h
Weather in a word or two: Hot and humid
It’s maybe two o’clock in the morning and I’ve been sleeping fitfully for the past couple of hours. It’s stiflingly hot and uncomfortable in the chalet and now I’m awake with a brutal, killer headache, as if someone’s wrapped a band of steel around my skull and is slowly ratcheting it tighter and tighter.
The pain intensifies horribly and flashing lights explode behind my eyes if I try to lie down, so I’m sitting up in bed, back against the wall, trying to forcibly scrub, or pull, or push the waves of pain away and out of my head. It’s not working.
I turn the light on, fumble through my rucksack, find some Paracetamol and choke a couple down, bone dry, chalky and hard to swallow.
At some point, I fall asleep, only to wake suddenly, drenched in sweat and stagger to the bathroom to throw up. I rinse and repeat the process a few times and every time my stomach heaves out its contents, the pain explodes behind my eyes. I choke down more pills and somewhere, somehow, as the sky starts to grey with dawn, I manage to grab a couple of hours of disturbed sleep.
Clanking and clunking from the living room wakes me. Surprisingly it’s not the ghost of Jacob Marley, but Kermit, in an up-and-at-‘em mood and starting to drag his bike outside to start building it back up.
I get up slowly, check the time and make to follow. We’d agreed a 10.00 o’clock depart for the first ride, so I had a couple of hours to try and pull both myself and the bike back together. One thing was certain, I wasn’t going to be making the breakfast we’d hastily arranged with the campsite the night before.
The bike had survived its transit without mark, or mar and slotted together without too many issues, although at one point I did have to abandon my post and hurdle over Kermit and bits of his scattered bike in a crazed dash to the toilet. After this, I was thinking I couldn’t possibly have anything left to throw up. But, I was wrong.
I finished the bike and checked it over. All seemed good, so I got changed into my cycling kit and slapped on some sunscreen. The day looked grey and dull, with plenty of cloud cover, but it was relentlessly hot and humid. Nevertheless, as I sat on the chalet porch and just tried to recover, I was chilled and shivering and pulled on some arm warmers and my fleece while I waited for things to settle down.
A few chalets along, the Breakfast Club had returned from their sumptuous feast and were preparing to ride. (I got good reports of the breakfast extravaganza, but wouldn’t get to sample it even once in the next few days.)
Extreme Weather Protocol
Crazy Legs swung by to inform us that in light of my bad case of malingering and, as a more gentle acclimatisation for everyone else, Extreme Weather Protocol had been invoked and agreement reached to swap around Day#1 and Day#2.
The revised agenda for the day was now the Col du Soulour, followed straight up by the Col d’Aubisque. The washed out roads of the latter meaning we’d need to trace our way to it directly from the Soulour, rather than looping around to climb up from the other side as originally planned. In this way, we just about halved the distance and the amount of climbing.
At 10.00, or thereabouts, we slowly gathered, clipped in and rode out, following the road through Argelès Gazost before swinging away left, up the valley of le Gave d’ Azun, to start the approach to the Col du Soulour.
As we passed through the villages, gaps appeared in the clouds overhead and the sun poured down. This gave a bright, oily sheen to the new and smooth tarmac that glistened under our tyres, an indication that the Tour will be following these very same roads in just a few weeks’ time and preparations are in full-swing. I often wonder if, a bit like the Queen visiting the provinces, the Tour peloton get a ridiculously rose-tinted view of the state of the nation’s byways and highways.
At one point we passed a group of workmen busy branding stark, white, markings into the new road surface. The intense chemical smell of the epoxy they were using almost made me throw up and I was glad to quickly leave them behind.
I’d adopted a survival mode, bunkered down amongst the wheels, taking occasional small sips of plain water and hoping to keep it down.
We had to negotiate our way around a shirtless, deeply-tanned, golden-maned native, riding one massive, barrel chested, bay horse while leading two others behind and looking like the lone survivor from a failed raid of warrior Gaul’s. He was certainly far too cool to acknowledge Crazy Legs’ cheerful greeting. (I suspect he secretly covets the role of Xenophobix in the local Asterix the Gaul Re-enactment Society and is actually really friendly and welcoming, but he’s a method actor and has to stay aloof to remain in character.)
I also think I’d just discovered my own Asterix alter-ego for the day, too – Monosyllabix.
And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Snot
Our group slowly attenuated and then broke apart, everyone finding a pace they were comfortable with. I dropped off the back, riding for a while with Crazy Legs, who was still suffering from a ridiculously long-standing chest infection that he can’t seem to shift. He was really struggling with this, his asthma and the oppressively hot and humid conditions.
I followed in the wake of his coughing, hawking and spluttering expectorations, quietly giggling at the cloud of flies he’d acquired, like a dark halo circling his head, while realising I probably had a corresponding, buzzing accompaniment orbiting my own helmet.
At Arrans-Marsous, the road jinked to the right and the real climbing began through a series of tight, steep hairpins. I was travelling too slowly even for an ailing, lung-shot Crazy Legs now, so he checked I was ok and pressed on ahead. I found myself singing that old Gilbert O’Sullivan chestnut, “Alone Again, Naturally” as I ground my way upwards, although, in my defence I don’t actually recall anything but the title-line, which I found myself repeating, ad nauseam.
I wasn’t quite alone, however. A quick lizard snaked up the road in front of me, like a miniature Alberto Contador on the attack and a little further on, it was the turn of an intensely bright, iridescent beetle. It taunted me with both its flashiness and climbing speed, and when, with a bit of effort, I just about managed to catch it, it disappeared into the undergrowth.
I felt more empathy with a large fat bee I found, dressed much like me in black and yellow, seemingly shell-shocked, hunkered, head down, arse up and unmoving in the middle of the road. I was tempted to join him, but kept going.
A farmyard cat then watched me pass, wary and wide-eyed, it’s pupils reduced to vertical black hairlines by the bright sunlight.
Off to the left a sign seemed to point toward Bun. Or, maybe that was just a wilful hallucination…
Toil and Trouble
As I climbed and away from the settlements, the meadows became dotted with cows and the constant jangle of their bells accompanied my harsh breathing. Meanwhile, high overhead massive buzzards effortlessly circled in the thermals, marking my crawling progress and perhaps wondering if I’d provide them with easy pickings before the day was done.
I was starting to get a feel for the characteristics of Pyrenean climbs, wide sweeping bends that lacked the tight hairpins of the Alps and a gradient that seemed to annoyingly change around every corner and jarred you out of any rhythm you’d managed to establish.
The roads were also much quieter, both of cars and other cyclists and there was little evidence of the usual, faded fan graffiti on the climbs that we’d seen last year in the Alps. Perhaps the weather here is so much harsher that the road surface only lasts a season or two?
I suspect the roadside signs were designed to help struggling cyclists, counting down the distance to the summit every kilometre, with each one helpfully spelling out the average gradient across the next stretch of road too.
Occasionally this proved a little dispiriting, especially when you knew you faced an 8% average gradient for the next thousand metres and then the road eased, or heaven forbid, dipped downwards. This was an indication that a bit further along you’d be paying for the moments brief respite.
Depending on the gradient, my speed was like a Geiger counter in Chernobyl, wavering wildly between 6.5mph and 3.7mph. I was going nowhere fast, but I was still going. I have to admit I don’t remember all that much about the latter stages of the climb, I was in a sort of fugue state, not feeling particularly bad, just washed out, weak and powerless.
I finally made the top, saw a café by the side of the road and rolled through its car park. None of the parked-up bikes looked remotely familiar, so I re-joined the road and plugged away a bit more until I found the patiently waiting, motley crew outside a second café.
The Best Omelette in the Pyrenees … Allegedly
We trouped inside for lunch and were greeted by a jocular and friendly proprietor, who assumed we were Dutch. Crazy Legs surmised this because we looked far too happy and cheerful to be English and maybe he was right.
We were promised the best omelettes in the Pyrenees, which just about everyone plumped for, and a much needed round of drinks. I wish I could attest to the omelettes excellence, but I only managed to pick my way carefully through a few mouthfuls and I was done. Still, it stayed where I put it, so progress of sorts. Crazy Legs also struggled with the sheer volume of food, but made a better go of it, while the rest seemed to demolish their meals in short order.
Syncing Strava and the Bovine Menace
Outside, we set our sights on the Col d’ Aubisque, leaving Kermit behind as he fiddled with his Garmin which had annoyingly decided to play peek-a-boo with the satellites. The first part of the road was a descent down from the very summit of the Col du Soulour, with an unbarriered steep drop off to the right.
This was made slightly treacherous by the gravel strewn across the road surface and several large cows that seemed intent on meandering aimlessly across our path. Safely negotiating this moving, bovine chicane, we were soon rolling toward the gaping black maw of a tunnel cut straight through the side of the mountain.
Crazy Legs had forewarned us about the tunnel and suggested we take a leaf out of Sean Kelly’s book and close one eye as we approached, so it, at least, was adjusted to the dark by the time we got inside. I went one better and decided to close both eyes …
Ha-ha – only joking. The tunnel was as short and slimy as advertised and had a horrible ridged road surface that we all rattled uncomfortably across. I wasn’t looking forward to repeating that when we returned.
I managed to keep up with everyone on the descent, but soon the road began to climb again and I slipped off the back. Goose and Captain Black forged past and reported that Kermit was still missing.
I kept looking back to see if I could spot his red jersey, working its way up the ribbon of road that seemed to cling precariously to the steep mountain side, but nothing was moving behind me.
We were so high up that at one point I found myself riding along almost at eye level with a majestic, soaring buzzard. It seemed close enough for me to reach across to brush its wingtips, well, if I felt like leaning over the precipitous drop to my right. Then it tipped over on one wing and slipped silently away. Incredible.
As we climbed higher the clouds rolled in above and below, restricting what must have been spectacular views and I was soon climbing through a cool, muffling grey mist and wondering if it was worth turning my lights on.
Before I reached a decision, the air cleared again and then, somewhere along the way and much later than I expected, Kermit caught and passed me. He would later find his Garmin had failed to record his ascent of the Col Du Soulour and he even considered climbing it again, especially after we all convinced him that if it wasn’t on Strava ….
As the road entered a series of switchbacks, I was able to track my route by the progress of Kermit’s bobbing red jersey up ahead and judge just how far I had left and what was awaiting me around the next corner.
The climb wasn’t that hard and I don’t remember it being all that long either. At some point, I rattled across a Barrière Canadienne and wondered what it was the French had against Canuck’s that made them want to bar their access to the mountains.
Then we were at the top, hanging the bikes up in the rusting, creaking racks outside another café. A brief stop and then we gathered outside, pulling on jackets and gilets for the descent and stepping up for the obligatory group photo at the summit marker.
The Dutchman and the Brits
As we collected our bikes, Crazy Legs found himself bonding with a couple of fellow Ribble Rousers from the UK. They suggested we took time out to cheer on their colleague, a big Dutchman who was powering up the climb behind them in T-shirt and sandals, grinning from ear to ear while cheerfully piloting a massive steel, sit-up-and-beg town-bike up the col.
A few scattered, desultory signs appeared to suggest the road ahead was, as we suspected still closed and no one had any interest in finding out if it the route was still passable by bike, so we turned around and headed back the way we’d come.
I had no trouble keeping up with the others as we made our way downhill, catching and whipping past a tentative motorist just before rattling and shaking our way back through the slimy tunnel.
We regrouped at the top of the Soulour, before tipping down again, then were full bore all the way from the bottom of the descent back to the campsite.
Living to Fight Another Day
I retired to the shower block, intent on draining the campsites hot water supply. I didn’t quite manage, but feel I gave it my best shot, emerging slightly more wrinkled than usual, but starting to feel a whole lot better.
We congregated in the bar again for dinner and I managed to slide down about three-quarters of a pizza. I left the crew watching a World Cup match and trying to decide what ice creams they wanted for dessert. Making my excuses, I made my way to the chalet for an early night, crawled into bed and was gone. I don’t know if I slept, or just fell into a coma, but I wasn’t to stir for the next 12 hours.