Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List

Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List

#2 Up the Alpe

Alpe d’Huez | Col de Sarenne

Total Distance:                                 58 km / 36 miles with 1,602 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                         3 hours 24 minutes

Average Speed:                                17.1 km/h

Group size:                                         6

Temperature:                                    31°C

Weather in a word or two:          Hot, hot, hot


LADH
The Ride

I awoke feeling relatively decent after the previous days privations and joined my chalet mates in a breakfast of pain au chocolat and cafe au lait. Very continental. There was then a period of frenzied activity as we unpacked and assembled our bikes. Oddly, I seemed not to have packed my set of allen keys so had to borrow the two different types I needed from Goose. Naturally the errant tools turned up, hiding in plain sight as soon as I opened the box to pack the bike away 3 days later.

There was then a short detour to the supermarket to collect some water, bottles were filled and then we could put off the inevitable no longer. We rode back past the campsite entrance and the Hammer took a flyer and disappeared around the corner. The other five of us followed in a tight knot, at a more sedate pace, freewheeling around the bend to find ourselves straight onto the climb of l’Alpe d’Huez.

There was no preparation, no anticipation, no sense of looking ahead to the mountain louring down from above us, no gentle introduction to warm the legs up. One second the road was flat, the next it was rising, up and up, through the first of the famous 21-hairpin bends and it would continue rising without relief for the next 14 kilometres.

There was a frenzy of clicking from our group as chains were coaxed up cassettes in anticipation of the first hairpin, then my right-hand brake lever hit the stop and could be pushed inwards no more. “Oops,” I complained, “I’m out of gears.”

I rose out of the saddle and pushed my weight through the pedals, cutting in tight around the first corner. I remembered Crazy Legs and Steadfast saying the first few ramps were the steepest, but I’d shred my legs if I had to keep climbing like this. I plonked myself down in the saddle again, flicked the left-hand STI lever and dropped my chain onto the granny ring. It provided instant relief, but there was nowhere else for me to go now and my chain would now stay resolutely as far left as it could possibly go until I reached the very top of the climb and started to descend back down to the village of l’Alpe d’Huez.

I spun up the gear until I found a comfortable cadence and settled in for the long haul. Our group became strung out and I found myself climbing with Captain Black and Steadfast, while all the while the opening lines from the Comsat Angels song Birdman got stuck on repeat and continuously ran through my brain like a mantra: gravity is my enemy … gravity is my enemy


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Once I’d settled into a sustainable rhythm, I started to take more notice of my surroundings. I wish I could say I was paying enough attention to give a detailed account of every bend in the road and every ramp, but all I actually recall are a series of fleeting impressions:

Numbered signs marked each hairpin, counting down from 21 to 1, and each sign carried not only the elevation but the names of one or two previous Alpe d’Huez winners, but the signs were disappointingly small and nondescript. They seemed to be not exactly a grand statement and fitting homage to extraordinary sporting feats, but more of an afterthought and they were very much an anti-climax. I noticed maybe half of them and most of these were too small and too far away for me to read, let alone absorb.

Given that in most instances there was a massive, blank cliff face framing the signs, I felt they could have made a much greater statement – a grand gesture if you like.

If they’ve done a poor job of showcasing the history of the climb, you’d have to say that the French engineers have done a remarkable job of actually constructing the road.  As you exit every hairpin pedalling suddenly eases and you get a tiny kick of speed, as if you’ve hit a sudden downhill section, even though the route still winds resolutely upwards. How do they do that?


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The road itself was surprisingly smooth and well-maintained – a nice contrast to the climb to the Col de Sarenne that we would complete later in the day, which was rough, gravel strewn and almost as lumpy as anything in the wilds of Northumbria.

The surface of l’Alpe was liberally daubed with paint, names and inspirational messages, but the majority of these seemed to be celebrating your every day, Joe the Cyclist, rather than elite professionals. Not that I have any kind of problem with that – everyone tackling this beast needs all the encouragement they can get. I missed the “May the Force be with you” sign splashed across the tarmac and being English and incredibly immature, I couldn’t help feel that a massive cock and balls was the only thing missing and would have been the perfect piece de resistance.

The climb is almost all south facing and the exposed sections were baking hot. We found ourselves hugging the cliff face and trying to spend as much time in its shade as possible. An occasional stream frothed and gurgled down from the slopes above, before diving into a culvert to pass under the road, and whenever we rode past these there was a welcome draught of chill, damp air to provide instantaneous, but too brief cooling.

We overhauled a few riders and one or two passed us, but this was all done in extreme slow motion as no one was moving at great speed relative to anyone else. You’d start catching a rider up ahead and have them in your sights for maybe 10 or 15 minutes before you caught their back wheeled and dragged yourself around them, and then they hang there for an age until, inch by inch you’d slowly leave them behind.


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At hairpin 7, named for Gianni Bugno (1990) the air was heavy with the resinous scent from a small copse of mountain pine, while at hairpin 6, also named for Gianni Bugno, (but this time his 1991 win) it stank of noxious burning clutch or brakes, left trailing in the wake of a car that disagreed with the descent.

In the valley, we’d noticed a group of well-drilled, colour co-ordinated, club riders, maybe Dutch or German all in matching blue kit, except for one rider bedecked in the glorious yellow of the maillot jaune.  We passed him about halfway up the climb, sitting on the wall by the side of the road next to his “team van” and apparently having abandoned. I couldn’t help thinking that if you’re going to wear the yellow jersey, you should really put on a better show than that. We then caught and passed this erstwhile leaders team, strung out in a long line and evidently struggling in the heat, most of the had taken their helmets off and they swung loosely from the handlebars as the riders plugged away, ever upwards.

At one point, we passed a photographer and I managed to give him a big cheesy grin and very cheery wave which Captain Black instantly dubbed my swan moment – where I looked to be calm and serene, gliding across the surface of the water, but underneath my legs were thrashing at twenty to the dozen and my heartbeat was off the scale.  I actually felt quite comfortable and was still riding within myself as we pressed on.


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Toward the top the road straightened with two last, massive zig-zagging dogs legs before disappearing around the corner into the village of L’Alpe d’Huez. The Captain applied a bit more pressure to the pedals and he slowly and inexorably pulled away from me, rounded the bend and was lost from sight.

A bit further on and I could feel the backs of my thighs tightening up and the first indications of cramp, so I dropped back the pace a little as I pushed into the village. The place was mobbed, with bikes and cyclists everywhere and I slowed even further and spent a few anxious moments scanning the crowds to see if I could find the Hammer or Captain Black already safely ensconced in one of the café’s and sinking a celebratory grand biere.

I had to circumnavigate a massive Pyrenean Mountain Dog that wandered aimlessly into the road and as I straightened saw an underpass in front of me and recalled that the official Tour de France finish wasn’t in the village centre, but a bit further up the mountain.

I’d already passed a sort of official finish line set up outside one of the cafés and I wondered how many riders it had duped into quitting within reach of the true end of the climb?

I ducked through the underpass I vaguely recalled from those frenetic last few hundred metres of Tours stages and kept on climbing, choosing roads more or less at random and uncertain if I was on the right route or not. The road finally looped around a group of chalets and headed back down the mountain, so I cut through a massive empty car park and followed it down.

I was just picking up speed when, rather fortuitously, I passed Crazy Legs, working his way up the other side of the road, so I stopped, swung round and started climbing after him.  In this way I was finally able to find everyone else clustered around the official finish sign, which I’d unwittingly managed to sail past once already.

I stopped and very slowly and very stiffly somehow managed to clamber off the bike. The backs of my thighs felt as taut as piano strings and hurt like hell. I hobbled down to where everyone was clustered around the finish sign and Crazy Legs co-opted a French Raphalite from Annecy into taking a photo for us.


top alpe


I had to squeeze onto the end of the line, pushed off the kerb and into the road and giving everyone else a distinct height advantage. Crazy Legs found this highly amusing and he hoped a bit of forced perspective meant I would look like a hobbit in the commemorative picture.

There was then only time for Goose to engage in a bit of unseemly, dry-humping with the road (he pretended it was for a bad back) and we descended to the village for a hard-earned cup of coffee and to discuss what to do next.

Strava would later reveal it had taken me 1 hour 14 minutes and 37 seconds to climb the Alpe, apparently good enough for the 1,355th best time so far this year. That doesn’t sound too bad to me – anyway I’ve no intention of going back to try and improve it.

I’d also learned some valuable lessons and in particular that during over-long, sustained efforts like this I needed to occasionally stand out of the saddle, not so much to make climbing any easier, but just to change position and spread the workload and blood flow around different muscles.

We dropped back down into the village centre and took a seat in one of the cafés adjacent to the first finish line I’d noticed on the way up. The café was marked by what seemed to be a damaged, giant inflatable cyclist in the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey. There was obviously a leak in one of the arms and every time the generator cycled, the figures hand popped in and out with a loud crack. Maybe it was just me, but this sounded like the most sarcastic, slow hand-clap of all time, waiting to greet each new rider as they reached the village.

We quickly placed our order – a coke for Steadfast, cafe au lait for Crazy Legs and the Hammer and Americano’s for Captain Black, Goose and me. It was here that the Goose started to reveal his deep grasp of the French language and the nuances of foreign cuisine.

“There’s no milk in my coffee.” Goose complained.

“Didn’t you order an Americano?” Crazy Legs queried.

“Yes, but there’s no milk in it.”

“If you wanted milk, you should have asked for a cafe au lait.” Crazy Legs explained patiently.

“No, I wanted an Americano,” Goose countered, “With milk.”

“Olé, Olé” he started shouting, like a drunken Spanish bull-fighter with Tourette’s, until finally the waitress took pity on him and brought out some milk, rolling her eyes at the mad Englishmen in her midst. (I suspected she’d seen it all before.)

Finally able to relax, we discussed next moves and agreed by a vote of 5 to 1 to press on to the Col de Sarenne, rather than descend straight back down the Alpe.

On leaving the café, Crazy Legs had a chat with an English rider hoping he’d reached the end of the climb and horribly disappointed to learn he still had to work his way through the underpass and further uphill to reach the official Tour de France finish. We’re not sure if he pressed on or not, he certainly didn’t seem very enthusiastic.

There was then only time for Goose to engage in some more, dramatic dry-humping with the road, top up our bottles from the public drinking fountain and wince at the tacky podium set up for “epic” photo opportunities and we were on our way. We picked our way out of the village, past the heliport and giant stationery ski lift stations and then out onto the road to the Col de Sarenne.

The top of the Col de Sarenne lies about 9km beyond l’Alpe D’Huez and involved more climbing, but nothing worse than we’d previously encountered. There was a long, fast descent in the middle and then a lengthy drag up to the summit, our highest point of the day, at just under 2,000 metres.

The road itself feels very remote and is narrow, twisty and broken up in places, with loose gravel strewn across the corners and adorned with lots of “Yates You Can” messages splashed across its surface. The mountainside would occasionally fall dramatically away from the edge, engendering what my eldest daughter refers to as a “shaky bottom” moment, but luckily it was much quieter than the Alpe and we were able to keep well to the left and away from the vertiginous drops. We encountered only one or two other riders and no cars that I can recall.

Once at the top of the Col de Sarenne there is a huge technical switchback descent down to the barrage at Lac du Chambon at the foot of Les Deux Alpes. Crazy Legs took off down the descent like a bat out of hell and I followed, rather more cautiously and circumspectly with the rest strung out behind. The descent was good fun and not too technical and while it occasionally looked like the corners were gravel strewn, the surface was fissured but actually largely intact.

We regrouped at the bottom and endured an anxious wait for the Hammer. He finally appeared after a few moments, having had the rear of his hire bike step out from under him, forcing him to back off until he became accustomed to its handling characteristics.

We tied to find somewhere for lunch in Mizoën, but everywhere seemed closed to so we pushed on to the lake at the bottom of the hill. Here we had an enforced stop as Crazy Legs punctured and we had to change the tyre in the broiling sun, with no shade to be found anywhere. Investigation of the tyre revealed no damage, despite the long gash in the tube, so we suspected the heat generated by braking had caused it to blow. Luckily the tube had lasted until we were on the wider, straighter and better surfaced roads.

We decided to head straight back to the campsite without further stops to try and find ravitaillement, a fairly fast trip involving a bit of tunnel-surfing and duelling with lumbering cement trucks. We made good time, until Crazy Legs dropped off the back, worried that he didn’t have enough pressure in his tyre and it was in danger of rolling off the rim, possibly as the heat had made it more pliable than usual.

Captain Black dropped back to escort him in, earning himself the accolade of a true gentleman, while we were all branded as bastards for riding on ahead – something we’d only done, I hasten to add, after checking that everything was ok with Crazy Legs and being waved away.

Happy to have survived day one and feeling much better than the previous night, we showered and got changed and wandered into Bourg d’Oisan for some beer and food. Once again in the restaurant, Goose endeared himself to the staff and proved his mastery of the native tongue when smoothly counting out the beer order: “Un-deux-trois … five!” he declared loudly, holding up a hand with all the fingers spread wide to emphasise his order.

This became a bit of a catchphrase that would haunt him for the rest of the trip and we even had it handily translated into different languages, just in case we all decide to embark on another foreign adventure elsewhere:

Uno-dos-tres … five!

Eins-zwei-drei … five!

Uno-due-tre … five!

The quite remarkable Goose then declared that what was needed was a proper book written for beginner cyclists with such helpful tips as don’t wear underpants with your cycling shorts and that you can actually rest your hands on top of the brake hoods and still operate the brakes. This, Crazy Legs suggested had been an absolute revelation to Goose, which he’d only discovered after seeing someone doing it two years after he’d begun cycling seriously!

We then tried to define a cycle of acceptance for rides that went though a host of different phases – shock, disbelief, disorientation, denial, blame, disconnect, fear, anger, confusion, depression, despair, pleading and finally acceptance and hope.

Little did we know we were going to be subjected to each and every one of these emotions on the ride tomorrow.


YTD Totals: 3,651 km / 2,269 miles with 40,220 metres of climbing

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Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List

Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List

Part#1 – Getting to the Go

It seems an age ago, way back at the start of the year, when Crazy Legs first outlined his ambitious plans to re-enact Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps and put out a call for volunteers to fill the role of lumbering, slow-witted pachyderms, transported from their natural habitat to an exotic, alien and dangerous place, seemingly for the express purpose of becoming over-worked, over-heated and dying in pain, far from home.

Even so, how could I possibly have refused such a call? What club cyclist doesn’t dream of testing themselves on the mythic, Grand Tour climbs, roads replete with the ghosts of past champions and freshly stained with the multi-coloured daubing’s celebrating cycling’s current crop of racing aspirants?

A plan then was hatched and agreed for an extended weekend break in France, in July, running from a Thursday to the Monday, which coincided happily (if not deliberately) with the Cyclone weekend. Having carefully negotiated permission to go, I signed up alongside Goose and Captain Black, and we formed the original Four Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List.

British Airways flights from Newcastle to Heathrow and then from Heathrow to Geneva were booked well in advance and for what seemed a rather reasonable £160. Then, I more or less forgot about the whole venture.

Behind the scenes though, others beavered away tirelessly on my behalf. Crazy Legs found us two chalets, with three berths each at the Cascades campsite in Le Bourg-d’Oisans – basic, cheap and cheerful chipboard cabins, with two very strict rules you especially needed to adhere to:

Rule#1 – Do not take your bike into the cabin, as the curtains have a magical, magnetic effect that can draw chain oil through thin air by osmosis and then print it directly and indelibly into the fabric.

Rule#2And, no matter how strong the urge, don’t pee in the eponymous waterfall. We don’t know what the exact consequences of this misdemeanour are, but all indications are that they are dire.

Even better, Le Bourg-d’Oisans lies right at the bottom of the magnificent L’Alpe D’Huez, a snaking 14-kilometre climb through 21 numbered hairpins, each named after past Tour de France stage winners. Dubbed the Tour’s “Hollywood Climb” it’s regarded as the most famous of all the summit finishes, at least amongst casual cycling fans, if not the cognoscenti.

Location sorted, Crazy Legs then began formulating a loose itinerary with rides on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which included a monstrous “queen stage” in the middle, vaguely based on the Marmotte Granfondo route and taking in the Col du Glandon, Col del la Croix de Fer, Col du Télégraph, Col de la Galibier and Col du Lautaret. Eek.


CLIMBS2


Meanwhile Goose set to work arranging hire cars big enough for sundry riders and bike bags, both of which seem to be characterised by odd, angular and pointy, sticky-out bits with minimal padding, that make them rather awkward to accommodate and transport.

Along the way, Crazy Legs somehow coerced his brother-in-law, Johann the Steadfast into coming along and providing the gravity and thoughtful, moral ballast this type of expedition sorely needs. The Hammer signed up for the fun too, but was intent on making his own travel arrangements, which I suspect involved chauffeur-driven limousines, private jets and helicopter transfers.

The BFG also agreed to come, work permitting, but then wavered and then havered and firm commitment eroded to a maybe-wait-and-see, before finally crystallising into a, hmm-maybe-not-this-time. His loss.

As the days ticked down and the departure became more real and imminent, I had to start thinking seriously about how this might work and more importantly, how I might actually be able to survive with body and mind unbroken.

Despite over a century of years between us, Captain Black and I were very much Alpine climbing neophytes and neither of us knew what to expect, or if we would be able to cope. I was particularly concerned about how aged creaking joints and ancient brittle bones were going to react not only to the length and severity of the climbs, but tackling them three days in a row – my body tends to dislike longer distances with sustained efforts and seems to take increasingly longer periods to recover as I get older.

A couple of weeks beforehand, chatting nervously about bike set-ups and the like, Captain Black queried gearing for the trip and was pondering slapping on a 32-tooth cog or something similar. (He didn’t and I think may have learned to regret his decision).

I remember saying I felt good to go, as I ride a sneaky, triple-compact chain-set, something the venerable Toshi-San urged me to buy to avoid placing too much strain on ageing knee joints as I slowly returned to cycling from decades of inactivity.

In the past couple of years, I think I’ve only used the smallest, granny ring a couple of times – once when battling a headwind on the rather fearsome Rosedale Chimney in North Yorkshire, the other time when trying to drag my sorry ass up the Heinous Hill, hollowed out by the bonk after a long club ride. Now I was hoping it would be my ace in the hole in case I needed it once or twice, just to see me through any sticky patches I might encounter. Ha-ha-ha.

Ha-ha-ha.

Ha-ha-ha.

Delusional idiot.

I guess the trip had actually been playing on my mind more than I realised, as I’d started to pay just a little more attention to calorie intake, nothing particularly strict, just cutting out one or two sweet-treats and snacks along the way. Combined with an increase in commutes on the single-speed, my weight started to slowly drop and I went from 70 kilos at Christmas to around 64 kilos just before departure – reasoning I needed all the help I could possibly get and even small, incremental gains might just balance out in my favour.

Meanwhile, Crazy Legs parcelled out his hard-won wisdom like a parsimonious miser down to his last few pennies and you had to pay attention to catch all the useful bits: lights for the tunnels, rain jackets and arm warmers for descending through the snow line at the tops of the Col’s and a pillow case to avoid using the paper ones provided in the chalet’s. Paper pillowcases?

I missed the memo about the lock so you could leave our bikes outside the cabin. Ironically, we got away with it, while in Crazy Legs’ chalet they assiduously kept to the no bikes inside policy, yet still had to argue long and hard with the rather hard-faced, “Les Inspecteurs de Chalet” on the last day to ensure their deposit was returned. I suspect this was some kind of Brexit payback.

With a week to go, I borrowed a hard case bike box from the Red Max and spent Tuesday night breaking down and packing a rather startled Reg. Against airline advice, but on the recommendation of the cycling community and various forums, tyres were left inflated, but off came the wheels, handlebars, saddle, seatpost and rear derailleur and hanger. The bike was packed around with foam pipe insulation and all the spaces filled out with kit – shorts, jerseys, shoes, socks, helmet, tools, tubes, gels, energy bars, a towel and toiletries.

In fact, I did such a good job that the bike case was 28kg’s and earned me a big orange “Heavy!” warning sticker alongside the pretty pink “Fragile!” one at check-in. Like a red rag to a bull, I suspect the latter simply taunts baggage handlers to see just how much disdainful, ham-fisted flinging about they can subject your prized possessions to, but I may be wrong.

As it was, when I met up with Crazy Legs, Goose and Captain Black, early on Thursday morning at Newcastle Airport, I was only lightly burdened with a small, half-full rucksack containing a few T-shirts, money, travel documents and an Elsatoplast for emergencies.

“Is that all you’re taking?”

“Sorry, didn’t realise we were dressing for dinner, I must have missed the memo.”

“No dinner jacket?”

“Nope.”

“Tux?”

“Nope.”

“Oh.”

How gauche… what will the natives think? I somehow felt I was letting down the whole of the British Empire. Appearances must be maintained you know, eh what?

A bizarre discussion about sandals then ensued and we learned Goose recommended swimming in his, as he liked the odd sensation of his feet floating higher than his head. A later conversation about him not having brought his swimming costume and considering swimming in his bibshorts had me worried the buoyancy of his seat pad coupled with his super-floating sandals meant we were going to find him drowned in the camp pool, feet and arse sticking up in air and head forced under the surface like a giant mutant, bottom feeding duck. Or goose.

We sat at the gate for an interminable age as the British Airways gate crew boarded everyone in stages. First the Platinum and then Gold Executive Club members … then mothers with children and those needing special assistance … then Silver and Blue Club Members … then Sapphire and Emerald Alliance Partners…

We were already bored when they announced they’d next like to “invite” all Euro Travellers to board next. Bloody hell, when do we get a turn, we wondered, before one of us looked at the Boarding Pass and realised we were those self-same, Euro Travellers – the pointlessly polite name for “everyone else that’s still waiting” or, in other words the hoi polloi of cattle-class.

The flight down to Heathrow was short and uneventful, but we learned of a failure in the Terminal 5 baggage handling system and there were warnings that hold luggage couldn’t be guaranteed to make it through the transfer. Bah.

Along with Crazy Legs, I’d cleared the plane before the next announcement that all the baggage handling problems had seemingly been resolved and only earlier flights had been affected, but Goose and Captain Black were able to relay the good news. With Fignon’s crossed and hoping for the best, we hopped onto our flight for Geneva and waved goodbye to Blighty.

With some relief we found our bike bags waiting for us in baggage reclaim at Geneva airport having managed to arrive ahead of us, primarily because they didn’t have to queue for an age under the sullen, dismissive and utterly disinterested glare of grumpy Swiss custom officials. These guardians of Swiss border integrity had obviously been told they were legally obliged to let in a bunch of foreign nationals, but no one said they had to be happy and welcoming about doing it. You’d think if they hated their jobs so much they’d find something else to do with their lives.

(Actually, having the exact same treatment from their British counterparts on the return trip makes me think this is just a Customs Offical’s default setting. Perhaps they’re even trained to project this generally bored, sullen, world-weary and unwelcoming demeanour and it goes with the territory – regardless of the, err … territory, if you see what I mean.)

Not only did we find our bikes in the baggage hall, but we also found Steadfast, who’d arrived on an earlier flight along with his bike bag, but was missing the rest of his luggage. Reluctant to commit to riding naked, the good news was he’d been promised his missing bag would arrive on the next available flight, the bad news was that we’d have a 2½ hour wait to see if British Airways could keep a promise.

While Crazy Legs caught up with Johann the Steadfast, we decided to send an advance party out to see if we could sort out the car hire to minimise any further delay once the misplaced bags showed up. I tagged along with Goose and Captain Black, both of whom had either bravely volunteered, or perhaps been unwittingly press-ganged into serving as expedition drivers, and we made our way landside and out to the car hire desk.

I stood guard on the baggage while the Goose and Captain Black became embroiled in long and convoluted discussions with the car hire rep. The upshot was that Goose managed to parlay our original booking of two Opel Zafira people carriers into one 9-seater van. I couldn’t tell if this was skilled negotiation on Goose’s part, or a result of us having caught Budget Rental Cars on the hop and they didn’t actually have the two Zafira’s to give us.

As it was, he only had to point to me perched precariously atop a mound of rucksacks and bike bags for the car hire rep to realise he wasn’t going to be able to fob us off with two standard saloon cars. We agreed we’d have a look at the 9-seater van and check that everything fitted in, or else, as Captain Black intoned ominously, channelling his inner Terminator, “We’ll be baack!”

Actually, we all agreed, the 9-seater van was probably the better option, only 1 driver needed, only 1 vehicle to fuel, only 1 set of road tolls to pay. It all depended on us being able to squash 5 bike boxes in back.

A short shuttle bus ride to a gloomy, hot and airless underground car park and we found the van. Things were looking good. Half an hour later and having found and discarded the car manual (it was in German) we had the back seats folded in half and began experimenting with various ways of fitting 5 bike boxes in. An hour later and following much crawling around on the floor and forensic inspection of the seats by torchlight, we finally got the seats folded more or less flat and this gave us yet more variations for packing the back.

Another hour broiling and choking on exhaust fumes and we got the good news that the bags had arrived and Crazy Legs and Steadfast were on their way. We went with van loading variation number#17 and we were finally off for the last part of our journey.

Now though, we were negotiating the centre of Geneva in Friday evening rush hour, the traffic was heavy and we were weaving from lane to lane trying to pick our way southwards. At one point Crazy Legs winced away from the shriek of disk brakes near the rear window as we almost broadsided a cycling commuter.

The cyclist admonished Goose’s driving by wagging a suitably laconic finger at the windshield and pointing to his head. Oops, sorry, citizen.

Finally free of the city, we were soon travelling on more open highways and Goose and the Sat-Nav sparked up a volatile and short-lived holiday romance. This lasted only as long as the fourth time the strident Fraulein indicated vee should leave zee motorway at zee next junction and zen immediately join it again, all in order to avoid non-existent traffic jams.

His love-hate relationship quickly reaching its limit, Goose stabbed the Sat-Nav on-off button and silenced his nagging, Teutonic co-pilot. Crazy Legs volunteered to pull up Google maps on his phone, but first the entire back row of the van had to re-enact “We Are the Robots” as a tribute to the Kraftwerk concert he’d seen the night before.

Ahead, the mountains slowly, slowly rose out of the horizon and then swept round on either side to hem us in, as the sky became nothing but a cap of deep blue high above the furled rock. And then we were there, finally pulling into the campsite that would serve as our base of operations for the next few days.

The Hammer had arrived long before our weary, delayed group and had already booked us in, so it was simply a case of dropping the bags off in the chalet and heading to town for some much needed refuelling. Bike building could wait until the morning.

The long day travelling, the heat and a couple of hours breathing in the fumes in an underground car park conspired to give me a massive, thundering headache and accompanying waves of nausea.

I began to feel noticeably queasy and had to wander away from the restaurant table at one point, dangerously of the verge of throwing up. I managed to poke down maybe a third of my pizza before we wandered back and I dropped a couple of Nurofen and fell exhausted into bed.

Tomorrow we’d be climbing up l’Alpe and I couldn’t help think my preparation had been less than ideal…


 

Roads to Ride

Roads to Ride

Solo Ride – May Day, Monday 1st May, 2017        

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                 76 km / 47 miles with 1,243 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                         3 hours 18 minutes

Average Speed:                                23.1 km/h

Temperature:                                   13°C

Weather in a word or two:          Cool


may day

profile may day


And now for something a bit different …

All the chatter about the south of the river being like Mordor and covered in dark, impenetrable clouds that my club mates fear to penetrate, had only served to remind me just how much I enjoy the challenge of riding there and so I decided to scratch the itch.

May Day, Bank Holiday Monday seemed to provide the perfect opportunity. There was of course a club run available, but since these tend to consume pretty much a full day and the family were struggling to remember what I looked like, an early start and early return from a solo ride under Sauron’s baleful eye seemed like a good compromise.

It also meant I didn’t feel the need to provide any blerg commentary and reportage but would give me something else to write about should I unexpectedly and inexplicably feel the urge. I guess I did.

I was up early and on the road by 8:15, dropping down the Heinous Hill and then swinging around to put the River Derwent on my left as I began to head south-west, directly up its valley.

I was off into the Land of the Prince Bishops (which sounds slightly more appealing than Mordor) and beginning what Strava notes as my longest ever climb – around 25km in length with an altitude gain of 440 metres.

Although it rises fairly relentlessly all the way, the first part of the route is very much about gentle, almost unnoticeable climbing with only a few relatively gentle humps and bumps to warm up the legs and get the blood flowing.

A sharp right at Shotley Bridge soon changes all that and here the serious stuff begins. A short, swoop over the hump-backed bridge provides a little momentum for the start of the long climb of Burnmill Bank.

It’s not enough.

Momentum quickly evaporates around the first corner and the road starts to rise and just goes on and on, up through the delightfully named hamlet of Snod’s Edge.

This is about the halfway point of the climb, which totals around 4.5km in length at a 5% average gradient. Strava has it flagged as a 3rd category climb.

I had no idea how Strava categorise their climbs – so I looked it up. Apparently it’s based on the official UCI system, but whereas the UCI may take into account the severity of the preceding route when classifying climbs for races, the Strava categorisation is wholly objective and is based on multiplying the length of the climb (in metres) with the grade of the climb in percent. If the resulting number is greater than 8,000 and the grade is 3% or higher, then the climb is categorised. The categories are then:

HC          >80,000

Cat 1      >64,000

Cat 2      >32,000

Cat 3      >16,000

Cat 4      > 8,000

This would imply a Cat 3 climb is twice as hard as a Cat 4, but of course it doesn’t always work like this.

The road surface on Burnmill Bank is reasonable and most of the way it cuts through woods which provides shelter as well as a bit of colour and variety. It wasn’t long before I was encouraged to stop and strip off gloves and arm warmers.

Traffic was fairly light this early in the morning (to be fair, it usually is up here) and the verges were the playground for lots of very young and excitable rabbits, many of whom seemingly hadn’t seen a cyclist before and tended to sit up and watch me ride by, rather than bolting for cover.

Cresting the top, the trees fall away to either side and you’re presented with the first look at Weardale and the North Pennines in all their beautifully bleak and exposed glory.

Scuttling across the busy main road, leads you onto an exhilarating and fast descent down toward the source of the Derwent river and its namesake reservoir – often speckled with the bright sails of dinghy’s but looking flat, grey and empty today.

The road drags and climbs a little past the reservoir, before you reach Edmunbyers, then if you follow the road around to the left a swooping descent leads you across a jarring, juddering cattle grid. This is the gateway to moors where you can look up and up  … and up some more, along the route you’re about to take.


may


I pass and greet a group of mountain-bikers as I rattle and thrum across the cattle-grid. They’re all well wrapped up against the weather, rain jackets and tights and boots and I feel slightly under-dressed.

I start climbing, round a few hairpins and then the wide road stretches out, relatively straight and upwards, lined by snow poles running up either side, like an extreme minimalist’s idea of a grand boulevard.

The air seems still and quiet out here, the silence only occasionally disturbed by a few bleating lambs and the haunting whoop-whoop-whorree of some long-beaked, moorland birds. Curlews perhaps? I’m no ornithologist, so it’s just a guess.

The incline is constant, but fairly steady and I settle down to spinning my way upwards.  Distinctive features slowly emerge ahead and reaching and then passing them at least gives me some measure of progress.

In this way a road sign, the entrance to a dirt track, a passing place, an up-rooted cats-eye and a strangely shaped heathery hummock  all gain significance as they’re encountered and put behind me.

One undistinguishable lump by the side of the road coalesces into the bloated body of a dead sheep, flat on its back, legs sticking stiffly up in the air like a massive dead fly, then this too is passed by.

Ahead the road appears to disappear over a low crest, but reaching this point reveals it continues still, upwards and onwards, but now clinging to the wide bowl of the fell as it sweeps gently around the landscape. Off to the left somewhere, the Waskerley Reservoir apparently lies in a hidden dip. I’ve not seen it yet.

As the road straightens, it also flattens slightly and I start to pass other cyclists heading in the opposite direction. A sign announces I’m 5½ mile from Stanhope and within striking distance of the stiff climb of Crawleyside. This is featured in Simon Warren’s 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, 6,190m long with average 4% and max of 20% in sections and he rates it 7/10.

I’ve ridden it a couple of times, but don’t find it especially challenging or particularly engaging, so it’s not on the menu today. Instead, I’m taking a right hand junction Google Maps has revealed to loop around and then descend down Meadow’s Edge, to Bale Hill and on to Blanchland.

As I take the right hand turn, the previously unnoticeable wind suddenly makes itself felt, it’s fairly strong and gusty and carries a distinctively chill edge. I stop briefly to reclaim arm warmers and gloves from my back pocket and then press on.

The road reaches its peak, topping out at about 545 metres above sea level, and then starts to slowly descend as I press on through a somewhat destabilising cross-headwind. Sweeping round, I’m heading more or less due north now, the descent steepens and I pick up speed.

Ahead, the road surface looks newly laid, unblemished and feels as smooth as glass. I can clearly see there are no cars and I find myself whooping and swooping round the curves, tucked in tight and able to safely use the full width of the road.

I notice signs proclaiming 15% and 20% ramps as I whip past downhill, passing another lone cyclist going in the opposite direction and attempting what looks like a shorter but harder way up to the top. Then I’m through another, much gentler cattle grid and descending on suddenly much rougher roads through Baybridge and on to Blanchland.

I stop in Blanchland for a much deserved cereal bar and guzzle from my bottle, saluting several small groups of cyclists as they swing past, while I begin plotting a route home. Either way I need to climb out of the village, going left and up a 20% plus climb out toward Slaley and along the top of the fells, or right, to a clamber out and trace the edge of the reservoir, followed by a longer, but less sharp climb out of the valley again.

The right hand route is more scenic and less exposed, so that’s the way I head, passing through Edmunbyers again, before climbing back up to Burnmill Bank.

I’m soon racing through Snod’s Edge again and trying to build up enough speed to carry me down a sudden dip and up the stinging climb on the other side. Naturally I don’t make it  and there’s a bout of  undignified out of the saddle grunting and gurning as I try to keep the big ring turning over.

Back into the Derwent Valley, I retrace my route, but this time in the opposite direction and it’s all encouragingly, slightly downhill. I tuck in, ramp things up and I’m soon clipping along at a fairly respectable 20 mph plus.

At Hamsterly I sweep left and then right  and I’m onto the final climb of the day, the 4th category hill up to Burnopfield.  From the top, it’s a short skip down Fellside Road and I’m home – only around 47 miles covered, but packed with over 1,200 metres of climbing. I can’t help feeling there’s plenty more good roads to ride and climbs to find out here in the Mordor badlands.

Seeing my ride posted on Strava, the BFG wondered how much my legs were burning and I truthfully told him I was fine. Well, that was until Mrs SLJ pressed me into fulfilling my familial commitments with a walk down to my parents house and back again. I can honestly say this proved a much more taxing exercise than my morning ride.


YTD Totals: 2,557 km / 1,589 miles with 27,868 metres of climbing