Heavy overnight rain passed, but left a rearguard of sporadic, unpredictable, light showers that punctuated the early morning, occasionally sweeping past, before fading quietly away.
I pulled on a showerproof jacket as I left the house and it stayed on my back for most of the ride out. Dropping off the hill, I spotted a couple of cyclists ahead of me as I traversed the valley floor and gave chase. Always a good incentive to pick the pace up, and I caught and passed them as we cut through Blaydon.
Luckily, the stiff headwind that had blown down the Tyne Valley last night and that I had battered myself against on the commute home, seemed to have dissipated. It was just as well, as we were heading straight upriver, to just outside Corbridge for our annual club hill climb up Prospect Hill.
I crossed the river, turned my back on what little wind remained and pushed through to the meeting point arriving in good time.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
OGL turned up, checking we had enough volunteer officials for the event, before driving out to Prospect Hill to set up. Crazy Legs and G-Dawg had once more volunteered as official starters and time-keepers at the bottom of the hill, with Benedict set to provide timings at the top.
Mindful of typical Hill Climb weather (usually very cold and very wet) each had prepared appropriately, with Crazy Legs packing at least two jackets, while G-Dawg was wearing a heavily insulated, quilted winter jacket. Perhaps most sensibly, Benedict had a kit bag stuffed with warm clothing that he gave to OGL to transport to the hill for him.
Before leaving, OGL asked who was actually going to ride the event. Out of the twenty plus riders there, only Rainman stuck his hand up. The rest of us were all wimps, or had tried-and-died once too often on the slopes of Prospect Hill. (One day I might return for a final crack at our Hill Climb but not this year.)
What can I say, Rainman is either brave, or foolish. Or both. Then again he is Dutch, so maybe normal rules don’t apply.
The poor response caused a suitably disgusted OGL to wonder what kind of riders we actually were. Some would argue sensible and sane, but I know that’s a lie, so I’m not sure what the answer should be.
On other fronts, Crazy Legs was eagerly awaiting the publication of this years Tour de France route, primed for an excursion via camper van to the venerable Bourg d’Oisans campsite, to watch the pros take on some iconic Alpine climbs, such as the Alpe d’Huez, Col de la Croix de Fer and the Galibier.
The only hint we had about the route was a rumoured time-trial up the Planche de Belle Filles, or, perhaps if the gravelled section was used Super Planche de Belle Filles.
This, we quickly decided, was far too much of a mouthful for us ignorant and lazy Brits, so it quickly became PDF and Super-PDF – a diminutive that I feel is likely to stick.
I’m not sure whether his plans will need to change, given the subsequent unveiling of a rather unusual Tour route, that seems to deliberately avoid all the traditional, tried and tested big climbs.
With around 24 riders gathered, even if not everyone was riding the hill, we felt we’d be able to at least provide support for our Go-Ride kids, as they hurled themselves upward with mad abandon. I’d even tried downloading a cow bell app to my phone, but had to admit being unimpressed with its desultory, sotto voce, and unremarkably dull clunking. It wouldn’t get used.
With the need to get to the hill as quickly as possible, G-Dawg had us marshalled and ready to go bang on 9:15, although, as he rightly acknowledged, they (literally) “can’t start without us.”
We picked our way out of the city en masse and I’d pushed onto the front alongside G-Dawg as we made the turn toward the river. Just past the corner, Crazy Legs looked back.
“Bloody hell,” he wondered, “Where’s everybody gone.”
Our numbers had essentially halved. Support on the hill was going to be noticeably muted and quite sparse then.
On we went, threading our way through periodic sharp showers and bursts of bright sunlight, angling ever westwards, occasionally flanked with arcing rainbows that seemed to mark out our final destination.
Every time we were lashed with another sharp shower, Crazy Legs gleefully reminded us that the weather forecast promised “only a two percent chance of rain.” It seemed to be a line he was able to trot out on more than half a dozen occasions.
Down into the valley and along the river, G-Dawg found himself over-heating in his padded, quilted jacket and seemed to be looking forward to the odd, cooing rain shower, even as they became less and less frequent.
He checked everyone had the requisite documentation and inoculations, before bravely leading us across the bridge and into wild, savage lands, south of the river … welcome to Mordor, have a nice day.
We were on the final push now, pausing only to carefully skirt a devastating roadkill, an untidy pile of featureless, pink, blancmange like sludge, scraped into mouldering heap in the middle of the road. Try as we might, we were completely unable to discern any trace of features that would give us a clue and help us determine what type of poor creature had contributed its corporeal body to form this unsightly splatter.
Rainman roared off the front for an extended warm-up and by the time we’d reabsorbed him, we were at our destination – by G-Dawgs reckoning we covered around 40kms at a decent clip and in less than an hour and a half.
Perhaps shamed into riding, 7 or 8 of the seniors decided they would give it a go and joined the swarms of happy, excited Go-Ride kids, queuing up to sign on to ride the hill. Even our FNG decided to take part. Will he ever forgive us?
I helped pin on a few numbers, before making my own way up the hill to a junction about halfway up where I could provide some slight vocal encouragement and snap a few photos of the contestants for the group Facebook page.
It was great to see the kids hurling themselves uphill with reckless abandon, sometimes on their own, sometimes with parental outriders providing escort duties.
Cowin’ Bovril volunteered to escort one of the kids, acting in loco parentis and later admitted he’d had a good workout and he struggled to stay ahead of his young charge with the finish line approaching.
As the last riders came past I was joined by Rainman and Buster, both celebrating new best times on the hill. We made our way down to the start line again, where numbers were unpinned and all the shed weight (bottles, pumps, jackets et al) reclaimed.
We then just had to wait for Princess Fiona and Mini Miss to rejoin us. Neither had been seen since they’d finished their efforts up the hill, and had taken OGL’s advice on the best route back down to the start. They eventually appeared from completely the wrong direction, having been who knows where and complaining bitterly that they’d been sold a pup.
We then let Den Hague guide us through the tortuous labyrinth of Corbridge’s one-way traffic system, before we made our way to Valhalla, no, hold on, that’s not right, to Vallum, our cafe of choice for the day.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop
A quick check of phones revealed that Eliud Kipchoge had managed to break the two hour record for the marathon. You can’t help but be impressed by someone running a 100 metres in about 17 seconds and then doing it again and again and again, without pause, 421 more times in a row.
Spry, seemed slightly underwhelmed though, pointing out it wouldn’t be a recognised world record, as this wasn’t an open competition, Kipchoge was led by a pace car and accompanied by a phalanx of pace-setters, with bike riders on hand to hand over fluids as needed.
Kipchoge even had a laser directed at the road in front of him to keep him on pace, something I seem to recall was proposed for the Wiggins’ Hour Record, but the UCI rejected. (I’ve seen Cat#1 wildly chasing the red dot of a laser pointer and can confirm it is the most insidious form of mechanical doping known to man. Or feline.)
Anyway, we suggested that Spry take to Twitter to inform Kipchoge his record was worthless. Having already used this medium to allegedly enrage Elaine Paige fans as well as lambast Philip Deignan for having the temerity to marry Lizzy Armitstead, we reasoned adding one more mortal enemy on social media wouldn’t be too much of a burden.
By the way, can I please ask why long distance runners have taken to wearing arm warmers with a vest? At least Kashoge’s managed to match his to his top, unlike recent shocking efforts from Sir Mo, but nonetheless, it’s not a good look.
Meanwhile, Spry confirmed his single-handed, Go-Pro-armed, vigilante crusade to eradicate bad driving on the mean streets of the nation’s capital was going well – with 17 incidents reported to the police, of which 15 had resulted in cautions being issued. Not exactly crime-fighting worthy of a superhero, but you’ve got to admire his efforts.
As we were leaving, Crazy Legs vowed to hmm, maybe, perhaps, possibly, consider taking part in next years hill climb, before looking at me meaningfully, as if to remind me that as a friend I’d promised to never let him do it, ever again and I had a solemn duty to protect him from himself.
Leaving the cafe, we were soon skirting Whittle Dene Reservoir and, with the time already rapidly approaching when I’d usually be home, I swung off to head back down into the valley to make my way home.
The sky had cleared, it was a bright warm day and I had a good trip back, arriving just in time to catch the last 40kms of Il Lombardia. The Race of the Falling Leaves always signals the end of the pro-cycling season to me, despite whatever nonsense the UCI gets up to in the Far East. It’s a sign that winter is approaching and shiny plastic bikes are soon to be packed away until better weather returns.
Hopefully we’ll have a decent winter and there wont be too many interruptions to our rides. Still, I’m sure the Flat White Club is primed and ready if the conditions get too testing.
YTD Totals: 6,298 km / 3,914 miles with 83,003 metres of climbing
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.