Our trip coincided with an ITT up L’Alpe d’Huez on the Saturday and they were busy constructing the start ramp as we took our now-favoured riverside route out to Allemond. A TT up a mountain in this heat? Mad dogs and cyclists …
Tosser Toss Up
It wasn’t the only major event in the area either, as the snappily-titled Porsche Savoie Cup 2022 Les Deux Alpes was also taking place over the weekend. This was a non-timed (yeah, right) rally for Porsche enthusiasts, giving them the opportunity to sit in convoy within an over-priced, over-heated tin box and speed around breathing in the exhaust fumes of a whole load of other tin boxes, while driving too fast up some narrow and restricted mountain roads, all the while trying to see just how loud they could make their engines scream. It was a real toss-up and quite a debating point about whether the Porsche drivers were more or less annoying than the Harley Bikers rally we stumbled across last time.
I can say they were a constant and occasionally dangerous feature all the way from Allemond to the Col de la Croix de Fer. That doesn’t sound all that far but, at the speed I was travelling, it represented an agonisingly prolonged exposure to their annoying presence.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
I knew what to expect on the climb up to Rivier d’Allemont and while it didn’t seem as far or as debilitating this time around, I was more than ready for the cola and coffee that awaited at the cafe.
Behind, Crazy Legs must have looked to be struggling so much that he actually got a generous push from a passing cyclist. He was grateful for the help, but our group was divided over whether this was a good thing, or a little showy. Personally, I’d more than welcome any assistance on the climbs.
The Big Yin set off from the cafe early to get a headstart. The rest of us ambled after him and were more or less together until we crossed the river d’Olle and the serious climbing picked up again, then it was every man for himself and each at a pace they could sustain.
It was baking hot, with the steep sides of the valley seeming to contain and radiate the heat back at you. By the time I caught the Big Yin he’d dismounted and was sitting in the shade of a tree, overheated and temporarily out of it, like Huck Finn waiting for his next adventure. This duly arrived in the shape of Crazy Legs and the pair reportedly frolicked gleefully in an Alpine stream to cool down before riding the rest of the way together, leaning on each other for moral support.
Once again I found myself cursing the descent down toward the Lac de Grand Maison which, although providing some cooling respite, utterly destroyed whatever pitiful climbing rhythm I’d managed to assemble. Still, I was soon at the blockhouse with a decision to make, left to the Glandon or right to the Croix de Fer?
Flip the Coin
I went Glandon first, but the only other person there was a French guy who was just to set out without his bidon, which I was able to reunite him with. I turned around and set my sights on the Col de la Croix de Fer. It was just 3km away, but I was really starting to flag now and it was slow painful progress – despite a little bit of pacing from the forgetful Frenchman.
It took a while, but I got there, completely wiped out and ready to throw my lot in with those planning to just turn around and head back, rather than descend to find the Lacets and have to climb up the other side of either the Croix de la Fer or the Glandon. It turned out the severe temperatures had even the most gung ho amongst us deciding not to press on, and there was a general feeling that we’d done enough for the day. A new plan was hatched to ride back to Le Riviere de Allemont for lunch.
Re-united again and fully fortified by another two cola’s, we clustered around the summit sign, press ganging a young French cyclist into photography duties. He was more than happy to oblige if we returned the favour and spent some time trying to guess which area of Ireland we were from.
He seemed to be a bit confused to be told we were actually from India, then Mexico then the Ivory Coast, but maybe not as confused when Crazy Legs told him we were from England and the orange, white and green were just traditional club colours we’d been lumbered with inherited.
Youth and Exuberance (Not Mine, Obviously)
We started the descent, with all of us except Goose taking the short diversion to the Glandon summit for further photo opportunities. First though we had to join with all the other cyclists and exert our collective ire with two dickheads who drove their (not at all) ostentatious sportscars up from the other side of the col and parked slap bang in front of the sign. I think they’d seriously misjudged their audience and just how much interest a bunch of sweaty cyclists had in their uber-expensive penis extensions and they were quietly persuaded to move along.
Amongst the groups of cyclists were a trio of girls in matching leopard print jerseys with bright pink socks and Crazy Legs negotiated photo duties with one of them. She duly complied and then it was Crazy Legs’ turn to repay the favour and he shuffled into position. This was all the signal the girls needed to lithely clamber up and drape themselves all over the sign, flashing peace signs and devil’s horns while waggling their tongues, giggling and fully enjoying themselves.
I couldn’t help but contrast their natural, unforced exuberance with us, slightly grumpy old blokes, stood around smiling uncertainly and looking slightly discomfited by the whole photo ordeal.
Then it was off for a long bit of fast descending back the way we’d come, with its smattering of gnarly climbs thrown in just to further shred the legs. It was astonishing how quickly it was over when compared with how long going the other way had taken.
Halfway down we rendezvoused at Les Favets for a most excellent lunch and pressed our favourite waitress into performing photo duties.
Then it was back onto the best bit, the last super-smooth and fast downhill run we’d taken on the first day, all the back down to Allemond. Coming off the descent, where at least the air was moving and providing some cooling relief and transitioning back to normal speeds, it felt like someone had suddenly opened an oven door and we were caught in an intense blast of hot, dry air. I’m not really sure I’d realised how hot it was until this point.
We ambled slowly back to town along the riverside route, where we split, with a few of us naturally drawn into the town in search of a cold beer.
More by luck than management, we managed to find the most unfriendly bar in Bourg d’Oisans, where the staff seemed to take great delight in finding new and creative ways of ignoring customers. We should have realised we weren’t welcome the minute the waitress castigated the Ticker for casually laying his helmet on the ground, because that might have been where she wanted to plant her foot in order to serve us our beer.
Still, once seated, no one was in any great hurry to get up and move again and so we endured, watching the passing traffic and speculating that the bar was just a money-laundering front so didn’t need to attract, please or keep customers.
If that bar was bad, then the bike shops were superb. Captain Black had determined that his braking wasn’t up to scratch and decided to call into one of the shops to have his Trek checked over. I tagged along for the ride and we ended up going to Bleach, Bike and Ski as they’d been good to Buster on his first trip.
The mechanic immediately took the bike into the workshop for a quick look and returned to tell us the brake pads were badly burned. He suggested Captain Black needed to try feathering his brakes not hauling back on the levers with all his might. In the Captain’s defence I guess the mechanic hadn’t been with us on that death slide down the Sarenne – I’m sure if he had he would have been more understanding.
As it was he set about replacing the pads straight away, with no waiting, or can you bring the bike back tomorrow. In short order, the job was done and the prices were very reasonable. So, Bleach, Bike and Ski … hugely recommended, that crappy bar on the corner? Best avoided.
The plan for the evening had been for the Oberlanders to join the others for a meal in the restaurant at their campsite, but by the time we’d returned to the hotel a thunderstorm was brewing, the wind had picked up and the rain was lashing down. We didn’t fancy the mile or so walk out to the campsite, so cried off and the three of us wandered into town for a meal.
It struck us that the thunderstorm probably would have coincided with us arriving at the top of the Galibier if we’d embarked on our Circle of Death ride. Hmm. Done that, don’t ever want to do it again, so it looks like we dodged a bullet.
Tomorrow, our last day, was all planned out too with a trip up the Col de Ornon as the centrepiece. I was hopeful the rain had cooled things down a little and looking forward to one more amble.
It’s a truly ungodly hour, 4.10am, Thursday 16th June. The sun is barely above the horizon yet and I’ve already been up for more than three-quarters of an hour. Now I can be found desultorily dragging an over-sized bike bag across the dusty floor of Newcastle International Airport.
I’ve been slightly thrown off course by the closure of the main, A1 route to the airport and having (half-awake) to follow multiple, poorly positioned diversion signs, plus the fact that Mrs. SLJ had to pay £4.00 just for the very dubious privilege of dropping me off outside the airport. Four-feckin’ pounds to just pull up at a kerb and unload some baggage? Pure highway robbery and generating a feeling of resentment only slightly less dark than scrambling around to try and pay for parking when you’re visiting a dying relative in hospital.
So how did this come about? Well, I accept I’m partly to blame. After a two-year, COVID enforced absence, I signed up for yet another chevauchée des Alpes à vélo. We’d originally booked the slightly more civilised 06.00 flight from Newcastle to Heathrow, until British Airways decided to cancel this with no explanation. Given the choice between a flight at 05.25 and one at 09.15, we’d bit the bullet and chosen the earlier one.
18 days later British Airways also deemed it necessary to cancel (again without explanation) our connecting, 09.25 flight from Heathrow to Geneva and we ended up on the 08.20 instead, so change all round. Still, somewhere along the line, we managed to dodge a bullet as the alternative 09.15 flight from Newcastle to Heathrow which had also been an option, was cancelled while we were actually in the airport – and just hours before it was due to depart.
I made it through the formalities of check-in, security and baggage drop, quite pleased to discover my bike bag weighed in at just over 16kgs. I think I’m finally starting to get the hang of this travelling light malarkey. As a precaution, shoes, helmet and most of my cycling kit were packed into my hand baggage in case the bike went AWOL and I had to hire a replacement.
So the bike was ready to go, but the same couldn’t be said of the rider who was way off his fighting weight and pushing close to a portly 70kgs. It was definitely going to make the up bits a bit more of a struggle, but would maybe add a little impetus to the descents.
Relieved of the bike bag, I wandered upstairs to Departures and tracked down the rest of the crew, lurking in our traditional pre-flight venue, the Caffè Ritazza. I was the last to arrive so the usual suspects had already convened: Crazy Legs, the Hammer, Goose, Captain Black and, new conscript to our ranks, the Ticker. Meanwhile, tremulous-flyer Buster and the Big Yin are off seeking dronkemansmoed encouragement in one of the bars and we’ll not see them until after the flight is called.
Not the Fat Controller
Busy times at the airport. Crazy Legs said the oversize baggage handler (the handler of over-sized bags, not some Ivor the Engine-type Fat Controller) had revealed they had 50 bikes going out on flights today. Actually, they had at least 51 as, unlike my compadres, I’d taken the British Airways website at its word and hadn’t pre-informed them I would be flying with a bike. (Although, as a precaution, I had taken a screenshot of the webpage that said you didn’t need to let them know in advance that you are bringing a larger bag or item.)
There was some discussion about a name change for the Ticker, whose beloved Hunt wheels, with their ridiculously loud freehub, have worn out and been replaced with quietly refined Mavic’s – which on a positive note means much more peaceful free-wheeling within our group.
With temperatures in Grenoble, near our destination, currently residing in the mid-30’s, we were heading into especially hot weather and there was some discussion about whether this might affect our rides. Goose took this as a reminder to go and buy some sunscreen and then had the dilemma of trying to determine if we’d need to pass through security again at Heathrow, in which case the sunscreen would be well above his 100ml liquids hand baggage limit and would need to be abandoned.
“It could always be inserted into a body orifice and smuggled through,” I suggested.
“Good plan!” he replied quick as a flash, “Just bend over there will you … “
And we were off!
Crazy Legs was delighted that the Ticker was sitting flanked by two babies when he took his seat on the plane and they naturally started howling in stereo as soon as the plane began to gain serious altitude. “That’s just how they clear their ears,” he helpfully suggested later. I wondered whether I should just scream incoherently rather than pinching my nose and trying to blow out, I mean it wouldn’t be particularly dignified, but it might be an entirely more effective way of dealing with changes in air pressure.
We picked up Steadfast at Heathrow to complete the gang and there was just time for us to grab some lunch and for Captain Black to tell the Starbucks staff his name was Hans. I’m not sure they were aware they were engaging in a much valued and time-honoured tradition. Then we were being hustled aboard our short flight to Geneva.
Games Without Frontiers
I managed to reclaim a little sleep on the flight and we passed seamlessly through passport control. The stern and hostile border officers of our first trip that had transitioned to completely indifferent border officers on the second, had now been replaced by cheerful, happy, warm and welcoming types. Perhaps too welcoming, as the Hammer couldn’t get away from his, a guy who’d studied at Newcastle University and wanted nothing more than a good chinwag about the changing fortunes of our local football team.
With typical Swiss efficiency, the bike bags were awaiting pick-up – alongside many, many others, in what looked to be at the very least a “special operation,” if not an outright invasion of continental Europe by British cyclists.
Elevator, Going Up!
We then had to make our way to the French side of the airport to pick up the hire cars, passing through a security checkpoint and manouvering our bags and boxes into a lift for a short hop up to the next floor. The doors behind us swooshed closed, the lift lurched up and then the doors in front opened so we could step off without turning around. The doors closed again and the lift disappeared, heading down, while we pulled to one side and waited for it to disgorge the next batch of cyclists.
With a bright ‘bing’ the lift returned and the doors rolled open to reveal not a bunch of hairy-arsed cyclists and their bikes, but an old couple with two fully loaded trolleys that they’d pushed into the lift, then jammed side by side so they couldn’t push them out again. No matter how hard they barged and banged at the trolleys, twisting them this way and that, they were stuck fast and not moving. The doors silently closed on their struggles and the lift descended again.
‘Bing!’ A few minutes later the lift reappeared and the doors open on the same couple, with the same stuck trolleys and the same frantic efforts to try and move two immoveable objects. Nope. No go. Down they went again and then back they came. Again.
Bing! This time Crazy Legs leapt forward like a madman and started wrestling suitcases off the trolleys until he’d created enough space to pull first one and then the other out of the lift, watched all along by the appreciative, somewhat sheepish couple and the rest of our gang, who’d given up on the lift and decided to use the escalator instead.
Jumpy Around! Jumpy Around!
After that mini-drama, the car hire pickup all went surprisingly smoothly and quickly, but, despite two identical orders, we ended up with two different vans, with vastly different capabilities. I was assigned to the first, a Citroen Jumpy, the other was a Ford Transit. The Transit was brilliant, with loads of space and highly efficient air-con. The Jumpy? Well, that was a bit crap. The seats seemed immovable (or at least the car hire rep didn’t know how to move them and we couldn’t figure it out). Our designated driver, Goose, also felt it was a bit underpowered and the air con struggled with the 37-38℃ we experienced on our journey.
Still, we managed to jam 4 people and 4 bike bags inside, but that was the limit. On the return the Ford took 6 people and 6 bags, so would be the vehicle of choice if we could ever specify. Unfortunately, the best you can ask for is a large van and then it’s a bit of a lottery what you actually get after that. With two Jumpy’s I think we would have struggled mightily, so thumbs up Ford and big thumbs down to Citroen.
We were “entertained” on our road trip by Goose’s play-list, a somewhat eclectic mix of Radiohead, Abba, Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy, the Glee soundtrack, a heavy smattering of The Gypsy Kings and some American feller I’ve never heard of that Goose referred to as Jay-Zed. I would like to say it helped pass the time …
Still, we did all right, with no delays or missed turns and, dropped Steadfast off at his campsite at the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez to await the others, while I pressed on with Goose and Captain Black, through the centre of Bourg d’Oisans to the Hôtel Oberland where we’d booked a room for the duration.
The early flights did have one benefit, we were here already and there was still plenty of daylight left, so we set to assembling the bikes for an afternoon ‘leg loosener.’
I thought my bike had survived intact, but somewhere along the way my saddle had taken a hefty knock, the rails were crushed and it was deformed. I continued to ride it throughout, though it’s fair to say that after a good few hours it very literally became a real pain in the arse.
The three of us set out with a vague idea of heading to the next town down the valley, Allemonde, and then doing a short loop that Steadfast had used on one of his previous trips. It was a good plan, only complicated by the fact that we had only the vaguest notion about which right-hand turn we were supposed to take to circumnavigate the village.
Though late afternoon, it was still what would in North East of England, have been classified as an absolutely scorching day, and it was nice to get moving and get the air flowing as we pushed our way down the main road. There’s a well-marked and maintained cycle path here, but your still mixing with a lot of commercial traffic on a fairly busy route.
At one point a butterfly came and kissed me on the lips and then fluttered away and even this unwanted attention seemed superior to the swarms of black flies we’d encountered a few weeks ago back in Northumberland. (This gentle introduction to the region’s insect life would prove somewhat duplicitous.)
There was some serious road re-surfacing going on in Allemonde itself, which makes me suspect the Tour de France is going to be routed through the town in a few weeks. Still unable to find the right-turn we were meant to take, I suggested we just take the Route des Cols, the start of the climb to the Col de la Croix de Fer and then we could call at Crazy Legs’ all-time-most-favourite crêperie/cafe, Les Favets at Le Rivier d’Allemont.
In lieu of a better plan from anyone else, this seemed acceptable and so we started our zig-zagging way up the face of the barrage skirting Lake Verney and heading up into the hills beyond.
Goose was hugely intrigued by a group of teens jumping from a viaduct into the lake and took a lot of dissuading from joining in. We suspect on some of the solo outings he tacked onto the end of our group rides he’d visit this spot and try to work up the courage to hurl himself into the lake. The only alternative explanation we could attach to his meanderings was an infatuation with the waitress at Les Favets, with him passing this spot multiple times on his odyssey to pay homage to her.
Leaving the lake and heading under the trees, the climbing proper began and, even under the shade of the leafy canopy, it was still brutally hot as we crawled slowly upwards.
“Is it much further?” Goose asked plaintively after we’d been working away on the climb for a good while. Truth be told we were all finding it much longer and much harder than we recalled,
“Another 3 or 4km,” I suggested, although I was just guessing. Then a few houses appeared at the crest of a rise.
“… Though hold on though, maybe not.”
This was a false dawn though, the few houses were all there was to the very quiet hamlet of Articol (I think) and our destination was still further up the climb, with 3 or 4 km being surprisingly prescient.
The cool air exuded from the streams and rivulets that rushed down the mountain and dashed under the road proved temporary relief, but never lasted long enough and we were all dripping with sweat and in need of liquid replenishment as the gradient slightly levelled and we finally reached our destination.
I told you half and hour ago I’d be ready in 5 minutes!
We arrived at the cafe just after 5pm, just as the place was due to close. Throwing ourselves on the tender mercies of the extremely pleasant and friendly waitress, we didn’t have to try too hard to project the image of sun-frazzled and tired cyclists in desperate need of refreshments. For whatever reason she took pity on us, “Okay, but we’re closing in five minutes!” We ordered cola’s all around and my companions indulged in a beer for that Ice Cold in Alex experience, as we took our seats in the shade, admiring the views up to the peaks above.
Our five minutes respite had turned into fifteen by the time a group of Swiss motorcyclists took the table behind us.
“We’re closing in 5 minutes!” the waitress cheerfully called out to them in passing.
“Yes,” I assured them, “She told us that 10 minutes ago, too.”
The motorcyclists were largely appalled that we chose to go on holiday to ride up mountains and suggested in Switzerland the general form was to drive your car to the top of a mountain, unload your bike from the back then enjoy an effortless descent. You know, on face value that seems eminently sensible, but maybe it’s cutting out half the fun …
As we were leaving a new set of tourists sauntered up to the familiar refrain of “We’re closing in 5 minutes.” I do wonder what time they actually managed to close.
Most of the road down to Allemont had been resurfaced as it featured in the recent Critérium du Dauphiné the upcoming Tour de France. It’s a fast, easy descent anyway, with long, sweeping bends and not too many pinch points, but the plush surface just encouraged more speed, so I laid off the brakes and let gravity run its course. I managed to hit over 80kph before I caught a white Hyundai Tucson and couldn’t find a way past, Nonetheless, great fun. while it lasted. Maybe the Swiss have the right idea after all?
We stumbled across the rest of the crew as we passed through Allemond and they tagged on for the ride back. We’d just crossed the bridge and were about to start down the man arterial road, when Goose spotted a sign for a cycle-track, off to the left and supposedly also heading back to Bourg d’Oisans. We decided to give it a go and called everyone back.
What a revelation, the track was a wide, smoothly tarmacked and traffic-free strip running alongside the Romanche river. It was perfect and became our go to route whenever the roads took us north. In fact, it was such a pleasure to use that on the last day I rode up and down it several times with Crazy Legs just as a superb way to decompress and spin the holiday out a little longer.
The meal that night saw us heading back to the Dutch bar where Goose revealed he has a very well-developed internal filter that he uses to carefully process everything he says before he gives it voice. It was quite a startling revelation and one that we all had cause to question in the coming days.
Our meal was somewhat interrupted when one of the guys at a table behind us passed out and dramatically collapsed. They were a bunch of English cyclists from Nottingham and had been touring around the country putting in huge distances by car each day to take in all the iconic climbs. It seemed one of them had been pushing it a bit too hard and was down and out with heat stroke, or possibly something even more dangerous.
His friends pulled him out of his chair, cleared some space and laid him on the ground while the manager of the restaurant hovered, concerned and with the number of the local emergency services tapped into his phone just in case. The guy seemed fully recovered after a few minutes, and appeared none the worse for the episode, even happily looking ahead to more climbing and pushing himself just as hard tomorrow.
We’d already found out today it was debilitatingly hot, even for the modest efforts we’d put in. For us at least this simply didn’t seem like the right time for any crazy long rides or heroics and I was already thinking our usual ‘Circle of Death’ – the Croix de Fer-Télégraphe-Galibier, long Saturday ride wasn’t on the cards this year.
Let’s see what tomorrow would bring. After the odd interruption to our meal, we all seemed a bit distracted and disorganised, so in lieu of any other suggestions, I (wholly uncharacteristically) proposed the Oberlanders would set out early tomorrow to climb Alpe d’Huez as the first order of business and we could decide what to do after that slight obstacle had been accounted for. I agreed with the Hammer we’d swing by their campsite at 9:15 to pick up anyone else who wanted to join us, but wasn’t hopeful we’d put on a unified front.
I’ve said it before, organising cyclists is like herding cats. In a thunderstorm. At night. On a ship. Still, half a plan is better than no plan, so let’s see what happens.
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?
The weather continues to confound, swinging from a frigid -4°C on Wednesday’s early morning commute, to disturbingly mild, double-figures for the weekend.
With no ice to worry about and the morning’s starting to get lighter too, the big concern first thing Saturday was perfecting the balancing act and getting the layering just right – we were looking for the Goldilocks ideal – not too hot and not too cold.
So, a single base layer, Galibier jacket (in case the threatened rain or sleet materialised early than forecast), thin gloves with liners, no buff, no hat or headband. It was a reasonably, solid effort, a self-scoring 7, or an 8 out of 10 and I only feeling chilly the few times we were forced to stopped.
The roads were strangely quiet of fellow cyclists as I made my way across to the meeting place, but it seemed to be a day for solitary runners, who were out in force, in all sizes, shapes and styles.
There were so many, I wondered if there was an upcoming event they were all training for, or perhaps we now had a National Running Day to go along with National Hugging Day, National Pie Eating Day, National Rubik’s Cube Day, or whatever new nonsense they’ve come up with. (Apparently National Running Day does actually exist, but it’s in June.)
On the final approach to the meeting point I was caught behind a vaping driver, billowing plumes of sickly, sweet-smelling smoke out of his car window. It took me a while, but I finally recognised that he seemed to be indulging in a blackcurrant vape, possibly Ribena, or perhaps Vimto? A new one to add to Taffy Steve’s list of improbable and nauseating vape flavours.
Main Topics of Conversation at the Meeting Point:
G-Dawg pointed to the cheap, emergency, strap-on LED light on my handlebars and recounted how he’d attached one to his dog, after its purpose built LED collar failed. He said it worked as a great substitute, until the dog went plunging headlong into the river, at which point he mentally wrote it off.
He was then hugely surprised when the dog had emerged, with the light still blinking away furiously. At this point he decided that for a cheap light, he’d found something that was surprisingly sturdy, waterproof and wholly reliable … until he tried to turn it off to save the batteries for another day and found he couldn’t.
I imagined the disgruntled dog sitting at home, still blinking away like a stray satellite and unable to sleep for the disturbing bursts of light searing through its eyelids every time it tried.
Crazy Legs revealed he’d finished last weeks ride, taken off his gilet and hung it over the handlebars of his bike in the garage. It had still been there waiting for him this morning, but he’d only managed to half pull it on before its rank stink had dissuaded him and he’d been forced to consign it directly to the washing basket.
OGL commented on someone suggesting that he could wear a base layer ten times in a row between washes – or was it ten years in a row? Anyway, this is entirely possible because it was made with miraculous non-stink, Merino wool. I think it’s probably fine – but only if you can pedal fast enough to outpace your own odour …
Still, G-Dawg thought you could get at least 4 “good” wears out of a pair of Y-fronts, worn normally, back to front and then repeating the process but inside out. He was joking. (Right?) The disturbing level of detail he added, such as saving the right side out and the right way around “for best” did make me wonder …
OGL then mentioned some all-day British Cycling, regional meeting in February and wondered if anyone wanted to accompany him to represent the club, a sort of sharing of the pain. He didn’t seem to find any irony in the fact that nobody else has any kind of official status in the club (other than being a paid-up, or even non-paying member.)
In other news, he suggested that the city’s £11 million development plan for two sporting hubs could see a cycling track and possibly clubhouse, built at the Bullocksteads site near the rugby stadium. This, he offered, could be a better meeting point for club rides. This vision was enthusiastically embraced by G-Dawg who lives right on the doorstep of the proposed development. I’ve no doubt he could see his future-self rolling out of bed at 8:55 and still being the first one to arrive at the meeting point.
Taffy Steve nodded over to where Princess Fiona and Mini Miss had gathered and were chatting away.
“The red car and the blue car had a race…” he intoned, drawing attention to the fact that they were dressed almost identically, except one was wearing a red jacket and the other a blue one.
“Do you remember that Milky Way advert?” he asked, “I hated it.”
I wondered what it was provoked such hatred, could it have been the art style and direction? The patent absurdity of it’s storyboard? The jaunty, jangling soundtrack? The ear-worm effectiveness of its jingle? Perhaps it was the product itself, the rather effete, light-weight Milky Way that made him curl his lip in disdain?
“It’s the lyric’s he explained, starting to sing away, “The red car and the blue car had a race, but all Red wants to do is stuff his face, he eats everything he see’s, from trucks to prickly trees, but smart old Blue he took the Milky Way.” He paused, but not for long …
“So, what’s wrong with that? Prickly trees? Prickly trees! Pah! They obviously meant cactuses, but were too lazy to find anything that would rhyme with cactuses, cacti or whatever. Even as a kid I knew it was just a lazy cop-out. Grrr!”
It’s amazing what superficial ephemera we carry from our yoof and how much it can still trouble and annoy us …
Our route architect for the day, Crazy Legs asked if anyone was interested in the full details of his grand plan. Apparently not, so without further ado, he invited G-Dawg to lead out those who wanted a faster ride, adding that there’d be no waiting to regroup.
The first group started to coalesce around G-Dawg, with the majority of riders joining. I hung back to try and even out the numbers, but it was still a two-thirds to one-third split – apparently no one wants any kind of association with a “slow” group.
Crazy Legs did have a little rueful chuckle to himself, as the (always game) Goose bumped his steel behemoth down off the kerb and went to join the fast group.
We agreed he’d be fine, he likes a challenge and the route wasn’t too hilly.
The second group followed, but we hadn’t gone more than a couple of hundred yards before the Red Max’s front tyre gave out with a sound like a sputtering Catherine Wheel – fzzzzit-fzzzzit-fzzzzit-fzzzzit.
We all pulled to a stop and clustered around and I moved up in unison with Crazy Legs to see how we could help.
“Don’t worry,” he declared, “We’ll soon have it fixed, the Dream Team’s here!” as he referred to the time we’d fruitlessly spent half an hour struggling with Big Dunc’s unholy alliance of Continental Grand Prix tyres and Shimano rims (Trial of Tyre’s.)
We’d failed in that instance, only to later learn that Big Dunc had saved himself through the simple expedience of flipping the wheel around and inserting the inner tube into the other side. Why that made a difference, I really don’t know, but it obviously did and it might be worth trying if you’re ever stuck with seriously recalcitrant tyres.
Despite the close attention and best ministrations of the Dream Team, the tyre change went pretty smoothly and we were soon back on the road again.
I was on the front with the Ticker, (Ticker-less, now he’s on his winter bike) and we spent much of the time calling back, trying to determine what the route was – I really should have paid attention, or at least encouraged Crazy Legs to give us an actual and foolproof briefing.
Occasional incoherent shouting punctured our ride, apparently caused by a RIM in a Volvo taking exception to our right of way, but I was well insulated from any altercations as we plugged away on the front, up through High Callerton and toward Medburn.
Here, we were drawn to a halt when the Red Max’s tyre gave out again. While he cursed his shoddy and useless Continental summer tyres, that seemed shot after “a mere 5,000 miles” of extraordinary wear and tear, I double-checked the rim and carcass for offending objects – glass, thorns, shards of metal, flints, rough edges, caltrops, thumb tacks, whatever. There was nothing.
Meanwhile, the Red Max realised he’d used a Vittoria inner tube, so he had a little rant about “Italian crap” while he was on. Even as a proud Vittorian I wasn’t going to stand in front of that particular runaway express.
“Badd-bing-badda-fzzzzit,” Taffy Steve added helpfully.
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs took the flaccid, holed tube off the Red Max, ostensibly to locate where the puncture was, but really just to hold it up to his nose and inhale deeply.
“Ah, I love the smell of rubber,” he declared, evidently quite content with the world. Apparently it smelled considerably better than his gilet.
There then followed a very deep, lengthy and philosophical discussion about how inner tubes can smell so good, when the air inside them is so rank.
“Like stale kippers,” I suggested and nobody disagreed.
We got going again and pressed on to the crossroads at Heugh, where a bronchitis-suffering OGL made a bee-line for the cafe. The Red Max decided to cut his ride short too, hoping to lessen the chances for further punctures and departed to provide escort duties.
Somewhere along the way I found myself directly behind Taffy Steve and Crazy Legs as they rode along, for some reason arguing about similarities between OGL and, somewhat randomly, football manager Neil Warnock.
Things turned a shade darker when Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe and Saddam Hussein were somehow added to the equation Still, the only conclusion they could agree on was that, if Idi Amin was a club member, they were pretty sure he hadn’t paid his subs in a good long while. Bizarre.
Having been delayed by recurrent punctures, we took a slight short cut toward the Quarry and, as the road started to climb, I nudged onto the front alongside Crazy Legs.
As we pulled the group along I complained about how I seemed to have become a dirt magnet for the day, liberally spotted and besplattered with mud from head to toe. My boots had turned a deeply unpleasant shade of brown and I was peering out at the world through seriously spotted glasses.
It was bad enough to start me singing “Teenage Dirtbag” – a selection that was at least tolerated by Crazy Legs as a “not-too-bad” earworm.
“Left, or right?” Crazy Legs pondered as we dragged the group toward the top of the Quarry.
“Left,” I declared, “We haven’t been that way for a long time.” So long in fact that I’d forgotten bits of the road had actually been patched and was (in places) almost decent.
So, left we went, slowing to allow everyone to regroup after the climb. As we rolled on, Crazy Legs bent right over to point, his finger hovering scant inches from the road surface as he bellowed out a lung-shredding “POT!” – a warning that was probably heard in the Scottish Borders.
“Sometimes, I really think I need to become a little more mature,” Crazy Legs considered.
“No, don’t go changin’ – we love you just the way you are.” I assured him.
He rode on in silence for a good dozen or so pedal strokes while he digested this …
“You bastard! You utter, utter bastard!” he complained, “First you give me Wheatus and then snatch it away for … for bloody Billy Joel!”
“Oh, is that a Billy Joel song?” I enquired innocently.
He then swore me to silence as he had a huge confession to make, needed advice, but demanded the ultimate in discretion. (This blerg doesn’t count, as no one reads it.) He looked around cautiously to make sure no one could eavesdrop. The group was still reforming behind us after the climb and we had a brief exclusion zone.
“I’ve been thinking about my set-up for the mountains and … Well… I don’t think I can get what I want with Campag.”
I was deeply shocked, almost speechless, as he hurriedly and in hushed tones, talked about Shimano, or even SRAM groupset options. Oh and the sky is falling down and meanwhile, in deepest, darkest hell, the thermostat’s been nudged up just a little …
Further discrete discussions around this bombshell were abandoned as we started a slow burn for the cafe, gradually picking up the pace.
“Do you want to go for this sprint?” Crazy legs wondered.
“Nah, I’m happy to just roll through.”
We built up the speed until all the talking behind stopped and we were lined out, clipping along, bouncing and juddering across the rough road surface.
I nodded up ahead where the road rose, before starting to drop down toward the Snake Bends.
“Take it to the top and then unleash the hounds?” I suggested.
So we did, peeling off neatly to either side and ushering the rest through for the final charge.
Cowin’ Bovril was the first to try his hand, surging off the front as we drifted toward the back.
He briefly had a good gap, but was slowly reeled in. Then, just before the road started to level, Taffy Steve attacked from the back, an astute masterclass in timing.
The gap quickly yawned upon, Cowin’ Bovril was washed away and only Carlton seemed able to give chase. I nudged onto his wheel and followed, but the move proved decisive. Carlton closed, but couldn’t come to terms with a flying Taffy Steve.
Main Topics of Conversation at the Coffee Stop:
In the cafe, Carlton apologised for our slightly ramshackle and disorganised riding at the start of our grand adventure, but explained that, when you’re on the front with your nose in the wind, it’s really difficult to hear what’s being shouted up from behind.
We agreed we needed a better system and Crazy Legs’ idea of passing messages forward always seemed to stall half way up the line.
“Perhaps we need a dog whistle?” Crazy Legs pondered.
Visions of One Man and His Dog sprang to mind. Cum ba Shep, cum ba. No, don’t think that’s going to work.
Changing tack, Carlton wondered what was going on with the weather. “It’s at least three degrees warmer today,” he remarked.
“Did you say three degrees?” I queried.
I looked at Crazy Legs, Crazy Legs looked at me and we both shook our heads. Luckily, neither of us could remember any Three Degrees songs. A narrow escape.
We reminisced about our old representative from the Hollow Lands, De Uitheems Bloem, who we have traded in for a younger, newer model in Rainman. (It’s my understanding that Dutch riders are held in in such high regard, that UCI rules limit them to one per club. As such I can’t recall if our two ever actually rode together, but I do know we weren’t allowed to keep both.)
Crazy Legs remembered planning a winter break to Amsterdam and asking De Uitheems Bloem for some recommendations. He later received a 5-page email, detailing a full itinerary of all the things to see and do on his trip. This was appended with a long range weather forecast for the weekend; sunrise and sunset times, temperature, wind speed and direction, chance of precipitation, air pressure, cloud cover and pollen count. It concluded that it looked like being a particularly mild weekend, “so don’t bother taking your skates.”
On returning, Crazy Legs had sought out De Uitheems Bloem, “Thanks for all the recommendations, that was brilliant. By the way, English people don’t own skates.”
We shared tales of riding in the Alps with Carlton, who seemed surprised that the Col de la Croix de Fer was Crazy Legs’ favourite climb. He couldn’t recall seeing the (admittedly modest) iron cross, perhaps because his overriding memory of the climb was being paced up it by a wild horse. This beast, rather worryingly, refused to leave the road and didn’t seem all that bothered by the gaggle of cyclists lined out behind it.
“It was obviously a draught horse,” I offered. I thought it was funny, Crazy Legs was simply dismayed. Secretly, I just think he was upset because the only wildlife we saw on the climb was a sun-blasted, completely flattened, giant toad-in-the-road. (The Circle of Death).
Talk of climbing mountains led Carlton to talk about Jimmy Mac’s 900 gram, special climbing wheelset. First, Crazy Legs thanked Carlton profusely for introducing the subject of wheels into the conversation, something he felt we hadn’t discussed for … oh, at least 3 or 4 weeks. Then things got serious as we fired off a range of questions to try and frame the fearful symmetry of Jimmy Mac’s climbing wheelset …
“What type of spokes, how many and how are they laced?” Crazy Legs demanded.
“When you say 900 grams, is that with, or without rim tape?” I pondered.
“Quick release skewers?” Crazy Legs added.
A rather overwhelmed Carlton could provide none of the answers and was now probably regretting mentioning wheels in the first place.
Now Crazy Legs wanted Jimmy Mac to ride out on his fabled wheels and then strip them down completely, so he could fully weigh them and see if their claimed mass could be independently verified.
Luckily, Carlton spotted Jimmy Mac entering the cafe at just that moment and was able to deflect Crazy Legs onto the actual wheel owner. Crazy Legs immediately got up to pursue the issue, before coming back and reporting it was a dead-end, as Jimmy Mac had trashed the wheels during his International Grand Fondo horror smash.
I thought this would deflate Crazy Legs somewhat, but it actually cheered him up. He now felt fully vindicated in his view that such wheels aren’t robust enough to stand up to the wear and tear of actually riding on them.
All good things come to an end and were soon lining up to head for home. Here I noticed the Monkey Butler Boy visibly shivering.
“Feeling the cold?” I asked him, proving yet again just how startlingly perceptive I am.
“Yes,” he replied tightly, “And it’s all his fault” he pointed at the Red Max.
“But that’s unfair, surely your dad didn’t tell you what to wear this morning?”
“No, but I inherited a stupid gene from him.”
As we set off I found myself chatting to the Red Max as we trailed the Monkey Butler Boy. He despaired at his progeny’s lack of common sense and choice of attire, short sleeve jersey and arm warmers, shorts and knee warmers, already despoiled white socks and once pristine (now poisonous ivory) shoes. Looking at Max bundled up in a winter jacket, gloves, boots, and hat, I determined that genetics isn’t always the answer.
I also noticed that of the four teens out today, at least three of them were riding bikes without mudguards, whereas just about all the older set had at least some semblance of protection for themselves, their bikes and most importantly, their fellow riders.
I wondered if that says something about generational differences – perhaps the youngsters are more concerned with style, or maybe they’re more willing to put up with discomfort? More daring? More stoical? Harder? Less cossetted?
Then again, perhaps I’m over-thinking it and they are what they seem to be when I’m at my grumpiest – at best thoughtless, or just plain inconsiderate.
The Red Max told me he’d taken the Monkey Butler Boy along to see a professional coach, who told all the youngsters that they were training too hard and in the wrong way. He’d described the ideal training programme as a pyramid, a base of solid, core, low intensity miles, capped with fewer, high intensity efforts only once this base had been established.
The concept resonated with the Red Max:
“That was interesting wasn’t it?” he’d asked.
“Yes, it was good.”
Something to think about?”
“Nah, it obviously doesn’t apply to me.”
A “3-2-1-Go” countdown signalled an impromptu sprint up the final few metres to the crest of Berwick Hill, fiercely contested by G-Dawg and the Garrulous Kid.
What can I say, the Garrulous Kid, in the full prime of youth and with all the advantages of modern technology, astride his ultra-light, uber-Teutonic, precision engineered, carbon Focus, was up against the grizzled veteran, three times his age and hauling an all steel fixie. It seemed a very unequal contest …
And so it proved. The Garrulous Kid was chewed up, worked over and unceremoniously spat out the back. Score one for the wrinklies.
I slotted in alongside Jimmy Mac as we started down the other side of Berwick Hill, where we were passed by a lone Derwent C.C. cyclist, all elbows and a busy style.
“He’s a bit far from home. I wonder what he’s doing on the boring roads over here, when he has the choice of all those good hilly routes south of the river?” Jimmy Mac mused.
This prompted a discussion about possible rides and the challenging terrain “over there” in the south of the Tyne badlands, (or Mordor, as my clubmates will refer to it.)
We hit the climb up to Dinnington and, in just a few metres, the gap between us and the Derwent C.C. rider almost entirely evaporated.
“Ah,” I suggested, “He doesn’t like hills.”
“Which is why he’s riding over here!” we both decided in unison.
As we entered the Mad Mile, I was completely and wholly unsurprised when a sudden headwind seemed to rise up out of nowhere. I’m getting used to this now.
I sheltered behind Caracol and G-Dawg for as long as I could, then I was on my own and plugging my way home. I got back suitably tired – I might not have been running with the “fast group” but I felt I’d had a good workout nonetheless.
YTD Totals: 648 km / 403 miles with 8,825 metres of climbing.
Total Distance:25 km / 16 miles with 1,033 metres of climbing
Ride Time:1 hours 50 minutes
Average Speed:13.6 km/h
Weather in a word or two:Hotter
I awoke rather groggily to find someone had broken in during the night and filled my legs full of concrete and it took me a while to get moving. When I did, I found Crazy Legs busily flitting around and dressed to ride.
“I’m going to ride up the Alpe.”
I needed to ride to try and rediscover where my legs were.
“Wait, I’m coming.”
“How long do you need?”
As we reached agreement, Captain Black emerged, blinking and yawning. Rest had obviously done him good and Twatty MacTwat Face had reverted back to being Old Faithful. I told him the plan and he hauled his ass into gear too – 3 for the Alpe!
It wasn’t much longer than 15 minutes later and we turned right out of the campsite, pushed the pedals around half a dozen times and found ourselves once again on the first ramp up the mountain to L’Alpe d’Huez.
I took the first couple of hairpins out of the saddle and turning a modestly large gear, until feeling returned to my lower extremities and the stiffness stated to dissipate. I then dropped onto the granny ring, and plonked myself down to spin slowly upwards.
Behind me Captain Black got half way round the first hairpin and was shocked to find just how hard it was. Just before he turned round to head back, thinking he obviously hadn’t recovered from the day before, he finally looked down and realised he was still on the big ring. There was a sudden, resounding, clunking, wince-inducing clang of stressed and tortured metal that reverberated around the mountains, as he changed down under intense pressure and finally found instant relief and his climbing form.
The three of us worked our way slowly up the mountain, pausing frequently at various shady vista’s and viewpoints, picking out the past winners signs on the corners, taking photos and chatting with other cyclists.
The signs were a roll-call, highlighting some of cycling’s great and good (and occasionally villainous) – both past and present, ranging from the imperious, il campionissimo, Fausto Coppi in 1952, right up to Thibaut Pinot in 2015.
I found signs commemorating wins by Bernard Hinaut, Gianni Bugno, Stephen Rooks, Frank Schleck, Pierre Rolland, Carlos Sastre, Andy Hampsten and Hennie Kuiper among the more famous and celebrated of the winners.
Lance Armstrong’s name is still up there (twice) despite having his Tour victories annulled, along with two for the equally dubious and questionable Marco Pantani, who still holds the record for the fastest ascent of the mountain in an astonishing – no doubt rocket-fuelled, but still astonishing time of under 38 minutes.
I have to admit though, that even taking time to hunt them out and read the signs, I still missed one or two, including Joop Zoetemelk’s 1976 sign which I’d vowed to desecrate in honour of Lucien Van Impe. (Only kidding, nice Dutch folk!)
As previously mentioned, I found the signs totally underwhelming – so much so that I didn’t even bother photographing any of them – but here’s one I prepared earlier (or pinched from the Internet anyway).
As we were making our way around one hairpin, our bête noire from Saturday made a reappearance, as a bumbling Harley Davidson blatted loudly up the road and awkwardly around the bend, leaving a trail of greasy exhaust fumes in its wake.
“Your bike’s shit!” an indignant Crazy Legs shouted after the motorcycle, unfortunately just as another rider pulled up alongside him. This rider gave him a long, quizzical look before deciding he was in the presence of a sun-touched Englishman and he didn’t need to defend the honour of his Cannondale SuperSix. Just to be sure, he accelerated smartly away to avoid further insult to his bike and Crazy Legs can at least take a little credit for spurring one rider on to set a good time.
At the village of La Grade we stopped in a welcome patch of shade, where an elderly rider and his support-vehicle-driving wife were sitting enjoying the views. Our talk turned to decomposition rates as Captain Black enjoyed a belated breakfast banana and Crazy Legs described in intimate detail how the discarded skins turned black, slimy and wizened along the way. “Speaking of black, slimy and wizened,” he declared, starting to reach down the front of his shorts, “My knackers could do with a bit of relief.”
“Hey, nice day, isn’t it?” the support-vehicle-driving wife drawled, stepping in with a nice bit of deflection.
“Oh, hello,” Crazy Legs responded, quickly withdrawing his probing digits and thinking fast, “I thought you were Dutch …”
It turned out they were American, from California, on holiday so the husband could enjoy a second-crack at riding the Alps. We then had a brief chat which concluded rather awkwardly when the wife offered sympathy over the “terrible, tragic things” in the UK and we had to ask whether she meant the terror attacks, the Grenfell Tower fire, or being lumbered with lame-duck, Prime Minister who would sell her own mother cling to power.
She meant the tower fire, which is obviously a cataclysmic tragedy, but not something we were ever likely to be personally invested in and it seemed an odd, discordant thing to bring up with total strangers on a bright sunny day, half-way up a mountain in France.
We kept going and stopped again at what we think was Dutch Corner, afforded the opportunity to look down and appreciate how far we’d climbed, the vista opening out to show the road below, twisting and turning sinuously through multiple hairpins as it snaked up the mountain. Crazy Legs recalled watching the Dauphine from this vantage point in 2010 as a rampant Alberto Contador made multiple impressive attacks before breaking clear to win the stage.
As we pushed on the other two slowly drew ahead and I was happy to trundle along at my own pace, slowing down and swinging right across the road to peer myopically at the signs on the hairpins and try to pick out past Tour stage winners.
More snaps from the photographers, the long drag upwards, a sarcastic slow-hand clap from the inflatable King of the Mountains and I was across the finish line and taking a seat next to Crazy Legs and Captain Black in the same café we’d stopped at the first time up the Alpe. Captain Black won the race to first beer of the day.
And then we spaced ourselves well out for the fun of the descent. It was to be this, more than anything, which gave me an appreciation of just how big a task cycling up a mountain actually is – it took almost 15 minutes to whirr down to the bottom and every hairpin I thought was the last one was followed by another and then another. Looking back around the corners was also the first time I appreciated just how steep some of the ramps actually were, it’s not something you get a good impression of while struggling up them.
And then, sadly it was over, we were done and back at the campsite and climbing off for the last time.
By this time my legs no longer felt like concrete, maybe more like hard cheese – a Cheshire or a Red Leicester perhaps. Either way an improvement of sorts. We broke the bikes down and packed them up, then picked up Steadfast and wondered into town for a few drinks and a late lunch.
The patron of the bar was apparently quite upset she couldn’t offer us any food, “Je suis desole!” but we were happy with baguettes and cornets des frites to accompany the beer. The Hammer joined us, fresh from a ride up to Allemont and then finally Goose appeared after a day alternatively spent walking and lazing by the pool. A few beers and we wandered up to the Dutch restaurant for the last supper.
All this time we talked an unending stream of nonsense (as usual): how Pierre Latour somehow acquired the name Roger, the immorality of any sport that needs judges to decide a winner, Tyneside legend Dave the Dwarf, once spotted drinking in the incongruous company of towering Scottish lock forward Doddie Weir. This led to an attempt to calculate how many dwarves you could reasonably expect in China’s 1.4 billion population and serious concerns about where all the Chinese dwarves are hiding.
We learned that Goose had been inspired by tales of a granny who was arrested for pointing a hairdryer at speeding cars in her village during a (seemingly hugely successful) attempt to get them to slow down. He revealed he had then taken this as inspiration for his own brand of traffic vigilantism, patrolling the streets around his home and leaping unexpectedly out at any motorist he suspects of speeding, arm raised, hand out while intoning a very simple, authoritative and stentorian: “No!”
We managed to calculate bills and work out a way where no one (hopefully) felt out of pocket and discussed doing something similar next year, or the following, although Crazy Legs declared he’s more or less done with the Alps, so we thought up a few alternatives such as Spain – the Pyrenees or Basque region, Tuscany, or perhaps, radically even somewhere flat like the Netherlands.
And then we wandered back, packed and slept, woke and showered, loaded the van, endured an unfriendly chalet inspection, settled our bills, waved off the Hammer and set out for home.
Swiss custom officials were strangely no happier to see us go than they had been to see us arrive and Heathrow customs officials managed to outdo them in terms of inertia, apathy and glowering disaffection.
We bade “bon voyage” to Steadfast, returning to his home along the south coast and the Goose wandered off in search of the best deals he could find on Toblerone. While we waited for our connecting flight, Captain Black stood us a round of coffee’s and had to double-check the price several times before he realised he wasn’t in Geneva airport and didn’t need to take out a second mortgage to pay for them.
The “barista” asked for his name and he momentarily confused me by saying Ant rather than Captain Black, or just the Captain. He obviously confused the barista even more as the coffee’s arrived with “Hans” carefully scribed on every cup.
“Oh no,” I suggested to Crazy Legs, “That makes you Knees and me Boomps-a-Daisy.”
We then sat around discussing the worlds woes and how to correct them, until Crazy Legs looked at the flight board and realised our gate was closing in 10 minutes and we were in real danger of being left behind!
A quick, power-walk through the terminal had us tagging onto the very back of the queue, before clambering aboard our connecting flight to Newcastle and home.
At the other end we kept an intent and anxious watch on the baggage carousel, waiting for the arrival of bike bags and boxes and getting a little concerned as time dragged on, the crowd started to thin and the conveyor belt slowly emptied. Then Goose took a step backwards and fell over our bikes which the ninja baggage handlers had delivered by hand and stealthily dropped off right behind us.
Home, safe and sound and largely intact.
So, two days of travelling, Thursday 15th June and Monday 19th June bookended 3 days of riding, the Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Over the three days we were out on the bikes for 22½ hours, rode 251 kilometres or 156 miles in around 14 hours with almost 6,900 metres of climbing including, L’Alpe d’Huez (twice), the Sarenne, Lauterat, Glandon, Croix de Fer, Télégraph and mighty Galibier.
BA Flights form Newcastle to Geneva via Heathrow cost £160 each.
Budget Car van hire, plus fuel was £478.24, or £95.65 per person (5 people)
The total cost for my trip was around £372, plus meals, food and drinks.
Having been back a couple of weeks now, I can honestly say if someone offered me the exact same trip, with the exact same rides (even including all the pain and misery of the Circle of Death) I wouldn’t hesitate and I’d sign up immediately.
YTD Totals: 3,844 km / 2,304 miles with 46,068 metres of climbing
Day#2 of our grand adventure was all about the Crazy Legs master-plan, a long, looping clockwise ride around the area, taking in 5 major cols, including the fearsome Galibier. We were expecting a long day and had accordingly planned an early start, rolling out at just after 8 o’clock when the air was still relatively cool and pleasant.
The first few pedal strokes were absolute agony on my back, which I think I must have damaged lugging the bike box around in supremely ugly and inappropriate ways. The pain was so intense I wondered if I’d even make it out of the town, but luckily it settled down to a dull throb and occasional sharp twinge once I got a bit warmed up. Later Captain Black would set himself up as our “main man” and started dealing from his precious stash of Nurofen. He had many takers and became the most popular person in our group that day. I’m sure the two were in no way related.
We slipped out of the campsite and took the road north from Bourg d’Oisans, following the course of the wild flowing La Romanche all the way to Allemont. The roads were wide with a plush (by British standards) cycle path, shaded by trees and relatively traffic free so early on a Saturday morning. It was a very agreeable start to the day and we made good time, with Crazy Legs in particular driving hard on the front and seemingly eager to get going.
Reaching Allemont, the Hammer and Goose stopped off to look for an ATM, while the rest of us started the zig-zagging ride up the face of the barrage. At the top we paused to look down and heckle our returning companions, before regrouping and rolling across the top of the dam and turning up into the wooded hills that skirt the reservoir.
This was the start of a long, shaded and pleasant climb up to the village of Le Rivier d’Allemont, where we stopped for a leisurely coffee and to allow Crazy Legs to endear himself to the café patron with his valiant attempts to ask for a strawberry ice cream in French. He was quite proud when his language skills were judged to be “not the worst” that had ever been heard in the village.
As we were leaving we spotted a public drinking fountain and stopped to fill our bottles, only to back away from a hastily scribbled notice that warned tests were underway and that we roughly translated as meaning: “drink this and you’ll probably die a horrible death.”
We actually had no shortage of intestinal distress already and needed to take no further risks in this area. Just past the water fountain, Crazy Legs spotted a public toilet and ducked inside. We thought he’d just gone for a quick pee and rode slowly on, not realising we were witnessing a Dumoulin moment and our own defegate, until the French equivalent of a NEST team turned up in hazmat suits and quarantined the whole area.
Our whole round trip can then probably be traced by all the now radioactive toilets we desecrated and devastated at each stop, in what the French authorities would later declare as a major act of eco-terrorism so horrendous that even ISIS wouldn’t dare claim responsibility. They’re still hunting the perpetrators, who somehow managed to slip the police cordon. Truth be told, I think we were all suffering from a combination of the heat, hard work, foreign food and far too many gels, energy bars and isotonic drinks.
Part Two. Toad in the Road
We were now on the Route Des Cols and a quick descent hustled us across the river and onto a short, sharp ramp to begin our climb toward the Col du Glandon and Col de la Croix de Fer.
We became spread out and I was climbing on my own, as the road rose to top another barrage and then continued, up and up until the surface of the Lac de Grand Maison was a glittering, blue-grey mirror far below. Another rider caught me up and started chatting away immediately in English. I’d wondered how he knew my nationality, but Crazy Legs and Steadfast had already been laughing at the less than subtle branding that had the quintessentially English name, Holdsworth stamped across Reg’s small frame in at least 14 different places. Alternatively, maybe he just guessed?
Anyway, I learned he was riding following surgery for a prolapsed disc (which put my own back pain into perspective) and was the rabbit being chased by a couple of friends down the road. He pushed on not wanting to be caught (I only remember one other rider, who was obviously a local passing me, so presume he managed to stay out in front.) He pressed on the pedals and accelerated away in that strange mountain climbing time perspective, which meant that after 10 minutes of hard effort he’d gained about 50 yards on me.
The road topped out and I began a long, fast drop through a valley pass. I couldn’t help hating this descent, which frittered away a load of hard won altitude I’d sweated to accumulate. At the same time it shattered any climbing rhythm I had managed to find. By the time the road started to rise again toward the summit of the Glandon I felt like I was starting from scratch and a nagging headwind added to the difficulty.
I negotiated a photographer in the middle of the road who snapped away despite my distressed countenance and then pressed his card into my hand. Not sure those pictures are worth buying, mate. I soon found myself skirting a massive flock of brown, alpine sheep whose bells tinkled away merrily and then the climb stiffened under my wheels and up we went again.
After a bit more climbing the road split in two and I guessed wrong, following a rider down the right hand route toward the Croix de Fer summit, only to be called back by Crazy Legs behind me. I back-tracked and joined him, Steadfast and Goose on a short detour and quick haul up to the top of the Col du Glandon, in what apparently was the ultimate BOGOF (buy one get one free) offer on French summit finishes.
At the Glandon, we press-ganged some friendly Dutch cyclists into taking a commemorative picture of us next to the summit marker and heard all about Crazy Leg’s highlight of the ride, a massive, crisp and limbless toad he’d spotted baked black and pressed flat into the tarmac.
We dropped down again and picked up the hairpins heading up to the Croix de Fer, where we waited for the Hammer and Captain Black, who’d beaten us up the Glandon, but had stopped off in the café there. Reunited again, we coerced an English cyclist into taking the obligatory commemorative photo with the summit marker and there, at the point of no return, discussed our options.
We agreed by a vote of 4 to 2 to press on toward the Télégraph and Galibier, rather than turn back to re-trace our steps. I was one of the two voting to turn back, figuring we could run the Galibier the next day. Damn, don’t you hate democracy!
We then began a fun, high speed drop down from the Croix de Fer, while keeping our eyes open for a suitable lunch venue. We finally spotted a suitable candidate, a crêperie with decking that extended out over the mountain and ducked inside. Here we had a pleasant and relaxed lunch while watching the buzzards riding the thermals around the peaks on the opposite side of the valley.
Back on the bikes, the descent continued, but was more gradual now as we followed the course of swift flowing, turbulent L’Arvan for a few miles, before scrambling up a short climb, whipping past a group of very tentative descenders and rolling down toward Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne.
Just before joining the main A43 carriageway to head south east, we were stopped by a gendarme to allow a pro race to pass through. This was the Tour de Savoie-Mont Blanc, which would be won by the latest Colombian climbing sensation Egan Bernal, allegedly on his way to Team Sky for next season, where he can be carefully neutered, roboticized and stripped of all attacking intent.
This stop also marked the first sighting of what would soon became our arch enemy; hugely fat, sweating, middle-aged, pretend biker gangs on Harley Davidsons. A suitably unimpressed motorcycle gendarme disdainfully escorted a swarm of their ridiculously noisy, filthy, rumbling, farting and belching, noxious machines off the road to let the cyclists through.
The front of the race whipped quickly past, spearheaded by a break of half a dozen, with an AG2R rider in desperate pursuit. Then the main peloton followed, already a couple of minutes back, a gleaming, multi-coloured cavalcade that whirred cleanly away at high speed and in a blare of horns and sirens.
We were released onto the road and followed the perimeter cycle-lane, dodging the occasional discarded bidon or musette left behind by the rampaging peloton.
Part Three. Hog Hell
At Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne we found the town centre swarmed with more fat, hairy, utterly boorish, pretend- bikers, hooting and hollering and revving their stinking, too-loud engines to screaming excess, chaotically slaloming down the road and generally being as noisy and anti-social as they could possibly be.
In direct stark contrast was a woman in cool looking cream leathers, riding a gleaming white and chrome motorbike that emitted a rumble like a purring snow leopard. She glided serenely through the chaos, like a swan parting a crowd of squabbling and squawking ducklings and then was gone.
We dropped into a café for a quick drink and to see these huge, bloated bikers close-up, red-faced and sweating in their dusty leathers, shovelling food and swilling beers into gaping maws, while swaggering around like the hard-asses they undoubtedly weren’t. Attila the Stockbroker, anyone?
Having had enough of the aural assault, we rode on, swung south, crossed the river and were immediately of the climb of the Col du Télégraph. Even here though we couldn’t escape the stupid bikes and bikers that reminded me of nothing more than being stuck in a room with a swarm of fat bumbling, annoying bluebottles that continually buzz around your ears.
They were intent on roaring up and down the mountainside, often passing deliberately and intimidatingly close, racing each other around blind bends and occasionally grounding and grinding away bits of the road as they tried to guide their own monstrous, ungainly, fume spewing machines around the tight corners.
Part 4. Ingénue Ascending
We were now on a steady climb of 12 kms at around 8%, winding up to the top of the Col and the Fort du Télégraph. On reviewing the ride, I think we were all surprised at just how much this route twisted and turned as it climbed, but the views are generally closed in with trees and you never get the open vista revealing the line of the road you’re following.
As we started up a slender, dark-skinned, French ingénue in Liv pro-team livery rode up alongside Crazy Legs.
“Ça va?” she enquired.
“No, I’m English … and it’s too bliddy hot!” Crazy Legs replied smoothly.
She laughed, turned the pedals over lightly and started to pull ahead and the Hammer followed like a puppy on a lead. He later revealed that up ahead he’d almost had to do a track-stand as her team car forced its way in alongside her, blocking the road, before handing over a bottle, which she took a tiny, delicate sip from, before handing it back. What was the point in that?
Approaching the top of the Télégraph my Garmin beeped loudly to announce low power and eventually shut down just before the summit. I had to ask Crazy Legs to share his file for the ride and he would later compare our two efforts side-by-side and concluded we were remarkably similar riders!
The café at the top provided more liquid refreshment, before we found someone willing to take on the most risky of photo-assignments yet, capturing our collective clustered around the summit sign, while simultaneously dodging the stupid Harley’s that still buzzed and bumbled loudly up and down the road.
Part Five. It’s Like You’re Riding Into the Sky*
And then we went on, heading toward the famed Galibier, a climb 20km longer than l’Alpe d’Huez and rising twice as many vertical metres to 2,645 above sea level, where the oxygen starts to get thin. It’s just 100 metres shy of being 35km in length and there is 17km of climbing at over seven per cent, with a real sting in the tail – the steepest ramps are in the final 2 kilometres.
Dropping down off the Télégraph and once again lamenting the loss of hard won height, we first had to thread our way through Valloire, which proved to be the source of the infestation of stupid Harley bikers. The town was holding the Punta Bagna Festival, advertised with the words: “bike show, run wild, custom culture.” Huh? There were thousands of big, ugly bikes crowded into just about every space available, and plenty of big, ugly bikers too.
Off the bike and having to rely on their own locomotion, they appeared particularly inept, unable to cope with traffic unaided and we had to weave our way around several rotund, stationary forms, seemingly frozen into indecisiveness in the middle of the road.
Finally out of town we climbed up the long straight valley following the tumult of La Valloirette river for about 10km, a long, boring uphill grind. At one point we passed a field with signs advertising helicopter rides up the col for €50 and I have to admit to giving it very serious consideration.
A few scattered wooden structures at Plan Lachat marked the end of the valley. A bridge was thrown across the river and from there the road twisted and turned, climbing with serious intent now, as it soared up the mountain. The Hammer had gone on ahead, but the rest of us agreed to stick together as all the initial skirmishes were put behind us as and we began our battle royalé with the beast of the Galibier.
Round the corner, with the snow mantled peaks above us, we passed the rather incongruous sight of a couple sunbathing on a picnic blanket by the side of the river. Then we swept over the bridge and started climbing, trying to stay away from the right hand verge, where the land fell away precipitously.
The seemingly indefatigable Steadfast led and I got the impression he could continue riding this way for hour upon hour yet. Goose and Crazy Legs followed his lead, while I dragged along at the back with Captain Black who was beginning to cramp up and almost looked to be suffering as much as I was.
Up and up we dragged ourselves, but accumulated fatigue was soon making itself felt, breathing becoming more demanding and I think we were all struggling. We took to pausing at every kilometre marker for a brief respite, which not only let us rest for a moment, but also let us appreciate the spectacular views, both up to the snow-capped summit and back down along the twisting, torturous route we’d followed to get to this point. It was absolutely wild, beautiful and stunning and gave us a real sense of accomplishment.
At one of our stops we spotted a fat marmot, happily frolicking in the grass at the side of the road. At another, agonisingly, the kilometre marker was missing and our exhausted brains couldn’t make the decision to stop without a visual reminder. Crazy Legs was insistent we then rode three whole kilometres without a rest stop, Goose and Steadfast were adamant it was only two. I wasn’t bothered as long as it got us closer to the end.
Finally, we reached the point where the odd patches of snow thickened and all merged together to give the landscape a thick, uniform and glittering white coating. The snow exuded a welcome chill, piled high in crusty hummocks either side of the black, glistening road and providing a constant stream of runoff that trickled away, happy to succumb to gravity rather than fight it like an idiot cyclist.
Someone said only two kilometres now and I looked up … and then up some more, to see the summit was really close, almost in touching distance. Then my heart sank, as I realised it only looked so close because the last stretches of road raked up at a completely hellish angle.
Still, nearly there. I let the others ride on ahead, took one last, deep breath and pushed on, struggling with even basic tasks like clipping in. I remember nothing about that last 2,000 metres, no pain, no elation, no wonder, no big sense of accomplishment. One moment I was below the summit, the next I was at the top, grinning and lining up for the obligatory photo, before pulling on arm warmers and a rain jacket for the descent.
I looked around, content and enjoying the view, trying to imprint it on my mind – “Look Ma, top o’ the world!” – but it was too cold to hang around long and I followed Crazy Legs as the road tipped down and we began the long, screaming descent.
* “It’s like you’re riding into the sky.” Andy Schleck’s description of climbing the Galibier.
Part Six. Christ on a Bike
I let the bike run and was soon picking up speed, the rain jacket fluttering, flapping and snapping in the wind and the freewheel whirring crazily as I followed the winding road down and around all the bends.
At one point we passed more Harley bikers spluttering up in the opposite direction and seeming to want all of the road surface to play with. Several where sticking their inside legs out stiffly into the middle of the road as if dribbling a football alongside their bikes. What the hell was that all about – are the Harley’s so unbalanced and ungainly they need a counterweight, or is it just to take up more room and intimidate passing cyclists? I pressed a bit closer toward the cliff face on my right hand side, but ahead of me a thoroughly disgruntled Crazy Legs decided enough was enough and planted his bike firmly in the middle of the road in a game of chicken.
The bikers flinched first and gave ground. Crazy Legs flashed past them, then I did too and we were around another bend and far away before their indignation filtered through to their dullard brains and one of them finally leant on his horn in futile rebuke.
Following behind us, the Hammer reported one of the idiots had then stood bolt upright, arms stretched out to either side, like Christ on a bike, all the while trundling along inches from the edge of the road with a long, long drop to his right. Ass hat.
At the top of the Col du Lautaret, we stopped to regroup and the Hammer disappeared into the Hôtel des Glaciers and returned with a round of ice cold Coke’s for everyone. Top man. Off we went again, racing the oncoming darkness with the sun already starting to dip behind the mountains and throw out long shadows.
The descent down from the Col du Lautaret was utterly brilliant, on wide empty roads, with long sweeping bends that encouraged you push on ever faster and dare not to brake. Despite the fatigue I hit the big ring and hammered downwards as fast as I could go, sweeping through tunnels and villages, crouched low over the bike and whooping with joy.
All good things must come to an end though and we were soon back in the valley of La Romanche and pushing toward home. With the Tunnel Du Chambon closed following damage in 2015, we crossed the river and took to a (remarkably decent) temporary road, which skirted the southern edge of the lake.
A few, slight inclines reminded us of our accumulated fatigue and stung the legs and Captain Black fought a series of debilitating cramps as we plugged on. There was a distinct feeling of twilight encroaching on us as we hit the last stretch of road and here Goose accelerated off the front with a startling injection of pace. At first I thought he was responding to an emergency call of nature and dashing back to the campsite as quickly as possible, but Crazy Legs reassured me it was just his way of riding on the front and shepherding us all home. We finally closed on him, sat on his back wheel and he brought us, at long last back to camp.
We’d been out for over 12 hours, ridden for at least 9 of these, covered over 100 miles and encompassed over 4,000 metres of climbing. In that period, we’d gone through every single emotion on our “cycle of acceptance” and then some.
An exhausted Captain Black was perhaps in the worst state, declaring his bike had let him down bigtime, he never wanted to see it again and he was changing its name from “Old Faithful” to “Twatty-Mac Twat-Face.”
Part Seven. Ice Cold in Bourg d’Oisans
We showered and changed and headed into town for some much needed food, aiming for the first restaurant we stumbled across. Someone mentioned spaghetti bolognese and once the thought took hold it spread like a forest fire, becoming an instant fixation and the only thing that would satisfy our needs.
The walk seemed incredibly long and impossibly hard on our exhausted bodies, but we finally found a likely-looking restaurant and circled the seating area like a starving pack of skinny, feral dogs. A waitress with blue hair approached and Crazy Legs cut straight to the quick.
“Do you do spaghetti bolognaise?”
“Yes,” she smiled, looking somewhat bemused.
“Ah, good. Table for six, please.” It was a demand, not a request.
She wondered away to sort out a table and I scored some menu’s and handed them around ,while we quickly confirmed what already knew we wanted.
The waitress got us seated and returned with menus, which we waved away and made our order, not wanting any further delay. Six grand biere’s arrived for the conquering heroes and Crazy Legs spotted and claimed the only tankard with a handle, so he could indulge in some proper wassailing.
“Salut!” the glasses clinked together and in a real “Ice Cold in Alex” moment the beer slid very, very easily, down 6 parched throats. Perfect.
The spaghetti bolognaise filled the craving and was good, but surprisingly no one seemed to have a massive appetite and we were all quickly replete, ready for the long walk back and a collapse into bed.
Vague plans were made for our last day, with a relax by the pool, or a short ride out for coffee all mooted. Captain Black was all for sawing his bike into pieces and introducing it to the river, while I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I knew I’d be out riding. Again.
YTD Totals: 3,651 km / 2,269 miles with 44,466 metres of climbing
It seems an age ago, way back at the start of the year, when Crazy Legs first outlined his ambitious plans to re-enact Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps and put out a call for volunteers to fill the role of lumbering, slow-witted pachyderms, transported from their natural habitat to an exotic, alien and dangerous place, seemingly for the express purpose of becoming over-worked, over-heated and dying in pain, far from home.
Even so, how could I possibly have refused such a call? What club cyclist doesn’t dream of testing themselves on the mythic, Grand Tour climbs, roads replete with the ghosts of past champions and freshly stained with the multi-coloured daubing’s celebrating cycling’s current crop of racing aspirants?
A plan then was hatched and agreed for an extended weekend break in France, in July, running from a Thursday to the Monday, which coincided happily (if not deliberately) with the Cyclone weekend. Having carefully negotiated permission to go, I signed up alongside Goose and Captain Black, and we formed the original Four Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List.
British Airways flights from Newcastle to Heathrow and then from Heathrow to Geneva were booked well in advance and for what seemed a rather reasonable £160. Then, I more or less forgot about the whole venture.
Behind the scenes though, others beavered away tirelessly on my behalf. Crazy Legs found us two chalets, with three berths each at the Cascades campsite in Le Bourg-d’Oisans – basic, cheap and cheerful chipboard cabins, with two very strict rules you especially needed to adhere to:
Rule#1– Do not take your bike into the cabin, as the curtains have a magical, magnetic effect that can draw chain oil through thin air by osmosis and then print it directly and indelibly into the fabric.
Rule#2 – And, no matter how strong the urge, don’t pee in the eponymous waterfall. We don’t know what the exact consequences of this misdemeanour are, but all indications are that they are dire.
Even better, Le Bourg-d’Oisans lies right at the bottom of the magnificent L’Alpe D’Huez, a snaking 14-kilometre climb through 21 numbered hairpins, each named after past Tour de France stage winners. Dubbed the Tour’s “Hollywood Climb” it’s regarded as the most famous of all the summit finishes, at least amongst casual cycling fans, if not the cognoscenti.
Location sorted, Crazy Legs then began formulating a loose itinerary with rides on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which included a monstrous “queen stage” in the middle, vaguely based on the Marmotte Granfondo route and taking in the Col du Glandon, Col del la Croix de Fer, Col du Télégraph, Col de la Galibier and Col du Lautaret. Eek.
Meanwhile Goose set to work arranging hire cars big enough for sundry riders and bike bags, both of which seem to be characterised by odd, angular and pointy, sticky-out bits with minimal padding, that make them rather awkward to accommodate and transport.
Along the way, Crazy Legs somehow coerced his brother-in-law, Johann the Steadfast into coming along and providing the gravity and thoughtful, moral ballast this type of expedition sorely needs. The Hammer signed up for the fun too, but was intent on making his own travel arrangements, which I suspect involved chauffeur-driven limousines, private jets and helicopter transfers.
The BFG also agreed to come, work permitting, but then wavered and then havered and firm commitment eroded to a maybe-wait-and-see, before finally crystallising into a, hmm-maybe-not-this-time. His loss.
As the days ticked down and the departure became more real and imminent, I had to start thinking seriously about how this might work and more importantly, how I might actually be able to survive with body and mind unbroken.
Despite over a century of years between us, Captain Black and I were very much Alpine climbing neophytes and neither of us knew what to expect, or if we would be able to cope. I was particularly concerned about how aged creaking joints and ancient brittle bones were going to react not only to the length and severity of the climbs, but tackling them three days in a row – my body tends to dislike longer distances with sustained efforts and seems to take increasingly longer periods to recover as I get older.
A couple of weeks beforehand, chatting nervously about bike set-ups and the like, Captain Black queried gearing for the trip and was pondering slapping on a 32-tooth cog or something similar. (He didn’t and I think may have learned to regret his decision).
I remember saying I felt good to go, as I ride a sneaky, triple-compact chain-set, something the venerable Toshi-San urged me to buy to avoid placing too much strain on ageing knee joints as I slowly returned to cycling from decades of inactivity.
In the past couple of years, I think I’ve only used the smallest, granny ring a couple of times – once when battling a headwind on the rather fearsome Rosedale Chimney in North Yorkshire, the other time when trying to drag my sorry ass up the Heinous Hill, hollowed out by the bonk after a long club ride. Now I was hoping it would be my ace in the hole in case I needed it once or twice, just to see me through any sticky patches I might encounter. Ha-ha-ha.
I guess the trip had actually been playing on my mind more than I realised, as I’d started to pay just a little more attention to calorie intake, nothing particularly strict, just cutting out one or two sweet-treats and snacks along the way. Combined with an increase in commutes on the single-speed, my weight started to slowly drop and I went from 70 kilos at Christmas to around 64 kilos just before departure – reasoning I needed all the help I could possibly get and even small, incremental gains might just balance out in my favour.
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs parcelled out his hard-won wisdom like a parsimonious miser down to his last few pennies and you had to pay attention to catch all the useful bits: lights for the tunnels, rain jackets and arm warmers for descending through the snow line at the tops of the Col’s and a pillow case to avoid using the paper ones provided in the chalet’s. Paper pillowcases?
I missed the memo about the lock so you could leave our bikes outside the cabin. Ironically, we got away with it, while in Crazy Legs’ chalet they assiduously kept to the no bikes inside policy, yet still had to argue long and hard with the rather hard-faced, “Les Inspecteurs de Chalet” on the last day to ensure their deposit was returned. I suspect this was some kind of Brexit payback.
With a week to go, I borrowed a hard case bike box from the Red Max and spent Tuesday night breaking down and packing a rather startled Reg. Against airline advice, but on the recommendation of the cycling community and various forums, tyres were left inflated, but off came the wheels, handlebars, saddle, seatpost and rear derailleur and hanger. The bike was packed around with foam pipe insulation and all the spaces filled out with kit – shorts, jerseys, shoes, socks, helmet, tools, tubes, gels, energy bars, a towel and toiletries.
In fact, I did such a good job that the bike case was 28kg’s and earned me a big orange “Heavy!” warning sticker alongside the pretty pink “Fragile!” one at check-in. Like a red rag to a bull, I suspect the latter simply taunts baggage handlers to see just how much disdainful, ham-fisted flinging about they can subject your prized possessions to, but I may be wrong.
As it was, when I met up with Crazy Legs, Goose and Captain Black, early on 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?”
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…