I've ridden mountain bikes in the French Alps a couple of times - weeks spent in Morzine, mostly catching uplifts. The downhill courses and bike parks are well and good, but my preference is for the longer routes, where you'll catch a lift to a strategic high point, and then spend half a day picking your way along the high-mountain trails, eventually descending for lunch or beers.
These rides have inevitably involved some climbing, but with the bulk of the work done by cable car those weeks have never been taxing in terms of metres climbed.
Over the past 4 years my riding buddies and I have migrated largely from dirt to tarmac, and as we've grown in fitness and shrunk in waistline, the feats and challenges have become ever greater. Quick 20-mile blasts gave way to regular 50 or 60 milers, sportives have been dabbled with (although I'm still not convinced of the attraction), and day-long epics involving complex car and rail transport arrangements have been nailed. The dubious pleasures of centuries and brevets has been experienced, each of us secretly trying to outdo the others in terms of speeds, times and sheer toughness.
This transition to the dark side has also coincided with the advent of the GPS cycle computer, so all the rivalry has been additionally fueled by Garmin and Strava stats.
About a year ago, the appetite for a big challenge arose and someone suggested we ride across the Alps - trip of a lifetime kind of stuff. Miraculously, wives and significant others agreed, and the research and training began. A fully supported trip with vans carrying luggage and inexpensive hotels was agreed as the favoured approach, and we quickly settled upon the Route des Grandes Alpes with Cycle-High. Timing was set for the first week of September, to avoid school holidays and the arrival of an impending baby. Not mine...
The group was to consist of myself, 4 friends, a further 6 friends of friends, and 5 other Cycle-High customers that we didn't know.
Then followed 9 months of hard work. And all the "necessary" bike and kit upgrades of course.
One of the most worthwhile bits of preparation I did was to get my bike set up properly. I am a fettler by nature, so had already done a lot of research and tweaking of my riding position, but was still getting some neck pain on most rides more than a couple of hours long. I went to see a professional bike fitter, and after a couple of sessions, a layback seatpost, shorter stem and custom insoles I was riding faster, stronger and in more comfort.
We set an interim fitness target - to put in a respectable time at the Chiltern Hundred Gran Fondo cyclosportive at the end of May. It's a 110 mile route with a fatiguing saw-tooth profile. Lots of steep climbs, though none of them especially long. This kept us grafting through the winter and spring, heading out at first light for 50 to 80-milers on weekends and packing the bike commutes in during the week.
I was struck down with a nasty virus a week before the event, but got myself just about well again in time. I completed the ride in 7h25m, which wasn't quite as quick as I'd hoped, but given the illness and unexpected 30 deg C heat I wasn't too disappointed. If I'd pushed it any harder I'd have gone too deep and done myself some serious damage. Importantly I was no more than a few minutes down on the quickest of my friends. We were on-track.
This was the distance and base-mileage part of the training done, the idea being to focus the summer months on climbing and riding on consecutive days. The weather didn't help matters, but we soldiered on with lots commuting and hilly mileage around the Chilterns and other local undulations.
In July we organised a meet-up ride with some of the friends-of-friends. They were mostly Kent-based, so the Surrey hills seemed like a decent middle ground. I drafted a 70 mile route out of Dorking that culminated with a haul over Leith Hill followed by a lap of the Olympic Box Hill loop as the finale.
Come the day the weather was torrential. This combined with punctures and new bike setup niggles for one member of the group, meaning we had to cut out the final 20 miles and the 2 main climbs. That was disappointing but we'd had plenty of laughs and banter, especially with one of our group who'd adopted the practice of taping a digital radio to his stem and riding round to the dulcet tones of Smooth FM. What started with astonishment and ridicule soon gave way to acceptance, and I actually started to look forward to the idea of scaling the Galibier accompanied by a bit of French jazz. Sadly the radio met its end before the big trip, so that was one unique experience that never materialised.
I'd started seriously watching my diet and beer intake after the Chiltern Hundred, and by August had dropped 4 inches round the waist and around 2 stones in weight compared with when I'd started to get serious about road riding a couple of years previously.
A family holiday in Dorset saw a couple of careless kilos go back on, but did get me a fantastic training ride the full length of the Purbeck Hills and back again.
With a final couple of hilly blasts and a few days of rest we were as ready as we could be. We'd had the route details for months and had seen some scary numbers, but my lack of alpine experience meant I had no way of quantifying them. On one hand I knew I was in decent physical shape, but on the other I knew there was going to be a big psychological battle to win.
I was looking forward to it hugely, but with a big dose of nerves.
To be continued...