Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Alps - Part 2

...continued from Part 1

We'd opted to have our bikes and luggage collected and driven over to France, meaning we could fly to Geneva with only hand luggage and no worries about expensive mistakes from the airport baggage handlers.
We'd also figured that a key part of getting through the week was going to be eating properly and recovering well between each day's ride. Three of us had chipped in together on a bulk purchase of energy bars and gels and 2 big barrels of protein recovery shake - one for straight after the ride, and a special 'slow release' formula to drink last thing before bed. All of this was in my luggage, and I also had a wheelbag containing tools and (strangely enough) a spare set of wheels.
My deep section beasts that aren't the lightest but are fabulous on flat and rolling terrain, and pretty good on gentler climbs too.
When the van arrived on Thursday evening the size and weight of my kit raised a few eyebrows, but it all fitted in without much ado.

The Saturday morning flight from Luton was uneventful, and we started eyeing-up other people that looked like they might be cyclists, trying to work out who else might be riding with us. We'd soon spotted the people that we didn't know who were on our trip and acquaintances were made.

When the courier arrived to collect us from the airport we were greeted with the news that there'd been an accident with one of the two vans. It turned out that our lead courier and joint proprietor of Cycle-High had been involved in a coming together with an HGV on the drive over, and had rolled one of the hire vans at high speed. This had happened on the Friday and the van had been reduced to scrap, but miraculously our courier had escaped with only a few minor cuts and bruises.
A replacement van had already been sourced, and it was fortuitous that it had been the empty vehicle. Otherwise both our trip organiser and our bikes would have almost certainly come off a lot worse.
Our lead courier's friend and business partner had flown over at short notice to assess the situation, ensure our lead courier was OK and to help with contingencies. Through a combination of good fortune, fast thinking and quick work on behalf of our organisers the incident was addressed and our trip was to go ahead on schedule. We were obviously glad of that, though I really could not have blamed anyone of they'd decided to call it off - the accident had sounded bad.

Once transferred to the hotel at our start-point in Thonon-les-Bains, we unloaded and prepped the bikes ready for the next morning. After a little fettling it was back inside to the bar for a beer and the trip briefing, where we gathered as a group for the first time, and ground rules and protocols were established.
Dinner was excellent, steak if I remember correctly and there was a spectacular cheeseboard that did the rounds afterwards. As ever in France, the wine was good too - even 'basic' table wine was on a par with something we'd pay £10 a bottle for in the UK.
We'd opted not to bother spending money on the single room supplement, so we shared rooms most nights. It was a partial lottery who we were put with, so it was a case of just getting on with it and accepting the flatulence and snoring of others - and there was plenty of both, the former amply fuelled by bulk intake of energy and recovery foods throughout the week!

I slept well and awoke with anticipation. Breakfast was busy - I counted at least 4 different groups of cyclists down there. Stocking up well on cereal and pastries, I followed that with a couple of slices of ham and cheese, as is of course compulsory on the continent.
The week's routine was established that first morning:
- Wake up
- Cycling kit on
- Breakfast
- Ablutions then application of chamois creme - the order of these two important!
- Fill water bottles and jersey pockets
- Pack luggage and daybag into the vans
- Ride

That first morning it was suggested that we start at a steady pace and aim to crest the first climb and descend for coffee as a group. We gathered for photos, and then rolled out.

image by Cycle-High

We had all been given a detailed route card for the day, but those weren't needed to start with. Two of our group (although British) lived up the road in Morzine and knew exactly where we were going. Several others and I also had the route loaded into our Garmin computers, so we navigated our way easily.
The early September air was crisp, but we were all suitably layered-up, myself with arms warmers and a windproof gilet over my standard summer kit. As we took those first few pedal strokes through the town the chill was quickly forgotten, replaced by excitement to be finally moving.
I was riding towards the front, keeping the pace low at around 14 or 15 miles per hour, though remember feeling slightly frustrated that there were gaps being left and people were not forming up into a group behind.

I am a member of my local cycling club, Verulam CC, and although I don't often make it out on Sunday mornings I have ridden enough club runs to know how to ride safely in formation - some time spent on the track also helping. I quickly realised that those of us with that experience were in the minority. However, it turned out that this wasn't really a problem - the roads were quiet that morning, as they were through most of the week.

We quickly settled into a rhythm, tapping out an easy pace up the gentle valley climb toward Morzine. The group eventually gelled, the pace ebbing and flowing between 15 and 18 mph, depending who was on the front. There were a few of us that were keeping a watchful eye on the backmarkers and communicating well between us, so when the pace lifted too high the frontrunners were either asked to ease off a little or one of us would simply move to the head of the group and gently squeeze the pace down.

I believe you can tell a lot about a person by the way they ride a bicycle. Cycling is a sport of complex dynamics and interaction, requiring both fitness and thoughtfulness to meet your objectives, whether you are racing or tackling a recreational ride of any substance. There is a time to cooperate, and a time to put the hammer down - the beginning of a hard week in the Alps is definitely the former. That first couple of hours gave a lot of clues about our protagonists and how the week ahead would play out.

Before we started riding I had subconsciously started guessing at people's ability and experience based upon their physicality, their appearance, their bikes and their kit. The first few miles confirmed and dispelled a few of those assumptions.

Quickly apparent, there were those of us who were concerned with the group as a whole, building the team as it were. That is something I usually find myself doing, and you quickly spot and establish an unspoken link with others doing the same.
Fitness and physical capability also started to become evident. Aside from the speed people ride at, you observe how smooth they are, how hard they are working to achieve their speed and how 'at ease' they are on their bike. The term souplesse sums this up, and I'm sure I'll write more about that at some point.
Behaviour in the group is also significant. Some rode towards the front, jockeying to establish a place in the hierarchy of the week. The makeup of the first few places on the road changed often in those early miles, and with the steady speeds those positions were not at all indicative of people's abilities. A few people naturally found themselves there, through local knowledge, or fitness, or character or a combination of all of those, but others (admittedly myself included) were making a subtle statement of intent.

"I'm here, I've done the training, and I'm not just making up the numbers. I'm going to do my turn, and even if I'm not the quickest in the group there's a point I'll be looking to prove somewhere along the way".
Friendly rivalries were starting to be played-out after months of training and it was fun to guess who would be marking who up the bigger climbs to come.

There were others content to sit back in the group. Older, wiser, more experienced? In retrospect, yes. Those with several decades of riding or feats bigger than the one we were undertaking under their belts did not show themselves early that morning, and nor did they need to. These were the riders that I couldn't be so sure about, the ones who had kept their powder dry and may or may not be looking to play some big cards cards later in the week. The games had begun!

But for now, we were finally underway. Spirits were high, the road surface was fast and smooth and our adventure had begun at last.

To be continued...

No comments:

Post a Comment