Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Alps - Part 5

I was already awake when the alarm went off, and had been for much of the night. The room had been a little warm with the heating on, and the stream outside the window had been noisy, but neither had been a problem for Tim or Nigel, and would not have been for me ordinarily. I'm still not sure what caused it, but my body had been a raging furnace of heat and energy all night, with my mind racing from one thought to another. One second I would be thinking through the big day ahead, over the Iseran and up the Telegraphe, the next I would be worrying that lack of sleep would leave me tired and unprepared. And the more I worried, the further from sleep I travelled. I did drift off a few times, but don't think I got much more than 3 hours kip in total.

Looking back I suspect my unrest was caused by a combination of large quantities of protein and lots of strong French coffee consumed over the first couple of days, along with my body shifting its metabolism to deal with the efforts we had been exerting. Our lead courier Eddie had told us that it is possible to over-eat on this kind of a trip, and I knew I was consuming a lot more caffeine than usual, so decided to regulate both a little tighter for the remainder of the week - and that worked well.

Our rooms had been in a granite apartment block across the road from the main hotel, and we emerged to a grey and damp morning once dressed. The rough night had nullified my appetite, but I knew I had to eat a substantial breakfast, even though I was intending to stop short of the amount I had crammed in the previous two days. I eschewed the ham and cheese on offer (practically a crime in France), but stuck with a good portion of cereal, pastries and yoghurt, along with coffee and juice. The caffeine took the worst edge off the sleep deprivation and helped me get through the meal, but I was far from feeling full of enthusiasm.

Once dressed and packed, we headed to the lock-up where the bikes had been stored over night. The cool, damp conditions meant that we could wear the winter kit that the altitude ahead would demand, the Iseran being the highest road pass in the Alps, so we didn't need to worry too much about stuffing extra clothing into jersey pockets. Our couriers had been pushing the slower riders in the group to leave earlier in the mornings, and after rest stops, though the temptation to stay and chat had meant that some of them had barely a few hundred meters on us at some starts, which had led to long waits for the group to re-form in places. This morning though, the gravity of the mighty Iseran in mind, people set out dutifully, buying themselves as much time as possible. After these front-runners, my riding peers departed en-masse, Nigel, Robin, Gary, Chris, Justin and Paul all heading up the road together. Tim however, was having tyre issues, so I opted to stay back a minute or two to help him out with his bike. A split had appeared in one of his tyres the previous day, and he had been running on a worn spare. The state of it led him to the decision that a newer tyre with a repair was safer, so ensued much faff, trimming a tyre boot to the correct shape and size and trying to keep it in the right position through fitting and inflating. Eventually we were successful in swapping out the tyre, and rolled up the road about 15 minutes behind everyone else.

If I am being honest, I stayed behind because I was procrastinating. Breakfast had helped a little, but I still felt tired, hollow and ill-equipped even for cycle commute, let alone a ride up one of Europe's highest roads.

We stayed together for the first mile or so, as the road rose gently to the hairpin at Pont St Charles, but even that was a struggle for me to hold Tim's wheel. Under ordinary circumstances there would be nothing to choose between us on such a shallow gradient, but with my fragile state and Tim's keenness to make up ground on the rest of the group, we were oceans apart. The winter clothing and hard effort meant I was beginning to overheat, so I eased off and let Tim ride off into the distance, my body welcoming the lesser pace. This time the decision to take things easier was an enforced one, knowing that pushing hard when feeling empty was a recipe for disaster. I told myself that I would strike a rhythm and catch and pass some of the slower riders, but deep down I wasn't so sure. They had set out well ahead of the main group that morning, and we had been a long way behind. But I was able to comfort myself with the fact that I would not be left behind by our couriers, their strict discipline of accounting for everyone meant that someone would be waiting before long.

Tim looking a little apprehensive on the Iseran
Photo courtesy of Cycle-High

I kept climbing as the road weaved up the valley side, the view to the right back over the resort we'd come from. I sighted and then slowly caught and passed two touring cyclists from Scotland, both laden down with panniers and spinning a tiny gear. One was riding a Genesis like me, so we exchanged a few words, though his machine was far more utilitarian with wide tyres, disk brakes and a hub gear. Given the mechanical and weight advantage I should have hauled past them at a far higher rate of knots than I did, though I still had neither the will nor the means to do this ascent any kind of justice.

Higher I went, expecting to see to see either one of the slower members of the group, or one of the vans up ahead, but the view I got indicated that the road in front was empty. This didn't help morale but there was a job to be done, so I kept my discipline, churning a steady pace and making sure I took a mouthful of carbohydrate drink at least once per kilometer. After a while I felt the need to eat, but was unable to open the energy bar in my pocket with my winter gloves on, so pulled over for a rare breather. I took the opportunity to take a photo of the town below, before continuing to grind on.

The view down to Val d'Isere

It seemed like an age before I saw anyone, before eventually rounding a bend to find Eddie and his silver van up ahead. I was used to seeing our couriers much more frequently on the climbs, and I suspect that if there had been slower members of the group on the road with me I would have done so, but they probably had me pegged as one of the protagonists that required less support, and ordinarily they would have been right. I was still struggling a little physically, but just seeing someone helped a lot from a mental perspective. I don't think I actually needed anything from the van, indeed I had been tempted to remove a layer as I was still hot, though glimpses of patchy snow on the slopes above me warned against it.

Putting a brave face on it
Photo courtesy of Cycle-High

I struck out on my own again a little happier, as Eddie accelerated on past up to the summit. He'd said that I was 10 minutes or so behind the last of the other riders, and though I had hoped to have caught some of the group by now, I wasn't altogether surprised given my shabby state and the 30 or 40 minute start that some people had taken.

The snow patches started to appear on the upper middle section, amidst the switchbacks and steep drops, and at one point I winched my way past a Marmot that was perched upon a boulder next to the road. I was surprised to see that some of its fur had yellow tinges amidst the grey, though this matched the lichen on the rocks perfectly, helping to hide it from whatever it is that eats marmots - eagles I'd guess.

Either I was tiring again, or the road steepened for the final 3 or 4km, and the enthusiasm I had garnered from seeing Eddie earlier had evaporated. The kilometer markers gave me cold comfort, telling me simultaneously that I had completed most of the climb, but that there was still 20-odd minutes of pain to endure. Eventually I swung right into a view of the final couple of kilometers to the col, and could make out distant specks of a couple of people still riding. I was really feeling the pain, but shoved some more energy bar down my neck, took a big swig of carbohydrate drink and gritted my teeth for the final grind to the summit. It hurt all the way, I was getting damp from both sweat and drizzle, and I never did catch anyone.

Chris, Robin & Ruben wrapped-up against the cold
Photo courtesy of Nigel Mosley

Richard, Gareth & Robin looking a lot happier than I did up there
Photo courtesy of Cycle-High

I really don't want to be here...

Once at the top I got cold very quickly. I put on a brave face for a couple of photos, zipped everything up and set about the descent to Bonneval-sur-Arc. I had been last to the top, last away from the top, but there was no way I was going to take a second longer than necessary to get to the bottom. It wasn't about enjoyment or proving any points that morning, it was about survival. I was shivering and a little worried about hypothermia, so took a decision to push the limits on the damp, greasy roads to get to the warmth of the coffee stop as quickly as humanly possible. With any luck I'd get a decent adrenaline hit to help keep me focussed and the fear at bay too. This was the last place you'd want to get the fear. In different circumstances this could have been the best descent of the week - long, smooth, sinuous and once again through picturesque surroundings, but in the event it was grim task to remain focussed on.

I caught and passed most of the riders in our group on the upper slopes, the majority of people dropping safely and steadily to the foot of the mountain. The first few bends saw my tyres drifting more than once, but taught me everything I needed to know about the limits of the grip on offer to my tyres. Those bends also gave me that hit of adrenaline I'd been banking on.

Our second courier Mike had left the col in his van at the same time as I. He'd spoken of some previous rallying experience, and did his best to stick with me, his aim being to arrive at Bonneval before everyone in order to signal the whereabouts of the cafe. On the straights he had the obvious advantage of a sizeable turbo diesel engine and would get close, but through the bends I was able to maintain far more speed and open up a big gap. I probably should have slowed and let him pass, but I'd started to enjoy this descent in a perverse kind of way, and it was fun to keep pushing.
I had stopped shivering shortly after leaving the col, but my damp gloves had kept my hands cold and they quickly tired with the frequent hard braking. I tried to counter this by accelerating less out of the bends in a bid to have to brake less for the next one. The upper slopes were steep however, and this made little difference, though the lower I got, the more effective this tactic became.

Paul negotiating the greasy descent of the Iseran
Photo courtesy of Nigel Mosley

At Le Ruisseau de la Lenta the mountain streams converge to a river and there is a semblance of a meadow or a flood-plain. Here the steepest of the roads are left behind. From above I had spotted a flock of sheep moving toward the road, and sure enough they were blocking my path by the time I got there. I pulled to a stop, Mike doing the same in his minibus shortly behind. I slowly moved through, shouting and gesticulating to shoo the beasts away, the van following with a flashing of lights and blasts of the horn. As the road had shallowed considerably, I pulled hard to the right and waved Mike on through and down on to Bonneval.

On the tamer, shallower lower slopes the adrenaline faded and I began to shiver again, my legs now feeling weak, all energy drained. But I knew that our rest stop was getting close so dug deep and tried to maintain a smooth and still relatively quick pace to Bonneval itself. Upon arrival I saw Mike's van, but Eddie had described the location of the cafe to me back at the col, and it didn't match. Sure enough I continued on sweeping down to the right and found Tim in a car park, the only person to have beaten me to the bottom. He had been waiting only a minute or so, and agreed with me that this was the right place, so leaned the bikes up and hurried inside.

It was a fairly big place that hadn't really warmed up for the day - not helped by the fact that a gale blew in every time someone opened the door. I had a big craving for crisps, planning to eat several packets to quickly take on much needed carbs and replace salts I had sweated out, but to my astonishment they had no savoury snack food at all. I made-do with a large hot chocolate, a Twix and a bag of peanut M&Ms which helped refuel me a little, but I was still cold and shivering quite badly.

As everyone arrived over the next quarter of an hour I moved to a seat further from the cold doorway, but still struggled to get any warmth, so decided to raid my day-bag for a dry change of clothing. Peeling those damp layers off in a cold and drizzly car park was horrible, but as soon a I put the fresh clothes on I began to retain some warmth. The group decided to depart whilst I was mid-change, so I hurried into the last of my layers, hung my wet gear up on the makeshift washing line I'd strung-up inside the larger of the two vans, and pedalled out in pursuit. I still felt far from strong, but knew that the road ahead had very little in the way of climbing, our lunch stop in Modane sitting down the valley and vertically below us. I put my head down, found a quick rhythm and within a few minutes had the group reeled-in.

The drizzle had stopped, and the road gradually dried as we continued straight down the main valley road. After a while we passed Mike who was offering bananas from the roadside. I grabbed one and scoffed it down hungrily, as soon as it hit my stomach I felt slightly better again. This was one of the rare periods where we had all been riding as a single group, though my feelings of stewardship and care toward the group that I'd felt on the first morning had long since evaporated. This was still self-preservation. Over a small rise the group fractured, and the smooth flowing couple of bends of the descent were too tempting to warrant slowing for anyone. The quicker 8 or 10 of us, myself included, continued down the road while the remainder followed.

A few miles further still we saw a spectacular Napoleonic fort above us to the right. By now it was getting quite warm and the time had come to start removing clothes again. Once again I was last away from this stop, picking up Chris's winter gloves that he had accidentally left on the wall, though by now I had started to get my legs back and caught everyone as we entered Modane.

Napoleonic hill fort above Modane

The pizza restaurant that Eddie had booked us into didn't seem very pleased to see us, concocting a story about being full so that we would have to sit outside (there were approximately 4 people in there), so we opted for a more basic pizza takeaway several doors down. It took a long time for them to get through everyone's orders, and typically mine came in the last batch, but when it arrived it was heaven-sent. I'd gone for a large pizza with tuna, olives and capers, and savoured every mouthful. After the morning's experience I could have devoured every last crumb, but felt satisfied enough at three quarters to stop, not wanting to be too laden down for the afternoon's assault of the Col du Telegraphe. We settled-up and procured a few takeaway boxes for our leftovers.

Out of Modane it was a question of continuing down the valley road for a few more kilometers to St Martin d'Arc, before branching left to begin our climb. Spirits had been buoyed by the appearance of the sun and food in our bellies, and there had been some bullish revving of legs and jostling for position as we had swept on down. With my recovery continuing well I'd remained with the front few, with the exception of Tim who's sprinted off ahead to grab some photos.

The Telegraphe is very well known in cycling circles, featuring regularly in Le Tour, though generally because it forms part of a brutal pairing with its big brother, the Galibier. That pleasure was reserved for tomorrow however, so we were ascending only the Telegraphe that afternoon. As a climb in itself it is by no means a pushover, though the road and scenery are good and no sections are ridiculously steep.

Once on the climb everyone's bullishness subdued a little, with the exception of Russ. He powered up the first kilometer with only Tim, Robin and Nigel matching his pace. I followed for a short distance but as the road became more wooded it steepened, and once again I called time on my antics, my heartrate drifting too high. I felt remarkably good, but knew how tough I'd found things that morning so eased back and watched my trio of friends putting in a fair effort to track a rider around two decades their senior.

I took it easy for a while, enjoying the warmer air and watched many of the group roll gradually past me. After another couple of kilometers I decided that I was being too cautious and upped the effort a little. The Telegraphe is another classic alpine zig-zag type of climb, lower down at least, a hundred metres or so of straight road separating each hairpin. After a while I spotted Paul up the road, and gradually reeled him in. After passing I kept a measured tempo, and with Paul staying glued to my rear wheel I realised that games were afoot in his rivalry with Justin. We continued for another five minutes or so, and sure enough there was a glimpse of Justin's figure up ahead. The next 20 minutes was a subtle game of cat-and-mouse. At some point Justin must have clocked that Paul was using my wheel to pace himself up the mountain, as he pulled further ahead several times. I was still feeling good, and could have put the hammer down to catch him more quickly, but was enjoying the current pace and thought it was sporting to support Paul's tactical nous - and it was nice to climb with company for a change. After what seemed like an age we reached Justin's wheel on an open bend around 6km from the summit. I left the two of them to fight it out and gradually pulled on ahead. I was still feeling good, and knew I could afford to risk pushing a little harder with comparatively little climbing left to do.

Next I sighted Richard, and was able to close the gap to him rapidly. He and Tim were the only riders on the trip to be running a full size double chainset, and he rode strongly most of the week - although this was evidently not his best afternoon. He and his friend Gareth were very closely matched for ability, the two were usually to be found within a few bike lengths of one another, but Gareth was nowhere to be seen.

With about 4 1/2 km left to go, the tell-tale purple jersey of Russ came into view. I had wondered how far he would get with the electric pace he started the climb at, and I'd mused over whether he'd been sandbagging earlier in the week, the veteran of the group now exploding into action and teaching all of us young whippersnappers a lesson. Sadly it wasn't to be. I could see he was tired, his shoulders rocking slightly with the effort, but as I drew closer could see that his slick cadence hadn't deserted him - he wasn't pedalling squares yet.

Once past the road was quiet. No targets to chase down, just a couple of miles of smooth tarmac winding upward through the trees. By this point the switchbacks had disappeared, the road weaving left and right, hugging the face of the mountain for the final stretch to the col. I still felt good, and squeezed the effort up a notch again. I started to feel a tingle of lactic acid in my hamstrings, but knew that I could carry this through this to the top. The anaerobic burn in turn triggered endorphins and adrenaline, and I spurred myself on more. I was racing nobody but myself, an utterly pointless exercise given the easy pace I'd covered the lower slopes at - I wasn't going to set any records - but I felt that I owed myself a strong finish to the day after the shocking morning performance.

Into the last kilometer, and I saw a flash of black and yellow up ahead - it was Gareth. He was only a hundred yards or so away, but looked to be moving well so I was going to have to be fast to catch him. Up another notch I went, but he'd spotted me and responded. At 800m he was holding the gap and my legs were aflame, but was able to keep my pace as he ever so slightly slowed. At 500m I knew I was moving in but still had doubts whether I would catch him, though at 200 it was a done deal - I was up out of the saddle, romping toward the top, and passed him with about 150m to go.

At the col there were a few surprised faces. After the Iseran I think some people had assumed I'd be quite a while, but was only 3 minutes down on Tim, and 6 behind Robin who had taken this summit. Gareth rolled in a few seconds after me, followed by Justin about another minute down, himself just a few seconds ahead of Paul.

One feature of the first few days of the trip was sculptures made of straw by the roadside. It seemed that various towns and villages were competing with one another in a contest to see who could construct the most impressive. At the top of the Telegraphe was the winner of this contest - a large and spectacular dragon overlooking the roadside, poised to bite the heads off passing cyclists. 

The dragon on the Telegraphe, sizing Russ up as a snack

The beast in all his glory
Photo courtesy of Nigel Mosley

Time had ticked on whilst we waited for everyone to arrive at the top, and the late afternoon air was getting chilly. I enjoyed the descent to Valloire although it was short in comparison with most we encountered. Passing through Valloire itself, there wasn't a huge amount going on but it gave the impression of a nice place to visit - a mental note made for another time. Our hotel lay a couple of kilometers out the other side, on the road to the Galibier. Remarkably I still had power to burn, so stomped up the steady slope, but was relieved when we finally made our destination.

Although the decor was ageing slightly, this was a nice hotel - you could tell that good money had been spent on the installations, albeit a while ago. The rooms were spacious with balconies, once again I was with Nigel, a twin double this time. I collected my things from the van, lugged them up the stairs and homed straight in on the box containing the pizza slices left over from lunchtime. I hadn't realised how hungry I was, but devoured the contents quickly - almost too quickly, nearly cracking my tooth on an olive stone in my haste.

A shower and a protein shake later I felt more human, and went through some stretches before heading down to the bar for a couple of beers and the obligatory peanuts that get served alongside. I remember enjoying my dinner, but have no recollection of what it was - I was as tired as I have ever been that night. It had been a day where I'd experienced freezing temperatures and warm sun, felt physically and emotionally depleted, followed by strong ride up the Telegraphe and the elation that came with that. I had no time to mull this over as I lay in bed however, because as soon as my head hit the pillow I was asleep.

To be continued...

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