Thursday, 1 September 2016

Haute Day 5: 7 hours of joy, one hour of pain

Actually from yesterday (Galibier) but the official photos are much better than mine.
Watch the fabulous video of the day here

Day 5 always looked the toughest. It is 4,200 metres of climbing and four ascents. The highlight is the Col de Madelaine, which first appeared in the Tour in 1969 and has featured 25 times since, always as the top “hors categories”. Jan Ullrich won here in 98, the year after his Tour victory, and the last winner was the French Pierre Rolland in 2013.

These are not just mountains. These are places of cycling history. And there are some amazing endurance athletes taking part. There are actually three Haute Route events, each a week long: The Pyrenees, the Alps and the Dolomites.

There are people here who are taking part in all three, with just a single rest day in between for travel. Given that only half the Tour de France stages are in the mountains, but all the Haute Route ones are, this means those folks are on a greater endurance test than the professionals – especially those going fast at the front.

Over breakfast I mention my approach of talking my way to the top. “No”, responds Toby, “for me it’s the solitude of the mountains, thinking my thoughts and going at my own pace”.

We set off with the song “Celebration Time” ringing in our ears, move up a small 500ft climb, the Telegraph, and descend together. As the timing starts, everybody accelerates and long trains of cyclists start to go past. This is basicly the first flat section we have had on our travels. I get on the back of a train and it is exhilarating, carried along at speed, though it does take effort. I notice a speed limit notice of 50kph. I look at my speedo and see we are doing 63.

Yes,w e went up there
We leave the road and start an ascent of seventeen hairpins. Seventeen! It is basicly a road straight up a cliff. I wonder why anybody would build such a thing. In England we would say “just go round it”.

On this ascent, the markers tell you the % gradient of the next kilometre. “Are you kidding me?”, exclaims Mia from Australia, whose wheel I have attached myself to for this climb as we see a 13%. But somehow it doesn’t seem too difficult.

The scenery is again incredible. At one point the road is dug out of a vertical cliff, with a 1000 ft precipice off the edge. And I find myself not talking but taking some time to contemplate. After my odd experience yesterday of becoming a “social media phenomenon” there is a lot to reflect on. 

My gillet (which I need for the cold descents) falls out of my back pocket and my fellow cyclists alert me. I stop and get ready to turn back to get it but then hear that distinctive Australian twang: “Henry, you dozy bastard”. John has picked it up and brings it up to me. My saviour again.

As we rise up the Col de Chaussy I find myself so lost in my thoughts and the splendour of the views, that I’ve lost track of the kilometres. When I see one saying it is just 3km to the top I almost respond “Oh, couldn’t it be more”. Almost, but not quite. But maybe this "solitude of the mountains" stuff has a point.

I get to the top feeling good. But caution myself that I felt great at the first peak, Turino, on Sunday and look what happened then. But the second climb, the mighty Madelaine, feels even better. I am moving past others as I spin, spin, spin. The sun is out but it feels like a gentle English summer, just perfect for cycling.

But a sudden concern is that I forgot to put on sunscreen and will burn badly if I am out all day without it. We pass the race doctor but she has no cream.

On the last km, a 9% ascent, myself and Clayton (an anaesthethist from Vancouver) take turns on each other wheel and then have a race to the summit. I am pipped at the post but it feels great to have the energy to do that.

As we approach the food stop I see a man standing there holding a tube of suncream. It is John. That man comes to my rescue again. How does he do it?

There is a very attractive cafĂ© off to the side. I am 50 minutes ahead of cut-off and do consider it, especially as we are now between timing zones (they often don’t time the descents, to avoid dangerous behaviour). But it would be tempting fate.

The 25 km descent is glorious, down a wooded valley with snow-covered peaks towering above. I find out that Graeme, from St Albans, lived across the road from me for 8 years and we never met. But neither of us were seriously into cycling then.

We now head up a curious route. It isn’t an official col, wasn’t really included in the briefing and has no distance markers. But it turns out to be a 600m climb in the now intense heat. It is a detour that is entirely unnecessary. “The organisers are sadists”, I suggest to Andre (from Brazil) as we cycle on. “That is true”, he agrees “But we are masochists”.

I have now been over 7 hours in the saddle and am running out of energy. I pull into the 4th foodstop, ignore the healthy bananas and and take a couple more of the chocolate snack bars that have become my favourite bite. Strava (the cycling app) tells me I’m using up 5,000 calories on each ride and they need replacing.

“Henry, you should water the flowers”, Toni (from Finland) shouts out as he passes, 6 km from the top. “Pardon?”. “You have two full water bottles and you are almost finished. Empty one, it will slow you down.” I water the flowers.

I mention this to somebody later. “You took two full water bottles on the last ascent”, he responds. “You are mad.” Is this obsessive? I see somebody cleaning their bike and comment on how impressive this is to do in the middle of the week. “Ah, if you clean off the dirt, it is lighter.” Wow. Am I taking this event seriously enough?

I have made it with 15 minutes to cut-off. I feel exhausted and a little sick. Perhaps the 8th chocolate bar was a mistake. Asked by Neil, of the British Omani team, how it went I say “7 hours joy, one hour pain.”

On Sunday afternoon I sat under a tree, devastated and wondering if I would be able to finish any of the stages. As I agreed to pull out for that day, I was in tears. Now I do feel like a man transformed. The last hour was tough but I felt strong through most of this toughest of races.


I wonder what my family will think if I suggest the full three weeks?
Am very excited by this. On the Strava September cycling climbing challenge, after today, I am 6th out of 90,000!! (Yes, I know its only been one day)

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