The Power of 3

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Mid day Friday May 16th, a small car park just on the outskirts of Luz St Sauveur – French Pyrenees. Emerging relieved from some nearby bushes I pulled on my Procycling jersey and turned to Mike the camera “ It is a good day to die Mike!” I stated with a demented grin, somewhat bemused Mike continued about his work.

I was about to set off on a mission that I had truly hoped would be aborted, and to make a start on one day that I was certainly not looking forward to. You see, I’d been quite ill for a while – and was now live in Luz with an infected wisdom tooth and ear infection, plus with 3 kilos of excess weight and no training for several weeks to aid matters. Just a few weeks before I’d met up with the Procycling editor and office staff, who figured it would be a great idea for me to ride out all the Tour de France mountain stage finishes – within 24 hours. Now that sounds tough enough as it is, especially when you consider that two are in the Pyrenees and the other is around 1000 kilometres away in the Alps. Umm, I figured they were joking, so played along with the idea. But what had started out as a potential joke turned into a no way back commitment. No matter how much I pleaded the guys were set on me doing this. I figure they were taking bets back in the office, and the deal was on.

Just 3 days before I’d set out for a ride, and turned back after just 4 miles. I was in pain, serious pain – but the flights were booked. A last minute visit to the dentists and the addition of a mountain bike cassette to my bike and I was on my way to the slaughter.

I’d not met Mike before, and he seemed like a sober kind of guy, which would certainly help keep me in tow and off the bad stuff for the trip. Little did I know that Mike has the ability to consume more alcohol than an entire rugby supporters club. So, things kinda went astray from the off, and now here we were hung over and facing the start of what was going to be a very long day out!

Looking on the plus side it was at least sunny, though that was of little comfort right then. Hitting the steep and tree lined opening slopes of Luz I’d all but switched off mentally, which I kind of tend to do in these situations - auto pilot. After such a lay off and all the nasties in my system I really did not know what to expect, and had a feeling that this whole thing may not come together. The plan was to regulate things and stay at a steady pace for the whole way – and to take it easy.

For a while it was a real grunt – but I had expected this. The first day or two in the mountains are always tough, and riding straight up from a cold start was never going to be easy. Luckily the mountain was deserted, so I was able to settle into a nice rhythm and put my mind in a box for a while. It was turning out a whole lot steeper than I’d anticipated, but the real pain took the form of the kilometre count down signs, they play hell with your mind, and you end up doing mathematical calculations all day, trying to bring the summit closer. After half way though that pressure does ease off some.

Meanwhile Mike was driving ahead and taking snaps; “Do you need anything?” he chanted sympathetically. “A dirty woman and a couple of bottles of wine!” Came the answer, an answer he was to hear many times during the next 24 hours, and a wish that was not to be fully out of the equation by the end of the trip.

Climbing high above the trees and the whole vista opened up. The ski station was way above me, a wide-open and scary sight. The road weaved its way high and steeply along this great green basin. I did not want to look at it or think about it; “Look, it’s only just up there.” Uttered Mike as I passed by “FXXCYH off.” I chuntered politely to myself. I wasn’t feeling too bad at all, but then I glanced back to catch the sight of a couple of riders on a stretch down bellow. At this moment pride took over, and the gears crunched up some. Those last three kilometres were ridden at a far more respectable speed – and the gap was duly opened.

One down and two to go; It was chilly and deserted on top of the mountain, but I was feeling a whole lot more confident than earlier that day. It was time to head south, direction Aix Les Thermes. In need of something to eat and a warm drink we hit a restaurant in the valley floor. Some 20 minutes later and I was getting nervous – time was tight, and we hadn’t even been served, we moved on to another café, and another 20 minutes later gave up the quest and drove off on empty stomachs.

With time being of a premium here they had sent Mike along to take the pics, as he is well known for his fast driving, umm. The auooroute was twisty, to say the least. The idea was that I would try and sleep some between the cols. But with the speedo topping out at 220kph that was not going to happen. As I gripped the seat firmly my pulse was racing higher than it had on the mountain. Briefly I managed to cool the pace, but by the time we reached the back roads I realised we were behind schedule, so I just swallowed hard and tried not to watch the wet and slippery road ahead.

Dark threatening clouds swirled low above Aix as the rain poured down as the mist swirled eerily around the surrounding mountains, though it was a relief to get out of the car! This was the baby of the three cols, and I wasn’t too worried about it, but to say the least the rain was damping my enthusiasm.

How wrong could I possibly be? This was another climb with kilometre countdown signs, and I was not on autopilot – so I noticed each and every one of them. I kept equating it to how far from home I would be on a ride. But it didn’t help much. Now I was suffering, and this was one steep bitch of a climb – and totally underestimated. “ You okay?” Enquired Mike from the roadside. There were no words this time – just a daggered look. “Can I get you anything?” warranted a familiar response.

This one was so dark and grim that Mike had gone well ahead, leaving me to suffer in the rain alone. I was suffering like a pig, and running real empty. The kilometres were not passing by so well at all. A huge three-lane hairpinned bend lay ahead, but a car was right on my arse, forcing me to take the long way around. I cursed those extra metres and that car all of the way to the top – which was a long way off. That was tough. The only way the average gradient is listed so low is because of a fairly long downhill section mid way up.

Back in a bar in Aix we downed a quick coffee, and a beautiful girl walked in. Oh how I wanted to stay in that bar, we could always leave here around 2am? No, as much as it hurt I yawned and set off on the section I was least looking forward too – Le long drive to the Alps.

I was now getting seriously tiered and hungry. We didn’t know exactly how far we had to go, or how long it would take. Driving in such a tiered state is not particularly nice, but we had a deadline to meet. It was dark and wet, and we had a long twisty section ahead of us. I elected to take the first drive, I felt safer that way. Even so we didn’t drop bellow 160kph all the way – and then 180kph minimum for the entire autoroute section – we were not passed by another car on the whole trip.

Now we had another kind of deadline to meet; finding food and beds for the night. This may sound easy enough – but you try getting fed in France after 9pm, it ain’t easy. After much calculation and a motorway baguette we elected to drive as fast as we could until 10pm, and then to get off at a sizeable town and look for a hotel. This late check in would mean we’d need a place with reception so as to be able to check in (unusual after 10pm). If the town was be enough we may be able to find a Chinese restaurant – which would be open later, otherwise it would be a car seat and another motorway baguette.

It was 10.15pm when we screeched off the motorway at Valence, and found an oasis in the form of an Ibis hotel – with an open restaurant – oh what joy. My heart rate eased and we sunk in to a meal and a celebratory bottle of wine. And that’s when the plan went pear shaped. One bottle turned in to two – and that was just for me. Mike had downed close on a barrel of beer and our decent nights sleep was fast evaporating through the bottom of a frothy glass. I’m not sure what time it was, but it certainly seemed like time to hit the hotel bar. Several “just one mores” later and I turned to see a young French lady at the bar next to me. She was friendly, but as mad as French cheese. Sensing fun I sent Mike off for his cameras, by the time he had returned I’d been pounced on.

A hotel corridor, 3.30 am – we’d decided that it would be a good idea for me to ride naked through the hotel, ohhh dear! Same hotel corridor, 7.30am and it was time to skip town. I was not feeling very Olympic, and the hotel had CCTV. Breakfast was a giggly and embarrassed affair. Me, I didn’t eat – we were on schedule, and for the whole trip all I’d wanted was a pain au raisin, and this was the day that I was going to get one – in Bourg d’Oisans.

Leaving the hotel Mike exited via the entry went over the central reservation and through two sets of red lights. I looked across with a concerned look and just hoped the day would improve a little. We were about on schedule when we arrived in Grenoble, but a couple of wrong terms put is into half an hours worth of deficit time, the pressure was on –and my pain au raisin would have to wait. It was a rather grim morning as we headed into the rain and clouds around the mighty Alpe. All along the route we passed cyclo tourists and racers, heading for the great climb. I did not like this; I was in such a state that I was going to be passed by cyclo tourists, and maybe even worse. The air was tense, and I was about to face the hardest of them all – and with a whole heap of handicaps – many self imposed.

“It’s good to have some bad weather for the pics.” Uttered mike as I set out to conquer the last, and the biggest of the climbs.  You can guess what my reply was!

We were now on a tight schedule, it was 10.30 am – so that meant there was no longer room for error, the clock at the top of Alpe d’Huez was ticking rapidly towards our mid day cut off time. I knew that the first couple of kilometres were going to be tough, and I wasn’t wrong. It was going to be another no brainer auto pilot job – providing I could get through those first few kilometres.

Somewhere inside the first kilometre the evil countdown signs commence. Here they count down the bends – all 21 of them. I’d decided not to take any notice of them, and to keep my head down and my pace steady, even if it meant that a cyclo tourist might catch me!  Those first few kilometres were really steep and relentless. I could not help but count down the signs, and start calculating things again. I figured at this pace I would have maybe 15 minutes in hand, for emergencies.

At kilometre six I was beginning to suffer. All I could think about was pain au raisin and a missed breakfast, so that was added to the list when Mike asked as to my well being; “Well, you did get your first wish!” came the response. I knew there were a couple of villages on the way up, which may break things up mentally. Approaching the first village I noticed someone down bellow me. I was not going to be bated into a response. The guy all but sprinted past – he was on a full on Lance bike and definitely on a mission – though seemingly he only went half way up. For a short while I pegged him, just to see. Umm, I could do it, but I was blowing, and could not afford to screw up.

The temptation was there to ask for food from Mike, but I was now determined not to. From here the road opens up – and I knew what Mike was going to say, and I really did not want to hear it; “Look, it’s just up there!” It looked to be so close, but I knew it was a good 4km away, 4 steep, open, foodless and airless kilometres away. Thankfully I was coming around a little, probably inspired by the fact that we were almost done.

Those last kilometres were not so bad at all and I could smell the pain au raisin ahead of me. Just over an hour after setting out I entered the resort, and ten minutes later I was high above the resort and still looking for a clock and some pain au raisin. But the whole place was like one wet and windy ghost town – completely deserted of pain au raisin, and desperately lacking clocks – but the job was done, and in some kind of typical bad boy style, magic!

How we did it

Starting with a long dawn drive to the airport I met up with Mike for an over delayed Ryanair flight from London Stanstead to Pau. From here we hired a car and set off to find a bed for the night – which we did in Argeles Gazost.  The following morning we see off for Luz Ardiden. After starting from the foot of the climb at mid day I climbed to the summit before taking on a mad high speed drive out of and around the Pyrenees to reach Aix Les Thermes during the rainy early evening. After shivering back into the car we took a near none stop drive along the French coast and then northwards to Valence, where at 10.15pm we found respite in the shape of an Ibis hotel with an open restaurant – and err bar.

Early the next morning we drove to Grenoble then on to the foot of Alpe d’Huez. At 11.40am I reached the summit of the final mountain, job done. From here we descended to Bourg d’Oisans for a bite to eat before tanking it back up the autoroute to catch a return flight from St Etienne to Stanstead. After a four-hour drive home I hit the Indian takeaway at 11.30pm that night.

The 24 hour tally

Here’s a brief idea of what we got through during the 24-hour challenge period;

1300 road kilometres

3 mountain passes by bike

3 hours sleep - each

6 bottles of mineral water

3 bottles of wine

12 beers

12 coffees

3 motorway baguettes

2 good meals

2 roadside snacks

1 basic breakfast

6 antibiotic tablets

12 ibuprofen pain killers

For this trip I rode a Merlin XLC Compact road bike with a mountain bike rear block on board (just in case). On the road I used the same Procycling knickers, socks and jersey for every climb – and also used 2 different Karrimor under vests.

The preparation period

After a long drawn out bout of flu during March I managed to contract Giardia on a trip to Africa. This is a rather debilitating and nasty bug to have on board. It left me grounded for 4 weeks and on a course of rather unpleasant antibiotics. Just as the bike came back out of the garage (about a week before the trip) my wisdom tooth flared up, infecting my ear and throat in with the deal. Add to this a trapped nerve in my neck, which gave me terrible pains in the back of my head and I had only averaged about 3 hours a night sleep during the week before the trip, and was unpleasantly re-dosed up on strong pain killers and antibiotics. Other than that my preparations went well – and consisted of watching a Tour video late the night before departure and two days off the alcohol.

The full monty

I tend to write things pretty much as they are. Which isn’t always as pretty as some readers may like it to be – but it is real, and I figure that real is far more interesting than the perfect and idealistic sanitised stuff that you often get elsewhere. I was asked to write this one uncut, and it is – as much as was possible that is. So I’ll apologise in advance to those who may be offended – but this is the way it is. So, for this month and one-month only we’re going for the “full monty” (almost)!

The three cols

Luz Ardiden

Altitude 1715m

Distance 13.4km

Gradient 7.6%

Start point Luz St Sauveur 711m

History; Luz Ardiden is one of the Tours most feared climbs. The last time a stage finished here was in 2001 when Roberto Laiseka took the victory ahead of Lance Armstrong who obliterated his rivals on these slopes and took over the yellow jersey from Francois Simon.

Plateau de Bonascre

Altitude 1373m

Distance 9.1km

Gradient 7.2%

Start point Aix Les Thermes 720m

History; the race has finished here several times, and although it’s not the most famous of climbs it has seen it’s fair share of action over the years. In 2001 Colombian Felix Cardednas held on to win here. Behind him a fast moving Lance Armstrong left his rivals behind to close in on the yellow jersey of Francois Simon.

Alpe d’Huez

Altitude 1850m

Gradient 8%

Distance 14.1km

Start point Bourg d’Oisans 730m

History; the Alpe has to be the most famous and most feared of all tour mountains. Winning here is the ultimate for any tour rider, and most of the great champions have triumphed here – including Lance Armstrong who took the honours back in 2001. The record for the climb stands at just under 40 minutes – to a certain Mr Pantani. The climb is also well remembered for the “photographer” incident a few years back, when Stefano Guerrini was knocked off in the closing kilometre on his way to victory.

The Alpe is also known as the “Dutch Mountain” as so many Dutch riders have won here.