we are in the second week of July at Serre Chevalier, 5 kilometers from
Briancon and right in the heart of the alps. It's cycling at it's
best, you can tell that from the people that are here. The Marmotte
runs on Saturday, the Luc Alphand on Sunday and the Tour finishes here on
Tuesday. In fact it's due to the former and latter event that our
route is changed to miss out the climb to the top of the Galibier.
As I've done it before I'm not too upset. I know how how hard it is
and how much it hurts!
Get there Saturday, 25 degrees,
sun shining, not a breath of wind. We sign on, get our jersey,
numbers and other goodies and find the start and more importantly the
finish area in case it comes down to a sprint. This knowledge has
helped me on more than one occasion this year. Go to bed overlooking
the mountains and the Luc Alphand ski slope and ski station with not a
cloud in the sky.
Wake up next morning and the
mountain has disappeared. It's throwing it down, it's cold and it's windy.
Looking for a positive, I can't wait for the descents! First,
breakfast. The other riders seem a little quiet, to compensate they
seem to be eating more and talking less. The wives sit there and
offer support by bringing endless cups of coffee.
Dianne's not doing this race as
there isn't a "family" distance. Her plan was to go off and ride the
Lauteret. We decide this isn't wise so it's a morning reading Hello
and OK and catching up the goss on Jordan and Jade. I'd rather ride
a mountain in the rain!
Somehow I get a start number of
152. As we are grouped in pens of 150 I get to start right at the
front. We're neutralised out of Serre Chevaillier to Briancon so I
use this as an opportunity to get to the front. As we pass all the
traffic calming and street furniture it gets a bit tricky so I decide to
plant myself firmly on the left hand edge of the pack, away from the
gutter and barriers.
We exit a roundabout and the
flag drops, the commisaire speeds away and we climb the equivalent of a
motorway exit road. We hit the crest and start the drop into town,
Already there's chaos. A group of riders tangle on the right and
about eight go down. Everyone slams on their brakes and another six
go down in sympathy, nowhere near the first crash.
I'm happy on the left and ease
away from the mayhem without touching my brakes. Then from nowhere a
rider comes rocketing out of the pack on his hands and feet but facing up!
Like someone playing a bizarre game of Twister he slides right in to my
path. From my good old car racing days I put in to plan my escape
My old racing school instructor
use to say, "always aim for the accident, or where it came from, because
by the time you get there it's probably moved. If you try to get out
of the way you get collected". I've had some massive car accidents
that way but I've avoided more than I joined. And once again it
worked. I passed underneath matey just as he stood up. Have no
idea where his bike was but all I could here behind was skidding, sliding
and that horrible noise of bike scraping on tarmac. I think about
twenty went down.
It didn't get any better as we
negotiated the roundabouts of Briancon. At every single one, I think
there were about six, someone was on the floor or heading across the wrong
side of the road. Positioning and delicacy is everything in the wet
and Johnny Foreigner just doesn't get it.
After surviving the first few
intermediate climbs we came to the first real test at L'Argentiere.
A six kilometre Bone Nuit. I felt a little flat but put it down to
the cold and being soaking wet. I thought it would be better to make
sure I stayed hydrated so I drunk loads more than I thought I should.
When it's cold and you're covered up you sweat as much as you do in the
heat. And when you breath out and can see your breath, that's
moisture that is. So drink as though your ride depends on it.
Because it does.
Although I lost about ten
places on the climb I took about forty on the descent. We then
seemed to gather together a large group of about 30 riders and formed a
chain gang to the foot of the Izoard. Predominantly made up of two
groups of Italians. One group all loud and leery, the other, in
national colours, more refined and professional.
Guillestre we turned left off the main road and began the 31 kilometre and
1360 metre climb to the 2360 metre summit. I thought if it's cold
here what's it going to be like at the top? In my heart I knew but I
still wasn't prepared for it! As soon as you leave the main road you
hit a very, very steep climb. It catches everyone by surprise; some
more than others. Three of the leery ey-ties aren't paying attention
and run into the back of one another and end up on the deck. No one
sheds a tear or waits. We climb. After two kilometres it
We're now riding through the Gorge d'Izoard and some very dark tunnels.
It's no use I need a comfort break. Too much fliud, the cold, and
being over forty means you have to stop. It's not like your twenties
when you can go later! I slam a power bar down my throat, take
another drink, pull over to the side of the road and surround my feet with
steam. I get back on the bike and chase the group that's now down to
about twenty. Within a kilometre and a half I'm back on with a full
stomach and an empty bladder.
The real climb starts at the
end of the gorge when you pass the resistance memorial. From now on
it's up, up, up and the talking stops. Our group begins to
disintegrate and I fight to stay near the front. At Chateau Queyrans
I'm joined by two riders. They speak in French and I talk to them
before they realise I'm English and chat even more. We exchange some
pleasantries and expletives, about the weather, have a good laugh for a
kilometre or so then they ride off and stop at the feed.
I decide to crack on and chase
the riders in front. As we climb I begin to feel the lack of oxygen;
either that or I'm knackered. The sun comes out for a bit and all of
a sudden the road begins to steam. Not a little six incher like we
get back home, this is a full blown turkish-bath with steam billowing six
foot off the ground. Riding through it is a right pain because it's
hard enough to breath as it is without having to breath in damp hot air.
Anyway it doesn't last for long and once we pass La Chalp it becomes
It's now 6k to the summit and
from here on it doesn't drop below 9%. As we take a right hairpin I
can see the whole of the valley below and a monstrous snake of riders, as
far as the eye can see, chasing after me. I can also see about
twenty riders in front of me. I focus on them and try to pick them
off one by one. Slowly I reel them in on the horrible paved road
that's been beaten up by the freezing winters and boiling summers.
Then it changes to a billiard smooth roadway.
Someone, somewhere has decided
to resurface the Casse Desert. You can not imagine how much pleasure
this brings. A smooth road. it's soon tempered by the fact
that the temperature has just dropped by about five degrees. Now it
really is freezing. There are 500 metres of slight descent before
the two kilometre, 10% push to the summit. Again I pass eight or
nine riders on the tiny descent and make up time. It's very dark,
you can see the car, in the photo above, with it's lights on, and very
cold. I ride past the Bobet & Coppi Memorial and can't feel my feet.
The break in climbing appears to disrupt some of the other riders rhythm.
I pick another six off before the top.
Boy is it cold here. I
have to stop for water and where the marshals are pouring it out it's
freezing on the road into sheet ice. Kids are there with broom
handles smashing it up and brushing it away. It's the middle of
July! I'm stopped for no more than 30 seconds then start the descent
past the Refuge Napoleon, below, and through the Forest d'Cerviers.
just when you thought it couldn't get any worse the north side of the
mountain is covered in fog. The first five or six corners are real
humdingers (as you can see on the right) but it's so cold I can't steer
properly or get the front to bite. I take a deep breath, compose
myself and get a grip. Once I enter the forest it all comes together
and the fun begins.
If you want a rush, there's
only one thing better then descending a mountain and that's descending in
the wet. Even better than that is descending in the wet in fog.
At one point I managed 52 mph in the airy silence you only get in fog.
Passing riders who, all of a sudden, appear from nowhere. By the
time I'd descended the 20 k to the bottom I was absolutely frozen but
managed to warm up on the run in to Briancon.
I push as hard as I can to the
finish to try to stay ahead of a largish group that was chasing me.
In the last 5k a group of three broke from them and passed me just as we
went past the site of the first crash. I stayed with them on the run
in but got dropped on the last climb inside one-k. I crossed the
line alone, In 4 hours 34 minutes, the 48th rider across the line.
However, towards the end I was nudged back to 57th. Once more
another gold medal ride for my age group and scratch. I was cold but
happy with my ride
Oh yes, the rider I was
chatting with on the climb? Non-other than Luc Alphand himself.
When I got to the finish his photo was everywhere!