Here’s the story of our week in the Alps, a chance to prove that even at 50 I could still conquer a clutch of iconic Tour de France climbs and live to tell the tale...
I called it the 5@50. It sounded rather snappy, the sort of title I could slap on a t-shirt and turn into fashionable Instagram posts. It was mid-summer and I was looking squarely down the barrel of the big Five O. I’m not a big one for parties (my wife calls me the ‘island’) but I really wanted to mark this milestone with something memorable.
Fifty isn’t old these days but it still feels like one of life’s watershed moments: mortgage companies laugh at you; you’re twice the age of your son’s cool teacher; and every time you look in a mirror you see your dad staring back at you. As a cyclist you’re now a proper Mamil.
To mark the occasion I hatched a little plan - fly to France and cycle up five Tour de France Cols in five days - one for every decade I'd spent on the planet. It would be a proper challenge, but not an impossible one. And so I set about gathering a two-wheeled posse to join me.
Now, Cyprus is actually closer to Aleppo than Alpe d'Huez, so distance and dosh were going to be an issue for the guys I ride with here. In the end it became a Brit trip - my brother Tim; and two good friends Steve and Andy stumped up the deposit and committed to come along. It was on.
This was November. The trip was set for early June, a week after the Dauphiné, and a month before the Tour de France. Over the next six months or so we all trained hard. On reflection I got stuck in a bit too early, stacking up hours on TrainerRoad before Christmas had arrived. I even did a session on Christmas Day itself. Properly sad.
My brother - a time-served cyclist - left it until February and only really trained on Zwift. He also dropped a whole chunk of weight, fasting his way from 75kg to a skinny 65kg. Steve is small and light - an ex Royal Navy submariner - and naturally very fit, a proper mountain goat. Andy is around my size (+/- 80kg) but has a great engine. Before long we were comparing FTPs on WhatsApp and our times on Alpe du Zwift. This was going to be brilliant.
We decided to stay in a ski resort called La Grave halfway up the Lautaret. Andy and Tim had camped there before and it was a stones throw (relatively) from a clutch of Tour climbs dotted along the Maurienne Valley.
Steve and I flew into Lyon (he having bought a pink coloured bike box that resembled an adult sized Trunki) while Tim and Andy drove down from Blighty. A couple of hours in the hire car and we were up in the mountains. Happily ensconced in our hotel (great place, complete with its own cycle workshop) we prepared the bikes for what awaited.
Pulling back the curtains that first morning it felt like being a kid on Christmas Day. Before us a vast playground of brutal climbs and staggering scenery. Steve and I rode the Marmotte in 2015 but this was going to be a different ball game. None of us had ever ridden this many big days back-to-back. I'd used Simon Warren's 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs of the Tour de France to plan our rides. I wanted to make sure we hit the big ones, but there was also the logistical challenge of actually getting to and from them.
For me, nowadays acclimatised to the climate of Cyprus, the other issue was the weather (but more of that in a moment). So with bikes assembled, GoPros attached, and plenty of faffing over, we headed down the valley towards our warm up climb…
DAY 1 - LACETS DE MONTVERNIER & COL DU CHAUSSY (70KM, 1356M)
It's not long or even that steep but this is one of the most beautiful climbs on the planet. The Lacets - shoelaces in French - took six years to build and was finished in 1934. This is what the French call a balcony road, winding its way vertically 400m up the cliff face from Pontamafrey in the Maurienne Valley to the village of Montvernier. There's 18 hairpins, but they come so fast you feel like you're on an upwards helter skelter.
We'd intended this to be a gentle loosener, but after a long descent from La Grave we were itching to dive in. Steve (we later discovered) thought we were only going to be riding this short 3.4km climb, then heading home. So of course he went off like a banshee. And we of course got carried away…and did the same.
Now, it's only around 8-9% but this was our first taste of thinner Alpine air and for me a proper reality check. I was putting down 270 watts most of the way up, trying to be conservative, but it felt like 300+.
From Montpascal we began to climb the Col du Chaussy towards Bonvillard, climbing through pretty Alpine villages. My brother had come to France with his new Kinesis Tripster titanium bike. He had shod his self-built wheels with some fat 35mm Bon Jon Pass tubeless rubber and on the back he was running a whopping 10-42T MTB cassette to help him spin like a whisk. It seemed to work, he dropped us all and tore off up the road.
The mountain gods had other ideas though and as he sped off round a corner we suddenly heard the most almighty bang. His tubeless rear tyre had blown clean off the rim. So, at 1,000m or so we began fettling again refitting his Jon Bon Jovis with an old fashioned inner tube. The shame was almost too much for him to bear. To the sound of cowbells we pressed on and over, descending back to the valley floor and the longish drag back up to to La Grave.
DAY 2 - COL DU GALIBIER & COL DU TÉLÉGRAPHE - BOTH WAYS (108km, 3356m)
So this was always going to be an immense day, and it didn't disappoint. Simon Warren rates the Galibier a 10/10 in his book - calling it 'utterly unforgiving and unbelievably rewarding all at once'. And we tasted both. The Tour de France has come here 58 times, more than any other Alpine pass, and from Coppi to Merckx the greats have all triumphed on this giant lump of rock.
In 1998 Marco Pantani struck 5km from the top, devastating the field and on the north side there’s a monument marking the spot where he attacked. I'm no 'Pirata' and our first ascent began on the 'easy' side of the Galibier, after turning off from the Col du Lautaret at just over 2,000m. The summit is 8.5km away and nearly 600m higher. First shock of the day for me was the weather.
A few weeks earlier I'd tried unsuccessfully to Everest on a climb outside Limassol. I got close but I'd also fried myself in the process, my bike computer recording temperatures in the upper 40s. Now here I was riding up a French mountain in freezing rain on a road framed by walls of snow. It all felt rather surreal. The road rises at 7% or so up to the peak at 2,646m. Up here you can feel the thinner air and you wonder just what sort of super humans (artificially enhanced or not) could actually race over this thing.
From the top we descended through the scree covered slopes down to Valloire and then on down the sweeping bends of the Télégraphe to Saint Michel de Maurienne for lunch. By now the sun was shining and we found ourselves stripping off the layers. Several over-priced pizzas later we turned and headed back up - ahead, one of the toughest double climbs in cycling.
The Télégraphe is 12km long with an average gradient of 5-10%. We each put in shifts at the front and motored up the 878m of ascent pretty comfortably. But the Télégraphe is merely the warm up.
The sheer scale of the Galibier almost obscures how hard - and high - it really is. On the northern side it’s just shy of 35km long - including 17km at over seven per cent. After a short descent from the top of Télégraphe down into Valloire the climbing starts, a few kilometres up the valley then face-to-face with an11% wall.
It goes on for six lung-searing kilometres, winding skyward like a mad Go Kart track, before a brief respite as you cross the plateau. Here you have a choice: call it quits and go through the tunnel, or tackle one of the hardest kilometres in cycling. We did the latter and boy it hurt. A gruelling 10% incline which at this elevation just goes on forever and even in June, took us back into a world of snow.
It was now quite late in the day and the light was fading fast. After a quick photo we started our descent. It was fast and frankly pretty dangerous as we plunged down towards La Grave. We’d been riding for best part of six hours by now and descending the Galibier was undoubtedly the coldest I’d ever been on a bike.
I was then hit with that curse of all cyclists - cramp. A proper bike stopper. Within minutes I was I laying in the middle of road. Andy (a medic) set about trying to help while trying to contain his amusement. Tim and Steve had no such qualms, filming every glorious minute while pissing themselves.
Eventually - frozen to the core - we made it back to the warm bosom of our hotel, a beautifully brutal day done. Three climbs down…just Les Duex Alpes, Col d’Izoard, Glandon, Croix de Fer and Alpe d’Huez to go..
More on those next time…