Cycling the Alps: Tour du Mont Blanc

2

June 16, 2015 by Mark Burton


Remember last year, when I signed up for that stupidly long, stupidly mountainous cycle tour, and complained about it endlessly? Remember that?

Yeah, so it sort of happened again…

If no, incidentally, you can read about it here – although be warned, this is going to be quite similar.

If you’re terribly busy and important and want the short version, here is the entire article in a comma separated list:

Training regime and lack thereof, subsequent struggles through lack of preparation, lots of mountains, small amount of passing out, heat, fun, amusing anecdotes and similes, mention of good cause, link to charity page. Bye.

For the rest of you, allow me to paint a picture made of words…

Part 1: The training phase

I should put it out there straight away – I’m a terrible cyclist. Not in a ‘self-deprecating, I’m actually shit hot’ sort of way, but in a ‘I do not mix well with bicycles’ kind of way. I lack power, strength, application and stamina – my knees are made of dynamite and explode at the first sign of a derailleur – I’m semi allergic to hills. All poor traits to be taking into a 3 day, 330km ride with 10km of elevation gain.

So you can imagine my training was quite intense. Well keep imagining, because it wasn’t. My sportsman’s regimen consisted of 5 gentle rides to work, three weekend trips to Surrey involving a lot of whimpering, an ominous quantity of moussaka and a startling amount of weight gain.

If you would like a PDF of my ‘from fit to fat in 6 cheese-filled weeks’ training plan, please contact me directly.

So that’s the training part covered.

Part 2: The first day

Having dragged my bike, my pitiful legs and my freshly portly arse to Geneva, we set up camp in La Giettaz. There were around 30 of us for this trip, which is run by Traverse Aravis – if you’re looking for a spot of alpine cycling you won’t do better. Quite a few of us had done the High Alps Challenge the previous year as well as a lot of friendly new faces, so we spent some time catching up, swapping stories, and lying about how little training had been done.

As we prepared to set off from our luxurious chalet accommodation, I was cheered by the fact that it was sunny. At least I won’t be cold, I thought.

I certainly wasn’t wrong, as the temperature swiftly proceeded past 30 degrees and never looked back. I thought about this moment the next day whilst lying in an Italian layby, in 38 degree heat, with the world spinning, trying not to be sick. I concluded that the world is a cruel and wicked place that turns cheerful thoughts to dust for its own childish amusement – and if you take one thing from this blog, it should be that.

We set off as a group, whizzing down to Flumet to start the first climb, the gentle 14km of Les Saisies. As opening climbs go, it’s quite a nice one – not too taxing, a few flat sections to catch your breath, and relatively short. An amuse bouche of a mountain.

Needless to say I was broken by the top.

After a quick break for bananas and weeping, we zipped down towards Beaufort to tackle the main course for the day – the Cormet de Roselend. At 21km, this one is a bit more of a beast. It’s steep, long, and you’re stuck in a forest for ages so you can’t even mumble gently to yourself about the pretty views and freak out passers by. The real kicker is a lake at about 15km, which looks an awful lot like the summit but is in fact a large, cruel joke leading up to another 7km of steepness. It was also blisteringly hot. You don’t really notice it at first, but all of a sudden you find yourself cycling at 6km/h and realise that despite 7 bottles of water, you’re currently on 0 wees for the day. It’s not a pleasant experience.

You’ll notice there are no photos thus far. In my defence, I was sulking so I didn’t take any.

All in all, not a fun day – although the evening was somewhat better. Not only were we served industrial quantities of chicken ft. pasta cooked in chicken fat – a surefire classic – but we were also treated to several hundred cows strolling down the high street, which was entertaining until they started charging at us. Fortunately there was a Frenchman on hand with a large stick to save us via the medium of flagrant animal cruelty, which was welcome if morally difficult.

Part 3: A day of two hills

After the warm up day, we got stuck int the main event. Day two ran from Seez in France, up the ironically named Col du Petit St. Bernard, down to Aosta in Italy, and up the accurately named Col du Grand St Bernard, finishing just past the Swiss border. Everyone was in good spirits, if a little daunted by a 116km day involving two 30km+ climbs.

It’s rare that I have cause to celebrate my cycling achievements, but I have to declare that I absolutely blasted* up the first climb. There is nothing ‘petit’ about the Petit St. Bernard – It’s 30km long with over 1,300m of elevation gain – but for some reason (possibly a deep physical trauma) I felt in good shape. I gave that hill every shred of energy I had. I pushed deep into my energy reserves, imagining myself as some kind of lightning bolt on wheels. Bradley Wiggins would have struggled to beat me, I was certain of it. And so it proved, as I made it up the climb an outstanding 25th out of 30 participants, many of whom were taking it easy anyway, one of whom was on a mountain bike with panniers and another of whom was on a tri bike with approximately 0 gears. It was without doubt the pinnacle of my cycling career.

*sort of

I felt like a pro, as evidenced by this photo, which I thought at the time caught me in a dashing pose, but actually makes me look as though I’m on day release. Why am I holding a small bag? Who knows.

Fit.

Fit.

Sadly, it sort of unraveled a bit from here.

After lunch, I got a bit over confident and tried to stay with the lead group on the run down into Italy. This was fine until my chain fell off – twice – and despite one of the group superstars dropping back to pull me back onto the pack, I am not cut out for 40km/h on the flat and was knackered by the bottom of the climb.

By the time we started, it was 38 degrees. One of the features of the Grand St Bernard is its consistent approach to shade. There is consistently no shade. It’s also 32km long and steeper than the petit version. After pushing on the first hill, then breaking myself and my bike on the flat, I promptly overheated.

I first noticed something was wrong when I started shivering – one of the less common reactions to warmth. I first noticed it was time to stop when my vision started blurring and the overwhelming urge to re-examine my lunch kicked in.

I eventually found a shaded layby to pull into and found another victim huddled there looking equally shell shocked. We decided that enough was enough and called for the support car. They gave us ice cream and put the air con on, so any regrets we had about stopping vanished quite quickly.

Everyone else somehow slogged it to the top – and that’s no mean feat. Even on its own it would be a tough day’s cycling, but on the back of a previous monster climb and in unbearable heat, it was a superhuman effort. Massive credit to everyone who made it.

We got the ice cream though.

We stayed overnight at the monastery on top of the mountain. It’s quite a picturesque little spot if you’re ever in the area!

Considerably easier in a car

Considerably easier in a car

Part 4: Lies, damned lies and average gradients

Having had considerably more rest than most others, I was well up for the final 140km day. We started with a leisurely 40km descent down into Switzerland, towards Martigny. There’s a very long section of open-sided tunnels on the way, and whilst I wouldn’t recommend trying to see how fast you can go whilst you’re in them, I did and it was brilliant. I felt a bit like Lewis Hamilton at Monaco – except a lot slower, wearing lycra and having to make F1 engine noises with my mouth.

The fun ended when we took a sharp left to Chamonix, up the Col de la Forclaz. This averages 8% incline, which in layman’s terms is a bastard, with the occasional 12% bit thrown in for fun. I made it up by muttering obscenities under my breath and, oddly, singing Jack Johnson songs. I don’t even like Jack Johnson, nor do I know many of the words to his songs.

Something something banana pancakes

Something something banana pancakes

To be honest, I don’t remember much of the rest of the day. Some highlights I do remember are as follows:

We saw an ibex. It looked well angry:

He will have you

He will have you

 

We did an off road section! A bloke called barrée kept blocking all the routes in the area, meaning we had to sneak down some closed roads. Many of these seemed to be homages to the wonders of gravel and fallen leaves, which obviously make for ideal descending.

The last climb was a killer. ‘Averaging’ 7%, it must have been closer to 20% in a lot of places, and after 110km I was definitely not in the mood for it. After a brief tantrum I got on with it, finished the climb, and then got caught in a storm of some kind.

As a mark of how far behind everyone else I was, I was the only one to get back to the chalet wet.

After a bonus climb back to the finish from Flumet, and 300km and 3 days later, it was finally done. Everyone was a mixture of relief, hunger, thrist and tiredness. A few Kronenbourgs and a monstrous bbq soon dealt with that, followed by a celebratory Genepi or three and a lot of laughs with the whole group. A great end to an eventful few days!

Overall it was a tough but rewarding trip. I might take a small break from stupid activities for a while, but knowing my easily led disposition I’ll have signed up for a sponsored bungee jump or similar by this time next week. Watch this space.

We were all cycling for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, so please take a minute or two to have a look at all the great work they do – and there’s a link to the donation page up top if you feel compelled to part with any cash (pretty please?).

A massive thanks to Michael, Marjolein, Sue, Matt, Cliff, Barry and Kate for looking after us so brilliantly for the whole trip and making it so much fun – and thanks to everyone else who took part for all the laughs, camaraderie and hopefully not ironic applause when I staggered in an hour after everyone else.

Same time next year??

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2 thoughts on “Cycling the Alps: Tour du Mont Blanc

  1. joeythebuddhist says:

    haha that would be so cool!

  2. Sounds like you had a great time. Fantastic photos!

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