Riding the Etape du Tour as a very average cyclist

— This beast was part of a double challenge including RideLondon on 29th July. A group of us are riding to tackle homelessness by raising money for SPEAR – your donations would be massively appreciated! Find out more here —

So, there it is. After months of mildly intense training, very intense worrying and extremely intense consumption of pork pies, the Etape is officially conquered!

170 kilometres long, 4000 metres of vertical gain and temperatures touching 30 degrees meant this was about the hardest thing I have ever done – a sentiment echoed by my equally ill-prepared comrades Harry and Andrew, who raised boatloads of cash for Macmillan. So in no particular order other than that which my still-recovering brain can produce, here are some thoughts and tips for any eejit thinking of doing it next year.

Document from Mark

The lady next to me has absolutely smashed this picture

It’s really hard

No sniggering at the back. This was a very tough event (understatement alert). The distance is one thing, but it’s the climbing that really cranks things up, as well as the heat of an Alpine summer.  You are out there all day, literally – I completed in a majestic 9hrs40 while my buddies rolled in after about 11 hours. I’m a skinny waif and I burned 5000 calories during the ride. 3000 starters didn’t finish. Admittedly the winner did it in 5’15 but presumably they were aided by a good-sized motorbike engine and enough salbutamol to knock out a Tour de France favourite (joking, I am just bitter). I also met a guy later who did it in 6’55, but he had shaved legs and thus I consider him a professional.

It’s a constant battle to stay fed and watered. Hundreds of people were walking the climbs. Things will start to ache that you didn’t know existed. Your soul will hurt. You may occasionally weep uncontrollably, perhaps for example on the final descent, where the combination of blurred vision and going downhill at nearly 50mph really adds a certain je ne sais quoi. You almost certainly won’t want to get on a bike again afterwards, unless you have foolishly signed up for RideLondon shortly afterwards. However…

It’s amazing and you can and should do it!

Pain and misery aside, the Etape was an incredible and rewarding experience. It was a massive challenge, but it’s achievable for anyone who puts their mind to it. It’s extremely well organised, with the same support setup as the actual Tour de France stage which follows a few days later. The crowds of people who line the streets in support all the way are incredible and give you a big boost, and the occasional spray of a hose to cool you down. There’s a great sense of camaraderie among participants; everyone is in the same, painful boat so you help each other out, chat to others, egg each other on and work together to get through it.

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This sort of thing

The setting was nothing short of spectacular. Even on the toughest climbs there were breathtaking mountain views all around which take the edge off the hurt. All the roads are closed which makes a big difference.

At the finish the sense of achievement was really quite overwhelming. Your legs ache, your brain is foggy, you smell, you need new teeth from all the sugar you’ve consumed and you’re bleeding because an insect got into your jersey and tried to eat its way out.

You’re at the bottom of a mountain, but you feel like you’re on top of the world.

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How you pose vs how you feel

Top tips

Train – or don’t. I trained for about 6 months – a couple of short indoor classes at H2 Soho paired with a longer ride at the weekend of 50+ miles. Conversely, Harry did no training whatsoever and still finished 2 hours behind me, albeit by running away from a gendarme who told him he was too late to the last climb and had to get in the ‘recovery vehicle’. So your options are do some training, or disobey the police.

Fuel – I carried 8 energy bars and ate them all. Half a bar every half an hour seemed to work. Learn from my mistake and get more than one type unless you REALLY like the flavour of artificial apples. Clif Bloks were my go to towards the end; they’re like gels except without the sensation of warm bodily fluids. Keep drinking and refill at every feed station. At the stations, drink the Coke they offer and have some sugary or carby stuff, but the ham and cheese platter will not be your friend.

Pace – It’s 4 marathons, not a sprint. If you find yourself pulling a peloton of 100 people at 40kmh in the first 10 minutes, as I somehow did, you have become over-excited and need to calm the eff down. Sit on wheels and save energy. Be sensible on the descents: there are thousands of you and only so much road so there are a few nasty crashes.

Chat – especially going uphill. Talking to other humans drowns out the dark, existential questions in the mind as you go. I met a friendly Dutchman on the first climb and we chatted about pure nonsense for most of the climb until his vastly superior fitness left me for dead. Talking also stops you from over-committing and burning out.

Optimism – generally, but also specifically when you sign up. They’ll ask you for an expected finish time, go for about an hour quicker than you think is realistic. I was perhaps too honest and thus went in the very last wave, meaning loads of standing around, increased threat of getting swept up and more time in the heat of the day. You want to be in a slightly earlier wave if possible, but be a bit careful – too early and you will spend all day being overtaken which can’t be fun.

Chamois cream – if you value or simply want to keep your nether regions.

Loo roll – nature will probably call, and the portaloo or bush you visit probably won’t help you answer. It’s also cheaper than sacrificing your gloves.

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To be clear, they’re the freaks, not me

 

 

 

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Holiday special: Ksamil, Albania

In Corfu, the taxi driver just laughed at us.

“Albania!” He chuckled through his third cigarette of the 20 minute journey. Suddenly serious, he continued. “You don’t go there for holiday, you go for survival. Don’t go out at night, not safe.”

Outwardly I laughed. Inwardly I was mentally leafing through the ferry timetable for earlier return journeys, and wondering whether the two lessons of jiu jitsu I took when I was 8 would be enough to ward off the danger that awaited us.

Needless to say, had I needed to use aforementioned martial arts moves, I would have been immediately killed. Also needless to say, the taxi driver was full of shit. We got there, it was lovely, normally I wouldn’t bother you with the details.

However, given its relative unknown status, especially amongst us Brits, there’s not a great deal of good recent information about Ksamil, we only really heard of it when working out what to do in Corfu and then looking at pretty pictures. So in an attempt to rectify that, here’s what we did.

Getting in

The easiest way to Ksamil is via Corfu. In fact it’s pretty much the only way if you’re coming from western Europe – Albania is not exactly laden with airports. We split our trip between Corfu and Ksamil, with about 5 days in each, and it worked nicely.

There’s a regular ferry between Corfu town and Sarande on the Albanian coast. In the summer months there are 3 or so a day, check out Ionian Seaways for a timetable. We booked tickets on the website, but don’t bother. The price is spectacularly incorrect, you don’t actually pay for the tickets in advance, and you can buy tickets from the port in about 5 minutes from the Ionian office.

Tickets cost about €24 per person one way as of 2017.

The boat takes about an hour for the slower ferry, but it’s a nice trip and dolphins often swim next to the boat – we saw them going out and coming back, and I used my magical camera skills to capture one in all its glory for your viewing pleasure. I think this picture ought to win some sort of award:

Majestic.

On arrival in Saranda/e/ë, whichever you prefer, breeze through passport control and out onto into the port.There’s a taxi rank just to the left on the road (not down the slope), but we didn’t spot this. You can also take a bus if you go right out of the passport office and down to the roundabout with the big tree. I saw two buses in Albania- one of which was large, crisply air-conditioned and generally awesome as far as buses go, and another which looked like the kind of minibus you see burnt out in fields, only in worse condition. Now admittedly the bus is very cheap at 80 Leke (55p), but do you want to take that chance?

We decided to splash on a taxi, and were immediately collared by a man who was fairly insistent that he was a taxi driver. I had my suspicions given that he was almost definitely selling postcards seconds before we turned up, and these suspicions were only heightened when he had to borrow a car from a friend to drive us.

We agreed a fee of €20, which was tantamount to robbery but we admired the man’s hustle. €10-15 is about right, and taxis/random blokes will gladly accept Euros.

It takes about 20 minutes to get from Saranda to Ksamil, and I couldn’t tell you which side of the road cars are supposed to drive on.

On arrival, you’ll notice that you’re not exactly short of hotels to pick from. Apparently owing to a glorious lack of planning, Ksamil has just sort of sprung up all over the place. There are probably more hotels than people. To be honest it’s not a particularly pretty sight – especially as the official response to illegal building appears to be tear down most, but not all of the building, leading to such stunning vistas as this:

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#nofilter

Thankfully, there do seem to be plenty of hotels available that aren’t falling down. We picked Villa Ideal, and were glad that we did. It’s well located about a 5min stroll to the best beaches and town amenities. It’s run by a very friendly family, it’s the cleanest place I’ve ever set foot in, and 4 nights at peak season for a big, comfy room with occasional complimentary lemon ice tea will set you back a princely €130. There’s also a glimpse of sea view and the 3 islands of Ksamil from the balcony:IMAG0872.jpg

 

Stuff to do

Ksamil is famous for its beaches and has the perfect climate for sunseekers. This patch of Albanian coast is only 10 miles from Corfu, so has the same Mediterranean wall-to-wall sunshine and 35 degree heat. The beaches are so famous though that they are consistently rammed throughout July – think Italian-level busy. It’s very much a sunbeds and parasols affair – almost all the beaches are private, but two beds and a parasol for the whole day will only cost you 500 lek (£3.50), so it’s not hideous. The best private beaches we found were in front of Korali and Guvat restaurants. You can also order food and drinks from your lounger and there are lots of men, women and the occasional toddler (genuinely) selling snacks on the beaches, so you can spend an entire day without getting off your arse if that’s your bag.

Busy though they are, the beaches, water and general surroundings are very pretty, and again startlingly clean. There are little islands just off the coast that are in easy swimming and pedalo reach.IMAG0866.jpg

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We prefer a bit of peace and quiet, and this is achievable with a small amount of effort. The islands are almost deserted compared to the beaches. You can either rent a pedalo or hire a man and boat to run you across, or you can swim across yourself (it’s very easy) from the main beaches. Invest in a cheap dry bag (this one worked a treat and was also a good general rucksack) and all of your stuff will bob gently on your back while you serenely float to an island. There are two close by, and a bigger one about another 300m out – swimmable if you’re strong but probably easier to take a boat. We opted for one of the close by pair and more or less had it to ourselves all day:

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If beaches aren’t your thing, how about some history? Butrint National Park, of which Ksamil is a part, contains the ancient Roman city of Butrint. It’s about a 15 minute bus from Ksamil, and the bus runs every hour or so from next to the post office (on the main road close to Tirana Bank, outside a small bakery). It cost us 100 leke for 2 people. Ignore the taxi drivers when they say it takes an hour and goes via Saranda. It doesn’t.

The ruins are really good and definitely worth a day trip and the entry price (700 leke), it’s a huge sprawling city and took us the best part of 4 hours to see everything. On the other side of the lake there are bison roaming about and a chain ferry. Basically it’s all very exciting.

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I think it’s possible to walk to Butrint from Ksamil via a load of olive groves, it should only take an hour and I could see paths from the bus. If anyone wants to share a route of how to do that be my guest…

Eating

Back in Ksamil, there are plenty of food options, and it’s all laughably cheap. The best restaurant we found was Korali, on the promenade bit on the waterfront. The food in Ksamil is pretty heavily influenced by the rest of the Med – lots of fresh seafood and grilled things. We had the seafood platter for two, some starters, three beers each and some raki as a liquid dessert, and that came to the grand total of about 30 Euro. Like everyone we met in Albania, the staff are super friendly and all spoke English.

Guvat, next door, was also nice and did some more pasta and meat type dishes which were pretty good. All of the restaurants double as cafes and beach bars so it’s easy to find beer, wine, coffee etc.

We tended to get breakfast and lunch goods from the small supermarket at the top of town (next to the fast food restaurant). There’s good selections of fruit and snacks. There are also any number of delicious bakeries (Furre I think) which do sweet and savoury baked goods for no money. There’s a great one on the road to the right of the bus stop. Have what everyone else is having, or the chocolate bread, and you won’t go wrong.

Our other favourite, and I’m not ashamed to say this, was the fast food place at the top of town. You can get a delicious pork or chicken souvlaki (with chips actually stuffed into the sandwich – genius), and it will cost less than a pound. And you’ll be delighted. We ate there twice.

Misc

Cash is king. There are two cashpoints but only one takes Mastercard. It’s in the petrol station on the main road (left as you go down the hill). It does charge you 700 leke per withdrawal so use it wisely…if you have a Visa there’s a couple more machines around town, including by the bus stop at Tirana bank.

You can buy ferry tickets from the office at the top of town near the supermarket, this saves you getting in a flap when you get back to Saranda like we did. Hotels should be able to sort out a taxi, or just give you a lift like ours did.

The ability to speak even any words of Albanian goes down a storm, and helps calm some of the crushing embarrassment of being English abroad. We managed to get by with ‘Falemenderit’ (thankyou), ‘Tyeta’ (hi), and ‘Mah falni’ (Sorry). Also ‘Po’ means yes and ‘Yo’ (spelt Jo I think) means no, or vice versa, which isn’t at all confusing.

May, June and mid-August onwards are apparently much, much quieter.

Tirana beer is better than the other beer.

If you’re looking for a sunny holiday that’s a bit different and won’t trouble your bank balance, you won’t go too far wrong with the Albanian Riviera and Ksamil for a few days.

The General Election Player Ratings 2017

As I have literally nothing original to add to this squalid, tawdry election, and certainly nothing that will change any of our bitter, ingrained mindsets, I thought I’d waste some of your valuable time rating various politicians and entities for a few cheap laughs. You’re welcome.

Main leaders

Theresa May – 10/10

Could not have asked for better from the PM. Since calling this election, May has diligently set about the task of tearing down her own facade with surgical precision. A visionary who has elevated the humble gaffe from a misplaced word in a speech to an 8 week rolling barrage of ineptitude.

In all likelihood, will still win, but with reputation permanently damaged. Has displayed so little strong and stable leadership that the party have had to ditch that entirely and try to swing back to Brexit, even rolling out Boris for good measure.

Highlights: Trying to position as the person to defeat terror and reduce immigration, having spent 6 years doing that exact job and achieving precisely nothing. Threatening longer prison sentences for terror offences to deter suicide attacks. The thing with the police. The thing with the elderly. Most of it really.

Jeremy Corbyn – 8/10

Decent man with sensible policies and easy manner proves surprisingly popular. Seems to have startled many, including his own party, by not referring to everybody as ‘comrade’ and proposing collective farms in the manifesto. Has made several high profile errors, admittedly in the 1970s, and this is apparently relevant. Is against nuking people, which is a bad thing. Will not make a good leader because he makes his own jam, listens to others and doesn’t shout constantly.

Highlights: Inspiring the youth, none of whom will vote tomorrow.

Other notable toerags

Diane Abbott – 30,000/10

I based this entire piece around that gag. In hindsight it was not worth it.

Paul Natalie – 2/10

Worse than the above, if that were possible.

The Daily Mail – 10/10

Vintage Mail. 13 whole pages in a single issue dedicated to attacking Labour. Paul Dacre must be on the verge of a heart attack or an orgasm at almost all times, which an image you won’t be able to unsee. His 3 readers must lap it up.

The Guardian – 1/10

Organised a year long hatchet job against Corbyn and then backed him. Who needs enemies when you have friends like these?

The internet, and most of us, including me – 1/10

Rare indeed is the discussion that doesn’t descend into a slanging match. There’s a familiar narrative to most online comment threads about politics in this country. Pro-Labour? Well, you’re living in a fantasy world, your lot are going to crash the economy, and you’re a soft little snowflake. Pro-Tory? Well, you’re scum and you want to murder the poor. Pro-anyone else? Wasting your vote, get out.

Rinse. Repeat.

We need to do better than this really, otherwise the Duplo bricks are going away and you’ll be grounded for a week. Oh, and also all elections will be as interminably miserable as this one forever more as nobody can countenance the merest hint of an opposing view and we all just hide behind our confirmation bias, hurling insults and whatever facts support our blinkered arguments, because there really is no better way to convince somebody you’re right than to call them an arsehole.

All we need to remember is:

Left wing does not equal stupid.

Right wing does not equal evil.

Opposing views can both be right.

We’re still not America.

Happy days.

Satire pointless

One of the unexpected downsides of the world going collectively insane is that it affords very little opportunity for comedy.

You’d have thought that the rise of the far right and the various knuckle-dragging goons who represent them would have offered ample scope for a bit of satirical blogging. Apparently not.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a few decent gags to be had – you can make about eight solid jokes out of Nigel Farage’s grinning ascent into Trump’s golden tower alone – it’s just that no parody is any weirder than the actual reality.

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He’s very happy in the Donald’s shaft

Real events have spun out of control so quickly that lines like “May offers human sacrifices in exchange for Peru trade deal” don’t sound out there enough. “Brexit means cabbage” is probably one of our actual negotiating positions, while “Farage blasts EU gravy train whilst holding two other jobs, one of them in America” is actually true, so there’s no mileage in that.

Not only that, but the characters now ambling around centre stage are so thoroughly dislikeable that they’re almost piss-take-proof. They’re the sort of people you invite to a party but really hope don’t come. Imagine asking who’s coming for dinner and hearing “Theresa May, David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson”. You’d have to burn your house down on the spot, wouldn’t you?

That said, these miserable, boring, joyless bastards have a respectably tight line on discipline and sticking to the party line, so we can expect them to be sticking around for the foreseeable. The right have been peddling some impressive linguistic conjuring tricks of late – none better than the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ line. Forget alternative facts and fake news, that one is an absolute belter, and it’s well ingrained. In reality the elite are as far from liberal as I am from winning World’s Strongest Man. Ditto with ‘liberal media’ – utter, demonstrable tosh, but effective tosh nonetheless. Hats off to the gits.

All the while the left are doing what we always do – tweeting furiously and fracturing like Ryvita. Labour are involved in an infight to the death, the Lib Dems continue to be the Lib Dems, the Guardian is mainly worried that the polenta you’re eating could be misogynist. None of the above seem to have cottoned on to the fact that there might be bigger issues to worry about right now, and that perhaps a spot of joiny joiny forcey forcey might not be a terrible idea.

All in all it’s been a rather depressing few months, and will probably continue in that fashion for some time.

On the plus side, Netflix is putting out some great shows right now. So we’ve always got that until Trump blows up the internet.

High Alps Challenge -a week of going up mountains on a bicycle

So here it is then, the write up that literally three of you have all been waiting for. As you may or may not know, I’ve spent the last week slowly creaking my way up 10 Alps, using nothing more than my legs, my fox-like sense of cunning, and a collection of components commonly known as a bicycle, all in aid of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (ahem).

For those of you who don’t have the time or inclination to read through the rest, I don’t blame you and here is a small set of responses which will answer all of your major questions:

– Yes, it was great

– Yes, it was a challenge

– No, I didn’t get in the van

– Yes, I did get caught picking wild flowers at the side of the road

– No, my legs are fine

And now the slightly longer version:

Day 1: Geneva to La Giettaz

I should probably do a day 0 which details the hilarity of trying to pack a bike box, the rush to Evans to buy a pedal wrench, and the fun of wheeling a bike through an airport, but I won’t. You’re safe. After an almost incident-free trip out to Switzerland, we set out from our lakeside campsite in search of mountains. First up, after a 50km slog on the flat we arrived at the base of peak number 1, the Col de la Colombiere. I will admit to feeling a certain amount of trepidation at this point, coupled with the strong urge to cycle into a field and hide, then maybe living feral for a week. The thing with mountains is that you can see them from quite far away, and they are both big and imposing. With jelly legs that were only partially caused by my alarming lack of fitness, we set off on the first climb. I probably needn’t have worried – it was awesome. I quickly found my lowest possible gear and didn’t leave it for several hours. The thing with cycling in the Alps is that it’s not necessarily that steep, it’s just long. It’s certainly steep enough to keep you wishing for more gears to drop into, but you get into a rhythm quite quickly and just keep your legs spinning. The weather wasn’t great but the views still quickly move from pleasant to spectacular in no time at all as we found ourselves chugging through pretty villages and saying hello to bemused cows. Up towards the top it starts to become pretty steep – the last 3km go 9%,10%,11% in gradient which is a bit sad. The weather was also turning threatening, and the only saving grace was bumping into a young couple on mountain bikes, one dragging a trailer full of luggage and the other dragging their infant son in a small buggy. They were moving so slowly that their bikes were weaving, and even though they were close to one another both remained tight-lipped and stony faced. Being a fundamentally bad person, I wished them an overly cheery hello and burst past them to the top, reveling in my superior bike speed. They, meanwhile, are probably either still on the mountain or getting their vows annulled. After a quick break for cake and hot chocolate – a common theme through the week -we set off on the descent, which is both hilariously dangerous and addictively fun, to the point where I was secretly making aeroplane noises to myself on the fast bits.

The top of Colombiere (post cake)

FYI – I’m in the crappy green gilet looking like an idiot

After a wet jaunt down to the bottom we had to come back up another Alp, the Col des Aravis. At 9km this is something of an Alpine tiddler, but by this point my body was beginning to feel the gravity of the situation and I had to keep talking to myself and passing livestock to distract myself from the internal protests. At the end of the day we cruised into the tiny village of La Giettaz to a surprise: a roof and a warm bed, which was nice given that the weather was doing this:

Lush

Lush

Meanwhile, our support crew, the beautiful bastards from Traverse Aravis, slept outside in the rain, which must have been awful. Sorry guys.

Day 2: La Giettaz to Bourg St Maurice

Feeling full of beans – or more specifically pasta and porridge, our staples for the week – we set off on day two after an expert stretching sessionP1020187 If you notice that the gentleman on the right is walking with a bit of a spring in his step, it’s because he has spent the last three minutes applying chamois cream to his nether regions, in full view of all of us. As I work with the man it’s an image I cannot unsee and am reminded of on a daily basis. Anyway, I’m now going to stop with the precise metre by metre account and switch to a key summary of each day.

Key Climbs

Les Saisies and the Cormet de Roselend. The former is quite good fun. After being completely left for dead by my group – a recurring theme I was happy to go along with – I got into a hell for leather race uphill with and elderly Belgian woman, which I won by a good ten yards. I’m not sure she knew we were racing. The Roselend is a strange beast – about 23km long and all damp, enclosed forest for the first 15. After that you come across a reservoir and small restaurant, where it took me 5 minutes to successfully order chips, which were then sent to another table. The remaining 8km climb up and away from the reservoir are, in a word, magical. Climbing by bike is so much more bearable when the scenery is fun, and the top of the Roselend is up there with the best.  IMAG0078

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A properly gorgeous ascent, capped off by a mad descent which is so beautiful you struggle to keep your eyes on the road – no photos unfortunately, I struggle to stay upright with two hands on the bars.

Notable incidents

First pangs of knee pain – more on this later

We met a Nowegian couple who had done the entire climb on a steel tandem, immediately making them the greatest people in the world. They told us about some abandoned hot springs that you could bathe in at the bottom. When we arrived it seemed to be full of crack addicts, so we cycled on. They just went straight in, presumably because they were cooler than us.

We also stayed in a small village outside Bourg St Maurice on Bastille Day. The French seemed intent on celebrating Bastille Day by sending up three fireworks and then blowing up small sections of their country with massive explosives. Fair play to them, the sound of explosions bouncing off mountains is brilliant.

Day 3 – Bourg St Maurice to Bramans

Key climbs

The Col de l’Iseran, which I think is French for arsehole. Over 45km long, coming up from Bourg St Maurice through Val d’Isere and up to 2,770m, which for the uninitiated is pretty damn high. There are good and bad points to this kind of altitude. The bad points are that it’s cold, rain evaporates when it hits the ground and the lack of oxygen means you struggle to cycle. The good point is that the lack of oxygen makes you feel amazing, so you don’t actually care.

Notable incidents

In Geneva airport we met a Belgian man, early 60s, who got off the plane in his cycle gear, pulled his bike out of a box and cycled out of the airport. We saw him in Val d’Isere, 3 days and 250k later, eating a large pastry and watching a group of gypsies dance.

I also had to be dragged up the last couple of km by one of the guys who was cycling with us. He could have been done about 20 minutes earlier but stayed back to make sure I made it. For this I am eternally grateful. I also lost the plot slightly and started picking flowers, which I intended to press and give to my girlfriend for reasons I can no longer recall. I had nothing to press them with apart from some socks. They died. I probably won’t give them to her – she’d find it odd even by my standards.

On the way down I got into a race with a Renault Clio, which I only narrowly lost after nearly stacking it on an unexpected corner. The gradient then evened out a bit, and we took a leisurely spin back to our campsite. On the way we stopped in a village and, like the athletes we are, bought a large quantity of local cheese and ate it on the the street with our bare hands. It was a fine decision.

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By this point I have also started stopping regularly to take photos, conveniently resting my aching limbs for up to 10 minutes. As such I have about 200 photos that will never see the light of day again.

The other new news on day 3 was the bit where my knees started to feel like they were about to explode. This may have been in some part due to my chronic lack of training, which one flatmate described, accurately, as “playing FIFA and ODing on Pringles.” But being a real man, I wept quietly, complained loudly, considered quitting or re-visiting the ‘go feral’ strategem, and eventually got back on my bike, all sulky.

 

Day 4 – Bramans to Argentiere la Bessee

Key Climbs – Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier

Quite rightly known as a horrible pair of climbs, these bad boys are back to back, 12km and 19km respectively, and about 7% in gradient. Telegraphe is ok, aside from the fact it was touching 30 degrees and they had decided to re-surface the roads in preparation for the Tour de France, which then didn’t go up it. Bastards.

Galibier is a bit of a different prospect. There are some very steep sections which you really, really feel. I can’t quite pinpoint why it’s tough, but it really is. About 3km from the top, where the gradient starts to ramp up, I had to stop with one of the gang to take on water, eat an energy bar, do a bit of a pep talk and break wind with reckless abandon. The top is an absolute stunner though.IMAG0120 IMAG0121 IMAG0122 IMAG0119

Probably my favourite view of the week. Quite how people race up here is completely beyond me though.

Day 5 – Argentiere to Jausiers

Key Climbs

Col du Vars – by which point I was very close to giving up. 20 odd km of climbing on swollen knees and being instantly dropped by most of the others was less than fun. In the end I resorted to fiddling with my seat post for some time (not a euphemism), which seemed to do the trick.

Notable events

Nothing much, it’s a bit of a blur. The most memorable part of it was being chaperoned up the entire climb by a massive swarm of flies. They don’t really tell you about this – “come to the south of France, it’s warm and there are flies everywhere” is not the best slogan, but they were properly annoying. I cycled into a ditch trying to get rid of the bastards. Eventually I decided they were my entourage and were hyping me up the hill like a lot of tiny, filthy MCs.

As I said, slight mental breakdown.

Day 6 – Jausiers to Isola

Cime de la Bonette. The second highest road in Europe, which I bet the French are pissed off about because all of the signs say it’s the highest. It isn’t. But it is still very high at 2,800m, with a 23km climb. The last 400m are about 15% and, as a tired Frenchman I was cycling with remarked, “it is a wall”. I liked that guy- we had a sense of camaraderie built on the fact that neither of us spoke the others language, with the exception of the phrase “it is a wall”, which I learned while working as a painting and decorating consultant in Rennes. The camaraderie was such that I completely left him for dead on the last push, adding to the string of hollow, empty victories that got me through the week. The full list of vanquished foes is:

– Elderly Belgian lady

– Tired Frenchman

– Really, really old couple

– Couple on mountain bikes with child

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These pictures are also quite fun because you can look back on the roads below and think, “I cycled up that.” Which is a very odd thought.

Day 7 – Isola to Nice

Legs were really starting to complain by this point, but it was a fairly easy 90km down to the sea. We all grouped up together for the last climb, a tiddler with 500m of gain, which was nice. We must have looked quite strange – 10 knackered, smelly cyclists slogging up a hill singing Bob Marley songs, but there you go.

Eventually we arrived on the seaside after ignoring pretty much all the traffic regulations in Nice. Then we did this.

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Then we jumped in the sea for the most rewarding dip of my entire life.

And that, my pedigree chums, was that! 570km along, 11.5km up, and we were on the beach in the glorious sunshine of Nice. Job done.

Have to say a huge thanks to:

– Everyone who sponsored me/us – we’ve raised almost £5,000 between us for a superb cause

– Michael, Sue, Cliff and Trigger for looking after us (and especially me in my daily moments of doubt) like champions for the entire week, feeding us like kings and offering the kind of support that just makes you keep pedalling.

– The rest of the gang – you know who you are. Thanks for dragging my slow arse up mountains, showing me that neat trick with the energy gels in water, bringing the laughter, bringing the champagne, bringing the meat and cheese, singing loudly and often, and making the whole week incredible.

– All the support from back home. I had some flaps before going and various people set me straight and made me go – it was one of the best things I’ve ever done so thank you!

So, anyone fancy it next year?

 

Cycling Training 1: London to Brighton*

*nearly.

I’m pleased to announce that Alps training has started in earnest. Today I embarked upon the challenging 85km route from London to Brighton, taking in some fairly hefty hills upon the way. I have to say it went rather well, with the only hiccup being that instead of cycling 50 miles to Brighton we instead cycled 10 miles to Richmond, which is a minor detail. We did very nearly go to Brighton, but then we couldn’t be arsed.

The famous deer of Brighton

The famous deer of Brighton

 

I’ve decided this approach is the way forward – so instead of cycling from Geneva to Nice in 6 weeks time, I’m probably just going to do a few laps of the airport and then sit by lake Geneva for 6-7 days, marveling at the enduring strength of the Swiss economy. This seems a much more sensible plan than actually riding up mountains, which if you ask me is a fool’s errand.

We managed to get about 65km in today, with 3 laps of the ever-welcoming Richmond Park.

Plus points:

– I am less fat than the majority of riders

– We saw some deer

– It was really sunny

Downsides:

– The majority of fat riders are better at cycling than me

– Forgot to suncream

– Distinct lack of hills

– Alps is more or less all hills

I also attempted to race my ride buddy at one point today. In hindsight this was a poor plan, as she has thighs like oak trees and I have thighs like oak saplings starved of light or food. By the time I met her at our designated finish area, she had ordered and consumed a coffee and some cake and completed the Times crossword. It was only a 200m race.

I’ve also discovered that singing out loud is a good way to get through the miles. Not only does it take your mind off the fact that your legs hurt, but it also makes you look like a lunatic and thus you are given plenty of room. My song for the day was Stonehenge, by Ylvis. Which is one of the greatest songs ever written.

Top tip though, try not to sing ‘And she plays with my balls’ with gusto while a young family drive past with the windows down.

On that note, why not sponsor me/us? It’s cheap, unless you want to give me like 50 quid, in which case think of it as worth the investment. Thanks for all the sponsorship so far, it is much appreciated.

http://www.justgiving.com/mjburton

Have a fine weekend everybody.

Stupid decision #6,322: Cycling the Alps

You’d have thought I’d have learned not to yes to charity challenges without thinking after the previous travails of Skydiving and Attempting to do running (with obstacles) and then actually doing running (with obstacles).

You would be wrong.

Allow me to paint you a portrait. Picture the scene: It’s a cool inter’s day in a London office. A friend saunters over and enquires, “Do you fancy riding from Geneva to Nice next July?”, to which I respond “What? Yeah, fine.”

Portrait complete. In a couple of months I will be, somehow, undertaking the task of cycling from Geneva, in Switzerland, to Nice, in an entirely different country (which should have been the first warning) in a week. After casually signing up for said adventure, I belatedly decided to look into some crucial factors, like how far it is and if there are any hills. I found this reassuring blurb from the High Alps Challenge website:

The total height gained over the week is a over 11500m !!! Nearly one and a half times Everest from sea level!

Taking in some world famous ascents…

Col de la Colombiere, Col des Aravis, Les Saisies, Cormet de Roseland, Col de l’Iseran, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier, Col de Vars, Cime de la Bonette

Notice the three exclamation marks on the 11500m.

Overall distance is also around 600km. I’ve also looked up some of those ‘world -famous ascents’, and they seem to be famous because only a moron would attempt to ascend them in anything other than a car. One particular favourite is a casual 35km non-stop climb, which I presume will result in me being carried up the hill in a sled of some kind, whimpering.

Allow me to give you an insight into my cycling pedigree. My greatest achievements are:

  1. Owns a reasonably smart bike
  2. Hangs washing on said bike

Which isn’t exactly a Lance Armstrong level of commitment or doping, both of which would help but only one of which is an option due to the fact that performance-enhancing substances aren’t currently available in a soluble, Berocca-like effervescent lozenge.

As such, I’ve had to resort to training. Here’s a brief rundown of my current training regime:

  1. Rode to Southend. Was genuinely overtaken on a small hill by a 74 year old man on a bike from the past. Arrived at destination and had to have a long lie down on a soft rug until legs worked again.
  2. Took the train to Surrey. Attacked the first hill for approx. 100m before stopping, exhausted, shouting “I can taste blood!” to a bemused comrade. Walked up 3 of 5 subsequent hills
  3. Increased cheese and wine intake to increase levels of protein and blot out terrible sense of foreboding.

If you want to picture me cycling, imagine the bit in nature shows where a lion singles out the weakest of the herd – you can spot it immediately and tell that it’s fucked.

Oh dear.

Oh dear.

Also, even if I make the climbs I’m REALLY BAD at descending and so I’m likely to hurl myself off an Alp at some point, looping gracefully through the air like a gazelle in lycra.

And if that isn’t worth donating 5-7 pounds for then I don’t know what is.

As ever, I’m going to ask for your hard-earned dollar at this point. We’re raising cash for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, and between four of us hope to raise about £10,000 for a superb cause.

If you have a few quid to spare for an amazing charity, or you simply enjoy the prospect of me in a lot of pain, you can donate here.

I’ll keep you posted on training and progress ahead of the big event, so stay tuned for what is likely to turn into an increasingly panicked set of posts before I change my name and move to Venezuela to avoid cycling through the Alps.

Because let’s face it, I’m fucked.