Cycling the Alps: Tour du Mont Blanc

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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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.