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.

IMAG1410

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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Back in the saddle: the Etape 2018

A few years ago, I went through a slightly odd phase of signing up to long distance cycle tours. You may remember the general gist of how these things went – badly. If you don’t, here’s a brief recap:

12 weeks to event – I’ve signed up for this event! It’s 500 miles of mountains, yay!

11 weeks to event – Start of training phase

10 weeks to event – This will be a piece of piss, I did a lap of Richmond park today and it was quite easy

9 weeks to event – End of training phase

8 weeks to event – Tapering and carb loading phase

1 week to event – Dawning realisation of imminent failure. Prayer.

Event – Failure

Repeat annually.

I thought, having passed the cavalier days of my mid/late-20s, that a more sensible side was emerging. Perhaps I could finally accept that, fun though it is, cycling fundamentally does not like me. Perhaps I would find solace in more genteel pursuits like tiddlywinks or endless FIFA tournaments, at peace with my spindly chicken legs and ryvita-based knees.

Perhaps, perhaps.

So to bring you up to speed, the older, wiser me has foolishly signed up for the Etape du Tour in a little under a month’s time.  

Whilst I don’t need to reiterate what a poor decision this was, I will enlighten you with some of the hilarious challenges that this ride will throw my way.

The Etape

The Etape du Tour is an annual one day ‘race’ (lol) which follows the same route as a stage of the Tour de France. More precisely, it follows the ‘Queen Stage’ route of the tour de France, which is a pretty piece of phrasing which actually means ‘hardest stage’. Given that this is meant to be the hardest stage which is meant to test the limits of professional cyclists, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that this is going to be a ‘challenge’. Google suggests that it should be quite easy – top article titles include ‘Etape: the agony and the agony’ and ‘Etape: how much pain can you take?’. So yeah, lots of fun there.

A quick glance at the route confirms and compounds the fear. At 169km it’s already long enough to be a challenge, but what’s really, really going to hurt is the climbing. This year’s edition has a cool 4,017 metres of climbing in the day – put another way, it’s got Box Hill but for 100 kilometres. Just typing that makes me feel quite sick. What the route doesn’t really mention is the nature of the climbs. The Plateau des Glieres is not only an 11% average for 6km, but has a top section which is entirely unpaved, just for laughs. The Col de Romme and the Col de La Colombiere join forces to form a sort of double act from hell right at the end, like Ant and Dec. For context I was once overtaken on the Colombiere by two Americans pushing 70, on touring bikes, not putting in any effort, possibly smoking. I classed that as quite a successful day too.

How we laughed.

Thankfully, I won’t be taking on this challenge alone. As well as 15,00 wiry, angry French cyclists I’m pleased to say that the non-famous, globally un-renowned Mackenzie brothers have also signed up to this suicide pact fun, wholesome event. Together we make a great team, and each bring something different to the group. Harold brings height and a digestive system that could kill an adult moose at 40 paces. Andrew also brings height and an air of mystique, as I have not seen him in the best part of two years. I’m not sure what I bring but I know that it is different to the above. Our team aim is to finish in front of the rather ominously titled ‘recovery vehicle’, i.e. in under 12 hours.

Training

In truth, our group training has been somewhat hit and miss. On one hand, we’ve sent each other a lot of messages about cycling which has surely done some good. On the other, we haven’t been on any actual rides. Harold and I tried to go for a ride but were beset by two minor issues – he had a slight physical issue in that he’s not been on a bicycle in a year and his legs stopped working almost immediately, I had a slight mechanical issue in that my pedals fell off. Overall it went well.

I have been doing some actual training for this, much as that goes against tradition. I can cautiously say that I’m in the best cycling shape ever, although admittedly this is a particularly low bar to beat. As well as the occasional long weekend ride, I’ve started doing a fair amount of indoor cycling (or, y’know, spin as it’s otherwise known). I was a bit apprehensive about indoor cycling as every class seemed to advertise terrifying promises: ‘pumping beats’, ‘mood lighting’, ‘sense of community’. I had visions of suddenly spending all my time lifting small weights above a bike and getting really into kale.

Thankfully, I found H2 in Soho instead, which has been brilliant. All the bikes are hooked up to power meters, so you can actually track your progress against your own abilities. You also gain the ability to instantly become the most boring person in any given room by talking about power, watts and FTP – handy when you want some alone time at a party or family gathering.

Seriously though, this has made a big difference to my fitness as the classes are taught by knowledgeable coaches who consistently push you. It does translate massively to how you cycle on the road. As an example, I went on a weekend trip to the Alps a couple of weeks ago with the ever excellent Traverse Aravis (who are setting up an alpine cycling club by the way) and was pacing up climbs in half the time it took in 2016. As mentioned before, the bar is low so I’m still not fast, but it’s made a difference at least!

Training has been somewhat curtailed in the last couple of weeks due to my bike being stolen. I’ve tried putting on cycling gear and running to Richmond mimicking a cycling action but it hasn’t really worked, so I’m probably moving into the carb-loading and tapering stage. At 4 weeks out I am hitting this perilously late by my own standards. As I understand, my cycling pals are just getting into their training phases now, so we’ll see whose approach works better on the day.

I suspect neither.

Bonus ride

Given how easy the Etape looks, I thought I’d add a Brucie (RIP) bonus and have a crack at the RideLondon 100, which I’ll be taking on alongside some great people to support SPEAR, a homelessness charity based in West London. Harry and Andrew will be riding the Etape to raise money for Macmillan cancer support.

To skip to the obvious destination of the past few sentences, it’d be eternally appreciated if you would like to sponsor either (or indeed both if you’re feeling particularly generous) of these events and the very worthy causes they’re for!

Asking you to pick between fighting homelessness and fighting cancer feels a bit morally iffy, so to make your life easier, just pick link A or link B if that’s easier. Or if you want to choose one specifically, click wildly and randomly on these links until you find what you’re looking for.

Stay tuned for more tales of ineptitude and poor preparation in the coming weeks…

 

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??

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

IMAG0088_BURST001 IMAG0080 IMAG0074

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

IMAG0162 IMAG0161 IMAG0158 IMAG0163

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.

P1090223

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.

Women resigned to long, tough month

5 days into Movember, the harsh reality of half the country toting moustaches has crept up on the nation’s women like poorly thought out facial hair on a man’s face.

Otherwise normal, well-adjusted men are sprouting itchy, disturbing mouth toupees, partly to raise money to fight prostate cancer and to highlight men’s health issues, but mostly because they think that moustaches are ace.

Men across the world are paying undue attention to the mirror, convincing themselves that ‘it’s really coming through well this year’, while their wives and girlfriends roll their eyes and reach for the nearest wine or absinthe, only pausing between gulps to say ‘Yes darling, it looks great’ through gritted teeth.

When asked to describe their efforts, most men will describe their ‘taches, which they will invariably have named, as ‘cultured’, ‘refined’, ‘vigorous’ or ‘dapper’. When posed with the same question, women will respond with ‘creepy’,’creepy’,’creepy’ or ‘oh god, so creepy’.

It's coming through really well this year. I look like a dashing RAF pilot.

It’s coming through really well this year. I look like a dashing RAF pilot.

The Movember phenomenon has been a huge success in recent years, and experts believe that it is due to the unfathomable depths of self-delusion exhibited by all men. When you cut open any man’s brain, the part of his body responsible for emotions about facial hair and attempting to source chips, you will find only a small scroll, bearing three telling sentences:

  1. I look excellent with a moustache
  2. All women love men with moustaches
  3. Where are the chips?

Whilst the third line is what truly separates us from the animals, the first two are cruel evolutionary tricks designed to dupe the unsuspecting male into changing his appearance to resemble a rampaging sex criminal.

Studies estimate that the number of men in the UK who can actually grow a moustache worthy of the name is somewhere between four and seven, leaving 20-odd million deluded fantasists wandering the streets and creeping up the joint and wholeheartedly believing that they look like a dashing RAF pilot.

Other research indicates that the proportion of women who don’t mind moustaches is roughly equivalent to the proportion of women who are sexually attracted to cheese.

It’s not all bad news for ladies though – the end of November heralds the end of the ‘tache – usually after a relationship-threatening row after we become slightly too attached to our efforts – and then it’s into Christmas jumper and ‘putting on the winter weight’ season, where every man looks his plump, festive best.

P.S. I’ve definitely taken a slight run-up to Movember this year – it doesn’t usually look this good (and it still looks horrifying)

P.P.S. I might even provide regular updates and detailed, up close pictures.

P.P.P.S. You lucky things.

P.P.P.P.S. What does this link do I wonder?