As the cliché has it, you can't take a penalty at Wembley, but you can ride up l'Alpe d'Huez anytime. Well, anytime that the road isn't closed by snow or ice. This is part of the magic of the Tour. It will come down a road near you, or go up a road that you have ridden on, if you live in France or have passed time there, as most British people by now have.
For instance, my mother's family lived for a number of years in the Crau, an arid, stony plain between Arles and Salon de Provence. The Tour has passed through the village in which they lived once in my memory, and has passed within a few kilometres at least another 4 times, including Thursday's stage from Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier.
If you can't actually be there, by the side of the road, as the cavalcade passes, there is a vicarious thrill in seeing familiar thoroughfares and corners rush past on the television, as a backdrop to the unrolling drama (or in the case of the Crau, flat as it is, almost always a rolling intermission as the Tour transits from Alps to Pyrenées or vice-versa). That vicarious thrill is heightened if you have actually ridden down the roads, and doubled and redoubled if the road is a classified climb or, even better, a summit finish.
Having ridden up Mont Ventoux the year before, I thrilled to Eros Poli's crazy and magnificent solo breakaway up Mont Ventoux in 1994. The fact that Poli, at 190+ cm, is no-one's idea of a pocket-rocket jack-in-the-box climber, made it all the more enthralling.
Watching his obvious travails, I was reminded of my own plodding efforts on the mountain quite vividly, even down to the final hairpin at the foot of the Observatoire, which caused Poli to almost stall, and come to a dead stop on the ramp. The exact same thing had happened to me the year before. Admittedly, I was in the granny ring, pushing a much much smaller gear, whereas Eros was probably pulling a 39 or bigger, but as they say, it doesn't hurt any less when you are fitter, you just go faster.
This Tour de France is going to be very thrilling for me, as I know the roads of 2 of the key stages really quite well. As I wrote elsewhere, I have been up Ventoux several times. I have also ridden Alpe d'Huez 4 times, as well as the first climb of the following day, Col du Glandon, a few times.
This isn't particularly remarkable, as many hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of cyclists have ridden those same climbs at least once, not least because l'Alpe d'Huez and le Col du Glandon form part of the course of the oldest and most famous (outside of the UK) cyclo-sportive, la Marmotte. The event dates from 1981 and, although it isn't quite as big as the largest of all European cyclo-sportives l'Ardechoise, it is, in my opinion, the best of them.
La Marmotte, unlike a Tour stage, but like most cyclo-sportives, describes a circle, and the finish is close by the start. It encompasses le Col de la Croix de Fer (or sometimes the Glandon, as the two climbs share exactly the same route from the south), the Maurienne valley, the Col du Télégraphe, the Col du Galibier, then descends through the Col du Lauteret, down the Romanche valley for a distance of 50km, at an average downgrade of 6%, to the foot of l'Alpe d'Huez. The finish is in l'Alpe d'Huez.
At 167 km it is almost as long as what is described as a Grand Tour 'Queen' stage, i.e. the hardest mountain stage, and has at least as much vertical ascent as you might expect at nearly 6000m.
It is, it goes without saying, a serious undertaking, for which you need proper physical condition, and during which you need to husband your resources. The first time I rode it, I was in ok shape, not really race fit. (I should point out, so as not to mislead any of my readers, that as a bike racer I was extremely mediocre, very much of the type of bike racer described somewhat unkindly as a career 3rd cat).
I had ridden the mountainous, but not monstrous, Mégève – Mont Blanc sportive the month before, and been taught a lesson by 2 middle-aged French guys, who were riding 1980s bikes, and not because they were rocking the vintage look. They were much, much better bike riders than me, and were also enjoying themselves much more than I was, despite the fact that we were riding only a little way in front of the back-markers. I rode away from them on one of the early climbs, only to find myself clinging to their slip-streams later on on the next climb, having been caught on a descent.
As always seems to be the case with older French guys with legs and arms the colour of leather, they descended like the proverbial stones and were laughing their way around the course, taking pleasure in their surroundings and the company. They understood better than I did the importance of sitting back and pedalling, to use Stephen Roche's phrase. I was still riding stupid.
UnfortunateIy I hadn't learnt my lesson, and I was taught it again, and received extra punishment for failing to pay attention on my first visit to the Alps. Alpe d'Huez was my educator.
I can still remember the awe with which I was struck when I turned onto the climb to Alpe d'Huez for the first time. It's not like Mont Ventoux or other climbs that have a gentle introduction. You turn off the flat valley road, go over a small bridge, turn left and there it is, rearing up in front of your front wheel, like a black cliff, impossibly steep.
The first time I rode up it as the finish of la Marmotte, I was utterly destroyed by it. I was over-geared, over-cooked and had stupidly used up what little I had left after climbing the Col du Galibier on the descent of Lautaret, messing about trying to share pace-making with guys who probably got to the finish an hour ahead of me. I got about half-way up the climb to the first hairpin, and I mentally cracked. The famous 21 hairpins – 21! – I couldn't even see the first one! I didn't know that the first lacet of the 21 is one of the longest, if not the longest.
I had already submitted before I even saw the first bend, and pretty soon was sat by the side of the road, trying to get my heart rate down. I can tell you that there is very little in this world that is more demoralising than watching other people ride bicycles up a climb that has forced you to stop, and climb off yours. I seem to remember that I stopped once more, and then finally managed to haul myself up into the village and across the finish line. 9 hours 40 mins or something around that mark. 90 minutes to get up the final climb! Nearly 3 times Pantani's record! Nearly an hour off a Gold time! The internal reproaches went on like this for a bit.
But apart from my time, and a few bad moments on the last climb, the experience had been magnificent. The start is in Bourg d'Oisans, on the valley floor at the foot of the cliff above which sits the village of Huez and the famous ski station itself, often known only as 'the Alp' by anglophone cyclists, as if it were the only mountain worth talking of. The road out of Bourg towards the valley that leads to the Col de la Croix de Fer runs straight and flat for around 10km.
I have ridden all sorts of cycling events, large and small, from Critical Mass in San Francisco to the Essex Road Race League, and I think that there is nothing in the wide world of cycling that is anything like the start of a really big, multi-thousand rider cyclo-sportive. The strongest sensation I felt was complete unvulnerability, mixed with a powerful sense of awe at what I was seeing on the road ahead of me.
I would guess that the first 500 starters (riders are allowed in this group by invitation only) are already starting the first climb to the reservoir above Allemond, some 20km away, whilst the back-markers are still crossing the start. The road is a river of cyclists, an amorphous mass of wheeled humanity humming along, occupying most of the road. A road closure, marshalls, police outriders – for the main field of la Marmotte, normally tens of thousands strong, all such things are irrelevant.
La Marmotte follows a really superb course. The Col de la Croix de Fer, even if it is climbed from the much easier south side, and the Col du Galibier, two 2000+ metre climbs upon which all of the giants of the sport have written their legends. The Galibier is climbed from the north, also far harder than from the south, and then after cresting the pass, always smeared with snow-banks, for it is cold even in summer at 2645 metres, a mind-bending 50km descent, through unlit tunnels, with hundreds of more or less gifted and crazy descenders weaving in and out of the groups that form on the drop down the Romanche valley from the Lautaret.
Falling, falling down the watercourse towards the final climb. Past the Chambon reservoir, past Les Deux Alpes, and into evocatively named Gorges de l'Infernet. The road twists and turns here, clinging to steep valley walls, and then climbs away from the river, through a tunnel and then, at last!, turns into the wide open valley in which is le Bourg d'Oisans. The road along the valley perfectly straight, following the cliff on the right, up which the riders know they will have to ride. The turn out of the Gorges de l'Infernet made all the hair on my body stand up, even the second time. The drama, the majesty of the physical setting is overwhelming.
I was better prepared in my second ride in La Marmotte. I trained harder. My brother gave me a pulse-meter, and I learned how to use it, so that I could better measure my effort. I rode La Ventoux – Beaumes de Venise and did a Gold time, having enough strength left on the Dentelles de Montmirail to catch and drop other riders. I was in good shape.
I had ridden conservatively, trying to hide in the bigger groups and restrained myself from any show-boating or wasted effort. Arriving at the turn towards the last climb, I knew I had roughly 75 mins to get to the finish line to get my Gold time, a time I knew I had done a couple of days before. There was no stopping by the side of the road this time to put my lungs back in my chest.
I rode right on what I knew was my aerobic max, and backed off immediately if I went over. I took drinks only when I was riding on the flat part of the bends to avoid putting myself into oxygen debt. And I watched the time. 8h 50 was the time I was aiming for. It was going to be close.
The Tour normally uses a different route to enter the ski station proper these days, so doesn't pass Virage 1. La Marmotte does, and the final kilometre is another wall. I was out of the saddle a lot on this section, as I knew I was nearly out of time, and it didn't matter if I blew up. I reached the roundabout, 200 metres from the finish and was showing 8 hours 49. I sat up, and coasted over the line (actually a mat that registers the passage of a chip tied to your ankle).
I was too impatient to wait around to get my certificate, so I went and had a beer, got washed and changed, had another beer (or maybe it was a glass of sparkling wine? Or probably both.), and then went back and got my certificate. It was wrong. The time was right, 8 hours 49 minutes and 2 seconds, but the colour was wrong. It said 'Argent'. It should have said 'Or'. Not Or, as in equivocation, but Or as in unequivocally Gold. I turned around to ask someone to change the colour, as they had got it wrong. Then it slowly dawned on me. They had not got it wrong, I had. The Gold time for my age group wasn't 8 hours 50 minutes, it was 8 hours 49 minutes. I had missed it by 2 seconds. The time I had lost when I sat up and coasted over the finish line. 2 seconds.
Ok, it wasn't anything like as devastating as losing the Tour de France by 8 seconds on the last day of the race, but I did feel pretty stupid. At dinner with my riding companions from the Gastrobiking organisation that had organised my trip, we encountered Veloventoux, also hosting some British cyclists, from the north of the country. On hearing my story, one of them piped up: two seconds? Might as well have been two hours!
This post was sponsored by Eureka Cycles, suppliers of Orbea, Moda and Ridley bicycles