Ok, that was tough, today we reached the halfway point of The Tour 21 ride, riding a stage on which I had to dig deep to complete. There were four categorised climbs today, each on getting progressively harder starting with a Category 2 then a Category 1 and then 2 HC (Hors catégorie, a climb that is “beyond categorisation”). Riding 151 km of the stage, and another 15km to the hotel at the finish, climbing 12,800 feet, it took 10 hours to complete.
The day started as it would continue in a climb, gentle at first, but it wouldn’t last. At around 12km from a westerly direction we turned to the south in to a valley which would take us to our climbs. At 16km we passed the location where Sprint points will be awarded next week, an indication that the day would be tough as even the Tour organisers need to give the sprinters points early in the day as they would be too slow later in the day.
Riding up the valley as a group the mountains were so high on either side of us, how were we ever going to climb them? As we rode up the valley the river next to us flowed in the opposite direction. Our road, the river, a motorway and a railway line snaked up the narrow valley in a continuous steady climb until our first climb (Category 2). Only 3.4 km long but at over 8% it marked the start of the hard work to the finish, after that first climb it was no longer a gentle climb, it was a significant climb to the next categorised climb of the day marked by a right turn in a small town. A bridge over the motorway would be the last flat we would see for a while as we began to snake up the Col du Telegraphe.
This was something new, nothing like the climbs in Mallorca, a constant steep gradient as we climbed out of the valley, the only similarity was the number of cyclists who were as determined as us to climb to the top or who had already conquered the climb and were descending. The climb just went on and on, with high mountains all around us there was no indication where the top may be. In the hot morning sun we plodded on until a left hand bend and we were there – at the top, a scene not dissimilar to other climbs with cyclists having photos taken by the sign marking the peak. There was a little village at the top a few bars and some other organised groups had meeting points for their riders, but for us we carried straight through to begin the descent. Long by any normal standard but for us it was relatively short and we were soon in Valloire, a ski resort. With a few narrow roads to negotiate, before our lunch stop as we exited the town.
Just as we were finishing lunch Andy and Loz arrived having driven down to support the team for a couple of days. They walked around our group chatting to the support teams and congratulating the riders in their efforts so far, but it wasn’t long before we were off again, immediately in to the first of our HC climbs. Rising up the Col du Galibier from the moment we left our lunch stop, this time the road wasn’t as twisty but was just as steep as the Telegraphe. It was longer though – 17 km of climbing with a 6.9% average gradient.
Loz and Andy kept popping up at the side of the road to shout support and take photos, for them it was an easy drive up, but for me I had to concentrate on not pushing too hard. In a group of 5 we crept up the mountain for well over an hour, no particular steep bits but no flats either. Snaking up we could see the road in front of us, never ending, just going on and on. We came across a tunnel but it t was a sharp left in to a narrow road which would take us to the summit, a couple of bends and in front of us was a 300 meter straight of 12- 15% and still no sign of it ending, but then the road surface changed, painted different colours, a mass of people on the next corner, this was it – the top of the Col du Galibier. Time for a short rest, a group photo and a couple of minutes to soak in the view. In some directions you could see for miles, in others it was another mountain with snow and ice on the slopes, below us the road snaked up the mountain and I could see the climb we had just come up.
Then we were off, a bit technical at first with some sharp bends, joining the main road at the other end of the tunnel we had seen earlier, then the road opened up and we picked up speed and were descending at over 30 mph, and at times 40 mph!! At a junction our support team were marshalling, stopping cars as we approached so we could continue on our way, soon the road was nearly straight and had levelled a bit, but was still downhill. By the time we had finished it, that down hill was 33km long!!
Our last climb was HC again, some of us had regrouped and we rode the lower slopes together. Our support team was stretched, the previous climbs had split the group completely and they couldn’t look after us all. It was a good job Andy and Loz were around, as we climbed they came past in the car and we shouted for some water, they pulled in 200 meters up the road and as we kept moving took our bottles and topped up the water without us needing to stop. At one point they were topping up water on the move leaning out of the car window like you see on the TV.
This climb – The Col du Granon was near impossible, so steep, no flats to recover, every corner brought another slope to climb, just on and on and on. This was the first time I felt I might not make it, I had already climbed 2 mountains and a Category 2 climb, the heat of the sun was beating down, my legs were ok, but I was overheating and exhausted, but I wasn’t going to be beaten, I knew that once up at the top it would be over – I could free wheel back down to the hotel. The road was narrow, only wide enough for a car, so any that came stopped and let us through. We came across a car park, and a couple of building, the top? No a sharp right an up some more, we weren’t even half way up.
Some more buildings, this time an army base with soldiers sitting on steps watching us go by. Then I could see Andy, he would not be at the road side if it were not the top, we were nearly there, a couple more corners and that was it. The last corner was new tarmac, a slight left hander. Andy and Loz had been playing their games, in chalk on the road surface, like they do for the pro riders, were the words ‘#Tour 21 #Punisher’ and the nick name my fellow riders have given me -‘Nails’ as in …as hard as nails.
50 more yards to go, despite the tiredness I managed a little Sprint to the line an I was there. WOW that tough, I turned round and you could see a tiny town below, where else started our climb. Two HC climbs in a single day, the second a few years ago would have been impossible for me, but I had done it. Everyone was saying how tough it had been, everyone had suffered, all of us were elated at finishing but exhausted from the effort. Even our support teams, and Andy and Loz, were saying it looked the hardest climb they had seen.
Gillet on we were off on the descent to our Hotel where the Cure Leukaemia bus was waiting for us. On the side was the message of ‘Raising £1,000,000 for Cure Leukaemia’ reminding us that what we had done was worth it, and tomorrow will be worth it again as we retrace our footsteps in the other direction on Stage 12.