Everything sounds muffled, except for a faint ringing in my ears and the sounds my own body is making, although I’m ‘feeling’ those rather than ‘hearing’ them: the thumpthumpthump of my heartbeat in my chest (174bpm); the panting of my lungs as I try to suck in more oxygen to feed desperate and failing muscles.
There is a bead of sweat irritating the end of my nose that has run down the inside of my sunglasses, smearing the lens and blurring my already blurred vision. No matter, my tunnel vision has narrowed down to a point on the tarmac a perpetual 18 inches ahead of my front wheel that I’ll tantalisingly never reach. And my mind. My mind is playing games with me, stuck on a conversation I had over thirty years before with my GSCE Physics teacher about gravity.
“It really isn’t a very strong force. Even though the whole weight of the entire planet is pulling you down, you can still jump clear of the surface quite easily”. The WHOLE WEIGHT of the ENTIRE PLANET is PULLING ME DOWN? How can that not be a strong force? QUITE EASILY? Why does it hurt so much pedalling my machine uphill if it is NOT a strong force? What am I doing here, less than 1km from the summit of the Col du Colombière? More importantly, how am I going to survive the week? I’m on a six day trip following the Grande Route des Alpes from Geneva to Nice by bike with four other fools and two (lithe, fit, and svelte) guides from La Fuga. It’s Day 1.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I realise I may have overcooked it on the first day*. After nine months of preparation, anticipation, late-night mid-week turbo sessions after work, a calorie-controlled diet regimen to attempt to turn ‘chunky’ into ‘hunky’, those cumulative hours circling Windsor doing 20minute intervals at 240w, the sacrifices endured by my long-suffering wife, kids and friends, and culminating in an unexpected, painful and inconvenient broken collarbone twelve weeks prior to ‘go’ with subsequent race to recover using ‘science’ (lasers, magnetism and witchcraft), I may have gone off with a little more zeal than I should have, as excited as a five-year-old on Christmas Day morning when faced with a huge pile of presents and told to pace himself.
We all came together in Geneva with different expectations, different abilities and different goals: seven individuals brought together by an accident of logistics, scheduling and ambition. Six days later – only six days! – we arrived in Nice as a single, mountain-hardened unit, brought close together through the shared experience and camaraderie of the journey. And it really was a journey, in all senses of the word. We didn’t stay in the same place more than one night, constantly heading further South from A to B to C to D to E to F to G, seeing the landscapes around us visibly changing as we moved from Evian on the shores of Lake Geneva into the magnificent high mountains of the Rhone-Alpes, down through the more striking Maritime-Alpes to the sun-drenched Cote d’Azur with it’s blue, blue sea and hustle and bustle of beautiful people intent on having a good time… and finally into Nice along the appropriately named Promenade Des Anglais. But – clichéd as it will no doubt sound – we had also each come on a personal journey, testing ourselves against the limit of our abilities, becoming stronger and liking what we had found, immersing ourselves totally in the experience of riding the bike and freeing our minds to explore areas of thought we hadn’t previously contemplated, and feeling ourselves enriched and changed for the better by the entire experience.
The daily routine was simple and, on the surface, repetitive: all we had to do each day was ride our bikes over the three or four big climbs marked out on the route card presented to us at dinner the night before (as we stuffed our faces with excellent food to replenish our depleted reserves… ok, ok, to pile on guilt-free calories). Everything else, and I mean everything else, was taken care of by La Fuga**. Yet nothing about each day was simple or repetitive: in fact, it became progressively harder and harder to warm up tired and damaged legs each morning, to climb back onto our bikes, to mentally prepare for yet another series of relentless, two hour climbs. However, there was something pure and liberating in that each day, we only had to think about one thing: “Today, we ride!” Nothing else mattered for those six days, and it was wonderful. Our route was extraordinary.
I could (and I do, non-stop to everyone I have met since) go on-and-on about every single col we climbed (and we did climb all of them – all those fancy Tour de France ones: Colombière, Madeleine, Glandon, Alpe D’Huez, La Bonette, the Izoard, Roselend, the Vars, Lauteret, Turini, Madone, etc. etc. as well as the less well-known ones, the off-the-beaten track climbs like the Cou, Notre Dame du Pre, the St. Martin, their narrow roads winding their way up through unknown valleys, through picturesque little towns and villages, and through forests and pastures, etc.), but I won’t *ahem*. Each one was different: some I climbed strongly, others less-so; some I climbed alone, others in company. But each one was also the same: the backdrops were constantly, jaw-droppingly spectacular (compare and contrast the Casse Desert atop the Izoard vs. the Barrage of the Cormet de Roselend, anyone?); the gradients both relentless and rewarding; the summits a blessed and welcome relief; the descents fast and exhilarating. Each of the six rides a memorable ride in itself, but patched together end-to-end became much, much more – an accumulation of effort, elation and comradeship that etched itself deeply into our hearts and legs, that even now, several weeks later, I’m finding emotional (sorry).
At the end, we came down off the Col D’Eze at speed, descending the wide sweeping turns in a fast, drawn-out pace line, looking the business in matching red La Fuga jerseys, perfectly in tune and aligned with each other after riding and living side-by-side for close to a week. We dipped our toes (ok, and more) in the Med, drank a beer or two on the promenade, before going out for a last celebratory supper in Nice old town that turned into a bit of a party after some champagne, some wine, and some Limoncello. There were genuine feelings of euphoria: a proper arrival at our journey’s destination; a tangible sense of achievement; and if we actually admit it, a relief that tomorrow we wouldn’t need to mount our bikes yet again and ride up another brace of climbs. But there was also some sadness, as this was the end of our journey.
And just like that, the next morning, after we’d lived on top of each other for a week, ridden together day-after-day, having broken bread together one last time, it was over. We left and went back to our own separate lives. But we had shared something that brought us – if even for a moment – as close together as family. It was a privilege to ride with the two Simons (our guides, thoughtfully provided by La Fuga with the same monikers), with Keith (King of the Col du Castillon), with Tony (King of the cycling anecdote), with Ryan (considerably younger than us, new to cycling, with no idea quite how strong he already is, and will become – when I imagine in my own head how I look on a bike, it’s a lot like Ryan #mancrush) and – as ever – with Mike (my long-standing riding buddy, partner-in-crime and generally outstanding rouleur), and the memories of this trip will last for the rest of my life.
Geneva to Nice via the Grande Route des Alpes over six days; 820km distance; 17,250m climbing; June, 2014***.
* OK, OK, OK, I admit it: I have a habit of overcooking it. I like to think I’m a LOT better on the bike than I actually am. There are only three things I’m lacking that stop me being really good at this: talent, youth and genetic makeup. I’m just really not cut out to ride bikes up hill fast. But I do have several redeeming qualities: a stubborn, almost OCD-like ability to train, no matter how dull; an ability to suffer and push myself very hard (and I do take pleasure from that); and a pathological aversion to ever, ever quitting (I believe that if you quit once, your body will forever more remember that siren call and silky, seductive allure of just how good it feels when you stop, and you’ll never, ever be able to ride as hard again, so I … errr. don’t). All that having been said, my failings shouldn’t put you off doing something like this. Remember, I’m in my mid-forties, a desk jockey, and a fat bastid. And I rode every single pedal stroke of this entire trip from start to finish having trained about 6-7 hours a week for six months (including a broken collarbone). If you prepare properly (as opposed to ‘preparing properly’, which apparently involves drugs, transfusions and strange men on motos) AND you ride within yourself (unlike me), a trip like this is eminently achievable, and – God – you’ll feel good afterwards. Nothing beats that sense of achievement.
** This article isn’t meant to be a testimonial to La Fuga, but I have to mention the quality and consistency of their service. The basic logistics – airport pick-ups/drop-offs, hotel bookings, ride support, route maps, day-to-day problem-solving, banter, etc. – were all spot-on, but it was the little details and personal touches that made the difference: rounding a corner halfway up a big climb, or at a viewpoint of outstanding natural beauty to see the bright red La Fuga gazebo set up for lunch, with tables and chairs laid out; after a ride in the rain, all our bikes being cleaned and lubed after the ride without any fanfare leading to some puzzled and pleasantly surprised faces the next morning “what, my bike is actually white? I had no idea”; at stop points, having your bike taken off you immediately, so you can focus on sitting down/eating/cheering-on/gloating (delete where applicable). At no point during the week did I look at any of the other myriad tour groups we came across and say “I wish we had our guys doing that for us”, whilst many of them probably did.
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