Well, the “Alpine Challenge” certainly turned out to be challenging. This is a long write up, but there’s a lot to say. Before I start, a reminder that this is, in part, for charity so please visit https://www.justgiving.com/Ben-Rapp-2014 to donate to the NSPCC. We’ve reached 44% of the £3,500 target, so please dig deep. As ever, my thanks to everyone who has donated so far.
Unlike the other rides in my 2014 NSPCC campaign, this was not a public organised “Sportive” but something a few of us from my cycling club put together. I’ve written this from my perspective, in keeping with the other write-ups in this series, but could neither have organised the ride nor made it up the Cols without my fellow riders, so Miguel, Phil, Pete and Alistair – chapeau!
Day 1, Thursday – Baptism of rain and mist
114km; 2,944m of climbing; 6h 14m of riding; 3,485 calories
The day dawned miserable and rainy; we all scrabbled about for every bit of clothing we’d brought with us, and went out looking more like a February ride in Hertfordshire than July in the Alps. We’d plotted a roundabout route with some moderate climbing to begin with as a kind of entrée, followed by the Col de Sarenne as the main course with the Col d’Ornon for dessert. We rode down the valley and through Bourg d’Oisan in mizzling rain, then started climbing Alpe d’Huez. After five of the famous 21 hairpins, we turned off to follow the Route de la Roche d’Auris. We rode up a fairly gentle grade along the side of a dramatic Alpine valley, made all the more dramatic by the mist – we could see a precipitous drop to our right, but it was a drop into nothingness as the road seemed to float along in the clouds. We crossed 1300m, then descended into Le Freney-d’Oisans. A coffee break was threatened, but had to be abandoned due to a distinct lack of open bars.
Now the real climbing began – the Col de Sarenne, 1000 vertical metres of relentless ascent at an average gradient of 8%. We would climb steeper grades later in the week, but this was my first experience of Alpine climbs, and the enduring memory is of the relentlessness of the slope; there is no respite. The weather continued chilly and damp, disappointing more for its restriction of the views than the temperature, which was something of a blessing in disguise as we sweated our way up.
The Sarenne is the hard way up to Alpe d’Huez; once you’ve summited at 2000m there is a descending saddle across to the resort at 1800m. That descent was the only time that day that the weather really hurt – the chill at altitude going straight to the bone despite having thrown on every layer, leaving my teeth chattering and my shivers making bike control surprisingly difficult.
Lunch at a little restaurant in Alpe d’Huez let us warm up and compare suffering. The old hands reminisced about taking the same route in better weather, while the neophytes congratulated each other on surviving thus far. Substantial quantities of carbs – in solid and liquid form – having been ingested, we somewhat reluctantly set off towards the second climb of the day. We made a brief tour of the resort to find the official finish line of the Alpe d’Huez climb, then began the long descent of the 21 famous corners. I confess that in the wet, with dodgy rear brakes (a long story, but when Mavic say “Exalith pads only”, I can tell you they mean it), I was more Wiggins than Nibali. In the dry with practice it would be magnificent – even in the wet we were doing 80km/h at times.
Back down through Bourg d’Oisans, with a brief stop to remedy the brake problem – thank God for proper bike shops – and a left turn off the D1091 to head up the Col d’Ornon. Fired up by road signs warning that the 1091 would be closed next weekend for the Tour, and fuelled by our excellent lunch, we made short work of the 11k ascent. Although it has its steeper sections, the average gradient is only 6% and after the Sarenne it seemed remarkably manageable – despite being three times the length and four times the ascent of Box Hill. The gentler grade also gave more scope for appreciating the Alpine meadows populated by cows – and sheep – with traditional bells.
Once at the top, we turned tail for a quick descent back to Bourg; much more enjoyable this time, with open sight lines, a shallower gradient and working brakes at both ends of the bike. We rolled back along the valley floor to our base at Oz-en-Oisans, home in good time for bike cleaning, showers and bragging before dinner.
Day 2, Friday – Catastrophe
45km; 849m of climbing; 2h 13m riding time; 1,334 calories
The weather outlook was uncertain, and the forecast unsettled, so we stuffed our jersey pockets with all the cold weather gear we had and, thus encumbered, set off for the Col de Lautaret and the infamous Galibier. A minor interruption just outside Bourg d’Oisans when one of the party hit broken glass in the cycle lane and destroyed a tyre; a companion and I raced into Bourg to procure a replacement, then hared back again – tyre around my shoulders like Mercx carrying a spare tubular in the glory days. My pride in having joined International Rescue was only slightly deflated by the realisation that there was in fact a bike shop fifty metres behind where we’d stopped in the first place…
The climb to the Lautaret skirts the side of a deep river valley; the scenery is jaw-dropping – vast cliffs, steep gorges, snow still clinging to the highest peaks. The ride is punctuated by slightly scary unlit tunnels and occasional would-be racing drivers whose squealing tyres thankfully give us plenty of warning. The weather had held fine; we were all somewhat regretting having burdened ourselves with arm- and leg-warmers, rain jackets, gloves, overshoes and buffs as the sun beat down.
Unfortunately for me Thursday’s exertion had taken a toll on my knees, and as we began the climb towards Lautaret it started to feel as though someone was stabbing me above the patella with a knitting needle on each pedal stroke. Bagging the Galibier is very much on my bucket list, however, so I persevered until about a third of the way up. By this stage I’d had to stop the group twice to take a break and it was clear that I wasn’t going to keep up, so I let them head on and continued at my own slow pace for a while longer. About half-way I simply couldn’t keep going through the pain any more and had to abandon. I stopped, dejected, at a garage – inevitably closed, it being after twelve and before two – and called a taxi from Bourg.
By half-past three I was back at the hotel, down in the mouth and wondering whether I should pack up for home. Fortunately the hotel’s owners know an excellent physiotherapist who – more good fortune to follow the bad – was at the hotel when I got back tending to another patient. She kindly fitted me in that afternoon and worked hard on my legs. She suggested that with rest and ibuprofen I might be OK for the following day, which lifted my spirits immeasurably.
The others got back deep into the evening, exhausted but triumphant. They’d done 124k and nearly 2,400m of climbing; all had made the summit of the Galibier. I listened to their tales of derring-do with the best smile I could muster, then slunk off to bed resolving firstly to emerge renewed on Saturday morning, and secondly to go back and climb the Galibier as soon as I can.
Day 3, Saturday – Resurgence
124km; 3,656m of climbing; 6h 43m of riding time; 3,894 calories
Another rainy day. With some trepidation on my part, and a certain exhausted resignation from all of us, we saddled up for the biggest ride we’d planned so far. The Col de la Croix de Fer is one of the most famous of the Alpine climbs and often a feature of the Tour; the Col de Glandon, which ascends to the same ridge by another route, is one of the most demanding.
The climb of the Croix de Fer starts from just below the front door of our hotel, so there’s little warm-up although the initial gradient is not too vicious. One quickly ascends into truly glorious scenery, even in wet, misty weather; at one point the slope above me to the left looked like a Japanese watercolour, with mist shrouded trees cloaking the mountain either side of a frothing waterfall. The climb is punctuated by a single descent into a river valley; from that point on the gradient steepens to 8% and one’s appreciation of the landscape diminishes as the eyes focus up the hill praying for a crest.
There is a crest at 1,800m, with a short descent then the final 200m of climbing to the true Col. Thankfully both the weather and my knee held, so although it remained cold and misty it wasn’t too miserable. Nonetheless, the – very friendly – café at the top was warmly received by all, pun absolutely intended as the temperature at the top was resolutely in single digits.
After a fortifying coffee we began the seemingly endless descent to St Jean de Maurienne. This is more than 30km of constant descending; occasionally taxing on the nerves, always taxing on the brakes, but exhilarating and of course a huge relief after all that climbing. As we dropped into the valley, we also dropped into sunshine; the transformation in the weather was extraordinary, with sunshine and 25° warmth in St Jean.
It took a couple of stabs to find a restaurant that was both welcoming and provided a table with a view of our bikes. I suppose it’s heartening to find that at least some local waiters still maintain the ancient tradition of sneering hostility which was for so long the mainstay of the French hospitality industry. Our eventual choice couldn’t have been more accommodating, providing huge quantities of salad and charcuterie despite neither being on the menu, and once more we made inroads into our calorie deficit.
At last we could put it off no longer and began the return via the Col de Glandon. This starts with a further descent into the valley towards St Etienne; this is faintly depressing as one remains constantly aware that every metre descended must be climbed again to get home. The climb itself starts around 600m of altitude, and basically never lets up until just over 1900m. It gave me my first taste of normal Alpine summer climbing, as heat management and inescapable flies took the place of drizzle and chilled neck muscles. It appears that the flies can keep pace up to about 10km/h. It also appears that 10km/h is about as fast as I can go up a 10% gradient. Flies 1, Ben 0.
As we climbed, the weather closed in once more – in some ways a welcome relief from heat. Ultimately it seemed of little importance; Glandon is a properly hard climb – or at least so it seemed to me as the second Col of the day. I’d enjoyed the Croix de Fer; I survived Glandon, but only by narrowing my focus to keeping the pedals turning. At times I was in my lowest gear (34×32) at 50rpm – which is to say very very slow indeed – just remembering that every four pedal revolutions meant a metre climbed. My knee had flared up again, although not as badly as the previous day, which added to the fun, particularly since abandoning half-way up Glandon wasn’t really an option. I stuck it out, and made it up – last of the group – and am slightly unreasonably proud of having done so.
The weather had a final gag in store for us as we wrapped up and began the descent back down the Croix de Fer – it began to rain. Not just the mizzle and patter of previous days, but a serious downpour. The unexpected consequence? Blindness. I’d taken off my glasses, which were too rain-spattered and fogged over to be much use. Descending at 40-50km/h, the wind felt like it was sandpapering my eyeballs, to the point where I couldn’t see at all. Not the most comforting sensation at that speed on those roads. Even once I’d put my glasses back on it took a couple of minutes for my eyes to stop hurting, and I still couldn’t see much. The rain let up eventually and the return of vision made the streaming wet roads somehow much less threatening. Nonetheless the descent was, at times, heart-in-mouth stuff. A 14% gradient seems bloody steep when you’re looking down it, and coming off the brakes means accelerating like a sports car. All of us reported more brake wear across these three days than we’d normally see in a season back in the UK.
The last few kilometres were a blast as we hell-for-leathered it home. Never has a hot shower, a big meal and several glasses of wine been more welcome. There had been talk of a brief assault on another Col on Sunday morning before we set off for home, but – unsurprisingly – the consensus over dinner on Saturday night was that we’d done enough – indeed, had enough. We’ll be back next year, though; there are still Cols unridden and waiters unbearded in their dens.
Alpine Challenge: 283km; 7,449m of climbing; 15h 10m of riding; 8,713 calories
NSPCC 2014 so far: 750km; 12,982m of climbing; 33h 25m of riding; 19,617 calories