10km to go, the final push. It’s over 36 degrees, the black top winds in front of us ever upwards towards the summit. We know the Casse Deserte will offer a tiny respite to our lactate filled legs, but with over 170km in us and lots of cyclists, good cyclists, going down like flies all around us, we wonder if we can get there? Days later Christopher Froome will use this part of the ramp to Izoard to attack his rivals for the final time before Paris. He knows that if he can stay in touch, with a time trial to come, he will surely have another Maillot Jaune to add to the Team Sky collection. We are at about the point where Froome’s super-domestique Michal Kwiatkowski came to a complete standstill after giving everything for his leader, he exploded, but we can’t afford to do that…….we must get to the top. The three of us started this together and we will get each other over the line….won’t we?
The decision was made last autumn. Having completed London to Paris in 24 hours our training kicked on with a month of hill work in the South Downs. We are fortunate to have such wonderful cycling landscapes in our backyard and the Worthy Wheelers were getting pretty fit. Fit enough for the L’Etape du Tour? Not yet, but we could be……
For some of us the mountains have always been part of our lives, for others the history of cycling demands we test ourselves on the Cols where Grand Tours are won and lost. It’s one thing to steal a Strava Segment with a lead-out train in Micheldever, quite another to duke it out in the high mountains. So with places secured, flights booked (well not actually, this was all done a bit last minute) and a nice little bolthole near Briancon booked through Air BnB (like putting all your chips on red and praying the owner doesn’t get a better offer and rig the table to black) we set to work.
The winter training revealed lots; firstly, if anyone needed any confirmation, Brian, Paul and me are quite competitive. Secondly, the mind-games are fun, but don’t really work. Whether you post all you rides on Strava, power data and all, or hide some to try to convince your mates that they don’t need to do that extra session, the reality is that training makes a difference, and yes that means time in “the pain cave”. Sadly, there is no getting away from the torture of the turbo trainer if you really want to improve.
Winter turned to spring and kilometres were building. I’m told that everyone enjoyed the early season hill repeats, in fact I have had many requests to relive our February tour of Beacon Hill……..not. The weight loss started and continued to “race day”.
By July 16th we were fully fit, fired-up racing snakes ready to do battle with the mountains. I’ve discovered from experience that a friendly delusion like this is important for endurance events, so that’s what we were, three 40-somethings, slightly past our bests, but racing-snakes nonetheless. And Jesus, did Paul take off like a racing-snake. The one with L’Etape and Haute Route experience exploded from the line like he was doing a ten-mile TT. “Find a group and let someone else do the work,” he had told us, “don’t burn your matches early,” he had warned……Brian and I just tried to stayed with him. We jumped forward between groups, sitting in the middle for what seemed like a nanoseconds rest and then we were off again…….we had covered the first 50km in an hour and a half and 100km in just about 3:30, including stops. That was one decision we had made together, we would stop at every feed station for fuel, but most importantly water. I had made the mistake of over heating on Ventoux a couple of years previously and I wasn’t going to be one of the flies dropping on the side of the Col d’Izoard.
Playtime over the hard work began. A gentle category 3 climb at 60km from Savine-le-lac had reassured us that we were in good shape, but as we left the beauty of the man-made lake the Col de Vars loomed on the horizon. The categorised climb (Cat 1) is 14.6km long with an average gradient of 5%, but in reality the climbing starts 30km before that as you leave the valley floor. For the record I climbed it in 1:05:05 at an average of 247 watts, by comparison Warren Barguil did it in 35 minutes……..(if you fancy a laugh look at his ride on Strava and count the cups).
Unsurprisingly we all struggled at times during the day. It was hot, not surface of the sun hot, but 36 degrees at the bottom of the last climb is plenty hot enough. The heat took its toll on us all, but on Brian in particular, but despite clearly suffering his training and determination got him to the bottom of the fearsome Col d’Izoard and from there we only had another 14.1km at 7% covering 990 metres of vertical to do……
Bloody-mindedness, that’s really what it comes down to. Training, preparation, diet, sleep, the right bike, all those are important, but when you are too hot and can’t lose the heat, when your legs hurt like hell and your back is breaking, when you know your mates feel better than you do and you think you have nothing else to give, that’s when it really counts. Tap out the rhythm, get to the next corner, promise yourself you will not be one of the flies……you will get to the top.
But Brian nearly didn’t make it to the start. If ever a lesson about traveling with a bike was learnt the hard way, we learned it in July. Turns out that finding a mech hanger for a Colnago C60 is quite hard in the Alpes, they have one in Turin though………
A word to the wise, buy yourself a spare mech hanger and take it with you whenever you take your bike away with you…….you have been warned!
10km to go, the final push. We stopped for water, to drink and to pour over ourselves to try to cool down. There was shade for 30 seconds from the only cloud of the day – what a blessing, and the supporters who had turned up early to get their spot for the Tour were out in force to cheer us on. We kept climbing, passed the women on the e-bike (really!) and through the Casse Deserte….we would make it. We summoned that last little bit of energy for the final few hairpins. Looking back down the mountain the road was full of riders, a mass of humanity all fighting their own personal battles with the inclined tarmac. We turned left for the final time, and there it was, over the final time check, under the banner…we had made it. The Worthy Wheelers had ridden L’Etape du Tour 2017, from Briancon to Izoard.
We did make it, and it was worth it, every pedal stroke. The scenery was spectacular, the camaraderie superb. Yes, the climbing was hard, but we had trained well and kept enough in the tank to make Izoard manageable, if not pleasurable. The descending was to die for; long swooping turns on closed roads with perhaps one of the best views in the world over the Lac de Serre-Poncon. The back of Vars wasn’t bad either; 25 minutes averaging over 43 km/h with a top speed of 67 km/h was good fun, if at times a little scary.
But the climbing, the descending, the scenery, the sweat, the pain and the trepidation are not what make an event like this so special. No, it’s the months of training with your mates. The Worthy Wheelers Wednesdays in the cold and the dark of winter, the understanding and patience of your cycling buddies who climb the hills with you on a frosty February morning, not because they want to (I’m sure a flat ride and coffee would have been better), but because they understand that they are part of something bigger.
That’s what the Worthy Wheelers are all about; friendly, supportive, fun, like-minded cyclists who look out for each other. So if that’s your bag come join us one Sunday, everyone’s welcome (we don’t go at 43 km/h). On alternate weekends we run a friendly paced short-ish ride with a coffee at the end back in Kings Worthy. The ride often continues after the coffee stop……but then it’s “Top Gear” rules!
With the 2017 season flying by thoughts turn to 2018. Next year we will take things one-step further. We are planning a multi-day event from Geneva to Turin to raise money and awareness for 2 charities: Heartburn Cancer UK and PLANETS. Teams of up to 4 will be self-supported for this 5-day event. If you are interested in getting a team together let me know!