How to cycle the Tour de France's loftiest peaks ... and survive to tell the tale.
The Tour de France begins today in Noirmoutier-en-l’Île and once again as a keen amateur cyclist I'll sit back and admire Herculean tasks being performed on bikes hopefully believing that the sport is cleaner than ever with regards to doping.
What gets my adrenalin surging with regards to cycling is a love of climbing hills on my bike. When your body is cracking, grinding up a steep ascent its then the mind must take over. Mountains cycling has taught me a lot in life with regards to perseverance when situations get tough.
Anyway, enough psychobabble. A few weeks ago I fulfilled a long held dream to tackle some of the classic mountain hill climbs that feature in the Tour de France. I headed over to France on Eurostar with my road bike to attempt five of the toughest in just 7 days. If you do take your own bike by rail note that Eurostar and TGV don't always marry up in having space on the train for an assembled bike. I circumvented this issue by carrying my own in a bike bag.
I took the train first down to Pau in the Pyrenees and next morning set off to scale the legendary Col d'Aubisque - a regular mountain pass on La Tour. It was an hour into an 80km ride across the Pyrenees towards Argeles Gazost that I started seeing road signs stating Col d'Aubisque was closed. There had been a lot of snow overwinter but now in bright sunshine I was baffled and concerned I was going to be unseated on the very first etappe of five mountain challenge.
I decided to ignore the signs and climbed ever higher through the sharp alpine scenery until reaching a point where the road had quite literally slipped over the edge. But there was room for a bicycle and I was let though to continue my surge (actually more of a grinding crawl) towards the summit on gradients that averaged over 8%.
The sunny mountain pass had a small restaurant and in high heat I decided a small beer was in order to celebrate summiting this first 1709m classic. The road closure ensured there had been no traffic at all. I'd had the whole hillclimb to myself - as if on a breakaway on a Tour de France stage only cycling at a 50th of their speed.
I overnighted at a renowned cycling hotel for riders in the Pyrenees called Hotel Primerose in Argeles Gazost where cyclists are pampered with everything from an extra course of pasta at dinner to a workshop for tinkering with damaged derailleurs. At 2115m Col du Tourmalet has featured in more TdFs then any other mountain climb. I soon found out why. I rode to the base of the climb and had a 19km quite brutal ascent through sharp jagged scenery with small cirques of snow still trapped from the winter.
With about 8km to go I felt like I was cracking. I was straining right on the limit - trying to focus on the ringing cowbells and calls of high-circling eagles (or were they vultures sensing dead meat?).
I pushed on until the final few hundred meters which suddenly kicked to around 15% gradient. I was so drained I settled into a restaurant for a bowel of Basque duck soup - a reminder that the Spanish Basque border was just a few kilometres away. On the summit is a striking metal sculpture of a cyclist who came over the pass in the 1910 Tour de France and allegedly yelled at the race organisers that they were 'killing' the cyclists. Tourmalet has never been easy. If I look a tad miserable in the image below its because I barely had the energy left to raise my arm and point at the sign.
The week intensified as I crossed from the Pyrenees to Vaucluse in Provence - a long day by train that was effectively my only day off. But despite weary legs I was energised by the Mount Everest in terms of reputation of TdF history - Mont Ventoux.
By now I had emerged into a landscape of dry pine forests and vineyards.
Renowned for its exposed summit and high temperatures I began a 21km climb to the summit at around 7am after squeezing down as much patisserie as was possible given the early start. But what a climb. I felt not just the steepness of gradient heading through the lower slopes forest but a sense of history on my shoulders as I snaked ever upwards.
Eventually I emerged from the trees with 6km to go and had to pause to take in what looks from below like a snowcapped summit but is in fact heat and wind cracked gleaming quartzite. The other noticeable landmark is what looks to be a lighthouse. Of course it is not because the Mediterranean is a long way to the south but it turns out to be an aerial-communications tower. The summit isn't beautiful but my sense of achievement was firming up as fast as my calf-muscles.
What I have not mentioned thus far are the descents. For every big climb you have to come down and I'd be tested next morning on that front after a long 6 hour road journey beyond summiting Ventoux took me into Savoie Mont Blanc in the High Alps.
By now I felt like I was cycling in the land of the giants as an amphitheatre of jagged snowy peaks topping 2500-3000m cradled my 4th ride up the famous Col du Galibier (2642m). This was my highest and most thrilling climb. The alpine road winds incessantly for the 22km uphill beyond its smaller sister, Col du Telegraph. The vertical drops off the side of the mountain slopes are hairy and a little unnerving. But I felt euphoric hiding up despite the strain on my legs as this monster climb offers little rest. I almost wanted to sing out in a state of alpine euphoria like Maria von Trapp but decided this was tantamount to a violation as serious as doping.
After three hours I made it up Galibier yet the descent down to Valloire took a frightening 25minutes as I pushed up to speeds of 75km/h. I've had far too many crashes to usually ease off on the brakes but I guess my euphoria carried me away. Still the hairpin bends invite caution as the road sweep down the mountainside and livestock occasionally ambles out into the road.
I drove for four hours that afternoon to Morzine about an hour south of Geneva to tackle perhaps the least known of my five TdF mountain giants: Col de Joux Plane. I'd tackled these climbs solo so it was sociable to join a Saturday morning organised ride arranged by Buzz Performance. Run by Amelia & Joe from Tasmania, they create swimming, cycling, and triathlon fitness packages. I welcomed the company on the 52km circuit to Joux Plane .. .but was a little worried about doing it with a pack of triathletes (or whatever the collective noun is for them?).
What a finish to my great two-wheeled odyssey. The climb is spiteful in places but the soft alpine meadows and distant views of Mont Blanc made the whole experience most enjoyable. Its remarkable too how much extra firepower my legs had attained in just 5 short days.
The only problem with this challenge is that from now onwards I may struggle to be motivated by ascending anything less than these colossal road climbs saturated in historical cycling lore.
But as the 105th Tour de France commences today I will look out for every curve and perhaps cracks in the tarmac that I spent gazing for hours on end and expending an immense amount of energy getting a taste of how much suffering is required to be a rider on a 'Grand Tour'. My respect for these remarkable athletes has now reached new epic levels.
My ability as a cyclist is nothing special and I don't have a particularly fancy bike. But with the right mindset this was a challenge that could be overcome and filed away as an experience of a lifetime.