The Journey So Far..
The bus was buzzing as we approached the foot of Alpe d’Huez. In two days we were going to be tackling the iconic climb with 160 kilometres in our legs and here was our chance to see it close up. Laughter as the driver struggled with the gears on the first uphill section; cheers as we reached the first hairpin (number 21); a joke at hairpin 20; …..; whispers at hairpin 10; … ; silence at hairpin 5 as we broke through the tree-line to reveal the Alpe d’Huez village perched above us. Over the previous 4 years I had climbed the 21 hairpins several times but I was still asking myself “why am I doing this?”.
As with many challenges, it started with two questions:
- why not?
- how hard can it be?
I ruptured my cruciate ligament playing 5-a-side football against players half my age and during the long recovery period I missed the occasional endorphin rush of exercise and competition. My brother suggested we try an off-road multi-sport event (see Question 1) and a few weeks later we ran, biked and kayaked around an army training ground. I loved the challenge and over the next few years gradually worked my way up the field – top half, top quarter, top 10%, top 5%. During that time road cycling became the thing to do and I thought I would try a sportive. Obviously, I went straight for the toughest one day “cycling event in the world” – the Marmotte (see Question 2).
My first attempt, in 2013, helped me answer Question 2. I got ready by buying a pretty carbon fibre bike, making sure my tyres, handlebar tape and jersey were all the same F1-fast tone of red and put all that preparation into completing a flattish, 100-mile sportive in Sussex. I think I memorised the route (Glandon; Telegraphe; Galibier; Alpe d’Huez) for my second ever sportive but I wasn’t sure how long it was going to take me to ride 175 km with over 5,000 metres of Alpine climbing. I got through the first three alpine climbs using my endurance event knowledge to focus on the next target - start with the next 5 kilometres and shorten as things start getting tough. As I crested the summit of Galibier in just over 7 hours, my target had shortened to the next 5 pedal strokes but I thought I had about an hour to the finish – easy! Nearly two hours later I stopped on the long road to the foot of Alpe d’Huez, drained of fuel, water, energy and hope. “You alright, mate?” drifted into my conscience – salvation in the form of a fellow Brit! I was guided to the next feed station, no more than 100 metres along the road, where I could re-fuel the body, re-set the brain and convince myself that I was going to finish. After the low point, the next two hours was a hot, painful slog. Alpe d’Huez came and went in a blur of exhaustion and I crossed the finish line in a daze after 11 hours on the road!
The main feeling in the days after the event was of being so lucky to be able push myself to such a painful extent and savour the experience. A few days before the race our brother-in-law, Graham, had passed away after a long illness and my wife, brilliantly, had agreed I should go. Knowing that you have the time, health and family support to participate in such self-centred activities is easy to lose sight of and to have it made so clear puts things into perspective. I did my best, for a few days at least, to give back some of the family support and let the aches and pains in my body fade. After a month or so I took a detailed look at the results. I had achieved a bronze medal time and was about 40 minutes off gaining a silver medal. That 40 minute gap started bugging me and as 2013 rolled into 2014 I started thinking what I needed to do to bridge the gap.
Question 2 – you get the idea.
I was going to do some real preparation for Marmotte 2014, focus on getting some climbing miles in my legs and, of course, spend some silly money on new bike and kit.
I splashed out on a featherweight carbon climbing machine with deep-rim carbon wheels (more of them later) and started to put in some serious miles.
In previous years my typical training week consisted of a gym session (run or bike), a gym weights session (got to look good in a tight cycling top), a long run on a Saturday and a bike ride on a Sunday. Over the winter of 2014 I cut back on the weights, started using a turbo one evening a week and pushed the duration of the Sunday bike ride up to the 4-5 hour mark. I competed in a range of hilly sportives and generally got myself much more bike-fit than posing in a t-shirt fit.
I set off for the 2014 Marmotte full of confidence. I still didn’t have a real plan other than to push hard on the uphills and not get too scared on the downhills.
Unfortunately, that plan started to unravel as we rode from the hotel at the top of Alpe d’Huez to the start line at the foot of the mountain. It had drizzled overnight so the road was a horrible patchwork of dry, damp and wet patches and I overcooked the brakes so by the time we reached the start line the carbon rims were smeared with a thin yellow film of brake pad dust.
I convinced myself things would be OK and so they were until I started to descend the Glandon, and as I went around the second horribly steep switchback my back tyre exploded!!
The back wheel was almost too hot to touch as I changed the tube but I persevered and set off again, rather gingerly approaching the next hairpin. I got around the next hairpin but at the next, another pop and bang brought me to a halt.
I had come prepared with four inner tubes but as I pumped up tube three there was another bang as the tyre rolled off the rim and the tube burst. Aaaah!
I don’t know how but I managed to calm myself and think carefully about what to do next. I put in tube four, muttered a few cyclist’s prayers and pumped the tube up to about 60 psi.
This would at least allow me to roll down the remainder of the Glandon descent (mercifully I was now past the worst bits) and decide what to do when I got to the village the bottom. I got down safely, despite the best efforts of a massive bull that wandered into the road at one point and decided what to do next.
Of course the correct, completely rational thing to have done was stop at that point and get some help but obviously I had used up all my clever brain cells figuring out how to get down the mountain, so I decided to carry on riding with an underinflated back tyre and no back ups left.
It was hard work getting up Telegraphe and Galibier with a wobbly and spongy back tyre but I had put in the training miles so I was going to put them to good effect.
I did have second thoughts at the top of Galibier. After paying a silent tribute to Graham (something I do every time on that summit) I assessed where I was:
- 25% back brakes
- 50% front brakes(on the Telegraphe descent I had avoided any further damage to my back rim by only using my front brake but as the descent is flowing and sweeping rather than technical and s**t scary I had lightly grilled the front rim rather than cooked it)
- no spare tube;
- ultra-fast Alpine descent ahead of me.
I applied cycling logic and decided to carry on - dented pride and a long, cold wait for the broom wagon were obviously more important than anything else. Luckily the descent was dry and I was mainly on my own so I could pick a line through a corner and stick to it. I got down without incident and it was only when I was on the long valley road that the stupidity/enormity of what I had done started to sink in.
I stopped at a private feed/water/mechanic station provided by the company who had organised my trip about 5 km from the foot of Alpe d’Huez. The chief mechanic prodded my back tyre, looked at me rather quizzically, shook his head and wished me good luck! I set off towards Alpe d’Huez mentally and physically drained but determined to see through the decision I had made atop the Galibier. I hit the first slope of Alpe d’Huez still with a reasonable chance of completing in a silver time. As I climbed I could feel my back tyre slowly deflating and with seven hairpins to go, it gave up completely. I trundled on, not willing to be defeated by the lack of a back tyre, shredding bits of carbon and rubber as I went. I could feel every bump and dent in the road, expecting the back wheel to give up the effort at any moment but everything held together until I turned the final hairpin. At that point I knew I would finish and all the tension of the previous hours hit me – crying like a girl I crossed the line and collapsed in a heap.
The next morning at breakfast I sat wearing my silver medal looking at the Alpine view. I had been massively lucky to complete both my Marmotte efforts, experiencing highs and lows on both and had progressed from bronze to silver. I pondered what it would take to get to gold.
Could I do that?
Before I could stop myself, Question 1 popped into my head shortly followed by Question 2.