I’m having a bit of a moment. At 4.45am in a dark, chilly car park in Les Saisies, high in the French Alps, I’m getting ready to descend to Megeve with 500 odd other riders and I have a broken zip on my jacket. Any hopes at remaining “tranquilo” before I begin the world’s toughest one day bike race look to be scuppered as I struggle with the stubborn little piece of metal and unfairly growl at my girlfriend. A couple of deep breaths, some brute force applied to the zip and I recover my senses and make my way to the start line, calm restored.
It’s no surprise that emotions are running a little high – this moment has been on my mind for well over 2 years since I first read about Le Tour Du Mont Blanc. Back in 2013, less than 12 months after taking up road cycling, I discussed it with a good friend during my first cycling trip to the alps. We both concluded that the training required to take on the 330km challenge (with over 8,000m of Alpine climbing) was way beyond what I could reasonably manage given all the other commitments in life.
But after getting a good time for La Marmotte in 2014, I dared to think the Mont Blanc ride could be possible and started planning and training for a challenge that very few British riders had attempted in its 5 year history.
So after 2 years of dreaming, here I am at the start line (zip fixed) revelling in the moment of just having made it there, sharing it with the other riders gathered around and wandering what the French guy on the PA was going on about. Best of all I was feeling “ready” and with the support of my girlfriend Jess, who was driving the whole route that day, I was feeling pretty good about my chances of completing the ride in good time.
However, if my 3 years of riding have taught me anything, it’s that self-congratulation is always swiftly punished, and today would be no different. A matter of seconds after crossing the start line, my main light bounced off its mount. I pulled over and had to run back in the dark, calling out to and dodging the swarm of oncoming riders, to get the light back from the middle of the road. This was going really well – after one hundred metres I was already on my second “moment” of the day. After a couple of minutes fiddling I decided the light mount couldn’t be fixed and I’d have to rely on my thankfully bright blinker light to get me down the mountain safely. By the time I got back in the saddle, an eerie quiet had descended. I was alone at the top of the mountain, all hopes of getting into a good group near the front of the race dashed. As the broom wagon pulled out of the car park behind me there was nothing to do but laugh at my situation and settle into the descent.
With reduced light, damp bumpy roads and some nervous riders on the road, I was pleased I’d recce-ed the first 20km of the descent the day before. Despite the less than auspicious start I was still able to enjoy one of the most magical starts to a sportive anywhere in the world. For the first couple of kilometres I could see lights from the whole field descending the mountain in front of me. After I’d worked my way through about half the field the road took a carving u-turn at the head of a valley and I was treated to a truly fantastic sight. Up to my left a long line of white lights streamed down behind me and ahead, hundreds of red lights showed me the road snaking down towards Flumet and on to Megeve.
As the road hit the valley floor below I started to warm up the muscles and check out the riders around me. As most sportive racers will know, picking the right companions on the road can be the difference between success and failure on rides like this. As long as I can find 1 or 2 other workers to ride with then I don’t get too upset at the inevitable hangers on that get picked up (it used to drive me mad but I’m a bit more zen about it nowadays). Without talking, Carlo from Italy and I started taking turns and set a nice pace down through Megeve. A grey but mercifully dry dawn had broken now and the glaciers hanging off the side of the valley walls looked huge and ominous. We continued our descent into the Chamonix valley, picking up and shedding riders as we went. As the road dipped into St Gervais Les Bains I pushed on, enjoying the wide fast road and suddenly found myself out front and alone. I hadn’t planned it but it turned out to be a good way of picking out the stronger riders on the road. Sitting up at the bottom, Carlo and the leading riders of the last groups we’d passed caught up. About 10 of us set off up the valley toward Vaudagne, sharing the work well.
Along quiet semi-suburban roads of the valley floor we came alongside the inspirational Christian Haettich. He’s an amputee rider with one arm and one leg well known in Alpine Cycling. A wave and a shout of ‘courage’ between us gave everyone a lift and then the road turned upwards for the first of a series of “warm up” climbs: Vaudagne, Col de Montets and Col de Forclaz.
As the cloud lifted, we were all treated to our first sight of the high peaks towering above us. Immense and grey in the early light, they gave us all a reminder of the scale of these mountains and the day that lay ahead.
The group I was in started to splinter as we all found our own climbing pace. As expected, I was working a bit harder than I should have been. I always seem to do that at the start of a big ride like this. However, we kept the pace high and, after dropping through Vallorcine and crossing into Switzerland, Carlo and I caught and passed several small groups of riders. I’m a big talker on the bike (probably very annoying at times) so I had a few nice chats with some fellow brits I came across here, including a Hamish from Aviemore near my home town in Scotland! Then, as we dropped off the back of the Col De Forclaz, we were rewarded to our first longer descent of the day. A magnificently fast drop into Les Vallettes in near perfect conditions. Exchanging grins and the odd whoop with other riders and seeing who could stay out in front with the best aero tucks. By the time I reached the valley floor I had covered 110km in 3 and a half hours! An amazing start but there was no way I could keep this up without paying a big price later on. It was the time to rein it in and settle into a pace more suited to what lay ahead. Next up was Champex Du Lac, the first ‘Hors Categorie’ climb and I dropped my work level to something I felt I could sustain all day. As a result I got dropped by Carlo. He had been a good companion but now, clearly the stronger climber, he disappeared up the hill. There were still plenty riders around me but the longer steeper gradient meant the groups had all but disappeared. On the way up Champex, a few rolls of thunder and the odd spot of rain reminded me of the dire forecasts for later in the day. The weather had been kind so far but there was still a long way to go.
Near the top Jess was waiting and I had my first quick stop of the day. An opportunity to get some food on board and ditch some weight (including my broken light!). As I got going again I hooked up with a big friendly German called Stefan and had a great bit of banter as we rolled through the very pretty forests and village of Champex Du Lac. The rain had stayed off on the other side of the mountain and the descent into Orsieres was another cracker. More technical than the last but stillvery fast. I knew by then that I was having a good descending day, both the bike and I felt good. A real relief given the amount of downhill left to negotiate safely. As I sat up at the bottom, Big Stefan caught up, “Heh Hot Wheels!” he shouted with a strong Bavarian/Arnie accent “Slow down you crazy Scotsman!”.
As preparation for today I had been picking the brains of Andy Thompson from Hammer Sports. Andy’s tackled this race with great success 3 times before and had given me some very detailed pace notes which were about to really prove their value. The Grand St Bernard is a two section climb. The first 20km is a steady 6-7% up to the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel. The scenery here felt incredibly huge, the giant valley walls dwarfing the road and the riders dotted along it. Heavy clouds hid the surrounding peaks and ridge lines, creating the feeling that the fairly straight and busy road was never going to end. As advised by the pace notes, I had dropped off my usual climbing pace for the long grind to the tunnel. Small groups of riders started to pass me I felt myself struggling mentally for the first time that day. It was so demoralising to be passed and the temptation to hop on a wheel was huge. I resisted and tried to focus on my effort rather than the speed. On top of this an occasional but intense knee pain decided now would be a good time to flare up. Things were looking and feeling grim and I really had to dig deep to keep it going through the half-tunnels in the last 2 km. After what seemed like an eternity I eventually reached the Mont Blanc tunnel entrance and turned off the road for another support rendezvous and a much needed break. I was so pleased I’d arranged a support meet here as it gave me a chance to recover my mind and body with food and painkillers. The road then kicks up for the last 6km to the Italian border, with gradients of mostly 9-10%. I started to feel good again as I settled into my usual climbing rhythm on the quieter road and with some food in my belly. Despite it being a good deal steeper, the push to the top felt much better than what had come just before. At the top of the Grand St Bernard, you are at the highest point in of the day and almost halfway through the ride. Just time for a quick photo and then onward.
Dropping off the Grand St Bernard into the Aosta valley in Italy is up there with my best ever descents. It’s a great road, conditions were perfect and, apart from a couple of cars to get past it felt like I had the mountain to myself. As I dropped off the steeper sections and slowed down through the first towns a single rider came past me, working hard and still flying down the hill. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss so I jumped on his wheel and, after a nod and a flick of the elbow, we smashed it all the way to the valley floor as a 2-man chain gang, grins plastered across our faces and all thoughts of sensible pacing out of the window! That 40 minute descent earned me a very satisfying 5th place on the Strava segment and, more importantly, put a huge smile on my face.
Once into the valley there’s another tricky section of the ride. It’s a very long (30km) false flat up the Aosta valley. The hope was to find a group to share the work so when my French chain gang buddy (who I called Alsace Dude) and I picked up another couple of riders, I thought our luck was in. After a few km of sharing the work between us, a new rider joined us from behind and said we should speed up and catch a “big group” that was in front of us. I was sceptical but in any case, as it picked up, I knew the pace was too rich for me. I reluctantly let the group of 5 pull away and dropped off the back. This was a hard choice to make but, after rationalising away the frustration of getting dropped, it was a really enjoyable ride up the valley. Hot sunshine warmed me through after the damp cool start to the day and there was added interest in the form of a major road race coming through in the opposite direction! Dozens of police and support vehicles, a couple of breakaways and a peloton of 150 or so flying past – great fun to spectate while riding my own race.
Next up was the very poorly named Col du Petit St Bernard. Believe me there’s nothing ‘Petit’ about it. Given the long drag along the valley floor before you start the climb proper you are actually ascending for over 50km! I had arranged my next support rendezvous at La Thuile about a third of the way up the ‘actual’ climb and, as the gradient increased, I picked up my Alsace Dude again. He was suffering a bit as the road pitched up and I was happy I hadn’t been tempted in to pushing the pace earlier. We rode together for a while but I had to drop him as I had found a nice rhythm and cracked on to my main stop of the day with just over 100km to go.
One of the hardest things to manage this far into a tough ride is eating. It takes mind over matter to force enough food down your neck, but my secret weapon is a protein recovery shake which is basically a meal in a bottle. After this and a few other morsels, I was ready to get going again. Feeling tired now, but with a growing sense that I could finish this ride. With 3 big climbs left and about 5 hours of riding I pushed on up the Petit St. Bernard at a steady pace. 150bpm, tick tock tick tock. If I can keep this going, keep eating and stay upright then I’m going to do it.
As I approached the top of the Petit St Bernard, my support “crew” (which had now grown to 4 as Jess’ father and her two boys had joined us at La Thuile) were giving me an huge lift with all their encouragement. But my growing confidence was quickly shut down by the scene that awaited me at the top of the climb. Several riders had been broken badly by PSB. As I took on some more food, I watched people shakily climbing off their bikes, being helped into cars by loved ones. Grown men in tears with the gutting disappointment of stopping after 250km of effort. It was a sobering reminder that completing the last 80km wasn’t a foregone conclusion.
I was back in France now and the descent into Bourg St Maurice was another brilliant section. There’s a long flattish section to begin with and a block headwind threatened to sap my energy. Luckily I picked up a large van that I could sit behind until we hit Rosieres and the road started to snake down the valley wall. Dropping the van I blasted down another fantastic descent, spirits high as the temperature rose again and the distance counted down.
In Bourg St. Maurice, the route takes a sharp right and the fairly gradual start to Cormet De Roselend begins. There were even a couple of negative elevation sections to enjoy. It was during these flattish sections that I met up with Alsace Dude again and we shared some food and encouragement before the road pitched up and we were separated by our different climbing pace. Once above the tree line, the last8km of this climb was pretty bleak. The weather had started to roll in and another strong headwind did its best to sap my morale on the long exposed straights. I was having to dig very deep now to keep my rhythm going. Forget the speed, just keep ticking along. It was the second tough spell of the day, but as I finally reached the col marker for Cormet De Roselend I allowed myself mini-victory salute. Just one descent and one 15km climb to go!
The first few km of road at the top of CDR had been relaid and was quite gravelly, so I took it easy at first. Once the road surface improved and dropped down to the very picturesque Lac De Roselend, I was able to let the bike fly. As the road hit the lake shore the weather finally broke and I was treated to a biblical deluge of fresh and very welcome rain. It felt brilliant and gave me a huge boost in mood and energy. I was able to crest the little climbs round the lake at speed before heading into the shelter of the forest and down toward Beaufort. I had recce-ed this last few km in the preceding days and it was massive fun to descend the familiar road at speed in the rain.
After flying onto the bottom of the last climb I had to remind myself that I still had a climb similar to Alpe D’Huez to get up. I settled down to a sensible pace for the last hour or so. Don’t be greedy with the time, find your rhythm and stick with it. Apart from a nasty bout of hot-foot (solved by pouring my second bottle into my shoe!) this last climb went really well. I found myself passing quite a few riders from which the days efforts had clearly taken a massive toll. Some off their bikes, steeling themselves for the final push to the line. Some looking as if the last climb might have beaten them. I know how horrible it is to bonk and suffer on a big climb and was thankful that today I seemed to have avoided that fate.
About half way up the climb I had another nice bit of banter with Rob Seeley from Brixton CC who, after I dropped him with 4km to go, decided he was going to blast it to the line, catching and passing me as the village of Les Saisies came into sight. Good effort Rob!
Instead of trying to catch him, I decided to soak up the last few minutes and emotions of the ride. The sun had set now but as the road crested the valley wall, the gradient lessened and the clouds split. I was treated to one last magnificent view of Mont Blanc in the dusk. I’ve seen it looking whiter, brighter, bigger and with bluer skies before. But right then it had never looked so magnificent, my euphoria colouring the scene for me and the knowledge that I’d just ridden right around it giving me an inner glow against the cool alpine evening. These are the moments when all the training and sacrifice pay off and the reason I’ll always keep searching for the next ‘impossible’ challenge.
The last kilometre up through the village to the scattered applause of locals, tourists and early finishers was just great and I crossed the line to find my brilliant support crew waiting. It was a truly incredible ride. There had been highs and lows but in the end I’d bettered my best predictions for the ride and completely changed my perceptions of what is possible on a bike. As if all that wasn’t enough (thanks to the generosity of many friends, colleagues and family) over £1200 had been raised for Shelter UK. Of the 500 starters, 350 were able to complete the ride. Times ranged from a jaw dropping 12h 10m to a truly epic 20 hours. Every rider from the first to the last and those who tried and failed, will all have their own special memories and stories of a great day. Over its 6 editions, only 875 individual riders have completed the Tour Du Mont Blanc – if you ever try it, “Courage!” and I hope you have an experience as fantastic as mine.