The first edition of the Tour de France was held in 1903. It was hard from the start, with 300km stages common. From 1905, the race visited several climbs in the Alsace region, such as the Ballon d'Alsace. It wasn't until 1910 that the Tour de France first visited the Pyrenees, giving the world the now famous images ofriders snaking their way up the gruelling slopes. In 1910, race founder and organiser Henri Desgranges posted himself at the top of the Tourmalet, only to see race winner Octave Lapize stare and say nothing but "assasin!" to him. Club member Stewie Martin tells his account of the high mountains and fellow club mate Ben Cousins adds his account too.
Itching To Climb
The trip began straight out of the blocks ? a gentle if long climb up to the Col Du Lautauret 2036m in the morning sunshine. With this safely under out belts we scooted down the 40km or so to Bourg D?Oisans where our interview with Alpe D?Huez awaited. I had ridden this before and was keen to improve my time and get under the hour. I kept telling myself that the best way to tackle this climb was to take it steady to about half-way and then crank it up. The problem was that I got a bit impatient and started pushing at hairpin 18. By hairpin 11, I realised I should have stuck to my plan. By hairpin 8 I was well into the red and very aware of a closing group behind that included Ben who had taken a much more sensible approach to the hill. He caught me between hairpins 4 and 3 ? I kept on his wheel for about 3 pedal strokes. As he headed off into the distance I consoled myself that this was not my hill. I managed to sprint the final 150m to the finish line and then fell off the bike ? 64:45 approx. Ben was happily sitting at the top having finished a good 2 minutes up.
The Col du Lauteret
Ben: My first time up d?Huez was really tough ? the unrelenting gradient, and the desire of the whole group to go up it quick meant I very nearly went into the red on a couple of occasions. By opting for the very boring technique of riding very strictly in a specific heart rate zone I managed to crawl to the top without too much incident.
Perhaps burying myself on Alpe D?Huez was not the best preparation for the next day?s 155km ride including the cols Glandon, Telegraph and Galibier ? essentially the route of the Marmotte without the Alpe. The Glandon was a lovely climb and it was refreshing finally to get away from the traffic. The descent was tight and twisty but following a good wheel meant that as we headed down we were almost touching 80kph. A long drag along a hot valley road before the Telepgraph awaited. Again a steady climb shaded by the trees and I was chatting away happily all the way to the top. However, my HRM told a different story ? I had been over 180 all the way up. Ominous.
We rolled down into Valloire and then up again with 16km of climbing to the top. When you start counting the km down on the flat bits you know you are going to have a problem. I also knew that the longer the flat continued the steeper the rest of the hill would be ? how?s that for a negative attitude! Halfway up and sure enough things started getting a bit uncomfortable, I nearly broke the shifter trying to find a lower gear than the 39x27. I could feel the power sapping from the legs as I got higher and higher. Then the faintness and dizziness kicked in ? I put this down to the height. With less than 2km to go I had to stop before I fell off. Dizziness gone, I climbed back on and pressed on to the top. Ben, who had been first up the Telegraph had clearly found his climbing legs and had been at the top for some time. Jackets on and a furious descent into Briancon a la Vinokourov
The Col du Glandon, with a view of Mont Blanc
Ben: I wasn?t keen on the constant changes of rhythm on the Glandon, but it was very beautiful. I Flew up the Telegraph, which felt like a downhill in comparison to d?Huez. The Galibier was a different matter ? really had to dig deep for the final 8 or 9km and got to the top with a raspy throat and feeling very cold. Wanted to get back down to Briancon ASAP.
Our hotel for the night was the Cristol ? where Discovery had stayed during the Tour in July. We had been tipped off that M. Armstrong had stayed in Rm 26 so Ben grabbed the keys. Sure enough the room was significantly more luxurious than the others in the hotel. It was lost on me though as I was on my knees praying to the porcelain princess. Dehydration, altitude and the large hills had taken their toll on my guts. That evening I managed to get down two glasses of milk and a double scoop of lemon sorbet. Not exactly what the nutritionist might suggest as recuperation for a 6000+ calorie day.
Alpine Rootz ? aware that some of us were getting a bit tired ? gave us a lie in the following morning, before we tackled the Col d?Izoard. This is a beautiful hill and I think we both felt much better for the morning off. Nevertheless my legs were still sore on the early part of the climb as I lost touch with Ben?s wheel (again!). But after about 20 minutes I began to feel stronger and before long I was back on his wheel ? yesterday was forgotten and I clicked up a couple gears and pushed on. I crested the col with plenty in hand and ready for the exhilarating descent across the Casse Dessert down to Guillestre. It had rained and the roads were a bit slippy. With the weather gear parachuting I could only manage 79.6kph. As we descended I took a quick peek behind and as I did so the breeze caught my contact lens and whipped it out of my eye. Then it began to rain again. So there I was, hurtling downhill half blind on a slick narrow mountain road.
Ben: Izoard was an odd climb, we were rained on during the short downhill about 5k into it, and my knee started playing up with the cold. After that I couldn?'t get a rhythm and enjoyed watching Stewart whizzing off into the distance, obviously in his element. When I got home I looked at some stunning classic photos of the climb, and had no recollection of any of it!
If we thought the Galibier was big we had still to reckon with Col de Restefond/Cime de la Bonnette. This was a good 34km of steady climbing but it was smooth, quiet and picturesque. We toddled up the lower slopes ? I hung on the back of the group trying to see how little effort I could put in. Quickly the group fragmented, Ben hurtled skywards and was minutes up the road while I was still chatting and exchanging crap jokes down the hill. Eventually the group thinned out and then round a hairpin I clicked up a couple of notches and started climbing in earnest. Clearly, the conditioning was coming, as I began to fly up the mountain. A photographer grabbed a photo at a hairpin near the top but could not catch me to give me his card. I was in no mood to wait, as I had spotted Ben ahead and was intent on catching him before the top. I made contact just as we hit the Cime ? the stupid bit of road that qualifies the col as the highest in Europe. It is steep though and the legs felt tired by the top. It was also cold and we were not there long before we decided to head back to the warmth of the valley. Another lovely fast descent with an open view of the upcoming road and fantastic vistas.
Ben: Definitely my favourite climb, it justs goes on and on, but never at a punishing gradient (well, apart from the 15% bit at the top!). Had a bit of a dizzy spell from the altitude after getting off the bike and was very eager to get down into the warmth of the valley. Also started to feel a bit sniffy...
The Giant of Provence
For the final target of the trip we clambered in the Alpine Rootz bus and drove south to Sault. The day?s ride was a whopping 115km with Ventoux at the end. We pedalled through lazy French towns and sleepy little Provencal villages ? wisely avoiding the scarily monikered Col de Homme Mort - before a cheese sandwich fuelled us for the climb up. Somehow the climb never really starts ? you just suddenly realise that the big ring is not useful anymore. The fields give way to trees and the road begins to wind and switchback. The group stayed more or less together for the first few kms but then it began to split into a familiar pattern. A whippet like South African/Scottish 16 year-old shot up the road. He was by some distance the best climber in the group (and at 52kg he should have been). Clearly talented I wouldn?t mind betting that he?ll pop up again as pro in a few years time. I stuck behind Ben ? a good place to be seeing as the wind was rising. After a couple of pulls our little group fractured round a hairpin. I clicked up ? once, twice, three times ? this felt strong and a quick look at the clock told me I was climbing at 26kph. Round another bend and the car came up beside me with some encouragement. I clicked up again and was now over 34kph and leaning into the hairpins. Suddenly the mountain opened up and the road kicked up sharply. The car came alongside again and told me that I had opened up 6 minutes on the riders behind but that I was closing fast on the pair ahead. I pressed on, the road markers showed I only had a few km left to catch them. A quick salute as I spun past Tommy Simpson?s memorial and I could see my prey ahead. The road had run out, though, and I failed to make the catch. I was probably the only person wishing Ventoux was higher! HRM metered 199 at the top though. Not bad for an old git. Having grabbed some photos, a rock from the mountain and paid our respects to Tom we hurtled down the hill rarely dipping below 60kph and scaring quite a lot of tourists on the way down as we shot past their cars. This was, I think, my hill.
Ben: My cold was really kicking in now, but I was determined to give the hill a good try. My overall impression is of something out of the Twighlight Zone ? a climb that starts without you realising it, followed by being blown up a mountain at 20mph+ and a final steep, windy section that nearly knocked me out. Whether it was psychological or not, the hardest part of the climb was close to the Simpson memorial. You can definitely see why he collapsed on that section, being very steep, exposed, and still over a kilometre from the top.
The next day was scheduled as a rest day. We were back in Briancon and there was serious debate about a ride over the nearby Collette de Fenestre as used in the Giro this year. At an estimated 140km the concensus was that this was overambitious and we decided to save it for another trip. We did, though, head up the Col de Grannon ? location of the highest ever TdF finish at 2413m and where Lemond took yellow from Hinault in the ?86 TdF. This is a great climb ? and is 10% or so for the whole 11km of the climb. I soon fell in with James the South African junior and we climbed hard and fast together. Dave Cook, former British Road Race Champion and 1992 Olympian chased us to the top. We had climbed the hill in less than 50 minutes. Hot chocolate in the mountain hut at the top and then down again for a pizza. After a beer, I decided I needed one more climbing fix so headed alone up a narrow road carved into the cliff face to the Col de la Croix De Toulouse. This was enough not least because the last mile was 10% unpaved!
Over the six days I reckon that we climbed 11300m and covered about 540km. Alpine Rootz were excellent ? we were well supported with food, energy drinks, mechanical support, and encouragement (and if you wanted them - time checks!). I would strongly recommend them to anybody thinking of tasting the mountains or doing a cyclosportif in the region.