Yesterday the challenge for the year finally arrived: the Tour du Mont Blanc. I heard about the race from my friend Artur, and the stats say it all: 330km. 8000m elevation gain. Three countries. One day. After the 326km 5800m Luchon-Bayonne last year with 2 friends, this represented the next step up. All 3 of us signed up and the stage was set, although ultimately missing one- miss you Valeee.
At the presentation the evening before the race, they predicted excellent weather conditions; its always a challenge to dress for such a long day: a 5am start, going through midday heat and a possible late finish, but this forecast made it a little easier. After a 3:30am wake up, the 5am start was something I will never forget. 700 riders hurtling down a bumpy and fast descent in total darkness for 15km, surreal and terrifying are words that come to mind.
As light started to appear, we reached our point where support crew Vibeke collected our jackets, and straight afterwards the first climb began. I was in the main front group, but the pace was very slow- sense said to stay there, but when I saw 3 riders up ahead, I decided to clip across to them. I caught them halfway up, and our ‘break’ of 4 was working well. One of them told me there were 8 riders ahead at that stage.
I stopped at the first food stop for water and a banana, and that allowed a small regrouping as another 20 or so riders came up from behind. We got stopped at a train crossing later, and our group swelled to about 30, still with just 8 further up the road. The views of the perfect white face of mont blanc towering above were truly magnificent, with stunning rays from the rising sun over a nearby ridge making the early start feel wholly worthwhile.
On the next climb, the Col de Forclaz, was the first time I felt a little in trouble: I was trying to eat a bar which was just horrendously dessicating- drying every corner of my mouth with an unswallowable earthy nastiness- it felt like an age before I could finish the freaking thing. As I was distracted by this, our group split, but regrouped on the fast and glorious descent into Martigny-Combe. This lead us straight into the 40km (yes forty...!) climb of Col du Grand St Bernard.
The first 14km are only really a gently rising drag, after which came a food stop. Again, I stopped for replenishment, but much of the group didn’t. That meant I started the 26km ‘real’ climb with just one other (and a shout of ‘hup hup!’). Impressive feats of road architecture in the first part of the ascent paled into insignificance conpared to the majestic surroundings, before we entered a 6km section of interchanging complete/ partial tunnel. We met many vehicles from cycling teams heading to the Giro Ciclistico della valle d’Aosta race on the way, and this section was also an awesome resonance chamber for the few sports cars that passed- vroom vroom.
After the gentle climbing through the tunnel, the road took an altogether different character: the last 6km back in fresh air frequently pitched up to 12%, which after 2hrs of climbing and above 2000hm is a whole different story. The last few kms were painfully slow, but finally I reached the 2443m summit, alone, after having to wave my companion goodbye on some of the steeper slopes.
The first part of the descent was icey cold, but it wasn’t long before the swooping bends took me down to the warm valley near Aosta. After cruising through the valley, a series of sharp right handers broke the serenity. The second went straight into a steep uphill, and suddenly PING, then click click click click click. Broken rear wheel spoke. Shit.
As I stopped to assess the damage, I sat there thinking, oh well, at least now the hardship is over. Then hmmm I can’t call for a lift home from here- I was literally in the furthest place from our accommodation... ! Also the broom wagon could be more than 3 hours away.
At least I was back in the Italy (therefore EU) and could use my phone data, so I searched for the nearest bike shop: Cycles Lucchini, in Aosta 7km away, downhill. However it was closing in 20 mins.. should just be doable, even on a buckled wheel.
3 km into my tentative descent, BOOM. Rear tyre exploded. The wheel was so buckled from the missing spoke that the tyre was rubbing on the frame and wore straight through.. now I was really up shit creek.. off the race course, a f&cked tyre, still 4km from the bike shop, now closing in just a few minutes..!
Ok, next solution- maybe a stranger can give me a lift.. ! The next car to pass was a Landrover Discovery, big enough for a bike I thought. He stopped at my pleaing waves, and through a combination of English, French and Italian we communicated enough for him to take the bike in the boot and we headed to the bike shop ! We made it there just minutes before closure, and wow a huuuge thanks to Marco at Cycles Lucchini Aosta for without hesitation replacing the spoke and tyre- Italian Pirelli, of course xD
Urgency finished and back on the road, my body brought some new pressure as I postponed my return to the race route for a stop in a bathroom...! Phew, now finally I was ready to start the Climb back up. I finally returned to the spot where the spoke broke 1hr40mins later, now in the searing midday heat. On the sun exposed climb with no wind, the sweating was biblical, so I was delighted to see a water fountain shortly after re-joining the route.
Refreshed, just a few minutes later I was even more delighted, when, seeing someone stopped at the side of the road and about to ask them if they needed help, I realised it was my friend and co-conspirator on this mad event, Mikel!
Any chance of a fast time gone, and with my legs not exactly on fire anymore, I thought we might as well get to the finish together. In the days before, Mikel had been having doubts about going the distance, but for both of us a friendly face and some shite talk were a welcome distraction!
We had one more climb and a crazy, winding and badly surfaced descent before we already reached the first big pasta-serving food stop of the day, and then we were facing into the biggest difficulty of the day: the 10km Col de San Carlo, at an average gradient of 10%. This climb is not usually on the route, but this year, a clash with the race that all those team cars were headed to earlier, deviated our route up this brute.
The Giro d’Italia had passed this climb too, and ‘Nibali’ and shark depictions were sprayed on every tortuous kilometre. Needless to say, we were not going to be challenging Ivan Basso’s record time of 33m54s which also had a dedication scrawled on the tarmac.
Laughter helped to hide the tears, before a breath-taking descent of tight switchbacks saw us to the foot of the Col de Petit San Bernard, and immediately we were headed skywards again, now to 2192m. By now it was after 18:00, and at that altitude, little of the earlier warmth remained! Nearly 30km of descending later (yes, its as awesome as it sounds!), we reached the second pasta stop- cheesy pasta this time. damn, not for my vegan proclivities! Bananas, dates, bread and oranges would do xD
Now we had just 54km left.. not so bad.. but 35 were uphill xD. We started up the 19km climb of the Cormet de Roseland with the light already starting to dim, and still the personal support crews some riders had were leap frogging back and forth, offering support to all between shouts of ‘allez Papa’ for when their hero passed. The last descent was sketchy and fast, but offered a truly awesome view of the wonderfully turquoise lac du Roselend. Wow!
The descent ended with a launch pad ramp directly onto the last climb of the day, and it would have been a shame not to sprint up it full gas, before letting my momentum die and regrouping with Mikel! Now only 16km and 800m of elevation gain separated us from the finish. We settled into a rhythm, already recounting the highlights of the day, and soon we could see only each other’s lights, and those of a couple of others that had tagged onto our pace.
We passed small lit towns before plunging back into eerie mountain blackness, still and fantastic. The occasional car that would pass us, cast our shadows onto the hillsides, an uncanny and spectacular image, somehow framing the insanity of this day which felt like it had been weeks long. Anyone who has read this far will no doubt feel the same xD
Grinding away at the gradient, cowbells were being rung in a small town for some runners finishing an event possibly as silly as ours, and the spectators were equally as supportive for those of us on two wheels.
These little things saw the kilometres tick down, until ONE, just ONE remained!! Mikel and I crossed the line side by side, 17h37m56s after leaving les Saisies in total darkness, and now returning as if the sun had never come up at all.
This was an insane day that seems hard to believe actually fit within one 24hr period. My spoke breaking turned out fantastic for letting me jettison any ego and sharing an incredible day with a friend, the weather was beyond any expectation one might have hoped for, and the organisation and support were absolutely fantastic.
Thanks to Vibeke for the lift to the start and home from the finish and collecting our jackets, to the fantastic Cycles Lucchini, and to all the organisation and supporters: merci, grazie mille, danke schön !!!