DISTANCE 246 miles (397km)
MAIN CLIMBS Cols de Saleve, Col de la Colombière, Col des Aravis, Col des Saisies, Col de la Madeleine, La Toussuire, Col du Télégraphe, Col du Lautaret, Col du Galibier, Alpe d’Huez
TOTAL CLIMB 10,100m
ACHTUNG! Col de la Madeleine — it goes on and on and on…
The inaugural Tour des Cols took place on August 22-24, 2008. This new sportive is the brainchild of Andy D’Agata, who tragically died while on the London to Paris ride that took place earlier this summer — all those who took part in the Tour des Cols would like to thank Andy’s wife for her continued support of the event and our thoughts are with her and Andy’s family.
According to the event literature, a three-stage event is the next logical step after riding the Étape du Tour. I can assure you that there is nothing logical about riding three hard stages in the Alps unless you have had all the pain receptors in your brain removed or are a pathological masochist.
I’m no climber at 1.91m (6ft 3in) in height and weighing in at 90kg (14 stone), so my sense of excitement was tempered by a nagging doubt that I might really struggle — a single day ride is one thing, but back-to-back 118-kilometre (73-mile), 148-kilometre (92-mile) and 128-kilometre (80-mile) stages, with 2,900 metres, 3,700 metres and 3,500 metres of ascent respectively, was another matter entirely.
Although I had put in the preparation I just wasn’t sure how my body would react to
multiple climbs of up to 27 kilometres and altitudes of over 2,640 metres combined with the extremes of temperatures found in the high mountains!
On arriving at the HQ hotel located a few kilometres to the south of Geneva, I was greeted by a collection of cyclists of varying ages and nationalities. The UK being the most heavily represented nation, there were also riders from Australia, USA and South Africa.
The entrance to the hotel was a hive of activity, with a stunning array of high-end carbon and titanium bikes being reassembled out of their flight boxes, and with the backdrop of Lake Geneva to the north and the Col de Salève to the south-east, the sense of anticipation was palpable in the air.
After dinner we were briefed about the following day’s stage and each of us was given a food bag into which we could place our en-route supplies. We would then be able to collect these at the feed stops the following day, allowing us to use our own choice of gels, drinks and food, avoiding digestion problems.
My feed strategy, which had been refined over the summer at hard UK events like the Dave Lloyd Mega Challenge and the Devil Ride, was to consume a High5 gel about every 45 minutes combined with the new Super Carbs high fructose drink formulation; this to be supplemented with a savoury sandwich or banana at the two feed stops, located every 40km.
After the briefing concluded, we headed off for an early, if slightly nervous, night’s sleep.
Stage 1: Archamps to Megève
The following morning dawned warm and dry but overcast. We set off, en masse, at 10am, and were soon climbing. A small breakaway of four, including myself, pulled clear of the rest of the field on the lower slopes of the nine-kilometre Salève climb, but as the gradient increased to over 13 per cent between kilometres five and six, I dropped back and was passed by a couple of other riders two clicks before the summit.
As I crested the top, I was greeted by the majestic sight of Mont Blanc in the distance, capped in brilliant white, summoning us onward to the Haute Alpes where the real test would begin.
In order to limit my losses on the lead group of three, which consisted of James Allen, Trevor Mayne and Henry Hayes, I hammered down the descent and up the next small climb before settling into a strong rhythm as I tried to hunt them down before the next big climb.
After refuelling at the first feed stop, I eventually caught the three leaders a few kilometres before the Col de la Colombière (1,613m) but soon lost touch with them on the 16.5km slope. Hitting the descent, the chase was back on and I caught them again just before the final feed at kilometre 84, located at St Jean de Sixt.
Unfortunately, as we arrived at the Col des Aravis (1,486m), although the gradient was less severe than the previous two climbs, the weather conditions deteriorated. As the wind and rain took hold, the temperature plummeted and so did my spirits, and I watched the lead group mercilessly pull away before disappearing entirely from view into the cloud-enshrouded summit.
The wet roads hampered my efforts to latch on to the lead group again on the 12-kilometre descent into Flumet, and despite a fairly easy last 10 kilometres to Megève, I was unable to close the gap, and finished five minutes down.
The overnight stop was at a lovely ski chalet where we were able to do some running repairs and maintenance on the bikes; as the riders came in it become clear that there was a lot to do. The list included a broken chain, a cracked top tube and a broken crank. The support crew managed to get most of the bikes back on the road, and the results team from Race Timing Systems kindly lent the rider with the broken frame a spare bike.
Stage 2: Megève to La Toussuire
It was a dry and cold Saturday that greeted us as we set off back down the road to Flumet. The work began after just 10 kilometres, in the form of the 15-kilometre Col des Saisies (1,650m). However, this was a gentle hillock compared to what followed.
Nothing I have ever done could have prepared me for the next test — the truly terrifying Col de la Madeleine. Twenty seven tortuous kilometres of climbing to the summit at 1,993 metres; it went on, and on, and sodding on… My overriding recollection was of constant pain — pain in my back, pain in my quads, pain in my arms — my whole body ached.
After reaching the feed station at the top of the Madeleine I quickly put on arm warmers and a gilet, grabbed a banana, swapped out my bottles and started the descent. And, although I was shaking from the cold on the first section, it was the best descent I have ever done. In fact, it was awesome: 78.2kph recorded on my Garmin 705 as I carved my way down the bends towards La Chambre.
After 10 minutes or so of freezing descent, the road flattened out along the Vallée de l’Arvan. According to the route card, next up was a fairly insignificant climb up to the ski resort of La Toussuire. However, it turned out to be 16 kilometres of hard slog and I ended up losing a total of 14 minutes on this stage.
Judging by the comments of the other riders that evening, I wasn’t the only one to have misjudged this last climb. However, our spirits were soon lifted by a favourable weather forecast for the final push on to Alpe d’Huez the next day.
Thankfully, the next morning I woke up feeling good, although the legs were a little tired. But then, that was to be expected after two days of some of the hardest riding I had ever experienced in my life.
Stage 3: La Toussuire to Alpe d’Huez
Having climbed up to La Toussuire the previous afternoon, we now got to descend it, and had the easiest start of any of the stages with a 44-kilometre easy roll-out to the Col du Télégraphe. As usual, when we hit the first climb the three lead guys took off, along with an Australian called Mark who had been stalking me throughout the previous two stages. I let them go as I settled into my rhythm, and was soon descending into Valloire.
Feeling strong, I soon caught the others before encountering the mighty Galibier, standing at 2,646 metres. I had been dreading this ascent, but my body had begun to acclimatise to the altitude and the endless climbing, and Mark and I paced each other up to the summit.
Blue skies and incomparable vistas filled my soul with the joy of simply being there at that moment, and for a moment the pain was eclipsed.
Mark started the descent 100 metres in front of me and was out of sight in no time. Pinning back my ears, I launched myself into the void and plummeted on towards the Col du Lautaret at an ever-increasing speed. At last I caught Mark, but not without one of my contact lenses flying out of my eye on the fastest descent I have ever ridden.
As the gradient began to ease, Mark and I settled into a smooth but fast cadence, sitting in behind cars and overtaking them when it was clear. It wasn’t long before we caught the leaders and blasted past them to their great surprise… they managed to get onto our wheels and we all rode in as a group to the last feed stop.
Our spirits were high as the five of us set off for our final test — Alpe d’Huez. The lead into the bottom of the climb was easy along the valley floor, and we all worked together until arriving at the lower slopes — at which point I went backwards and the other four rode on as a group.
After taking the first four ramps at a steady pace, I found that I was still feeling strong after bend five and I caught Mark after about six kilometres. The sense of excitement grew as I neared the top, and the road became increasingly covered with the names of riders from past editions of the Tour de France… Boonen, Andy Schleck, Armstrong…
Almost too soon I was passing through the village of Alpe d’Huez. A euphoric wave of energy welled up inside me as I sped towards the finish, which was plainly visible by the huge Tour de France logo painted onto the road and the banners flying above. Out of the saddle now, my legs and chest burning from the thin air, and for the split second before I crossed the line I could almost hear the crowds cheering me on through the blanket of fatigue that threatened to engulf me.
This was, without doubt, the best cycling experience I have ever had. Will I be back for more? Most definitely, and if you can secure a place in next year’s event you too will be in for the ride of your life.
Photos by Photo Breton
* 28 riders started
* 21 finished all three stages
* Fastest time 17-06-01
* Slowest time 27-09-31
Everything you need to know about each stage of the Tour des Cols can be found at the organiser’s comprehensive and user-friendly website. Click through the following links:
Stage one: www.tourdescols.com/stage1.php
Stage two: www.tourdescols.com/stage2.php
Stage three: www.tourdescols.com/stage3.php
WANT TO RIDE IT?
IF you fancy lining up for the 2009 Tour des Cols, go to www.tourdescols.com for enrolment details. Entry opens in January 2009. The cost for the 2008 edition was £649 per person sharing a twin room, with a single room supplement of £125