Oddly, it has only appeared four times in the Tour de France, the last time in 2008. However it was the scene of a then rare British victory for Robert Millar in 1993.
I have to admit I was nervous, having had to drop out towards the end of Day 1. Was it just that I hadn’t drunk enough water or had I perhaps not put in enough training or simply am not up to “the highest, toughest cycle sportive in the world”?
Chatting to others it was clear that nobody had found it easy. “Mental torture” and “in terms of suffering, it was in a league of its own” were among the comments.
So we put together a plan. Team Happy consists of me, James and Toby and our aim is simply to finish. We leave the fastest times to the others. Toby had proved himself the strongest cyclist on the first day, being the youngest in the team at just 49. So Toby would lead us up la Bonnette and we would hang onto his wheel. We would cycle together as a team until the point where we were in danger of missing the cut off time, and then it would be okay to go on alone.
|La Bonnett: The View Down|
And the ride up La Bonnette - up through the valley, round a dozen hairpin bends, through an abandoned military outpost and onto the moonlike landscape at the top – was a joy. It is remarkable how the psychological will to hang onto a wheel can help you up the longest climb.
It was huge boost to get to the top with a half hour gap to the cut off time. It was the biggest climb I’ve ever done at 5,000 ft of ascent, more than the 4,000 ft of the Tourmalet in the Pyranees for which I had to stop many times. La Bonnett was without a break, a climb of 2 hours 14 minutes.
On top it felt like we were on top of the world, at just under 9,000 ft. Amazing views of the Alpine peaks, and picture book villages. Some of the best views I’ve ever seen.
The 20km descent was another delight. I’m definitely getting the hang of long descents and kept with my team today. Though the sound of an ambulance siren behind us did bring a note of caution and visibly slowed all the cyclists around me. [We later found out that a cyclist had hit a motorcyclist, coming the other way, head-on. He continued and finished the course, before being taken to hospital and being found to have several broken ribs.]
As we set off up the valley from the feed station we formed into a 40 strong peloton and sped along effortlessly though the stunning valley scenery. James, who had got little sleep last night was struggling and me and Toby had a quick consultation on times. The cut off time was tight but not desperate so we resolved to guide James up the col.
We came to what had been described as the “brutal” last 5 km of the Vars, at an average 10%. We ascended at 7kph, as did those around us. It was a sobering thought that the summit was just 5km away but would take us 45 minutes to reach, with the sun blazing down. I took the lead for this climb. Going at a slower pace than I could have, made it a bit easier.
With 1km to go to the top a nice lady from Haute Route, by the side of the road, made an unexpected offer: “water on the head?”, she asked. At that moment I could think of nothing in life that would give me greater pleasure than a bottle of water poured through my helmet. I accepted eagerly, and swear it sped me up by 25% on the final ascent.
More beautiful views but no time to waste. Another marvellous descent and then the final climb. We had one hour to make 900 m of ascent. For comparison it had taken 2 hours 14 minutes for the 1,500 m of La Bonnette, and that was when we were fresh. With 8km to go I had to rest at the refreshment point. I doused myself in water and drank lots.
That chimp inside my head was telling me that I’d done enough, that I should get in that nice bus that would be coming along shortly. Success or failure is so much about getting your head straight.
|My saviour, John|
And then along came John from Australia, who I’d not met but was to be my hero, my good Samaritan.
“They’ve given us another 15 minutes”, he said. “That’s still 8km in 30 minutes, up an 8% slope, in 30 degree heat”, I responded. Hey, I was tired. “Let’s give it a crack”, he said and off we set, me following his wheel.
Every time I slipped back he shouted out at me “get back on my wheel”, without looking back. How did he know I’d dropped off? “I stopped hearing your heart beating”. I think he is joking but am not sure.
That is the camaraderie that makes cycling so satisfying. Thank you, John, I wouldn’t have got there without you. Indeed I'm still astonished I did.
I learnt that giving up, like yesterday, can sometimes make sense. And that sometimes it just doesn’t.
Across the finish line I collapse to the floor in the shade, totally exhausted and just lie there for 10 minutes. I have given all I can.