|With Eric atop Col de Columbiere|
|The view of Mont Blanc from the chalet|
But there is still 2,500 metres of climbing, including col de Aravis, Col de Columbiere, Col de Terramont and Col de Cou. As we climb the Columbiere I am told “where our wheels are now, just three weeks ago were those of the Tour.” It was the stage excitingly won by the Colombian rider Jarlinson Pantano, out-sprinting Poland’s Rafal Majka at the finish line.
We start with a gentle decline and I am with John again, debating aboriginal rights and also the rise of the right-wing One Nation party. “Jeez, are you guys discussing politics again” I hear from the rider behind. Yep, for me, that’s all part of the attraction. On these 7 days I have learnt about the culture and politics of many nations.
As we start the ascent of Aravis, I am feeling strong. I overtake a few riders and find myself going past Jason, whose wheel I couldn’t hang on to yesterday. I am back in my favourite gear and actually going up a couple of kph faster. Perhaps my legs “have arrived”, as others say here. I begin to wonder if I can make it to the top 350 on today’s timings.
I arrive at the top 12 minutes ahead of cut-off and consider going straight past the feed station, as others are. But I remind myself to hydrate. I still haven’t really got the hang of drinking enough on the bike, so my solution is to drink the best part of a litre of water at every feed station. I know the advice is regular sips but this seems to work for me and, as the stations are at the top of the cols, my stomach settles on the way down.
I spend a little more time out of the saddle today. I won’t go into details but let’s just say I’m very grateful for the Compeed blister pads recommended by the doctor.
On the Colombiere ascent I find myself with the ever friendly Eric, a Frenchman working for P&G in Geneva. We cover Brexit, French Presidential politics, the burkini ban (he is against), what my company (Happy Ltd) does and the entire history of P&G, founded in 1837.
“All this talk is good, it has helped me keep up with you”, he states modestly. I think the reverse is true but do manage to pip him to the summit in the race of the last 200 metres.
The descent is fabulous as 10 of us head down through the trees at 30 to 35 mph, braking for the frequent bends. At the start of the week I would have been terrified by this pace but not now. I expect those at the front are going a fair bit faster.
In the valley I find myself on the wheels of Anton and Jeffrey, two French riders who talk non stop while effortlessly heading up the valley at 20mph. On a roundabout my pedal scratches the tarmac and for one scary moment I think I’m coming off. “Stay safe, dude” I say to myself, remembering the words of Shane, one of the other riders. I eventually drop off and am rather disturbed to see a local French farmer head past me on an old crock of a bicycle – until I notice the electric battery on the back.
I am alone. Well, a bit of mountain solitude is okay, I guess. I climb along the edge of a 500 ft precipice, a stunning rocky gorge. I am getting hooted a bit by passing cars but no way am I going near that edge, with just a half-metre wall.
Just as I am feeling I am slipping and losing energy, along comes Francisco, my Brazilian friend from yesterday. We chat our way to the top, this is definitely my way to climb. There is now just one col to go, and it is only 174 metres of ascent, not even three Muswell Hills (my local 70m climb in North London). Touch wood, we have done the Haute Route.
The climb is over soon and we are heading down at speed. At the bottom, with a few km left to go, Francisco gestures to me to get on his wheel. He clearly has something left and heads off at an amazing speed, getting us to the finish (a slight descent, but not much) again at around 30mph.
We have completed the “highest and toughest cycling sportive in the world”. The timed section is over. We have cycled 500 miles, climbed 21 Tour de France cols and ascended 22,000 metres. And I feel great. My legs definitely arrived today. I’d almost like to continue tomorrow! (Except I now find I can hardly sit down….) What seemed totally crazy when we signed up 10 months ago, indeed when I was sat by the roadside on Sunday afternoon: somehow I’ve done it.
|Crossing the finish line|
I am surprised to find I arrived 1 hour 50 minutes ahead of cut-off and am listed at no 341 out of 413, my best performance of the week.
We head off for lunch and ice cream in the charming walled village of Yvoire and then the whole group of more than four hundred riders head in one single convoy on the 25 km along the lake to Geneva, crossing into Switzerland as we go.
Wow. Just wow. A fabulous experience