Recently I was on a bike tour in the French Alps during the Tour de France. I rode a lot, I drank a lot, I ate a lot. I climbed many different mountain passes, saw views to make your heart ache and climbed so high it made my lungs burn. In one week I rode 814 kilometres, climbed 18,809 metres, and had the best time I have ever had on my bike. But in all of that, one day stood head and shoulders above the rest. It was a day that will stay burned in my memory for a very long time to come. It was glorious, difficult, empowering, long, tall and rewarding.
Galibier. Izoard. Those two names hold special places in cycling folklore. They also sound über French. There is no mistaking what they are, where they are, and what those words mean when spoken to any fan of cycling. Even pronouncing the words in the correct French way has a special feeling as they flow out of your mouth.
It was the sixth day of our trip, and it was supposed to be a rest day. We’d ridden Grand du Colombier, Madeleine, Telegraphe as a group, and I’d added on several others on my own. Legs were weary, and fatigue was very well present. The final climb the day before up the Telegraph to Valloire was especially difficult. It was hot, and toward the end of the day, so the twelve kilometres at a consistent 7-8% was quite taxing. Another big dinner, and back to the room. Relying on wifi and facetime to speak with my beautiful wife and kids back home, meant I stayed up until after 11pm most nights just to catch them in the morning. That little piece of home was worth missing the extra sleep for, even if sometimes it made my daughter cry because she missed her daddy…
Easy breakfast, and then I hung around for a bit. I was the fastest in the group, so on this morning our guides had handicapped us so as to all arrive around the same time at the top. Michelle was a late starter too. She is FAST. On the Madeleine I stopped for a photo, and spent the best part of 45 minutes chasing to catch her again. The two of us rolled out together, making sure we went a couple of hundred metres downhill to the proper beginning of the climb. Then that was it. We stayed together for a few hundred metres, but then settled into our own rhythms and rode separately up the mountain.
Galibier is stunning. There are no trees, just rocks, grass and glaciers. The road is a long grey serpent, winding it’s way gracefully between the cliffs and boulders, bending sharply back and forth on itself, before opening up for long stretches. It goads you on relentlessly. The early road has mountain tops to tower over you, as if to glare at the indignation of your presence, and regard you with utter contempt. The first few kilometres are generally straight, with a rough surface. There is nought there but to put your nose down, and grind out your own existence, in homage to the mountain, almost asking for it to allow you to pass.
The kilometre stones tick past, slowly but surely. The little yellow and white concrete markers telling you where you are, and how far to the top. A small bridge finally comes, and the mountains have had enough of your efforts. The bridge marks the point where the road kicks up, and starts twisting back and forth on itself violently. The switchbacks are carved into the cliffs, and it takes some nerve to ride them. There is no guard rail, just a drop off straight over the side if you fail to pay attention. It is a truly beautiful place to be, and standing and driving the pedals hard through the bends delivers enormous satisfaction. My bike was made for this road!
Finally the mountains seem pleased with your resistance, and allow you to really see your surroundings. The road opens up in a long arc, allowing you to see quite a distance ahead, and all of the beauty of the pass that surrounds you. The Pantani monument comes up almost out of nowhere, and the urge to nod to the legend with respect is irrepressible.
From here, you can see the top. It is just up in front of you. Way up. You know you are only a couple of kilometres away, but every metre is in a double digit gradient. The mountain has one more challenge for you to complete to earn your place at the top. By now your heart is racing and your lungs are burning, the air is so thin that everything is an effort. The road is fresh and black, and it’s close to all that you can see. You are almost at the top of a mountain, yet the smooth black tarmac in front of you occupies your whole vision. Out of the saddle, your hips sway back and forth, countered by the gentle rocking of the bike. One last corner, then it’s straight to the top, and how do you stop grinning? The pain, the suffering, and the fatigue all fade into irrelevance. The finish calls to you, there is no choice but to sprint that last section, full gas for two hundred metres, aching and burning in your whole body, open up and go.
That climb was eighteen kilometres of beauty. Starting when I was already tired just added to the occasion, somehow increasing the drama, like grand tour riders slugging it out in the last week of Le Tour. At the top, well the view is incredible. The air was cool, thin and crisp. You could see the glaciers on the adjacent mountains, and from both sides you could see the roads twisting down on long descents. This is not a place to simply roll through and go down the other side. Stop, take it in, talk with your friends, talk with strangers, take photographs. You have given a lot to get here, take what you can from the experience.
Descending the other side was true joy. There were no barriers this side either, and again it was a skinny road, with long drop offs. There was some traffic too, cars and campervans trying to negotiate the mountain. To start I was nervous. The road is very intimidating, and requires a lot of concentration and skill to negotiate. The guides allowed me to go in front, so as not to be held back, and descend at my own pace. With that though, comes an expectation that I will actually go fast! That however was probably for the best, as it allowed me to put the doubts out of my mind, and really feel the flow of the decent. The thought that others believed I should go fast, made me believe that I would go fast. This thought forced me to push myself, to really lean into the turns, to look through the bends, to get low and push hard to ride quickly. I did all of that, and I forgot about the drop off on the side of the road. Completely. I was so relaxed even that I was able to take moments to soak in where I was, and what I was doing there. The descents in the Alps are joyous. Generally you are faster on a bike than most traffic, and those long, winding roads allow you to appreciate the flow of movement and mind necessary to negotiate your way down the mountain. There are few rewards greater after having climbed up a mountain for more than an hour and a half, than to burn down the other side, wind rushing past you, tyres eating up the distance, your body moving around atop your bike with fluidity and control. It is, and was, a thrilling experience to roll down the hill that day.
At the base of the far side of Galibier, you come to a tiny village perched atop the Col du Lauteret, which still sits at two thousand metres of elevation. Even calling it a village is perhaps exaggerating it’s size. A couple of cafe’s and a hotel really. But a beautiful spot in the valley. There are three glaciers directly overlooking this spot, it is a wonderful place to stop and eat. And eat I did. An e-freaking-normous hamburger, with chips, and a coffee, and a beer, another coffee and mineral water… Fair to say I was hungry.
Lunch went past and I now rode off on my own. The group was heading back up the Galibier, and back to the hotel. Two climbs only, and an early finish. It was after all, the rest day of the trip. I had other plans though. I had come to France to ride as much as I could. My wife and kids were at home, so I had no-one waiting for me at the hotel. I could ride to my heart’s content, and that’s exactly what I was going to do. Down the Lauteret, into a Briancon, then up the famed Col d’Izoard. I’d looked at it on a map, after a friend I met on the trip, Tony, told me it would be good to go and check out. It didn’t seem so far, so why not. I have the legs, let’s do it.
Down the Col du Lauteret, which as it is pretty much dead bolt straight, wasn’t as fun as the others Just head down and keep pushing. There was a headwind, which didn’t bother me much, as I’d have it at my back when I returned. The signs kept saying Briancon was up ahead, but how far? Is this town it? No, still says further. This one? Nup, keep riding. That burger from lunch was occupying my whole abdomen, even my gilet was a bit tight. Then I went past some other riders on the way down, whom thought that jumping on my tail for a free lift was okay. Not okay. If I wanted to ride with them, I’d have asked them. I hadn’t asked them, but they were there anyway. So I put it to myself to teach them some manners, and started riding flat out. Seriously Dave, why do you do this? That kept runnning through my head over and over, as I was flat backed, in top gear, belting down a shallow incline, into the wind, in an attempt to drop some total strangers, whom I felt were riding too close to me. They weren’t harming me at all, just using the gap I was pushing into the wind to get back to their own hotels a bit more easily and quickly. Plus I still had to get up the Izoard, down, back up the Lauteret, back up the Galibier and still down the other side again, all before it got dark. But I didn’t care. Logic isn’t always present when you ride by yourself a lot. Listening to logic meant that I wouldn’t be out here riding on my own up some big, big mountains whilst carrying almost nothing at all. So I dropped those two guys. That’ll learn them. I don’t know what the lesson was, but they learned it. Maybe. Maybe I should have learned a lesson? There’s one in there somewhere. Surely.
All this time, I was riding through a valley, with mountain ranges rising up jaggedly on either side. There were herds of cows with bells around their necks, and streams running down along the rocks on the side of the road. There was also a very large, and very dark cloud now pouring over the top of the cliffs to my left. It had been a clear sunny day until now. I hadn’t bought my rain jacket, which wasn’t necessarily the smartest move I’d ever made, but hell, I just went full gas for 10km to drop some strangers from my rear wheel in the early stages of a very long ride, not bringing my rain jacket was not even the dumbest thing I had done that day. That cloud really brought drama to the occasion. I was in a huge natural amphitheatre, travelling on my own journey, with the impending storm and the Izoard as the key characters for the next scene, which as the key protagonist, I would have to face head on, with nought but a bicycle and mental resolve to see me through. I kept staring at the cloud, and it started to rumble with thunder. This was becoming one of the most grand experiences I had encountered.
Finally I got to Briancon, and it finally also started to rain. Not too heavy at first, just the gentle warnings of what was to come, to remind everyone to take shelter. I found the signs for the col and just kept riding. The Col d’Izoard starts off in the town itself, rising for the first kilometres through suburban streets. The side I was climbing was nineteen kilometres long, and like a lot of French climbs in the Alps, it starts off fairly steep, before slackening off to a flatter section in the middle, before then finishing off again quite steeply. In those first few kilometres it was belting down with rain. Big, old, fat rain. It wasn’t cold, so my gilet was enough, it was just very, very wet.
This mountain has a slightly more unique character than the others I had climbed. The trees are largely pine, with a deep ravine to the side, and stony cliffs lurking off in the distance. There weren’t many people about at all either, certainly not on bikes. I can count on one hand the times I saw other riders. That loneliness made me feel even more alive. Me on my bike, tackling whatever the mountain had lain ahead.
Riding along, I can only ever think as far as the bend in front of me. Any further, and the task seems impossible. Even improbable, like the road beyond doesn’t exist, I ride only in the moment, enjoying what lays before me, and reflecting on what I have already done. If I stopped now this would already have been a great day. And I did stop. I went over to the side of the road, and climbed off of my bike. Not because I was tired, or cold, or because of a mechanical problem. I stopped, and had a look around. I stood under a pine tree in the rain, looking at the cliffs above me, the trees around me, and the stream below. This was a good day, and a good place. It was my day, and my place. I was only there for a couple of minutes, but not a single car went past, I didn’t see a soul. I just stood in the rain, under a tree, and took in the magnificence of the natural surroundings. This was my day.
Up through tiny villages, up through pasture, up through pine forests, and up through open countryside. This road is beautiful. It did stop raining, and the sun came out again. The thing that stood out the most on this ride was the paint on the road. The Col d’Izoard has featured prominently in many Tours de France, and it is quite close to the Italian border. As such, there is a seemingly endless turf war written out on the tarmac between the French and the Italians. Heroes of today and yesteryear are all written out in the colours of their nation. Rolland, Pinalt and Hinault written in red white and blue, with Nibali and Pantani taking up most of the red, white and green. The closer to the top, the closer you are to Italy, and seemingly more and more is written in and for the Italians. “Eroi di Italia” (Heroes of Italy) followed by riders names being the most common script that the fans wrote. The writing was so frequent, and so passionate, that I truly felt like I was there, riding in the race, with thousands of screaming fans lining the roadsides. I could vividly see it as I rode on, the ‘Tifosi’ sneaking across the border, waving flags, yelling and screaming at their riders, after having waited all day, some of them several days, just for a glimpse as their favourite cycling countrymen shot past in a blink.
The last couple of kilometres were upon me. The gradient had risen up, the road started to bend around a lot more frequently, and the air had thinned out again. One great bonus of this is that the huge cloud of flies that had turned up in the hundreds after the rain had left me, apparently bugged by the thin air. Bugged, yeah I went there…. Anyhow, I was getting really tired by now. The Izoard gets to 2365m, which is very high, especially so for an Australian whom lives almost at sea level. These last few kilometres seemed to really drag on. Get to a corner, push through it, sit back down and grind to the next turn. Repeat, repeat, repeat. As boring as it was, it was exciting too. My legs and lungs were certainly very tired, but it was wonderful to be alive in that moment. On my own, pushing higher than insects will fly, higher than trees grow, into a barren rocky landscape, on a painted and twisting road.
Then without warning I rounded a bend, and I was there. There was a great, big monument at the top, a bunch of tourists in cars and even a small kiosk. Stop for a photo, and into the kiosk to buy a souvenir magnet, a chocolate bar and a coke. I feel like I earned all three.
I sat and reflected on what I had done. I had climbed two mountains, through a storm, with 5 days of hard mountain riding already in my legs. I felt good. I felt really good. I checked my phone, and it was four o’clock. Now I did not feel as good. It was 75km to get back to the hotel in Valloire, and it gets dark at 8pm. 75km isn’t that far, but I had to descend a big mountain, then climb another very big mountain, then descend that just to reach my hotel. I had no lights, and no warm clothes. Just a wind vest and a determination to get there. No sense sitting around worrying about it, and off I went.
That descent was even better than the Galibier. For 18km I pushed hard down the hill. I rode so fast I caught and overtook two motor bikes. Yeah, that felt good! Wooshka, down the hill I rode, the bends aren’t all that tight for most of the ride, so it was largely a case of no brakes, just get low, and lean into the corners. What a rush, descending long mountains like that is very, very exciting. Not so exciting when you fall off, which probably adds to the excitement of staying upright, and stay upright I did.
Into Briancon, through the town, and back out onto the Col du Lauteret. I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to this climb beforehand, but it is twenty seven kilometres long. Holy crap that’s a long climb. It isn’t steep, the average is just 3.5%, but it keeps grinding on forever. It barely even bends, just dead straight along the valley, until you hit the base of the Galibier. Even then, it is the last seven kilometres that even have any real gradient to speak of, and it never gets over 7%. That tailwind that I had on the descent though, had now swung around, and greatly strengthened. Oh good. I now have a headwind, on a bolt straight climb. No respite, no turning a corner for relief from the wind. Just get low, flat back, nose to the grindstone and push.
I was buggered already, and this shallow hill sucked the life out of me. But there was one thing that was on my mind, that really kept me pushing along. In 2011, my daughter Matilda was just one month old during the Tour de France. This was the year that Cadel Evans won. This meant I was very happy to volunteer for Matilda’s night feeds, as I was up anyway. I would sit with bottle in hand, feeding my first born, cheering on an Australian legend as he ground his way around France. I watched live and remember vividly the day that they climbed the Izoard (from the other side). Andy Schleck attacked on the climb, and then held his gap on the descent. Cadel suffered a mechanical issue on the descent of Izoard, and so spent the whole of the Col du Lauteret chasing to keep his Tour de France alive. Then when he got to the base of the Galibier, no-one would help him chase. He kept swinging his elbows, waiting for someone to come through and take up the chase, but he had no allies. The only thing Cadel had left that day was to get on the front, and lead the entire chase himself. Like a pure diesel engine, he ground his way up the mountain. Out of the saddle, grimace on his face, bike swinging wildly, Cadel climbed ugly. He does not have a beautiful style to watch. It was just old fashioned grit and determination, and he dropped nearly everyone off of his wheel as he chased Schleck down. He went on to win in the time trial a few days later, but most believe that day was the day he won the Tour.
I had relieved that moment countless times watching the footage on my computer during indoor trainer cycling workouts. I knew the result, but every time, whilst destroying myself in a session in our backroom, I would still yell at Cadel to keep going, as he was burning up the Galibier, like a Gorilla trying to perform ballet. I was reliving it very vividly now, I was riding on that very same road! Into the wind, legs already tired, up the Lauteret I rode. I ran out of water, I ran out of food. I just kept riding. The marker signs for the col seemed broken, surely I had gone three kilometres, not just the single that the sign was indicating? Finally I got to the final few kilometres, where the road bends to the left, and is sheltered from the wind. It didn’t matter that it was steeper here, steep I can manage. I was thankful to be out of the wind. A few turns, and I was at the top of the Col du Lauteret. I considered just riding on up the Galibier, and back to the hotel, as it was quite late. I needed water and food though, so I rode back over to the same place we had stopped for lunch, hoping desperately that it was still open. From the outside everything looked closed, but I could see people inside, and thankfully, they were still open. Espresso, orange juice, pane chocolat, mineral water. Then another espresso. It took a little while to order it though, as even though the waitress was Irish, and her english was perfect, my abilities to express my needs had become somewhat limited. The poor girl struggled to appreciate my grunts for a little while, but we got there in the end. Then she asked if someone was coming to get me. Apparently I looked pretty shit house. I said I was just going down the road, which quietened her enough. This wasn’t a total lie. Just up and down one of the tallest mountains in France was all I had to do…
I spent about thirty minutes in that cafe. It was late, and I needed to get home, but I also needed a recharge, after that tortuous climb into the wind. I walked out, and got going, what other choice did I have? It was on the way back up the Galibier that I realised how sketchy the road is. When I had screamed down it that morning, I hadn’t really appreciated the drop offs on the side. Now I was scared to even go within half a road width of the edge. In fairness though, I was now going bloody slowly. Bottom gear, all the way, standing up on sections that I would never have before. I had no legs left, it was everything just to keep riding. Every car I saw freaked me out, as I had to go closer to the edge to allow them to pass. I did notice the flowers amongst the grass though, and in that moment, they were gorgeous. Lot’s of tiny little blooms, of all different colours, mixed into the pasture. About half way up I saw a small marmot pop out off to my right and start squeaking. It is the same animal from a video with voices laid over the top, and in the video, the marmot just yells “Allen! Allen! Allen!” So here I was, yelling “Allen!” at a small furry rodent on the side of a mountain. Even I knew I was starting to get a bit delirious, but I was wetting myself laughing all the same, that little moment really broke up the climb.
I could see dark clouds again, just the other side of the peak. I could hear thunder rolling in again, and this time I was quite scared. It would be dark, it would be raining, there would be lightning, and I had to get eighteen kilometres down a mountain. Nothing for it but to keep riding. I can go and get cold and rained on in the dark, or I can sit here thinking about getting cold and rained on in the dark. Those were the choices.
I reached the top, but this time, I rolled straight through. No stopping or photos, no sense of achievement. I was tired, and I was scared of being out on this hill in the rain at night. So I rode on. It was cold, I was cold. No gloves, no sleeves, my hands were aching, but I descended as fast as I dared, and I dared a fair bit. I was on the home stretch, ticking off the kilometre markers as I went. Down the steep part at the top, past the Pantani monument, and back down along the long arc. There were people camping at various points, and there were even other people descending the mountain. I flew past the lot. They had more clothes than me. I was cold, and I was finished, I just needed to actually finish. Down through the twisty section, and across the small bridge at the bottom. It was pretty bloody dark now. I could see, but only just. I kept pushing, riding in the middle of the road, so that I could at least see the line on the road. Cars would come past, and I would slow right down. Then as they went past, I would go at full speed to stay behind them for as long as possible. At least that way I could look ahead and see where I was going. I nearly got knocked off by a sheep on the road, seriously, a bloody sheep. I went all the way to France to have a bloody sheep try to knock me off of my bike. Sheep… *shakes head angrily.
One last straight stretch, and I finally made it. I was back. I couldn’t feel my fingers any more. They were numb with cold. My face was numb with cold, I couldn’t move my mouth to speak. It was proper dark, but it hadn’t rained. Somehow, I has missed the rain! I could still hear the thunder nearby, but I had gotten back down before the rains came.
In the room, and I was still trying to get feeling back in my hands. No-one was there, it was eight o’clock, so my room-mate Andrea must have gone out for dinner already. No bother, I wasn’t in the mood to go out. I went into our little kitchen and made myself some muesli, then some ham and cheese on bread, then more muesli, then more, and more and more. I had a hole in my stomach that took A LOT to fill. Finally Andrea burst into the room in a panic. He was both happy and pissed off to see me. Apparently he and the other guides had become very worried about me, as I had been out so long. I apologised, and he seemed happy enough. He left me to go out again for dinner, and I went back to trying to fill the bottomless pit in my stomach, followed by a good thirty minute shower.
That day I rode 151 kilometres, for 3738 metres of gain in altitude (view the ride here). I have certainly completed rides that are harder, longer, and with more elevation than that before. But I have never passed over 2300 metres in altitude before, and I certainly hadn’t done it 3 times in a single ride. The storms, the mountains, the solitude, the elevation, the distance and the cold all added together to make this one of the very best days I’ve spent on a bike. The next day at least, up the Croix de Fer, I went easy. For the first part. Then someone jumped on my wheel again. I don’t learn…
Thanks for reading, please jump in and leave your thoughts below.