La Route des Grandes Alpes (Part II)

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5 days of cycling; 530 miles; and, what turned out to be, over 73,000 feet of vertical climbing. Self-supported and on my own.

It should still be fresh in my mind – I only finished it a couple of days ago – but it feels like a tapestry – made up of hundreds of little dots – and to focus on one or two moments would be to miss the picture as a whole. This ‘tour’ can only be described as the whole thing: the beginning and the end are the clearest punctuations – but it was so much more about the journey than the destination.

Fate had dictated that I was to do the whole thing solo – sometimes miles from any other human being. So a lot of time to think, and to watch the world slowly changing in front of my wheels, to think about my life; my family; and the future & past; to curse the weight of my panniers; and to wonder when the next water stop would come.

Over the latter 3 days, I did several climbs, a couple of hours of riding each, barely seeing another person, car or bike. It felt as though it was just me, a road and a view. Each summit, which started off looking like such a monster, would slowly get chiseled away as my bike edged skywards. Bit by bit I was able to take them down – tapping out a rhythm on my pedals, heart beating in time. Each time it felt like I was slowly bringing to its knees a giant that towered over me in strength – but that could be beaten by a gentle persistence and a thirst to see round that next bend.

The clarity of the air and of the light. Air so crisp that a ripple of wind would chill your skin; but that the sun would still burn it. I’d climb the cols removing more and more layers, often finishing in an unzipped T-shirt, but then would shiver at the summit as soon as I’d stop, before descending with full body warmers and a snood.

Regarding my battle with illness, I knew in the middle of night after Day 2 that I was going to be ok. I woke up at 3am suddenly urgently hungry, having barely eaten for going on 8 days. I wolfed down a baguette (plain and by itself) and then had too much adrenilin to go back to sleep. Instead, I spent half an hour or so checking over my bike and gears. This is how my bouts of MS usually end – suddenly. In the night. Like a switch has been clicked. I felt depleted and weak the next day – but not ill. I’d broken the back of this tour and still had 3 days left to enjoy.

By Day 4 I felt properly back. I was growing stronger and stronger as the day went on. Every little bit of food and drink seemed to replenish me more and more. I even climbed an extra col (Col du Lombarde), just because I could. Almost 5,000 metres of climbing that day – all carrying my own baggage every inch of the way. After my illness, the world was opening up and I felt capable again.

Cycling heaven

That fourth day was possibly the most wonderful day I’ve ever had on a bike. It’s difficult to express exactly ‘why’ without just listing off the superlatives that came to mind at every hair-pinning turn: the views were magnificent, and had variety too. And drama. Sweeping vistas afforded sight of where I had been; and also where I was going – stretching right off into the distance. There were small sections through shrouds of woodland, but largely the climbs were under an expansive horizon on perfect roads. Waterfalls and white water rapids passed me by; and tree-lines would be surpassed. The smaller vegetation would slowly thin out, then the cols themselves would be bald and windswept rocks. I would touch their tops, before screeching down their descents on the far side – back into the trees and their warmth.

This was some sort of cycling heaven.

21 cols came and went. And, to some extent, they have already blurred a bit in my memory. Another summit. Another twist or turn. But the Col due la Bonette probably deserves special mention. The self-proclaimed “highest paved road in Europe” certainly felt on top of the world at almost 3,000 metres. And, as I turned down its descent I passed my first signpost to “Nice” – my ultimate destination. It felt then that I was very much on my way.

Each little French village some how was still more picturesque than the last. After every col, I’d seek refuge in the next settlement’s cafe and sample their expressos. They always tasted great. Always strong (and one never quite enough). An expresso from the cafe and 2 bananas from the ‘epicerie’ became my routine. I also cursed the number of times I forgot the opportunity to then also replenish my water bottles.

Moment by moment, the metres became kilometres, and the hours became days. The Alps drew me closer to the Med. The landscape changed: the ravines grew steeper; the soils lightened in colour; and the architecture shifted from A-frame chalets to thick-walled, white courtyards. The wildlife progressed from the odd, lost and startled deer, to hundreds of lizards skittling for cover, and the occasional snake slithering off the road. The air lost its crispness, and the wind lost its bite. The permanent drizzle from the first half of the ride was long forgotten. A new smell appeared, of warm tree sap, sizzling in the afternoon sun.

The last leg

Early on Day 5, I glimpsed my first sight of the sea, still fully 60 kilometres away.

The final descent down to the coast was an epic. So long a downhill section that my hands were hurting from having to brake so hard and so frequently for almost 2 hours. I came down from a deserted summit, to initially encounter my first car, then a small queue. I removed layer after layer of clothing as the altimeter dropped away. More cars joined recently re-surfaced roads, and the drivers started to overtake with more aggression and urgency. It felt like I was re-entering civilisation.

I reached the seafront with my T Shirt soaking wet and water bottles empty. The sun was scorching hot. The beach smelt of a thousand layers of suncream and sweat.

It was the last day of my tour but I still had work to do. I had to catch my flight from Nice Airport in about 5 hours time. So somewhat in keeping with the trip, I now had to hot-tail it along the coast as fast as my tiring legs would take me. A detour through Monaco was almost my undoing: I soon became lost in a labyrinth of one way streets and 25% climbs. My sat-nav tried to direct me up one stairwell after another; the wrong way up one way streets; and, at one point, straight into a shop’s automatic doors. I cast my mind back to my arrival into Geneva 5 days ago, and it made me reflect on where I had been in between. At one point, I waited at a red light behind two red Porshes and a Bugatti and missed the wilderness from whence I’d just come.

I wish I’d had more time to soak in (and to celebrate) my arrival in Nice – but I had to rush to get to my flight.

I did make time to stop at the sea front though, as is tradition. My face was wind and sun burnt from the day’s extremes and my cold Coke tasted great. I looked at the waves gently lapping at the beach, with a couple of super yachts bobbing out there in the bay.

I felt incredibly…. happy.

“Here’s to you, life.

And to whatever you may hold.”

I arrived at the airport almost exactly 2 hours before my flight was due to leave. I drank a beer and slept on the plane – the deepest sleep of a man with a small ambition just fulfilled.

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Where I went on holiday: a tough road (Part I) to cycling heaven (Part II)

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Part I

I felt as if I was on holiday when I rolled in Annecy, halfway through Day 1. A market was in full swing with all its smells (fresh fruits and baking, crepes cooking) and colours. All around the lake, mountains loomed, up in the clouds where I was intent on going.

The first day was hard. I persisted with hopes more for the days to come when I was banking on the fact that my illness would have dissipated. There were pleasures along the way – but Day 1 was largely an effort to avoid abandonment. Slow, but steady, in the increasingly misty rain. I averaged about 11mph on the flat that day – rather than the ~16 I’d usually cruise at. That night, I was again too ill to eat any dinner. Day 2, I would be running on empty.

Day 2 would also include my first real climb. Although my MS symptoms were definitely improving, my weakness was going to be a problem. The Col du Madelaine was a 27km climb – and by the time I started this ascent it was already uncomfortably warm.

This was going to be hard enough. Empty. Hungry. Hot. I pedaled as gently as I could. Soon my focus began to wander – daydreaming distracts.

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I remembered when I was 8 years old. Paul Bennett, my friend at Primary School, was earnestly explaining to me how to run if you were being fired upon. “You have to keep zig-zagging. And keep going. If you zig-zag you can’t be hit.”

MS felt like a dirty great big cloud gathering behind me. I kept going. I zig-zagged across the road when it got too steep.

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I remembered my first ever sight of mortality.

My Grandmother, who had always seems so utterly full of life, came to visit one Christmas with a continuous and rasping cough. A few months earlier she was full of all the energy in the world… she was now dying from her cancer.

Although she seemed suddenly so weak to me, on Christmas morning she came down, dressed in her Sunday-best dress, ready for church. She even had her hat pin ready. A hat-pin: a hang-over from a bygone era of Sunday bests and immaculate appearances at churches and family dinners.

She had dusted herself down – and would carry on.

I looked down at my sleeves which were messily pulled down. My knee warmers (put on in the early morning cold) had slipped down to my ankles. One of my bottle racks was rattling loudly and needed a tighten. My rear derailleur needed to be re-adjusted because I couldn’t switch down into my easiest gear. I was getting some friction discomfort from my shorts so I needed to stop and sort out some chamois cream.

I needed to put back in my proverbial hat pin.

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I felt really weak when I stopped. I couldn’t seem to undo my helmet strap – which suddenly seems so fiddley in my cumbersome fingers.

I read “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer – an account of tragedy on the slopes of Everest. One particularly poignant section stays with me: one of the climb leaders became marooned near the summit. He was “trapped” by his own belay – a tool he’d have unclipped from hundreds (probably thousands) of times before. But the frostbite in his fingers meant that he couldn’t quite undo the fitting. Heart-breakingly his wife was still in radio contact with him and begged him to try one last time… “For me. For your children.”

His fingers just wouldn’t work. He never came down.

My little inconveniences were nothing – and should be easily overcome.

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I looked at my feet as they pedaled. I have written the names of my two boys, one on each shoe. One turn for you; then one for you.

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Having struggled for almost 2 hours, the realisation that I couldn’t quite make the summit actually came quite suddenly. My legs, just like that, had nothing more.

Incredibly, at that moment, I saw by the roadside my wife and 2 children. I couldn’t believe it – “Look! There he is! There’s Daddy!!” They jumped with excitement and started to jog alongside me.

My wife’s hat blew off and she had to stop to get it.

Little Adam ran alongside – his little legs pumping a hundred times a minute to keep up. He gets so upset when he can’t keep up with his brother – I was worried he’d cry, but when he got left behind he was smiling. And waving.

Ryan kept running longer than I’d have thought. Eventually he slowed too though – his arms stopped whirring and he acknowledged it was time to stop (with a smile).

What a moment… but just when I thought it was over, I saw my mum and dad by the roadside. I couldn’t believe it. They, too, had come all the way to France to cheer me on. My mum raised her eyes when I went past (she has always disapproved a bit of my cycling) – and my dad started to run alongside me: “Go on! Go on!” He was red in the face, but laughing…

Then I woke up.

I was in my childhood bed. I too had been laughing in my sleep <<what a funny dream that had been!>>. My head was lying on my old “Danger Mouse” pillow (I wonder what had happened to that?).

Something didn’t feel right though. And why was my pillow covered in spiky grass?

I woke up again. This time I was lying on the roadside verge. According to my bike computer I’d been stationary for just over 10 minutes.

I was 10 kilometres from the summit.

There would then be a 20 kilometre descent.

Then 20 more kms (on the flat) to my hotel.

Bite-sized chunks.

And, now, I actually felt quite well rested.

On the brink of something…. I just hope it’s not a precipice (or extinction…)

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A bug starts

Sunday, a week ago, a bug hit my family. One by one, we succumbed to a 24 hour ailment – grumpy, pale faces and hours in bed. At the back of my mind I was a bit concerned about the potential impact on my planned holiday to the French Alps – but I had a week to recover, so there was an element of relief as well.

But by Tuesday things were looking a bit bleaker. I’m afraid the progression was all too familiar to me – a minor bug slowly escalating into more and more MS symptoms. The pins and needles were worsening – and the upper body exhaustion was kicking in. Come Wednesday, I was spending a third day in bed; on Thursday, I called in sick to work again and could barely lift my head off my pillow. A walk downstairs to the kitchen left me pale and exhausted, lying on the lino floor – my muscles were furiously buzzing and I had no strength. A dread was growing – my holiday getting closer…. I called my friend who was to meet me in Geneva. I was still desperately keen to get on that plane – but it wasn’t looking good.

The holiday had been wholly booked (and paid for) – so I called my travel insurers. I’d need a doctor’s note if I didn’t travel so, on Friday, I dragged myself to the doctors and sat with head in my hands in the waiting room, with cold sweats and shakes. My doctor said I’d be crazy to travel and wrote me a note for 2 weeks off work. I called my friend again and, on balance, he decided to cancel.

Oh this burnt away so badly at me…. those precious days off work getting closer. I hadn’t eaten a meal for 5 days because of nausea – so it wasn’t surprising that I was feeling weak… but I was going to get myself to the airport on Saturday morning. All I had to do was to transfer from bed to taxi. On the flight, I slept like a zombie from runway to runway. And then for the whole 3 hours of the next train journey. I still couldn’t stomach a proper meal.

The planned holiday was to cycle the “Route des Grandes Alpes” – a famous cycling route from Geneva to Nice, taking in some of the world’s most famous, and toughest, climbs. Over 500 miles in 5 days; with more than 50,000 feet of vertical climbing. I looked at the route and contemplated contingency plans… railway shortcuts… car hire… avoiding certain summits… my worst case: I could hole up in Geneva for 5 days and enjoy drinking coffee by the lake.

Geneva

When I arrived in Geneva, first step was to get myself the 20 miles to my hotel. It was raining and dark. My front light had been damaged during the journey and wasn’t working <<just get to hotel. (bite sized progress)>>. But was a slow ride despite being entirely flat. Eerie (not to say a bit dangerous) in the dark and feeling weak with tiredness, I arrived late (even later than I’d planned). The hotel was dark – the only light a glowing-blue goldfish bowl in reception.

I ate a bread roll for dinner; took a steroid; and then a gabapentine. I then had a terrible bout of diarhorea (which I’ve never been able to spell….) and wondered if the cause was those drugs or the illness.

Sunday morning was Day 1 of the ride – if I was going to attempt it. When I woke up the first thing I heard was rain pattering on the shutters – the early morning view of the street was one covered with puddles. I rolled out, feeling somewhat empty, into the dark. 50 metres later I stopped in the warmth of a “boulangerie” for a plain croissant. 500 metres later I pulled off the road again to put on my full rainproof gear – feet already wet through. If I was going to go for this, it was going to be one long day.

The start

Cycling into Geneva in the dawn was an other-worldly experience. Rain sprinkled down on the lake, and the cobbled streets, criss-crossed with tram-tracks, glistened in the streetlights. I do love cycling through city centres as the sun comes up. A dreamlike quietness pervades – the empty lakeside bars with overturned chairs still looking hungover from the previous night out.

I must have been operating on go-slow as I’d planned this early part of my route. I went back and forth down sidestreets and over footbridges. At one point, I had to walk down a long staircase, across a footbridge, then back up more steps on the other side. The sound of my cleated bike shoes echoed in the emptiness.

Eventually I arrived at Geneva Central Train Station. The start of my route.

This was it: decision time. If I was going to abort, this was where it would make the most sense.

I bought a banana and drank some water. I was definitely improved from yesterday. Even more definitely compared to the day before. I’d had these symptoms before; I figured on another 48 hours at least of feeling bad. If I could just tolerate those, I’d have the rest of the holiday to enjoy. What to do?

I contemplated my options for fully 5 minutes. Making my mind up one way…. then immediately the other.

Ultimately I turned my wheels south and starting slowly pedaling towards Annecy.

Fuck you, MS, you’re making me angry. And I’m going on holiday.

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My family may recognise the below…

“Come to the edge, he said.

We are afraid, they said.

Come to the edge, he said.

They came to the edge, He pushed them….

and they flew.”

(Christopher Logue)