Last week I rode the Tour of Mont Blanc on the road, in a single push. Being late August the days are getting short fast requiring a 4 am departure that meant 2 hours of riding by headtorch to start the day. During those 2 hours I would pass over 2 cols and in the 4 degree C predawn temps I would be chilled to the bone. It was the first time I had ridden a road bike on alpine cols in the dark and despite taking the head torch I regularly ski with I found those descents fairly nerve racking; are those wet patches on the road or ice? I was praying that all those eyes that flashed in the undergrowth just stayed put and didn’t run into the torch light.
Once in Martigny at 6 am my legs were wooden with the cold afterr the descent from the Forclaz and I rode for the next couple of hours with my Berghaus race smock on to generate some heat. I kept looking right and seeing the line of sun creeping down the hillside, estimating the sun would hit the road at 9 am but by then I had entered the endless avalanche tunnels. My left foot was really cold and hurting me but worse was the pain in my pelvis from changing my saddle. My previous saddle had collapsed on my last ride so I replaced it with the same model. It seemed fine when I tested it, being weary of any changes to the bike that would haunt me on an 18 hour ride. Now I just couldn’t get comfortable with nerve pain and numbness, having to change the motion of my pedal stroke on my right leg to compensate and get out of the saddle every minute. As I rode on I was thinking I could use this as a recce since I had not done the Grand aint Benhard before. From the col it would be and easy roll down the 30 or so kms back to Martigny and the train home. Finally I got clear of the avalanche tunnels, the road kicked up, the sun came out and the scenery got interesting. What a contract to the psych and monotony of the graded main road. I enjoyed those last few kms to the col where I stopped to massage some blood back into my feet and eat a block of cheese. The long descent would give it time to settle in my stomach and I would need those fatty calories. There I made a snap decision to get on with it based on not ever wanting to do the long boring climb up to Grand Saint Bernhard again!
Dropping into Italy it was pretty windy and again the descent was cold and spent dodging the fluffy lupin pollen seeds. Swallowing those make you gag like a cat with a furball. In Aosta I stripped off my smock, long sleeved top, arm and leg warmers and my shoes. Planting me feet on the warm tarmac allowed them to absorb some of the stored energy from the sun and defrost. The next stage is pretty flat and I was worried about potential headwinds but it was fairly benign and I arrived at Pre Saint Didier to fill my bottles with cool water from the village fountain.
Now I rejoined the route I rode the week before with a tired body the day after a hard rock climb. That was part of the strategy and even after 8-9 hours riding I still felt better on the climb to the Petit Saint Bernhard that I had the previous week. On the ride up a Swiss guy who I met on the GSB caught me up and told me about his nice restaurant meal in Aosta while I was churning along at 120 bpm. We talked for a bit before he shot off to get a coffee in La Thuile were, upon seeing me riding by, ran out of the café and started shouting allez!
At the top of the PSB I stopped for a good Italian coffee before entering back into France which just isn’t the same. I now was pretty sure I would be ok. I had 2 worries, firstly the week before I got nuked in the 35C heat on the 900 m climb to Col de Saises and secondly, I wasn’t looking forward to riding in the dark at the end. This time I would start up the Col de Saises at 6 pm so the shadows would be growing on the road and the temperature much more amenable. As for the dark, I reckoned I had 1 hour on autopilot on local roads from Fayet to make Chamonix for 10 pm. On the plus side my saddle was now broken in and fitting my bum so finally I was comfortable and able to resume my natural pedal stroke. This had a massive lift effect on my psych and I was enjoying being on the bike once more.
The descent to Bourg St Maurice is long and graded so I just coasted down at 40 mph sitting upright and saving my neck from unnecessary tension. Arriving at Bourg at 3 pm I felt it was time for some proper food and I spotted a drive by MacDonalds on the road. Not exactly proper food but its easy to get down your neck and digest. 2 double cheeseburgers and a coke had me ready for the grind up the Cormet de Roseland. This is a 2 stage climb with a flatter section in the middle. Once gain it was hot in the lower gorge and I could see my heart rate creep up in the 130s and 140s coping with the additional stress. Once out onto the high pastures there was a strong wind coming down from col as usual, and the storm clouds were gathering. At the col I was rushing to get all my clothes on and get down to Beaufort before the storm broke, the weather was better to the West and in the end I avoided getting a drenching.
I started up the 15 km climb to Col de Saises at 6 pm, exactly 14 hours in. The temperature was a perfect 20C by now and I was climbing nearly twice as quickly as the week before. The last couple of kilometres of this climb are a bit of a grind a go on forever after you see the resort as the col is right at the far end of the village. From here I knew it was easy going to Le Fayet with only 400 m of climbing left up to Servoz and then the Vaudagne. Twilight had me stopping at Saint Gervais to put my headtorch back on as the descent there is in thick forest. I felt really happy to be climbing well up to Servoz. After 5 hors cat climbs the short sharp Vaudagne was not a mental worry but a final chance to feel some burn. I’m remember my heart rate was sitting at 130 here even though I was working hard – I had taken on a lot of fluid on the easy ride down from Saises so probably had more blood volume and the 15C temps were ideal for a Scotsman but it was probably also a sign of being tired. As I crested the Vaudagne I flashed a couple of doggers cars in the woods with my headtorch before shooting down the descent and into Les Houches. A few km on the flat and I was home and ready for a good shower and a quick meal before sleep!
I was super happy to get this ride down which had been talked about with various people for about ten years. Injury, work, etc all getting in the way before. This year I had a high end of season fitness from skiing stuff like the Matterhorn and I’d also ridden my mountain bike a lot. My road biking had been limited to about 10 rides, half of which were in February so my leg power was shocking even though my endurance was high.
I’d never ridden that far on a road bike and a 60 mile ride aged 11 stood as my limit for years. While I was working in Aberdeen in 2013 I did the Tour of the Cairngorms and the Tour of the Snow Roads which were 166 miles and 200 miles respectively. The road bike really is a great way to cover a lot of distance and take in the scenery. Read about them in the links below.
Tour of the cairngorm mountains