The Alps. As much a part of cycling folklore and tradition as the cobblestones and crosswinds of which I am so accustomed to in Belgium, but they are sure enough as different in nature as they are in metres above sea level.
Le Tour des Pays de Savoie is one of ‘the’ races of the season for the climbers; a UCI 2.2 with 4 summit finishes over 4 days, as it winds its way south through the Savoie region of the Alps from the banks of lake Geneva to the Maurienne valley. Needless to say it was not a race I was expecting to be competitive in, but the the opportunity of bicycle racing in an auditorium such as this wasn’t something I was ever going to snub.
After a solid 12 hour stint behind the wheel, we arrived on the Col du Glandon on the preceding Friday (7th June), a few days prior to the race start, in an effort to acclimatise to the altitude, the gradients, the ever changeable weather and of course to tick off a few more climbs on the cyclist’s bucket list of essential rides. Saturday and Sunday were filled with back to back 4-5 hour rides, each topping 3000m climbing as we took on the Col du Madeleine, Col du Chaussy, La Toussuire, as well as a constant continuation of uncategorized climbs punishingly dispersed among the famous peaks. I’ve had far more proportionately epic days on the bike, but our jaunt up the Croix de Fer is at least worth an honourable mention; after 3 climbs already negotiated, and only the Croix standing in the way of us and our hotel, the weather took a turn for the worse, as thick black cloud descended over the snowy peaks. The choices were to either roll back down the valley, and ride up the other side from the bottom…or to keep going vertically and hope whatever’s up there turned out to be navigable. There was of course no real choice in the matter, as the latter became the inevitable. Two disgustingly horrible, but retrospectively awesome hours later we arrived back at our apartment, to the most welcome cup of coffee I’ve had for a while. It’s a good job I didn’t have an imminent race to worry about, otherwise the ‘closed’ Col du Galibier would have almost definitely made a concerted effort to gain ‘honourable mention’ status on the epic ride scale, too.
We spent two days in full recovery mode, to the extent it was deemed necessary to both drive to the top of the now blue skied Croix de Fer summit for a coffee, and also to the valley floor in order to do a flat, easy ride. All that was left to do was drink espressos, sit on the balcony in constant awe of our surroundings, and try not to think too much about the ensuing 4 days of agony.
Racing in France is different to Belgium. I hate to admit it, but it is definitely more…Je ne sais quoi. The sense of occasion is extremely palpable; team presentations, signature requests, hundreds upon hundreds of race convoy vehicles, race villages in which to sit and drink coffee whilst reading L’equipe. It’s all very egotistical and over the top, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel good to be a part of. Poncing around aside though, we rolled out and hit a 70kph descent from the off. My job was to try to get in the break, so in an act of complete foolishness I attacked at the foot of the first climb. Kind of like Tommy Voëckler, except not at all. As we crested the summit 8km later I was barely in the bunch let alone the breakaway. Some guys didn’t even get that far, and went down as DNF less than 20km into a 4 day tour…talk about blowing a race to pieces. Anyhow, I found myself in a bunch and after 2 more climbs the Peloton had largely regrouped. I gave my team mate a lead out for the foot of the finishing climb, before blowing my doors off in the first 100m and riding in piano 9 minutes down.
I went into stage two feeling severely uncomfortable about the amount of uncategorized climbs which sprinkled the race profile. Included to encourage attacking riding, that’s exactly what they did. After 40km of what I would have previously called hilly terrain, we hit the first climb. Riders were getting dropped from the moment the road went up, and sure enough 1km before the summit I too was off the pace. On the descent I turned off the reasonability switch in my head and barely touched the breaks, only stopping briefly at my team car to stuff some bottles down my jersey for the boys. I got over the next climb ok, but the third was to be my last in the (dis)comfort of the diminished bunch. I found a group of 6 guys and we rode for 50km in the valley floor to the foot of the 12km, 10% average Plateu du Solaisson. Already at 20+ minutes from the leaders, the time cut was looming ominously. I dropped my companions as soon as we hit the bottom, but confused as to why they were so blasé about the time. It wasn’t until 5km later, while alone in a pit of solitude and exhaustion as I ground my way up the side of a cliff, that the reasoning of their lack of concern became clear…why ride when you can hang onto a car? A mere shake of the head was all the energy I could muster to express my feelings at the time, but whether it’s cheating to win or cheating to stay in the race, the morals remain, even if the glory doesn’t. This pattern continued for the next hour, until eventually I arrived at the finish to the best tasting Coca Cola I’ve ever had in my life…and an honest 3 minutes inside the time cut.
Stage three; it’s all downhill from here, right? Wrong. More uncategorized climbs and heart-in-the-mouth descents peppered the first 40km, and it was on one of these which our team leader Jeroen Snick suffered a mechanical. I instinctively stopped, but was told by the Comissaire that I wasn’t allowed…? Not quite sure about the reasoning behind that one, but it left me in no mans land between the bunch, the team cars, and following convoy. I waited for what seemed like an eternity with no sign of Jeroen so decided to carry on riding, by which point everyone was already out of sight. A few minutes later our team car came belting past with Jeroen on the bumper, but after putting in a mammoth effort to get up to speed, I couldn’t stay there. I chased and I chased, along the banks of Lac Annecy; the beauty of which I knew was there, but couldn’t look at as a prisoner of my own suffering. I reached the bunch at the foot of the first climb, and was dropped immediately. If you’re out the back on the first climb of a 170k stage with two Cat 1 climbs to come, there really is no hope, so with broken legs and heart I waved down the bus. One Dutchman however tried in vain to defy fact for 90km, before eventually facing reality and joining us; each man alone with their thoughts, but together in the mutual understanding silence of the Broomwagon.
Leaving the race in such an anticlimactic, anonymous way was hard to take. At a time when all you want to do is go home and forget about bicycle racing, the last environment you want to be in is the one I have spent the previous few paragraphs explaining. There really is no worse feeling than being on the other side of the barriers, but with 3 riders still left in the race and Jeroen still in an incredible 14th on GC, we all chipped in and made sure they got the best service possible. It was 34 degrees, so almost the entire day was spent filling and dispensing bidons, not just to our riders but to everyone. When a race turns into a survival contest, the way in which everyone pulls together is inspiring, and the ideals of sport are promisingly rectified. After three first category climbs, at the summit finish of La Toussuire (where Pierre Rolland got his Tour de France stage win last year), each of the 51 finishers were alone, and in an act of greatness our little man Jeroen consolidated his 14th place in the final GC like an absolute hero.
This was a race like no other I’ve done before, and despite it not suiting me in the slightest the experience was one of the most enjoyable, most beautiful and needless to say most difficult I’ve done. I went into it with almost no clue about what to expect, but came out with at least some knowledge of a completely different aspect of the sport. How to ride up a 5-10-15-20km climb in a bunch, how to descend, knowing when to cling to a wheel and knowing when to let it go before the effort becomes unsustainable. Beforehand I had completely written myself off for any sort of climbing, but I now know I can cope with long, steady ascents; just not steep, tight, unpredictable ones. I have also learnt firsthand what a pure climber is; the miniscule, fragile nature of their limbs and torsos, and their underdeveloped, small faces are almost childlike, but when the road goes up it is quite extraordinary how fast they go. But for every climber fighting for time at the front of the race, there is one stocky lump at the back fighting just as to stay in it. It’s only after 3 days of doing this that my respect for the Grupetto has really become clear, so when Cav, Greipel, Eisel and the like finish an hour down to Froome and Contador this summer, don’t think for a second that they’ve had an easy day! The Lanterne Rouge deserves every clap he gets (as long as there were no overly sticky bottles involved, naturally).
After driving back from Chambery on Sunday night, and sleeping most of Monday, I’m now on the ferry back to the UK for the National Championships in Glasgow. As long as the multiple thousands of kilometres sat in a car during the preceding days doesn’t take too much of a toll, it could potentially go ok. Hey, if nothing else, I hear the course profile doesn’t go above 60m at least, and currently that can only be a good thing.