Paul and I rode London to Paris 3 years ago, it was the start of our recreational cycling. Great event that we both really enjoyed. We had done a couple of long events, the London revolution and the Surrey 100 miles. Time was right for something a bit bigger. Paul took the lead and sent through a few options. We agreed on Geneva to Nice, we would use the same travel group as London to Paris, Discovery Adventure, a format that we both enjoyed, only this trip would be a much smaller group of 20 riders:
- am – Breakfast
- 8am – On the road
- 10am (+20Miles ) – Waterstop for ½ hour, generally wait for all riders to get there before heading off again
- noon (+20Miles ) – Lunch is an 1 hour, to sit under trees and sort out the world problems. Discovery provided a hot soup, cold meats, pasta, salads, a cup of tea
- 2pm (+20Miles) – Waterstop for ½ hour, snacks and refill water bottles
- 4pm – Back at the hotel, a beer or two
- 8pm – Dinner and then bed
Do it all again tomorrow.
I had not trained enough which meant I under prepared but had confidence in my bike and my setup. This trip was from Geneva through the French Alps to Nice. We would climb around 6000 feet per day and complete 80-90miles per day. Significantly tougher than anything I had previously done.
After a short flight into Geneva, we had a train trip to the hotel before putting our bikes back together. We were all set for a late lunch and a walk around Geneva. The hotel was a twenty five minute walk from the Lake, after looking at a few restaurants we found a quaint Italian one overlooking Lake Geneva. I could not get over the price of a bowl of pasta with a few mushrooms, 27 Swiss francs. Paul eventually told me to shut up about the price of a bowl of pasta.
My first experience of a mountain climb started five miles outside Geneva passing a sign, “4 percent for 15km”. Not very easy to explain what happens to your body when it climbs for an hour, your heart rate rises as you tire. You really need to operate in a zone that allows you to keep going. At this gradient of four percent it’s really up to you on how hard you work. Theoretically you should have plenty of gears.
Paul and I were 45 miles into day one, we had conquered two of the three mountain climbs. The map indicated a nice flat session, one and a half percent for ten miles, then onto Col du Frêne for 950m, the third climb of the day. We got into the base of the Valley, which was flat enough but a wind tunnel. Can wind really make that much difference? I was tucked right behind Paul for about three to four miles, he turned around and asked me when I was going to take my turn? My answer was he had two choices; he could either cycle alone or he could cycle with me behind him. I was starting to get tired. That wind. Thirty miles left and another climb. Tough day. It was more about survival than enjoying the scenery. Paul and I ended up in Alvard town square having a beer after day one, he said I had five words to sum up the day and my response was that I only needed one word; relentless. Climbing 6000 feet a day takes some doing.
As much as this trip is about the climbs, the down hills are spectacular. It can take one hour to ride ten miles to the top and fifteen minutes to ride ten miles down on the other side. You are able to travel at 30 miles per hour without much effort – gravity. Cycling down we were generally surrounded by spectacular scenery with views opening up to what seemed like a hundred miles. The roads were in great condition, the combination of views, gradient and downhill distance allowed for cycling bliss.
Day two was a bit of a shorter transition day, 70 miles. The first 30 miles were flat. I had somehow convinced myself it was going to be an easy day. Before lunch we did a big climb 4 % for 12km. I had a good hour of rest forty miles into the seventy mile ride, and I was feeling good. How quickly that changed. We climbed from Chute de Monteynard bridge to Col de Cornillon, which was 5.5km at 6.5% and it was hot, very hot at 40C and I was not able to spin up the hill. I had run out of gears and was having to use power to keep me going. I had a 11-32 cassette on the back which was the best thing I did for this trip. Climbing at over 6 percent is not easy, I went from feeling that I was doing eight out of ten well to three out of ten in five kilometers. You try to concentrate on your breathing, sitting in a good position, make sure the energy you have is being put to the best use. If you have run out of gears – your heart rate is only going one way. Things start going through your head. I was very glad to reach the top of this climb.
We had another 10km of climbing to the water stop, with a 3km climb at 4%, which shouldn’t have been a problem but it was hot and I was tired, a lone tree no thicker than a broomstick was too much of a temptation, I had to stop for a pretend toilet break. I needed two minutes in that tiny bit of shade to get my heart rate down. At the water stop Paul asked me his favourite question, five words to describe the day, my answer was that I definitely needed two words and the first word was going to be an expletive. Tough, really tough.
Day three was a different profile, 4000 feet of climbing and 90 miles long. I had found my cycling legs at this point and felt in the comfort zone. Word of the day; undulating. It felt a bit more like the London to Paris trip, still some great cycling. Two notable down hills, the first was from Col de Manse at 1268m our highest point of the challenge down to the town of Gap. A couple of straights which were 2 miles long, roads were excellent, my top speed was around 40miles per hour. Pretty quick. Another was downhill overlooking a grass airfield, a little bit gravelly and more technical. We also managed a quick break in Sisteron, a French town built into the side of a cliff, where I dunked my head into a water fountain, trying to keep cool for ten minutes.
Day four was the big one. We started with the biggest climb of the trip, 6% for 7 miles, the middle part of the climb was 9% for 2 miles. Big and brutal. I had taken some advice from our trip leader, if you are on a very steep climb you can reduce the gradient by using the full width of the road. Similar to skiing down a mountain. I had a very measured approach spinning in a low gear, using the full width of the road, a bit like a snake side winding up the mountain. When I got to the 9% section it’s about gritting those teeth. I had learned a lot in the first three days in the mountains. The temperature was cool and I was mentally prepared for this first mountain, 2000ft in about an hour. It’s interesting trying to quantify what that means, a two story house is around eight meters, making it at around eighty houses on top of each other. Not bad for an hour’s work. At the top you reach Col de Corobin, 1230m.
Two large climbs left but the best part of the trip was yet to come, the thirty miles down into Nice. I can not explain how beautiful the views were. At times the road seemed chiseled into the cliff face and on your right there might be a 200 meter fall. The road down the mountain uses hairpin bends, involving heavy breaking to almost turn back on yourself and away you go again. You can’t really believe you can go downhill for 30 miles. We ended up in Nice, a quick swim in the sea followed by ice cream and champagne.
I really enjoyed the trip even with the few tough moments. It was ten out of ten and would highly recommend it if you can afford a week in the saddle.
Out of twenty riders who did the event Paul was in the top five, very impressive. He seemed to really enjoy the event in spite of the gash in his legs from a bike crash shortly before the trip. He seemed to cope with all the humps and bumps with no problem. I did try to keep an invisible bit of string between us, there were times when he simply cycled away, all that training paid dividends. He’s a superstar, always a pleasure to be around. I need to up my game for our next adventure. Lets wait and see.
- Get a 11/32 cassette on the back
- If you are flying with a bike, Bikeboxalan is the way to go, do a couple of practice session to take the bike apart and putting it back together (A thank you to Neil for our bike rebuilding session, it made a real difference).
- Train, those mountains are big.
- Happy cycling
Paul adds; the only thing to say is to train like there is no tomorrow….no matter what anyone says, you get out what you put in.