WORDS & PHOTOS: Phil Deeker
Weather spoilt us deservedly after last year as all riders (bar 75 yr old Keith who packed this morning and went home) arrived tired but proud in Briancon after 5,200m of climbing over 204km. They got a heroes’ welcome from none other than Bernard Hinault who is staying at the same hotel as us. He was politely impressed by what the guys are doing, but confessed to me later that he thought we were all mad!
The French pros he was been with (including national ‘espoir’ champ Johan Le Bon) asked for our whole itinerary and they all took their hats off to our proud CCC riders. After dinner we presented him with a CCC jersey and he stayed with us to answer all our questions. A special moment at the end of a very hard day.
Galibier was tough for all as the last climb of the day, but the last rider was over by 18.30 hrs, 2 hours later than our ‘leader’ ( Lenny, a very fit rider from Israel). The sun still bathed the mountains in autumn sunshine. The wind had left us alone all day.
At a mere 3,500m of climbing over 194km, today was a relief after the efforts required on stage 2. The group are starting to work well together, with some noticeably gaining in confidence. Most, though, are still anxious about what lies ahead… We have a broad range of ability with todays’ Lanterne Rouge cap being won by our gutsy 60 year-old lady rider from the USA who is looking stronger by the day!
The stage opened with the Izoard, ten minutes after breakfast. The moment was magic for all though; 09.00 hrs in La Casse Deserte is a fine time to be in such an exceptional place! In the Gorges we cross paths with Bernard Hinault in his Team Brittany car and are flashed and waved at with a big smile from the great man. Spirits are high.
The Col de Pontis proved the other hardest spike of the day, with one rider having to pack with severe back pain. He hopes to ride again after a couple of days’ rest. The Serre-Poncon lake is a deep shade of sparkling tourquoise and in the midday heat begs us all to get off our sweaty bikes and jump in. Everyone resists…just. What a view! Instead the stronger riders tow the others in to another buffet-banquet fit for kings (of mountains).
By the end of this stage the majority of the group are beginning to understand that they are doing something quite special and are sniffing the possibility of being able to finish it. Some riders told me this evening that they had just had their best day on a bike in the mountains ever. I heard this comment a lot on the event last year too.
For many this proved the hardest stage so far, as it did last year. The first three stages all end with superb 30-40km run-ins on fast descents. Stage 4 on the other hand is a mountain-top finish at Valberg: The 12km climb up from Guillaumes proved a tough way to round up the days’ tally of 4,600m of climbing over 192 km.
The morning kept the legs busy over the Cols de Fontbelle and Corobin, climbing along some very quiet country roads and offering riders some very fast, exciting descents as rewards. The group are improving in their descending technique with every stage: There is so much of it in this event that, even if you start off a but shaky, after a few tips from myself and other experienced riders you soon pick up the tricks.
But it is in the afternoon that the legs are put to test, as the road ramps up out of Colmars taking riders a long way away from civilisation on the Col des Champs. What a unique place! Indescribable. Comment from one; “OK, I see what you mean about it being special up here Phil!” And yet another dream descent. Before the Valberg climb.
By 07.30 hrs the last rider was in. 12 hours after starting out that morning. A pancake feast with cider finished the day on a high register, no doubt helped by the idea of just one more day before the REST DAY.
Rain overnight meant wet, dangerous roads for the mornings main descent ( to St Sauveur) yet many said afterwards that it was the best descent they had ever done. It’s true that the scenery is hard to beat and the wet road meant they took the descent slower and had more time to look around. Could be a lesson to learn in that?!
Whereas last year the Medditeranean Sea was a grey mess, drenched in drizzly rain cloud, this year at least it was dry after lunch for the exceptional downhill sections off the Turini ( towards Luceram) and then from the Col de Braus to Escarene. Maybe it was the endless serious of switchbacks that caused our unfortunate second crash so far: Israeli Lenny, our fastest rider, took a bad tumble when in the last descent of the day his tub slipped off the rim and he hit the deck to the painful noise of metal grinding on tarmac.
As I write this on our rest day, he is undergoing surgery in Nice for a broken femur. We will all miss him but not as much as his brother Mike, who has flown in from the U.S. to ride the second week with him. He is a an exceptional climber whose sport is his life, yet a great team player too.
Despite the accident and some riders losing their way at the end of the ride…a long story… all once again judged the stage “exceptional” which is what I called them all too at the de-brief. We are half way round and now riders have understood that this event is all about ‘just’ finishing it, not about in what time or in what position.
The first week is all about dealing with a mind and body who don’t know what is hitting them. The second week on the Cent Cols Challenge is no easier physically, but is easier on the mind. Excitement is gradually winning the battle with Fear about the next stage’s route. Only because those who ride this Challenge have already had to dig very deep, as the saying goes.
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