WORDS: *Phil Deeker* | PHOTOS: *Claire Deeker*
Everyone came in after this stage agreeing that it had been the most scenic yet. It had started with the tranquil Col de Vence before setting off along the backroads of the Maritime Alps that led us up over the Col de Bleine. To share it with others, who are starting to ‘get it’, is so rewarding. After another detour that took us up over the Col St Barnabé we arrived at the immense Gorges du Verdon. The killer climb of this stage comes right at the end, but what a reward for the riders at the top! The views, as one rider quipped, “would have been breathtaking, had I had any breath left to take!” 3,900m of climbing over 217km made for another impressive set of stats.
At 235km this is the longest stage. Even if it ‘only’ had 3,600m of climbing, its length proved hard enough for most, even if they now seem to feel that they might just be able do this thing. The mountain of La Lure and then the last Col de Notre Dame des Abeilles provided the ‘entertainment’ after a fairly flat first 60 km of the stage. Some would say that riding wheel to wheel at 55kph for 15km is ‘entertaining’ but for these riders all they want is UP with the pay-off DOWNS.
One rider told me after only just surviving the tough stage two, “if I ever e-mail you about possibly doing the CCC Pyrenees, please delete my mail without even thinking of answering it!” Today he told me that he has been thinking about the Pyrenees…We both laughed, a lot.
Climbing Ventoux after breakfast may seem a crazy idea, but seven days into the event riders’ legs can take this sort of madness quite well. The method behind this is that to arrive at the top before 9am increases chances of the last 6km without wind, which makes a BIG difference to the energy required!
Today riders realised how lucky they were and none complained about the observatory being shrouded in a cold cloud. There were some impressive climbs, perhaps stimulated by my mentioning of a time of 1.29 hours from the Bedoin roundabout that I did on my 300 Cols ride three years ago. But with a total of 208km and 5,100 m of climbing, the day was only just beginning once at the top of Le Geant.
There are more and more heads falling over onto shoulders during my brief-as-possible post-dinner briefings, so some major obstacles can come a shock to those ‘distracted’ the previous evening. The Col de Pennes is a tough ‘wake-up’ climb, in particular the first half. I found myself with three of the stronger grimpeurs in the latter part of the climb. Slowly but surely the pace was cranked up until one of the Ozzie Ironmen declared his intentions and the race was on. One rider went too soon, thinking he smelt the top and the other two (Steve & Roy, the big Ozzie Ironmen ) ripped him apart as I was left without a thank you for setting them up for their attack! I just managed to keep them in sight until we all arrived sore (but smiling) at the top. Games that I encourage on the UP but never on the DOWN.
Later, on the last climb of the stage (the Col de Rousset), Steve & Roy again trashed their legs with style. Mike & Tim had powered their way up this 5% average climb in 2009 and I had suggested that these two bulls do the same. Of course they had taken the bait and I found them at the hotel beaming with satisfaction as they had made the mountain their own! Descending has been the area where even experienced riders have learnt the most and have really got the hang of it. It is surprising how much concentration is required to get every corner just right, especially after this many intensive days in the saddle.
Days are long, evenings short and nights are nowhere near as peaceful and long as the group would like them to be. All of the riders are finding this aspect of the event the hardest – not enough time OFF the saddle. But in a subtle way, this is how the magic of the Challenge works its way into riders’ minds. It all feels too much at times, with a physical and a sensorial overload. But they will walk away from this in two days realising that they really have done something very exceptional in their lives.
One more full stage to ride tomorrow with more extraordinary scenery and another 5,000m of climbing: Everyone knows that Annecy is getting nearer with every pedal stroke and yet again we have a fine weather forecast. Things could be a lot worse.
4˚C degrees in the morning on the high Vercors plateau, but above the cold morning mist the sun was King and as we climbed up through the thick mist to the Col de La Chau riders cheered at the best view yet. Moments like that, we all agreed, none of us would ever forget. It was the first of many special moments on this penultimate stage that took the riders through the Vercors and into the Chartreuse region of the Alps.
We climbed up to the balcony road to the Col de la Machine before plunging down to Pont-en-Royans and then dealing with one of my favourite climbs of the Challenge, the Toutes Aures / Pra d’Etang. Another very special place that only reveals its true magic if you already have several thousand metres of climbing and nearly as many kilometres in your legs! Everyone found this stage hard and drew much-needed comfort from the fact that the end was near. Together with Stage 8, this double-whammy packs nearly 10,000m of ascent into 400km, so weariness is hardly a surprise!
After a couple of superb descents, first off the Col de la Cluse, then off the Granier, the stage finished in the Isere valley at Montmelian, back into the Savoie. The bright harvest moon accompanied the last riders into the hotel, just over 12 hours after they climbed up off the Vercors plateau of Vassieux.
By democratic vote we had decided to cut out a 40km loop on the last stage, missing two Cols off the list of 111 proposed initially. We had done this last year due to road closure and it had resulted in a café stop next to a very appealing bakery – the unexpected sales of 30 coffees and 30 cakes had put a big smile on the owners as they listened fascinated to Frenglish tales of cycling bravado.
But before this moment of softness the Col de Maroclaz and the Col des Prés provided two harsh but beautiful moments for the ‘Fun Bus’ (the noisy grupetto that had steadily grown from four riders to eventually include most of the field) to get themselves over. Most managed well, but some had a shorter cake stop than others (the same ones who had shorter lunches, shorter evenings and shorter nights). It’s a tough Challenge if you ride well but, if you’re one of the ‘slower ones’, it’s even tougher.
So that just left the climb up the Semnoz, from the Col de Leschaux, the final climb to the finish line. At 14km long it is a proper climb, beautiful and tough. The flat section is a typical teaser, announcing the harder part of the climb that maintains a steady 10-11% to the top.
With the weather still spoiling us, the 180 degree views over the high Alps across to Mont Blanc were nothing short of perfection. A very emotional moment for many and a hard one to explain in words. As I said later that evening when I was presenting the CCC Brevets to the riders, none of us had ‘conquered’ anything, nor had any of us won or lost (there was no first or last rider). The feeling of accomplishment is somehow of lesser importance than the feeling of gratitude: to the mountains for ‘embracing us’ (in one riders’ words); to one’s body for agreeing to succumb to extraordinary ambition; and to the group who helped each other through when it was each person’s turn to go through the low moments.
I write this as most of that group, who came together from UK, USA and Australia, are making their way back to the real world and have left Claire and I here to watch the rain pour down on Lake Annecy. We both feel so lucky to have given 30 very fit people a chance to meet The Mountains. This Challenge is a holiday for no one; it demands months of training, and then depends on what cards The Mountains want to deal out to us. But that takes away nothing of the bravery, determination and pure physical strength of any of the riders who completed the 2010 Alpine Cent Cols Challenge.
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