Five kilometres from the top of the Col du Grand St Bernard, I began to have doubts. It’s pouring. It’s blowing a gale. And the temperature has dropped to a handful of degrees. It’s then that I began to wonder what could possibly be so wrong with a Club Med vacation? And there’s worse to come…
Things had actually started well. The 5am departure from the ski station of Les Saisies had been balmy. The road only slightly wet from an overnight storm. The descent to Megeve, in the dark and at pace, went well. I was with the lead riders until my bidon leapt from its cage. I chased and was favoured when the lead riders had taken a wrong turn and we met in the midst of St Gervais coming from different directions. At Passy, the start of the first real climb, we were twenty or so (against a start of 250-odd riders).
The bunch thinned quickly. By the time we were in Servoz, we were fewer than ten. The man driving us on was an ex-pro with Francaise de Jeux. He had won it last year – the first edition of the event. Sometime around that point, I recalled that I wasn’t a former pro and decided they would have more fun without me.
In the Chamonix valley, the gradient eased but the weather turned. On the climb up the Col des Montets, the rain and the wind started. It wouldn’t let up for another 240kms or so. The descent to Vallorcine and subsequent climb up to the Forclaz was not too bad. Even the descent of the Forclaz into Switzerland was reasonably quick, for it hadn’t rained long. Thereafter followed the short but very steep Col de Champex. On the backside, the road was rough, potholed and fog-bound. It was also much colder.
That took us to the Col du Grand St Bernard climb. Nearly 30kms long it was moderately angled – until those last five kilometres. There was even a dry spell of a few kilometres through an avalanche shelter. At the top, I had a cup of tea and prepared for the descent – sinuous, narrow and flooded. It would have been great in the dry. With between five and ten centimetres of water flowing down the road, a kayak would have been more fun.
The Val d’Aosta was warm and wet. The climb up the Col du Petit St Bernard was almost enjoyable – until the last five kilometres. They were into a gale and driving rain. Things were not getting any better. At the top, one of the voitures du ballai was crammed with riders wrapped in space blankets, the motor and heater running. Tempting, but I went off down towards Bourg St Maurice – 37 frustratingly slow, flooded and freezing kilometres away.
With two cols and about 2000 of the 8000 metres of climbing to go, I was pretty sure I could make it from Bourg. Heading up the Cormet de Roseland, the clouds even parted and we gained a view. And what a view – summits covered in freshly fallen snow, thundering waterfalls and chirping marmots. At the top, the guys at the ravito station told me I was eleventh – courage, they urged! Typically though, the descent was through fog to start with and then a river, strewn with rocks washed out onto the road. But at its end was the final climb of the day. Back to Les Saisies, ‘le pasta party’ and a hot shower.
In the end I rolled in twelfth overall (eighth for the category) in a time slightly longer than the last ice age (16 hours). Of the 250 or so that entered, only 89 finished the 330km ride. It was a hard event; climbing Mt Blanc was much, much easier than this. And yet, we may have to go back. For Cath was ill in the lead up and on the day decided not to ride. Wise choice. But I am pretty sure I heard her muttering something about next year…