THE POSSE’S TALLEST DAY ADVENTURE : JUNE 30TH – JULY 2ND 2018
With the Tour de France diverting your attention slightly, it may possibly have slipped your notice that the Posse were off on another adventure at the end of June. This time the Alps were beckoning!
So with misguided enthusiasm, “varied” levels of training and fitness, and not just a little trepidation, Mark, Rog, Rich, Olwen, Tish, Tudor and Nick, this year’s Welsh Posse participants, bravely joined by Brett from the wilds of Essex, and wonderfully supported by Jamie (who would have loved to have been riding with us, but had to go in for knee surgery literally on the day after our return), set off for Bourg St Maurice in the French Alps, on Thursday 29th June.
Arriving in Bourg, the start for one of this year’s TdF Alpine days, around 6pm, we decided that a little ride would be good to check the bikes were OK and to get the car journey out of the legs.
We quickly realised that this made us perilously close to being cyclists rather than blokes (and girls!) with bikes, so after climbing about 15 minutes up towards Les Arcs (everything is “up” from Bourg), we beat a hasty retreat and returned to our hotel for much needed beer!
The reality of what was waiting for us tomorrow led to a quiet (‘ish) evening, and to a little stress from some in the group (Tish!), so after remarkably few bottles of vin rouge, we were in bed early, ready for an early start in the morning.
DAY 1 – THE TALLEST DAY – BOURG ST MAURICE TO BONNEVAL SUR ARC – 65 KMS
Today is the Tallest Day – Europe’s longest continuous ascent, 51 kms of constant climbing, topping out at the Col de l’Iseran, at 2770 metres Europe’s highest road point, before dropping down the other side to Bonneval sur Arc.
At almost exactly 2000 metres of vertical, all in one climb, from our start point in Bourg, today was no doubt going to challenge us. With an average gradient of only 4.5% not horribly steep, but the thought of no-respite climbing for over 50 kms certainly messes with your head!
Breakfast was full of bonhomie, some slightly forced, some a little hysterical – no escape now!
We had also unwittingly given ourselves a “broom wagon” – there was a motorbike rally that day, meaning that several thousand motorbikes would be ascending the Col de l’Iseran at 4pm. We needed to have summited and be gone by then!
So, to avoid the motos, and to at least start in the cool, we were on the way around 7.30am, and after a few hundred metres to the edge of town, we were straight into the climb.
Deep joy! Don’t think too much, just enjoy the scenery, have a little banter on these easier lower stretches, and hope the kilometres drop away without too much effort!
Quick coffee stop in Sainte Foy, about 10 kms in, to regroup and see how everyone was feeling. General consensus was “so far so good”, but we could see the road ahead, kicking up quite steeply – time to get on with it …………….
Our next planned stop was Val d’Isere, at 34 kms into the ride it was well over half way, but only half of the vertical ascent, so we knew that it was going to get a lot tougher after that (and we weren’t disappointed!).
But for now, enjoy the climb, ranging from “false flats” at 2 or 3%, to some ramps at 7 or 8%, and try to keep something in the tank for later. We were starting to understand the realities of “continuous ascent” – no free miles, every pedal stroke needing a push!
Just before Val d’Isere, we passed the Tignes lake (the original Tignes village lies at the bottom of the lake, flooded when the dam was built in 1952), and the iconic “Lady of the Lake” statue – obviously a stop and a photo was required, only because of the scenic beauty of course, nothing to do with us feeling just slightly knackered by now!
Then into Val d’Isere, world famous ski resort in the Winter, ghost town (almost!) in the Summer. Planned pit stop, Jamie waiting for us, signalling us towards a bar that he’d recce’d and that was willing to provide some food at 11 in the morning!
Croque Monsieurs all round, beer for some (madness!), Coke for most, reboot the sun cream as now it’s starting to get really hot, and we’re off again. Only about 17 kms to go but with another kilometre of vertical still to climb, this final stage was going to average around 6%, and with ramps of 10-11%, we knew that it was going to be tough.
No chance of keeping the group together now. Rich, our mountain goat, and Tudor, the Posse’s “Mr Muscles”, disappeared up the mountain, leaving the rest of the Posse spread out in their wake. No peloton now, the gaps getting bigger as a combination of heat and sun, altitude and cramp, started to take their toll.
But plod on we did, counting the pedal strokes, watching that little patch of tarmac about a yard in front of you, not looking up, mopping a combination of sweat and sun-block out of your eyes.
And via a welcome pit-stop at mid climb with Jamie parked up on the side of the road armed with water, jelly babies and flapjacks, eventually we summited the Col de l’Iseran, the highest point of tarmacked road in Europe. And we beat the motorbikes!
Smiles, beer and crisps at the summit! Everyone suddenly a little more relaxed, can’t think why!
Then 14 kms of descending to Bonneval sur Arc, our overnight stop. Incredible scenery, huge snowdrifts, beautiful waterfalls, big switchbacks and almost no traffic. What a delight!
DAY 2 – BONNEVAL SUR ARC TO SAINTE MARIE DE CUINES – 91 KMS
Our “recharge the batteries” day. Today’s ride continued the descent from the Col de l’Iseran, down into the valley floor, and other than a short climb mid-ride to the Col de la Madeleine (not THE Madeliene, but it’s baby brother), today is all downhill or flat.
Time to look up, look about and enjoy what’s around us. Truly spectacular.
The only challenge was heat – by early afternoon it was 38 degrees, and like riding with a hairdryer in your face! Multiple beer stops needed towards the end of the day!
Starting off from Bonneval, around 10am, already hot!
Oh, and a quick swim about 5 kms from the end, wonderful!
DAY 3 – STE MARIE DE CUINES TO ALBERTVILLE – 74 KMS
In preparing this little outing, it became clear that Day 3 was probably going to be tougher than Day 1 – we were taking on the Col de la Madeleine proper, the BIG brother. Not only that, we were doing it the hard way, South to North (the opposite way to the usual TdF route), 19.2 kms, average gradient 8.7%, minimum gradient 8%, maximum 12%.
A constant battle, never dropping below 8%.
Bloody hell, we’re blokes with bikes not proper cyclists!
This was going to be tough. We met a couple of cyclists in our hotel the night before who had ridden it that day, and they looked like cyclists! Their only comment was “very steep”. Our only hope was that they were Dutch, and maybe they didn’t have much of a yardstick by which to gauge “very steep”.
Sadly they did!
Very early start to avoid the heat, 6am breakfast, 6.30 ride out. After a gentle few kilometres to warm us up and open the lungs, we’re into La Chambre at the foot of the Col, and instantly we’re into the climb. Going through the village, it’s a “gentle 6%”, but the Col proper hasn’t started. As we head out of town, the signs tell us that this is where it starts, and the first km averages 8.5%!
The milestones every km remind us how far we still have to go, how much climbing we still have to do, and crush us further by letting us know the average gradient over the next km.
Disheartening or what!
But we have to keep going. Jamie is there in the support car, parked up to wave us on and shout encouragement (abuse!) or provide water, or driving back down the mountain to check on the stragglers and make sure that all of us are OK.
Jamie, we couldn’t do this without you. You know that.
So on we go, counting the pedal strokes, singing in your head (no breath for singing aloud!), thinking about clearing the rubbish out of the garden shed, anything to take your mind off the endless climbing! Try to switch off, just keep the legs pushing round and around.
Then we hit the little village of Montgellafrey. The joy of seeing Jamie parked up on the roadside and waving us into a little sidestreet. Coffee, somewhere is open!
No idea why we look so happy in the photo on the right, we’ve only done about 8 of the 19 kms, and looks can be very deceptive – the big guy in the middle is bloody knackered, why is everyone smiling?!!
Coffee from the bar and flapjacks from the support car, and we’re off again! We know that there’s nothing now until the summit except the shuttered and closed ski resort of St Francois Longchamp. We see a milestone telling us that the next km averages 10% – no photos of this one, no-one wanted to get off!
On and on, up and up.
The group is well spread out, the Goat and Mr Muscles are off and away, the rest of us smeared over the mountain, each of us in our own little world of pain.
Why are we doing this? Most of us are in our 60’s. Few of us are very close to peak physical condition! O2e is why we are doing this; O2e gets us a very long way outside our comfort zones; O2e makes a difference; think of what we are doing this for.
The bulk of the group wait and regroup at the top of a chairlift (sadly closed!) about 1200 metres from the top, so that we can have the pleasure of summiting together, the camaraderie of conquering a challenge together. And then we’re up, we’ve summited the formidable Col de la Madeleine!
Tish has eaten so many shot blocks that she’s so hyper she could probably do it again. Can’t stop her shouting and laughing!
Café at the top. Well deserved beer, tarte aux myrtilles, and ……….. oh go on, yes I’ll have another beer!
And it’s all downhill from here.
28 kms of wonderful downhill, Brett proving to us that mountain-bikers have better bike handling skills than us road bikers.
Some of us trying to race a little until a few hairy moments with the outside of switchbacks bring us back to reality!
Most of us wishing that we had discs instead of old-fashioned calipers.
All of us thankful that it’s dry!
The descent goes on.
Then into the valley floor at La Lechere, Jamie waiting again, he’s found the only restaurant in the area that’s open on a Monday! What would we do without him?!!
Most of us quietly gloating that the Goat and Brett were so far ahead on the descent that they’ve taken a wrong turn and have had to ride an extra 6 or 7 miles!
With only about 25 kms of flat riding left today to our finish in Albertville, we even allow ourselves a couple of pichets of wine on top of the thirst-quenching beer! Throwing caution to the wind!
And then we mount up again, all smiles and laughter, no-one noticing that the hairdryer heat is turned on full again. The bunch stays together, and without noticing the effort, we cruise into Albertville, and we’re done!
The Posse’s Tallest Day challenge is over. Not the fastest climbing the bike world has ever seen. Not the classiest technique, not the speediest descending (possibly except for Brett!). But we’ve done it. We’ve pushed our own boundaries. We’ve laughed (a lot), sworn (a lot, especially Tish!), sung a bit (Olwen).
And we’ve raised several thousand pounds for O2e in the process.
And what’s next for the Posse? Watch this space, 2019 plans are already afoot ………………