“Not here, you need to be at the North Terminal”.
I really should have checked my boarding pass before I joined the huge queue to drop off my bike bag. Thirty minutes later I’ve dropped my bag at the right terminal and find my way to the departure gate for Geneva. A few hours after this I’m in a van with some of the other riders on my way up to Morzine in the French Alps for a weekend of cycling and Tour de France watching organised by Rpm90.
On arrival at the chalet introductions are made between riders and the Rpm90 crew. I don’t know any of the other riders but I know most of the Rpm90 team as they are local friends. Bikes are unpacked and rebuilt for a 40 kilometre spin in the afternoon before a three course meal, wine and chat in the evening.
Rain is falling as we eat breakfast. There is muttering about the planned ride.
We head out of Morzine in the dry though, arm warmers on to take off the chill of the morning mountain air. We gently climb to Les Gets where arm warmers and gilets are thrown in the back of the Rpm90 van or stuffed in back pockets. Dropping into the valley of Le Foron at Taninges we follow valley roads until the climb towards a lunch stop in Megevette starts. After lunch we loop around a couple more valleys, first heading north before turning south back towards Morzine. A few kilometres short of Morzine, in the town of Montriond to regroup to decide what to do next. There are a few options; the flat(ish) ride into Morzine, up the hill to Lac de Montriond and down to Morzine, or the 11 kilometre climb of to Col de la Joux Verte and the long, fast descent back to the chalet. Along with most of the others I opt for the big climb, which will add 20 kilometres to the 80 already ridden.
The road angles up out of the town before levelling as it skirts the edge of the lake. Then the climbing starts again, initially quite steep through a series of hairpins through the forest before steeper and tighter switchbacks up to the “goat village” of Les Lindarets. Which each turn the view back down the mountian is more beautiful, the filtering of sunlight through cloud effecting delicate and subtle patterns on the hillside greens. The road flattens again for a short section through a ski station before ramping up again for the final 6 or 7 kilometres to Joux Verte.
Popping out on the main road from Morzine just below Avoriaz we are greeted by the Rpm90 van where we can grab cans of coke for sustenance, and jackets to keep warm on the fast descent. Before this though a few of us climb the final couple of kilometres up to the empty ski resort of Avoriaz at the summit for a coffee. It seems daft not to ride to the very top seeing as it’s just there. As we leave the town we see Morzine far below sitting in a puddle of sunlight, and can see the road to the chalet. We seem to reach that road very quickly on the rapid descent, far, far quicker than we climbed up here in the first place.
We’ve timed it perfectly, it starts to hammer down just as we unclip.
A helicopter appears around a corner out of the gloom and the anticipation rises exponentially…
We’ve been waiting atop Col de Joux Plane for five hours. We sweated our way up in sunshine but the forecast storms arrived not long after. We have been cowering in whatever clothes we carried up with us, bin bags, and bright yellow Tour de France branded capes, in the hope that the rain may ease. Every time the sky seemed to lighten, the edges of cloud distinct rather than a shroud of grey around us, there was hope it might stop. Then there would be a flash almost instantly followed by a crash of thunder. The storm is simply swirling around us. We have no idea what is happening in the race.
…the sounds of excited and drunk fans sweeps along the roadside towards us, just ahead of the TV cameras, in turn just ahead of Nibali, Pantano, and Izagirre who crest the summit in a mess of noise and rain, jerseys filthy from whatever the alpine weather has thrown at them all day. There’s no time for gilets or jackets to be grabbed and put on. This is the race for the stage. They disappear out of sight, sucked along in the tunnel of noise of cheering and slapped hoardings. It goes quiet(er) again but excitement lingers in the air. Who will be next? What’s the gap?
Motorbike headlights emerge from the grey corner and the wave of crowd noise starts again, quietly in the distance blown around in the wind, then louder and louder as it nears us. Team Sky are next, guiding Froome safely to the finish. I don’t remember who else was in the group and I’ve still not seen the highlights of this stage. What’s actually going on in the race is secondary to just being here, to witness.
Riders continue to come past in dribs and drabs, spent domestiques and those dropped by the earlier breakaway sitting in the no mans land between the contenders and those being chased by the time cut. The race has been blown apart by the parcours and weather. These riders don’t even have camera bikes to keep them company. Official tour vehicles and team cars squeeze past them to catch what is happening further ahead. These are the heroes, the unsung ones, the ones who do this day in day out for someone else’s glory.
The grupetto appears and slides past silently, their joy that this is the last mountain of the tour seems to have been heavily dampened by the conditions. We think it’s over but then the solitary figure of Bernie Eisel appears. However he’s not last. The broom wagon metaphorically nudges Tony Martin up the last little bit a few seconds later.
Then it’s over. And the rain stops.
Sunday. A tale of four mountains.
It’s our turn to ride the queen stage of this year’s Tour, to follow in the wheel tracks of the riders we cheered on yesterday. There are four climbs all with varying Tour histories, steeped in legend and reputation – Col de Aravis (40 Tours), Col de la Colombiere (21 Tours), Col de la Ramaz (4 Tours), and Col de Joux Plane (12 Tours).
Like the pros we have team support and domestiques – two Rpm90 vehicles and Jo and Dan on bikes with us. We’ll try to keep together over the first climb as far as the bottom of Col de la Colombiere where inevitably we’ll split into two groups. Before we start I know I’ll be in the second group. There’s no way I’ll get through today if I try and smash my way round. As if I could smash my way round anyway.
Col des Aravis
The Aravis is a pleasant introduction to the day to come. The sun shines on the names painted on the road, a reminder that just yesterday the peloton rode these very same roads. After an initial ramp from the village of Flumet the gradient eases and then drops for a kilometre or so before a bridge over L’Arrondine river where the road starts to rise again, through the village of Les Giettaz and beyond into mountain pasture and meadows. At the top we regroup at a cafe for a coffee and to decide which group we might want to ride in. The plan being we’ll aim to get to the bottom of the Colombiere together before dividing. This doesn’t quite work and we split somewhere between here and there. I’m in a group with Tom, Andy and John with Jo on domestique duties.
Col de la Colombiere
The climb itself is lovely but oh man, the descent! It’s spectacularly fast swoopy and brilliant and twisty and terrifying and goes on forever and ever and ever. Sublime.
Col de la Ramaz
The bottom section isn’t so bad but the sun is beating down, the heat sapping energy needed to climb. I can smell warm tarmac as I twist and turn through switchbacks. In my head I’m Contador dancing effortlessly on the pedals but I know the reality is more an overweight Froome mauling the bike whilst staring at the stem. Out of the tight turns and trees into a gorge and it all goes revolting. Rocks and weather are closing in on me and I’m hating every second, the tunnels are no better as the sound of motorbike engines echo and buzz around me. It only adds to my annoyance, anger even. This is shit. No, I am shit. Every pedal stroke is pain. It’s an ugly bit of mountain in more ways that one and is followed by a scruffy bit, but then turning a corner, literally and metaphorically, it opens out into a picturesque plateau. Pain and hate subside in direct proportion to the easing incline. Sunshine returns along with my happiness. Three down, only one more to go.
Col de Joux Plane
By the time we hit the Joux Plane I am running on little more than fumes. It doesn’t start well with the first couple of kilometres being at an abrupt angle up though the houses on the edge of Samoens and then it all becomes an arduous slow motion blur. Our little group has separated on the lower slopes and I am hanging off the back, staring at the tarmac just ahead of my front wheel. Tom I can see ahead when the road straightens for long enough, John has disappeared. Andy and I sit about 20 metres apart, Jo riding back and forth between to make sure we’re okay (or rather that we don’t give up). I tack into the gradient on one particularly steep part, out of the saddle, breathing heavily. I am sure the views from up here are stunning but I have tunnel vision focused on the bit of road in front of me. There would be some photos of this climb if I wasn’t concerned that the effort required to pull my phone from my pocket will inevitably end with me lying crumpled on the floor.
Into the the trees and it starts to rain. My gilet is in the Rpm90 van that is up the road somewhere so I grab Jo’s as he is wearing his rain jacket. More hairpins and the smell of wet pine, then we’re on the side of the mountain again. The view is obscured by cloud again, much like yesterday. The road snakes for a few kilometres and every corner I think, I hope, is the one we saw the helicopter come around yesterday. That would mean less than a kilometre to go and once I get to Mint Sauce I know it flattens enough for a brief respite. But no, there’s still two or three kilometres to go. By now everything hurts but I am gaining on Andy who is gaining on Tom. I concentrate on pedaling, there can’t be much further to go. I might even be able to big ring the last few hundred metres like the riders yesterday. I try and fail, clicking back down again before slumping over my bars as I cross the white King of the Mountains line painted across the road. I stare at my feet and swear quietly to myself.
As we set off for the final descent I realise my front disc brake has failed. It makes a hideous squealing noise but otherwise is completely ineffectual. Having ridden down here yesterday I know that it is going to be sketchy as hell with just a rear brake, especially in the rain. Marvellous, I was hoping for an easy ride back into Morzine after that last ascent. Thus follows eleven kilometres of me dragging the rear brake almost all the way, occasionally needing to let go so my cold hand doesn’t cramp, picking up speed at an alarming rate before clasping the lever again. Jo and I stop under some trees and I pull the front cable through the caliper vainly hoping it starts working. It doesn’t. Three corners on Jo grabs at my rear pockets to stop me falling off the side of the mountain, before riding just in front of me elbow out so I can lean into it to scrub yet more speed off. Into a sharp hairpin nearing Morzine I bounce my right foot along the grass verge so I make it around upright. Tired and cold I stumble and shuffle down the mountainside into town. I thank Jo for helping me to not die.
A bracing swim in Lac de Montriond before saying goodbye to the mountains.
Thanks to Nick from Rpm90 for organising a brilliant weekend, and to Angela, Jo, Dan, and Nick’s mum and dad for team support all weekend (special mention for Angela for shouting/screaming encouragement and handing out Haribo all the way up Joux Plane). Thanks also to all the other riders; Andy, John, Tom, Dan, Mark, Greg, Simon, and Matt.