A (Duffers’ - his word) Blog of Suffering ( & Elation - he’s coming back this year!)

Duffer’s blog: how to [almost] complete the Alps CCC 2012

Day -1

Travel by BA from T5 to Geneva. Not a bad way to start the trip, leaving aside the near constant stream of guff coming from the armchair cycling experts behind. A leather-faced Yank lecturing his son on how to be the first to claim the bike box at Geneva. Pls tell me they’re not on the CCC? Mercifully, the answer is “no”.

Perhaps this has gone too smoothly. Flights from Bristol, among other places, have not and I settle down to a 3 hours wait for: Charles Sanders; Kirsty Harries; and Rob Davies. There’s a limit to the fun that can be had at the Airport’s Montreux Jazz Café.

I pray fervently that any of C, K or R will be either (a) colossally fat or (b) rather frail. They arrive. Dangg! And by Criminy, it’s hot outside as we travel to Annecy and check in at the Hotel Ibis. Probably not one for the Conde Nast traveller and no view of the lake but we’re here at high season so not at all surprising. Cosy rooms – I am bunking with Mark Hose, South African, resident in Paris, and who has signed up for all three CCCs this year.

Quick change and then to the New York conference room for the first briefing. We sit at tables and introduce ourselves. Jeez – not a tub of lard in sight and these people really seem to know what they’re doing. After supper, Andy saves my bacon – not for the last time this trip – by assembling my bike. At least its soft case/inflatable box receives some positive commentary from him.

Day 1 Annecy to Albertville

Group photo before we pedal down to the lake and start our journey. Dale Rogers, who suggests that if I am a self-declared Fat Bastard (“FB”), so must he be, punctures on the way around the lake. Result – although I could have done with a break later in the day. A few gentle climbs before the first feed: the view from the top of the Forclaz being at least as good as Phil suggested. Still insanely hot (40 degC) and the climb before lunch (Col de Plan Bois, seared forever into my mind) is a total bugger. James Bird holds back to wait for me “like the French foreign legion, I couldn’t leave you alone back there” and provides counselling and encouragement all the way to the top where we stop for lunch. His reward, aside from my undying gratitude? A huge amount of sweary shouting as I almost pull wheelies trying to climb this sod of a hill. A timed climb, incidentally but one for which I will be entering no data.

Great view at lunch from under the La Fuga parasol. I wonder if self-immolation might provide a way out from further exertion. Everyone else looks fresh as a daisy. Charlie expounding on his climb and Strava (wtf?) and he’s not the only one. Sickos! Good lunch in any case and then set off with James again, passing Charlie [hah!] Or perhaps not so hah, given he was at the side of the road with a puncture. James shepherds me up the next climb which started in a furnace and took us around the corner into a gigantic hairdryer called Croix Fry. How apt.

Andy passes me in the Garmin van, with which I later become very familiar. “Hold on” he says, meaning grab hold, while he imparts some important information. But that’s ambiguous, see? Open to interpretation and mine is: “Stop, you FB”, so I do and it takes little persuasion to have me and my bike board the van where I dodge the rest of Croix Fry and Aravis, being tipped out the foot of the final big climb, Col des Saisies. I pedal through a procession of locals in the middle of their fete, including a line of very unruly gypsy caravans, meet Dale again – suffering from jet lag and somewhat rooted, to use his expression, and whose life I cheer no end by prattling at him until we arrive at the final feed of the day where I meet his equally vast brother, Dene, whose reputation – including what must have been an engine-assisted climb of Alpe d’Huez, precedes him. If these guys can break the laws of physics, why can’t I? Answer: talent, guts and ability to suffer are obvious areas of difference.

Phil joins me for the last section of Saisies, neutralises my doubts and sends me on my way down into Albertville. Still hilariously hot and the hairdryer still on full but this time it is downhill pretty much all the way. I pedal into Albertville and follow the arrows to the hotel on the other side of town, past the roundabout where this year’s etape started. Bikes are stowed in a theatre under the hotel and I find our room – ground floor: result! Mark has been and gone – no doubt now in the pool. I take a cold bath and swear a lot. Now I see why Phil put silk boxer shorts on the packing list. Cycling kit washed? Check.

Supper hits the spot – not a duff one over the whole tour, as it happens.

Day 2 – Albertville to Briancon

A cunning plan – Dale and I leave early to get ahead of the pack. Imperfectly executed, though, and after a 20 minute tour of Albertville, we join the whole group as they leave. We quickly joined the road towards Col de la Madeleine, dodging off it to climb Deeker’s breakfast col: “just a bump”. Not. The field pass me one by one until only Mark is left climbing with me. He greets a dog as it pads out into the road near the top of the climb. “Good doggy” he says, and then releases a sturdy fart that could be mistaken for a small motorbike. I picture the dog wincing but I expect that this has made its day. It has certainly brightened mine.

We stop for the first feed near the foot of Col du Glandon. Why do I hate this hill? I climbed it twice last month – including once immediately after the Col de la Madeleine? Perhaps we should ask Jen who looked on cautiously as she handed out the fig rolls and ensured compliance with the spoon drill (no spoon = no peanuts [and thank heaven for that, looking at the manky state of my mitts]).

Andy finally prevailed upon me, at the top of the Croix de Fer, to get in the van. OK, not much prevailing required and I was some way off the pace. A quick photo opportunity, a crafty coke in the café and then down the [in my view] cruddy descent to the foot of the Col du Mollard. Did that last month, too, so er umm, skipped it. We pass Indrek Narusk – no point my remarking that he is a strong rider: they all are. Distinguishing features? Could be an android as he never sweats, never gets the slightest bit red in the face, kit always looks immaculate and he could probably topple into a bucket of sh*t and still emerge looking like an advert for Persil.

Down the Mollard descent. Yep, did that last month – and didn’t care for it. Huh? Am no good in the heat, don’t like climbing, timid at descending, headwinds are grossly unfair and any road surface rougher than a baby’s bum makes me whine. So what am I doing here? Lunch stop sees some casualties. Sean Bonney, a man built for climbing, has ridden across America, and is distinguishable by his yellow hat, is looking decidedly dodgy. He travels to Briancon in a van as does Swiss David (David Horak), who has been unable to eat since he started and who very regrettably leaves us for good tomorrow. I pick things back up in Valloire, just after Col du Telegraphe . . . ok, another reason for guilty conscience but at least I have ridden it a couple of times before.

The Galibier was good, though. I stopped for a crafty sarnie at café/hut just before Plan L’Achat and had a good yarn with the patron as his Mrs set about with the cornichons, Tomme de Savoie et al. The Brownlee [inevitably] brothers (Oli and Ed Fowles) race past – had they noticed that there was an incline? I toil up the steep incline away from Plan L’Achat and hear Phil and Kirsty chatting away. What in tarnation? Quack quack all the way up, as I fight for breath. Perhaps a little more preparation might have been in order. Or a lot. Somehow I stick with P and K as we climb and all is well with the world. Until Phil informs me that I’m on video. I thrash around but it’s not as if I can pedal off and leave him behind, now is it? I surrender to the inevitable and try not to gurn too much. Charlie barfs hugely 1km from the top, Jen goes into a café to get some water to aid his recovery and is nearly savaged by a dog for her trouble. Mountain folk, huh?

I descend the Galibier with James and Kirsty – and thanks to K’s charitable spirit, cling on to their wheels as it begins to get dark, cold and not a little wet. We arrive at Briancon, I wash my kit, yell in the shower and potter down to supper. Not a bad night, albeit disturbed from 4am due to some little twerp turning endless circles, right below our window, on his street sweeper. Couldn’t he have just used a brush and whistled a bit? Bastard.

Day 3 – Briancon to Sisteron

Out in a crocodile to be met very swiftly by the foot of the Izoard. What a wonderful climb! A glorious morning and a steady but in my terms competent ascent. A grizzled chap emerged into the road, looking a lot like F. Christmas and we blethered away together agreeing that (a) the new breed of French cyclists showed great potential (no point getting on the wrong side of Santa), (b) that M. Wiggins was a good egg, not least because he respected the sport, knew his history and spoke good French and © Sr Contador was a thoroughly bad hat. When Santa stopped to phone his wife, I rode the final part of the Izoard with Mark. High spot of the trip so far.

Was I getting cocky? Thinking I could nail this event? Who knows, but shortly before the first feed stop, my guts turned on me. All very uncomfortable but far worse was the feeling of potential total loss of bowel control. So, into the van with Jen, armed with Immodium from Andy. That meant dodging Col de Pontis and its truly horrible descent. It also meant missing lunch – rather a decent looking buffet – of which Oli, Ed and Gerald Moser (“Frenchie”, to the Fowles brothers and “not French” to just about everyone else) were making light work.

I left early to try and get a head start. 30 minutes later, just before turning off for Col du Fillys, the faster group, led by Dene, shot past like an articulated lorry. It must be an effective way to cover the ground, but then you would have to be able to hang on. And take your turn on the front. On second thoughts… And Fillys itself? Bastard. What on earth is it doing in the Alps? Brutish and nasty.

The landscape opened up after that – some dramatic cliff edge roads which climbed for ever, but very gently and a few more kicks in the guts (Col de Sagnes was more than a small bump in the road) before a very long descent to Sisteron. Albeit into quite a hefty headwind. The later group soon passed me – inc Indrek, pearly white and untroubled. And I bet it didn’t rain on him. Phil shepherded the last few of us in as it started to chuck with rain and we did the final battle with the headwind. Sisteron is a great looking place and the Brownlees among others had had plenty of time to explore it. Not me, but I was in time for supper. Would my guts hold? Yep – and just as well: I ate like a condemned man.

Day 4 – Sisteron to Valberg

An early departure with Dale. And a good two hours before my bum ceases protesting. Others are in a worse condition but they have a right to be so. I part company with Dale (ie he leaves me behind) when the pack catches up just before the first feed. I pedal on to lunch and arrive as almost everyone has gone and take little persuading to catch a lift, this time with Baz. Quite feeble but if there’s a section to dodge, this is probably it. The climb to Valberg is long, but rewarding and it’s noticeably cooler – in a good way – staying at an hotel above 1500 metres. Sisteron may have been pretty, but was completely airless. Mr Hose snores like a buffalo as I plan ways to kill him. Pre-washing, my socks might have done the job, but then this is a man who can fart a small dog clean off the road so I suspect he is made of sterner stuff than that. Rather more importantly, who is to say that with no protest from Mark I haven’t been roaring and gasping away for the previous four nights?

Day 5 – Valberg to Nice

Another start ahead of the pack but this time on my own. Col St Martin was rather special and the descent uneventful save for a blowout (in a completely straight line). I even fixed the darned thing before Andy showed up. Quite a bit of gravel track work followed in the afternoon, followed by a brief there and back to see off Col de Braus. Then a long descent down to the foot of a truly horrid little climb – Col de Banquettes. Ruddy steep at the outset and absolutely airless. Thank heaven Andy didn’t find me during any of my various stops on the way up, perched on a wall and seeing double but I did make it to the top. And as Phil promised, the landscape changed yet again. Within barely 30 minutes of Nice by car and we could be in the middle ages. Real Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources stuff – rugged, rocky and very beautiful.

Phil waited for me, Mark and James to lead us into Nice. Some fantastic descents at good speed and, having negotiated a few sets of traffic lights, on to the Promenade des Anglais. Stuffed with people, and absolutely stifling. Ed Nicholl met us there, having cycled out from the hotel and having turned off the PdesA opposite the Negresco Hotel, we found Dale waiting for us. “Couldn’t leave only one Fat Bastard pedalling to Carros, could I?” I could have blubbed. And what a trial the two remaining hills were! No matter how well briefed – and we always were – you couldn’t help but think that once you’ve arrived in Nice, you’ve arrived. Mais non! But ultimately we did. Mark left during dinner to join his Mrs in Antibes and I had the whole apartment to myself. Good result: bike on balcony, unwashed; kit everywhere – same, and the place even had air conditioning. Caramba!

Rest day

First decision: a lie-in, definitely. None of this 6am get up crap, dear me no. Second decision: stuff that, I’m starving. And then a trip to Nice with Oli and Ed, priority: a pizza. We found a thoroughly agreeable restaurant in Vieux Nice, and one Salade Nicoise, one colossal pizza, a couple of beers and some ice cream to the good, we headed for . . another ice cream at Gelateria Pinocchio. Rude not to, really.

And how quickly time flies when you’re not grinding your way up some improbable incline, staring at the road two years ahead of your front wheel. Had I done my washing? Er…Cleaned/degreased/re-lubed my bike? Ummm…Cleared away some floor space to allow Mark access to the apartment? Ahhh. None of the above, but I was reunited with my wash bag for the first time since Albertville – thanks to the joint efforts of Ed N and Phil who are clearly used to dealing with twits – so time for a long overdue shave.

That’s the end of the rest day, then. Rob turned 30 today – so that’s why he looks so ruddy cheerful all the time. And when I turned 30? Cripes. Email in its infancy, microwave ovens the same size as Agas, ditto mobile phones. And what twit thought to put a camera on them? Stupid idea – will never catch on.

Day 6 – Carros-Nice to Palud sur Verdon

Great start to the day – Vence was a fantastic, gentle and picturesque climb. My fellow traveller was, as ever, Dale – and I even had sufficient breath to be able to take part in a conversation. Rare indeed. Our victorious climb marred only by the arrival of Ed F at the summit, clearly in a big hurry. WTF? Ah, that would be Strava, then.

Shortly before the first feedstop, the whole field caught and passed me. And then some more excellent climbs, the best of which was Bleine. Lunch seemed rather distant, though and after Col de Cornille I was once again faltering. Solution (1): lunch, + coke from the conveniently-placed café alongside. Solution (2): the van, up to the next feed stop. Difficult to know what the etiquette is, though, on such occasions. You pedal a bit, stuff your face at lunch, park carcass in van, and then emerge to find more food on a table. Tricky indeed, but easily resolved: eat more – or at least make away with a bag of skittles. And perhaps a waffle.

The weather began to look a little unsettled, not to say threatening. By some happy coincidence, the van contained my overshoes, knee-warmers and rain jacket. And for some reason my waterproof bag for the mobile phone (Blackberry: battery life – 2 hours, provided the wretched thing is switched off at all times) and money, was there, too. How very predictable that I should have taken none of this with me. No sooner had I entered the gorge, then it began to rain very hard. And then hail a bit. But then isn’t necessity the mother of something or other? Yep. Off with one mitt, wrap lifeless blackberry and stuff into saddle bag. Other mitt goes into jersey, see? Can’t look unbalanced or otherwise unhinged, can I?

Final Col was rained off (phew!) but at least it meant an early bath, figuratively speaking, and then a fight to connect to the hotel’s wi-fi – unsuccessful in my case. Dinner was fine and I barely noticed that the main course (v good stew) was placed on the table for self-service from some fine-looking dog bowls. No complaints there.

Day 7 – Palud sur Verdon to Bedoin

Off like a rocket – even getting away before Dale. Will definitely show a clean pair of heels to those in pursuit. And what’s this? I am able to sit down in the saddle with no roaring and screaming and within 5 minutes of setting off. Excellent. So how far will this solo run endure before I am engulfed by the pursuing pack? I decide that 12.5kms, or a quarter of the way to the first feed stop, will be good going. After 25kms solo, it is clear that I must have missed the route signs and be circling back to Nice. Quite appealing, but not clever. But then there’s a route marker, so I haven’t screwed that one up, then.

So where is everyone? Perhaps everyone else has jumped in to the van? Especially Frenchie and Rob, over-faced by their early bagging of Baous, that ascent having been rained off yesterday. Ominously, I arrive, still solo at the first feed stop, and quickly shove off again. This is becoming addictive. A quick stop at a cashpoint about 5 miles short of lunch and…coo, stap me vitals – first to lunch and what a glorious view of the surrounding countryside. Another 100 yards and I would have been about second last to arrive, but that’s not the point.

Progress in the afternoon is a little more stately, and I resume my place near the back by the time we start to climb La Lure/Ventoux’s little brother. The wind – surely Le Mistral – has been irksome all morning but on La Lure’s wooded lower slopes, the problem doesn’t seem so bad. And there appears to be some gas in the tank and rather improbably, I ride away from Mark who is accompanying his mate, Mike Peacock, who has joined us for the return from Nice. What sort of person signs up a mate for something like this?? Mike, however, is merely finding his feet – anyone who sees off the Marmotte without too much trouble has clearly shed the stabilisers, non?

The wind really picks up by the top of the climb and, depending on which direction I am facing, my progress is accompanied with a lot of heart-felt swearing at the injustice of it all. Really, MTFU, as Charlie would have it. The descent is a bit of a bummer, too (MTFU again), gravel bloomin’ everywhere but it’s good to be heading out of the wind and into the warmth again. The whole team regroups and we head off in a bunch, led by Dene. This is all very instructive as he’s evidently not breaking a sweat and progress seems deceptively easy but one by one, a lot of riders can’t hack the pace. And Mr Solo-to-lunch? No problem, this is big man territory, gentle undulations in the road and time to show those skinny so and so’s a thing or two about where my writ runs. Arr feck! Dene and the accompanying small group seem to have teleported 200 yards ahead of me and my legs have turned to jelly. And now everyone else passes me again, silent peeing themselves laughing, I shouldn’t wonder. Note to self: don’t confuse your ambitions with your abilities, son.

Jen has found a fantastic feedstop, shaded, stone troughs full of cool water and I resolve to kark it there. What a way to go. And as I leave with Ed in the van, I witness Mark and Mike having a hissy fit with each other. Later resolved, of course, but glad to know that the effort is telling on others, albeit not to the extent that they abandon their bikes, of course.

Our stay in Bedoin might well be at some sort of commune but once again, it has everything you could possibly need and, thanks to Andy, the biggest bowl of pasta ever assembled. Ventoux tomorrow. Meh.

Day 8 – Bedoin to Vassieux-en-Vercors

This is a big bugger of a day, no doubt about that. 14 cols, 208km and 4800m of climbing. And let’s spoil the surprise: I did the lot, every ruddy yard. And I absolutely loved it. Ventoux itself merited its rather awesome reputation and it was like no other climb. Other worldly sort of describes it. But for our purposes, starting well before 8am, it was warm but not stifling, and best of all: no wind – not a breath. Magical. What a fantastic service/expert attention to detail that Baz should be stationed at the foot of the long descent, ready to receive gilets, armwarmers etc that we sure as hell didn’t need for the rest of the day. Competitors take note!

Still going like the clappers (always a relative term) at the first feed stop where I meet Simon Holmes, the other new arrival, properly. Evidently a seasoned cyclist, as unlikely as anyone else to join me in the van, but possessor of the craziest top bar bag ever seen. Simon is evidently having “issues” with his tubs. For the 3rd time today, I hear a huge bang and some truly colourful language. Time to scarper, I think.

Another excellent lunch stop in a shaded town square and within easy reach of a cafe and many Oranginas – that’s about 40 I now owe you, Rob. And then off again for a mighty schlep until the next feed stop. Yes, I am obsessed by time spent either off the bike, or eating. Preferably both. Simon passes me again. One certainly does not wish ill on a fellow challengiste, even if he is a lawyer from SJ Berwin, but the suspense is almost killing me. Sure enough…BANG! …. FAAARK! Sorry, but I nearly collapse off the bike. This is even better than Mr Hose farting that sweet little doggy clean off the road on day two.

At last, the feed stop. But just Andy. And no tent. Ominous. This is just a bottle top up before Col des Pennes. Jeez, rather a trial – steep, hot and rather longer than seems entirely necessary. Beautiful, an’ all that, but that was pretty brutal timing. And doesn’t Ventoux seem a long way off? And then at last we arrive at the final feed stop. No point hanging around so it’s time to head for the final climb of the day: 20 kms up Col de Rousset (or 15, according to Phil, but to be fair, his information is more accurate than the signposting). And it’s really quite gentle climbing. Best of all, just when it’s obvious that there is more climbing to be done: a tunnel. That really is a bonus. Then an easy downhill into the Vercors and straight to the hotel. And given that it is 8pm precisely, straight into supper. On hearing that I had at last completed a full day, the chaps give me a round of applause. Ironic or not, I feel distinctly trembly. Thanks all – really.

Day 9 – Vercors to Montmellian

The end really is in sight. Am truly equivocal about that. The early starts, rushed lunches (good tucker but all the more reason not to rush), late finishes etc etc sort of take their toll. But then because I haven’t put in anything like the effort that the others have, I do feel fresh-ish each day and I’m getting stronger. Today, I was 30 minutes into a climb and had barely noticed that I had started it. La Machine/Pra L’Etang, as it happens. And “rewarded” at the top by Simon looking as if he’s going to do his bike an injury, having suffered another blowout. Do grow up, Firth.

Lunch was well telegraphed. Home-made ravioli in a funny little place off the first uninspiring road I have pedalled along in 9 days. The couple running it seemed to have run out of sense of humour by the time I sloped in. Great pasta although the tiny tubs of ice cream were not really inspirational. Shall we skip the post-lunch section? And finally, then, on to the last climbs of the day, through Alpine pastures (really) via La Clusaz and Granier and down into Montmellian, the latter being neither a name nor in truth a place to wrestle with. Notable news from the evening? Dale dodged dinner. C’mon, mate, no time to start acting like a sissy!

Day 10 – Montmellian to Annecy

Group photo to kick the day off, and then Phil leads us up a cobbled incline towards Col du Marocaz. Dead slow ahead and even I can hack the pace. We continue in procession, more or less, to the first feed stop where Sgt-Major Nicholl counts down the brief time to our departure. Say goodbye to your last waffle, FB, as it’s probably best that you don’t continue to stuff them away after you’ve got off the bike next week.

And this is where sleep and a daily (with one exception) rest begin to trump talent and guts. On the last climb – Semnoz/Chatillon – I think someone has fed me EPO. Yes, yes, all relative but I’m like a man possessed. Or perhaps it’s guilt but something has given me wings. There is only very limited swearing when I reckoned I had reached the top (according to my Garmin/Phil’s info) but clearly had not. “Effing Phil, bastard flies, sodding Baz – where have you hidden the summit?” and so on. But then a touch of genius from Baz: “CCC – 1km to go” and then it’s all over bar the shouting. Quite why I needed to check so carefully that nobody was pursuing me up the last few hundred yards, I know not. But they weren’t and as I rounded the final corner, I shifted on to the big ring. Photos, see? I’m learning.

And then it starts to rain but we stay outside to see every last man – and Kirsty – in. Those who have risen to the challenge, in other words. Me? The Quatre-Vingts Six Cols Challenge doesn’t have quite the same cachet but I couldn’t care less if I tried. This is the fittest I have ever been; I have ridden further and climbed more than I have ever done; ridden through some breath-taking scenery; and I have shared the road with some exceptionally good people. Not a stinker among them. Am I glad it’s over? Yes. Did I feel like quitting entirely? Yes, frequently. Will I do it again? Try and stop me