Cycling from Lloyd’s of London to the Rendez Vous Reinsurance Conference: Day 8 - the loneliness of the long distance cyclist
Today's ride was shorter in distance than most of our other rides; but longer in time. It was also the hardest by far.
When we started, we already had 683.52 miles and a Tour de France Col in our legs. The day ahead included 92 miles of cycling and another Col.
Our route took us down the side of a large Alpine lake. There were long steady climbs, with fast smooth descents. We were young, foolish, and strong; so we rode in small groups, chatted and took the climbs in our stride.
We had our first feed stop at 25 miles, and enjoyed panoramic lake and mountain views. Stunning.
Afterwards, the strongest climbers set off enthusiastically for the last major climb of the tour. (That's apparently what real cyclists do.) The rest of us pootled along, looking for fresh coffee instead. This may have been a subconscious attempt to avoid, or at least delay, the inevitable. But if it was, no-one admitted as much.
By chance, we found a small, quiet, campsite just before the start of the climb, which had the hottest coffee and the coldest orange juice we'd had all week. (Heaven. The coffee in France is often small, black and warm, although it's usually being missold as large, milky and hot; and the juice is usually warm, although it's being missold as chilled. Add to that the fact that ice cubes are almost extinct in France, and you can see how much we'd been suffering.)
(Anyhow), coffee stop over, most of us quickly found ourselves cycling alone. The Coll D'Allos is 11 miles long, the summit is 2,250 meters above sea level, and the gradient is 6.2% on average, with a maximum gradient of 9%. This made riding together almost impossible; and talking, cycling and maintaining consciousness beyond the range of normal human endurance. This is probably why the Col D'Allos has featured 33 times in the Tour de France since 1911. It's almost certainly why: one rider got off and walked barefoot for 7 miles; another hitched a ride in the tour organiser's van; and the 4 riders who suffered so badly yesterday on the Col du Lautaret that they literally couldn't ride today, heaved sighs of relief (and laughed and pointed) as they passed us in a hire car. I didn't hitch a ride or get off and walk. But I did develop a sudden interest in getting off to stand at the side of the road.
Although the views continued to amaze, two sights were far more welcome: our motorcycle out-rider bringing water and pain killers for the riders who needed them; and the tour organiser's van in a lay-by at the top of the climb, as we literally heaved our way round the last corner and up towards the crew who were clapping and cheering us in.
This was our lunch stop. On every other occasion, we'd devoured our food and pressed on. This time, we sat motionless under blankets for an age, trying not to be sick.
The ride down from the other side was terrifying and exhilarating. Terrifying, because the first 5 miles were narrow and twisting, and there was nothing between the side of the road a sheer drop down a cliff. Exhilarating because, after that, the road was wide and reasonably straight. This last part of the descent lasted for almost 25 miles, and included riding down towards the top of ski lifts and ski resorts.
Most riders also descended alone because so much of a rider's descending speed is determined by his body weight (the heavier you are, the quicker you fall), his cornering ability and his confidence.
Some riders stopped for coffee on the way down. I wanted to, but I'd passed the coffee stop before I realised what I'd done and couldn't face stopping, turning round and hauling myself back up the hill.
I also managed to snatch a second small defeat from the jaws of victory by getting my fifth puncture of the tour a quarter of a mile form the end.
Dinner tonight was a celebration. We felt like we'd done the work we came to do. We knew we'd done the hardest days and the biggest climbs of the tour.
Today's distance: 91.13 miles
Total distance so far: 776.65 miles
Today's climbing: 2,151 meters
Total climbing so far: 17, 849 meters
Rider with highest number of punctures: me; 5 and counting.
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