Earlier this month, I rather foolishly agreed to put my (extremely limited) climbing skills to the test by riding the Marmotte sportive in the French Alps. A 175km ride, which includes a mouth-watering, terror-inducing 5,000 meters of elevation. Exactly what my sprinters' legs were made for, right? So, here I am at 7 in the morning, in the starting pen in Bourg d'Oisans, blissfully unaware of the toll I was about to exact on my body.
I conquered the Col de la Croix de Fer at a cautious (read snail's) pace, which was incidentally shrouded in the thickest and coldest fog at the top, leading to some very sexy frozen claw-hands after the descent. I am not the world's nimblest climber, but was very pleased to see that mountain goats do not make fast descenders, and I plough past hundreds, nay thousands, of them on the way down and on the very welcome flats towards the next set of mountains.
Here I am winding my way up the beautiful "lacets" of the Col du Télégraphe. The gradient stays fairly gentle throughout the first half of the climb, but it isn't long before it ramps up and the first riders decide they are happy enough to ruin their cleats and start walking up the mountain instead. I kick my bike into its lowest gear (just kidding, I'd never dream of coming out of it) and grind on.
I've never ridden such a quiet sportive. Riding up the Galibier especially felt, and looked like, a pilgrimage. Columns of cyclists stretching for miles, slowly riding on in total silence, harnessing all their energy into trying to keep the cogs turning. Cycling has never looked as much like a religion as today. A very sweaty religion. (note: I am the only one loudly swearing every time the gradient kicks up another notch)
Once we're over the top, the sun comes out, and we start the long and thrilling 40 km descent from the Galibier. The spectacular views make it all worthwhile, or so I tell myself. The snow-topped mountains zoom past quickly as we navigate the twisty downward corners and avoid the legions of brake-happy riders. The end is in sight! Now, I cannot begin to try and articulate how much I underestimated the final climbing of the Alpe d’Huez. Having survived 4,000 meters of climbing, the most I had ever attempted, the altitude clearly went to my head, making me believe I was invincible and that the final 1,000-meter ascent would be a mere formality.
Well, let me tell you, I have never, ever been in so much physical pain in my life. Every turn of the wheel created shooting pains starting in my Achilles heel, working its way through my calf, my poor creaking knees and my screaming thighs. My back, neck and arms were not immune either. Two hours of pure and unadulterated agony. Everywhere I look riders are sacking it in, but somehow I stay on my bike (all right, my riding partner actually physically pushed me quite a few time), pulling all sorts of faces and making all sorts of threats. I barely remember the finish line, and the pint of beer thrust at me as I finish, but my muscles have still not finished aching all these weeks onwards, so it’s clearly not an experience my body wants me to forget any time soon.