Waking fully rested to the now familiar sound of a train passing at speed, with the brakes on, as it slowed to stop for the nearby station of St Maurice. The camp spot, which I negotiated with a local bee keeper, was perfect in every way, except it’s proximity to the train line (and the bees), which I only discovered once naked and covered in soap the night before. My apologies to the passengers travelling to and from St Maurice station that evening, although due to my tan lines, it may have looked like I was soaping myself up to release myself from a skin tight white cycling suit, not sure which of those two images is worse, moving on.
I mounted Shurly Anne at 7:15am and following brief stops for breakfast and oil, we were riding full throttle toward our first summit. I was nervously excited about what lay ahead and when reading the map, came flooding back fond memories of skiing holidays from my youth with each name I read; Les Gets, Morzine, Morgins, Avorias, Chatel, Flaine, Le Plans, Courmayeur, Chamonix and Verbier the location of my most recent ski trip, eight years ago. Eight years, I can hardly believe the time has passed.
Once at Martgny, the alps started to grow out of the ground in every direction and keen to get climbing, I took a left turn up a steep hill, within seconds I was out of breath and sweating from my eyes. This is going to be a long day, little did I know, that wasn’t it just. Settling into a rhythm my breathing began to even out, feeding my legs with much needed oxygen, sweat still spilling from every pore, I made my way up, one crank turn at a time.
Relentless. Is the word which most accurately describes the process of mountain climbing. At first it seems fortunate, that the road weaves from one side to the other breaking the view of continuous ascent enough, at least to pretend, that relief from the agony is just around the next corner. After an hour of disappointment and the realisation that each switch back actually increases the gradient temporarily, the mind searches for another way to make the pain more sustainable and settles on – the view. The view is the magic pill that distracts the mind enough to keep the legs turning, inch by inch, closer to the top.
After an hour and a half and noticing the mountain I was climbing was not marked on my map, I flagged down an oncoming cyclist, to ask for directions to Chamonix. The cyclist confirmed with his watch, we were at 1225 meters and that the summit was another 600 meters and very steep. He also confirmed that the quickest way to Chamonix was back down the way I had climbed. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘But now it is not possible for me to go back, as long as there is a way forward this would suit me better, regardless of the distance, is it possible?’ ‘Yes, but it’s a long way, head for Le Levron at the top’ he replied, with a knowing look in his eye.
Now, to the untrained eye, it might look like I had climbed 1225 meters up the wrong mountain. However I can assure you, it was always my intention to break Shurly Anne in on smaller mountains, before riding her into Mont Blanc, unexpectedly up the rear tunnel. Yeah right. I simply could not go back. Two thirds of the way up a mountain without reaching the summit, only to turn around and undo an hour and a half of the hardest graft of the trip so far, no chance.
It was a day of significant mental and physical landmarks and it seemed only fitting that as I reached the first 1000 trip miles, I also reached the 1800 meter summit of Le Lein, the longest and highest climb I had ever made by bike. In the saddle for two hours forty minutes, covering seventeen miles, twelve of which up hill, I was feeling rather peckish. I ate lunch with a nice chap from Switzerland at the top and made my way down through, Le Levron.
The descent was magnificent. The views were breathtaking and distracting, the road was steep, fast and littered with tight hair pins, the speed was like the magic dust that brought everything into a heightened, vibrant focus. It was a sensory overload of epic proportions, the scale of the mountains and the space between, contrasted against the immediate and intense thin line of tarmac rushing beneath my wheels, each as fascinating as they are lethal. It was all consuming and impossible to processes all the details flashing by at once, inducing a trance like state of fullness, outwardly expressed with an involuntary smile shining up from within my soul – Deep joy, deep joy.
Including a few brief stops to capture the views, the descent was eight miles long and over in less than twenty minutes, the smile however, lasted long into the afternoon.
The indirect route I had taken to Chamonix included a second, bonus climb of the day and like a two for one special, this giveaway was exceptional value; Col Du Great St Bernard stands at an impressive 2473 meters and the climb began seamlessly out of the descent. Probably a good thing, I didn’t fully consider the implications of starting another climb and just cycled on, in many ways oblivious to the magnitude of what lay ahead.
This has become a running theme and the essence of the journey has been to find a way over, under, round and through, whatever I meet along the way. It keeps me on my toes and there is truth in the saying, ‘ignorance is bliss’; it is understood that we don’t actually feel pain physically, we anticipate pain and create the sensation in our nervous system. Although this doesn’t change the fact that we still experience pain, if you don’t know how much pain to anticipate, I feel it must have an impact on your threshold and therefore your ability to stretch your physical limits.
It wasn’t long before I was experiencing the pain of oxygen starved muscles, aching lungs and eyes stinging from the constant flow of sunscreen diluted by salty sweat working its’ way between my eyelids. A couple of hours passed, as I realised, just to add to the richness of the experience, I was now climbing through the heat of the day, and it was hot. Feeling pretty flat, I stopped for sauccise and frittes with extra salt, several litres of water and a chocolate ice cream, before pushing on, and on, and endlessly on. Reaching a fork in the road indicating a choice of; tunnel through, or road up to the summit, I had a finite distance of six kilometers to offer some measurement to the unknown challenge still to come.
Further markers at four kilometers and two kilometers passed like the mileage markers of a marathon, the falling numbers become irrelevant and inverse to effort required to keep going. The body is physically exhausted and it is now only the mind that can get you to the finish line, and as you recognise you are going to make it, a flood of emotion is released in tears of joy and relief. You made it.
I check the speedo, just over forty miles, the climb up to Col Du Great St Bernard was sixteen miles long, twelve hours had past since I set off from grand central field of bees. Eight were spent on the bike, seven hours forty of which were spent climbing mountains a total of 4273 meters climbed, less than 600 meters short of the total height of Mont Blanc, at 4800 meters. What a day and it was far from over yet; I was getting cold, small patches of snow still present at the summit, the sun was falling from the sky and I still had to get down in one piece. I wore my illuminous yellow windproof top and set off toward Aosta, Italy.
Que massive smile, childish giggles and cheers of exhilaration. I vowed near the top, after taking one of only a few pictures, that I had earned this descent as my own, to enjoy uninterrupted in all it’s glory. I didn’t anticipate Aosta to be twenty miles away, or that they would all be downhill, what a ride, I had to pinch myself, a truly magical experience that will be with me as long as I live. At some point during the descent I reached a new slightly faster top speed of 43mph flat, still 0.5 mph lower than my al time record.
In the interests of ‘unbiased reporting’ I feel I must share what happened next and if you are at all squeamish, close the browser and check back in about a week for another thrilling installment.
Still here? I thought you might be…..
It would be reasonable to expect if a visit to A&E was to take place after a day cycling in the alps, the reason would likely be due to a miss judgement of speed, cornering ability, braking, or perhaps a mechanical failure, any of which resulting in a nasty collision with tarmac. Not so, my visit in agony, at 4:30am, after hours of exhausted straining and deliberation of how to resolve my predicament, was the result of a quite different miss judgement indeed.
Thankfully on arrival into Aosta I decided to stay at a campsite and I visited the Bulldog Bar nearby to eat and make use of their wifi. After eating, I went for an overdue number two, or at least I tried to, the last thing my quads needed following a day climbing mountains was to hover indefinitely over a hole in the ground, waiting for the final release of the day to pass. The lack of ventilation and space combined with the physical strain I was under from hovering and pushing meant I was now dripping with sweat and there was no end in sight It was stuck, I tried to stand up, legs cramping, I was stuck, oh what a pickle. Ten minutes came and went and despite taking a more active approach using a latex glove I had in my bum bag (the one that goes round my waste) to keep my hands clean when fixing the bike, I was well and truly blocked.
Conscious that no one else in the bar could use the toilet I had taken up residence in, I managed to recover to a state I would describe as, ‘unfortunately, fortunately mobile.’ Unfortunately, I could not stand up straight without looking like I was straining to pass wind, beads of sweat rolling down my forehead, completed the look. Fortunately mobile, for the owner and customers of the bar I was now able to leave, just.
Several hours spent hovering at the campsite and trying to sleep resulted in the reluctant admission that waiting till the morning was not going to do me any good. In disbelief I found myself cycling back into Aosta to find the hospital and a poor soul able to aid my release.
European medical card at the ready I explained the problem, I didn’t have the words in Italian, but my gestures said it all and as the medical staff came to terms with the likely treatment, we all looked pretty glum. The doctor, went through the motions, asking me questions and inspecting my stomach, but we all new what was coming. ‘I do a rectal inspection’ he said. Sounds observational…. and before the thought was fully formed in my mind, Doctor macerater hand conducted what I would have described more as a rectal invasion, than inspection. Moments later, the worst pain I have experience for some time, stopped as abruptly as it began and he said, ‘you have hard stool, I break.’ ‘No shit!’ I thought, pardon the pun. Oh! hang on, I take that back, eeer, ‘la Toilette pour fa voure?’
More straining, this time with movement at last, followed by what I can only imagine is the closest a man can get to actually giving birth. Looking down at what had emerged, I wondered how much easier the day would have been two stones lighter. Not content with being carried up two mountains, or phased by the actions of Doctor macerater hand, this troublesome turd, finally free’d from my bowel, was now lodged in the hospital toilet. Fearing the headline in the local paper the next day, ‘Aosta Hospital Closed By Troublesome Turd In Scottish Cycling Shocker!’ I went about trying to save face.
My miss judgement was not enough water, I had drank at least eight litres that day, still not enough, that’s a lot of sweating.
Talk about highs and lows, back to my tent almost twenty four hours since waking, the sun threatening to rise, ‘just another day on the road’ I though, as I drifted off to sleep.
Not surprisingly, a little later that day, I felt like I had experienced the Alps fully enough for the time being and decided to continue on through Italy. Exchanging big hills for big miles and a new all time top speed whilst racing the rain, it was time to fall in love with Italy again….