Blog Post by Emma
Grant and I have been cycling in the mountains for our summer holidays for the last 13 years. We simply love it, and cannot imagine the main focal point of the year being anything other than our trip. The areas we have cycled are within France (Pyrenees, Northern and Southern Alps) and Italy (Dolomites and Italian Alps).
However, many non-cyclists I know simply cannot comprehend why we want to ride up such arduous, mountain roads, and they find it laughable that we call this a holiday! On our recent trip, we chatted to a guy who was on a mountain road tour, but a driving one, in his McLaren road car. He found it incredible that when driving over Mont Ventoux, he saw so many cyclists. “They must be mad, it took me 20 minutes in the car. It’ll take them forever” he exclaimed! I can vouch that it does seem like an eternity, having trundled up it in around two hours, several years ago!
Sometimes, I do wonder why we do it! When you see fellow cyclists working their way up the climbs, contorted faces, sweat pouring and every aspect of body language indicating they are NOT having a good time! I suspect I look like this on many occasions! Recently on Col du Soulour, in temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius, an elderly French gentleman hollered at me from his picnic table; I only caught the last few words “faire de la cuisine”……this means “to do the cooking”. I did wonder if he was telling me that perhaps I should stick to that particular task, rather than cycling up mountain passes! Cheeky!
For anybody who has yet to take on a long, mountain climb on their bike, it is certainly very different to the majority of road cycling here in the UK. For example, the climbs can typically range from 10km (approximately 6 miles), up to 25km (approximately 15 miles). Col du Tourmalet which we rode last month, is 17km in length. Having a good endurance base is vital, if you are to ride climbs of this length comfortably. Learning to pace yourself and not be tempted to hit the climbs too hard, too soon, is definitely recommended!
Col du Tourmalet
My first experience was a short, but steep learning curve! It was in 2004, L’Alpe d’Huez! We drove out to Bourg d’Oisans, parked fairly close to where the climb begins, rode up and down a flat section of road a few times to warm up, and then hit “the Alpe”. Oh my! With a heart rate well over 180, I made it round the first hairpin, then had to pull up as I was breathing so hard, I thought I was going to be sick! Thankfully I wasn’t and after pondering a return to the car, I decided that would be ridiculous, took a deep breath and started pedalling again! I had to stop for a rest five times, but made it to the top in around 1 hour and 45 minutes. I was pleased to beat this time four years later, making it up in 1 hour 10 minutes, without stopping!
A couple of days later we rode Col de la Madeleine, a spectacular climb of around 12 miles. I was far better prepared now, and rode it steadily, no stops required. I don’t recall how long it took me, but I remember riding the last couple of miles in the company of a nice, young Belgian man who was staying at a resort part way up the climb. He’d ridden the climb seven times in the previous week on his mountain bike. I was so impressed by this, being so “green” at cycling, this sounded epic to me back then! Grant was waiting patiently for me at the top, he was a little chilly as the summit is at 2000m. Even in peak summer it can be cool at that elevation. However, I think he was more disturbed by the 5 Euros he’d just paid for a small glass of cola!
Two of the hardest climbs we’ve ever tackled have been in Italy: the infamous Mortirolo and dreaded Monte Zoncolan. Grant and I actually drove for over 5 hours, including having to drive over the Stelvio Pass (not easy in the car), to ride the approximately 8 miles climb that is the Mortirolo, back in 2007. It was incredibly hard, so steep. Much of the way up I battled in my mind, “Shall I stop for a rest or just keep suffering.” I kept suffering! After finally reaching the summit I swore it would be a “once in a lifetime only” climb…..but we went and did it again two years later! Another five hours drive back in the car, for a ride that didn’t even cover 20 miles. Madness for sure!
Monte Zoncolan, which we rode last summer was even harder than the Mortirolo. After around 2.5 miles, there is a section where the average gradient is around 19%, and it seems to go on forever! In 35 degrees heat, sweat dripping, heart rate soaring, I had another “I’m going back to the car moment” which was quickly batted away and replaced by “Who cares, I’m stopping before my lungs explode”. There are kilometre marker signs with pictures of famous riders. So I hopped off at the Eddie Merckx sign, hoping to gain some Belgian tough guy inspiration! It didn’t come, but the short rest helped and I was soon on my way to conquer the rest of the climb. Again, on reaching the summit I said “Never again” but during the drive back to our apartment, I talked about swapping my 28 tooth cassette for a 32 so that I definitely wouldn’t have to stop next time!
The descent of these magnificent mountain roads was extremely hard for me. I stopped even on the downhills just to give my hands and arms a rest, as I simply had never experienced anything like it. Here’s where the madness kicks in; back then I found the descents fairly terrifying, but once I got down them I was buzzing, so thrilled to have conquered the ascent, and survived the descent! It never put me off, and I looked forward to the next challenge.
Luz Ardiden – classic switchbacks
The descents can be difficult to prepare for too, as roads of this length and gradient are few and far between outside of the mountains, making practice difficult. So before embarking on a mountain cycling holiday, getting out and riding over as hilly terrain as you can find is a good idea, for honing your endurance, as well as your descending technique.
I think that cycling has a kind of “unspoken language”, it creates bonds between riders who have never met before, and may not even speak the same language. When you are riding a climb, it’s wonderful to hear words of encouragement from other cyclists, as you both strive for the shared goal of reaching the top. You will often hear “Allez”, “Courage” or “Forza” or simply “Hello” in a variety of languages.
However, the discomfort (and occasional torment) of the ascent is usually instantly forgotten upon reaching the summit. When you know the top is near, it’s as if you get a magic boost, which pushes you on a tiny bit faster, to reach the gift that awaits! It must be the clean, mountain air combined with spectacular views, which trigger something in your brain; any memories of the hard slog soon fade away!
There is a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, knowing you have tackled a truly challenging piece of road; roads that are ridden by the likes of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador. The buzz from achieving your goal of riding a certain climb, or completing a particular route/sportive, can leave you on a natural high for days!
So when you see a grimacing cyclist, weaving their way up a mountainside, trust me, they are actually having a great time!