T2MC – day 4

8 Sep

This was to be by far the hardest ride of the trip.

First up, a 16km, 1500m climb to the 2400m Col de la Mortes (the Pass of the Dead), followed by a small but steep 600m Col and then a finish on the 1900m Col de Tende.

I was dreading it and as usual struggled to eat more than half a bowl of cereal and a gel for breakfast.  I also failed to sneak away 15 minutes early, so I was “behind” from the start.

The nasty 13km finish to get to the hotel from the night before turned into a nice downhill warm up (cold damp morning, requiring the excellent Castelli jacket our kit sponsors kindly provided) – before we peeled off the road and shed the extra morning cold layers, ready to start the climb.

I faffed around a bit too much while de-layering so, with Jason, was one of the last to leave the bottom (aside from the faster riders who started 30 minutes afterwards).  Mark Booth, my pace buddy from the day before was already ahead and though in sight at the beginning, I never caught him. Jason also pulled away, so I did the majority of the climb on my own.

But what a climb it was!  The road quickly turned into a track, which got narrower as it went up.  Up into the pine forests, the track deteriorated so that there was no tarmac at all in some stretches and “ramps” of between 20-25% gradient, often just sand and rocks, and barely enough space for a small car to get up (we had no mechanical support up the climb because the van couldn’t get up the track, though Julian the Doc pedalled along at the back to pick up any casualties).  However, there were respites of lower gradient – 5-6%, which meant an opportunity to recover the breath and legs.

I was passed by the quicker group and took a tow from Hank and Lionel for a part of the climb.   I then picked up Hilary Poggio on the way up but she soon showed her climbing mettle by pulling away from me and we didn’t meet again until the top.  Gregoire Mauchamp was also in sight ahead, but I did my thing at a slower pace and also didn’t close the gap.  I don’t regret the slower pace because it gave me an opportunity to appreciate the stunning scenery and also keep the pedals turning without stopping for the whole climb – I’m quite proud of that, given my “stop every km” strategy last year.

The pine forest gave way to alpine meadows – there was a farm at around 2000m – and then a rocky moonscape above 2200m.  Rounding corner after corner of the climb, finally a sign and parked cars came into view – the top!

Er…no, it wasn’t – there was another vertical 100m of hard slog up a pitted and uneven 20% track that had me reassessing the “best climb ever” status of this Col.  The wind was howling over this part of the climb, so by the time I reached the top I was fffffreezing.  I had to sit in Claude’s car for 5 mins to get out of the wind and grab a banana.  Just enough time for a photo (not on my camera, so someone please send it to me!) by the Marco Pantani memorial (Pantani was a heroic Italian cyclist who tragically committed suicide after being tainted by doping).  I then headed over the Col and down with Mark Booth, Hilary and Gregoire. 

Then things took a dramatic turn.  While pulling away off the Col, one of the other people at the top said something about a car accident (sorry, my Italian is virtually non-existant).  He got in his car and drove off.  We followed him down and rounding a corner Mark pointed out a crumpled ball of metal about 60m down in a valley next to the narrow road we were moving down.

IMG_00000182 The little black dot right of centre is a crumpled car, just gone over the edge… 

As we descended, help was already on the scene, as the occupants – a couple – were extricating themselves from the wreckage.  The woman was shouting loudly in Italian (so I guess everything was normal!) and the man was bleeding from a gash in his forehead.  Mark Allitt had seen the crash from below and the car had skipped off the road after hitting a boulder and then somersaulted 3 or 4 times head over heels before coming to rest.

Given help was at hand, there was little we could do, so we continued a very fast descent on the narrow – but largely smooth – track.  The descent was fantastic; 25km – all downhill through sweeping curves and steep sided valleys.  We hammered it all the way down until we met up with Markus and Olli, who were taking photos – continuing with them down into the warm sunshine in the valley.

Further down, Lionel passed me and the red mist descended – I pounded away behind him and we took the curves way too fast for my meager skills – but what a buzz!

Then, more drama. Gregoire caught a pothole while trying to take a drink and slammed hard into the tarmac.  I was ahead with Lionel, so I didn’t hear about this until afterwards.  Chik, Olli and Markus were able to stop and the Doc was along shortly to render first aid and, eventually, accompany Gregoire to hospital – the diagnosis, a badly broken collar bone.

Meanwhile, the rest of the group had gathered in a café in the village (no, sorry – I’m just not getting those names, am I?) and were awaiting further instructions while Gregoire was sorted out.  We made good use of the time drinking expressos and hot chocolate, and given the delay Claude then set up a food stop in the car park opposite, so we could refuel.

As it turned out, the middle Col was being used for a rally, so all the roads were closed. We couldn’t find a way around, so we had to do the 40km schlep along the main road to the Col de Tende. We buzzed along at 20-25mph in a pace line, as there was a headwind – tiring stuff and both Mark Allitt and I came off the back, pooped.

Rich O’Connell fell back and we took a drink in another village (no, same again) and he did a fine job of pacing me up to our lunch stop at the beginning of the final climb to the Col de Tende. The ski infrastructure is everywhere and our venue for lunch is a ski restaurant – with the added luxury of a pool and deckchairs.

Tende ski station looking up The view up the piste from the ski restaurant.

The idea was to have lunch before tackling the Col, however, I knew that if I sat down to lunch I wouldn’t get up again, so Rich, Hank, Bruce, Jonah, Mark A, Olli, Markus and I carried on up.  It was a beautiful and dramatic climb – not too steep so Olli, Markus and I were able to chat on the way up. There is a carpark which represents a false Col – the real Col is up an unpaved section another 100m climb, past an old Napoleonic fort. From the Col, you can look down the track on other side – which is totally unpaved and was beyond our reach (and liability insurance!) on this occasion.

Top of Col de Tende  At the top of Col de Tende.

Look down from Col de Tende The vertigo-inducing view over the other side – unpaved but brave car giving it a go.

After the obligatory photos, Olli, Markus and I descended and passed the post lunch crew making the climb a few pounds heavier. We rapidly descended and before long we were sitting down to a fantastic plate of pasta and a Moretti – heaven!  A few of the riders stripped off and took a swim.

Swim at ski station below Tende Julian the Doc having a bath in the pool (instead of doing the Col de Tende)

As we weren’t able to traverse the Col, we were ferried through the 3km road tunnel in succession, emerging the other side in a spectacular steep sided valley. After letting the cars go, we hooned down in usual fashion – slowing down only for a wedding car procession that was taking most of both lanes (and Lionel had a very near miss with a motor cycle doing a dangerous overtake round a bend – hold up index finger and thumb close together and you’ll get the picture).

It’s difficult to adequately describe how is feels to go downhill at speed for 25km – but imagine freewheeling for a full 30 minutes – its amazing.

We turned off the main road to get to our hotels (2 for this night) and had another fantastic dinner.  Being a Saturday night – the village was pretty loud but I was tucked up by 10pm – and wrote most of the above before turning in.

I will finish the blog for today and give some of the overall stats for the trip in another blog when I have a chance to write it – hopefully soon.



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