N2A – day 5 – St. Jean de Mauriennes to Talloires

24 Sep

Here’s the day in summary: CH THRESH 2014 MAP DAY 5

Total distance: 113.0 Km

Total elevation: 2812 m

Total descent: 2931 m

An early 7am start was requested by Gideon, so the alarm went off at 6.30am. I was already awake listening to my heart tapping out its irregular beat. By now it wasn’t fazing me too much and I didn’t even bother with a half Tambocor, on the assumption it would calm down when I got up (it did).

After the downpour the night before, looking out of the window at the Hotel St.Georges, the roads were still wet and it was difficult in the morning gloom to work out whether the sky was clear, or cloudy.

On the plus side, the towel warmer in the bathroom had dried our kit (it was almost stuck to the heating bars). Will and I both remarked that now that we were on the last day the getting up and out routine was down to a fine art. Before long the bags were where they should be and the bikes were rolling out of the overnight store. Lee redressed Mark Booth’s sore foot and then filled up a freezer bag full of Haribo for me to stop the bonking that I had the day before.

All things done, we set off. St Jean de Maurienne is around 500m and we descended down through the town to the valley floor at 400m and started a 10km flat section back down the same road we had come along in the other direction 3 years ago on day 2 of G2MC to get to the start of Telegraphe/Galibier.

The early morning warm up train – Drew, Will, Jason, Dennis, John, Mark and me – had a relaxed ride on a back road by the fields and farms, and soon made the right turn up an innocent looking suburban lane, with school children being dropped off at the village school. The scene belied the beginning of one of the most famous and challenging Tour de France climbs – Col de Madeleine. This was to be the longest and steepest single stretch of the trip – 1,600m from the valley floor and at least 3 hours non stop in the saddle.

By the end of the short straight off the main road, the rest of the train had disappeared up the road and Mark and I were left at our own pace. No rain, but it was cool and damp as we climbed through the village into the meadows.

We passed Hilary and Pete (on his first ever Col attempt) and then early on I executed a crappy low speed gear change and my chain jammed in the back wheel. By the time I had straightened it out, Hilary went past again and Mark and I followed her up. In time, we were overhauled by most of the later, 7.30am starters, from the hotel.

The gradient stayed at a harsh 9-10% for the next hour and a half, as the terrain changed from cow-bell meadows to alpine forest – though I barely looked up as I concentrated on grinding out one pedal stroke after another. The road was muddy from the lorries serving the earthworks at around 900m and just above the earthworks I bonked and had to pull in and take a mouthful of cola bottles and jelly snakes. Mark waited for me around the next corner and there was a 1km 6% section that felt flat after what had gone before!

We ascended up through the ski station and into the high meadows. It was interesting (and a welcome distraction from the grind) to see the pistes in summer mode, with the snow making poles and ski lift gates waiting for the winter action to start. The next 9km were 7,8,9% and the wind introduced a  chill factor. At about 4km from the Col, Mark and I stopped to put on warm gear (and get a breather) and then continued to grind our way up toward the top.

Over the next crest, we passed a bleak looking hotel near a sign for Col du Glandon (2.5km to the left) and for a moment I considered trying to bag that Col while we were up there but I think that’s cheating. We carried on up the last 3km in the mist.

At the Col de Madeleine there is a weather-beaten hotel, a granite monument marking the Col and a large car park with panoramic viewing platform. When Mark and I arrived in the car park, all the group’s bikes were lined up along the pavement and Lee stood there alone with his food and hot drinks stand. The other riders were waiting for us in the coffee cabin opposite. I didn’t have the legs to walk up the steps to the coffee shop immediately, so Mark and I sat out of the wind in the car with our tea, cheese and crackers rustled up by Lee. Moments earlier, he said, the sun was out – all that could be seen now was the viewing platform and mist.

IMG_0919 (Will’s shot a few minutes earlier)

We weren’t the last ones to the tip on this occasion, so we didn’t need to rush on. We waited for 10 minutes for the last riders and the van (with Adam and Matt, who had retired through injury), by which time the sun and the magnificent view had emerged. The rest of the group came down from the cabin and we formed up for the last summit group shot.

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For a few seconds, there was even a view of Mont Blanc in the distance – though you’ll have to take my word for that as no-one got a picture!

The descent from the Col was one of the longest I have done – nearly 50km down to Albertville.   The first 25km a steep and in places wet road but exhilarating. Mark and I stayed together at the steepest parts at the top, but further down the red mist came down and I pressed ahead….down….down…down…..alongside vertigo / nausea inducing drops and sphincter-clenching wet corners and new gravel patches. Only Lionel passed me with his customary ease and still we went down and down. It’s hard to imagine 30 miles of downhill – it feels almost never ending.

As we approached the bottom of the valley, the sun was shining consistently and the temperature rose. We were quite warm by the time we arrived at the food stop in the village of [something-en-Savoie]. We took a leisurely stop, drying our wet togs on the warm tarmac, taking on food and filling water bottles.

Next, a further gentle descent into Albertville, which sits in a wide alpine valley. We continued through the town and up the other side for the last climb of the trip. The small but pretty Collet de Tamie of 960m. This was my favourite climb of the whole trip – mainly because at 5-6% it required less focus and Mark and I could enjoy the scenery as we sent up through the fields and beech woods, with the sun streaming through the trees, which gave some relief from the heat. We weren’t quite in chatting territory – more like pleasant silence.

We got to the Col sign, which looked a little out of the place by the side of the road, still in the woods and it wasn’t even at the top, but John Milsom was there – looking broken and relieved in equal measure – and we joined him for a photo.

The crest was a little further on and we then descended in the sunshine, though the road was recently gritted, so we had to pedal a bit to make progress. There were a few cyclists coming up the other way, the most we had seen all day, and the road joined a main road. There was also a strong headwind and some long straights which John, Mark and I pace lined to share the effort. We eventually caught Lionel and Hilary and soon turned off to the lunch venue – only 10km from the finish.

The group were already on the terrace with beers in hand when we arrived and soon after we went in for lunch. Spag Bol – just the ticket!

After lunch, we formed a large group for the short ride to the finish. After only a km or so, there were whoops of delight as the road opened onto Lake Annecy. Car and van drivers were less happy as the road was quite narrow and we were spread out in single file. As I was close to the back, I could see some of the near misses as cars tried to pass – and this was the 5pm rush hour (where did the time go?).

My heart sank when ahead there was a steep uphill – I was mentally and physically reconciled to the end – but thankfully we turned off to the left (more honks from irate motorists) down to a small harbour and the finish line. Hooray!

The Classic Tours team had arranged a few beers as we hugged and congratulated each other.

Someone suggested a swim in jest – which reminded me of a dream I had along the way of doing exactly that – so I started to strip off. I think one person beat me to the water but it was beautiful – cool but not cold. After the others could see that we didn’t immediately expire and sink to the bottom, most of the group dived in too (kudos to Brian for his spinning somersault-twist-thingy entry, and to James for his tuck-then-open-up-at-the-wrong-moment-back-slapper).

[Can someone provide a finish line and swimming photo?]

Slowly, we gathered our bikes and discarded clothes and walked the short distance to the hotel car park, where dismantling the bikes started immediately. Somewho we had forgotten to take any organized finish line photo – but it didn’t seem to matter.

We were all stunned by the high quality of the hotel, right there overlooking the harbor. Will and I had the honeymoon suite with balcony overlooking the lake. Very romantic as the sun went down!

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It wasn’t long before the showered and freshened up group convened on the patio in a large circle for pre-dinner drinks. I organized an extra whip-round for the Classic Tours guys – by consensus a fantastic job done by the team and we went into dinner.

And what a dinner – full 5* silver service – I’ve no idea how Classic Tours managed it on our budget, but what a way to finish. You’ve set a high bar for next time guys!

I’m not a great speech-maker but gave my thank-yous (sorry Lee for forgetting your name mid-stream – oops!). I handed over MC duties to Rich, who doled out the kudos and penalties – both of which earned a large shot of Genepi (herbal rocket fuel), of which we consumed two magnums over the course of the evening….well, there was a lot of penalties and kudos to go around!  Here’s a small selection…

IMG_1155 IMG_1150 IMG_1146 IMG_1145 IMG_1138

No one was spared, even the Classic Tours crew.

Most of us repaired to the bar and a “cleansing ale” was called for, not wanting the wonderful evening to end.   Most of us had only a couple more before bed, knowing there was an early transit to the airport.

The hard core party animals looked like their heads had barely touched the pillow in the car park the next morning – well done lads (and Emma!).

CT

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