24 hours on and I'm still trying to get my head around what we went through yesterday. The three of us have done many events were the weather has been bad. Yesterday was by far the hardest day we'd ever had on the bike. It was a perfect storm of the marathon day with 4650m of vertical ascent with driving rain, vicious headwinds, cold when the forecast said it would be warm, and all of this on the back of two hard days riding.
Let me take you back to riders briefing the night before as this really is the start. The weather forecast said rain, gusting winds but not too cold. That had everyone in a quandary about what to wear. Go full wet weather winter kit and you'd get too hot, don't take any wet weather kit and you'd get wet. Eventually all three of us decided to go with normal shorts, leg warmers, overshoes and the ever versatile Gabba.
The next morning began with a 6km ride down the valley to Le Praz, where the start village sat at the bottom of the Olympic ski jumps. The rain was already coming down and hot tea and coffee were being dished out. Sad news was running through the peloton. 8 bikes had been stolen the previous night leaving people unable to ride that day.
The start of the ride was a 24km neutralized section that was done in convoy down to the turn off to the Madeleine. Within 5 minutes I knew I'd not got the right clothes on and judging by the number of shivering arms shaking front wheels I wasn't alone. By the time the race start point was reached we were all soaked.
I'd decided to see if I could stay with Peter today so we set off at a strong pace up the Madeleine. By this time the rain was properly hammering it down. In the back of my mind I was worried I was going too hard at this point, there was a long way to go, but I hadn't pushed hard enough the previous morning so carried on. The Madeleine is a long long climb. 25km rising 1500m. We settled in for the long haul. After about an hour we started to come out of the shelter of the trees and this is where the lack of warm, waterproof clothing really started to get to me. I'm not good in the cold and wet at the best of times and now a strong wind was blowing right into our faces. Peter had ten yards then twenty. I realised I wasn't going to stay with him so backed off. It was now about surviving the day and making it to the finish line. It's so tough when you hit this point and you are barely a quarter into a long day.
The rain continued to batter us as we climbed up. I was getting worried about the descent now. It would be painfully cold and slow. Gerry then came past, upon hearing I was getting cold he offered up his spare gilet. I took it gratefully. By now we were on the final steep ramps of the Madeleine. Then we were over the top and felt the full force of the wind almost blow us back to Moutiers. Everyone was taking the plastic rain capes the organisers were handing out. Most of us couldn't even put them on.
The descent was long, cold and painfully slow. Having made it up to a height of 1990m we then dropped all the way into the Maureine valley at a height of about 500m. It was a case of keep the brakes on and tuck your legs behind the rain cape as best you could to keep warm as you tried not to lose control of your bike due to your shivering. I've never been so cold and wet on a bike. Luckily as you lose height things warm up. Down in the valley it was a good 8 degrees warmer.
It's a small transition from the bottom of the Madeleine onto the Glandon so pretty soon I was stuffing my rain cape in the back pocket and heading upwards again. Another long long climb. 20km long rising 1400m. With the last climb taking 2 hours this one was going to be pretty much the same. Descending the Madeleine it felt like I was the only one on the mountain, but now more and more riders were appearing. All looking wet and haunted. Soon a french guy, Francois, caught up with me and we sat at the same pace, chatting away in a mix of English and French to try and take our minds off the rain. It was working. The ride was actually okay now.
An hour into the climb, everything changed as we came out of the shelter of the forest and into the teeth of the headwind again. By now the wind had risen further and the rain was coming down horizontally. A group of three of us battled away through the next 5km to reach the key part of the whole climb. The last three km goes up at 10%, 11% and 10%, and we could see it looming ahead through the bands of driving rain. There was nowhere to hide. It was pure survival conditions. The switch backs went alternately into the wind then away. When you had the wind at your back you only had the vicious steep slope to contend with. When you turned into the wind all hell broke loose. Waves of water came rushing down the slope towards you and visibility dropped to mere yards. I stopped to put my rain cape back on as despite the gradient I was shivering uncontrollably. Francois carried on to the feed station at the top.
Eventually I made it. It was carnage up there. Wind whipped across the top of the climb. A panal van was set up with people huddling inside for shelter as outside the brave volunteers helped feed and water the riders. Out of the wind and rain came Francois. “My parents are here in the car, come and sit inside and get warm”. I didn't need to be asked twice as we both jumped in and covered his parents car in water. Gradually feeling came back and it was time to venture on down the hill. The next 20km had been neutralised due to the danger of trying to race downhill in such conditions. Not that it helped. You went as fast as you could and it still took 50 minutes to get to the start of the next climb.
One more climb to go, the back way up to Alpe D'Huez. By now the rain was starting to ease off and as I was now 1000m lower down it was warmer with the trees providing shelter from the wind. I had a new problem though. The time cut was now becoming a factor. I still had 2 hours to climb 1000m up to the Alpe but I was cold, tired and my legs just could not put out any power. Whereas the day before I did the last climb of the day at 210 watts I could now barely put out 150.
A thin line of cyclists was strung out across the road as we all went through our own inner battles to make it to the top. A final feed station with 9km to go allowed some much needed coke to be drunk and some banana to fuel the last push. A small road wound across the valley and down into the Huez, just below turn 6 of the normal climb of the Alpe. I now had 55 minutes to do the last section to the finish line. I knew I now had plenty of time so relaxed a little. I started to think about what I'd come through today. I was physically broken but managed to remain positive. My aim of finishing in the top third had probably been dashed today, but I had made it through something that many did not. Keeping this in my head I kept turning the peddles up to the finish line.
The lead event manager was waiting out in the rain to congratulate everyone who crossed the finish line. I collapsed across it almost in tears of joy that I'd made it. The media crew managed to get a few sentences out of me for the camera, not sure I made any sense (I did as I was later on the days highlights clip). Broken but in one piece.
Looking back I have to give a massive shout out to the organisers and volunteers who stood in the wind and rain and cold all day, cheering, feeding, helping dress us in rain capes. They were immense. Also credit that they didn't cut the course. We knew what we were letting ourselves in for and the allowed us the chance to do that. Finally a shout out to all the riders. In ten years time, it is this day that we will all remember, this day that will be our proudest achievement on this Haute Route. Only we know what we went through. Only we will really understand how tough it was. Front to back, we all suffered.