This was it. The final stage. Just 127 km to make it to Vence and the end of the real racing. There was still the ride down to Nice but that would be done in convoy and as a victory parade.
My body just had to get me through this last day. Cumulative fatigue has been showing on all of us. My eyes were looking so sunken and weighed down with bags. I'd been finding it really difficult to sleep through the night. The fluid intake meant I was up 2-3 times each night and every time I did my knees creaked and caused me a lot of pain. At least this morning we had some good news. A 7:30am start meant we could stay in bed a little longer. I was looking forward to the ride. I wanted to make sure I gave it everything and improved on my position from the previous day. At the same time I couldn't wait for the emotion of finishing, getting my finishers medal and seeing my wife down on the finish line in Nice.
After yesterdays stage to Mont Ventoux I really wanted to try and give it everything up the first climb to stay in touch with a group of people I knew I should be able to keep up with. It now felt like a familiar routine. The flag dropped and we all rolled slowly out of Dignes. A 3km convoy allowed us to warm ourselves up and get the legs turning. By now the pain in the knees was a constant reminder of the physiological stress of this race. Across the timing mat and the normal acceleration of pace. I tried to stay above 220 watts. This was a strong pace for me but I did want to see if I could do it and then keep going strong at the end. The Col de Corebin was a really pretty climb. You could tell you were in the Southern alps now. I tried to take it all in and make the most of the last 5 hours on the bike.
I crested the climb not too far back from some of the riders I'd been much further back on this week. It felt like I had given it a good shot. Unfortunately the descent was neutralised. Whilst I'm not quite as quick at descending as Ian and Simon I wasn't far behind and descents were certainly sections where I made up places. Even so, this was a cracking descent. Really enjoyable. Sharp hairpin bends, tight narrow road and stunning views out into the valley. Out onto the main road we gently rode down the remainder of the neutralised section in a big group. Across the timing mat and back into race mode. A few people stopped just before but quite a few pressed on so I sprinted hard to join the back of the group and the speed leapt up. No rolling pace line here, just a few brave souls putting in a turn and towing the rest of us along. I was tucked in about 30 people back focussing on staying calm and recovering before the next climb, the Col de Leques.
The peloton didn't last long once we hit the climb. I settled into it and tried to maintain the pace of the previous climb. Fatigue was a problem and I felt pushing that hard for a second time and so early in the day would give me trouble later so I knocked off 10 watts and carried on. Half way up Laurence caught me up. I pushed to stay with him not wanting to drop further back. Even on the last day the urge to race is there for everyone. In fact we all saw it as a last chance to do well and pushed harder. Roll on Nice and a dip in the med! We came over the climb together, grabbed a quick feed and carried on.
Another fantastic descent brought us out at the bottom of the lake at Castillon. It was now getting really hot. The next climb was like going up in a furness. Not a difficult climb but so hot and still trying to push on. Laurence pushed on ahead, I felt like there was nothing in the tank. We were now off the main road and on a quite mountain road. A few km from the top Tim came alongside. Another quirk of the Haute Route. I'd not met either Tim or Laurence before but we'd shared the same flight out of London together. Now here we were sharing climbs on the last day of the Haute Route. Tim urged me to get on his wheel. He was having a good day and we set a fast pace up the remainder of the climb. At the feed station at the top of the climb we caught up with Laurence who'd suffered late into the climb. With the heat we were having to stop at every station now. Water bottles were not lasting long.
On the descent we were flying down but then coming into one of the hairpin bends we saw security guys waving at us to slow down. An ambulance was treating a rider prone in the middle of the road. It was a guy that we had spoken to in the bike check line in Geneva 7 days ago. An american guy, probably in his late 50's riding an amazing screw together titanium travel bike. Turns out he'd come off and fractured his leg. It's devastating when you hear about things like this. We're like one big team and you want everyone to make it to the end. To come so close is gutting.
That slowed us down for a while on the descent. Off the bottom of the descent and it was time to form up a line again. It was a long tab into the Col de Blaine, probably the hardest climb of the day. It was becoming so difficult to stay in the group. We were now 10 people. A couple of us dropped off whilst trying to eat and the chase back on was frantic and leg busting. But you have to do everything you can to stay in the group otherwise you lose so much time.
Onto the Col de Blaine, the climbs were coming thick and fast, it was what made the day so tough. This was short but steep and with the temperature still rising I found it a real struggle. By now it was down to Laurence and me taking it in turns to pace each other up. It didn't take long to get up but then a bonus. The descent was neutralised so as we rolled across the timing mat at the top we could stop for a nice break. The feed station was full of broken people. Peter was there looking like he was having a really tough day in the office. A lot of people were.
Just one more climb remained though. A short descent led us to a long section of flat leading across a plateau and into another long descent. This one would take us all the way to the bottom of the col de Vence. Just at the top of the descent a French guy came past, shouting out, “I know this descent, follow me”. This was brilliant. The guy clearly did know the descent as he picked the apex on each bend, braking just enough to get round the corner. We flew down the mountainside and on our right, amazing views across the Alpes Maritime. We'd left everyone else behind. The sun was beating down. There was not a cloud in the sky. I began to think back across the whole week. Geneva seemed like a lifetime ago.
My guide pulled ahead the minute we started to go up hill. Well I say uphill. It was more of a long gradual drag into a head wind. This was some kind of cruel torture. I had 14km to go, the wind was blowing hard in my face and the road looked like it was going downhill. Only the snails pace I was going at gave the game away. 5 long kilometres passed slowly. I could see a guy about 400m ahead of me but we were going at the same pace so there was no way I could catch him and share the workload.
Then two guys came past, going faster than me but not so fast that I couldn't get onto the back and try to sit there as long as I could. The pace was hard and I just hoped that they wouldn't wave me through for a turn otherwise I'd blow up completely. We caught the guy who'd been dangling in front of me as the pace continued. It was getting so hard to stay on. Then another stroke of luck. I was waved through for my turn just as the road started descending. This was 4km of descent into the final 2km of up to the finish line.
We all knew we were close and had to finish in style. We got quicker and quicker as we got closer to the finish line. The road started ramping up but not too steep so we kept flying along in our paceline of four. Round a right hand bend in the road and up further ramp then we saw what we'd all been looking for, the flamme rouge, well the 1km to go marker anyway. I thought I'd repay the efforts from the guys earlier and went to the front to put in a big effort to the line. It seemed like they'd given everything already as I quickly got a gap. So I pressed on, pushing out as much power as I could. 400m to go and I thought I'd gone too soon. The pain in the legs was horrible. Then there it was. The final timing mat. Leave everything on the road. I got out of the saddle and wrung the last drops of power out of my legs, raised my arms, then collapsed across the finish line. I'd made it. I thanked my companions from the last 9km as they came across the line and then set off down the descent to Vence itself, where a cold beer was going to get demolished.
The descent down was another beautiful fast sweeping one, but with one difference. This time I could see the sea! It also gave more time to reflect on the week. Well more of a reflection of the last ten months. That's another part of what makes this event so special. You can't just turn up and ride. You need to put in a lot of training. Winter evenings on the turbo trainer. The 6am starts to commute to work. The weekends given up to cycling. There's one person for me that's made all of this possible and that's my wife. I've been so lucky as she has been so supportive and understanding of me taking part. She's never questioned the time devoted to training, nor the money spent on kit. And she was waiting down in Nice. Time to get a wriggle on and go see her.