Martyn Jones' Tour de France: Part 7

Tackling the monsters of the high Alps

Rest day

We’re staying in Mondovi - 30km from tomorrow's stage start in Cuneo. It’s an amazing little town, typically Italian, with medieval architecture and views over the Piemonte hills and the Alps.

The thing I most look forward to on a rest day isn't just the physical rest but the quality time to do the simplest of things without feeling rushed along by the relentless and unforgiving rhythm that is demanded of me.

I spent a few hours on the internet in my hotel room, updating the blog and responding to friends etc. Then I strolled into Mondovi itself and took the funicular railway to the top of the mountain where I sipped an espresso and just absorbed the place at a very leisurely (tourist!) pace.

After suffering some pain in my lower hamstrings yesterday I compressed some ice on the area in bed and also at dinner, then re-applied muscle cream to relieve the aching ahead of tomorrow.

 I bought a few treats whilst out in Mondovi - simple things like Coca Cola and chocolate - to make the next day pass a little easier. Tomorrow will be tricky after being out of my rhythm today.

Conditions: overcast, very humid, 28 degrees

Feelgood factor: 7/10

ipod tune: 7 More Days - Terence Trent D'Arby

Stage 16: Cuneo – Jausiers, 157km

Today's ride started with a beautiful appetiser as I left Italy and climbed over the border to France via the Col de la Lombarde. It was a tough, but very scenic climb up to a maximum height of over 2300m.

A very fast descent then brought me to the base of the monster climb - the highest pass in Europe - the Col de la Bonette in the Mercantour national park which is a true wilderness area.

Up at 2,802m nothing grows, and the pass was dark and grey today with very threatening clouds. Black slate scree falls dominate the upper slopes (a bit like Wastwater in the Lake District but a lot grander).

This is an interminable climb - a real slog all the way up - possibly the grandest of all the 'Grand cols des Alpes'.

To see the summit from 15km away was spirit-breaking and to make matters worse (you've guessed it) the heavens opened midway up. Straight away I dressed properly in winter kit: gloves, longs and jacket and battled against winds that were strong enough to blow down the steel barriers erected to contain the spectators.

The temperature was dropping and the rain appeared to be turning to sleet as I got within 3 km of the lunar landscape summit. Struggling to control my 5 kilo bike, my heart rate was shooting up while my speed was dropping to a pitiful 8km per hour. This is about as tough as it gets and ahead I still had the challenge of the cold, wet and incredibly dangerous descent to Jausiers (John-Lee Augustyn will vouch for that – ed).  It was a hard day in the saddle indeed.

On top of that I had a two hour transfer across the valley to our stage start tomorrow.  We were staying in a hotel near to Embrun and with the van’s heater on full blast I had just about dried out by the time we reached our destination, though I was irritable, tired and hungry.

Calories: 7,200

Time in saddle: 6 hrs 50 mins

Feelgood factor: 2/10

ipod tune: Here comes the rain - Eurythmics.

Stage 17: Embrun - Alpe d'Huez, 210km

The coup de grace today - the Queen Stage - the absolute classic alpine Tour de France stage and about as hard as a course gets without any extra help from the elements. Even the seasoned pros will struggle to stay within the time limit when they tackle this one.

I started out on the road early, but after hand-washing my sodden kit the night before things were still damp when I dressed. I’d had to clean my (totally beaten up) bike too and 05:45 was the only time I could do this so to say that I was up against it from  the start would be an understatement. That said, I simply got on with it, then had breakfast for 06:30 and hence was able to get going by 07:00 as planned. The late bedtime (23:39) didn't help either, but still I was feeling okay somehow.

The first 30km seemed to go quite fast in the cold (still shaded) valleys with magnificent views of the 4000m snow-capped Ecrins range. I was on for a good day today, I could sense it. I knew I would be okay as long as I paced it right to get the best out of myself.

The first col was the 2,645m Galibier and it went quickly in clear perfect skies, though I was still dressed in winter kit as it was very cold at the top.

The descent was fast - very fast - touching speeds of 85/90km/h. My heart rate even dropped to 54bpm on the descent near the end - whilst I was still on the bike.  That’s pretty good for me and showed that I was recovering very well indeed from the previous days.

Then came the nasty long side of the Col de la Croix de Fer - a climb up to 2,100m with the steepest section at the end.  It’s a leg-breaker on most days but today I was humming along like a diesel engine and felt as though I could have ridden 250km in the mountains let alone 210km.

Alpe d'Huez was crowded and crazy-busy in preparation for Le Tour with hordes of drunken Dutch and German spectators in particular evidence. I did well, held it together and managed just over the hour on the climb to finish the stage in 8 hrs 35mins. I’m happy with that.

Calories: 8,300

Time in saddle; 8hrs 35 mins

Feelgood factor: 8/10

ipod tune: The battle of evermore - led zeppelin

Conditions: cold (at times, very cold), crisp and windy. Sharp Alpine sun.

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