SIMON MILLS DOES LOVE VELO’S
MONT BLANC CHALLENGE
The first thing you notice when you are cycling with pros is how unfeasibly still they seem when astride the bike.
I’ve ridden with Bradley Wiggins, David Millar, Mark Cavendish, Ben Swift and Michael Barry and when you are behind such top-of-their game professionals on a climb (which, inevitably, you always will be) huffing and puffing and rocking your lardy, clumsy body all over the frame, randomly shifting weight back and forward from the handlebars, breathing erratically and histrionically, never quite achieving purple cadence, never fully confident of the optimum gear selection, not knowing when to sit down and spin and when to stand up to stamp down on the pedals, there will come a moment when you might look up and observe the physical choreography of the pro up ahead.
Through the misty flow of perspiration streaming down off your head and steaming up your new Oakleys like a mild water-boarding torture, you will clock the pro out of the saddle and in the zone, his long, lithe, sinewy frame propelling his bicycle rapidly and smoothly and doggedly uphill, but somehow barely moving at all.
Even standing up on the pedals, using the climbing technique that the French charmingly term “en danseuse” (and often still in the big ring when you are struggling to go forward in a granny sprocket) you’ll see a balletic performance where only the bottom half of the body seems to be part of the routine. Shoulders, arms, head and arse remain almost motionless in a highly efficient and dichotomized, energy saving strategy that thrusts all the power down to the lower limbs and the drive chain. If you have the strength to lift up your heavy head, you watch and try to and copy them spin for spin, same gear and position, same en danseuse attack, but by then, it’s too late and they’ve dropped you for good.
I’ve had my tragically ineffective game face staring at celebrity backsides a few times now: with Wiggins and Cavendish on a ride out to Sa Colobra in Majorca, up Rocacorba, Girona with Millar and Barry and in the Chilterns with Ben Swift. To put things in perspective, Millar did the 14km Rocacorba climb in approximately half my time of 49mins. Barry was even quicker. Swift stayed in the big ring, smiling, not breaking into anything approaching a sweat around the gradients of Henley on Thames and just when I thought I was keeping up with Wiggins on a gentle, Mallorcan flat section at a regular 40 kph, I noticed that the Tour de France winner had his hands off the bars while he took a phone call, adjusted his bib short suspenders and unpeeled a power bar. Then without warning, he dropped me. Well, of course he did.
Now I’m back in the Alps again, riding the Mont Blanc massif as part of a challenge organised by the luxury cycling escape outfit Love Velo and guided by ex-skier-turned iron man Graham Bell with Rapha Condor Sharp’s Andy Tennant, gold medal winner at the Track Cycling World Championships in Melbourne in 2012 and part of the GB track team at the London 2012 Olympics, as our hero pro.
But here’s the thing. Despite his ability, it soon becomes clear that Andy is not happy about the day that Valley d’Aosta expert Bell and Love Velo has in store for us. We are about to set off a ride that at 185km is even longer than the legendary La Marmotte
With feed stops, allowances for mechanicals and general faffing interludes, we reckon that amateur cyclists of our fitness and ability will do this epic in around nine hours. “Nine hours?” says Andy incredulously. “That’ll be, by far, the longest time I’ve ever been on a bike,” he grins. How long would such a ride usually take for a pro? “Maybe half that.” he says. I feel depressed.
At around 7 am, we leave our base at Au Coeur des Neiges in Courmayeur and head south. Within 20km, we’re encountering our first big hill, the cat 1 climb of Petit St Bernard (or Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo as the Italians say) with its peak at 2188m. It’s a glorious 27.6km of hair-pinned switchbacks, ascending a vertical distance of 1,282m with an average incline of 4.6%.
With a summer of big climbs behind me (Galibier, Madeleine, Alpe D’Huez, Col de Telegraph etc) I find that I am rolling upwards surprisingly well, trying my best to keep up with Tennant (who is mostly in his big ring, naturally) doing what he does in terms of body position, gears and cadence, when he does it, like a kid on one of the dance-step arcade video games. And my stalker-like observation technique works. I get to the top of the Italian border pass feeling fresh and alive.
The scenery is, of course, is incredible; blue skies, grand cru quality air, snow on the mountain peaks, the magnificence of Mont Blanc behind us now, the romance of the climb galvanized by Tour de France graffiti all over the road surface and the notion that Carthaginian general Hannibal and his elephants travelled the same route back in 218BC.
We descend into Bourg St Maurice for 20km and push on to Cormet de Roselend, shorter than the Petit St Bernard but, rather worryingly, even steeper. By the time we summit, we’ve climbed a vertical distance of 1,154m. I’m now at the back of the group. Not struggling exactly, but not pretty either. The mountain is relentless, unforgiving and endless. The sun so fierce that my helmet comes off and my jersey gets unzipped to the navel. No photos please.
A long descent into Beaufort is rewarded by a long and luxuriating sandwich stop. Andy Tennant is quietly incredulous at our indulgence (he is like all border-line anorexic pros at these moments, feeling the cold) but it seems churlish not to try and make this heavenly day last as long as possible.
With cold Fanta fizzing around our bellies (why does Fanta always feel so right in the mountains?) we’re now approaching Col de Saisies, our third and final category 1 climb and the steepest so far. It’s just shy of 15km but almost a whole vertical kilometre. And it almost kills me. By now, my legs are burning, my back is protesting and I’m starting to curse the clicks and gradients with every turn of my pedals. “Shut up, body!” I say to myself, digging deep and channeling Jens Voigt’s TdeF mantra.
Over a celebratory beer and panini, at our Chamonix destination, legs all crank-drunk and achy, but feeling like a resting world-beater, I ask our pro (who, it transpires, once suffered from a supraventricular tachycardia heart problem) to tell me at what percentage of his potential he was running during our big. “40% maybe?” says Andy Tennant wincing, sympathetically. Well, I had to go and ask, didn’t I?
SIMON MILLS DOES LOVE VELO’S
Different Spokes by Mike GluckmanOn the opposite side of the same spectrum of Alpine cycling adventures, I found myself climbing in the Italian Alps a week later with the team from Love Velo. This premium-end cycling tour operator prides itself on bringing you not just the thrill of a hard day in the saddle, but all the spoils of Europe’s luxury alpine lifestyle, too. With plenty of time to enjoy the plush accommodation and highly acclaimed cuisine, the Love Velo experience could almost be a relaxing weekend away.
Don’t get me wrong, the Love Velo route we mastered was designed to punish, but was also geared to suit what riders felt comfortable with. Varying abilities were well catered for with an organised support team and a mechanics van which joined the convoy – this meant extras like fuel, clothing and cameras could be easily taken along without burden.
Best of all, and clearly a Love Velo trump card, we were joined by Team GB track cyclist Andy Tennant. Hailing from the highest echelons of the sport, Andy was riding for team Rapha Condor Sharp at that time and came with an endless stream of fascinating pro-team tales, anecdotes that kept us all entertained throughout the day and well into the night over dinner as the wine flowed and sore muscles repaired themselves. There’s really no better way to bask in the glory of a few solid days’ riding in the Alps than to chew the fat with a bunch of cycling comrades likes these.
Andy’s accounts of his professional routines and brutal training regimes gave an enthralling insight into the lives of Team GB’s top athletes. Our steady 86-mile loop around Mont Blanc that weekend was a perfect balance for me after the gruelling high and lows of the Haute Route. I guess all of this really comes down to what you as a bicycle rider want from your weekend in the Alps. It will be a personal choice but I can guarantee that riding your bike here, one way or another, is a must.
The biggest barrier to cycling for those who do not cycle is usually road safety. From the sheer weight of London traffic, potholes all over the road and too many cyclists choosing to ignore the rules of the roads, casualties on London roads are now unfortunately all too frequent.
The 99th Tour will not be forgotten by British fans but it was hardly a classic as Wiggo managed to tighten his grip on the yellow jersey stage by stage.
Every now and again, you see something that is so clever, so groundbreaking, that you wonder whether it can actually change the world you live in. And today is one of those days.