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Tourmalet showdown

Photo: Getty Images

Today’s stage finish up the Col du Tourmalet delivered a Tour battle to rival any I can remember. As @rich_mitch observed, it wasn’t quite Lance vs Pantani, but Contador vs Schleck, mano-a-mano through the mist, was tense and gritty stuff.

No-one but Andy Schleck could have restrained the accelerations of Contador, even though, in the end, the Spaniard made only one significant move. On the face of it, however, he didn’t need to win: with only 8 seconds separating first and second place, Contador’s time-trial pedigree means he’s sure to take overall victory on Sunday. Schleck had to attack, and he did all he could, riding a savage tempo up the mountain that had both riders grimacing in pain. Ultimately, they were so evenly matched that they crossed the line together – Contador generously, and wisely (given the events of Tuesday), handing the stage win to Schleck.


I rode up the Tourmalet in 2002, while traversing the Pyrenees on a week-long charity ride from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. On a day of drama that will mean nothing to anyone bar the protagonists, I can vividly remember flashes of that punishing 90-minute ascent (the same, tougher, side as the Tour went up today).

To recap, we were a group of 7, that included university mates Ewan, Si and Joe, plus some older blokes, one of whom was Mike B.

Mike was a keen club rider; we were an odd assortment of fitness levels, ranging from Joe, a natural talent, to Ewan, who despite radically transforming himself in recent years and completing an Ironman in 2008, was at that time shambolically out of shape. But it was a charity ride, so racing was hardly on the cards.

That is, until the first morning of the trip, a tough, drizzly leg out of Biarritz, when Blakeney rode off the front for 50 miles. Who did he think he was, Eddy Merckx? Suddenly, in the microcosm of the group, Mike B (who is actually a good guy all round), with his carbon Trek and beer gut, was the villain of the piece. Revenge was brewing, and the Tourmalet – which we hit on the Thursday – would be our showdown.


We stopped for lunch in a town not far from the foot of the mountain. I remember taking Joe to one side and briefing him for the climb: he was not to hang back with us, he was to ride at B’s pace, and keep up the tempo until B cracked. Joe and B rode off together, leaving us to await the outcome.

It goes without saying that the climb was hard. For the first time, I experienced all the usual side-effects of long, hot mountain climbs that I’m now pretty familiar with: the pins-and-needles face, the slack jaw, the aching back. I dropped Si after 20 minutes – a minor victory – and then it was me and the road.

I initially thought it was a product of my own super-heated brain when I looked up after 10km and saw Mike B, dismounted at the roadside, helmet off, pink-faced, puffy, a Dead-Elvis grin on his face. But he said something – it could have been ‘Help’ or ‘Water’, I can’t recall – and I realised with a surge of adrenalin that Joe had buried him. I was intensely delighted, not only by this reckoning, but also by the fact that I was now number two on the mountain. A celebratory hot chocolate was my reward at the summit.


Back from the Dolomites

If you like climbing – and I do – then The Maratona of the Dolomites is a tailor-made sportive. The 138km full course offers barely any flat sections, so forget about who is or isn’t doing work at the front, forget about getting in a group; it’s about controlling your effort and staying hydrated in the heat. Neither of which I was very successful at on the day.

For mountain scenery, this is the most spectacular sportive I’ve ridden. At every hairpin you get a new panorama of lush valleys and jagged peaks. Especially early in the morning, when shafts of sunlight poke through the gaps in rock towers and light up patches of road – it’s outrageous.

It was nice to have a chance to appreciate the views; this, together with the fact that I wasn’t able to blow my energy reserves too soon, were the only up-sides to the serious congestion at the start of the ride. In all other respects the sheer number of riders starting together (8,640) was frustrating and dangerous. I spent 3 hours riding in a massive cavalcade of slower cyclists, pointlessly jostling for position, wary of errors on the descents.

Very busy roads - but stunning views.

Jonny, Millsy and I started together, but pretty soon it was just Jonny’s wheel I was trying to follow up the crowded slopes of the Passo Pordoi. That Ironman-wingnut Mills had done a triathlon on the Friday before; this was to be a long training ride for him.

The first 7 passes all felt easy, but somehow Theobald got the early jump on me. Suddenly he was nowhere to be seen amid the mass of jerseys. I caught him exiting the Belvedere feed stop at 83km. With the crowds and the views, the day had felt more like a charity ride than a sportive. But by now my legs were buzzing and my head was full of the Giau.

The event is really all about this one climb. As I remember it, I began the ascent in the lead, Jon on my wheel. We had a good tempo, and passed many. The sun was full-on now, and perhaps 30 degrees. I had a problem with my gears which meant the chain wasn’t sitting on my top 26 ring, and kept slipping down one, so I was fiddling with the barrel adjuster with sweating hands whilst climbing. There was complete silence from the mountainside. The gradient was unrelenting, and brutal.

35 minutes into the climb, the invisible elastic tying me to Jonny’s back wheel stretched one last time, and snapped. He had one bike length, then two, then he was beyond the next hairpin, then out of sight. The ascent and the heat was pushing me into a physical and mental state I’d not experienced since riding the Galibier last summer: pins and needles in the face, and a sick feeling in my stomach rising into my throat.

Summiting the climb, I should have stocked up on more food, but instead I reeled past nauseating piles of jam tarts and banana halves, grabbing bizarre things I never normally consume on a ride – like plastic cups of coke. I had one gel and two enervit squares to last me, and somehow I thought it would be enough.

Possibly descending from the Passo Giau to Pocol.

I descended hard, hit the foot of the Passo Falzarego, then bonked. My morale sank too – riders were passing me, Theobald was way up ahead, and I was annoyed with myself for not eating properly. The Falzarego should have been my climb: 10km long, it’s gentler than the Giau, a more gradual ascent that I would normally have powered up. I pulled over into the shade, pissed, consumed everything I had on me, and started climbing again.

The Passo Falzarego has an evil sister: the Valparola. Just after the drinks stop at what you think is the top of the climb, the gradient kicks up for just over a kilometre. Millsy told me later this little feature nearly finished him off; to be honest I can’t really remember how it was for me. I do remember gunning final the descent, though, and passing the finishing banner 18 mins after JT. Final time: 6hrs 39.

Grimacing in the final km's

I’m planning to ride the Maratona again. It’s a great event, flawlessly organised and well supported by the locals. It’s also excellent value for money. Entry is 50-odd euros, but you’re showered with freebies before, during and after the ride.

Finally, if you’re looking for a place to stay, check out these apartments. Drop Norbert Nagler a line and tell him I sent you…

King of the Downs

Unfortunately, this is not the triumphal write-up I was mentally preparing the week before the event: my first DNF in a sportive, thanks to a broken spoke on my Campag Neutron Ultra rear wheel at exactly 4 hours into the race. (more…)

Monte Zoncolan

The red zone - Monte Zoncolan profile

Monte Zoncolan – it sounds like an exotic, faraway place, perhaps the seat of some ancient civilisation, once famous for ritual beheadings, now just ruins in the jungle…

In fact, it’s a very steep hill (10.5km, average gradient 11.5%, steepest sections 22%) in north-eastern Italy, and the scene yesterday of an impressive victory by Ivan Basso in the Giro d’Italia.

Early in the climb, Sylwester Szmyd of the Liquigas squad set a really hot pace that strung out the leading group, demolishing Wiggo in the process. Then for about 5km it was Basso and Evans, Ivan looking cool and fluid in the saddle, Cadel all over the bars, grimacing, dripping sweat, looking like a minotaur fighting for its life. Then Basso turned it up a notch, gliding away up the steep ramps of the mountain as Evans heaved in vain on his pedals.

Cadel Evans grinds up Monte Zoncolan (photo Cycling Tips)

I’d like to climb Monte Zoncolan some day.

Peaks toured

My strong performance in last Saturday’s Tour of the Peak District confirmed two important outcomes from my training so far this year:

  1. To ride strongly in a sportive, do a ‘warm-up’ sportive of the same distance 2 weeks before.
  2. Lower back pain can be successfully eradicated through core training over a period of months.

It’s good to crack these things.

On the day my time was 6hrs 08, position 13th out of 148. The final 20 miles were hard, but on the whole I felt easy, strong on the hills, and quicker on the flat. This will be an event to do again in future years, since it’s close to home in Stoke and features the long draggy ascent to the top of Snake Pass from Glossop, which particularly suits me. (more…)

To the Dolomites

Profile of the course.

As intended, the Maratona dles Dolomites is now firmly on the horizon, so I’m taking a closer look at the route profile. Some facts:

  • 138km / 85 miles
  • 4190m height gain (La Marmotte is 4500-5000m, depending on where you get your figures)
  • Hardly any flat sections
  • Temperatures in the mid-upper 20s C
  • In the first 22km you climb from 1436m to 2239m (top of the Passo Pordoi).
  • The Passo Pordoi has an average gradient that matches the Col du Glandon (6.9%) – in fact, the start of the Maratona will be like climbing the Glandon, except with a short 4km descent after 10km.
  • The Pordoi is followed by 3 shorter climbs (and descents) of around 5-6km: the Passo Sella, the Passo Gardena, and the Passo Campolongo – of which the Sella is the steepest.
  • The big one is the Passo Giau, situated at 97km. It’s 10km long, ave. gradient 9.3% – comparable to L’Alpe d’Huez, but slightly shorter and slightly less steep on average, very similar to Ditchling Beacon, but 5 times as long.
  • After the Giau, you descend all the way down to Pocol at 1535m, before ascending to the Passo Valparola, an 11.5km ascent at 5.8% ave. gradient (Box Hill’s steepest sections are 6%, but that is only 2.8km)
  • Following a massive 15km descent, the final 5kms of the ride are gentle uphill.

Evidently, this a climber’s sportive, quite different from most UK sportive routes, which favour the stronger, Classics-style rider. Now that I’ve got a couple of 100 mile sportives under my belt I’m going to have to get back to serious hill reps.

As a footnote here’s a transcript of a Skype chat I had with Millsy, during which we discussed the Maratona and other nonsense:

Downland Cycles Spring Sportive

Seriously, I’ve got to do something about my power output. On 3 occasions during the Downland Cycles Spring Sportive on Sunday I was dropped by stronger riders on flat sections of the ride. (more…)

Campagnolo Ultra-Torque – don’t try this at home

I’m on the market for a new chainset. Well, basically, I need new bearings for my bottom bracket so figure I may as well spend £250 rather than £20…

Just bought a new chainset, to be fitted Thursday by those wrench-wielding legends at Condor.

During an hour of web-based research prior to buying said chainset, wondering whether or not I could install the beast myself, I discovered this how-to video. It’s quite comedy, because there’s nothing to suggest at the start that, rather than being a user-friendly demo from a mustachioed Italian mechanic, it is in fact ridiculously technical. The guy just keeps pulling out more attachments and tools, all at the same precise pace. The lack of audio makes it all the more bizarre.

Seriously, anyone contemplating upgrading or repairing an ultra-torque BB would be best advised to get it to a shop. Apart from skills in brain surgery, you will also need to purchase £300+ of tools beforehand – then you’ll break it and have to take it to the shop anyway.

Herne Hill for the Velodrome

Designed by Christian Statham.

My friend and former UAL colleague Christian Statham entered his ‘Herne Hill for the Velodrome’ design into TFL’s Outer Limits competition and came second. Seeing as I live not far from Herne Hill now, and I was chuffed about Christian getting his prize, and it’s a cool design, I snapped up a poster print of it late last year.

Christian isn’t quite as much of a bike nut as I am – it seems he has a life – but he’s an excellent designer, a real technician with digital artwork and colour, and aside from that a massive retro buff with a keen eye for curiosities in all genres. Devote a lazy Sunday afternoon to his Colourschool blog, it’s a treasure trove of discerning interest and assorted cultural knick-knacks.

Pilgrim’s Way long loop

Rode this yesterday, in reverse of the direction mapped. It’s a nice route, although I’ve no idea why it’s called Pilgrim’s Way. Went fine until overshooting a cross-roads at Longfield, then bonking. Missed out the small loop to the west via Oxted, and returned from Chevening to Hawley Corner and through Biggin Hill. Stopped off for a massive slice of lemon cake to get my sugar levels back up, then nearly puked.

Which is worse – puking or the bonk? Time for a new poll?

In the process of getting lost near Biggin Hill on the way out I discovered a monster climb 50 mins from my house. Stock Hill. We will meet again.