Come to the Alps they said, it will be fun they said. Of course it will! They were right, but not that I thought that as I sat at the side of the road on Alp D’Huez close to tears with anger and rage.
Let me take you back to the day before. It was 4.00am that I awoke from a dreadful nights sleep on one of those self inflating sleeping mats that is only one step up from cardboard. We had stayed at Andy’s house the night before and after gut testing fish and chips washed down with lager we didnt get to sleep until around midnight. By 9.00pm the following evening we arrived tired and stiff in the French Alps at the village of Bons and rushed out for a celebratory beer and pizza. We were tired, excited and did I say tired? A professional riders diet it wasn’t.
It’s now 30 degrees and the heat is reflecting off the Tarmac as I ride around bend 3 pleased with my progress, excited to be seeing the names of the various famous Tour legends etched into the signs and delighted to be holding my lead on Julie and Martin, despite the others already pulling away. My water bottles are full of electrolytes, sun cream has been applied and my under helmet head cover is ready for the days soaking in sweat. I hadn’t really come with a plan of attack. Usually I would break it down into sections or time slots but on this one it was a case of ‘just get on with it’ and take it in my stride.
It was then that everything went wrong. Badly. I don’t know to this day what happened but I can close my eyes and visualise it clearly. I crumbled and lost everything; my rhythm, my breathing, my focus and my enjoyment. Within about 2-3km I was struggling to get any composure and everything I was doing was outside of not just my comfort zone but my control. I wanted to stop but I couldn’t as I would lose my gap on the others. But I could neither speed up or even slow down. I found myself staring down at the road, occasionally lifting my head to survey the rock face by my side or the metal crash barrier, depending on the direction I was going. In some places there was fresh water pouring out of makeshift drains in the side of the next ramp’s foundations and the temptation to stop to drink and soak myself played torment with my inner voice that I had trained well to keep going.
And then the others passed. One by one they cheerily said hello as they crept on my outside, deep in their own personal battle and digging me deeper and deeper into the hole I was now buried neck high in. I was now last, it was all uphill and I was pissed off. Very pissed off.
The last thing I wanted to do was stop. Or so I thought. Minutes later I was lent over a troff of freezing alpine water washing my face, hair, arms and chest as I treasured every second and splash that the moment gave me. I needed to recompose, get my mind back in gear and accepting of the fact I had stopped. Silly I know, it doesn’t matter really, but it does. You wouldn’t walk any of the climb and it’s the same as stopping. You didn’t do it – simple as that.
It’s a very odd feeling and as devasting as it is, it’s also liberating. To know you have let go of the tension that once drove you up a hill and on this occasion held you back on a mountain is quite simply a relief. I asked myself if the problem was purely that, I wasn’t riding but instead battling with myself.
I eventually got back on the bike. It would be an exaggeration if I said it was a second wind, far from it. It was just as difficult, my legs just as tired, my lungs struggling for air and skin still soaked through with salty sweat. But I knew I wasn’t going to get any worse and that one pedal stroke after the other was all that was required of me. Forty minutes later as I spluttered quietly over the line at the top of the mountain I celebrated by standing on the podium like I had won the bloody Tour de France. Just prior to that I sat quietly on my own reflecting on how I felt and it was a mixture of relief, disappointment, tiredness and calmness. The photos after all must reflect the moment I set out to achieve but the mountain can’t yet be etched with my name on it until I revisit. Next time I will do it in one go.