Machismo Dissolves: Take a novice, a clapped out rented bike, horrific weather and a few of the toughest Alpine cols and this is what happens !!!
I’ve often watched sporting disasters unfold from a safe spot somewhere behind my microphone but never really thought I’d be in the middle of one myself. It all began with such serenity before the rapid descent into hell. This after all was a summer holiday to the South of France. Two weeks in a converted farmhouse high in the hills above idyllic Lake Annecy. The plan was simple. My delightful girlfriend would relax while I combined the pleasures of the lakeside setting and sunshine with a few cycles around the area. Perhaps I should point out that my idea of a “few cycles” was actually a little more extreme than the occasional jaunt around the lake shore. Unfortunately sports commentators are usually frustrated misfits. Talking and writing about sport is just a cover story. In reality most of us desire to be the people we commentate on … and deep down we think we are ! It’s pathetic and psychotic but is sadly the truth and can lead to irrational and obsessional behaviour. You see I thought I could be Lance Armstrong. I ended up more like Lance Percival ! A “friend” had told me that there were nine Alpine ascents around Lake Annecy that had been used on the Tour De France. Ah hah !!!! A goal for the crazy, seriously under trained 47 year old non-cyclist.
Little did my exquisite companion know that the trip – in my mind – now had nothing to do with relaxation. If I had managed to secure a sponsor it would have been “Broadmoor”. First thing to do was rent a bike. Found a shop. They hired out dodgy looking “velos” designed for sedate pedals on the Lake promenade not manic ascents of some of the Tour’s toughest Cols like Du Forclaz, Croix-Fry, Le Chatillons, Cormet De Roselend, Col Des Saisses and the Col De La Colombiere ! All of them rising from the waters edge to heights close to 2000 metres. The first outing for my rusty hybrid mountain bike was a beastly crawl up the ominous looking Col Du Forclaz which spiralled into the cobalt blue sky from the stunning village of Talloire… and off I went in a sizzling forty degrees wearing a pair of old shorts, natty white socks and enough water to sink the Titanic. The first disaster occurred about half way up. It had been going so well ….I had ignored the strange squeaking noises from the bike … a sort of grated screeching which sounded very much like a cage of over excited budgies. Then, without warning, the entire gearing system “sur ma bicyclette” literally exploded. The connecting bolt for the back wheel sheared from its mounting. It went spinning down the hill and I plummeted into a shallow ditch. It was time for “dazed and confused” to make a mercy call on the mobile. My glamorous companion, who from this point on will be known as “The Support Crew”, was handily placed 10 miles away sun-bathing beside the Lake. I mean if she REALLY loved me she would have been driving three yards behind me with spare bikes on the roof ! … Resting … on holiday. What had got into her ? The Support Crew soon arrived and we jumbled the broken bits into the hire car. It was back to the bike shop and I offered a monologue entitled “Votre Velo Est Le Sac De Merd ! ” I was given an upgrade. S.C. (Support Crew) dropped the maniac back at the point where he had fallen off ! See I told you … obsessional psycho !
Bicycle number two was a magnificent specimen compared to bike one – this time there was no basket on the front and considerably less rust. The only “problems” were that only two of the three cogs worked, which meant getting off the bike everytime I needed the small cog (which was a lot !!!) and flicking it over by hand…. and ahead lay a climb that was steeper than the North Face of Dolly Parton ! Despite these setbacks the sweaty, pale and exhausted Ulsterman “summitted” in the hot haze of mid afternoon. Thighs like jelly but Col number one conquered. Rucksack off – jacket on – for fast cooling descent. Got back to the Lake and realised with horror that I had left the bloody rucksack at the top of the Mountain. And what was inside it ? Just my passport, driving licence, mobile phone and credit cards. S.C. abandoned the beach towel yet again. Lewis Hamilton wouldn’t have stood a chance. I drove up the hill slabbering like a madman … insane at my own stupidity. While I panted and swore on the road side S.C. calmly retrieved the missing items from a nearby gift shop. “Where else would a passer by have left it darling?” she breathed laconically. The drama of day one was merely a gentle introduction.
The next challenge was the Leschaux and Les Chatillons climbs on the West side of the Lake. The sunshine had gone to be replaced by ominous rumblings and charcoal skies. The nutter would not be deterred. S.C was beginning to feel that she had been trapped in a re-make of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Ahead lay 25km’s of hard climbing .. up and up .. followed by up. By half way the rumblings had been replaced by roars of thunder and frightening snaps of lightning that flashed across the road in front of me. I was actually IN the storm.
The rain bounced off the tarmac like conkers dropping from a chestnut tree making the same delightful splatting noise a frog does when you hit it with a spade. And then the visibility went and the wind got up. Now, close to the ridge, I was enveloped in a morass of crashing, flashing and splashing. There wasn’t a sinner on the mountain. I could hear cow bells in the distance and then … an engine. A 1930’s Bentley drove serenely past, followed by what looked like a Morris Minor ! Had the electrically charged air bounced me through a time tunnel ? Or was I seeing things through sheer cold, misery and exhaustion. (Turned out, of course, to be a Classic Car Rally)
I passed a Cheese Factory. Hypothermic hallucinations I thought. My testicles had long since migrated North to nestle in a warm place behind my tonsils. At last the top. Relief and then the realisation that the descent would be in driving rain and thick fog. It was like cycling in a car wash. Blind and travelling fast to try and get home in time to beat the onset of frostbite I tumbled into a tight right hander …. when the rear brake cable snapped ! The force of the collision with the hairpin armco sent me into oblivion and I landed close to a gently masticating cow, her bell tinkling in the hurricane.
I arrived back at team HQ … a coffee bar in Seyvrier. I had covered 70 miles in about five hours and negotiated two of the Tour’s classic climbs. S.C. had negotiated a shopping centre, several Latte’s and half of her book. She looked at me askew as I squelched towards her. “Your lips are blue, darling” . I actually couldn’t speak through the numbness. My girlfriend – who had slipped into the ‘long suffering’ bracket had kindly packed some dry clothes but there was a man in the toilet. I was desperate to change so stripped naked beside the pool table. There is only one thing worse than a madman … and that is a madman who is beyond the point of caring ! My French is average and I wasn’t quite sure what the Manager was shouting. It was either “You have an amazing physique – you could have been a contender” or “I am going to call the police you Irish lunatic”. I returned to the bike shop. Again utilising my rough grasp of the language I managed to concoct the insult… “Je voudraix a pousser l’ampoule dans votre derriere” or in English “I am going to insert a lightbulb in your bottom” The man gave me a discount. I had now dismantled two bikes and several sections of my anatomy. We decided that I should have a rest day – just like they do on the Tour. For me that meant Mountain Biking in La Clusaz. There was a 3 km Olympic descent that I couldn’t resist. It was steep. My forearms flushed with blood as I squeezed the brakes hard on rental bike number three. I was about to learn two things. One: Never rent a bike from a Frenchman and Two: Never rent a bike from a Frenchman. The rear brake locking pin snapped in half and there was only one place to go. Lance somersaulted over the handlebars, bounced through yet another ditch, and landed, covered in mud, close to another bemused cow… who had clearly seen it all before. The fall resulted in a hairline fracture of the elbow .. for me, not the cow. Now for the Croix-Fry – the most brutal climb of the nine. Two and a half hours in the saddle to get into it and then a 13km ascent that felt vertical. It was hot and humid once again. Whatever the death zone is I was in it. Sir Ranulph Fiennes would never have made it. My body craved illegal substances. I was fairly certain that there would be no drug testing at the finish for tourists. If someone had tossed me a bag of amphetamines I would have eaten them like jelly beans. By now I was on bike number four and had gone seriously upmarket. A real racing bike from the famous Claude Pierre of Talloire. Cycle renter to the stars ! Or so he said. The Croix-Fry eventually surrendered but yours truly was seriously knackered. The next day .. without much thought for my perilous state after four and a half hours in the saddle 24 hours earlier… S.C. decided she wanted a cycle now too. So off we set on the flat 45km route around the perimeter of Lake Annecy. I was expected to carry her “essentials” and suddenly I was a pack animal – feeling more Sherpa than cyclist. I think she thought we were touring the Andes not Annecy. And lipstick ? What has that to do with survival ? Ray Mears never carried lipstick ? Shortly after the start from Talloire I pointed to the cycle path which starts just outside the village. While I detoured gently towards it S.C. made a sudden maniacal lunge, mounted the pavement, and hit a tree. Valiantly she continued only to become hypo-glycemic later on in the ride. S.C. had forgotten to bring any dried fruit or sustenance. She had “hit the wall”. I was tempted to force feed her the lipstick on the assumption that it probably had some sugar content. We made it to the final day of our “holiday” and I had one climb to do. The legendary Col De La Colombiere. The weather was by now the lead story on the French National news with vast tranches of the Southern part of the country flooded. Annecy had not escaped but the Colombiere simply had to be done to complete the “Big Nine”. Snow was forecast above 2500 metres. The conditions – again – were abominable. I think the Support Crew wanted to take me to the vet and have me injected in the humane way that animal lovers prefer. Instead we set off for the starting point in Thones .. the rain slamming off the windscreen.
We stopped at a “Tabac” as I needed something to hold the plastic bags securely round my training shoes .. the only way I could think of to keep my feet dry. I asked the shop assistant for rubber bands and she helpfully pointed at the condom machine on the wall. It crossed my mind, that, at a stretch, I could have pulled one over each foot. We found some plant wire … the plastic bags went on. To placate S.C. I handed her some cash and off she went to the chic ski resort of La Clusaz to find next seasons “must have” mix of Cashmere and Gortex. I cranked slowly up the Colombiere. As the summit approached the heavy rain turned to sleet and it was snowing above me on the Grand Bornand Ridge. The middle of August for God’s sake. The names of famous Tour De France cyclists were painted on the road. “Allez Virenque” etc. The French have always begrudged Lance Armstrong’s achievements – an American winning THEIR race… and seven times ! One quaint tarmac slogan read “Armstrong You Will Die in One Kilometre”. Pleasant reading for Lance to cycle over. Not a concern “pour moi”. Natural causes were sure to get me before some deranged French sniper ! I managed to swerve around heart failure and made it to the top.
Goal achieved but at a cost. The Support Crew is threatening to resign and the physiotherapy bills are already into three figures … oh and there was also the strange case of the cereal bowls ! They were in our farmhouse. We had our Muesli out of them each morning and they were artistically inscribed with “Jennifer” and “Sarah”.
On the day of departure the owner told us they were the names of the Farmhouse cats – I now have fur balls ! “Mon Dieu”