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Day 3: storming from Bolzano to Cortina d’Ampezzo

June 28, 2015

F&ck me I was wet. Stinking, dripping, unable to even take pictures on a phone or call for help wet.

Rivers of nastiness flowing from my shoes wet. Sod this for a game of soldiers wet.

Yet many others were wetter still. Because I was in the bloody car.

What started as the Queen Stage (apart from for me – resting the knackered ankle) turned into the Wicked Queen Stage when a storm brewed over the Passo Falzarego in the late afternoon and dumped a lot of water on us. I was late up the climb (ankle, natch) and fearing a thunderstrike and trenchfoot turned back down a few kilometres for a hot choccie at a hotel. Others, heroes, soldiered on to the end abut 20k away. Others got in the car and the van. It was that kind of day. And that’s why this is a day late.

It started well enough, with a sharp unnamed climb from the valley near Bolzano then the meandering of the Costalunga (which didn’t cost-a-lung-a for anyone, though it was hot).

A beautiful part of the beautiful Dolomites, having left the Alps behind. At least some car time gave me a chance to take some pics on the Costalunga.

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It’s a beautiful climb, with jagged peaks all around and the bluest lake I’ve ever ever seen (though the iPhone 6 might turn it green, sorry).

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Lunch in the requisite sh&tty supermarket car park then on to the Passo Pordoi, another legendary Giro climb. A tough ascent after lunch but just reward with stunning views and a real sense of history with the Coppi monument at the summit (Fausto, who fittted your crank arms though mate? Shoddy).

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No more pics from this point on. Too wet. Too miserable. And that was in the car.

Cortina d’Ampezzo is a lovely place to stay and clearly well-heeled. The Hotel Europa was fitting venue for a slap-up feed and you’d never believe where the staff asked us to store the bikes.

 

 

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Day two: Bormio to Bolzano

June 26, 2015

So what did we get up to? We got up to breakfast, then got straight up to the southern ascent of the Passo dello Stelvio.

Often the Cima Coppi or highest point of the Giro d’Italia, when it’s even passable given it tends to snow up there even in mid-May, the Stelvio is awesome. Yes I know young people use the word awesome all the time these days without even thinking about what it means, but the Stelvio truly does inspire sensations of awe. 2756m above sea level, a 22.5k climb up the side we did, something like 100 vintage cars, 500 flash git modern cars and countless cyclists make their way up it every day. When it’s not blocked by snow of course.

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Though I was too tired to stop and take pictures, one lunatic was even doing a bit of it on a unicycle. Thankfully uphill.

Ed was first up, courtesy of all the training he’s not being doing. I made it up on a broken ankle, not that I should mention that.

The top of the Stelvio is an odd experience. After so much wilderness, you come across a hotel, bars and restaurants and shops. It’s basically a small village complete with trashy Europop blasting out of suspect speakers.

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Pic: Howie, taking pic

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Pic: tired cyclists guzzle and show off manliness.

So it was time to go down. Down about 28k, with 48 of the famous Trafoi hairpin bends along the way and many other unofficial ones. It was the very reason I’d decided to come on this trip despite snapping a bone and getting a hobbit foot a few weeks ago, and have avoided medics since: there are some things you have to do once in your life on a bike, and you’re a long time dead. For me, it was worth the pain. We went down in blazing sunshine, with largely smooth tarmac, down the side of a hairpin-laddered mountain, through forests, villages and alongside roaring mountain rivers, while peaks soared all around. Awesome.

Having seen so much of the world’s natural beauty and thrilled our every sense, we then had lunch next to the disabled parking bays in a nondescript supermarket car park about 20k down the valley. Tradition is everything.

Then a long but very warm (90 degrees farenheit mostly) and pleasant drag into Bolzano, to partake of a hearty meal and a few cold beers.

A beautiful day though, naturally, there were some minor indiscretions. And with a larger group, more ways to mark them. Safety sash to Ian ‘Steve’ Chalk for road and orchard misdemeanours. A duck, that squeaks, to JL for errant table manners. The pink horn of shame to Deptford for alleged rear brake riding up the Stelvio. And both the bell and the zebolon to Ben, for not carrying the latter up the hill.

Typo update: still in a neck brace in hospital, still awaiting action from his insurer, still maintaining his sense of humour. Get well soon, we need you back to keep order and ensure promptness.

Tomorrow: Bolzano to Cortina, via four minor lumps.

The Gavi-aargh and a tumbling Typo

June 25, 2015

So that’s day one done.

And unfortunately, it may be Typo done for the trip too.

We started from Lake Iseo, a beautiful warm-up around the edge of the water with only a puncture 10-minutes in to slow us down.

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A quick (er, ish) coffee stop and then on for another 50k or so to Ponte di Legno for lunch, trending uphill and in many places definitely uphill, for prolonged stretches. In fact verging on 2,000m uphill by lunch. So not so much trending uphill, as bloody uphill.

Ponte di Legno is infamous as the setting-off point for the sharper and meaner ascent of the Passo Gavia. And so it proved. A relentless 7 to 8 per cent average gradient from the off but 10 per cent or more in places until it reaches a forest, and then heaps joy upon cyclists with long ramps of 14% average. So basically, with less than half the climb done, half of us were practically done.

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The views were stunning though. Not that we stopped (*cough*) too much for photos, like this of Cadel (Cad-Ill) Evans here.

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The last 4 or 5km of the Gavia’s south side were brutal. Shoddy road surface, ever-steep, no let-up, long tunnel at about 10% with gravel 3k from the summit, it just went on forever. Finally got to the summit, which particularly pleased me given I’m riding with a broken ankle at the moment.

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No time for pleasantries though as it was cold, so a beautiful 28km descent into Bormio.

Until it happened. Seeing a wiry old Italian cyclist slowing rapidly in front of him, Typo slammed on the anchors, but it was to late. Skidded, hit a bollard, over the bars, smashed face, bloodied nose, bad neck and shoulder. As I type this, Typo is in hospital with a broken vertebrae in his neck and is no doubt sharing his thoughts with any medical staff who will listen, including Italian nurses.

A sad end to a great if gruelling day, but he was very lucky given the speed and the impact.

Looking forward to welcoming him back to the comforts of the very bike-friendly Hotel Funivia, though it may be tomorrow morning now.

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For the rest of us, a big sleep. Stelvio straight after breakfast tomorrow.

 

Double trouble: the 2015 preview

June 24, 2015

We’re off. Again.

To big hills. Again.

With adventures ahead. Again.

But this year’s LVG has a big new twist. Newbies. It’s the first joint expedition of Les Veloistes Gentils and Blackheath Velo.

So it’ll be a bit like one of those stags dos where groups who don’t really know each other meet, suss each other out and then quickly get down to the finer points of having fun. Without the binge drinking, and with an enormous amount of strenuous exercise.

What’s ahead? Banter of course, but a lot of cycling too. Having looked at the map we seem to have spurned the Roman tradition of shortest straightest line between two points, which would have made Iseo to Venice a flat trot across the valley floor, and instead decided to ride up the biggest hills feasible in a wide arc from west to east.

The Gavia:

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The Stelvio

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The Giau

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Day 1 (tomorrow): Lake Iseo to Bormio. Steadily trending uphill all day until we go up the Passio Gavia, which is a big beast with a rough, narrow road. No snowballs at the top this time though you jokers.  Staying at a brilliant hotel that love cyclists and has a pool.

Day 2: Bormio to Bolzano. The Stelvio for breakfast, down from the Stelvio and downhill most of the afternoon apart from a bump towards the end.

Day 3: Bolzano to Cortina. Not a rusty old Ford with chrome bumpers but the ski resort favoured by Russians. Should be easy after the first two days. And it would be, were the tricksome Frazione Collepietra (well done Jon on unearthing that one) and the Costalunga, Pordoi and Falzarego passes not in the way.

Day 4: Cortina to Feltre. A stage for the sprinters? No, more big hills. The ‘easy’ side of the Giau, then the Staulanza and the Duran. By the end of that, these Wild Boys will be Hungry Like The Wolf. Ah well, New Moon on Monday.

Day 5: Feltre to Venice. And so to Monday. The small matter of the San Baldo pass and then otherwise pretty flat into our watery berth for a celebration dinner.

Big thanks Howie and Vaidas for making it through the blockade that is Calais at the moment, and the long journey south by road while the rest of us get to fly.

We’ll try to post updates as we go.

Arrivederci miei amici. Tutto frutto.

Ventoux Three: attempting to join the Club des Cinglés

July 14, 2014

I never thought that cycling up Mont Ventoux three times in a day was going to be easy. After all, I’ve done it once before and that was difficult enough. But I’m not sure I really had any idea about how tough it would actually be. In fact, I know I hadn’t. I’d have probably not bothered trying.

This could be a very long post, because it was a very long day. I’ll try and keep it short(ish), but will fail.

In summary, the mighty Mont Ventoux in Provence – the giant mountain that has featured Tour de France battles aplenty and taken the life of British pro cyclist Tom Simpson – has three paved roads all the way up to its summit at 1,912m high. Ride them all in one day and you get to join the Club des Cinglés. It’s a ride that in total measures 136km along but, significantly, includes 4,443m of vertical ascent. Throw in the unpredictability of Mont Ventoux’s weather and it’s a recipe for, well, a decent story at least.

I was joined by five good men of Les Veloistes Gentils: Matt, Mark, Beev, Typo and Jon. We were riding in the memory of good friends and fellow LVGs, Tim and Nuts. You can find that back-story here on my Just Giving page.

So, here we go. We started in Bedoin, and we started early. Bedoin, because that route up is known as the most difficult and we fancied getting it out of the way first, and early, because (a) it’s the middle of July and not unlikely to be roasting hot by mid-morning and (b) we thought we might need every hour of daylight available! So, at a shade after 6.00am we got our cards stamped at the machine outside Office de Tourisme and set off on what was a beautiful morning, though with the summit of Ventoux slightly worryingly obscured by a big dollop of cloud.

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The route to the summit from Bedoin is the one a few of us had done before and which is probably the best-known, being the traditional route used by the Tour de France. Essentially, it’s a gentle roll out of Bedoin for about 6km before a sharp turn into the forest where the road kicks up sharply for a very tough 8km until the large sweeping turn at Chalet Reynard and the final famous moonscape of Ventoux’s upper slopes for the final 6km run to the summit.

I’ve made that sound easier than it is. Basically it’s 21km uphill and some of it is very steep. But knowing that the climb was the first of three that day meant that we all tried to keep well within our limits (not that it felt it, to be honest) and it was relatively straightforward. ‘Relatively’ because about 3km from the summit the cloud closed in and it got pretty damn cold. And the last kilometre feels long and very steep when you can’t see the top.

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Still, we all got there. Being just after 8.00am the shop wasn’t open and there was nobody around (in fact we’d had the mountain to ourselves) so none of us was hanging around and we dropped over the other side for the glorious (but again, pretty cold) descent into Malaucène to get our cards stamped and to down much-needed hot chocolates (weird for mid-July in Provence to be honest).

Now, I’ve ridden up quite a few mountains in my time and loved almost every descent that’s been the reward. And I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy the run down to Malaucène, because I did. It’s just that, well, bombing downhill for 20km knowing that you’re almost immediately going to have to turn around and cycle back up them isn’t quite the same thing…

But that’s what we did. And it was very, very hard. There are 3km in the middle of the climb back to the summit which nearly did for me. I had to have a serious word with myself. There the ones that are 11, 10 and nine kilometres from the summit. And, respectively, they’re 12%, 11% and 11%. That’s tough going. So tough, in fact, that when I saw that the marker for 9km to the summit and that its average gradient was only (only!) 8%, I very nearly cried with joy. I’m not joking.

The cloud still obscured the summit of Ventoux, but ascent number two was in the bag not too long afterwards (just after noon if you’re keeping tabs). The shop was open this time and I had a Coke and a Snickers, which were very nearly the best things I have ever eaten.

We bombed down to Chalet Reynard and took the fork towards Sault, which is a fantastic road. In comparison to the route from Chalet Reynard to Bedoin, the Sault road is shallower and more sweeping. It’s also got a brand new super-smooth surface. You fly through the forest and come out to ride across the valley floor through lavender fields (where you might, as I did, have a head-on collision with a bee which then stings you on the bridge of your nose) and up a little 1km 5% kicker to Sault. But no matter…you’re 2/3 of the way there and lunch beckons!

I’ve had rides before where I’ve reached lunch absolutely famished and made the huge error of stuffing myself so full that the afternoon’s riding has felt dreadful. Determined not to make the same mistake on this trip, I only polished off half the very welcome spag bol and half the equally welcome doughnut Beev bought us all. Cards stamped we found someone to take this happy picture and we were off yet again.

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L-to-R: Matt, Jon, Beev, Pinny (that’s me), Typo and Mark

The ascent to the summit from Sault is regarded as the easiest (if that’s the right word). You start at a higher altitude so with it being long at 25km, the average gradient is less. And with the top 6km being the same steep ones that you cover on the run from Bedoin, the first 19km or so from Sault are, in relative terms, pretty pleasant. In fact with a tailwind and the lovely surface, we covered the last few into Chalet Reynard at an average of 30 km/h. Nice.

We gathered and decided to stay together for the final run up to the summit. We also decided that we’d stop at the memorial to Tom Simpson for a moment’s reflection and to pay our respects to Tim and Nuts, which we did by leaving one of the original LVG caps which Tim had designed.

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After that it was just the long last kilometre up to the (still cloudy top). Quick photos and hugs and then a very fast descent all the way into Bedoin for the final stamp. It’s amazing the turn of speed the promise of a pint can give you, even with three trips up Ventoux in the legs.

As it happens and just for the record, in the sprint for the Bedoin sign I pipped Jon. So, effectively, I won.

So, that was that. We got back to Bedoin more than 11 hours after we left, and had been in the saddle for nearly nine hours of that. Which is why my bum was sore.

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I won’t be hurrying back to Mont Ventoux. But I do love the place.

Day 5: Bourg St Maurice to Annecy

June 14, 2014

It was one of those days on a bike when nothing else seems to matter. When the surroundings, the weather, the route and – yes – even the company cannot be bettered.

The kind of bike ride you sometimes had as a kid in enjoyment terms, only so much better amidst the majestic Alps.

We felt alive, even if our bodies were sore and legs wearing weary.

A day to cherish, and that the #LVG is all about.

It went like this. Straight off the bat, climbing 19km up the Cormet de Roselend. That might sound tough and it stretched the legs, but what a climb. An average of 6% but it soon slipped below that as we wound up through woodland past old watermills.

It then perked up with 8 and 9% hairpin stretches as snowy Alpine peaks came into view again. There was little let-up and my burning legs were feeling it.

And then as if my magic, the next kilometre marker showed 1%. Soon we were freewheeling through a stunning lush valley, hidden on both sides by rocky outcrops. A welcome breather.

It went from the sublime to the ridiculous though. We heard the bells first, then came around a corner to be greeted by hundreds of stinking backsides. Not the lycra kind, but a huge herd of Alpine horned cattle being moved to new pasture. Too many to squeeze past, so we sat behind them at about 0.5kmh for a good kilometre.

Cows behind us, it was back to 7 and 8% for the final 6 or 7km, flattening a little towards the top. All the while there were waterfalls everywhere, meadows, snowy mountain tops and Mont Blanc looming beyond. Not the hardest climb by some stretch, but all the points for beauty and variety.

We descended to the pretty town of Beaufort, as in the cheese. Coffee stop, JL consuming his body weighting cream cakes.

And then on the further descent to Albertville, near-disaster. One of the scariest moments I’ve had on a bike in a long time. Steady descent through trees, and it was hot. The road felt like it was melting in places but it was an oil trail down the middle. Going into a corner, my front wheel hit it and lost traction. No time or point in braking, I was going down or off the road. As down most likely meant taking everyone behind me with them, I just let it run across the other side of the road, in front of an oncoming car. It missed by 10m or so and I went up a bank without a scratch. You should see me do the same thing one-handed.

From there we made our way via a long and shady cycle path for about 40km to Annecy, with a lunch stop. When the lake finally came into view, more superlatives. A turquoise green and inviting for a quick swim, but we had the finish line ahead of us so pressed on.

And then it was all over for another year. Eight riders set out, seven returned, one is wished a speedy recovery ahead of the Mt Ventoux trip next month.

Five days, some 645km, many laughs and some industrial bottom-numbing cream later, it’s back to reality.

Thanks one and all, but especially Matt, Jon and Howie, for making it what it was.

Bell to the safekeeping of Lee, by the way.

 

Day 4: St Michele de Mauriene to Bourg St Maurice

June 14, 2014
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Stage four was all about the Col de la Madeleine.

After upping sticks we had a run-out of about 45 minutes until we started up the north side of the Madeleine. It averages 8% and is 20km long, so no-one thought it woud be easy but the stifling heat made it worse. The 10% stretches soon came, without much shade. Quick lemonade and then up the second half, just as steep as the first.

The views were stunning again, high meadows after the ski resort and the big peaks all around. Those last few kilometres were a long time coming, but eventually they did as I ground my way up, the sun still beating down even at nearly 2,000m.

What it says it is

What it says it is

The descent was equally beautiful, clinging in part to a mountainside overlooking a valley before winding around the other side. The afternoon was then a long, dusty and gradual ascent to the ski area of Bourg St Maurice.

Some mishaps on the road, including JL’s Oakleys being crushed by a truck and my chain hopping off whenever it felt like a rest.

Dinner at an old auberge was the stuff of LVG legend – enormous, with extra chips, terrine and ice cream.

Four down, one to go.