Lance Armstrong doping scandal is one of those events that cracks our narrow minds apart and sends a great wave of perspective flushing through our thoughts.
It may be coincidence, or it may be an impending sense of Armageddon tweaking at the guts of media producers with timely disease, but there seems to be a glut of excellent stuff out there at the moment for those inclined towards interrogating Big Questions about cycling and its validity.
I don't question the sport's raison d'être, and one man's deceitful actions is not going to tarnish the years of devotion and admiration I have for all those who practice it. For me cycling is a personal conquest and journey and is best done when you're lonely. It's just you and your bike, and one of the things I appreciate the most about this hike is that you turn out to be very good if you train hard enough dude!. The magic is called determination and hard work and I hope you will forgive a personal story about how I learned this a few years ago.
First let me say my favorite decade of cycling is the 80’s. I remember fondly the epic rides of the likes of Indurain, Hinault, Le Mond, Delgado, and Herrera cruising through the massive, brutal, lactic-enhancing mountains of the Pyrenees and the Alps. I remember like if it was yesterday the day Herrera won the stage of Alpe d'Huez at the 1984 Tour de France.
I was at school and teachers gathered all students in the main event hall to watch it live. Tiers were all around, arms hugging strangers, cheers from the unusual foe and unusual hurrays from the usual introvert. All holding hands with the pride only a compatriot winning the toughest cycling stage in the world could give. Then, believe it or not, I made a promise to myself: I would someday climb this extraordinary mountain. Seriously!
Now fast forward 26 years and there I was on my black and white Orbea, the one I have built just for this monumental occasion. A dark bull-like fiber-carbon bike that resembles the one Samuel Sanchez used to win gold at the Shanghai Olympics. I was doing La Marmotte, an annual, one-day summer event in France for amateur cyclists.
In short, it covers a distance of 174 km (108 mi) and the route is considered the hardest of any cyclosportive in the world and crosses over several famous Tour de France mountains like the Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and the final ascent is the colossal and monumental, the same one I had promised as kid that I would climb someday, the legendary Alpe d'Huez.
I had arrived two days before and stayed in a small delightful hotel in the valley of the Alps with gorgeous views of the mountains. Parked the car on the side of the rode next to the hotel, took the unassembled parts of my bike from the trunk and started putting them back together.
Meanwhile, one by one my club-mates started to arrive. I can see the Lawyer, the Banker and the Marketing guy together after driven for more than 10 hours from London. We all have one thing in common, and I guess it is a prerequisite for being a cyclist, we would do things that a normal person would find crazy. Yet we were not normal, we were passionate about a sport whose only rewards are pain, sometimes satisfaction, and extraordinary sites.
We were 10 in total. All with very diverse backgrounds and personalities. I roomed with a 40 year old stock broker and a Scot from Glasgow in his early 30s. The Broker had done the Marmotte successfully a few years before so I concluded that if this guy was able to finish it, I for sure had a chance to do as well. Knowing that I was 6 years younger than him gave me a most welcomed sense of tranquility. I was desperately trying to calm all my insecurities and clinch to any type of hope I could get.
The Scot looked very strong. You can always tell how powerful a cyclist is by the veins in his legs. The bigger and the more out-there and protuberant they are the stronger he is. If you combine that with slender arms and fluid pedal stroke you have found yourself a genuine phenomenon.
I woke up the next morning and I can’t remember how I ended up going for a ride with Christian and Richard. I’ve met them before in a club-ride and of the group they were the ones I knew best. Besides, I estimated both were at my same fitness level. Well, in truth I knew I was stronger than Christian, after all he weighted at least 10 kg more than me, and in cycling that is a huge disadvantage in the big mountains.
The history with Richard is a bit different. I've met him at my first club ride. He was a quiet 28 year old guy from Surrey. We were similar in many respects but back then my strength was at its lowest point. Needless to say, I was struggling to keep up with the group’s pace and by the middle of the ride I was dropped. I found myself riding back home alone and devastated.
However, after a few months of hard training on my own I met Richard again on a ride and I was much better. I managed to stay with him yet never left his back wheel. In cycling the person that is in front spends at least 30% more energy that the one that is sucking his wheel, and that was me that day, a total wheel sucker. It was encouraging but I knew I needed to work harder.
Now lets go back to that morning Richard, Christian and I set to climb the Alpe d’Huez. Just thinking about it now gives me goosebumps. I’ve grown up dreaming with this moment and was the biggest challenge of my life so far.
There are 21 hairpin curves in total and here I was climbing to the first one. I didn’t want to overcook myself on the first hairpin and not being able to finish. That would have been a disaster. How I was going to have the courage to climb the four most colossal passes of the Alps if I could not even finish the one that on paper looked the more manageable?
First hairpin done and I was feeling good. My club-mates still with me and we were chatting amiably. By the 9th I could see that Christian was falling behind and this is what I was expecting. Richard and I were still going strong. We were exchanging the lead so my confidence was growing. Whenever I felt my strength was abandon me I found myself another gear. I could tell now that all those sacrifices and hours of training had paid off. After all, just about a few months ago I was really struggling to keep up and look at me now leading Richard to the top of Alpe d'Huez!
We crossed the finish-line together with Christian a few kilometers behind. This was a great moment for me. Not only my legs had responded, but they were craving for more. I was not feeling tired. It was a tough climb but I had built so high expectations that I trained compulsively, voraciously, in a glassy trance from which I emerge only faintly aware of what I've just experienced, like a compulsive binger who stares around at the empty Pringle pots in surprise.
So I descended and did it again. Richard and Christian decided not to go with me. This second time I wanted to do it at my own pace as I would most probably do at the Marmotte. Men, honestly, it was a joy.
Two days later Saturday arrived. I woke up around 5 in the morning, or lets say I got out of the bed at this time. Like with every important event in my life, I was not able to sleep well. I stare blankly into space trying to remember every single think I needed to remember, and while I always try to blame it on inexperience, I know the real culprit is my propensity to gobble thoughts like Lindor truffles.
The Scot woke up too and started doing his daily routines. He had brought with him a rolling foam that he used to stretch. The Broker was also ready. We wish all good luck and went out for breakfast. Some of the guys were already at the table. We were all very quiet. Not much talking going on. Strange since last night at dinner we were all cheers and laughing, and now all of a sudden we looked as if we were about to have heart surgery.
After breakfast we all got on our bikes and went downhill from our hotel to the start of the race. It was at a small French town called Le Bourg-d'Oisans on the road from Grenoble to Briancon. A beautiful place that sits at the base of Alpe d'Huez and at which we had to return later on to start the climb to the finish line. This town breaths cycling all around.
I have packed the night before plenty of nibbles to keep me fed until the first feeding station. Food and water are crucial. You may have trained very hard but if you run out of them you are done. Your body burns lots of calories in this type of races (5000 to 9000 in total), so you have to keep replacing them. Think about it: one banana gives you 100 calories... that's a lot of bananas!
However, this added an undesirable extra weight and I was a bit concern about it. My back pockets were full, I had a jacket for the descents and two full bottles, one with water and the other with Gatorade. I thought that perhaps I was being too cautious. I have lost 8 kg in preparation for this race and now I was putting them all back carrying all this stuff. Nothing to do now I said, this comes with being an amateur.
There were more than 7000 cyclist around me. Yes, that many. All with a confident and presumptuous “I’m gonna kill you” intimidating look. I tried to focus and not worry much about them. I knew I had trained hard and I was in a very good physical condition but the giggles were there. I had done rides before, and felt very good at all of them, but this was a huge challenge for me. A totally different monster. “just do it man”, I said.
The race started and the good vibes I felt at Alpe d'Huez were still there. My legs were responding as I expected. The first climb was Col du Glandon. A very steep and long climb. I climb it cautiously. The peloton was packed and compact. I hardly passed anybody and focused on thoroughly evaluating how my legs felt. I wanted to find my rhythm, a cadence that would get me through this mountain in a good position but not too tired so that I would pay the price later on.
I did many tests with different speeds and different gears and after about 30 minutes into the climb I started to feel real good. The peloton had stretched and I found more space to maneuver. I began to admire the scenery and enjoy the great weather. I could not wish for a prettier summer morning. The mountain was covered by ravishing savage red flowers. In the distance I could see the Alps in all its splendor with magical snow cover tops and small lake surroundings. I looked at the front and back and saw a river of cyclists, all with different colors jerseys, mingling with the landscape. A mental picture I have never forgotten.
All of them have taken months of preparation for this moment and I thought about all the sacrifices they must had made. I thought of their families too. Something like this has to be a family goal. I thought of my wife and how thankful I was for her allowing me to take this year off to prepare properly. The fact that I was now climbing for more than one hour and was feeling great was due in part to her understanding and support. Thanks darling!
I was in cruising mode not making unnecessary efforts until the last kilometer to the top when I saw the Scot. He was about 200 meters ahead. I was surprised to see him and felt encourage to try to catch him. My confidence grew since I expected him to be far away by now. I figured that it would be great to team up with him in the descend and later on the only long flat section of the course that happened to be right after Glandon.
With every pedal stroke I felt stronger, not only because I knew I could maintain this pace comfortably but because I kept seeing the Scot closer and closer. Come on! About to reach the top of the Glandon I caught him and stuck my wheel to his and we made the descent together. I knew he was an expert (the day before he showed me a video of him descending the Galibier at 90km/hr) so I just needed to follow him.
When we reach the bottom we decided to collaborate and soon caught a small group to do the flat section. The plan here was to save as much energy as I could. I knew I could lead the group, I felt strong, but I was not going to burn any of my matches this early in the race. The Scot was confident and led the group a couple of times (be my guest). I thought I should try to stay with him as much as I could because certainly he was going to drop me when we arrive to the Telegraph. So that is what I did, I tagged to him like glue and mimic his cadence. If he changed gears I did the same. When he stepped on the pedals I followed.
When we started the ascent to the top of the Telegraph, we were climbing side by side. Then something incredible happened. He cracked! He said to me that we were going too fast and that if we continued this way we were going to pay the price later on. But the great thing is that I was going a the pace I would normally go while training on the hills back in London (who's your daddy?). 12km/hr was the magic number I have learned. I was sure that if I maintained this speed, and kept my heart-rate within normal limits, I was going to make it to the end fine.
For some reason I felt very good at the Telegraph. I was spinning the pedals with ease, going out of the saddle and then sitting back effortlessly. It was like this mountain was tailored-made for me (I'm gonna name my first kid Telegraph). I had no trouble maintaining the 12 km/h speed and I did most of the climb at 15. I could have gone even faster but I was cautious not to spend energy recklessly. Besides, others were falling behind and there was no reason to push harder.
Not only the Scot was far back by now but one after another I started passing tens of cyclists including the rest of my club-mates. First it was the Lawyer and then Richard, who was not having a good day. I asked him about Christian and he told me he had crashed and retired on the descend of the Glandon. I felt bad for him but did not stay long. I needed to go on now that my legs were responding and knew they may catch me back if I run out fuel. Richard try staying close to my wheel but soon he also cracked.
A few kilometers further, I caught my two remaining club-mates, Banker and Marketing guy which were riding together. I gave them a friendly smile and kept moving forward. Stood up on the pedals, looked back and saw they were still sitting and looking very far by now. Life is good I thought.
At this point I knew I was the leader of the team for the first time and couldn’t be happier. I felt invincible and was grateful for being able to do this. I really new then that hard work paid’s off. I did not do the Marmotte to beat my club-mates or to be a leader, that was not in the plan, but passing them reassured me why I was there: To prove myself I could do it.
I reached the top of the Telegraph and then after a short descent I started going up the Galibier. All stories have a climax and this is it: All the bliss and joy a felt going up the telegraph suddenly disappeared and turned into misery. Just as the Telegraph was my mountain, the Galibier was not my friend.
I can easily say I have not suffered as much in my life as in that excruciating hour that took me to get to the top. First, it is a horrible mountain. A dry, windy, flowerless desert looking monster. From start you can see the finish line, a big antenna on the top, and that is why psychologically it’s so painful. You wonder if the torture would ever end. You keep pedaling but the top doesn't seem to look closer. No matter how fast you try to go, you feel going backwards. Minutes go by, your legs burning in lactic acid, and that antenna looks further and further (please remind me not to go there again).
Also my magic number was all over the place. 12 km/h was impossible in this mountain. I climbed it at a never ending 8 km/h. My heart felt as if it was going to explode and my consolation was that everywhere I look I saw plenty of souls that seem to be having as tough time as I had. I know I was doing this for myself but there is nothing more discouraging than seeing everybody else passing around.
Steadily I was finally reaching the top of Galibier and feeling much better (venga Julian, vamos!!). Perhaps because I knew this was the last unknown mountain to climb. So I said: "great! No more surprises from now on. Only Alpe d'Huez to go, I know that one."
Until now everything was a big unknown to me. From the terrain to how my body was going to react. Until this moment I was saving as much energy as possible, perhaps too much, but it is understandable since my worst fear was running out of gas and being left alone to find my way back to the hotel. And it was a long walk.
I finally reached the top and when I looked around the sight reminded me of the North Pole (not that I've been there). Gusty winds, everything covered with snow and extremely cold. I took the jacket from my back pocket and put it on. Eat one power bar, sipped some water, took a deep breath and thanked god it was over.
Next I went downhill and needless to say, by law of gravity, if you climb a very steep mountain chances are the descent is going to be very fast, and it was. The kind where the worst thing you could to is to hit the brakes. At this speeds it would cause the bike to destabilize and most surely you will hit the ground, and believe me, the crash is not going to be pretty.
What you can do is called feathering and it's more an art than technique. You administer very minuscule touches to the brakes before each curve, and it's better if you do it with your back wheel brake so the handlebars don't get affected. Then at the curve you go flat out until the next one.
I was monitoring my speedometer for nothing more than sheer pleasure. I saw first 50 km/h and I thought wow! I was going very fast. It wasn’t my personal best but was close enough. The descent was long-winded and with many turns that were extremely challenging, but I barely touched the brakes. I looked again and I saw 60. Wow! That's a new record per mua.
The interesting thing is that you can’t really feel the difference after you have past 50. I saw again the speedometer and I read 75km/hr and that was when I started to get a bit worried. Not because I was scared of the speed but because plenty of things come to your mind at this stage. All your insecurities start piling up. You think that at this speed there is no way back. Even if you hit the brakes as hard as you can your are not going to stop. So that is when you really have to start praying for no cars or loose dogs, an inconvenient flat tire or even the thought of doing something stupid like reaching you water-bottle.
Fortunately nothing bad happened and I reached the bottom safely. I quickly glanced the speedometer trying to check what had been my maximum speed and then it hit me: 83km/hr! I cannot tell you when I reached that and for how long, but it was there. Chapeau!
A few kilometers in the flat and I was finally at the base of Alpe d'Huez. The reason I was here in the first place. I was about to climb for one last time this beautiful mountain. I was tired but I knew I had enough energy left in the tank to climb it. One by one I started reaching each of the hairpins just as I have done two days before, but this time it was different. It was very emotional, not only because of the sense of achievement and that by now I knew I was going to make it, but because hundreds of people gathered along the way to cheer all cyclists to the top. It was glorious!
Nowadays I think back at the hours of training it took me to be in that position. The thought of doing 100 km now looks distant but riding 500 km a week in preparation paid off. I think about the smile in my face crossing the finish-line. I finished the Marmotte with an extraordinary time by all standards: 8hr and 16sec, and was the first in my club. I was for a day very good and outstanding at something I felt passionate about. I was for once the best I could be. I was the man!
It was a day that I would cherish for the rest of my life. I saw the most beautiful landscapes, met wonderful people and understood what I was capable of doing. Most importantly, I learnt a lot about myself and realized how my body works (useful). I see now with different eyes the limits of the mind and know I can do almost anything with just some determination and hard work.
So if there’s one thing we need as winter fades away, as high school children get shot and disgraced heroes are stripped of their medals and the exhilaration of the summer olympics vanishes into bruised memory, it’s a reminder that magic can still be found in the world – even if that world is violent, unjust and unstable to its very core. The Marmotte is a good place to start.