As we got closer to the day of the ride and Team Fiasco were into their tapers, rumours about the parcours were confirmed - Col de la Ramaz was to be removed from the route, taking away 800m's of climbing and 22km's of ride distance. There was some disappointment in the group, a feeling that it might not be a challenge and not a ride beyond our comfort zone after some pretty hefty training. Well, many of us were going to be taught a painful lesson by an infamous mountain-pass and the conditions on the day. Some comments upon hearing the confirmed shorter route in the days before the ride; "I actually don't feel pleased", "Well it's not going to be much harder than what I did a few weeks ago - or what we did in Pyrenees", "Deflated", "Maybe we get an extra mountain in after the finish? "Shall we ride back to Megeve?"
But also some wise words - "Ride the road in front of you", those words would echo on the day, you can't predict how hard the ride will be by stats alone. Metres climbed and distance rode don't describe the full story.
Months of training behind us, bikes serviced and tweaked, many logistics planned and executed we got ourselves down to Megeve, the base for 3 days and the start town of the Etape du Tour 2016. The quality of our digs was excellent, the perfect place to make the final preparations for the ride. The club chairman and club secretary really ‘took one for the team’, and dedicated most of the day before the ride to getting our transport in place, all so we could get home after the ride, the whole team was very appreciative. The team showed solidarity with Duncan and Richard by lunching well, discussing the merits of a white wine spritzer in the sun, whilst ‘regarding’ the guests of a wedding in the town. Great preparation for the big day, all topped off by the best Sausage Ragu anyone has tasted this side of Naples.
The big day began with a fairly relaxed start, many Fiasco members experiencing an unexpected and rare fillip from climbing out of bed with a clear head due to the lack of wine taken the night before. The 15,000 starting riders were divided into pens of 1,000, with Team Fiasco eventually spread among various pens between 9,000 and 15,000. The organisation of the start was something the A.S.O (organisers of the Etape and the Tour de France itself) actually got right. A short wait and the 1,000 rider strong waves were off, on time, and to the sound of AC/DC and the soon to be very apt song - Highway to Hell.
The start of the ride was fairly quick, straight and slightly downhill, time for riders to fiddle with their Garmins, get used to any new rattles on their bikes, feel the relief of finally riding and to remember not to ride into a central reservation or roundabout. The main issue at the start is to keep out of trouble and navigate the difference in standard and experience of the riders in the peleton. The start of the ride brings together a contrast in riding levels as faster riders eagerly pass slower ones. A quick picturesque climb and tight hair pinned descent took us onto the Col des Aravis but not before i'd had to catch a bidon falling from its disintegrated cage due to the previous days over eager adjustments - 'have torque wrench will tighten', as the saying goes.
This first climb was lovely 6.7 km with a 7% gradient, still early morning but a sunny one with plenty of locals out to offer support. A small Fiasco peleton had formed on the climb and enjoyed a great descent with long, sweeping bends with plenty of visibility to get your lines right.
The descent goes through the town of La Clusaz where the first feed station was located, the road then continues down to Le Grand Bornand for the next climb - Col de la Colombiere.
This second climb was a longer but more gentle at 11.7 km at 5.8%, more support from the local population and families of riders, the mood of the peleton was very much one of joyful enthusiasm. By this time - morning had very much broken, the sun was making its presence felt and there was a sense of its intention for the afternoon ahead. By this stage the peleton was thinning out like most of our hair and we were now riding 2 or 3 abreast. The last few km of Colombiere takes you over mountain meadows crossed by streams, past cliffs above and gives you amazing views back down the valley – definitely one of the highlights of the route. There was some great support including a noticeably 'Yorkshire' lady telling us to 'Go ferrit lads' and ringing a large cowbell, she might have been Mr Boycott's sister but I didn't see a stick of rhubarb.
Over the summit of Col de la Columbiere and on to the descent which we knew to be fast and potentially dangerous, unprotected drops into the valley on one side and rock faces on the other. The way down was littered with broken bits of bike (maybe) and rider (hopefully not), the results of crashes and punctures, police in the road demanding riders slow down and protecting fallen riders and medics from the on-coming swarms of cyclists. Most riders taking care, some fast, some slow and some that were less cautious. One guy riding near me descending with one brake as he read his phone messages with the other hand, not slowly and on the wrong side of the road. This was a hairy descent for sure.
At the bottom of the descent in the town of Scionzier was a large and well needed feed station, time to refuel before of the flat section ahead of us for the next 40km or so. The flat section brought together trains of riders eager to shelter from the wind and conserve energy ahead of the looming prospect of Joux Plane. It was easy to get carried away on this section with the thrill of bunch riding, flying along the route without the effort of the ‘ups’ and the laser focus that is required on the ‘downs’. It was now midday and the sun was taking its toll, any breeze was appreciated. We rolled into Samoens at the base of Joux Plane at the hottest time of the day, a quick fill of bidons for most, a visit to the portaloo-based-sauna for some, out of the village and onto the climb. All reports of Joux Plane describe a tough climb, a tougher climb that its stats would indicate – 11.6km at 8.5%. Lance Armstrong describing his experience as his ‘worst day on a bike’, we were about to find out why. The climb starts immediately out of the village, straight into a 9% ramp, the sun was at its peak, my Garmin now reading 95 degrees, and no wind due to the shelter of the mountain side. At this stage I think much of the peleton took stock of the predicament and realised, with dread, that we were in for a long and painful afternoon. How long could our vital resources last in this precipitous furnace? How much water do I have? Why is my heart rate higher than normal? Do I have a lower gear? What will it feel like if I stop, If I do will I seize up? A lot of experienced cyclists were suddenly pushed outside of their comfort zones and had to dig-deep to get up that hill. I know we all asked ourselves at that moment, can I really do this? The first third of the climb saw most people still riding their bikes, just very slowly, by the middle third of the climb half of the peleton were probably walking or standing in any shade that could be found – all were struggling, those that weren’t, were by the next corner! By this stage any show of kindness had a hugely uplifting impact, families cheering us on, a girl playing the accordion, the touch of a stranger on the shoulder of a rider displaying the word ‘solidarity’ on his jersey, words of encouragement from other riders in the peleton ‘keep going mate, you can do it’, tears weren’t far away when this kindness was shown in the face of the brutal and unrelenting mountain road. New skills were learnt – how slowly can you ride a bike up a hill and stay upright? How quickly will a heart rate go down if I just stand under a tree? Some of the Fiasco peleton sought marginal gains by shedding weight as they climbed, the pros get rid of heavy bottles, Fiasco vomit on mountain sides. The slope didn’t relent, in fact it got more spiteful in places, there were no official drinks stops half way up, just a entrepreneurial bunch with no water, only beer! Riders inched up the last few kilometres, counting the pedal strokes and dodging those walking or swaying across the road. Finally the summit came into view and we pushed on to the top and a drinks stop furnished with views of Mont Blanc and an inviting lake.
Onto the descent which was cruelly disrupted by one short ramp “You’re nearly there”, “One more corner” was the call from the cheering families, we needed to know, we needed them to be right. The rest of the descent into Morzine was a joy, hairpin bends through alpine meadows, past barns and pine trees into town. Some more worrying crash scenes sent shivers and reminded us how lucky we were to finish the day perhaps a little bent and twisted, but not broken. Crossing the line, we’d done it! Some together, some at their own pace, but we made it! Eventually we’d find out we were all there, an 8 out of 8 for Team Fiasco. We also found friends of Fiasco who’d made it too, Giles and Katie and The Colonel and May who had also successfully finished the route, only to be thwarted by the man giving away free cycling caps having gone home for his supper. An emotional and draining day for all, mission accomplished. Would we be back? Maybe, just maybe.
Special thanks should be given to the wonderful nation of France for having us, mother nature for creating such stunning mountains, The Chairman for pulling us all together - ably assisted by the Secretary, and no one will forget Oli's Sausage Ragu. Roll on Fiasco.