TransAlp Day 4: Valloire – Guillestre

Report by John Myburgh and Neil Wood

Day 3 finished with a climb up Col Du Telegraph and being a rather heavy rider I felt it in my legs on the morning of Day 4.

The day’s big climbs were going to be Col du Galibier, Col du Granon and Col du I’lzoard. Galibier most people know but I’ve never heard of Granon nor I’lzoard that said, I tend to block out the technicalities of climbs including names. All I know and all that matters is that I need to get over them regardless of the length and gradient.

I started the day with our Team Manager Neil Wood and the Balshaw “twins” (Graham and Gareth), a formidable father and son duo. We set off from our hotel in cool conditions but no sooner had we turned left at the bottom of the street and we gradually started climbing, and sweating. As we made our way up the valley I could feel my legs weren’t happy, and neither was I. To say I felt rubbish was an understatement but we had a goal for the day and I tried to rid my mind of negative thoughts.

I only managed this for a short while because the undulating climb up the valley to the bottom of the Galibier was biting and while slogging past two of the Alps Challengers one of them, Shelly, said “You don’t look very good“.

Normally I’m chirpy on the bike but this morning I just had a steel gaze, an expressionless face and probably a bit pale to. I felt rubbish.

Soon we were on the lower slopes of the Galibier and I was really struggling. I was up and down out of the saddle struggling to find a nice steady rhythm. With the others looking better I told them to press on and I resigned myself to the thought of a really hard day in the saddle, and a possible need for a rest day…

About a quarter of the way up the Galibier my body and legs started spluttering to life and I clawed my way back to Neil and the Balshaws. Soon Neil and I got a great rhythm going and pulled clear from our two fellow riders.

As we turned away from the tunnel and onto the road that took as to the top of the Galibier Neil started pressing on. I was unable to hold his pace and he reached the summit first… 1-0 to Neil.

After the customary photos at the top of the Galibier we caped up and took on the decent. It was great! Flowing smooth (bumpy in some places) tarmac flew by including stunning scenery. Neil is much better at descending than me so he disappeared off into the distance.

At the bottom of the Galibier we turned left for more descending into Saint-Chaffrey where we turned left to go up the Col du Granon. Ooosh! It was a tough one!

Out of town it starts with a good 10% + and then eventually settling to an average of +-9% per kilometre. It was hard going and by now the sun has been up for a while so it was hot and the flies were also awake and annoying us.

One thing I learnt during this trip from Geneva to Nice is that there are millions of flies in the Alps… millions! And it seemed they were all sitting my the roadside waiting on cyclist to pass!

Anyway, I digress. We’re going up Col du Granon, it’s steep, it’s warm and my legs hurt. Both Neil and I were going through liquid like crazy.

For this trip my hydration strategy was to start the day with OTE Energy drink in one bottle and OTE electrolyte in the other. Every time I refilled I would use electrolyte plus another energy drink after lunch.

About 2/3rds up the climb Neil dropped off and I was on my own, steadily making my way to the top. Every kilometre sign was eagerly awaited to see what the next kilometre will hold in store. And with 3km to go the sign said 11.3%! At this point my bottles were empty and I was very thirsty.

It was so hard to pass the water streams with clear mountain water running down the side of the road but I had to. My legs were hurting but my goal was to not stop once on a climb so I just buried myself and got to the top… beating Neil. 1-1 to both Neil and I, all to play for on the last climb of the day then but not before an epic adventure!

While I was waiting for Neil a lovely French lady kindly offered me a bottle of water. I have never been so grateful for water. I drank most of the 500ml and poured the rest into my bottle, thinking I need a little for the descent down from Col du Granon.

When Neil arrived we did the customary photos and then headed for the descent… only it was gravel! Looking into the distance we could see the road disappear around the mountain down in the valley. I could not make out if it was gravel or tarmac but figured it must turn to tarmac at some point.

With that in mind I convinced Neil that we take the gravel road…. About 2km down we realised the road was going to stay gravel so we called the support guys to make sure they let the Alps Challenge guys know not to come over the Col. Neil and I however pressed on.

And the descent was epic! Yes it was rocky and sandy and sketchy in bits but we were enjoying it. And yes, a Specialized Epic mountain bike would have been the better choice for the activity but our Specialized Tarmacs had to do.

The route guide on my Garmin told us to take a left, down a much steeper farm road with even bigger rocks, ruts and off camber in bits.

Both Neil and I have done some mountain biking so putting our skills to use we just turned left and enjoyed the ride! That said, by now the pain had gone from my legs and were in my hands and forearms do to having to brake and handle the bike more.

Eventually we reached a stream which brought laughter. We wondered what else we were going to encounter on our trip down the mountain on road bikes. After some photos and filling our water bottles we set off again.

The gravel road was much better now so we managed to have incorporated a bit more speed but still had to be careful for rocks for the fear of punctures. Up to now both Neil and I have been very lucky, no punctures.

But as they say, don’t count your chickens because not long after Neil hit a rock with his rear wheel and got a flat. After replacing the inner tube we were on the road again and within 2km we were in tarmac again. A puncture so close to the bottom???!!!

I felt ecstatic when my wheels rolled onto smooth tarmac, it was like winning a race!

On smooth road again Neil and I put the hammer down. The pain of the Galibier and Col du Granon climbs were but distant memories and my legs were right as rain.

As we made our way down the valley to our lunch stop (and meeting the rest of the guys) I noticed something else as well. When descending into a valley in the Alps there always seems to be a cracking headwind. And no, it’s not because we were going so fast. If we stopped peddling we’d come to a halt… down a blooming mountain!!!

Anyway, we made it to Briancon where we met up with a few of the Alps Challenge guys and the rest of my team mates. Neil and I sat down for lunch as the rest of them set off for the last climb of the day, Col du I’lzoard.

After having some food Neil and I paid the bill and set off on our way to I’lzoard.  No sooner had we left town and we started to climb, and passing some Alps Challenge guys.

As we rode Neil and I started discussing the kilometre signs. Through the day it dawned on us that having a sign telling you it’s a 6% gradient while going slightly down hill or on a flat is bad news. It just means you will get a kicker towards the end of the kilometre.

As we reached the foot of the I’lzoard I felt great. Yes it was hard going but I felt on top of the world and I was buzzing. Neil and I set a fairly brisk tempo (for us) and passed more of the Alps Challenge guys who had gotten ahead of us due to our long descent on gravel.

Toward the top of I’lzoard Neil was struggling a bit. The heat of the day taking its toll no doubt. I smelt blood. Could I make it 1-2 in my favour?

The road levelled off towards the top of I’lzoard and we could see where we would cross over the mountain, and the last 2 kilometres looked steep! I could also see one of the riders I coached/mentored for the trip, Colin Barnes, up the road as well as the Balshaw twins.

I dearly wanted to chase them down but Neil was struggling so I stuck with him. We were slowly making time up on the riders ahead anyway, unfortunately we ran out of road to catch them. We got to the top of Izoard but not before Neil started accelerating causing me to put in a sprint for the top of I’lzoard .. Got him! I was going to sleep happy tonight,1-2 to me!

Customary photos with all the guys and off we went, down the mountain. While going down I noticed my front wheel sidewall looked a bit strange. Getting to the bottom of the mountain I stopped to have a look, now reunited with one of the Balshaw “twins” Gareth.

With the heat of the day and all the breaking Neil and so had to do coming down Col du Granon my tub got so warm that the glue on the tape started to melt which in turn made the tub start rolling off the wheel. Scary!!!

I deflated the wheel and tried to reposition the tub and then used a Co2 canister to re-inflate it. By my reasoning the cold air would have helped the glue to set again.

With the tyre re-inflated Gareth and I set off again, now chasing everyone that was ahead of us or had passed us. This included Neil and Graham, Gareth’s dad. I told Gareth to crack on as I was going to take it easy with the front wheel.

He disappeared down to road and out of sight only for me to see him, his dad and Neil beside the road with the support van. Graham now had a puncture too. As I was taking it easy I pressed on, figuring they would catch me up again, but they did not.

I threw caution to the wind as we entered the last 10miles of the day. Down the valley (into that blooming headwind) I went. As I passed fellow Alps Challenge riders I shouted for them to sit on my wheel. Colin, one of the riders I coached/mentored, offered his support but I was in a zone now so told him to stay put behind me.

We passed another three Alps Challenge riders to who I also shouted they should sit on the now train of riders.

As we entered Guillestre I looked around and to my surprise only saw one rider on my wheel, Pete Leather. He said the other riders stopper further back and with the last mile or two to the hotel I was in no mood to hang around.

With Pete in tow we dropped to the main street and up the last punchy climb to the hotel.

What a day in the saddle! It was hard but I loved every second of an epic and awesome day! And hats off to our Specialized Tarmac bikes, they handled great on both gravel, rocks and tarmac.

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