Toby Read takes on three iconic mountain cols in one epic ride.
Words and pictures: Toby Read
Early risers supporting on the Col du Lautaret and Col du Galibier. The road was already lined with camper vans and tents at 08:20. Some may have been there for days.
I’m 90km into a big day and I’ve been climbing more or less constantly for just under an hour. It’s baking hot, probably 38C and doldrum-still. The last double bottle refill I made was almost two hours ago. I’ve been eking out what was left of my water and electrolyte, starting to suffer in the heat and wondering when I would find a water stop.
If you’ve ever been in a sauna where the air is so hot and dry that your nose and mouth dry up in minutes, unable to breathe through either, that’s what it was like. A sip would quench my thirst for as much time as it took to place the bottle back in the cage. Then it was back to Gandhi’s flip flop. I wasn’t tiring, I’m used to long rides but the heat was intense. Oppressive. I was in an oven which blasted the hot scents of tarmac, dust and pine trees into my nostrils. When I drank from my bottle it was like drinking from a hot tap.
I rounded a corner flanked with a couple of Tour supporters, languishing in camping chairs and drinking from visibly frosty beer bottles. I longed for one of those beers. Those two had it good, like football supporters the world over relishing the moment, without a care in the world aside from their mates, the beer and supporting.
Further round that same corner I was greeted by a cooling breeze and a short descent. At last! A bit further on was a little hamlet. I dived off the course in search of water. At the very end of the quiet lane I found three other riders dunking their heads into the village ‘font,’ gasping at its icy embrace around their skulls. Fresh, crystal clear water was gently cascading into a wooden trough; these guys were filling it with sweat and leaving suncream oil slicks visible on the surface. I also indulged.
Tip one: Know where to look for water. I hadn’t taken into account that there would be twenty-odd kilometres of uninhabited mountain side road. All French mountain settlements have public drinking fountains called fonts which resemble cattle troughs. Fresh drinking water flows into these so keep your eyes peeled. If it’s not a wooden or stone trough, it’s a green fire hydrant-looking life saver.
Let me set the scene. I’ve left early, well ahead of the peloton, to ride Stage 12 of the 2022 Tour de France, with a bit extra to get home! Ahead of me lay Col du Galibier, Col du Croix de Fer and back over Col du Lautaret (half a kilometre below Col du Galibier).
That’s a lot of up and down. Credit: Strava.
I’ve cycled around this area three times before, those times not solo. There is still lots to learn. I’ve been a triathlete for years and a trail runner for longer so I am used to endurance days. The heat on this day, coupled with climbing three cols, was a lot to manage.
Col du Galibier complete with Tour banners. One col down, many more metres of climbing to go.
Tip two: Leave your ego at the door. Do you recall that friend when you were little who couldn’t quite use their gears? Perhaps you were that kid. Until this trip I was that kid and this is why. 33 tooth cassettes are amazing for civilian legs in the mountains. On previous trips on different bikes I’d used 28 tooth cassettes. The added effort to grind your way up rather than spin up is noticeable. I actually PB’d up Col du Galibier despite intentionally not making an attempt to do so, such was the ease of being able to spin at a higher cadence while not smashing watts. Using a larger cassette doesn’t make you less cool.
The descents are fast and can last twenty minutes. Yes, twenty. Or more. I changed my Garmin screen to the map for descents, rather than glancing at how fast I was going. I could therefore see how the road bends were playing out ahead of me. I could safely keep a bit of speed up, knowing the bend wasn’t too severe, while knowing the next was a hairpin.
Being a mountain bike racer as a kid and into my twenties, I pride myself with my bike handling ability, especially on the descents. The word “ability” here can be interchanged with guts/overconfidence/desire for fun! Something my mum has always been nervous about. It’s therefore not often that I get dropped on descents. At one point I was overtaken downhill by a guy being rather reckless. He overtook on a bend and swung back in front of me, narrowly avoiding an oncoming car. Don’t get me started on this topic but he wasn’t wearing a helmet. His questionable riding was almost as bad as his wardrobe malfunction. Exhilarating, addictive and sometimes squeaky bum time, you don’t want to leave anything to chance on these bends!
The lack of water took its toll for a while after the refill with the head dunking lads. Half an hour later I was ascending the climb proper up Col du Croix de Fer. The gradient kicked in and the heat was stifling. The air felt almost thick. If you’ve ever woken up so hungover that you feel like your torso has shrunken inward from being so dehydrated, that was how I felt. I was also trying to breathe in this parched air.
I was still overtaking more people than being passed, probably due to my 33 tooth cassette and my bloody mindedness, but I was suffering, exhaling like a horse through cracked lips. My head said no, so I had another gel. It seemed like it had been five minutes since the last. In reality it was probably over an hour ago, somewhere back by the beer drinkers.
Tip three: As with hydration refills, taking notice of when you eat and what effort you’re putting in is absolutely crucial.
Tour supporters doing their thing on Col du Croix de Fer.
As I got on top of my nutrition and with the increasing altitude the temperature came down a few degrees and the climb got easier. Legs spinning despite the relentless double figure gradient, I chatted to some other riders and joked with supporters, many treating me as if I was the race leader. And every next person behind me!
At the top the atmosphere was already electric, the road lined with supporters on each side. We were nobodies and it was hours until the pros would be flying past them, smashing silly watts. It made the final few hairpins a doddle. Did I feel like a pro? A bit!
A quick pic and I was off. The speed at which you can fly down these open mountain roads is wonderful and the views are incredible. It’s unfortunate that you can’t savour both at the same time. Fortunately, ahead lay the Lac de Grand’Maison. Majestic and shimmering in the early afternoon sun it cooled me down just looking at it.
Tip four: Deep section rims catch the wind. But you knew this from the cross winds in the English country lanes. You’ll be travelling faster for minutes on end so pay attention to the wind speed and direction.
Tip five: Chips are not great mid-ride fuel. Perhaps it was the sheer volume of liquid I was consuming in order to stay hydrated and cool, merging with the stodge and cheap mayo but these sat high in my stomach for a few hours.
Tip six: If you’re riding on a race day, pay attention to the road closures. I reached a long flat section and was looking forward to getting my head down and doing a little work. No sooner had I got down on the drops than I was waved down by a Gendarme. A quick conversation in my waning A Level French confirmed that the road was closed for the next four hours. The Tour caravan wouldn’t be coming through for another two hours but I had missed the road closure by 10 minutes. My heart sank but I wasn’t going to give up easily. I pleaded in French to the policeman, explaining that I needed to get back to Briançon (hoping he was a local and not shipped in for the Tour and would understand how far away that was). “Briançon!” He exclaimed, surprised. “Ba, you can try…” He waved down the road where I could see police stationed every 200 metres. “…but the next man…”
Sure enough I was waved down by two policemen after a few clicks through the gears. They pointed at another rider like me who was sitting in the shade and tucking into a baguette. He too was bound for Briançon, a good 70km away yet.
After a quick chat with the policemen I tried to reason with them that I needed to get back to take over some parenting responsibilities. One suggested trying another route and pointed to a gravel farm track disappearing into some shady trees. I asked some locals. Beyond that gravel track was a paved surface. One of the group was clearly a cyclist as he added that my bike would not be happy on the track, pointing to my deep carbon wheels. However, I wasn’t going to wait four hours and miss seeing my son all day. Nor was I going to walk 6km to clear the road closure. I had long been waiting to hear my son shout ’Dada!‘ when he saw me and scoop him up for a cuddle. That definitely powered me up some of the ascents.
A short bounce down the farm track and a walk through a meadow and I was greeted with a tarmaced levee top. Some minutes later I was heading toward the folded arms of more police. After some poor French on my part I was waved on by an older policeman. “Allez. Vite vite!”
Tip seven: Safety precautions. Mountain tunnels can be long, dark and narrow. Lights are therefore almost essential for your safety. Some longer tunnels may have a no bikes sign and will have a secondary parallel cycle road/tunnel so look out for these. Also the cols can get cold if it’s windy and if the weather turns, which it can in the mountains and fast (Google Stage 19 of the 2019 Tour de France), you’ll be thankful for packing a wind proof.
Tip eight: Aircon. Heat is hard to manage for many reasons. I simply couldn’t take on enough fluid without feeling awash. Keep an eye out for petrol stations as these often have aircon and little coffee tables to take a load off. I sat at one munching into a Calippo while I cooled down.
At this point I had 1179m of climbing still to go. I had passed two major cols and already had 160km behind me. I wasn’t feeling too bad, instead feeling more fatigued from the heat rather than not taking in enough calories.
Tip nine: Water Boy. My final stop before home with 609m still to ascend up to Col du Lautaret was the winter freeride Mecca of La Grave. I sat in the shade, sipping on another icy fresh water refill and ate an energy bar. It was at this time that the desire for beer and crisps disappeared. What I longed for was a neutral flavour. After hours of eating sweet stuff my tongue was beginning to pickle and my teeth felt furry. Never underestimate the importance of having some savoury food and plain water.
Water Boy cooling off in La Grave.
La Grave and La Meiji at 3984m. Respectively a winter freerider’s Mecca and iconic mountaineering peak.
Zooming down from the final col I was looking forward to a little tradition of mine. Glacial meltwater river dips. Bracing doesn’t quite cover it. I once dunked my entire body underwater, press up-style and, just as you read about, ice water shock took me and I gasped inwardly, greeted by laughs from my LFTC pals as I coughed and spluttered, struggling to stand up against the current. Consequently, I strongly recommend researching for somewhere safe to enter the water. Where rafters enter or exit is often a good place as there are calm shallows to sit in. Tip ten then.
Dada! What are your stats? Reunited with the fam after a long day.
The last few kms back were cruisy and flat, with the metabolites seemingly banished from my quads into the icy Guisane river. My dad had been tracking me on the Life360 app. At the top of a little rise to the apartment I was greeted by cheers from my parents, my fiancé, Jo and our 20 month old son, who was blowing the same whistle he did for the real Tour riders just the day before. I could also hear him shouting ‘Dada!’
207km, 4,621m, 9:19 moving time, 11:31 elapsed time
- 6,661kcal energy output
- 3,285kcal approximate energy input from:
- Tea and granola
- 1 Coke
- 2 Oranginas
- 1 espresso
- 1 cheese and ham baguette
- 1 bowl of chips and mayo
- 3 OTE 40g carb “super” gels
- 3 Veloforte bars
- 7 OTE electrolyte tabs
- 6L of water (with one bottle just water, one with 2 electrolyte tabs)
Yet more stats
- 2 suncream reapplications
- 0 litter dropped
- Unused items: 1 innertube, 2 tyre levers, 2 canisters, multitool, emergency foil blanket, one bar and 2 gels