It’s July 2010 and nearly 200 riders are moving at speed along a French Alpine road under a burning sun. Their speed is even more surprising considering they’ve already ridden from Morzine, over the Col de la Colombière (catégorie 1), Col des Aravis (catégorie 2) and Col des Saisies (catégorie 1) and are about to ride over the mighty Col de la Madeleine (hors catégorie) and down to the finish town of Saint Jean de Maurienne, a total distance of 204km. The Col de la Madeleine is the longest climb on this year’s Tour de France. A twelve man breakaway including the veteran Jens Voigt and Jerome Pineau (King of the Mountains) has more than 6 minutes lead over the main peloton as it hits the lower slopes of the Madeleine. The bunch containing the main contenders has reached the climb and after only a few kilometres Vinokourov of Astana launches one of his signature solo attacks.
The breakaway is starting to crumble, but now Astana are on the front of the peloton driving up the pace. Armstrong, the comeback man, is out of contention following his misfortune on the stage to Avoriaz. Cadels Evans in the Maillot Jaune, riding with a fractured elbow, cracks and falls behind. Now Tirralongo of Astana takes the front and pulls his team leader Contador with his rival Andy Schleck away from the others. Has Vino fallen back? Schleck attacks and only Contador can answer, they duel for a while before slowing, watching each other like track sprinters, giving the climber Sammi Sanchez an opportunity to ride up to them. Then Schleck and Contador resume their attacks with inhuman surges of speed on this hostile gradient. Sanchez is dropped again, but his orange jersey remains in view. The two rivals are closing the gap on the remnants of the breakaway, collecting and riding behind Jens Voigt for a while, fighting on the front with his familiar expression of gritted teeth.
Anthony Charteau crosses the summit first, sprinting across the line with the remnants of the breakaway trailing behind him. The Jens express approaches the summit. Contador attacks, Schleck is still locked onto his wheel but the exhausted Voight is dropped, his job done. The rivals work together again, the crowds are yelling, waving flags, running alongside, jumping out. Schleck edges ahead as they cross the line and begin the descent to the finish town. Next is Sammi Sanchez, reaching the summit alone…….
It’s September 2011 and a fine day with little or no breeze. I begin my 25km ascent of the Col de la Madeleine from a lay-by just above La Coulée where my husband is going to wait for me. The climbing begins in earnest. I’ve referred to hairpins many times in my cycling posts because they are a significant part of driving or cycling in the Alps, so repitition is difficult to avoid. I suppose I could save time with a formula.
The Col de la Madeleine = the hairpins of the Col du Petit St Bernard from Pre Saint + the Col de la Colombière from Scionzier + the last few kilometres of the Col de Joux Plane.
But that still doesn’t really do it justice because it has its own unique character. The road feels authentically rural, narrow and quiet, used more by locals than tourists. The houses and villages look genuinely lived in for most of the year, unlike the pristine recently built wooden holiday homes of the wealthy. The woodland of the steep lower slopes feels wilder, the moorland of the summit feels more vast, exposed and windswept. Or perhaps I’m romanticising the experience but that doesn’t change the fact that the first few kilometres are covered by a series of hairpins (around 8 – 10%) through a forest and the sides of the road fall away vertically. It’s hot again, around 25 – 28 degrees celsius and even with the tree shade my first bottle is down to a third full after only 6 kilometres.
The trees start to thin and small meadows begin to appear falling steeply away from the side of the road. There are green metal barriers but some sections are missing and the gaps have been optimistically filled with thin green nylon string. I pause for a moment to take a photo thinking the road has flattened out but when I try to set off again I realise the road is still going uphill and fight to get momentum. The illusion occurs because I’ve been climbing so steeply for so long, turning this section of road into a faux flat.
Another kilometre or two and the road really does flatten out allowing me to approach a left hand bend on a bridge at freewheeling speed. The air is cooled by a fast stream to my right. I pass through a series of tiny faded villages: La Thuile, Celliers and Celliers Dessus, then leave the lush meadow behind, the cow bells fade into the distance and I climb a long road through rough moorland. There’s about 8km to go, the gradient is back up to 8% and more. I hardly have half a bottle of water left so I’ve had to start rationing my intake to a meagre sip every well spaced bend of the road. It’s tough going and I’m reminded of David Millar’s ordeal on this mountain in 2010. He was suffering from injuries sustained in the crash marred early stages of that year’s Tour de France and struggled alone over every climb of stage 9, desperately fighting to arrive in the finsh town before the time cut off. I imagined what he must have felt like when he reached this stretch of tarmac I was now dragging myself up. He was the last rider to finish the stage that day. He could have climbed off, but had the strength of character to finish and start again the next day.
I feel so isolated and alone up here that I’m actually relieved when I hear a car driving up behind me. It moves out to overtake me, allowing me plenty of space. It’s a Saxobank team car and somehow my pace quickens. I have around 4km to go to the summit and I see another cyclist ahead of me, the first one so far today, but he disappears around a bend and I look in vain to see where the road comes out high above me. I put my head down and concentrate on the next few metres in front of me and keep going that way to the top.
The best way to describe the summit of the Col de la Madeleine is “bleak”. There’s a large gravel car park to my left with a few cars including the Saxobank team car and a white Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder. I roll on and as I approach the sign some British cyclists sitting outside the bar opposite cheer me on. I place my bike against the sign and limp across the road to take a photo. One of the Brits offers to take a photo with me in it and asks the usual question about how I’ve managed to hurt myself during the ride. I thank him and briefly make conversation asking which other climbs he and his friends have ridden when we’re interrupted by the arrival of a trio of Austrian motorcycle tourists on BMW GS1200s. Since the “Long Way Round” there’s been a proliferation of BMW GS bikes with full matching luggage and full matching BMW Motorrad riding suits and helmets with the flip up chins. No wonder the German economy is the strongest in Europe.
One of them becomes impatient because he wants his friend to take his picture and I’m not moving quickly enough for him, so he pulls his bike up beside the sign so close to me the transverse engine nearly burns my leg. I complete the task of pulling up my arm warmers and make ready to move. He moves forward a couple of metres and it’s clear he’s being rude in German and laughing lewdly because his pillion partner seems to be chiding him. My holiday reading has been “Slaying the Badger” by Richard Moore and I’ve read enough of it to be thinking “Bernard Hinault wouldn’t tolerate this crap. Le Blaireau would have yanked this idiot’s helmet off and punched his lights out”. I mean, all this guy has done is twist his wrist, whereas I’ve cycled up this hors catégorie climb under my own power.
I escape the Teutonic invasion and roll over to the car park for a quick photo of the Saxobank car. The driver is outside having just finished a mobile conversation and feeling the need to be polite I try to ask in my extremely poor and broken French if he minds me taking a photo. He doesn’t mind but attemps to converse with me in French, he seems to remember passing me on the climb, and says “chapeau”. My first chapeau. Whoever he is, he’s made my day. As we part I say “au revoir” and he replies “bon courage”. I think I may have earned it.
Col de la Madeleine (2000m)
24.85km (15.44 miles) with 1700m (5576ft) of ascent with 157m (515ft) descent
My riding time from the car to the summit was 2 hrs 8 min 33 secs. This climb has been used in the Tour de France 23 times from 1969 to 2010. Professional racing cyclists complete this climb in around 1 hour 10 minutes.