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Cent Cols Challenge 2010
WORDS: Phil Deeker | PHOTOS: Phil & Claire Deeker
Sunday morning, the day before the 2010 Cent Cols Challenge. Almost oblivious to the stunning view over Lake Annecy from the hotel breakfast room, the CCC 2010 began for me in those moments I made eye contact with some of the leaner guests present.
My inquisitive expression probably helped them guess who I was. On some faces, a look of apprehension betrayed their otherwise calm demeanour, while on others the evident anxiety about what lay ahead made it even easier to for me to recognise my clients. Unlike last year, I had met none of the riders prior to the event. I consciously savoured these first impressions, since I knew that over the next ten days we would all crush the barriers of any social reserve and share moments of intimacy usually achieved after years of acquaintance. The immensity of the physical challenge that awaited us all created a very tangible tension in that hotel breakfast room. I quickly introduced myself and the barrage of questions fired at me helped dispel some of the tension.
The group of 30 of us soon took over the front lawns of the hotel as bikes were assembled and Jason, our mechanic, quickly became everyone’s best friend!. In the afternoon, one rider went for a swim in the clear blue waters of the Lake. He ended up in hospital with 12 stitches in his foot, thanks to a vicious piece of broken glass, and bravely waved us all off the next morning. He was one of two non-starters – another rider had over-trained and his body packed up, as if in revolt. After months of training and sacrifice, it must have been a hard pill to swallow.
That evening I gave a lengthy presentation of the event logistics at the end of which each rider presented themselves to the group. Ages ranged from 26 to 62 and included six female riders, all of whom finished with panache. Everyone understated their abilities and preparations, preferring to play the “just be happy to get round” card. Still, most showed their true colours as soon as the climbing started the next day!
The view back from the Col de Forclaz towards Annecy was the prize offered to all on the first morning which I had suggested being worth the stop. But some were already on a mission, and couldn’t get themselves to lose precious minutes won on the second Col of the ride. It took a few days for riders to understand that, unlike most sportives, this was not to be ridden as you would an annual event that you paste on your diary in January. The ten days are so intense and the effort required so great that it is understandably hard to let go from time to time and step off the bike to soak up the magic of the moment.
“Looking back I was probably overly committed. I really wanted to complete the challenge and so was less inclined to relax and enjoy the trip.”
- Cent Cols rider, William Webb
The Col de Planbois, just before lunch, gets up to 23% and is a tough one all the way up. The way I like ‘em! It’s hardly a typical alpine climb, but then the CCC is hardly a typical Alpine Challenge. The after-lunch serving of Cols (Croix-Fry, Aravis and Saisies) was far more conventional, so there had to be a few local nuggets in there beforehand.
Stage 1 had given all the riders an opportunity to measure themselves against the others and most seemed comfortable with their place in the pecking order.
As for Stage 2, even without the Col du Madeleine this time (last year the stage proved just too hard for almost everyone) it was still a scary prospect.
“Starting off on day two, my legs ached from day one. I’d never attempted anything close to that much climbing in one day and I had serious doubts as to whether I was going to make it. It was one of the few times when I was wishing I wasn’t there. All my hard moments were more mental than physical.”
- Matt Cowen
I had found a road round the Madeleine, although the stage overall still had more than 5,000m of ‘up’. However I had forgotten that this ‘way round’ did actually have a hidden climb (not a Col, but named ‘Col du Petit-Dejeuner’ by one rider) and I was thanked by no-one for including it as a surprise! It came in the section I had suggested to be ridden ‘neutral’ so riders were still close to each other, even on the descent – where we had our first serious crash. The rider realised his mistake and also how lucky he had been. It still unfortunately took a second descent crash, on Stage 5, to slow some of the faster ones down in their (understandable) quest for thrills and speed.
The Glandon and the Galibier in the same day always makes for an exciting ride especially when the weather forecast was looking a lot better than last years’. There were some bodies still adjusting to the Challenge and they suffered but endured the pain on the Galibier admirably. At 6.30pm the last rider topped the Alpine Grandad and began the 40km run-in to Briancon.
“This stage looked stupidly hard on paper – like the Marmotte but on speed, but we did it! At last I no longer fear the Galibier. I’ve previously suffered badly on this climb but with the excellent company and team spirit it was actually enjoyable and a day I shan’t forget.”
“ As I began climbing the Galibier, I connected to the many spirits lingering on this ribboned road and I could feel the blood, sweat and tears of the many cyclists before me. I felt honoured and humbled to be part of something I could only feel and not put words to. The mountains themselves generously gave me energy, along with a feeling of intense joy and euphoria. "Get some clothes on” Claire shouted, as I arrived at the top and stopped to wait for my husband, Bill. Steve joined us as we pedalled toward Briancon, concerned about the failing daylight. Luckily for us, a wizard of sorts (Phil) in his black Rapha jacket came flying by! He waited for us to catch his wheel as he sped toward town, bringing us in just before nightfall. To top off a perfect day, Bernard Hinault was a guest at our hotel and spoke to us during dinner, sharing stories with grace and great humour. Memories that will put a smile on my lips every time I look back.”
- Melody Mayer
Bernard Hinault had indeed been a real gentlemen. For some of us it was a meeting with a childhood hero; for others he was merely ‘a name from the past’. We quickly educated the ignorant and all heads were turned towards this living legend, who himself raised both eyebrows when we went through the itinerary of our Challenge. But instead of sowing more doubt into the tired bodies of the CCC riders, spirits seemed to be happily buoyant after this surprise bonus.
Stage 3 was the first of several stages with a serious climb straight after breakfast. This may sound scary, especially when the climb in question here was the Izoard, but in fact they can provide unforgettable experiences. The body is pumping blood hard so the early morning chill in the air is not uncomfortable; the rising sun’s rays cut across mountain valleys often spoiling us with sensational lighting effects; and there is little traffic around to break the magic spell. Some riders found that Stage 2 had taken too much out of their legs, whilst the strongest maintained an impressive pace. The road across the Casse Deserte was a beautiful reward as always, followed by one of the fastest descents of the event, with some riders cutting (relatively safely) through the cold morning air at 90kph.
The stage ends with a great 35km stretch into Sisteron, where most riders had their first chance to celebrate growing confidence in themselves.
“The long downhill, then flat run-in to Sisteron was superb, with old Pete, young Pete, Carl and myself taking turns setting the pace for our group, mostly at just under 30mph, for miles and miles as we raced against a sinking sun to the town finish..”
- Matt Cowen
It was harder for some than others; I towed one rider in who had been close to quitting earlier in that afternoon, but in the last 5k, with another bunch of CCC riders just in view further up the road, the club-run-sprinter in him took over and he flew down the road. I just managed to catch up with him and take over as his youthful spurt dried up and together we bridged the gap and took them with 200m to the hotel.
Stage 4. For many this stage was their favourite. It is indeed a feast of stunning scenery, remote climbs and quiet roads. Another long, but gentle climb takes the riders out of Sisteron after breakfast and, on this occasion, up above the low, morning clouds that clad the Durance valley. By now the riders had settled into small groups, taking turns both at towing and at chatting. Keeping the banter flowing can at times be as important as ‘giving a wheel’. The largest group of the ride, with the self-penned name of the “Fun Bus”, were particularly good at helping each other up the climbs and infusing the whole event with good humour.
The afternoon duo of the Col de Champs (an extraordinary and lesser known climb) and the Col de Valberg (the first mountain-top finish) was a winner with everyone for different reasons (apart from ‘Gel Boy’, who missed a turn and rode an extra 60km).
“It’s hard to pick one stage but I think I’d have to go for Stage 4. The scenery in the morning was great and the roads were so quiet. The climb of Champs in the afternoon was something special and the descent was one of the best.”
- Tim Smith
Stage 5. After our only wet morning of the event, (when several riders noticed the scenery at last since they had to descend slowly!), the Col de Turini stole the show for many that day. The section after that, leading down to Nice eventually in a ‘bumpy’ sort of way, (ask Stu O’Grady about the fierce climb up to Peille) was also dramatic and included the upper section of another iconic climb: the Col de Madone di Giorbio. Having found their way through Nice, the fastest trio of the day were racing down the final descent of the day to the hotel when a tubular slipped off a rim and resulted in a broken femur.
“Lying on the roadside at the end of Stage 5, I knew my CCC ride was over and worse, I knew too that the damage was not trivial. I now have great understanding for the extreme disappointment a pro rider must feel when they crash out of the Tour, especially if it’s one of their key goals for the year. For months all my riding buddies had seen me out on the road for hours in all conditions and say “Oh, there’s Lenny the nut who is going to ride that Cent Cols thing in France!!”
- Lenny Engelhardt
Then came the rest day. Clothes were washed, bikes given loads of TLC, and a lot of money was spent at an impressive bike shop nearby. Some went for a spin, most didn’t and Tim and Jenny even got engaged. With half the stages under their belt, it was noticeable how much confidence was growing, and at times I felt almost Desgranges-like, wondering if I had made these stages hard enough. How was it that almost everyone was riding the full distance, on every stage? Last year there had been far more ‘fall-out’! Without wishing to undermine the talent of all these cyclists, I should inform readers that the male and female CCC riders were by no means an elite group of super-tuned ultra-athletes, with enviable super-slim bodies. They were very fit, not overweight, very used to cycling and above all very, very determined. Outwardly normal, they hid extraordinary talent. (Even at a pro level, I find it fascinating how muscles of steel can remain so discreet in a cyclists’ body.) In a strange and emotional way, I was proud of them all.
“For a good 10 months beforehand, in fact right up to the start of the Challenge, I was very apprehensive. Once I started the ride and found I could actually do it , the event became enjoyable rather than something to be endured. I relaxed and truly appreciated what I was a part of and the scenery around me. I remember being so pleased to see Claire (for food) each day, but not so pleased to see Phil stand up after dinner and present details of the next day’s stage – gulp.”
- Simon Dyer
“The extremely short evenings were definitely a part of the overall challenge. I usually finished riding between 6:30 and 7:00 in the evening. After a snack, post-ride stretching and a shower, it was dinner time. After dinner and trying to focus on Phil’s advice on the next set of shark’s teeth (ride profile), I would collapse into bed between 10:00 and 10:30.”
- Michael Engelhardt
Stage 6. Led out by the newly-engaged couple, the peloton glided up towards the foot of the Col de Vence, where the usual gaps appeared. Then, having followed one of the best backroads circuits I know in the area over the Col de Bleine, the route takes riders towards the Gorges du Verdon, in its own ‘bumpy’ way, naturally. The last climb of the day becomes tougher with every turn, but the reward at the top left many speechless. Words are indeed inadequate to describe it. By now, minds and legs had got the hang of what was happening to them, and all but two riders made it over this last climb. Atop the Gorges du Verdon is an exceptional place to be at the end of a long day on the bike. Last year riders had arrived at Palud-sur-Verdon soaked to the skin. This time, the throw of the dice was more favourable and the mellow, golden rays of the setting sun were pure medicine for tired, empty legs as they forced out the last pedal strokes of the day.
Stage 7. Although starting with almost 50km of mainly flat, this is a difficult transition stage from the Verdon over to Bedoin and the longest stage of the event. The Montagne de la Lure is the main climb and was loved by many as a trial run for the Ventoux the next day. But the Col de N-D des Abeilles was a nasty sting for all. It is the last climb of the stage. Few had enough left in their legs for the roller-coaster section to the top of the Col, and with the Ventoux leering at them from the north, tales of suffering were rife at dinner that evening.
“The end of the longest day on the road into Bedoin was one of my worst moments. The final rolling climbs had been hard on my legs and passing the sign that said 'Bedoin 11km' when I thought we were virtually home and dry took quite a lot of mental strength to keep myself going with the group all the way to the finish of the 145-mile stage.”
- Matt Cowen
We had also suffered our third accident less than two kilometres from Bedoin. ‘Old’ Pete was discharged from hospital the next morning, following a chain problem that had thrown him to the ground (clearly Andy Schleck had been lucky). Despite his desperation to climb the Ventoux with everyone else, he cheered his co-riders on generously for the remaining stages.
Stage 8. Any stage that gives you the Ventoux one km into the ride has to be exceptional. The riders all climbed well, and I think they knew it. It was a moment they had all been waiting for. Despite the observatory hiding itself in low, cold cloud, the Ventoux had chosen to be kind to us; the Mistral was having a day off. Tall Roy road up the Giant fearlessly, clocking a time of just under 1 hour 30. I had ridden ahead to get some photos as the riders climbed the mineral section above the Chalet Renard and so enjoyed watching Roy, out of the saddle, spitting out the gradient behind him, just as Big Mike had done on the CCC 2009.
“I had waited many years for the chance to ride the Ventoux. As at last I climbed its iconic slopes I thought how lucky cycling fans are. After all, how many football fans get to play at Wembley?”
- Michael Engelhardt
“Ventoux: what a climb! I’ve wanted to do this one for a while, plus we’d been staring at the thing for most of the previous day. Singing the ‘Fun Bus’ version of a Frank Sinatra song made it even more memorable.”
- Carl Ratcliffe
Thanks to the seven days of successful, hard climbing in their legs, ALL the riders got through this stage. In the latter part of the stage, the Col de Pennes (renamed the Col of Pain), was as tough as I had said it would be, especially as tyres still had a generous coating of warm, sticky tarmac thanks to a too-new road section just before the climb. In the group I was with, a race was declared, three kilometres from the top and the battle was left to Roy and Steve, our two Aussie ironmen, who once again showed us how it should be done. Chapeau! I had suggested to these two, being ‘power climbers’, that they should also rip up the road on the last climb of the stage : the Col de Rousset. It’s a 5% climb, but a long one, and they flew up it, with a broad smile on their faces. Others found it a lot harder…
“After leaving Die (very apt as we climbed the Col de Rousset), it was as if I was in a desert, the mirage in this case a wall of rock that kept moving. Could we actually cross this thing? Would it be to the right, would it be to the left? On and on it went and the answers were not coming.”
- Rob Waller
Stage 9. A chilly start on the plateau of Vassieux, still shrouded in freezing, low morning mist. But half way up the Col de Lachau we climbed above it and could look across towards the rising sun. Everyone felt blessed. I had presented the Vercors as perhaps my favourite area in the Alps and left it to majestic climbs like the Machine, Toutes Aures and Pla d’Adet to explain why. They were our last places of dramatic, monumental beauty before we found ourselves back in the gentler, more civilised scenery of the picture-postcard Chartreux region leading to the Col du Granier. By now some riders were sensing that the end was near and were not sure they were that happy about it! Dave, who, on Stage 2, had asked me to delete his e-mail if he ever sent me one asking about the CCC2011, was now smugly telling me that he would be riding the 2011 Challenge and wanted to book his place there and then. I pretended not to hear – although I can now confirm he has already paid up for 2011.
Stage 10. I had given the riders the opportunity to make the last stage shorter, and miss a few cols, since they had already clocked 99 of our target 100 cols. The proposed inclusion of a mid-morning café/bakery stop seemed to swing everyone’s vote and made for a relaxed approach to the stage. Most of the way to the final climb was ridden as an impressive Rapha-CCC peloton, with only the climbs of the Marocaz and the Pres spreading the field out temporarily. The final 22km climb up to the Semnoz is an interesting and deceitful climb, saving its toughest for the last, but rewarding riders with sensational panoramic views at the top. Once again, we were blessed with fine weather and the mountains all around us, including the Mont Blanc, seemed to salute us as they revealed their full splendour. The Rapha CCC riders deserved that, each and every one of them. I saluted them all too, my throat tight with emotion, and genuinely thanked them all for all we had shared.
“The best moment for me has to be the final climb of the whole event, the 109th Col on the Semnoz, not just because it was the last climb, but hearing my wife and sister cheering me home from the summit, riding over my name they had spray painted on the road and crossing the finish line four abreast with my Team Patron riding buddies, is a moment that will stay with me forever.”
- Matt Cowen
For ten days a group of exceptional riders had ridden with dignity, good humour and talent. Team Patron (who won the Rapha Team Prize) epitomized the sense of camaraderie that Claire and I feel to be the most important element of this Challenge. We felt privileged once again, as in 2009, to have met them all and thankful for the memories they have left us. This event had once again been a very personal, intimate journey when, over twelve days, a bunch of strangers had become friends for life.