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Tour du Mont Blanc - A Punter's Perspective

Chamonix Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard Cormet du Roselend custom kit France Tour du Mont Blanc

It seemed like a good idea at the time! My younger (much fitter and significantly less chubbier) brother and relatively new to the cycling thing started smashing ultra-endurance events, and 2 years ago successfully finished the 330 km (205 mile) 8,700 m (30,000 ft) Tour du Mont Blanc Cyclo. Since he completed this wee jaunt I have, whilst drinking his wine, politely nodded enthusiastically whilst listening to lengthy narrations of the day. Until this year, the 7th iteration of the event only 1300 people had made it to the finish line with an attrition rate of more than a third, higher when the weather has a say, so this is not an event for the average happy punter on a bike, like me. I had the event on the ‘must do’ list and the planets finally aligned to have a crack at the solo event in July 17.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Endurance work and weight loss was at the top of the winter training list for 16/17. I stepped into the New Year as a happy (read hefty) 96 kg  and although I can climb I am not a climber! Shedding a bit of timber would be a critical factor when faced with climbing Everest in a day. It is not easy to train for an event like this when based in the South West of England so the basic premise of the training plan was to get on the bike at least 5 days a week, regardless of weather and hit the stunning playground on my doorstep that is Dartmoor. I chose not to set up the turbo convincing myself that if I had a warm dry option through the winter then I would take it. It was time to toughen up a bit and get out and smash the moor in all weathers. Short and sharp, long and paced and it started to pay dividends.

You don’t happily walk about the planet weighing 96 kg without liking your food and ale so a sensible (rather than stupid) diet was established and maintained (ish).  Dietary advice from the other younger brother, himself a successful ultra-distance runner, was adhered to and started paying dividends through the early months of 17. Protein and greens the staple of the working week, combined with the spinning and the ballast started to shift a bit, shaving off a modest 10kg before D-Day.

6 weeks to go and a disciplined week of long & hot rides in Gran Canaria (whilst the ladies slummed it by the pool) proved to be extremely beneficial, and what the island lacked in altitude it more than made up with some hot brutal climbing! It was at the end of the last and longest day on the bike that I lay in the sun sipping a large cold coke (beer), that the first signs of a little worry bean started forming in the dark depths of my small brain. That ride took me 162 km with 4200m of elevation, and it hurt! I admit my pacing wasn’t great but the thought of spinning a further 170k whilst adding 4100m brought a very sharp focus to the task ahead! As the miles and comfortable endurance increased that little worry bean would not budge, instead preferring to sit there and occasionally laugh at me and keep me awake in the small hours. 

Confirmation of entry was received in April and the reality and scale of the big day that would take the competitors around Mont Blanc from France through Switzerland, Italy and back to France loomed large. 7 foolhardy volunteers of the Hammer Sports Cycle Club based in Salcombe, Devon had entered and the team logistical planning started in earnest. The Morzine Cyclo in mid June offered a valuable 3 days and ticked off the final training block at altitude.  The next time we met was the morning of Fri 14th Jul, stood on the apartment balcony with coffee in hand, strangely silent, contemplating the next 36 hours.  Thankfully the club owner Andrew Thompson was about to tick off his 5th (yes 5th) Mont Blanc so there was an invaluable library of knowledge and experience to tap into. To receive a climb by climb near kilometre by kilometre break down of the course was incredibly useful and fixed the mind for the day ahead (and ensured we slept well-)

The Day.

0330  15th July 2017. Les Saisies in the High Alps and the start of what can only be described as a brutal epic. 

Breakfast was a quiet affair, with the odd bit of banter quickly ebbing away as the enormity of what lay ahead ticked closer.

Dave O'Connor

0445 and  I took up my position on the start line with the other 693 like minded riders with AC DC giving it large, wondering how many of those around me would finish or indeed if I would. The 10 second countdown began and at 0500 precisely we were set off to begin the near magical descent to Megeve and onward to Chamonix. The first 15 km is ‘neutralised’ in order to calm the excitement of many on this lovely pre-dawn drop to the valley below. I remember smiling for most of it, smiling at the sheer beauty of that part of the world an hour before dawn. Smiling at the number of headlights bouncing down the tarmac after their owners. Smiling at the fact that this phase was not neutralised at all, judging by the number of riders eager to steal a few seconds ahead of 330 km and willing to jeopardise their entire day because of it. Bottom of the first descent came up quick and I settled into a good rhythm, and as easy as it would have been to open the taps a little, especially in the first 70 km, I eased back and ‘Captain Sensible’ took up residence.  There were still plenty of groups to tag onto and the clicks ticked over nicely until arrival at the first planned  feed in Les Valletes (109 km) and the foot of the 1st of 5 HC climbs of the day, Le Champex du Lac.

I was way up on the planned timelines, felt great and enjoying the buzz of the event and those around me. Weather was warming up and the wind was pegged to low, and although all that was about to change it was just very pleasing to be part of the toughest Ultra one day ride in the world. (I stand by to be corrected).

10km climbing over the Champex followed by the inevitable exhilarating descent into Switzerland and set for my first crack at the Grand St Bernard. 

Dave O'Connor

The mercury was starting to climb but still very manageable and my disciplined pace, drinking and grazing on the bike was going as planned.  Those harsh cold, wet, windy miserable miles on the moor appeared to be paying a small dividend now. Feeling good I hit the bottom of the climb still marvelling at the stunning scenery the region offers.  An unscheduled but vital pit stop 5k into the climb was a welcome chance to grab a light bite and a piece of clean porcelain then back into the climb feeling a tad lighter, quickly settling into a sensible and sustainable climbing cadence to suit the long drag to the highest point on the route @2470m.

My fellow club members were spread all over the route so any opportunity to engage with like minded spinners is a welcome interlude from the otherwise lonely road. And once you get through 100 km there is a lot of solo time!  I had it in my mind that the event was for the ‘nothing but the serious’ clan but it is open to all as long as you get your entry in on time. I met people from all over the world, all drawn to the event like Bears to the Honeypot. The serious had pushed on, eager to beat personal bests or just get back before the bars closed but the majority had a strict pace strategy like me so there was opportunity to speak to people, especially on the climbs.

If all you do is the Grand St Bernard and descent in a day then hats off.  It is a glorious beast of a 30+km climb over into Italy. As I crested the summit the anticipated high wind and windchill hit and I quickly found the support car and friendly faces.  Chilling down quickly and keen to get moving I rapidly replenished stores and got going to lose some height and warm up.  The descent is just glorious in every way with morale taking a boost as the kilometres ticked over quickly, descending into Italy with the impending Aosta Valley up next. It would have been very easy to get lost at the bottom of the descent as the route signs had either been removed or, more likely blown off by the now very lively headwind that now faced me for the next 30+km along the valley to the Petit Bernard. Quick nav check and head down into an inescapable head wind - hard work!  Any riders I latched onto received a quick hello but I quickly pushed through conscious of the cut off times along the route. Although I was ahead of schedule it would have been very easy to lose time chatting and easing the pace to take a rest on a wheel, and anyway I felt good so what could possibly go wrong!   

The Aosta Valley is a lonely harsh section taking you through 200k, and although it is a gentle steady false flat the headwind was taking its toll, and not just on me. I ground my way past a number of riders that had popped and their support teams were trying desperately to encourage them to hold on and get to the next feed station, La Salle @216 km. Steady sensible pace, capping HR at 155 max and the feed station came into view, along with the next HC climb, the Col de Petit St Bernard.  I hoovered up a couple of bowls of pasta and another recovery drink/meal and although feeling a little tired there were no indications that the engine was in trouble at all. After my enforced 20 min break it was time to get moving again, always a special moment with 5000 m and 216 km in the pins! There is no time to think about the next climb as you hit it within 100 m of leaving the feed station and up you go. There is nothing ‘petit’ about this near 30 km monster as it plays with your tired mind as one false summit after another are crested. As expected and planned the Garmin gave up 10km in so a quick transfer to Strava to catch the last 100k (or nobody would believe I had done it!) We had a team camper at the top and a welcome respite from the wind and falling temperature. 80k and 2 climbs to go as I left the support team on the Italian border and descended into France and Bourg St Maurice. I was very aware that tiredness and descending are not a great mix but I was buoyed yet again by the stunning vistas and now that I had got into the last ¼ I thought I was over the worse and allowed myself a smile or 2.   

Pushing through Bourg St Maurice @275k and into the business end of the route with the penultimate dig up the Cormet du Roselend, a comparatively wee HC lump @1967m.  The early discipline was paying huge and tangible dividends now and although the legs were starting to hurt a bit the heart and head remained in good form, boosted by the very real possibility that I could finish!

It was a lonely climb saying hello to the odd individual in the fading light as the sun set ahead of me. As I approached the summit the sun finally said goodbye for the day as I looked for the support car to don my warm gear. A misunderstanding meant I would face the 20 km descent in my jersey, gilet and arm warmers and not the planned Thermo Roubaix and clear lenses. This was the first point of concern of the day. As expected at nearly 2000 m the temperature dropped like a stone as the windchill cut through me. Thankfully I kept the lights on the bike for the day otherwise I would have been in real trouble. I was shivering uncontrollably and the only option was to get off the hill as quickly as possible. I have never been so cold on a bike! Pitch black, dark sunglasses 20 km to the support car at the bottom of the hill and shaking like a leaf, I hit the descent. Taking some speed off to try and keep some warmth in the body proved futile, so with large mountain moths (attracted by the light) pebble dashing me I put my head down and got on with it! By the time I got to the car I was a gibbering idiot, trying to spit out bits of moth from my frozen mouth, unable to speak as the face was locked along with the rest of the joints. Warming up was the immediate concern as Lucy Thompson, wife of Andy who was already in the bar, got a few more layers on me and stuffed some more carbs down me whilst building me for the last climb. I don’t think she got much sense from me as the body continued to defrost. I just remember using my fingers to push the food back into my frozen face!

Pitch black and the last climb of 980m in 15 km was the only thing in my way to the finish line.  My mind was locked on and the body still delivering. I pushed through a number of lonely figures tapping up the climb but not much was said, just a silent nod of respect and a tap on the back. Coming into Les Saisies there were still a number of finishing parties going strong and applauding the riders approaching the line.  The town lights got brighter and so did my smile as an overwhelming euphoric feeling started to build as the line came into view. Crossing the line to be met by the team who thrust a glass of red into my hand and most importantly my finish jersey!! 18 hrs 37 mins - Job done! 

Taking a seat for some food and more wine I was left with a feeling of complete and content fulfilment. It is the hardest day you will do in the saddle and although I am ready to be corrected I have not found anything that gets close - yet.

Of the 693 that started, 412 finished including 32 of the 46 Brits. With a time of 18 hr 37 min and 47 secs I was placed 357th overall and 22nd Brit. 

I needed to do it. I needed a challenge. I needed to push myself harder than I had done for many years.  I had to check that I still had the focus and determination to crack such an event at the age of 52, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who needs to reaffirm the physical and phycological limits. Would I do it again? ABSOLUTELY!

Relive Part 1.

Relive Part 2.

Tour du Mont Blanc Finisher

The Kit

Bike - Hammer - Capella Team. Ultegra di2 compact 11/32. Dura-Ace C24. A fantastic build for this distance and climbing. Superb sure footed descender and extremely light. Tyres - Conti GP 4 Seasons 28c. An excellent tyre for this event giving assured descending on sometimes testing surfaces.

Clothing - Shutt Velo Rapide Custom Team Kit. The Shutt Pro range performed brilliantly. The pad, one of the most comfortable on the market was superb. 18+ hours in the saddle and you are always going to get an amount of pressure pain regardless how good your pad is, but any discomfort was minimal and quickly dissipated. 

David has been cycling for 10 years and after a 32 year career in the Royal Marines is now running operations for Shutt VR. Currently seeking the next big challenge - once the knees have been repaired.

Want to have a go yourself? Here's the website

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