'Cinq, quatre, trois, deux, un, balade'. As the emcee counted down those final five seconds my feelings shifted from nervousness and fear into excitement and adrenalin. The tension I had felt for the past twelve hours melted away as I clipped my shoes into the pedals of my bike and rolled across the start line. It was 5am, a veil of darkness hung over Les Saisies adding to the atmosphere as the Tour du Mont Blanc entrants set out on their individual quests to conquer 'the world's toughest one day bike event'.
When you sign up for an event with that moniker you know that it's going to be punishing. Only it isn't until you are actually out on the roads, battling epic climb after epic climb, that you begin to fully understand just how brutally tough the ride really is. Short of being out there yourself it is difficult to try and explain, and put into context, just what is required of those mad enough to enter this ride to make it all the way to the finish line. Given its magnitude there is a collective spirit among the riders that I have seldom experienced in other organised events, a spirit that acknowledges we are all in this together, and somehow we will get each other to the finish line. Added to that I was riding with Velocamp Performance Touring which, with their full ride support and meticulous planning, made the entire experience far more enjoyable and stress free.
For a ride that boasts eight thousands metres of ascent the opening stages are deceptively easy, with the first forty kilometres predominately downhill. Although I soon realised that the reason for this is so the ride can end with one final climb. However, any thoughts of that were a long way off, as to get to that stage I still had to conquer eight climbs, three of which were hors category (the hardest climbs there are, with climbs being rated from category 4 up to hors category) and three more category one efforts for good measure.
After a long and enjoyable descent into the Chamonix valley the climbing began, albeit at a comparatively gentle gradient (gentle by the standards of this ride, but not by any other standards). Climbs of the Vaudagne, Col des Montets and Col des Forclaz were enjoyable and the perfect way to warm up for the altogether harder climbs that lay ahead. But it was on the slopes of the Champex that the serious climbing began. A touch over 12km long, and gaining over 1000m of height, it was a brute. Despite cycling through constant rain on the climb it was highly enjoyable (as enjoyable as a category one climb can be) as the road wound it's way up the mountain, through thick forest and up to a beautiful lake at the summit.
The Champex was tough, but it was nothing compared to the Grand St Bernard. From the moment the road begins to increase in gradient the Grand St Bernard doesn't relent for a full thirty kilometres of climbing. And what's more, just as you think you have broken the back of it, emerging from the avalanche tunnel with seven kilometres to go, it ramps up to 9% as the final seven kilometres pick their way through the rocky mountain, testing you in every way possible. I rode most of that final stretch out of the saddle, focusing on every single turn of the pedals. Craning my neck to look up I could just about make out the summit, high up in the distance as a reminder that the worst was still to come.
Nothing can prepare you for a climb of that magnitude, not in the UK anyway, and it's a case of simply focusing on each bend, ticking them off one by one as I made my way up the mountain. Ever since I was young and first saw the Tour de France I wanted to know what it was like to take on such huge climbs, and now here I was getting my chance. Whilst it was hard work there was a part of me that was loving it, the sense of challenge, me against the mountain. I wanted to push myself to my limit this year and find out just how far I could go. To me this was the ultimate test.
A massive sense of relief washed over me as I crested the top of the climb, at which moment I thought it quite fitting to see a couple walk past with a St Bernard dog. On reaching the top I was ravenous, wasting no time in tucking into sandwiches and brioche buns at the support vehicle. It was now that I realised I was only just at the half way stage, a sobering thought after all that effort. At least the next stretch was downhill.
Once at the bottom of the Grand St Bernard descent it was a long and very hot slog through the Aosta valley, heading for the next hors category climb, Petit St Bernard, which was anything but petit. At the final feed station before taking on the climb I made a few quick calculations, and realised I would have to up my speed in order to make it down to Bourg St Maurice before the final cut-off time.
Taking on a 23km hors category climb at a steady pace is tough enough, especially off the back off Grand St Bernard, but to do so pushing to make up time makes it pretty brutal. I hit the bottom of the climb as fast as I could, knowing that the support car was waiting 10km up the road and it was all or nothing from now on in. The road snaked up the mountain in a series of switchbacks and I simply focused on making the next corner whilst maintaing a riding speed of 15km/h.
I could feel the lactic acid start to sting my legs as my body screamed at me to slow down. But my mind took over, urging me to keep going and not relent. My goal became to make it to the next road marking, each one signalling a tenth of a kilometre, as I counted down the metres until I would reach La Thuile. Once at La Thuile I stopped for two minutes, long enough to fill my pockets with more gels, get fresh water bottles and eat a banana, before hitting the road again. I was in the zone now and knew I had to keep my assault on the mountain going. The difference being that the gradient was now beginning to increase even more as the road cut high up into the mountain.
The next thirteen kilometres were sheer hell. My legs burnt and my heart pounded in my chest, yet somehow my mind kept willing me on, kept telling me that I was almost there, I kept thinking every corner would be the last, but the road kept on going, pushing me closer and closer to my limit. I cursed the mountain, and in return it just kept getting steeper. I was at my limit, close to exhaustion when I finally I saw the summit and the support cars waiting for me. It was another brief stop to refuel and then head off again, time was of the essence.
Usually there is nothing more enjoyable than descending a mountain, it's the reward for all of the hard work getting up it. Not so this time. Tired and cold the descent was arduous, battling into a fierce head wind that had littered the road with all manner of debris. I fought on, pushing as hard as I could on the long stretches before braking and easing my way around the numerous switchbacks, only to repeat the process over and again. As exhausted as I felt I knew there were two more big climbs to go before the finish line. My mind began to question if my body could follow where it would lead.
We all know our own bodies and how far we can push ourselves, and as I made my way down to Bourg St Maurice I knew mine was at it's limit. My eyes welled with tears at the thought that I might not have the energy to keep going, I had poured my heart and soul into this and for the first time since setting out on this journey it dawned on me that it might not finish how I had always pictured. I tried to block these thoughts out, telling myself that I would have recovered by Bourg St Maurice and would be ready to take on the next 20km long hors category climb. The next twenty minutes was a constant mental battle, fighting the demons in my head, convincing myself that I could go on.
Arriving at the final checkpoint, having covered 280km and 6000m of ascent, I was exhausted. I slumped into a chair whilst I scoffed brioche rolls and chocolate biscuits in a bid to boost my blood sugar levels. Ed gave me an honest account of what was still to come, as well as voicing his concern that I looked utterly spent, as an almighty thunderstorm broke out, lightening flashing across the skyline. Truth be told I felt spent too, but I had come too far to not keep going. I climbed back on to my bike, my mind defying what my body felt, and set off.
The road leading out of Bourg St Maurice and onto the Cormet de Roselend wasn't that steep but within a hundred metres I knew that it was over, my legs simply couldn't turn the pedals anymore. I turned the bike around and rolled back to where the support cars were, tears rolling down my face as it began to hit me, I wasn't going to achieve my goal. Not this time anyway. Whilst I never took it for granted that I would finish I also didn't for one minute imagine it would end as it did, on the side of a nondescript road in Bourg St Maurice with a thunder storm raging overhead.
Had I over exerted myself on the previous climb? Or was it a case of accumulative fatigue? Truth be told, probably a bit of both. Whilst I couldn't have been any fitter, I always knew I came into this challenge with limited cycling experience in terms of time on the bike (six months as opposed to the years my fellow riders had clocked up) and in the high mountains. At the time all I could focus on was what I hadn't achieved, yet with hindsight I have seen it all in a very different light. One thing I do know is that I will be back to complete this challenge in 2016.