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Mont Blanc sportive

Steve Westlake
13 Apr 2016

Cyclist heads to the Mont Blanc Massif in Italy to take part in the first edition of a brand new sportive.

Head down, staring at the top tube. I don’t want to see the road ahead because all it promises is another hairpin in the distance, another increase in incline, another I-don’t-know-how-many kilometres of suffering. The flies are my friends now. Yesterday on a short recce ride somewhere across the Aosta valley, the swarms were irritants to be swished at with an arm or accelerated away from, but now they are my companions, distracting me from my screaming body and desperate thoughts. Any distraction is welcome.

The Colle San Carlo is kicking the hell out of me. Three times on this HC climb I seriously consider stopping, or more accurately I wonder if my legs themselves will choose simply to stop pressing on the pedals and all forward motion cease in an instant. At one point I hear myself cry out, a wail at the pain this mountain is throwing at me. The mountain doesn’t care at all.

The start of something big

Rewind four hours. It’s 8.20am on a perfect summer morning and 1,300 riders and onlookers assemble in the town square of up-market ski resort Courmayeur. It’s cool but not cold, and cafes are serving espresso and croissants to the relaxed throng in this bilingual part of northern Italy. It would be a flawlessly serene scene, a soothing calm before the storm, but for a way-too-loud PA pumping out some Euro-trance – presumably trying to instil extra excitement. Then the DJ turns it up by about 30%. 

The Mont Blanc Massif looms behind us. And it is massive – on all sides the mountains tower over us, lush green trees giving way to snow above 3,500m. Somewhere up there, invisible to us at the moment, snake the roads that will provide today’s 139km test. The first edition of the La Mont Blanc sportive is about to depart.

‘We think this event will rival the Maratona dles Dolomites,’ says co-organiser Andrea Vergani. ‘It will actually be tougher. The climbs are not as long, but they are steeper and harder.’ I smile back at him in blissful ignorance. 

Sliding my British-designed Forme bike into the starting pen, I’m surrounded by crowds of Pinarellos, Cervélos, Wiliers held by immaculate club riders in razor-sharp apparel. By some happy fluke my plain black and white Scott kit matches the Forme’s paintwork, but I still feel under-dressed, under-groomed and under scrutiny. This is Italy, where the cyclist’s natural attention to aesthetics is amplified tenfold by a national culture obsessed with appearance. They all look amazing. I glance down and see a woodland of smooth mahogany legs, tanned, sculpted and shaved to reflective perfection. My two days of stubble makes me feel a little self conscious, as do my Celtic-white pins – like the silver birch trunks standing out from the dark conifers we’ll see on the climbs that await us.

The start takes us on a walking-pace loop through the narrow cobbled streets of Courmayeur, past ski hire shops, boutiques and jewellery stores. Immediately we hit a cheeky cat four climb for a couple of kilometres up to the village of La Palud, taking us within sight of the entrance of the Mont Blanc tunnel. Then we cut back on ourselves and begin a high-speed 23km descent that quickly blows out any remaining cobwebs. Being so close to the start of the race, a vast, mixed-ability peloton develops – maybe 300 riders strong – as we plunge down the wide, smooth A-road through the Aosta valley. The roadside furniture rushes by in a blur at speeds of up to 70kmh, while the distant sunlit mountains glide and rotate slowly in our vision.

Due to the relentlessly fast pace and huge pack of riders there’s still no time to relax, as we’re reminded when the first roundabout after 10km provokes panicked shouts and swerves as sluggish reactions and surprise braking threaten a pile-up. But we all swoop through, splitting pro-style and going either side of the island, prompting my first, and far from last, grin of the day.

We have the whole road to play with. The organisers have arranged for the entire sportive route to be closed for 90 minutes after the leaders have gone through, so there’s no opposing traffic and we’re the bosses of the tarmac.

Perspiration and inspiration

After an exhilarating 25 minutes averaging well over 50kmh, the gradient flattens and we turn onto the first serious climb of the day: Cerellaz. Immediately it serves up a series of textbook Alpine switchbacks and, as the pace plummets, there’s welcome headspace to look around and drink in the surroundings as we start an upward traverse of the north bank of the Aosta valley. This is what we’ve all come here for.

The road is dense with riders tapping out a rhythm, bobbing and rocking to their own cadence beats as arm-warmers and wind jackets are removed and stowed on the fly. There’s something unusual about the style of the rider up ahead and when I catch him on a hairpin, just as a vast panorama of Mont Blanc swings into view, I realise he has only one leg. It’s Italian paralympian Fabrizio Macchi, who’s clearly been making fearless progress on the early fast descent and is putting his mighty single lower limb to excellent use on the climb too. 

‘How’s it going?’ comes a voice alongside me at the top of the second climb. It’s Andrea Vergani again, who’s riding the granfondo to assess the fruits of his organisational labour. It’s hardly an easy job to set up a large-scale event like this for the first time – persuading all the interested authorities to cooperate, close roads, direct traffic. So far, so good. 

‘Very well thanks,’ I reply. With two cat two ascents in the bag I’m still feeling fresh, and having climbed from 800m to 1,600m, the views have become truly majestic – plus there’s another descent just around the corner.

‘This descent is my least favourite,’ Vergani says, as if reading my thoughts. ‘The surface is bad and there are a lot of tight hairpins. Be careful.’ So I follow his advice and his lines as we slice down towards Aosta. Even if it’s not champagne descending, picking a rapid route between cracks in the surface, potholes and gravel is still a buzz. ‘It’s a shame we have to concentrate on the road,’ shouts Vergani as we brake hard into a hairpin, ‘because the view is amazing!’

The view is indeed amazing. A kilometre below us, Aosta sits in the wide valley with the sun reflecting off the Dora Baltea river while the surface of the motorway from the Mont Blanc Tunnel to Turin lazily mimics the river’s curves. Above Aosta is greenness and rock on an epic scale, the work of millions of years of tectonics and erosion, chiselled for our viewing pleasure.

The descent bottoms out and within minutes we’re climbing again through the pretty village of Saint Maurice. It’s beginning to sink in that this sportive’s profile offers precious little time on the flat. Temperatures are nudging the 30s and I begin to question the wisdom of carrying only one water bottle. An event sign saying ‘fontana’ perhaps promises plastic cups and clumsy spillages, but what I’m treated to around the next corner is a charming natural spring (umm, a fountain in fact) piping purest mountain water that would surely fetch £1.50 a bottle back home. 

Refreshed and with sole bottle replenished, we’re descending again and flash past the Saint-Pierre castle, perched high on a spur of rock and dating back to the 12th century but with fairytale turrets added in the 19th century giving it a Disneyland appearance – though kids may be disappointed that the castle houses a Museum of Natural Sciences, not Mickey and his pals.

Trouble on the horizon

The third serious climb of the sportive comes as a warning. Les Combes is laborious in its own right, but is less than half as long and less steep than what’s to come in 35km. I’m beginning to get a little nervous about the HC on the horizon. After a gentle climb up the Aosta valley, retracing the route of our fast morning descent, followed by a five-minute food and water stop, 100km rolls up on my Garmin and I know the San Carlo is close. 

‘Ivan Basso holds the record for the climb at 35 minutes,’ Vergani had told me on that descent to Aosta, ‘but a good time is an hour.’ That’s an hour of climbing at an average of 10% gradient and never less than 9%. It’s this cruel consistency that gives the Colle San Carlo its infamous teeth.

There’s a steady trickle of riders around me as we start the ascent, and I try to take in the scenery, enjoy the dappled light playing on the woodland, pick out those silver birches among the conifer trunks, but soon my mind is filled with nothing but discomfort.

After exactly 30 minutes a white line across the road indicates the half-way point of the climb. It occurs to me that I should be buoyed that I’m on course for Andrea’s ‘good time’, but in fact a small part of me dies. As a rule I’m ‘a glass-half-full’ guy. Not right now. My head drops and I stare vertically downwards at my knees grinding slowly up and down. I soon run out of water, adding dehydration anxiety to my list of woes. Rule#5 has gone out of the window.

Around me are riders sharing space in my pain cave, some choosing the sensible option and taking a moment’s stationary shelter from the incline and the heat. At 8km I see a rider standing in the shade beside a hairpin. He’s probably having a cigarette break, I joke to myself. As I get closer, I see he is having a cigarette. Bravo.

A man shouts – ‘Vai! Vai! Only 1.5 kilometres to go!’ with well-intentioned encouragement, but it only saps my spirit further. On Strava segments on my local jaunt, 1.5k is over in a flash. Now my speed has dropped as low as 6kmh, it seems like an eternity. All I want is to get to the top without stopping and feel the glorious tip of the scales as gravity presses its hand on my back rather than my forehead. Somehow it happens, one hour and five minutes after it began.

The run to home 

Now comes the descent to the small ski resort of La Thuile – such a sweet relief. The trees lining the climb give way to an open mountainside with the tarmac weaving gently through farmland. Electricity pylons score lines on the immaculate mountainscape, yet manage to enhance the view. It’s the most open and expansive part of the route and is pure pleasure to behold. I don’t attack the descent or strive much for perfect lines. I’m just relieved to be free of the climb at last. More than relieved: triumphant. There’s still 22km to go from the summit to the end of the sportive, but I know the hard work is done. 

A tanned and toned rider comes past and jolts me out of my recuperative trance. He must be at least 10 years older than me and looks admirably fresh, so I get back on the case and we descend in unison. From La Thuile we drop down towards Courmayeur and, after a couple more short warm-down climbs, comes the obligatory sprint through the streets to the finish, crossing the line in just under six hours. 

Simple pleasures are amplified afterwards. The shower, the first sip of beer and, frankly, going to the toilet… all uplifting spiritual experiences united by the plain fact that they are not climbing. And yet, after only a few hours, I’m gazing at the mountains again and wondering if I could shave off that five minutes on the Colle San Carlo next time. 

How we got there

Travel

We chose Swiss Airlines to Geneva thanks to its sympathetic bike carrying policy (free if it’s under 23kg). Returns from London start from £130. Then it was a transfer bus to Chamonix (€75 return) and a public transport bus through the Mont Blanc Tunnel to Courmayeur (€14). Renting a car would make things a cinch and a journey time of 1h 20mins. Alternative airports are Turin and Milan. Transfer times are: Turin 1hr 40m; Milan 2hrs 20m.

Accommodation

We stayed at the charming Astoria hotel in La Palud, 4km up the hill from Courmayeur with stunning views of the Aosta valley and a breakfast buffet to match. It’s run by Italian ex-pro ski racer Fabio Berthod and his wife Monica – both very friendly. Rooms start at €60 for a single, €98 for a twin/double. Go to hotelastoriacourmayeur.com

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