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Beating Mont Blanc

BikesEtc
8 Nov 2016

A year after being beaten by the Tour du Mont Blanc sportive as a rookie, Marcus Leach returns looking for revenge

Mont Blanc had beaten rookie cyclist Marcus Leach once. But it was a defeat he could not accept. So a year later he went back to confront this giant – and his demons – again…

The Tour de Mont Blanc claims to be the hardest single-day event a cyclist can take on. To ride over 200 miles in a single day would be gruelling enough, but when you throw in thousands of metres of climbing on gradients that can reach 13% and descents that’ll scare your speedometer, we can see why it’s considered so tough.

One man who knows just how hard it is, is adventurer writer and motivational speaker Marcus Leach, who thought he’d give the Tour de Mont Blanc a crack in 2015, despite being a novice cyclist.

In the event, the mountain beat him and he bonked with around a quarter of the ride still to go. The experience haunted, however, him and this year – on 16th July  – Marcus returned to Mont Blanc to take on this mightiest of mountains again.

‘With no more than 200 metres standing between me and the finishing line of ‘The World’s Toughest One-day Bike Event’, a sense of calm washed over my body as I finally allowed myself to relax, safe in the knowledge that I was going to make it.

‘In a strange way, I didn’t want to ride any further, I wanted to hold on to that feeling of joy and cherish it for as long as possible. I had battled physically and mentally to reach this point, and now, within touching distance of the finish, I wanted to press pause.

‘I wanted to stop and let the rest of the world continue around me as I savoured the moment.

‘Finally, the voices in my head had fallen silent, no more questions of doubt, no more “What ifs”, just a sense of knowing. Knowing that I was going to do it, knowing that every last sacrifice from the past 12 months had been justified to reach this point, to have fulfilled my goal of completing the Tour du Mont Blanc.

‘It was a feeling in stark contrast to what I’d endured just a year before, having seen my first attempt fall short.

‘I had lived with the pain of that defeat for a year, it had hung over me like a dark cloud, but it had also inspired me to new levels of commitment, it forced me to develop into a better cyclist, a better person, and now finally it sweetened the taste of victory.

Beginner’s bad luck

‘My first effort had principally been a battle of the body as I threw myself into a challenge I knew little about, other than that it was 330km long, boasted 8,000m of ascent and traversed three countries in a grand loop of the Mont Blanc massif.

‘With only six months cycling experience under my belt some would call my decision foolhardy, although I prefer to see it as naive.

‘A year later and now the fear came from knowing too much, from intimately understanding every last twist and turn of all but the final 50km of the route, from continually playing out in my head climbs that had already tormented me, exacerbating their severity each time that I did so.

‘It’s funny how the mind can play tricks, how the voices in your head can begin to eat away at a confidence built over months of hard training, fortified with solid performances in some of Europe’s premier sportives.

‘Those voices that had once raged and filled my mind faded away under a veil of darkness as we got underway. No matter the level of the rider, it’s human nature to entertain thoughts of doubt, especially where past failures are concerned, but over the years I have found the best antidote is action.

‘There is nothing more powerful than the body showing the mind that it is possible, that it isn’t as hard as you thought. And so, in the dead of night, a river of lights flowed down the mountain as those brave enough to take on this challenge began their quest.

‘Every rider’s respective journey to reach this point had been unique, but now we were united in a common cause, a single goal: to conquer the mountains.

‘With seven recognised climbs, and a few other pulls deemed too small in comparison to warrant a mention, it’s impossible to think too far ahead.

‘Instead it’s the old cliché of one climb at a time, but it’s a cliché that slowly builds confidence, because with every minor triumph comes fresh belief that the ultimate goal is achievable, that the mountains can be overcome.

‘Be it youthful exuberance or pure adrenaline, or maybe a mixture of the two, the first 100km seemed to fly by in a blur of colours as the ride weaved its way down from the ski resort of Les Saisies, into the Chamonix Valley, over the Swiss border and onto the first recognised climbs.

‘As I ride, the words of Shelley’s ode to the great mountain – Mont Blanc – run through my mind…

“Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky, Mont Blanc appears – still snowy and serene…. And this, the naked countenance of earth, On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains Teach the adverting mind.”

‘Taking a moment to reflect on the journey I’d been on in order to return to this challenge, I couldn’t help but think that if it wasn’t for this mountain I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

‘Having stood on its summit only weeks before my first attempt at conquering it I knew it intimately. Of all the mountains I’d been on this was the one that had taught me the most about myself.

‘And now here I was, back once again, looking to apply all of those lessons in pursuit of victory. Although the victory wouldn’t be over other riders, but over myself – something that would prove an even greater test.

‘Ascents of Col des Montets and Col de la Forclaz preceded the first meaningful test of the day, Champex-Lac, which in any other ride would be a highlight – the pinnacle of a good day in the saddle.

‘Yet such is the nature of this ride that it features as nothing more than the final warm up for the passes of the Grand St-Bernard Pass and the not-so-little Petit St-Bernard.

Majestic suffering

‘Both are as unrelenting as they are beautiful, as soul-destroying as they are fulfilling, and as fearsome as they are awe-inspiring. The pain they inflict is eased only by the majestic scenery. Distracting you from your suffering with snow-capped peaks framed by ice-blue skies.

‘Grand St-Bernard lures you into a false sense of security, comparatively shallower gradients (still between 5-7%) for much of the first 18km lead you to believe that its reputation as a monster of the cycling world emanate from its length as opposed to the severity of the climb.

‘That belief is emphatically banished the moment you leave the tunnel and look to the summit and see the road coil abruptly up the mountain, ready to squeeze the life out of your legs with 7km of punishing riding, before spitting you out at the top and onto a nerve-jangling high speed decent down to the Aosta Valley.

‘Petit St-Bernard offers little respite. Fractionally shorter in distance than its big brother, it’s a climb that saps your energy and leaves you wondering if it’ll ever end as the road winds incessantly up, the summit hidden until the very last moment, by which stage the mental fatigue is equal to the physical pain.

‘And yet, despite all the suffering, as I reached Bourg-Saint-Maurice, 280km in, and particularly meaningful to me given that this was where my previous effort had come to an agonising end, I was buoyed by one thought: “That wasn’t as hard as I remembered.” The thought didn’t last long.

‘The final 50km forced me to confront my demons as I ventured into the unknown. At the first time of asking, I’d fallen short by “just” 50km, what to me was an inconsequential distance then, but a seemingly interminable one now.

All in the mind

‘I knew from previous rides that I had it in my legs. The big question, though, was did I have it in my mind?

‘The prospect of at least another three hours in the saddle, of another 30km of climbing, sent my thoughts spiralling wildly. Reminding myself that the mental strength I needed to overcome this challenge had already been forged in a thousand smaller ways and rides over the previous 12 months, I narrowed my world to the few metres in front of me as I inched my way up Cormet de Roselend one determined pedal stroke at a time.

‘With the warm evening sun slowly disappearing behind the distant peaks, tingeing the horizon with a burnt orange hue, the focus now was to not only finish the ride, but to do so before darkness once again enveloped Les Saisies and the surrounding mountains.

‘Having started the ride in the dark, I was now faced with the very real prospect of finishing in the dark. Having ridden all day this was a something  that now also challenged my mental strength.

‘But it’s only by putting ourselves in such situations that we discover who we really are. With 300km already in my weary legs and mind, my focus began to waiver as I winched my way up another gruelling climb.

‘Over the crest and onto the descent, however, the gnarly roads soon brought everything back into sharp focus. The run down from Roselend is as breathtaking as it is demanding, sweeping past the picturesque lake towards the valley below. All the while my mind ticked off every passing kilometre.

‘At the 10km-to-go sign I resigned myself to the fact I would indeed be finishing in the dark. But at least I’d only be climbing in the deteriorating light, not belting down any more hair-raising descents.

Journey’s end

‘As night fell, the world around vanished as I became intently focused on the continually changing tarmac before me illuminated by my front light.

‘It took the shouted encouragement of a supporter on the outskirts of Les Saises to break my hypnosis, to make me realise I was nearly there.

‘Almost 17 hours earlier, in the dead of night, I’d begun my quest to overcome this ride that had so tormented me, and now here I was, physically and emotionally spent, yet strangely wishing it wouldn’t end.

‘As I entered the final stretch, the last few hundred metres, with the finish line that I had visualised crossing for so long just ahead of me, waves of emotion washed over my body and my eyes filled with tears.

‘Ultimately the Tour du Mont Blanc is as much about surviving as it is racing to the end. The outpouring of emotion as I approached the finish was evidence enough of that.

‘My fellow riders, often silent on the road now vocalise their support right to the turn of the final pedal. It was never said but we all knew that without each other we may not have completed this brute of a course.

‘The knowledge that others are suffering as much as you offers a truly rare sense of camaraderie. And it’s often the only thing that keeps you going.

‘If ever a ride challenged the perception of what I believed to be possible, then the Tour de Mont Blanc was it. But this was more than just a ride, this was as much about the journey as it was the final goal.

‘One that began as a novice rider on a nondescript road in Bourg-Saint-Maurice a year earlier. In that moment of defeat came the beginnings of a new path, a path that would lead not only to success but to a greater belief that anything can be achieved with the right mindset. In life, as on our bikes, the greatest mountains that we must conquer are those in our minds.

‘In doing so, though, we open the door to a world of endless possibilities.’

Follow Marcus’s adventures at marcusleach.co.uk and on Twitter @MarcusLeachFood. The next edition of the Tour de Mont Blanc is on 15th July 2017. For more info, see sportcommunication.info

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