Cycling, France, Travel

Col d’Izoard

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It’s been a while since we’ve ridden in the mountains. With freezing temperatures and icy conditions the majority of our training is done indoors these days. So I thought it was time to revisit some of the stunning climbs we’ve experienced in the last year. The beautiful scenery and pivotal moments are only more motivation to do it all again next year.

In the southern French Alps, 31 kilometres from Guillestre, is the Col d’Izoard, 2,360 meters above sea level at its peak. With a maximum grade of 14%, the climb is one of few to feature in both the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia. It was made famous during the Tour de France of 1949 when the unstoppable Fausto Coppi allowed his rival Gino Bartali to take the stage win because it was his birthday. A monument to the pair now stands at the summit. The Col d’Izoard was also the first proper mountain we climbed.

Guillestre in late May 2016 saw the start of the final stage of the Giro d’Italia, and having met up with our lovely friends Kath and Chris there, the Col d’Izoard made for a perfect side trip. For me, who’d been recovering from an injury and doing nothing but long flat rides for the past year, the 15km ‘spin’ to the base of the climb was hardly a breeze. But my lack of form was soothed by the unparalleled majesty of the mountains. Caverns of rock floated overhead like cathedrals as we hugged the guardrail. The gouges in the blacktop were a stark reminder that we were at the mercy of this stunning wilderness. Tunnels threaded through the hillside and pinnacles of rock rose from the mist below, until the road was swallowed by the mountains entirely.

The grade kicked into the climb proper and I was happy to watch Colby and Chris fade into the distance, my new melt-down-o-metre (aka power metre) reminding me to take it easy. I hadn’t done an FTP test (functional threshold power – or more simply, the power I could push through my pedals for an entire hour without blowing up) and I’d done no power training, but I had some idea how much (or more to the point, how little) power I could hold; and it was far from what it would take to keep up with them.

In the absence of the others, silence engulfed me. And apart from the rhythmic throb of my legs, stillness surrounded me. I was filled with a sense of calm. Sleepy villages evolved, then slipped off into the past and I stumbled over unfamiliar French in my head. Eglise. The timber sign swayed ahead of an old stone church. I knew the word, just couldn’t place it. Carpets of yellow stretched beyond and the mountains sang with strains from The Sound of Music. I cursed the yodelled chorus of Lonely Goat, which lodged in my head, and imagined the concept of freedom, looming, just the other side of these mountains ( . . . even if the story wasn’t true).

There was an eerie feel about the deserted ski fields in the middle of summer. And the aging painted tributes to Tours de France gone by added to the feeling that this place was lost in the past.

The melt-down-o-meter ran hot as the sun prickled my skin and the grade kicked up to 12%. I may not have had an FTP but turning the pedals alone at this grade was taking an effort well over what I could sustain. The open fields turned to forest and I welcomed the shade, swallowing my panicked gasps as pulled up alongside the boys, not so secretly grateful for the break. But all the encouragement I needed to clip back in and keep pedalling lay in the yellow fields unfurling below and the snow-capped mountains looking on in the distance.

A couple of kilometres further and a brief reprieve came in the form of a descent when the forest opened into the dramatic moonscape of the Casse Deserte. Still, it only served to intensify the muscle burn when the climb began again. Cascades of loose rock flowed on either side of the road like one giant waste dump and the drop in temperature hinted at the altitude. Colby spun effortlessly behind me and I hugged the shoulder, lapping up what coolness I could from the pockets of un-melted snow and gasping at Colby to get some photos of the surreal landscape. I didn’t like my chances of getting started again if I stopped to capture it myself.

Just when I thought I had nothing left, the final hair pin swung around to the crest. Nothing stood in ahead except the stone tower of the col sign and a valley of snow capped mountains. If anyone had told me a year earlier I’d be riding up mountains, I wouldn’t have believed them, yet there I was. And it had taken little more than a steady pace and a head full of determination.

Commencing my first descent was like riding off the edge of the world. Snow capped mountains stretched for as far as the eye could see and the cold bit at my legs. If this was a sign of things to come, it was going to be an amazing journey . . . I only hoped the pursuit of the afternoon’s Giro stage up my second mountain didn’t come too soon.