Travel

Col du Sabot

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I’ve never fancied myself as much of a politician. Honesty, integrity and people’s opinion of me are far too important. But after coaxing myself to the top of the Col du Sabot with nothing more than promises I couldn’t keep, I began to think maybe, just maybe, I might have what it takes.

Altitude at Summit: 2100m
Distance: 14.5 km
Average Gradient: 9%
Max Gradient: 12+%
Climb in Vertical Meters: 1290m

My friend Kath had warned me about the ‘F@#king Sabot.’ Uneven surfaces. Gravel. Cow shit. Nasty grades. But with stage 5 of the Critérium du Dauphiné finishing in the tiny ski village of Vaujany, a third of the way up, the Sabot made for the perfect pre-race pedal. And with beers safely tucked into the mountain cooler for later, baguettes stashed nearby and the Aussie flag marking their presence, we continued on up the hill.

Vaujany buzzed with a race vibe. Mobile homes covered any spare piece of bitumen and Gendarmerie stood proud on every corner. Big screens blared commentary from cute timber chalets and people began crowding the streets. “Allez, allez!” A couple of teenage boys screamed, reaching out to give us a push. But the minute we turned up the first switchback, the hubbub died. The road narrowed, and we were engulfed by nothing but silence and the majesty of the mountains.

Colby, Kath and Chris slipped off around the next switchback, leaving me to plod along at my own pace. They waved from the road above. Then the road above that. And then finally disappeared completely. I didn’t mind. In fact, I liked riding alone. Being a tiny speck against the backdrop of infinite rock and the bottomless valley below. Thinking of nothing but the rhythmic throb of my legs and the relative insignificance of my worries.

Only today the burn in my legs was disproportionate to the gentle grade unravelling through the open pastures ahead. Not that it mattered. Today I could simply spin it out, with no risk that my snail pace would cause anyone to miss the race. The others would roll back down in plenty of time. And although I might disappoint myself by not making it to the top, today was about the journey, not the destination.

The journey wound along the side of the mountain, lush green slopes folding elegantly into the valley below and snow capped peaks watching on in the distance. It was stunning, but it hurt so bad. I glanced down at my Garmin, searching for solace and it all came clear. The deceptively ‘gentle grade’ was actually 12%.

I stared at the broken pavement, watching my front wheel roll over another cow pad. The bitumen turned from grey to black as I tried to mentally detatch my legs from my body. They wouldn’t budge. So with the thought of pulling up and sitting by the roadside until the others returned pounding in my head, I began to count. Fifty pedal stokes and it would get easier, I promised. It had to. This steep incline couldn’t go on forever. A hundred I bargained, and I could stop. But I didn’t. I just kept turning, and counting, and puffing and burning, the stunning green hills imploding into oblivion around me . . . until I reached a thousand. It was then I began considering my political career.

My furniture was looking good in Kirribilli House by the time I turned up the next set of switchbacks. The road below curled back along the mountain-side and I watched as it disappeared into the valley from where I’d just come. Two thousand. I turned back to the road ahead. If one pedal stroke was one metre, I’d just counted two kilometres. My Garmin could’ve told me this of course, but while my head was counting, there was no room for doubt. And no capacity to consider giving up.

Using the entire road to find the flattest line, I zig-zagged my way up another switchback, taking my chances with oncoming traffic. The only people heading in the opposite direction would be Chris, Kath or Colby – and they’d be forgiving, surely. But it was a grey-bearded man who gave me a wide berth on his descent. My pained expression twisted with a tinge of shame. He was twice my age and still riding up mountains. “C’est prés d’ici!” he called back, as if reading my mind. It’s near here! Thank God.

Kath and Chris sailed past on the next bend, escaping the cold and shouting encouragement as they passed. And before I had time to overthink . . . or hurt . . . or count . . . it ended. As though Mother Nature was saying “You’ve come far enough.”

I’d forgotten the cruelty of the climb by the time I rolled back around that last switchback and let gravity pull me into the long, fast descent. The only ‘promise’ I needed to get me down the mountain, was that of the delicious baguette I’d stashed back at our vantage point.


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