A momentary loss of consciousness. Like a micro-sleep but without possible resistance. One minute hugging the right side of the twisting Alpine road and a split second later traversing the centre line; long-honed instincts righting the listing bike before smashing into the asphalt. Pull to a stop, head sagging, vision desperately seeking focus. Endgame. Make or break time. The devastating realisation that failure could be grabbed from a success so tangible at this final juncture.
Caffeine. The drug of choice; a substance so potent it’d certainly be banned if not so prevalent. The only possible salvation, and yet hunched on this mountainside, availability was scarce. The final goopy gel long-since swallowed. Practicality over panic. I’m a survivor and inner-drive is my one true strength, battering past foes that should scythe me down, lord knows, I’ve stared down enough demons in the preceding seventeen hours… think, think…
Rummaging into pockets and discovering the Solpadeine, a last minute gift from Chris, pain relief the intention but alertness the side-effect. No vessel to dissolve the large tablet so straight into my mouth it goes, foamy bubbles forcing through gritted teeth but by no means the toughest swallow of this epic challenge. Rolling once more, grey-edged hallucinations dissipating and sharpness returning. Les Contamines providing a double espresso with six sugars. One more climb standing between current position and the glorious salvation of the apartment. Self-belief. Desire. Sheer fucking stubbornness. Me to a T. Accelerate on, this could go sub-nineteen with a slice of luck.
Three Decades in the Making
I’d previous with the Tour de Mont Blanc. A wonderful eleven day circumnavigation of Western Europe’s highest peak with my dad as a kid, followed by a long-desired biking repeat, completed over two days with my mate Brian a few years back. Both experiences were incredible, uniquely satisfying and memorable, but human nature seeks to strain limits and a non-stop lap became a gradually expanding goal. The purpose of this particular trip had been the completion of the walker’s Haute Route by bike with the lads, 220km of high altitude hike-a-bike between Chamonix and Zermatt. It had delivered immeasurably, beyond wildest expectations of effort and delight. Five consecutive days featuring hours of lugging bikes and kit, tottering on cliff-edge paths, treacherous ground and gaping drops. Topping out at 3000m daily before plunging down to a surreal mix of cosy accommodations, the essence of juxtaposition, pain and pleasure, but pleasure comes through pain and the true enjoyment was the fear and agony, not the fluffy pillows. The conditions had sought hard to repel us, rain and snow, view-robbing fog, testing resolve, nature asserting authority before relenting into glorious sunshine for the final day. It was during the double ascents of that last effort that realisation dawned that physical prowess had struck me, legs and lungs acclimatised and purposeful. The voice in my head, the devil on my shoulder, I may never get another opportunity like this, suddenly the TMB attempt was an inevitability and that strange calm enveloped me as it dawned what may transpire. I wanted this so badly.
But what did I want really? Certainly to complete the route Brian and I had seen off previously, but in a non-stop push. It had taken us 21 hours over two days and I knew that repeating it was possible, if extremely difficult. It had to be sub-24, it had to be solo, totally unsupported and it had to cover the same distance or further than the recognised UTMB running route. There was a twinkle of another challenge too, something outlandish, cutting under Pau Capell’s recent 20:19:07 record for the full 170km Ultra distance. Clearly biking and running are very different disciplines and wheels move faster downhill on smooth surfaces, but the route contains plenty of technicality and extreme gradients where riding is impossible. For those, the Stanton Switch 9er would be balanced on shoulders along with a weighty bag of tools, water, spares and food. It’s a rough estimate but over the full distance I’d say it’d be a fair fight between the two sports. My chosen route did sway the advantage back by eschewing a couple of sections considered too treacherous for night-time passage meaning I’d cover 2000m less verticality but a greater distance. Rules decided. Game on.
The two days sandwiched between the Haute Route end and the TMB start were riddled with the usual creeping apprehensions, fear of the unknown and of failure, magnified by a heavy cold trying to work its way into much needed lung capacity. Vitamin C overload and an obscenely named drink concoction provided by Andrew kept symptoms suppressed. Another day to recover and prep was desperately needed but would’ve left no margins, and so the date was set. Bag painstakingly packed, lights fitted, nav aids prepared and down for a couple of hours fitful sleep. A thirty year countdown ticking away to zero…
Section One – Chamonix to the Col De La Forclaz
An uncontrollable overload of adrenaline and caffeine accompanied progress into the warm 1:30am darkness, and tears flowed freely as legs span through Chamonix town. Offering high-fives to confused revellers, punching the air and gulping down huge breaths simply to check emotions rather than to fuel oxygen-hungry cells. The enormity of the task dwarfed by desire for success, macabre anticipation of the duress to come, this shit is a voyage of discovery and a delicate mental state was about to be explored to the full. As the enticing glow of urban light retreated, the bubble of headtorch lumens became my sole companion and Andy C’s wondrous blend of beats flooded past ear drums into rapidly awakening muscles. Through Le Tour and off the road, the satin feel of brushed titanium against my neck as the hike-a-bike commenced. Gentle rhythm, minimal effort, slipping into comfortable trance as the coffee buzz dissipated and reality dawned. This was it. I was here. Just me and the mountains, not another sinner, heaven on Earth…
It came tearing through the black. Flashes of huge fangs and a guttural growl, a frequency unattainable by any smaller creature. Instinctively the bike was dropped into no-man’s-land, a flimsy wall between soft flesh and charging beast. Braced to fight, thankfully distance was maintained, but so was malice, a continuous growl, the essence of threat. Calming words and a gentle retreat, eyes transfixed on the dripping jowls, the sheer size of this thing. Heart thumping. Laugh out loud. Overwhelming relief. No chance of retreat now, rather 100 more miles of mountain terrain than a rematch, the hound of hell seemed a fitting companion; back to business.
The Col de Balme crested, a swift WhatsApp to the lads and the true battle about to be revealed. Proper endurance athletes know that these challenges are essentially an eating contest, fuel the body and it’ll reward in abundance. A giant pain-au-raisin the first adversary, dry and scratchy, expanded chunks clogging a constricted throat. Negative pleasure, food is fuel and the stomach must be delicately filled, an eternal tightrope between nausea and exhaustion. First battle won but this war would run to the end. The holy trinity, head, legs and stomach. Two have been trained to elite competence, repeatedly tested to breaking. The third is unpredictable and inexperienced; disrespect digestion at your peril, unwanted food and excessive movement make unhappy companions.
And yet movement is unavoidable. Essential forward progress coupled with the boneshaking of downhill tearing. The drop into Switzerland is immense, endless switchbacks and huge loose boulders, technically demanding in daylight but strangely rideable at night. All previous experience leading to this point, techniques finely honed, relax, point and shoot. Three of the lads walked the most intimidating drop on Haute Route day one which also took in this descent. Darkness removes advance warning, in the groove and through without hesitation. Skittering rocks and involuntary whoops, I’m pretty handy at this biking shit, satisfaction and smiles, through the final testing section and on to the road. Gentle spin to the Forclaz and progress is solid. Chocolate and electrolyte, an easier win.
Section Two – Col De La Forclaz to Champex
More familiarity, extended carrying and frustratingly undulating ground. Ride or lift? The Bovine trail winds gradually up, interspersed with occasional rooty steps, steep gullies and slippery foliage. Prep for the Haute Route included thousands of weighted squats and lunges, investing in bodily capabilities, a few cheques cashed here. Skipping more than grinding to the summit, mind still sharp and unencumbered, still pitch black but the sense of impending light and the primal relief associated. Another WhatsApp retaining the umbilical link to distant friends, they’ll be surprised at the rapidity of progress and they’re not alone. A bite of pizza, fuck knows why, but they say solid food is important, a matter of opinion that I’d vehemently challenge with hindsight, but hindsight is wonderful and chillies aren’t, not at this time anyway. Dropping in, controlled and precise, no room for mistakes.
I crashed on this section just a few days before, seems a lifetime. I’m a different person now. Sounds trite but there’s an underlying truth, this holiday is somehow re-wiring my brain, unearthing a long-buried desire to interact. Mental turmoil has been a constant companion in my adult life but these experiences are exacerbating fundamental feeling and loneliness is creeping in. Starting to crave human contact, a perfectly timed text comes in. Nobody is alone in the technological age; if only that were true. The hole in my leg serves notice to respect the tight squeezes between jagged outcrops and pace is sacrificed for survival. Long drag to the road and into Champex, the weak dawn light gaining gradual advantage, Earth spinning on invisible axis, can I be home before darkness envelopes again?
Section Three – Champex to Courmayeur
A navigational conundrum, irritating rather than tricky, few prior memories to aid progress and a couple of swift relocations, then drag, drag, drag up the Val Ferret. This climb totals about 30km, initially via road then semi-technical track. Heat rising and an accompanying sluggishness, the first creeping signals of fatigue and a darkening mood, mouth just gaping and eyes drifting. Pop up into La Fouly and drain the delicious fresh water trough, bus loads of tourists from another planet, unable to compute or comprehend the image of suffering before them. Chocolate coated mouth, unpleasant and cloying. Genuine worry for the first time. Still four major cols to go. Bitten off too much? Demons gather, bide their time, waiting to strike, bury them deep, forced positivity, straight from the self-help manual. Words in my head aren’t mine but they prevail, ‘you’ve got this’, ‘you’ve got this’…
First genuine conversation since Chamonix, tonic for the soul and an astounded American, but the physical aspects are dominating. The midday sun pushing temperatures into the high-twenties, beating down and boiling the skull, brain feels like it’s shrinking, where the hell did the morning go? If deterioration continues from here it’s over, lines on a graph, stock values in mental and physical belief gradually sliding towards zero. The grim in determination, one arduous step at a time. Finally pass the Grand Col Ferret at 2537m, literally no recollection, self-preservation of the mind.
Scrape away the anguish, pick the best of the Haribo and neck a caffeine gel, and no matter the predicament, natural tendencies will rise from the ashes. Crystal skies, perfect trails, bunny hopping water bars into blind drops, back tyre drifting, stones spitting and I’m simply a mountain biker once more. Past the near-hypothermic bivi spot of TMB’s past, if this is a blaze of glory I’m sure as hell going to enjoy it. No right to ride so well in this exposed spot, a weight lifted and gradual return of confidence. The Col de la Seigne will be the designated battle ground, over that hump and two-thirds of climbs will be complete, it’s a huge ask but there’s a sudden impatience for the fight. I’ve never shied from confrontation regardless of opponent. Spectacular geology, tectonic movement and glacial erosion, simple morphology versus the complexities of man. This is why I’m here. Why do we exist if not for challenge? Memories of a departed friend. He fought this fight too. Nobody ever wins and what is life if not a protracted death sentence? Silent thanks for the people who have my back forever, you know who you are; but Mike Skinner said it best, we all fight alone in the last garrison. I feel alone; I’ll scrap to the end, no holds barred.
Courmayeur. Beauty and the beast. The world’s best ice cream and painfully picturesque, picnicking here on an idyllic day with Anna and the kids just weeks ago; but also the scene of the unmentionable breakdown with Brian on the two-day TMB lap. I shouldn’t have even been here but the one true navigational error had just struck, the urban environment testing abilities more tuned to the mountains and moorlands. A simple cock-up, pidgin Italian and rushed navigation aids. Bemused workmen witnessing the debacle with quizzical expressions. The beautiful church of Notre Dame de la Guerison perched precariously on the hillside above, the road just below is my intended destination; but a raging torrent separates us and mountain craft trumps desire, you don’t mess with glacial rivers. Re-trace steps, map out, rectify and climb. This could’ve been the straw, but the camel’s back was reinforced with steel girders. Out of darkness cometh light and full-scale re-birth had occurred. The timing of a Stone Roses track has never been so apt, I am the fucking resurrection. Dancing by the roadside, necking sugary treats, energy surging and teeth bared in the broadest smile, welling up as I write this now, some experiences never leave you.
Section Four – Courmayeur to Les Contamines
Nineties classics, another 30km ascent, but it’s a different reality now. Brighter colours, stronger smells. Smooth cadence and inherent strength. Comedy heavy breathing pocket phone (sorry Andy, curse of the alphabetical phone book) and a welcome chat with Anna. Who was the imposter in my head just a handful of hours before? The epic Val Veny revealing delights unencumbered by internal monologue, stomping to 2516m and the rounded dirt of the Col de La Seigne. Collapse to the ground. ‘Vittoria’ becomes ‘Victoire’ as I clip in, depart Italy and re-enter France, either way I’ve won, vanquished the giants, four down and two to go, but with a sense of inevitability, stick that in your twatting pipe self-doubt. I never lose, not when it matters, and if I do lose then it simply can’t have mattered enough.
Peach of a descent, flowing and fast, ducking and weaving, body language maximised. Rapid mileage and a settled stomach. Re-fuel with the final gel, should’ve just stuck to them and sweets, could’ve saved weight and suffering, lessons learned, every day is indeed a school day. Sneaky short-cut on to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, feeling strong, in the bag. Gradually reeling in another cyclist over the distance in time to grab a brief conversation at the top, 110 minutes of effort battering 900m of elevation gain. A brief lie down and returning fatigue. Fogged brain able to rectify a minor wrong-turn, functions intact at the outer reaches of effort. Extreme terrain beneath knobbly rubber, but still riding as much as sensible.
It came tearing through the light. Flashes of huge fangs and a guttural growl, a frequency unattainable by any smaller creature. Instinctively the bike was dropped into no-man’s-land, a flimsy wall between soft flesh and charging beast. Braced to fight, thankfully distance was maintained, but so was malice, a continuous growl, the essence of threat. Calming words and a gentle retreat, eyes transfixed on the dripping jowls, the sheer size of this thing. What is it with Alpine sheep dogs and me? Deja-vu all round as I’m attacked for the second time in a day. The shocked amusement of last time replaced by exasperation, it’s only doing its job but honestly, fuck off or die, the shepherd did well to skirt round me, a suitably sheepish expression and no puns intended.
The warning signs were unquestionably there, a gradual deterioration coinciding with the slowly dropping sun. Loss of feeling in my arms despite the rattling drop through the river bed trail at the foot of the Bonhomme. The hunger games returning to haunt with a vengeance and another enforced meal. This time pizza is stuffed in, along with chocolate and electrolyte, but it feels like a temporary reprieve, numbness prevalent, caffeine desperately craved. Split-second blackouts, foaming at the mouth and a horrific pull into Les Contamines. My passable French normally suffices for simple purchases but the words were slurred and it took three attempts to procure the bitter redemption in a tiny cup.
Section Five – Les Contamines to Chamonix
Batteries recharged a hundred times over, if caffeine is a gateway drug then what could I achieve on EPO? The 1653m Col De Vosa all that stood between me and glory, rough estimates revealing that it was a mere 600m of gain, piece of cake. The most difficult trail-seeking of the day, foolishly asking some retired locals out enjoying a serene evening. Wide eyes and shaken heads accompanying affable conversation. They sent me the long way round and I knew it, but politeness trumped necessity, if they say the short-cut wasn’t there then the map can be ignored. 25% gravel leading to serpentine tarmac leading to an unmarked junction. Trail dropping gradually, no previous recollection until the sharp left-hander threw me steeply down to the river, a deep gorge, jumbled rocks and prehistoric looking vegetation. So much for 600m to climb, I was back at ground zero cursing my dismal memory, I’d been here before.
Just another setback in a day that had tunnelled so deep into mental reserves. No stranger to darkness, depression a constant adult companion, but this exploration into inner-self may bring understanding; a cure from within. If I can win this day then maybe I can win forever? No enemy will ever be more powerful than the one that lurks within the grey matter beneath our own skulls. We pick ourselves up and we face the day again, hope above hope that our heads always burst up for air. Sadly, so many lose that battle. Dads, sons, friends, so many men, almost always men, leaving behind confusion and despair. Impossible to rationalise. I hope you never have to stare into that abyss yourselves.
Legs like pistons. Today is mine. This had to be solo and now I see why. But I’m not alone, not really, friends waiting just a few miles away. Sloppy descending towards Les Houches and the only true sketchy moment of the whole Tour as front wheel grip vanishes on a gravel corner. Luck? Skill? I deserve one and possess the other and the combination is enough, digging in a split second before washing out. Handlebar light back on but the headtorch can stay away, just the road section back to Chamonix Sud remaining. Head down and sprint. Legs feeling so fresh, not just adrenaline, the vindication of pacing. Turn right at the Gaillands and up the final pull.
The lads have put a bog roll finish line on the gate. It dawns just how fucking amazing they are. What a crew, genuinely delighted for me. Couldn’t do enough. Smiles and disbelief, it’s over, a blur of emotion and protracted suffering. I already know how long it’ll take to unravel the complex labyrinth of feelings and memories, this has been as profound as anticipated, I understand myself just a tiny bit more and feel a rare pang of self-pride. How can I ever explain this feeling?
19:17:58. 6700m of ascent and 176km. Hollow statistics. Fast, but I could go back with lighter tyres and no cock-ups and trim at least an hour, maybe two. Lots of caffeine gels, only the best Haribo and no pizza. The hunger games were won in the stomach, backed up by bulletproof legs, but it was a close run thing. Physically I’m just another athlete who embraces suffering and bullies out results, my body can go forever. But this wasn’t about muscle and tendon, VO2 Max or heart rates, this was about mental redemption. Outstaring fears. Maybe I had read too much into this from the start, but the decision to spend a whole day alone with my personal demons was as brave as I’ve ever been. Those who understand that I salute you and wish you well in your own battles, you’re not alone; remember that, it’s important.
It’s taken me nearly two months to feel ready to write this. To re-live the experience, to dredge up those emotions, and it’s been as tough as it was rewarding, much like that September day. Essentially it’s all pointless, but what isn’t really? I look back fondly now and feel I’ll still be doing the same in many years to come. Maybe it inspires others? Maybe it simply confuses them? After all, why bother? Read into all this what you will, sport can be an incredible metaphor for life.
One final tale. Striding up the Croix du Bonhomme I paused briefly to talk to a tour leader busy descending with his group. My mission understood, he explained to the gathered crowd that what they were doing in twelve days, I was probably going to complete in twenty hours. Stunned silence… and then a simple ‘how the fuck…?’ from a well-to-do looking lady near the back. Sums it up nicely.
Huge Thanks To…
The lads. Brian, Andrew, Tony, Chris, legends one and all. Few would entertain my follies as wholeheartedly. Even fewer would seek painkillers and pastries to ease a weapon of a hangover for an ageing mate. Genuine thanks.
To Anna, Caoimhe and Andy, whose random interjections added a human element at vital times, dragging me away from my own thoughts, reconnecting me with the real world.
To Stanton Bikes. Nothing is as capable as my Switch9er Ti for big Alpine hike-a-bike. Impeccable handling, light weight and no pivots digging in my back on the long carries. Dan, I salute you.
Andy C and Mike Skinner. Music is a huge salvation and for beats and loops, none touch the former, for lyrics that hit home none touch the latter. In truly dark times even they can’t break through but they’re always there to pick up the pieces.
We are complex beings living increasingly jumbled lives. Pressure, stress, anxiety, depression. Even the most self-assured of us can crack, totally out of the blue. If this is you then don’t bottle that shit up any more; talk, seek help, fight to live another day, there’s always a dawn after the darkness and you’re never completely alone. Be brave… clench fists.