There’s something about long climbs that goes to the very heart of cycling. Forcing those cranks round as the lungs scream for mercy and the legs turn to that curious mixture of concrete and jelly, the mind wants only one thing more than for the pain to stop: to conquer this bloody hill.
It’s a matter of pride – of honour. It’s an irrefutable measure of what kind of cyclist you are. As the lactic acid strangles your muscles and fluttering cramps tease you in and out of something like panic, you’re discovering what you’re really capable of. To paraphrase Edmund Hillary, the fight is not against the hill; it’s against your self.
Rounding the umpteenth corner of an endless mountain ascent only to see the road winding onwards and upwards around another corner far ahead, every logical impulse is ordering us to stop and rest. And faced with these impulses what do we do? We laugh with a hysterical edge, we growl, we swear and spit and blink the stinging sweat from our eyes and dig in for the impossible climb to that next corner, after which, surely, things will get easier.
But there’s not a lot of that sort of thing in Sussex. We have the Downs, criss-crossed with plenty of tough little climbs, and there are some nasty ones around the Ashdown Forest too – Kidds Hill and Cob Lane have sections of 18% and 20%+ respectively. But these are short, sharp ascents – finished almost as soon as they start.
In the Massif Central, where I’ve just spent a week on my bike, some of the climbs last forever. Our toughest climb – to the Pas de Peyrol on Puy Mary – started more than 10 miles before we hit the summit. The gradients were gentle to start with, no more than five or six per cent. There’s even a bit of a plateau with a suggestion of downhill for a while. Then there are a couple of miles of 7-8% before you round a corner and see what all the fuss is about.
The final pull to the top is just over two kilometres of 15%, which may not sound too bad – it’s only about one in six after all – but my god it’s tough. Perhaps last year, after I’d trained for a six-day end-to-end ride, I’d have managed it without stopping, I don’t know. All I know is that this year I had to stop for a breather about a kilometre from the top. There was no walking. I repeat: there was no walking. But it wasn’t a pure uninterrupted ascent either.
But that didn’t take too much away from the sense of achievement my buddy Simon and I had as we high-fived each other at the top and swaggered into the café, half-hoping that the assembled diners would break into spontaneous applause and feed us for nothing to reward our magnificence (they didn’t).
Then there was the descent. As the mist closed in fast on Puy Mary we swooped out of the chilly gloom like a pair of old seagulls diving for fish heads. There followed 22 miles of almost uninterrupted downhill bliss as we wound our way down towards our campsite, beside the beautiful Lac Chambon near Murol.
Earlier in the week we’d descended a bit more carefully but our confidence had grown, so we flicked the bikes from side to side as we negotiated the hairpins, and tucked in tight on our top tubes as we shot down the long wide straights nearer the bottom. Frustratingly, we never quite broke the magical 50mph mark but we frequently came close.
The combination of that climb and that descent on that magical day made my heart sing. It felt so good to be alive.
Our Puy Mary ride was one of six over the week. The first two were in Bourgogne, centred on the little community of La Motte St Jean outside Digoin, where Simon has a gorgeous old farmhouse (that will probably take him about a decade of DIY hell to make habitable). The main events were the middle three rides around the Massif Central. And our last ride was close to Lyon, from where I was flying home at the end of the week.
Route 1: first Digoin loop
63.7 miles; 1345ft climbing
This was our fastest ride, at an average of 15.8mph. We headed north from La Motte St Jean to Neuvy-Grandchamp, on to La Chappelle-au-Mans and then to Grury before going east to Maltat. We marvelled at the smoothness and emptiness of the roads and at the fullness of the skies – I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many birds of prey in a single day. Most looked like buzzards, but there were others too, harder to identify but all beautiful. After Maltat we went through Gromat, crossed the Loire at Gannay-sur-Loire, then cycled through Paray-le-Frésil, Beaulon and Diou before joining a canal towpath back to Digoin. The ride ended with a climb back up to La Motte St Jean that was short but sharp enough to make me question the wisdom of heading for the mountains two days later.
Route 2: second Digoin loop
62.8 miles; 2657ft climbing
On day two we dropped down from La Motte on a thrilling little 18% lane before heading south east towards Paray-le-Monial and Poisson, then we enjoyed a wonderful descent off the main road past fields full of contented looking Charolais cattle. We were clearly a bit distracted by all these happy cows because we went a bit off course after a pretty little village called Prizy and ended up having to retrace our steps up a sharp two-mile climb. After chanting our way through Oyé we reached St Cristophe-en-Brionnais, where we stopped for a delicious salade Lyonnaise. After lunch there was another swooping descent into Semur-en-Brionnais and then to Marcigny. Then we crossed the Loire at Chambilly before continuing our northward course to Les Simonins, Luneau, Molinet and eventually back to Digoin. Going back up that 18% hill felt a lot easier than its gentler neighbour had the previous afternoon, which gave me a bit more confidence about the mountains ahead.
Route 3: Mont-Dore loop
62.4 miles; 5971ft climbing
After a day’s break to get ourselves down to the Massif Central and set up camp at the beautiful Lac Chambon, we started our third ride with our first real test, a six-mile climb to the Col de la Croix St Robert. The gradient wasn’t too severe – 6-7.5% throughout – but this was the first time I’d climbed constantly for anything like six miles. I absolutely loved it! From the top, after some suitably manly poses for the camera, we threaded our way down to Mont-Dore, a beautiful little town squeezed between the peaks. Then we headed towards La Tour d’Auvergene and then Chasterix before arriving in the pretty little village of Picherand, where we stopped for the finest pizza slices I believe I’m ever likely to taste. Then we climbed north for six miles or so til we reached Super Besse, where this year’s Tour de France will put in an appearance, before one of the most thrilling descents of the week – a 13-mile glide almost all the way home, to Verrières. The six-mile climb to St Nectaire barely registered as we relived the glory of that beautiful descent.
Route 4: More cols and a gorge
66.9 miles; 6463ft climbing
I see our fourth ride involved more climbing than any of the others, which really surprises me. What I remember most from this ride was the huge middle section that was mostly flat or downhill. But the day began with another col, the Col de la Croix Morand – a mere five miles at 6-7% - and also featured a beast of a climb out of the Gorge de Gouroul, where the double arrows on the map denote a gradient of between nine and 13%. We returned to this spot in the car the following day to see how much worse it would have been if we’d opted for an alternative route that included some triple-arrowed slopes (13+%). Let’s just say I was relieved and leave it at that shall we? Between those two big climbs was the usual mix of breath-taking countryside and thrilling descents, none more so than the switchbacks outside of Olloix, where Simon had a surprise encounter with a coach coming up the hill. Thankfully both he and the coach driver were being sensible, but it served as a useful reminder to be careful on those hills. My legs never really woke up during this ride so it felt like a real achievement to get back to the campsite that afternoon and tuck in to the usual post-ride feast of recovery drinks, baguette, cheese and paté.
Route 5: Pas de Peyrol
62.2 miles; 6102ft climbing
Our fifth ride was really all about Puy Mary. Luckily for me, my legs had rediscovered their bounce in time for our sternest test. Unluckily for Simon, his energy had deserted him exactly as mine had the previous day. We started our ride in Condat, 20 miles or so from the campsite. The skies were looking threatening so we took our warmer clothes and wet weather gear – which Simon then left in the car, so when the rain started, 20 miles or so in, he was unprotected and there followed an edgy discussion about whether we should press on and risk it or go back to the car. Unwisely, perhaps, we decided to press on. Thankfully, we were lucky enough to escape any serious downpours. When the mist closed in on us at Pas de Peyrol the temperature dropped like a stone but by then we were descending quickly into the sunnier valleys. I can appreciate now just how easily you could be caught out on the mountaintops though – I’d certainly never ride in that kind of countryside without an extra layer or two in my jersey pockets. So ride five basically comprised a big section of up followed by an even bigger section of down. The beauty and brutal simplicity of the terrain made this my favourite ride of the week.
Route 6: Lyon
76.1 miles; 5971ft climbing
The following day brought more rain and colder temperatures so after some dithering we decided to break camp and head for Lyon a day early in the hope that we’d find good weather the following morning for a ride in Rhône country. Our somewhat basic accommodation was at the F1 hotel smack in the middle of that awful big city airport hinterland filled with distribution depots and bad restaurants and business parks and light industrial units. After the peace and beauty of the mountains this new environment seemed very unpromising and we set off the following morning with modest expectations. But we needn’t have worried. Within a few miles of our starting point at Cremieu we’d escaped the crowds once more and had discovered the beautiful Rhône, which we crossed at Sault-Brénaz. On our left we could see a huge lump of a hill, which surprised us both by turning out to be longest climb of the week: nearly nine miles of a steady 5-7%. Halfway up we passed a lone local cyclist, who nodded ‘salut’ as we grunted past, then latched on for an unerringly silent tow to the top. As we panted and spat and growled our way up, he merely cleared his throat once or twice, as if to politely remind us that he was there. I guess that kind of effortlessness is what happens when you have ten-mile climbs on your doorstep. Once we’d reached the top we paused to take in one of the most awe-inspiring views of the whole trip: a glance at the snow-capped peaks of the distant Alps. Even from this distance we could see that they dwarfed anything we’d come across so far. Perhaps next year, we thought, as we wound our way down the hill into the increasingly beautiful north-eastern corner of our ride. After pausing for a delicious salade Niçoise on the outskirts of Belley, we made our way back to the river and then hunkered down for the 20-mile westward grind into a stiff headwind back to Cremieu.
Taking the odd milk-run into account we covered just over 400 miles and climbed 28,509 feet in all – almost exactly the same amount of climbing there’d been in last year’s 900-mile Land’s End to John O’Groats ride.
It was a wonderful week; a rare and splendid opportunity to escape from daily life to hang out with my best mate, eat monstrous quantities of food, drink a little too much wine, laugh more than usual, and – most of all – just ride in those amazing hills. The Massif Central is far more beautiful than I’d dared hope and I don’t think I’ll ever forget some of those remarkable climbs and descents.
One thing's for sure: I’ll be watching the Tour riders whirr through Super-Besse with a whole new level of understanding this year.
There are lots of photos from the trip on my Flickr pages.