You may remember Matt Richardson, the guy who rode up Mont Ventoux and the Stelvio on his Raleigh Chopper and also set the Chopper Hour record. Last year he tackled Alpe d’Huez and then switched bikes to ride it again with his son, Felix. The two of them then did the Col de la Croix de Fer for good measure.
This year, Felix, now 11, asked if he could ride up some “really big mountains”.
Here’s Matt’s account:
I checked a few cycling events that Felix might be able to do in the Alps in the summer of 2019 but the minimum age for the vast majority of these is 18. They are not set up to deal with 11 year-old primary school children.
We planned the trip ourselves, booked accommodation in the heart of the French Alps and drove down to tackle some "really big mountains".
Having arrived at our accommodation just outside Saint Michel de Maurienne on Sunday night, we spent Monday acclimatising with a short ride into the town for lunch to spin our legs. Then, on the morning of Tuesday 13 August, we rode right up what is generally considered to be one of the hardest cycling climbs in the world, the combined Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier.
The former is a pass into a valley containing the town of Valloire (the finish of Stage 18 of this year's Tour de France) and provides access directly up to the latter, one of the highest mountain passes in the Alps.
It's a 35km ride to the top with a height gain of just under 2,000m up to an altitude of 2,642m. The road from Valloire has an average gradient of 6.9%.
Felix attacked the lower slopes of the Telegraphe with his usual gusto and I had to keep telling him to "hold a bit back" because I was worried he wouldn't make it.
His ride time from Saint Michel de Maurienne to the top of Col du Galibier was just over four hours and I knew he was tired as he barely had enough left for a sprint at the finish.
Col de la Madeleine
Enthusiasm undimmed, the next day we tackled Col de la Madeleine from La Chambre (altitude 1,993m, distance 19.3km, height gain 1,522m and average gradient 8%).
It was incredibly steep and hot during the early part of the climb and we were tired from the previous day. There were long sections with a gradient of over 10%.
Despite this, I was amazed at how Felix wanted to keep going: and he kept going, climbing for three hours. It was relentless and so was he. The final, immense, sweeping switchbacks of the road above Saint Francois Longchamp were as a beautiful as they were arduous and Felix became uncharacteristically solemn as he knuckled down and got on with it.
I had mentioned to him on Monday that it might be possible to descend back to La Chambre and then ride up the other side of the valley to Col du Glandon on the same day. Felix was so exhausted at the top of Col de la Madeleine however; I told him that we would not do this.
He became distraught, insisting that we had to do it because we had to do all the climbs we said we would. I am convinced he would have done it if I'd let him but I managed to persuade him to save some energy for the next day.
In any case, the Col du Glandon is only a couple of hundred metres away from the road that leads up to the final part of the road to Col de la Croix de Fer which we had climbed the previous year. We hadn't been able to ride the little detour then because of snow drifts.
Sat in the cafe at the top of Col de la Madeleine we reached a compromise: we would drive to the point at which we would have taken the diversion to the top of Col du Glandon last year and ride the part we hadn't managed because of the snow. Felix's mood lightened and we enjoyed the drive to about 2km from the top of the col until I realised I was out of petrol.
I stopped the car and we climbed the last couple of kilometres from the La Chambre side, mostly 10%+ gradient, over the Col du Glandon and down to the road which leads up to Col de la Croix de Fer.
It was a beautiful evening and the mood was lightened considerably by the latter and the hilarity of driving down a mountain with the "refill fuel now" light flashing constantly. We made it to the nearest petrol station as the sun was setting but that’s another story.
Col de l’Iseran
On Thursday morning we drove to Bonneval sur Arc for the final part of the trip: the ride up Col de l'Iseran, the highest pass in the Alps, at 2,770m altitude.
Stage 19 of this year's Tour de France was stopped here due to hail storms and a landslide. Not today, however. The weather seemed perfect and the climb was by far the most spectacular we'd seen.
From the town, the route is 13.4km with an average gradient of 7.3%. The beginning of the climb was hot, with multiple hairpin bends furrowing up the face of the mountain and no tree shelter.
Felix seemed to have recovered well from Wednesday's efforts and kept a steady pace over the first part of the climb and into a long, uphill valley road despite the strong head wind and palpably thin air.
Clouds began to gather as we sweated our way up to the steeper slopes and it became very cold. We continued through a tunnel and past banks of snow tucked into the mountain sides, still in short sleeved jerseys, kept warm by the effort of climbing.
The final few kilometres were even colder but in crystalline sunshine. Spurred on by two motorcycles that passed him just before the final bend, Felix pushed out of the saddle and unleashed a fabulous sprint finish.
After some hot soup and chips in the cafe we put on our jackets and descended through the squalls of icy wind back through sunny lowlands to Bonneval sur Arc. Although the descent was cautious because of the buffeting wind, narrow road and uneven surface, we arrived at the car in a fraction of the time it had taken to climb the same distance.
The next morning, Felix was very keen to visit the Saint Michel de Maurienne bicycle shop. He picked out a white jersey listing all the climbs he'd completed. There was no need to ask. Rarely has anyone been more deserving.