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Taking It Roughly Up The Vars.


The fifth day of the Haute Route starts with a universally light-hearted mood among the riders. We’ve broken the back of the event in surviving the epic Madeleine - Télégraphe - Galibier triple whammy stage, all had a good rest after yesterday’s time-trial that only meant a short hour in the saddle and we’ve stayed in the same place for two nights running meaning less stress packing and unpacking stuff, which all helps a bit to stall the perpetual wearing down process.

We’re under a rolling control again from the start and left to our own devices a mere 7km later in Briançon at the bottom of the legendary Col d’Izoard. It’s a long 20 kilometre ascent mostly in the cool of pine trees but everyone has fresher legs and it seems to be fast tarmac so the peloton is cheerfully clipping along, obviously not dispirited by the fact that the organizers have flagged this up as the second hardest day of the week. For the whole climb my bike has been making a rhythmic clicking noise from the drivetrain and I take the chance at the 2361 metre summit to have a look-see whilst chewing on dried fruit from the feed-station. It’s not a maladjusted rear-mech as suspected but a fucked chain; one of the chain-links is splayed and the outer chain-plate on the inside has shattered and is missing a significant portion. Bugger. Soft-pedaling the amazing descent is frustrating but I’ve no idea how long the chain will last or when I might bump into a wandering Mavic mechanic.

Despite my gentlesse on the chain I still end up dragging a wheel-sucking group down the Guillestre valley and through the too dark for sunglasses tunnels. Reaching the bottom the road climbs easily along the rock-face of the gorge through traffic jams formed by trucks stuck down the narrow road trying to either not fall into the river or leave paint on the rock wall, that and marshals holding the road for us cyclists. Weaving through stationary vehicles all of a sudden I see the Mavic car wodged into the side of the road helping a stricken cyclist, it’s that Dennis again with another mechanical, chain related this time, uncannily. I pull in to see if I can help and also get my own transmission woes sorted, it takes a lot of fussing and rummaging about in the back of the yellow car and grubby fingers but I get my chain fixed with a spare split-link, hardly a swift Tour De France bike change. Dennis isn’t so lucky and gets a lift in the back of the Mavic car up to the bigger better stocked van to pick up a new chain so he can continue, so while he motors up the hill I’m left to make my own way up the Col de Vars.

Thanks to the mechanical delay I’m pretty sure I’m the Lantern Rouge on the road, at least until I pass an isolated rider in an old Specialized top, but still it’s a long and lonely 18 kilometre ascent of the Col de Vars very much on my own and very much in the baking sun. I enter a deep funk and any enthusiasm for the day and from the legs is left at the bottom of the climb. I slouch up the hill, cheered a little by the throaty passing of two vintage Bugatti motorcars, a small descent through a village and slipstreaming a concrete truck for a few hundred yards. Aside from that it’s a tedious slog spent ticking off the back-markers in the field, the top never seems to arrive and it’s eventual sluggish appearance and final feed station fails to lift the mood.

A brief stop to grab some snacks to see me the final 30kms and I descend the Vars with little glee and as just a quick way of ticking off the kilometres so I can see the end of the stage. Some way down I slip in behind Christian, the one-armed and one-legged rider that has been receiving hushed respect from the riders all week, and as he’s descending at a pace I don’t feel the need to overtake I follow him for quite a while, just to watch in a little bubble of wonder. As I observe how he descends in spite of his adversities, which is considerably more skilled than a lot of the able-bodied riders I know, I realize I obviously have little reason to be grumpy at the day and as the road takes a break from falling and flows into a gentle rise I naturally overtake him and press on with added vigour.

The fall into Barcelonnette is another endless valley into a sticky headwind and it definitely benefits a rider to work in a group. After some sprinting and shuffling about I get into a little pack but it splinters quickly as I fight on the front to draught an Haute Route escort motorbike who leads me on a little bit before dumping me unceremoniously between two groups. Finding it mentally impossible to drop back to the following group in order to ease my wind-buffeting plight I settle into the bike for the long chase to the next bunch up the road. The tarmac leads slightly downhill but any benefit is cancelled equally by the wind, there’s nothing for it but to put my head down and pedal, pedal, pedal.

It is about this point that me and the Cannondale finally achieve full thrusting pounding sweaty breathless wonderful coitus in our little holiday romance. This is what this bike is for, responding instinctively to full and constant effort, slicing forwards uncomplaining, not replying to excuses and actively encouraging harder pushing by pushing back, and I enter that space where the hurt is good, almost fun, lustful.

And this is how I find myself at the bottom of final climb of the day totally spent, and Pra Loup is not a climb to be dead at the bottom of. Dead bored maybe, as once again it’s a wide, steady gradient climb up to a ski-station, and totally devoid of shade. Despite being only 8km long it’s not an ascent that could ever be described as having a scintillating character, and not one you’d ever want to return to for fun, so it drags on and on and on. And on. Without any excitement, or relief, I cross the line and immediately put that 119 km behind me, I can’t wait for the pre-supper briefing on the next stage so I can look towards tomorrow.


Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.

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