It is 5.30pm and Army and I await the others at the foot of the mountain in Valloires, they are getting the water for their bidons and Joe has been collecting souvenirs. Suddenly the church bell tolls and Army and I look at each other in agreement, is this a sign?
It’s getting late, Kieran and I head off as we know the other three are stronger climbers. We say it’s because of their lighter bodies to make ourselves feel better.
We depart Valloires along a straight road through the town and after 1km the two and three story wooden log cabins used for après ski in the winter make way for scattered farmyards and roaming grounds for Marmottes. I can see the road unfold in front of me, it get’s steeper, I shift down a gear and my heart rate goes up.
I look down into the ravine on my right and see motorcycle tourists setting up camp next to the stream of fresh mountain water, I am jealous. The path becomes lined with empty powerbar and energy gel wrappers, I am yet to digest anything, maybe I should do so now. It’s been half an hour, I call to Kieran “have you eaten?” “No”. He grabs a handful of chewy sweets and throws them into his mouth, I grab a fig roll out my jersey pocket and commence.
We cross a bridge. This bridge signifies the difference between earth and another planet because up there, the only thing we will recognize is each other.
To my right, in my peripheral I see the entrance to the Col proper, like the dry, uninviting mouth of a hungry beast. The road becomes windy, no longer straight and unfolding, corners and hairpins obscure the view of the path, way markers indicate our remaining distance. 10km.
I hate climbing but right now I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. My breath is short. ‘Club Tropicana drinks are free, fun and sunshine there’s enough for everyone’ goes over in my head.
I have been here before, I know that soon this grassy landscape covered in moving beings like Horses, Donkeys and Marmottes will disappear in favour of nothing, nothing but dust and shards of slate.
It happens, we turn right and enter into the monster, I am tired. Army passes us, how is this possible? He has extra energy, this individual is strong, he has proved himself this week. A few kms pass and Hardy goes beyond, this man too has proved himself, small and built for mountains, he himself must have Marmotte blood in his veins. Joe remains behind us for the time being, we are no better however, he takes his time, he takes photographs.
Kieran calls “there’s the top” I see the top and wish that I had not, it is far away, it may as well be among the stars and I wonder if and when I will make it there.
The sun is disappearing behind the cold ashy peaks of this, the grand Galibier and the temperature drops, my feet become cold. I see Army and Hardy a few levels up. I don’t know how much farther on they are but they look like slow moving miniature models of themselves up there. We continue.
6km to go. Not far now but the Col still looks like a million miles away. My legs are cold but still they burn, they have rhythm, in sync with my breathing, in –out –in –out – in time with the revolutions of my pedals.
I reach around to my back and to my right jersey pocket and pull the golden packet from inside, I tear off the top with my teeth and squeeze the packet of the iced tea energy gel from bottom to top with my fingers into my mouth. It is thick and for a moment I believe it tastes good, it does not. It is sharp, like acid on the tongue. A bit get’s caught in my throat, so lacking of liquid it refuses to sink, I cough. My concentration is broken and so too am I. I look again, despairing at the summit, how so far away? I have been pushing for hours, or so it seemed.
Hairpin after hairpin, way marker after way marker but still the road stretches out before me, unrelenting in it’s gradient.
Painted letterforms on the road make up the words ‘forza Pantani’, ‘Schleck’ and ‘Go Armstrong’ on the asphalt. Legends have been up this path before me, I may be struggling, short of breath but when I reach the top I too can be great. The human is capable of many things. The pedals keep spinning.
I hear Hardy shout down from above, I take this as a way of encouragement, he is nearly there, I shout back but it sounds like a whisper “go on lad”. Army is gone, disappeared into the mountain like a camouflaged soldier. I am envious.
I see Joe behind me, he has caught up. I slow down and wait for him to pass, having someone stronger than you on your tail is demoralising, he does not pass as soon as I expect. “Gooo oon son!” bellows towards the back of my neck like the noise exiting a football fan’s mouth at a game, all British and full of excitement. I smile.
I turn left to avoid the tunnel, I feel a hand on my back, it is Joe. This moment of solidarity on this our final day came as Joe and I pass the 1km mark. Thank you Joe. He passes me the camera and slowly accelerates away up the final straights of this beast.
The tarmac is new, still black and the road is steep. The drop to my left is sharp, no safety barrier, I must remember this when coming down. I travel forward and at the hairpin the end of the road may as well be the end of he earth, were it flat. Where am I? I could be anywhere, Mars, the moon, not earth, certainly not earth.
I can touch the gods from up here, it is almost dark, I must hurry. I turn right around a hairpin, there is the top. I have done it. I count the pedal revolutions, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-Stop.
I unclip my cold shoes from my pedals and place my foot atop this monster’s head. I beat it, not the quickest slaying but a slaying nevertheless. Remember, this was a personal battle between me and it and I won.
Handshakes and hugs all round we congratulate each other. No time to waste though, a quick photograph and we must be on our way before night takes hold of us.