Conquering Col d’Iseran

It’s an early start driving down from the Vanoise National Park; itself a beautiful cycling climb. 8% and more, bending in a great way for practising technique and fast enough for descending. It would be ok to live up there, where cows grow a local cheese and the chapel is like a miniature Ottobeuren, if you can let your imagination make such a connection, mixed with a bit of Eelke decay.

Through Bourg St Maurice, up to the roundabout that turns off to Petit St Bernard, instead, going right on a main road to Val d’Isere. Officially the climb has already started – but it is the busy D902 and a long way from Val d’Isere – passing the large Lac du Chevril in the mountains till we get to our town. It was quiet, like an American Western set before the action, the road a bright blue under the light, but cracked and un Alp like.

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We unfold from the drive into the vegan friendly Arctic Café.
Then off on a gentle but noticeable up, the length of this grand ghost town, sun shining on us, but sleeves on. We know it is a full on day ahead, but the incline is kind for warm up with pace, out of the town through a straight valley with the river running alongside. The wind is on our side and we are flying in a heaven. A bridge crosses the water and turns us into the ascent. We are still feeling the joy of the high valley pace and keep up a good rhythm. I have started out front to give myself a bit of a chance of staying with the group. It works, as I’m in the group nearly to the top. Being chased I work harder than when I am taken. My brain hasn’t learnt how to turn loss into conquest. I feel defeat as inevitability, my bit of competitiveness easily dampened. The length of this climb, and my ability among these fabulous determined sporting group of women make my drop to the back a visualisation I cannot yet escape from. The child inside sulks and grumps while my desire doggedly grinds on.
This is a truly beautiful climbing road. I am so happy. The way it turns allows me to take in the view without losing concentration on my low rhythm. I don’t notice the few cars, apart from cycle accompanying vans and Graeme or Gabby encouraging, or checking on us with iPad cameras. The climb shows no sign of ending but the sun on the tarmac, the view and the constancy of the ascent are such a joy that it wouldn’t matter if it went on forever.

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But there is an approach to a turn that reveals the moonscape feel of a top. Stuck, dried snow and more temporarily settled stones, than the lower grass, amongst the rock. It is here that the final person to pass has the muscles to move up a gear. I don’t mind. It was fun to be with her for a while but Kat just has that sports person resilience and she does disappear from sight before I get to the top. There is also now a dread feeling – the one where the brain starts to doubt its ability to go all the way. But my legs have no intention of not pedaling.
The top is an undramatic arrival, apart from the queues to selfie in front of the sign. So high, the weather is famously cutting, even on a sunny summer day. We had been well advised to get fully gloved and windshielded. The wind was brusque and painful even in the sun. We are so lucky to have sun.

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No backward glance – the lush valley is forgotten. Now it is this rock of weather ridden barrenness. The view to which we will descend couldn’t be more different. Looks like we are going into the middle of the mountains. No sight of an inhabited valley – foreground of ochres and umbers to a distance of slate blues.

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Long gloves and windshield staying on we take the descent. The top is steep to a sharp bend then very fast and long, several miles without much switch back. It’s heaven. And fast. The front ones are faster but I’m in the middle of the pack on descents. Being early afternoon the road traffic has accumulated. A nervous car spoils my turns, as we get lower toward the valley where the side of the road is greener and lusher again. I want to pass for several switch backs but until I’m sure he knows I am on his tail and that he is prepared to let me pass, I get a bit irritated that I’m having to concentrate on him rather than the road. Free of him I blast off and never see him again. Curving into the valley and meeting the river tell me I’m fast nearing the end of adrenalin concentration.

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Habitation and parked cars come upon me quickly, as I slow to look for the others. This will be a hell climb back. I grumble that the others have stopped the bottom side of the village.

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It is a hell climb – from the beginning. Steep and only a hurried snack later, my brain is protesting. The sun is warm but as my body screams with effort the rays raise my body temperature furiously, so I pull down the zip of my extra layer. Of course going up mountain I get time to notice the side of the road. The first switchback above the village is lined with young trees, a light green, not heavy enough to feel wooded – just summery lightness, joyous during the hardness of the incline. Butterflies cross my path. I’m not enjoying this climb. I’m thinking it is unnecessary to climb both sides. My mind is rebelling. I’m moaning and meandering. In careless moments down to 3 miles an hour. I set at this pace. I have no intention or push to change it. But it’s a rhythm of sorts. I switchback again out of those sunny trees. On and on – it all looks like the moment I overtook the car. But that was a moment – this is droning on at the snail pace I have set myself into.

I’m being overtaken, having had a couple of chances to lock into a slightly better pace of the others as dogged as me, but with better equipped minds and understanding of effort. Nell is slowing down. She is going to stop, maybe even take a photo. But it would be too steep to restart. I can’t imagine stopping – it is difficult to stop on a climb – that is the funny thing about them. I say – ‘I’m gong to keep going for now and stop up there at that viewing point’. But it passes by. I’m not going to stop – even though the thought works, like my 10 second countings, to get me through in increments. Nell, the last one to leave me seemed to escape from my sight ever faster. She looks like a glorious conquest and I feel like a trailing fail. My right foot gets hot and sore. The awareness becomes overriding – so that I can’t ignore it. I fear I am going to have to stop. The spoilt child brain wants me to stop so I can ruin the effort of the whole day – sabotage it.

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I’m getting upset and lonely and moany. I feel really alone in the vastness, knowing I have at least 12 km still to go. It is this loneliness that I also love. Ahead is an unsurpassable wall to the place I know is the top. I cannot see where the road will go. I remember none of it from the descent. It is so steep that the 30 miles an hour difference is unrecognisable. I uncleat my sore foot. It is the only chance I have of not stopping to cool it down. It gives me some relief – I can move the pressure point and push mainly with the other foot. I’m watching myself draw closer to a beautiful remote building. Tall over three floors with an elaborate stone banister leading up to the first floor. My imagination has somewhere to ponder in this remote inhuman landscape. Why was it built like this? Who used it? How? Nothing answered. My mind only wants to say things not think. Such an addictive way of spending a day, being on simple, sharp concentration to perform and avoid mistake; to feel the outdoors is free; to indulge the awesomeness of where I can go with this activity.
Switch back past the house to the nothing-inhabitable steepness, so steep that there is no side of the road, and thus no view of below, mainly seeing sky. I’m in agony. The van will never come back down. I just have to keep going at the 3 miles an hour. I do shift pace between the lowest – but probably not above 7mph. This is so different from my attack of the wonderful, sheltered switchbacks on Rosiere. I really am on the lonely road of not being equal to cycling athletes.
But hey…not quite true. I’m out here, with them. It’s ok. I’m not the rest of the world that doesn’t come out here. I am a mountain climber. I’ve already made it to the top of Iseran and if I keep on going, I will do it twice in a day. Come on – I’m not gonna give up. I’m just gonna grind, at my snail pace.
I’m counting the kms while my pace is in miles. Agonising as I count down from 6. Kilometres are manageable, like seconds in the gym. I progress; I reach, and pass the markers. At 3 I’m feeling the interminable slope. Now I can see down to my right. Miles out to the next range of mountains that were invisible from the bottom. It’s daunting and the air is colder again – with a bit of the sharp breeze. We are so lucky with this weather. I’m not hot any more. I’m not angry anymore, just thinking of giving up in the back of my mind, egging me to give up, having forgotten about my foot. But the wheels keep on turning- such a relief that they do – the default.
The road relaxes for a bit, but the wind is in my face. So my effort stays the same. The sore foot is forgotten. I know I’m looking towards the penultimate bend. I remember it coming down, as I was settling into my downhill position. So I also know that round the corner it’s steeper again. Graeme is there, the last push, the ‘can’t give up now’, couldn’t have been a better moment to give me a push – when my mind is screaming at me to give up. Off he goes to check the others waiting at the top, leaving me again. Then Alicia is cycling towards me, with her steely smile and warm eyes. No excuses, get out of the saddle, push to the top. It works on me for a little – I push like I’ve saved energy for the end, but as she moves out front I drop back into the saddle and whinge to the top.
Not the time of day to hang around at the top – and a few of them really had. I was slow. If the best was doing 9 mph – they had been waiting.
Away from ‘hell side’ back to heaven road: Wow this is the reward. The most beautiful ascent and descent. My confidence is in place and I settle into the 30’s for a fifteen-minute descent. The road is ours. Gabby is behind me in the van as I take the switchbacks and push into the descents. No chance of a car doing these roads faster.
The end of the day is looming – heaven will soon end, as I cross the river and turn into the fast peddling valley, back to a now more lively town and the empathetic ear of the raw juice cafe.
I did it – Col d’Iseran up and down on both sides.

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With thanks to Graeme Langhorne, 1330 Road Cycling, and Alicia Bamford, queenofthemountains.co.uk

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