Cent Cols Challenge

This is for the few people on here who might know me, plus also those who don't but may be interested anyway. I entered the Cent Cols Challenge at the beginning of the year and thought that I would have a good summer's training to get properly fit for the event in September. It hasn't quite worked out like that. Swine Flu intervened. I didn't catch it, but I did get heavily involved in writing the software that ran in the emergency flu centres. I've not worked so hard since the days of writing computer games some 25 years ago. The net result is that I'm a bit undercooked in terms of my preparation ... to say the least.

If you want to know a bit more about what I'm up to then go to http:\\www.centcolschallenge.com for all the details. One hundred Alpine cols in 10 days (albeit with one rest day), over 2000kms in distance and some 45,000m of climbing. I'm not quite as bubbly in anticipation as I usually am before these kind of things. There is a slight sense of foreboding! Especially as there is this amazing high pressure system sitting over Britain at the moment, the one we've waited for all summer, and I'm heading away from it! Damn!!

So, whether you are a friend or just the most fleeting of acquaintances (or ever if you are a complete stranger!), perhaps you could consider sponsoring me on this journey and donating some cash to a very worthy cause (Marie Curie Cancer Care). It will help a lot when the legs are going to jelly at the end of each day, knowing that there might be a bigger reason for putting myself through so much pain. Go to www.justgiving.com/centcols to donate on-line.

I'm going to try and update my progress regularly on twitter, but I don't expect to be able to respond to messages while I'm away. If you want to follow my progress, go to http://twitter.com/Earth_Dreamer.


  • The Cent Cols Challenge is living up to its billing in every way. I knew it was going to be hard, but perhaps not quite as hard as it's turned out to be so far. The challenge is certainly taking its toll on mind, body and machinery. Quite a few of the group are nursing injuries. One bike has been written off, plus lots of bits have needed replacement. The spirit, however, is thriving ... and this is what the event is all about: individual human spirit and collective team spirit coming together. I find myself within an amazing group of people here and there is developing an extraordinary camaraderie. I feel like I'm part of something rather special.

    Fortunately, to date, my worst problem has been a dodgy stomach. My bike and my legs are hanging in there. Today (Saturday, Sept 19th) is our rest day at the halfway point and I'm cherishing every moment not being spent on the bike! The days are starting to merge into one another now. I'm already beginning to forget which climbs we did on which day. That may be to do with this phenomenon while you're climbing where the mind goes into a Zen-like state. Occasionally you sense yourself coming out of a kind of trance and you truly wonder where you have been! It's an odd experience. The climbs over here are nothing like what you experience in the UK. They are not generally steep, but they do keep on going, and going ... and going. You only rarely have to change gear, although I do often drop it down a ring and get out of the saddle for short spells. It's not boring though. It sounds tedious but somehow it isn't, and I can't really explain why not. I suppose we are all driven on by the thought of getting over the summit, seeing into the next valley, and then enjoying the awesome descents.

    After day 1, facing the best part of 4 vertical miles of climbing the next day, someone in the group told me to look upon this event has having 45,000 metres of descending rather than climbing. It's been a great way to think about it. A marathon distance vertically downhill. And these roads are completely exhilarating to come down. They're not all great, but we've more often than not been on near perfect tarmac. Not a ripple. Not a crack. Certainly no potholes. It gives you the confidence to go fast, especially where the sight-lines are good. You're aware of the incredible landscape, the improbability of these roads being built through these mountains, the amazing engineering of the modern bikes we ride. Just as everything gets tuned out while you climb, everything is tuned in while you descend, all senses switched on in this hyper-alert state. You arrive at the bottom with this massive adrenaline surge ... and, in my case, a big smile on your face. You can sometimes catch a glance of where you've just been a few minutes before, impressively high above you, which tends to be rather sobering because you know for sure that you'll be climbing up to those same heights again very soon. I'm beginning to develop a rather ambivalent relationship with gravity!

    Each day so far has been very different, and so has the weather. In summary:

    Day 1: 127 miles, 4600m climb to Alberville. The highlight was the Col de Colombiere, wild and dramatic in some light rain. Possibly the biggest ever day I've had on the bike. No drama, just a very long ride through majestic mountain scenery, sometimes on my own, sometimes in a group, getting to know people.

    Day 2: 100 miles, 4800m climb to Briancon. The day would have been even longer, but we were robbed by the weather. Having already climbed the Madelaine, Glandon, Croix de Fer, Mollard and Telegraphe, we were cut short and stopped from climbing the Galibier by snow. Part of me was disappointed, part extremely relieved. I don't know how I would have fared up there. I finished extremely tired without that final 1300m over a monster of a mountain. It would have been a 6000m day. One for another trip. The Marmotte next summer?

    Day 3: 103 miles, 2200m climb to Sisteron. Sadly, we also had to miss the stunning Izoard because of the snow, so what was a relatively easy day turned out to be a very easy day! Except that because we knew it was an easier route we just went that much faster. The weather forecast was for rain but it never really materialised. This was a kind of transition stage, taking us through quite gentle hill country on quiet lanes rather than over big mountains. Didn't feel so well in the evening with a bit of a dodgy stomach. I suspect I'd been overdoing the energy drinks.

    Day 4: 125 miles, 5000m+ climb to the top of the Col du Cayolle. This will rate as one of my best ever days out on the bike. We left Sisteron in thick mist and after an hour of climbing emerged above the cloud into sunshine. It was a day of beautiful descents on perfect tarmac and equally exquisite climbs. Over the Coribin and on to Colmars where I got confused and missed a turn. It's a serious deal if you go the wrong way here. After riding in groups for most of the day before, I chose to ride on my own this day. I was in my own little world, communing with the mountains. I just carried on up the Col d'Allos, over the top and down the breathtaking descent to Barcelonette, oblivious to the fact that I was going in completely the wrong direction ... well, almost oblivious. Half way down something told me it wasn't right, but momentum was taking me forward. It would have been so hard to have reversed my tracks. At the bottom I saw a sign back to where I was supposed to be, some 60kms away, up the Col de la Cayolle. I texted the organisers and tried to make us much progress as I could. I hadn't realised that it would take me all the way to 2300m. It was a long way up, but stunningly beautiful in the evening light. I was met just a kilometre from the top and allowed to make the summit before being taken to the overnight stop in Valberg for dinner. I'd had a great day, but felt bad that I'd given the support team some grief. It was just a pity I couldn't have enjoyed the descent from the top. Another one for another day.

    Day 5: 128 miles, 4200m climb to Nice. This was the hardest day that I've ever spent on the bike. It was noted that my usual chirpy smile had gone missing last night. The day started well with a small climb, followed by one of the most dramatically set and exhilarating descents of my life. Over 1000m down and then pretty much straight back up again to the same height at the Col St.Martin and then all the way down again before climbing the famous Col de Turini. Part way up the climb my stomach started to complain and all power went out of the legs. Then it started to rain. The lunch stop was at the top, but I could only handle the soup. By now the rain was torrential as a thunderstorm passed over. The road down from the col is famous, one of those classic ribbons of tarmac with hairpin after hairpin, dropping you vertiginously down the mountainside at a beautifully even gradient. The surface of the road was not so even, however, and with water sluicing down it this was certainly one not to be taken at speed. My vision of descending in short sleeves under blue skies was replaced by the reality of thermals and waterproofs, and still feeling cold. The rest of the day was a battle for survival. As the energy reserves ran low I tried a gel, but it came straight back up again. I cycled the second half of the day completely on empty. Such is the camaraderie amongst us all here that I was looked after during the afternoon by a fellow rider who slowed his pace to stay with me. It made a huge difference having some company. We were both struggling for time so it was pretty much decided that we'd run into the seafront at Nice and do the final leg to the hotel in the van. In the traffic and general chaos of Nice I momentarily lost my buddy, and as I was looking around for him I got called over by half a dozen riders from our group who were having a coffee on the opposite side of the Promenade des Anglais. Thinking that there was no way we were going to get to the hotel before dark, I thought they had abandoned for the day too, but that notion was instantly dispelled. They were carrying on and they made it clear that there was no way that I was not continuing too. I was basically ordered back on the road and told to just follow a wheel. I was simply too tired to argue. I was in a state where I just did as I was told. So, somehow, I managed the last 20 miles, arriving at the hotel in the dark and wet and cold. I was completely wasted.

    A final word has to be given to the organising team, Phil Deeker (the inspiration behind this whole endeavour), his amazing wife Claire (who rescued me on Day 4), Claude the manager, Chris the mechanic and Danny the medic. They've all been totally fantastic. I'm still undecided as to who has the hardest job, them or us!

    As a postscript, at dinner tonight I got awarded the 'Lantern Rouge' red cap for the most epic ride yesterday. I narrowly missed winning it for my additional 700m of climbing on Day 4, but there was no avoiding it this time around. I guess I will wear it with pride. Our rest day has gone all too quickly. Back on the bike tomorrow and 130 miles of road ahead. The weather is going to remain unsettled for a few more days but then we are promised some sun. I'm hoping it's going to get a little easier as the body gets conditioned to the routine. I'm beginning to get a feel for what it must be like to ride one of the grand tours.

    Please don't forget that I'm raising money for Marie Curie Cancer Care. If you're following my account of the event then please find your way to http://www.justgiving.com/centcols/ and make a small donation. I'm trying to tweet along the way, although it's hard when exhausted and mobile reception is poor! Follow me at http://twitter.com/Earth_Dreamer.
  • chapeau, sir! it sounds like an absolutely epic journey. Good luck with the remaining days and let us know how it ends.