Running on Empty
It’s ten o’clock the clouds are still hanging low over the valley. I set off on my racing bike.
Two kilometres alongside the river, back to the village. Through the small market place.
This is where the climb starts. The plan: a 32km continuous uphill ride with two mountain passes, and ending at a ski resort. Yvonne, travelling by car, will meet me and we will either have lunch on a terrace with a good view, or a picnic somewhere on the mountain side, before I ride back to our campsite.
The clouds begin to lift. The map showed that the climb is gradual to start with but gets steeper and steeper before reaching the first pass (Col de Suscousse) after 25km. The begin is easy enough but before the road gets seriously steep I have to change to a lower gear, lower than normal. Nothing to worry about, like many people who take part in endurance sports, I’m a slow starter, a diesel, once I’ve got going it’ll be alright.
As I pass through a village the sun comes out. After a steep climb out of the village the ascent becomes even more challenging. Far from being ‘alright’ I realise that I have no power in my legs at all, they are completely empty! I’ve had plenty of adventures on road and mountain bikes, battling against wind, rain, mountains, hunger, and tired, aching, protesting muscles. I can’t remember another time, though, that I felt so weak, so early on during a ride. I had barely started. The reason? I have no idea. Maybe the weather, it is hot and humid, 37degrees at least and there is so much moisture in the air that, although it hasn’t rained, all our clothes and camping equipment have felt damp for days. Maybe it is the result of a long mountain walk the day before or the delayed after-effects of food poisoning a week ago. Maybe it’s just my age. Possibly, probably, a combination of all the above. Whatever, it’s hopeless, I grit my teeth, and wrestle the bike further. I try to squeeze a grain of strength somewhere out of my body. There is none to be found, and willpower alone is not enough. I have to stop, something I rarely have to do, certainly not on a mountain like this, and after so few kilometres. I admit defeat. I get off my bike but keep walking making use of what shadow there is. The sun is now at full strength. I avoid eye contact with the drivers and passengers in the few cars that pass. After several false starts I start cycling again. At snails pace. The pace of a snail in no particular hurry. There are cows, sheep and horses standing around on the road. I slalom between them. They are not planning to move aside for me. I’m moving too slowly to be taken seriously. The cows look at me with pity. The horses with contempt. Most of the sheep take no notice of me at all but I swear a group of them are laughing at my pathetic progress from behind a rock.
Yvonne has been waiting at the pass long enough to make friends and drink coffee with some French picnickers.
“How’s it going?” she asks me.
“!!@## **!!” I reply.
“ You can put your bike in the car and we can drive the rest of the way” she says.
“!!@#**!!, @!**###!!!” I retorted and get back on my bike.
The next section of the ride is four steep kilometers to the next pass (Col de Soudet).
Now resigned to the situation I start the ascent slowly, in the lowest gear. Running on empty. Just getting to the pass without having to stop will be hard enough. The climb is steep and tough, but there are some hairpin bends where I can relax my legs slightly. Legs that feel like they are made of rubber. Progress is slow and tenuous, but I reach the pass.
Yvonne is again waiting. A quick drink before riding the last three kilometres uphill to the ski resort. Normally not what I would think of as difficult, but today……………….!
My legs are not the only things that are empty. So is the ski resort. Nothing. No restaurant or inn, with or without a view, and it’s certainly not a place to picnic. We go back down the road to the crossroads. We should be able to find a picnic spot there. I see that the main road continues on up the mountain. I watch, with empty eyes, as another cyclist zigzags slowly and painfully up the steep incline. The last thing I want to do, or feel able to do, is to cycle up any more mountains. Not another centimeter! Ever!
“Three kilometres further is the highest point in the region” Yvonne points out enthusiastically.
“!#**!@!##!” I exclaim….
…..and before I know it I‘m back on the bicycle zigzagging MY way up the same slope.
As I approach the top, (Col de la Pierre St.Martin) five or six vultures are gracefully circling overhead. They are looking hungrily at me. “Any minutes now……….” they are thinking.