For an organiser to have the front to call thier event the toughest in the World is quite a statement, but it is the tagline for the Tour du Mont Blanc “Ultra Fondo”, claiming to be the worlds toughest one day bike race. The stats are impressive enough, 333km with a rather large 8300m of climbing. Say that quick enough and it doesn’t sound quite as worrying. The event has been steadily growing its reputation for the savage course with numbers rising to 700 starters for this years event. I first heard of it just over a year ago and instantly decided I wanted to try to complete and decided to make it my big event goal for 2019.
I have done La Marmotte and L’Etape several times and love the atmosphere and the challenge that they bring. There is something special about big European gran fondo events, although the Tour du Mont Blanc takes things up a notch. Collecting my number in Les Saisies, the start location the day before and making final preparations, I will happily admit to being a nervous wreak. Having trained well for the previous 7 months I did not want to let everyone down who had given their time to allow me to train more consistently than I have been able to in years and I knew I was in good shape.
I had some excellent advice from Stu Bowers of Cyclist magazine about the event and his knowledge from taking part the previous year was key and most importantly around the “drop bags” where you can leave a bag at a few different feed stations, of which there would be 7 around the route. What makes it so important is where they are and what lays before/after the feeds. The drop bags allow you to use your own nutrition, although food and water is also provided on every station but the drop bags also allow you to plan around potential weather conditions, for example climb to the top and grab a jacket for the long descent. For 2019 the weather forecast was looking dry, but hot but even so, in the mountains anything can happen so I carried a very small Sportful Hot Pack gilet and also put a slightly heavier gilet in one bag for the top of the Grand Saint Bernard, the highest point. Also in the bags, lots of TORQ gels, sachets of TORQ energy powder and some home made rice cakes. A tried and tested combo that my stomach can cope with on a long event and delivers the nutrition needed for such a big challenge.
After a nervous, sleepless night in the back of our car within eyesight of the start line, which at least meant no travel required in the early hours I was up at 4 to prepare and force down some food. At 4:45am I lined up and was surprised to see how busy it already was. Unlike La Marmotte and the L’Etape however there was no real issue skipping over the barriers near the front. I think here people know where they are expecting to finish and don’t stress about grid positioning quite as much. For La Marmotte, if you want to be near the front of your pen you need to be there around an hour before. I put myself towards the front, but there was still around 80 riders in front of me as I wasn’t expecting a mad start so figured I’d be OK, especially as the first descent was going to be “neutralised”.
That word obviously has a different meaning here, with lights switched on, riders all around, the lead car and front pack were out of sight before I’d even moved! Lesson learnt for next time perhaps. Another ominous factor was that despite us being at 1650m elevation and the sun not even starting to glimmer through, it was well into double figure temperatures and I was fine in just a jersey & shorts, no extra layers needed even with no warm up and immediately into a fast alpine descent.
I did my best to get up closer to the front, although descending an unknown road in the dark, surrounded by others all darting around was not exactly great for the nerves. By the bottom I was in the first big group, but there did appear to be a few riders ahead right up behind the lead car. How many I did not know and they were out of sight very quickly so were clearly on a mission. The pace in the group I was in however was sedentary, no doubt as everyone knew what lay ahead, but for me starting at a snails pace was not part of the plan, so given the chance I jumped onto a few riders who were also keen to go a little faster. A group of 4 of us formed and we rolled together quite nicely. It was a real mixed group, one skinny Italian, one older French rider, a female Swiss rider, who I assumed was the first female on the road and myself. A proper motley crew. We did not share a word between us, but got on with the job of riding as you do.
The French guy was strong on the flats and the Italian rider seemed happy to do more work on the front and we stayed together through the Arly valley. There were some real special moments early into the ride, including the first clear view of Mt Blanc and then seeing the first sunlight hitting the mountain above us. It was the closest I’ve every been to Mt Blanc and quite something to see. As we rolled through Chamonix towards the first categorised climb our average speed was above 34kph, despite already having climbed 900m. The first categorised climb of the Col des Montets was the first challenge for us as a group, but a rather untimely nature break for 2 of us meant that I was chasing to catch back up. After 2km of the climb I had made it back, which felt good and it had at least given me a chance to test the legs a little. A short, fast descent and straight into the Col de la Forclaz, which was a wide, pretty busy road but still had some incredible views around us. These climbs feel so minor compared to the others on the route, but are still both bigger than anything we have in the UK, although thankfully not as steep. From the top of the Forclaz we were in Switzerland and the descent off the top was really wide, smooth and clear (hey, its Switzerland, of course it would be!). A slight route change to previous years due to the Giro Valle d’Aosta (a high profile U23 road race) taking place near by meant we skipped a climb over the Champex-Lac, but would make up extra climbing meters in Italy. For the revised route we took the more major road towards the Grand Saint Bernard tunnel, which was probably the least inspiring section of the route with traffic being fairly fast and at times pretty busy. We reached the feed on the outskirts of Sembrancher at the foot of the long mountain pass climb and it was here that everything started to split apart. Many riders are supported by friends along the route, meaning they do not need to stop at feeds, where as others like myself need to stop at every feed station to keep topping up on fluid. Our group of 4 split here and as lower slopes of the climb started I was alone. I was passed by a German rider who was climbing too strongly for me to comfortably hold his wheel but then a few KM later, another few riders caught me and the pace was more manageable. The Grand Saint Bernard is a long, mostly pretty dull climb with exception of the final 6km, as this is the point where the traffic heads through the tunnel and the road narrows and snakes up to the summit. It is also the toughest part of the climb and our little group was being strung out. Pre-event if I had made a wish list, one big thing was to try and stick with a group to the Grand Bernard, so I was really pleased to have managed that. The first drop bag was waiting at the top, although I had to overcome a language barrier to find it as they were out of sight and I think I was the first rider through to need them, all riders in front being supported by someone following, including the two riders I had summited with. Average speed by the top was still around 28kph, but the toughest riding still lay ahead.
The descent was relatively straight forward, nothing too scary or fast, just lots of nice sweeping bends. I was joined by one rider halfway down who was descending really well and a great wheel to follow. From the summit we were now in Italy. I love Italy! And love everything its famous for: pasta, pizza, coffee and ice cream. What more could you want? The Italian roads are a mixed bag and as we turned onto minor roads and into little villages along the way it became twisty, harder to navigate and rougher. Then the climbing started again and my legs felt like wood and as soon as the steeper gradients started I was dropped quickly by the rider with me.
The route change, taking out Champex-Lac, was really biting back here, lots of sharp gradients and changes in surface making it feel slower too. With over 100 miles in the legs already it was starting to take effect with less higher end power and less zip in the legs. Reaching the feed at 212km was a relief and I hoped from that point the climbing would go back to being more typically alpine, longer but steady. The route profile certainly seemed to look like that. I now started to count down the climbs to go, just 4 left – even if they were 4 massive climbs!
The climb up the Col San Carlo was next and it is not a climb I had heard of before. I don’t think it is a famous one as such, although did find out after that it featured in this years Giro d’Italia. It started steeply and I was soon down towards the lowest gears on the bike and for the first time clicking for gears that were not there. The choice of 52/36 and 11-30 gearing was now looking a little bit of a mistake. The steeper gradients continued and while there was no regular KM signs as many of the French climbs have, there was the occasional wooden sign and they were all showing double figure gradients. 10%, 11% and even 12%. Absolutely no flatter or easier sections, no chance to rest. I passed one of the riders who was having to zig-zag across the road up to get himself up, such was the steepness. Reaching the top was a huge relief and the descent into La Thule gave a chance to recover a little before the next big climb up the Petit Saint Bernard.
I passed a couple of guys cheering roadside who shouted something and held up two hands. I couldn’t quite work it out, but thought it was perhaps my position in the race. Was I really inside the top 10? An extra water stop had been laid on here and it was certainly needed as I had drunk almost 2 full bottles on just the previous climb such was the heat. Going up the Petit I was feeling relatively good, able to muster a decent power figure and the climb was nice, meaning it was steady and not too steep or undulating. There was a headwind on some of the higher slopes, but even that was not severe with the heat being the biggest factor. Another feed station and drop bag no.2 at the summit, so I could do a full re-stock of TORQ gels, TORQ energy sachets to add to the water and rice cakes to eat on the descent. I tried to find out my position but the language barrier made things a bit too hard for my tired brain to compute. As the road rolled downhill I let off a huge scream, releasing pent up emotions and knowing the end was getting closer. Months of hard work and so far, things were brilliant and going to plan. This descent and the climb of the Cormet de Roseland were the only sections of the route I had previously ridden and while the Roseland is a big climb, it was good to know nothing too scary lay ahead in terms of % gradients. Rolling into Bourg Saint Maurice and another feed station before the long 19km climb. Here there was a guy that spoke English, so he told me straight, I was in eighth. This was madness.
The Cormet de Roseland is a climb I love. Not too steep, being 8-9% at the most with a few easier KMs halfway up and lots of nice scenery to look at higher up. As I neared the top I spotted a rider around 2 minutes in front which gave me a boost as I knew if I was catching people I was still going well.
The summit was the final feed station and the organisation were really upbeat and helpful in getting everything I needed ready It felt like I had an F1 team to help me out, all asking what I needed. With only around 15km of climbing left I risked having just one full bottle, eager to save weight for the last climb to the finish. The descent was frustratingly slow with lots of cars and vehicles to pass, in particular one big bus that really held me up and I figured any chance of catching the guy ahead was gone. Just before the town of Beaufort the route turned right and the final climb began.
In my chat with Stu Bowers before about the event he warned me not to dismiss the final climb. It might not be famous or even categorised as an alpine climb in itself but it was not insignificant, being around 15km in distance and climbing from 800m to 1600m through plenty of undulations. The 10km sign to go was very welcome and from here I was able to start counting down the KM in my head. With no one in sight behind or ahead I climbed at my own pace and hoped I would hold out. There was no easy finish, with 7% and 8% gradients that seemed to take forever. With the village in sight emotions started to take over and as I rode in and loads of people were cheering riders in the realisation of what I had done hit home and I burst into tears. 330km, 8400m showing on the computer, 13 hours and 15 minutes in the saddle and I had ridden the entire way around Mt Blanc, passing through three countries and over endless mountain summits. 7 months of hard training, over a year of planning and everything had come together better than I could ever had hoped for. Crossing the line I collapsed onto the bars knowing that I did not have to pedal any more.
The times were not immediately available, so it was not until the following day that I found out that my finishing time was indeed 8th fastest, which is not a time or position I ever thought I could achieve. While it is not a race like many other Gran Fondos such as La Marmotte, the competition for fast times is fierce and the fastest rider, Bart Van Damme finished in an incredible 11 hours, 53 minutes. Most of the riders ahead I believe were supported and I can imagine that would make a huge difference, perhaps as much as 30 minutes. I think this is not just to lost time stopped but the requirement to carry less fluid, spares and food, which means less weight. But it is not something I will ever truly know, so I guess not something to ponder on.
Would I return? I think so. While in many respects it is a box ticked, I still learnt a huge amount that I can take away for another shot at the World’s Toughest one day Grand Fondo.