by Marcus Leach
My lungs are gasping for air, my legs are burning and my mind is fighting a mental battle with itself. 'Just stop now and tell everyone you had an issue with your bike' was the first thought. 'You're not a quitter and there is no way you're getting off this bike' came the reply. 'But if it carries on like this there is no way you will make it to the top'.
I was on the lower slopes of Alpe d'Huez, attempting to ride one of cycling's most infamous climbs in a quest to achieve a childhood dream, and I was struggling, really struggling. I had been warned that the first five of the climb's twenty-one switchbacks were the toughest, yet never had I expected them to be this punishing. If only I could get to turn five, where the severity of the climb eases for a precious few hundred metres, I could get my breath back and push on.
Some of my earliest sporting memories involved watching late-night highlights of the 1997 Tour de France back in the days when cycling was anything but mainstream. It was the year Chris Boardman won yellow on the opening stage, the year Jan Ullrich won his one and only title, but above all else, for me at least, it was the year Marco Pantani won on Alpe d'Huez.
From that moment on I had this dream that one day, somehow, I would cycle Alpe d'Huez. Fast-forward eighteen years and here I was, in the middle of winter, taking on the mountain for myself. I was well aware that I had picked the worst time of the year to attempt the ride, yet my wife and I were passing the area and the opportunity was too good to miss, no matter how cold it was.
Despite not having ridden for six months I was in great physical shape and came to the Alps full of confidence, that was until we drove up the climb the day before I would attempt to cycle it. With every metre of altitude gained my confidence slowly drained away as I began to doubt myself, becoming painfully aware of just how tough this would be. One thing you don't quite get a feel for watching the Tour on TV is just how steep the climbs are.
As I rode through Bourg d'Oisans, the small village near the foot of the climb, the following day there was a mix of anticipation and fear in my stomach. On the one hand I was about to attempt to realise a dream, but on the other I knew to do so I would have to push myself further and harder than ever before. The icy teeth of a bitter winter wind bit at my face to remind me that I was up against the elements, as well as the road and my own growing doubts.
I soon forgot about the cold though as I swung around the final corner before the climb started, there was no turning back now, this was it, me against the mountain. Despite being fit it didn't take long before I was struggling to get enough oxygen into my lungs as my legs began to burn and the mental battle raged in my mind.
Somehow I managed to hang in there on the opening slopes, somehow I kept the pedals turning long enough to reach turn five, where my wife had parked to take pictures and cheer me on. I was suddenly reminded of all the times I had see the mountain awash with spectators parting only at the last minute to let the riders through. I didn't have that level of support, but I had support nonetheless and it was enough to spur me on, to remind me that I wasn't alone on the mountain.
It's true what they say, the first five turns are the hardest, and having made it that far I began to allow myself to believe that this wasn't an impossible task. My confidence grew just enough to give me the boost that I needed. I was no longer out of the saddle, head hanging down and struggling with every turn of the pedal, instead I was able to ride, for small periods at least, sat down looking up the road with a little tempo in my pedalling.
I knew that the next sixteen turns weren't going to be easy but I knew I had conquered the worst of the climb and that was all the motivation I needed to keep going onwards and upwards. Such is the nature of the climb though that you can never afford to let up, physically or mentally, as this would be a battle to the very end, this was after all a 'hors catégorie' climb.
The climb is steeped in Tour history, and as such plaques honouring each of the Tour de France Alpe d'Huez stage winners are fixed onto the rock face at each turn, along with a countdown of how many turns are left. At first those numbers tortured and taunted me, reminding me just how far I still had to go, but slowly, as they came down into single figures, they began to inspire me, to drive me on knowing I was winning, that with each one I was closer to achieving my goal.
I was never able to settle into a proper rhythm, every time I thought I could sit and ride at a tempo there would be a little stretch of the climb that would force me out of my saddle, force me to dig in, gasp for air and pedal a little harder. But, after what seemed like an eternity, I finally came to the last bend, my hands and feet numb from the cold, my legs numb from the pain but my mind close to triumphant knowing I was going to make it.
That's when the snow started, as if I wasn't cold enough already, as I wound my way through the ski resort on what was the only flat section of the climb before swinging around a corner and onto the finishing stretch. It was here, full of emotion and a feeling of immense triumph, that I thought I had the energy to stand up and sprint the last few hundred metres. My legs said otherwise and so it was that I came across the finish line slumped forward over the handle bars without an ounce of energy left.
I had done it, I had ridden up Alpe d'Huez, I had achieved my childhood dream. It took me just under an hour and a half and was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and having recovered I had a new found respect for those who ride the Tour de France. It was hard enough doing just that climb, let alone racing up it after a full day in the saddle.