Today of all days is the day to remember a cycling achievement that I’ll never forget: our ascent to Alpe d’Huez in April this year.
Today, because this afternoon, history was made by a young Welshman called Geraint Thomas on the Alpe: a decisive stage victory while wearing the yellow jersey of the leader of professional cycling’s premier event, the Tour de France. Dogged by bad luck over previous tours and often riding in the literal and metaphorical shadow of his long time buddy Chris Froome, this was his day in the sun and he made the most of it! He now leads the race by a minute and 30 seconds, an enormous achievement that puts him into cycling’s history books alongside the greats.
I know a little of ‘G’s’ story starting as a keen young cyclist at Cardiff’s old Maindy stadium and rising through the professional cycling ranks with Barloworld and then Team Sky. He attended my old school in Cardiff, Whitchurch High, and as a sporting star, joins an elite list of ‘old boys’ including Sam Warburton of Wales rugby and the British Lions, and Gareth Bale, currently one of the best footballers in the world.
His climb of the Alpe has all the hallmarks of a classic sporting triumph with luck playing no small part as he successfully skirted the falling Vincenzo Nibali in a fog of coloured smoke from frenzied fans. But the crowning glory was the final flourish that took him to the line of which more later.
And so to my efforts in a group of just 3 on my pal Doug’s 60th birthday in April this year. We had come together as a group of people the previous night all with one aim : to help Doug celebrate his big day in style.
Of the 15 or so who sat down to a first meal on that night the gallant 3 were perhaps a little distracted from the food and great company as our thoughts turned to what lay ahead of us the following day.
I was up early next morning with my bowl of pre-ride porridge in hand goggling at the alpine scenery on the balcony of our rented apartment.
Perhaps it was fortunate the Alpe d’Huez was out of sight until we had picked up hire bikes in Bourg St Maurice and ambled across the valley floor to its foot. Craning our necks upward it was difficult to make out the line of a road up what seemed like a cliff of rock rising straight up above us. But the road signs were clear and soon we were negotiating the first of more than 20 hairpin bends taking it oh so steady up what we knew was some of the steepest terrain of the entire climb. The heat of the morning was already shimmering over the roads on these lower slopes and there was no chance of even taking a quick drink as the road rose sharply above us and we fought for breath. There were a few cars but the road was mainly ours and we could ride along side by side chatting a little as we warmed to our task.
Some extra incentive to look good was brought by Doug’s partner and her son who were taking photos and videos either from her Land Rover , or sometimes with Axel running alongside us, camera in hand. Gritted teeth smiles were much in evidence.
As we wound down through the numbered sequence of hairpins an occasional glance down to the valley confirmed the growing scale of our achievement ; but ‘don’t look up!’ was important as so much more was still to come.
None of us stopped! We all made it to the top, and the final sprint in the main streets of the skiing village was a great feeling, topped only by the taste of that first mouthful of beer!
We paused for a photo at the iconic ‘Dutch Corner’ half way down that long long descent.
And tonight I think G will be having a sip or two of something sparkling as he tries to live in the moment of his massive achievement. The crowning glory of his epic ride was a blistering sprint away from the elite group who had stayed the course to that last quarter mile, and a victory salute of furious joy as he crossed the line.