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Pedaling Through Fear: My Haute Route Journey

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Written by Charlie Thornycroft

FOMO, or “Fear of Missing Out,” combined with a desire to be back as part of a team, was what drove me, Charlie Thornycroft, to buy Monty (my trusty bike) and enter the Haute Route Alps in 2015. I spent the previous 18 months listening to the boys banter about climbs, hairpin descents, the lanterne rouge, tyre pressure, disc brakes, Strava, and many other weird and wonderful aspects of cycling. Yet initially unknown, they had a bond — the type of bond that is about more than a beer in the pub; it comes from having been pushed mentally and physically to the limit and surviving by virtue of being part of something bigger than yourself.

Meeting Monty

So at about mile 20 of the London Marathon, while my body was telling me never to exercise again, my brain decided that it was time to man up, buy a bike, ignore the “hardest, toughest sport” strapline, and enter the Haute Route so that I could join that elusive gang. I cancelled my sports massage and pedicure scheduled for the next day and dragged the infamous Richard Chapman of Black Widows CC fame into Richmond to take me bike shopping. I had no clue what we were doing but very soon “Monty” had been found; He was black and pink (so already in BWCC colours) and in my budget which made that decision easy. Clad in running kit and a borrowed pair of cleats, Rich, Monty and I set off into the Surrey Hills. I didn’t fall off that first day nor did I quite manage to stay upright, but when I did eventually fall on subsequent rides (and at every traffic light), Monty fell too, and we didn’t even get as far as Box Hill. Three months is enough time to learn to ride a road bike isn’t it?

For the next three months, Monty and I could predictably be found somewhere in Richmond Park. We were there at 5am and midnight and anytime in between that work allowed as I desperately tried to learn how to ride a bike. There were trips into the Surrey Hills and out to Windsor for cake and coffee with the “spiders”; there were tears when I fell off going uphill to cries of “use your gears” and “put him in the granny ring” — I mean seriously: what is a granny ring?

There was no strategy other than “keep pedaling.”

The day I learned that I could change gears with my left hand was an amazing one and luckily it happened the week before we flew to Nice. There were whispered conversations about chamois cream and pee stops; There was talk of pounds per square inch, profetta lights, gabbas, cappuccinos and gradients — all still a foreign language to me. There was the guy that stopped beside me at a traffic light and told me that “girls like me shouldn’t cycle”; Another one said that the best way to train was to do laps of Hyde Park with rocks in my rucksack, and yet another said that the Haute Route wasn’t for girls, it was “only for proper cyclists.” I listened to them all, panicked, and went back to Richmond Park to do more laps. At lunchtime I ran, and at night I would go out for drinks with friends, get home, and do burpees by my bed. If I saw on Strava that one of the others had done more than me I would find a way to squeeze in a few extra kilometres and a few less hours sleep. There was no strategy other than “keep pedaling.”

Conquering Fear

Time whizzed past and suddenly I was loading Monty into the BWCC van and boarding the plane with a bag full of running kits, two pairs of cycling shorts, my new unworn pink cycling shirt, and ziplock bags of cashews and minstrels (army energy food). I was tearful, mute, terrified and excited. My roommate turned out to be the Olympian Emma Pooley. I confess that I was so intimidated at this that I tried to swap BUT she turned out to be the best roommate ever. We talked about boys, cider, houmous, and Radio 4 rather than power output, scary descents, or training strategies. Emma even booked my massage every day knowing how much I would need it. A true legend in cycling and now a firm friend. It’s people like Emma who make the cycling world such a magical place.

The first day flew by in a blur; I remember little except for managing to clip my right foot into the cleats and that at one point the wonderful Simon Parton (sensing my ineptitude) rode behind me on a climb and the next descent variously offering me advice and singing Natalie Umbrulia to take my mind off what I was doing. The briefing that night terrified me so much that I got to the top of Galibier the next morning and burst into tears as I had no idea how to get back down again. Eventually the lanterne rouge appeared and told me to follow 10m behind him, focus on his bottom, pretend I was skiing, and let Monty fly down. Somehow we made it down alive and I think even now I could pick Fergus’ bottom out of a line up at 100 paces (as long as they were clad in red shorts). Descending is still my nemesis (I still panic, ask Monty to look after me, and am too scared to use the drops), but I no longer go through several sets of brake pads in a day. I will get there one day — it just hasn’t happened yet.

Surprises

They say that you should never tell God your plans and they were right. Training was going okay until disaster — in the shape of a car — struck from behind and disappeared off into the night, leaving me bloodied, bruised and a bit battered. As I sat in A&E waiting for CT scans and X rays, the only thought in my concussed mind was that bones take 6-8 weeks to mend and I had 9 weeks and 3 days leeway before the clock would start on the inaugural Haute Route Rockies. Luckily, I had been on my commuter bike so Monty was unscathed. The fact that I looked like a child of Shrek and an Avatar, couldn’t see out of my right eye, hear out of my right ear, put weight through my right ankle, or feel my right arm were minor details. The Americans drive on the left anyway.

Within a week (after being unable to see or hear properly and suffering from acute headaches and nosebleeds and with no spatial awareness or feeling in my right hand), I did a back-to-back weekend combining a HR ambassador ride in the Cotswolds and the Derby sportive. Monty and I had a mission and were sticking to Rule Number 5. Though my usual cycling buddies were understandably wary of cycling with me, the deer in Richmond Park didn’t seem to mind. I started going to random sportives on weekends to establish whether I was a danger to others. It was me who hated the dark and would lurch between terrified tears and bitter, frustrated rage at myself every time I went out. After several mugs of tea, the shaking would stop and the nausea and dizziness would eventually settle. Once again I fell into the mileage game.

Surely if I kept the miles higher than anyone else on Strava I would be ok, right?

My daily route was miles, miles, miles and then an extra run or spin class just for good measure. I didn’t feel fit, strong, light enough, or frankly even brave enough to stop the ‘empty miles’. People kept telling me that rest was important, sleep was vital, and nutrition was key but I didn’t dare stop pedaling.

My only data was overall weekly distance and that came from Strava on my phone in my back pocket. Everyone else had a computer of some kind, but I didn’t feel like a good enough cyclist to warrant having a real kit so I stuck to my running kit and pocket Strava. No-one wants to have all the gear and no idea! It wasn’t until we were climbing the last hill on the last day of the Rockies that I decided that perhaps a bike computer might have been a useful addition to my kit, not least because it would tell me how close we were to the top — which Wanderberry (aka the “Wonky Donkey”) attached to my handlebars didn’t seem to be able to do.

Interested in more on the Haute Route challenges? Check out one cyclist’s attempt up the Haute Route Alps and one Wahooligan’s ride on the Haute Route Rockies.

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