Big Wrathful Drops

Marmotte Grand Fondo Valais 2021

I had spent some time in November 2020, looking for a new cycling event to try in 2021. But with covid, lots of events had been cancelled, and in the end, I settled on the Tour des Stations, the same event I had done the year before. It runs from le Chable, below Verbier in Switzerland, over the Col de Lein to Sion, and after several tough climbs (and treacherous descents), finishes in the Col du Croix above Verbier. 

Or so that was the plan.

Despite driving the same route to get to Verbier as last year, it was a very different experience. I had not been able to find a local kennel for the dog, Snag, and had to book one close to the race, in Martigny. So I took him with me.

Having misspent his youth taking every opportunity to chew up the back of the car (the only brand-new car I have ever had in my life), he now normally travels in a cage in the back which he hates. I feared one day, left to his own devices, he’d chew through a fuel line or a brake cable and kill us both (I don’t know much about cars, really). Being caged distresses him, and so distresses me. 

Time to try for a better experience.

So I placed him in the foot space of the passenger seat beside me at 07:00 in the morning, calmed him down (in a very relative way – he was still pretty stressed) then set out. Eventually he settled down, and we were able to enjoy the drive, together. 

Proffering the sword

The route is magnificent, leaving from my house, Bourg Saint Maurice, Seez (fleuriste extraordinaire), the Col du Petit Saint Bernard (a view of the Dent du Géant), descent to Pré-Saint-Didier (resplendent in flowers and a view of the Grandes Jorasses), then Aoste followed by a climb to the Col du Grand Saint Bernard and the famous hospice. Snag had been good as gold, and we stopped there. 

The weather was fantastic, the sky dark blue, the lake a deeply mysterious, rich colour. You could imagine a woman’s arm rising out of the water, proffering a sword and the right to a kingdom. 

A brief walk for the dog. And me.

Then on down through Bourg Saint Pierre, and on to le Chable. I registered for the race, then dropped Snag off at the kennel.

Early to bed, but like last year, wide awake at 04:00, so got up, showered and dressed, and descended on the bike to le Chable, arriving at 05:45 for an 07:00 departure. I chatted with the pen gatekeeper, who noted I was over an hour early; I replied I couldn’t sleep, and just wanted to set off, so with a kind of wink (or was it a nudge?) he motioned me through. So once again I set off with my youngers and my betters, the first group to depart.  

What was encouraging this year was that I wasn’t completely left for dead at the starting gun, held my own during the first part of the climb with this group, and certainly wasn’t the last to top out at the Col du Lein, which separates the valley of Entremont and the Sion valley.

Riding towards Sion (the only flat bit of the whole competition), I got on well, and felt I was making much better time than last year. A group of 3 passed me, and when I shouted encouragement, they invited me to join them. I very rarely ride on someone’s wheel, and was delighted to see how much easier it made things. But eventually I noticed my power was creeping well above my target, thanked them and dropped out. Stick to plan, Brad.

I had feared the transition from the flat to the climb, but it went very well (much better than last year), and I topped out at Mayens-de-Vermaniège, seemingly ahead of schedule and feeling really good. Half the distance and two-fifths of the climb complete.

The descent was blistering, and somewhere I hit 55km/hr. That may not seem like much in a car, but for me, on a bike, it is a near-death experience. It was sobering going by a rider down, who was being attended to by the medics. I was to see two more injuries during the race.

The next climb was to Hérémence, and I managed to stay on the bike when the slope rose at  15%. Temperatures here hit 29°C, which wasn’t too bad, given last year it was about 10°C warmer. The sky was really clear, so obviously they’d got the weather forecast wrong, and we’d miss the thundershowers that had been predicted.

A brief descent, then a big climb to Thyon. A whole bunch of curious things started to happen then; a real transition of the experience. I was still feeling really strong, and was actually passing plenty of people, many of them quite a bit younger than me (I passed almost no one last year), and felt I was making good time. Unlike last year, I had not a hint of cramp, and felt I had quite a bit of strength in reserve. Last year, I was feeling pretty spent at that stage.

But doing the mental calculations, it was clear I was not all that faster on my time from last year. If I kept up at the pace I was going, which seemed immanently possible, I’d knock just an hour off of last year’s time, so only 10% faster. 

In a way I had not anticipated, it wasn’t to be.

During the last kick up to Thyon, clouds rapidly filled the sky, and it was clear the weather had only been playing hide-and-seek with us. Some worrying drops. A peal of thunder, too close for comfort. 

By then my only worry was to make the treacherous descent from Thyon before the skies really opened. I gobbled down as many energy bars and gels as I could, tapped off a quick SMS to friends, shouted my thanks to the team manning the feeding station, and headed down as fast as I dared.

No, human beings cannot outrun thunderstorms. 

There was one dry peal of thunder very nearby. Then, Dylan Thomas-style, “the rain began to fall in big, wrathful drops”. I quickly had to take my sunglasses off to see (and even then it was only marginally better). I was almost instantly soaked to the skin, and started cursing my clothing (unfairly, as we shall see later). And then I got really, really cold.

Eventually, the descent bottomed out, the storms stopped (it might be more accurate to say “paused to regroup”), and I warmed up well on the climb. That was the last descent done, and so much of the danger was now behind me. 

Except it wasn’t. In fact, I’d forgotten the forest descent from Nendaz, cursed my memory, and my luck, as the storms fired up again with what seemed renewed vigour.

By the time I hit bottom I was trembling almost uncontrollably, my hands were no longer working the brakes all that well, and I will admit, I was starting to get really worried. I don’t think I have ever been so pleased to start a climb in my life. Near-instant warming, renewed energy, strength, hope. 

I would finish this thing.

The storm had other plans. Less thunder, but real, torrential downpours. Eventually I arrived at a town called La Tzoumaz, which was the last feeding station. Somewhere between 7 and 9km from the finish. Things had changed. There was a bunch of riders – maybe 50 – sheltering in an overhang associated with a couple of shops. There was the regular fare on offer – bananas, power bars, gels and so on – but gone were the sports drinks and a small crowd was huddled around a woman who was serving chicken broth from an almighty great boiler.

If this had been a film rather than real life, you would have accused the director of over-casting the woman dispensing the broth. Maybe 70, “One vast, substantial smile…” (as Dickens writes of Mrs. Fezziwig), a cackling, infectious laugh, a clear joy at being able to practically spoon-feed warmth and happiness into cold and tired people. She was in the place she was born to be.

The reason for the sheltering people was the race had been stopped. A decision would be taken at 16:00 about whether to continue. Riders were still arriving, and seeing their faces fall as they were updated on events, it was clear the vast majority wanted to continue. But at a deeper level, you could see most people understood the wisdom. And you could see a twinge of relief.

Eventually they herded us all into a covered parking lot, which was at least sheltered from the wind. A fresh pot of chicken broth was set to the boil. We milled about, wondering what was to become of us.

In the car park

I am guessing we were 200 by the time the last riders arrived. Everyone was soaked (which is why I say it was unfair to blame my kit – people in high-tech rain gear were shaking and dripping just as badly as I was). Anyone who stood still for even a moment produced a puddle at their feet which made it look like they’d peed themselves — perhaps they had. 

By 16:00 they announced the race had been abandoned. A lot of people were stranded on the Col de la Croix-de-Coeur (where the race finishes above Verbier) as the route down was too treacherous. No one would be allowed to continue upwards. There were no buildings, only marquis up there on the Col, and it was at 2,175m altitude.

I was shivering really badly, but was pretty sure I’d be okay, so started looking around at my fellow cyclists in the car park. There were plenty who looked far worse off than me (I am guessing, I don’t suppose I looked all that fresh myself), and I went around to a few to make sure they were okay. One woman particularly had me worried. She was about my age, but very slim, trembling, like the rest, but with a very worried look on her face. She was frighteningly pale, her lips an inhuman colour. I said I would call a medic, but she said no, she was okay. Somehow we both knew that that was approaching a lie, but she insisted. I insisted back. NO, she didn’t want assistance. Did I really know better than what she was saying, or was I just being a typical overbearing male? In the end I respected her wishes, but kept a close eye on her. Eventually she started to look a little bit better. Whew.

The notion of tremendous Swiss organisation is almost cliched, but for one brief moment, it looked like it had broken down. For 10 minutes, no one knew what was happening, race officials were madly fiddling with radios and trying to glean news while repeatedly replying to the same question (and not quite losing their cool): No, they didn’t yet know what was happening next. 

For an instant, chaos reigned.

Then, it was like a miracle. As if every Swiss person in the place, in unison, improved their posture, straightened their cravats, and began talking with authority. A palpable, visible wave of confidence propagated through the crowd. A fleet of maybe 15 race security motorcycles pulled up in front of the car park. It was announced that busses had been organised, but would take some time to get there, and in limited numbers (other people were stranded elsewhere on the mountain), so there would not be enough to take every one in one convoy. Bikes would have to be left behind, and they would be repatriated some time the next day.

The motorcycles were the alternative: anyone who felt strong enough to ride would be escorted in groups of 10 down to Riddes, a journey of 13km, where we could catch a train back to Martigny, and eventually le Chable. The rain didn’t seem too bad then, and I felt a certain obligation to take this option, freeing up a space on a warm bus for anyone else who perhaps wasn’t faring as well as I was. 

I must have been amongst the fourth or fifth group to head off this way. The motorcyclist set a very conservative pace down, and the road was in excellent shape. But then I (and no doubt my fellow travellers) started to get very cold, really quite beyond what I had experienced before. I was shivering badly. The brakes became less and less efficient, and neither riding them relentlessly nor alternating on-off seemed to improve things. My hands were very cold, and working the brakes became difficult. Eventually, I broke ranks on a hairpin turn where the road was temporarily flat and I could stop safely. I tried some stride-jumps (difficult in cycling shoes) to warm up, and by the time the next flotilla arrived, I was ready to go again. 

Eventually we arrived at the train station in Riddes, where emergency foil blankets were distributed. I have never had to use one in earnest before, and always thought them to be a bit of a joke. Wrong. Instant warmth, at least relatively speaking.

It was announced a train was leaving in 5 minutes. We did not need to buy tickets. Bikes could go in the carriage along with people. We all just got on before the doors closed and (yes, of course, this is Switzerland) the train departed on time.

From those faces you could see (we were pretty well jammed in there), you could tell most everyone was better. There weren’t too many smiles, but much of the worry had left them. I asked in a loud voice if everyone was okay, and an encouragingly spirited chorus of yeses came back.

On the train

But still, everyone was trembling, which made a curious kind of fluttering music, as their shaking was transferred to the thin foil of the emergency blankets. It occurred to me that if we could just synchronise our trembling, we stood a good chance of derailing the train. It was with that thought that I realised I really was going to be okay. Humour was a luxury I could afford once again.

At Riddes we waited 10 minutes for the train to le Chable, which was spacious enough to take us all. Again, this was free. It was announced that the le Chable – Verbier cable car had been kept running past its normal closing time, and would also be free. We were instructed simply to duck the barrier. Every other car was equipped with bike racks, so up through the fog we went.

At Verbier, the post office sorting area had been co-opted to replace the marquis that would have made up the finishers’ pen. Medals were distributed. There were still a lot of trembling people, but they were all smiling. A free beer was offered (they must have anticipated me). The bags of personal effects we’d left at the start were there waiting for us. There was a great community spirit.

I singled out a race official and told him that despite the hiccup and the weather, I thought the organisation had been absolutely tremendous. It was funny, he was a big, burly man of fiercely indeterminate age (40? 70?, who knows), but seemingly completely out of character his eyes welled-up. It dawned on me that this had been as stressful on the organisers as on the riders. They perhaps had managed to keep dry and warm (motorcyclists less so), but I suppose they had to think about thousands, rather than just themselves. You could see this man cared.

I still had to ride my bike down through 4 hairpin turns to get to my digs. So I arrived soaked once more. But happy. Last year, I think I finished my write-up of this same event with something like “That was a really good beer…” Well, altered circumstances force altered outcomes:

That was a really great hot shower.

In my SMS exchanges, one of my close friends texted that she was sad for me, that the race had been cancelled. No need. I know I would have finished, and in good time. What I had done – what we all had done – was much, much tougher than if the race had finished, as planned, in good weather. I met lots of nice people, and learnt a lot about human nature. Almost all of it positive. Still, I perhaps I would not want to repeat the experience. I am reminded of the words of Nietzsche,

“Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker.”

“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

I have long had my own private version of this, 

“Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich müde.”

“What doesn’t kill me makes me tired.”