Tour des Stations 2023 – An Impressionistic Approach

The Marmotte

On the 5th of August 2023 I did another Marmotte, once again the Tour des Stations, based around Verbier, Switzerland, and was going to write it up.

But my cycling blog entries are all starting to sound alike (if even your friends won’t tell you, you have to tell yourself), so this time around I thought I’d do something different, drop the narrative arc, and just offer some impressions, some vignettes. All scrambled up. So…

A Scary Opportunity

The first descent:

It was cold on that first climb to the Col de Lien, I saw 4ºC on the bike computer. I passed the col and got a kilometre or two of descent under my belt, and for a while felt very alone, before a swarm of hornets passed: the best riders from the second pen had caught me up, and were leaving me behind.

At an intimidating speed.

But I saw the scary opportunity, and latched on to two riders. Their speed was well out of my comfort zone, but being in front, they proffered a kind of x-ray vision of the route ahead: as they disappeared around turns, I could sense from their braking, or lack of same, whether anything was coming up and if there was danger ahead, well before I could see it myself.

Descent to Sion

Perfect for a fast descent

You had to trust, you had to leap, but ohhh, was that leap fantastic.

It was the best cycling descent of my life.

Not Quite From Columbia; Not Quite From Canada


It is getting a bit threadbare now, but I have always ridden these races in a jersey my parents gave me, almost certainly selected, on their behalf, by my brother. 

I love it because it has got the Canadian Maple Leaf emblazoned front and back, in a bright design. The front Maple Leaf is right over my heart, where it seems it should be. 

And it has the desired effect: no one can be in any doubt I am riding for Canada (if not officially, at least in my heart).

On the slow, hot climb to Thyon, a younger, faster rider pulled up beside me, and issued me with a challenge:

“Are you REALLY from Canada?”

That is the kind of question Canadians often ask other travellers, others suspected of being Canadians, when they encounter them in a foreign land. But I could tell from his accent he was at least not a Canadian by birth. (Just to be clear: I don’t care how you are or how you become a Canadian; you only need to do it well.) 

Although it did sound a bit like a challenge, it was clear it was offered in the spirit of friendship. So I replied in kind.

“Yep. REALLY. And where are you REALLY from?”

He replied, “Columbia”.

This kind of set me back on my heels, as it seemed like an incredibly long way to come for just a bike ride. (In fact, Columbia and Canada are very roughly the same distance away from Switzerland, but there is something about unfamiliarity that magnifies importance. And distance.) So, I replied,

“Wow, REALLY?”

“Well…..       ……not REALLY.”

It was a sheepish reply, and even though we both seemed to have suddenly acquired the habit of uttering the word “really” in upper case letters, I wondered why the sheepishness. He explained:

“I was born and grew up there, but now I live in Frankfurt.”

That made me laugh, because I could see the opportunity to bond with this guy was now laid before me…..

“Well, you don’t need to be worried about that too much. I was born and grew up in Canada, but now I live just across the border in France.”

That in turn made him laugh, and we chatted on for quite some time. 

As is so often the case in these events, a good conversation is stifled by a difference in ability. He had caught up with me because he was faster than me. 

He pulled away for the same reason…

Drizzle in the Dark and Charon, the Perfunctory Ferrywoman

Pre-race, nocturnal descent:

The descent from Verbier to le Chables, to arrive at the start, was dark – well before dawn — and sombre and done almost blind. It was drizzling a bit, patchy with fog, “dreeing” I think the Scots say, and my bike lamp was a pretty abysmal source of light. 

“Abysmal”: perhaps not so bad a description; I had the sense I was descending to some underworld, where the ferryman Charon would be waiting, to transport me to another place. 

As per usual, and according to plan, I had descended far too early, and tried to bluff my way into the early departure pen. The gatekeeper – the guardian of this particular underworld — was at first not having any of it. But it was early in her morning, the drizzle was falling on her, too, she wasn’t too happy, and I had more at stake. So her application of the rules was only perfunctory, and eventually she sighed, relented and waved me through.

I very much had the feeling that I was not the high point of her day…

The Underworld

The Underworld

Detailed, Painful and Garrulous

In the starting pen:

Just before the start. Penned up with a whole great crowd of people younger, fitter, keener (oouff, maybe not keener), and faster than me. The rain had stopped, but we were wet and cold and impatient to begin.

I ended up beside a Belgian man (I never got his name), 26 years old, full of nervous energy and what we used to refer to in university as “piss and vinegar’. He, like me, like everyone, just wanted to be away. 

It is funny how different people respond differently to nervousness: I think I tend to grow (uncharacteristically?) quiet and laconic; he clearly became more garrulous. 

By the time they were counting down the seconds to our departure, I had the impression that I knew more about him than any other person on Earth.

He related the intimate technical details of every bike he’d ever owned, and there had been plenty. I learned how he had met his girlfriend, not to mention a few other things I suspected she would probably have wanted left unsaid. He described the knee operation he had recently recovered from, and his description of it was detailed and painful. 

And on and on.

You might have thought that made for a poor conversation, but in fact he carried all of his side, and most of mine, with an unsuppressible enthusiasm and was quite entertaining. It made me think he would not remember me for long. It was pleasing to discover much later that that was not the case.

But then the race started. 

And he was gone….

More Fast Descents, Shadows and Exchanged Stories


I sensed there was someone behind me. I didn’t know for sure, but it felt like it. 

There was no chance to confirm, because I was going just as fast as I dared (and then a little faster), on the tremendous descent from Thyon. Too many potentially life-threatening things were shooting up out of the ground and rushing towards me to hazard a look behind.

Eventually, there was one wide switchback, I chanced a glance over my shoulder, and there she was. Not close enough to be drafting, but close enough to be following my line when I made good decisions, and far enough away to correct my mistakes, and take her own path, when I made bad ones. 

All delicious descents bottom out (you can quote me on that), and this was no exception. It gave me the chance to meet my shadow. Although the descent had been on the main road, the route that marked the transition to climb diverted to something much more rural, and we were able to ride side-by-side for a while. 

And exchange our stories. 

She was Dutch, must have been in her very early twenties, and had a sensitive moral compass: she immediately apologised for piggy-backing the descent. I was hardly in a position to complain (and I am not even sure it violates any cycling etiquette), as I had done exactly the same, much earlier in the day, behind two riders on Col de Lien descent.

So she was forgiven, without, even, the need for forgiveness.

Our talk was nice: she reminded me of when I was about 45 years younger; she spoke with that same enthusiasm that I felt at that age, that same enthusiasm that I hope I have not lost too much of. 

She had travelled. I had travelled. Her “travelling” had been mostly wandering, without too much of a plan. Likewise. She wasn’t sure what was going to happen next in her life; “what happened next” had already happened to me, but there was a parallel there. She enjoyed experiencing other cultures; I pointed out that the fact we both felt that way was probably why we were talking in the first place.

And on and on in such like for a while, until I woke up slowly to the unmistakable sense that she really wanted to be away. At her age, on such a climb, she could clearly pull away from me whenever she wanted. 

I realised, in sticking with me, she was just being polite. More of that moral compass…

So I concocted something like, “Listen, I hope it is not rude, but I am slower than you and need to go at my own pace; you must do the same; go.”

I think she sensed the diplomacy of that offer, and thanked me for it. And then she was gone. At speed. Full of the grace of someone very fit, very early in their life.

I never got her name.

Not even the second time around.

Riding With the Whipped Cream People

All throughout the day: 

I’ll never forgive myself for now having forgotten the Word. Maybe someone knows what it is and can tell me. If you can, please do.

During the course of the day, I passed or was passed by, re-passed or was re-passed by, various people (there must have been at least a dozen, perhaps more), who were sporting what was very probably the ugliest cycling jersey I have ever seen. 

The dominant colour of this jersey was a kind of demoralised purple. 

Vibrant purple was once the colour of kings and queens only, because it was so expensive; this was not that shade of purple. This was a disagreeable, cheap, unpleasant shade of purple. If this colour were a dog, it would be the junkyard dog. If this colour were a person, you would have said they were ornery, surly. It was that kind of purple.

But that was not the most perplexing thing about the jersey. There was a tall horizontal stripe of white, also off-colour and also somewhat demoralised, as if prematurely fatigued. 

And in that stripe, in big purple letters, was written the Word.

And the Word was long. 

And the Word was – for me, anyway – unpronounceable. 

And the Word had a lot of s’s and g’s in it. Maybe some h’s. Surely some a’s, c’s and l’s. I forget now. All jammed up against each other. 

Kind of a great train wreck of letters.

Operating under the assumption that all words, even this one, have meaning, I wondered what it meant. Not knowing bugged me. But for some reason, I never got up the courage to ask. Until close to the very end.

Despite the ugliness of the jersey, the people who were sporting it seemed pretty agreeable. They were always in small groups, chatting amiably, animatedly, in a language that sounded somehow Dutch or Walloon to me. Full of s’s and g’s, a’s, c’s and l’s. Just like the Word. They were all approximately my age, which is perhaps why we kept passing each other: the ebb and flow of people of similar capacities.

Eventually, at the last feeding station, I cracked. There was a couple re-fuelling, dressed in the unroyal purple, the ridiculous ginormous Word blazoned across their breasts, like a dare. So I walked up to them, and asked. 

What does it mean?

They actually spoke pretty good English, we made our introductions easily enough, but when it came time to explain the Word, they floundered. They weren’t sure of the English translation; they looked at each other simultaneously, as if hoping the other would help them out.

As there was no single English Word forthcoming, they resorted to descriptions. It was a kind of cream. Not a cream you rubbed on your skin. A cream you ate. A cream that rises to the top (which is why they adopted it at for their motto). It was thick. You could do things with it. You could transform it with your own energy. On strawberries, it tasted great.

And that was as far as they got. They smiled weakly at their failure to do better. It made me laugh. That made them laugh. 

I asked them if “whipped cream” might be the English translation of the Word. They consulted with each other, and frowned simultaneously. 

Not really.

Eventually, it dawned on us all, at about the same time, that the exact Word didn’t really matter. What mattered was that the Word had got us talking to each other. Sharing a bit. It had brought us together, we had risen to the top.

We laughed at that, and then it was time to move on. I thought better of asking them why they had adopted such an ugly shade of purple. There were some more kilometres of climb to do, and that conversation risked being tiresome, after one that had been so pleasant. Best to save the energy for other efforts. 

Although we did not stay together for the rest of the race – we were tired and needed to ride at our own pace – I was pleased that I had met new people, and had not quite learned a new word. Perhaps it is better that I only know the Word imprecisely, incorrectly.

Because now I can say I have ridden with the whipped cream people.

Strawberry & Cream

Strawberry and the Word

So Long and Thanks for the Banana

Mid morning, after the first fantastic descent:

As mentioned, the Col de Lien descent was fantastic. Much of it was done under cloudy conditions, but eventually, not far from the valley floor, we broke through the cloud, and the first thing I saw was an enormous wind turbine, no doubt generating some of the electricity that powered Switzerland. It was turning at a great rate of knots, and I had to think for a bit to determine wind direction. Blowing one way would have implied a daunting headwind. But it was blowing the other way. Perfect! I’d get a massive tailwind for the valley leading to Sion. 

There is a feeding station halfway along this passage, and by the time I got there, due to the effects of the wild descent and fast flat, I was really, really pumped. 

Like, just a tiny bit out of control. 

Fortunately, others were the same, and there was a lot of back-slapping, fist-pumping and comradery amongst us. Smiles, laughter, and people talking just a bit too loud.

But I didn’t want to waste time, so refuelled quickly, and thanked the people manning the feeding station vocally. They were on one side of a line of tables, and we riders were on the other. I grabbed a slice of banana that was part of the offerings, held it up and shouted as loud as I could to my fellow riders, 

“Right, let’s hear a BIG round of thanks for the people working the feeding station. They’ve given up their Saturday, just so you can eat some BANANA!”

There was a momentary stunned silence, then the whole group, both riders and workers, let go with a massive cheer. 

That just might have been the best part of my day.

Dog Tired and Riding for Ourselves

Late in the day, and hot: 

There were just two feeding stations to go, with a comparatively minor descent between the two. After the second, it was all climb to the finish.

By this time, the race was populated by nothing other than people who were dog-tired. Smiles were weak and sagging. There was lots of laboured breathing in the air. The odd person was still offering encouragement to their friends and stranger-riders, but the edge had come off that encouragement. As I say, it was late in the day, hot, and we were really riding for ourselves. We were really riding just to get home…

And by this time, we were spread out, and most people were pedalling alone. You’d pass someone, or be passed, but in each case, it was normally a solo rider. Somehow, teams seemed to have evaporated.

Maybe 10km from the finish, I slowly caught someone up. You could see they were truly spent: arms locked straight, head down, spine somehow having fallen into an anatomically improbable low space between shoulder blades. Cadence very slow. Head bobbing with each pedal push. To return to the first: this person was spent.

When I finally caught up, I realised, to my surprise, it was her: the Dutch woman with no name. The impact an additional hour had had on her was impossible to take on board. It was like some film flash-forward, life an eon later, after Les Quatre Cents Coups.

I pulled alongside, and we chatted for a while, a molasses conversation, the words ploughing haltingly through the thick heat and the viscous fatigue. 

She said immediately she was really beat. It was an entirely redundant statement. She said she was no longer sure how much further we had to go, no longer sure how much further she could go. You could tell she just wanted it all to end. Not fun. Did I know how much more we had to do?

The race finishes in climbing switchbacks, so, as the crow flies, you are not far from the end, but as the bike pedals, there is still a considerable way to go. You could just barely hear the music and commentary at the finish line, but sound, of course, flies with the crows, it does not follow the switchbacks. The finish was much further than it sounded.

As the Crow Flies

As the crow flies; as the switchbacks switch back

Still, that sound of the finish was the one positive thing in the air, so I said her, “Hear that music? That is the finish.” 

It would be wrong to say that energised her, but you could see it helped. Something to latch on to. Semi-solid ground. If you couldn’t see the finish, you could at least hear it. It became palpable….

In a perverse reversal of our earlier meeting, it occurred to me that she just wanted to be alone. I suppose fatigue is the death of etiquette in some way or another, so this time around, I simply said that I would carry on, and see her at the top. No concoction necessary. In any other situation it would have seemed cruel to leave her there, but I think this was really what she wanted. So I pulled away, a snail’s pace faster than she was riding. Never mind ships in the night: Two snails in the afternoon….

A Tacky Space Saved by the People Who Inhabit It

The end of it:

I have done five of these events now, and the one great problem with them is they inevitably end in a very tacky fashion. 

On the Tour des Stations, there are actually two finishes: race timing finishes at the top, the Col du Croix-de-Coeur, which is at 2175m altitude, and well above Verbier; presentations of medals, final photos and all the rest occurs in Verbier itself.

I understand and agree with the reason for this: if the competition were to finish with the steep winding descent into the very centre of Verbier, involving a couple of thousand tired riders, through a town full of pedestrians, it would be folly — not to mention carnage – because people who were still in competition mode would take dangerous risks. 

“Just one more guy to pass, and I can finish 32nd….”

So the clock stops on the col, the race for you is officially done. There is an inflatable FINISH arch, music, and a very annoying man — inevitably a man, as I doubt they could find a woman who’d be prepared to do it — talking rubbish into a microphone at high volume. Screaming it out, basically. 

But you still have to descend about 5km to Verbier in order to finish officially, have your photo taken, be awarded your medal, and be given your voucher for a spoonful of pasta in a plastic container. 

The problem is, the whole finish area is completely temporary, laid out in the biggest car park in Verbier, covered by a series of giant marquis, the entrance to which is yet another inflatable finish arch, music too loud, the screaming-man-from-above’s brother screaming much the same, the route taking you past the temporary stands where all the race sponsors are hawking their wares, until finally you are dumped into a space that someone of weak imagination has attempted to make appear natural. Hay bales, and fake trees.

To be fair, it is and must be an artificial construction: that is the nature of the event. The sole raison d’être of this arrival place endures for about 12 hours, like some unfortunate mayfly. It was a car park before, and it has to return to being a car park afterwards. 

So it might be more honest to say they do a pretty reasonable job. I should be more forgiving. But by this time, you’ve given your all, you’ve just slugged your guts out for 10 hours, you feel glory is your due, yet you are expected to believe a car park is Valhalla. 


Valhalla for mythical people

It is not. It is a car park.

I was one of the latest finishers, and was still walking around awkwardly (my biking shoes with their cleats ensuring that), still wearing the sweaty tatters of my cycling jersey and shorts. I was not alone in that state.

But I felt rare all the same, because there were lots of people in civvies, much faster riders who had bottomed out, gone back to their hotel rooms, showered, changed clothes and returned. Looking incredibly, enviably refreshed. 

It was as though the place were populated with two castes of people: those who had showered and changed, and we, the untouchables…

That untouchable feeling was not to last long. 

But to sketch it a bit more: the space was not limited to riders only, and there were plenty of other people, clearly boyfriends or wives, girlfriends or husbands, lovers or just plain friends of riders, also thrown into the mix.

There was a surprising number of babies; no doubt the offspring of people who had just finished the race. And kids of all ages. You could see that the older amongst these, those who were mature enough to understand what their cycling mother or father had just accomplished, were proud of their parents.

So maybe I am warming up to the memory of this place after all: actually, it wasn’t tacky, it was kinda nice.

As I said, the untouchable feeling was not to last too long. I got a stiff slap on my shoulder from behind, which almost set my pasta flying through the air. I turned around to confront my assailant, and he turned out to be someone I would have sworn I’d never met in my life. But he seemed to know me, and began enthusiastically posing questions about my day. Finally, it dawned on me: the garrulous Belgian from the starting pen. 

He had clearly finished long ago, showered, dressed rather elegantly, and looked rather thoroughly recovered. I was jealous. I think it was the change of clothing that most fed my confusion.

His energy had not abated, which was a good thing, as he proceeded to describe the whole of his day in detail. It would have been excessive coming from anyone else, but he actually carried it off rather well, his enthusiasm drawing you in.

In the distance I saw the young Dutch woman, but lost her in the crowd and we never made contact again.

I saw plenty more of the whipped cream people, although not the couple I had questioned. But I chatted with a few, and was curiously pleased to discover that they didn’t know what the Word was in English, either.

Some enigmas are better left in their enigmatic state.

I bumped into the Columbian, happily dressed as shabbily as I was. There was a certain complicity in that. We had a drink together: a good local craft beer, served in a tacky plastic cup. Because of the company, and the ambience, it tasted great. To hell with the cup.

So I think now I should retreat from my original harsh comments regarding parking lot, and it being tacky. It was altogether better than that; not Valhalla, but still….    

And it has taught me something: 

It is not the quality of the space that matters, but the people who inhabit it. 

Not Quite Valhalla

Valhalla for real people