Dark side of the Col de la Madeleine

For some weird reason I got it into my head today to start from home in Aime and cycle over the 2000m Col de la Madeleine, down to La Chambre at the bottom on the other side for a break and then climb back over to return home. Most sensible people are content to climb just one side of this monster – which is a 26km climb from the Tarantaise valley side (home) and an 18km climb from the Maurienne valley side. I was curious as to what would happen tackling both sides though.
On the way up towards the col on the Tarantaise side there is a ski lift at Celliers around 1600m heading East over a ridge to join up with Valmorel ski station. Over the other side of the col on the way down to La Chambre there is a full blown ski station called Saint-Françoise-Longchamp which extends all the way up to the col.
Starting the training session I could feel that my legs were still tired from the Ventoux but gradually that sensation disappeared as the legs warmed up. The legs were probably still tired but I just couldn’t feel it any more. The Tarantaise climb is 26km but the steepest part is at the beginning – up to Bonneval. The col is over a range that separates two major glaciated valleys – Tarantaise and Maurienne. Those major glacier flows have produced steep sides to those valleys at lower altitudes and this makes the entry to a passage like this quite challenging. You know that the distance is 26km so you want to attack straight away – but that’s a mistake because the steepness just leaves you exhausted and there is nothing left in the legs by the time you reach high altitude. It’s best to take it easy for the first six or seven kilometres until it flattens out a little and then pick up speed. Today I controlled the situation quite well and so when nearing the top I was able to avoid exploding – but it still hurt and it was good to get to the summit – where I paused to take some photographs and enjoy the scenery, sunshine and atmosphere.
The restaurant at 2000m is not open yet despite the road being open for a week now. 
This is the classic French business model.

This view is back towards the Tarantaise valley. The sad looking snow plough is probably there for working with the restaurants on the Col during the ski season

The rest of the views are from the Col de la Madeleine towards The Maurienne valley.

Arriving at La Chambre – the town you can see in the photo above, I’d hoped to have a spot of lunch. It was about 2:15pm so it was still early enough and there is a bar/restaurant right at the bottom of the descent which had its menus displayed outside. Asking the woman if I could eat I was greeted with the typical F****d up French response: “NON” – meaning – you can only have a greasy, nasty “croque monsieur” piece of crap to eat. I removed myself from this enterprising restaurant and sat alone on a step to eat two small protein bars and fill my water bottles at a drinking fountain. Surprisingly I didn’t feel like eating any more than that anyway so found another bar and had a couple of coffees instead – once the staff had finished eating of course – and grudgingly decided to serve me. I put the extra sugar cubes in a pocket just in case I had a sugar low on the return climb – but in the end they weren’t needed.

The climb back up to the col was hard – once again being steep at the start, but now also extremely hot in the baking sun – probably around 34°C out of the wind – which is amazing for Springtime at altitude. The road had been recently patched up which had already meant a hairy descent due to loose gravel all over the place. Now on the climb the tar on the loose chips was wet and they stuck to my tyres like pins attracted to a magnet. It’s tough climbing when tired anyway but this sort of irritation can quickly become a torment. I stopped and picked up a twig that could be used to reach down and scrape the tyres clean while riding the bike. This certainly made the situation more tolerable and removed the sensation of being in Fred Flintstone’s Flintmobile with half the flint chips on the road becoming part of the bike. From about 1200m altitude the air was cooler and more acceptable, but the flint chips were still uncooperative. About this time I was overtaken by a younger rider heading over towards the Tarentaise. No doubt he had circled around the valley bottoms and was returning home over the col – which is the typical route. He was keeping a good pace, showing up my tired slow pace. I really wanted to shout to him that he was a wimp because this was my second time up the col today – but didn’t have the energy. About 3km from the summit I was overtaken again but this time enough was enough and I stepped on the gas. Surprisingly there was something still in the legs. At this altitude however there was a strong headwind each time the road turned to the North West – which was most of the time – plus the incline was averaging around 8% so it was a real battle to the finish – the battle being against the wind not the other cyclist who I’d managed to keep at a stable distance. I discovered last year that when there is 3km to go to the end of a climb you can attack as hard as you like because you can sustain it no matter how tired you feel. It’s like the brain decides that it’s going to give access to the reserves that it’s been locking away until it knows that you can’t really do any harm.
All winter I’d worked at developing a riding position that allowed use of the core muscles – particularly the psoas – without destroying my back. It had become clear that you need to contract on the “pulling” side while you extend on the “pushing” side. On the first climb today I suddenly felt the hamstrings during the pulling up phase. The main power was still from the psoas but as the knee flexed it’s like the hamstrings started to be activated by reflex. Now I know why people say that the pull up is from the hamstrings. It’s the psoas that’s the key though – you just feel the hamstrings as more clearly identifiable. My own hamstrings have always been quite weak with all of my sports seemingly prioritising the quads instead. Perhaps this new sensation is due to the hamstrings naturally strengthening due to the new lower position on the bike linked to the “pull up”. I know that I can generate more climbing power with the saddle higher and yanking up hard on the pedal with the entire side of the body – but it destroys the back. Perhaps by developing a more all round musculature – including hamstrings – then this situation will gradually change.
The descent back into the Tarantaise was cold due to the the North Eastern ridge on my left blocking out the sun for long stretches. It was time to put on the windbreaker for the first time today. The biggest problem descending was that I couldn’t stop yawning. It seemed that all my body wanted to do was to go to sleep now. Arriving at 6 hours in the saddle and everything was starting to hurt, neck, back, hands – everything. My bum was surprisingly okay though – the bum bones were a bit uncomfortable but not as bad as on shorter rides only a few weeks ago. The body adapts quickly. Getting to the bottom of that descent was the second most welcome feeling of the day. Wow it was great to be on something flat again for a while. Off with the jacket and now the intense heat was back and with it a strong thirst – but no water left. At Aigueblanche I passed a water fountain and although it was not indicated whether or not the water was drinkable I had to fill up a bottle and drink. The other option was to head for a shop because they were still open, but I really wanted to press on and get home plus I hate the idea of leaving an unguarded bike outside any shop. That’s probably the biggest advantage of training with others – there is more security in every aspect. I drank the water and pressed on. Several kilometres later when passing through Moutiers I started to feel indigestion – a heartburn feeling. That never happens to me on a bike so I guess the water was not good after all. Thirst overcomes all inhibitions though and when essential I had another mouthful – there was still a fair amount of climbing to go to get home but in the end I only drank half the bottle. All I had wanted since passing the col for the second time was to get home and the last stretch seemed like the longest. After 7hrs 24mins in the saddle and feeling pretty horrible it wasn’t even a joy to finally arrive – the body felt terrible even off the bike now. Clean sweetened drink, a couple of biscuits and a shower and already the body was starting to recover. About 30 minutes after arriving home I felt fine, but the body was generally throbbing – especially the “core” which is probably a very good thing. Sleep was easy coming but as usual when the body has a lot of repair and building to do it didn’t last all night. It’ll take a few days to get over this one – which was almost the equivalent of the extreme “La Marmotte” in terms of climbing and time. The goal here though is to get the body to adapt to such demands PRIOR to entering any such competitions in future; In other words: “Train Hard, Race Easy!”

Note: After burning over 10,500 calories on this ride it was no surprise to wake up the following morning a kilo lighter. It’s interesting though that this doesn’t make you more hungry it makes you less hungry.

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