Sunday's 7 hours of cycling proved to be undoubtedly the hardest thing I've ever done in 24 years of sport. The route from Issoire to St Flour was billed as 130miles of tough riding through the beautiful Central Massif but atrocious weather conditions and a woefully inadequate clothing selection turned it into a severe test of survival and nerve. Within 30seconds of leaving the safety of the car a rain deluge reduced me to a shivering wreck on the warm up, 40 minutes then waiting on the start line made me curse the decision to leave a warm bed at 4.30am. The heavy rain and high winds was just a tester of what was to come as the peloton struggled to maintain a constant pace. The lead was quickly reduced to a 40 strong pack as the ridiculous cross winds created many splits in the field but unbelievably 2 or 3 riders decided to have a go early and kicked away from the safety of the pack. Staying in this lead group meant outputing a lot of early work but it seemed like the right thing to do to try and increase core temperature. Even the skilled and experienced riders in this lead group were struggling as the landscape and conditions resembled the bleakest of moorland. Staying up right was the main concern at this point and the winds were making me wish my bike wasn't as light as I was fighting to hold the road, one rider in front was literally blown to the floor and we all scrambled to steer around him. The winds forced us the ride single file and holding the wheel in front was a series of 30 seconds max efforts. Preventing being blown into the side of the road was a real struggle as the rider 2 in front failed to do so and ended up in a ditch. The 'filling dislodging' teeth chattering of the last hour finally stopped and was replaced with a locked numb jaw. I tried to eat something but my jaw was just not working and felt like I'd had a long visit to the dentist. Food just fell back out of my mouth.
The first major climb came as a great relief but rather than warming me up it merely defrosted me slightly only for the ensuing descent to make body temperature plummet again. By this stage I now could not even lift my water bottle out of it's cage and trying to reach back to get energy bars was inexplicably impossible as all feeling was gone from my arms. I couldn't feel my hands gripping the handlebars, a sensation that instilled zero confidence. Even changing gear was a pretty futile exercise because as soon as I let go of the handlebars my fingers clamping together making me feel like an arthritic pensioner. All this with only 25 miles covered and with 105 to go, finishing seemed like a very slim possibility. But then something happened to turn the tide, not wanting to lose touch with the leaders by stopping for a leak, I relived myself while still riding. The sensation of warm wee running down my leg brought instant heat to that limb and was enough to up spirits and ensure my heart was into this challenge and finishing, however arduous, would happen.The descent of the Col du Pas de Peyrol was akin to riding down a waterfall as the torrential rain continued, my numb body trusting lady luck more than my descending skills. We now had hail to contend with but by this stage nothing would come as a surprise. On the next climb an impulse decision to follow an attack took me and 2 other riders clear of the group, working flat out of the next section of tough climbs got us well clear but in the early confusion I had no idea of how many others had jumped clear previously. Still strong for the next 20 miles we powered up the inclines but my lack of ability to eat was soon to catch up on me. I'm sick over my Garmin but I don't flinch, not so much 'eye of the tiger' at the moment but more like f@@king balls of one. The knowledgable crowd lining the route deemed shouting 'Allez' not enough today and a more appropriate 'Allez Courage' is often heard.
My ever faithful support and soul mate came into view at 90 miles, but with bottles still full it was less about the practical mechanics and more of well needed moral boost. The next climb proved my downfall, the Col de Prat de Bouc was where I experienced total power loss. I just hadn't been putting the fuel in. Cresting the sommet I careered into the food tent. I must have looked even worse than I felt as I was immediately swamped by helpers. I reached for a lump of cake but my hands were not working and it crumbled and fell to the floor long before it was even close to my mouth. I then started my journey to the floor and was caught by one of the many lovely people who had surrounded me. A thick coat had been placed on me and now someone is ferociously rubbing my back, a cup of tea is baby fed to me and I'm starting to feel with it again. Content with more cake a gentleman insisted I take a gel type sachet but I decline, but he obviously knows best as the next moment I am being force fed the gel. At this stage I had no idea what it was but I felt an instant transformation and was ready to rock again. Wishing I could speak French and be able to politely thank that team I simply waved and started the descent. The gel was magnesium and I can't recommend it enough as suddenly I was on fire again with full power restored. I take a sip from my water bottle and get a shock when I realise that in my pathetic state the darling helpers had filled it with warm tea! I chuckled to myself, although covered in food, sick and grime, sipping tea on the descent felt very civilised. I noticed the miles of barked wire fencing and Hoogerland 's fate on this course last week in the TDF would have sent shivers down my spine but i was all shivered out.
Passing the 120 mile mark I could finally take in the beautiful scenery as the rain finally stopped as I jettison rain soaked arm warmers and the gillet that was only originally intended for the warm up! I had been alone since 90 miles with no other riders in sight in front or behind. I then see one of my break away companions stopped with a mechanical. No way I would be able to change a tube if punctured, my hands would really struggle, but I see he has 3 locals around him to aid his plight. I ease up as he joins back and we ride together for the last section. The final kilometre is a spectacular up hill finish. We are side by side and he is looking around, very nervous, he thinks I'm going to sprint past him, but not today, he beat me on the earlier climbs, I put him out of his misery with a pat on the back, he smiles as I usher him to cross the line in front, in a day when 66% of the field failed to complete the course due to the conditions, all finishers are heroes.
In the end for me it was actually not the physical side of the day that was harder but more the emotional turmoil, I had spent a lot of the solo miles thinking of lost friends and it all became too much as I was reunited with Davina at the finish, 'don't worry baby' she says 'i know they're only man tears!' So it will be the emotions I recall rather than the weather if I hear the names Issoire or St Flour mentioned again, but I'll be smiling inside.