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August 8, 2011

Forget Marcel Wust’s glowing review, Dave Lloyd’s infatuation and the many owners gushing praise for the Viner Maxima. At the bottom of a very wet Col de la Croix Fry on Thursday 21st July the Viner Maxima received it’s greatest accolade ever, when my brother uttered these immortal words:

“What’s happened, you don’t descend like a girl anymore. I couldn’t believe it when I looked behind and you were on my wheel!”

We’d just descended the Croix Fry, the first climb of our Alpine trip, and despite the cold, horrendous weather the Maxima (and the Swissstop pads!) was superb. I set off a bit gingerly at first, worried about how the brakes would work in the wet weather. So I tried them on a straight section, the pads bit straight away, none of the usual waiting for the moisture to disperse before the pads grip. Knowing that my brakes would stop me if needed be then I set off after my brother and Christian. It wasn’t long before I passed Christian and was on Karl’s wheel. I hardly touched the brakes – I didn’t need to, I felt so sure and planted on the Maxima, carving up the corners and trying to urge more speed out of her. Years gone by I would have looked worried on a descent like that, forever feathering and applying the brakes, afraid that the bike would run away from me. Not on the Maxima – I was having a blast and despite the heavy rain I had a smile on my face.

I couldn’t wait for the next descent. Even if it meant an hour of climbing.

I’d been looking forward to this trip to Annecy and the French alps for months. My brother Karl had organised it as part of his 40th birthday celebrations. His friend Dan has a sister who owns a holiday home there – so we flew to Geneva and drove the 45mins to Annecy. Now I had got it in my mind that the house would be by the majestic lake. Big mistake. We drove alongside the beautiful still water and turned off left up the Col de Bluffy! Famous as  the only categorised climb in the 2009 Tour de France TT (that did a circuit of the lake), the house was on a tough little hill that we would have to get up after every ride. On a positive note – at least it had a screaming descent.

The area is stunning even when the weather is dismal, which it was when we woke up on the Thursday morning. We planned a ride that would climb the Col de la Croix Fry (a climb made famous by Lance Armstrong in the 2004 Tour) and then take in the famous Col de la Columbiere. We were that cold after the aforementioned Croix Fry descent that we rode back to the house freezing and sodden. Amazingly we had 2.5 hours in the bank though!

Typically a couple of hours later the sun came out. So the bikes were cleaned and we descended down to Annecy and then rode along the lake to a posh little village called Talliores for a few cheeky beers and dinner. Climbing out of Talliores later that evening it was great having a full belly and the warm sun on our backs as we raced for the King of the Mountains line still visible on the road at the top of the Col de Bluffy.

The next day was the day we’d all been looking forward to. Climbing the immortal Alpe d’Huez to watch the Tour. The day surpassed my expectations, turning out to be an unbelievable experience.

The Alpe is a tough climb, the 21 hairpins upsetting any rhythm you manage to find, and the sheltered aspect causing the road to become a furnace. But as much as she likes descending, the Maxima really helps going up gradients, the stiff frame transmitting any power you manage to find into forward momentum. The Rotor cranks were superb too – helping to keep on top of the gears and turn them in a nice fluid motion. Which meant as I climbed every section I managed to look like a respectable bike rider in front of the thousands of fans already lining the climb. Shouts of encouragement from the Brits really helps, and when you hit ‘Dutch Corner’ the noise is electrifying. You turn on that hairpin and you’re suddenly riding through a loud orange tunnel, as drunk Dutchmen bellow and whistle, leaning into the road to give anyone encouragement. This is the nearest thing a cyclist can get to feeling like a pro – and I have to admit I felt a little intimidated. I can understand how the likes of Contador, Evans etc lash out. If you’re concentrating, and hurting, the last thing you want is a fat Dutchman shouting in your face reeking of sausages and Heineken.

Unfortunately we left it late riding up the Alpe, as we were told to stop with 3.5kms to go to the finish by a sympathetic Gendarme. So we took up our positions just past the 4k to go banner. Beer and baguette in hand we didn’t have long to wait before the crazy Tour caravan came into view.

I’d never seen anything like it. OK I’d seen ‘caravans’ on the UK PruTour and Tour of Britain, but this was something else. It went on for ages, and all manner of free tat was thrown at you. Professional Frenchies darted round, picking everything up to no doubt sell on eBay later. The caravan came and went, to be replaced by a dozen buzzing helicopters, which meant one thing. The leading riders were here. First Contador sped past, inches away from us, followed by Sanchez and stage winner Rollond. Then it was whirlwind of colour and noise, as small groups of riders came past, each greeted by a wall of noise. The loudest and warmest shouts were reserved for the Tour’s undoubted hero, Johnny Hoogerland. As he approached, a group of Dutch supporters shouted, and he turned to acknowledge them. Seconds later the undoubted rider of the year came into view. Philipe Gilbert was taking it easy, looking like he was on a cafe ride, casually chatting to his team mate Vanendert. One by one all the riders came by, including the large ‘autobus’ driven by Thor Hushovd, who coolly ‘high fived’ a group of Norwegian supporters just down from us.

Then it was over. Time to descend the Alpe. Which was a surreal experience. Try to picture yourself hurtling down a mountain, dodging all manner of people on bikes, avoiding drunk supporters stumbling in the road, elbows inches away from a large truck with a 30ft cuddly Lion on it, all the while being whistled at by Gendarmarie stood in the middle of every hairpin. It was utter madness. But enjoyable.

The next day turned out to be a weird day as well. Early in the morning I got up to go to the toilet, only to bang my head badly on a coat hook on the wall. Nursing a sore, swollen lump I went back to sleep thinking nothing of it. How naive I was.

I woke up in the morning feeling like crap. I felt like I had a hangover, but I hadn’t been drinking. But I thought the feeling would go, so got up, got my kit on and tried to have breakfast. I hardly touched any. We’d planned to drive down to the Cole de Telegraphe, ride up her slopes then ride up the Galibier. Still feeling crap as we loaded the car in the rain, all I could think of doing was going to sleep. But I thought the feeling would subside as we drove and I’d be better in an hour. The car journey made me worse – I thought I was going to be sick, the nauseous feeling only going when I fell asleep.

I woke up an hour and a half later, as the others were getting their bikes ready for the ride. I felt like shit – I couldn’t even think of opening my eyes never mind riding a bike, especially in the rain. I told them to get on with their ride – I’d be fine sleeping in the car.

What seemed like an age later, but was only actually 45mins, I woke up with a dry mouth and feeling very hot. The sun had now come out, and I was stifling in the hot car. I got up to open a window and didn’t feel too bad. I thought sod it. I hadn’t come all this way to die in the back of a hot car. I’d also spent weeks before the trip trying to sort out a way of attaching my Nokia N8 phone onto my helmet so I could video some descents. It was our last day and so my last chance to do some filming. So with steely determination I assembled the Maxima and decided to give it a go. 5 mins later, off I set up the Col de Télégraphe, the scene of Contador’s battling attack the day before. I didn’t feel too bad, and in fact my legs felt good. The Télégraphe is a good climb, the constant gradient and consistent hairpins meaning you can get into a good rhythm and just tap the kms out. I reached the top and feeling good decided to carry on.

My intention was to see the others on their way back, so I descended down into Valloire and started the ascent of the Galibier. The first little ramp wasn’t a problem, then it flattens out through another village, before you enter a wide valley and the road starts going up again. A couple of kms later and my earlier sickness started to come back with a vengeance. I started feeling bad again. Then it started raining and I realised I hadn’t eaten anything all day. It then dawned on me how stupid I was being – attempting a giant of a mountain that gets more angry the higher you climb – with no food and feeling ill. Looking up and seeing the dark, desolate valley, and the low cloud shrouding the tops of the peaks I decided to turn round. I descended back down to Valloire then climbed the short climb back to the Télégraphe. Feeling wretched I managed to eat a baguette at the cafe and get warm again – this had the desired effect. I started feeling better again so got the Nokia ready for my directorial debut.

I’m so glad I decided to get out of the car and try to ride because this descent was a scream – great open roads with nice sweeping hairpins. You didn’t need to touch the brakes, only for the hairpins to scrub some speed off. Although I did need to use them to slow down for a Renault Clio (see video below!). I’d heard that bikes can go down mountains quicker than cars – I never thought I’d experience it myself. The Renault slowed me down for a few bends until I saw some clear road and sprinted past it and quickly got back up to speed. The descent was a joy, the Maxima taking me where I wanted to go with no fuss and total confidence.

And then all too quickly it was over. It was that good I thought about riding back up to do it again – then I remembered I felt like shite an hour earlier so sense prevailed!

Three days later, back in the UK and still nursing a bruised head, headaches and a constant ‘woozy’ feeling, my Doctor told me the alarming news that I’d ridden that day with concussion – including that screaming descent of the Télégraphe. Very scary.

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