If you missed Part One or Two in this series, be sure to catch-up on the journey so far. During this article, the team drives through Switzerland heading for the French Alps.
During our very Euro breakfast of croissants and espresso coffee, we were entertained by Swiss fighter jets doing drills near Bern Airport, Switzerland. It was a spectacular display, but nothing compared to what mother nature had install for us later that day.
Once we hit the road in the campervan, we made steady progress to reach the French Alps. As we got closer to Grenoble ('Capital of the Alps'), nothing prepared me for the sheer joy with reaching the French Alps.
Ten years of dreaming and planning had come to this moment. Each and every turn on the road was greeted with stunning views that must be seen in person. The combination of clean, crisp air and postcard scenery made you question whether you were actually living, or was it dream?
Our group of four became seven with the addition of Nick, Greg and Barry. We all met for a late lunch at Bourg d'Oisans, with the base of Alpe-d'Huez just kilometres away from our eatery. With the sun beaming on our shoulders the lunchtime conversation soon focused on making a quick dash for the summit.
We easily found accommodation at a caravan park just a short walk from the centre of town. Within moments we had thrown our riding gear on and rolled to the base of the climb. Realistically, we were only going to ride this mountain once. Anymore during this particular trip and we wouldn't have been making the most of the numerous Cols within a short distance of Oisans.
As we edged closer to the base of Alpe-d'Huez, everything became very real again. You will only have one chance to ride Alpe-d'Huez for the first time. So how do you approach it? Do you ride it as hard as you can, or embrace every second and go with the flow? I chose to savour the moment.
On hindsight, the mountain made the call for me. The first 2km from the base hits you like a slap in the face. With a gradient of 10% during those first moments, it gradually steadies to average 8% for the 13km ride to the summit. It is far from the most difficult climb in the Alps, but its the rich history of this climb that is most appealing. It's the 21 hairpins and famous names of cycling that have graced the road during Le Tour that makes this climb. Oh, and the views.
If the climb was solid, the decent was ridiculously fun! I felt like a five year old child that had been given 2 litres of red cordial. Every nerve ending in my body was buzzing with excitement. I had to yell to release some excitement. The emotion was overwhelming.
We rolled back into town, each of us with smiles that didn't disappear for the remainder of the evening. The talk over dinner was about the next days ride. We were headed up the valley to Col du Lautaret and Galibier.
It was a good thing we had a guide book for this particular ride. From our caravan park we had to turn right...and then...well, that was it. Just turn right, climb to Col du Lautaret and Galibier (50km) and about 1000m elevation and then ride downhill to camp. Once again, the scenery was mind blowing. Words and pictures cannot do it justice. Did I mention you descend for 50km?
The competitive spirit in the group got the better of us on day two. Nick smashed everyone and it soon became a battle to ensure you didn't finish last. Most importantly, you had to make sure you beat Damien. For those that didn't beat him, they will never hear the end of it.
After the obligatory photo shoot at the top to mark the occasion, we descended to Col du Lautaret for lunch, before flying down the remaineder of the descent to Oisans. If you plan on doing this ride, its wise to carry a rear light for several tunnels you pass. It can get a little dicey, particularly when climbing up the road.
Day three in the Alps took us in the opposite direction to Galibier. This time we rode roughly 40km to Col de la Croix de Fer. On paper, 40km doesn't seem like much, but when you live it, this is one tough climb. The climb to Lac de Grand Maison in particular is steep. On the return, we hit speeds near 80km/hour with ease. Riders in this years Le Tour reached speeds over 100km/hour.
The next day involved a trip to Chamrousse to watch the finish of Stage 13 of Le Tour. We settled near 3km to the finish, with Nibali attacking the breakaway in front of us to claim the win.
Our final rendezvous with Le Tour was at Grenoble where we watched the start of Stage 14. We managed to grab some drink bottles for souvenirs. Several characters broke the security line to get a closer look at the team buses.
Experiencing a hill stage on Le Tour was great, but by now we realised our interests were with France, not necessarily Le Tour. With our focus back on our own riding, we made a bee-line trip for Col d'Izoard. On the way we bid farewell to Greg, Nick and Barry who were headed back to Australia.
Col d'Izoard was to be our last climb before Mount Ventoux. It was a chance for those that lost to Damien on Galibier to reclaim some credit. After several glorious days of sunshine, this ride was rather nasty. We managed to ride during a small gap in between the rain, but it was still very fresh. Damien used the weather as an excuse for his poor showing.
That afternoon, it was back in the van for a few hours in order to get closer to Mount Ventoux, our final destination before packing up the bikes and heading back to Lyon, the 'gastronomic capital of France and the World'.
We spent that evening just out of Gap and reached the purple covered lavender fields of Bedion Provence just after lunchtime. The lavender fields were a pleasant change from the wet French Alps we had departed the day before. Instead of rain we were greeted by strong wind gusts - so strong that we decided to eat crepes instead of immediately climbing Mont Ventoux.
Full of energy after the best crepes on the trip, Chris, Josh and I headed for a late afternoon climb up Mont Ventoux. Chris took off on a solo mission, while Josh and I undertook the most memorable ride we've possibly faced. Mid-ride we were confronted by a Golden Labrador tramping down the road in front of us. He appeared out of the tree-lined road with what looked to be a recently acquired, large animals leg bone.
To be honest, I didn't know what to do. He was heading straight for us and if he was cunning enough to acquire a big leg bone, then my chunky thighs might have caused him to attack! With these thoughts running through my mind, we were both surprised when he stopped 10m in front of us and promptly assumed position for a 'number two' - with the bone still in his mouth of course.
While Josh was trying to capture the moment with his iPhone, he lost control of his bike and fell towards a steep embankment. Another metre and he would have gone at least 20m straight down into rocks and trees. Once he was safe, we lost control with laughter.
A few more kilometres of climbing and the smiles had dissipated. We had reached the last three or so kilometres of the climb and the wind was terrifying. The baron top landscape at the peak offered no shelter from the wind. With each pedal stroke, we battled to control our bikes. We were engulfed by thick cloud and could barely see ten metres in front.
Thoughts of dismounting vanished as we passed the monument commemorating Tom Simpson, who died during the 1967 edition of Le Tour. Realistically, we were in a moment where life could have been taken, with a strong gust putting us over the edge of the mountain.
Fortunately, we reached the top, said a few prayers, took a few photos and then descended back to the lavender fields. When we reached town, we were informed that Month Ventoux might get that windy three times a year, at best.
The following day was our last on the bike. It was almost fitting to ride Mont Ventoux one last time before departing to Australia. All of the rides we did were special. From the days we got lost around the streets of Mulhouse, to the stunning descent down Croix de Fer, to the freezing conditions of Col d'Izoard.
Leaving Mont Ventoux that evening we headed for Lyon for our final meal as a traveling group. With the sun setting, beer in hand and scrumptious French food on the table, things became very clear and I had one prominent thought: its time to start planning the next trip of a lifetime.