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For cyclists who relish a real test, try a trip through the French Alps

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For cyclists who relish a real test, try a trip through the French Alps

A journey on the Cent Cols takes cyclists to the border between Les Hautes-Alpes and Les Alpes-de-Haute-Provence.

Sometimes the Cent Cols in the French Alps can be hell on wheels, but there are epic, otherworldly moments to be had over 10 days in the saddle … and, after getting home, an urge to maybe do it again

Conversation peters out as we ride uphill from the hotel. The only sound as we climb through the cool morning air is our rhythmic breathing and quiet mechanical clicks from our bikes. Then we sweep into a turn and a dramatic drop-off springs into view, sparking a collective intake.

This is part of the Gorges du Verdon in southeastern France and our vantage point is far from the tourist crowds. That combination of quieter road and epic view is a treat that happens again and again on this Cent Cols Challenge, a Rapha Travel mountain trip for cyclists who relish a real test.

A few of us swerve off to take photos while the rest keep heading up, mindful of the long day ahead. By dinner – some 230 kilometres away – I'll have passed among fields of lavender, made it through an area known for aggressive bees, tackled great descents, spotted a fawn and contemplated my human frailty. It's a heady combination for a vacation.

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But a running joke was that "this is a challenge, not a vacation." It was a massive undertaking: riding a 1,900-kilometre loop through the southern Alps, going over 100 mountain passes along the way, in only 10 days.

By the end this group of highly fit cyclists will have become even more wiry. We'll have climbed the equivalent of 4.5 times up Mount Everest, going over Ventoux, the Bonette and other famous peaks of pro cycling. We'll have run across defending Tour de France champion Chris Froome, out on a training ride (two of us making a brief and farcical attempt to catch him). We'll have sweated through record-breaking heat and eaten gargantuan amounts.

It was the kind of holiday where you get home more tired than you left and may find yourself plagued days later with Sisyphean dreams.

We were an international crowd, three each from Canada, the United States and Britain, with an Aussie and a Dane rounding out the bunch. Ten men and a woman, generally in the 30-to-50 age range.

Feeding us, encouraging us and helping us with logistics along the way was a great event crew. But cycling in the mountains is an essentially solitary undertaking. You pedal at your own pace. The struggle is yours alone.

Most of us would fail to finish it all, falling victim to illness, fatigue, weather and injury. But to a group of decidedly alpha amateur athletes, even failure can carry a valuable lesson.

Breaking free

Near Aiglun, in Les Alpes-Maritimes, on the way to the Col de Pinpinier. Oliver Moore/The Globe and Mail

The legends of cycling are written in the mountains. Hordes of fans line the road to spot those mythic moments when riders seem to slip free from the bonds of gravity, rising up into the clouds.

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If it's an ascension, it can be a cruel one. Cyclists push themselves beyond any reasonable limits in the mountains – it's no coincidence that the French writer Alfred Jarry likened an uphill bicycle race to a crucifixion – but as awful as these climbs can be to watch, they are among the most beautiful moments in sport.

For another type of enthusiast, the chance to ride these same roads proves the greater attraction.

Massive numbers of people have taken up cycling in the past two decades. In response, a number of companies cater to riders looking for ways to challenge themselves, offering multiday cycling events with a range of difficulties. Among them is Rapha Travel, part of the British-based cycling-gear company.

"There is a macro trend for very difficult events in all sports," company head Darius Alavi-Ellis told me. "Being able to take people to the best roads in the world … that's why Rapha Travel exists."

It's not all gruelling, he stressed. If you want to ride for a few hours and then enjoy a massage and a wine-tasting, Rapha has a trip for you. But it also offers a variety of more difficult rides. The toughest is the Cent Cols Challenge – so hard it can struggle to attract customers. ("Cent Cols" means 100 mountain passes, or 100 climbs.)

This ride was the brainchild of Phil Deeker, who now operates it in conjunction with Rapha. There were 10 separate Cent Cols routes last year and Deeker rode all 10 for charity, one after another.

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Few could match Deeker's feat. But even a shorter stint of mountain riding has real appeal. There's something vaguely meditative about those long days. Something elemental. The responsibilities of normal life are far away. You're reduced to the basics: riding, eating, washing your cycling clothes, sleeping.

I'd finished rides with more climbing in a day than a Cent Cols, and ones with longer hours in the saddle. But this would be harder. Nothing I'd done combined such rigours of distance and elevation. This new challenge caught my eye in the depths of last winter. Months of training later, I was in southeast France.

The good

You know you're in the real Alps when you hear bells strapped to free-roaming cows. Add in starkly beautiful scenery, a quiet little road and peaks above 2,000 metres and you're ticking all the boxes. The final days of the event, when we left the scorching heat behind and headed into the high mountains, rank among my best cycling memories.

We had an easy familiarity with pro-racing terminology and Day 9 had been dubbed the queen stage, essentially meaning the hardest or most memorable. It did not disappoint.

Leaving Guillestre and heading toward Italy, where we would spend the night, we turned onto the mountain road and settled in for a 16-kilometre climb up to the Col Agnel – the first of multiple high passes on tap that day, a series culminating with the ominously named Colle dei Morti, Pass of the Dead. The road up the Agnel was a stunner. On the lower reaches were meadows decorated with wild flowers and hay bales, a creek to ride along. I could hear marmots that eluded my gaze.

Passing cows en route to the Col Agnel, which forms the border with Italy.

As usual, our group had split on the ascent. With different abilities, we all climbed at different speeds. But the road was a popular cycling route and there was often someone in sight if you needed motivation to boost your pace. In the higher ranges, as the wind picked up and I slogged through a series of hairpins, the chilly temperature was all the reason I needed to keep moving.

According to one theory, Hannibal marched this way with his war elephants 2,200 years ago, set on attacking Rome in the Second Punic War. Some 150 years later, Roman legions went the other way, en route to conquering what was known then as Gaul. But the summit – 2,744 metres above sea level – was shrouded with clouds and too cold to linger. I didn't sightsee, stopping only long enough to put on some extra clothes before hurtling down the other side into Italy.

Two food stops separated by another tough climb set us up for the other major challenge of the day: 21 kilometres uphill to a trio of passes clustered in quick succession.

This was rugged terrain, with a wilder feel than some areas we'd seen. After coming out of the forest I spotted an apparent hobbit house set into a hillside. Rough farm buildings were scattered here and there. The climb was erratic as I gained altitude, kicking up at times to a steepness that bit. The road surface deteriorated. Up high the rock face was marked first with dramatic bits of what seemed to be verdigris, and then a striking slate-blue tone.

Another top shrouded in clouds and I flicked on my front light before ghosting forward through the gloom. Up here the passes come quickly, without losing altitude, and within minutes a statue reared up on my left.

The remote setting for this monument to former pro cyclist Marco Pantani is an unexpectedly powerful gesture. Like the statue of Shanawdithit that stands in a remote forest of Newfoundland, commemorating the extinct Beothuk people, or those underwater sculpture gardens in the Caribbean, it rewards the visitor willing to put in the work.

It is not triumphalist. The yellow cap some wag had added didn't detract from the pained gaze and downcast expression, evoking the suffering Pantani endured on the road and his later decline. A magical climber, he was also a drug-user in an era when that was necessary to compete, and he felt cyclists were being unfairly attacked. He spiralled downward after leaving the sport, before overdosing on cocaine.

But to the fans, he remains Il Pirata, the little Italian who rode with panache and could beat the world. He trained in these mountains and they remain his spiritual home, those haunted eyes staring eternally into the mists atop the Colle dei Morti.

The trip is a massive undertaking: riding a 1,900-kilometre loop through the southern Alps, going over 100 mountain passes along the way.

The bad

"It's going to be hot," Alavi-Ellis, the Rapha chief, had said when we chatted a few months earlier. Prophetic words. When I landed in Nice, the area was struggling with a wave of searing temperatures.

A few days into the Cent Cols, one guy's computer registered an afternoon temperature of 44.3 C. Another day, it was 39 when I rolled into a town at 6 o'clock. Of all the nights to be in a hotel without A/C.

Toronto had a cool and late spring last year. One early Ontario training ride was between fields covered in snow and plunging down into each valley was like jumping into a chilly lake. Even by July there had been little real heat, making the switch to French temperatures a shock to the system.

Cold weather is easier to manage. You can warm up by adding clothing – and riding over the highest paved road in Europe, the 2,860-metre Cime de la Bonette, in cold rain on Day 8 was a reminder always to pack more layers than you think you'll need – eating lots or upping your pace.

But this heat at the start was a new experience, like a huge fist pushing down on me as I rode. Even descents were less refreshing than usual. The hot wind in my face as I flew down the Col de Perty in the Drôme region was like being blasted with a huge hair dryer.

It became a progression from one village fountain to the next. I'd gulp a bottle of water, dump a few more over myself and ride on. The cooling effect would be gone by the time the next village came along.

The heat took its toll. Cycling is a very healthy activity; what we were doing wasn't particularly so.

On Day 2 a rider quit. Others began to hack and wheeze. You sometimes knew another cyclist was approaching because you could hear the coughing. And it hit indirectly. One rider got a terrible saddle sore, which was probably worsened by the amount he was sweating. He maintained a sense of humour about it. "How's the skin on your backside?" someone asked one day. "It's not there," he responded – but his pain was obvious.

One night a fellow cyclist was teary-eyed at the forecast of yet another scorcher the next day. On another day, two riders later said their event was saved only by happenstance. They would have got in the support van if it had chanced to come by at their worst moments.

The highest Alps – which would come on Days 7 through 9 of the trip – would offer relief from the heat. But first we had to tackle one of the most famous mountains in cycling.

The epic

If cycling were a religion, Mont Ventoux would be some mix of Calvary and Mecca.

Ventoux is not a classically beautiful mountain, but it has a brutal attraction. Its peak is a stark moonscape, desolate and otherworldly. According to one translation, French writer Roland Barthes posited that bike racing "brushes against the inhuman world" at spots like this. "On the Ventoux," he wrote, "we have already left the Earth, there we are next to unknown stars."

This is where British pro Tom Simpson collapsed and died while racing up in 1967. Perhaps apocryphally, his last words were said to be "put me back on my bike." Whenever the Tour de France comes here, masses of fans stake out the best viewpoints days in advance. And amateur cyclists come in droves to test themselves against the 1,911-metre "Giant of Provence."

The bleak moonscape of the final few kilometres to the peak of Mont Ventoux.

Our group was among hundreds of riders converging there on a midweek summer day. While most of these visitors would ascend only once – and feel legitimately proud of the achievement – our route had us climbing the mountain thrice over. We would go up each of the paved routes, all on the same day, adding up to about 65 kilometres of pure climbing. This was Day 5 of our trip and the last effort before a rest day. Most of us had booked massages in anticipation.

For my first ascent I set out before the group. I was looking forward to the solitude and cool of that early-morning trip up, before the crowds appeared and the sun mounted. And a bit of a time cushion would be nice, if it came to that.

Our hotel was on the road to the summit, so there was no wasting time. You leave the property, turn left and start heading up. On this route there's no view of the peak until quite late, making it easy to forget you're on the famous mountain. I almost had to remind myself that I was finally here. But the road was gorgeous: quiet and calm, with almost no traffic. I spotted a flock of sheep, nibbling away on the bleak upper slopes, after sweeping out of the trees with maybe two kilometres to go. It was a postcard moment, but the idea evaporated when a pair of teeth-snapping sheepdogs came barrelling toward me. I accelerated away, hurling curses back at the shepherd. It was an adrenalin hit, admittedly helpful, but farcical to run across cyclist-hating dogs on a mountain that may attract more riders than any other.

It was not the only moment of farce. At the peak I realized I had jammed a zipper on my jersey, on a pocket holding stuff needed on the road. And then I broke the zipper handle while struggling with it. Biting the bullet, I rode down to the town of Sault, where a friend had once mentioned visiting a bike shop.

The descent was a thing of beauty. As I rocketed down, the warming temperature buoyed my spirits. Whooshing along, a half-remembered line popped to mind. I couldn't remember the source, but it was something like, "cycling on a mountain makes heroes of us all." Not sure about heroic, but there was the distinct satisfaction of knowing I had one ascent under my belt. I was feeling strong and ready to tackle it again.

Finding the bike shop I bought a new jersey and cut my stuff out of the old one. One problem solved, but I was way off-route. Contemplating how to salvage the day, I decided simply to do the three ascents. I'd miss about 50 kilometres but retain the toughest parts of the day's route.

Going off-route also meant I was riding unsupported. The Cent Cols team normally does three daily roadside stops. Each offers well-balanced food useful for cycling, and you get access to a drop bag for any spares or supplies you might need. Living out of my pockets and buying food along the way was similar to other cycling trips I'd done, and a stark reminder of how much support matters. All the messing about was costing me gobs of time.

It was early afternoon before I was rolling out of Bédoin for the third ascent. By now I was properly weary and in the heat of the day – a beastly hot that Deeker had warned against riding in. I figured I'd rather relax at the hotel later, though, instead of killing time in a town along the way. I could take it slow, I reasoned.

The route I was on now was the pro-racing classic, the one most often used by the Tour de France, which has finished a stage atop Ventoux 10 times. The messages fans paint on the road remain legible for years, urging the cyclists to attaquer or praising a particular pro.

But it was the words aimed at regular people that were the most touching. Someone named Golio had apparently climbed this mountain at the age of 50, and those close to the person had put down some encouraging paint. "Go Darco," another message said. One stretch of road had a simple exhortation: " Allez mon papou." I had to glean encouragement in the messages to others, because this proved a very tough climb. Before emerging into stark open terrain near the summit, there was a 10-kilometre stretch in the forest. And Deeker was right, this was brutal. The trees prevented air movement, jacking up the temperature. The road crept by with painful slowness. My average speed kept dropping and the climb felt as though it took about a year. I would find myself wishing it was over and then give myself a shake. I was climbing Ventoux, dammit, and might never be here again.

Before this event, I'd thought about taking a short spin on the rest day. The theory is that it's harder to get going again if you let your body slip into recovery mode. I'd even mused about trying another climb up Ventoux, perhaps repeating a favourite route of the previous day. And the road from Bédoin would indeed be awfully nice in the cool of the early morning.

That next morning, one of the first things I heard waking up at my Malaucène hotel was the sound of clicking outside the window. Cyclists were downshifting as they headed up the punishing road. I rolled over and thought, glad I don't have to do that today.

The running joke during the trip was ‘this is a challenge, not a vacation.’

The fail

Deeker keeps telling us to think about getting to the next feed stop, then the one after that. Don't think about the whole 10 days, it's too large an undertaking.

This was difficult advice for our group. Only one of us had done a Cent Cols before, unlike some groups that are heavy with veterans. We were a nervous bunch, confident in our abilities but unsure what the road would bring.

It helped that there was a highly supportive dynamic. Each night Deeker would award a rider who had done particularly well, or one who needed an extra bit of encouragement. With the insight of someone who had done this many times before, he had firm ideas on how we could achieve our best.

Louise Miller prepared epic roadside meals for the main food stop of the day. She would invariably greet us as we arrived at the hotel, overlooking our sweat and grime to offer a kindly hug and a welcome snack. I was sharing a hotel room most nights with Darren Allgood, the mechanic who was also in charge of the other two food stops. The watermelon he sourced in the afternoon heat on Day 2 sticks out as a stellar memory, as does the Johnny Thunders track he was playing at a stop on Day 7.

The group of fellow riders was equally encouraging. Even when we were suffering and feeling painfully slow, there would be someone with a complimentary word. If you were riding particularly strongly there might follow jokes about performance-enhancing drugs. In this kind of cycling, groups form, dissolve and re-form on the road. But ability and temperament meant I spent more time with some riders than others.

A church nestled in rugged country on the climb of the Col d’Allos, in Les Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, on Day 7.

I found myself leap-frogging regularly on the road with Leslie, an American academic on sabbatical in France, who could beat me up a mountain but whom I would often then overtake on the descent. Hans-Peter, a Danish manager who went by HP, was another regular companion. We would enjoy the meandering conversations provoked by long hours in the saddle. Encouragement and spirit goes only so far, though. These are gruelling events, too hard even for most serious amateur athletes.

Deeker told me later that of the 153 who started a Cent Cols last year, only 72 completed every kilometre. That was a better success rate than our group. Eleven patrons started the southern Alps route and three-quarters failed to do it all.

The notes I kept during the event offer hints why, reading like a grim medical chart. Day 2: "cramping early in night." Day 3: "why?" Day 6: "when last was I cool?" Day 7: "have gradually been losing sensation in my feet."

Three riders abandoned outright. One couldn't stand the heat, another had serious stomach problems, the third crashed hard and broke a few bones. The remaining eight of us continued to ride, but most eventually fell short. Some got to a day's final summit in the dark, making it dangerous to descend. Others were nagged by old injuries or struggled with motivation. Fatigue and weather wore us down. "Even without the heat, as these events go on no one gets faster," Deeker said.

My own collapse came on Day 3. I'd been feeling the temperature and cracked after lunch. By the time I struggled into the day's third food stop I looked like death. With 54 kilometres to go –including a climb known as "little Ventoux" – I opted to get in the van. It was arguably the right decision: Even the fastest cyclists among us didn't finish until 8:30 at night and I could have been much later. But it was a decision I've been wrestling with since.

It's easy to blame the searing heat, that I wasn't sleeping well and that I hadn't eaten properly that day. All true. It's also true that my high-quality but old-school gear – I was wearing leather cycling shoes and riding a custom steel frame – meant lugging extra weight up every bit of mountain road. But the inescapable reality is that I wasn't as good a cyclist as I thought I was.

This was a realization a number of us had to face. Many of us are accustomed to being among the top riders in our circle back home. But here we weren't up to it. Not a pleasant experience, being humbled like that. But it's a useful one. If you never fail, how can you know where the limit is?

In some cases, missing some of the route ended up taking off the pressure. With the entire Cent Cols no longer possible, we could relax a bit, pick and choose our efforts. And this led to one of my great moments of the event.

On Day 8, I cut a chunk from the middle of the route, going directly from the first to what should have been the fourth mountain of the day. Before that climb I bumped into HP and we cycled our way up the Col de Vars, chatting about the event, life and the point of suffering.

Conquering the final few metres to the Col de Vars on Day 8.

At the pass – 2,100 metres up – is a café where I staked out patio loungers while HP went to get food. He emerged with coffees and enormous slices of blueberry pie. "They come in only one size," he said with a grin.

We basked in the sun, taking in the surrounding peaks. It was a rare moment of indolence after days of feeling I had little time to stop. At Le Mas, in the Maritime Alps, I saw a trio of seniors enjoying the view of a gorge as they drank wine in the sun. It looked idyllic, but the days in the saddle were too long for me to follow their example. I'd stayed the night in a number of beautiful places without exploring any of them.

In the end, I did about 90 per cent of the full Cent Cols route. I regret not finishing it and could well try again. But in that moment on the Vars, that piece of pie was worth every missed kilometre.

The writer's payment for the Cent Cols Challenge was waived by Rapha Travel.

It did not review or approve this article.

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