It’s taken me 6 years to be able to write this. I’ve always wanted to. But I found it humiliating and embarrassing. I’m a big boy now. Let’s talk.
All the remaining Fireflies pose for a photo before ascending the Col du Turini. But where am I?…
It’s taken me 6 years to be able to write this. I’ve always wanted to. But I found it humiliating and embarrassing. I’m a big boy now. Let's talk.
I learnt more about myself this day than any other before or since. Its the day I found out how determined I could really be, how much suffering I could take and how incredibly stupid I am when I become fixated on a goal. A day when I saw beauty that I think of every day, and that changed my attitude to life and cycling forever. Vulpine would never have happened without it.
There is no exaggeration or embellishment. Just what I remember and how I perceived it. Excuse me, there are swears.
Hello, that's me at the send-off. The Corona isn't real, there's a man inside it.
18th June 2007
For a large part of my adult life my spine had stopped me cycling and at points even walking. I had built my body up to this point. To ride the Alps!
I was being driven away from Nice airport with my bike in the back of multi-seater van, en route to The Alps. This was the day I’d dreamt of for 22 years, since I waatched Hinault and Lemond on TV. I’d had to stop serious racing cycling aged 19. I’d never ridden The Alps. Now I was well again, and I could see them looming before me. Brilliant!
Except I wasn’t well again. Six weeks before I had done what I was supposed never to do. I had run about paint balling on a friend’s stag party, throwing myself about and generally being a dick. I now had a disc prolapse that meant I really shouldn’t be riding. But there was no fuckkkkking way I wasn’t doing this ride.
I had signed up and been accepted to do the Fireflies Tour. A very tough but friendly charity ride in aid of Leuka that’s still running. So instead of the full nine days riding I’d had to suddenly rearrange and just attempt the final two days. I was devastated. But I’d make the most of it.
Recent training had been extremely difficult and painful, but at least the riding position seemed to offer some relief. My osteopath worked miracles and told me I’d be more comfortable riding than lying down. So the die was cast and the Alps came into view.
The Cime de la Bonette rises to 2802m. Its a beautiful green and erie climb that I longed to try. It was raining outside. I love the rain, especially climbing. I asked to get out and change into my kit. But I’d bugger up the journey for my companions, and we headed upwards, passing my fellow Flies as I stared out of the teaming panes, longing.
Alex and Barry in a freezing howling wind, being filmed by Markus from CycleFilm
2802m is high. Really high. We stood on the top and joined riders standing at 45 degrees to the howling wind, freezing. They were drinking in an extraordinary feeling of achievement and comradeship. I wanted that. I was a not part of it, not at all. I’d been driven up in comfort. I would be part of that tomorrow. We drove down. DRIVING a descent!? Gutted.
Hello bike box (told you I took no pictures)
So we shack up in an Alpine lodge in Barcelonette. I unpack my bike, eat, get introduced, laugh and pace nervously. Bed.
The night was grim. I don’t remember sleeping. Its no exaggeration to say that I cried and screamed into my pillow with pain. A long journey doesn’t do a severe back pain any good at all. I couldn’t lie, sit, stand, nothing. I was glad I had insisted on a room by myself. Maybe they thought it was anti-social. But I knew I’d just have kept my companion awake. And I didn’t want to reveal the extent of my difficulties.
For some reason I decided to take a picture of this view. I had been staring at it for hours. No pictures of the ride. But an image of wood cladding and an old phone. Woo
19th June 2007, 6am.
So I ride around a little and feel better. The excitement takes over. I consume breakfast dry-mouthed and trembling. I check my tyre pressures. I’m advised to reduce them from my usual 120psi to 90. Better grip and importantly this accounts for pressure differences in altitude, plus the heat build up from braking. Shit just got real!
So I twist my valve closure and it explodes.
We leave in 15 minutes and I have a tube to change. Big sigh, get on with it. Loads of time. Sorted. No problem.
Then my guts rather roughly let me know just how nervous I am. I start clip clopping to the toilets and shout back urgently but laughing “for god’s sake don’t leave without me!” and start wrestling with my sodding bib shorts.
Five minutes later out I clop into the sun. Nothing. No van. No cyclists where there had been 30. Just a truck loading bags. I panic.
I start the 2km descent back to the main road from the hotel. I am riding like a fuckwit. I turn a fast left and come face to face with a huge 4×4 carrying building materials. I swerve. The 4×4 slides sideways as it brakes and smoke rises off all four tyres. He honks, livid and scared, and I swear at his idiocy and my luck.
Then I realise the French drive on the right.
I tell myself to calm down and think. They probably left a few minutes ahead. A bunch of the fitter 30 riders of 70. It is a fast valley road. I can’t catch them without blowing the whole day. So I time trial at 25mph along the flat and begin to enjoy it. The chase. Last man on the road. It is 8:05am.
I turn off onto Col d’Allos, 2247m and my first taste of altitude. Pretty soon I pass Alex and companion. They seem extremely relaxed and I slow down again. They explain that I needn’t worry. Its not a race, just hang around and enjoy the view. We have all day. So I do. And I’m bored. My legs itch. I’m up for it and I want to feel it. So I kick and go. I prefer to climb alone anyway. My pace, my rules, my mind wandering.
This doesn't even do it justice
Allos is a beautiful climb. Stereotypically Alpine, with fountains, wild flowers, gorges, rarely a wooden chalet but mostly just green and silence. I am hooked. As I calm and find my place on the road, my head starts to spin with the beauty. This is an epithany. I want to stay here forever, climbing steadily and being in the moment, alone, happy, listening to the water, the birds and my blood. Its as close as I can get to spirituality. But I don’t take any pictures like the others. This is a test of my toughness. I’ve got it all upside down.
A car drives alongside and the super friendly support guys ask how I’m doing. I grin and ask for water. I down one bottle and fill two more. It is hot, really hot…
My first Alpine climb is completed at around 11am. I feel incredible. I’ve forgotten about my back, I feel fit, keen and driven. I’m also in a World of my own. The camerarderie is around me, I’m not part of it. Maybe its because I’m new today? But I’ve trained with a lot of these guys for months. Its because I’m here for me. This is my day and I want to smash it. This isn’t the Fireflies way and something I regret. Friendship is everything on this ride and I’m thinking selfishly.
We descend and I’m shocked. I like to think of myself as a descender. I love high speeds and tight corners. But the open, long drop, tight hairpin terror of this first descent catches me. I grab the brakes, lock up and hate it. But as the KM tick by I relax. Trees and grass start to line the road, not scree and emptiness, and I start to make the tyres work with me. Now I’m loving it. A small group forms and we work together at 60kph. This is fun. The temperature reaches 35c and I drink long and hard.
Next, Col des Champs at 2080m. I don’t remember this climb at all. Its quite weird. Maybe I was in the zone. Maybe I’m just an idiot. But I remember being pretty ecstatic that morning.
Quite stop at a magazin in Guillaumes for bananas, coke and ice cream, then up Col de Valberg at 1652m. Now I feel the heat. Its 37c and my feet have swollen. They hurt like hell. So does my back. This climb is open and I feel like a rotisserie chicken. I undo my shoe strps to their maximum. I embrace the hardship and dig, picking off riders as best I can, as others pick off me. I go deep, knowing there’s lunch at the top and start feeling the reddest zone. My back pain feeds my anger and I start to shout out loud at myself, pushing myself harder and harder, alone. Punishing myself, for a multitude of sins, guilt, regret and sadnesses past and present.
Absolved, I reach the summit, sweat running in rivulets into my shoes, and I grab some street furniture and scream in pain, arching my back like an injured beast. I can’t remember if it was my spine, my legs, my feet or just a sort of melodramatic expression of achievement. But I remember loving that agony.
I attempt to stretch and notice 50 riders sat at a crappy looking Alpine cafe looking hungry and pissed off. They’re not getting service and I’m too damned hungry to wait. I have French family, so though my language is iffy, my understanding of our faux pas is good. We’ve arrived unannounced in the off-season (this is ski country) and made their life hard work today. Service culture is not on the agenda.
So a few of us clippety clop over to a small family run place and I gently shmooze the elderly madame into serving us. Yes, it took persuasion, something my friends find shocking. Then they start the comedy French accents. The builders sitting on from us start to mutter and I tell them to shut the fuck up or at best we won’t eat, and worst we’ll be attempting to fight 4 guys twice our size, in carbon fibre clogs.
Steak frites all round. Mine has a large band of gristle along it. I devour all but that. We order coffee and ice cream. Madame asks why I have left my steak? Is it not good?? I explain that its hard to chew when you’re tired. She snorts and insists, arms folded, standing over me like a prison guard. I refuse, saying I have a tiny stomach, as I am a tiny cyclist, attempting to make a joke. She replies that in that case you want be wanting ice cream and whips the plates away from me. End of.
The others slurp their glace as I stir my shitty coffee. We continue.
Col de la Couillole (1676m) and the tiredness starts to hang on me like chainmail. The atmosphere is heavy and sticky with welcome cloud cover, though its just as hot. My eyes bake behind my enormous black Oakleys and I pull my cap down, just above my eyes, putting the specs on my head. Now I really get the design of the cycling cap. Lightweight, absorbent and the perfect shield that doesn’t obscure. In the mountains it is essential and I learn to love mine.
We descend towards Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinee as the afternoon wears on and the gradient steepens. I get arm-pump on a tight section and have to stop. I’ve been slamming the brakes too hard and I worry about blowing a tyre. I can’t grip anyway and I realise I’m not so hot a descender after all. In the UK I can slam a 1 mile country lane. But here a 25km constant sweeping hairpinned drop is beyond me. But I’m learning.
Along another fast, desperately hot valley road and then we stop and await the Col Saint-Martin. Everyone is knackered and the heat is grim. Huge containers of water are distributed and I drink and piss, as we all do. And I drink some more. I feel like shit. Not tired. But awful. I used to hate the heat. Now I loathe it. I try to stay positive and drink more. I’ll need it. We’ve been told that the longest riding day has been extended again, to include the Col du Turini, the legendary Fireflies climb, in celebration. This is mostly greeted with fear and worry. It is a hellish long day with a huge amount of climbing as it is. Almost everyone has been doing this for a week.
The 1500m (a minnow!) Col Saint-Martin is not a climb I remember as being terribly good fun (understatement). There are some steep sections that really mess your rythym. The heat seems greater than at any point that day and my friends Sue and Ben ride with me. “Come on Nick, you’re not this slow, give it some!” as music ting tings from her phone. “Only 10km to go!”.
Never tell me the distance! I enjoy the company but can’t keep up. We stop at a cold spring and we all get in it. What bliss! I drink as I sit in freezing water. I drink and piss and sweat and drink and piss as we ride up.
Nobody cares about bodily functions at this stage. The ride is hard enough. You’re covered in sweat and insects. You stink. You do what’s necessary. Its viceral and real. No artifice, The executive creative director rides with the intern, the film director with the delivery driver. All are equal in shared joy and suffering.
I am suffering. Like I have never before, or since. I am alone and the heat feels like torture. My speedo says 2mph and I could literally walk faster, uphill, with carbon clogs on. My heart rate has been sitting at 160bpm on most of the climbs. Here it is 175. Then suddenly it starts dropping to 90. This is exceptionaly worrying, ordinarily, but I ignore it. I am toast.
The flies sit unconcerned on my skin. I’m too tired to swat them and I need the energy. My cadence is down around 25 revolutions per minute and I grind in constant pain. I stop and cry by the side of the road, sitting in the gravel, tears of frustration and total exhaustion running down my face, mingling with all the day’s shite to create clear lines on my face.
I will not stop. I will never stop. I must succeed. I’ve only been here one day. I am pathetic. I am strong. Do it do it do it.
Someone helps me back on. I have no recollecting of them except they were quicker than me. The moving of the tectonic plates below me was quicker.
I ride and stop crying and I internalise. I ride past a helper playing guitar and loud music in my face. I smile. I grin. I HAVE MADE IT. Everyone cheers and slaps me on the back. Now I get it. The friendship, the support, riding for others. Its not about the fastest time or training or being the Big Man. Its about the ride together. I want to ride with these people and help who I can and be helped. Idiot. Idiot. Stupid self obsessed idiot. But its too late.
I see Ben and he offers to get me a drink. I don’t want a drink but I say something. Then it all starts going badly wrong.
He comes back and I say something along the lines of “Immmmm goiiiinngggg tooooooo…” and Ben laughs, like I’m putting it on. Then I poleaxe to the floor and the plastic cafe chairs spread in waves as I fall through them.
I must have been out for the seconds enough to wobble and start falling. I remember the view of the tarmac reaching my eye level, perpendicular, and my head bouncing a little. Rather as you’d see if you dropped a video camera. Then I hear people shouting for help and someone screaming “Get his tongue out, get his tongue out, he’s choking!”. I’m not choking. I just can’t move. Get off my fucking tongue will you!!
Someone realises that a tense tongue is an ok tongue and I’m slowly lifting up and into the shade. The Fireflies ride has a volunteer nurse and doctor with it. The nurse (sorry sorry sorry I forgot your name awesome person) looks me over and a crowd build around me. So does Marcus from CycleFilm. I feel like a complete idiot. The nurse waves them away. I feel utterly humiliated. She can tell. People try pushing salty things and sweet things towards me. I take Julians’s jelly babies. But I’ve eaten well. I did Sports Science and Physiology at uni. I know my feeding routine. Don’t I?…
I beg to rest and then continue. She says no way. I am desperate for yet another piss and I am carried to the loo, where she shows me my eyes in the mirror. They are completely dilated. The day is over for me and I piss for ages. I am pissing a LOT.
Not surprisingly the first assumption is I have heat stroke. The heat is massive today. The problem is that my core temperature is fine. Then I must be dehydrated. But I am sweating freely and I say that I’m urinating plenty and clear. So that’s fine. Maybe exhaustion and/or The Bonk?
Whatever it is, I have no choice but to get in the van. I beg to do the descent but there’s no way. I tell them how awful, scary awful I felt as I climbed. I am told off for not listening to my body. I’m told that it could have been very dangerous and if I feel like that in the van, to say immediately. They’re still worried about me.
I nibble unenthusiastically at Torq bars and nuts as we drive behind the bunch. I am beyond consolation. I am also beyond riding, which helps in a way.
Col du Turini is the most important climb to Fireflies because in its first year the rides’ creators got to the top and realised it was dark, and they had no lights. Now this is wilderness. There is no light. It is total blackness. And they’d freeze. They were in deep shit.
But then the fireflies appeared along the entire descent, lighting their way. An extraordinary, transendental and vital moment. They became The Fireflies.
So we drive past the group photo, mid evening, as the sun was setting. I thought about how exhausted they must be. They’d been riding since 7-8am.
Turini (1607m) is a lovely climb. All switchbacks and view. We stopped to cheer them on in a lay-by and I took a few shaky photos. I’d like to say something impressive like they were shaky because of my state of health, but more likely it was simply the encroaching darkness. Everyone looked shattered, riding together at the pace of the slowest rider. A lovely thing.
My shaky photo, as I shook. Old boy Afredo Marcantonio, Colnago collector and all round top chap, leads a pack of 70 Fireflies. Well, maybe less than that….
We got back in the van and followed. Then I felt something. Like a part of me that I really really needed had stopped working. I mumbled something about feeling bad from the back seat and they turned around to see my face. There were immediate shouts and the van lurched forward, the engine racing. Nothing needed saying. I was scared. The vehicle climbed the Turini, screeching around hairpins amongst the trees and honked for 70 riders to move over as we tore past. It must have worried them. I felt bad. I felt like I was melting into the van. I was really scared.
We stopped as an Alpine style hotel at the top and I was lifted out. I was advised to drink pastis (like Ricard or Pernod). My carers laughed and refused. I needed another piss, so two burly hotel workers held me up as I pissed on their sign outside. I begged to watch the Flies arrive. I probably seemed a little better. They brought me chicken and pasta in cream. I refused it, nearly vomiting.
It was dark and the flags were held aloft for the entire peloton to ride under, a Fireflies tradition. I sat on a wall and smiled to myself and was greeted with concern and hugs. Then I collapsed completely.
I came to being carried up the hotel stairs to the doctor’s bedroom. One at each shoulder, one at each leg. There were familiar scared faces and shouting. I couldn’t move a thing. I was stripped and a saline drip put into me. I remember my tunnel vision. I could hear and I could see a little directly in my line of sight. Everything else was shut down. That bit in Trainspotting where he ODs on smack and he’s falling through the floor as though into a grave. That was me. There but not there. Observing from afar.
I was absolutely terrified. My heart felt weird and irregular. They looked scared. They seemed to be discussing whether to move me and whether I needed a helicopter. Whether it was better to keep me here or to get me to Nice. My blood pressure was, as I heard it, 70/38. That is heart attack zone. I knew enough about physiology to know I was in deep shit.
Slowly, over the hours, the atmosphere in the room changed from what seemed to me to be very immediate fear for me, to gentle concern. I could quietly talk and I asked to piss. I made some joke about my tiny dick (ladies, if you hadn’t already noticed, a man’s penis shrinks to a peanut when he’s in jeopardy! Honest!!) They didn’t care, and had seen it all. I didn’t care. I was still terrified and absolutely refused to sleep. I honestly thought I’d never wake up again.
I’ve had guns pushed into my face. I’ve seen people stabbed, had nasty hospital operations, stayed in a resusitation unit and seen people die. But I have never ever been as scared as I was that night.
The doctor, dear kind, smiling volunteer Ade, reassured me. He would watch me all night, without any sleep. I did sleep for a couple of hours and I woke with what was essentially an awful hangover, the most intense hunger you can imagine and an extraordinary love of life. I’d spent the night thinking about my partner of 11 years and wife to be in a few weeks. I loved her so much and was terrified I’d never see her again. I was terrified we’d never marry and the guilt was huge.
I have no idea whether I am over-egging this part. I didn’t see Ade again for a long time, and that was 2 years later and he couldn’t remember that night’s specifics. The facts are scarce. I just remember that blood pressure reading, their faces and my body telling me it was giving up.
8am, 20th June, 2007.
I was glad to be alive. Really, literally, GLAD. I ignored the cockroaches (yes, really, some of the Alpine hotels are grim in Summer, wastelands) and had a cold shower (there was no hot water). This hotel was shite. I was found a spare Fireflies jersey and Barry kindly gave me some very silvery posh Assos bibshorts to use. I was going to ride….I hadn’t really learned much had I?!
Cyclists on the last day of a nine day mega ride will of course hoover up a breakfast buffet, even if it was garbage. I had nothing to eat and I was homicidally hungry. All my gear was at the back of a leaving truck. So riders gave me bars and I ate them like a starving lion.
Then we descended. These last 24 hours had been intense enough. This descent was and will always be a highlight of my life. I felt incredible. I could do anything. I cornered at full tilt, hairpin after hairpin and whooped with joy. I nearly saw a rider fall to their death. They swerved to avoid a car, clipped a low wall overlooking a sheer drop and they fish tailed along the edge. I saw it right in front of me. Somehow it just seemed part of what was happening. Like a movie.
A video of the day by CycleFilm. I requested that I be removed from it. I was ashamed.
I swooped and sprinted, leaned and flew past riders, shouting out with joy. I didn’t ride most of the route to Cannes that day, I felt too ill. But I did descend the Turini and through gorges towards Nice, loving it. A different person forever and a different cyclist.
Of the many things I learnt:
Cycling is fun, it needn’t be hell.
The ones you love come first.
I know I can become so focused on a goal I can make myself ill. Its not worth it.
Life is beautiful. I want to make the most of it.
The Alps are incredible. IN CRED IB LE.
What happened to me was that I drank too much water without electrolytes. I expelled too much of the salts (sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium) out of my body through copious sweating and urination. People do die that way. I had specifically run out of magnesium, which is called hypomagnesemia, or acute magnesium deficiency.
Magnesium plays an essential role in cardiovasular function, muscle function and mood. I had heart arrhythmia for some time afterwards, was unable to sleep, eat (ironically) or really, I felt “exist” as a person. I felt like a hollow shell for days afterwards and totally exhausted. It was only when Emmalou came to Cannes and saw me that she insisted that I see a doctor (yes, I’m one of these people).
I was pretty worried. He was amazing and as soon as I said I’d cycled a long way, drunk a lot (I estimate 12 liters, which is really dangerous!!) and that the day I rode was very hot, his answer was immediate. “You ‘ave no magnesium in your body my friend!” He said it was common in sportspeople unused to the Alps and gave me a prescription for magnesium oxide.
…Remember the pastis offered to me? Well apparently it has magnesium in it. The doctor agreed. They knew!…
I hadn’t eaten properly for 4 days. I’d lost a huge amount of weight, and not necessarily in a good way. He guaranteed I’d be eating within 4 hours. So it was. Two hours later I had two huge plates of pasta. When I got back to the apartment I began devouring.
I ate for 4 hours solid. I ate cheese, tomatoes, ham, chicken, nougat, more pasta, chips, crisps, chocolate, salads, tuna, rice, everything. I never bloated. I was incredulous.
I was supposed to be in Cannes for business, to see clients and shmooze. I had done next to nothing, a shell. Now I felt like I was on drugs. There was a huge party that night with Norman Jay DJing by the sea.
I turned up and I kept getting asked how I was. Nobody had seen me. A journalist asked me if I was high on drugs, because I might want to slow down? I laughed and explained that I really was high on life. That nutrients were pouring back into my body and I hadn’t even had a drink. I felt incredible. I danced and talked and laughed and thanked Ade, the nameless nurse (sorry!!), the Fireflies and I tried to find them and apologise to them all.
Then I went home, got married to my love.
The next time I rode a bike was in Madagascar, on honeymoon. Emmalou beat me easily. And I was glad.
Emmalou and I, a beach near Cannes