Updates and Postcards

Presenting this year’s events, daily from 7-26 January

Read regular postcards from the Road or the Office, plus event updates, here.

7-26 January : Daily posts linked with @centcolschallenge on social media. Five ways of introducing each of the four CCC 2019 events.

  1. 7-10 January :The events in five words,……and why.
  2. 11 - 14 January : Five top cols,…..and why.
  3. 15 - 18 January : Favourite stage,….and why.
  4. 19 - 22 January : An unforgettable moment,….and why.
  5. 23 - 26 January : Favourite hotel,…..and why.

7 January : CCC Apennini in five words explained.

SURVIVE : In 2017 we passed by houses reduced to piles of rubble in villages, still untouched after the devastating earthquakes that had wrecked chaos in the Marche and Abbruzo regions seven months earlier. They were dark reminders of the brutal power of Nature and of the inner strength of the people living here, waiting to re-build their lives. Our own challenge is of course a chosen one, so any pain we inflict upon ourselves we should accept humbly ! And some days will feel painful, of course ! The wild nature of the regions we traverse seem to be reminding us of the basic rules of living in this area : it is a life of hard work and survival. I sometimes feel that our own determination to not be beaten by our exhaustion on the bike is an instinct akin to that struggle for survival we are lucky enough to no longer have to fight each day. This event gives us so much perspective : we are the Lucky Ones who should be humble and pay huge respect to those who acknowledge the Force of Nature and accept to live by it’s rules.

ROUGH : A combination of  tough winters and a poor economy means that damage is much more frequent than repair to roads in these regions. We will encounter everything from the silk-smooth perfect tarmac to gravel roads ( Strade Bianche) and broken/rippled semi-tarmac. This will be part of our challenge. 28mm tyres help a lot ! But the payback for the discomfort is the lack of traffic once we leave the few main roads we occasionally need to borrow. Houses are a rare sighting. Our support cars will be a reassuring presence at times !

WILD : Some of the landscapes on this event really beg the question «  Why do roads actually bring us here ? / Who are they for ? » We’re lucky that they do, for the peace, the beauty and that special feeling of being somewhere few people come to ride. A passing car is a rare occurence on some stages ! I discovered this area three years ago and I can still clearly remember my first impressions of sheer wonder and admiration. This is what I am excited about sharing with you.

LONG : There are less steep climbs and fewer vertical kilometres overall on this event, but June is the only month I could imagine holding this event. We need the long daylight hours for some of the stages. We make the most of each day ! I recall one rider commenting on the option I had announced about shortening one of the stages by 20kms, without missing a col : « I was planning on taking this option, but changed my mind.  I could see the daylight fading,  but I just didn’t want this day, the best I had ever had on a bike, to ever end ! »

ADVENTURE : « The adventure starts when things go wrong » said the Patagonia boss. Some things did go wrong in 2017, but we made it through safely and smiling and had many tales to tell afterwards. The Marche and Abbruzo regions suffer from relatively poor access, a slow economy and occasional earthquake devastation. Together with the frequent occurrence of  mud landslides after heavy rain, this makes for a higher-than-usual probability of « adventure moments ». There is no reason for alarm regading actual safety : it is more likely to concern road closures and route detours. Usually these can be anticipated and catered for, be it a little last-minute ! Official information about road condition is notable inaccurate. We’ll cross fingers,  and do our best for you !

8 January : CCC Northern Alps in five words explained.

GIANTS : It’s hard to deny that riding a ‘name’ climb will always provide a good moment on the bike. Connecting with recent race history via the road graffiti ; imagining the  thousands of fans at the side of the road ; measuring yourself occasionally against another rider. The Galibier, Iseran, Izoard, Alpe d’Huez are spectacular natural arenas for our sport. I love this beautiful contrast between the immobile and eternal nature of these places and the surreal, ephemeral frenzy that a Grand Tour stage brings to them, just for a day or so !

VERCORS : There are many areas in France to choose from for a few days of class riding. The Vercors should be on every rider’s list. It’s dense forest, deep gorges, huge walls of gracefully towering rock and wide open high plateaux combine to offer the rider a tough but beautiful ride. I have never had as much admiration for our road-builder ancestors as here : when tunnels were not an option ( there are some impressive ones here nevertheless) , roads were somehow carved into rocky overhangs and today remain in perfect condition. But don’t look down if you suffer from vertigo !

SECRET : Amongst all of the iconic climbs in this area, there are some real pearls that thankfully still remain less visited. Perhaps there is too much choice ?! Our journey explores much of the Ain region in the first two stages : full of roads that match the best of Alpine, but only ridden by the locals. Pontis, Arpettaz, Pra l’Etang, Mont Colombis,….I could hand out many more. To ride the intimate, quiet roads  somehow enhances the experience of riding the Giants.

CLASSIC : Stage 8 is a CCC take on « La Marmotte » Sportive : 207km with over 6000m of UP. On the menu :-the Glandon, Croix de Fer, Mollard, Telegraphe, Galibier, Lautaret and the Sarenne to end with, and including a ‘bonus’ loop before St Michel de Maurienne. It’s pure Alpine Classic, with a CCC touch. It’s a huge day out and  for many their ‘targetted’ stage of the event. Just like the Sella Ronde day on the CCC Dolomites, or the multiple-Mont Ventoux stage on the CCC S Alps, this is a day of (almost) no surprises and yet it replies generously to all expectations every time. Pure Classic Alps.

FINESTRE : I recall the first time I rode this one : nearly 40°C in Susa. The first extraordinary section through the woods with its numerous tight switchbacks was stiffling. But the tarmac was silky and expectation was pumping. I was lucky though to be riding it a week ahead of the Giro. The next 9 kms of gravel had been rolled hard for the race. It was less hard than I expected but the beauty, the wilderness and the views, both of the high slopes around and of the summit, with the old fort ruins looming mysteriously, far exceeded my hopes. In 2017 we rode this same section in July, after months of drought and of 4x4’s churning up the tight bends. We could hardly remain upright as we tried to turn our wheels in the deep, loose gravel. Views were obscured by dense fog. 50 metres from the top we could still not see it. And yet smiles were beaming on all faces. The Finestre doesn’t dissappoint.

9 January : CCC Dolomites in five words explained.

ROYALTY :  The Giro will never be as mediatised as the Tour, but of all the mountains steeped in race history, the Dolomites can surely lay claim to offering the best of them all : for sheer beauty and road design drama, they are untouchable. Like the best Italian clothing or shoe brands, they just ooze class and perfection. Despite being over-visited, Passo Gardena still brings a smile to my face each time I am lucky enough to cross it. And there are so many more that do the same. The scenery through which the roads curve their way timidly create an atmosphere that I often imagine would be that of a royal court, such is the power and grandeur of the landscape.

STEEP : This is the factor that causes the most problems for CCC riders. The regular double-digit gradients ( 10% signs actually become quite welcome after a few stages of this event !). When the roads hit more than 12%, there is nowhere to hide. You need your knees, your core and your determination to be as solid as the rock around you ! But at the same time, this is what makes this event so demanding and so rewarding. You get out what you put in, and you have to give a lot on these roads !

ROCK : On Stage 3 the first sighting of those legendary rocky skylines sets the scene for three days of rolling through rock like nowhere else. Majestic columns reach towards the sky, as if untouched by gravity. No surprise that so many tourists visit this area. These mountains attract dozens of coaches every day. Descents can sometimes be more a test  patience than bike-handling skills ! But this is all part of the experience of this living exhibition of natural art. Stage 4 ends with possibly the most dramatic rock arena of them all : Tre Cime di Lavaredo. Thanks both to a toll gate to discourage vehicles, and the length of our stage, CCC riders are usually alone by the time they get to climb their way up this wonderfully tough piece of road. Very special.

OPERA : Some pass on the CCC Dolomites, saying that it’s too noisy, the weather can be too harsh, or that the roads are too steep. I have never had an easy time running this event and always  draw a deep breathe of relief when I arrive back safely with ‘my’ riders at our hotel I love so much in San Pellegrino Terme. Yes, the Dolomites can be « too » all sorts of things ! They don’t leave you alone. It’s like opera : full of extreme highs & lows, loud at times then so poignant at others. The people too are so generous, kind and expressive. If you are not ready it can be all too much. If you are, then it’s a party every day !

GAVIA : The first year I ran this event, one of our cars almost slid off the road on sheet ice as the driver went ahead to see if we could get over….We couldn’t. That was the only time since then that we had to change our route, but each time I have been nervous about this one because, for me,  it towers above all other climbs here,  even above the Stelvio, in terms of wilderness : you feel lucky to be accepted there – you can see that at times it is somewhere you would NOT want to be. The road itself is so well designed. Yes it’s a tough one, whichever side you choose, but the progression of the landscape, from remote rural to intimidating isolation is an experience I revel in every time ! 6.

10 January : CCC West Pyrenees in five words explained.

BASQUE : The name alone speaks in a rebellious tongue to me. That sense of pride of their culture. Their resilience when confronted with threats throughout their torrid history. Between mountain and sea ; between French and Spanish, this region stands alone. Even the roads seem to reflect the best qualities of this culture : fearless in their search to make the most of the region’s natural gifts ; roads seemingly built more to serve the isolated shepherds on the wide open grazing hills than to exploit and ‘encourage progress’. Freed from the parameters set by a long harsh winter, this maritime region has been able to build roads with regular pitches of 20% ( and sometimes more). Quite simply, this region has some of the best ( read ‘toughest’, naturally !)  cycling I have come across. Then there’s the Gateau Basque…..

INFECTIOUS : The Pyrenees have less of that Alpine / Dolomite ‘spectacle’. But what they lack in drama they make up for, and some, in subtle beauty and magical charm. One CCC rider said, back in 2010: “The Alps are more about ‘outer’ sensations ; the Pyrenees are about the ‘inner’ ones”. I so agree. They get inside you. The quiet valleys, unspoilt by any industry, that we traverse briefly in our pursuit of more altitude, never interrupt the flow of the gentle soundtrack of this rural tranquility. Climbs are unpredictable. Descents are even more so. Roaming animals bring the landscape alive. It’s a soothing place to spend ten days, even when we are hurting ourselves a little !
STEEPER : There are no rules when building roads in the Basque region, in which we spend stages one, two and part of nine and ten. Therefore the road will often just take the shortest way up. Low gears are essential ! So too is a solid mindset. There is no way of knowing what lies in store. Assume the worst and you stand a chance !

Even once in the ‘proper’ Pyrenees, gradients are all over the place : rarely can you ride that nice Alpine ‘steady-eddy’ pace. I never get bored with any of the roads here!

Many CCC riders have completed both the Dolomites and this event, and all have said that this one is tougher because of the gradients, but all say that they totally loved it ( no suprise here then : toughest usually = best !)
MUSIC : Imagine ten days being passed by very few cars ;  occasionally going round (rarely) busy roundabouts ; and staying in towns who have never had to manage traffic problems. Then add a subtle background murmur of flowing, occasionally cascading, water, (sometimes enhanced by light maritime drizzle !). Place over that intermittent collective ‘jams’ of various tones of chiming bells, randomy played by nonchalant cows, sheep or goats, or by all three. Of course your own efforts to get more oxygen into your lungs takes lead solo most of the time. The combination is quite therapeutic after a few days of this harmess intoxication !
TECHNICAL : Valleys are narrow and soon behind us. The next climb sometimes starts with little respite at all from the preceeding white-knuckle descent. Occasionally our route will follow the valley, but not that often ! Gradients change regularly, as said above. Road tarmac is often in bad need of repair. Animals enjoy the road as much as we do, and they leave more on it than we do. Both create equal challenges for us.

We do enjoy some perfect free-flowing descents, as well as some pleasantly steady climbs, which add the variety to the ride that I love so much when riding here. It is the variety of the roads that are both our challenge and our reward. There is almost always something to be figuring out.

11 January : Five ‘top’ cols CCC Appennini

  1. Monte Nerone : It’s our first proper mountain of this event, satelite masts ‘n all at the top. We’ll tackle it from a new side this time, via a tiny (tarmac) track, before we come out to the open windswept top, complete with wild horses and infinity views. The descent is another affair : this is the side kept open in winter for the crowds of cross-country skiers. So the road is wide and slowly sweeps  around the land’s contours : a perfect, safe and very fast 15 minutes of fun.
  2. Blockhaus : The much-feared legendary climb of this region. Sure it’s got some tough passages, a few longer- than-comfortable 10-12% stretches, but the views soon make the effort worthwhile. Numerous small piles of rocks witness determined ‘farming’ to improve the grazing quality of the tussocky grass. Trees become stunted ; the road surface deteriorates, then we arrive at the fortress-like Auberge that marks the beginning of the final up & back five kms. The road stops at a small group of satellite masts, but we carry on to the « proper » top. Last time we squeezed through a narrow section of sort-of-tarmac peeping through the stubborn snow-drifts who seemingly refused to melt away. I have to use that word : « epic » !
  3. Tre Faggi : In total contrast, this one is not on any bucket list. After more than an hour on a road designed for cars but seemingly never actually used by them, riding deeper and deeper into a dense forest ( National Parkland), the road narrows but tarmac actually improves : we’re now en route towards a monastery reknowned for it’s Pharmacy – huge walls covered in wooden drawers full of medicinal plants inside. ( I took something but I didn’t seem to climb any faster….) Then follows a short section of ‘tame’ gravel and we’re there : nowhere ! Fabulous.
  4. Vado di Sole : When I drove this on the route recon, with Claire my wife, we were both aghast looking at the scale of the beauty in front of us. On the event, at the end of this stage, one rider said that he had suffered so much on this climb that when he saw the landscape which so generously opens out at the top, he thought he had actually died and was in Paradise. I’ll say no more.
  5. Monte Amiato : Mid-stage we get this treat. I have been through few woodlands as beautiful as this. The road seems to take it’s time too, as slowly it winds it’s way through various tree families, with occasional forest streams cascading through huge randomly-placed rocks. The combination of the graceful road design, the rocks around which the trees have learnt to grow, and the following sweeping descent after a brief plateau at the top made this a very special moment.

12 January : CCC Northern Alps : Five Top Cols.

  1. Mt Colombis : I hesitated about talking about this one. Despite having gradient/ kilometre markers ( lots of double-digits) like famous climbs, this one remains a local secret. Maybe because it’s an up&back ? Fact is, it’s got it’s own family of satellite masts like all the best climbs at the top, saves the steepest section for the last two kms, and has quite simply the BEST view of the Alps that I have ever found. And like all the best ones, it’s T-o-u-g-h !
  2. Arpettaz : Another obscure one, yet right in the middle of the Aravis massif. Which ever side you take this one on, it’s going to stay with you forever. Both sides offer cramped switchbacks on a narrow thread of tarmac that leads you to such a wonderful open space at the top. There is a café. It is even open sometimes. Not often though. This is France, after all ! This is one of my very favourite moments of this event.

Grand Colombier : There are techincally four ways of climbing this one. The Tour  took the pro’s up « our » side last time, and many complained. David Millar, had he been riding still, would have thrown his bike away again ! There is quite a tough 2 kms of 18+%  before the open approach to the summit starts. The view over to Mont Blanc is pretty spceial too, at the top. This is the King Climb of the Ain region, which we explore fully on stages 1 & 2. It’s attention paid by ASO in recent years (three appearances in the Tour in seven years) is so deserved. 4.

Pra l’Etang : One of many climbs I remember so well from the first time I explored the Vercors region. Not the most dramatic, but it does have a bit of road carved out of overhanging rock (photo on CCC homepage) and the best spring I know of, at the foot of a very ancient oak tree, deep in the forest. Part one climbs a rock-face ; part two is a forest ‘road’. Perfect ! 5.

Finestre : I have to refer to this one again, because it has to be one of the most anticpated moments for CCC N Alps riders. Rightly so. It is very unique ; very talked about ; and very Italian. You can sense that it’s going to be special in Susa, with Giro murals brightly painted on village walls, a little like in Ovaro, at the foot of the Zoncolan. These are ‘signs’ that drama is close. With three distinct sections to enjoy, this climb quite simply HAS to be ridden, as much as Ventoux, Galibier and Tourmalet do.

13 January : CCC Dolomites Five Top Cols

  1. TRE CIME di LAVAREDO. A 200km day on the bike that starts with the Monte Zoncolan and yet saves it’s most impressive climb for last has got to be a pretty special one. Stage four of this event brings riders into the heart of the Dolomites National Park with an up&back Natural Wonder that starts at the Misurina lake. Motorised traffic is limited by a toll bridge ; the pedalled type is limited by the severity of the slopes. But for the brave, the experience is worth so much more than the effort required. The small car park at the top, where the road ends, stands in the shadow of one of the most impressive walls of rock of the area. Unmissable.
  2. PASSO FEDAIA : In a smiliar way to the Tre Cime, this climb also ends a stage that is full of Names in a true ‘Finale Spectacular’. Stage five is THE Dolomites stage. But to reach our hotel means poking our way through a steep,deep, narrow gorge ( which the Giro remarkably usually uses whenever they take on this Giant)  and then dealing with a morale-crunching two kms of straight road at 10-12% before the road engineers showed us some mercy and put in some glorious switchbacks to lure us up to the unique summit with one of the most picturesque mountain lakes of this region. The descent to our hotel, and a rest day, is another part of our reward !
  3. PASSO MANGHEN : This climb is often cited by CCC Dolomites riders as one of their favourites of the event. I’m in with them too. ( The Giro is back on it this year.) Yet it’s neither exceptionally dramatic by it’s vistas, nor by the road itself. It’s long, at a good 23kms, and for the most part, wooded. But the variety of woodland, the gentle progression of the climb, from do-able to challenging, and the final four kilometres, combine to work a magic spell on the rider. Mountain drama appears almost from nowhere at the top. A favourite for motorbikes : our descent side shows you why. One of the best descents for us of the whole event.
  4. DEL CREER : One of the longest climbs of the event, with several steep sections, as usual, but with possibly the greatest change in scenery of any of them. From a narrow valley, we climb up through rocky outcrops, quickly gaining elevation. Deep woodland then swallows us, with welcome shade and mountain streams, before we turn a sharp left and go UP again, dramatically. This effort takes us out into the start of wide open grazing land, where some woodland hangs on stubbornly. But soon the trees give up and tussocky grass is all that’s left. Our top is in sight well before we arrive, in thanks due to an impressive Albergo situated perfectly on the col. This climb always has a strong sense of ‘journey’ for me.
  5. PASSO GAVIA : How could I not add this King Climb to this short-list ? I would choose to ride this any day rather than the Stelvio. We will not know until the day before we ride whether the Gods will let us over this Passo. It’s a savage place at all times. But one of the best roads you can ever hope to take on a bike.

14 January : CCC West Pyrenees Five Top Cols

  1. Arnosteguy : A « Beautiful Monster ». This climb tidies up stage two, after a true Basque Bashing and yet it manages to impress above all that came before. It’s steep, of course, but it’s long too. In fact it is quite impossible to make out the top until you are almost there. But it will have taken you up into these wide open grazed hills, where only horses, sheep and their hardy shepherds roam. Roads are narrow and follow high ridges before often plunging down scarily into the valleys below. They provide, quite simply, the best roads to ride on that I know of. Anywhere.
  2. Bagargui : Another « beast » of the Pyrenees, which gives us two ascents during our event ( stages 3 &  9). We first climb it on it’s ‘hidden’ side, which is less tough but more picturesque. Then, on stage 9, we take it on it’s classic side. I love this climb because of the way it cunnningly disguises it’s cruel gradients by edging up the side of the hill, crossing contours without anyone but cyclists and walkers noticing. It curves like a cunning snake, luring riders into it’s painful trap. The gradient gets harsher and harsher. Shade is a dream away. Fantastic !
  3. Tentes : This climb is a long way up and a long way back down. But the road gives us some of the most spectacular views in the Pyrenees. There is rarely any traffic to interrupt the peace. The road takes us to within eyesight of the Spanish border, with a vista there to make it all so worthwhile. A climb that all cyclists should pay hommage to !
  4. Beyrede ; There are three ways up this – one a 10km gravel pain-fest, which we rode in 2017, by mistake ( !), in the rain. Another includes a 18-20% section that we used to have to ride on gravel, but has since been paved. And then the way we ride now : a longer road that takes us sharply out of Sarrancolin, before exploring the valley woodland. The fresh green woods though soon let us go and we head up into the hotter ramps of the steeper part of this climb. But it’s the top which this climb is all about : one of my all-time favourite place to admire the Pyrenees cattle and horses. They are always there waiting for us !
  5. Aralar : This is the highlight of stage ten. A unique Spanish concrete road climb with another satellite mast top. « Contador » is still just about readable on it’s slopes, thanks to a one-time visit by the Vuelta. The views are one thing ; the heat is another. But the final kilometre is something else ! We always spend a while at the top here. We know this is our final « proper top » of the event and we also recognise how lucky we are to be there together.

15 January : CCC Appennini - “If I had to choose ONE stage ?”

Stage 5 Sarnano - Popoli 236 KM / 4600 M

The longest stage, the longest climb, the most spectacular scenery. When I first discovered this region, every day was full of surprises and smiles. But it was only when I droev this stage that I realised the full potential of this area to astound and impress it’s visitors. The Gran Sasso massif is one of Italy’s true gems. I shouldn’t say any more. But I do have to mention that this was the stage,in 2017, when one rider thought he has actually died and had seen paradise : now that really is all about Pain & Glory. He cried with emotion that evening. Another rider refused to take a possible short-cut near the end : he wanted that day on the bike to go on forever !