Col de la Madone
I had first heard of the Col de la Madone as a teenager poring over the unattainable promises of a glossy bike catalogue. The Trek Madone was Lance Armstrong’s signature bike, named after the famous climb from the coastal town of Menton which the offical 7-time non-finisher of the Tour de France would use to test himself (and his drugs) against.
All personal feelings about the anti-hero of road cycling (apart from all the other ones) aside, the name had stayed with me as a mythical rite to be undertaken on the eve of the most famous tour of them all. So it was that I found myself – days before attempting to do a stage of the 2017 tour myself – travelling down to the Mediterranean coast to finally live the dream.
Even with the sun starting to dip towards the horizon, I set off within minutes of parking my van, only retracing my pedals a few times after getting lost on the earlier slopes (as had become customary).
The climb was the most beautiful I had ever ridden, bathed in a perfect Mediterranean blue haze, rising up unspoilt roads past hilltop villages until the vast bridge that had once loomed indescribably high above the town had retreated back to appear as no more than an ancient Roman ruin in the valley plunging beneath the ever winding road.
After months of Swiss-style chalets and Alpine cow bells, this was another world, and if I were a religious man, I might well have crossed myself when I finally summitted the pass. As it was, I gave a deep sigh, nodded at another cyclist who had ascended behind me, and turned round to head back before the light went completely, knowing for better or worse that my preparation for the Etape was complete. And thinking that it might have been altogether more simple to just take some drugs.