Tackling Le Cure de France by Carla Francome
It was late April when my friend Manny asked if I’d consider doing a cycle ride in The Alps called “Le Cure de France”. It was set up by a group of her close friends to raise money for cancer research fellowships at the Royal Marsden, after Manny received life-saving treatment for breast cancer there in her early 30s. This was going to be the 10-year anniversary of the ride, so it seemed like a great time to go for it. I have been friends with Manny since our mid-20s and saw her gruelling battle with cancer first-hand, so raising funds for the cause would be close to my heart.
But- being a commuter cyclist on a mountain bike with just three-and-a half months to train, it was *perhaps* a tad naïve. As my stepdad has said since- sometimes you know what you don’t know, and sometimes you, well - don’t. In this case, it was definitely the latter. I did spend a couple of hours in the saddle each day, but nipping to Kings Cross and back from North London is, it turns out, is a bit different to cycling up mountains. I was full of confidence though, because I cycled up one hill each day. “I’m already on my way!” I thought to myself cheerfully. This one hill took me around 3 minutes to cycle up. Little did I know then that the Cols, French and Italian mountains to you and me, would take around 3 and a half hours.
I got training- cycling up all the hills I could find, and joined Islington Cycling Club. But the more I trained, the more I realised how many people out there can cycle really far and really fast, and just what was going to be involved. I cycled over 100 km with Islington, and then realised that le cure would be longer, and also with 2000 meters of climbing thrown in. Some friends and I did a ride that was similar to Le Cure to get a sense of it, but it was knackering, and it was just one day in the cool English weather, Le Cure would be four – in a French summer.
With about six weeks to go, it had fully dawned on me just what a big challenge this was going to be. And the big question was, would I actually be able to do it? My family said things like “well, just give it your best shot, do what you can” with faces that said “we really frikken hope you can pull this off now everyone we know has sponsored you”. I hoped so too.
(Through all this, I learnt a valuable life lesson, which is that if you’re not sure if you can do something, it’s probably a good idea to keep a bit quiet about it beforehand, and not, for example, go on and on about it on social media. And then, if you DO do it, you can tell people about it afterwards).
Finally, the day was upon us. We were meeting in Sestriere in Italy, with about 60 of us to tackle the ride. It was beautiful- it’s a skiing town in winter, so there were poles dotted up the mountain that housed stairlifts when there was snow. This below was the view from the room I was staying in. Friends arrived and we got ourselves unpacked, Garmins charged. I’d only ordered one a few days before, but Kate was on hand to help get the route downloaded. I was a bit nervous, but also I’d spent so much time thinking about it all, I was keen to just get on with it. I was also impressed with the age range- quite a few riders were in their 60s, and four were in their 70’s. One rider was 76!
Gathering for the first day, and with my friend Kate, a bike fitter and seasoned Alps climber.
My friend Kate and I set off together for a glorious descent- I’d never cycled in The Alps before, and it was like being in a chocolate box. Apart from trying not to cycle off the side of a mountain, I just gawped at the view. Kate was just ahead of me - “Welcome to The Alps!” she shouted, gesturing all around us. Well- I could certainly see what all the fuss was about.
But as soon as we hit flat ground and I started to pedal, I could feel that something was a bit “off” for me. I have asthma, which is well-controlled, but I found myself gasping for each breath. It really felt like there wasn’t enough oxygen in the air, and breathe and pant all I could, it felt I couldn’t get enough.
“How can it be this hard on the flat?!” I thought to myself. The ride captain, Steve, found me panting and using my blue inhaler by the side of the road. He started taking things off my bike and attaching them to his, and told me to slow down when riding. It was also starting to get quite hot- the temperature was late 30’s. We were heading to another skiing town, and the first climb of the ride was about to start- it would be 19 KM long and just under 800 meters in elevation, to Montgenevre.
Steve stayed with me for a while and said reassuring things, one of which was that it would be a big boost psychologically to get to the top of the first climb. Several others were finding the heat tricky and he cycled with them too. I realised quickly that the best ride captains don’t shoot off to the top, they stay at the back, making sure that everyone can get there.
I thought of what other cyclists have always said to me- just keep pedalling, and after an hour or two, the last group of us reached the top.
It was another descent and then a good 20 km or so through the countryside in the mid-day heat. We cooled off in a water fountain and made it to a lunch of sandwiches by a river, where I lay down in the water with everything on, even my trainers. I was wearing my new le cure Jersey, and my trusty star shorts from Fat Lad at the Back that had seen me all over London and the Southeast. I was feeling pretty good. One col was down, we were cooling off, and we were having a laugh.
Some fellow Curistas looked at me- “This next climb is going to be hard” they said, ominously, “It’s going to be hard for all of us”. It was around 2.30 PM, and my reprieve in the cool water would soon be forgotten. We were about to tackle Col de Vars- which was nearly 19 KM long again, but much higher than our first climb, at over 1,200 meters. “Oh I’m sure we’ll be okay” I thought to myself. “How hard can these things be?!”
I set off with a new friend, Louise, snaking through the countryside, and we started taking the road upwards. My new Garmin flicked up with the climb on the screen, and I hadn’t worked out how to turn it to metric measurements. It sat there happily telling me that aswell as the distance, there were 3,648 feet of elevation to go. And the numbers sure did seem to be going down slowly. The weird thing was I didn’t feel that hot, it all just felt- hard. Like the hardest climbing I’d ever done. How was it so hard? Maybe the heat does that to you. I didn’t know it at the time, but a couple of devices were measuring 47 and 49 degrees. We climbed the first 1,000 feet in about an hour- stopping in the shade whenever we could. Turns out 1000 feet is only around 300 meters. It felt like 4 mountains.
We turned a corner and the support team were waiting for us with the van- it was about 4.30, but the heat wasn’t easing. “We think it’s a good idea if you guys get in now”, they said. “NO!” I shouted.
All I’d been thinking of was the top- it was all I was concentrating on. “It’s for your own safety” they said. They told us that a storm was going to hit the top at about 5 PM, and that it wouldn’t be safe to ride down in the rain, and that people were getting heatstroke. After quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, I relented and we got in the van. I felt the air conditioning blast on my face and realised how hot and unwell I felt. I closed my eyes and my head started to spin. I found a box of Haribos on the back seat (result!) and cold water too.
As we started making our way up to the top, I realised we were only a quarter of the way up, and there was no way I could have done it all in that heat- and we’d have been there until 10 o’clock at night. We started passing people who were sat by the side of the road and were throwing up, and the team were worried someone could get very ill. In this sort of heat, heart attacks are a risk, we were told. We had to keep pulling over to check on people. We did pass Kate in the van and we stopped - she was still cycling away - the team asked if she was okay and she said she would continue- and I’ll never forget that she made it to the top on that day- she’s used to cycling in the Alps, but said it was the hardest climb she’s ever done. A heroic effort.
At the summit, the sky was a dark grey- a storm was definitely on it’s way. I felt like such a fraud, seeing people pose next to the sign for Col de Vars. I was gutted, but also worried about how the last few riders were doing. We had a 25 km ride to our accommodation- a descent of over 1,000 meters, and then 10 or 15 km on the flat.
It was a beautiful ride down Col de Vars as the air cooled, and the last group of us just made it to the bottom before the heavens opened and rain and hail battered us. There was thunder and lightning, and it felt like a tropical storm. The support team had even pulled over to show us that a river of water was gushing down the middle of the road. A few minutes later and “Badammmm”, I slammed into a pothole I hadn’t seen, and my hands whammed into the handlebars. I needed to concentrate.
We made it to the town, delirious and drenched to the bone, before realising that none of us knew where we were staying. What a bunch of amateurs- we’d just concentrated on getting here, nothing further. We hid in a doorway and scrolled through old whatsapp messages, and tried to get google maps working with cold wet hands. We finally made it to our respective accommodation for the night, and I peeled my clothes off, and ducked under a hot shower. It was a great feeling.
At dinner, it turned out people thought that in ten years, this was the hardest ever day of Le Cure, and quite a few people who had never had to get in the van ever, had got in the van on Col de Vars. There was a lot of friendly jokes about my heavy bike and lack of cleats, and I realised that despite all my training, I looked like an amateur. I thought cleats would be handy, but I didn’t quite realise what a difference they would have made.
Also, I’d run out of money for new bikes. And it had been pointed out back home that most of the weight I was taking up the hills was indeed my own (85 KG me, 14 KG my bike, if you’re interested). But- now I was kicking myself. I needed a light bike and cleats.
We went back to our rooms and set to work charging everything, washing out jerseys. I was feeling a bit bummed out. Even though it was hot, I was really shocked at how hard I’d found the second climb- nothing in my training had prepared me for it. The short hills of North London, even though I’d done 8 or 9 in a row, were nothing compared to being out here. Also, pretty much everyone else was faster, and better at this. “What am I doing”, I thought to myself. “Why am I even here?”
A hotel had cancelled at the last minute and some of us were in a place with dorm rooms - it was surreal. I lay on a bunkbed surrounded by wet clothes I’d just hung up, and thought about it all. Would I spend the next 3 days being shuffled up each Col in the support van?
There was £5,000 of sponsorship money up for grabs for an amazing cause. But no-one was going to cough up if I just did The Alps version of “Driving Miss Daisy”. I was desperate to do atleast one large proper Col. Atleast one. I was going to get up early and do it, even if it took me until midnight.
I hadn’t had much sleep but I jumped up and threw on my half-wet clothes, packed my bike bags and suitcase, and headed straight out with a banana in my hand.
A lovely guy called James rode with a group of us and we set off early at 8 AM. The first climb was Col de la Cayolle. It was a beast at 29 KM long, and 1207 meters. The view was absolutely stunning, and we weaved through pine forests and saw a river rushing past in the valley. I soaked up the view and really enjoyed chatting to James. But I was struggling with the altitude again- it felt like there just wasn’t enough oxygen in the air. No-one else seemed to be struggling like me, so I figured it must be the asthma.
This time though, I had my brown inhaler with me with steroids in it. As soon as I breathed in some puffs, I felt my chest opening, and I was able to take in some more air. Wow. I used it a few times on the journey, and it really did the trick. Thank the flipping Pope for modern medicine!
It was great to be off in the early morning as it was cooler, and people gradually overtook us but were always friendly. One Curista went past and said, “Carla you’re doing this, you’re really strong”. Wow. Maybe I could climb a big col. Even with a heavy bike and without cleats.
The funny thing about these climbs is that they’re not always steep- but you are pretty much always climbing. For hours. There’s not a lot of flat- so you just have to get used to always going a little uphill. I stuck on all of my favourite songs and enjoyed the view. After around 3 and a half hours, we made it to the top, which was an amazing feeling. We posed for photos, and I felt so much better about being there. I figured even if I broke my ankle now or something, atleast I’d done this.
We sped down for lunch and then it was a second climb. I’d never managed one Col this big in a day before- now we tackling two. We were heading up to the top of Valberg- 13 KM and nearly 900 meters.
The first hour or two were TOUGH FRIKKEN WORK. I’d changed my saddle a week before, and my chamois cream had rubbed off. I could feel I was getting a friction burn in my nether regions. It was just- rubbing. My star shorts were like a second skin- but this was a big day with a new saddle.
All we could think of was the finish- and luckily there were markers to tell you how many km it was to the top. James would shout out “11 to go … 10 km to go, 9 to go, 8 ….” “Half- way!” James said cheerily at one point. “Only half- way!” I complained. I was struggling to imagine doing that again. I kept saying “just go James- just go! I’ll be fine!” But he stayed with me the whole way.
My thoughts were stuck on a loop, which I haven’t had before. All I could think about was that it was tough, and the finish. “This is hard. How much longer. I wonder if I can make it. I hope I can make it”. Every song I put on seemed to annoy me. And “rub, rub, burn burn” went my nether regions. A nice man called Derek went past. “We’re at the back!” I said- “Don’t worry” he replied. “It just means you’ll have a bigger welcoming party at the top!”
We saw the support crew and I saw James having a quiet word with them- I think he was a little worried - my heart rate kept hitting the 160 mark. They looked at me. “NO!” I said. “I’m doing it”. They were only thinking of my health and wellbeing. But I thought I could just about make it. It was great having them there if needed but also in a way it made it harder- it would have been so easy to just get in the van. I felt they were like sirens on a ship, luring me to the temptation of the cool seats next to iced water and sweets, where I could close my eyes and be up the Col in 5 or 10 minutes. I was NOT going to get in the van.
Then it got a bit cooler, there was more shade- and suddenly, it felt like it was possible. We cycled in between pine trees and bits of forest, and it was like an uphill version of centre parcs.
Suddenly, I knew we must be near the top as we were as high as the other mountains. We’d climbed this on our bikes- up this mountain- what a thing!
Suddenly, I knew we must be near the top as we were as high as the other mountains. We’d climbed this on our bikes- up this mountain- what a thing!
Getting to the final 100 meters was amazing. Everyone was waiting for us in a bar in Valberg, and started cheering. James gestured for me to go ahead and I gave it a last bit of welly and some whooping for the last straight “Wooo-hoooo!”.
It turned out we’d done 2,248 meters of climbing that day, more than Snowdons, Wales’ tallest mountain. I was chuffed to have done it but also so touched that people had waited for us to finish, and surprised at how emotional everyone looked. A big burly guy called Graham who is covered in tattoos was hugging me and crying, his whole body shaking as he squeezed me in a bear hug. So was Tony, my friend who was one of the people who set the whole thing up. Someone gave me a cool beer and I gulped some down, before realising that it was water I fancied (I’ve never been very good at being a party animal).
I had a shower and got changed, and headed out walking like John Wayne, which everyone did an impression of (excellent). I’d been the slowest, I’d been last, I couldn’t walk, but I’d done it. Crikey there were two more days to go, and I had no idea if I would even be able to sit on a saddle in the morning.
I slid out of bed and practiced walking around the room- wow it was manageable. It felt like the training was paying off- my legs actually felt okay.
I loved my star shorts (I’d worn them all over), but I decided to try a new outfit from Fat Lad at the Back- an all in one bib. I also invested in some soothing cream from a local pharmacy- Chamois cream was too “zingy” for the current state of things. It went straight in the jersey back pocket.
The first climb of the day was shorter and steeper than a lot of the others- Col de Felines. Ride Leader Steve wasn’t convinced I’d get up it on my bike, and said he’d sponsor me if I reached the top. But he didn’t know that I’d cut my teeth on Swains Lane, one of London’s steepest climbs, which maxes out at a gradient of 14%. I’d do it six times on a Wednesday morning before coffee at 7.30- short and steep was my kind of climb. Col de Felines was of course nothing like Swains Lane- it was nearly 12 Km, and 566 meters. But I hit the top and could find NO SIGN. The whole point of these climbs is to boast in front of a sign at the top! I did a cat impression to prove to Steve I’d made it, and he sponsored me that evening.
We then swooped down through hairpin turns and beautiful tunnels cut through the rock and had wraps for lunch. But the climbs weren’t going to be the hardest part of this day. Ahead was countryside, and open fields. On a cool day, this would be lovely- but when all you can see is wide open space with no chance of shade on the midday sun, it can be tricky. I wanted to take my jersey off but the back pockets were filled up like a pharmacy with cream and inhalers. I asked someone if everything would fall out if I opened it up. “It should be fine” they said. I unzipped my jersey and it flapped around like a cape. Ah. The breeze! Even that was a huge relief.
I arrived at a break stop- people were handing out drinks under some cool trees, and people were lying down in the shade with their eyes closed. I poured water over my head and took pics of my new bib- which I was enjoying immensely. So comfy.
Then it was Col de Bleine and Castellaras. We were getting there. At one point, someone could see the sea in the distance. We were hitting the French Riviera.
We had started in Italy and were now in a town called Mouans-Sartoux, just 12 km inland from Cannes on the French coast. We set off for a steep climb to a beautiful place called Gourdon, a town in the mountains. Not far from the top was a road with a low wall on one side, and then a sheer drop of hundreds of feet. There were several spots like that- it did make you want to stay near the middle of the road. My mum, who had terrible vertigo, would be a jibbering wreck by now. I thought better of putting the photos on the family whatsapp group.
At the top was a beautiful, rustic café, and water fountain. What more could you want? We filled up water bottles to pour it over our heads. Bliss!
Next it was to be the last Col of the trip, Col de Vence. As we weaved through to the start of the climb, we were in a very glamorous part of the French Riviera. There were beautiful restaurants with foliage outside, and people walking around in smart clothes- ladies in heels and carrying handbags. I gawped at them and felt like I was a different species- all hot and sweaty and drenched in a water fountain, bits of hair sticking out randomly.
As if this wasn’t all bad enough, my nether regions had started to rub again. I needed to administer the special cream from a French pharmacy that lived in the jersey back pocket- but how? I was cycling on my own at this point, and I didn’t feel comfortable going into any of these places, and had nowhere to leave my bike anyway. I was just going to have to administer it in the most private spot I could find. I hid behind a tree, near a bridge, and waited for there to be no people. I was about to go for it when 5 cyclists whooshed by. Then there was a lull- and I took my moment. But believe me, getting to one’s nether regions with a bib on is NOT an easy job. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say the cream was administered, and I didn’t get arrested.
It was the second time in a week I was thanking my lucky stars for medical advancements- this time- CREAM!
Heading up the next climb and I caught up with Tony- “there’s a bushfire at the top” he shouted.
“What?!” I replied. “Just head to half- way up, to the town of Vence”. There’s no time for flowery chatting when you’re out of puff on a bike. It was a beautiful town with glamorous restaurants, and fire engines hurtling through. Photos came through of folks at the top- with the ground next to the road up in flames.
We headed down and had one last tiny climb. I just about made it with a rider behind and one in front, saying “just concentrate on the wheel”, and being handed gels.
And it was done- we’d made it. Many Curistas had cycled more than me over the week, and faster, but for me it was something I’d never done before. In four days I’d cycled higher than Mount Kilamanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak. The same as six Snowdens, Wales’ tallest mountain, and three-quarters of Everest.
I’d learnt some good lessons- that anything is possible with some preparation work and a bit of pig-headed stubbornnes, and that it’s important to set challenges that are right for you, but not to compare yourself to others or worry about how they’re doing. And finally, that these things are only possible with a great group of people around you that lift you up, and pull you along when you need it. “I get by with a little help with my friends” I thought. And never had that felt more true. We got scrubbed up for a party that night in Nice, and I thought of all the amazing people I’d met along the way. Particularly a woman who’d become a hero to me aswell as a support and inspiration, and had incredible hair to boot, the lovely Kate, bike fitter from Hackney and Alps cyclist extraordinaire.
We had some fun on the dancefloor.
“Will you do it again then?!” She asked me.
“Well- we have a whole year to train from now” I said. “Just think- if we start now- by next year, I might actually be able to keep up with some folks!” She laughed. Bring on the next challenge, whatever it may be.