I have a friend, Shaun Little, in Cape Town who has the steepest driveway ever. It’s really more the road to his house but that 600m must have been at least 10%, with steeper sections I’m sure. I was scared to drive up to his house for his birthday it was so steep. He even admitted to me that once he was so tired from a long ride he called the house for someone to drive down and fetch him. Well Shaun, I’ve got you beat: my driveway is a 13km HC climb with an average gradient of 9%.
After the challenges of the past 3 weeks, hibernating in a ski chalet on a Swiss mountain sounded like the perfect place to find some footing again. With the absence of snow, the little ski town of La Tzoumaz was blissfully quiet and “picturesque” didn’t really seem to do the surroundings justice. Up at 1600m surrounded by soon-to-be snowy peaks, there was only one road in and one road out.
Within hours of my arrival, I was bombing down the descent. There were tight hairpins, steep fast sections, horrible hang-on-to-your-organs-bumpy bits and dark tunnels, all in the presence of an alpine view that would take anyone’s breath away. My hands ached from clamping on the brakes for so long. In each dark tunnel I could feel my pupils panicking to dilate and then freak out again moments later when I emerged back into the sun. On the longer smooth sections I nestled into the aero bars while my eyes watered from the speed. Even though I hate descending, 20 minutes later I was laughing out loud; the descent was ridiculously awesome! Clearly the Swiss engineer who designed the road had a two-wheeled weekend hobby. I couldn’t wait to go back up.
The first ascent was the best. I took it easy, enjoyed the view, and revelled in my opportunity to be able to ride a road such as this. At a much slower speed, I noticed there were practically vertical vineyards, chalets clinging to the sides of the cliff and I could feel the temperature drop as I got higher and higher. I wasn’t a huge fan of sharing tunnels with construction trucks on the way up but, at the same time, when no one else was around, hearing nothing but the whir of my wheels and my own breath echo the chiseled rock walls of the tunnel felt special in the most basic way. At the top, I was tired but the fatigue went in my legs and out. I felt simply lucky to have the road at my disposal because this was a road many cyclists only dream about.
“Blinded by love”. That’s how I would describe my initial reactions to what became know as The Driveway. I love climbing more than the next cyclist but tacking on a 13km HC climb on the end of every single ride is a reality hit you don’t want to have.
It was half way up my second ascent, post-intervals on another climb, I realized how flippin’ tough the climb was. It went on forever. And ever. And ever. I expected the top after 9 hairpins but I was disappointed another five times. Even when I reached “the top” where the village was after over an hour of climbing, our house was another steep, bumpy 1.5km further up the mountain and then a sharp right-hand turn on to an even steeper 30m of gravel before I could dismount at the door. It seemed utterly insane that I was going to have to conquer this beast every ride. Or, as I began to realize, at least survive it.
Each time I kitted up with every piece of warm clothing I owned to cope with the cold on the way down, I thought about coming home. Once I went down, I had to come back up and, since we were at the end of the road, I had no choice but to go down. Ride after ride, the dream was creeping ever more towards nightmare.
With 4 ascents under my belt that week, the day finally came. I had a recovery ride and no combination of gearing would make that climb easy. After an flat spin among the fruit orchards in the valley next to the river, there would be no leg-warmer removing or unzipping my jacket: I made to call for a lift up. I knew it was the smart thing to do. I was happy I did it. It definitely felt like cheating.
It was on the long drive up (yes, even the drive felt long) in broom-wagon-like silence that I remembered Shaun. We now shared a secret shame. I remembered secretly thinking he was soft all those years ago and now here I was admitting the same defeat. Then again, my driveway was a mountain.