For those who have taken the time to watch even a single stage or Tour de France, at some point comes the inevitable realization that it takes a truly extraordinary individual to cycle through hundreds of miles of hills and mountains and never give up.
When a 60-year-old Mark l'Anson stepped into the shoes of a champion on two wheels to complete the 400-mile Route des Grandes Alpes, he wasn't just celebrating his birthday with an extravagant challenge. He had a mission.
In 2012, l'Anson raised nearly £7000 for a scholarship at Newcastle University by competing in the Virgin Money Cyclone race. This time, his marathon in the Alps brought in £16,000 for Ageing Research funded by the Medical Research Council.
With six months of training behind, l'Anson wasn't conceivably going to fail. Many writers would line up to tell the story of his adventure. Yet, perhaps none of them could do it better than l'Anson himself.
You seem to be an experienced bike rider. Why do you love cycling?
“I love cycling because I like being outdoors, I like to get some exercise. I have some congenital problems with my left leg, which means that it is virtually impossible for me to run or even to walk very long distances so cycling is actually the only option.”
What is the difference between training for the ride and the actual ride?
“In some ways the training was harder. And I really did train very hard. Between Christmas and the start of the ride, I cycled over 5000 kilometers in training which is quite a lot to fit in when you are working as well. The ride actually wasn't all that difficult because I was well-prepared, wasn’t hurrying, I wasn’t trying to do it fast, I was just trying to pace myself. I am not saying it was easy, it was how I expected.”
How would you compare the Route de Grande Alpes to the Cyclone?
“It is sort of like doing a Cyclone every day for a week. It is pretty tough.”
Tell me about your experience when you first stepped on the track at Thonon-Le-Bains. What was going through your mind then?
“I set off early in the morning and I was really pleased to not get lost. I felt great actually, I felt really fit, the weather was good. I had been training hard for six months but I had been planning it for a year so it was great to just get on and do it. It was almost like once I started, I felt the hard word was over. All I had to do was enjoy myself and enjoy the ride.”
During the tests at MoveLab, you always had a person behind you screaming "Keep pushing, keep going." What is it like not to have the presence of such a person during the real challenge?
"I am quite a goal-driven person I suppose. There is always a summit you are heading for. There is always something you are aiming for. So you just keep pushing. Actually, the difficulty was not so much being pushed, it was more that you have to pace yourself. Because some of these climbs you are going uphill continuously for 20-25 kilometres and if you really push hard at the beginning you probably aren't going to get to the top. So, it was just a question of "steady, enjoy it, look at the scenery."
Which aspect of the ride did you find more difficult - the mental one or the physical one?
"It was the mental one because I had trained properly, I was fit enough to do it. But when you set off [from Thonon-Le-Bains], after about five kilometres, you are bathed in sweat, you are exhausted. Your legs can keep going but your mind is saying: "How are you going to do this?! You are exhausted at low altitude, what's it going to be like at high altitude?" It is more overcoming the mind than overcoming the body."
What was your biggest enemy during the ride?
“The heat. The heat was the killer. We arrived there and as we were driving down to the start, we were listening to a French radio going on about this thing called a “canicule” (heatwave in French). What it meant was that the temperature was between 35 to 40 degrees Celsius, so up above a 100 Fahrenheit. The first two days the heat just killed me. I couldn’t have carried on doing that which is why I took a rest day after the second day. From then on, I was starting at sort of 6-6:30 in the morning and finishing by about 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon because it was just so hot.”
And how did you handle the flies?
“It was terrible. It was really odd because I had seen none at all on the first few days and the last two or three days they were just everywhere. Because you are sweating a lot and that attracts them. When you are climbing up a big hill, you need your hands on the handle bar so swatting them off isn’t easy. Because there is nothing else going on – you are just pedalling – little things begin to get out of proportion. I got really, really freaked out by these flies. Getting to the top of these hills is at least as much about mental strength as physical strength and that sort of stuff just drains you.”
Which day did you find the hardest one? Was it Day 5 when you didn't sleep well and had to climb Col du Galiber (2645m) and Col d'Izoard (2360m)?
"Actually, no, probably not. That was the hardest day in terms of the amount of work. But I was mentally prepared for that because I knew that was going to be a hard day. Actually, the hardest day was probably the last one because I had got it in my mind that the Col de Turini (1607m) would be easy. And it wasn't, it was really hard. Halfway up I actually thought I might not make it. There were several small climbs in a row on the last day and that is quite wearing. But, on the other hand, once I got over that, there was just one very small left [Col de Castillon [706m)] and I flew up that full of confidence."
How did the fact that Tour de France was happening at the same time influence you?
“I always watch it on TV so it is inspiring to watch those riders and it is inspiring to go up because most of these hills have been on the Tour de France. It is inspiring to think: “Okay, I am a lot slower than them but I have seen the best riders in the world struggling on these hills”. So, it was not so bad that I was struggling a bit as well. That makes you feel better.
Also, it was good because it meant that everybody along the route was very attuned to the idea of cycling and so I got a really good reception everywhere. If you turn up in sweaty cycling clothes at a random hotel in England, they will look at you as if you are a bit of an idiot. In France, they just accept you and in fact are impressed by what you are doing and very welcoming.”
Did you draw inspiration from the history of the route?
“That is why I wanted to do it. The whole motivation for this trip was that this particular route has a fantastic history to it. All the big climbs have been done by all the famous riders, all the people that I admire. And so that sense of history is there. That all makes in quite an emotional experience in a way as well as just a physical one.”
Why did you choose the Pinarello Dogma for this challenge?
“Partly because I got the opportunity to buy the frame very cheap but mainly because I am a big Bradley Wiggins fan. This bike and a lot of these hills were used on the 2012 Tour [de France] when he won the Tour. I built a bike, which is effectively identical to the one he won the Tour de France on. I wanted to build not just any old bike but one that had a meaning in relationship to the Alps.”
You raised just over 16,000 pounds. In your opinion, what about your adventure attracted people the most?
“I think a very high proportion of the people who sponsored me are roughly my age, and I think they all thought: “Bloody hell, that sounds like a hard thing to do”, and wanted to share a bit of support for it.
It was just a lucky series of coincidences – my 60th birthday, the fact that we started teaching Sport science, that we have been working very heavily on projects to do with exercise and aging people. Not that I think of myself as old but at 60 you are obviously aging. All those things just seemed to fit together very well with what I wanted to do.
I think it rang a bell with a lot of other people who think: “We are living longer. It is important to try and live healthily as you get older.” I don’t want to be arrogant by saying that what I have done has inspired them to do anything but I think it is important to demonstrate that you can do stuff and set an example.”
What role has social media played in your campaign?
“It was important because it got the message out to a lot of people. I think it built a lot of momentum. There were quite a lot of people who actually sponsored me twice. Part of what we are trying to do is spread the message. The University was retweeting many of my tweets, which meant that they got to an awful lot of people. It is just what social media is for.“
In the beginning you wrote in your blog: “I feel more nervous than hungry”. Did you satisfy your hunger?
“I stopped feeling so nervous as time went on. I understood what my limits were. You have to understand, I was cycling very slowly, I wasn’t racing through these hills at all (laughs). But as the week went on, I understood what I could do and that if I stick to this sort of pace, I can effectively keep going nonstop. That’s when I stopped being nervous.
I still do [feel hungry]. Actually I may well have to do it again because quite a lot of my friends have said: “This is just fantastic! Can we go back and do it as a group?”. So, there is a bit of a move to go back and do it. Maybe spend a few more days over it next year."
What is the moral of your story?
“The key thing I learned is that I believe everybody is capable of doing much more than they think. There were times when I hated going out in the snow in January to train. But by the time I did the ride, I felt physically better, I felt mentally better, I felt I had achieved something. And that has to be good. It is worth putting in that effort because we can do things. That is the message I would give to everyone.”