What a week. 285 miles (450km) with 42,000 ft (12,800m) of climbing, Multiple Tour de France cols, from sea-level to the highest roads in Europe over some immense many-hour climbs. On continuous days. With an incredible group of STRIVErs and an outstanding support team.
This is the story of an intense but wonderful week of ups, more ups and occassional downs!
15.09.18: Arrival day
Arrival day, and a lap of the Monaco Grand Prix circuit!
In 2016, I participated in the STRIVE Challenge, cycling out of the Alps and through the “rolling hills of Tuscany” as STRIVE founder Noah Devereux described what were actually killer hills with steep inclines. I didn’t know anyone else who was doing it, and really didn’t know what I’d let myself in for! It turned out that no-one else had really understood the magnitude of that challenge either — everyone seemed surprised how difficult it was, even the super-fit core team who were carrying on similar shenanigans for a month.
So this year, I knew it would be difficult. In fact, looking at the daily ride profiles, it was going to be worse, with enormous Alpine climbs taking us to the highest through-roads in Europe — from sea-level! — and navigating some of the most challenge Tour de France cols.
So I’d actually tried to prepare more — a lot of cycling in the Surrey and Sussex Hills, and even 6 weeks of resistance-training in the gym with Antoni, a personal trainer at Virgin Active, who really understood what I needed to do and helped me build up my leg muscles and strengthen my back.
But I also felt a great sense of responsibility — this time I wasn’t alone — I’d enlisted Suzie Imber, Associate Professor of Space Science at Leicester University, winner of “Astronauts — do you have what it takes” and intrepid mountain discoverer and climber, to come along for the ride. I really didn’t want to kill her, and I had described the 2016 adventure to her as the best thing I’ve ever done, so expectations were high!
So we arrived at Gatwick Airport, donning our Strive Challenge caps, and, sure enough, other nervous travellers joined us at the departure gate, wondering what the week would bring.
A short flight and bus-ride later, and we were installed at the Fairmont Hotel in Monaco, literally on the iconic hairpin of the Monaco Grand Prix circuit — still with red and white painted kerbs. So once we had found our bikes and assembled various accessories, we couldn’t resist a quick lap or two of the full circuit, including the famous tunnel, chicane, harbourside and huge climb after St Devote corner leading into the Casino Square. Of course, the phrase “huge climb” would take on a very different meaning soon.
16.09:18: Day 1: Monaco — Auron
A massive start day.
Distance: 73.29 miles
Moving time: 7:45:45
Elapsed time: 9:54:47
Elevation: 12,314 ft
Max Speed: 37.6 mph
After an early and fairly rushed start with the backdrop of a glorious Riviera sunrise, we assembled next to the Fairmont Hairpin to start the first riding day. The range of experience levels within the group was huge, so Suzie and I joined the slower group, heading out last with Jo, one of the “chaperones” (experienced cycle coaches) — who had coaxed me up the hills in Italy 2 years previously.
We traced part of the GP circuit backwards, right down to sea-level at Monaco harbour, then began the long climb out of the Principality and up on to the headlands that surround. Suzie’s chain got properly jammed on the first climb, but the mechanics were quickly at hand to sort it out. The guys from Halfords who supported the whole event were brilliant — always knowing what to do, always close at hand to sort out any mechanical issue.
Once at the top, we had the pleasure of our first long descent … leading to another climb through the valley, and another long descent.
Suzie and I found ourselves riding with one of the other cycling chaperones, Nicole. Being near the back meant that our pace allowed conversation on the hillclimbs – it turned out Nicole was an ex-pro cyclist and was able to explain how crucial teamwork was in cycle racing. She was a “domestique”, basically a worker-bee in the team, prepared to lead the peloton, or slot in behind, ready to support the sprinters. Coincidentally, while she was talking to us, I suddenly heard a rhythmic swooshing approaching from behind – it was the sound of 6 current pro cyclists approaching in tight formation, with their solid rear wheels creating this strange noise. I like to think I led that world-class peloton. For about one second, before they overtook me!
At mile 30, we had our first lunch break, with a fantastic freshly-cooked buffet from the lovely people at Appetite for Adventure, and then, refuelled, we started climbing again, relentlessly for 40 miles. Suzie and I cycled for a while with Marion Bartoli, 2013 Wimbledon Champion, and it was fascinating to hear what it was like to play on the Centre Court, under such pressure.
The day had a proper sting in the tail — 5 miles of steep climbing to the hotel at Auron. I found the afternoon and the final climb really hard — I couldn’t get into a good rhythm, and on the final climb had to stop every 10 minutes to catch my breath.
But it was a fantastic feeling to finally reach the finish line, nearly 10 hours from when we set off from sea level at Monaco — now at an altitude of over 5,000 ft.
Hotel facilities in Auron were rustic — I was sharing a room with one of the other cyclists, and our bathroom had a bidet and basin. Nothing else. I realised the intention was that we share next door’s more-equipped bathroom, but for a moment I was a little concerned!
After some food and a cheeky small beer, I was ready for bed. And did I sleep well …
17.09.18: Day 2: Auron — Barcelonette
Including a single continuous 15-mile climb up to the highest road in Europe.
Distance: 40.86 miles
Moving time: 4:57:06
Elapsed time: 6:52:53
Elevation: 5,574 ft
Max Speed: 41.4 mph
Total Distance so far: 114.15 miles
Total Climb so far: 17,888 ft
After that kind of day, normal people would have a day of rest. But that’s not what the STRIVE is about — relentless pushing beyond your comfort zone is a big part of it.
But just one hill today? After the initial 5-mile descent from the hotel, that one hill started … and carried on for another 15 miles, taking us up to the Col de la Bonette, the highest paved through road in Europe, at 9,000 ft altitude — for me, approximately 4 hours climbing continuously, at an average gradient of 6% — meaning some short sections were punchier than that — more like 12–14%, which really meant grinding the low gears and standing on the pedals.
The climb was made much more pleasant when I caught up with Kristy, an impressive real-estate businesswoman from Atlanta, who was Suzie’s room-mate for the week. We chatted away, plotting how we were going to get Suzie into space, and marvelled at the beautiful waterfalls streaming down the mountainside from the melting glaciers high above. When you have enough breath to talk, conversation is a great way of getting through these long long climbs!
Before embarking on this year’s STRIVE, I wondered if I would get the chance to cycle with Richard Branson again, as I had done in 2016. But no way this year — Richard had trained hard, and was often finishing towards the front of the pack. I do not know where that man gets his energy, but it is remarkable. I hear he was putting in a couple of hours’ work at the beginning and the end of each day too, as if the cycling wasn’t enough.
Coach Nicole was riding with me, really pushing me to make it to the top. On the way up, the views were incredible — deserted fort villages, and barren landscape as we cycled up level with the tree line. And to think, only yesterday morning we were at sea-level in Monaco, and now we were on the highest road in Europe. A great sense of achievement to get to the top — especially when I checked my bike and realised that my rear brake had been jammed on for the climb, so I hadn’t just been fighting gravity for the last few hours!
We couldn’t hang around for long as it gets chilly at 9,000 ft! So, quickly donning a couple more layers, we made the rapid 15-mile descent.
Thankfully, our destination for the day was at the end of another, gentler descent — bliss! An optional extra section was laid on for the fast cyclists — Col D’Allos, another Tour de France climb — but I hadn’t arrived in time to attempt this — my partially-fit 50-something body has limits! Also, I knew there were a couple of massive days coming soon.
18.09.18: Day 3: Barcelonette — Guillestre
Col de Vars — conquered. Short and sharp.
Distance: 34.95 miles
Moving time: 3:22:46
Elapsed time: 5:16:50
Max Speed: 38.3 mph
Total Distance so far: 149.10 miles
Total Climb so far: 22,566 ft
This day actually turned out to be the least hard, most enjoyable day — quite a contrast to day 3 in 2016, when I very nearly gave up through dehydration and exhaustion. The day started with a long gradual climb, which then turned into a significantly steeper long climb up to Col de Vars — a climb that was featured in the 2017 Tour de France. I was climbing with Natalie in the morning, who told me about her varied and fascinating career with the United Nations, in the City and as a connector of influential people. Again, great conversation on the climbs! Everyone I ran into (or, usually, who was in the process of overtaking me) had a unique, interesting story.
Half way up the steep climb I saw Christian, one of the cycling coaches, ahead. Back on our training ride 3 months previously, he’d taken me aside and told me straight that my legs just weren’t strong enough, and I needed to get my act together. This had been exactly what I needed to hear, and had led me to sign up for personal training, and to push hard in higher gears while training on the Surrey Hills — that had really made a difference. So, I stood on the pedals and sprinted uphill past him … you could see the smile on his face. Of course, there’s no way I could sustain that kind of speed once I was out of sight!
I made it to the top. There was a lot of love at the top of Col de Vars — I ran into a large group of our riders, including Sam Branson, Karl Lokko and their friends. It felt great to have made it to the top of this climb relatively easily, without constant coaching and encouragement. I felt good!
The day went downhill from there — in a very good way! It was great to get to our destination in Guilestre before the sun started to set, so I had some time to roll out some of the stiffness in my shoulders and relax for a couple of hours before dinner. I had been too late again for the fast-riders-extra-brutal-option of Col d’Izoard, but super-powered Suzie gave it a go. Impressive.
I knew I needed to save myself for the next day — and boy am I glad I did.
19.09.18: Day 4: Guilestre — Valmenier
Col du Galibier (via Col du Lautaret and Telegraph!). That broke me.
Distance: 67.80 miles
Moving time: 7:29:25
Elapsed time: 10:12:41
Elevation: 9,132 ft
Max Speed: 42.3 mph
Total Distance so far: 216.90 miles
Total Climb so far: 31,698 ft
Day 4 started with some gentle climbing. Just for a change. This time I found myself riding with Susie Ma, who has a wonderful story of entrepreneurship, making skincare products in her kitchen and selling them in Greenwich Market, then making it to the final of the Apprentice, and going on to form an international skincare company that now has 10,000 associates selling her products around the world. This is one of the things I love about the STRIVE Challenge — meeting incredibly impressive but extremely humble people, who never brag about their achievements but are happy to tell their story quietly and graciously, and let us absorb some of their wisdom and experience.
The lunch stop was strategically placed to fuel us before the long climb of the day, Col du Lautaret leading to Col du Galibier. No optional extras today — we were expected to do all of it. I found myself climbing on my own (apart from the occassional mountain sheep) up to Col du Lautaret — but I’d brought along a bluetooth speaker and had a constant stream of 80s classics to keep me company on the long road. I climbed through ski resort Serre Chevalier — which we’d actually skiied at a few years ago — so I sent a photo of my bike next to the town sign to one of my friends who had skiied with us — he knew how high that was and quickly responded with a donation! Thanks to that guy :) I stopped for a quick coffee at Col du Lautaret, and bumped into Big Change CEO Essie North and EasyPeasy founder Jen Lexmond. It was great to see them, but then I had to get going, up the long and harder climb to the top of Col du Galibier — probably the most famous Tour de France climb. The views were stunning — it seemed we were level with the glaciers on the opposite slope — but the going got harder and harder. Thankfully I had Nicole for company, who kept encouraging me to keep going. And going. And going. By the time I got to the top, I couldn’t think straight — either through exhaustion or altitude!
I got my extra layers on and started the descent — leaning into the corners, hitting over 40 mph and only slowing down when I saw a tight hairpin approaching. Coach Jo followed me down and paid me the ultimate compliment — she said “Paul, you look like a cyclist!” Having seen me just after I first got a road-bike, training in the pouring rain in Richmond Park, Jo knew my cycling journey very well, and it was a great feeling that she’d noticed some improvement since then.
After the descent, there was another climb on to Telegraph, another part of the Tour de France route, then one more descent and yet another sharp climb to the hotel. I really struggled. I had been taking energy gels to keep my fuel levels up between meals, but my stomach decided it couldn’t take any more of those, and I could feel myself getting weaker. But I pushed as hard as I could — finally rolling to the finish line with my speaker blasting out the epic orchestral Back to the Future theme tune — suitably fitting for a massive day. It was already dinner time, but everyone was outside to cheer me in — I felt such huge support.
We were staying in a building that was a cross between a school and a youth hostel — with dormitories and shared bathrooms. A far cry from the Fairmont at Monaco, but actually a much more friendly and warm atmosphere than there. In fact at dinner that night, Richard called the kitchen staff out to commend them on the best food of the week and to give them a hug! And, to cap it all, Noah presented me with one of the STRIVE yellow jerseys … for the effort I had put in and my general enthusiasm for all things STRIVE and Big Change. It was a real honour and I felt tremendous warmth and love from the assembled STRIVErs and all the support crews. A great end to an incredibly tough day on the mountains.
20.09.18: Day 5: Valmenier — Tignes
Out of energy 4 km from the top of Col D’Iseran, but managed all the rest. A huge day.
Distance: 68.73 miles
Moving time: 7:35:13
Elapsed time: 10:52:51
Elevation: 10,594 ft
Max Speed: 37.1 mph
Total Distance: 285.63 miles
Total Climb: 42,292 ft
Final day. The relentness routine of the STRIVE was taking its toll, but we all knew this was it — the final push. We had a long day awaiting us, so we assembled early, to start by retracing part of yesterday’s route, this time downhill to begin with. I was cycling with Felix from Boston Consulting — a fellow STRIVEr from 2016 who also had a fascinating story and was as much a fan of the Big Change “movement” as me. The pace was pretty fast across the (almost) flat, as we cycled in peloton, taking advantage of the air gap created by the lead rider.
I was proudly wearing my yellow jersey, and when I saw the fast group stopped for a coffee ahead, I couldn’t resist a photo with them before they dashed off into the distance. I think they only stopped so they didn’t finish the day too early :)
Suzie knew I had struggled the previous day, and graciously chose to slow down and ride with me. The main climb of the day — Col D’Iseran — was massive, relentless, almost never-ending. Brendan rode with us, and was quizzing Suzie about all things space science. At one point we had stopped so I could get my breath back, and Suzie demonstrated the principle of “tidal locking” that results in the same side of the moon always facing earth, but using Brendan and Jo to represent the earth and the moon. So not only did I learn to cycle up mountains, but also I came back knowing more about physics.
I had been monitoring my heart rate during the week. When I was training, I would regularly hit 170–180 beats per minute on sharp hillclimbs — but nothing in the Surrey Hills compares to the endurance needed in the Alps. So I’d been managing to pace myself and keep my heart rate below about 150 this week, to give me extra endurance. However, after about 40 miles of climbing, only 2.5 miles from the top, I was really struggling, losing concentration, getting slower and slower and starting to veer off the road, and I noticed my heart rate wasn’t going above 90. Jo said it was my body starting to shut down to protect me … it was time to stop. So, reluctantly, I skipped the final 2.5 miles of this climb. Not so STRIVEy. But I had really pushed to the limit.
However, that gave me enough of a break to get my energy back to have a controlled (but still quite quick) long descent down, passing over some ski runs and descending through Val D’Isere! Sarina from Big Change caught me up, just in time for us to meet some hungry donkeys who seemed to take a liking to Sarina’s crisps.
We descended into the valley, to the reservoir at Tignes 1800, and had to stop to take a look at the stunning scenery.
Sarina and I were at the end of our energy reserves, and had evil thoughts of being picked up for the final sharp climb to the finish line, but Suzie and friends joined us and we resolved to finish this thing properly. The final climb up to the higher Tignes resort was quite intense, but we all dug deep and made it. Suzie and I finally saw the finish line ahead and put on a sprint — crossing the line together. We had done it.
The other STRIVErs, some who had finished hours before, greeted us at the finish line. Richard was gracious enough to send a video message to my sponsors, and before I knew it there was a beer in my hand.
(slight exaggeration on the hours per day!)
We celebrated late into the night, and were presented with our all-important medals.
The sense of achievement was fantastic. We had done what Big Change’s principle decreed: to demonstrate that growth happens when you push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and that magic happens when you do it together. But more importantly, through very generous friends, I had reached my fund-raising target, helping the whole adventure on its way to raising £1 million for Big Change projects.
Thank you so much to everyone who took an interest in this challenge and supported me. I wrote about some of the projects on my sponsorship page — https://pcwilliams.design/strive (which is still open for any last-minute donations). I am immensely grateful for this opportunity to push myself in the company of a wonderful group of people and to help these Big Change projects make progress in improving the Education system in the UK for good.
And I want to say a special thank you to those that kept me on the road — particularly STRIVErs Suzie, Natalie, Kristy, Susie, Coralie, Sarina, Susan, Marion, Brendan and Felix for fascinating conversation, great company and gracious slow-cycling with me on the hills; Noah, Sam, Karl, Richard, Essie and Jen for total inspiration; the fast guys for showing us how it should be done; to Antoni at Virgin Active for helping me prepare and my son Ryan for riding with me back home; and a massive thank you to coaches Nicole, Jo and Christian whose infinite patience and encouragement got me up most of those climbs; to the rest of the medical, mechanical and logistics teams; and to Jason and Adie from Appetite for Adventure for keeping us alive at lunchtimes. You are all amazing.