11 Dec, 2015

We're on top of the World

Bryan and Richard Clarke became the first South Africans to complete the Triple Crown this year.
Many of the hills and routes are used during the Tour de France and the Giro de Italia.
Together with more than 400 cyclists from around the world, Richard and Bryan Clarke (light blue kit) took on some of the toughest cyclosportif events in Europe.
Bryan and Richard were later joined by their wives Patti and Margaret.

Two South African brothers, Richard and Bryan Clarke, who recently returned from Europe, are “on top of the world”.

They took part in the annual ‘Haute Route’, the highest and toughest ‘cyclosportif’ event in the world for amateur and retired professional cyclists.

The full tour takes 23 days, two of which are used to travel between events, and traverses arguably the greatest cycling terrain in the world – the peaks of the Pyrenees, the French and Swiss Alps and the Italian Dolomites.

Most cyclists choose to do one seven day event, some, called ‘Iron riders’, tackle two, and a few attempt all three events consecutively to claim ‘Triple crown’ status.

“It’s tough”, said Richard, “but that was the goal we set ourselves, and – we did it! And what’s more, we were the first South Africans to be successful!"

Each separate section of the Haute Route event attracts between 400 and 600 cyclists with participants from over 50 countries. Each of these events is divided into seven days and includes a marathon stage and a mid-week individual time trial.

In each of the three events, cyclists ride 800 kilometres plus and have to climb more than 20 000 metres while riding over 20 cols or passos (respectively French and Italian for ‘mountain tops’) with some gradients going up as steeply as 12 - 15% in places.

“There can be few tougher ordeals on a bike than the challenge of the Triple Crown”, wrote James Penfold in his introduction to this epic undertaking, and the next 23 days were to prove the truth of his words.

This year, the weather varied considerably from humid and hot 35?C summer days to freezing 0?C mountain-top weather although considerably colder if the wind chill factor is included.

Ascending the Col d Izoard in the French Alpes in torrential rain with lightning striking all around was one of the most challenging moments, while the descent of the Passo Giau in the Dolomites with snow and iced roads was bone chilling and nerve-wracking.

Mountains are dangerous but so are road drivers. During their ride, Richard and Bryan encountered two potentially life-threatening events.

While going through a village a car driver, going in the opposite direction, was so busy watching the cyclists go by that he crashed into the back of a car next to Bryan. Luckily air-bags saved the driver from serious injury and even more luckily none of the cyclists were hit!

The second event was a ‘miracle’. Riding down the Col de la Madelaine and taking corners at speed, a rider just ahead of them went over the mountain edge and fell eight metres into a tree which saved his life.

The medics needed ropes to rescue him and he said he wanted to continue as he felt ‘fine’. Sensibly the medics disagreed.

The ‘miracle’ was that from where he ended up a metre to his left was a 30 metre drop and there was an iron bar only 50 centimetre to his right on which he could have been impaled. He was only bruised.

To ensure the riders were looked after, public authorities and police covered the event with 35 safety, medical and press motorcycles accompanying the pelotons; between 700 and 800 marshals were recruited for each event; roads were kept open to traffic but marshals ensured priority-of-way; feeding stations were spaced regularly; and each event had four mechanical support vehicles with spare parts; two ambulances and a medical support team of two doctors and 11 EMTs/nurses.

The organisers took every precaution to ensure the safety of cyclists. Only certain sections of each day were timed, especially in sudden unexpected bad weather.

Dangerous, steep descents on poorly paved roads were untimed to prevent riders from taking unnecessary risks or putting others at risk, by allowing for a safe descent. Nevertheless, the final finishing time for each day was fixed and applied to all.

For the third leg of the triple crown challenge, Richard and Bryan were joined by their wives, Margaret and Patti, to Europe and both of them became important ‘seconds’, cheering and encouraging their husbands.

After 21 days on the road (with two days ‘rest’ during which the riders had to catch a flight or be bussed to the start of the next event), the riders had covered 2 547 kilometres and climbed 57 457 vertical metres before they reached the finishing post, much to their joy and relief.

Their wives were waiting there to celebrate with them. Twenty-three riders achieved Triple Crown status and Richard and Bryan were delighted to be the first South Africans to do so.