The men with shaved legs

loading Thomas Barlow ascending the Col du Galibier.

What’s it like cycling through one of the toughest stages of the Tour de France? The Grimpeurs decided to find out, and in the process, raise money for cancer charities in the UK. Penangite and support crew Bram Tan was there, and fills us in on how it went.

I’m in a support car following a team of seven cyclists on a gruelling challenge to traverse four legendary mountains of the French Alps in a single day. We spot one of the riders making steady progress up a “1:7 gradient”, i.e. one vertical metre for every seven travelled horizontally – our car needs to drop to second gear to manage this! We cruise past so I can get his picture with the mountain behind him. His body language is screaming “tired!” as he pedals past. “I HATE THIS!” he yells, exhausted.

He’s not smiling but I take his picture anyway. Welcome to La Marmotte.

Last summer, my cousin Wei Yi and I were part of a support team to photograph the Grimpeurs, a group of seven cycling friends from the UK hoping to raise money for charity by completing the legendary La Marmotte cyclosport course. It’s a 174km loop that starts at Le Bourg-d'Oisans, followed by Col du Glandon (1,924m/6,312ft) and Col du Telegraphe (1,566m/5,138ft), then Col du Galibier (2,645m/8,678ft), and finally Alpe d’Huez (1,860m/6,102ft). If you have ever watched the Tour de France on TV, you would have seen riders climbing the very same peaks.

For the Grimpeurs (team leader Oliver “Ov” Barlow, Thomas Barlow, Alan Lowton, John Hartley, Martin Greetham, Pete “Piston” Roberts and Myles Mason), La Marmotte is like following in the footsteps of their heroes. “Like playing tennis at Wimbledon, golf as St Andrews or football at Old Trafford,” as one cyclist described it.

We are based at the Vaujany ski resort, about 35km west of Grenoble. The ride is two days away and excitement gradually builds as riders with expensive-looking bicycles arrive. I help unload food supplies including dozens of energy bars. Each rider expects to burn over 10,000 calories a day. It’s like preparing for battle and I’m unloading the ammunition!

A makeshift workshop is set up on the balcony. Bikes are scrutinised, checked and adjusted; they are high-tech creations of alloy and carbon fibre and I’m astounded by how light they are. I ask Ov what kind of pictures he expects. He replies, “Dramatic views of the Alps, with super close-ups of us giving 110%.”

Then he says, “Hey, can you zoom in on the sweat on my face? I want to see my teammates reflected in a bead of sweat. Can you do that, Bram?”

“I’ll try,” I reply, but everyone is laughing.

Later, I spot Ov with a razor in his hand; he’s going to shave his legs. All serious cyclists shave their legs. There are supposedly practical benefits but Ov can’t explain what they are, so I can only conclude that it’s traditional.

It’s the morning of the ride. The other members of the support team, Rachel, Anne, Laura and Li, have prepared seven huge pasta meals alongside countless chocolate bars, cakes, tarts and biscuits. The others are loading up bikes and stretching their limbs in the morning mist. After a short drive to the official start point, we make final safety checks before starting, while a few riders wander off for a final pee in the bushes. I wonder to myself what Tour de France riders do about this with all those cameras trained on them.

Col du Glandon

As we pass a beautiful lake heading west towards the Col du Glandon, I am awed by the landscape. It’s like watching an IMAX screen with no edges. The Belledonne Grandes Rousses and Arvan-Villards mountain ranges flanking us are still dappled with snow. They sweep upwards so steeply that melt-water rushes down, creating a continuous chain of waterfalls, which from a distance look like a drop of pure white paint dribbling down a green painting.

The road hugs the mountainside like a contour line on a gigantic map and I get a great shot of the Grimpeurs on a lovely set of “S” bends snaking towards the end of stage one. I’m trying to keep my mind on the job, but suddenly the sun breaks through a cloud and pours gold paint all over my picture. I’m shaking my head at all this beauty.

Making a fast descent down the Col du Telegraph.

Col du Telegraphe

The day is going well for the riders. After a fast descent from the Col du Glandon, the road inevitably starts to slope up again, leading us into a shady forest. We are now surrounded by ancient pine trees, so tall they make the riders and our cars look like scale model toys. Wei Yi and I wait patiently halfway up the Col du Telegraphe with my two young sons, whom I’ve brought along for the ride. When we see the Grimpeurs coming we can tell by their faces that it’s a huge effort to get up this section, but they all break out into big grins when they see my little boys hopping up and down in excitement, blowing their Vuvuzelas as hard as they can.

The Galibier

In the Tour de France, the famous Galibier is one of the highest climbs of the mountain stages. We rejoin another support car parked halfway up the Galibier and stop for a rest. The lower half of the mountain reminds me of The Sound of Music: lush grassy meadows and millions of tiny pink, yellow and blue Alpine flowers. As we climb higher we see graffiti painted on the road with the names of famous riders.

At the top, the grassy meadows have given way to bare windswept rock. The ground at my feet looks like Mars, but looking around through my camera, I’m blown away by planet Earth. My lens overflows with snow-capped mountains in every direction.

The Grimpeurs at the monument to Henry Desgrange, founder of the Tour de France.

Ov is first to reach the summit. As Piston Pete arrives, he victoriously punches the air with his fist. I take his picture and I’m reminded of how much these guys have achieved. Some of them weren’t even cyclists before embarking on almost a year of training for this ride. To raise money for their chosen cancer charities, they sent letters, made phone calls and met with local businesses to secure sponsorship to reach their target of £10,000.

After some hard-earned group photos by the Galibier road sign, they prepare for a scary 75km/h-plus descent. I’ve been looking forward to photographing this awesome bit of road. From the summit you can see most of the 48km-long black ribbon of tarmac, elegantly curving its way down. I notice there aren’t many barriers to stop vehicles going off the side; misjudge any one of these corners and it could be deadly. Thanks to Wei Yi, however, our car is expertly positioned in front of the riders so I can hang out of the passenger window, as far as the jagged rocks whizzing past will allow.

Along with several sharp intakes of air through my clenched teeth, we watch the Grimpeurs round corner after corner on tires as wide as your index finger. John Hartley, a complete novice before joining the team, surprises everyone by leading this descent. Later, we enter pitch-black tunnels running through the mountain – tunnels so dark that they reduce our vision of the riders to just seven tiny LED taillights.

Left to right: Myles Mason, Martin Greetham and Thomas Barlow beginning their penultimate climb at the foothills of the Galibier.

Crossing the finish line all together at the top of Alpe d'Huez, an emotional moment.

Alpe d’Huez

It’s late afternoon and the sun is low in the sky and golden. A situation is developing on the final leg of the ride: despite planning to ascend Alpe d’Huez together, the fatigued riders are now too spread out. Ov would later tell me, “It was every man for himself. Everyone was in their own room of pain.”

Suddenly, we hear on the radio that John Hartley is struggling. Incredibly, despite having reached the top, Ov and Alan decide to cycle back down to help. As we wait anxiously by the radio, the three riders pedal in slowly. John is weaving from side to side; the steep slope is making it hard to travel in a straight line. We all cheer him on. If he loses momentum here, he might never be able to summon enough energy to restart, ending his ride just 150m short of the finish line.

The total amount raised is now over £15,890, in aid of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, Beating Bowel Cancer and Macmillan Cancer Support.

Eventually, Ov coaxes everyone towards the official finish line. It’s an emotional moment of joy and relief as they cross the line after 13 hours. We hug. Back at the chalet, we celebrate with champagne and pasta to replace those 70,000 lost calories.

The total amount raised is now over £15,890, in aid of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, Beating Bowel Cancer and Macmillan Cancer Support.

Bram Tan is an industrial designer, photographer and Penangite living in Paris, France. He is married with two kids and loves motorbikes.

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