The remarkable MadonnaVelo Cycling Group live a cycling dream.
There is something a little magical about cycling in Europe but imagine heading over to ride bespoke courses in regions of your own choosing, with nine of your best friends. Well that is just what happened in May / June this year, when a ladies cycling group from SE Queensland (and parts further afield) Departed Australia bound for Milan and ultimately, Lake Como, Tuscany and the French Riviera.
When Sheridan (founder of the MadonnaVelo riding group and owner of Storm Cycles at Tugun on the Gold Coast) approached us in mid 2016, she had an idea to take her group on a dream European cycling tour. There was at least one "non-negotiable" in the brief, we MUST visit the famous "Madonna del Ghisallo" chapel that sits perched above Bellagio and was the inspiration for the name of the group. Sprinkle in a little bit of Tuscany, the French Riviera, ride routes that were challenging without being too brutal and all the culinary delights of each region and we had a tour.
So the crew of: Sheridan, Lee, Jacki, Lisa, Mary, Kirsten, Sheree, Tina, Claire, Denise, super-guide Eve and a hopelessly out-numbered, yours truly arrived in Lake Como for stage one. The cycling in Como is divine, all of it (of course) showcases the magnificent lake and involves steep climbing in all directions from the lake shore. Now although there were some nerves in the group, I could not have been more impressed with both the tenacity and spirit of the girls, as they took on climbs such as the 13km Colma Sormano and the steep slopes of Val Rezzo. We did of course ride the famous 10km climb from Bellagio to the Chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo and all were taken by the energy and views at this most significant place.
Day three dawned with the promise of more stunning views and challenging climbs. On the agenda was the mighty Monte Cornizzolo, the most difficult climb in the region and most of the girls had put their hand up for the challenge. Four of these tough and resilient riders made it to the summit of a climb I would rate the equal of Mortirolo, sadly only three made it down by bike. Our friend Lisa crashed on the descent after striking a drainage culvert on a shaded section of road. She required helicopter assistance to get off the hill and was flown home to Australia three days later. I am happy to report that she is now well on the way to making a full recovery. A difficult moment in an otherwise brilliant four days of cycling in the Italian Alps.
Next stop, the unmistakable rolling hills of sun-drenched Tuscany or more specifically, the Chianti region to the north of Siena. Along with world famous character and charm, the Chianti region is awash with steep hills, small country lanes, vineyards and olive groves. Our four days of cycling in Tuscany were always going to be tough but the heat of an early summer blast made things very difficult indeed, possibly our hardest riding of the tour. Just as well we had the most amazing Tuscan Villa in which to "recover" from the days exertions. A divine pool surrounded by 13th century buildings and row upon row of grapevines. Our wonderful host, Guiseppe (of course) made up for his lack of English (not a single word) with an abundance of Italian charm and hospitality. He was like a long lost relative committed 100% to making our stay as remarkable as it could possibly be.
Again the ladies excelled themselves on the bike and I could see they were getting stronger by the day. But more than that, characters were emerging and most were finding some real confidence and freedom with which to express themselves. Tours are amazing like that, a platform for growth quite unlike any other. I just loved watching the story unfold, out-numbered, a little intimidated at times but always entertained. Thank goodness for Eve, not sure I have had much hope of pulling it off without you.
And so to France and the French Riviera "capital" of Nice would do just nicely for our farewell swing of "MadonnaVelo Europe 2017".
Nice is not often thought of as a cycling mecca, but the maritime alps are in fact full of delightful cycling roads. From the wonder of the famous "route de Napleon" to the remarkable climb up to the ancient town of Gourdon, this is a region full of cycling surprises. The girls conquered everything I threw at them, from the iconic col de la Madone to the massive Mont Chauve that towers above Nice, nothing was too difficult for the MadonnaVelos. Our days here were complemented by walks into the amazing old town, fantastic food, for which we were spoiled for choice and swims in the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean.
And like all good stories this one had an end, a remarkable experience now committed to the life story of each member of the group. I would like to thank Sheridan Bosworth for the opportunity and honour of touring with this wonderful group of ladies. I would also like to thank Lee, Jacki, Kirsten, Denise, Mary, Sheree, Tina, Claire and Lisa for your support and friendship on the roads of Italy and France. I truly hope you loved the experience. To the characters we met; Mattia, Guiseppe, "that Italian waiter in Castellina" and so many others, you are appreciated and remembered. New places and memories for life that I am sure will grow fonder with time. Finally to Eve Conyers, whose support was remarkable. You were unflappable and no job was too much to ask, thank you for all that you added to this tour.
Was this the hardest cycling tour ever?
I guess the Brutal Tour had really been about 10 years in the making and like most crazy ideas it had evolved year to year, as I travelled to Europe and climbed more and more passes. It just seemed that there were so many that felt “un-missable” and the more I read, watched on TV and tuned in to the experiences of others, the more climbs were added to the bucket list. Of course, nobody (not even me) can go to Europe and climb 200 cols on one tour, so there had to be a way to whittle down the list. But wait, rather than whittle down, why not ramp up the list? In the modern world of information sharing, blogs etc, most cyclists had heard tales of the “Uber climbs” of Europe; the Angliru in Spain, the Mortirolo and Zoncolan in Italy and Austria’s title contender, the Kitzbuheler Horn. Surely, we could make a list of Europe’s most fearsome challenges, put together a group of intrepid Aussie cyclists, fly 26 hours to the other side of the world and ride them all? Easy, right? And so, the Brutal Tour was conceived.
Next came the list, which climbs should we ride, which makes the cut and which does not? The “formula” included some stats, such as gradient (average and maximum), climb length, altitude at the summit etc, that part was easy. Then we added the “less tangibles” such as iconic status and “mystique”, or more accurately; “climbs that not many have heard of, are really out of the way and just bloody hard”. Once we had our list, the course (and order) needed to be plotted. It soon became obvious (not sure why it took so long) that the most distant pins on our map were as far apart as 2000km! But surely with excellent planning, a reasonably comfortable vehicle, some decent music, it would be doable? Turns out it was.
Meet The Crew
Fast forward to August 2017, the Brutal Tour became a reality. Let’s first introduce our “tourists”;
Mark “I cannot believe my data has run out already” Robertson,
Frank “the Stelvio is over-rated anyway” Nyhuis,
Darren “I never saw any T-junction” Joy and
Ramon “I was just tapping it out, I swear” Maurice. Plus;
Superguide: Gordo “when are we going back to Annecy” Sutherland
Our initial list of six, became just four, with two late withdrawals but what the group lacked in numbers, it certainly made for with character, determination and good old slice of “not taking yourself too seriously” (well, for the most part).
This tour was a three week epic in every sense of the word, so I will deliver the abridged version.
Tours like this are always about the characters, their contributions and the creation of experiences that shape each year’s tour story. As a planner and guide, it is my job to set the route, find the climbs etc, kind of build the canvas. But a tour is nothing without the riders, in this case everyday people who trained hard, then took a large leap into the unknown and emerged as giants, having achieved what very few others have.
We began the tour in Spain, essentially so we could climb one of the most feared roads on the planet, the Angliru. This nasty piece of asphalt is located in the Asturias and a really really long way from anywhere else we needed to be. In all honesty, it would have been a lot easier (and saved around 800km of transfers) if we had simply left it out. But that was not what the tour was all about, we simply had to climb it, and so we did. Picture the day; misty rain, cold winds, small farm roads covered in cow shit (makes getting traction on 23% slopes quite a challenge). then factor in the "warm up", 85km, three climbs and 2000m of elevation. Safe to say, the Angliru did its job, the Brutal Tour had well and truly lived up to its name, and it was only day one!
In a tour lasting three weeks, there were bound to be some tales that could (and should) not be re-told. There are also way too many climbs, points of suffering, highlights and lowlights to which I could not do justice. Here, however, here are my "brief points of note":
The magical "Cirque de Troumouse" (Pyrenees), climbed after a double ascent of the Tourmalet and truly one of the most magnificent "big" climbs in the world. Tough, raw, quiet with a huge dose of that "je ne sais quoi" that makes some roads special.
A triple ascent of the mighty Mt Ventoux where one is enough for most and two is thought of as a little extreme.
The incomparable Colle Della Finestre. 18km @ 10% where the final 9km is on very rough gravel at an average of 10.4%. Unlike the Giro in 2015, nobody graded the road for us.
A ride transfer day of 210km that included the highest paved pass in Europe (the Col de l'Iseran) and finished in darkness as we struggled to find our chalet, tucked away some 6km up a tiny mountain road above St Michel de Maurienne.
A double ascent of the one and only Passo Dello Stelvio - enough said.
The rarely accomplished (for very good reasons) 5000m day. This one was the epic Swiss loop that included the Susten, Grimsel, Nufenen & St Gottard passes. The Nufenen turned out (very unexpectedly) to be one of the toughest climbs of the entire tour and the final 6km "cobbled" section of St Gottard has to be seen (and ridden) to be believed.
Another transfer day, spiced up by a pre-breakfast trundle up the "Austrian Zoncolan", the Kitzbuheler Horn. This "little ripper" is 10.2km long (if you go all the way to the tower) at an ave gradient of 13.2%. Throw in the Grossglockner (in the afternoon), which is relentlessly harder than its "stats" suggest and you will appreciate how happy we were to see our lovely apartments in Flattach at the end of the day.
This brings me to what I rate as the hardest climb of the tour, the little known, Grosse Oscheniksee in the Austrian Alps. 17km from our apartments at 10.4% (including some downhill) with the final 9km @ 13.4%. Consider also that the summit of this beast is at almost 2,400m (other European behemoths such as Zoncolan, Mortirolo, the Horn and Angliru are all closer to 1800m), the road barely as wide as a cart path and a surface full of ruts, holes and loose stones. Brilliant!
Just one more. Statistically, the hardest day we had was the "double Zoncolan"., 136km / 5,200m. Any who have ridden the "monster of the Carnic Alps" will appreciate that the climb from Ovaro is considered one of the toughest in cycling. But just because we were nearly done (and needed an exclamation point for the tour), we added the little known (and quite possibly even harder) ascent back up from Priola, that is a double-Zoncolan (BAM). But we were not quite ready for dinner yet. Just up the valley from Ovaro is the HC climb of Monte Crostis (three times used in the Giro) and it is 14km long at an average of almost 10%. On it's own, it is one tough cookie but after a couple of casual "Zoncolans" it was more (as Frank so eloquently described it) like...."fu#*ing ridiculous". Again, no match for the "brutal tourists from down under". Oh how we had grown since the Asturias.
I am not sure if there is anything quite like this tour for bringing a few blokes together, I certainly do not know of anything. We arrived in Madrid as six individuals, full of nervous expectation. We left a group of mates, full of quiet pride in what we had achieved, forever more confident in our capabilities and connected by a shared experience that may never be repeated.
I would like to say a sincere that you to; Gordo, Robbo, DJ, Frank and Ramon for putting your trust in Bubba's Cycling Tours. But I am mostly thankful for the incredible energy, tenacity and flexibility you brought to the group. It is a three weeks that I will never forget and find very hard to top, both professionally and personally.
Brian Bubba Cooke
Lifelong (almost) cyclist, exercise physiologist and above-all-else just love riding my bike. Been lucky enough to ride some of the world's most epic roads and now live on the beautiful Gold Coast, hidden gem of Australian cycling.