Wheeling on top of the world
On a warm summer morning last year, three riders from Hong Kong, me, and 600 other eager cyclists gathered on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The riders, from 22 countries, were of varying age categories, genders, and cycling backgrounds.
In front of us lay the Haute Route, billed as "the toughest and highest 'cyclosportive' in the world": seven days, 780 kilometres, 19 famous cols (mountain passes) and 21,000 metres of climbing in the Alps, with the finish line at Nice's famous Promenade des Anglais on the Mediterranean coast of France.
The cyclosportive is to cycling what the marathon is to running. It's a long-distance, mass participation event which, for most, is a personal battle against distance and the clock, rather than a race. Completion is an achievement in itself.
Spirits were high on that first morning. Competitors had obviously done their training: they looked fit, tanned, lean and ready for the challenge. The warm conditions were ideal for our pre-dawn ride out of Geneva. We paused momentarily when the starting gun fired, to admire the beauty of Lake Geneva for one last time.
The warmth of that first morning became a baking hot European summer with the relentless, dehydrating heat. It was persistent, and only interrupted twice, by icy-cold Alpine storms that had us reaching for thermal clothing as the evening approached.
The Haute Route event was incredibly well organised. Water and feeding stations were plentiful and hundreds of volunteer road traffic marshals lined the route. Official motorcycle escorts ushered us along a safe passage. Each town, village and city we whizzed through came out to clap, cheer and support us. The atmosphere was amazing, and we felt like riders in the real Tour de France.
We pushed our bodies to the limit as we rode up and down 19 of Europe's highest, toughest and most famous cycling roads. Occasionally, the sound of an alpenhorn accompanied us as we pedalled silently up long mountain valleys.
We had a set programme for each day. We would rise early for breakfast, head to the race start and wait for the gun. Then eat, drink and pedal for hours until we reached the day's finish line. We'd then retire our bikes in the secure parking area, collect our small daypack with fresh clothes, and get a massage to soothe our aching bodies.
We'd then eat a nice warm French-inspired meal, find our hotel, and attend the briefing for the next day's ride. Bedtime was earlier than usual.
The mood was very positive each night at the briefing. We'd congratulate each other on surviving another day. Camaraderie was building quickly on and off the road. We were living the dream, the life of a pro rider. Although, with the demands placed on our minds and bodies, many riders would attest that we were living a nightmare.
We rode alongside former world champion Emma Pooley of Britain, Formula One legend Alain Prost and - one of my personal highlights - the inspirational young men from the Kenyan National Cycling Team.
Just how tough was each day? To put the ride into context, the 20-kilometre out-and-back route to The Peak is popular with Hongkongers. Imagine doing that seven times, which is the equivalent of what we did on day three. Starting at the ski resort town of Courchevel in France, we rode 140 kilometres through the Alps and climbed 4,700 metres over the Col de la Madeleine, Col du Glandon and finished atop the famous L'Alpe d'Huez ski station.
The Hong Kong trio - Duncan Morris, Glen Pendry and Nial Kelly, all 40-something and part of team South Island Riders - and I survived the day. Others didn't: 20 per cent of the field was eliminated on that day for arriving after the cut-off time.
So what drives seemingly normal people to push themselves to extremes? The Hongkongers were all avid recreational cyclists from varying sporting and professional backgrounds prior to the Haute Route. After cycling in Europe in 2011 for a week and covering 600 kilometres, they were bitten by the cycling bug. They wanted to ramp things up for 2012, and so they chose the Haute Route.
From November 2011 until the race start in August last year, they gradually increased the frequency and duration of their rides. They made weekly training plans and stuck to them. If Hong Kong's weather stopped them riding outdoors, they rode for hours on a stationary bike trainer indoors.
Their social habits changed. The more they exercised, the less alcohol they consumed. Their eating and dietary habits improved to fuel their hungry, efficient bodies.
Each rider had a goal of finishing in the top half of the field, and in the end all three crossed the line within the top third.
Saddle up for 2013
Gran Fondo Milan San Remo
The 43rd edition of the event on June 9 will feature the same 290-kilometre route ridden by the pros during the annual spring classic in March. Riders face the famous slopes of the Turchino and the Cipressa.
Covering 174 kilometres and with 5,180 metres of climbing, this is thought to be the first cyclosportive. Several famous Tour de France mountains feature: the Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and the final ascent of the L'Alpe d'Huez. Set for July 6.
L'Etape du Tour
Established in 1993 to allow amateur cyclists to test their legs on the route of one of the mountain stages of the Tour de France. This year's event will be held on July 7, in Annecy.
Tour de Bintan
Held on Bintan Island, Indonesia, this three-day tour in November has categories for all abilities. Participants cycle 300 kilometres.