Cykelnerven 2024 – Day 2 – Vars to Auron

Note: On June 4-9, I participated in Cykelnerven, a cycling event that benefits the Multiple Sclerosis International Foundation (MSIF). We took on some of the toughest climbs to be used in this year’s Tour de France.


I ride for Kristi

Is it better to know or not know what lies ahead? I had a general idea but did not study the profile maps. Each night Bo would tell us what we were in store for but if I looked my sleep would be worse than it already was.

Vars, France

Yesterday was brutal. The Col du Galibier was a bucket list climb for me and it was mission accomplished. But the route after lunch was more difficult. My legs were trashed.

Vars, France – The guys in orange were our four Danish coaches

The climb to the Col de Vars is a tough one. Twelve miles of switchbacks. About two-thirds of the way up is the town of Vars where we stayed overnight. We initially were to ride the full Col de Vars climb yesterday and then go back down to the hotel but Bo changed the route, maybe when he saw me.

Vars – Waiting at a construction traffic light
Conor and Toni

On the menu today was the last third of the climb up Col de Vars, four and one-half miles (7.2 km). Once we regrouped at the top we would have a 13.5-mile (21.7 km) descent. And then …

Near the summit of the Col de Vars

.. We would begin the climb of the Cine de Le Bonette. I never heard of it. But it is the highest paved road in France. Even before we began the climb we were out of water. Conor had none but I still had a full water bottle on my downtube. I poured my water into his bottle. Bo called for a support car to bring us water.

Barry at the summit of Col de Vars

We started the 15-mile climb and in the first mile, I saw a water fountain alongside the road and pulled over. Once I got restarted I came to our support car with water.


I rode solo for the entire climb. I think it was steep enough that if you were suffering, like I was, you were suffering at your own speed and pace. At one point I came upon the water car again. The occupants, Shona, Kerry, and George, yelled encouragement and asked if I needed anything. As I approached, I yelled, “Gels!, but I’m not stopping.”

Col de Vars – Annaleis

George scrambled and grabbed two gels from the car. As I passed. I held my right arm back, palm up, and George made a perfect placement of gels into my hand.

Col de Vars

With each kilometer, I would check the sign to see how much pain was ahead. The signs would show how far it was to the summit and the gradient of the next kilometer would be marked. Anything above seven would be met with a bad look. I kept looking for something less than five percent but never saw one.

Sign marking distance on the Bonette – 17 km to go. The next km is 7.1%

Peer, the CEO of the Multiple Sclerosis International Foundation (MSIF) came by in his right-hand drive car. As he passed me slowly he asked if I needed anything. I yelled out “A sticky bottle!”

Waiting at a construction light on the descent of the Col de Vars

In cycling terms, a sticky bottle is a pass of a bottle from the team car to a rider on the bike. The “sticky” part is that in the brief moment of passing from driver to rider both people hold onto the bottle, thus it must be because it is sticky.

Col de Vars descent

It’s not legal but is accepted so long as it’s not blatant, like more than two seconds. It’s akin to holding onto the car for two seconds. While it looks like it’s the rider who is responsible, remember the handoff is from the driver and it is the driver who has to let go once the bottle has been firmly grasped by the rider. And one needs to make sure it is gripped tightly because if the driver lets go too soon and the rider doesn’t have the bottle it could fall into the spokes of the rider or cause a crash of trailing riders.

Col de Vars

Allen Lim, the nutritionist for Team Phonak in 2006 when Floyd Landis rode away, won Stage 17, and appeared to win the Tour de France, told me he thought Floyd’s ride was clean that day. He was fixated on the number of bottles Floyd took from the team car. They had 200 bottles, more than half of which he would pour over his head to help cool him on an extremely hot day (34℃ – 93℉ ). But if each bottle gave a two-second advantage, that would have been worth more than seven minutes. Seven minutes of holding onto the car.

A ruin village on the descent off Bonett

In the end, Floyd’s ride into Morzine gained him 5’42” over Carlos Sastre, the second-place finisher. From the outside looking in, only Floyd, riding alone, had the advantage of the sticky bottle – worth up to seven minutes of holding on. Combine that with his excellent descending skills that he could solo on and no flat sections where the peloton would have an advantage, and one could reasonably conclude that his ride was clean with the main advantage being Mr. Sticky. Of course, Floyd later tested positive for artificial testosterone.

Jausiers – (Not our rider, just a dude)

Peer said to me, “I’ve got a bottle but I don’t have any sticky.”

The climb begins – Conor followed by Ernie

My face showed I was suffering. Inside I was laughing. Spencer handed Peer a bottle and Peer handed it to me. As soon as I took it he let go.

Conor leading the way

“What is this, this is no sticky bottle. I don’t want this.” I gave it back.

The lower slopes of la Bonette

Peer was very confused. I can see him saying, “He asked for a bottle, I gave him one, and he gave it right back. These cyclists are weird.” (Probably)

Lower slopes of Bonette

I was dying laughing inside. Outwardly I was suffering.


It was a fun little diversion to break up the climb. I would not have wanted a pull from someone who did not know what a sticky bottle was and had never practiced the technique.


Yesterday in combining the Col de Vars at the end after the Col du Galibier made a very tough day. And now I was on a tougher and higher climb. Altitude is a problem even if one doesn’t notice. With less oxygen, there are fewer red blood cells being produced and going to your legs. I had no power and the entire way up the climb I was thinking about tomorrow.

La Bonette

Bo, our Cykelnerven Danish coach, defined success for each of us as making it to the end. He didn’t want anyone going so deep on one day or one climb that they couldn’t ride the next day. Left unsaid would also be so fatigued that they would crash. And I was fatigued.

La Bonette

The profile for today included a 15-mile downhill after the summit of La Bonette and a final five-mile climb to the hotel. I have never been SAG’d in any event. Whether stubbornness or pride, I also managed to avoid the broom wagon.

They waved. The horses did not.

I thought yesterday on the Col de Vars that I might be SAG’d off the course as I was the last finisher. But they let me ride. Today I was pulling the plug. Once I got to the bottom of the next mountain I would join my teammates in taking a ride. It was the thought that the last time I had to pedal uphill was on La Bonette that got me over the climb.

La Bonette

At the summit, I was prepared for the final 500 meters or so when the road really turned up. We came to the top where the team car was but not the summit. Two quick lefts made a U-turn or a 180 back down the mountain. A quick left and quick right was the way to the summit.

Still lots of snow at 2000m

There were a number of motorcyclists here milling around. About 50 meters farther the road was still blocked with snow. That was a loop road to the actual summit. We did not make it to the summit and I’m not sure that when the Tour comes here on Stage 19 they will either because it is not a mountaintop finish for them.

Snow nearing the top of La Bonette

Our car was there with our dry bags. These were bags that we packed each day with warmer clothes so that when we reached the summit we could put on warm clothes for the descent.

Road closed farther up to La Bonette

Peer looked for my bag and said that it must have been in the other car. He offered me his mittens and even his coat. I declined. Everyone else had their warm gear on. In fact, Ian was with me at the summit but didn’t wait for me because he was getting cold. Understandable.

La Bonette

It was cold on the descent. The danger would be in wearing sweaty clothes, and I was sweaty, of getting too cold and going hyperthermic. It happened to me once. That was on the Col du Lautaret in July 2011. One can lose control of the bike when suffering from hyperthermia. On that descent the bike was shaking and I pulled over at almost every hairpin corner to steady myself.

La Bonette – We came up from the left side and nearly made a U-turn to descend on the right side

But I went down safely, met the group for lunch, and were joined by others trailing. Most were in front of me but at least three were still behind. We talked strategy for the remainder of the day and decided we would all SAG when we reach the bottom to have something left for tomorrow.

Descending La Bonette – the brown on the snow is sand carried from the Sahara

Out of the lunch stop we still had a bit of descending to go. I left last and passed a couple of cautious descenders. That is, more cautious than me.

Descending La Bonette

I always prided myself on being a cautious but fast descender. In 2010 and 2011 I seemed to go much faster on the descents. In 2014 in Italy on the Passo Fedaia, I went 53 mph (84 kph). This year I barely hit 40 mph (64 kph) before touching the brakes.

Lunch stop

We came to an intersection and regrouped. Once we were ready to roll I led the way down to town. I thought I was going well when Bo passed me. I thought he caught me to slow me down. But I jumped on his wheel and followed his line. He kept looking back for others and there were none to be found. We came to the town together and waited. For one descent I got to show I could fly.

This road will be closed

The sky looked a little dark but I did not sense rain was coming. We would have to wait for the van to come pick us up. Bo looked around and told everyone where we could wait if it started to rain. And he asked who was going to ride to the hotel. Then he looked at me and said “You are,” not a command but sort of sensed I would want to. And I did.

Waterfall (Photo credit: Barry McCormick)

It’s funny. My legs did not feel good on the climb up Col de Vars and were awful on the climb of La Bonette. But when we stopped at Saint-Étienne it wasn’t so much as I wanted to stop as it was that I knew that I could keep going and so I did.

Saint-Étienne, Fr.

There was one other, Annaleis, who was planning to ride while the other seven stayed behind. Bo told me to go ahead as I had the route on my Wahoo. I hadn’t studied the climb because I hadn’t intended to ride this. While I knew it was only 4.5% grade I also knew I was in trouble when the first couple of miles were quite easy. That meant the last couple would be 8-9% to make that average.

Lunch stop. Barry, Conor, and Shona

Annaleis and one coach passed me. And the second one too. And it started to rain. It became a steady rain which was more refreshing than annoying although there was some thunder as well. Bo came back to make sure I was still plugging away and rode with me to the finish. For the second consecutive day, I was last finisher. Two days in and already locking up title of Lanterne Rouge.

Rain on the mountain

The hotel was a quaint family-run hotel with a killer view of the Alps off the balconies we each had. Dinner was Lasagna (again), so large that no one at our table of eight could finish theirs.

The view

Yesterday was my toughest day. Today was the toughest climb. And I didn’t SAG. I was exhausted. I knew or thought I would finish but I was not recovering. I started thinking that I should not go to Switzerland for a week and to Finland for the following week. I needed rest. I would look for alternatives and to return home.

The hotel dog

Lodging and dinner was the Hotel Le Chastellares, a quaint family-run hotel with beautiful views. And a dog.

Stage 19 of the 2024 Tour de France


Col de Vars – 2 109 m (6,919′) – 18,8 km @ 5.7%
PJAMM Fiets*: 7.2 – 11.7 miles – 3,654′

Cime de la Bonette – 2 802 m (9,193′) – 22,9 km @ 6.9%
PJAMM Fiets*: 11.9 – 14.9 miles – 5,202′

*See PJAMM Cycling for a description of the climb

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