Saturday, 19 July 2008

Mountain Audax

Removing jacket and armwarmers for the forthcoming ascent of the Tourmalet, my calculations were informing me that I had two options:
1. Go out very hard for the finish, hurting lots, and missing a silver medal by about half an hour, or
2. Climb steadily and within myself, concentrate on the descent, and use as much of the 6 hours remaining to me as I needed.

Now, I'm not one for pain at the best of times, even as advertised at the bottom of the Tourmalet.
If silver for my class was 7:10 as advertised (surely it should have been about 7:30?) that gave 3 hours 25 minutes for the remaining 69km. Take away 1:10 for the downhill section, that's 2:15 for the 32km ascending Tourmalet and Hautacam. Not happening, forget it.

Option 2 it was, take it 'easy' and Audax my way round the rest of the course at a more relaxed speed.

Setting off in a low gear out of St Marie de Campan, I was surprised at the fact the gradient felt quite shallow at this stage (probably the fact my legs were rested) and turned the pedals quite quickly up to the Elan Service Station at Gripp where the climb 'proper' is reputed to start. More time gained on the broom wagon.

Conversations with fellow riders dwindled over the next section as we entered the trees and the clouds almost at the same time. The gradient increased steadily to about 7.5 or 8%, but the bottom gear on my triple (30/27) was still not yet needed. I was surprised by Mark on this section, as he enquired how I was as he went past. I thought he was already in well in front as he normally can only contact me on a ride by sending a postcard back down the course, he's normally so far ahead of me. He was struggling with the coat-on, coat-off decision making and regular stops were delaying him. Indeed, he was only 45 seconds ahead at the timing strip above La Mongie.

Bottom gear finally came into play on the sharp right bend 3km below La Mongie, and stayed engaged the rest of the way to the top. Heart Rate on this section was about 155, and stayed out of the red zone all day, maxing out at just 162.

La Mongie was chaos, the melee of riders being almost as ugly as the resort itself. It took me 10 minutes to dive in and recover 2 bottles of water and a couple of bananas. I didn't have the fight in me to go back for butties, so I got back on the bike, plugged in the MP3 player, and span off towards the top powered by 80's rock music. This helped for a while, and when I removed the headphones a couple of km later, the eerie atmosphere of the Tourmalet in the mist was all the more noticeable. As I mentally ticked off the bends from the DVD, and made corny gestures to the photographers, it occurred to me that I might actually make it to the top without walking. Sure, I had pulled over to take a drink a couple of times owing to a wish not to wobble at low speeds in traffic, but the bike was unpushed.

Minutes later, the clouds receded a little, and the uphill disappeared, to be replaced with a ruck of humanity shoving newspapers down their jerseys. I had made it to the top of the Tourmalet, and now it was time for gravity to strut its stuff!

Armwarmers deployed, jacket back on, Mr Trek was launched (carefully) down the biggest descent I had ever encountered. Someone told me later it was only 2 degrees on top of the Tourmalet. I'm not sure it was quite that cold, but it certainly wasn't warm.

By the time the first hairpin arrived, I was settled and comfortable, and negotiated it without alarm or mishap. It was apparent, however, that not everyone was comfortable, and some were cornering with great amounts of brake squealing and lots of wobbling. I noted at this point the road had been swept since the previous day. Gone were the loose rocks, if not the gravel, so the brakes could be left alone a bit.

MaindruPhoto were again in force after the biggest bend (about 220 degrees) at the top, so I tried to put on my best descending pose to make it look like I knew what I was doing. 500 metres later, and I briefly thought someone was shooting at me, as a loud bang came from behind me. A check of the tyres, and a look over the shoulder revealed that it was not me, but another competitor superheating his rims this time.

Over the course of the next 5 km, I saw over a dozen riders changing punctures, all of them rear wheels. At the speed of many of the descenders, a front tyre blow out would not bear thinking about.

As the clouds thinned, paranoia got the better of me and I pulled over to check the heat of my own wheels. Rear was very warm, but not hot. The front just barely warm. Note to self: on returning to England, fit Ashima AirFlow brakes to rear of bike, too.

From this point to Luz St Saveur, the descent was just a blast. I still kept the speed down, and didn't go above 42 mph, but descended swiftly and safely, making up many places round the hairpins below Bareges, which surprised me as I don't rate my cornering ability.

Exiting Luz St Saveur, I was alone and a headwind was getting up. In the company of a single french rider in Toulouse CC strip, I put my head down and went after a group about 400m up the road. 2km later, and nearly on the back, I heard a small noise behind and was surprised to find myself pulling a train of 12 riders.

Arriving at the water station at the bottom of Hautacam, I stopped to remove the layers, and heard my name being shouted, as Karen appeared from the other side of the road. I faffed, while she filled my bottles. Karen, I envy your enthusiasm in the face of your current difficulties. After chatting for a few minutes, I made my exit and headed for the hill, knowing that I now had the best part of three hours in which to complete.

Riders were already descending through the crowds who were lining both sides of the road. I remember thinking that I didn't want to change down for the small rise to the first corner, so I stood on the pedals. The crowd went barmy! They thought I was having a go. I soon sat back down.

Like the Tourmalet, I remember little of the Hautacam, my mind having retreated to a place of relative safety. I remember almost clipping a couple of very slow wheels, and riding on a rocky verge for a few yards as I tired, but little more. By the time I reached 3km to go, and the steepest part over the cattle grid, I still had not walked, so dug in and then managed to change UP a couple of gears. The final two bends encouraged a stand-up sprint and throwing the bike at the line for 8:56:30 and 5,083rd place.

The fat boy had not only finished the Etape, but actually RIDDEN the Etape. I'm still not sure I can quite believe it.

The wait at the top was cold and wet (5 degrees and raining) and the descent slippery and dangerous. On the descent, I got my one and only sight of the broom wagon, threatening the stragglers as they grimped up the final climb.

At the car park in Las Balagnas, I rejoined the others, all successful though a little disappointed with their times. As far as I can see, any finish on a day with such weather is a 'good' time, even if very few riders actually achieved their intended medal times. I have my medal, I care not about it's colour, that's not what this was about.

Obligatory Stats:
4 first time Etappers started
4 first time Etappers finished
Distance 167.5km
Elapsed time 8:56:30
Elapsed average speed 18.7kmh
Average HR 143
Max HR 162
Calories burned 7,234

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

'Lowland' Sportive

Having been worried about getting stuck toward the back of the start pen, particularly Mike who was drawn in Pen 9 with the other 7000's, and taking some stress for faffing en route, the First Time Etappers turned into the Hippodrome Car Park at 5:55 and were directed to within 10 yards of the front of their respective start pens. Result! Either the dire warnings of late arrivals being pushed to the back were wrong, or other riders had looked at last night's thunderstorm, and stayed in bed for the extra half hour.

Black skies gradually turned grey, revealing no chance whatsoever of breaks in the cloud. The layer of Piz Buin on my arms and neck was looking forlornly optimistic. Mist turned to drizzle, and as the hour to the start ticked down, drizzle turned to rain. Prized Lycra shirts were hidden beneath showerproof and full rainproof jackets, and arm warmers were deployed. Next to us a grizzled french campaigner slept on, stretched out on the tarmac, his helmet serving as a pillow.

Behind us, English voices accompanied similar rain protection, but beneath jackets, the St Georges Cross of Foska jerseys was visible. A quick question revealed that these gentlemen were, indeed, the Etape Virgins, all lined up and ready to go, and in ridiculously good spirits.

Acquaintances were made, and photographs exchanged (bit blurry owing to poor light and nerves), prior to 'race faces' being put on, as the swelling crowd of riders gradually quietened towards the start hour. Perhaps everyone was feeling as nervous as I was.

As the start point approached, and riders quietened, the french announcer was reaching fever pitch. Although my french is reasonable, I could only recognise the odd words..."slippery", "police", "dangerous descent", "tourmalet" amongst them.

Words I did recognise, however, were the countdown, and start. At this point a huge cheer went up, and the rain came down. 10 minutes passed motionless as the pens emptied ever closer, then the barriers were hauled back and we were away! The 13 elapsed minutes were noted as we rolled painfully slowly toward timing mats, finally bleeping our way out onto the soaking road with a 27 minute lead over the Broom Wagon.

At this point 'being English' paid immediate dividends, as a quick switch to the left lane of the divided boulevard put myself and Brett into clearer air. Within 100 metres, he was gone, not to be seen again until the Car Park at the finish. Mark crossed over at the next roundabout, together with many others and the pace inevitably slowed until the first left turn onto the main road. Onto the wide street, and the first casualties of the day appeared. Punctures after less than a kilometer! Please Lord, don't let it be me.......

The swoop through town continued, gradually gathering pace as the river of riders thinned out a little. Signs were good, and with the gestures of rider in front, those behind managed to miss the well-wrapped road furniture, even down the wet slither to the river and under the tunnel. At this point, fully grown men (and women) were whooping and hollering like 6-year-olds making echoes in the tunnel. I refused to enter into such childishness........much.

We seemed to leave town in no time compared to the previous day, and were soon at the turn for Gan, by which time I had my group. It wasn't difficult to find, it just sort-of coalesced into a mass of about 1000 + riders. All the while we were passing casualties of early punctures, and I was left hoping my new tyres could deal with the grit and mess on the road.

Between Gan and Rebenacq the first rolling road of the day appeared, and I found my comfortable pace creeping me up towards the riders in front. I'd been ridiculed by my colleagues in the start pen for consuming a bar and two gels from my extensive collection before the race even started, but I was feeling ridiculously good at this point. The empty left half of the road beckoned, promising elevation by several hundred places just for a few minutes thrashing effort. Not for the last time I resisted.

The narrow turn to Rebenacq revealed a stationary Mark, but my enquiries of his well-being were lost in the melee, which soon became a ruck as the climb through the traffic calming kicked in. I got up at very slow pace, but I'm sure that many others behind would have been forced to walk owing to sheer volume of humanity. I recall a picture of misery here, as a rider sat forlornly staring into the distance, his rear derailleur snapped off and dangling by its cable. In the end the climb of Rebenacq was an anticlimax, seeming much less severe than the previous day, the only difficulty being wet vegetation that had fallen from the overhanging trees. A quick glance back down the valley revealed a bobbing snake of multicoloured mayhem, all bent on escaping the dreaded wagon.

The descent was 'interesting' partially due to minimal traction, but also due to the ebb-and-flow, surge-and-stop effects of the sharp bends. At least the experience of seasoned sportifs meant the shouts of "Whoa!" were loud enough and early enough to prevent serious mishap on the narrowing roads. By the time we had undulated our way out to Arros-Nay, my speedo was proclaiming 30kmh average, I was gaining on the Broom Wagon.

I will admit that, in retrospect, I expected Category 3 climbs to be a little harder (but I'm not complaining). Labatmale came up in front, and the pace inevitably slowed, but I was surprised that there were riders slower than me. Not many, but some, and I kept pace with many. I remember another two casualties here, a guy just sat quietly in a space blanket, and a fellow inspecting a lightly spoked carbon wheel in the shape of a figure 8. At the top, some indication of the day's support was apparent. People had driven out from their homes to stand at the top and cheer us on. Amazing!

Lourdes from Labatmale is mostly downhill, and by now the groups were thinning out. I had to dig in a few times to avoid being lost off the back, and I think this paid dividends later on when there were fewer people around. At some point along here, the Mikey Express shot past, but I never saw him. As we thundered into Lourdes, we were met with a mass of stewards urging us to slow down "Ca Glisse! - It's slippery". Riders had already come to grief. By the feed at 70km, average speed was 27.8kmh against the Brooming Standard of 27.1kmh. I had time to pillage water and sandwiches, parking the bike on the opposite side of the road and joining the free-for-all on foot.

5 minutes later, I was back on the road, shoving sandwiches facewards as I exited the town. Loucrup seemed steeper than Labatmale, but was over quicker. Just over the top we were reminded of the dangers still present in the wet roads, as a lady rider was being recovered by ambulance from a deep ditch on the first downhill corner.

The turn into the valley heralded the start of the draggy climbing, speeds falling off gradually as the gradient increased. We rolled into Bagneres-de-Bigorre, noting that the bunting had been put up since the previous day. As we emerged into the town square, the public were 6 deep on the pavement and the support was deafening. It certainly brought a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat, and an extra 5kmh to the legs. Baudean came and went, the gradient remained. Campan came and went, the gradient crept upward and eventually, just after the 100km mark, we reached St Marie de Campan and the foot of the Tourmalet.

This was my first 'real' checkpoint, the one at which I would know whether I was in trouble or not. Elapsed time 3 hours 45 minutes. A personal best for me over 100km and, more importantly, a gain from the start of 10 further minutes over the Wagon. At this point it was due to slow down, and I could steal some time over the few kilometers before the climbing really started.

I leaned my bike against the cemetery wall, rewarded myself by answering a call of nature in the civilised surroundings of the Public Convenience, then removed the arm warmers and showerproof before setting my head ready for the Tourmalet, Hautacam, and remaining 69km.

Monday, 14 July 2008

The best laid plans.........

During the recce, there were a few surprises in store, not least of which was the hill out of Rebenacq. Now, quite rightly, this is not a King of the Mountains climb owing to the fact that it climbs 'only' about 130 metres (may not even be that far) , and does it over a few kilometres, so the gradient is lessened. Nonetheless, it's bigger than anything round here, and I felt a little conned that this hadn't appeared on any of the dire warnings I'd been reading before the Etape.

Imagine my surprise when the following profiles were pointed out to me today:

1. From the Etape Website

2. From the Tour de France website

Spot the difference yet? It seems that professionals need more warning of 'little' climbs than amateurs.....surely not?!

My greatest worry was not reaching the Elimination point at La Mongie in time or, to be more exact, losing loads of time on the broom wagon by the time we got to the first feed at Lourdes. To maintain any lead over the broom wagon on this section 70km have to be completed in 2 hours 35 minutes, that being 27.1kmh. I have never averaged 27kmh before, certainly not for 70km over unknown roads, including a TdF category 3 KOTM climb.

With the broom wagon slowing down to 17kmh from Baudean at 95km in, and then to 7.5kmh up the Tourmalet from 100km in, I calculated that I could make up a little time on the shallower gradients at the bottom before the steeper stuff kicked in. If I got that far and was still in front of the broom wagon by then.

Effectively, I had to split my ride in two. A sportive-like blast over the section to the Tourmalet (with its two category 3 climbs) and then a grind to the finish over two mountains separated by a screaming descent. I needed to go hard from the start, but not too hard, and that meant taking advantage of the peloton effect, something I had never experienced before.

What I needed was a plan. The plan went something like this:

1. Find a group
2. Hide in it
3. When reaching a climb, go up at own pace until reaching the top.
4. Repeat stages 1-3 as often as necessary.

With the mind set on what I had to do, and feeling unable to plan or worry about anything else, I retreated to bed, and actually went to sleep fairly quickly...........

Until about 2 a.m., when lightning flashed, thunder rolled, and the heavens opened. This continued for about 2 and a half hours, until the storm rolled off into the distance, still flashing occasionally, and leaving everything drenched in its wake. Total sleep, about 3 1/2 hours, perfect preparation.

Getting up at 4:45, I cannot remember what I ate for breakfast, just that on exiting the gite at 5:35, we discovered it was still dark, and I was the only one with a light. A strange procession ensued into Pau with the other 3 following my flashing rear light the 5km into Pau to the start.

As we reached the outskirts, there were cars drawn onto verges everywhere disgorging their cargo of lycra clad lunatics. The 'biggest day yet on a bike' was well and truly begun.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Stage fright

Saturday arrived overcast (again) and a morning of considerable faffing meant we were later starting than we wished. Bikes were dumped in the Parc-Ferme at the start, and we were off through Pau, in pretty rough traffic.

It seemed to take ages to exit the town, but the route to Gan was still a promising straight, slightly downhill road. After Gan, the rollers started, and I started to think about how much this was going to slow me down.

And then Rebenacq arrived. This village merits not a mention in any DVD reviews, and doesn't make it to the Etape profile at all. However, the Rapha review promises that this is the point where 'the peloton with blow apart'. Nearly right (more later), but it does have one of those 140m climbs that seems to go on forever when you're in the car. Labatmale follows, Category 3 K-O-T-M climb, and long. Doubts surfaced about my ability to make it to Lourdes with any lead over the broom wagon. We made it to Lourdes, tired and fractious. Food was needed, McDonalds obliged.

Slightly more upbeat, we headed out over Loucrup, Category 3 K-O-T-M and more immediate than Labatmale. The next few miles drag gradually uphill to St Marie-de-Campan and the promised Tourmalet. At another 17km of distance, and 1300 meters of climb, this would be the longest, highest climb I had ever experienced. At least I would be doing it in the car. Some 5 km up the road, we reached the cloud line, and visibility dropped to under 15 metres. Sometimes it was almost impossible to pass bikes going up, as we couldn't see far enough to tell if anything was coming down. Gradients seemed immense, and unrelenting in the fog. We almost saw La Mongie, but both sides of the road were hidden in the mists, and 4 km later we arrived at the summit, and parked up. By this time, my head was spinning, and knees wobbling. Getting out of the car, I looked over the edge.
Big mistake. Head spinning turned to nausea, knees failed completely, and left me clinging to the car. My old friend vertigo had returned. I had no choice but to phone my wife and inform her that my completion of the Etape was impossible. Even if I got to the top, I could evidently not descend the mountain.......and live.Thankfully, she gave me a good talking-to, and raised my spirits a little.

The descent was helped a little by not being able to see the drop-offs, and by the time the cloud abated we were back amongst the meadowlands further down, but I was no longer under any illusions of what lay ahead, and I didn't like the thought of any of it.

By the time we reached the Hautacam turnoff, we no longer had time to drive up and back down. Hautacam would have to remain a surprise.

Parked up, caught the bus back to Pau, Pasta-partied, and returned to the Gite for a night of failing to sleep. One way or another, tomorrow was going to be one hell of a day.

On further arrivals, registration and general hotness

Mike and Mark arrived slightly late on the Friday, having been delayed on their Paris stopover, which at least gave me time for a stunning cup of coffee, whilst I was waiting.

A quick al-fresco meal in the sunshine, and we all departed by bike for the 4.5km ride to the start village. The gite really was in a perfect location for the start, even if I can't take full credit for it's location having booked on a 'best guess of where the start will be' basis.

The Etape village was already buzzing in the afternoon sunshine, and registration achieved quickly, accompanied by a splendid (and unexpected) goodie bag, in the form of an Etape/Mondovelo backpack including an event T-shirt, many of which were in evidence over the next few days.

After a quick tour round the stands and the associated bike-porn, we decided a small ride, on a small roundabout-route ride back to the Gite for well deserved rest. I will profess to disappointment at this point. The personnel on the Trek stand were friendly and well knowledgeable, but refused what I thought was a perfectly reasonable request to test drive the top-of-the-range SSL road bike round the Etape course on the Sunday. Never mind. You can't win 'em all.

The 20 mile ride back to the gite revealed 2 things:
Firstly, the clock/thermometer on the local JCB dealership was showing 43 degrees centigrade! If that persisted on the Sunday, we'd be in trouble. We discussed the preferability of rain (be careful what you wish for)

Secondly, Pau is surrounded by 100-150 metre climbs that are not marked on maps.

Further proof that I 'don't do heat' was evidenced by having to visit the Intermarche for water on the way back. I had drunk more water in 20km, than I had in the first 50 miles of the Circuit of the Cotswolds. Rain was definitely preferable (be VERY careful what you wish for)

An early night, with limited beer/wine was had by all. Tomorrow was the Recce.

On arrivals and orientation

After considerable faffing, and a mighty fine leg massage, the Datameister Etape Tour finally got started almost on time on the pre-Etape Wednesday. With a clear run to Stratford-on-Avon and picking up the other two car passenger/part-time drivers, the front end was pointed channelwards and the 925 mile grind to Pau began.

Its at this point I have to thank Mrs Mike for the loan of a Tom-Tom, which made the whole process enormously easier, with the exception of a dubious bit of direction finding in Rouen which was only corrected by a left turn of dubious allowability. Eurotunnel allowed us to travel an hour early and arrival in France was greeted by a stunning sunset and shower driven rainbow. An omen perhaps? If so, I couldn't decipher it.

As night fell, the toll motorway dragged us interminably towards the South, and driving stints became ever shorter. At about 3 a.m. all three of us called it a day for about 45 minutes of fitful rest before setting out into the gradually lightening morning.

As timing would have it, Bordeaux appeared at the same time as morning rush-hour which was thankfully not one of truly UK proportions, and soon put the city behind us. About 2 hours later, the toll motorway from Bayonne promised Pau in 20km, and a stunning Pyreneean view to the right........right! Another omen, only clouds, no mountains.

A quick trip to the Hypermarche and onto the Gite for unloading and napping, 'only' 18 hours after leaving home.

Waking in mid-afternoon there was only one thing to do, build the bike and go explore. Navigation was poor, but we eventually found the 'no parking here on Sunday' signs leading us out of Pau toward Gan, and cruised out of town at about 30kmh on the gradually downhill road, noting even at this point that french roads seemed to 'roll well' under the tyres.

By the time we got to Gan, time was getting on, so we cut across to the river over a couple of climbs that put everything local in the UK to shame, and these weren't even marked on the map. More omens for Rebenacq (more on that later). These weren't overly steep, but went on for ages. Great climbing, and first real enjoyment of trip.

During the ride back to Pau, the different attitude of drivers in the area, which had been peripherally apparent, was really brought to our attention. Going through a village, we came across a father with two small kids (about 8 and 6, I estimate), no stabilisers, riding slowly up the main road through the village. A queue of cars swiftly formed and, due to the road furniture, remained behind the riders for about 200 metres at 6-year-old-on-a-bike pace. No horns were sounded, no windows wound down, no yells of derision hurled, no 'hand signals' used. As the family turned off, one driver even waved! Clearly, we had driven too far and arrived on another planet.

On arrival back at the gite, our 'little look around' had amassed 65km of very enjoyable riding. Time to crash out prior to the other guys arriving on Friday.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

5 sleeps 'til the big one!

Miles last week 72
Longest Ride 36 miles

Total UK pre-etape miles 8,369.

Last post until it's done and dusted, since we're off the La Belle France tomorrow for the long drive to Pau.

The First Time Etappers Tour Bus (well, Ford Galaxy) will be fully laden with bikes, so if you see us on the way to the Pyrenees, don't forget to sound your horn in encouragement. We'll be plenty conspicuous, promise.

The bike is finally cleaned and packed away into the bike bag (and that took some doing this evening), so tomorrow should mostly be a matter of packing, though I suspect I'll be pretty busy in the morning.

Good luck to all fellow competitors, and thanks to all of you for your invaluable encouragement.

Game on! Let's 'ave it!!