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.


Etape Virgins said...

Clive, I had forgotten you had taken a picture of us too. Did you get the version I sent you?

We also put together a photo montage of the ride, in which you feature

Anonymous said...

Hi, very interesting post, greetings from Greece!