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


Anonymous said...

Ah well done Clive, it really started to kick off at the last few km to La Mongie yeah.

How does the La Marmotte sound for you next year :)

Datameister said...

It sounds great!!

Not sure I can muster sufficient brownie points for that one though.....

swimlikeafish said...

well done fella, I have been reading your blog for some months, an inspiration for a fellow 40+ fatty to get the bike dusted down.
Well done and thanks for the blogs