5ème Grimpée du Semnoz
How rapidly can you get your heart rate to go from a relaxed resting state to being completely maxed out? Today I discovered that it only takes 77 seconds.”
The “5ème Grimpée du Semnoz ” means in English, that today, Sunday (20th Sept ), is the day of the “Fifth climb of the Semnoz”. Semnoz is a long ridge rising up to 1690m altitude directly from the scenic mountain lakeside town of Annecy (470m) – running parallel to the lake and on the western side. The challenge, created by the Vélo club of Annecy, is simply to cycle up this mountain as fast as possible.
This is not a gigantic event like the recent one in Marseille, but a very small event - and probably for good reason. Maximum sustained effort in climbing against the clock is brutal.
I arrived late the night before the race in my van, parked just outside the campsite where the race was to begin and had a good undisturbed sleep. On this occasion toilets and coffee were available close by in the morning so everything was very civilized. Chris arrived on time and well organised, permitting a 20 minute warm up prior to placing ourselves on the front of the start grid. We had chosen a 10am start. The organisers were friendly, cheerful and helpful. The weather was fine and it was all enough to generate a truly false sense of calm and security.
...5, 4 3, 2, 1, we’re off! As more or less anticipated my best efforts to capitalise on a great start position were immediately scuppered through a failure to get the left shoe cleat into the pedal and also having chosen a stupidly low starting gear so that I am spinning out immediately. Typical beginner’s mistakes for sure! Both feet secured in the pedals and 77 seconds later my heart is already maxing out at 172 bpm. The climb is 1000m vertical, 14km long and average gradient 7% so we are moving into completely uncharted territory here. How long can the body and mind sustain this truly maximum level of effort and what is going to happen? Mentally you simply accept it as an intermediate form of suicide. You tell yourself that you are going to push until you explode so that way you know at least you have given it your best – just go for it until something gives. You can’t have a clever strategy when you are in the trenches and the commanding officer tells you to charge over the top – you just go. The big problem– as Chris puts it – is when you don’t explode. Yes, this level of output is sustainable the whole way - absolutely. My average heart rate on the day was an unbelievable 167bpm (96% max). There’s not a lot to say about the climb itself. There’s no point drafting as the speeds aren’t high enough so it’s really a pure time trial up a mountain – a grind. By 3km from the finish my doubts about having the capacity to sustain the effort to the end have gone and so I am able to dig even deeper. Pushing a slightly bigger gear and keeping the same cadence (av. 62) I gradually overtake about half a dozen riders, but one makes it back and overtakes me about 150m from the finish. I’ve learned already that this is not acceptable – it is a competition – so somewhat surprising myself I pull out a burst of strength and blast past him at an uncatchable 25kph over the finish line with heart rate going over the top at 175bpm. Looks like I’m going to have to accept 175 as the real maximum now.
Results: Me: 63rd 57:25 14.6 kph 8th out of 23 in age category (45 to 50)
Chris: 30th 52:11 16. 1 kph 2nd out of same age category (45 to 50)
Overall Winner: 40:45 20.5 kph Demolished the record for this climb!
In total there were 134 participants. Last year there were 110 and the fastest time was over 44 minutes.
I’m convinced now that my 10kg bike is the heaviest being used in the whole of France. Calculations with power and weight show that replacing the bike with something light and modern and not carrying excess water would gain 3 minutes on this climb – weight really counts in climbing. (The only place my bike model can be found on the internet is at www.bicyclemuseum.com). This might sound slightly petty as the real benefit is the fantastic training that the race gives you, but thinking competitively is not petty at all. Competition stimulates a performance that is simply not possible in normal training. I’m lucky to get my heart rate up to 160 when training normally and can’t imagine having the willpower to push well past that for a long sustained effort. (Though perhaps the lessons learned from racing might change that.) Racing just transports you elsewhere and your brain definitely works on different settings with different thresholds.
Training during the week precedent had involved a fast 17km trail run followed the next day by a 40km bike run – with a good hill climb involved. Both Chris and I were still recovering from Marseille so fatigue limited the number of sessions possible and likewise it was important to take time to recover energy for today’s race. My calf muscles had been cramping from training right up until the morning of the race. The SportTracks training software I’m using along with my Garmin GPS had correctly predicted full proper recovery (“Training Load”) by the morning of the race. This free software has impressed me greatly – it’s just like having your own successful personal performance coach. I actually donated money to the software developers because I’m so impressed at the amount of pain and suffering it has already saved me from.