Sunday, May 23, 2010

La Beaume – Drobie 135km

GPSies - La Beaume Drobie

I did NOT want to do this race. 135km and 2620m climbing meant at best survival and at worst disaster. I could have opted for the much more manageable 90km version, but didn’t. This was neither a sensible nor a logical choice, but certainly an interesting one.

The Beaume and Drobie are two rivers situated in the Ardeche region of France. They are not just rivers they are deep gorges in steep mountainous terrain. Despite the low altitude the mountains are every bit as rugged and wild as the Alps - but with a much drier and warmer climate. The Beaume gorge in particular is absolutely spectacular – a favourite for river watersports and with stunning, steep terraced slopes cultivated with olive, cherry and pear trees, vines and amazing architecture.

High intensity training for both cycling and running during the week had left me with tired and sore legs – and little hope of full recovery before this race. Those races always start fast, so there is no way that you can just pace yourself to last the distance – you just go as fast as you can fighting to stay with and help groups on the way and hoping that your legs last out.
Christiane decided to come along this time and so we arrived at Valgorge beside the Drobie river at about 1am. The place was dead and we found a quiet, empty parking spot right beside the local tourist office with a drinking fountain and public toilet – perfect for a relaxing night’s sleep. The race wasn’t due to start until 10am so there was no rush in the morning – except we weren’t sure where exactly to go and the information on the internet was minimal to say the least. It looked like no one would be there in the morning. The weather had finally changed from our extended winter to the first clear skies of springtime. Settling in to sleep I saw an extremely bright meteor through the dark tinted glass of the van. It just made me think of how fragile our little planet is and how glad I am that most meteors are really small.

Up at 7:30am I cooked and ate the porridge straight away to avoid it sitting in my belly at the start line as happened in the previous race. Around 8am Chris Harrop passed by on the road and spotted the van. He was here with his family staying in an auberge (Hostel) from where they were all going to canoe down the gorge during the following two days. Chris offered to locate the inscription point and race start then report back on the return to his auberge. His report was that there was practically no-one there and all those pre-inscribed were racing club members. In addition most had entered for the short course. This meant that the long course was going to be brutal and with the great risk of being dumped early on by everyone. When I went to register about 45 minutes later there were so many people arriving that I had to run to avoid being stuck in a queue. The good weather seemed to have brought everyone out of the woodwork after all and there was no shortage of entrants. There were about 140 in the long course and about 250 in the small one. This is still a very small focussed competition in comparison with some where they are forced to limit the numbers at 7,000. I enrolled in the 135km race despite thinking that I would not be able to finish it. I was really worried that my legs might just seize up as sometimes happens in training – when it is still easy to get home. There is a “sweeper up” vehicle, but I didn’t want to end up in that either – I’d rather have an accident and get a fast ride in an ambulance! (which almost happened).

Blue skies and sunshine reminded me to put on sunscreen and carry only an absolute minimum of gear consisting of one spare inner tube, two plastic tyre levers and some glucose tablets (Isostar) to put in any water refills. The bike had two full water bottles with sports drinks. No wind or rain jacket was needed and it was great to leave money and the mobile phone behind. It’s amazing how good it is to feel free of those things even if only for about 5 to 6 hours. It’s also a bit worrying because if you do get lost you really are on your own. The course however was perfectly well marked out and manned at important junctions with refreshment stands at the top of each of the three big climbs.
The 135km race started off 10 minutes before the 90km race. And I forgot to start the GPS and heart rate monitor unit on my bike – remembering only about 10km further on. The start was downhill and surprisingly the peloton stayed at a reasonable speed – that is NOT too fast. Perhaps it was because there was a security motorbike in front. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the first climb and it was steep. Chris had been behind me until this point and as he caught up and overtook me on the climb he asked how I was doing. I relpied “OK, except I’m going backwards now”. The first 20 minutes of the climb were the worst until the initial leg pain wore off then I got warmed up and into a slightly faster rhythm and found my place in the pack. The first climb was the steepest of the day and that probably damaged the morale of quite a few people. At least at this point there were still some people behind me so I felt reassured. My legs were not fresh and carrying about 20lb excess body weight there was no way I could climb fast – despite having a much lighter bike than last year. Combined body and bike weight is currently higher than at any time last year. Once the first climb was over there was a steep narrow descent. This is when it became apparent that it was going to be really dangerous because there was a lot of loose gravel around and the turns were sharp and steep. Sure enough after only a few bends there was a body and bike on the ground and someone waiting for an ambulance. I decided on the spot to take it really easy descending – no heroics and no mad push to catch a bunch ahead or anything like that. Safety is much more important. If Lance Armstrong could end up in hospital due to others falling in front on him on gravel only a few days earlier then no one had any immunity to that fate. The course was set out as three loops all intersecting at the original start point. The first and second loops seemed to blur together. I ended up in a pack of about 6 and we worked hard together slipstreaming. At first I was being left behind a bit on the climbs and the pack split up and reformed several times. Later on I seemed to be the strongest in the pack and unintentionally dropped the group a few times when climbing – so waited for them so as not to waste energy against the wind on the flats alone. This process continued throughout the second loop and it was good to have a pack to share the work with as it was a long grind and we made good speed. It is very motivating to work in a team and you do get a good recharge to your batteries while slipstreaming. With 6 or 7 riders together your proportion of the real work is relatively small and you travel fast.

The start of the third loop was at the bottom of an 1100m 17km climb – with absolutely no respite. About 6km up this climb I suddenly started to slow down and there was nothing could change that. The breakdown process was relatively gradual, beginning with some of the pack I’d been with just steadily dropping me. Around the 12km mark there was another noticeable pace reduction when I noticed that my heart rate had dropped to 142, whereas it had been between 155 and 173 up until then – a completely unsustainable level of course with 173 being my current practical heart rate training maximum. Basically I had “bonked”. There was no way of generating enough effort now to keep the heart rate up. The problem was not that the climb had still 5km left – it was that the course still had 60km left. Already there had been many riders returning from the climb in the opposite direction having abandoned – so I was not the only one in trouble. The base of the climb was the actual overall start/finish point so it was very tempting to bail out – in fact it’s almost like it had been set up deliberately to lure people in their greatest moment of weakness and vulnerability. I made up my mind that I’d prefer the sweeper up van than that option – giving up is not an option. The top of the climb had a refreshment post so for the first time ever in a race I stopped and got off the bike. Without speaking to anyone I drank a full litre of sugary orange juice and stuffed my face with dried fruit and crisps, then washed that down with more orange juice and replace the liquids in my water bottles. The stop only took a few minutes and I managed to jump on the bike and catch another guy who had stopped for refreshments. After a very small descent the climb perversely recommenced and continued again for ages. I was unceremoniously dumped again. Fortunately the guy ahead was very cautious descending so I caught up again, but despite covering a significant distance together he wasn’t a good work partner. After sitting on my tail through all the descents and all the flats he finally dumped me again as soon as the climbing recommenced. We were now in the Beaume valley and I had resigned to being effectively out of the race, but decided to at least then try to enjoy it. The worst part about bonking is that your head goes really foggy and you can’t think straight, basically due to low blood sugar. You just want to stop. The refreshments must have helped because my head cleared, but the legs were not interested. I started making a point of observing the scenery and was stunned by the natural beauty and grandeur of that valley and promised myself to bring Christiane to see it. When she did see it later she was amazed and said that she never imagined there was such scenery or landscape in France – even though she has spent her entire life here and is a mountain guide. Eventually there was a steward at the roadside waving a flag and pointing up towards a steep narrow road off to the side. This was the start of the climb up the last mountain pass – 6km of climbing and some of the steepest of the day. I was well and truly on my own now and was just glad to feel assured that I wasn’t actually lost. The legs had not grown any worse which was a great surprise. I’d managed to sustain about 25km/hr on the flats even in this state and now on the hills I was still climbing steep sections at about 12km/hr – dropping to 9km/hr on the very steep sections of the single track road. The “compact” gearing was great and it always allowed a good cadence and reasonable workload even with bonked out legs on a steep climb. Strangely, it actually felt like the legs were recovering a bit, but the heart still couldn’t rise above 146 bpm .

Near the top of this climb I caught a glimpse of my unwilling partner from an hour before and also noticed someone not that far behind me – so this spurred me on a bit and the legs felt better. Over the top and not long into the descent I caught up with the guy in front and ended up leading him down through the most treacherous descent of the day – made even harder by being so tired by now after over 5 hours of racing. I just tried to stay alive and get to the bottom of this descent. Earlier in the day, on the second loop, I had touched my front brake slightly during a turn to the right during a descent – both front and back brakes were being feathered to contain the speed – and suddenly the front wheel went completely from under me. I was going down for sure and at quite a high speed. The wheel must have skidded violently about a foot to the left then suddenly the tyre caught again and whipped me back upright. Wow, that was close! Almost an ambulance trip after all. About 200 yards further on another competitor was standing at the side of the road waiting for the ambulance and a little bit further on there was another. I had been lucky then and didn’t want that luck to run out at the end of the day. At the bottom the climb the guy was still with me and I knew he would probably dump me again. At that point I believed there was still 13km to go and then saw a sign saying 3km to go to the finish! I’d forgotten about the problem with the GPS at the start of the race and didn’t realise that the end was so close. Another two riders came into view not far ahead so I decided to go for it and accelerated. The legs came back to life and the heart rate went back up for the first time in ages. 3km uphill is still quite a long way and when the kilometres are marked at the side of the road they seem interminably far apart. To my total surprise I was able to keep up this new effort all the way to the end and left all three of them far behind. It was amazing to finish strongly like this after such a struggle earlier on. Totally unexpected! The two other riders that I overtook at the end turned out to be on the short 90km course! Chris happened to be there as I arrived, having finished a long time ahead. His race hadn’t been plain sailing either. It seems that he had made a push for it too on that last 3km climb and suddenly both sets of thigh muscles went into intense cramp. He ended up lying on the ground rolling around and screaming in agony. Other riders were stopping and asking if he needed an ambulance. It took him ages - about half an hour - to get back on the bike just to cover the last 3km. My own outcome was much as expected though it didn’t end in tears. The legs came good in the end and I’ll certainly be much less apprehensive about tackling a big course like this in future. Strangely, the second half of the course, once the head cleared, was actually more enjoyable as I could more or less sit at my own pace – with still no danger of being caught by the sweeper up van. The oddest thing I saw during the day was a fat, one foot long lime green lizard ripping up the road in front of me – and I wasn’t hallucinating!

The red is the plunging heart rate and the brown is the altitude. Click image to read better.

I finished 114th in 05h43'51 out of 125 who completed the race and Chris was 74th in 05h08'42. Next time we should both do better. The winner managed an impressive 04h00'56 and the last two crawled in at just under 7 hours.


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