Monday, May 10, 2010

La Route Des Helviens

La Route Des Helviens

Barjac, 30490

GPSies - Barjac

No way I could miss this opportunity for my first competition of the year. The theme of the route is based on an old celtic supply route surrounded by Roman forts built by Antonine. I grew up in Scotland right next to the famous Antonine’s wall, dividing Scotland in two, and it was my favourite play site as a kid. Definitely the sort of inspiration that would get me started early for the season.
I set of rather late on Saturday night for the 333km drive, but fortunately the roads were empty and the GPS worked perfectly – so I was in Barjac by 1:30am Sunday morning and five minutes later found the car park next to the race organisation. Rapidly settling in to sleep in the van I was disturbed by large drops of water falling off the trees above the van. It was raining and the weather was pretty bad, but the drops that fall off the trees are much bigger so they hit the metal of the van with a bang. I decided that it was such a regular rhythm that I’d soon become oblivious to it – which I did. It was still difficult to sleep after driving so hard but that paled into insignificance when at 4am some moron pulled into the car park with a mobile discotech in his car and parked right alongside me. I sincerely hope he permanently damaged his ears so that they match his retarded brain in level of dysfunction. The car park was full of camper vans with people sleeping so there was no excuse in such a quiet out-of-the-way town. Fortunately his display of Saturday night drunken stupidity didn’t last too long, so I slept. At 7:20am I was already awake, but with a headache and dodgy stomach. Public toilets next to the car park confirmed my worst fears – perhaps it was a reaction to carbohydrate loading the day before. I suspect that I have an intolerance for wheat in large quantities and I had stuffed myself with pasta the day before. It could also be a lingering virus that has bugged me since February – still giving a bit of a sore throat. However I didn’t feel good at all and as it was already raining again and with dark clouds on the horizon it was tempting to just bail out there and then. Regardless of all this, I felt caught up in the event and put all the negative stuff out of my head. It was to be a late start at 9:45am so there was plenty of time to register for the race, attach the numbers to bike and shirt, decide what clothing to wear and make last minute adjustments to the bike, and of course have breakfast. I cooked some porridge to warm myself up and obtained a coffee nearby – supplied by the course organisers.
The weather forecast was simply bad, so I put on a thermal tee shirt underneath my cycling shirt and then added a thin wind and waterproof jacket – transparent so that my shirt number could be seen. The rest was normal, shorts and thin shoes but no waterproof protection. At the race start I was surprised to see that I was the only one starting with a jacket on – yet the clouds were ominously black and it was already spitting rain. I had done a brief warm up, but was more concerned about conserving energy than warming up so I only spent ten minutes at this. The problem is that if you can’t keep up with the peloton at the start then you are going to lose a lot more energy riding on you own against the wind later on – so you do need to be warmed up as they always go like the clappers at the start. Not only was I the only one wearing a jacket but I was the only one visible who didn’t have shaved legs! This was a very serious bunch of competitors and I just had to laugh to myself at the situation – what was I doing here? The race was going to be 119 kilometers with some steep 12%+ climbing and in training my legs were consistently giving up at around 80km – even when taking it easy in the mountains. I was definitely relying on the relative rest taken in the week precedent and the carbo loading efforts, plus the competitive rush that takes over in such situations. I could feel the adrenalin already in the line up at the start. The date was 8th may and my only objective for the day was to survive. Limited training so early on in the season made even this objective seem out of reach. It’s one thing slowly notching up the miles on a day touring, but when racing hard your legs have a tendency to rebel and stop working when they’ve had enough and I knew that my legs were tired and not really recovered enough from training for a race.
At the start I was immediately confronted with uncooperative legs, a stomach still full of porridge and a desire to conserve energy so as to try to go the full distance. Within minutes, despite all of this my heart rate was close to max at 174bpm (last year I thought this was over my max – which I now know to be 183). Within 10 minutes the group had split in two and predictably I was at the back of the second group. The start was a long climb so it wasn’t surprising that this was happening. Now it was time for the rain. Not normal rain – a torrential curtain of rain. Suddenly I discovered why pros don’t wear eye protection in bad weather – you can’t see a damned thing through them. I definitely got it right with the jacket! After about 20 minutes there was quite a gap between the groups, but we came to the end of the climb and so the gap started to go down a bit and it looked almost like we could catch up again. About 30 minutes into the race my legs started to feel a little better and so I moved to the front of the group and decided to use my leg strength to close that gap. When I accelerated it worked because the group stuck to me. Half way there someone else shouted to me to ease off the pace so he went in front and finished the job. Great – we were back - unfortunately, just in time for the next climb – so we were all left behind again. Following this climb I found myself on my own for a good long stretch. I was convinced that I was last and felt slightly discouraged at the thought of battling the rest of the way on my own against torrential rain and high winds in steep hilly countryside that I didn’t know. I had no map, money or telephone so the course organisers had better do a good job. Out of the blue (grey) a group of eight riders came from behind me and I gratefully joined forces with them. Impossible to see any of the Ardeche courtryside with its stunning vineyards, rocks and Roman remains. All that was visible was a wall of rain, cloud and spray from the wheels of others. When you slipstream behind someone in the wet you get a shower straight in the face from the back tyre – and there is nothing you can do about it. I concentrated on slipstreaming, saving energy, pedalling less and keeping my cadence down when possible. We came around one turn where I noticed two giant wind turbines in the trees and mist – totally stationary – in fact they were the only things stationary in the storm. That seemed bizarrely ironic to me – perhaps they don’t work in the rain. In fact I seldom see those things turn anywhere. Somebody must just collect government subsidies, tax incentives and kickbacks then just leave the stupid things standing idle. We had passed 60km in under 2 hours so the pace was quite good considering the conditions. Descents were extremely hazardous, partly because the water forms a layer on the wheel rims and quite often the brakes seem to fail almost completely. I chose not to take any risks and kept my speed right down on the descents. I only saw one wreck at the side of the road with a couple of riders being attended to. At around 65km we were caught by a stronger rider who had recovered from an earlier puncture – then predictably he moved ahead and caused a split in our group. Three of us were slightly taken by surprise and left behind. I couldn’t react because the split happened on a long gradual climb and just at that moment I took cramp in the upper quads of both legs. I was worried that my legs were packing up for the day. I had read about how cramps mostly hit muscles that serve two joints – one at each end – which in this case would be the knee and the hip. With this in mind I stood up on the pedals to lengthen the quads and it worked – the cramp went. In fact I only felt it again slightly and briefly about an hour later. Within no time the split was 200 meters and growing. We were on the flat again so I decided to take a risk with my legs having just cramped and to use my power to close that gap. I went for it and only one other came with me, a blond haired guy, and when we got to the other group he thanked me for it. Our group had been the last to start that morning. There were 4 separate starts. There were two distances, 119km and 160km and two age groups under 50 and over 50. Each of the four categories started separately with about equal numbers and I was in the last – Over 119km for over 50s. There was one great advantage of this situation – it was the “tortoise and hare” effect. Slowly but surely my group started to pass all sorts of individuals – about every 5km from the start there had been a tyre puncture. I tried to look at the tyre each time we passed one and nearly all seemed to be French Michelin Pro 3 Race tyres. My tyres are German Continental GP4000S and use nanotechnology – better grip in the wet, better longevity (7x) and puncture resistance and less rolling resistance. More and more we were picking off “tail end Charlies” who had burned out by now – having probably started off too hard. This was precisely what I had been worried about happening to myself – but so far so good, the legs were holding up. In fact after about an hour the legs started to feel relatively good so I did a few stints to pulling at the front, which of course I soon regretted. You do feel like a bit of a leech sitting at the back all the time though, so if you feel good you have to go to the front, even for a short while, it makes a difference even if only to your sense of self-respect.
Around about 3 hours into the race we reached the steep climb de Mont Bouquet. Our constantly evolving and reforming group of between 6 to 8 was about to disintegrate for good. I found myself on my own, having left the blond haired guy behind who had been with me nearly all the way so far. The climb didn’t seem all that hard but at around the 80km mark the legs get tired. It seemed to get steeper near the top and it became a bit of a grind, with lashing rain and now riding directly in the clouds themselves. I tried to go down a gear only to find myself already in bottom gear – which in my setup is LOW – 34 front, 28 rear. Perhaps the hill was steeper than it looked. Right at the top of the climb I heard a voice and alongside me was the blond guy – he had managed to hang on all the way up – about 7km. This was good news because there was no one else visible behind and it meant that we could work together for the remaining 40km. There were two other riders just visible ahead but we just didn’t have the energy to chase them. The blond was a very good descender even in the wet, but told me he was taking it easy because last year he broke his collar bone and a few other bits in a very serious fall. He remarked that neither of us had much in the legs for the climb and that we had been together since the start – he told me his age – 63! (His race number was 50). He started cycling at age 23 and living in Lyon he can cycle all year round. Telling him that I’m 51 had the strange effect of making me feel embarrassingly young.
Having company on the 40km return stretch certainly made it seem much shorter. He was fast on the descents and I did some pulling from the front on the hills, but overall he was stronger. I began to believe that I’d get to the finish today without any major defiance of the legs. 119km is the longest distance I’ve ever raced so far and my fitness level is not that great after a winter of relative “aerobic” inactivity and avid Tartiflette eating. In fact my biggest problem on the hills is the 7kg of weight I put on over winter. Weight really counts in climbing. 6km from the end were suddenly surprised buy a fast moving train of 8 riders who came up fast behind us, so we both accelerated and got in the slipstream. There was no way to let the opportunity slip, but the idea of an easy ride to the finish was over – now it was a race again. Our speed went up to about 35km again and my overall heart rate climbed back up to levels that it had not managed for the whole last hour, but to my surprise the end was right in front of us before I realised. I didn’t race the others over the line – I was just glad to get there. When I got off the bike I could still walk, the legs didn’t feel too bad compared to other races and I can only put that down to the carbo loading. During the 4hrs 15mins of the race I drank only one and a half bottles of sports drink – I just cannot consume while working hard. It was even an effort to make myself drink that much.
After the race I stripped off all the sodding clothing in the van. The heavy rain had continued for 4 hours and only the last 15 minutes were relatively dry. I was surprised that I enjoyed riding in such conditions – the rain didn’t bother me. I wasn’t cold despite the air temperature being about 13°C. The feet got a bit cold but not too bad. It seems that working so hard compensates for the cold. Talking to an experienced competitor later he told me that He’d never raced in such conditions in his life – I wasn’t surprised. It was definitely an experience. The bike was great and the narrow SLR XP Italia seat did not hurt at all – I didn’t even think about it once – and there was no back pain or discomfort. I put all of that down to good bike fitting and geometry. The after-race meal was exceptional, very good quality and (except the desert) all organic produce; Normally the food at such events is inedible but here it was great. I was very tired, hungry and irritable by the time I sat down to eat. My head felt “thick” and slightly headachy which I put down to low blood sugar. It took about 5 hours before that passed completely. All in all, a very satisfying experience and good training for the next race. There is no way you can train like this outside of competition. Competition itself is the best training. Last year my first race was in August so to start on May 8th is new territory – and to have completed it successfully is a real confidence boost. I’d have been happy just finishing but my placing was 121st overall out of 147 and 33rd in my age group - a result I'm more than happy with considering all the circumstances.

The steadily declining heart rate on the graph shows that I was working beyond a sustainable aerobic level throughout. When running I normally see a "drift" in the other direction, with the heart rate slowly climbing during the session - this being normal "drift". In the bike race it is so important to be able to stay with a group that you have to be prepared to risk working at levels that are perhaps not sustainable - to gain what advantages you can get in time from slipstreaming withing the group. Groups go much faster. You don't really get this effect in running as air resistance is not such a concern.

GPSies - Barjac (link to GPS recorded route and profile. If you have Google earth istalled then from here you can simply download the Googel earth file and automatically have it display on your computer. On the left hand panel under "places" open up the Barjac folder and click on the bottom icon - this will then give you a control bar (at the bottom of this window) and you get to do a 3D ariel fly-through of the course)

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