Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cyclo JPP Les Carroz

Saturday 12 June 2010

GPSies - Cyclo JPP 2010

One very tough course! This is the first time ever for this new event which was very professionally organised and a great success with over 800 participants over two distances, 80 and 120 kilometres.

The race was to start in Cluses which is in Haute Savoie at round 450m altitude, situated between Geneva and Chamonix. The race finish was at Les Carroz at 1140m altitude so it was to be my first ever mountain top finish – not something I was really looking forward to at the end of a 120km race after about 2800m of climbing!

The Build-Up (If not interested in the build-up then scroll down to “The Race”)
There were a few difficulties with the organisation however. Online registration finished on the Thursday and in-situ registration finished on Friday – so you couldn’t just turn up early Saturday morning and get on the race. Chris and I both registered online and I decided to go to Cluses on Friday to find out where everything was and collect our start numbers etc. avoiding problems on the Saturday morning. It was also too far to drive to in the morning from the Tarantaise valley and hope to collect the numbers in time. It was obviously going to be more complicated than usual with the start and finish in different places.

On Thursday I’d managed a very high intensity training session and seemed to have overdone it a little. It was as if I’d temporarily become Homer Simpson. Everything I was doing became muddled, uncoordinated and borderline confusion, feeling cold, tired and in a bad mood. Not ideal preparation. Finding the “village de depart” on Friday was easy as there were arrows throughout Cluses leading to it. This start (and registration) location was however about 3km outside the town in an industrial zone with no cafes, bars or refreshments available (and none on race morning). It’s tradition to have a pre-race caffeine fix and one last go at lightening your intestinal load so this was not ideal. I drove around after registration and realised that the only likely place to find a bar in the morning was right at the entrance to Cluses and 3km from the start. I didn’t want to park up for the night near the industrial zone or in the town because it was a bit sinister. Surrounding the zone was a lot of cheap densely packed council housing with hundreds of big parabolic antennas – which in France means a dense Arab population. They all have parabolas so they can watch Moroccan or other Arab television. I didn’t want my van set on fire while I was sleeping in it so decided to park up at Les Carroz – which was recommend by the course organisers. Prior to going up to Les Carroz I decided to eat and spotted a restaurant called “L’Etape” – which seemed like an “etape” or “stage” of the Tour de France. It also said “buffet à volonté” so it seemed like a great place to eat. In my confusion and tiredness I almost ended up on the motorway instead and went through several junctions totally in the opposite direction from the road direction – with fortunately no-one coming the other way. Still, I got to the restaurant, paid in advance for a “menu” and settled in for an absolutely disgusting meal. It turned out to be a truckers stop and instead of eating high quality carbohydrates – “racing fuel” - in preparation for the race the next day, I ended up eating the equivalent of diesel and feeling even worse.

I drove up to Les Carroz and the parking was almost empty so it seemed like a peaceful place to spend the night. Then I realised I’d forgotten my head torch so couldn’t see anything inside the van. I’d also forgotten my foot pump so couldn’t set my tyre pressure in the morning – so things were steadily degenerating. All through the night there were stupid locals revving their engines, booming car speakers and just abject stupidity everywhere – it didn’t stop all night right into daylight. At 3:30am it started to rain. I felt rotten after stuffing myself with the wrong food and had nightmares when I did manage to sleep a bit. In the morning at 6am I cooked porridge in the van and ate it without pleasure then mixed my high energy paste to eat along with a sports drink during the next hour or so – but it was absolutely vile and impossible to swallow. Perhaps I ate half of it. It was cold and raining at altitude so I put on several layers of clothing and rain proof covers to stop my cycling shoes from getting soaked through on the descent to Cluses. Prior to descending and leaving the van at Les Carroz I borrowed a foot pump from someone but the gauge seemed faulty and later on (borrowed Chris’s pump before the race) found that I’d pumped up to 130psi instead of the maximum 110psi. Anyway, I left a key hidden by the van so that Chris could access it after the race if required and then descended to Cluses in the rain and cot gold and a wet bum. It was a horrible descent and I felt like I’d rather go home than go racing. At the entrance to Cluses I found a friendly bar open as predicted and telephoned Chris to tell him were to aim for on his arrival. He was driving over from Tarantaise that morning so would be on a tight time margin. When Chris arrived I’d already had a coffee and was feeling a bit better. I dumped all my extra clothing in Chris’s Taliban truck and then discovered my GPS/Distance/Heart Rate Montior unit had a totally flat battery – yet another screw up! This was horrific! I’d have absolutely no reference of speed, distance, heart rate or anything during the course and my feeling of dependence on this technology never felt greater than at this moment of utter helplessness. You just feel that you cannot go out on the bike – you feel naked without this gadget. In the end I dumped the GPS along with the extra clothing in Chris’s car keeping only my telephone so that I’d have a clock in my pocket if required. This also meant that Chris could leave with my kit in his car after the race and I’d still have communications – it’s all so complicated!!! What I didn’t know is that the organisers had previsioned this scenario and gave out stick on numbers for rucksacks which would then be left at the start full of gear, to be transported by them to the finish where they would be collected after the race. None of this information was written or easily available. I’d also decided to park at altitude due to the thought of finishing the race exhausted in pouring rain and then having to descend again to Cluses – it seemed much better to descend in the morning etc. – but that was wrong! I gave Chris his electronic number for his bike and his sponsor’s shirt to wear – which I’d collected for him the day before. They had also asked for a 40 euro cash deposit for the electronic tags – another thing they didn’t warn about – and another reason for doing this sort of thing well in advance.

We cycled the 3km to the start with 10 minutes left and most of the 800 contestants already there. Typically we climbed over the barriers with the bikes right at the front, braving any potential criticism, ready to respond with “sorry don’t understand French…”. Prior to the start there was a minute of silence with helmets and sunglasses off in respect of two cyclosportives who had died the week precedent. I know of “Boris” of course from the Time race but didn’t find out who the second one was. (Will add more about Boris at the end.)

The Race

The race started under a grey sky and because the start was a bit complicated it was led out by a security car. This makes it feel like the “real thing”. It’s amazing the buzz of an organised event like this – everyone seems to be pumped up with adrenaline due to the sense of occasion. The security car had to fight to keep everyone behind it. The mass start was interesting because the security and the police had blocked all the lanes on the road so we could practically use all of it, making for quite a fast start. There was very little climbing for the first 20km so that allowed the peloton to remain relatively intact. This one of my favourite parts of the race because I’m not in danger of being dumped just yet. I’m only waiting for the first steep climb to be shot out of the back of the peloton. The organisers had added a small deviation called the Cote d’Ayse which took us uphill for a stretch but it was worth fighting to remain with the peloton as it was obviously not the start of the real climbing. Once you lose the peloton then you lose all the advantage afforded by slipstreaming in a fast group.

The climbing began in earnest at Faucigny, 20km after the start with a frist climb of around 5km, the Cote d’Hyot. Despite not having a heart rate monitor I knew the level I could push myself without burning out too early so I just had to let people overtake. The only ones I overtook looked like they were really not fit and they would definitely be doing the much easier short course. One rider who passed me at this point was No. 40, a till thin man with black top, red shorts, shoe covers and properly shaved and tanned legs. He slowly left me behind on the climb. I was already aware of neglecting to drink my sports drink but I’d probably watered and eaten enough before the start, though I was determined to start sipping small amounts on the first climb at least. Descending the other side of this climb to Viuz-en- Sallaz the course split at the bottom into the 120 and the 80km routes and the climb to the Col de Plaine Joux began for our 120km route. This was the first big climb of the day, but it wasn’t quite as difficult as expected. At the top of this col at the refreshment stand I put on a rain jacket as the dark grey skies and lack of sun made it a bit chilly at altitude. I’d felt a bit chilled even when climbing but put it down to generally not feeling great anyway. The terrain after the descent from Plaine Joux was undulating – either up or down and most people were working at their own pace, with little gained from working with others and slipstreaming. The next climb was the big one of the day – the Col de la Ramaz and it was hard with sections over 16% gradient. Even worse, you could see the road way up above as it filed through a tunnel built into the cliffs and you knew that you were heading up there. One guy overtook me and about 20 minutes later ground to a halt. He was using standard gearing (53/39 teeth chainwheels and probably 12/25 rear) and could hardly push his pedals over. My “compact” (50/34) gearing was perfect (11/28 rear). A couple of people overtook me spinning away with a higher cadence using a triple chainwheel (typically 53/39/30)– but I preferred having the higher gearing with the view that it would build strength in the long run and that by going faster in the future I’d have that faster cadence and better times.

The tunnel was at just about the steepest part of this long climb and sat at the entrance to the tunnel was a fat lady who had been earlier waiting at another part of the course and encouraging everybody. Her “encouragement” here was to shout to everybody (remember most were just about falling off their bikes) that it was OK, there were ONLY 3kms to the top! That was not something we wanted to hear. She could have told us that it flattened out just a little bit ahead and that would have been appreciated. At the top of the Col de la Ramaz I took advantage of the refreshments to drink some sweet drinks, fill up one bottle with water and eat a few sweet things on offer. Prior to the climb I’d already eaten an energy bar followed by some sports drink but had stomach cramps since. The cramps weren’t enough to worry about but they discouraged me from consuming more until now. The descent from the Col de la Ramez was very steep and potentially very fast, but also very dangerous. I took it easy and remained safe with over 10km constantly on the brakes. It’s for this reason that you have to use wheels with aluminium rims. Carbon rims can’t withstand the constant braking and temperatures over 100°C. This race was in the same region as the “Time” Megève race last week and perhaps people had the fatal accident in mind because despite the steep dramatic descents I saw no sign of accident all day long – though something could have happened behind me and I wouldn’t have known.

After the descent from the Col de la Ramez there was a quite a lot of flat terrain with a headwind. I was caught by another rider who seemed stronger, was able to rest in his slipstream and after a few minutes of recovery was able to share the work and keep up a fast pace. In the distance was No. 40 with his red shorts and we rapidly wound him in, but he just latched on to us and wasn’t able to contribute much. Speaking to the other rider it seemed apparent that we were both on the limits of cramping, but Red Shorts clearly couldn’t help out. Just as we entered a small village we reeled in another rider who had been several hundred meters ahead and as this one seemed stronger I was looking forwards to having someone else to share the workload. Just then we hit a short steep incline and I stomped hard on the pedals and kept a high gear to keep speed up. It seems that the others didn’t have the same idea because they literally vanished behind me. I slowed down a bit and kept looking behind when on the next straight but couldn’t see them so there was no point waiting. Shame! The headwind was still significant and the road long. During this period I started to feel not just the pain in the legs but a distinctive fuzzy feeling in my head, so I made a point of consuming my remaining sports drink. There was one more small hill named the Col de Chatillon before the return to Cluses and predictably two of the stronger riders who I’d dumped earlier caught me up on it but there was no sign of Red Shorts. On the descent from the col down to Cluses I realised what I should have realised some considerable time earlier, that I needed to consume more food. I opened a large 100gram energy gel, or slime and swallowed the lot. It actually went down much more easily than expected, perhaps because of descending and not breathing hard. Drinking water helped to wash it down and to be absorbed in the stomach and intestines. The organisers had made a big unexpected loop winding its way through Cluses. Support from the police and security was impressive, manning all the junctions perfectly and stopping all traffic. It’s a great feeling when they stop cars and let you go through the red lights. I went all though this on my own – no one in sight in front and only at the end of the town was I caught up by a few others from behind. There were still a couple of kilometres to the base of the final climb up to Les Carroz so it was good to at least have a few others to hitch a lift from and relax the legs slightly before the final test. At this point I honestly didn’t think I’d make it to the top. Even the idea of climbing 700m steep, vertical metres at the end of a 120km race just didn’t seem realistic to someone who only a few months ago suffered legs that literally would not work after just half that distance and amount of climbing in relatively easy training.

The Finish

With the final climb I slowed down to a subsistence pace and was steadily caught up and overtaken by a few now familiar faces. My goal was just to survive to the top. At about 5.5km from the finish Chris, who had already finished was coming back down the mountain and spotted me, so he stopped and turned around to join me and chat for a few minutes. We had a relaxed chat for a few minutes and at 5km from the finish we parted company. Chris had noticed that I was discussing as if I was out on a Sunday stroll and didn’t seem like someone battling to survive or race to the finish.

He was polite enough not to say anything, but I noticed it too and believe that it was the big gel that I’d consumed finally kicking in. While talking to Chris, Red Shorts managed to catch up and pass me again – after all he had done so on every big climb. Shortly after Chris left I had the mad inspiration to step on the gas and see what would happen. It didn’t take long to catch up and burn off Red Shorts – well he wasn’t that strong on the flats so why should it be different here? From then on, instead of backing off I just got faster and overtook everyone who had passed me on the climb then started to catch up with others. In the last kilometre I reeled in two guys from almost 300m ahead. One of them saw me coming so he stood up and accelerated and managed to stop me from closing the gap. Once he steadied the gap he kept looking back to check and I was a steady 30m behind just as he was arriving at the summit where it flattens out for the finish. He considered me done. I had other intentions so moved up a gear then stood up and started a full blown sprint. The Canyon bike is incredibly responsive and light and I was amazed by the acceleration and that I had no problems finding the strength to do it. I went tearing past him right at the top of the hill and he let out a cry as he hadn’t seen me coming and it was too late to respond – his efforts to accelerate were in vain. The end of the race was very surprising and even more enjoyable than the start.

Results in full at...

Chris placed 129th in 4hr 45min
I placed 276th in 5hr 32min

There were at 363 finishers, 9 disqualified and 12 abandoned.
On the shorter 80km course there were 364 participants.

Boris Revisited.

Returning home to the Tarantaise valley mean’t a trip right down the course we had ridden a week earlier on the bikes – right past the spot where Boris had been killed. I wanted to find out a bit more so made a point of stopping there. There is a ravine with the road descending down one side, crossing a bridge and continuing to descend, although lower, down the other side. Chris and I had stopped there last week for some food after the race because there is a small restaurant there right before the bridge.I went in for a coffee and asked a few questions. The Bridge there is the Pont de Flon and the accident took place just about 150 meters before the restaurant - uphill. Basically after a very fast descent the turn to the right, on the inside lane (right) sharpens abruptly and so Boris had simply not made it – he did a “tout droit” as they say in cycling where you just carry on straight. His bike was stopped by the low wall and the tyre mark was still there along with bumper marks from a lot of vehicles who had more luck than Boris. Boris effectively flew off his bike leaving it behind and on the other side is a horrific 80m cliff with nothing to stop him right to the bottom. It would have been like diving off an 80m high block of flats – just not survivable. It was the only spot where this could have happened – a really freak set of circumstances, but an incredibly dangerous corner all the same. We had been slowed down on the corner by some of the people assisting after the event and I’d seen the ambulance lower down after the bridge because that’s where they had to go to access him. I’d thought that he had crashed there and the road is really bad there – but it wasn’t so bad where he really crashed – though there were cracks and ruts that could have made him lose control. When you look at the road though you can see how it would have happened with simply too much speed.

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