Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Morzine - Valley d'Aulps

Sunday 20th June 2010

GPSies - Morzine

Snow, hail, driving rain, high and cold Northerly wind, 3900m of climbing (almost half way up Everest from sea level) and 100 miles with the toughest climb of all – the mythic Joux-Plane towards the end.
The goal was to survive and economise effort but this time the plan didn’t even survive the start.
The following mountain passes were the high altitude points :
Col de Joux Verte 1760m
Col de Corbier (1230 m)
Col du Grand Taillet (1035m)
Col de Jambaz (1027 m)
Col de Joux Plane (1712 m)
Col du Ran Folly (1650 m)

The Build Up
Driving to Morzine was complicated due to roadworks in the Gorge de l’Arly so I tried a different route over the mountains – via the Col de la Columbière (1618m). It poured rain all the 158km to Morzine and cyclists coming the other way climbing through the fog to the top of the Col de la Columbière looked like drowned rats. The scary part was that tomorrow’s race would be 160km on the bike and the weather was effectively worsening with snow level dropping to 1500m and strong Northerly winds forecast.
The event was organised by and they were shockingly useless at communication. The website stated that registration was at the Morzine Tourist Office until 8pm on Saturday night – but the unhelpful staff there just said “100m, right!” and left me to get on with it. Even with 17 years of living in France I couldn’t understand a word of the rest of her message. In fact was necessary to drive to the “”Palais de Sport et Congres”. Once there and 45 minutes before closing of registration I was again greeted by a miserable French woman already trying to pack up for the day. Before registering I called Chris to make sure he wanted to do this – but he was optimistic for the weather so I proceeded and registered both of us. Despite having driven there I was prepared to bail out if necessary. Unfortunately I left my most transparent lensed sunglasses on the table there and next day they denied having found them – miserable sods. I ended up as a result racing with dark sun glasses and hardly being able to see a thing all day.
Parking in Morzine was easy and there were several camper cars there – public toilets were open and also lively bars and restaurants nearby. I had eaten spaghetti for lunch so had lasagne for a main meal. The restaurant had mostly cyclists in it and one I spoke to told me that he had driven up to the first col that we had to climb in the morning and at 1700m it was snowing already! Normally this race has a turnout of over 1000 entrants – but it was looking set for a low turnout this time.
I found a café with WiFi and worked on programming a course for my GPS. It had only been possible to get a proper map from when registering at Morzine, and even then I had to ask for one as it wasn’t offered. Their website had been worse than useless; it had been misleading. There I bumped into a couple of French guys I met at the registration and as one had forgotten his helmet I called Chris and asked him to bring a spare in the morning for him. At around 1am I quit and went to bed having failed to generate the GPS map properly and regretting the lost time and lateness. At least the exercise had made me very familiar with the route plan.
6 am and the alarm sounded. I had been soaked with sweat during the night in my thin down sleeping bag despite the low temperatures outside – so was glad to get up and dressed. Warm full length winter leggings and removable sleeves were obligatory today (despite it being almost the longest day of the year), plus an extra shirt and an effective waterproof windproof jacket. I also had a Goretex under-helmet hat on and warmer full fingered neoprene gloves to carry. Waterproof covers went over the shoes because once they are wet they stay wet so that is best avoided. Breakfast was a rapidly cooked porridge with banana and the heat from the stove was very welcome. The temperature on the cols had apparently dropped to 0°C. Morzine is at about 1000m altitude so it was a bit warmer, about 5°C.
The race was due to start at 08 am and so at about 7 am I started to drive around Morzine to find a bar or café open. Fortunately there was a hotel bar open and they were happy to serve coffee to the public. Inside there were two German competitors having breakfast and looking rather worried. Sitting down to a good warm coffee I telephoned Chris to find his whereabouts on the road and tell him where to find this hotel. Unfortunately Chris was only passing through Megève and the likelihood of him arriving in time was unbelievably slim to say the least. We arranged that I’d leave Chris’s electronic tag and race number on the top of one of my van wheels so he could find it in the car park – if he didn’t make the start of the race. Leaving the hotel warm and fresh I drove to the car park for last minute pre-race preparations. Not wanting to abandon Chris I decided to stay close to the car park as long as possible and warmed up just outside on the road that was about to be closed for the start. At the very last minute Chris miraculously appeared – he must have driven like a lunatic to make it – but the roads are empty early Sunday morning. It was a mad dash into the car park and I prepared Chris’s bike and attached the number while he got ready. During this process we heard the claxon for the race start – we missed it!
The Race
Talk about a stressful start! Chris is normally ultra cool in comparison to most people but this time even he was stretched to the limit. I led Chris out of the parking area on the bikes as I knew where the start was and we managed to get onto the main road just before the pack of cyclists arrived. We then had to descend towards the start, perhaps 300m against the oncoming cyclists – which was a little dodgy to say the least. At the start there was another large group lined up for a departure, so we verified that the group that had left already was the 160km one and not the short course – which was the case. Thoughtfully, Chris went in front of the start line and all the people there and took his bike over the wires on the ground and back again – followed by me – so as to register the electronic tags. Then we had to get going and chase the pack before they got too far away. It was now Chris’s dedicated job to pull me up to the peloton as we were going to have to work extra hard to catch an already fast moving bunch. Before leaving the loop inside Morzine we had overtaken the Voiture Balai (Sweeper up van) which amusingly had a broom attached to the side to make it clear to everyone what why it would be driving slowly. Those poor guys had 160km to drive at about 16 km/hr to stay behind the stragglers. They could have technically disqualified us as we were already behind it. It’s actually the first time I’ve ever seen a voiture balai!
We caught the peloton after about 4km and worked our way towards the front. So much for a relaxed, energy sparing start for the gruelling day ahead. My heart rate had been at 98% max for most of the chase, without a proper warm up – and we were already heading for the first big climb of the day, then the rain had started, if only deceptively lightly at this stage.
At the first climb I told Chris that I would proceed at my pace now that we were in the peloton and so that he was free to climb at his own pace. The attack on the first climb starting at 900m altitude (Col de Joux Verte 1760m) was quite aggressive, perhaps because everyone wanted to get warm. The Col de Joux Vert is a special loop up one valley and up a high ridge to Avoriaz , then descending right back to Morzine and eventually back along the same road that we had used when leaving Morzine at the start. This provided an easy bail out option which I’m sure would have been used by quite a few. Some people appeared to be struggling straight away on the climb and were rapidly dropped behind, but most of the riders around me were attacking quite hard so I decided to let them go and not to overdo it myself at this early stage. 3km from the top of the col it started to snow at around 1500m altitude and we still had to get up to 1760m. Around this point I came across the one legged/one arm cyclist who was in the Time Megève competition a few weeks earlier. He can’t climb that fast so it appears that he must start a little earlier than the rest – but whatever this guy is missing in limbs he certainly compensates for it magnificently elsewhere. The climb took about an hour and I was in the anaerobic threshold zone the entire way until the final 10 minutes when I hit the “red line” anaerobic zone. By the end of the climb I’d caught up with all the guys who overtook me at the start and actually thought I’d been a bit reckless and that they’d soon have me for dinner – but they didn’t! The overtaking continued on the descent back down to Morzine, but with the body becoming chilled and fingers and feet getting very cold. It was still relatively dry in Morzine but the descent was wet and speed had to be controlled. Passing through Morzine at 1000m altitude the descent continued down the Valley d’Aulps to 726m altitude before starting the next climb up to the Col de Corbier (1230m). At this point, one of the riders I’d overtaken on the descent caught me up and started to pass. Talking to him I found out that he was English and he was certainly climbing strongly, but he didn’t seem to want to say much so I said goodbye and shouted (optimistically) that I’d see him on the other side. My excess weight was slowing down the climbing as usual, but I was still relatively confident of making up the lost time on the descents, long flats, more gentle climbs and oddly, the very steep climbs – where less strong cyclists seem to crumble. I noticed he was using a bigger gear and his cadence was slower than mine, so I figured that he might pay for that several hours later as his leg muscles tired. I worked hard at keeping a high cadence and stayed in low gears nearly all the time when climbing – taking the load off the legs and putting it on the cardiovascular system instead. Someone abandoned and was coming back down the other way – but he would still have a fair hike back to Morzine. Further on I found out why he quit. Right at the top of the col there was a blast of cold north wind to greet us, followed by hail and then torrential rain on the descent on narrow winding roads littered with branches and leaves blown off the bordering trees.
At the top of this col – as with most of the others, there was a refreshments stand so I stopped briefly to fill up a bottle with plain water- only to find that in almost 3 hours I hardly drunk any at all – not even half a bottle of sports drink. Having stopped pedalling I was able to quickly swallow most of the contents of one bottle and then had it filled with water while I grabbed a handful of dried papaya from the stand. Less than a minute later I was back on my way and trying to eat the papaya with one had while descending in hail and wind at the same time. The plain water had been collected to drink along with a sports gel later on and in case of a thirst which never came. In total during the 07:44hrs I only managed to drink about half a litre of liquid. This was probably not due to the cold but to the great difficulty in consuming anything when the body is generating lots of lactic acid and you feel constantly close to vomiting as a result. Descending from the Col de Corbier my legs went numb with the wet cold. My feet were already very cold and had been since the descent to Morzine and it seemed like the waterproof shoe covers were only keeping water in and not out, but the feet and body cold were not getting any worse so I accepted it and then forgot about it for the rest of the day.
Descending to 525m altitude after the Corbier certainly helped deal with the cold as it gets about 1°C warmer with each 100m of descent – and you can really feel the difference. From about this point onwards we were also helped by turning out of the strong North wind and getting it more or less behind us after having had it face on for most of the day so far. This was the start of the long way up to the Col de Jambaz (1027m) which began with a hard climb up a steep set of hairpin bends. I skipped the refreshment stand at the top of the tough hairpins and saw quite a few riders hiding there sheltering from the lashing rain, but this just encouraged me to push on harder alone. The English guy was one of the riders sheltering and eating so I had been right about catching him up. In fact the Corbier was the only stop I’d make during the race – there was no point stopping again as I was already carrying an excess of water and food. After the hairpins there were long descents and climbs where eventually I felt my head starting to feel a bit fuzzy – which is the first sign of low blood sugar level. This was about 4hrs since the start so that was pretty much to be expected. Had I been more capable of feeding properly during effort then this would not have been happening. Emergency procedure then took over and I opened a large triple portion 100 gram gel and swallowed the lot, then a little (too little) water to help digest it. It worked because 15 minutes later my head was clear again and energy levels holding up surprisingly well. Timing was good because about then a strong club rider caught me up and we had just started a very long gradual climb up to the Col de Jambaz. I accelerated up to his rhythm and started to work with him. I seemed stronger on the flats and so pulled from the front then and he was stronger on the gradual climbs and he sheltered and pulled me. It was good team work and excellent for the moral on an otherwise soul destroying section. I’d had absolutely no intention of going so fast and hard for so long and was almost dropped a few times on the climb. In fact I was dropped once but caught up again on a slight descent. We eventually reached the col together and then worked the long descent down to 623m together. During the descent and along the flats - which would cover 40kms we worked relentlessly together without a word exchanged. This section would end at 701m altitude and although we caught up with several other riders only one stayed with us and contributed. Eventually though my partner dropped off the back and I ended up with a new partner who did most of the work on the last stretch. The Englishman had already caught me again and passed me early on when I was isolated on a climb, but now with my new partner we caught him up again just in time for the biggest climb of the day. When we arrived at the bottom of the climb up the Col de Joux Plane (1712m altitude = 1000m climb over 12km) I asked my current partner if this was the start of the climb and when he said yes I said well “au revoir” as I fully expected to grind to a standstill. He laughed and said – “yes, but it’s the beginning of the end.” in French. He did progressively pull away in front but I believe that in the end I beat him due to the time difference recorded electronically from having started the race several minutes later than everyone else. The Englishman also pulled away ahead, predictably, at the start of the climb. Fully anticipating drastic failure at this juncture in the race it was no surprise to see the others pulling away. What was a surprise was that at a short plateau (the only one in the climb) I caught up and left the Englishman behind again. Several times already today I’d had similar surprises when I found unexpected power that left other apparently stronger riders behind. The legs were tired now and although not particularly low on energy it was becoming a simple matter of how much strength was left in the legs. At first glance it appeared that the strategy of high cadence and low force on the pedals during all the climbing had paid off – but there was also another unexpected factor, namely, the loss of half a stone in weight (3kg+). Never having cycled anything remotely so hard I hadn’t thought to factor in such a dramatic weight loss – but it undoubtedly made the final climb much more manageable. At times I was in bottom gear just standing up on the pedals to slowly and smoothly use body weight to keep them turning – there was so little strength left in the legs for the really steep sections. At the bottom of the climb the sun had come out for the first time and it felt almost warm. I even had to open the neck of my waterproof slightly – but that didn’t last long as the temperature dropped during the climb. Eventually I started chatting with the Englishman who had remained close behind me and we covered the final 5 km together. It might seem like no one would want to talk under such exertion but the opposite is the case because it takes your mind off the pain, difficulty and distance to go. I think we were both very glad for the distraction. He had driven all the way over from Surrey for the race so he couldn’t really bail out due to bad weather. I was probably the only person he’d spoken to during the race because his French was minimal. We made a final turn towards the summit, hoping for the gradient to flatten out a bit, but it didn’t. In front of us was a long steep climb all the way to the top – utterly relentless. Englishman decided to stop to get some food or something but there was no way I was going to interrupt my rhythm. He was probably only about 150 meters behind at the summit, but that gap eventually grew to several minutes by the end of the race so I made the right choice to go ahead. What a sense of relief and exhausted satisfaction to reach the summit – despite being hit once again by the cold North wind. Satisfaction was short lived however because after an extremely short descent there was another climb to Col du Ran Folly (1650m). It really felt like this day had been conceived by some sadist from hell.
All of this last section of the race, including the Col de Joux-Plane, is the summer route to Morzine. Descending from the final col back into Morzine was quite steep and technical but dry – just as I like it. I think that Alpine skiing skills come into play on such descents because many of the same dynamics are involved. Some people descend more aggressively than me but I’m convinced that they are pushing the envelope a bit too much. Recent deaths and scores of accidents would appear to justify that view. Half way down to Morzine I ran into a herd of cattle being driven up the road, but keeping my nerve I kept up some speed and hoping that the beasts wouldn’t panic and erratically leap around I just thread a line through them. Luckily the animals didn’t pay the slightest attention to me and so no time was lost and I wasn’t gored to death. I knew that Englishman would stop because he was polite and respectful. I’d already seen him stop at a red traffic light – which no Frenchman would dream of doing in a race and neither would I. If the course was being properly managed (which it wasn’t) then there would have been a race traffic control on the light anyway stopping any oncoming cars and letting us through.
At the bottom of the climb Morzine had to be traversed for a third time. Construction work in the centre meant that the finish was 8 km away near the start of the first climb that we did in the morning. There were a few longish gentle climbs to make along this road and for the first time I felt a dull deep pain in my thighs. This is the same pain that I’d felt on my first ever race, the “Pré Alpes” near Chambery the previous year, but then it was after 3:30hrs not 7:30hrs. By the time I’d crossed the flats the leg pain had disappeared and now there was a final 3 km climb to the finish from 900m to 1070m altitude – not a great deal but quite steep in parts and most unwelcome. I managed to get my work rate back up on the climb and to get the heart rate back into the Lactate Threshold zone, which confirmed that the leg pain had not been an overall energy issue but just related to muscle tiredness.
On the climb up to the finish Chris came flying downhill the opposite way but neither of us properly recognised each other in time. I didn’t really want Chris to stop because I wanted to focus on getting this last stretch over and keeping up a reasonable pace – which was now taking a lot of concentration. (Chris said I was grimacing as he passed – which doesn’t surprise me) Crossing the finish line was simply a relief and getting off the bike didn’t feel too great. When the body stops, that’s when the stress of the effort seems to hit you. For a few moments you just need to recover and walk a bit.
The Aftermath
Chris had finished only 27 minutes earlier but had already eaten a pasta meal and cleared out because it was cold and windy. I’d expected to be about 90 minutes or more behind Chris – but must admit I’d really raised my output level a lot in this race. He had to cycle 8km back to Morzine but fortunately found another road which spared the climbing. He telephoned me from the car park (I had my mobile with me all day) and offered to come and collect me after my meal – an offer I couldn’t refuse. I ate my meal alongside a Frenchman who had already changed into dry clothing. Despite this he couldn’t sit still as he was shaking so much from the cold. Guillaume – one of the young French guys I’d met the evening before had finished about 15 minutes before me but ended up in the ambulance because he couldn’t stop shaking uncontrollably with the cold. He hadn’t been wearing quite enough clothing. That morning he had been the one waiting for a helmet from Chris – and fortunately he was given one from the organisers when Chris turned up late. His friend Andre came in about 10 minutes after me and joined me at the meal. He looked quite relaxed and surprisingly happy. When Chris turned up to collect me he asked if we could also give him and Guillaume a lift too, but Chris’s Taliban truck was not suitable. I offered to come back for them in my van. Chris’s Taliban truck would only accommodate my precious bicycle on the outside deck, secured with bungees. Normally I would have vigorously refused this horrendous abuse but I was in no fit state to complain. In the event the bike only lost some surface of the side of the beautiful white saddle – but nothing worse.
At the car park, changing in the van, Chris was amazed at how wet my socks and shoes were when I took the “waterproof” covers off. That system was an abject failure. It later took two days with a ski boot heater to dry the shoes. Chris looked almost unrecognisable from fatigue – the entire day’s events catching up with him. He just wanted to go for a warm coffee, but I had to get back for the French guys still stuck in the cold so we said goodbye and Chris set off, intending to stop at a café on the return trip through Cluses. Andre was ready waiting at my return to the finish area and Guillaume had sensibly remained in the warm ambulance. They were both in good spirits and grateful for the assistance. I was very happy to help out. There’s not much good that I can say about the race organisation though. Even the food was crap.
Driving home after the race was a little bit difficult due simply to tiredness and the narrow mountain roads. I still didn’t have much of an appetite in the evening so didn’t bother with a proper meal. Sleeping wasn’t a problem, but next morning there was a bit of a muscular ache around the left knee – my slightly weaker knee due to accumulated skiing injuries and surgery. From about the waist down everything did feel like it had been through a bit of a wringer though. I’d felt that even during the climb up Joux-Plane, the aches start around about the level of the kidneys and extend downwards through the various muscle systems. Lying there in bed in the morning there is no comfortable position to be found so the only solution is to get up early and get active. Later on in the day I went out for a recovery run on my mountain bike – intending to keep the heart rate below 132 bpm. The knee ached to begin with but after warming up properly the ache almost vanished. The legs however were very weak and the calf muscles were regularly twitching when making an effort. It’s now the third day since the race and my legs have recovered about 50% from the maximum fatigue level – but they still feel relatively weak. Tomorrow they should feel good so today will include another recovery workout and tomorrow a proper harder workout in preparation for next week’s race. The next race has several mythic cols to climb and with 3000m of climbing over 130km it will only be about ¾ of the scale of this previous race – a perfect tapering for the giant “Marmotte” event in two weeks’ time.
One day after the race – Weight 70.4kg, Blood Pressure 104/61, Resting Heart rate 41bpm

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