Friday, August 20, 2010

The Chicken Run

GPSies - Chicken run

Not sure how to describe this escapade - The Chicken Run! Part tour, training, adventure, ordeal, pain, pleasure, achievement all mixed together.

La Poule - "The chicken" is the shape of the heart of Savoie on the map - comprised of its two main mountainous valleys - Tarentaise and Maurienne. Savoie is department 73 in France. It used to be a fully independent country but was "liberated" from its freedom by Napoleon and incorporated into France. There is still an active "Free Savoie" movement operating today. The road around the centre outlines the chicken.

Our aim was to cycle the entire chicken in a day, around 220km with 4700m climbing. Just to make it more difficult we were going to cut the chicken's head off by going straight over the mountains by the Col de La Madeleine - which was the toughest climb on the hardest mountain stage of this year's Tour de France. Today it would be the smaller of our climbs with the Col de l'Isèran reaching 770m higher at an altitude of 2770m and being the highest mountain pass in the Alps. Added to the difficulty would be the fact that only two days earlier cars could only get across it with snow chains on despite it only being the middle of August. There was some suffering lying in store for us.

The day was supposed to begin from the Tonneau bar in Bourg St Maurice at 7am sharp. Leaving Aime driving east towards Bourg there was a stunning sunrise illuminating the clouds above the Col de Petite St Bernard - but this did forebode the "Red sky in the morning - shepherd's warning"! I arrived about 15 minutes early in Bourg to have a coffee and decide where to park for the day. After parking and getting the bike and a small day bag ready then returning to the Tonneau bar for 7am - only Rob was there by now - tucking into a fresh croissant and coffee. The start was not going to be so sharp - in fact we set off at 07:35 eventually.
Only three of us were doing the entire route - Chris, me and Justin who had just arrived the previous day and had not acclimatised to altitude. We all gave day bags to Rob to put in the backup car. Rob remaining oblivious to the significance of our individual preparations. Rob and Lesley were aiming to each do stages of the tour, with Lesley tackling the first climb and Rob the second. Rob's first task was to take Lesley to Moutiers ahead of us where she would start her day. The car would also allow us all to meet up for a scheduled lunch stop at St Michel de Maurienne. The three of us set off at a good pace, slipstreaming in rotation and making good speed on the first leg of the tour to Les Lecheres and the bottom of the 25km 1500m climb up the Col de la Madeleine. Straight away on the climb Chris set off on his own at a slightly faster pace. I stayed with Justin who was already sweating heavily and clearly not in the best shape. For me, part of a day like this is that it is more social and shared with others than a race day - so there was no rush. In addition my recovery from Saturday's very hard race had not gone so well so I wanted to conserve my resources. About 8km from the top I felt like having a bit of a workout and so pulled away from Justin and kept a slightly higher pace to the top of the climb. At the top of the climb, while waiting for Justin I got chatting a a young guy with a small shack selling mountain farm cheese. It turned out his parents own the farm right next to the house we rent in Aime and he was at college last year with our Norwegian neighbour/landlord. This passed the time waiting for the suffering Justin to arrive and sort himself out for the descent. Descending from the col the road was very good - having been improved for the Tour de France earlier this year - that is until we went through a short tunnel and in the bad light I hit a pothole! The bike was fine but my Garmin GPS jumped off its quick release mount and bounced about 30m down the road. This time the Garmin was not so happy about falling - having survived two previous adventures with a different quick release clip that turned out to be broken. The clip was not broken in this case, but still spat the unit out. Anyway, from then on the unit could not lock on to satellites - so it appeared to be toast. The rest of the descent was done with the GPS dysfunctional and not logging any position data. Fortunately about 7 minutes further on I realised that I should switch off the auto-pause which engages automatically where there are no satellites - thus enabling the unit to log heart rate data and time at least. At La Chambre, the bottom of the descent, we met Chris and Lesley in a cafe waiting in the warm for us. It was overcast and chilly since we had started cycling - the blue skies having disappeared right at the start of the tour. Rob then appeared after having driven the other way around the Chicken to scope out the section he would be climbing. Without wasting too much time we set off again - the four of us together towards St Michel de Maurienne at 23km distance. Miraculously the GPS started to work again  - it was as if it had been temporarily concussed by the fall and had now recovered. This was the start of the long climb up the Maurienne valley - from 470m eventually culminating at 2770m altitude. St Michel would be our lunch stop, where Rob was ahead locating a suitable restaurant. Lesley meanwhile was hanging in, slipstreaming as we fought our way rapidly up the "faux plat" against a headwind. We predictably split into two groups with Chris and myself ahead but I started to feel some leg pain which was clearly a legacy of Saturday's race as this sort of pain had been unknown all summer until that race - so I allowed Chris to lead and remained slipstreaming. This was a section of road that we passed on the Marmotte race and I remember then how I was fooled by the faux plat and how my legs turned to mush at St Michel when we changed direction to climb the Col du Télégraph. Rob found a nice restaurant where we could sit outside - sheltered from the wind coming down the valley. We all ordered the "Cicyliste" menu - but the Spaghetti was full of fattening creamy sauce, cheese and ham - typically Savoyard and very inappropriate for our needs. In compensation however it tasted very good.

(Actual route taken - GPS track in blue)
Lunch took about an hour altogether after which the three of us set off for Bonneval at 60km further up the valley and at 1800m altitude. Most of the climbing would continue to be" faux plat" and Justin was suitably suffering. We stayed together working as a group until we reached the second 'Col de Madeleine" which is a short climb several kilometers before Bonneval. There we split up and went at our own paces, Justin finding again that he was short of power on the faux plat after the climb. Rob had started his climb just before this col and left Lesley with the car. We passed Lesley sitting on a terrace sipping coffee at an outdoor market looking like she was enjoying life slightly more than we were at that moment. Later we would meet up with Lesley and the car at Bonneval just at the bottom of the final 1000m climb up to the Col de l'Isèran. On arrival at Bonneval the rain started - cold rain! We all had some extra clothing and protection in the car so we put it on - including waterproof shoe covers (that aren't waterproof) and leggings. I also had a better waterproof jacket and a dry microfibre shirt to put on at the top of the climb. Rob was way ahead of us - having not stopped at Bonneval as we had scheduled and taking our coffee kitty with him. Rob didn't have any extra protective clothing.
The climb was just a slog really. I was now in bottom gear to spare any leg muscle pain from developing and just winding my way steadily uphill. At the half way stage of the 13 km climb Chris was still visible up ahead so he was going fairly slowly too despite him feeling in better form. We were closing in on the 200km mark so he was certain to be tiring. Justin and I did the first pitch together, chatting for a while, but then we split due to the need to find our own paces for the task ahead. The last part of the climb is hard because at around the 2km mark the gradient suddenly jumps to around 12% and the air is becoming thinner at this altitude. I'd been climbing using nasal breathing all the way - in fact all day excepting periods when chatting - but here I just couldn't maintain that. The sudden change of gradient had me wondering for a short while if I actually had the strength left in me to make it to the top - but then the steepest part was behind me and I felt better. Perhaps it was breathing through the mouth at this altitude; I don't know but it felt like a veritable "second wind" and felt good right to the top. At the top it was absolutely miserable; Some people were arriving on bikes from the other side - obviously making the trip over to Bonneval because no-one would just climb up one side on a day like this without really having to do so to get somewhere else, but at least they seemed properly equipped for touring - unlike us with our racing setup. I went in to a doorway to shelter and put on the dry protective clothing as quickly as possible because I just wanted to get down the other side and into our meeting point - the Chevalot Boulangerie.
Immediately on the descent it was clear that the brakes were practically useless for rapid slowing down - which meant that the entire descent would have to be slow. The rain was pouring down and there was still snow piled on the sides of the road. The wind added rapidly to the chilling effect and it wasn't long before the shivering started. Where the road was straight is was possible to go a little faster but the chilling effect was incredible and shivering amplified instantly with each acceleration. The descent was totally miserable. Towards the bottom it was difficult to hold on to the brakes as the fingers were frozen and cramped by now. The involuntary shivering of the body was so violent that it threatened to destabilise the bike and cause an accident. It was a very strange feeling. I realised at one point that due to the shivering I couldn't even breathe properly and had a tightness around my lower ribs and diaphragm area; Breathing out was prompting an involuntary groaning that was very hard to stop. I wasn't sure of making it to the bottom, but just had to go on. Arriving at the boulangerie Chis was just leaving it to go to a warmer cafe and so intercepted me and took me with him. Chris had probably been down for about 20 minutes already but was still shivering violently and had already had one hot chocolate. Rob had done a runner with the kitty. When Rob had arrived at Le Fornet cable car at about 1900m altitude (Val is at 1850m) Rob was forced to stop and shelter as he felt unable to control his bike any longer. His feet were so cold that he was worried about what would happen when he put them on the ground - whether or not they would function. While standing there groaning and shivering the free bus stopped by him and the driver asked if he ws OK. Rob jumped on the bus with his bike and took a warm sheltered ride into town, called his wife Inga and got her to pick him up all before any of the rest of us arrived. Rob had climbed the Col rapidly as it was his only section of today's tour, but he probably ended up suffering more than anyone by the bottom due to lack of protective clothing. Justin arrive some time later and after having a hot drink in the boulangerie he saw our telephone message and came over to the cafe to warm up better. The decision to abandon the remaining 36km descent back to Bourg was unanimous. There was no way that we would have made it without falling off the bikes. The shaking of the body was so violent that controlling a bike much longer would have been impossible. I struggled to drink my first hot chocolate fully expecting it to end up on the floor. Chris had been embarrassed that everyone in the establishment might think that he had Parkinson's disease when in fact he was just really chilled.

All Rob's crimes were forgiven in the end as he returned with the cavalry - namely his warm vehicle with a bike rack on the back, plus the drinks kitty. Rob drove us down to Bourg through the cloud and rain to where Chris had to recover a car and mine was parked. Thankfully there were some warm dry clothes in the van so I changed straight away and went immediately home - zombified. Chris and the others all had a dinner party planned for later - but there was no way I was up to that - followed by a drive home. I just wanted to sleep already. Unfortunately sleep was not great because the body felt like it didn't know that it was all over - it rebelled a bit during the night but nothing serious.


Distance.   We logged 198km on Chris's GPS and 4700m climbing. I burned almost 10,000 calories. Due to the GPS problems about 10km is missing from my own recorded workout and track.

Heart.         Basically only a relatively short time was spent near the anaerobic zone so the tiredness appears to stem from the race four days earlier - and the extra long distance.  It appears that the effort was controlled as best as possible because the average heart rate at the end of the last climb after almost 9 hours of effort was practically the same as the start of the first climb of the day. The only difference is that at the end of the day it would have been very difficult to have made the heart work much harder.

Food.         Apart from a coffee and glass of water only three 500ml bottles of sports drink were taken all day and one energy bar eaten. (For energy add a spaghetti lunch). This seems to be terrible mismanagement of feeding requirements - but the tiredness towards the end felt simply more like muscle fatigue, which could probably be expected. I do need to find a way of consumming more though - both fluid and carbohydrate/protein sources. It's just so hard to make yourlself do those things when the body doesn't give you direct signals to do so.

Breathing.       The recent virus appears to have gone already so nasal brething was possible for most of the tour. When being sociable and chatting it's impossible to breathe through the nose, but the rest of the time I'd switch back to nasal breathing. Slight occasional blowing of the nose kept it clear enough to deal with even the most strenuous efforts of the day. Only at close to 3000m altitude and with extreme tiredness did I allow myself to switch over to mouth breathing for a few kilometers. The hope is that this permits a better recovery from the tour than would otherwise happen. It was noticeable that with Saturday's race which had to be all mouth breathing due to the slight virus - the recovery after the race was slow. I'm assuming that this has to do with the influence on lactic acid levels generated by different ways of breathing - the CO2 and blood acidity being higher with nasal breathing thus more O2 being released into the blood and a more aerobic workout resulting  - hence lower lactic acid concentrations and quicker post exercise recovery.

Cold.     If one lesson was learned today it is that the very highest mountain passes cannot be cycled without special clothing unless the weather is warm and dry. The problem is that in the wet the brakes don't work so you have to descend quite slowly and the body can't work to generate its own heat - other than by shivering to the point that the bike cannot be controlled.

Weight.     Next morning weight: 67.1kg
                Blood pressure          106/71
                Resting Heart rate      49 bpm

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