Sunday, August 29, 2010

Préalpes Race - The Epic Battle For Third (last) Place

Saturday 28th August 2010

GPSies - Pré Alpes

Who said competition was all about winning? The motivation to avoid being last is every bit as powerful - perhaps even more so - than the motivation to win.

Picture the scenario: 4 hours into a race working relentlessly close to maximum effort, rain, cold, dangerous wet gravel roads, full concentration and exhaustion setting in. All this to find yourself in last position with the sweeper up van (Voiture Balai) sitting 10m behind on your tail as you crawl up another interminable steep mountain pass - wondering whether his engine or your legs will stall first. The last guy who overtook you has already disappeared from sight.
Surprisingly I discovered the Voiture Balai experience to be motivating. I always thought that it would simply encourage you to give up but it does exactly the opposite - it pushes you on as if you desperately want to get away from it. It's much more motivating than being overtaken by other cyclists because there is a sort of fatality to it. OK, I knew that this day was a bit special - very bad weather meant a very low turnout and most had opted for the short course - so I was up against a bunch of die-hards from the start on the long course. The Voiture Balai would normally be a long way further back, but as I happened to be the one in last spot it was right on my tail. I wondered what they were thinking. Regardless, it certainly stopped me from easing up - ultimately keeping me in the race.


The Préalpes race takes place in the Chartreuse national park, just to the south west of Chambery. It's a really stunningly beautiful area and the mountains rise with steep cliff faces - making very interesting mountain passes and gorges to ride though.

One year ago the Préalpes was my first ever cycle race - so it would now be the first one to be revisited. First advantage was that the route to get there was already programmed into the GPS. It makes it so much easier when you know the ropes - where to park, where to find a cafe in the morning, where to get your start number and where the race starts. It was only a 90 minute drive from home but I still preferred to be there the night before as it does mean a much more relaxed preparation in the morning. I parked in the same quiet spot in the centre of town that I'd used the year before. Amazingly, in the van I could get internet reception. SFR subscribers get free hotspots everywhere in France and it really works. After rattling off a few emails I went to sleep - at least tried to - but the rain started. One disadvantage of parking under a tree is that the big drops of water falling from the leaves sound like bullets on the metal of the van. Still, I get to sleep pretty easily so there was no problem - until suddenly there was a loud bang and the van shook. I went from sleeping to maximum heart rate in under 3 seconds. Convinced that someone outside was messing with the van I sat up and looked out of the darkened windows (they let you look out without others being able to look in). It was a small household cat that had jumped onto the van. Wonder what it would sound like if a lion jumped on the van? Still not much likelihood of that in France – I hope.

To bail out or not to bail out…?

In the morning I was up bright and early at 6am to have breakfast – preferring to eat as early as possible. Liver glycogen levels are depleted by around 50% during the night’s fasting and as glycogen levels are crucial for endurance sport it’s probably best to eat as early as possible to have time to restore levels to normal. I walked 100 meters to the race organisation to collect my electronic race number and then found a boulangerie to buy a very inappropriate “pain au chocolat” and then a bar to sit down for a coffee. Those comforts were very welcome because it was now pelting down with rain and extremely discouraging. Thoughts of last week’s suffering on the Col de L’Isèran were running through my head and the idea of bailing out was very appealing. Somehow every time this situation arises I opt to participate and not to bail out and every time I’m really glad of that decision – so it was obvious that there would be no bail out today. Illness is probably the only really justifiable reason for bailing out. The day before I’d bought new “SIDI” wind and waterproof “Windtex” shoe covers, so it looked like they would get well and truly tested out. My other “waterproof” shoe covers had been a total failure and the Col de L’Isèran was the final straw. The “North Wave” brand of waterproofing takes about 10 minutes for your feet to be completely sodden and frozen in rain – the rain entering from the useless adjustable seal around and under the shoe sole. The SIDI seal was not adjustable but worked perfectly and the Windtex material was also breathable – at least doing something towards removing sweat during the dry periods.
Teaching skiing for many years has taught me that it is always better to err on the side of being too hot rather than too cold. With this in mind I put on an extra tee-shirt and a membrane type waterproof jacket (completely covering up my number – as quite a few others did on this day) and arm warmers. Reflecting on the fact that most heat is lost though the head I put on a Goretex under helmet hat too – risking some potentially serious overheating on the climbs – or at least a stop or two to adjust layers during the race.

The Peloton with No Brakes!

Race start was delayed due to the deluge and participation was clearly going to be low. In the event the rain suddenly stopped and so we were only 15 minutes behind with the start - a few more minutes were lost due to the giant inflatable start banner deflating and blocking the road. There is a big organisation surrounding road security including police intervention near the mass start – and many security vehicles, ambulances, support vehicles and voluntary helpers at junctions and pit stop locations – so delays are a big deal.
The start of the Pré Alpes is always fast and because it is partly downhill and flat there is a lot of ground to be gained by staying with the fast front peloton for at least the first 20 minutes. There are a couple of short sharp climbs during this section, but it is worth maxing out on heart rate just to stick with the peloton and get through them. Today the main problem was that due to all the water on the road no-one had any brakes! A large fast moving peloton is pretty scary and dangerous at the best of times, but this was really dodgy and no-one was letting that interfere with proceedings. As luck would have it there were no accidents at the start.

Multiple Mountain Passes

The route included 4 major mountain passes listed as follows:

Col de l'Epine
Col des Egaux
Col de la Clusaz
Col du Cucheron

Before and after those cols there were significant 5km climbs. It was at the first 5km climb that it was time to say goodbye to the main peloton - though I kept up a high pace and max output for both this climb and the following descent - right to the base of the first col averaging 30km/hr over the first 43 minutes of the race. I fought hard to catch and stay with a good fast moving group at this point because there was still a lot to be gained from a group effort until the base of the first col. From the base of the Col de l'Epine it was a case of "every man for himself". Steep climbing deprives you of any shelter that you might gain from slipstreaming - so it is down to your personal power to weight ratio and nothing else.
I arrived at the summit of the Col de l'Epine isolated and did the descent alone. The road was wet and the turns sharp so it had to be taken slowly to avoid any unpleasant surprises. I ended up covering a total of 13km alone and knew that a long faux plat of main road - straight into the wind - was coming up next. I could see there were a couple of riders working together behind me and catching up so it was best to slow down, rest, have a drink and wait for them. This strategy more than paid off because one in particular was determined to push on as hard as possible and for the 10km of main road he had me working my legs off just staying on his back wheel protected by his slipstream. Suddenly and unexpectedly the course split in two at around 51km from the start. There was no warning and as I'd prepared myself mentally for the big course I naturally veered off towards the hills and so did the guy behind me. Our pace-man went straight on which explained why he was gunning it - as he was on the short course and not far from home. Thus the start of the Col des Egaux climb began with company - but not for long as I had to let him go because it was impossible to sustain the same maximum effort that I had just done for the past 10 km. At least a lot of energy was saved on the flats and a lot of time gained. The Col des Egaux was followed by the Col de la Clusaz reaching the highest altitude of the day at 1213m and predictably passing though rain and cloud. (Snow level was at only 2000m) Two riders passed me on the Clusaz - the last drawing alongside right at the top. Each time it was a small fright to find someone alongside because I was in a world of my own with my thoughts and didn't realise that there was anyone there. Most importantly and without reducing effort I took time to look at the scenery because it was truly superb and unique in this area. If we had been in the high Alps a course like this would not have been possible because we would have frozen on the descents due to the rain and cloud. As it was the descent from Clusaz did chill the body, but the low altitude kept it tolerable. The knowledge that working hard for the next climb would soon generate warmth again was comforting. It was hard to decide whether or not to keep on wearing the waterproof because it doesn't allow the sweat to dry - but then it's evaporation of sweat that cools you - so I kept everything on. Talking to others at the end this appeared to be the right choice as I seem to have suffered less than those who had removed their rain/wind proofs. Several times I questioned the wisdom of having chosen the long course - especially as the choice had not entirely been mine due to the confusion at the poorly marked separation of the courses. The separation had been much earlier than expected - leaving the majority of the long course still to do with the big cols to climb in poor weather. Apparently the companion I'd collected at the top of the Clusez had the same thoughts because when he spoke to me during a flat section of the descent it transpired that he believed he was on the short course and only had a short way  to go to the finish instead of another 50km and two more big climbs. He reacted by bailing out and trying to get home via the closed road that had been the actual cause of the change of route - he clearly couldn't face the rest of the long route. I have no idea what happened to him and guess he must have succeeded because he was not listed behind me in the results. Either that or he got lost and was never heard of again.
The final Col du Cucheron was long and difficult. It was half way up this col that one by one the last two riders overtook me. I wasn't giving up or seriously slowing down - they were just faster. Eventually I was left with the Voiture Balai's diesel engine plodding along slowly behind me. This didn't have a detrimental or discouraging effect on me - in fact it made me work harder to try to escape its clutches. It felt like I was being pushed up the hill by the sweeper up van. At the top of the hill there was a pit stop and I stopped for the first time today to refill my water bottles and put some Isostar tablets in them. It was almost 4 hours since the start and I'd drunk only one and a half of the small bottles (500ml) and taken nothing to eat. There was no feeling of hypoglycemia or anything - just muscle pain which I was trying to control with technique. I'd pretty much given up on nasal breathing as I felt blocked from the start. This might be due to not having felt too great during the few days before the event. When climbing I worked at lowering my heel at the start of the down stroke so as to use the hamstrings and glutes along with the quads. If the toes are down then all the effort goes into the quads and they cramp up eventually or wear out dramatically reducing the pace. Just changing the foot position was keeping me in the fight even though the two guys ahead of me had now disappeared from view and I didn't expect to see them again. At the pit stop I had a laugh with the drivers of the Voiture Balai after confirming that I was last. They told me not to worry as many people had elected not to even do the course and that I was going fine. In other words I was well within the time limits and wasn't about to be overtaken by the Voiture Balai and have my number stripped from me. I didn't rush the pit stop and headed off relaxed and relieved to have made it to the top of this climb. 
Finally there was a proper and long descent on a wide open and dry road free of gravel - just as I like it. I got the bit between the teeth and started chasing an annoying camper van and played at losing the Voiture Balai with 70km speeds and aggressive cornering. Almost got into trouble when the camper van braked inside a tunnel and it was a bit damp making high speed braking a bit hard on the bike! Basically I had unwittingly launched a 25km chase against the two guys in front - that's how long it took to overtake the second one. Hopefully along the way I was providing some entertainment for the drivers behind me as they watched me get back into the race. The battle at the back of the race was fierce. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to be last. I found energy that I didn't imagine was there and somehow felt that I could do this all the way. It's definitely psychological but this normally happens to me 5km from the finish not 30km. Shortly before the final 5km nasty climb - the steepest of the day - I caught the second guy just as he relaxed to eat something. This signaled to me that he was tiring, perhaps even starting to bonk, so I ripped past him with a word of encouragement however. I think that the Voiture Balai was rooting for me now because they overtook on the main road to help with the traffic control for the next turn off for the climb. They were smiling and almost cheering me on - or perhaps I was just delirious by now. The climb started fast and although it quickly steepened I worked hard at keeping up the power. There was a buffer now with two guys behind me - but then the second one came charging past me on the climb again - this time he was moving. He was really skinny and an obvious climber. My power to weight ratio was against me as my data figures later confirmed. Basically I had caught him up on the long flats with the same power output that I was using on the climbs. The only solution was to increase the power and use my best technique. He was rapidly reeled in again and was more than surprised that his best effort hadn't lost me - in fact I could see him visibly cracking now with his bike starting to weave around due to his extreme efforts. He must have been desperate not to be last. Eventually something pinged on his bike and if he didn't break himself it seemed that his bike was breaking. Whatever happened he was dumped and he didn't catch up again. The last part of the climb was really steep. This 5km climb is in both short and long courses so I'd covered it last year and people even on the short course were forced to get off the bikes and walk up. Somehow I had the energy to get back up into the anaerobic zone and blast up this part - ensuring a safe descent to the finish without any pressure to race downhill. The battle at the back of the course had been intense and there was no way I could have predicted this outcome - I'd fully expected to be last and never expected to catch up and beat the others - especially with the tough climb remaining. I can't explain it.

After Race

I changed into dry clothing straight away on finishing and sure enough the clothes were soaked and heavy with sweat. The driest parts were the feet - for a change - the SIDI shoe covers having worked excellently. Lunch was still being served at 2:30pm although few people were still eating. I slowly consumed everything because carbohydrates and protein are essential immediately after a hard workout to get the recovery process going.  I sat down beside John Thomas who was waiting in the hall despite having finished the short course at around 11:15am. He had finished 9th overall only 5 minutes behind the winner - another amazing performance and a 2nd place age category podium. He was there for the prize giving - which I was also in time to enjoy. Despite being 2nd he was disappointingly not awarded a cup but instead received a mountain walking stick engraved with  "Prealpes 2010" and a water bottle for his bike (worth 3 euros). Only the 1st place got a silver cup - so next time he needs to get first place. 10 minutes later he won the exactly same prize in the Tombola without even moving a muscle - much to our amusement.


Results   Long course -  54th out of 56 in 5:13:37hrs     13th out of 14 in age group.

Data   ( Distance used for X axis to give better profile for the hills. Normally Time is used instead to indicate the length of time spent in various heart zones.)

Technique   Worked on lowering the heel at the start of the down stroke so as to activate the glutes and hamstrings. This seemed to allow a better pace and endurance on the climbs and prevent any cramps as it made it possible to be selective about muscle use.
Felt like the saddle might still be a bit low. Feels good on the downward power stroke but also feels too cramped to get a good pull through, back and up. When it was 5mm higher it seemed that power was lost on the down stroke but perhaps that was a case of needing time to adapt. Will put the seat back up by 2.5mm now and see if there is an effect.

Breathing   Felt a bit under the weather for a few days before this race and breathing through the nose felt "heavy". It was no surprise to find the same during the fast start to this race. I ended up breathing through the mouth during the most intense efforts, but the rest of the time nasal breathing was possible. When mouth breathing I worked at controlling the breathing pattern - taking longer on the exhalation and still trying to keep the volume of breathing as low as possible.

Body parameters   Weight 68Kg , Blood pressure 109/70, Resting HR 45bpm

Nutrition Had a wholemeal pasta and beans feed the evening before with a small protein bar just before sleeping. In the morning had porridge early - more than 2hrs before the race but forgot the fruit to put in it. Had a horrible "pain au chocloat" also with a coffee while it was pouring rain before the race.
During the race my nutrition management was terrible - I ate nothing and drank only 1.5 litres of sports drink during the 5 1/4 hour effort. Energy felt good at the end though so I don't really understand this. Was able to get in to anaerobic effort zones when required at the end so there was no apparent energy dip despite not eating.

1 comment:

  1. Ian this is your best report yet! found myself totally absorbed in your experience to fight off the Voiture Balai,great reading.
    Something on the roof experience? I've had that :-)