Wednesday, September 29, 2010

La Dromoise - epic end of season beasting!

GPSies - La Dromoise

Sunday 26th September 2010

The last race of the season already! Summer is WAY TOO SHORT.

Bike racing, contrary to what the uninitiated might imagine - is a bit like a trip down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. Consider it as a temporary suspension of reality and a world of the unexpected stretching your senses beyond whatever you thought their limits might be. Each race is a new adventure and inevitably unfolds in a completely unpredictable manner. What happens when 1300 riders together are all sent in the wrong direction near the start? The wind gets up to gale force on the mountain tops? The roads on the mountain descents are freshly covered with gravel? There are unlimited variables and management issues involved plus quite a bit of luck - and hopefully not any bad luck. Not all choices are made with the narrow aim of getting a good result - much of the time you do things just for the pure hell of it - but honestly - I didn't force Chris off the road into a ditch deliberately today. The best part always though is getting off the bike at the end and switching off the strain and the pain! That makes "normal" feel very, very good.


After Thursday's Granier climb I sent a text to Chris with my time of 31'44". Friday morning I was just setting off in my van with big clouds of diesel smoke belching out across the road as usual from starting it up from cold, (similar to how your body reacts when cold starting a race on a bike), when Chris came tearing by on his bike heading up to Granier. It took a moment to recognise him as he was wearing his "Tour de l'Ain" shirt for the first time and it looks very professional. When he didn't stop I knew he was time trialing his way up the hill to compare his level with mine. Later he called to say that to his amazement at the top he clocked exactly the same time to the second. Based upon this result and my previous two races I suggested that we cooperate like a team on this one - rather than just do the course individually as we usually do. It would certainly be a new experience and perhaps quite difficult to adapt to. I think Chris might have still been a bit sceptical because until then I'd always been considerably slower - especially on hills. A 30 minute time trial is one thing but a 5 hour race is perhaps something else.

After that Granier climb I had concluded that the bike saddle was perhaps too high and so lowered it by 3mm while preparing the bike for the race. To my surprise the 3mm made an enormous difference and corrected all the problems I had started to identify with position on the bike. It was perfectly comfortable throughout the race and I didn't think about it once. The rear training tyre was also replaced with the newer racing one. Part of the reason for changing the tyre is for practice at doing so - without tools. The tyre can come off and go on with bare hands only but there is a bit of a knack to it. Being confident of doing this means that no tools need to be carried on the race - just a spare inner tube. The training tyres have covered almost 5000km this summer without a puncture. In fact I've never had a puncture on a modern racing bike, but you always have to anticipate one.

For once I wouldn't be roughing it in my beloved VW van. Chris was also going on his own and as it was quite a hike again (as for the previous two races) - about 4hrs driving South - it made more sense to save on fuel and go together in his Taliban truck. (Overpowered Mitsubishi  4x4 pickup). As usual I spent untold hours getting all my gear sorted out and the bike in race condition. It's amazing how many things have to be attended to and how one tiny thing wrong can mess up the entire event. It becomes like a religion that has to be carried out to the letter. Porridge in a small container, banana(x2), apples, sports drinks, gels or bars etc. That's a tiny fraction just to do with nutrition. I'll not bother to recount the entire bible here. I like the idea of having cycling as my religion. Perhaps if I'm ever unlucky enough to return to the Middle East and asked again by officials what my religion is I'll reply "Cycling". OK, cycling doesn't confer an immortal soul - which is what really defines "religion" - but it goes a long way toward developing longevity and so can bring you closer to immortality than any true religion will ever get you.

When Chris arrived it was a bit of a Rubik's Cube type of problem getting both the bikes and my bags into the back of the pickup. The pickup has a metal cover which closes down over open back. The problem is that carbon bike frames are fragile and easily damaged if mistreated so great care is required to avoid any inappropriate pressure or rubbing. Our wheels also have carbon spokes so nothing can be taken for granted. You don't want to weaken a carbon spoke and for it to shatter when you are on the bike. Carbon is incredibly strong when used correctly - but very fragile if misused.  It's definitely more enjoyable travelling in company so it was a good decision to go together. Chris had a Garmin GPS unit that is meant for topographic navigation (off-road) with detailed contour maps. He was convinced that it could also be used as a road navigation system - giving directions, but he had never managed to get that to work. Well, I succeeded but we were almost at our destination before I'd worked it out, which kind of defeats the purpose. On our journey we went across the Col de Rousset and it offered a truly stunning view of the valley below, perhaps because we more or less found ourselves driving across a cliff face a few thousand feet high. The rock formations in the Drôme are spectacular and could only have been formed by geological faults as the sedement layers were being pushed up from the sea floor by tectonic plates. Valleys produced by rivers are generally V shaped and by Glaciers they are U shaped. Here all the cliffs are vertical or overhanging.
Our destination was Die - a small village in La Drôme region of France. I'd been here last year and tackled the short course, but this year the aim was to do the long course and try to do relatively well in it - not just survive. We both had to register for the race on site and quickly found the race organisation tents. Our race licences were out of date at the end of August and our medical certificates too - but Chris was certain that nobody would notice. I handed over my license and watched - he was correct. We left with our race numbers, electronic ankle tags, a bottle of claret, new racing shirts and "after race" meal tickets. From there we exited Die on the main road West to find our lodgings at a small village 8km away. The hotel was borderline - but acceptable for an overnight stop. Basically there was no accommodation left in the region anyway so there was no choice. The 1500 or so cyclists here for the event had pretty much brought a small end of season boost to the tourist business. We declined the offer of a table for the evening meal and went in search of a pasta restaurant back in Die. The influx of hundreds of pasta munching cyclists however posed a slight problem in that the only pasta restaurant in town was booked up solid and the ultra negative "French" attitude of the staff meant that they were not going to squeeze in a single table or client more. We walked through the village and discovered that it is exceptionally weird - with lots of people with "dogs on a string" as Chris would put it. Basically dirtyish looking hippies, druggies, artists and weirdos of all sorts - all with a dog on a string. We could only find Asian, Tunisian or Bio Veggie restaurants and all with their dog on a string. I think that the overall weirdness is best captured in the following church bell tower photo that I took there...

This to me looks like something straight out of the cult 1973 Christopher Lee movie "The Wickerman". We wandered through town and eventually gave up. On our way into town Chris had spotted a van belonging to Jacques Mat from Bourg cycle club beside a hotel - so we headed there to find him sitting at table with friends and not yet served. He was astonished to see us and welcomed us to his table. Needless to say an enjoyable evening ensued and the meal was pretty good too - guinea fowl with PASTA! Service was a bit slow though and we did eat too late for my liking.

All day it had been pouring rain and blowing a gale so we were a bit concerned about how conditions would turn out. The snow level had dropped to around 1500m and there was a big temperature drop to around 6°C forecast and 12°C during the day - even at our low 400m altitude on the valley floor. We would be climbing to around 1100m several times during the race. Overnight we both found ourselves on the edge of coldness, but it was quiet in the hotel. The late meal guaranteed that we were both up at around 4am to take a pee. I hardly slept after that - probably due to pre-race nerves - which is generally a good thing.  The race start wasn't until 9am so there was no real rush in the morning. Looking out we could see that although the ground still hadn't dried at least it wasn't raining, but the wind was still strong. It's hard to look forward to a day in those conditions, but that's mostly psychological - you just have to get out there. By the time I'd eaten my porridge/banana mix, 1/2 a litre of sports drink, had some whole grain bread and butter, a couple of coffees and tried to eat some high concentration chocolate carb/protein pre-race gunge I was feeling pretty sick. Stuffing myself like that gives me a headache too - it's not nice, but it's a bit like putting on long range fuel tanks. We drove into town, got the bikes out, numbers attached and off into town to find a cafe for one last coffee, one last dump and then off to the start about 30 minutes before the start gun to get a good position. The trouble with doing this is that you don't warm up your muscles and you get cold waiting in the wind. Still, waiting is preferable to starting behind 1000 or so other racers. We met Jacques there and Daniel from the Bourg club and then sneaked along the side of everyone right up to the front. Only the professionals with priority numbers would get off well in front of us. Prior to moving forward I needed my usual last minute pee - stimulated by the last coffee - but we were perched on a bridge with no adjacent tree cover to dive into. With a bit of strategic positioning by Chris in front of me I managed to wet the pavement to the side of us without attracting too much attention. Peeing discreetly in front of 1338 people is not as easy as it might seem to be. Perhaps I'm just not exhibitionist enough. Normally there are a least a dozen people forced to pee just before the start but not today. For clothing I'd put on a thin short sleaved microfibre layer below the racing shirt and put on my wind/waterproof transparent layer on top. It was just the right choice and no adjustments were needed during the race. The mountain passes in the wind, with cloud cover, were predictably cold but the windproof layer kept the chill out.

The Race

The race did not start with a gun. It started with an opera singer. I hate opera. It's not music. I don't care what anyone says it's just ultra stressful shouting and a vain attempt to turn the human body into an acoustic amplification system. For god's sake, just go and buy a Yamaha amplifier and some speakers and learn to sing sensibly. Anyway, when the singer eventually stopped that (again very weirdly) was the signal for the start of the race. I don't know how anyone knew when he was exactly finished but I wasn't listening anyway. Off we went and in the mad rush that a start always is I tried to keep tabs on the position of Chris and Jacques. Jacques was tearing off ahead but I figured that Chris was just behind me so I didn't go after Jacques. It's best to stay a little bit cool at the start because that's when there is the biggest chance of a real pileup. We were off to a fairly good fast start and after one kilometer the gigantic peloton swerved off to the right at a roundabout and off towards a village. Arriving at this village the peloton came to a grinding halt and I of course suspected that there was a typical pileup ahead - but no - it wasn't that. There had been a signalling error at the roundabout where we turned off and we had all been sent in the wrong direction. This meant that everyone had to stop and turn their bike around and start heading in the opposite direction. I really wished that I'd had my headcam on to film that. We went from being near the front to being right at the back in one foul swoop. We would have been much better off staying in the cafe for an extra coffee in the morning and joining the start last. When we got back to the roundabout the cyclotourists who started after the racers had already arrived - several hundred of them, all pottering along in front of us now. Thank goodness the roads were extremely well controlled and many were actually closed otherwise it would have been total chaos. Chris and I had managed to stay together and we just went slowly to start with because people battling to get back to the front rapidly were putting everyone at risk of a real pileup. Eventually things settled down a bit and we started to step on the gas. We had let hundreds of people file past us after getting back on course, losing 5 full minutes just easing our way along, but now it was time to get back up to speed and start to reel them back in again. The race was at last underway.

I'm not in this group - the photographers thankfully missed us - saving us money!

The start of this race is effectively a 50km climb. A long gradual climb like this is called a "faux plat" or "false flat" in French and it's a good name for it. The roads were wide and in good condition so this permits relatively high speeds and means that being in a peloton is essential. Isolated you are finished. Climbing at high speed, even gradual climbing, is very demanding. This climb gets progressively steeper culminating in a real mountain climb at the end  - the Col de Rossas (1115m). I was under no illusion here - we had to chase any group ahead of us because we were behind from the start so I set to work overtaking and teaming up with anyone who would do rotations with me on the front for drafting. We collected a large peloton early on and when it slowed up a little at the start of a steep climbing section I just went straight past it leaving everyone behind except Chris who stuck on my wheel. Near the top of the climb on a bend we went past a tandem and when Chris went past it behind me I heard them swearing loudly at him - which is very French anyway so you just ignore it. I realised that Chris must have cut in front of them too shaprly after overtaking and then later noticed he had a tendency to do that but so did many others.

I could see that my heart rate was well within the Anaerobic Capacity zone for long periods. Normally in training it is very difficult to get up to this zone, but it felt good so I just continued like that. (The race took just over 5 hours and I spent 31.7% of the time in that zone - nearly all of that on climbs). On two occasions during this period I looked back and to my surprise Chris had been dropped. One of those was a bit disappointing because I'd managed to catch up another peloton and then had to lose it again to drop back. Further on when I was rotating regularly at the front with a couple of other riders I realised that Chris hadn't been there for a while so turned my head around to look back and was shocked to see that I was pulling a peloton of about 50 riders along. When I saw that I just backed off the accelerator and slipped back to join Chris. Chris said he couldn't understand what I was doing up there and that we had only done 40km and there was still a long way to go. He was undoubtedly right - but no one else was taking up the chase for the groups ahead and I found that frustrating. A couple of times Chris suggested that we slow down because the guys with us simply couldn't keep up. Well, it's much better to feel like you have too much energy than too little. I wasn't sure that I could keep this up and knew that there was some serious climbing to come. Normally you can only sustain anaerobic activity for a very short period but strangely I was doing fine with my heart rate right up there. Three or four hours from now I'd certainly know if it was a mistake or not.

Kilometre 43, Valdrôme, was the first pit stop area. Hardly anyone stopped there but I'd made the error or staying sheltered near the back of our large peloton. The road abruptly narrowed here right beside the pit stop area and then went into a short 30% climb that slowed people down even more. Inevitably those at the front pulled away and it only took a few weaker riders to block the way for everyone else. Chris was gone with the front of the pack and I was stuck behind. I had to ramp myself right back up into the anaerobic capacity zone to bridge the gap on my own and catch up. That was just the first time of several to come where I'd have to close a gap on my own. The next 7 kilometres would be steep climbing and I'd remain anaerobic the whole way to the top of the Col de Rossas. Once again I was soon pulling at the front. The large peloton that had been ahead and I'd been frustrated about no-one helping me to chase down, was now exploded and so we were rapidly reeling in the debris - and did so right to the top of the climb. At the top there we overtook a mountainbiker who was participating in the race. I was impressed that he was doing so well on such a machine. The descent was fast but a bit windy and not super safe so we didn't go too hard. The mountain biker stayed with us and benefited from the weight and extra stability of his bike on the windy descent. When we hit the next flats the mountainbiker was ahead drafting with a small group he had caught up with on the descent. I decided to go after this group to be able to cover the windy flats more efficiently together but once again dropped Chris and had to pull back after catching them. Eventually we wound in the other group together and started to form a small peloton. The mountainbiker was now dropped definitively. He just couldn't keep up on the flats even with drafting. When we passed La Motte Chalancon at the end of the flats we were at the half way stage, around 72km and I had performed strongly up until now - always looking out for Chris and sticking to our plan.

We had actually formed a small but strong peloton of 7 that was to stay (almost) together for the next 60km over the two toughest climbs of the day. Going into the second half of the race Chris came into his own and took the lead on the climbs pulling at the front. He kept up a strong pace often between 20 and 25km/hr on the long - less steep portions. One other rider was pulling the group along and he had red shorts with Cyclo St Foy written across them. Chris also lives near St Foy but as there are 11 St Foy's in France it all gets a bit confusing and very French (which are the same thing really). I did have a sneaky suspicion that Chris would have been happy to lose me here and probably expected to. There really was not an impression of "Oh I wonder if Ian is still there? If not then I'd better stop pulling this group faster up the hill and go back and get him." No there was definitely not that impression. Each time that I had any doubts about sticking with the pace I just asked myself what my legs actually felt like and they were fine - so I just stuck with the group. In fact is was the first time ever that I'd managed to climb in a peloton. Normally the more serious climbs were solo because I'd get dumped right at the start by any group I could stay with on the flats. It was a new experience holding position within a group and with there being wind in the face on certain parts of the climb it was a welcome situation to be in. There were a couple of older riders in the group and they were distinguished by the fact that they absolutely never did any work to pull the group - they always sheltered behind even on the flats. This definitely pushed them up the results standings at the end but there is something a bit lame about profiting from others doing all the work and not contributing. I'd rather finish lower down in the results and know that I'd done my fair share and had a great workout.

This second climb was called the Col de Roustans (1038m). Actually there had been a third col called the col de Fay's (1051m) just after the first col, but it wasn't a long climb. At the top of the col there was a crowd of people and a lot of noise. I noticed Chris and Red from St Foy speeding up and thought it might be the "Sprint" which was marked on the map. I stayed with them and waited until their spurt was over and launched past them to go over the summit first but discovered it was only a bunch of people dressed up as cows. Yes, the rabbit hole! Relaxing, I slowed down a bit as I was pulling over to the side of the road. Chris didn't spot those two things happening together probably because it all happened in 4D which is when you add time to 3 dimensions of space. The result was a loud cry behind me when Chris was forced to leave the road and couldn't get back on because of the edge of the tarmac. He carried on for a bit and almost ended up in a ditch but was able to remain cool and get everything under control. I slowed down to wait and see if he was OK. Now my plan to tell him off for cutting in front of people was in tatters. Passing the Col de Roustans the descent was long and the roads covered with fresh gravel. Chris was directly in front of me and he was descending quite cautiously which was sensible. It's hard descending with people in front because you can't clearly see the turns ahead and everyone brakes at slightly different times. Three times, due to difficulty with seeing and thus setting up the turns correctly I lost the back wheel, skidding out to the side - once quite violently. We all got to the bottom safely but it had been a stressful descent. The bottom of this descent was Pradelle, at kilometre 104 and from there it was straight into the next big climb, the Col de Pennes (1040m). The pace seemed even higher going into this 13.5km climb but right at the start I was hit by cramps in both legs - near the upper insertion of the quads towards the inside of both legs. When I felt the legs tying up I just eased off a little but kept pedalling and not letting on that there was a problem. Fortunately this happened right at the start of the climb so the group wasn't really organised and into a fast pace and this gave the cramps just enough time to clear up.

I was getting to know our small group by now and that meant getting to know their quirks. One guy endlessly fiddled with food, drinks, zips or anything that would take his attention off cycling in a straight line. He had to be avoided at all costs. Another was busy drafting all the time and always changing line to get the best protection - oblivious of anyone beside him. He also couldn't ride in a straight line and had to be avoided. The rest were pretty good. With Chris ahead and me at the back for the moment there wasn't much risk of us cutting each other up. It was at this point that I realised we were engaged in "flock" behaviour - like a flock of birds. We were a swarm of cyclists. Flock behaviour is studied in "complexity" science where complex behaviour follows from simple rules. If he moves - you move the same way - but keep the same distance. If you move to avoid an object then the move will instantly propagate. It's like one of those gigantic flocks of starlings that seems to move as one single intelligent object. If you move too far, to quickly or too slowly, brake or accelerate out of sync then you cause an accident. You are rapidly upside down in a ditch, lying on the road with cyclists piling into you or most often just spat out the back of the peloton due to a momentary loss of concentration.

The first part of the Col de Pennes was very fast and hard. We were climbing on a narrow road and still over 20 km/hr. Several times I felt myself starting to slip back but pulled it together and rejoined the group ahead. We had started to collect a few others as well, but most people we passed had already burned out and were only able to plod up the rest of the way. I did a mental check of my legs to see if they were OK and they seemed fine. I was however hoping for a steeper section to slow the madness down just a little. Chris was setting the pace again and when he tired Red would take over. I then realised that unconsciously I was playing a song in my head to distract myself mentally. It was a dumb song and not one I'd ever care about - but somehow my brain had decided that it was appropriate. Earlier I'd told Chris that this doesn't happen to me and that probably my years of musical practice gave me good control over such matters. Well, obviously I was wrong - at least under the current extreme conditions. I did manage to stop it very quickly though and it didn't get the opportunity to take over and torment me. Perhaps I didn't actually stop it because while I was distracted by it the peloton suddenly slowed down on arriving at a steep section and I almost ran into the back of an almost stationary cyclist. It was the classic traffic jam concertina effect which a lactic acid saturated brain seems to have a bit of trouble dealing with if taken by surprise. The steeps were good for me as I was definitely more comfortable than with the higher speeds and eventually we encountered a sign saying "Ravitaillement 500m" or "pit stop 500m". I quickly went up to the front and reminded Chris that it was the last pit stop and last chance to refill our water bottles. We had been going for about 4 hours now on a litre of water each so it was clear we had to re-supply. Knowing there would be problems with this I sprinted ahead of the group for 500m to gain time for refuelling. The women working on the refuelling stand did not seem able to open my screw top water bottles and get my sport drink powder in without going on a week's training course. Chris stopped for a few seconds and meantime the peloton just went straight past and I was left with a bunch of cackling hens trying their hardest to put me out of the race. I'm sure they meant well but it was hellishly frustrating and I regretted having even allowed them to get involved. Admittedly my brain was getting pretty fuzzy from lactic acid overdose and I'm sure it was totally my fault. There had been no option but to make that sprint though. This one and only pit stop was at Aucelon, 111 kilometres from the start and only half way up the climb. There were still 7km to go and all steep. Just after the pit stop there was a short descent and I saw Chris about 150m ahead - looking back in my direction at least once to see if I was there. From then on it was another sprint to try to catch up with everyone. All this uphill sprinting was taking it's toll and for the first time I started to feel the nausea that comes with lactic acid build up. Until now it had only been a mild head symptom but now the whole body was reacting. Regardless of that I still felt OK and had rejoined the group quite shortly after the descent and right at the start of the continuation of the climb. I'd sprinted the last bit uphill to close the gap and then settled into a rhythm. Over time the lactic acid levels dropped and I felt better again during the climb. The strategy had worked and I had managed to replace the sports drinks and remain with the group. I did notice that Chris was not prepared to wait for me though! Either he was worried about being dumped by the group himself, just wanted to ride his own race, didn't believe that I could sustain the effort and so would wreck his race or he thought that I was strong enough to make it back on my own. Which was it? (Leave your comments at the bottom please...) Either way we were all back together for the final push to the top of the last mountain pass. About 3km from the top everything began to change and the peloton started to explode. Chris and Red were burning out and the lazy sods who had done no pulling all day just went off ahead with not a word of thanks, encouragement or an attempt to help the guys who had been pulling them for 50km. I stayed with Chris and a third rider but didn't have the desire to even try to pull us up and close the gap. At the summit the lazy mob were only about 20m ahead but Red was dead in the woods. Chris had spoken to him when going past him but he appeared to have bonked so there was nothing could be done to help. He would certainly not enjoy the remainder of the ride home against gale force winds.

Once over the Col de Pennes it was straight into a steep narrow descent which was supposed to be the most dangerous of the day. In fact it was the best and most enjoyable of the day because the roads were clear of gravel. It was more like a slalom than a downhill and that's what I prefer both in skiing and cycling. At the bottom of the 11km descent I was with Chris again and we were hit square in the face with a powerful wind and another faux plat of 6km to climb. The rest of our small peloton - four of them were about 200m ahead now as they had been taking more risks on the descent and pushing hard. I decided to try to reel them in before the wind had a chance to wear us down and set off to bridge the gap. Four or five strong pedal strokes and I was once again engulfed in sharp debilitating cramps above the quads. I couldn't attack until this had been dealt with - but at least I knew that it would be OK once the legs had been working properly for a few minutes under load again. Eventually Chris and I were sorted out and we went on the chase. On my last attack we got within 5m of the group and then the wind hit me really hard slowing me down strongly just at the point where I was reaching exhaustion already. Chris apparently didn't spot what was happening so he didn't take over - in his mind we had already succeeded - but we hadn't. The group slipped away from our grasp. Over the final 10km even though it was on a slight descent we lost about 4 minutes to our lost peloton due to the powerful wind and our lack of numbers to give adequate drafting. I found myself wishing for once that I had put on weight instead of lost it during the summer - that way the wind wouldn't be able to stop me in my tracks so easily. Chris and I continued rotating all the way up until the end but the last 5km were very difficult and tiring. Somehow it's not so satisfying fighting against a wind as it is climbing a mountain. It's a different resistance. Crossing the line neither of us wanted to beat the other - we were beyond that. Just as we had completed our separate time trials the week previously in identical times to the exact second, we crossed the line together in exactly the same second after 5 hours 3 minutes 57 seconds of racing.

After Race

Passing through the finish line we headed straight back to the Taliban truck to get off the bikes and change clothes. Our only comments were on how good it felt to finish. We were pretty well wasted. The organisation at the food tents was good this year - no endless queue like the year before. The raviolis were inedible for me however so I didn't eat very much. The levels of lactic acid washing around my system were still so high that I had no appetite and it would take a couple of days to return fully. At lunch we met Daniel Deflin from the Bourg cycle club. He had in fact finished less that 5 minutes ahead of us and about 1 minute ahead of our lost peloton and we never saw him all day after the mass start. Perhaps the Bourg cycle club members should start cooperating more as a team in those events - it could be interesting.


It's pretty easy to see where the lactic acid nausea was coming from looking at this chart above. Nearly all the climbs were spent completely anaerobic. What amazes me is that I simply cannot do this in training and even in most races - but from time to time when conditions converge it happens.

Average heart rate 157 (91% max) over 05:03:57 hours

Maximum Capacity (Ave heart rate  174, 100%)    1.2km     00:03:02hrs        1.0% (of total time)
Anaerobic Capacity                         168,   97%   33.72km    01:36:42hrs      31.7%
Anaerobic Threshold                       162,   94%   28.09km    01:06:48hrs     28.09%
Super Lactate Threshold                  157,  91%   15.74km     00:32:41hrs     10.7%
Lactate Threshold                            152,  88%    20.20km    00:37:09hrs     12.2%


It was in July just over a year ago that Chris persuaded me to get on a racing bike - with comical consequences - on the day of the passage of the Tour de France on the Queen stage starting at Bourg St Maurice and heading over the Cormet de Roselend. Chris had been involved in racing already for a few years, beginning with mountain bike races - but the only competition I had ever done in my life was an obligatory forced passage through ski racing to obtain professional qualifications. The thought of taking a real endurance sport up to a good competitive level seemed so far divorced from reality that it could not be seriously entertained. Starting the "cyclosportive" competitions was quite daunting, even on the short and relatively easy courses. My old steel road bike could even have been considered slightly embarassing. The transition since then has been enormous. Chris's level, which although he is the first to describe it as "average" is well respected and for me it was an obvious reference to guage progress against - and a target to aim for. With Chris's own constant progress this target did appear to be somewhat unobtainable. My approach was to enter the most difficult and longest races around even if it meant risking coming in last. Each long hard race would give the body another opportunity to adapt. Ultimately the key to achieving the goal of getting to Chris's level lay hidden more in technique than in fitness - exactly as it does in skiing. The most important factor of all however, right from the start, was the motivation and encouragement provided by Chris. Chris's view of the last race was that I hadn't just moved up a level - but two levels.

So for next year the target is a podium place. Sunday brought 10th place in age category on the long course - so if I can get from nowhere to 10th in a year then going the rest of the way seems like a possibility now. The challenge to Chris will be to see who can get there first. (I still have another 5 kilos of fat to lose!) 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Granier - Pedalling Technique Progress

Thursday 23th September 2010

Short high intensity climb workout - last before resting up for race on Sunday. Legs tired and that shows in the slowness. 31' 44" - about one minute slower than current PB time.

Heart "Training Zone" time distribution for the actual climb:

AC (Anaerobic Capacity)      14%
AT (Anaerobic Threshold)     32%
ST (Super Lactic threashold) 17%
LT (Lactic  Threshold)           32%


Noticed that to maximise the pull with the psoas muscles for bringing the knee up it is best to start the pull - not with the heel actually pushed down slightly at the bottom of the downstroke - but still "down" relatively compared to having the toes pointed down. This requires a slight stiffening of the ankle and tension in the hamstrings. The pull up though is not done with the hamstrings as most people seem to believe - it is done with the psoas muscles. Tension in the hamstrings only appears to help keep the stiff ankle. I'm sure that many more biomechanical subtlties will clarify themselves over time. I suspect now that my saddle might be slightly too high which makes it hard to keep the heel down low enough at the bottom of the downstroke and makes it tempting to have the toes poitned slightly too much downwards. This seems to lose the strenght slightly for the pull up. I need to experiment now with lowering the saddle by up to 5mm - to where it was before the last change. I'd thought that "toes down" would actually help with the pull  - and that the straighter leg might be beneficial - but I'm not now convinced about it. Just a little bit lower then a "heel down" at the start of the downstroke should just fall into place and then a stiff but not fully extended ankle should help with the pull up. It might also help with the back soreness that has come along with that last 5mm saddle height increase.

Respiration Training

Tuesday 21st & Wednesday 22nd September 2010

Training this week is mainly about focusing on maintaining the fitness level between races.

Tuesday's training was just a short high intensity climb half way up to La Plagne. The legs were still tired from Sunday's race but it was still possible to train at high intensity and at high lactate levels. Regardless of tiredness I arrived at the top of the climb only seconds behind my personal best time - so it was a worthwhile workout. Time distribution - Anaerobic Threshold 30.7%, Super Lactate 22.8%, Lactate Threshold 7.3%.

Wednesday's workout was intended to be longer - starting at Aime and passing though Macot towards Laundry - from where there is the long steep climb up to Les Arcs 1800 - then the long descent to Bourg St Maurice. The highest intensity on this workout was Lactate Threshold at 8.8% of the time - but it still feltt like hard work. The Google Earth images below show the 54.54 km route... (Click to enlarge)

I'd started the workout quite late and managed to lose the sun when climbing in the Peisey valley - only to get back into it's warming rays near the top of the climb at Vallandry. I'd taken a wind jacket to give some protection if on the descent in the shade from Les Arcs. It was the first time I' used my new superbright USB rechargeable bike lights. It get dark rapidly on the return home but the lights were very reassuring: that's a link to the shop selling the lights - I highly recommend them - total of 17 grams both together. I used the front one last week clipped on a baseball cap for reading a book - very useful.

Respiration Training

Having failed to control my breathing during the last two races - where I've been focused more on pedalling technique and dealing with higher speed - the mid week training focus was an opportunity to shift it back to respiration. Both workouts were done with nasal breathing. Interestingly the high intensity workout was no problem with nasal breathing. I had more trouble on Wednesday's slower workout and had to breathe through the mouth on the last climb. This is interesting because it shows that problematic respiration control appears to have more to do with fatigue levels than workout intensity.


Training on your own is greatly assisted by music. Often I just listen to music radio for variety - but in the mountains reception is not always great; My favourite music is the Afro Celt Sound System - which is a fantastic blend of traditional and electronic music with haunting melodies mixed with driving African rhythms - great for lifting your mood. There is nothing better than finding yourself in the early evening warm sun at 1800m altitude, no traffic and in the middle of a great workout and listening to your favourite music with a bird's eye view of the stunning Mont Blanc directly in front of you.

Pedalling Technique

Felt a better physical connetion today with the pedalling - though the abdomen. I noticed that the upstoke and dowstroke on opposite sides only seem to connect when the downstroke is started with the heel down and the hamstrings engaged. If the downstroke starts with the toes down (more emphasis on quads) there is almost no muscular engagement of the lower abdomen. I think that during the last race I was tending to keep the toes down due to the slight back probllem and thus using less pull with the psoas on the upstroke. That's probably why I didn't feel much happening during the race - it all felt a little bit disconnected. I might lower the saddle slightly until the back is fully recovered - making it easier to keep the heel down at the start of the downstoke.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Les Bosses de 13" 2010

Sunday 19th September 2010

GPSies - les Bosses de 13 136km 2010

Excellent race – fantastic security and management. A great event and a great day out plus an excuse to visit the Med and go for a swim in the sea. Only two negative points! The split for the 136km and 164km courses was not clear so I took the wrong one – ending up on the 136km when I really wanted to do the 164km. The after race meal was horrible dry-ish raviolis – puke! They might even have been the leftovers from last year.

One big change you notice when your racing is a little bit faster is that the whole dynamics of the race changes. Everything happens and evolves much more rapidly – so that it all becomes a bit of a blur. My overall speed was slightly less than last year on the 94km course – but that was undoubtedly due to high winds that affected everybody.


Today was the day of the Grimpée du Semnoz (Hill climb time trail) at Annecy and I really very much wanted to do this again as I was certain to beat my time from last year by a good margin. The registration form had come in the post some months ago and I signed up and paid by cheque. Later the the same happened for Les Bosses de 13 and not until about a week ago did I realise that this year both races were on the same day. Unfortunately there was no real choice - much better to do a full race at Marseille than a short time trail at Annecy. Still it was disappointing to have to make a choice.

The distance from Aime to Marseilles is almost 500km so like last year I drove there on the Saturday to register and be ready for the race starting at 8 am Sunday. Despite registering and paying over the Internet months in advance the administrative process was still barely comprehensible confusion – typically French. They needed my medical certificate as my racing license had expired – that was the easy part. The Electronic number was collected along with the usual bag of goodies – but no goodies – and no explanation. Later walking though the tents and promo/shop stands I spotted a queue of people with goodie bags so I asked what it was about. Our gift racing shirts had been held up in Spain at production (2000 of them) so we had to register here for the size we needed. Eventually I understood that they had samples we could try on (getting there, eventually…) – the shirts would be sent in the post later. We then had to go to the other end of the stands to get our free water bottles etc. No one was directing here – it’s all made up as you go along – very, very French. At least, when Chris and his family turned up I was able to assist them through the palaver.

Chris went off to find his hotel and I set off to find a restaurant that was open early. Eventually I found a Wok/Pasta place that was open, easy to park beside and empty. The food was delicious and not expensive so I’ll remember where it was for next year – plus it was spotlessly clean, new, friendly and in a nice environment.

I’d been instructed to park for the night next to the line of camper cars in the secured university campus area and there seemed to be considerably more of them than last year. It was very windy and the wind outside blew me to sleep very quickly. It was the earliest and best night’s sleep I’ve ever had at one of these events – dead quiet.

Morning preparations went well and somehow it was possible to eat some high energy “chocolate/protein” mix even after the porridge/banana mix washed down by half a litre of sports drink (4:1 carbs to protein). Normally I can’t swallow anything else after the porridge so that was encouraging. It was hard to decide what to wear for the early race start because the Mistral wind had brought cold temperatures despite a now clear sky. In the end I decided on arm warmers and a very lightweight transparent waterproof windbreaker. The transparency is so that the race number is visible and the waterproofing just makes for a better wind proofing. This was not enough to prevent shivering while waiting at the start for 30 minutes in the wind. I thought of the penguins in the Antarctic and how they huddle together all winter and do a rotation for being in the middle of the group or the outside. I moved to the middle and stayed there – penguin wisdom works very well. I was worried enough about the strong wind to even wonder if it was wise to continue with the race. In other races there had been big pileups of cyclists even without a strong wind contributing. With my bike being so light the front wheel sometimes feels like it gets blown from under me when a strong gust catches the bike - particularly on fast descents. It can be very unnerving.

Apparently Chris was early for a change and was looking for my van in the car park already at 7am. Amazingly he didn’t find it and we were destined not to meet up until after the race was over. That turned out to be a real shame for a number of reasons. With my level being much stronger now we could definitely have worked together for most of the race – and perhaps I’d have avoided ending up on the wrong course. Near the race start free coffees were being handed out. Coffee seems to be extremely popular in the cycling world – probably because it has several positive effects for endurance and pain reduction and it makes you feel good on a cold early morning. The coffee van was also a mobile prize giving van and would later move to the finish area for prize giving. Chris ended up leaving his winbreaker jacket in this van. At the race start I spotted Jacques Matt– the organiser of the Bourg St Maurice cycle club. I went over to say hello. Jacques had led the one and only outing I attended with the club this year. To be honest I prefer training on my own to good music rather than the stress of organised club outings. I’m definitely not a “club” person.

The Race

The race started with the “priority” group going off first. Next year we have to find out how to get into that group. Then there were the rest of the 1500 to 2000 starters all trying to pile in behind them and get out of the narrow departure enclosure. I didn’t get a fantastic start but there were more people behind than in front so it wasn’t a disaster. The start is fast and downhill, but not everyone went out hard. My aim was to go very hard at the start and all the way up the first significant climb – to try to get into a hardworking fast moving group. On that first climb I overtook between 200 and 300 riders and a small fast nucleus had formed together by the top. We went off on a chase to wind in as many of the early starters as possible. By the time we had crossed the long flats we had collected at least 50 others and as the peloton grew it got faster picking up momentum all the time. This is where the late start pays off – because it isn’t really a late start as each person is registered electronically by the microprocessor in the start number pinned on the jersey. The only advantage to an early start is that it often gets you with faster groups straight away – but anyone who catches you up from behind is already technically ahead of you. One of the characters we collected was the guy with no legs. Last year he had complete carbon shafts from the knee down. This year the streamlined carbon was gone and in place were cylindrical aluminium posts clipped into Shimano SPD pedals. Last year my first encounter with him was when he overtook me on the second climb. Today the boot was on the other foot – so to speak - and I was overtaking him. There’s not much room for sentiment in racing! I notice also that I never feel sorry for people with punctures or mechanical problems – it just makes me feel too happy not to be unfortunate victim myself.

When the second climb started (2nd largest climb of the day) I overtook the entire peloton and left it behind. Wow – what a turnaround. Normally the entire peloton would dump me. Vengeance is sweet! Some of the stronger riders caught me again and formed a strong group for a long fast descent and flat section coming up. The climbs on the way out (from the start) had all been sheltered from the wind so it was safe to breakaway on them. The flats now however were in the wind and I was very glad to have a group with me. The advantage of a relatively large group is that you can just hang at the back anonymously and save your strength – which is exactly what I did as we caught up with others and the peloton expanded again. After the flats there was another abrupt but shorter climb. By this time we had formed a large group of about 40 so when we hit the hill I went right from the back to the front and did it again – left them all behind. Later three caught me up and two arrived at the top with me making a good drafting shield for the next descent.

Eventually I ended up working with those guys right up until the fork for the separation of the course into 94km or 136/164km. Most of the group disappeared off to the 94km but some of the stronger ones were still hanging around. Next was the most confusing part of the day! Not long after this fork there was a loud cacophony over a hand held Tannoy. I heard what I thought was “Cent soixante quattre, tourn droit” or “One hundred and Sixty Four - Turn Right. (which is also what was indicated on the route map) In fact it was “Cent soixante quattre , tout droit” – meaning go straight ahead at the next roundabout for the 164km course. I was leading and pulling the small group at this point so full concentration on details was impossible. Ultimately, we turned right and missed the 164km course. Lots of people must have done the same. Chris I found out later had interpreted the Tannoy exactly the same as me but at the last second saw a panel on the roundabout and went the right way.
Final Descent
The 136km course tuned out to have its own special challenges. We had turned off onto a single lane road with a long series of ups and downs of over 20% steepness. On one of the descents I hit an unseen pothole so hard that I thought it might have cracked a bone in my right hand even through a gel padded glove. Next day however there was only swelling and no blood so it’s most likely to be deep bruising. A few yards further on another cyclist was off his bike (but OK) so I assumed he had hit the same hole. Most impressive was how the carbon Canyon bike and carbon spoke wheels didn’t suffer any damage. I suspect that older technology would have blown apart. I was glad however to have aluminium rims and not fragile carbon rims – which I believe are too easily fractured on impact.

After this long and slower section we came to the first control point where the electronic tags registered us passing through. This was the turn off for the start of the longest climb of the day by La Coutronne. The sun was starting to warm up the air and it was by now around 10:30am. I was still wearing all the warm clothing I’d started with so that would soon have to come off. Meanwhile I ate my second almond energy bar. This time I’d promised myself to be proactive with eating. Each hour I’d make myself eat a bar and wash it down with energy drink. It actually seems to get easier with practise. The sugary almond/marzipan type bars melt in your mouth anyway so you don’t even have to swallow them as solids and they give no stomach ache. Quite close to the summit of this climb there was a refreshment stand and this time I stopped and asked someone to fill my bottle and empty a 4:1 powder into it while I removed the windproof jacket. I kept on the arm warmers though. For a few minutes after starting again on a short temporary descent it was cold to have all the accumulated sweat evaporating suddenly – but when the climb recommenced that problem soon vanished. I easily caught up and overtook people who had passed me during the pit stop. Then we came to the big descent. This descent was dangerous! The 164km racers were coming up in the opposite direction as we were bombing downhill. Meanwhile the road was open to cars and they were trying to dodge between us all, understandably impatient. It was only after this descent and later on another control point that I started to recognise the return road from last year. I asked one guy where the fork for the 164 course was and he looked at me incomprehensibly. Until this point I’d still believed that we were on the 164 course. It took about another 15 minutes for me to find out that we were definitely on the 136km course and only 30km from home. A couple of the stronger guys managed to pull away from me on a long climb and for the first time in the day I became properly isolated. Not just isolated but depressed at having failed to get on the course that I was aiming for. Now there was the added issue of the strong Mistral wind in the face on the return journey and it was rapidly turning into a solo time trail with me against the Mistral. Some 10km on and the guy I’d puzzled earlier on by asking about the 164km turn off appeared at my side – just in time for the next climb. Perhaps he had been drafting for a while without me knowing. Whatever, he would later prove to be unwilling to do any work against the Mistral and was determined to draft his way to the finish line. Eventually a small group caught up and that allowed me to accelerate again and gave me a rest from the wind – though I continued to rotate the lead with two of the others.

Eventually we arrived at Cassis and the final hard 10km climb of the day – straight into the wind. We started the climb in a small group of about 7 or 8 and I must have been tiring by now because they all pulled ahead of me. I often find that just plodding along I’ll get into a rhythm and pick up speed and that’s what happened here – so although most of the group were gone there were three that I caught again and passed – including one who had been there on the climb at the refreshment stop a couple of hours earlier. For a while I was isolated against the wind but I made an effort to catch up with a younger guy who was going quite strongly. Drafting him for a while made a real difference and after recovering I took the lead hoping that he would get the message to cooperate and do this together. He understood and that was great – we made good progress. At some point we picked up a third member which shared the work even better. About half way up the climb we came across Jacques - who I’d said hello to at the start. He was flagging a bit but he and the guy with him jumped onto our train. At one point after leading for a while I was almost dropped due to an unexpected acceleration – but responded to a wave from Jacques to hang on. The acceleration was only temporary and things settled down again. One kilometre from the summit I accelerated and didn’t let up. The group was dropped straight away and I kept the pressure on right over the summit and into the descent. Legs hurting and now isolated there was no way to let up now without being swallowed up again by the group behind. I kept up the battle all the way down the descent and into Marseilles and then over the long climb back up to the finish line. The final climb was long but I maintained 30 km/hr practically all the way without looking behind. There is a steep ramp at the actual finish and despite the legs feeling dead I forced even more out of them and in the final second overtook one of the strong guys who had left me behind earlier on the climb from Cassis. I’d also managed to put a 2 minute gap between myself and the following group and knew that I couldn’t have done much more.

Chris actually ended up on the prize giving podium - but unfortunately only to look for the jacket he had left there at the race start. They didn't want to help him and were very officious and French about it all - but Chris had the measure of them and with characteristic doggedness he wore them down and they eventually they gave him free reign of the podium until he successfully found his jacket.

Me - Middle distance course 136km, 2350m climbing
04hr 31’ 58” Ave 30.00 km/hr  (Winner 03hr 42' 43" Ave 36.64 km/hr)
Place 148th overall, 21st in age category (501 participants, 79 in age category)
Chris - Long course - 164km, 2800m climbing
05hr 46' 30" Ave 28.4 km/hr (Winner 04hr 39' 30" Ave 35.21 km/hr)
Place 120th overall, 16th in age category (269 participants, 41 in age category)

After Race

After the race was over and the horrible lunch was consumed, Chris and his family headed straight back to Savoie and I headed back to Cassis - where we had cycled through earlier - to the beach. I knew where to park at a small cove from having visited it last year. The beach was covered in sunbathers and very few were in the water. I'd come really to swim and use the beach showers to get clean and relax after the race. The swimming would be great for the back too. Putting my feet into the water I'd have been forgiven for mistaking it for the North Sea it was so cold. Last year it had been very warm so this was a real surprise. Apparently the problem was that the Mistral wind stirs up the water bringing the cold water up to the surface from deeper down. I was there to swim so determinedly I waded out slowly into the waves, taking time to adapt to the cold and using my hands to spread water over my body. More importantly I made an effort to minimise breathing, almost holding my breath at times - so as to increase CO2 and cause an increase in circulation to my extremities and skin. I'd read about this recently so it was a real opportunity to try it out. Eventually I was in the water and swimming. Within about 30 seconds it felt as if my skin was burning hot - not cold! Perhaps the respiration trick actually was working as it should do? I've only ever felt that before unintentionally as a child when making snowballs with bare hands. Regardless of this I didn't remain in the water for too long because I wasn't sure if it was dangerous. On exiting the sea it was really difficult to keep my coordination and avoid falling over. When I bent down to get a towel and then stood up again I kept on going backwards for about 6 steps - almost falling. It might have been a good move to have gotten out of the water when I did. That's when I met and older man just about to go for a swim. He said that it it often got much colder and that it was OK. He explained the Mistral effect to me. I just stood there enjoying the sun and watched him swim for a while. He was a very good swimmer. When he left the water however I saw him stagger left to right to left etc - exactly the same as me. He bent over to place his shoes for putting them on at the water's edge and then stood up. Mistake! Off he went backwards for about 10 steps and eventually clattered down on the pebbles on his backside. He was OK but had quite a bit of blood seeping from small cuts on his buttocks. Yes, I'd made the right decision to get out when I did!


Ave heart rate 151 bpm and max 171 bpm

Much better food management than ever before. Managing to eat a small sugary bar every hour appeared to prevent any real dives in energy levels and there were no headaches or "foggy thinking" periods. I missed the bar on the 4 hour mark but this did not appear to cause any problems and I was able to pick up the pace and effort for a strong finish on the final climbs. 

Heart Zones by percentage of time:

24.3% Anaerobic Threshold zone.
19.4% Super Lactic Threshold.
25.0% Lactic Threshold .

Breathing: was unable to use nasal breathing once again. Just not ready for it at this new level.

Had tweaked my back earlier in the week and it was worrying me even about whether or not I should race. I had put the saddle up higher during the week and hurt the back during the climb up the Cormet de Roselend - but only felt it on starting the descent. I'm assuming it happened due to the greater solicitation of the psoas muscles attaching to the lower vertebrae - where I have had surgery a few times in the past. I'd not been feeling well that week anyway and that can make the back even more fragile than usual. I'd made sure to stretch out the psoas (leaning backwards over a Swiss-ball) but it was still feeling blocked. I contemplated lowering the saddle a bit but decided to leave it and take a chance on the day. In the event the saddle height posed no problems - I didn't think about it once during the race - and I was able to pull well on the pedals, hence the great improvement on the climbs. Getting off the bike at the end of the race I could hardly walk to begin with - due to the legs being tired - and the back did feel more blocked and sore than before the race. I anticipated problems to come. Unexpectedly I slept better with the back giving no problems and it felt much improved in the morning and has continued to improve since - with regular stretching of the psoas along the way. The race appeared to help not worsen the back and the saddle height does not appear to be the problem - it was just a coincidence or simply not being used to working so hard with the psoas - (legs, abdomen combination for pulling up the femur/knee). During the race I'd become accustomed to the extra saddle height and once again it never felt too high - but facilitated a more effective use of both legs simultaneously.

Wind: The wind had been worrying at the start but amazingly in the heat of the race it was almost completely forgotten about. I was apprehensive about participating in that Mistral but now know that wind is not a thing to worry about. Perhaps in the back of my mind was the image of a pro cyclist this summer being lifted off the ground on his bike by the wind during a time trial?

Timing: The offical course distance appears to be long by about 5km and the official timing short by about 5 minutes. Also the amount of climbing appears to be considerably underestimated by about 400m. What is probably more important though is the result relative to others.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Psoas Secret?

Wednesday 15th September 2010

Dragged myself out for another workout. Yup, not too enthusiastic. Just a bit tired.
Changed out the rear tyre. The "Continental Grand Prix S" tyre I use for training has done 4000km so far and is still going strong - it'll see out the season. The centre is a bit flat and thin so for extra security and better rolling I put a newer tyre on for racing only.  
The workout today was a standard climb up the Cormet de Roselend to 2000m altitude over about 20km. Bad weather was coming in rapidly as indicated by a really spectacular and dramatic display of high cirrus and lenticular wave clouds. When that happens the Cormet can be a real pig near the top because you get the wind driving you hard back down the mountain.

Deciding to eat some lunch in Bourg St Maurice prior to the workout I ended up with a ridiculously oversized "pain baignat" to eat. It's a gigantic round French tuna, egg and mayo sandwich the size of an average car wheel. OK, maybe not that big - but it feels that way in your stomach afterwards. The half litre of 4:1 carb/protein drink prepared for the bike ride seemed a bit like overkill now.
My normal time for this climb is between 1hr 25' and 1hr 27' and that hasn't budged since last year. This was definitely not a good day to be chasing records. The legs proved to be still tired from Sunday's race and that tiredness no doubt had something to do with over-breathing for the entire race - guaranteeing a major lactic acid build up and a slow recovery.
The hill was climbed with no enthusiasm and with less energy in the legs that could have anticipated. The start - which a year ago I had struggled at with a wheel rubbing against the frame at 8 km/hr was now being covered at a speed of 20km/hr - something I truly never expected to see. The kilometre markers on the roadside did seem to pop up rather quickly though such observations are very subjective when engaged in rhythmic physical effort. The heart rate monitor was going nuts - either that or my heart was packing in. Each time I made a greater effort the heart rate would drop. On relaxing the heart would go up to about 120 bpm and with a strong effort it would creep down to about 90. If I maxed out it would drop down to around 40. Totally weird and a bit troubling. I thought about it for a while and as I felt fine and was breathing easily by the nose I came to the conclusion that my heart was probably a lot better constructed that this damned heart rate monitor - so time to forget the technology. Near the top it started to become clear that I was on for a good time so with 4km to go I dropped the nasal breathing and started gunning for it straight into the wind. Well, sort of gunning it because tired legs didn't let that get too much out of hand. To my astonishment though the time at the top was around 1hr 15' - a very big improvement and more confirmation that even on a bad day the technical changes have really changed the game.

Technical Analysis

Prior to setting off the saddle was raised another 5mm (now 45mm higher than the recommended textbook height with the heel on the pedal etc.) Immediately this felt better. I was now used to the previous height after originally feeling that it was slightly too high and now that height felt too low. I'd suspected that this adaptation might take place.
Riding with the saddle even higher clarified for me what the changes really were in the pedalling. In all the texts I can find people write about pulling up using the hamstrings and the glutes - or they don't actually specify anything. Nowhere can I find anything explaining what I'm actually feeling - and that is that the leg is pulled up by the psoas muscles - the big muscles that attach the pelvis and lower spine to the top of the femur - the major hip flexor muscles. We use those muscles to recover and raise the leg in front for running, jumping, walking - everything. It's how the leg works. Cyclists don't seem to think that those muscles exist - but they are big and powerful. Not only are they powerful but they connect the movement from one leg to the other. The abdominal activity I felt is due to the abdomen preventing the pelvis being pulled down at the front as the psoas muscles do their work. With the saddle even higher this extends the psoas more and so permits a strong contraction and pull up of the femur - simple and effective. The difference to my performance with this is shockingly big - already tested in a 151km race - yet nowhere in text books, Internet articles or cycling magazines do I find any mention of this. Totally weird - but then pretty damned standard.

When I learned to teach skiing I eventually understood that I had been trained by morons who understood absolutely nothing about the phenomenon of mechanics. They discuss "dynamic balance" without knowing that it is a mathematical trick and not a reality. They talk wisely and knowledgeably about "balance" and instruct people to aim for this property that is diametrically opposed to their aims. Absolute professional idiots of the first degree - without a clue.

When I learned violin I struggled endlessly with the scales, always fighting a losing battle to be accurately in tune and not get lost on the fingerboard and with my ear. No book anywhere ever pointed out to me that the task was impossible. The musical scale I grew up with and that almost everyone in the western world uses is called "Equal Temperament". Guitars, pianos all come fretted or tuned to this. No one ever points out that in any octave every note is out of tune - except the notes exactly on the octave, Between each octave - every one of the 12 semitones is artificially positioned according to a mathematical logarithmic scale which has absolutely nothing do do with natural harmonics or the human ear. It's a total mess. Sure you can work around it if you know about it - but otherwise, with an unfretted instrument you are in the s**t.

Does it then come to me as a surprise that no one bl**dy well knows what they are talking about in another physical activity. Well, frankly, no.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Les Routes du Ventoux

Sunday 12th September 2010

Mont Ventoux probably owes most of its fearsome reputation to the tragic 1967 death of top British cyclist Tom Simpson during the Tour de France.  I can still remember at 8 y.o. seeing this tragedy on television. It was probably the first time I'd heard of the Tour de France and it wouldn't be until 1984 that Robert Millar would win the "King of the Mountains" title, bringing our attention back to this incredible race. Simpson's immortal last words were "Put me on my bike". His death is often attributed to "exhaustion" but that is normally impossible. He was certainly killed by drug abuse.


I drove down to the Southern Alps the day before the race, fortunately in time to register before the 7pm closing time. The race was to start and finish in Villes-Sur-Auzon - a small town in the middle of nowhere but dominated by the impressive Mont Ventoux. Fortunately I'd emailed the organisers in advance and knew that registration was at the "salle polyvalent". On arrival the town name wasn't even visible but luckily I spotted a small sign for "salle polyvalent" and made a bee-line for it. Sure enough there was the registration stand and I'd made it with 5 minutes to spare after a 4hr motorway trip. The start was to be at 08:30am in the morning at about 200m from this point, just outside the town. Visiting this site and speaking to people setting up equipment it transpired that the finish would be at the other end of town about a kilometre away and there was parking and even a campsite there. Typically none of this information was publicised. With bearings established I parked up in town to look for a restaurant.
The climate was much warmer at this lower altitude and latitude. Walking through town I spotted one cyclist sitting in an outdoor terraced restaurant eating a copious plate of spaghetti bolognaise and decided that was where to eat. Thoughts of sitting close to him and engaging conversation about the race were quickly squashed when he unbelievably lit up a cigarette. There is no way that a smoker could participate even half seriously in such an event. Smokers are not only physically wrecked but they are so mind numbingly unconscious about their own health that they care absolutely nothing for the health of others in their proximity. The waitress however was amazing, very friendly with everyone and speaking in English at every opportunity - so totally un-French for a French woman. After the meal I drove to the parking near the finish line - it was quiet there and perfect for sleeping. The place would be busy in the morning so perfect and secure for leaving the vehicle parked for the day.
On the morning of the race it was an early start - at 06:15am with porridge cooked with a banana. While the porridge was cooking I made up three bottles of sports drink - one for now and two for the race. This sports drink is called "4:1" because it contains carbs to protein in that proportion. It's now understood that it's better to include protein during exercise to prevent muscle protein from being broken down and consumed for energy. I also prepared a high density chocolate pre-race food mix - that ultimately couldn't be eaten at all after the porridge and banana.
Sleep had been fine but perhaps due to an underlying physical tiredness (legs were sore from technique changes during the week) or due to eating too much in the evening, it was impossible to breathe through the nose. I was aware during the night of being forced to breathe through the mouth - so that was not a great sign - meaning the body is under stress somewhere. (Later it transpired that Christiane at home had a full blown cold - perhaps it was my system dealing proactively with that virus that caused the breathing issues).
Cycling though town early I found a small cafe open and bought a very welcome coffee. There was a bit of queue of cyclists there - all engaged in the same pre-race ritual - drinking coffee and then visiting the toilet. Despite this being my third toilet trip this morning I knew - correctly - that I'd still need to pee again five minutes before the start of the race - and that if I didn't I'd need to stop to do it during the course. Don't know if it's due to the pre-race sports drink or due to tension.

The Race

Two courses were proposed - the short 100km or the long 151km course. I'd registered for the long one - but with plenty doubts lingering over the wisdom of such an endeavour.

Here is a link to the "official" French account of the race - a good opportunity to improve your French...

Here is a direct link to the results for the 151km course...

The course plan below shows the extra loop (to the right) added for the long course. The "white" splodge is the bare, wind blown, sandy summit of Mont Ventoux - the "Giant of Provence". 

Organisation of the race was to be a problem throughout. This is very unusual in France and it's the first time I've encountered such shortcomings. There was no electronic timing - just a number to pin to the back of your shirt. The start of the race was neutralised by a security vehicle for the first 1.4km so as to get safely through the town and into the countryside. It appeared however that the security car was holding up the main peloton for most of the first 30 minutes.
There was a terrible tendency for the peloton to bunch tightly and grind to a halt for no apparent reason - exactly as in a motorway traffic jam. The narrow roads may have been the real cause though with 420 riders all charging along together. Inevitably there were some nasty pile ups. The first pile up was the most spectacular with at least a dozen riders on the ground and in the ditches at the side of the road, bikes broken and carnage everywhere. This happened at around kilometre 10. There may have been other incidents going on further behind as the main peloton was about 25% of the riders, but I didn't hear about any. I managed to stay with the main peloton for much longer than usual, around 40 minutes, but instinctively remained at the back because it felt dangerous. The big pile up took place near the front of the peloton but despite this I almost didn't manage to stop in time - with the back wheel in the air due to powerful breaking and the guy in front of me leaving the road and falling off. There's a danger at the back of the peloton that you will get dumped if there is a break further ahead but it was worth that risk for the safety advantage. A few kilometres further and once again bodies and bits scattered across the road. Despite the delays at the back due to the accidents ahead the peloton remained intact.
The concertina action of the peloton continued for the entire 40 minutes until the "Col de la Madeleine" (yet another Col de la Madeleine!). It had been very hard work keeping with the main peloton but the new pedalling technique was making it possible. On the first climb I pushed hard to avoid being dropped as a split had opened up just ahead. One rider I overtook shouted in French "take off the motor" - a humorous allusion to mechanical doping! Understanding his humour I replied - Not yet! The pedalling technique was certainly having the desired effect. The joker beside me was no 179, Jean Luc Caret-Tournier from Chamonix. His humour did not let up all day and I was destined to encounter him several times.
Very early on it became clear that nasal breathing was not an option today and that it was best to resign to mouth breathing and make the best of it by at least trying to reduce ventilation as much as possible.

Jean Luc was an excellent descender and a great bike handler on the corners. Unfortunately I didn't find out about his background but heard him say to someone else that he came from Chamonix - which most certainly means that he skis - thus the fearless descending. It was a good lesson following him into the bends - but a bit scary as it was faster than I'm accustomed to. On one such bend someone braked in front of me and forced me to brake - not a good idea. The back wheel slid out a bit during the bend but recovered - so from then on I stayed wide of anyone who was indecisive and hesitant. The Col de la Madeleine split the peloton and I was still very happy to be in the second group and fighting. This was real racing, unrelenting, fast and hard. Lack of technique had deprived me of this experience up until now, but the scary thing was a question lingering in my mind: "Could I possibly keep up this totally frantic pace?"
Before long we were on the long 21km climb up Mont Ventoux. Jean Luc's presence behind me was evident from his fast and loud unconscious breathing - at least twice as fast as my own. This was reassuring for me to hear because it probably meant that he was having to work harder than me. Breathing gets pushed up due to lactic acid accumulation. It's a bit of a trap really because the hyperventilation response to lactic acid then leads to a drop in CO2 levels in the lungs and blood and this creates an oxygen deficit. Basically, the panting and heavy breathing to try to get more oxygen have the opposite effect. I had no doubt that Jean Luc would outlast me because he was obviously very experienced - but it would have to be due to some other weakness in my conditioning or performance.
There was one tiny refreshment stand somewhere on the middle of the climb and as I'd hardly consumed any of my own drinks there was no point stopping. In all I consumed less than two litres of liquid and one very small almond/marzipan bar during the race.
To my surprise the Ventoux climb was not turning out to be so difficult. There were very long stretches of 11%+ gradients, but the pedalling technique was working miracles. Normally I'd be brutally dropped right at the start of something like this - but today was different. Nobody overtook me on this climb. The front peloton had disintegrated now and the stragglers were being reeled in. This was interesting. Fortunately there was no real wind yet as Mont Ventoux is reputed for high winds - that would come later! Having started early the heat wasn't too bad either. There was no need for a windbreaker for the descent on the other side - the coolness of the summit being welcome. The top of the Ventoux was a bit crowded with tourists and there was very little in the way of traffic control for the race - in fact very little had been seen all along and the traffic was heavy enough to be uncomfortable. The route was marked with crude white arrows and "RV" painted on the road - but there were no signs at eye level and very few people signalling. During the descent I almost took a wrong turn but fortunately spotted someone ahead - it was a close call.
The effort to climb Mont Ventoux was not negligible. After about 02:20hrs of intense effort from the start  it would be hard to maintain that on the descent. I'd been isolated on the summit but there were several riders just ahead so I used my descending skills to catch them up. Just at the point of catching them there was the confusion about direction and everyone seemed to evaporate - fortunately leaving me in the right direction but alone again. For several minutes there was a period of "relaxation" where there was just no motivation to push hard - then out of the blue appeared Jean Luc hammering past me - as usual on the descent. There was no choice but to catch on to the train... Jean Luc's descending quite frankly scared me. He had someone else with him who was also very good - a match for him in terms of bike handling. I had to slow slightly on the bends and then put the power on each time to catch up again. This certainly brought me back to life and got me racing properly again. All the time my head was telling me that my legs won't make it  - it's too fast. In fact there wasn't too much time to worry about that due to the frightening speed of the descent and cornering - which was probably a good thing. It was really important to hang on because those guys would be good fighters and team mates on the flats later, where becoming isolated would be a disaster - especially as the wind was picking up throughout the day. In the end we formed a bunch of about five riders and continued with fast progress right up to Sault.

At Sault there was a fat guy acting as a signaller in the middle of the road and he stood there doing nothing. After passing this dumpling Jean Luc, slightly ahead of me suddenly pulled over. I knew that the branch off location for the two different courses was in Sault so I guessed there was a problem - but had to shout a few times to Jean Luc and others to be sure that we had taken the wrong course. Jean Luc somehow had a clearer idea and backtracked. Soon I caught on and was behind him - but a bit too far behind. By the time we had reached Sault our group had grown to around 10 riders, but nearly all had taken the short course - which is why we followed them at first. Only three of us were aiming for the long course and only one got it right first time. Apparently it had been marked on the road about 50m before the turn off but I saw absolutely nothing. Really crap organisation and signalling - which is what I shouted to the great dumpling when I went past again in the other direction. Jean Luc had luckily caught up and teamed with the other guy and there was no way I could catch the two of them working together - so I was dumped, isolated and annoyed all thanks to useless practically non-existent course organisation - for which 420 people had each paid 35 euros!!!  

Just as I was beginning to despair someone out of nowhere caught up and went past me fast, so I stepped on the gas and jumped on his tail. He didn't seem interested in rotating the workload so I happily just let him pull. We were on flats and descents in general at this point so ahead I knew that Jean Luc would be in his element and not holding back. My tow was going great guns though and it didn't take long to bridge the 300m or so gap and catch up with the others. We then all continued to work in rotation for a while, especially as the terrain was now alternating between climbing and flats. Suddenly the powerhouse who had pulled me up to the others vanished. It turns out that he wasn't in the race - he was just some guy out for his Sunday ride! That was a real stroke of luck by any standard. Never-the-less Jean Luc was quite impressed that I had caught up again. 

Eventually another group of four caught up with us, probably because we managed to lose more time getting lost again. This time I had a tap on the back and a wave from a rider who had been discussing bikes at the start of the Ventoux climb - he was on a Lapiere bike today but had bought a Canyon like mine and was also very pleased with it. Up ahead of us was what resembled a wall going up a few thousand feet and we were due to climb it. The climb was ominously named "Col de l'Homme Mort" which means "dead man's pass". My energy level was dipping and it was clear that it was going to be tough. Sure enough I had to let go of the group and start to fall behind - but very much less than usual. Looking at the Garmin the speed was still about 12km/hr which is respectable for me on any climb - so once again I was surprised. There was no trouble keeping form with the pedalling technique. Fortunately I'd put a couple of almond/marzipan bars in my pocket and decided that there was nothing to be lost by trying to eat something. It was extremely difficult to swallow anything, but with some of the energy drink it was eventually possible to consume one bar. Very shortly after this the energy started to return to the legs and the gap to the others lessened instead of increased. Strangely the energy drink itself didn't do the job - though admittedly I hadn't even consumed a litre of the stuff and had covered over 90km including the Ventoux before starting to feel tired. It was now about 3:35hrs into the course and way past time to eat something. Jean Luc had swallowed a banana several kilometres back and it looks like he had made a good move.
Further up this climb there was another (the second and final) refreshment stand. Normally they don't have them during a climb but wait until you get to the top so that you are capable of eating. Did I say the organisers were useless? Even worse there were no cups for drinking. I had emptied packets of 4:1 powder into my water bottles and filled them with water so now it was not possible to drink any clear water or orange juice. I just grabbed one of the big drums of water and poured it directly into my mouth and all over me. It was boiling hot by now so the shower was welcome however I choked and could hardly breathe for the next few minutes as I clipped in and resumed cycling and choking up the hill.
Altogether four people overtook me on this 10km climb so it wasn't too bad. Jean Luc had vanished into the distance with the group but in the results he placed only five minutes ahead so that appears to be all that was lost on the climb altogether. 

On the flats at the top of the climb of the dead man's pass I wasn't completely dead but was certainly tired and a bit demotivated, but hanging in. That's when I first met race number 83, Albert Sannier. Albert was clearly in a younger age category (so was Jean Luc!). Albert went past me and there was no response from me. On the descent he steadily pulled away. The problem was that this "descent" was due to last more than 50 kilometres and it was directly into a very strong wind which had whipped up at the end of the morning. Albert got about 250m ahead by the time we arrived on some flats and small climbs. There was no one ahead for him to catch and only me behind. He kept looking behind to see where I was so I understood what was going through his mind. My energy level had somehow recovered after the rest during the descent and so I could power up the small climbs. When Albert saw that he was not pulling away and that the gap was closing he got smart and slowed down to let me catch up. He then stayed in front for five minutes to let me recover and then we started to work hard together - an excellent partnership that lasted right to the end of the course. 

Quite frankly I was apprehensive when Albert slowed down because I still didn't know if I was up to it. My legs were tired and painful, but apparently still functioning. The pedalling technique was fundamental in this process. We simply shared the work against the wind. Albert continued to be stronger on the descents and  I seemed stronger on the climbs. The final 5km climb "la montée des Gorges de la Nesque" was carried out at round 20km/hr. We caught up with a pair who had been occasionally visible ahead in the distance. The wind appeared to have worn them out and they were dead on the climb, just crawling up. At one other point we passed a rider just sitting by the roadside recovering. Perhaps, like some others on the Ventoux he had been forced to stop for cramps. I broke the ice with Albert by mentioning that it was good to finally catch a few others after all that effort and then Albert opened up - he was relatively chatty from then on - as much as you can be when descending a mountain pass at around 60 km/hr and negotiating tight blind bends. Albert's bike handling was good too, perhaps not as scary as Jean Luc's - but very competent. We just pushed as hard as we could towards home. About 1500m from the finish we were taking it just a little bit easier when Albert turned around and spotted a group of about 10 riders bearing down hard on us. When he announced that it was my turn to take the reins so I just said "let's go" and put the power on  as hard as possible. Albert held on to my wheel and eventually when I ran out of steam he got in front and pulled me along for the final few hundred meters. The last 1500m was spent with the heart back up at the top of the lactic threshold zone again. The other group didn't get any closer and I was quite happy to let Albert cross the line before me - in the same time.  Before the end I thanked Albert for having waited 50km back - he was intelligent about that and it had made a real difference.

My official time was 05:25'55" 
Overall position 58th (out of 126 including 15 abandons), 7th in age group (out of 19).
First place was 04:31'04"
10th place was 04:48'15"
1st woman was 05:29'26"
Jean Luc was 05:19'05"


Charts represent heart rate against time and distance respectively. (Expand by clicking)

The drop in performance after the Ventoux was clear - with the steady decline associated with lowering blood sugar levels and possibly dehydration. Still need much better management of food intake.

My max heart rate on the day was only 168 - which is not high (185 is max) - which probably indicates the tiredness / overtraining / illness present from the start. 

As far as a "test" of technique or anything else goes it was a MAJOR step forwards.