Friday, September 3, 2010

Colle St Carlos

GPSies - Colle Saint Carlos 2010

Thursday 2nd September 2010

"Yell for Cadel", "Allé Nibali"! The poetic painting on the road was still visible from a year ago when the Tour de France came over the Col du Petit St Bernard. Despite the road being used by all sorts of vehicles, this profuse and bright road art seems to confer a special status to all cyclists attacking the high mountain pass over to Italy - the road belongs to us! Coming back from Italy just add an "o" to everything: "Passo Piccolo St Bernardo" and it becomes Italian instead of French.

There are several reasons for going to Italy. The hot chocolate is amazing - really thick chocolate and not really a drink. The people dress incredibly - well, Italian - very stylish and smart - the way golfers should be but always fail to be. It's refreshing also to just hike over to the next valley and find that everyone is speaking a language you don't understand - a welcome reminder of just how varied the world is.
The other reason is the "Colle St Carlos" a seriously steep 10km mountain pass that is fun to climb and has a welcoming cafe at the summit. "Colle" in Italian means mountain pass - but in French it is the word for "glue". Nothing could be more appropriate because the first half is so steep that it really does feel like you are glued to the ground.

The workout would involve 117.4km and 3230m climbing taking 5:50hrs of cycling.

Prior to leaving Bourg St Maurice I decide to have a chicken salad as it was lunch time. This meant risking leaving a bit late but I had small bright safety LED lights on the bike in the eventuality of a late return. More concerning was the high cirrus cloud formation spreading over the sky and diluting the sun's warming influence. Such clouds can often mean bad weather coming in but the forecast was good for at least a few more days so the risk was minimal. The mountain pass over Petit St Bernard to Italy can be pretty horrible at 2200m altitude when bad weather comes in from the west. This pass forms a channel over the mountains to Italy which funnels all the wind and weather coming straight up the Tarantaise valley - and there is nowhere else for it to go on it's eastward journey. Today the weather would hold and temperatures would be fine. Climbing the Petit St Bernard was fun. It is a 30km climb - from Bourg but this is because it is a main route were they have kept the gradient down a minimum. It felt great powering up the hill. There was at least one cycling club going up, with all age groups, but they were crawling up and it would take them forever. It's very satisfying climbing at 17 or 20 km/hr and rapidly ticking off the kilometer posts at the road side - and to be honest it makes a pleasant change for me! This would obviously not be the case later on in the day and I was fully aware of that and enjoying this temprorary aberation as much as possible.

The top of the col was bleak and deserted - as it usually is. Last week the same place had been bustling with life due to an annual agricultural fare and the last week of the French holidays - but now it was right back to normal with the small Italian cafés open at the roadside, clinging tenatiously to life like wild mountain shrubs. I didn't wait there, putting on a windbreaker and heading straight down the other side to la Thuille in Italy. La Thuille is a nice place to stop when skiing or just travelling back from Italy, but today there was no incentive to stop and so I just bombed straight through it and down the main road towards the Aosta valley. The LED lights were welcome in the many tunnels that have to be negotiated here on the high speed descent. They don't help your own vision much but they certainly make you visible to drivers. The main road suddenly narrows into a precipitous, winding final descent into the valley. This Aosta was clearly formed by a big glacier coming from Mont Blanc across our path and the road had to drop down one side of this steep valley. From the valley floor you could continue all the way to Turin, but I only wanted to go about 5 or 6km down the valley to find the start of the Colle St Carlos returning towards La Thuille. First job however was to remove the wind breaker and find a fountain to fill up a water bottle. To the water I added a new sports drink mix containing protein as well as carbohydrates. This mix is understood to prevent muscle tissue loss during endurance performance and to help start the muscle recovery process sooner after the exercise. It was a bit disgusting to drink - but when you are thirsty that problem is easily overcome. I have a better drink mix ordered for the future.

The St Carlos starts off at a frightening gradient - once again up the steep side of the glacier formed valley. Back further up the Aosta valley towards Mont Blanc is Val Veny where every July they celebrate the Celtic origins of the people and culture in the valley. (  They even have a local clan (Clan of the Bear) and they play the bagpipes in the shadow of Mont Blanc. Fittingly I was listening to the "Afro Celt Sound System" on my phone/MP3 player while attacking the St Carlos. The powerful fast rhythms and fusion of Celtic and African music are great for motivation and concentration on a long hard climb. Unlike the profusion of cyclists scaling the St Bernard the St Carlos was deserted. Close to the top I overtook a young woman on a mountain bike but she was the only other cyclist on the hill. Italian coffee stop was obligatory at the summit café. It was nice to stop for the first break in 4 hours. The sun was behind a thin viel of cloud but still warm anough to be pleasant even at altitude. There had been leg pain during this second climb of the day - notably pain in the main right quads. I tend to work harder on the right side due to many old injuries on the left and it does cause a muscular imbalance that's hard to address. Most of the time the pain could be dealt with by altering pedalling style, more pulling up on the pedals or dropping the heel to access the hamstrings instead of the quads, but once deep pain is there it doesn't fully go away. Resting makes no difference, it only delays the inevitable. Still, it's a healthy pain - not the injury type.

Dropping back down into La Thuille the sun was still warm and high enough in the sky to accompany me to the end of the journey. Any later in the day and the sun would have been obscured by the mountains to the south west of me and I'd have been cold even climbing due to a persistent head wind - gaining in force towards the top of the Passo Piccolo St Bernardo. Just at the start of the climb home there were road works that didn't leave enough time for a cyclist going uphill to fully get through on the green light. Inevitably I met oncoming traffic and was almost pushed straight off the road by some moron in an overpowered luxury 4x4 coming head on. You pick up on a lot of things about drivers when riding bikes. The worst drivers are those in overpowered vehicles - they mostly have no respect for anyone else. Audi drivers are particularly stupid, never leaving an appropriate distance. Luxury 4x4 drivers are the next worst category and then powerful motorbikes are bad too - not moving an inch across as they blast by at excessive speeds. Worst of all are busses and truck drivers that frequently cut across you on corner as if you don't exist. Sure those people are impatient morons but the one this they all have in common is that their vehicles have more power than they have intelligence.

The 30km drop down back from the top of the Petit St Bernard to Bourg seems to take forever even though it is downhill all the way.


Was astonished that the overall time was only 5 minutes faster than last year! The first climb had been so fast that I was certain of having improved the time by about half an hour. Oh well, at least it was enjoyable and last year was not - it all seemed too hard back then. There might not be much quantitative improvement but there certainly is a qualitative one.
The entire workout was carried out with nasal breathing and one interesting observation was that when progression to intense anaerobic output levels is progressive, then there is no struggle whatsoever in breathing through the nose - you don't even realise that you have gone anaerobic. When warming up even the lactate threshold zone can be a bit of a struggle to start with and requires an effort to stick to nasal breathing. I read that the "breathing centre" takes about 20 minutes to adjust for CO2 levels so this probably explains the delay. The important thing is not to give up on the nasal breathing. It feels horrible and unnatural breathing through the mouth when you get used to breathing correctly. I'm assuming that with future improvements even this 20 minute delay will dissappear.

The deep leg ache did persist a bit at night and even the following morning - but that is the sign of a hard workout and not a problem.

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