Monday, June 13, 2011

Time Mégève 2011

It's the day after the race and approaching midday my head is at last starting to clear from the lactic acid fuzz and my legs are starting to work properly again. 

Both Chris and I knew that the Time Mégève race was going to be very, very tough - basically climbing or descending nearly all the way and we both had awoken in the morning with no desire to do this. Perhaps the only real motivating factor was to gain the long term training effect. Getting up at 5am is never very motivating anyway. 

Waiting for Chris with the gear ready to load

The drive to Mégève is just over an hour from my place and we aimed to be there by just after 7am to get our start numbers etc. The race would finish in Mégève but the actual start was at 08:30 in Sallanches, 12km below in the valley. Most people seemed to be parking in Mégève and cycling down to the start but we decided that it was too chilly for that and it wouldn't do us any good so we drove down and parked in the town centre of Sallanches without any trouble. Our next bold and brilliant move was to find a cafe and sit down with coffees. The normal pattern is Coffee (stimulant and laxative), dump, fix numbers to bike and shirt, get bikes ready, pee against a tree, turn up as late as possible for the start with no warm up. Everything went like clockwork. Chris's gears were badly adjusted and my new chain was jumping - which probably means that I need to replace the cassette also because I spent ages adjusting the gears the night before. I have a gear adjuster mechanism on the downtube so I could fiddle with it during the race, but Chris's expensive Cannondale doesn't so he was stuffed and had to put up with it. 

Today we had both dumped our useless mini-pumps and had CO2 cannisters with tiny Zefal screw-on regulators in our pockets. I weghed this in at 79g total - and since I'd lost a total of 70g with better shoes and 50g losing the pump and holders the overall setup was actually lighter and much more efficient. Chris pointed out that most of the punctures you see are in the first several kilometres and are due to people having changed their tyres before the race and pinching the inner tube. This is probably true because my only puncture has been because of that - so for this reason I changed tyres the night before to be able to verify that all was okay in the morning. There is also a good procedure for ensuring that you don't pinch the inner tube when mounting the tyre - blow up the tube initially with your mouth when you replace it on the wheel, then before you get the last bit of the tyre on you let this air out to create more room. Next you peel off the tyre again a little while pulling it on the section where it wasn't before. This ensures that when you finally force the last bit on it's over a section where the tube was already correctly bedded when under some pressure. With no air in the tyre you can normally get it on fully without tyre levers. I did notice however today that people were repairing punctures at all stages of the race - but this could still be slow punctures from initial tyre fitting.

In Sallanches the morning sun was coming out and this cheered us up quite a lot. The previous two weeks have been pretty awful weather so this was real good luck and raised our spirits a little. We both agreed that no extra clothing would be needed. There would be a lot of climbing but the actual altitudes were not extreme so it was unlikely to be cold later on and the weather forecast was good for the day. 

There were at least 1650 bikes in the streets of Sallanche so the start was always going to be a squeeze as everyone filtered through a narrow passage with overhead wires for the electronic timer. 300 people were in one street specifically for a priority start. The useful thing about that is that if you later see any numbers below 300 then you know you have caught up with some of the first ones out the gate. The rest of us piled into the other streets ready for the start.

We were about half way up this crowd.
The start was around the white building to the left of centre and about 100m further along the road.
There was another feed from a street on the right.

I had start number 1624 and had managed to register online only five minutes before the closing of online registration - purely though luck. Our race really started from this spot because we used ski lift queuing techniques by staying at the edges and smoothly slipping by hundreds of others.

The couple of photos here were taken on the Sony Xperia Arc mobile phone which, despite the importance of weight today I'd decided to take with me to test out properly. It was a last minute decision so it was not perfectly set up and exploited to it's maximum but the idea was to find out the real potential. The battery was fully charged as was my Garmin Forerunner 305 on the handlebars. The only sensor other than GPS was my heart rate chest strap. I put earphones in prior to fastening the helmet straps - which then allows the earbuds to be removed and to hang off the helmet straps for easy access. The phone was set to use 3G for internet data transfer (and map info reception) and the GPS was activated. I used hands-free control from the mic button just below the chin and started the timer for a couple of seconds to then pause it with the hands-free. The idea was to use this button to get the clock going again at the start line without removing the phone from the pocket. I'd ride with one earbud in place to get the kilometer splits as audio feedback. Going over the start line I'd also have to remember to start the Garmin timer. All of this went perfectly to plan. I hadn't set the volume high enough though so sometimes feedback was a little hard to hear. I'd actually planned to put music on if I felt like I was dying on the climbs later on. 

Once through the start gate the way ahead was relatively clear with at least a thousand cyclists stretched out before us on the long, straight, gently descending, wide roads. Anyone studying chaos theory would have a field day here. Groups were already clearly forming and clumping together with big gaps between them and the odd stragglers in between or those dashing ahead to gain ground. There was a bit of a headwind and Chris set off at a good pace against it trying to gain some ground on the others. I did one spell in front but quickly realised that this was not a great idea because we were in danger of using up valuable resources that would definitely be needed for the climbing ahead. Just then some guy came tearing past us at high velocity and so we both accelerated and got in behind him. He was definitely on a mission to get ahead and not concerned about conserving energy. Chris did one short spell in front but the guy was too impatient and seconds late he was back in front (Chris admitted later that he had deliberately slowed because he didn't want to work too hard so early). We ended up being towed all the way for 20km to the foot of the Col de la Columbière climb (of 1115m) at Cluses and overtook at least a few hundred cyclists in the process. Timing is electronic and individual so it shouldn't really matter where you are in the crowd but it gives a good morale boost to get ahead like that.

Arriving at the climb we both settled into our own rhythms - with Chris going ahead. My legs were still not really warmed up for climbing so it took a while to settle into it. Surprisingly though the climb was enjoyable and it's the first time ever that I've ever raced up a 3560ft climb without difficulty, accelerating towards the summit. The long descent to Thônes was a bit chilly and I regretted not having a wind breaker but as the altitude reduced then so did the problem.  As usual there were a lot of very slow descenders and only a few good ones. I ended up collecting a couple of good descenders who then really powered their way up the next long "faux plat" and really helped recover a bit of time. Shortly before the start of the climb up to the Col de la Criox Fry we passed a group of about twenty. I do struggle with transitions from flat to steep so it wasn't long on the climb before that group was slowly reeling me back in. The Col de la Croix Fry almost joins up with the Col des Aravis with only a short descent in between - meaning a long haul of almost 30km of climbing. The joy of ripping over the the Col de la Columbiére soon wore off. The only enjoyable part of the Croix Fry was arriving at the top. On the Avaris I started to feel cramps but they didn't last long. Deep leg pains were now coming and going. Climbing was fine but as soon as the pressure came off the legs the pain would start seeping though them making descents unpleasant. Focussing on overtaking and keeping up a good speed helps to take your mind off any pain. This is the point where the mind starts to play games. Is it wise to do the long course with another major climb involved or should I bail out now and complete the medium course to ensure a reasonable result? Surely if there is so much pain already another serious climb is not feasible and I'll be forced to an embarrassing crawl. The main goal of the race though was for endurance training - so there was no question of bailing out. The only concern was arriving at the course bifurcation before the cut-off time. After 1:30pm nobody would be allowed on the long course. That however was not an issue as I'd be at least an hour ahead of that. By the time the descent to Flumet was over and the bifurcation reached the leg pains were gone again. My split time at the top of the Aravis had been only 11 minutes behind Chris so despite not feeling too good it wasn't as bad as I thought.

On the climb up the Aravis I had spoken to a rider on another Canyon bike. His bike was the bottom of the range aluminium model but it looked really good. He was glad to have it because the previous night in Mégève it had been stored in a garage and during the night 10 bikes had been stolen from the garage. They only took carbon bikes and left his behind! Welcome to France! Why work when you can steal?

The final climb up to Les Saisies ski station was probably not anticipated enthusiastically by many people. Audio feedback from the Endomondo software on the Xperia phone had been excellent for motivation on the climbs. Thanks to the feedback I'd managed to never let any kilometre slip over 6 minutes but the start of this climb was steep and I was horrified to be informed that the previous kilometre was over 7 minutes. That did not bode well for this climb. Rapidly the situation was brought back under control and the following kilometre was under 5 minutes. Ever since the Aravis there had been a steady trickle of people cracking and slowing right down or stopping for breaks. Predictably this was happening more and more regularly by now. Regardless of this there was a steady procession of people slowly passing me. I'd noticed however that even those who dropped me right at the bottom of the long Croix Fry were only 100m ahead at the very top. About 10km from the top of Les Saisies it became steep again and was now becoming a bit daunting. This is the point where I would have expected to experience problems - but something odd happened instead. I found that by moving my whole midsection with the pedal stroke that I could connect with a stronger pull up on the pedal - compensating to some extent for the power I'd lost though lowering the saddle to protect my back. The strange thing was though that this gave the unusual sensation that it kept power on the pedals constantly instead of my usual on/off feeling though each stroke. Amazingly I was able to maintain this and started to accelerate and quite rapidly overtake everyone in sight. My heart rate went back up to 160+ even though this was now over the 4hr 30min mark and there was already a lactic acid headache setting in. The next 10km right to the top was just a steady process of catching one person after another. I kept telling myself that this can't be kept up and I'd end up looking pretty stupid when I explode soon - but that never happened - it was surprise after surprise.

I used the new motion to great effect on the 30km return to Mégève from Les Saisies. At one point during the descent I wanted to catch a group ahead on a slight uphill incline against the wind. Putting on the power I closed the 100m gap in seconds despite the fact that they were motoring themselves. When you know how to take a racing line in a corner then fast descending is fun - so the descent back down towards Flumet was enjoyable and once again several people lost a lot of ground though slow descending. I'd also dropped a few people at the refreshment stands because I only needed one bottle refill stop - consuming only 1.5 litres in almost 6hrs of effort - but never enduring unnecessary thirst. From the bottom of the descent it was a 10km hike back to Mégève with most of it being moderate climbs where you could still hold a good speed. The wind seemed to be behind so it wasn't necessary to find anyone to work with and I continued to power onwards. In the last kilometre I realised that nobody had overtaken me at all in the last 40km and was feeling pretty good about that, when 3 guys flew past me. One of them broke off on his own and I was able to maintain a constant gap with the others. Arriving at the town and having to deal with cars the others were obviously going to hesitate so I turned up the aggression and tore past one of them and negotiated an advantageous position on the inside of a car on the final roundabout then sprinted past the other for the finish line. Only one had escaped in the end. The final time was 5hrs 48mins. I'd been powering as hard as possible over the last 10km to ensure breaking the 6hr barrier and was finally well inside it. Chris had done really well and finished in 5hrs 24mins.

Last year I'd been extremely apprehensive over doing the middle distance course and took 5hrs 28mins on that - so this is a massive improvement (though the courses were not the same). My apprehension for the long course this year was unfounded. The more I do these events the clearer it becomes that other than by working on training, technique and nutrition - you can't predict what is going to happen, especially when you stretch yourself into new territory. I need to lose weight to climb faster - that's clear. Bradley Wiggins just won the Criterium de Dauphiné because he lost 7kg bringing him down to 70kg - so with a height of 190cm (20 more than me) he weighs less than I do! I really don't understand the technical adaptation that I stumbled upon when I was tired during this race and I'd like to video it to see what it looks like. It feels weird but most things do when you change them. Barefoot running style feels weird but looks absolutely great and natural. The one thing I know for sure is that if it makes you faster then it can't be far wrong.

The Endomondo app appeared to work perfectly throughout but let me down at the final hurdle in that it somehow managed to fail to record any heart rate data. Other than that it seemed to do an excellent job. The phone had only used half its battery power by the end and the Garmin in contrast was already running out of power. The Endomondo app needs to improve a bit before it can replace a dedicated unit - but that shouldn't be far away. All the data had been relayed automatically to the internet. If I'd checked with the hands-free (short button push) I may have found out there was a problem with the heart rate data - but I couldn't do anything once the race was started and it had been displaying heart rate at the beginning. Ironically the phone GPS is the one that agrees with the course distance of 133km very accurately and the Garmin gives 128km. There are various estimates of altitude climbed from 2700 to 3968m. The organisers themselves vacillate between 3500m and 3900m. GPSies calculates 3968. Endomondo gave the ridiculously low 2700m and the Garmin is near the higher end of the spectrum.

The race was won overall in 4hrs 2mins and the front runners were mostly professionals from the AG2R and and FDJ pro teams that you see in the Tour de France. I placed 283rd out of 476 and 50th out of 104 in age category. Although Chris was only 24 minutes ahead at the end this put him at 170th overall and 21st in age group which was an excellent result.

After the race I sat down to eat the post race meal in the vast Palais du Sport in Mégève. The organisation was excellent because there was no queuing despite there being at least 1000 people in the hall. The food was reasonable too with chicken and wholemeal pasta - but it was difficult to eat while recovering from the exercise. It's important to eat as soon as possible after finishing exercise to replenish the glycogen in the the muscles - but it's not easy to make yourself eat under those circumstances. Chris had gone immediately down to Sallanches after the race to recover his car, though I didn't know that. I was too tired to look for him in the hall anyway and just slowly picked my way through the food. Chris probably felt the same in that he preferred to have a break and recovery before eating. Eventually Chris turned up beside me being easily able to spot the highly visible Macot/La Plagne jersey amongst a thousand others - which is a good reason for wearing that jersey! My bike was parked up in a guarded park which used the race numbers to identify the bikes - again very well organised. After recovering it we returned to the car and drove out of Mégève towards the Val d'Arly where there is a cafe in the middle of nowhere where we could get coffees and relax a bit. More important than the coffee was the fact that the Criterium Dauphiné was finishing with Bradley Wiggins leading and we didn't want to miss him defending the yellow jersey. The proprietor was very obliging and put the TV on and we were able to watch the final 13km of the final climb of the race - excellent timing and a great way to round off an excellent day out.

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