Sunday, July 31, 2011

Les Arcs 1950 Hill Climb Race (Bourg St Maurice, "Cyclocoeur - Cyclosportive)

First Ever Podium Finish!

Started the day full of doubts. Not once in training or competition this year had the limits been pushed as is required in an all out hill climb race. The Les Arcs hill climb is to all extents and purposes a time trial. It is a bit scary because it climbs 3600ft over 25 kilometres and it is an all out push right from the start - as fast as you can go to the top. It's a mass start, but forget slipstreaming - it's you against yourself and the clock all the way. If you are lucky you might find yourself alongside someone who can pace you for a while and vice-versa. It's scary because you know it is going to hurt - badly - and that you are not going to give up. Needless to say there was nothing, not a single clue, to indicate that on this particular day I'd end up on a podium for the first time ever - but that's what happened. It was a goal for this season to get on a podium but a goal already written off to all extents and purposes due to poor results up until now.

The race "sort of came together" with the customary complete disorganisation of Bourg St Maurice. Shortly before the race Chris asked the main organiser the time of the start and he had to ask someone else because he didn't know! Bourg (830m altitude) was hot and sunny - the first time for almost a month as July had been an unusually cold and horrible washout. The bikes were stripped of everything that added weight - no tools, puncture kits, pumps or water bottles. I had a drink prior to warming up and that would be sufficient liquid as the climb would only be between 1hr 20mins and 1hr 30 mins - not long enough for thirst to have a significant impact. Spotting Chris on his bike I joined him for a short warm up climb to get the legs going - arriving back in Bourg centre just in time (not a second to spare) to join the line up for the preliminary processional start in the centre of town. For the real start we would regroup about 500m away just beside the Les Arcs funicular and be sent off with a starting gun. The procession was led by our route control / security motorbike team which consisted of a group of local Hell's Angels - one on a yellow trike with chopper handlebars. Needless to say they were clueless and led us straight past the start line. We all had to come back again to find the proper start place - a painted white line on the road used every year. Their angel's hearts were in the right place though and I'm sure they had not been properly briefed. They did appear to control the traffic well at certain hotspots on the road during the race. Chances are that the motorists were just scared into complying in the absence of any official jackets other than standard Hell's Angels stock. This all left me with just enough time to get my smart-phone running properly and logging data before the real start - but I forgot to switch the GPS on. There's always something! Probably in complete defiance of common sense and security I put on some good strong rhythmic music for climbing - the "Afro Celt Sound System". This is the first time I've ever risked listening to music during a race - but nobody would be talking anyway - it's much too difficult to talk when climbing flat out. Music dulls the pain by taking your mind off it - and it seems to boost morale at times. The dedicated Garmin GPS was doing it's job correctly on the handlebars so no data would be lost regardless of the smart-phone being effectively reduced to an MP3 player and otherwise excess weight. The great thing about wearing earbuds is that you can pretend to look more like a pro in the Tour de France listening to the coach or director sportif. It's unlikely to fool anyone but with the smart-phone app "Endomondo" people really can send you "peptalks" which they type and you hear as a voice - and they can watch your progress real time on the internet!

Setting off from the gun on the flats around the lake at the bottom of the climb I was quickly dropped behind in a slower group and so was forced to break away to try to catch up with the front - apparently pulling several others behind me. Arriving at the first climb Chris was already 100m ahead in a faster group and feeling fresh I decided to close that gap too. Chris probably came close to falling off his bike when he was overtaken at a considerably faster pace than his group right at the steepest part of this section of climb. All season so far my maximum heart rate had not one single time risen above 173 bpm and it had so stubbornly refused to get beyond this mark that it appeared to be set for life now. Looking down at the Garmin now the heart rate was sitting at 181 bpm - without even sprinting. Obviously that was not sustainable so it was necessary to easy off a bit and let the heart rate settle down to something more reasonable. Way back In my early 30s it was possible to sustain a workout of an hour or so at 170 bpm but today it was about to become clear that this has not changed even 20 years later. There was no attempt to work to an actual heart rate but instead to a "perceived effort" level. The heart rate just happened to be around 170 bpm.  Chris caught up and pulled ahead as would have been expected. In the morning the bathroom scales had depressingly read 70kg - still well overweight for a good performance and all the performances so far this year had appeared to be under par - so this was nothing new.

There were quite a few "Macot-La Plagne" jerseys like my own and I'd passed most of them in the group along with Chris during the early manic surge  - just to be embarrassingly swallowed up again by them all shortly afterwards. Still, the effort was going better already than expected. It was a clear decision to fight from the start and deal with the consequences as they unfolded. Reading "Feet in the Clouds" - a book about fell running in the UK, only a day or two earlier, I'd come across a few lines of wisdom which would prove to be valuable for the day. The main one - from a famous fell runner called Billy Bland was "If you go though a bad patch, remember that it will pass." This is so true - but I'd never taken that on board properly before. Today when pain seemed bad and the way ahead daunting I'd remember this fact and not allow morale to be affected or effort reduced. It worked wonders! With heart rate already very high using smaller gears was not an option - all that does is either push the heart rate even higher or slow you down - so the power had to be kept on by using bigger gears and leg strength. Sometimes on arriving at steeper sections after flatter ones it feels almost impossible to take up the strain again with the legs - but just a thought about what Billy Bland said and sure enough the body would get used to it if allowed to go though the pain. This way speed could be kept up. Slowly, one by one the Macot jerseys ahead started to be reeled in. With two down and one to go there was a now a fairly regular gap with one guy in blue about 100m ahead. The next group was almost out of sight on each switchback bend (they are far apart on this climb). Eventually, keeping up the force on the pedals and working on good form - pulling up and using the core muscles - the guy in blue was caught and dropped. Surprisingly however he picked up and got back on my rear wheel then eventually pulled ahead again. This was a good piece of luck because we were able to work off each other this way - never letting up the pressure. I pulled in front the most during the main climbs and he was a bit faster on the flatter sections but this work quickly brought us up to the other group and soon the last visible Macot jersey was now firmly behind - but one junior category rider latched on to us and I ended up pulling them both to the top of the main climb between Arcs 1600 and Arcs 1950. I was actually shocked at how much power was still in my legs, how the lungs, heart and head were all coping fine and was even more surprised to find the others still hanging on at the top. They also let me do most of the work on the undulating route prior to the final climb up to 1950 - but that didn't matter because leaving it up to them would definitely have lost time and time is more important than position in a race like this where you can measure your results year after year. Coming up to the final climb Chris was now not far ahead so the persistence was paying off and the pain was not winning.

On the final climb the younger guy in blue asked how far it was to the top so I told him "not far - push as hard as you can all the way now". He was able to move ahead and work on his own now and I was happy to have helped him get a good result. The battle now was just to continue the output the rest of the way. Junior just hung in with me until the end and darted ahead to grab 3 seconds on me - but that really didn't matter. Chris was rather surprised but pleased to see me pop up just one minute behind him. Last year I'd been 9 minutes behind him.

Chris 6th overall 2nd age cat in 01:19:20
Me     9th overall 3rd age cat in 01:20:26

Chris and I shared our first ever podiums together for 2nd and 3rd respectively in age category. No ideas what the age groups were but as there were only three categories I think our category was from about 40 upwards. There were 25 in our category.

The first junior was the kid who stole 3 seconds from me at the end.

The winner was an ultra skinny elite amateur who appeared to be unable to walk normally - he had apparently mutated into a life form that can only function properly on a bike. Anyway his 01:05:32 was 4 minutes slower than last year and apparently due to the wind this time. Although Chris hadn't improved on his last year time this wind factor probably means that there was an effective improvement of around 3 minutes - which means that my time improvement of 8 minutes was more like 11 minutes in reality.

It took a while for my head to stop spinning after stopping and getting off the bike and that night sleep was almost impossible to come by - with the body rebelling completely after being pushed to such levels. The average heart rate over the whole race was 169 bpm with a max of 181 bpm. Average climb speed was 18.4 kph

Standing on the podium felt weird - but not due to lactic acid or dehydration - it was just a new and unexpected experience as an adult. 

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