Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mondovélo - Étape du Tour - Acte 1, Modane - Val Fréjus to Alpe d'Huez

54 nationalities participating, 9500 registered, 7000 starting, 6443 finishing. 113km 3,500m climbing.

The Étape (Stage) exists so that amateur cyclists can experience the same controlled conditions as in the actual Tour de France - with the roads completely closed. The route is identical to the route used in the actual tour and so there is also an element of measurement against the best pros in the world.

This year there are two Étapes a week apart, the first one being to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the inclusion of the Col du Galibier in the Tour. The actual tour will go over the col in both directions on two stages - the second time (stage 19 of the Tour) being the same route as the Étape. This is the shortest ever Étape 113 km (11th July 2011) and next week will be the longest Étape ever (stage 9 of the Tour) - Issoire to Saint-Flour  208 km (17th July 2011). The distance for the first Étape was published as 109 km but this proposed missing the top of the Galibier and fortunately the route was changed to include it - hence lengthening the course. Unfortunately for me on that last kilometre of the Galibier climb I really started to suffer and slow down so I was wishing they had kept the original route.

7000 people charging together downhill 16.5 km at the start of this race had at least some of us feeling rather nervous. Recent days have seen an unprecedented number of disastrous falls in the Tour de France - often provoked by simple errors of attention within the peloton itself. (I'm blaming the lack of drugs) There's a big difference between a peloton of 200 pros and one of 7000 amateurs. Massive traffic jams of cyclists at bottlenecks was a secondary worry to consider and personally I was worried about the very badly lit tunnels on the descent of the Col du Lautaret after the Galibier.

Surprisingly most of the fears were unfounded. The start was staggered in 12 parts according to race numbers (lowest numbers starting first) - which had been at least partly organised according to ability. I was in the 5th start with race number 3581 and with the wide road being completely traffic free there was no feeling of danger. Likewise, with the structuring of the start order there were no traffic jams during the day. Unfortunately at some point though there was an accident in the worst tunnel and the race was stopped for a while for a helicopter rescue - times being adjusted later. I had LED lamps working on my bike for the tunnels but didn't see anyone else using them. The big problem there is that you can't actually see the rider in front of you - and if he panics and brakes - then a collision is guaranteed.

Race Start
Starting the race there was no plan in place at all. The day before I'd decided to simply go with whatever impulses took hold and to try to enjoy racing - while it lasts. Unconsciously, there appears to have been a decision to attack until implosion - which was a cast iron guarantee going by recent form. Distance might not be a major factor in this course but with 3.5 vertical kilometres of climbing to come there would be no escape.

With the weather being mild there was no need for any additional clothing other than a wind-breaker for descending. I wear a transparent wind-breaker so that the number on my back is visible. The electronically tagged number on the bike should go on the handlebars but it was about the size of a small house so I stuck mine vertically on the seat-post where it couldn't act as a major air-brake. This would also mean that the photographers wouldn't shoot me - quite liberating really.

The start was quite fast and it was hard work to stay with the front peloton though the whole descent. In fact I was a bit lazy right at the start - having had no warm up - so it took a few minutes to wake up and start working - by which time it was a game of catching up with the front runners. There were no incidents on the descent but it was really enjoyable taking all the bends on the "wrong" side of the road! Most people stuck to the normal side of the road but I couldn't resist the thrill of taking corners on the wrong side without risk of sudden death.

Col du Télégraph
Arriving at the Télégraph I felt good and ready to climb - not half dead as is the case when you get to this point in the Marmotte. Feeling good was a signal to attack and I did - reeling in hundreds if not thousands of riders and watching the numbers on their backs getting lower all the time from the 3000s to 2000s to 1000s and lower. There were a couple of impressively fast higher numbers already passing me though - but not many. This was obviously suicidal but at least it was enjoyable. My heart rate was mostly around 162 - which pretty much turns the body into a lactic acid factory. Central to this effort was the efficiency and power re-discovered the previous week though radically raising the saddle height and changing the use of the feet and ankles to a "toes down" style. I wouldn't claim to have felt fully recovered from the Marmotte but good enough to at least try to make a race out of it - and hopefully continue to lose some more unwanted body fat. The 12 km climb took only 52 mins at an average of 13.6 kph - which would be perfect if it was the only climb of the day. On each of the following two major climbs I'd lose 2 kph. The strongest memory however is always the positive one - so that's probably why it's best to go out fighting - and to hell with the consequences. Physical pain is rapidly forgotten. That's probably why criminal dictators have to be so persistently nasty - everyone would forget them otherwise.

Col du Galibier
The Galibier climb is 17.8km long and that's long enough to hurt - especially immediately following the Télégraph. My average speed dropped down to 11.6 kph - which is still pretty reasonable - but it was definitely much slower in the final kilometre than in the first. The last kilometre was starting to become unpleasant. It hadn't been necessary to stop for a refreshments at Valoire between the two climbs as the morning freshness had ensured that water consumption was relatively low. Even at the top of the Galibier it was still not hot -  perhaps due to high altitude (2645m). Despite generally holding my own on the Galibier there were more high numbered bibs flashing past now and at this speed the proportion of riders overtaken was about the same as the number overtaking me. The final 8km of the Galibier is nearly all relatively steep and demoralising because you can see the road high above. It's best to simply not look and just focus on your immediate effort - the "process" instead of the "goal". In fact it's utterly essential to do so or you would easily give up.

Crossing the col I came across another Macot - la Plagne jersey - another nameless colleague belonging to the same useless local club as me - with zero organisation. Stopping to put on the wind-breaker for the massive 42 km descent ahead I let the Macot jersey go by again catching him up about 10 minutes later into the descent. He managed to hang around me until the last part where there was a short 8% climb to negotiate between two tunnels. The descent from the Galibier intersects the top of the Col du Lautaret and then heads down towards the Oisans valley passing the stunning and spectacular glaciers of La Grave ski station. We didn't notice any of that - how can you when you are focussed on staying alive? There was some headwind on the descent but it was not too strong and the air temperature was good. The tunnels were as scary as ever with the broken lighting systems and I felt like a twit switching on my lamps - but it was the right thing to do. I slid my sunglasses down over my nose so that visibility wasn't impaired. The speed was too great to fiddle with removing them and placing them in the helmet vents.

I was monitoring everything though one ear piece with the telephone app "endomondo" but it completely crapped out after only 20km so the ear piece was pulled out and left hanging from the helmet strap. The telephone app system has proven to be too unreliable to use. A dedicated Garmin unit is required to guarantee data at the end of the day - and for that an extra battery pack is required!

The descent had formed a strong fighting group - which mostly held together during the short 8% climb. Eventually we arrived at the bottom together and immediately went into attacking the long straight flats to Alpe d'Huez. I was happy to sit at the back and be puled along at nearly 40 kph - especially as I'd done a good share of the pulling on the descent against the headwind.

Bourg d'Oisans was an obligatory water stop and it was managed very efficiently. Someone filled the bottles while I dropped Isostar tablets into them. Later on I'd regret not having any pure water because it was really hot - at least 33°C in the shade during the lower parts of the climb - and sticky sugary drinks are not so welcome in intense heat.

Alpe d'Huez
I'd reached the foot of Alpe d'Huez in 4hrs precisely and knew that was a good time for me - but also knew that there was no point kidding myself on that the last climb would be anything like as respectable. The first pitch is around 14% gradient and feeling fine, charged with a fresh supply of fluids, I went on the attack. Half way up the first leg towards the first switchback (hairpin bend) it suddenly started to feel very hard. Looking downwards I could see that the lowest gear was already selected - the largest rear sprocket. It then dawned on me that the large chain-wheel was still being used and so with a great sense of relief I dropped it down to the small one and could turn the legs easily again. The relief didn't last too long. The climb is over 14km with the steepest part being the first two kilometres. Somewhere during those two kilometres I came across the Macot - La Plagne jersey again. Obviously he hadn't stopped at Bourg d'Oisans but now he was climbing pretty slowly so I'd not be seeing him again before the end. 3.5 km into the climb my heart rate started to drop - an irreversible slide that only goes in one direction. That left over 10 km of struggle, pain and generally self-inflicted torture. Going through a check list of the body the legs were powerless, there was bad stomach ache (since the Col du Télégraph), excessive heat that caused everyone to try to find shadows from trees lining the roadside and a sore, fuzzy head with a general inability to think straight. I wanted the head to get worse so that I couldn't even think about that. The climb finally took 01:30hrs - averaging 9.5 kph. Being realistic it could have been worse.

Click on image for full size

The worst part of this climb is that you can see the end towering high above with the road winding up the steep side of the mountain. It's horrible thinking that you still have to get all the way up there. You look at it once and then make a point of not looking again. Eventually at about 1500m altitude the air starts to cool. My shirt was zipped all the way open to the waist in a vain effort to remain cool. The sight of some lucky sods already descending having already finished the race was just plain annoying. This is when the head starts to play games and you doubt your wisdom in punishing yourself to this extent. Why on Earth do this to yourself? Thinking for a few seconds about how large my stomach would be by now if I didn't do this rapidly returns things to another, more positive perspective.

Rising above the tree line about 4km from the finish you can feel that the end is nearing but you are confronted with a long steep gradient that is demoralisingly all too visible. Some locals obviously knew this and so were giving water to passing cyclists - the trouble is they only had one bottle and had to run after the cyclists to get it back each time. I really didn't want to drink from that bottle - but did! The fresh, cool, plain water was great! I probably picked up all sorts of bugs but truly was beyond caring. My stomach was already in a mess and not likely to be worsened by anything else.

The final couple of kilometres in the town were relatively flat - even descending at one point so the impulse to sprint emerged from somewhere. It's like you want to test yourself to see if you will break or explode - but with the safety of knowing that you are definitely going to get over that finish line. I'd pushed to try to ensure getting below the 30 minute mark and succeeded in getting 05:29:49 so the sprint had been worth it. A few minutes later when I bumped into John Thomas and Dave Beattie who had both completed the course in amazingly fast times I noticed that after talking for a couple of minutes I had momentary breathing difficulties - something that had happened at Ventoux after a sprint finish too. I was obviously over-breathing due to the talking so need to watch for that issue in future.

Overall placing: 1655 out of 6443 finishers
Age group placing: 258 out of 1251
Overall time: 05:29:49
First place: 03:39
Last place:  09:22
Chris finished exactly 30 minutes ahead - with most of the gain made on the final climb - pretty much as I would have expected.

Great event - especially with the roads being properly closed. There were some organisational failings which I'll mention later - but the event itself was excellent. For me to improve now I need to lose a lot more excess fat. It's clear that those who do best at this sport are like those who do best at running - they are very light. At some point it's easier to lose fat than build more muscle. Some of those riders an hour ahead of me don't actually do much more training - they are just a heck of a lot lighter.

Gigantic Voiture Balai
Organisation for this event in general is massive. When descending from Alpe d'Huez after our recovery meal and a good rest there were still thousands slowly making their way up the mountain - many walking and all suffering. Some had even prepared for this by bringing a change of shoes for walking. They were all courageous and determined to finish. We had to edge our way very slowly down the road because it was technically closed and dangerous to descend. Ambulances, and motorbikes were in abundance all climbing uphill too - so it left little space to get down the hill. Near the bottom of the descent as the number of riders thinned out we encountered a massive convoy of articulated vehicles and big buses - at least a dozen buses - all behind the famous "voiture balai" - the sweeper up van. We realised to our astonishment that this was one gigantic "voiture balai" collecting the 550 or so who had abandoned. The bikes must have been in the trucks.

Val-Frejus Fiasco
We were a group of six cyclosportive enthusiasts from the Bourg St Maurice and Macot-La Plagne clubs. We had placed all the bikes and baggage in a large van belonging to Jaques which was driven to Modane in the Maurienne valley while four of us went by car. A small van capable of taking six people and six bikes was also placed at Bourg d'Oisans in advance - Betrand having left it there and cycled home a few days earlier. So far - three vehicles for six people. Arriving at Modane the collection of race numbers was at the high altitude ski station of Val- Frejus and the road was closed - obliging us to take a bus. We pretended to have a hotel booking in the village after waiting over 20 minutes without seeing a bus. Failing to name the hotel exposed our scam but they let us through anyway all together if the car. Unfortunately Bertand forgot his racing license which was still in the parked van and so it was an all round carry on and a great waste of time - plus it rained in the ski station. An accident on the closed road caused a serious bus delay and massive queues for people to get back down. This altogether made everyone late.

When we first arrived at Modane a Gendarme came over to the car and was really cheerful, shaking hands with everyone! This is a very unusual experience indeed - it felt very weird. It turns out that he organises the Bourg cycle club and knew everyone. I was genuinely struggling to keep up with events here.

Feeding and Sleeping Logistics
Getting food in the nearby neighbourhood late in the evening was impossible. The typical French reaction to a great business opportunity is to complain about working too much and close early. France still suffers from the 35hr week and impossible enterprise strangling administration. Eventually, after walking and driving for miles we found somewhere to eat and even managed to order pasta. We had only enough time to head back to the house that we would spend the night in and prepare the bikes and clothing for the morning. Fortunately there was enough space indoors for everyone so we didn't have to install tents during the now brilliant lightning display that the evening storm had brought. Sleep was not forthcoming and inflatable mattresses make a lot of noise when you move. Knowing that we would be up again at around 4:40am didn't help anyone relax - except perhaps Jacques who apparently slept like a log in his van.

Getting to the Start
In the morning - after getting out the door all the bikes and riders piled into Jacque's van with everything else piled into the other car. We left for Modane to try to get as close as possible to the start and made it to around 3 km where the van was parked amongst hundreds of other cars at the roadside. From there we would cycle the rest of the way and be there by about 06:15, half an hour before the last deadline for entering the pens.

After Race
When the race was over all I wanted was to find fluids to drink - and to sit down. Finding the reception area I collected a bag of snacks and drinks then found a bench in the shade, bought a coke and sat down. Eating, drinking and resting allowed the headache to subside. After a while I met Bertrand who wisely suggested that I find the free pasta party. There was a good secure bicycle park to leave the bikes so this made life seem much more bearable while recovering. Fortunately I left the pasta party just in time to catch everyone else leaving to go down the valley - and would have been let to wander in eternal confusion if I'd been only a few minutes later. The van had not been stashed in the valley exactly where I had imagined so it was just as well I'd found the others to descend with. Everyone eventually ended up in the van - even Pascal who took over 8 hours for his Étape.

Another  Étape
Deferring to the greater wisdom of collective Anglo/French thought - in other words an international committee decision, I uncomplainingly (there was no energy left for objection or complaints) accepted that we would return by driving back over the Galibier again instead of taking a much easier route by the Col du Glandon, or even just staying in the valleys. Luckily I got the best seat - front passenger side next to the window. The views over La Grave across the valley were stunning. They had been invisible on the bike but now after previously cycling though this valley three times it was possible to actually look at it.

Home at Last
We collected Jacque's van after driving all the way up to Modane, then drove back down to the house where Jacques and Pascal took everything they needed to scoot straight back to Bourg St Maurice. The rest of us went two by two in the car and small van back to Villette near Aime where I live. From there we emptied out the vehicles and Chris and I piled all our stuff into his pick-up truck to get me back to Aime and Chris back to his family at La Planay - so he still had half an hour to drive. What an organisational carry on. This doesn't even count the time each person took to prepare all the equipment and gear before we left - and Christiane driving me to Villette. It's hard to think that this all started on the Saturday afternoon at about 3pm and was over by the following evening. There was no problem sleeping after all that.

Each person had a million details to deal with and the only slip up was Jacques getting a parking fine of 11 Euros. When we got back to his van it was on it's own and sticking out into the road. To our amazement all the other cars were gone - they must all have had drivers and left to go to Bourg d'Oisans. The level of individual and collective organisation required for all 7000 participants in this event was massive.

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