Monday, August 29, 2011

La Vercors - Drôme 2011

Perhaps the best organised event of the season – intelligently planned and seamlessly executed despite the large field of contestants. Our team of four was comprised of Ian (Me), Chris, Rob and Justin.

Team Management
Our own team management was not up to the level of the event organisation – for a start we got the date completely wrong thinking it was on Sunday when it was on Saturday. Fortunately Justin’s skills as a lawyer enabled him to spot this minor detail hidden in the small print before it was too late.  Unfortunately, that was not enough to spare Justin from becoming the first victim of the event. If someone does not finish a race they are categorised as DNF – did not finish – but Justin ended up in the classic DNR (HPH) category – Did Not Register.  There are many obstacles to overcome even getting to the start of a race – but that is part of the skill of being a racer. Pro racers get paid just for getting there. The sad demise of Justin was on the cards already two days earlier during our final training session.

DNR sub categories include (in order of seriousness):
  1. HPH - Hen Pecked Husband
  2. SB - Stolen Bike
  3. CUD - Cocked Up Date
  4. TB - Transportation Breakdown
  5. BO - Bottled Out (usually weather related)
  6. SAD - Sick as a Dog (often self inflicted)
  7. NVMC - Non Valid Medical Certificate
  8. GS - General Stupidity
Final Training Preparation
Thursday morning the telephone went – it was Chris: “We’ll be at Aime in 5 minutes get your bike out.” Thanks for the warning! I believe that people got longer warnings to prepare for air raids in the last war. Perhaps I was only included in this session as a last minute decision by the nebulous team management – but I was independently planning on a workout anyway and so quickly put everything together to get out the door in time. We headed off round my usual circuit of Montgirod, Hautecoeur, Moutiers, Notre Dame du Pré – about 1500m climbing and 52km – but in the opposite direction, which I’ve only ever done once before. Justin could only do the first climb because he had to get back home (HPH?). I pushed quite hard on the climb because Chris confessed that they had all been on a drinking session the night before and it was a good opportunity to make them hurt a bit. Rob immediately went into reverse climbing gear and disappeared behind but Justin hung in there to Longefoy. At Longefoy, still several kilometres from the top, we decided to stop to wait for Rob. Justin was sweating profusely and admitted that he couldn’t have kept that pace up much longer dragging his belly (it had grown noticeably since La Marmotte) up the hill. We couldn’t figure out whether his distress, both physical and emotional was due to the pressure on him to return home or due to the climbing pace, or a combination, but regardless he left us and headed back down on his own never to be seen again. DNR (HPH) – perhaps this will one day be the epitaph on his tombstone! One of the best races of the year was about to take place in a few days and Justin was already out. The rest of the training session went well. Chris and I attacked all the way up to Notre Dame du Pré using the large front chainwheels to keep up a high speed. The descent from Notre Dame du Pré to the valley below is very gnarly being narrow, twisting and steep, so it's a great opportunity to practice cornering skills in the dry. This is where we discovered to our distress that Rob is just as slow descending as he is climbing. He lost at least 5 minutes on that descent alone then missed us waiting at the turn-off at the bottom and I had to go chasing him to bring him back. In all fairness descending is a skill that you have to learn and practice but many people have a great deal of trouble with it. You need to have a very aggressive and attacking attitude but also know how to pick an effective line on the corners and how to manage the braking effectively to maximise traction. A lot also depends on how you move your centre of mass. If there is any doubt about traction then you move your body (Centre of Mass) before leaning the bike. Those tyres don’t tolerate lateral drifting. You need to enter the turn wide and cut in close to the apex then exit wide. If there is clearly no oncoming traffic then you use the entire width of the road for this otherwise you use only your own lane. Most of the braking must be done before the turn starts - heavy on the front brake and back brake leaving it as late as possible if the road is in a good state - then completely off the front and just very lightly feathering the back brake but not enough to cause the rear wheel to slide out catastrophically - which is easily done. If the road is in a good state you can lean over quite hard and keep a lot of speed - but it takes a lot of nerve. Those tyres are designed to grip but conditions must be right or you don't risk it.

On the long climb up to Hautecoeur we believe that Rob stopped off somewhere for a siesta, but we had a good view from the top over the “Three Valleys” ski domain while we waited. He had another siesta somewhere on the descent back to Aime. When he said that he was "kaput" we concluded that was because of having too many siestas.

Rob arriving above Hautecoeur after a siesta.

We had all pushed very hard in training and this was with two complete days of rest and recovery period in mind before the race. Had we managed to get the date right that would have been perfect but with the race being one day sooner than expected this meant that we would not be properly recovered for the race and I for one could really feel it. Justin had in fact done exactly the right amount of training but that would become pretty irrelevant due to his imminent DNR (HPH) status.

The biggest challenge of racing is just getting to that start line.  A million things will conspire to stop you. Number one on that list is the HPH syndrome. On the other hand the reason you see so many of the same faces at those races is because it is probably a bit of an HPH survivor’s club. We would have to escape and get to Romans-Sur-Isère the evening before the race, Friday, and find a camp site somewhere close by. Obviously it's best to car pool on such a long trip - about 2hrs 30min on clear roads - so Chris would be driving his Supercharged Taliban Combat Vehicle - a bit like a Toyota pickup on steroids, EPO and crack simultaneously. Chris is number one on my list as "Most Likely Roadkill" in the near future. I'd estimate that at least 50% of the time he is potentially (how would I know?) not on the correct side of some law or another (or the road) and the other 50% of the time is spent looking for ways to stay there. It's all part of the CI syndrome (Chris Impatience - with everything.) I kind of wonder if he learned to drive like that on a "suicide driver's course" in an Afghanistan training camp. He's definitely safer on a bike. I've only seen him almost run over by cars twice - both times at roundabouts when he forgot he wasn't in the Taliban Combat Vehicle and didn't quite have the same commanding presence on the road. Actually, a beat up old van works better for that because just one look at it and the game of "chicken" is won. It really doesn't work on a bike.

August had been a stiflingly hot month after a very poor and cold early summer so we were looking forward to camping with separate tents for everyone. Friday afternoon was anticipated as a day of storms passing through but we had no idea that it would bring a major climatic shift. The storms were violent with powerful winds and constant torrential rain with the snow level dropping down to 2300m. There were crowds of drivers heading south for the holidays and the weekend and Grenoble traffic was blocked but the general scene was of lashing rain and tree branches scattered all over the place. I set my GPS for "Le Replat" camp site – being the closest to Romans at 12km from the town. The camp site area was in the middle of nowhere and at first we ended up at a scary looking farm – a bit like one of those B film scenarios where people are lured in, chopped up then fed to the pigs – or a genuine Deliverance "Squeal like a pig" moment. You could picture the “duelling banjos” scene there easily. Reversing out of danger the camp site was close by. Predictably the site was empty and the owners took pity on us and offered a “bungalow” for the same price as our tent emplacements. Even they couldn’t envision us putting up tents in this storm. We had already decided to remove most of our clothes to put the tents up so that the clothes would be kept dry – but now that wasn’t necessary. The bungalow had probably had a few snuff movies filmed in it – it was dire – but it was dry. The forecast was for the storms to pass during the night and for the morning to be clear – so our hopes were up. We drove into Romans and found a restaurant with pasta and generally good food where Rob eventually joined us. Rob travelled on his own because his escape was dependent on leaving later – but the important thing was that he made it. The race is secondary. After the meal Rob followed us back to the camp site but we noticed that when not on the motorway he also drives impressively slowly. Inevitably he took the wrong turning behind us and was lured directly into the scary farm. Panicking, he called us on his phone and we directed him out of the place - though we momentarily contemplated the alternatives.

Unfortunately Rob snores like an out of control pneumatic drill. We knew this in advance so put him in the double bed partitioned off on his own. There is a real art to snoring and despite this building being soundproof to the rain and storm outside and made out of concrete, Rob was able to make it vibrate and shake. It would be easy to think that Rob was using a massive amount of energy to do this but it’s actually about “resonant frequency”. Some expert snorers seem to tune into the resonant frequency of a building and can almost bring it down around them. It’s just through accurately timed feedback the whole system resonates and amplifies – a natural phenomenon. It’s similar to how in mechanics you can use a very small force to lift something heavy if you have a long lever – or for that matter, using the gears on your bike for climbing. By around 3am Rob was in full swing and it’s possible that the seismic registering equipment in Grenoble might have detected it as some form of geological disturbance. It crossed my mind that if you could tap into this and use it for climbing hills on the bike you could win a race easily. I could see Rob snoring his way up the hill and leading the race by miles. Perhaps this is the motivation behind his tendency towards frequent siestas. I also thought that you could put motion sensors in the room at night and tap into the energy to recharge a mobile phone – then you could market this as a renewable energy source. The greatest scientist of modern times - the man who invented "modern times" - was Nicola Tesla. Tesla used "resonance" to harness the power of electricity and transport it over great distance in his "Alternating Current". Tesla claimed that by tuning his large Tesla coils to the resonant frequency of the Earth he was capable of splitting the planet in two. Fortunately Tesla never met Rob and had the opportunity to tune him to the resonant frequency of the Earth.

The Ritual
Morning was a formality because Chris and I were WIDE awake (no surprise) and up before daylight. Breakfast was horrible and swift and soon we were on our way to Romans to get the race numbers and ready for the start. Chris and I had both used the loo because we know that after morning coffee you try to lose weight. Rob’s snoring had apparently done that for him because he didn’t have a dump at all before the race. After our second coffees in a café Chris and I repeated the loo ritual and Rob disturbingly refused to entertain any sort of bowl movement. 

Final Details
Despite the temperature having dropped the skies were clearing and so we chose not to take extra clothing. I put on a base layer but took nothing extra with me. This was a bit of a mistake. I’d registered in advance over the internet but Chris and Rob hadn’t. Very annoyingly and perversely (as only French organisers can be) they were offered low numbers and a priority start – which they duly accepted. My Android smartphone GPS had taken us perfectly to the Registration building and we left the car parked there for the day, with the race start only a few hundred metres away. I now set up the phone as a heart rate monitor and sports tracking device for the race – to supplement the Garmin on the bike. Rob had bought a device for his bike but didn’t have time to install it due to our race day being brought forward. We all had tired legs but were looking forward to the event.

Officially the distance was 142km and my Garmin measured 143km. The GPSies mapping program puts the climbing at 3027m

Race Start (it gets serious now)
Chris and Rob got through the priority start gate and I was turned away as I tried to bluff my way through. There were something like 1000 racers so a good start would make a difference regardless of the timing chips on the ankles. With my cr*p start this meant that a gut busting effort would be required just to get into the race. At the start of the race there are always people charging up the field so it’s just a case of picking someone powering ahead at a sustainable elevated pace and attaching yourself to his rear wheel. I found a couple of guys of a similar age from a cycling club (dressed in red and yellow) and they made a perfect train pulling me though the field with my heart rate high (165) but not completely exploding. Eventually I left them and found another tow slightly faster bridging the gaps between pelotons. 28 minutes into the race we were brought to a halt where pelotons had compressed together to form a massive road block due to gravel and stones that had covered a section of road due to the flooding overnight. Riding over the gravel I passed Rob who was at a standstill and waved to him as I recognised him (quite difficult in a massive throng of people dodging all over the place on bikes). 40 minutes into the race and I found myself working alone with one other rider trying to bridge the gap to a massive peloton up ahead. The massive peloton seemed to be travelling slowly but despite us giving maximum output we couldn’t quickly close the gap. This is always very frustrating because you know that you are burning the candle too brightly but if you make it then you gain the shelter and speed of the big peloton. 45 minutes into the race and the peloton dramatically decelerated as it hit the first climb into the Vercors – and so we went straight into the back of it and started working our way quickly up through the field. 

Performance Collapse
My legs had not felt good during the early charge but that is often due to not being warmed up – in this case though there was no improvement. Very clearly the missing recovery day was having a predictable effect. Despite this I was able to work well and keep a very good pace – it seemed that the only penalty to pay was a general feeling of discomfort in the legs. The gradient wasn’t too steep so a pace of 16kph was sustainable and I overtook a lot of riders just like at the start and this continued for the next 80 minutes. Unfortunately all of this climbing was in the trees and on West facing slopes, which meant that we had no sun to warm us and couldn’t see anything. The scenery is this region is stunning so that was a real shame. Reaching higher altitude it became uncomfortably cold. My base layer was wet through and instead of keeping me warm it was chilling me. Rather suddenly and surprisingly my performance just collapsed. I felt cold, miserable, all strength vanished and my heart rate plummeted. I know that this was not a “lactic acid” issue because I’m currently able to sustain a higher heart rate and power output for longer than this with no issues. Instinctively I linked it to the bad feelings I’d had from the start – of not being fully recovered. I worked at damage control now – doing everything possible to keep up a speed that wouldn’t lose too many of the gains already achieved. That wasn’t too bad because I never averaged below 10 kph even at the lowest point. This was only the 50km mark in a 142km race and the prospect of feeling so bad for the rest of the race was very discouraging. Lots of the jerseys that I’d confidently passed earlier on now began to fly past me – not crawl past but FLY past. The only other Macot-La Plagne jersey that I saw in the race went past patting me on the back and asking how I was doing – to which the answer was rather obvious. The La Plagne jersey was pulling a small peloton behind him and they were quickly past me and completely disappearing into the distance. My upper heart rate was steadily dropping and I was feeling colder – until I couldn’t get above 140bpm. Having slowed down I took the time to eat a gel, some solids and wash it down with sports drink. I’d only consumed half a bottle so far because of the cold. I’d been sparring with number 408 for a while but there was no cooperation because he would either speed up or slow down unpredictably. Eventually he had left me behind too. Arriving at some flatter but gently undulating terrain a couple of guys overtook me but this time, with a great mental effort, I was able to hook on to them – now at 73km into the race. The worst possible thing is being isolated because you just slow right down. The flats allowed me to stay with this new pair and to hang on the back getting protection from the headwind and returning to a healthy pace. For the next 7km it was a fight to hang on and we had a bit of a chat – the leader, a younger guy wearing white told me that he thought I was doing not too badly and was very encouraging. He used a very high cadence that I would have found impossible, but I envied him this ability because my legs were very painful by now. I worked on using the core muscles to take the strain off the thighs but I’ve often found that around 75km in a race this sort of thing happens then eventually the pain goes away - quite strangely. We were joined at this stage by one of the “red and yellow” guys who had pulled me ahead at the start. His colleague was a bit stronger and had overhauled me a while back when I was really floundering. Red Yellow now stepped the pace up a bit, relaying with White and so I had to work harder again but managed to hold on and my heart rate picked up to around 154 bpm. At long last we reached the first major descent of the day. We had been up to 1340m altitude and here at the 80km point we would descend from 1141m to 256m at St Jean-en Royans. Even during the descent the air started warming us up and for the first time this day I could feel my body relaxing as the warm air and sun’s rays worked their soothing effect.

Whatever it was I don’t know – the warmth, the food/drink, the relative rest during the descent, but I started to feel better. At this point we were faced with our next big challenge of the day – another major climb back up to almost 1100m. Our fast section as a group at altitude and then strong descent had allowed us to catch up a bit with some groups and individuals. We could now see them in the distance with the more open and exposed landscape. White was now back in charge and he seemed to know the terrain and told me that it was a long “faux plat” but in reality it was a proper climb that allowed a good speed –around 6% gradient according to Chris. Quite soon we came across my old sparring partner number 408 who had stopped for a pee and left him behind. In the distance we could now see the La Plagne jersey still pulling his peloton along and in it was the other Red Yellow. That encouraged our Red Yellow to pull us for a bit. Our small group remained intact as we chased them down and not long into the climb we caught up with them. This time I patted the other La Plagne on the back and told him that I’d found my legs again. A few minutes later it was my La Plagne jersey pulling the peloton up the hill and I was back to full force and speed as I had been on the first climb of the day. For about 10km I set the pace uninterrupted pulling the combined pelotons up the hill - heart rate back up to 165bpm and speed back up to 16kph. The pain had gone from the legs.  White then came back to the front to take the relay. One young guy dressed in blue came to the front when we were close to the top of the main climb and he increased the pace. White stayed with him and so did I and a few others but eventually White let Blue go and returned to a more reasonable pace allowing our peloton to reform. During this climb both the Red Yellows and the other La Plagne jersey were all dropped not to be seen again. At kilometre 109 there was a “ravitaillement” – a refreshment stand. Unfortunately White had to stop there so we lost him. I had brought only two 500ml bottles with me but there was probably still enough water left to get to the end despite having been riding for 4hrs 25mins already and with still almost an hour to go (I did cut it close and finished a bit thirsty). The problem for White was that immediately after the ravitaillement there was a real “faux plat” of 3.5km and our peloton attacked it at between 30 to 40 kph! This attack was followed by a relatively steep series of climbs with another faux plat in between but with a strong headwind – here the peloton started to split up into bits and pieces but remarkably we were all back together again at the start of the main descent, having scooped up several additional struggling individuals near the very end of the climb and revived them back to life.  

Remember my "Endurance Scale" from (La Bourgui)?
The Endurance Scale is based upon each 1000m of climbing. 
Currently on the 1st 1000m I'm "Very Good", 2nd 1000m "Good", 3rd 1000m "Not Good", 4th 1000m "Bad", 5th 1000m "F****d"! Untrained riders would hit the "F" category on the first 1000m and the best would stay at "VG" the whole way. 
Today there was 3000m of climbing. I was VG on the first 1000m, straight to "F" on the second 1000m and back to "VG" on the third 1000m. This was definitely not very normal.

The Finish
At the start of the descent I almost got caught napping and was momentarily left behind by the acceleration. Three people I’d recently caught on the climb went flying past me and my legs wouldn’t let me accelerate. Fortunately the road became a little twistier and my cornering skills allowed me to close the gap again and give my body time to recover. Completing the main descent from 1100m to 400m there was a 5km section of undulating terrain with some short steep climbs and more significantly it was into a relatively strong headwind. Having made such an effort on the climb I felt no shame now in just hanging onto the back of the peloton and getting the most shelter possible from the wind. Our pace was high now and it was tough even just hanging on. Blue had been caught on this plateau because he had become isolated so he was now part of our peloton again. We were powering along passing people who looked like they were standing still by comparison - including the stragglers from the shorter 90km course.  The final 10km was on a variable downhill gradient dropping 225m to a final altitude of 173m. This dynamic group I was with truly had the bit between the teeth and averaged the whole last 10km at close to 50 kph – a furious pace for passing through villages and built up areas. You really knew that you were racing!  We did this like a team time trial and I only managed one stint in front for a few seconds – it was very hard to set this sort of pace but there were a few there who could do this and the rest just tucked in behind. A while after the final “1km to go” sign the peloton, remaining tight and fast, came to a sharp bend and there, out of sight, was the finish line about 40m away. It was too short to really challenge on the sprint but I did try and managed to jump three places ahead in a few seconds. Due to the timing chips though that wouldn’t or shouldn’t be the true placing.  (You can never completely trust the timing system)

After Race
The course being brilliantly organised meant that there was an enclosure right next to the finish for a food hall and secure bike guard. There was no queue for the food so service was rapid and I spotted Chris still eating and Rob sitting across from him. Rob had finished a couple of hours earlier having participated in the shorter 90km course. The food was acceptable and when we asked for more bottled water there was no hesitation in happily obliging us. Rob had picked up his “cadeau” and it was a very smart pair of sunglasses along with a lot of superfluous junk and publicity. I keenly picked mine up before leaving but didn’t even look at the contents of the bag. At home I discovered that the bag contained a stupidly ugly pair of sunglasses that were too small. Next time I’ll check! 

Getting Lost
It wasn’t over yet. The race finish wasn’t where we started and we were informed it was a 5 minute cycle back to the start and hence the cars. Chris being impatient as usual ignored my suggestion to use my phone GPS to get us back. It was obvious that the roads were a bit complicated. We decided that the technology was not CI (Chris Impatience) compatible. Chris stated that he preferred to get lost for 5 minutes than to mess with a GPS for 5 minutes and that the “chance” involved was important. Being an ex-professional navigator I just groan to myself when people try to tell me how to navigate but that’s why we have to be tolerant. After being lost for about 20 minutes (we were not even in the right town - the race had finished in Bourg-de-Péage!) I was asked to get my GPS out. Within minutes we were at the car. The phone still had 33% power left after being used to track the entire race and give audio feedback on every kilometre split time – plus posting all the data in real time to the internet. Amazing technology!

On returning home it was a real effort to lug all the kit up the steps to the flat. I couldn’t stop eating for a while and dozed off when trying to watch a film - Johnny Depp in Sweeny Todd. Despite eating all evening when Christiane returned home with a pizza I devoured 3/4 of it. Falling asleep at night would be very quick but later on sleep would become restless because the legs and body had clearly been overworked.  

Chris had quite a strong creaking coming from his bike so he took it into a bike shop on the way to the race. Surprisingly the creak was coming from a cracked wheel rim where the spokes join the rim. The wheels are special lightweight elite level wheels costing close to 1000€ each so let's hope that the manufacturer (Mavic) will fix this under warranty. The carbon spokes are designed to work under low tension combining both compressive and tensile properties to keep the wheel better aligned. It would seem that Chris's weight and power was too much for the compression against the rim. This should be recognised as a design fault.

During the race I eventually became aware of a noise which turned out to be the rear brake rubbing on the rim. The whole mechanism was pulling over to one side. Yanking up on the cable behind me would clear it temporarily but I had to try to remember to do that after each time I used the brake. After the race I found that the braking effect of the rubbing was quite strong so no doubt this was working against me in the race. I still need to sort this out.

The Endomondo sports tracking App in the phone worked very well but seems to have under-calculated the total amount of climbing by more than 1000m. There is nearly always something that doesn't work with this software and that's why I still need the Garmin.

During the race I worked on using the core muscles and keeping the legs relaxed - particularly when going though tough periods. This is partly what helped me to avoid losing excessive amounts of time when I was in trouble. It's possibly also what helped me to recover and return to full force later on - but in general that outcome still mystifies me. I also worked on keeping the feet stiff and avoiding the ankle flexing and absorbing all the energy during the "push down". 

I noticed a possible contributor to my foot pain issues. There are two ways to use the bike when standing on the pedals - you can move the top of the bike from side to side or you can move your body from side to side. If you move your body to one side then when you push on the pedal on that side you are hard against the outside of the foot to begin the push down. This hurts the foot and may be the real cause of my tendinitis at the 5th metatarsal in the middle of the outside edge of the foot. If you move the bike over to the side (say to the left), then when you push down with the left foot you are on your instep and the bike comes back inwards beneath you as you push down. I switched to doing this because it removed the foot pain.

142km (395 finishers, 52 in age cat G - 50 to 54 - Gold diploma time limit 6h10) 
Winner  04:20:54
Chris     05:02:09 114th overall, 11th in age cat G
Ian        05:24:33 220th overall, 31st in age cat G
Last      07:29:51

90km   (355 finishers, 45 in age cat F - 45 to 49 - Gold diploma time limit 3h35)
Winner  02:39:"5
Rob      03:25:31 199th overall, 29th in age cat F
Last      06:35:11

I'm still too fat.
Well done Rob on his first ever Sportif in France - a great result!
The timing was not truthful. My group of 11 finishers are all bunched together within 3 seconds and I recognise the race numbers - but there is no way we would have started together like that.

No comments:

Post a Comment