Monday, June 25, 2012

La Grande Bo’

Billed as 3700m climbing over 135km on the long course it was with a sense of intrepidation that I went to Le Grand Bornand. The Time Mégève event two weeks earlier demonstrated that my fitness level was no where near high enough and that event had finished by being seriously demoralising – yet this one would be much more difficult. There was however a sense of obligation to do the long course because of the need to prepare for the Etape du Tour on July 8th which has almost 5000m climbing. I had considered pulling out of the Etape due to poor preparation (one vital month lost in Scotland) so this race would really determine whether or not to proceed: Another disaster and I’d have to choose to back off and focus on other more manageable tasks while building up fitness.

So how did it go? Well, I don’t think that I’ve ever participated in any event where it went so perfectly to plan – from start to finish! It was great; enjoyable, exhilarating, challenging, extremely hard and yet a lot of fun.

463 people took part in the event and this was spread over three separate courses. Small events like this are not for the faint hearted – they generally attract only hard-core racers, especially where a lot of climbing is involved. My goal was to race my own race and to avoid being dictated to by the event and other participants – but there was a real problem with this strategy. They had introduced a cut-off time for allowing people onto the long course and those who didn’t make it would be streamed onto the middle course. The cut-off was at 90km and this was after two major climbs – the Col de Mont Saxonnex being particularly steep and brutal – and the time limit was only 4 hours. I had a plan but didn’t know if I would be able to stick to it or not.


This was the first time I’d tried sleeping in the estate car prior to an event. Basically I don’t like hotels and camping is a real fuss so the simplicity of just sleeping in the car appeals to me. I have a brilliantly compact and comfortable “Mammut” high quality inflatable mattress and the back of the car is long and spacious. The spot I’d chosen was very quiet and had a great view over the town but was only 200m walk from the centre. French towns like this really do want to attract tourists so the public conveniences in the centre of town were spotless and almost as good as in a hotel. There was a great open air swimming pool just below where I’d parked so that would be a definite destination after the race. There was even a small wall just behind the car so there was privacy as well. The bike frame and wheels spent the night in the front seat area – covered over – and I slept well, having avoided the big car parks that would be bustling as early as 6am with people arriving. I’d decided to simply make my own coffee and porridge in the morning, get everything ready with the bike progressively so there would be time to notice anything missing and use the public toilets last thing before going to the race start. Everything went perfectly. I even managed to get the bike vertically into the small toilet room! (not taking any risks!) – and the sun was on us by 7:45am as I arrived for the 7:55am “pre” start. This year I had bought a KMC chain that can be very easily removed and then cleaned properly in petrol. This meant there was no oil on the chain and moving the bike around in the car had been really easy when making space to sleep. The last thing I’d done prior to leaving the car for the race was to apply “ceramic wet” oil to the chain.

For physical preparation I’d done a really hard 90 minute session early in the previous week and then observed that in the following days I couldn’t find enough power to raise my heart rate. This was more or less anticipated so the day before the race I just rested and was expecting to be back to full power by the day of the race. This was correct. It doesn’t appear to matter whether an intense workout is 90 minutes or part of a 4 hour race – that intensity takes the same recovery time. This confirms that I need to do more high intensity work to raise my body’s tolerance. Last year I proved to myself that long rides at lower intensity do practically nothing for my fitness and just wear down the morale.

The Race

The start was behind the big “Maison des Sports” near the ice rink, across the river from the town. The finish would be there too. It was a relaxed start because the official start would be around 5 minutes later in the town itself. I placed myself near the back, thinking that with less that 500 people it would still be quite a tight start – but that was wrong! The start was like a city traffic jam with an accordion effect and everyone spread out over a long stretch. This isn’t really cool because there was no electronic start measurement. They appear to have given everyone the same start time. I started my own timer when I went past the town centre because there was nothing to indicate the “real start”. Sloppy stuff! However, this is my only gripe of the whole day and it’s pretty insignificant – the rest of it was great and I’ve nothing but praise for the organisation – it was excellent.

The advantage of starting near the back is that you then have the morale booster of overtaking others instead of the inverse. A major part of my plan for the day was to try to race while only breathing through the nose. This was particularly important at the start because it was straight into a climb up the Col de la Croix Fry and there was serious risk of red-lining all the way up the climb which would be a cast iron guarantee of a nightmare finish several hours later. What I didn’t know was whether or not I could sustain a competitive pace while nasal breathing. The phenomenal thing about nasal breathing is that you can feel how it forces you to breathe abdominally and therefore much more efficiently. My goal was to stay aerobic, maximise efficiency and to avoid going anaerobic and building up metabolites. I could perhaps afford to go anaerobic towards the end but not at the start.

The other concern was that my bum bones had been sore since the Time Mégève and my saddle is really hard so I was hoping that for this marathon event things had settled down a bit. I could have used a softer version of the same saddle which was at home – but as with the other training effects I was counting on the body adapting in time for this event. At worst there was only mild discomfort constantly through the race.

My water bottles had Isotonic, high carb mixtures – one lime and the other orange and in the right rear pocket there was the entire contents of a box of almond bars with added vitamins and minerals to aid digestion. This is about the only thing I’ve found edible when exercising – and I just hate the sticky mess that gels create when you replace the opened packet or tube back in your pocket. I also had four packets of electrolyte high carb powder (one with added protein) to add to water refills because I know now that drinking plain water is a disaster for the stomach and causes bloating – not just for me but for anyone.  I aimed to eat an almond bar after each climb so as to get the blood sugar back up during the descent and ready for the next challenge. It would be generally a hot sunny day so disciplined drinking would be necessary too and it was not a day to wait until thirst set in. Another advantage of nasal breathing is that is seriously reduces dehydration and I could really feel this advantage during the first 4 hours.

Le Col de la Croix Fry

Climbing the Col de la Croix Fry my heart rate was steady at around 158 bpm. I hadn’t been sure that I could maintain even this level while nasal breathing but it presented no problem. If I’d been breathing through the mouth I’d have let the heart rate climb to near 170 bpm for the whole climb so this was definitely a success for disciplining the effort levels. Most surprising was that I had the fitness to hold my own with those around me on the climb despite remaining in the aerobic performance zone the whole way. I’d been worried about just getting dumped and having to abandon the nasal breathing quite rapidly. Graeme Obree recently published his “training manual” outlining his personal approach to his world records and hour record. Although this was in the nineties and he was largely working things out for himself I was amazed to discover that he had incorporated nasal breathing. His own breathing technique involved inhaling by the nose with the nostrils flared and simultaneously through the mouth but with the tongue pressed up against the palate to force the air to be warmed before going into the lungs. He then did one big abdominal breath, followed by a half breath then a quarter breath – in a repetitive cycle. From studying Buteyko research it appears that exhaling through the nose is also important – the nose being the “breathing organ” – and perhaps the restriction on air intake imposed by pure nasal breathing achieves the same thing as the half and quarter breath. In any case I know that increasing air intake is not the answer – the fastest and surest way to run into oxygen debt and physical trouble is to over-breathe.

Going over the first col I felt really good and went into a fast descent. Descending on a bike is very much like skiing and I enjoy playing with the choice of line and focusing on technique. Currently I’m finding that security is best on longish very high speed turns if the body is shifted to the inside of the turn, but on fast very tight bends the bike has to be inclined into the turn with the body on the outside and all the weight on the outside pedal. Different techniques for different turns – very much like skiing. Generally I find that when the descents get really twisty I catch up rapidly with people in front. I don’t pedal too hard on the straighter sections and just try to streamline the body because I know that I’ll catch people on the bends. Elliptical pedalling technique really helps however when pedalling with the upperbody flattened and low – because it stops the knees from coming up so high – the difference being very obvious. Today my timing worked out really well and when the plateau arrived at the bottom of the descent I landed right in the middle of a fast moving group. This timing was critical because at this point we were close to Annecy and there was a very long and undulating hike around the base of the mountains into the Chamonix valley. Being isolated on this section would be a disaster – especially with a really tight cut-off time at midday precisely at 90km. The challenge now was to stay with this peloton and continue the nasal breathing. We were going fast so absolutely no one was speaking and this is important when nasal breathing. You have to breath through the mouth when talking so I was happy with the silence. One earphone was plugged into my left ear for audio feedback from my telephone/sports tracking device. The great thing about this is that each kilometre I’d automatically hear data about distance, speed, heart rate – without having to look at or touch anything. This also saves battery power on the telephone as the screen doesn’t need to light up. My battery is a year old now so making it last a long race is getting harder. I have a new really heavy duty battery on order but it hasn’t arrived yet. Near the start of the plateau we went past an isolated girl (Sian Mcloughlin No 259) who was moving quite slowly but she responded wisely and latched onto the train. I had no intention of working at the front and there was no pressure to do so – the peloton didn’t become seriously structured due to the undulating terrain so there was no problem. Carrying good speed the peloton grew as we picked up other isolated individuals along the way. The end of the main plateau is very clear because it is when you suddenly arrive at a steep short climb where you are forced to drop down 19 gears from top gear to bottom gear. I’d managed to maintain the nasal breathing the whole time despite being stretched to the limit at points keeping up with the group. It would have been easy to stay with them by allowing myself to breathe through the mouth, but I’d have probably gone anaerobic. It was a real challenge tokeep the breathing disciplined and stay with the group. Something else however would interfere. Changing gear at the top of the climb back onto the large chainring I managed to drop the chain. This is a problem with managing the Osymetric chainring and I’m still learning how to avoid this. I should have just stopped on the descent there and then but sometimes when you turn the cranks the chain can flip back on so I tried that, but at the start of the next climb I had to get off and sort out the chain. Bye Bye peloton! The real plateau was over now anyway so I wasn’t too concerned.

Le Col d’Evires

We had reached the start of the climb up to the Col d’ Evires. One other member of the old peloton had somehow been held up with a similar problem because although he was stronger than the others he had somehow managed to get behind and I was surprised when he appeared from behind. I held onto his wheel for a while but felt it was pushing me more than I wanted so I let him go. Eventually I spotted Sian ahead on her own and having been dropped by the others she had slowed down a lot. Surprisingly she managed to catch on to me as I overtook and despite climbing at a good pace she managed to hang on. When we arrived a the final part of the climb up to the col I decided to be social – nobody had spoken a work to anyone so far today – and removed my earphone so as to hear clearly. We started talking in French only to realise that we were both British – then it turned out that she lives in Tessans – the village 4km up the road from my home and which I pass every time I ride up to Granier. Small world! Unfortunately she was starting to run pout of steam at this point and so I left her before the end of the climb. I had sacrificed a period of nasal breathing but was more than happy to be social instead. There was a refreshment stand at the top and would be her only one as she would soon bifurcate onto the short course missing out the three big cols ahead  - but I didn’t need to stop yet as I still had plenty of water and almond bars. I also knew there were two more refreshment stops – one at the top of each of the next two cols – or just one if I didn’t make it to the next bifurcation in time. To be honest I didn’t have much hope of getting there in time, but pushed on hard just with the hope that it was still possible. Sian continued on the short course and came 1st in her category and 3rd female overall.

Le Col de Mont Saxxonex

Arriving at the first bifurcation it was an easy decision to head off in the direction of the medium and long courses, except that there was only one other rider in sight. Number “3” had eased off to eat a little and was probably also affected by finding himself totally isolated. I overtook him and soon realised that he’d hitched a lift. When people do that you can be sure that they are even more tired than you are. He stayed behind me over the entire plateau. When we got to the climb up to Mont Saxonnex I heard my back brake rubbing against the wheel rim. The wheel must have pulled over slightly and there was no way I wanted to start the next climb with brakes rubbing so I had to pull over and dismount to straighten the wheel. To my surprise I had a peloton of about half a dozen attached to me and had to watch them all disappear as they attacked the climb ahead of me. The climb was vicious – very steep and relentless. I managed to retain the nasal breathing and very slowly but surely started to reel in the guys ahead. By the top of the climb I was gaining in strength and some of the others were clearly waning – including number 3 – so I overtook them quite strongly. Unfortunately at this point the nasal breathing was starting to become difficult to maintain and on the last part of the climb I reverted to mouth breathing. Once over the col I was able to recover the nasal breathing. It’s actually really hard to get back to nasal breathing once you stop. There was now only a descent between me and the final bifurcation and I knew it was very close to the cut-off time but I didn’t even look at the time and just pressed on instead. Arriving at the bifurcation it was still clearly open and it was exhilarating to arrive there in time. I was really happy to make it but at the same time realised that by taking the long route it was like opening the gates of hell. Checking my clock I had made it with only 4 minutes to spare – which meant that I might even be the last one through and so would be in a classic battle to avoid last place. I love those battles – they are every bit as stimulating as trying to win something. The next plateau was a solo time trial with no one at all in sight either ahead or behind. I’d already switched my music on because I knew that I was working on my own now – which always happens when there is such a small field. Music helps to combat pain and isolation.

Le Col de Romme

The next climb would be to Le Col de Romme. If I had any illusions that is would be easier than the Saxonnex they were immediately shattered. At the end of the plateau, straight ahead, the road bent straight up like a vertical wall. I actually burst out laughing when I saw it. My expectations were not deceived. About ten strokes of the pedals into the climb and I had to dismount the bike with my entire left leg going into severe spasm with cramp. The spasm was centred more to the inside of the upper leg – which is amazing because it wasn’t the small quads above the knee which are normally hit by this sort of thing. I’d focussed on pedalling technique the entire way and so was using the bigger muscles further up the leg and the good alignment was soliciting the muscles on the inside of the leg. This is great because those muscles are so important is skiing so it’s great that they are being used properly in cycling – but even those big muscles have their limits. I probably only spent between about 1 and 2 minutes getting through the spasm and then set off again. Standing up on the pedals and getting the body forwards allowed me to use the hip extensors (glutes) and relax the thighs to give the spasms a proper chance to fade away. The right leg also had some minor spasm but didn’t completely lock up as the left leg had done. The legs recovered rapidly but when seated I focussed on pulling instead of pushing for a while just to change the muscle use. Once the climbing was established the legs went back to normal and this didn’t happen again. Looking behind I could see what looked like the red top of number 3 again – so I knew that currently I wasn’t last and that he was definitely flagging. The cramp attack had affected my confidence but soon I was back up to speed. One achievement of the day was that even with stops like this and two stops to fill water bottles there was never a kilometre that went up to 8 minutes. The slowest kilometre was on a really steep section where it went up to 7’50”. When it starts to go over 8 minutes then the game is pretty much over. The climb was very hard both physically and mentally. Adding to the challenge were the rough road surface, a strong headwind from the West, searing heat when sheltered and the relentless steepness of the glaciated valley wall. Knowing there was someone behind pushed me on, then as the valley opened up near the top I glimpsed the white top of another rider perhaps a kilometre ahead. There had been moments when I’d even wondered if I was lost because there were no road markers or any trace of a race. At the top of this col was the first electronic control point I’d seen all day. There must have been one on each individual course. Shortly after the control point there was the final refreshment stand. There were four other riders lingering there so I did a Formula One move to overtake them in the pits. My last powder went into another water refill (previously refilled both tanks at Mont Saxonnex) – but I spent only a minute on the refills. Two of the riders set off before me and being rested they were able to attack the descent better and leave me behind. This meant that I now had at least three people firmly tucked behind me and the buffer between me and the Voiture Ballai (Sweeper up van) was growing.  The last official  transport I’d seen was before the final bifurcation when an ambulance overtook on the Mont Saxonnex and gave me the thumbs up signal to check if everything was OK.

Le Col de La Columbière

Joining the Col de la Columbière was a bit of a relief. Not only was this the final climb but being a main road the running surface was smooth and it was relatively sheltered from the West wind. At this point I found that I wasn’t strong enough to use the second gear properly and had to use first gear – which was a bit frustrating. The jump from a 25T to a 28T sprocket was just a bit too much. I’d have liked a gear between the two so as to avoid losing too much speed. Ultimately I had to use to lower gear because for some time now it had become impossible to coordinate the nasal breathing and it was becoming a fight for survival. I focussed of pedalling technique – to optimise the mechanics and keep a good rhythm. When I could manage some nasal breathing I’d do it for a while. It feels good to get the air deep down into the lungs like this – but it’s a learned discipline that’s easy to forget under stress. I knew that the last several kilometres of the Columbière were steep and hard and so I needed to conserve some energy for that without losing time. Shortly after the start of the climb the two who had set off before me from the previous refreshment point were located standing at the roadside in the shade of some trees. I’ve no idea what they were doing – whether it was a technical issue or physical – but it felt good adding them to my buffer zone!  The steep section soon loomed up in front and now I could start to put some power into using the first gear. My heart rate climbed back up to 155bpm and with it being the final climb there was no worry about breathing and metabolites. Around practically every bend I was surprised to come across another cyclist almost falling off his bike! The Columbière was destroying them. In contrast my strategy had paid off and I was able to work harder, picking them off one by one, the last one being only a few hundred metres from the summit. I wasn’t sure how many had done the long course because the middle course also went over this col – but one I spoke to afterwards had come over the Col de Romme and the Columbière had finished him off. This meant that my buffer zone was a least 6 deep and I hadn’t even seen the highly anticipated Voiture Balai.

The Finish

Descending was predictably tentative at the start after such an effort but there was still 13km to go to the finish and although I’d accelerated past the others at the summit I knew there would soon be a challenge. It took about half the descent to fully recover and then I spotted one of the guys closing in on me. About the same time my telephone battery started to warn me that it was running out. The pressure was now on to get as fast as possible to the finish. I felt good now so flattened my body and used elliptical pedalling to accelerate on the straights. Although my head was slightly fuzzy from lactic acid I was still properly lucid and able to apply good cornering technique and tactics. The finish at Le Grand Bornand is slightly confusing because they direct you with arrows back out on the route that you started off on in the morning. This is slightly disconcerting because you worry in case you missed something and are now starting the entire thing all over again! In addition it leaves you with a 1.7km climb back to the finish line. My legs were good after the descent and I attacked the final stretch all the way, finishing 30 seconds ahead of the guy chasing me.


No surprises here – especially given my fitness. I was just amazed at being able to enjoy the entire thing and finishing strongly after 6hrs 34 mins (official time). I fact I don’t think I’ve ever finished any race of any length feeling so good. There are some very important lessons in this exercise today. My placing was 158th out of 169 finishers - with the last being over 1hr 15mins behind. Remember there was a severe cut off time and not many would have made it after me onto the course. In age category I was 28th out of 31 – which shows that fitness is the main limiting factor – not age. I also think that some cheated at the end and cut out the loop around the town - so three people got ahead of me at the end who should have been behind - though they could easily have done this by mistake. Very annoying when you are already so far down the results table! The overall winner was from my ASC Macot La Plagne club - 2hrs 18mins ahead of me!!!!!!! - and the kid who won the short course averaged an unbelievable 38.26 km/hr.

I hope that ASC Macot La Plagne are pleased to know that they were represented at both ends of the results table.

Aprés Race

I was in time to change clothing, pack the bike safely in the car and get to lunch prior to the prize giving. The lunch was excellent quality with plenty of protein – but I couldn’t eat much. My stomach had been hurting along with everything else on the final climb. Leaving the sports hall I was clearly too tired to drive and felt like doing nothing. Instead I collected my swimming gear and headed off to the pool. It was fantastic to get into the water and be weightless! After drying myself I laid out on a towel in the sun and closed my eyes to rest properly. This rest and the small amount of food ingested earlier did their trick and I recovered very well. Leaving the pool Chris Harrop called to find out how it had gone and I was in good spirits to tell him about it. He had covered about 3000m climbing over the final section of the Etape route the day before and concluded the same as me that the Col du Glandon will destroy people. After another coffee stop I headed off home feeling relaxed and refreshed. My legs were very tired and I could feel them during the night but nothing severe. It’s ultra clear to me now that strategy and skill are everything in long races and they must be adapted to suit fitness levels. You don’t have to be ultra fit to make it work and still really enjoy it.

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