Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Etape du Tour 2012

One word will stay in memory to describe this day - BRUTAL!
The race would include two Olympic gold medallists from the Alpine world – Jean-Pierre Vidal (Slalom) and Fabrice Guy (Combiné Nordique) and double Formula One world champion Alain Prost. The two Olympic champions finished in around 8 hours but no sign of the name Prost among the finishers today.
For me it was an inexplicably bad day right from the start – feeling practically ill but with no apparent reason except perhaps the cold and wet – which apparently discouraged 3000 from even starting. The only sense of achievement was in simply surviving despite all of this. If my 9hrs 16mins seems like a long time then goodness only knows what the last finisher felt like after 18hrs 56mins. He would have been pedalling until close to 3am the day after the start! (assuming he started at close to 8am). I thought that there was a time limit where you were prevented from continuing – but he was not alone crossing the finish line so there appears to be no mistake in the results table.


The Tour “village” at Albertville was well organised. It basically had to be as there were between 9000 and 10000 people registered for the race. Ultimately only 5688 turned up for the start (and only 4422 finishers). The newspapers report that around 3000 didn’t start due to the bad weather – it was pouring rain at 6am. I’m not sure though if all of them even collected their start numbers the previous day because many would have realised that they hadn’t managed the necessary preparation – and I was very close to being one of them. Entering a race like this under-prepared is a guaranteed nightmare – and yet it appears that most participants were even less well prepared than me.
The day before the race around 3pm I’d arrived at the “Race Village”  and quickly collected my start number. Within minutes Paul spotted me so we had met up spontaneously just like on the JPP a week earlier – good minds think alike. It took a while to wander around and be certain of the depart start procedure for the following morning. There would be a coffee and breakfast stand with toilets in the vicinity but it was a little tricky picking out the route to the start corridors where we would group according to start numbers. Paul would be in group 2 and me in group 3 out of 10 separate start groups that would be located on different roads and with the start staggered over an hour – from 7am to 8am.
We didn’t hang about as it was a 70km drive to la Toussuire where the race would end and where we had chosen to park a car with change of clothing left in the car for after the race. Parking would also have been feasible down in the valley at St Jean de Maurienne but I’d anticipated that we would finish quite far apart in time so it was better to have a vehicle there on site. If the weather had been bad then a descent by bike in the cold after such a demanding event could have been horrific. This didn’t deter some from not only doing that (with a very long detour involved due to the main road being closed for the race itself) but also cycling the rest of the route to Albertville! They would have had a strong valley headwind too. Goodness only knows how they did that.
On our way back home just after leaving St Jean de Maurienne Paul and I spotted a stunning road climb up the side of a steep rock face and we couldn’t resist the temptation to take a detour to check it out. I’d seen this in photographs before but was never able to locate it. Unfortunately this eventually led us to a dirt track – after climbing up to 1650m altitude! We then had to descend back down to 1000m before finding our way back onto the correct route over the Col de la Madeleine to get home. This wasn’t ideal preparation as we had intended to get home and eat early – but it was educational and not a real problem. The food was ready and only had to be heated on arrival. We were able to get to bed by around 10:30pm for a 4:40am rise next morning.
No surprises in the morning and we were on our way to Albertville before 5:30. Well there was one little surprise. It was pouring rain and the sky was black. This was absolutely NOT expected nor was it desired in the slightest. The only decision it affected was the choice of rain jacket to be taken with both of us opting for proper waterproofs and arm warmers despite the bulk. That was a good choice. I left Paul at the car and headed off first because I wanted to grab a coffee and find a loo. Coffee was no problem but the loos had big queues and there wasn’t time for that. I’d anticipated this problem and had a toilet roll in my pocket. It took seconds to find appropriate bush cover. Getting this job right is quite important as it means being able to go through the entire event without even thinking about such problems again.
Finding my starting corridor was a bit tricky as expected but after climbing over a few barriers with the bike aloft I was there. Setting up the sports tracking system had been left to the last minute to avoid draining the batteries – but this caused a few unanticipated problems. After resetting the phone and spending some time setting it up with a spare external battery on the bike I then had to get it to scan for my heart rate monitor – but unfortunately there were about 1000 other heart rate monitors and cadence sensors around me and they all seemed to be picked up. I then had to strip it off the bike again and climb out of the compound to get away from the others to try another scan – but it wouldn’t let go of all of the other sensors. Luckily it seemed to lock on to my own heart rate monitor. There was enough time to chat to a couple of English guys at either side of me and they both appeared to be quite apprehensive – one seemingly having done too much climbing during the week in a mad rush to adapt to the mountains.
For once the timing was spot on – the clock starting with the electronic chip crossing the start line. The final time differing from my own by only 2 seconds.

The Race


Col de la Madeleine

Albertville to La Léchère is a very familiar road to me. I know every inch of it. The objective here was to keep a good speed by slipstreaming as much as possible but not letting the heart rate climb and risk going into the red before even getting to the first climb. La Léchère is where the climb to the Col de la Madeleine begins. Thank goodness for the protection from the rubberised waterproof layer. Even with that it was still cold. Sunglasses were stowed in my helmet because there’s nothing worse than the spray of water from other cyclist’s wheels spattering on your glasses. Somehow this doesn’t present a problem for unprotected eyes. I didn’t put them on until after the following descent down the other side of the Madeleine. Oddly enough, despite nasal breathing and controlling effort levels correctly, I didn’t feel good at all. At this point there was just the cold to deal with and a feeling of riding somewhat reluctantly. My stomach felt bloated despite not having eaten much in the morning. The day before I’d eaten chicken curry twice though and it didn’t feel like it passed through convincingly. I had a pocket full of almond squares and another full of powder sachets for drinks. Only one bottle was filled with water to save weight on the first climb with the empty one loaded with powder already. There was a watering point at the top of the Col de la Madeleine and I’d planned to ensure having two filled bottles from there.  Before leaving Albertville there was a level crossing to go over. Normally this is no issue but today there were so many full water bottles lying on the ground and rolling all over the place that it was difficult to pass. If I’d looked carefully I’d have been able to spot Paul’s only full bottle amongst them because that’s where it ended up. Perhaps I keep on losing CO2 valves but my water bottle holders are rock solid. It seemed excessive paying a lot for carbon ones but they were well worth it.
Attacking the bottom of the Madeleine I was immediately too hot. On removing the waterproof it seemed too cold. It was still raining a bit and water was dropping from the trees overhead but I felt exactly like you feel with a fever when it becomes hard to tell whether you are hot or cold. The headache started up around the same time. I know that I react very badly to cold so can only guess that this was the problem. My heart rate had been kept low so nothing appeared to be normal about the situation because I hadn’t been red lining or anything silly like that. The climb of the Madeleine took 20 minutes slower than I’m capable of – though this did include collecting water and replacing the jacket for the following descent. Predictably lots of people overtook me at the start of the Madeleine but this was partially planned. The start is steep and it’s a mistake to force too hard here. I think it was on this portion of the climb that I passed the one legged cyclist. That put a few things in perspective! On this occasion I’m not sure if restraint and control through nasal breathing was capping the speed or if something else was. Nevertheless, towards the end the rest of the climbers had slowed down to my speed and the overtaking had significantly reduced. In spite of this measured ascent I was hit by bad cramps on the inner left thigh during the following descent. This has never happened before so it’s totally inexplicable. Even after a much more aggressive ascent there’s never been cramps on the descent. Not a confidence inspiring situation to be in with another four cols to go!
Whenever I see a workout record where my heart rate never peaks in the 170s then I know there is something wrong. It’s one thing controlling the heart rate – as I did through nasal breathing – but even then it can get up to 170+ without much difficulty. Today the heart maxed overall at 162 and prior to the first climb it had maxed at only 149. Usually at a start I’m at 175 and n a suicide mission – but today this appears not to have even been an option.
About 4km from the top of the Madeleine the sun finally broke through the clouds. I had felt a wet cold until then – being unable to dry out from the combination of rain and sweat so the sun was enormously appreciated. We had seen on Paul’s weather app in the morning that the clouds should pass over during the morning and the sky’s should clear so things were at least going to plan in this respect. The course itself had apparently started out as 135km long and then eventually became 148km. While waiting at the start they wished us luck over the loudspeakers on our “152km” race! I don’t think that many participants would have failed to notice that one!
The descent of the Madeleine was hard due to dealing with cramps threatening to send the leg into a complete spasm. This was my right leg and I found that straightening it out seemed to help. By the bottom of the descent the leg was fine but it had slowed me down a bit on the descent as I didn’t want to bend it for cornering. Mentally I was OK and focusing on line and braking, plus there was the great bonus of having a dry road. La Chambre is the village at the bottom of the Madeleine descent and from here there was a loop of several kilometres on the flat to channel everyone over a bridge spanning the main road. This initially was against the strong adiabatic headwind funnelling up the valley so it was important to get into a peloton to both minimise workload and maximise speed – which is exactly what I did.

Col de Glandon

The entire village of St Etienne de Cuines appeared to be out to cheer everyone on and upwards at the start of the Col de Glandon. Once again I stopped near the bottom and removed the jacket, feeling an uncomfortable overheating again. I was really struggling with temperature regulation and this did not feel normal. My stomach was still feeling bloated and a bit queasy. So far there had been no moment when the event felt enjoyable. It was about to worsen even more.  The sun was now out and already people were starting to seek shelter in the shadows of trees during the climb. I was feeling bad and there was a dominant voice in my head debating the value of doing a U turn and dropping out. With so far still to go this was not an encouraging scenario. Scanning the body there was nothing specifically bad and the cramps were staying at bay with only minor jabs coming from the calves from time to time. I just decided that it was time to take control of the internal dialogue and stop the negativity. If scanning the body showed up no desperate issues then there was no need for any of this inner talk about giving up. The long route ahead was a psychological weight with four cols still to cross – but this would have to be filtered out of the thought processes. To make matters even worse around this time I was overtaken by a guy with a very large belly. My theory about power to weight ratio limiting my performance was instantly destroyed. He wasn’t the only fatty to show me up on this event. Somewhere about half way up the Glandon there was another watering point and I refilled both bottles with doses of electrolyte powder offered by the Tour. This powder seemed a bit too creamy for my taste but  it seemed to help to settle the stomach discomfort. One really positive thing was that despite recent problems with a very sore bum there was nothing more than a general bum discomfort that could be eased by standing  on the pedals for a few moments – and this persisted without any worsening.
Absolutely spot on with my earlier predictions the first victims of the race were at 7km from the col – with the first person spotted walking his bike. This situation would rapidly escalate from there on with people already stopping in the shade of trees and at one point generating a congestion that almost blocked the road. Considering I’d started amongst the stronger riders this didn’t bode well for those further behind.
Four kilometres from the top the tree cover disappeared but there was a head on breeze and the cooler air at altitude. For me it was just a reluctant plod in granny gear but soon the steep wall would have to be climbed and the concern was whether or not the legs could actually cope without locking up in spasm. I was dreading this wall because it would be one of the toughest parts of the day. Immediately it became clear that the legs couldn’t take it and the nasal breathing had gone out of the window a few kilometres back already. This time it was the left inner thigh threatening to lock up in spasm. The plan had been to nasal breathe until reaching the Col de la Croix de Fer but feeling so poorly there was no way to hold on to it – though close to four hours of nasal breathing was pretty good anyway. The only way I could stop the legs from cramping was to change coordination and follow through with the hip on each pedal stroke. Following through transferred the load to the muscles on the outside of the leg instead of the inside. The change was amazing and brought a new lease of life to the legs with no hint of cramps. Pedalling this way is risky for the lower back but it is more powerful. Combining the coordination change with breathing freely through the mouth I actually started to feel normal for the first time in the day. Climbing the wall presented no problems and things went into reverse for a while with me doing the overtaking all rest of the way to the top of the Col.

Col de la Croix de Fer

Despite the impressive name this col is only short extension of the Glandon with a moderate gradient. It’s still hard because you can see the top and it seems to take a long time to reel it in. At the top of the Croix de Fer was was a proper “ravitaillement” or feeding area. I’d managed to almost empty two bottles during the last half of the Glandon so it was imperative to stop there and refill. Here there were bottles of water  lined up and I made a B line for them cutting through everyone and poured my own tangy isotonic powder into my water bottles before filling them. There was a bit of congestion there but nothing unmanageable. Lots of people seemed to be hanging around to recover and I guess that’s where my poor climbing was compensated for in the overall results.  I never stopped for more than a minute anywhere so although climbing slowly this plus good descending gained over 500 places eventually.

Col du Mollard

The race had taken a new lease of life for me but the descent from the Croix de Fer was hard on the neck and shoulders. It was with relief that the next climb up the Col du Mollard began. Things appeared to have settled into a pattern and with following through with the hips I was properly holding my own now on the climb and reeling in quite a few others. The problems with body temperature had vanished and the headache had reduced along with stomach discomfort. Eventually however the muscles on the outside of the leg began to tire so it was time to switch back to pulling the hips backwards during the stroke. Once again the fresh muscles helped and this also took the load off the lower back which was constantly in danger of becoming a problem. Other than a feeling of tiredness in the lower back it had held up pretty well and there was no real backache. Now the game would be to alternate from one style to the other to spread the load over the different muscle groups. Having this option was a great reassurance. At the top of the Mollard I once again stopped to top up with water and used the last of the powders. Just before the steep end to the Mollard climb there was the unbelievable sound of “Scotland The Brave” being played on the bagpipes. One of the locals was out in his garden piping everyone into the village at the summit. That’s was it for me - there was absolutely no way I could give up after that – it would be a fight to the death from now on. I gave him the thumbs up when passing.
During the 15m descent from the Mollard into the Maurienne valley I hit one very nasty pothole which was surprising considering the Tour de France comes through here in 4 days time. After the day was over I noticed that the CO2 tank and Air Control valve had vanished and it was probably that shock that dislodged them. It’s the fourth set I’ve lost so it’s becoming a real habit! Luckily there was no puncture to deal with later on! The descent was otherwise uneventful but fast. Several people had missed turns and were being tended to by emergency services – probably victim of fatigue and loss of concentration. I thought that I’d been eating correctly but although my concentration was fine I’d actually eaten hardly anything – in total only four tiny squares of almond pâte all day (since a meusli breakfast). The queasy stomach had put paid to any efforts to force food down. Several times there was the sensation potential vomiting so food was far from appealing.

La Toussuire Climb

The start of the final 20km climb up to La Toussuire was a very steep narrow side street lined with people. I was still feeling relatively good despite the neck and shoulder from descending so went into the climb relatively confidently. By now the gear changing mechanism had somehow become bunged up – probably with sticky sugary juice splashing around from water bottles and I made a rather serious mistake. The steep initial climb carries on for about 3 or 4  kilometres and I did the whole thing in second gear believing it was first gear due to the stuck mechanism – thus well and truly burning out any energy still left in my legs and body. From this point on the remaining uphill became an interminable grind to the finish. One more water stop was required about half way up at a traditional water trough – no powder left to add but the taste of clear water being well appreciated by now. At no point did I slow to a crawl and the audio feedback was greatly encouraging by frequently reporting back 6mins 30secs or thereabouts – assuring me that progress was better than it actually felt. When you see a sign saying “14km “ at this stage it’s incredibly horrible and you need every little bit of encouragement that can be found. Knowing the route helped a lot too because I knew where the steep bits were and that there was a good long flat section to help to “reset” the system for the final portion. There are kilometre posts at the side of the road but that seems to make the slow progress feel even worse than it already is. “13km”, long wait, “12km” long wait, … Eventually with each turn you are wishing for it to be the finish but then somebody shouted out to me “Only 4 kilometres to go!” – that was not welcome information! The end seemed to go on forever and what looked like the “Arrivée” finish turned out to be the inflatable arc for the final kilometre “Arrivée 1 km”. Crossing the finish line was the ultimate non-event. There had been incredible moral support from people all along the route and especially at the finish line. All that could be felt though was relief that it was over and a desire to forget all of the discomfort. Each finisher was presented with a finisher’s medal on crossing the line – but that somehow doesn’t seem to resonate with me. Getting off the bike at last and walking was much more important. Just there at the finish was John Thomas waiting for one of his clients to finish but I was unable to converse with him because when I started talking I found that I couldn’t breathe. Given the choice between talking and breathing I quickly explained the situation to John and he understood. He himself had badly suffered at the end of the course and described it as “brutal”.
Paul spotted me a couple of minutes later as I was walking towards the car and he offered to take my bike. Apparently I was walking better than he had been at the end because he bonked on the final climb. His suffering was probably over much less time than mine but might have been a lot more intense because a food bonk is seriously difficult to deal with. Paul was a bit upset at losing so much time at the end but to me it wasn’t really a big surprise. I’d warned him about the steepness and length of the final climb but he had probably tried to filter out that information at the time. He did incredibly well regardless and it must be encouraging to know that you could do even better with only a small change in strategy.

After Race

Paul helped me sort out the gear at the car while I changed. He then directed me to the tent where our food would be – but I must admit this was the most disappointing part of the whole affair because there was no tasty meal – only a pack with a banana and a some other unappealing rubbish. I had something to drink and we sat in the shade while I recovered, but Paul had to do all the talking still. It took about an hour before I could speak more than a few consecutive words. Meanwhile my legs were fine for walking and there was no sign of the cramps from earlier on before I’d played about with coordination. I saw one young man crying to himself when walking his bike away from the finish line and I don’t think he would have been the only one to do so on this occasion. We didn’t hang around and just wanted to get away after my recovery and so started the trip down on the evacuation route. It was a very long deviation to avoid the closed road for the course so it took a surprisingly long time to get down to the valley. Had we anticipated that I think we would have had some caffeinated drinks prior to setting off. I don’t think that Paul realised how spaced out he still was but his driving was marginal at best. Ultimately we just continued on our way to Albertville with me keeping Paul on track. My head was OK but my body was wrecked and Paul seemed to be the other way around. Given the detour it must have been at least 75km to Albertville but a crazy few were cycling back. How they could manage to do that I really don’t know- especially against the valley headwind. At Albertville after sorting out the gear we went straight into McDo’s to order large Cokes. The first mouthful was absolutely delicious – best drink on the planet for that first mouthful. We had just sat down in McDo’s when the chap next to us asked if we had ridden the Etape. He had spotted my T-shirt from last year’s Etape. Pierre had come from Canada all the way here just for the Etape and had trained on a tiny hill of about 2km – up and down hundreds of times. He loves the Alpine scenery and is passionate about cycling so his wife and family free him for this one indulgence each year and he travels alone with his bike. As Graeme Obree says ‘My bike is my best friend!”
My bike after the race was, as often happens, completely filthy. Muck from the road combined with isotonic juice sloshed all over the place makes for a right sticky mess. The rear gear changing was almost jammed, probably due to muck and water getting into the hand control mechanism from being kicked up by the riders in front. A squirt of WD40 at home sorted that out.

Worse though was that my rear brake had been rubbing badly and I hadn’t spotted it. This was caused by a combination of little things, the wheel being very slightly out of true, being very slightly over to the left and the brake mechanism being tilted slightly over to the right. I realised that braking the effect was quite strong and it might explain some of the untypical problems I had in the climbs – though I can’t be sure. Perhaps it was just a small factor adding to a lot of other small factors that were not in my favour today.
After the race Paul mentioned that he had the rear wheel slide on one turn during the descent from the Mollard but didn’t lose control. The descent was dangerous and that was made clear by the fall of the eventual Tour de France winner Pierre Rolland on one of those hairpin bends.
Chris had a group of 6 American cycling clients (from his chalet) participating and all finished well but one who collapsed 2 kilometres from the finish and ended up on a saline drip. Chris had to go and help and collect his 10,000  euro bike from the roadside where it had been abandoned. Ultimately Chris ended up in one of the sweeper-up busses and then had to find the bike again amongst 1200 others at the end – and somehow get it back without having the participant’s race number with him. It must have been harrowing doing all of that while recovering himself from the day’s efforts.


Me Number:1443 Ranking:1938 th Category ranking:396 th Time:09:15:57 Average:16,40 km/h Rise ranking:2510 Rise time :6:47:29

Paul Number:814 Ranking:560 th Category ranking:71 st Time:07:44:36 Average:19,63 km/h Rise ranking:616 Rise time :5:25:42

Chris Number:1650 Ranking:413 th Category ranking:53 rd Time:07:32:00 Average:20,18 km/h Rise ranking:453 Rise time :5:14:52

Both Paul and Chris did incredibly well – especially Paul because I know that he hasn’t done as much training. Despite feeling at odds all through the day my own final result is what I’d have expected anyway so I can’t be disappointed. I did no cycling during the winter, only running. Spring was late starting due to working daily through Easter and the snow on the cols taking a long time to disappear this year. Losing a key month travelling to Scotland had a significant impact. Altogether getting into the top 30% (counting all race starters) is reasonable enough. I’m sure that I didn’t eat enough and got all sorts of things wrong – but quite simply the level of training wasn’t there. Recovery has been rapid though and next day I’m already feeling good with no physical complaints at all and a good chunk of body fat burned off.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

ChiSwimming begining

At long last the outdoor swimming pool at Bourg St Maurice has opened for the summer. I went along to see if I could remember how to swim.

Although I lose physical fitness rapidly when not exercising I find that I never seem to lose any skill – the same with musical instruments. I only wish I could remember telephone numbers and dates a fraction as well. My memory banks appear to be almost entirely directed towards m body and away from everything else. Ask me questions about any offshore job I participated in and I’ll have trouble remembering anything about it. Perhaps this is quite a useful thing then.

Naturally it felt like I hadn’t ever been out of the pool so i could take up my swimming development where it had been left off a couple of years ago. Immediately I wanted to see what might surface from everything I’ve learned from the ChiRunning philosophy.

Kicking from the Spine

I’ve never been able to “kick” properly in the crawl and normally hardly move – or even go backwards. I tried lying on my back to kick and immediately started to move from the spine – rotating strongly around it with each kick. It worked. Not only did I advance strongly but it was easy because the large chain of core muscles was involved. I’d always hated kicking because it felt artificial just kicking with the legs – and now I know why! Trying it lying on the stomach the result was the same. Why couldn’t anyone teach me this? Why is it not mentioned in any of the swimming books that I’ve bought? Danny Dryer (author of ChiRunning) states that “There will never be a ChiSwimming!” and strongly advocates “Total Immersion” – but he’s wrong because there is nothing like this in the Total Immersion system.

Trying to coordinate the spinal rotation with the crawl stroke is another kettle of fish and that’s going to take a bit of work. I’ve always felt “disconnected” between the upper and lower body while trying to do the crawl and I suspect that the answer will lie here somewhere. I’ll have to take what I’ve learned from coordinating the legs, hips and upper body in skiing, cycling, running and walking and try to find the links. I could get coordination correct already but it meant reversing my learned movements and so it felt very insecure for the time being.


The biggest problem in both running and walking is over-striding. Due to heels on our shoes we reach ahead with each step and manage to seriously mess up our body mechanics in the process. We develop a psychological need to reach even further ahead when trying to lengthen the stride or speed up. All the time we should be doing the opposite by stopping the feet from going ahead and by extending the stride behind us. It occurred to me that I was probably doing the same in swimming which might explain why I have no strength and end up out of breath and with tired arms very rapidly. I seem to spend a long time reaching ahead and cause a delay because I haven’t even started to pull when the other arm is already recovered. All of my focus was “ahead” exactly as in running. Changing this to focussing on extending behind made everything suddenly feel relaxed, allowed me to access the bigger back muscles and core muscles and also seemed to automatically eliminate the delay in the pull.

I’ll be looking forward to seeing how this develops. The Chi philosophy has automatically brought another level of insight into the picture.

JPP Cyclosportive 2012


The previous week I’d only been out twice on the bike – but both were monster efforts with only a couple of days rest in between. Helping Christiane with a concert and various other distractions had stopped me from getting out on the bike again later in the week and this was probably a good thing. Three days off the bike and you begin to worry that you are not training correctly – but rest and nutrition are the real building blocks of fitness.

Driving over the Beaufort Massif to get to Cluses is painfully slow. It seems like political correctness is strongly on the side of utterly useless, chronically slow and pathetic drivers. We pay more and more for fuel so that we can drive slower and slower!  If I could push a button that would eradicate all slow drivers, all solid white lines and all speed cameras I would – including drivers who stop dead at roundabouts when nobody is coming around them. There is now a new rule that we must carry a breathalysing kit in the car or face a fine. I’ll pay the fine if I have to but it’s insulting and stupid to imply that everyone drinks alcohol let alone drinks and drives. Drunk drivers know that they are drunk anyway so nothing will change – they don’t need a device to tell them what they already know. Nobody just on the limit is a significant risk anyway. There should be a limit on the number of rules that governments and local authorities can impose – and each year they should be obliged to remove some. In fact politicians and lawyers should be made to carry a 150lb sack of manure at all times – just to remind them that they are supposed to serve us and not the other way around.

The reception at Cluses for the JPP was basic and dull. Not much imagination there and very little commercial presence. It’s a case of collecting the dossard (number/bib), electronic timing chip and shirt and getting out of there. I didn’t want to leave my car in the neighbourhood close to the race start due to it being in the vicinity of a very dodgy looking council estate.  We drove to the main town to a large floodlit public car park. Rather than waste time in this unattractive town we loaded my gear into Paul’s car and headed straight off to Chamonix 41km away, leaving my car there for the night. Paul’s chalet has great views over Mont Blanc…

Our pre-race evening meal was a very large portion of Paul’s favourite chicken curry and rice – which left me feeling bloated but satisfied. I don’t know how he can eat those portions and yet remain relatively skinny! Up at 6am next morning I had porridge with banana and a coffee. I’d later on stuff my pockets with almond bars for the ride and fill the bidons (water bottles) with the relatively toxic but effective Decathlon Iso+ isotonic sports drink. I thought that we would have plenty of extra time in the morning but we we actually  timed things quite neatly. The cafe I’d expected to be open at Cluses appears to have closed as it wasn’t open at all on the race day – but we found another close to the car park and the town centre. Paul didn’t need a ritual pre-race coffee or bowel movement so while he waited outside I went in to the empty cafe, wearing my Macot La Plagne jersey. I ordered an expresso and asked for the toilet. Surprisingly, considering the cafe was empty, the toilet was occupied and so I waited in the cafe and then out of the loo popped John Thomas also in his Macot La Plagne jersey! I laughed and said that it might confuse Paul when he walks out of the place! John had cycled miles from the race start to find this place because the queue for the toilet there was impossible. Looks like we had made the better choice for our parking. Many people would have parked at the race finish location, Les Carroz ski station at altitude for the finish – but this would mean an early morning descent in the cold. Everything considered it’s probably better to have a cold descent after the race – which is what happened today – not forgetting that this descent consumes another half an hour which is more easily available after the race is over.

At the race start I met John again, his wife Carolyn and Martin Rowe – who just started racing this year and was going on the short course. All are now members of ASC Macot la Plagne. John and Caroline were on the middle course as I was (110km 2160m climbing) and Paul had signed up for the long course (130km 2960m climbing). This is the first race I’ve come across where they have given different coloured bibs/numbers to each of the courses and separated the starts accordingly. I very much approve of this because it’s great to be able to recognise which course people are on so that you can work out tactics better during the race. John explained to me how he was stressed because it had been a busy week and they had arrived later than they were used to. During the week he’d climbed 17,500m leading a group of holiday cyclists – so he had no idea how his race would go – although he’d positioned his bike right in front for a good start. Carolyn had managed over 3000km this season so far but still felt very nervous before the start and her stomach was in knots. My plan was to nasal breathe the entire course and not have my effort load dictated by the race. I felt relaxed and was looking forward to the race and getting rid of the stress of the previous few days – including the idiot drivers and tyrannical driving rules.

The Race

With a few hundred people in front it was a bit slow getting over the start line and I’d started my clock prior to the electronic sensor because of not being sure that there would be one (There wasn’t at La Grande Bo’). When we filed out onto the main road the front peloton seemed to already be disappearing into the distance. In that instant all plans went straight out of the window and I stepped on the gas. The long line of riders would soon begin to break up into groups at different speeds with gaps that would be almost impossible to bridge. The first 20km was a section where a fast peloton would really help so it would be a mistake to just let it go at this point. There were some short climbs but it was important to hang in with the peloton because they were minor climbs. Just when the gaps were starting to appear in front of me one cyclist from the “CC Pringy” club went past at a speed that I could hang on to and still maintain the nasal breathing. CC Pringy was strong and he was on a mission to close the gap completely to the lead peloton. Catching the peloton we just melted into it. The chase was eased by road junctions and sharp bends that slow the peloton down. It’s on long straight sections that the peloton is a real nightmare to catch.


(The route on the official document here is incorrect because after the “Col de Châtillon” we have to go through the town and cross over the route taken at the start.)

Côte d’Hyot

The front of the peloton disappeared definitively from view during the climb up the Côte d’Hyot – which is precisely what was expected. I’m clearly still overweight for holding a high pace on sustained climbs. I can power over hills anaerobically – and pay the price - but can’t shift my bodyweight uphill fast aerobically. Surprisingly I was able to maintain the nasal breathing for 2 hrs 15 minutes – over all the early climbing -  before having to give up on it. It has finally dawned on me that nasal breathing doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” affair. If the first part of the course can use nasal breathing then this will keep lactic acid levels in check for finishing strongly at the end. This might not be ideal for the best post race recovery but it’s better than nothing. Once you stop nasal breathing it’s almost impossible to switch back so it has to be done from the very start of the race. Counter to this there might also be some benefit in building up lactic acid because the body might adapt better over time to using it as fuel and learn to tolerate it better. The main thing however  is to get to the end of the race strongly and able to attack instead of fading away and plodding while suffering. On the Côte d’Hyot I was passed by CC Pringy again not even having realised that I’d edged ahead of him while tucked into the peloton.

Plaine Joux

The Plaine Joux is a proper climb and so I opted to reduce speed and conserve energy. My audio feedback was confirming each kilometre at around 5’15” during the climb so that was still pretty encouraging as this is a good climbing pace for me on a long event. It was important to be able to focus on form and technique rather than be completely distracted by “competition”. It takes an effort to re-centre your focus internally. Nasal/abdominal breathing certainly helps with this – resembling the way it works in meditation. The weather had turned bad and it was raining properly during this climb, but that was more refreshing than anything else. I didn’t bother with a jacket because it would get even wetter and colder from the inside due to sweat. The rain wasn’t so cold at this altitude that it posed a problem. This was the first time during the day that people started to overtake me. At the summit there was no need to stop at the refreshment stand because I had plenty of almond bars and water left. It was clear the descent would be tricky and dangerous with the wet roads. Everyone was descending slowly – just like the drivers at Mégève who were driving me nuts the day before. I decided to use cornering technique that I’d been working on – leaning the body way over into the turn and keeping the bike upright. This allowed me to overtake just about everybody who had previously overtaken me on the climb, but without expending any energy – and without feeling like any risks were being taken. The technique really does appear to work – though it could be a combination of imagination and a bit of luck! (at not falling) At the bottom of the descent I unexpectedly caught up with CC Pringy. The following 10km before the descent into Mieussy would be hilly terrain and small pelotons were forming and splitting up all the time. At one point just after a sharp climb a cheerful character passed me – the only person I spoke to throughout the entire race and he went storming off ahead as we arrived at another descent. Coming around the next bend I found him lying across the road with his bike on top of him. Yes! The road was still soaking wet and very slippery. He replied to my call that he was OK so there was no need to stop. Another strong descent to the plateau before Mieussy and right in front of me was CC Pringy and one other very strong rider. I sprinted to catch up with them before they organised themselves to work together to deal with the headwind. The flats would be about 35km long and it would be a seriously bad place to become isolated. There was always an option to just back off and wait for others to catch up but when there are a couple of guys right in front it’s clear what you have to do.

The Plateau

After catching the others I rested behind them for about 7 minutes to recover from the previous climbing and the chase. Eventually it became impossible to continue to shirk my duty to go to the front and do some work – though I had no desire whatsoever to do so. Going to the front was slightly daunting because we were averaging about 40 km/hr into a wind and with slight gradients. The first thing I had to do was abandon any hope of continued nasal breathing. From this point onwards the race changed and it was no longer possible to either hide anonymously in a large peloton or ride my own race on the hills. It was now a proper road race where the boundaries between cooperation and competition become blurred. While I was worried about the legs getting worn out on the long plateaux there was a great advantage in the time gained through cooperation and perhaps with a bit of luck the legs would still work at the end of it – keeping in mind the final 10km climb up to Les Carroz ski station. To be honest I really didn’t hold much hope that things would work out positively, but I’d have been ashamed not to contribute – especially with ASC Macot La Plagne plastered all over my clothing. This was all really hard work. Not a single word was exchanged between us but the rotation was automatic – as soon as the front man started to slow with any tiredness the next one would take over and maintain the pace. We must have battled on for about 30 minutes like this before collecting some strong riders ahead of us who were willing to muck in (a little) and keep up the pace. At one point we had collected half a dozen others for a short stretch but I still found myself going to the front to help to keep the pace up. The enlarged peloton blew apart at the next refreshment stand and once again I had no need to stop. After about a kilometre on my own out in front I was reunited with my two companions again and just one or two of the others. The small peloton started to slowly grow again  - to about a dozen - as we advanced relentlessly – until arriving at the last climb before Cluses – the Col de Châtillon.

Col de Châtillon

There was a short descent just before the climb to the Col de Châtillon and goodness only knows what was going through my head because I just kept the power on from the bottom and powered up the start of the climb almost sprinting in a big gear leaving the whole peloton behind. While doing this there was a voice in my head saying “What are you dong? You are going to look really stupid in a few minutes time when they all pass you because your legs have dropped off!” Amazingly that never happened and the big chainring was used all the way up the climb with the lowest speed recorded at 17 km/hr.  Some of the guys chased me and it must have torn the peloton apart. This really did feel like racing for a change. On the descent to Cluses three of the group manage to catch up – including CC Pringy - and also the leaders of the long course went tearing past. Actually a couple of the long course front runners  had passed on the Châtillon climb beforehand. It was great to see how fast those guys are and to be able to clearly recognise them from their bib/number colour. All of the routes had come together for the final 35km or so.


There was now a circuit of Cluses to make and a plateau before the climb to the finish at Les Carroz. At the bottom of the descent I got in behind one of the members of the old peloton – wearing red shorts - and we worked together to catch others ahead. All of those guys appeared to be stronger than me and I felt that they were the real cyclists there. It had been strange that I‘d dropped them all on that climb though. CC Pringy had dropped behind again on the descent. Clearing Cluses CC Pringy was back alongside with another guy in black clothing and Red Shorts disappeared behind this time. Our other original companion from the whole long plateau never showed up again after the Châtillon climb. Exiting Cluses we had formed another group but CC Pringy and Black pulled ahead so I went after them and left some younger guys behind that we had recently caught up with. Once again the final plateau was done in a rotating group of three.

Les Carroz

The roundabout at the bottom of the Les Carroz climb was a very welcome sight and I knew it was important to ease off and ride at my own pace on the climb. Someone was standing there holding out small bottles of still water so I grabbed one without slowing down – which was perfect for washing down a recently eaten almond bar and conserving the remains of the contents of a water bottle for the climb. Black and CC Pringy pulled ahead, with Black clearly the strongest. Despite just holding my own pace CC Pringy didn’t manage to pull more than 50m ahead when the gap stabilised. We were overtaking lots of people from both the short and medium courses and the only ones overtaking us were the strongest participants from the long course coming through. We might have been going twice as fast as the ones we were overtaking but the guys overtaking us were twice as fast as us. With about 7km to go and some of the steepest climbing behind us the gaps were about the same: CC Pringy about 50 m ahead and Black about 150m. At this point I had another ridiculous flash of unwanted inspiration and accelerated again. With 7km to go it’s quite scary committing to this level of output but somehow my instinct was correct and I was able to sustain it all the way. With this acceleration I at last connected with my core muscles and could feel the power coming from the glutes and passing through my centre. Watching the others the tiredness and instability in the legs was becoming clearly visible. For me there was a clear switch to using core power instead of smaller leg muscles and that’s how I managed to generate a higher pace and sustain it for the rest of the climb. CC Pringy was quickly swallowed up and within a couple of minutes so was Black. The two younger guys had caught and overtaken us lower down the mountain and before long one of them was reeled in again and left behind. Occasionally there would be a warning spasm from a calf muscle and I’d have to remember to focus on form and keep the ankling working so that the calf muscles would work through a full range of motion with correct coordination. There were loads of people plodding up the hill so it was now a case of reeling in as many as possible before the finish. Even at the finish I saw one guy from the 110 km course about 50m ahead but struggling so I swallowed him up decisively in a sprint for the line. None of this was easy – it was all incredibly hard – but it felt strangely good.

After race

My legs HURT after the race and after drinking and eating a little it was a simple case of waiting for the pain to fade away over the following half an hour. Recovery was all very well but it was getting cold because it was still raining so the best thing was to move on. I put my rain jacket on and headed down the mountain shivering because I didn’t want to wait for the “pasta party” and have an even colder descent later on. The first 5km of descent was unpleasant due to the body having cooled but then the air warmed up progressively with the drop in altitude. It was great to get back to the car in Cluses and changed into dry warm clothing. Any thought of staying there was dismissed as the rain began to pour down heavily and I had no waterproof clothing for walking around town. During the descent I spotted Paul climbing on his way to the finish of the long course. He was recognisable mainly through his high “Lance Armstrong” style cadence and was clearly having a good end to his race. Further up the hill I’d spotted Carolyn on her way to the end – but the rain jacket kept me incognito and I didn’t shout anything so as to avoid disrupting the concentration of the others. I was listening to music during the descent to help distract from the shivering and cold.

Endomondo was behaving strangely with the heart rate monitor signal dropping out prior to the race and I should have paid more attention to that because after half an hour I lost the signal. Everything else was recorded but it’s always very useful to have this data. I felt very tired after the race and could feel the lactic acid “headache” coming on. It wasn’t really a headache but  more like a fuzziness and tiredness. Even driving home was slightly difficult due to the tiredness. Next day the fuzziness was still strong until after midday – but that is acceptable compared to the Time Mégève escapade where it took three days to clear!


My result (110 km) 102nd out of 328 in 4:15:49 25.80 km/hr 20th in category out of 74

Paul        (130 km)    91st out of 245 in 5:04:33 25.61 km/hr 16th in category out of 52

John Thomas (110 km) came an amazing 11th overall and 2nd in his category despite his 17,500m climbing during the week beforehand. That kind of makes a mockery of any training plan I’ve ever heard of. 3:37:53  30.29 km/hr

Carolyn Thomas (110 km) came 4th in her category in 4:48:32

Martin Rowe (90 km) 168th out of 416 in 3:33:32  25.29 km/hr 19th in category out of 83

“CC Pringy” no 575 came in only 1’20” and two places behind me so he must have finished strongly too.


I’m extremely pleased with my result because only two weeks ago I wouldn’t have hoped for anything so positive. The Etape du Tour next week will be a completely different story due to the prolonged steep climbing – which is where my power to weight ratio seems to become a real issue. Lose about 10kg and I’d be laughing – but that’s not going to happen and I’m not sure I ever want to be that skinny. The plan for the Etape will be disciplined nasal breathing until the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer  - no matter how much time that appears to lose me – and then a free-for-all approach until the end – hopefully storming up to La Toussuire overtaking the 1000 or so who overtook me at the start!