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.

No comments:

Post a Comment