Sunday, September 16, 2012

8th Annual Semnoz Hill Climb

Decided to overcome my reticence and get back into racing so today I started with the Semnoz hill climb at Annecy. It’s a nice 14km climb that’s not too steep only going up 1000m . Not a single time this year have I pushed myself to the limit over a short distance and the last time I did this race my heart rate was close to it’s theoretical maximum the whole way at and average of 169 bpm for 57+ minutes (172 being the supposed max). My hope today was to beat this time even though I’m not feeling in form at the moment. Anything slower would be very disappointing but anything faster would be acceptable.


It’s REALLY tough to keep up a full force attack for almost and hour without backing off – especially when you haven’t been training specifically for it and you have been overeating instead. Part of the reason for racing today was to try to generate motivation to reign in the eating a bit – and the waistline. I guess stress at not working over the summer, the flat in Aberdeen falling apart and a few other things makes my genetic disposition towards comfort eating hard to overcome.  The cycling does release stress though and it also alters time. Notice I didn’t say it alters perception of time – it alters time.  Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine pointed out that Einstein’s time dilation was only a special case and that there is also time dilation inside chemical reactions – which also means the brain. This means that when something dramatic happens and time appears to slow down then there is a good chance that it’s not “appearance” and that it actually does slow down in the brain. Extreme focus and attention slow time and so do creativity, exercise and sleep. You go to sleep and then wake up the next instant – even if it’s 7 hours later. That’s also why sleep keeps you youthful – the same as high speed time dilation in a spacecraft. Okay, I’m fantasizing here but there’s probably a small element of reality in it. It’s weird how you can cycle a really tough 5 hour ride and it doesn’t seem like 5 hours. People who exercise a lot and who sleep properly still look great when they are in their 80s – as can be seen later in one of the photos I took today.


Annecy isn’t far from home – an hour and 15 minutes on early morning roads. Today I just got up early with all the kit ready and just had a quick Muesli breakfast then off in the car. The sky was clear with sun forecast and so although Semnoz would be chilly it wouldn’t be necessary for any special protection for the descent after the race. When we did it in 2009 we froze on the descent. The heating is malfunctioning in my car so I arrived chilled and the air was still cold at 8am. Registration was simple and quick and I was glad to have brought a flask of hot coffee as there would be a bit of waiting. After setting up the bike and going for a non-tiring warm up the sun appeared over the mountains and Lake Annecy. I found a spot in the sun to wait and instead of going to the start of the line up for the race I did the same there, hanging back a little to get into a sunny spot. Nothing slows me down more than cold. Before the race, while waiting in the sun I spoke to a scrawny little guy who had his number pinned on the wrong side of his back. The number was supposed to be on the left but his was on the right. He just shrugged this off and went on his way. Someone who overheard laughed and joked in French that his back was so small anyway that it made no difference. He certainly had no shoulders and no muscle anywhere. He looked in his 50s and I even wondered if it was safe for him to do an event like this. Everyone racing has a medical certificate so at least his insurance would be valid.

Race Start

The race started and the guy in front of me had toe straps which he couldn’t get into – so that made for a few lost seconds for everyone blocked behind him as he wobbled over the road. Last time here it was me who couldn’t get into the pedals! People settled into their own rhythm and pace very quickly and it was clear that some would be flying and others not. I overtook quite a lot of people by the first couple of bends and not many were passing me. The climb is just full on hard work with no rest or let up. Intensity of effort has to be maintained right to the end. There are a couple of flat stretches which give the legs a change but you have to get into a bigger gear and not ease off the effort or you lose. Quite early on I found myself overtaken on a steep bit by a big guy in white aged in his early 40s. I found that he slowed on the flats a bit so we started to yoyo back and forth past each other. In the end this turned out to be useful because we were able to slipstream on the flatter parts. This was in fact the only rest that could be taken on the climb because you knew that you couldn’t go faster if you tried to overtake so it was better so sit behind for a while and be pulled along while letting the legs recover a little.


My main goal was not just to be faster than before (despite being too heavy) but to use chi-cycling skills to protect my back and prove to myself that this could still be faster. So many technical changes have been made in my movements that sometimes it’s depressing. When you start using different coordination or muscles it’s like going back to square one and starting the sport all over again. You can’t tell if you are slowing down because to this or perhaps because the changes are less efficient than what you were doing. For me it’s a clear cut issue of self preservation. If it damages the body then it has to be changed. Usually protection and speed both result eventually from good mechanics so I try to remain optimistic, but some changes take time. When lots of changes are made then it’s hard to keep the optimism working. I focussed hard on good mechanics working from the core. Aligning the leg for each push, pressuring the pedal and pulling up the the other one from core, feeling the glutes and hamstrings powering the hip extension and so sparing the quads – or distributing their load. After about 30 minutes it was clear that my body could maintain this because the pain and difficulty seemed to float away. That was probably the endorphin kicking in – the body’s natural morphine. Now it was clear that this level of power could be maintained until the end. Several times I wanted to drop down a gear and resisted the temptation because I know that as soon as I start spinning the speed drops. The strong force on the pedals also activates the core muscles and this disappears when there is not such a pressure on the feet. I don’t know if it’s a reflex or not but many reflexes are controlled by pressure on the feet. That core muscle activation then goes automatic and the power then comes from there. I’m assuming that’s because of the way it spreads the load more evenly throughout the large muscle groups. I kept on attacking the small groups ahead and reeling them in progressively. The big guy in white couldn’t keep up with this and dropped off the pace eventually. Later on he spoke to me and it turns out he lost about 4 minutes on the top section alone. Entering the last 500m I was horrified to be overtaken by a young guy I’d overtake about five minutes earlier. He must have been hanging on behind. It’s annoying when young guys do that because you know they can burn you off at the end. I tried to burn him off instead but my legs tied up quite rapidly and so that was over. With 100 metres to go I surged again but so did he so there was no catching him.

Breathing and Results

Today was a test of something I haven’t mentioned so far. After the Etape in July I had quite bad exercise induced asthma for about half an hour – which was easily controlled by nasal breathing. Today I breathed hard and through the mouth from the start and expected the worst on the finish line. Despite the intensity of the climb and the final surge there was absolutely no sign of breathing trouble – and I had to talk as somebody was interviewing me in French on the finish line. This is very encouraging because the breathing issues were starting to concern me and I’d been a bit worried about how a full bore workout might end up. In the end I’d reduced the previous time by 2 minutes to 55’ 36”. All my climbing data was lost however on my phone app – no idea what happened as it had worked all the way up the climb and I pushed the button to finish. In fact it had worked too well because I left the voice feedback on and it was blaring out on the speaker all the way up the hill  telling everyone how far I’d gone, the time from the start, pace and time for the last kilometre. Very annoying!


After the race there was an excellent reception at altitude (Semnoz is a small ski station) with plenty of nibbles and drinks. The sun was out and although the air was chilly it was able to dry the wet clothes and bring warmth to the body. Hot coffee helped warm up from the inside too. Eventually the prizes were dished out to all the categories and overall winners. I’d come 54th out of 111 so was happy with that being in the middle of the pack with a climbing speed of over 15 km/hr. The winner was over 20 km/hr and it’s usually some youngster about to be snapped up by some pro team. The name of the winner was called out and it was “Serge” somebody. In the middle of the crowd out stepped the scrawny little 50 year old runt that I’d mentioned at the start. I thought he was going to the loo but he wasn’t – he was the winner! Unbelievable! His legs seemed about as skinny as my wrists. I was totally gobsmacked and would never have believed it. It just goes to show how appearances can be deceptive and how wrong it is to judge people by them. There was also a special prize for an 80 year old who managed the climb and he looked younger and healthier than the winner.

Stepping out of the car after driving home my left leg locked up completely in a violent cramp that almost had me yelling. I’ve seen people actually yelling their heads off on hill climbs when this happens on the bike – the hamstrings and glutes locking up in spasm – but in my case it was well and truly a delayed action event. I’ve suffered such severe muscle spasms – for weeks and months on end -  in the legs and glutes from spinal problems and surgery in my life that this was nothing in comparison. Cramps like this are cause by muscle fatigue – not anything else.

Yes the winner is on the right – in blue. This is absolute proof that being small and skinny is the number one requirement for hill climbing. In the second picture the guy in the white and black top with the dark rimmed sunglasses is over 80 years old. He looks younger and fitter than the winner but took 2.5X longer on the climb.



All the winners together out of a field of 111

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