It’s always a carry on getting everything together for a race which involves an overnight stay. Racing inevitably starts early so you need to be well organised to be in an optimal and relatively unstressed situation in the morning. I planned on this occasion to stay in Cluses town centre for the night so that there would a a café open at around 7:15 am for both caffeine and toilet facilities. Sleeping in the car on my inflatable “Mammout” mattress is more comfortable and much more convenient than a hotel – not to mention the cost. Just prior to leaving home when checking out a weird noise coming from the car I found that the bracket attaching the front left suspension arm to the frame was snapped through. The main part of the suspension arm however (which holds the wheel on) was intact so I decided to drive anyway – but with no rally type cornering while going over the mountains through Mégève to the Chamonix valley towards Cluses. The car held together.
At Cluses the first task was to register, collect the race numbers and this year’s JPP cycling shirt. Back in the town centre there was a full blown televised music festival starting up – free to the public. Staying in the town for the night was clearly a bad idea but there were food stands serving delicious Indian meals with all the trimmings for only 8 euros. Sleeping would be better back out of town at the registration site which is also where the race begins in the morning. There was no one else there because most of the 790 participants in the 4 different courses (65k, 90k, 110k and 130k) were relatively local – the Etape du Tour (At Annecy this year) absorbing 13,500 other cyclists and the previous day (Saturday) the Marmotte at Alpe d’Huez having 7000. Smaller events are much friendlier being are more like real races. You don’t feel crowded at any stage during the race – though you can get isolated occasionally and the risk of being last is very much higher. Despite being away from the festival noise it was still very hard to sleep due to the heat in the valley at 500m altitude. Sleeping was effectively impossible until 2am when the temperature had dropped but on awaking at 6:30am I felt surprisingly well rested. The other problem was a cough due to congestion from the cold I’d contracted two weeks ago exactly. One week was spent with the virus hitting organ after organ and since then recovery had been slow. My local short training loop had slowed down from 43mins to 51mins the day before the race after missing over a week on the bike and then just managing this short loop a few times as preparation.
In the morning I was able to use the toilets/bathroom in the sports centre at the start where some people were there early to register. They had prepared coffee for the workers and kindly allowed me to have one – after I politely asked! Lack of provision of coffee at both the start and finish is the only weakness of otherwise excellent organisation!
8:15am, waiting in the starting area for an 8:30am race start, it was already hot enough for the sun to make us sweat. It was a neutralised start with a car leading us out of the town so that would make do for a reasonable “warm up”. Each course length had a separate start about 10 minutes apart – beginning with the 130k which had the mythic Joux Plaine climb towards the end – being the only difference from the 110k. Both the 130k and the 110k would start (real start) immediately with the 15% gradient up the Col du Romme – the one which caused both my legs to cramp up solid within seconds last year during the Grand Bornand race. The shorter courses missed out both this 1000m climb and the Joux Plaine. I felt that coming back from a cold and with very little training the 90k would suit me better but that there wasn’t enough climbing in the short courses. The best option was to go for the 110k and just deal with it.
At the start my heart rate was 90bpm before moving! Considering that my resting heart rate is 42bpm it shows just how much the mental side of competing prepares the body for action. During the neutralised procession through the town and out into the country I slipped back to near the end of the 210 strong group. Knowing that I wasn’t in great condition, plus being overweight I’d resigned to some extent that this is where I’d probably remain for the whole race. The only worry was that if the climb was slow then with still around 100k to go it could be very difficult without any fast or strong riders to draft with on the long flats and “faux plats” against the inevitable wind.
The start of the climb was predictably tough but feeling fresh it didn’t seem to be anything special. Feeling surprisingly strong I overtook about half the pack on the first half of the climb. There was no point in taking it easy on this climb – it was probably a suicide mission, but that’s racing. Saving yourself might spare some pain and discomfort later on but it guarantees a slow time – but pushing hard can always lead to surprises. Only a couple of kilometres from the top I started to slow down and some of the others overtaken earlier then caught up and started to go past again. Going over the col I was in 124th position at 0:52:24. Despite this not being great it was much better than being last as had been expected. Most of the climb my heart rate had been around the lactic threshold mark of 168bpm. Going over the col there were lots of warning signs for gravel on the road and some were descending frustratingly slowly and blocking the way for others. It took about a third of the descent to get free from them and descend properly. Prior to picking up speed in the descent I stuffed a 40 gram energy bar into my mouth – impossible to eat in chunks. The bar was forced mostly into the left cheek like a hamster so as to allow breathing and eating without choking. It was a new type of bar that had all the right ingredients and plenty of calories but was a serious effort to chew and swallow. This nauseating experience was required in the name of assuring a good level of sugar in the blood. During the descent someone yelled at me for overtaking him on a bend bouncing through a pothole – thinking that this was being dangerous. I dismissed him because not only was I nowhere near him but was perfectly within limits. He was just a rubbish descender and whingeing French tw@t. Oddly enough there are quite a few like this and you wonder why they cycle. Most cyclists are pretty hardened to risk and pain so they don’t whinge too easily. Perhaps it’s because France hasn’t won the Tour de France since 1986 and even then it was certainly with heavy doping even though Lance Armstrong is supposed to be the only doper the race – the planet even - has ever known.
Reaching the flats back down in Cluses there was no slowing down. Much to my surprise and relief on this day I ended up in a really fast train of a handful of strong riders that had gravitated together during the descent. For the next 45 minutes it was a flat out effort just to be able to draft with them. I spent a token 4 minutes in front but knowing that they would eventually dump me at the first steep climb it was wise to accept my limits and stay towards the rear. During this battle it wasn’t noticeable that it was climbing the entire time. Long sections like this are a complete nightmare if you become isolated because after a few minutes on your own the brain plays tricks on you and slowing down is almost automatic. The group kept on catching others along the way but didn’t grow massive because an equal number seemed to drop off the back. This group held together until Onnion where there was a check point where I was now in position 112 – so a dozen places had been gained without realising it. This is where my legs started to refuse to cooperate, so before the second climb was completely over I was already off the pace. The following rolling up/down stretch continued to be relatively strong, working with various individuals in small groups and never being isolated but at the start of the third climb at 66k the game was over. Despite eating another horrible energy bar and forcing drink down my neck there was no force left in the legs. Climb three was slower though not totally bad. Some of the 130k riders had been caught up by this time – having started 10 minutes before us and yet to break off for their extra climb of the Joux Plaine. (The first one was overtaken way back half way up the very first climb – doubt if he finished). This is the point where the suffering feels intolerable and you ask whether you can possibly go on for another 44k, imagining even more horrible sensations along the way. Already my head was not functioning, stomach was in pain and legs were gone so it was becoming a real grind. Somehow after this unintentional easing up for a while and recovering the energy started to return to some extent. Just a small acceleration meant catching up and overtaking others – especially 130k racers who might have been pacing themselves more carefully. Time to stop for a water bottle refill at the top. Only one bottle and been consumed so far but it was still time for a refill with my own sports drink powder added. I knew that thirst would kick in soon and I’d begin to drink much more so it was important to have full bottles.
Somehow there was still some life in the legs. Once on the flat again after the third climb I became isolated for a while but then number 554 appeared and sat on my tail for a while. He eventually came up and asked what our distance was and I was able to tell him from my phone GPS. He then took the lead and as I wasn’t strong enough to rotate the drafting duties I made this clear to him. He was French but enjoyed practising his English. Once again this saved me from a long demoralising slog against the wind. When the next feeding stand came up we both stopped and I filled another bottle but this time with plain water because the heat made drinking sticky sugary stuff eventually intolerable. 554 was left behind at this point as he wanted to eat. Once again I was isolated and wasn’t even sure if it was the right road at one point – but not for long. 554 popped up again and cheerfully said “I’m back” then took over the job of pulling me along again. At 18k from the finish the final climb began and this time I said goodbye as 554 and another disappeared on up the hill ahead until out of sight. I was dreading another steep climb but fortunately it wasn’t too steep being a ridge going all the way up to Les Carroz. Several of the 65k riders were struggling up the hill and one was stopped at the roadside with cramps in both legs. I just plodded on but with a surprisingly reasonable pace. When the climb plateaued out and started to descend slightly it looked like it would be downhill right to the end as the kilometers were rapidly being ticked off. Someone in a black outfit overtook quite fast so I responded by accelerating and decided to use up any remaining energy. Going on the attack I overtook the guy in black and then a couple of others, until the road came to a junction and re-joined the main steep climb up to Les Carroz. When Black caught up with me I told him that I’d underestimated the distance and he laughed. It turned out there was 3.5k still to go and all steep climbing. I decided to keep the accelerator on and use up any gas that was still in the tank. This plan almost didn’t work as both legs started to have spasms of cramp – which often happens when going back into a climb when the legs are near their limit. The cramps never took over and then died away as the legs got used to digging in again so I kept up the pushing. Much to my surprise there was 554 again just 20m in front of me and when I came along side I said “I’m back” to him this time – to which he exclaimed “good stuff”. 554 was struggling now but I was fine so just powered on and kept up the attack all the way to the finish line. Sure enough 554 finished about half a minute behind and when we got to the drinks stand at the end we both raised our glasses to each other in respect.
It was baking hot and there was no shade at the finish line. The only people with shade to sit in were the ambulance and hospital staff! My cold congestion made breathing hard for a while after stopping without a warm down but I knew, even in the heat, that nasal (restricted) breathing would take care of that. I found a bench in the shade and sat there recovering for about half an hour with cold drinks from the food stand. Eventually I found the energy to cycle down to the hall where the “pasta party” was taking place and put the bike in the security pen. Eating is always slow and hard to do after a really tough workout.
The descent and return to Cluses to get back to the car took 33 minutes – but this was a nice post race recovery ride in the sun.
In the late afternoon I only had to drive to Chamonix but was almost falling asleep at the wheel. I stopped in Cham for a couple of coffees on arriving there. Coffee had not been available at the meal without paying and nobody was carrying money!
Next day I was tired all day and with a lost voice and dodgy throat again – legacy of the already two week long cold virus. The following day I went out for a recovery ride and was actually a minute faster than on the training ride a day before the race – the bug had tired me out so much. The race itself had not had any negative effect though and my voice recovered in a couple of days.
Throughout the entire race I was pedalling with a clear “chi” coordination – which had now become completely automatic for me. Sometimes I was conscious of this and used it to lighten the recovery foot and leg and to try to work from the core. That’s hard to focus on in a race though. The most striking thing however is that both during and after such a seriously demanding physical effort I have had absolutely no back pain. I had back pain all autumn and winter and finished the ski season in pain when mixing both cycling and skiing but having developed the mechanics and coordination just a bit further seems to have properly sorted this out.
117Th, Race No 60, BEVERIDGE Ian, Col du Romme 124 0:52:24, Onnion 112 1:58:35, Finish 4:42:33, Diff winner +1:19:55 Speed 23.358, Cat28 HD