Thursday, August 1, 2013

La Bourgui 2013


Cold bugs, lack of training and excess weight made the thought of participating in the brutal Bourgui less than appealing. This is one of those races that attracts only a small field of enthusiasts. In the past I’ve only tackled the long course which passes down into the valley and then climbs up and down to a total of three ski stations – utterly destroying you. This time, not being in such good shape, the only option was the short course of 80km with about 2000m climbing. The reason for participating is simple. There is no better way to get motivated for pushing yourself hard and improving fitness. Racing is just an enhancement to training. Too many people take their results too seriously. Sure, the results are important, but only as a motivational factor. There has to be a mental dissociation between the stimulus of racing and the utter meaninglessness of the actual results. If results are taken too seriously then obsession sets in and it always has a destructive element. Those winning become stupidly egotistical and those losing become discouraged and give up. It’s fun and that’s all there is to it – unless of course you chose to make a living from it. My motivation for racing is that it helps to keep my body and brain functional – and to keep doctors well away. It’s fun and it’s shared by nearly everyone participating.There are a few around who don’t get it, but not many.

Race Start (8am) - Saint Martin de Belleville 1450m – Ski Station


For once this race would not begin amidst thunder, lightning and torrential rain. It was a T-shirt day even at 7am at St Martin de Belleville (1450m altitude) where we started only 7.5km down the road from Les Menuires. The following night brought major thunder storms but for once the Bourgui would be in sunshine – which of course brings its own challenges. Personally heat doesn’t bother me, cold does, so I was happy. I was also under no illusion about how difficult this short course was going to be. Even the descent to Moutiers at 530m altitude involved long “faux plat” sections which meant working very hard from the beginning. In fact the start is a 1km steep climb – when you are not even properly warmed up. This climb is to sort out the pecking order from the start and to avoid a totally mad pack of cyclists with different levels all bombing straight downhill together and ending up in a heap at the first hairpin bend.


The Descent to Moutiers

The problem with descending at up to 70 km/hr is that there is only one proper safe racing line through a tight turn – which is exactly the same as that for a racing car. You have to start from the outside, cut the apex close to the inside and then go back to the outside to finish. It’s also advisable to get all of your weight on the outside pedal (same as in skiing) and not on your saddle – if you want to be able to stay upright in the event of a skid. The road isn’t closed so this line is not always possible of course but when you can see clearly then it’s the safest and fastest option. Unfortunately not everyone is aware of this so often when you move to the outside some muppet will try to cut to your inside – with the risk of skidding, a “toute droite” or failing to brake and taking you out in the process. The least effect it has on you is that you are forced off your line and have to go all the way round the outside of the bend. The safest way to tackle tight bends then is to start from the outside and then only cut to the apex if there is nobody to your inside. If there is someone to your inside than you will still be faster because he will have to brake a lot more. The danger is real. Already this year one cyclist died on the descent from the Glandon during the Marmotte – and that descent was already neutralised for safety reasons. On the Tour de France there was also serious carnage on that same descent. It’s always a sense of relief when you get to the bottom of a fast descent fully intact no matter how brave you are when the adrenaline is up..

Moutiers is right at the apex of the Tarantaise valley system. “Tarantaise” is very difficult to define. It appears to encompass everything including the Three Valleys (Val Thorens, Meribel, Courchevel) and Pralongion, and then the Haute Tarantaise with  La Plagne, Les Arcs , Tignes and Val d’Isère. This is perhaps the world’s premiere ski area but it’s seldom seen in this geographical context all put together.

Valley circuit

There is a long stretch along the valley from Moutiers to Cevins where drafting would be essential – both there and back. Prior to this there is a 200m climb towards Naves. 200m is a short climb, but not when you are trying to go fast to stay with a peloton. Managing to stay with a fast group would be rewarded by a good speed inside the peloton for the rest of the valley circuit. I knew that this would destroy my legs but didn’t care. Going slow is not and interesting option and although unpleasant it’s always better to go too hard than to regret not trying hard enough at the end. Those who are sensible and know their limits do their best to avoid pulling in front of the group but I managed to make the mistake of ending up in front several times. Eventually it became clear that I couldn’t stay with the group on the small hills if I didn’t get positioned near the front anyway – with a view to ending up at the rear by the top of each climb. My power to weight ratio was so far off the mark. At 74kg I’m 10k over the weight that starts to give reasonable race results. It was very clear that remaining with the group until the start of the big final climb up to Les Menuires would be fine – but that I’d be dropped right at the start. The high speed through the valley would have given about a 20 to 30 minute advantage at the start of the climb, but most of that could be rapidly lost. There would at least be the satisfaction of having lost the time due to genuine exhaustion and not because of taking it easy.

Sports Nutrition

The climb to Les Menuires began as predicted. Painful from the beginning. The route is an old steep one on the East side of the valley with endless hairpin bends. Fortunately the sun was still not high in the sky so nearly all the race up until now had been more or less in the shade and in reasonable temperatures. That was about to change and the heat was now on – literally. I just tried to settle into a pace that my legs would accept. There was a feeling of nausea but the main issue was the legs tying up after such hard work on the flats.  During the first hour of the race I’d started to consume a sweet mix from re-usable flasks in my back pockets. Instead of using gels or drink powders this was an experiment with special sugars to try to increase the levels of carbohydrates consumed. Normally the body can only digest 60 grams per hour during exercise, but there are ways to increase this to 90 grams. Speed of digestion is one issue, but also the amount of water required in the process is important. The third consideration is also the rate at which water itself is absorbed. Glucose (Dextrose) is the fastest assimilated sugar in the intestine, but it takes a lot of water and leads to bloating. In my case that gives nasty stomach pains. Glucose also comes in the form of maltodextrine and this version is absorbed at the same rate (Glycaemic Index 150) but only requires 1/6th of the water in the intestines. Maltodextrine is the major ingredient needed. This is best mixed at at ratio of 2:1 with fructose. Fructose has a low Glycaemic Index of only 19 and so is absorbed more slowly but it uses a different mechanism that is apparently not fully understood. The two sugars together permit 90 grams of carbohydrates to be absorbed per hour instead of only 60 grams. Glucose (from maltodextrin or otherwise) uses insulin to metabolise so could cause an insulin spike and associated sugar low to follow – however the fructose does not use insulin to metabolise so this probably stabilises the blood sugar level somewhat. Excess glucose in the body is converted into subcutaneous fat whereas fructose turns into stomach fat.

To help absorb the water faster – and probably the sugar too,  it’s useful to include electrolytes in the mix – particularly Sodium, Potassium and Magnesium with several trace elements. Good quality raw sea salt seems to fit that bill very well – like Sel de Guerande.

Metabolism of the sugars seems to benefit from a range of B vitamins so adding a good multi-vitamin/mineral  powder to the mix is also very useful. There are also antioxidant advantage to be considered with vitamin C – but this quantity has to be limited due to the effect of vitamins preventing mineral absorption.

Caffeine powder is another very useful additive as it definitely stimulates the metabolism of sugars – however not in the form of coffee or tea – where other chemicals do even more to prevent the metabolism and cause overall lower blood sugar levels. Flavouring if required can be just something simple like lemon juice or perhaps freshly squeezed orange. I like the idea of being able to chose my own flavouring and knowing there are no weird chemicals there.

Ordering from  I chose Maltodextrine, Fructose, Multi-Vitamins/Minerals, Caffeine and bought the Sea Salt locally.

This would have been perfect except I didn’t check my post box and although it had all arrived before the race it was only after the race I found the stuff. Meanwhile I’d improvised by filling flasks with an obnoxious concoction of similar – but nastily flavoured stuff with many E additives from Decathlon and a few other dubious sources.

During the race the interesting thing is that there was no stomach pain, no headache and no bonking. In revenge my legs were absolutely destroyed!

Les Menuires

Being unfit and fat is not a recipe for great performance, but it is one for pain and discomfort and that came in abundance during the climb. The big gap behind was quite a good shield so that not a lot of people would overtake me during the climb - but the climb is a monster by any standards and it's not nice feeling the legs complaining from the very start. For the first 3 km I kept a normal climbing pace of between 12 to13 km/hr. When light I can manage closer to 17 km/hr on an isolated climb but at the moment around 11km/hr is sustainable on a long session. Unfortunately there was a sudden drop off with the first feelings of cramp - to between 8 to 9 km/hr. This wasn't a "bonk" and there were no headache symptoms. The legs were just hitting their limits. Bonking would have caused an even greater drop in speed and a real plod at another 2 km/hr slower. While the energy and head were still there the strength wasn't there in the legs. The sugar goop I'd prepared tasted horrible as expected and was slightly nauseating, but it didn't cause any stomach pains and was easily swallowed and washed out of the mouth with fresh water.

At 11 am  (3hrs after the start) I was at St Martin de Belleville around 7.5 km from the finish. Deciding to put the left foot on the ground while drinking and refilling a water bottle the  leg went immediately into cramp - mainly the quads. Just the simple act of putting body weight on the leg was enough to cause this. For the next half kilometre it was a struggle to ride through cramps on both legs - but particularly the left one. Eventually this died down and a rhythm was found again. 3 km from the finish there was a slight steepening of gradient that I didn't even spot, but my legs certainly did. Violent cramps hit both legs this time and it was very obvious that there would be no riding through this one. Getting off the bike was no great solution either because the load of standing up set off even greater violence with the muscles spasming - quads and hamstrings for both legs. Luckily there was a wooden barrier at the roadside that I could sit on and this immediately released the cramps slightly. Attempting to stretch was a waste of time because the muscles on the opposite side of the leg would just cramp even more. I tried massaging the quads but resigned to losing time. While this was going on and I was clearly in agony a French family thinking that I might be dying came running across the road, mother and children together all looking extremely concerned. I immediately told them that it was nothing serious, just cramp and that it would pass. However I had no idea if it would pass or not and whether the last 3 km would be possible as it was all still uphill. I accepted a drink of water from them even though I had my own - more to show my appreciation of their concern than through necessity. After about 5 minutes (I think) it was time to get back on the bike and give it a go. The timing was good because a few hundred metres down the hill somebody was catching me up. Surprisingly, not only were the legs fine but I was able to keep a higher pace for the rest of the climb even going head on into a very strong wind most of the final stretch. Odd! Guess it will take forever to even being to understand the body.


105th out of 147 and 18th out of 33 in age category. Not a total disaster but not far off! Next target is to lose another 10 kilos. The race was great though – motivating! There is no way to get this level of motivation alone in training or to self-inflict so much pain. The satisfaction of finishing and overcoming personal limits  is enough recompense. The perspective this gives on the need to use and develop the body intelligently is priceless. No more cheese for a while then.


The overall dual winners of the long course (which fortunately ended after I had finished and not before). Ogier (left in photo) normally wins it anyway.





The prizes are impressive - carbon bikes and trophies - but none for overweight plodders. There should be weight categories instead of age categories. "Power to weight" would be even more accurate. Yes I'd love to organise one of those races to my own rules - but administration is definitely not my cup of tea.

Actually, everyone was presented with a smart set of frameless sunglasses which are surprisingly good and fit properly. (Very unusual for a freebie)

I'd most of all love to add 20+ kg of ballast to the skinny rats who win those events!

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