Monday, September 16, 2013

9th Semnoz Hill Climb (2013)

Thunder and lightning were forecast for the race morning but in reality it was was probably raining far too heavily for that to happen. At the race start the roads had turned into rivers and it was certain that it would all be cancelled. The French however do have a significant streak of madness so I should have known better. This could probably have been billed as The Wettest Race in History of the World. The organisers must have been horrified. The Vélo Club d’Annecy waits all year for this event and mother nature targets this day with a deluge of biblical proportions that would have made Noah smile. Perhaps that’s where religious superstition comes from in the first place. You absolutely couldn’t plan such a situation if you tried.

…One of the local inhabitants

Night was spent sleeping with the bike, stretched out in the back of  the estate car, being lulled by the constant patter of rain. Camping would not have been a pleasant option and hotels are a ridiculous and expensive fuss. Chris would be driving to Annecy in the morning but I didn’t fancy getting up at 5am.Trees have to be avoided when it’s raining because they release big droplets that clatter against the car bodywork, but the constant sound of “normal” rain is relaxing and drowns out any other potentially disturbing noises during the night. Despite being right next to Annecy this road up the mountain to the Semnoz ski station is remarkably quiet overnight with no traffic circulation.  In the morning it wasn’t even clear if anyone would turn up. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve found myself the sole person there for an event that had either been cancelled or had the date or venue shifted. Information in France travels along weird channels – probably a legacy from the Revolution. Being British by birth means that I can’t perceive any of this information until after I’ve been shot. Eventually, quite late, a few cars and vans did appear. Before breakfast I wandered over still in jeans and warm clothing and became the first person to register for the race. At this point it was looking like I’d be racing only against Chris as there was not a single other bike in sight. Eventually 57 people did turn up to race – which is actually a surprisingly large turn out considering the semi-apocalyptic conditions. The only saving grace is that it wasn’t very cold, though the high mountains, albeit out-of-sight, were accumulating significant snow already. Semnoz isn’t in the high mountains so at least snow wouldn’t be a problem here. Smaller mountains in France are called “middle mountains”. That’s a bit odd really because there are no “lower mountains". You learn to go along with the madness.

Looks like this guy was last…

Right from the start of the race I found myself “red-lining” and building up lactic acid faster than desired. You can tell when this happens because breathing starts to become a losing battle. I don’t need to look at my computer to know that my heart rate is too high – which for me means above 168bpm. It’s good to record it all though just for verification at the end. For 18% of the ride I had been in the red (above 168bpm) and most of that was at the start. Fortunately you only need to back off a little to then be able to stop the exponential rise in lactic acid and to burn up the rest as fuel. Despite the discouraging conditions I managed an average of 165bpm over the whole climb – which means that going physically faster was impossible. That was the whole purpose of participating – to be motivated to get the maximum out of an hour long workout – so it was a success in those terms.

During the climb there are a couple of long flattish sections about one third of the way up. Headwind was already increasing and flattish sections really require partners to draft with but it looked like I was going to be isolated. Fortunately two guys caught me up just as motivation and speed were dropping and this provided a lifeline. Fighting to keep up and then draft were rendered difficult due to the upwards vertical spray of water from rear tyres. There was so much water that is just wasn’t possible to draft directly behind – but even being on the shoulder of someone makes a difference. There were several exchanges of position and in the end when the gradient ramped up again it was me who pulled away in the lead. (One caught up again and beat me later on) Further up the climb the wind started to become significant and eventually we disappeared into thick fog with the rain intensifying constantly. The work rate was so high that although it was like being beneath a cold shower for an hour there was no chill or cold – except that with the bare legs it felt a bit hard to keep the muscles properly warm.

Me (left), Chris (Right)

All the time I was working on chi-technique – pulling the hip and knee backwards, working from the abdomen and “ankling” in good coordination. The major limit was simple fitness level – and of course power to weight ratio considering it was a straightforward hill climb. There were no fireworks at the finish – just a sense of relief to be able to get to shelter. More importantly there were no breathing issues despite stopping cold from near maximum effort. I thought I saw 49 minutes on the clock coming round the final bend and was really pleased to be at least 5 minutes ahead of last year’s time – but afterwards realised that it had been 59 minutes – ending up at 01:01:19 – much more realistic considering the conditions. Chris came home in 00:56:14 – about a minute slower than my last year’s time – so that proved to me the slow times were definitely due to the weather. Unfortunately not all of us were affected by the weather as the winner Mickaël Gallego finished in 00:40:10 – less than a minute off the course record and 5 minutes ahead of anyone else!  What did Lance Armstrong (according to Tyler Hamilton) say to describe things like that? Oh yes:“Not normal!”

The winner…


The reception and hot drinks were near the finish in the ski station building. Water was flooding off the roof and jetting from the ends of the gutters so it felt good to get indoors. Finding my dry clothes I walked out again barefoot to get to the outdoors toilets to change properly into long and partially wind/waterproof  bottoms.  Although there was a full prize giving ceremony the only thing that interested me was finding hot coffee and eating.

Smart people had planned ahead and had a car planted at the top to get back down the hill. Idiots like me and Chris hadn’t planned properly so we were cycling down even though we had two cars at the bottom. Four upper body layers, dry socks, shoes and shoe covers plus thick gloves and a Goretex liner beneath the helmet meant the descent wouldn’t be too bad – but it was still very dangerous. The brakes were almost non-existent so there was no sense in picking up any speed and then wiping out at the next bend. When you see how often the pros crash there should be no illusion about how easy it is to fall. Even on the straights speed remained impossible due to the driving rain piercing the eyes. It was a question of patience and safety first. Astonishingly, right at the arrival in Annecy, the rain stopped and blue sky appeared above! This made the final change into dry clothes a heck of a lot easier – despite my socks falling into a puddle. (I put the shoes on barefoot after that). Everyone was gone – nobody hung around after this event. It was already as deserted as it had been early in the morning. Chris and I drove out of Annecy and past the lake until we came across a good restaurant for a spot of lunch. Both of us had trouble finishing lunch – clearly an effect of lactic acid on the system. About that time – an hour or so after the race I started to feel a slight lactic acid headache which stayed with me until the the following afternoon. This is clearly distinct from a hypoglycaemia induced headache which starts during exercise and is more severe. Other than that there were no ill effects and altogether it was a good race.

Out of 57 participants and 16 in our age category Chris came 30th overall and 6th in category, I came 39th and 9th in category.

Some other victims…




Almost at the top…

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