Electrical Storm – Torrential Rain
Aime – recovering from the torrential rain.
The evening before La Bourgui 2014 race there was a spectacular electrical storm with bolts of lightning striking at much lower altitudes than usual. Driving home on a dual carriageway when climbing a hill my car managed to aquaplane half way round a corner before coming back under control. Luckily it happened when climbing and not descending. The problem was this was forecast to continue until late the following afternoon and racing bikes are not guaranteed to stay upright in anything approaching those conditions – even with my high carbon “nanotech” Continental tyres. The start of the race would even be downhill from a ski resort.
Sure enough the torrential rain continued during the night and at 6am was not letting up. Having registered and paid for the race I decided to go anyway and then make a last minute decision about bailing out at the race start. Driving uphill to St Martin de Belleville where the race would begin, just down from les Menuires ski resort, there was dense cloud to drive through and curtains of rain that were severe even for a car. The one saving grace was that the air temperature wasn’t too low – and that changes everything.
Preparations with the bike and clothing had been completed the nigh before. There’s a million and one things to consider when preparing and any one overlooked item can be a source of real trouble. Cleaning and oiling the bike is important – then leaving out the pump to remember to bring the tyres up to pressure before setting off. Making up the food supplements for the race takes time and getting everything laid out for a fast, efficient early morning breakfast and departure takes hours of organisation.
Driving up to the start there were no other cars going up the mountain and I wondered (or hoped) if the race had maybe even been cancelled. Arriving at St Martin de Belleville however it was all go with the race security cars and motorcyclists, ambulances and organisers as busy as ever. I registered for the race and went inside for a pre-race coffee (and toilet) still not having made a definitive decision. Despite the rain still falling there was a momentum building up about the race and bailing out felt less and less likely. The long descent to Moutiers would be very risky and the participants would be reduced to only a few real diehards – but this is a race only for diehards anyway – tourists being conspicuously absent every year even if the sun is shining. At best it’s a brutal race from start to finish.
Right from the start of the race my legs didn’t feel right. At first I thought it was just due to not warming up properly, exacerbated by the cold rain against the legs. In reality the legs hadn’t fully recovered from Thursday’s very hard workout and Firday’s 12.5km run. The week before that I never got out on the bike at all and although there were a couple of running sessions this doesn’t maintain cycling fitness. July on the whole had been a wash out with rain storms and waves of cold air so that up until Thursday I’d only managed around 400km total during the month – with most outings being short hill climbs of no more than 90 minutes. Thursday’s attempt to catch up on lost time was not ideal preparation for Sunday’s race – but this was anticipated. Priority was never just for this race – it was to get out on the bike when conditions permitted. The racing is for fun and motivation.
How do I know the real limit was cause by fatigue? Well, in addition to subjective feeling the give-away indicator was the heart rate – simply being unable to sustain the high levels that I know can be sustained. When the heart rate doesn’t climb to it’s expected level then this either indicates illness or fatigue. Despite feeling an apparent dip in performance in the middle 10km of the last climb there was no genuine energy loss. On reflection even the dip in performance was only fatigue induced because as soon as the gradient eased off a little the heart rate went back up to the same level as it was 3 hours earlier.
Start – Wet Descent
Participation level was low with only about 67 on the short course. There is a short climb at the start before the long wet descent to Moutiers and my legs had no response to people overtaking me even here. Saturday had been a full rest day but recovery was clearly not complete. It wasn’t as if the legs were dead – they were good – but just not 100%. My main adversary for the day would be Jacques Matt. Jacques had beaten me by 2 minutes on the Time/Mégève and I’d beaten him by 6 minutes on the JPP so today’s battle would be interesting. Jacques overtook me on the climb – which is unusual because he normally climbs relatively slowly early in a race. Responding to this I was able to muster up the effort to regain the lead from him before the top of the climb. The descent to Moutiers is punctuated with several faux-plat climbs – not being a direct or simple descent. This guarantees a fight right from the start as people need to slipstream or risk being dropped early on. Jacques was wearing a black bin bag with holes torn for his head and arms – to be torn off and discarded at the bottom of the climb.
Everyone was worried about the water on the road and the likelihood of falling. The trouble was that the descent was a good 20km so a lot of time could be lost. I pushed on past the over-cautious and thought that this would be a good pace until I heard a roaring noise as Jacques flew by about twice as fast with his bin bag thundering in the wind. Naturally, caution went out of the window at that point as I had to make sure not to let him get away. On the next climb I caught up with Jacques and then dropped him after a short sprint to catch a faster guy to draft behind. From this point on Jacques was history – or so I hoped.
The steep technical descent into Moutiers was a battle to avoid getting dropped. My descending skills are relatively strong so that helped a lot – choosing good lines and keeping the bike as upright as possible gains a lot of time on the hairpins – and keeping the arms tucked well in makes freewheeling much faster.
The Hills and Flats
Climbing out of Moutiers it was clear I didn’t have the strength to stay with the guys I’d hooked up with on the descent. However after losing them for a while someone else caught me up and then by sharing the work and rotating the drafting we rapidly caught up again on the flatter ground. I was clearly struggling to keep up speed on any gradients though – regardless of recent weight loss or better nutrition. When we hit the first proper climb – part way up to Naves – a small cross country ski station – I just let the faster guys go. I knew there were people behind but only a few caught me up and there was no sign of Jacques. The guy I previously worked with (in a red jersey) eventually stopped pulling ahead and kept a steady gap of about 100m. He was then joined by race no 96 who had also overtaken me. Interestingly 96 had a really slow cadence and Red a really fast one – which was odd to watch as they climbed side by side. My cadence was in the middle.
Descending back down to the valley floor would be on a very narrow sketchy track – which is the only place I managed any sort of skid during the day. The road was a bit steeper than the main road, with gravel and tighter hairpin bends. Skidding in a straight line is not a problem – it’s something that every kid practices while destroying their rear tyres. The only snag here is that in France the rear brake is on the right – whereas British kids grow up with the rear brake on the left – so there is always a potential confusion possible.
Getting to the long flats I knew that it was important to catch the other two for drafting as we were now on a stretch of 35km where getting isolated would be a disaster. Despite the other two properly drafting in rotation I was able to catch up before the next short climb. Being really familiar with this particular climb I was able to pace it better than either of them and get in front by the top. A couple of others then soon appeared from behind – but eventually they were too strong. About 5km further on I was caught out by a short hill which the others had anticipated better. My legs had been tired from pulling in front and they all accelerated to get momentum up the hill – so I was dropped and it was impossible to get back – a clear mistake on my part! All was not lost however because 96 had made the same error and so we ended up for the next 20km or so having to share the work and helping each other. 96 would start off up each hill faster than me but I was always able to get back together by the top – until the final steep slope coming into Moutiers. After dropping me 96 then kept looking back and slowed down slightly to let me catch up as there was still a fair stretch to go before the start of the final climb.
Arriving at Moutiers the roundabout was confusing as there was no clear direction sign and the person stationed there made no effort to signal. 96 almost went off in the wrong direction so I had to shout to warn him. Earlier on Chris Harrop had almost fallen here on the white road paint as his front wheel slipped a little. Martin Rowe further behind was not so lucky and landed on his hip and head when his front wheel went from beneath him.
The Final 20km Climb
When we started the final climb back up to Les Menuires I just let 96 go ahead because he was obviously stronger and drafting wasn’t needed now. There was someone at the roadside with a stopwatch who called out the time ahead of the leaders – only 23 minutes! The first 60 km had been covered in 2hrs exactly – 30kph average. That’s a speed that would destroy me regardless of the condition I was in – and I was not to be disappointed. Looking down the road as the climb began the next group was about half a kilometre behind and I wondered how long it would be before they all came past me. I felt sure that Jacques would be in that group.
For a while I managed to climb in 3rd and 2nd gears and keep up a reasonable pace – which was quite encouraging. Either the road then steepened or I got tired because before long I was in first gear and looking for a lower one that wasn’t there. About 5km up the climb and I saw the Maçot club red and yellow jersey of Jacques, minus the bin bag, approaching and knew that he was going to easily devour me. Jacques went past at a significantly better pace. I still felt fine and wasn’t running short of energy – just strength. All I had to do was use low gears and there were no issues of sustaining the effort – but there was just no force in the legs or speed up the hill. The middle 10km of the climb was a bit grim – but not as black as I’ve known this section in the past. Stopping for water at St Martin de Belleville I was even able to joke with the helpers – so mentally and physically there was not the deep low that can be experienced at this point. Only a kilometre further on and the road would widen and level off a bit. When the gradient reduced to around 5% I was able to work properly again and get my heart rate back up to over 150 bpm consistently – which again shows that there was a fitness/strength/fatigue issue and not and energy issue at root.
Two kilometres from the end there is a slight dip downhill before a steepening of the gradient uphill. Last year when hitting this gradient both my legs went into violent cramps and forced me off the bike – so I was paying great attention to how my legs felt this time. Despite being on the edge during the whole race I’d paid attention to coordination and alignment – making sure to use the muscles, joints and leverage in an optimum pattern. The food supplements should also help with cramp issues – despite the obvious fatigue. Sure enough there were no signs of cramp and my small recovery from the doldrums continued with a progressive catching up of the guys who were visible ahead in the distance. About 2km from the top 96 passed me on his way back down the hill and 1km from the top Jacques passed by too – having finished about 8 minutes ahead.
In the end I was 7 minutes faster than last year (3hrs 44 mins) and had no cramps – not as good as I’d hoped for but not a complete disaster either. Chris had been only 12 minutes ahead at the 60km mark but I lost another half an hour to him on the climb.
Despite fatigue I was able to hold a good level until the critical 7% gradient where power to weight ratio dominates in climbing. This makes it clear that I need to lose another 3 or 4 kilos to prevent this from happening. There were certainly no fatties ahead of me. Most of the skinny mutants who win those races do not look healthy at all – so I’ll be happy just to settle for the 3 or 4 kilos and a sensible time.
After the race I had to cycle about 8km down to St Martin de Belleville to get back to the car before getting cold. During the descent the sun started to appear. Rain had actually stopped after the early morning descent into Moutiers – but by then everyone was thoroughly soaked. I’d kept my waterproof on and never got too hot. I function better when feeling hot than when feeling cold. When I got to my car and put the key in the lock – it wouldn’t work. The lock was jammed (perhaps due to all the water) and this key only works in one lock. Not ideal when you are standing there cold, wet and tired! I had to break a rear side window to get in the car – not the first time! Peugeot lock systems are CRAP!
Chris took 2nd place in our age category (18th overall I think) and so won a pair of Look pedals – and that meant we had to hang around for four hours for the prize giving. That on it’s own wasn’t bad but the food after the race was really horrible. At least coffees were free.
I came 57th overall (out of 69+ )and 10th (out of at least 12) in age category. I’ve never managed better in this race so there are no surprises there.
Chris on the podium – on the left “Maçot”
(first time ever in a cyclosportive! – though he won it last year he didn’t know and missed the podium that time – beating the guy who had top spot this year!)