Bad weather continued this month – even for this key “August 15th” French holiday weekend. The professional Tour de l’Ain is quite a big event now and attracts all the top World Tour teams. It seems that a short 4 day event at this time of year is quite useful for bridging between the big “Grand Tours”. Ain is a river that joins the Rhone not far downstream and it is the name of the “department” – like “Isère”. It’s a place that is easily missed as people scoot south to the Alps but it has some excellent cross country skiing and ski touring in the winter and is peppered with small downhill ski resorts. Despite the great beauty of the valleys this area is heavily overshadowed by industrialisation, aggressive Islamisation, pollution, general degradation and serious poverty. The overriding memory however was of meeting extremely joyful and friendly people. The actual race was excellent and a real privilege to participate in. The entry fee of 15 euros is a complete give away and a breath of fresh air considering how the Tour de France severely exploits people for it’s vastly over subscribed “Etape du Tour” with 13 thousand people each paying about 90€. In contrast we numbered only 200 including the riders who were involved in the entire 4 stages. Actually, it’s is little bit scary knowing there are only 200 and you will be covering 140km over mountainous terrain. The potential for doing a complete solo trip is pretty high. The pros numbered just under 100 for their afternoon race (ours started at 9am) – so there wasn’t a great difference in numbers but in our group the ability to remain protected and helped within a peloton was not as certain by a long way.
Leaving Savoie on Friday afternoon to head for Ain we were confronted with torrential, cold rain. Later, talking to one of the top cyclists in stage 3 that day, he said it was the worst day of his life ever on a bike! We ourselves were heading for a campsite so that was a slight worry but the weather forecast was for it to clear. I use the “WeatherPro” app (basic purchased version) on my tablet and telephone and it’s amazingly good – with radar tracking of clouds and satellite cloud tracking – so we were fairly confident that it would be fine – and it did clear up as we were en route. The real worry was that on Google maps satellite images the campsite in Nantua looked like a dump in the middle of an industrial zone surrounded by ghettoes. In effect it was all of those things – except that after going through the gate it was like a complete transformation into a peaceful, calm and protected natural and green haven. The couple running the campsite were bright and creative artists, spotlessly clean and attentive to detail. This made the stay a real pleasure – sleeping in fresh air to the sound of distant animals through the night – in particular a pair of owls who decided to hoot to each other until daybreak. Natural noises like that are more comforting than disturbing – in comparison with machinery and road noise – which is just about everywhere these days. In addition I absolutely hate hotels – they are vastly overrated nonsense to be avoided if at all possible.
The building for registering for the race was only a few hundred yards from the campsite so around 7:20 am I was there to register. Having gone to bed early – as is the way in campsites with lights out at 10 pm. I had already been up before 7 am and cooked a breakfast of porridge, banana and coconut oil so that I’d have a couple of hours to digest it all before the race. I made a big pot of coffee and filled a travel mug to take to the registration. Christiane remained in bed during all of this – but was up when I returned from registration in time for the campsite café opening where she could get a much better coffee and a really good croissant. Christiane invited me for a coffee and it was a mistake accepting because I still had to prepare for the race and this left me running a bit short of time. In the event all worked out well and I was lined up at the start with about 10 minutes to spare. Knowing the course was over 140km doing a warm up seemed pointless as it would only add to the inevitable tiredness later on in day.
The first 7 km of the race was neutralised and controlled by a security car and motorbikes until we were well past the lake at Nantua and out into the countryside – where a panel displaying “KM 0” was positioned. The timed race itself was over 133 km so this first 7 km turned out to be an excellent warm up anyway. During this warm up I suddenly realised that my distraction with Christiane during preparation had caused a slight problem – I’d completely forgotten to put water into the water bottles! Turning to Chris Harrop who was beside me I said ‘Chris, I have to ask a REALL BIG favour of you!”. Chris gave me one of his full bottles in exchange for one of my empties. It was a lifesaver for me but could potentially seriously screw up his race. If you are in a peloton then you really can’t stop to pick up water during the race or you get completely dumped! I was sorry to have put Chris in this situation but unfortunately had no choice. If he had refused I wouldn’t have held it against him – it was my stupidity after all.
Shortly after the official start we began the first proper climb of the day and this separated out the different levels immediately. I saw Chris pushing hard to get into the first peloton and I settled into the second which was also going pretty hard. For the next couple of hours of climbing and descending I remained hovering around two or three of the same cyclists. They impressed me with their strength and it felt weird being able to stay with them. It was clear to me that I was punching well above my weight here but I decided that as long as it was working I’d make the most of it. What surprised me most was simply being able to stay with the people when climbing. When I was a little heavier (a lot heavier actually) I’d just be going backwards on those climbs relative to those guys. Staying with those guys and being in the fight was a very good feeling. Some guys would lose it on the climbs and then battle to catch up on the descents – each making best use of his strengths. Most often I found myself beside an extremely athletic looking young guy with a solid square and muscular build – no 2038 – and wondered how the heck I was keeping up with him.
Everything was going well until KM 69. Ironically my race number was 2069 – so this may have been programmed! We arrived at a 3 km climb and by this time our ever accelerating peloton had amassed at least 30 people. The problem was that it didn’t stop accelerating on this climb. By the top the peloton had completely exploded into pieces – and I in particular was spat out of the bottom. My energy levels were fine, it was just that the legs were starting to “ping” and “twang” feeling one step away from cramping. The legs had reached their limit. I actually couldn’t increase power in them when I wanted to. The energy and motivation were both still intact and the legs didn’t even feel tired – they just couldn’t mechanically handle it. This is purely and simply the result of undertraining and not enough mileage in the legs. In July I’d barely reached 500 km total due to awful weather and circumstances. On the positive side I did manage to grab a water bottle (bidon) on the fly that someone was holding out. I don’t know if it was intended for me but I grabbed it anyway. After emptying it into my own empty bottle I stuffed it into a back pocket to return at the end – but it popped out somewhere along the road. I was hoping that Chris had the same luck with water. In fact I’d missed the first “ravitaillement” completely so without Chris’s help I’d have been out of water until KM 70. While occupying myself with the water the few other remaining stragglers from the exploded peloton managed to from a small group ahead of me and pull away – soon to be out of sight. I was not interested in chasing them as I understood that the legs were already in the red zone. Interestingly the three guys that were dropped along with me were all about the same age as me too – so that probably played a big part in it. The younger guys probably had a bit more reserve whether properly trained or not.
The next 40km ended up being a solo time trial. Our peloton had been so fast – averaging over 30 kph for over 2 hours with considerable climbing involved – that there was nobody for miles behind me that I could even consider waiting for to team up with. For example – the winner of the pro race was predicted to average 38 kph – so for a bunch of ragtaggle complete amateurs that speed was pretty good. The moment I was on my own I could feel the loss of speed but not a loss of energy and effort. It was necessary to pace myself just slightly under the level I’d been operating at but in reality I was probably working just as hard and my heart rate graphs proved that in the end – sitting on average around 152 bpm – which is my normal training level. My feedback was coming every kilometre through an earphone in my left ear connected to my telephone, running GPS and the “Runtastic” app, along with Ant+ heart rate monitoring thanks to Sony technology in my trusty Xperia Arc. What surprised me was the kilometre times on the climbs were not dropping by more than a few seconds – which was very encouraging. When you are isolated it’s easy to become detached from the entire process but the audio feedback is a great point of reference – a bit like having your own coach in a car behind you urging you on. Only one guy caught me from behind about 500m from the end of a big climb and very frustratingly I couldn’t respond to stay with him without risking too much. During the entire 40km time trail this was the only person to overtake me. Once again I watched him progressively disappear into the distance. On the next climb when near the summit I spotted another two guys closing up on me – but I got the the top before them and when the caught up on the descent I was able to speed up and get in behind to draft and let the legs recover a bit. There was a long descent and this gave a good break and time for proper recovery – especially as I could easily stay with them without pedalling. During the descent I lowered my heels to stretch the calf muscles as much as possible. Stretching is a great protection from cramping – if you can manage to do it. There were still two of the biggest climbs of the day to come so I didn’t expect to stay with those guys. in addition they were both participating in the whole 4 days tour so they were confidently strong.
Surprisingly, right from the start of the first of the two climbs I took the lead and ended up pulling the two other guys the entire way up the climb. My legs had completely recovered and were back in fighting mode even though we’d been going for almost 4 hours by now. It was extremely hard mentally holding that pace right to the top of the hill – but then I repeated the same exploit on the next and final hill too – the biggest climb of the day! On that last hill we caught up with and overtook two of the guys who had dumped me from the peloton that had exploded earlier on. They had both completely cracked by now. One was the guy who I’d almost held on with during the explosion and the other was a young guy I didn’t expect to see again. They were now dropped in turn. Just after passing the summit another guy caught us from behind – he too was participating in the 4 day tour. Now I was with 3 guys who were fighting for overall placing in the tour – so they meant business. This new guy put on the pressure so that my heart rate was the same during the descent as it was in the climb and with only 10 km to go there was now no letting up – with constant pace changing and sprinting to stay together. Coming up to the finishing straight I knew the game that would be played out. My concern was to get the best overall time that I could but their concern was position in the competition. I decided to keep the pace up and lead them in. Sure enough about 300m from the end they all sprinted past me flat out. The funny thing was that when I stepped on the power – just intending to stay together with them – the legs went straight back into “empty” mode and wouldn’t function. It felt like operating a set of bones with broken elastic bands. I found that amusing more than anything else – and disturbing considering that the others managed to vanish completely from sight in such a short space of time. How I managed to pace them up those hills and then for this to happen I really don’t understand.
The time from “KM 0” was 4 hrs 37 mins. This was about an hour slower than Mark Cavendish would manage in the afternoon – so pretty satisfying from my point of view as a seriously undertrained amateur more than twice his age. Unfortunately the cyclo results have not been published anywhere yet so nobody knows where he came in the race. (I say “he” because there was not a single woman participant.)
During the week building up to the race I’d been on an almost complete ketogenic diet – with almost no carbohydrates at all. This had been an experiment and was extremely interesting. On the Friday I cut out the intermittent fasting and started carb back-loading - because I wasn’t confident about performing in a ketogenic state. It takes a body three weeks to become properly keto-adapted so there was no way I was ready for a competition without the use of carbs. The advantage here however is based on the “train low – race high” theory – of depriving yourself of carbs in training and then carb loading even more strongly as a consequence of this for the actual competition. There is still a lot to learn about the ketosis state but it feels very good as the body starts to adapt to it – so from now on that will be my objective – at least as an experiment. Carbs can be supplemented for competitions without destroying the ketogenic state once it is properly established – so it’s not a all back or white. You can create a “carb debt” and then eat carbs to compensate afterwards without ever leaving a keto-adapted fat burning metabolic state.
After the race Chris had to be driven back to Nantua to collect his car (22 km from the finish) and when back at the campsite I had a shower and change. Unfortunately on the return journey back to finish I was too late and the motorway closed and trapped everyone on it as the pro peleton went through town – so I missed seeing the finish. One consolation was that at the only commercial stand at the finish line – an Ekoi stand- I was able to pick up a newer and more modern helmet for only 35 euros – so that was a nice compensation. Most importantly I had really enjoyed the race - especially the first 70 km where our peloton was marshalled by a security car and motorbikes and ambulances the whole way – literally clearing the road in front of us. The last part also turned into an exciting battle and once again earned us a motorbike escort and support – with an ambulance following us across the finish line.
I spoiled myself after the race with a well cooked “hamburger maison” and chips in a restaurant and loved it! Sometimes diets need to be forgotten!