Despite an atrocious weather forecast there was still a strong turn out for this final Alpine cycling event of the year – with 188 participating in the long course (133 km 3100 m vertical). The bad weather eventually did turn up but only later in the day when the racing was over. Last year the forecast had been even worse and we didn’t go – only to wake up to blue skies and very memorable frustration – so this year we ignored the forecast and got it right! All the events I’ve participated in for the past 5 weeks have only had between 180 and 200 participants – and it seems to be mostly the same people who turn up.
During the week before this race I was struggling to recover from “La Drômoise” – perhaps due to accumulative tiredness having done two demanding long courses back to back with “Les Bosses du 13” the week before. The level that you push yourself in racing is far higher than can be managed in training and as well as building you up overall it takes its toll temporarily – occasionally taking a full two weeks to properly recover. In my case there is also the challenging issue of attempting to adapt to ketosis for the first time ever and the learning process involved. Full adaptation for athletic performance turns out to take between 8 to 12 weeks and this is still only week 6 so things are changing all the time. Last week I felt extremely fatigued the day after the Drômoise but that was partly due to sleeping poorly after the event – and the day of the event itself being very long. Two days of complete rest were in order and on day 3 a 10 km “recovery” run felt surprisingly good – getting up to 4:40 pace (per km). The following day however on a bike ride there was still no energy so I backed off and cut the session short – then resting up completely again for the next 2 days right up to the Scott event. Even with this rest it was clear that recovery wasn’t great and there was no real enthusiasm for the event – which was slightly disappointing. (In fact it felt more like dread than enthusiasm!) The event – being the final one of the year – had unfortunately become more of an obligation than anything else. Most of the way through the race all I would think of was how good it would be to be finished – hopefully in one piece.
I’m actually visible in this photo of the race start – directly under the S in “Scott” – black top, white and blue helmet, white shorts and bike.
The evening before the race I prepared a new ketogenic food supplement – hoping that this time it would actually be edible. Instead of adding water this time I added coconut oil to increase the ketone content and added more stevia than before for improved sweetness. The concoction also had vanilla and cinnamon added to improve taste. Cinnamon additionally improves insulin sensitivity and lowers blood glucose levels – which can only work towards helping with ketosis - as far as I can see. The final product was delicious and because it was quite liquid it was better to feed it into a plastic flask than try to use a polythene bag. The plan was to remove the screw top of the flask during the race to squeeze out the coconut mix. In addition – and “just in case” – I prepared a small bag of mixed Cashew and Macadamia nuts.
The bike was clean so preparation was easy and as I’d be travelling with Chris I prepared only one bag with everything in it - tools, documents, money, change of clothing and cycling gear. There are so many details to attend to that if it can overall be condensed into one bike and one bag this helps greatly.
Breakfast was early at 6 am – slightly too early really because the race start was delayed until 9:30 am – with a gap of 2 hours being ideal – not 3.5 hours. However this breakfast was ketogenic nutrition – being a full cooked breakfast with coconut oil and with coconut oil chocolate bombs being consumed along with coffee. When in ketosis it’s actually quite hard to eat when not hungry and so I had to force this breakfast down. Normally I don’t need breakfast anymore – eating usually around 1pm for the first time in the day. In fact ketosis has rendered “intermittent fasting” spontaneous. My morning pre-race BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) was 0.02% – which represents 3.4 mmol/L of ketones in the blood. Of course the BAC doesn’t represent alcohol in this case – which is ethanol – but it represents the acetone ketone. (The detector being unable to distinguish)
Chris turned up his usual 15 minutes after the agreed time in the morning (I’m used to this now!) but we had plenty of time in reserve. I’m always manic about meetings and make sure to be there early. In reality Chris’s way of handling those things is better because he remains calm and able to think. In contrast I feel generally stressed and if everything doesn’t go exactly to plan I tend to overcomplicate issues. Perhaps that’s something that can be improved.
The registration for the race at Saint Jorioz however was a mess with a long slow queue, especially for the people who were already registered in advance, just to be handed their timing chips and numbers. With registration, parking, toilets, coffee stand and race start all close together however we were in plenty of time – but the slow registration did delay the race start by half an hour. Fortunately the start was in the early morning sun and it was very pleasant waiting. If it had been raining I’d have probably abandoned there and then – as apparently several people did last year.
Unlike the total mess of a start at Die last week this race start would be extremely well managed with a control car and motorbikes leading the entire peloton through the town and into the countryside – and each different event (distance) starting separately. Climbing would begin immediately taking us first over the Col du Leschaux and continuing up to the summit of the Semnoz – overall a continuous climb of 1200 m vertical that would definitely be a real leg destroyer to start the day. The real problem here is that if you don’t work that first climb hard then you are guaranteed to be covering the entire rest of the course as a solo time trial. This leaves no option. Afterwards looking at the kilometre split times I was shocked to see that several were covered at between 24 to 30 kph. Despite not warming up in advance I had no particular difficulty with the race start. Once into the countryside it was fast but with the first 5 km not being too steep the entire peloton could more or less stay together. It’s nice to have a start like this where all the participants can at least share a small part of the course together. Die in contrast was an example of exactly how not to start a race – with the leaders already 3 km up the road before everyone had crossed the start line – and yet everyone being given the same start time!
I’d decided to carry two full water bottles up the Semnoz because I appreciate good carbonated mineral water rich in magnesium. Chris opted to go light and carry only one full bottle (saving almost a kilo) then stopping briefly at the top to fill his bottles. Instead, my first stop would be at the 65km feeding station – by which time I was sure to be needing water. On a long course with lots of climbing you can expect two water stops – even when it’s not too hot.
Climb 1 (Col de Leschaux and Semnoz summit 1700m)
Ramping up the gradient at the transition from the Col de Leschaux to climbing directly up the Semnoz led to a natural breaking up of the peloton. Chris was fighting to stay with the main front group but I knew that their pace was unsustainable for me. Annoyingly my heart rate was not registering correctly – a fault which I anticipated having seen it flickering on my phone before the start – but which with the pressure of organisation in the morning I’d not taken the time to correct as it would have required an complete power down of a “slow” phone. Perhaps next year I’ll have a new waterproof Sony with a much faster processor and more memory. The new Xperia Z3 Compact looks great and has Ant+ technology but it’s far too expensive just now. With no reliable heart rate data it made objective assessment of work load quite difficult – especially as I hadn’t really been feeling on form, which throws normal references off track. I just had to go by what felt sustainable by using “perceived effort” as best as possible.
Early on during the start I’d spotted right in front of me a bike with a short mudguard. Nobody uses mudguards but ironically this bike had also been right in front of me in Die the week before so it was unmistakable. When the Semnoz climb began in earnest Mr Mudguard pulled ahead as I eased off to establish my own pace of climbing. Next thing I heard was a squeak, squeak, squeak as someone came up from behind with brakes rubbing. This was a young guy in his 20s and it seemed that he didn’t mind climbing with rubbing brakes! Not generally a good idea! Mr Squeak had Garmin Sharp kit on and shaved legs so he looked the part – but his saddle looked a bit too low. Perhaps it was a new bike he hadn’t managed to set up properly yet. There was basically a bunch that formed from a group that had been jostling for position over the first 5 km with one woman present. I just let them go and fell back a good 200 to 300 metres though at least 20 people were still visible on the long straights. It was also clear that there were not a lot of people behind – which is a great motivator to keep working. Three years ago when I was struggling trying to cope with long courses I’d usually end up making friends with the Voiture Balai crew at the feeding stations – and completing races with the last handful of finishers. I really didn’t want to slip back to that level. It’s no accident that I’d abandoned the long courses for the past two years. Sorting out nutritional and weight issues through the use of fasting and nutritional ketosis appears to have solved the problem for dealing with unfeasibly long mountain races at the age of 56. The goal is to get there without relying strictly on pure, blind, environmentally dependent “natural selection”. My favourite achievements in professional sports teaching are always about circumventing seemingly apparent “natural selection” and realising real innate talent – which we all surprisingly possess. (Sinichi Suzuki - of violin fame - called this “talent education”.)
At some point during the Semnoz climb I became fed up being overtaken and decided to start working harder. With no proper heart rate data my focus became simply pressure on the pedals. It’s one thing “spinning” when climbing, to spare muscles, but it’s undeniable that in a bigger gear you go faster despite feeling the pressure on the legs. This is what often seems to catch out Chris Froome at even a top professional level. He has to calculate everything exactly right because he is dependent on spinning constantly at a high cadence. Contador in contrast stands up and moves his body and bike from side to side and jumps on a bigger gear to accelerate away. Froome is left looking at his power meter and wondering what went wrong. I like the natural approach of Contador – even if it does extend occasionally to medical supplementation. Somewhere up the climb I started to push hard on the pedals and reeled in Mr Squeaky, Mr Mudguard, the lady (never to be seen again) and all the rest of them before going over the summit. This was very hard work and naturally I was about to pay for it. The descent averaged over 50 kph for 10 km but when trying to push on the pedals again as the road flattened out there were indications of cramp trying to possess the right leg. Mr Beard had overtaken me on the descent and he took excellent lines on the bends so I just sat behind him – also contemplating the need to have a partner for any upcoming flats to be negotiated against the wind or slight gradients. Thankfully the cramps stayed away and allowed me to keep up but this indicated that the legs had really been worked to destruction on the 1.5 hrs approx of Semnoz climbing. For about the next 3.5 hours although there were no cramps there would be significant pain in the same areas – limiting work capacity to some degree. Oddly, the pains disappeared for the final hour.
Climb 2 (Col de Plainpalais)
Attacking the flats, Mr Beard, with his toothy grin, decided to let me do most of the work. Each time I spoke to him all I got was a display of teeth through an opening in the beard. All of the people I met on this course seemed to be highly dysfunctional one way or another – but at least Mr Beard did a reasonable share of rotations and helped to keep our speed up, getting us across the flats to the next hill. That was in fact the only reasonably flat terrain of the day. From here on it was only upwards.
Heart rate data is all uncertain here – but the climbing profile and speed are clear.
(The general pick up in speed happened again at around 4:30 hrs – even though I didn’t really feel it until about 5:12 hrs – when all the leg pain disappeared too.)
Even if there must have been the same amount of downhill as uphill it felt like it was 100% non-stop upwards. When we hit the next climb Mr Beard decided to stop sheltering behind me and disappeared up the hill ahead without looking back once – which to be honest I was happy about because the silent, bearded, toothy grin was irritating. I started going backwards relative to most people during this second phase of climbing and most of those guys I’d burned off on the Semnoz eventually swept past again. Post-race analysis showed my speed wasn’t all that slow – they were just faster – including Mr Squeaky who passed me and vanished from sight up ahead near the top. Before we reached the end of this climbing up the Col de Plainpalais one guy up ahead completely cracked. He must have bonked and it was just before the feeding station at around 65 km – bad luck! He definitely wasn’t the only one to crack on this endlessly hilly course because a total of 13 abandoned during the day – though some may have been in hospital due to a big pile up apparently. By this time we were 3:10 hrs into the race and I hadn’t eaten anything but was beginning to feel that feeding could help. The feeding stations were absolutely crap – even more disorganised than the registration and with potential for serious queuing too. The idea of an energy drink was appealing but it was so diluted that it tasted like plain water. I had a couple of squares of black chocolate, filled my water bottles by myself and moved on. Crap! This prompted my to reach into a pocket and pull out a few nuts, which I ate. The reality is I just can’t eat nuts when cycling so the rest remained in the pocket until the end of the day. Once the descent was over I thought I could now try the ketonic coconut mix and so pulled it out and removed the flask top. It was absolutely rock solid and there was no way it could be accessed. That was a great disappointment but a valuable lesson was learned: Do not experiment with such apparent details during races! This would just mean however that another opportunity presented itself - the opportunity to do a 6 hour high-intensity race without eating and to see if ketosis could offer genuine protection from bonking! There was little choice really.
Climb 3 (Col des Prés)
Before beginning the next climb several tower apartment blocks became visible in the near distance so it became apparent that we had completely traversed the “Massif des Bauges” mountain range and were actually on the outskirts of Chambery! Now we had to get all the way back to the other end of the Bauges at lake Annecy. The Bauges mountains all look remarkably the same and are incredibly disorienting – in fact “boring” is probably a better description. Perhaps that was more a reflection of my own state of mind of course – with my brain suffering a slight headache all morning and never feeling like really getting into the race or enjoying it. That’s when you wish that every hill was the last one but know realistically that the last hill is still a very long way off. Apart from the accumulative fatigue from the previous two week’s races there was also the auto-destruction of that monster first climb and high speed start all adding to the situation. My dysfunctional friends weren’t helping much either. The reality though is that this sort of race is a bit mercenary because it’s everyone for himself on the climbs – and it was nearly all climbing. People get strung out during the fast descents and at times you imagine that you must have taken the wrong route because nobody is in sight. The start of the next climb then compresses people back together again. It’s a bit like quantum entanglement.
Chris climbing on his own already somewhere on Semnoz!
At the start of the Col des Prés there were five others visible ahead of me stretching into the distance and over several hairpin bends higher up the mountain. There were about three others behind – so I could enjoy the warm glow that comes from participating in a group event – almost. There was also an ambulance hovering around as if it was waiting for one of us to croak. I could see Mr Squeaky about four places ahead and attacking the climb. Mr Squeaky had been joined by Mr Blobby – a guy in white and black with a blobby black helmet –who also never uttered a word. Mr blobby had also been in our little group at the bottom of the very first climb and he had just overtaken me again at the very start of this third climb and was racing up towards Mr Squeaky now.
By the top of the climb – easily the steepest of the day - a couple of the others had cracked and I had passed all five of the guys. Mr Squeaky put up a bit of a fight near the end but couldn’t hang on. By now his bike had stopped squeaking but he had started grunting instead to clear his chest or something. Either way he was always audible. He was never working with me – just always overlapping and it was about to get much worse.
Climb 4 – The Interminable Grind - or – “evading Mr Blobby and Mr Squeaky”
From here on there was no single climb but instead there would be a lot of varied climbs – some short and steep and others very long and gradual – before the final drop back down to Saint Jorioz. The descents were always over far too quickly. In fact during the day there had been some really good descents where you could crank the bike over directly from one turn straight into the next – so the value wasn’t lost on me completely. Shortly after reaching the top of the Col des Prés and during the descent Mr Squeaky went flying past me again – much to my irritation. Not much later on Mr Blobby came past me too. Once again I reeled them both in on the next climb and on the flats they passed me again – only to be reeled in on the next climb again. This was getting tedious as not a word had been spoken by anyone and there was clearly no willingness to collaborate on anything. Around km 104 there was another crap feeding station where I filled my own water bottles once again and looked in vain for something useful to eat. My main concern however was to scoot off before Mr Squeaky who had arrived just before me but was slow in filling his water bottle because he wanted the crap – obviously homeopathic “energy drink” instead of water. (Homeopathic because it was diluted into non-existence). I did get off before him but he passed me on the flats further on and powered away from me again. There was a descent at 5:12 hrs 109 km when Mr Blobby, who had followed me up a hill, inconsiderately accelerated past me to get the drop on me for the next descent. Now I was starting to get annoyed because Mr Blobby is a seriously rubbish descender and cannot take a turn fast so he was a real dipstick forcing his way in front like that. Responding appropriately I undercut him on the very first apex and then decided that enough was enough and that I’d have to burn him off for good. This mental shift must have come along with a physical change because the legs were there. I’d been waiting for the usual metabolic switch at 4:30 hrs but didn’t feel it happen – though the speed graph shows that it actually did. However, from 5:12 hrs the switch had definitely flipped because I went into auto-attack mode. After burning off Blobby on the descent I then burned off Squeaky on the next climb and then shifted to the large chain ring and started to push hard to generate a real and permanent gap. My head had cleared at last and the leg pains had vanished so I just pushed hard. A few specs of rain were starting to fall now so that just encouraged me to push even harder, especially as the scent of the finish was in the air. Squeaky hadn’t given up though and at the end of the long grind, with just one final steep climb to go, the instant I took a moment to relax and negotiate the turn off – Squeaky was right there beside me. He may even have been slipstreaming me, I don’t know because he was finally silent now. At least I’d held my own on this last section. Going into the last climb I just stepped on the gas and attacked it still in the big chain ring. Squeaky did the same and when he moved in front just before the top I could see he had followed me exactly staying in the big ring too to match the speed. At least Blobby was properly done for this time!
Starting the final descent Squeaky was in front and as it had rained a little here before our arrival the road was slightly wet and sprinkled with fallen leaves – making it dangerous. The situation was not lost on Squeaky so he was cautious. Although I felt I could go faster I decided it was not a good idea to drop the bike on the last descent of the last race of the year – so I chilled out and remained behind. Squeaky must have been motivated by my long, late charge earlier on because he was now starting to communicate – but only with hand signals at this stage. He did have the annoying habit of slowing in the corners and then stomping on the pedals to accelerate away from the bend but I found that I could match this acceleration without problems. Arriving near the bottom of the climb the road dried out and we could attack the final few kilometres in earnest averaging about 46 kph over a 5 km stretch. Getting through the town was actually tricky over a network of narrow roads. I came the closest I’ve ever been to a fall when with only one hand on the handlebars I managed to hit an invisible bump – but fortunately the bike righted itself. Then a slow car managed to block our path and Squeaky picked the wrong side to pass and got stuck. He had been pulling in front now for about 10 km so I wasn’t about to dump him because of this stupid car right at the end so I slowed down and let him catch up again. He went to the front and started accelerating again – in full knowledge that I’d be strong enough to sprint him into the ground at the end. Doing that would have been really mean and Squeaky was growing on me by now so I just let him take the line without a challenge – for all the difference it makes when you are so far down the field anyway. Squeaky however was in the 16 to 29 y.o. age group and I was in the 50 to 59 y.o. category! We actually exchanged a few words at the end.
Me : 140 th (out of 188 with 13 abandons), 26 th in age category out of 39. Time 05:55:25 hrs
Chris : 71 st, 10 th in age category in 05:04:58 hrs
After the race my BAC was 0.05% – equivalent to 8.5 mmol/L of blood acetone and a very high level of ketosis. This was even after eating some pasta at the race meal (crap again!) but binning most of it. Next morning my BAC was still at this level. I’ve only seen this once before – the very first time the breathalyser unit was used and I suspected it had been an error because it was new – but this proves that it was correct. Christiane is currently reading 0.01% on the same device.
Despite not feeling great due to accumulated fatigue it looks like this was my strongest ever performance on a long mountain course. Not eating during the race didn’t appear to have any negative effect and I wasn’t even hungry afterwards. The ketosis adaption seems to be progressing and working. Technically it’s only 6 weeks since starting to live in ketosis so the adaptation for sport is only half completed.
The two pure mountain photographs are from earlier in the week during the somewhat tired training ride – above Moutiers at Hautcoeur.