Saturday, 10 July 2010

Day 0: The ride of my life.

5am and the dawn breaks on the day of reckoning.  A short but restful sleep, we headed down for breakfast, which was supplemented by a couple of pots of instant porridge we had bought with us.  I thought I had managed to stave off the nerves but it was pretty difficult to get breakfast down, and I had had three nights bad sleep, so maybe there were some underlying nerves there. 

By 6:30 I was descending off Alpe D'Huez to the start.  It was a beautiful serene morning, and everyone was dropping down the hill in silence, making for a surreal start to the day.  I arrived in the 4000+ pen after bidding farewell and bon courage to Mark, who had a start number with the elite riders.  I got a good position about 200 metres from the front and soon got chatting to some Aussies.  Spirits were high, the temperatures were cool and after about 45 minutes our group was called forward.  Trois! Deux! Un! and we were off!!!  After hearing my dibber beep as I passed over the start line I soon settled into the biggest peleton I have ever ridden in.

We had motorcycle escorts for the first section on the flat, and it was cool enough to wear arm warmers.  At this stage the nerves turned to excitement, just enjoying the spectacle of 7000 cyclists filling the road, cheered on by bystanders and stopped motorists.  20 minutes later and we were at the bottom of Glandon.  It was an easy start up, over and along the dam and then the work started.  The gradients were hard, which was made more difficult by being in a tightly packed group as I spent the entire first section of the climb constantly watching the wheels in front of me and jostling to keep my position. I had a couple of near misses with over excited testosterone filled guys overtaking on my right and then cutting in front, making me have to slow down to avoid their back wheel hitting my front.

The descent after Rivier de Allemont was made trickier by the faster guys overtaking, taking my line.  Luckily my well practice cornering skills meant I could negotiate the turns pretty tightly to keep safe.  Then came the worst section of the Glandon.  It ramps up like a UK climb and a lot of riders slowing up.  Due to the crowds I kept on the wheel of a couple of guys for a while, rather than trying to get around riders on a steep climb.  But then I started getting a whiff of cheese, really strong cheese.  Either someone had a brie sandwich in their back pocket or was literally sweating the stuff.  It started to make me feel nauseous so I over took the two guys who I had been following and then it was back to fresh mountain air.

By this stage it was getting pretty hot, the arm warmers had come off and people were already stopping for rests on the side of the road.  Due to my recce in May, I knew that I just had to dig deep on this steeper section until the dam came into view.  Soon enough I was onto the easier gradient and over the top of the dam to see the barrage in all it's glory.  I could taste the first summit now and a few kilometres later I was at the junction to turn off for the summit of the Glandon, where there were crowds of people cheering us mad folk on.

I wasn't really prepared for the bun fight at the feed station. Finding food was okay but it took me awhile to find the water as it was so crowded I couldn't see it.   I joined the fight for water and ten minutes later I was ready to descend, trying not to be too put off by the the ambulances and emergency helicopter

This was the section I was most nervous about due to the reputation for crashes and there are some pretty hairy hairpins.  Luckily the descent had been neutralised so the pressure to race down was off.  Red flag waving marshalls warned us of the worst corners and everyone gave plenty of space.  I have to admit I was a bit slow at the top but I soon got my descending skills back, despite going past the scene of another crash, and enjoyed the exhilarating ride to the valley floor.  

I was anticipating that the ride to the bottom of the Telegraph would provide a chance for some recovery time before the next climb but it was so hot that I really started to suffer.  After a bit of work I managed to get onto the back of a group, which turned into a bigger group when we swept up more people.  Unfortunately I felt the effects of the shelter and thought I was going to pass out from the heat. I needed a breeze!!  So I eased off the pace for a bit just to get some air.  Reaching the water stop at St Michel de Maurienne, I was so hot that I treated myself to pouring a 750 ml bottle of water over my head - helmet and all.  The heat was unbearable but luckily there was some clouds building and the odd rumble of thunder.  (my computer gave a max temperature reading of the day of 43 deg c - and it felt it here!)

Still it was time to hit the Col de Telegraphe.  There were people stopped in the shade of the trees all the way up.  Many were on mobile phones - texting, tweeting or pulling out?? Who knows.  I kept plugging away, keeping an eye on my heart rate and slowly passing others.  I really suffer in the heat relative to others, or so I thought because there seemed to be others suffering more than me today.  When I got to the top of Telegraphe there were a lot of people sitting around.  I actually felt in good shape, except for a sore back, and so I carried onto the food stop 2kms up Galibier.  Here I gorged myself on banana, baguette and more water.  Thank goodness I had bought tonnes of Nuun tablets so I could turn water into an electrolyte drink and keep hydrated well.

On the way up to Plan Lachat it began to rain which was such a welcome relief, although the sound of thunder was foreboding.  Another water stop, another gel and then it was time for the last 8km of Galibier. It was just incredible! There was fork lightning below us, an Audi full of Aussies driving up and down with a Tour de France horn and you could really feel the atmosphere building.  I love the last section of a proper mountain climb. And the fact it gets steeper just adds to the challenge.  I was so up for the last 2kms, which is like the ramp snaking up to heaven.  It got a bit tricky as there was a lot of debris and water from the snow melt, and completely out of it people walking their bikes up.  I got out of the saddle at the last 1km, had to negotiate around a few slow people and even changed up a gear for the last 500 m.  I guess the acclimatisation earlier in the week had worked.

It was absolutely freezing at the top and it took a lot of energy in the wind to get the extra layers sorted for the descent.  The first 2 kms were quite tricky but the views were incredible.  You can see forever to the valley floor.  At this point I suddenly felt very cold and extremely tired.  The three nights bad sleep, three cols and the heat must have taken their toll.  I had also started to get stomach cramps from the water.  It took all my concentration to get off Galibier.  I went through the scene of another bad crash - four ambulances, a closed road and riders lying down the side of the mountain. This reinforced the need to take care.  I had no option but to stop for a caffeine hit at the first cafe I could find. 

Next was absolute cycling heaven.  40 kms of downhill, that just seemed to go on forever.  Even with tunnels and the odd tight corner it was not too technical.  Due to my tiredness I felt like I was in a dream.  I even felt like falling asleep at one point.  I got to the bottom of Alpe D'Huez at 7pm, an hour after the cutoff.  I was absolutely done in.  To get to the top would have taken me ages, given my state, and to be honest I was chuffed with getting this far.  I didn't have summit fever enough to push myself to the top of the Alpe at all costs. So I handed my dibber in,  and got on the bus with the other "slow coaches". 

I had ridden 160kms, ascended 4000 metres and am extremely proud of my achievement.  I had the best and toughest day ever on my bike. For many, just to do the circuit is good enough and now I understand why.  In recognition of my efforts I officially finished the Marmotton*, with a Gold Medal no less.

*the Marmotton is awarded to riders who complete the Marmotte route without Alpe D'Huez
(100 miles taking in Col du Glandon, Telegraph & Galibier).

Sunday, 27 June 2010

5 Days to Go: Shipping Out

Well the bags are packed for the flight to Lyon tomorrow so it's no going back now.  I am fitter than I have ever been, developed muscle definition like never before and am pushing much bigger gears up the hills now.  I have had tears, laughter, tantrums, hard days, good days, thrills and spills.  Could I have done more training?  Without doubt.......if I didn't have a full time job and other commitments....and lived as a hermit to avoid those bugs. At times I have felt like my body (and sometimes mind) could not possibly take any more.  But that is all in the past now.  I can honestly say that I am looking forward to next Saturday.  I am looking forward to the challenge, the scenery, the atmosphere and most of all that sense of achievement when I cross the finish line at the top of Alpe D'Huez.

So next time I write will be the moment of truth..... this space. 

Sunday, 6 June 2010

26 Days to Go: Bethany Edinburgh Sportive

Yesterday was a truly stunning day, both in terms of riding and weather.  On a rare perfect summer's day (25 deg) I rode the Bethany Trust Edinburgh Sportive.  Starting in Bonnyrigg, just outside of Edinburgh, the ride heads over the moorfoot hills into the Scottish Borders.  We arrived just before 9am and set off by 9:15.  It was already warm enough to be comfortable in shorts and short-sleeves. Even had the summer Assos socks on instead of the normal merino wool socks.  I started in a group of four but one guy shot off, and the other two were a lot slower than me so I was on my own within a couple of minutes.  But as it was such a glorious day it didn't bother me as I just took in the peacefulness of the countryside.

The first 45 minutes saw patches of some of the worst roads I have seen outside of Lanarkshire.  The normal big potholes from our severe winter were there, along with big patches of gravel due the seal being broken up. To be honest I was glad to be riding on my own as it makes it easier to see and avoid the worst bits.  Once the route turned onto the B road heading over the moorfoot hills it was back to decent roads.  The first climb over the moorfoot hills, which climbs up to around 250 metres, felt really gentle after the Alps.  So much so that I tried to catch a guy who had passed me a couple of miles earlier.  Sadly I couldn't catch him but not for lack of trying.  The descent was brilliant - no brakes needed. I hit Innerlethien 30 minutes before the only cutoff point, catching the guy from the climb!

The first feed stop was here and it looked like everyone was out for a picnic.  I never seen such a leisurely food stop.  But on such a glorious day you do feel inclined to relax and enjoy the breaks.  I caught up with David Hills from the club here.  After a bit of chat I grabbed a banana and some water, and headed back to talk to my hubby.  Next minute we heard the sound of a tyre going down.  It was David's tyre.  His bike was just lying in the sun so something must have heated up.  He had plenty of helpers so Mark and I set off again.  Mark soon dropped me on the next climb and I was on my own again. I had thought that I might have some company now but, as no one was coming up behind, I suspect everyone else at the feed stop was doing the shorter 71 mile route.

30 minutes later I was over the next climb and at the crossroads at the Gordon Arms.  The marshall asked me if I was the last rider.  At this point I began to suspect that I could be on my own for the rest of the day.  Never mind it was time to concentrate on the next climb, the Berrybush.  Another 30 minutes and this one was knocked off too.  This was feeling a bit too easy and I was making pretty good time.  My average speed was slightly higher than normal and my heart rate about right for an event.

The next stretch was unbelievably beautiful.  The road was like a ribbon, undulating through a valley passing a river and couple of small lochs.  I passed a couple of camper vans, in what looked like a very idyllic spot.  I got caught up by another rider at this point.  I was pretty pleased as I thought maybe there were some other riders coming up behind.  This pleasure was short lived when I found out he was the back up mechanic, and so last man on the course.  He told me the marshall had counted through all the riders on the long course and wasn't expecting any one else.  We chatted for a while and then I got dropped when the road went up again.  It was at this point that my legs began to feel very tired.  The accumulation of climbing from the Alps was beginning to show.  Looking the cycle computer I was less than halfway round so suspected it could actually be a tough day. 

I caught up to a group of four who I had passed earlier.  However, they were not officially riding the sportive but just happened to be on the same route.  Still it was nice to have a bit of company for a while and took my mind off my sore legs.  As they were heading in a slightly different direction we parted company and then I completely overshot a left hand turn.  Back on course the next feed station appeared - along with Mark and the mechanic waiting for me in the sun.  I have to confess I was feeling a bit rubbish being the last one through as it meant all the marshalls and helpers were hanging around for me.  I should have started earlier given my expected average speed, but I had thought that others would have started around the same time.  Still no one seemed bothered as it was a nice day to be hanging out in the countryside.  After a sandwich and a rest it was time to top up the bottles.  I discovered a slight problem with my Nuun tablets, they had started to react with the condensation caused by the heat and the foil was stuck to them.  After a bit of faffing I got one into my bottle and was off again.

I struggled a bit on the next section as my legs were really tired.  The route went over the Woll, which is beautiful but it was not helped by constantly being passed by classic cars out on a rally. Talk about exhaust fumes, a perfect trigger for my asthma.  But hey ho it is British summertime and we have to share the roads.  I battled on to Selkirk and then over to the next valley where the two rides meet up.  The broom wagon passed me and then stopped further up.  They offered me some water so I took the opportunity to take a caffeinated gel at this point.  A couple of minutes later I was in Clovenfords and there was Mark waiting for me outside the pub.  What a sight for sore eyes!  I confessed to Mark that I could quite happily climb into the broom wagon but I knew I wasn't going to. 

It must have been the gel because I felt a lot better after this point.  I was familiar with the section to the next feed stop and I usually struggle on it.  But I absolutely loved it.  The constant ups and downs were great and, although my legs still hurt, I was able to push them a bit harder.  Got a soaking when it rained for ten minutes or so, which was quite nice as it was pretty cooling.  Then I arrived at next and final feed stop to arrive to the welcoming committee of Mark and the mechanic - and the broom wagon.

A quick rest, another gel and it was the final 20 miles.  Once over the moorfoot hills it was a quick run back.  I arrived at the finish to a big cheer from all the waiting marshalls, and you guessed it.......mark and the mechanic.  8 hrs 45 minutes (including 45 minutes of rest) 2500 metres of climbing and a great sense of achievement.  

Friday, 4 June 2010

35 Days to Go: La Marmotte Recce Part 4 - Alpe D'Huez

Alpe D'Huez was always going to be my day of reckoning.  Four years ago I rode up my first alpine climb, Alpe D'Huez.  I was new to road cycling, had a basic aluminium road bike (i.e. heavy) and was completely overdressed for the occasion.  I remember being told that the first three hairpins are the worst and then things get easier.  So I counted down the first three corners,thinking this is okay, only to be faced with bend 21 - the first hairpin!  Needless to say it took me about 1 hour 45 minutes to get to the top, including quite a few stops.  So as you can imagine, my memory of Alpe D'Huez was leaving me feel a little bit apprehensive.

So here is attempt number 2, four years later...I rode from Allemont to get a warm up and then hit the lap counter just before the climb starts.  After the gradients on the Glandon I was prepared for the start of Alpe D'Huez.  I felt pretty strong and made sure I took a drink at every hairpin.  I hadn't worn my heart rate monitor, but went on experience to know when I was reaching my lactate threshold.  I find this climb a bit of a carnival atmosphere because it seems like every man, woman and spotty teenager is attempting it.  Needless to say this is good news because there is always someone to pass. 

I took it pretty steady until hairpin 18 when it eases up a bit.  After this point I pushed myself a bit as I wanted to get a time of less than 1:30.  Before I knew it 40 minutes was gone and I was about a third of the way up and caught up with, yep you guessed it, my dutch friends from the hotel.  It appeared that some of them were taking my approach from four years ago and taking in the view from some of the hairpins.  The good thing about this climb is that it is about 2% around each hairpin so you get a mini break, just enough to ease the muscles and breathing.

The climb is nowhere near as hard as I found it four years ago.  Last time I remember coming to a point where you can see the final climb to the ski village and feeling broken at what was yet to come. This time I looked up an thought - fantastic I am almost there.  I put the hammer down from this point on as it was only about 4 kms to go and I knew the last 2 are pretty easy.  Whizzing past the cafes (which some people think is the finish) I was soon passing through the tunnel and then it was a case of following the signs to the official Tour de France finish.  The last kilometre has a small decline for a few metres and then it is a left hand turn around the roundabout with 300 metres to go.  I caught some others at this point and went for a sprint finish.  Flying over the finish line I hit the lap counter - 1 hour 29 minutes!!!!  Well I know one thing for sure, it might not be the fastest time in the world but I achieved my target and it is a lot quicker than I will be doing on 3rd July.

So what have I learnt from this recce?

1.  I need to do some 2 hour intensive sessions so I can push harder on the climbs.
2.  The crux of the route is the last 8km of Galibier.
3.  New brake pads are essential for the day.
4.  I need to strengthen my hands for the descents.
5.  Getting food and drink right is essential.

What would I recommend for those of you doing it this year?

1. Complete a route such as Etape du Dales, Fred Whitton or similar to harden yourself up for route.
2. Buy a copy of the Cyclefilm DVD - The Trilogy Vol 3 - La Marmotte - it contains essential information.
3. Get out there and do the climbs if you can.
4. If you are booked at the Hotel Oberland, consider changing as it is not very good.

36 Days to Go: La Marmotte Recce part 3 - Walking the Galibier

In order to understand the final 8 kms of the beast that is the Galibier I attempted to walk the final 8kms.  The road is not as steep as it first looked as there are some switch backs to take some of the pain out, well at least until the last 2 kms that is.  Then it looks mental!  It was like looking at Hardknott and thinking how the hell did they build a road up there?  I couldn't walk the last 2km as there was serious avalance risk, and in the middle of the afternoon I didn't want to risk it.  So here are a couple of photos of the last sections.....

switch backs at 8km to go

the final 2 kms

37 Days to Go: La Marmotte Recce part 2 - Col dus Telegraph & Galibier

Wednesday was a much cooler day, which was fortunate because it was the day to attempt the beast that is Galibier.  In order to recce the route we first drove over the Glandon to see the descent.  It is scary!  The top section is steep and narrow, with tight bends and exposed drop offs.  There is a momunent at the top to a cyclist who was killed in La Marmotte in 2005.  I have done some pretty hairy descents in my time but this is pretty serious stuff.  My advice is stick to keep away from the far right and take it very very slow.  Good brakes and attention required.  Even after the first bit it looks quite steep and twisting so be prepared for a slow descent.

By this stage I was beginning to wonder what I had got myself into. I had expected the Glandon to be the "easier" part, now I was dreading what was to come.  Soon I was on the bike and heading up the Telegraph. Thankfully the gradients were much more forgiving at around 6 to 9%, which suits me as I can just chug up keeping a steady rythym.  The road has recently been patchily resealed and hadn't been swept so there was loose gravel for a lot of the climb. This didn't make the climb any easier, but at least that should be sorted on the 3rd July.  Once over the summit of the Telegraph it is a nice descent of about 5 kms into Valloire. 

After Valloire things change. Boy do things change.  The climb out of the village is tough going until the climb opens out to head up Galibier.  I was finding it really hard now as I had not mentally prepared for the rest of the climb.  The Galibier was shut so I knew I could only get part way up so I had  no idea what I was faced with.  In retropsect I don't think I had taken on enough food either.  This was all compounded by the road seeming to have endless sections that all looked the same. It is like having false summits when hillwalking, you keep thinking it would change around the corner but nope it just looked like the last corner.  I was struggling to get a descent speed and the gradient was only around 6 to 10%. Finally I got to Plan Lachat where the road was blocked. I was done in. I could have honestly thrown the bike in the ravine at this point.  An then when I was the road ramping up I felt absolutely beaten.  I had been passed by a snow plow earlier, my first thought was "Oh no they are going to open the road". 

I rested for 10 to 15 minutes, had some food and drink and then in my usual style wondered what all the fuss was about.  Honestly, do I need a sports physcologist?  Half the battle is in the mind and sometimes my demons appear to be winning.  After a rest I thought I could probably attempt the final 8 kms and it normally looks worse than it is.

38 Days to Go: La Marmotte Recce part 1 - Col du Glandon

We arrived in Bourg D'Oisans late on Sunday and after a terrible night's sleep at the Hotel Oberland (not  recommended), we moved to Allemont to find a nicer spot.  We happened to find the excellent Auberge La Douce Montange Hotel.  Once booked in , Monday was pretty much about catching up on sleep, setting up the bike and getting in some carbs.  However,  I discovered a loose crank on the bike so headed off to Bourg D'Oisans to get the bike sorted.  15 minutes and 11 euros later I was on my way.  As it was such a beautiful day I decided to "nip" up the Col D'Ornon to get the body and mind around alpine climbing.  It is a really nice warm up ride as the gradients are pretty gentle, and there is quite a bit of shade. Needless to say, this built up an appetite to partake in the pasta buffet at the hotel followed later by a 3 course set dinner.

Tuesday morning I woke to yet another warm summer's day, and with a bad asthmatic cough.  In my rush to pack I had forgotten my reliever inhaler, which I had not used for months.  I tried to ignore it and headed down for breakfast - the first lycra breakfast of the week.  The dining room was full of Dutch cyclists, particularly a large group who I found out later on were a group of firemen.  By 9:30 I was on the road.

The Glandon starts off pretty steep for a col.  Although officially the average gradient is 4.8%, with a max of 12%, certain sections of the climb actually reach 19%.  After gaining about 200 meters my breathing became very wheezy to the point I had to stop.  After 10 minutes of trying to get the breathing under control I set off again. Within about 2 minutes I was back to wheezing and coughing like a 50 a day smoker.  I had no choice but to stop.  This time I got off the bike and sat down to relax for 20 minutes.  Just as I was feeling better the Dutch firemen started to go past.  No one asked if I was okay so they must have either presumed I had stopped for a nature call, or had cracked on the climb.  I waited until the last guy went past and then got started again, this time making sure I took it easy.

It was hard work getting up to the village of Le Rivier D'Allemont, at about 1200 metres, as the gradient didn't seem to let up.  I stopped to refill my water bottle and could see a road dropping down into a gorge.  I didn't want to believe this was the route, but as I continued I knew it must be as I couldn't see where else the road could go.  Soon enough I lost 150 metres of height with gradients around 15 to 18%. 

The climb out of the gorge was tough.  I passed four "tourists" loaded up with panniers.  One of them was struggling so much she was cycling up the middle of the road, completely oblivious to vehicles and cyclists trying to get past.  Still it made me feel better that I was passing some people, and then I got overtaken by one of the Dutch guys.  I decided tried to tuck in behind him but couldn't keep up. Then around the corner I saw him getting into a van, with two of the other guys.  Guess I wasn't the only one finding it hard.

I could see a dam now and the gradient became more manageable as I could finally stay seated and find a rhythm.  Before  I knew it I was up over the dam and going past the Lac, where you get the first sight of the summit.  The road drops off gently and then it is like a ribbon stretching up a beautiful pass to the crossroads.  With the summit in sight it is like a giant carrot dangling and you get that burst of energy to put in the final charge for the top.  At this point I got chatting to a guy from London who had caught up with me.  As soon as he said he had ridden from the Col D'Ornon I guessed he was staying at the King of the Mountains, where I had stayed four years before. 

He resumed his own pace and then a few minutes later I made it to the crossroads, where you go left for the Glandon or straight on for Col de la Croix de Fer.  I turned left for the Glandon, got in a photo and then shot off for the last 2.5kms to the summit of the Croix de Fer.  The views from the Croix de Fer were outstanding.  I met up with the guy from London again who was with his friend Neil.  I realised that I had met Neil before when I had stayed at the King of the Mountains previously.  Talk about a small world!  They were also training for the Marmotte.  It was a relief to hear that they thought the Glandon was a tough climb too.