Warning: this might take some time. Get a cold drink, sit down, and enjoy reading and seeing me suffer….I know you want to.
Pre-Race Prep – ‘The Hurt’ Minus Two
After a long, Swiss-avoiding loop down from Basel (see previous post for the reason), Shoko and I arrived in Modane, the town of my departure two days later. For reasons unclear to me, the organizers decided to put the ‘welcome village’ (i.e. the place you must go to get your bib) several hundred meters above the town, in a ski station only accessible by a series of shuttle buses. I’m sure they had their reasons, but to me it seemed as if they wanted to flaunt their organizational skills by making the process as complex as possible. My French friend would say, ‘C’est Cartésien’, meaning ‘don’t ask – it’s the French way’.
Anyhow, the welcome village was in a pleasant setting, and they really were pretty efficient, so it’s not a complaint, just an observation. The village, other than being the place you get your number, free t-shirt and bum cream, is a showroom for the bicycle industry.
(by the way, the jersey and musettes above are from a new, small French company called Ravito. Their designs are great and their website is even in English!)
But we were there for business as well. This is me at one of 12 stalls in place to collect our numbers.
They want you to stick around and browse the stalls of course, so they had the day’s stage on the big screen, with multi-lingual commentary even. Here is poor Vino on a characteristic attack, one day before he broke his femur and ended up in a hospital in Paris, instead of on the podium, as he was hoping for. It is an unforgiving sport.
Two shuttle buses and a drive up and over our first col for the following day, and we were in Valloire, at the bottom of Galibier, and our base for the next two nights. Even though we were pretty exhausted from all the sitting on our butts all day, we took a spin a few km up Galibier to see what we could see. Not much, as it turns out, since it started raining as soon as we left. This is Shoko on the last climb we could manage before freewheeling it back to hotel for dinner.
And on this ride I had what in other circumstances might have been a creepy occurrence, but in the blogosphere that is my world now seems totally acceptable. A guy rode past me on the climb out of town and said, ‘Hi Gerry. I know you, but you don’t know me.’ Turns out he is a blog reader from the UK who, till today, remains anonymous, since I never did catch his name. Whoever you are, hope you had a good ride.
Pre-Race Prep – ‘The Hurt’ Minus One
You might remember that Shoko doesn’t drive. Let this be a warning to all you guys (and gals) who might be thinking about the Etape next year. Start driving lessons today! Because it’s an A to B race, you need to have some kind of wheels at the end. The organizers have figured out what seems to be a fairly decent system. They have shuttle buses that take you back to Modane the day before the race, but ONLY the day before. There is nothing on race day. That means you need to get your car to the end (Alpe d’Huez in our case), take the bus back to the start, and hope you have a way to get to your hotel (Karsten and Sarah in my case).
What this means, when you are high in the Alps, is that you need to spend a complete day traveling (again…) just to make sure you have a way to get off of the mountain on race day. Thinking I’d beat the rush, I left early. It was also a good chance at some reconnaissance, since the fastest way to Alpe d’Huez was up and over Galibier. Better yet, I could get some photos for the blog from the car and save my energy on race day!
Gendarme: Good morning. Where are you going?
Me: Alpe d’Huez
Gendarme: Mais non, there is a race happening today.
Me: Mais, c’est pas possible! I’m in it and it’s tomorrow!
Gendarme: No, it’s another one, named after a famous French skier. You must know him, non?
Gendarme: Well, you can go back down, or you can wait here for two hours.
So, I parked in the little parking area at the summit and took the opportunity to get some blog material. Voila!
Some views from the top, looking down towards Valloire, i.e. where we would be climbing up from.
And, as promised, they let me go on my way at 10:30. I got to Alpe d’Huez around lunch, ate, hopped on the shuttle and, one more giant mountain pass (Glandon) and 3 hours later, I was back near Modane, where Karsten and Sarah were waiting for me. I did get back to see the end of the stage and Karsten and I did get in a little ride before dinner, so it wasn’t a complete day shot…but nearly. You’ve been warned.
Race Day – Let The Hurt Begin!
More logistics, but thankfully this time not mine. Sarah drove Karsten and I down to about 5 km outside of Modane, where we took this pre-dawn sleepy-pic. I don’t know how Karsten can manage that toothy grin in every photo; I could barely open my eyes for it.
From here, Sarah went back up to Valloire, hoping to be able to pick up Shoko and come back down before the roads closed at 6:45. She had better luck with her gendarmes and, after asking them about closures, found out that she and Shoko could drive up and over Galibier ahead of the race (instead of going back against it – an extra 100 km or more probably) and get to the top of Alpe in plenty of time for the finish.
Of course Karsten and I weren’t worrying much about that. We had our own things to be concerned about, like ‘black or milk?’..
After our morning coffee we made our way to our prospective pens. Karsten, having had some races under his belt, pulled a bib number in the 3000’s, so he was sort of near the front. I was number 8124, so nearly in the next village over. You can’t get a sense of the number of riders, simply because you can’t see the end. But 10,000 is quite a few.
You might know that I was more than a little worried about starting at the back of nearly 10,000 riders, but my fears were laid to rest by the excellent organization of this event. Each pen was released at 5-min intervals AND there was a little break somewhere in the middle to really spread things out. By the time I crossed the start line, at 8:02 am, the first riders were already over an hour up the mountain. What this meant in practical terms was that I could gun it as soon as I passed under the start gate and there wasn’t the wall of slower riders that I had worried about.
But there were slower riders, I’m happy to report.
The first 15 km out of Modane was a very fast (60 kph or more) slight downhill that thankfully was flat enough that we had to pedal hard to keep up the speed. This meant a good warm-up before the Col du Télégraphe began.
To pass the time on this first section I decided to see what kind of progress I might be making. My reasoning was that, since I started in the 8000 pen, the more riders with lower numbers I passed, the better I was doing. Here are a couple from the 7000s before the climb even began.
Yes, I was feeling pretty cocky at this point – full of energy and making good progress on a tough climb. Télégraphe was not all that hard, to be honest, but I really thank my lucky stars for having climbed Ventoux 3 times this year. That adds a whole plate full of relativity into the conversation about ‘tough’ climbs. Nothing quite compared (at least till that point) to the Geant de Provence.
We crested the col and dipped down for 5 or 10 minutes into Valloire, our base till that morning. Here we are right at the town limits and, incidentally, the beginning of the climb up Galibier (if you don’t include Télégraphe).
After a few long switchbacks the vistas opened up and we were undoubtedly in the high mountains. Galibier is one of the highest passes in the Tour de France and will be the highest summit finish ever next week when they stop on top.
This is a little further up, and a sight I really hate – a full view of where I need to go. The summit is the low part of the U the two peaks make. I know it was a hard slog after this because I’ve got no more photo evidence till the top.
The decent down from Galibier is fast and fun. I didn’t reach the insane speeds that I managed on Ventoux, but the turns are more or less evenly spaced and not too tight, so you can get a good rhythm. As I have done all year, I made up a lot of time (against who, I’m not sure) on the way down. I think I can now say that I have some natural ability with this part of the game, or it could be that I’m just irresponsibly reckless and take far too many risks. Whatever it is, I like going with gravity much more than against it.
This is one of two professional photos I bought out of the 10 or so they had of me (and everyone else of course) at different points in the race.
When the decent of Galibier finished we turned right and kept going down, but now on the wide, fast nationale that would take us to what, for many, would be a place of soul searching – I speak of Alpe d’Huez dear reader – but first 40 km or so of more fast and fun downhills. These 1st two shots, I’d like you to know, were taken at over 50 kph. I just wanted you to know the risks I take for this blog.
This valley had a headwind and I was looking around for a group to hide behind, when suddenly a guy flew by me on my left. I lept after him and managed to catch his wheel after some considerable effort. I’ve learned this year that it’s important to be quick in identifying good riders when they fly by and latch on before its too late. Usually I’m hopelessly too slow, but this time I got him and hung on for dear life for the next 20 km. He was an awesome descender, with beautiful lines through the corners and a vision that was a hundred meters up the road instead of just in front of his bike (I mean he knew where he wanted to go long before he got there, if that makes any sense). It was so gratifying that at the feeding station we both stopped at I had to thank him. His response: sometimes it’s good to be fat!
There was a little bit of carnage on our way down this road as well. There were several tunnels that were, of course, dim, but one in particular was missing some lights and it was entirely pitch black for a stretch. You can imagine what can happen, and it did. When I hit that 50 meters or so we were already going pretty slow because everyone was yelling to slow down. Even so, there was some kind of crash ahead of me. I inched forward as quickly as I could then felt a ‘thud’. I know I ran over something, but can’t be sure what it was. If it was attached to a person, he or she didn’t say anything, so I just kept riding till I could see my nose in front of face again. This tunnel, we are sure, was the place where a ‘serious accident’ happened later in the race. It was so bad that the whole race was held up for 20 minutes.
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. If you take any single climb that we did today and throw a guy on it who has trained all year he might not have too much trouble getting up, but if you take that same guy and make him climb three of these climbs consecutively, finishing on the infamous 21 hairpins of Alpe d’Huez, it’s, how can I put it…evil, perhaps? Yes, evil is apt here, I’d say.
Galibier took a lot out of me, but I never once had doubts about getting to the top and I had enough power in my legs to keep up an okay average speed, at least for me. But as soon as I hit the first ramp on the Alpe (it doesn’t help that this ramp is nearly 11% mind you) I knew I was entering a whole new world.
I just did what I did on the previous two climbs and set myself a rhythm and tried not to think about how far I was from the top. The trouble is that on the Alpe you are constantly reminded of this fact by the numbered corners. Here’s #10, where I stopped (but only to take the shot..really!).
That was the one and only photo I took on the climb. Luckily there was a pro who had plenty of energy to fill the picture void. They say a picture tells a thousand words, but whoever they were never climbed Alpe d’Huez after Galibier and Télégraphe. This doesn’t quite express what was going on inside my soul, not to mention in my quads.
On the sides of the road all the way up there were riders laying down, sitting with their heads in their hands, walking their bikes, and even ending marriages according to Joseph, a guy who was staying at our B&B. I remembered this scene from Tim’s video or photos of last year’s Etape on the Tourmalet and was secretly pleased that this year’s was as tough.
No question, it was hard. The climb is relentlessly steep, or so it seemed to me. Even when I knew it was getting gentle (if you consider 7.5% gentle), I just didn’t have the juice to pick up the speed. On the other hand, I knew I would make it and I had enough experience in races this year to know that my legs weren’t just going to give up the ghost on me. But it was hard.
Till the flame rouge that is. I didn’t remember this, but the last bit of Alpe d’Huez is more or less flat, and is even a little downhill at one point going through the village. When I turned the last left hander and saw the finish line up the slight incline a couple hundred meters ahead, a burst of energy overtook me and I jumped on pedals like a mad man (or at least that’s how it felt), standing up and reefing it to the line. Here’s the back of me, courtesy of Sarah.
When I crossed the line I felt a rush of emotion well up and I was nearly…nearly brought to tears. I had no idea how I had done in the race really, but I felt like I had given it just about all I could and a great wave of satisfaction came over me. Then, later, I got the results.
Out of around 6400 finishers and maybe nearly 10,000 starters, my place was 2037.
In my age category I was 757 out of 2412.
Both of these placings are around top 30%, a far cry from the bottom 20% of my first race in February, so I am pretty pleased.
My racing comrade Karsten, by the way, ended 3 minutes faster than me and is equally happy with his results.
I can’t say I’m hooked on these Etapes, but I think I would like to do next year’s again, if only so I can have the satisfaction of starting nearer the front! 363 days of training left, blog buddies. Who’s joining me..?!