Predictably, after an amazing Saturday of sunshine and dead calm, Sunday began with gusting winds and rain. I’m not sure how many fair-weather cyclists jammed on the whole event because of this, but nearly 9000 registered and only 5700 or so started! Maybe they missed their alarms. Here’s the view from SAS #3.
The start was the Olympic Village in Albertville, home of the 1992 Winter Olympics, and they sparked up the flame just for us.
Being far up front compared to last year, I only waited 10 minutes or so after the first pen left to get myself rolling (it was an hour in 2011). Everything was a little different this year, starting with the leisurely ride out of town (last year’s was a mad sprint for 15km) and the 34kph or so paceline to the first climb (well over 40 last year). On the day’s first climb, hors categorie Madeleine, I latched on to the guy in the white below. Turns out his name is Chris and lives in the area. He certainly was a strong climber and didn’t mind me hanging on his wheel most of the way up (I’m a polite ‘wool eater’ – I asked first).
This first ascent felt magnificent and the legs were strong. Erik and John, in pens behind me, were having equally great climbs on that first one. This is further up.
Then, a little above the tree line, the red signs that either put some spring in your pedal stroke or make you feel like riding off a ledge, depending on the number before ‘km’! This one was pretty welcome after nearly 40km of climbing.
The descent down the other side was fast and a little wet, with at least one crash in front of me (saw a guy climbing out of a ditch, his mangled bike forming an unnatural heap in front of him). I reached the bottom, got some raisins and a banana, then tried to wring out my socks from the rain that had thankfully stopped. Shoes on, we headed towards Col #2, the terrible, terrible Glandon.
You’re right, that photo above doesn’t look too bad, and it wasn’t at this point, I guess, but the mojo was already leaving my legs and I knew the worst was to come. I started thinking about the inevitable passing of Erik, John, or both, but made the slow slog up the switchbacks below alone. The last 2 km of this climb are very steep and it’s pretty much like hitting a wall. What did Erik tell me Phil Liggett said the other day? “You round the corner and it feels like a hammer in the face”. I think that sums it up nicely.
This is just before the summit – the hammer is still smashing into me.
There’s another giant in this area; a little mountain pass you might have heard of: Col de la Croix de Fer. Mercifully, we didn’t need to ‘climb’ this one because we were basically there already at the top of Glandon. This is the road between the two, which does ascend, but very gently.
Pro shot intermission…
Then the inevitable inevitably happened and I heard the far-too jolly voice of Erik speaking Italian to me. More correctly, he was speaking English, but I was pretty messed up at this point and heard what I heard. Anyhow, he soon switched to English, but it didn’t get any better. Erik suggested waiting for John, for one thing. I politely told him he was insane and that I wasn’t going to get beaten any worse than I was already.
He accepted this line of reasoning, I think, but instead of flying off ahead (he is an awesome descender) we made the descent to the our next climb – Mollard – more or less together. Mollard was billed as short and not that steep, but I felt like the whole thing was over 10%. Erik and I summited together, him stopping for water, me selfishly taking off on the narrow, twisting, neck-wrenching descent to the bottom of our last climb, La Touissuire.
On the way up Mollard though, we passed this guy. It’s blurry, but he’s wearing #1. I’m not sure I would have liked the pressure of having that number on my jersey.
La Touissuire was, just like Alpe d’Huez last year, l’Enfer. My speed was down to ridiculously low numbers and the whole climb my knees were beyond wondering why I was punishing them so much. They just gave up and refused to cooperate. I just couldn’t make my legs work. The heart rate was low, but I wasn’t able to make my lower extremity understand what I needed out of it. I was being passed by many (but I did pass some) and I felt just horrible.
Somewhere along this Road of Constant Sorrow Erik had enough of the waiting (he kindly insists he wasn’t) and flew off to glory. I plugged on, thinking once or twice that I might not make it, but probably knowing I would. I stopped once for a minute to regroup and it was a little better afterwards. The oom pah pah band in the final village helped, as did the wonderful people lined along the roads, ‘allez-ing’ us all the way up.
Then, a few km from the finish, I heard a woman say a number – seven hundred something – then she said another one, just higher, right after. I looked at the guy next to me and asked if I’d heard correctly. He said, ‘oui, pas mal, eh?‘. This wonderful woman was standing on this bend in the road, counting off each rider’s placing and announcing it to them! I thought she was probably ‘not quite there’, especially since the number she was quoting was all wrong. I was sure my result would be worse than last year (around 2000) by the way I was feeling. Still, it gave me hope and I found some energy to get to the last km, which was far less steep, then, just like the Alpe last year, there was the long false flat that led to the finish line. I gunned it, crossing the line (hand in hand, I might add!) with a guy I’d sort of been riding with all day long – a Spaniard I think – and fell into the waiting arms of Anne and Erik.
Minutes later John crossed and we, the few, the proud, the idiotic, managed a smile.
And here’s the best part. I indeed did finish around that lady’s magic number – 712 out of 5688 starters in fact. This works out to about top 12%, which I never in my wildest dreams (and I have some pretty wild dreams..) thought I could have achieved. My goal was top 1500.
John and Erik finished within a minute of each other and were both in the top 400! I don’t really know what it all means, but I can’t help but think that we did pretty darn good. Someone needs to give us some perspective or it might go to our heads!
And it’s not over yet, I’m afraid to say. In less than 3 days I have to do the same thing all over again, except 50km more. Will someone talk some sense into me, please?
Note: Next year I’m planning on running an Etape du Tour Tour, which will include a few days riding in either the Alps or the Pyrenees, accommodation, and most importantly for this event, logistics! Stay tuned to the blog, my website, or simply contact me if you might be interested: firstname.lastname@example.org.