Etape du Tour 2011


This was born as a post, but I’ve decided to make it an ongoing page, with updates as they come in (latest entries are at bottom). After over 2 years in France I’ve finally got something physical to work at (other than getting up in the morning), so I thought it might be fun to track my progress here, for all to see and giggle at!

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November 17, 2010. This has been stated to death, but it’s true. Cycling is really like no other pro sport. Not only can fans get up close and personal with the biggest and best just by standing on the side of a steep road someplace, but they can actually suffer just like them! All the pros have are bikes and roads and artificial stimulants – well, I’ve got a bike, I live in France, and Red Bull is available at any gas station these days…I’m set!

It must be this special aspect of pro racing that has made the Etape du Tour such a phenomenon. Every year 10,000 riders from all over the planet descend on France to ride one specially selected stage of that year’s Tour – yes, the exact same stage. From the videos I’ve seen it is quite something. The closed roads are lined with spectators, they have support cars,  and even the motorcycle cameramen are there. Assuming you finish, it must be quite the feeling to know you’ve done what the Big Boys do.

So, I’ve registered my sagging gut and bum knee for this short, but stupidly vertical stage next July. This route is smack dab in the middle of the Alps and has three famous climbs, the last two begin absolutely legendary: the Col du TélégrapheCol du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez.

Departing from tradition, in an attempt to accommodate more riders, there will be two stages next year. Here’s the other one, in the Massif Central.

If you’d like to brush up on these monsters before tackling them, read Tour Climbs: The complete guide to every mountain stage on the Tour de France.

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November 18, 2010. It’s starting to hit me how huge this Etape thing really is now. I’ve spent the last day and a half trying to find a place to sleep the night before and haven’t found anything within a 35 km radius of Modane, the start town. There is no shortage of accommodation in this area either; it is a very popular destination, both in winter and summer. I guess 10,000 cyclists, plus an equal number of spouses, girl/boyfriends, moms, and kids, take up a few rooms.

Check this out for logistics hell: there’s a start and a finish to the race, right? The race starts (or at least the ‘cage’ closes) at 6:30 am, I think, so you need to stay in, or near the starting village of Modane. Fine, let’s assume you can. If you have a car you can simply drive it to Modane and start the race…but then you are in L’Alpe d’Huez at the end of the race, totally screwed both physically and emotionally, without a car! Not to worry, the organizers don’t have that handle for nothing! There is a bus that will take you from the end of the race to the start on the day before. So, you drive to Alpe d’Huez and just hop on the bus, stay over in Modane and ride back the following day. Easy. Not so quick…there are NO BIKES ALLOWED on the bus. Now you have to drive to Modane, drop off your bike at a guarded pen of some sort, drive to Alpe d’Huez (2 or 3 hours), hop on the bus and another 2 or 3 hours back to where you started. Phew.

Now, so far we are assuming that we are staying in Modane, which of course is impossible. As an interlude to this madness, here’s the route:


Now you take the hotel 35 km from Modane, since it’s the only one you can get, and after doing the above, get off the bus in Modane and ride to the hotel (you’ll probably want to stretch your legs anyway). So far so good, but the next morning you need to be in Modane by 6am or so. You have to ride those 35 km just to get to the START of the hardest ride you will probably ever do.

A lot of this trouble can be solved with a support team, i.e. someone who can drive and is willing to truck you around the Alps for two days. My wife is out of the question, and I hate to rely on people I can’t yell at when things go wrong, so I’m looking at my options at the moment, all the while watching that 35 km radius grown inevitably larger…

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November 19, 2010. After about 30 emails I finally got a positive response from a hotel in Valloire, 34 km from the start AND on the other side of the first climb of the day. Unless I want to just wait in the village and join the race when it comes through, (an idea that could become more attractive the closer to July we get..) I really need some wheels to get me to the start. I think riding that first mountain pass once in the day is enough. But, at least I’ve got a bed for the night, which is a big relief.

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November 21, 2010. Good news starting to trickle in. Karsten, an old friend from Canada, who happens to live in Paris and apparently sports a masochistic side like me, has signed up for the l’Etape. Better yet, he and his wife will be renting a car. Both our (well, mine I guess…) logistical problems are suddenly solved!

Over the past couple of days I’ve been thinking about what sort of challenge this will be and what I’ll need to do to get ready and even think about finishing before the elimination time runs by. I’ve identified a few ‘problem’ areas:

1. I’m fat.

2. My knee hasn’t been right in over 5 years.

3. I’m 42.

Taking these from easiest to hardest, #3 I can’t do much about except turn 43 early next year. I’m off to a specialist tomorrow to see about #2, so hopefully I can scratch that one off the list soon. #1 is the big one. OK, I’m not really fat (at least according to me), but I’ve had a fairly sedentary lifestyle since coming to France, when compared to before. I’ll need to cut down on that awesome Brittany butter and luscious Brie de Meaux, but that goes without saying, and I’m hoping that a new training schedule will take care of the rest. More on that when I actually figure it out.

November 22, 2010. I knew it existed, I suppose. It was there when I cleaned the smaller one right next to it and it is attached to my pedal, more or less. But it was neglected and un-loved, there’s no question. That is, until now.

As part of my training I’ve decided to start with something simple – just go faster. Just simply make sure that every peddle stroke is doing something that makes me go forward. Sounds simple, but it hurts!

That’s when I discovered the ‘big ring’. I only ever used it on slight downhills or when the wind was at my back, content to cruise in the low-mid 20s in the small ring. No longer. On the last two short training rides I’ve tried to keep rolling in the big ring on the flats, a feat that is rewarding and painful in equal measures, for now. If you’ve got any power in your legs it is pretty gratifying to switch rings and really feel that you are propelling yourself down the road. In a smaller gear it is too easy to just roll without much effort (one of the beauties of the bicycle, I might add), but once you are in the big one you need to work at it. I don’t know why, but it’s true. And if you do the work there is a sensation that you and your legs are a real engine (much like the feeling on climbs).

Anyway, it’s a start. More on the training as I figure it out. Up next: the results of my knee x-ray…

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November 27, 2010. I lost 3 or 4 kilograms yesterday and I hardly broke a sweat (except when I wrote the cheque).

This has been a long time coming and I guess I needed a good excuse to put me over the edge. 5 years ago, when I upgraded from my 80s style Maruishi Emperor to the Cannondale Cyclocross you see all over my blog, I felt pretty smug, having bought a reasonably light and fast bike that could also handle touring. Well that was then and this is now. Times have changed and so has my bike budget (whether it should or not is another question, of course), so when I decided to do the Etape du Tour next year I began to realize how inadequate my bike was for the job (or so I told myself to justify the purchase..). I looked around online and at my local bike shops and this is what I found.

It’s a Bianchi Infinito, a bike that is marketed as a racer that is comfortable (as opposed to the Cannondale Synapse and Specialized Roubaix, which are comfortable but can be raced). The geometry is slightly more forgiving that a super-aggressive race bike and the carbon frame (especially the seat stays) is designed to absorb a lot of road vibration, theoretically giving you a smoother ride. I can attest to this because I took it out on a regular route just now and, compared to my Cannondale, I felt like I was floating on top of the road. Really impressive and made me wonder why I’d been missing this all these years! Here are a couple more shots before I dirty it up.

The bike, being new and a bit more upscale than I’m used to riding, is light and fast. This is good because, with the irritating aging process, I’m going in the opposite direction! I need all the help I can get and I think I’ve made a good start.

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December 6, 2010. I’ve been spending the last week fiddling with my new bike (and hiding from the rain) and trying to find the right fit for me. If you spend a lot of time on the bike you’ll quickly realize that a proper position is the difference between bliss and eternal agony. This has sort of been the state I’ve been in for the past 5 years, with my too-small Canonndale and I want to nip it in the bud with the Bianchi.

While skipping around the Web I ran across Competitive Cyclist, which has all sorts of useful information, videos AND a nifty fit calculator. It’s quite detailed (a universe away from the usual cursory look up and down I get at the bike shop when asking about fit) and after inputting 8 different measurements they spit out certain crucial bike measurements you should be looking for when sizing.

But they don’t stop there and for this I’m grateful. These smart people realize that not everyone wants to ride like today’s pro racers; that some of us may want something a little more forgiving, but still fast. Therefore, I give you The Eddy Fit!

Eddy Merckx, if you need to be told, is the greatest bike racer of all time, riding in the sixties and seventies. This was a time when bikes looked like my old 10-speed and riding positions were a bit more relaxed, it seems. Compare the two photos below:

Eddy, on the left, looks a bit more stretched out than does Andy Schleck, on the right. The reason, according to Competitive Cyclist, is that the length of the top tube on Eddy’s bike is longer than Andy’s. His saddle is also sitting a bit further behind his bottom bracket, giving him a sleek and powerful, yet (presumably) more comfortable position. Andy, on the other hand, is sort of scrunched up and looks to be leaning forward. This is the Competitive Fit, which is aggressive and fast, but maybe not the best for long hours (for mortals, that is…) in the saddle.

These are their two bikes. They look like totally different machines, but the basics remain the same, e.g. you still sit on a saddle, hold handlebars, and pedal around a bottom bracket. There is one more aspect of the Eddy Fit that makes it more comfortable and that is the drop from the saddle to the handlebars (if you draw an imaginary horizontal line from the tip of the saddle across). The difference between 1975 and 2010 is striking and really shows the aggressiveness (in position at least) that today’s riders are going for. If I did more than a few hours in this position I think my neck would probably freeze permanently in a ‘look at those pretty clouds’ angle!

So, got my seat back, my stem raised and my woolen bike gear ready to go. The rain is leaving tonight, so I’ll be The Cannibal on the road tomorrow, in spirit if not in reality…

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December 17, 2010. I’ve had my x-ray and nothing unusual came back, so my helpful ‘sports specialist’ (who looks like death warmed over, incidentally) asked ME what I am going to do next. I said I’d appreciate his opinion, to which he replied (more or less, since he was speaking French), “well, you know that if you get an MRI and they find something wrong with the meniscus then you’ll need an operation.” I said that no, I didn’t actually know that, but inwardly I was thinking what a jerk this guy was. How is this helping me?

So, I went ahead and made an appointment to get an MRI next week and asked my cycling buddy John to recommend somebody else to take my troubles to after I get the results.

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January 6, 2011. I got the results back from my MRI and I ended up going back to my grumpy doctor, since he gave me a call to come and talk about the results. I’m sort of glad I gave him another chance since he was nicer this time and even attempted to help me by slowing down his explanations of everything.

It turns out I have a little water on the knee, which he didn’t think was serious. But I also might have the beginnings of osteoarthritis, which didn’t sound good at all. “Luckily” it’s very common among elite athletes (and obese people…no comment on which group I belong to) and it is not necessarily degenerative.

He said he could give me a treatment of Viscosupplementation, which if you didn’t know (doesn’t everyone..?), is a series of injections into the knee of hyaluronic acid, something that your body has already, but mine might not have enough of. The theory is that it could help to coat (or make it more effective) the cartilage, acting as a buffer between the bones that are probably rubbing and giving me my pain. It’s certainly not that simple, and the whole treatment is pretty new and slightly controversial. Not cheap either, but I finally got my French national health care, so I’m going to make it work for me!

So, that’s where me and my knee are at, if you are at all interested. I just got a cycling magazine that has all the amateur races in France this year, so next post might be my calendar of epreuves…stay tuned.

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January 10, 2011. It just hit me that it’s now 2011 and, according to my training schedule, I have to start training!!

The table below is something I grabbed from the internet. I think it was a site on l’Etape and the training program sounded reasonable, so I stole it. The classic golden rule in preparing for races seems to be simply riding lots and lots of kilometers. Wherever I got the below from, 3000 km seemed to be the magic number for a race like l’Etape. So, here you go. I hope my math is right. Update: I’ve since learned that those numbers are going to get me nowhere, so I’m now doing a considerable amount more. Need some major mileage to get ready for this thing.

Average km        # of Rides      Total km (goal)     Total km (actual)

Jan – 30                         10                        300                    507

Feb – 40                         10                        400                    868

Mar – 50                         10                       500                     833

Apr – 60                          10                       600                    1238

May – 65                          10                       650                    1147

Jun – 70                           10                      700                     1406

                    3150 km                 5999 km

Like I said in an early post, I’m not really fat, but I had a little shock over the holidays in Paris. Karsten and Sarah have scales, you see. I’m 77 kg, which is about 7 kg more than I was when I lived in Japan and maybe 5 more than in Singapore, when I was dragon boating. And no, those extra 7 kg are NOT the good kind.

So I’ve got a mission for the first 3 months of the year. These will be weight loss months. Not going out too hard or for too long, but I need to get on the bike frequently and consistently.

April / May I need to up the average distances, plus put in some high intensity training, as well as hills. Lots of hills. Also, a couple times a month maybe I should try and do 160 km or so. Cyclosportive races should do the trick.

June has to be longer, harder, faster, with long climbs. I’m lucky I live where I do because we’ve got mountains just north of us and Mt. Ventoux if I really want to go up for a long time.

The good news is my knee felt pretty good today after the ride. The bad news is it’s already the 10th and I’ve only got 50km of 300km done…

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January 13, 2011. I’m not sure how it happened, but 4 days after starting treatment on my knee I find myself signed up for 2 cycling races and about to click ‘buy’ on a 3rd in Hamburg, Germany.

There is a whole host of amateur bike races in France, as you might imagine. The latest edition of the magazine Top Vélo has a pull-out section with 141 épreuves, all detailed with distance, pain ratings and elevation gain (the last two are inevitably related).

The race below is the first race in the country this year, and happens to be 30 min by train from where I live. Hard to pass up, even if I have no hope of getting into shape by then. If there are any others out there in the neighborhood looking for a little exercise on Feb 5th, here’s the website to get yourself signed up.

January 13, 2011. If you want to race in France, even as an old, overweight amateur, you need to either be licensed or have a Certificat Médical. This is one of the many standard forms that you are obliged to write/fill out/get signed to get things done in France in just about all parts of your life.

I actually had a moment of fear when I went to my doctor’s office today to ask him to sign it because this is the same doctor I have been going to, complaining about my knee. And, obviously, the first thing he said was, “but you have trouble with your knee!” I wasn’t prepared for that somehow, but I told him that the treatment I was getting from the sports doctor was working wonders. He then said, “This doesn’t just say ‘cycling’; it says ‘competition‘. Have you ever done any?”

“Yeah, a few triathlons in the past.”

“But not now?”

“Er..I’m planning to next month..”

“Competition is not like riding around”

“I know. I’ll be careful”

“It’s hard to be careful. You’ll want to go out hard when everyone else is”

“You’re probably right”

And then he signed the certificate. I think he wanted to make me sweat a little. I guess even doctors need to get their kicks. He even called me jeune homme when I left, so I can’t be upset with him.

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January 21, 2011. Knee update. My ‘infiltration’ treatment is done and I’ve got a plan. But first, I’d like to talk about one of life’s little vicious cycles. With knee injuries or maladies the natural thing to do is compensate by using the other knee more, right? If it hurts to walk on the left then lean on the right. It’s not rocket science. But it is science and it is, to a point, wrong.

So, in my case for example, I nearly always use the right leg to lift myself up a step (if there’s one) and I probably unconsciously make it work more when I’m cycling. All this adds up and results (again, in my case) in one or more muscles on the inflicted leg becoming smaller. The doctor told me that part of my left quad (the vastus medialus) is smaller now. So what, you might ask. Well, here’s the thing. If you have weak quad muscles then you’re more susceptible to injury to the knee, since these muscles support the knee and take a great part of the load from use, if they are strong. If they are weak, then there is no shock absorber and the knee takes the pain. So, by trying to lay of the bad knee you actually make it worse.

It’s a Catch 22. Your knee hurts but you need to exercise it! But that’s what drugs are for, I guess. With this new juice in my knee I don’t feel the pain as much, so I’m going to try and build up that weak muscle (along with the rest) and keep them strong. It’s interesting that the pain has gotten worse in France, since I’ve been unusually sedentary since moving here. It all makes sense and is an eye opener. Gotta keep moving!

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January 21, 2011. There’s a lot I didn’t really think through when I decided to start racing this year. That is, everything.

When one comes up with brilliant ideas like this, sometimes one doesn’t do any research beforehand. Well, that’s the case with this ‘one’ anyway. So apart from the facts I’ve mentioned many times before (old, fat, etc.), there’s the simple fact that technology is important for success.

Therefore, in my ongoing search for ways to make me faster, I bought new pedals.

And new shoes to fit into them.

Why? Because I found out I had mountain bike pedals on my new bike (taken from my old touring bike) and that just won’t do. In France, it’s OK to lose, but you have to look good doing it. I did shave off a few hundred grams in the process (as well as a few hundred from my bank account…), and as the woman at the bike shop helpfully told me today, “you need all the advantages you can get”.

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January 23, 2011. I’m officially able to punish my knee now, so today I went out for some chilly (5˚) hilly training. The first race of my life is in less than two weeks now and, even though it’s not really tough compared to most, is in the Cévennes mountains and has 1000 meters of elevation gain. Result: need to climb.

Cycling friend John recommended two hills near his house in the Vaunage for training, so thought I’d give them a try. Here’s the bottom of the first, which starts from the village of Clarensac.

Not the Alps, as you can see. I think the climb was only 120 meters or so, but a good solid 4 or 5 percent the whole way. I’m not afraid to admit, I huffed and I puffed.

And, conveniently located north of the next village over, here is the next climb.

This one was a lot harder, due to 2 or 3 more degrees of incline. About the same gain in elevation, which makes sense since it’s the same hill. I suffered so much going up, I rode back down and did it again.

And for all this effort I still only got 700 meters of vertical climbing in. If my knee is still cooperating next week, I’ll try for more.

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January 27, 2011. Today I went shopping for more essential racing gear.

Correct, safety pins.

What I had originally thought was a weird esoteric joke by Karsten (he asked me if I had them yet), turns out to be a serious piece of intel on equipment that, for some reason, riders in France need to supply themselves. And it’s no joke, I read a blog recently about a Canadian who did a race in the Alps last year, only to have to run around in a panic before the start, trying to figure out a way to attach his race number to his jersey. Fortunately for him he found a generous soul with a stapler. So there’s more than one way to get those things on.

Update: Been up and down the little mountain behind our apartment more times than I can count (if I use all my fingers and thumbs to count, that is..) lately, so tomorrow I plan a long, flat(ish) ride to build up some badly-needed cardio and then a reconn ride to the Cévennes on the weekend. I want to see what sort of madness I’m getting myself into.

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January 29, 2011. Armstrong, in the early days of his TdF dominance, came to Europe in the spring to ride the climbs he would have to do a few months later in the race itself. It apparently put him at a great advantage over his rivals, which leads to the question, why the heck didn’t everybody do this? It seems to most logical thing, i.e. know what you’re getting yourself into.

Therefore, needing all the help I can get, I finished up work early yesterday and hopped on the train to Alès, start/finish point to the race next week. Here’s the flat, fast N109 outside town, where we’ll spend the first 15 km or so.

I’m guessing this will be a very fast section and that there’ll be a few mini pelotons created to separate the contenders from the rest of us. We start in age groups (mine is 40 to 49), so my first goal will be to not get overtaken by the 50-59s, who start 5 minutes after us.

Shortly after the town of La Grande Combe we turn left at this ominous sign.

Col is mountain pass in French. This is the first of two cols in the race and by far the most difficult. It is 8 km of screaming hamstrings, or at least that’s what is was for me. It was also a wake-up call for me to get some cardio back – I could hardly breathe when I reached the top. Annoyingly, not far behind me were two guys riding up CHATTING! I can’t lie, that made me worry a little. This is the top, where my ego might still be.

If I’ve learned anything from watching cycling for the past decade or so, this is the first part of the race where groups of riders ‘explode’, as commentators like to say. Apparently, it’s not that difficult to ride on the flats at high speed, riding in the slipstream of riders in front of you. But, when you hit a climb like this it is not long before the bunch is stretched out all over the mountain. It’s an impressive thing to watch on TV, so I’m masochistically looking forward to actually being involved in one of these ‘explosions’. Just hope I’m on the right end of it…

From the top the road winds along the ridge of the mountain for a few km with great views of the Cévennes.

Then there’s a white knuckle descent down the other side and a gentle ride up a pretty river valley to the beginning of the next climb.

This next col is not much lower than the last one, but the grade is more human. In fact the last few km are nearly flat. The beginning though (before this sign) is steep and I’m certain this will be a point where the boys (please don’t let it be me, please don’t let it be me, please don’t….) are separated from the men.

The top.

From here it’s mostly downhill, with one small exception, back to Alès.

Things I learned yesterday:

  1. Cramping is a real possibility. I’m stocking up on bananas this weekend.
  2. I can finish the race.
  3. Gravity sucks. I’ve got more weight to lose.

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January 31, 2011. I’ve only got 5 more days till the race and, since I’ve been scrutinizing the statistics of riders from past races, I wanted to go out today and push a bit more than usual just to see if I am totally in over my head with this racing thing. Here are the stats from today:

Distance – 53 km

Elevation Gain – 444 m

Average Speed – 28.3 kph

The average speed looks reasonable and I think I’d be happy to have something similar this Saturday. Just one thing though, the distance of the race is 20 km more and, more crucially maybe, the vertical distance is probably more than double what I did today. I’m hoping that gravity works both ways and will favor my extra few kg on the descents!

Oh, and while I’m on statistics, my mileage goal for January has been good and truly trashed. I originally made it 300 km, not realizing that throwing in early-season races would mean that I’m not only training for the Etape, but also for these races. I simply needed the extra km. I finished up with 507 km for the month, which I can live with. My knee hasn’t decided yet…

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I went shopping this afternoon…again. My local Décathlon had no EPO, so I had to settle for the stuff below to enhance my performance. From right to left I bought:

1. Sports drink. I learned the hard way in Singapore that these things are crucial for rehydration after exertion, and not bad to have in your bidons either.

2. Protein powder. I was a hard sell on this one, but I took it for several months when training for a big dragon boat race a few years ago and I think it aided in muscle recovery after workouts. Anyway, I live with a vegetarian, so all the extra protein I can get shouldn’t hurt me.

3. Energy cake. Never tried it (nor heard of it before this week), but probably a good addition to my toast and peanut butter on race morning.

February 6, 2011. I guess I knew it would be like this, but all the training I’d been putting in over the last month may have fooled me into a false sense of greatness. Well, I’m humbled now. But let’s start at the beginning.

Shoko and I took the train up to Alès, start/finish point for the race, and I got my dossard. On the flip side of the bib is a chip that records your time, whether you want to see it or not.

This is me looking all confident.

A couple shots of people preparing their gear.

And the gear itself.

It was a showcase of seriously nice bikes and I can only say I’m relieved I bought a decent machine this year. As it was, I received a few approving glances from my fellow riders. I cringe to think of the scorn that could have been directed toward me if I was trying to race with my old cyclocross.

Then, all too soon, we were herded into our gates by group – a fitting beginning, since I did feel pretty ‘slaughtered’ when it was all over.

Then we were corralled out of our gates up to the start line, where each group was let go at 5 minute intervals. While we waited the announcer introduced a few distinguished figures from the French cycling world, including Raymond Poulidor, probably the best-loved rider in French history. This was something special and made the event feel like it really was something. On the other hand, there was a pro race just after ours so maybe they don’t roll out ‘Poupou’ for every cyclosportive.

Race Recap

I’d love to have photos to show you, but I barely had time to take a few sips of water and bites of my energy cake. Words will have to do.

The Start – The race began with a ‘false start’ – basically a group ride through the town – and as soon as we hit the outskirts of Alès the real race started. First, I have to say that today was a series of learning experiences – things you just don’t get from reading it in a book (or on a blog, I suppose…) – and my first came early. When the bunch hit the open road there was instant action. Riders were flying ahead of me to position themselves in the middle/front of the peleton and the speed was tremendous. We got up to 45 kph or more ON THE FLAT and it was all I could do to stay with the group. I thought I was going to be dropped even before the first climb, but thankfully they didn’t keep up this pace and I tucked in near the back and held my own till the climb started, about 15 km from town.

First Climb – From the wide, fast N106 our massive group turned off onto a tiny departementale that stretched us out pretty quickly. The climb started about a km up the road and, because I was at the very back of the bunch, I passed a few riders right off. Up ahead though, the main groups were long gone and I never saw them again. The climb was 8km long and not terribly steep, but consistently tough. I settled into my own rhythm and possibly passed a few more stragglers on my way up, BUT then about a km before the col I was overtaken by several small bunches from the group that started 5 minutes after us – yes, the 50-59 age group. So, my next little bit of learning happened on this climb, namely I need to do something about my climbing abilities. The first thing I have to do is lose a lot more weight, no question. I simply look like a different creature from the guys who were by now far, far ahead of me. Skinny arms – nope. Flat gut – ha! One chin – I wish. So, that’s No. 1. I just have too much weight to pull myself up mountains fast.

The Descent – At the top I had something to drink and shoved a muffin into my mouth, only to realize I didn’t have enough saliva to swallow it! So, mouth full of gateau, I started my descent. And that’s when I learned something again – you can really go very, very fast down mountains. I was cruising down at what I thought was a good speed when I was passed by a small group going probably 10 kph faster than me. I chased them down and stuck with them as long as I could, quickly learning that corners can be taken at incredible speeds without wiping out. My max speed was 59 kph, but this was on the very winding roads typical to the Cévennes. I’m afraid to think of what sort of speeds we can reach on l’Etape in the Alps this July.

2nd Climb – The next col was lower, but longer than the first – a 10 km climb. I passed a few more riders, was passed by many more senior citizens, and found a group or two I could hang onto for a while. Here was my next little piece of enlightenment. It is much easier to ride in a group than as an individual. Okay, everybody who watches cycling on Eurosport knows this little tidbit, but like many things in life, you might not really know it until you face it. I spent the vast majority of this race alone, searching for a couple of guys I ride with. I would find a group, but they would be too fast and I’d fall off the back, or I’d get another one and I felt I could go faster, so would ride off the front. Until near the end it was this unsatisfying search for a peleton I could call my own.

The Long and Winding Road to the Finish – from the bottom of the 2nd climb, the route followed a river valley down-ish for a while. It was here that I had a good group that carried me along at breakneck speeds…till the road went up. Here I re-learned that I have to do something about my weight/power. In this case I just didn’t have the juice in my legs to keep up. It wasn’t a cardio thing, but there was nothing in my legs to lift me up hills (at race speed anyway). I’m sure I lost lots of time because of this, so more training is in order, for sure. There was one particularly evil hill that was purposely put right near the end of the race to make you suffer. This is where I met two other guys who were hurting as badly as me, so we grouped together and made it up as a bunch. From the top we stayed together for the last 12 or 13 km, taking turns at the front, just like you see on TV. This was a lot of fun and, since I don’t belong to any club yet, was the first time I’d had the chance to work as a team like that. A sort of camaraderie is formed without words and working as a unit (except the one lazy git at the back, I might add..) helps you move along at a much greater speed. Exhilarating.

And then it was back into town and the long sprint to the finish. This is me and the other hard worker. The ‘git’ had been dropped a while back.

Post-race photo. I look like I’m saying something, but I was still trying to catch my breath 3 minutes after the finish.

And finally, a nice contrast photo to the pre-race me at the beginning of this story. Not so confident now, are we Mr. Patterson..?

You want stats? My average speed was 27.88 kph and I placed 278 out of 367 riders. More importantly, I finished 105 out of 127 guys in my age category. Well, you’ve got to start somewhere, I suppose. It’d be no fun if it was on top!

OK, enough blogging, I’ve got another race in 3 weeks. Need to start counting calories…

February 10, 2011. I’ve been struggling my way through an excellent book (in French) on cycling recently and have started fine tuning my training a little. Today I went out for a ride to work on my endurance base, or at least that’s my understanding of what the book is telling me. Cycling is an endurance sport, first and foremost, so it is natural I suppose to have to work on this part first as well, building from a solid base. It’s also the way to lose weight, so I’m all over it!

It seems I’m not totally geared up yet for all this 21st century training yet, since I don’t have a heart monitor. I needed to keep my heart rate at around 70% of my max, so there I was, fingers on throat every 15 minutes or so, checking to make sure I didn’t go over. There must be an easier way…

The ride was 3 hours long, which is the minimum time recommended (gulp) and I had a wonderful day for it. Here are some pictures from the road.

Empty Winter Road
Roadside Olive Tree

February 13, 2011. It feels like I’ve been signing up for races constantly since the beginning of the year, so imagine my surprise to realize I still have at least two more to go to get in one a month over the season.

In order to get things clearer, here are the cyclosportives I’m enrolled in so far.

Feb 26 – Les Boucles du Sud-Ardèche

Old friend Karsten is coming down from Paris for this one, which is about 100 km north of here, in the southern area of the Ardèche. Part of the route takes in the dramatics Gorges d’Ardèche, which I’ve got some photos of on my website.

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Mar 27 – Corima – Drôme Provençale

Again Karsten comes south and we’ll meet up in Montélimar for 104 km of ups and downs in the beautiful Drôme.

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Apr – Gran Fondo Colnago.

I was vacillating between this one and another in the ‘Cathar Country’ of western Languedoc.  I probably should have chosen the other one so I could get to know my region better, but the Gran Fondo weaves in and out of the beautiful Golf of St. Tropez. Now I just have to find a place to stay that doesn’t require me taking out a bank loan!

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May 21 – La Ventoux

I’m really looking forward to this one. Mt. Ventoux is a mythic climb and I’ve been dreaming (and dreading) of doing it since I got to France. The route is 105 km long, with 2300 meters of vertical ascent. I can almost feel my legs cramping up right now!

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June – Too many to choose from!

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July 11 – l’Etape du Tour

And of course the reason I’m putting myself through all this pain this year – l’Etape du Tour. It should need no introduction, if you read this blog, but click here for a primer, if you have no idea what I’m talking about.

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Aug 21 – Vattenfall Cyclassics

Finally I get to go north to meet Karsten for a race. Way north – Hamburg, Germany, in fact. The Vattenfall Cyclassics is the largest bike race in Europe, so their website says. The race we’ll be doing is 100 km long and mostly flat. It is held around the same time as the pro Classic race of the same name, only theirs is 2.5 times longer…

February 21, 2011. I’ve been trying out all sorts of new stuff recently to make me go faster and I ran across an amazing fact I had no idea of before: good cyclists don’t just push down on their pedals; they also pull on them!

Well, sort of. I didn’t really understand the concept the first few rides I tried it and I ended up pulling back (from the green shoe to the red one in the diagram below) with my heel, if you follow. The result was that I was not doing anything good to my knee and it just felt all wrong. Then the other day I went out with John for a spin and he said that he’d heard the technique was like wiping mud off the bottom of your shoe (I discovered later that it was Greg Lemond who first came up with this simple, descriptive way to explain it) and since then it has gotten a lot easier.

Still though, it’s a weird sensation after all these years of riding. At first I was wobbling all over the place trying to get the technique down, then I would just simply forget to do it! I’m convinced that this will give me an edge (over who I don’t know, since everybody else is probably already doing it…) once I master it because when I’m concentrating the speed goes up immediately and pedaling becomes a bit easier.

March 1, 2011. I present to you the understatement of my 2011 so far: last weekend’s race didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

The Specialized-Boucles du Sud Ardèche, the 2nd race of my life, was full of promise. The weather was great, I was fully carbo loaded, and I think I was better prepared than last race (I did 800 training km in February).

As you know, Karsten, a friend from Paris, hopped on the TGV to come down for the race. We rented a car, got up stupidly early, and drove through the dark garrigue, north to Ruoms, just across the ‘border’ in the Rhône Alps region. Here are the ‘before’ photos.

The Good – So it all started perfectly. Got to Ruoms in plenty of time and picked up our numbers, free t-shirts and bottles of wine. We even had time to take a good warm-up spin before the race began. This race had two distances: 73km and 100km. We were signed up for the shorter version and our group began 15 minutes after the longer race. Unlike the race I did 3 weeks ago, the start pace was not as violent and I could pretty easily stay with the front group on the flat. I think there were two or three other groups that splintered off behind. Karsten, enjoying the scenery, was in one of those.

At the first climb (3.5 km @ 3.3%) both of our groups splintered again and I was far from keeping up with the maniacs in the front. Not too bad though and it was short and not very steep. At around 30 km we hit the 2nd climb (7 km @ 4.6%) and this one really strung out the crowd. Even by the time I hit the bottom of it I was in a group of only 3 or 4 guys , having spent about 10 km trying to find someone (bicycle racing is far lonelier than I had imagined!) and finally getting a group that I could work with. Well, lost them again right off the bat when the road went up. I’m totally convinced now that losing more weight is an urgent matter if I want to improve much more.  I can handle myself reasonably well on the flats and descents, but as soon as the road turns upwards, gravity starts tugging at my Lycra. But I must say that after a couple km of climbing I was getting into a groove and started passing people. I was feeling good. That is until I heard beside me, ‘hey dude’ (or some similar moniker), and there was Karsten prancing up the mountain like he had just been injected with EPO. Either he was being kind or I got a 2nd wind, but we more or less finished that climb together. Well OK, I could still see him in the distance…

Things were looking pretty decent at this point. I checked my average speed somewhere after the top of the climb and we were over 30 kph. Not too shabby, I was thinking.

The Bad – Then things went all wrong. We had regrouped after the climb and found ourselves with a group of about 4 or 5 and Karsten stopped at the food station to fill up. I decided to keep going, having my pockets filled with fruit cake and still plenty of water left in the bidon. I flew along the top of this mountain with my group for a few km till I noticed a sign that said ‘100 km’. I asked the guy next to me which distance he was doing and he said ‘100’. I started to panic. I told him I was doing the 73 km and he said reassuringly, ‘ah, c’est bon, c’est bon’. Well, you must know by now that it wasn’t ‘bon’ at all, and a few minutes later that same guy came rolling up to me saying, ‘I made a mistake. You missed the 73’. I started swearing in both French and English, while he began encouraging me to stay with them and do the 100 (I was pulling hard for the group while ‘c’est bon, c’est bon’ was spending most of his time in the back).

Nope, I pulled over and turned around, pissed at myself for missing what I thought must have been an obvious sign. Then, who do I see coming down the road towards me but Karsten! We slow down, talk about what route we were on (he didn’t see any sign at the food station), and decide that maybe we really are on the 73 after all. Turn back, gun it down the road again, where we passed a couple of guys. They confirmed that indeed we were on the 100 km route. By now any hopes of getting a time I could live with was shot and I didn’t feel like turning back. We kept going, resigned to just do well in the 100, even though it wouldn’t be official.

The Ugly – once we made the decision to continue we made good time and passed quite a few riders, feeling pretty good about ourselves since anyone we passed had started 15 minutes before us. Added to that, the longer route cut through the beautiful Ardèche Gorge and the scenery was stunning.

This went on for 20 km or so I think and then, on a wickedly fast left-hand turn, I heard and awful scraping/skidding sound behind me. Karsten had hit a rough spot on the turn, locked up the rear wheel, and road-burned into the gravel shoulder. The first thought that came to my mind was ‘shit, I knew I should have memorized the ambulance number for France’. My 2nd thought was, ‘my, Karsten looks like he’s in a world of pain’. My 3rd thought was ‘I wonder if he’d mind me taking a few photos for my blog’…but as you’ll see I didn’t act on that last thought till a bit later.

But he was in a bunch of pain and rightly so. We took that turn fast, so he obviously didn’t just fall and stop. Here is the first of several shots of Karsten’s butt.

After a while, once we got our wits together, Karsten took a look at his rim (bent) and tire (blown) and thought he might be able to ride if he changed the tube, keeping the back brakes loosened.

This is the scene of the crime. It doesn’t look steep, and it wasn’t, but it was a very, very fast corner.

Many minutes later Karsten gingerly got back on his bike and we rode for another 20 km or so before being swept up by the voiture balai, or the broom wagon. They stopped off at a fire hall to pick up a wrecked bike from another crash victim and at the same time found a guy to look at Karsten’s road rash. If blood (or naked bums) make you queasy, skip ahead.

The two guys operating the broom wagon were pretty jovial and made jokes about amputating his leg (‘without anesthesia. Canadians are tough’) for a while. Karsten, meanwhile, was suffering (and bleeding) on their backseat. We had a long ride with them because, being the broom wagon, they need to finish the race last. At one point on the final climb of the day (2 km @ 7.8%…nearly glad we didn’t need to do this one!) they stopped the van and told me to take a photo of the view. So I did.

After we finished we shook everyone’s hand, promising to come back next year to finish what we started, then we took our free lunch tickets and hobbled to the town hall for a decent buffet. Then to the pharmacy for bandages. Then back to the town hall, where I took one more photo – The trophies we didn’t earn and the bike we didn’t win.

Next race – March 27. Goal: finish.

March 2, 2011. Today I went out for a short ride behind Nîmes and ran into a fellow cyclist. This is interesting timing since someone very recently asked if cyclists talk to each other on the road in France. Until now I’d have said ‘non’.

Anyway, the gars in question was an older man (62 he said) and we sparked up a conversation about our bikes. He feigned interest in mine before taking the bait of my questions regarding his. I found out that he bought the frame and constructed the rest himself, part by part. EVERYTHING was carbon, including the crankarm, the pedals, the wheels – even the brake levers!

A touch of carbon envy took hold of me and we discussed my next upgrade. I’d been told at the bike shop that my next buy should be new wheels, since they would add a lot of performance and reduce weight a bit as well. This guy figured that I definitely needed to change my crankarms first (and pedals), as well as getting ceramic chainrings while I was at it. I lifted up his bike with about 1 and half fingers. I saw his point.

He then asked me if I was climbing the hill back towards Nîmes and I naively told the truth, so off we went up the mountain. His riding style was awesome (I can attest to this because I spent most of my time behind him…). He turned a very big gear and spent most of his time out of the saddle. However, unlike me in that position, his bike was totally silent. His body rocked rhythmically back and forth a bit, but his bike didn’t move an inch. A joy to behold, I can tell you. And yes, humbling.

It was all I could do to keep up with him. We climbed these 3 km at an average 24 kph, about 4 kph faster than I usually do it. I am more and more realizing that I’ve got some way to go before I get anywhere near competitive. This is simply a sport for another type of human (he was barely heavier than his bike, I’d guess!).

So, March is more base training. I’ll go hard once a week maybe, but will concentrate on long, slow rides that MUST result in another kg or two before the next race. Right…?

March 23, 2011. Here’s my next race. I just received an email that told me that sign-ups were closed for the Corima Drôme Provençale, since they have reached their 2000 rider limit already. This must be an indication of the arrival of spring because there were nowhere near those numbers at the last two races. Or it could be an indication of how much French racers like free stuff – everyone gets a jersey!

Question: do the increased numbers mean I have a better chance of moving up in the rankings, or are there just more people who will beat me this time…? To be answered Sunday.

There are 3 distances, but the shortest one looks like a fun ride – the main 2 are 104 km and 138 km. Karsten (yes, his gnarly scrape has healed well..) and I will be riding the shorter route – still 30 km longer than my two races in February. Here’s the profile:

There are 1410 meters of climbing, which is fairly substantial, but not impossible, I’m happy to report. Maybe I shouldn’t speak too soon..

And the best part of this race? Signs! You might remember the fiasco of our race last month. All the badness started with missing a poorly-signposted route split. The organizers of this race assure us that there will be plenty of these things before we go our separate ways, but luckily this time, if I do miss the turnoff it looks like I’ll still be on the right route.

My goal for this race? Finish on my bike; not in the back of the broom wagon.

March 28, 2011. Yep, no crashes, no road rashes, no broom wagon this time. Feels good to make it to the finish before the lunch hall closes! Sorry to ruin the ending, but if you care to know how I got there, read on.

Stats

Average Speed: 30.54 kph

Category Placing (40-49 yrs): 167 out of 263, or bottom 40% (my first race was bottom 20%….slowly, slowly..)

Firstly, this race was in a whole other category, at least compared with the other two I did in February. There were over 2000 riders in 3 different race distances. This is start, looking towards the front…

…and the back.

I’m learning new things all the time in my new hobby. For one, every race seems to have different ways to herd riders into their pens and get them on their way. The first one I did had corrals for each and every age group and we all started at different times, with the youngest (and presumably the fastest) leaving first. The 2nd had no age groups (except on paper), but the two different distances started separately. This one had a mass start, with the 2 main distance groups all beginning together.

Other than trivial knowledge I learned something valuable here, I think. When you are late to start for a race like this, even if in theory your time should not be affected (it is timed electronically), you have to pass a lot of slower riders to find a bunch that you can ride with at your own speed. This means time alone on the road searching for Mr. Good Peleton, which must slow you down, since riding in a group is easier and faster in general. I think this makes sense. If anyone would like to put me in my place, I’m all ears. Anyway, next time I’m heading for the front of the line, just in case.

To show how serious this race was, they even had a wheel car. Don’t ask me how this system works, but in pro races this car (usually supplied by Mavic) hands out wheels to riders who need them, if their team cars are up the road already. How they get their wheels back at the end of the race is a question I’ll need answering.

And then we were off! Well, more like on-and-off. There were so many riders that it took a few minutes to get just to the start line. We were so far away I didn’t even hear the gun. If you’ve read my accounts from the two earlier races you might remember the frantic pace set at the beginning. There was none of that here, which leads me to think we were surrounded by mere mortals like ourselves – not very motivating. The pace was reasonably fast after a while, but nothing like the 40+ I had in early February.

Ups and Downs

But now the nice thing about starting at the back – you get to pass lots of people, giving you the feeling that you’re going fast, even if you aren’t. On the first climb I’m not sure anyone passed me. Here’s Karsten, in front as usual when things get vertical.

This first climb, which looked nasty and steep in the profile put out by the organizers, wasn’t much at all, and I managed to finish it just behind Karsten.

Something else I learned today was that I might be an OK descender. I’d like to think it’s my fearless nature and awesome coordination, but it could very well be that the extra weight I’m carrying pulls me down faster. In any event, I can say that it’s a whole lot of fun flying down a mountain and not falling down.

The 2nd col of the day was pretty high (725 meters), but very gradual and I was sort of surprised when we got to the top. On the other hand, we continued to pass lots of others on the climb, so I’m hoping that the 900 or so kilometers I’d done since the last race was paying off finally. This shot is the beginning of the steepest part of the climb.

And of course, ahead of me is Karsten’s behind.

Shortly after this photo was taken Karsten’s afterburners kicked in and he galloped up the rest of the mountain. The last time I saw of him he was already two switchbacks ahead of me. I figured that’d be the last I saw of him…and I was right, but not how I imagined it.

This is how it went down.

Somewhere before the first climb there was a food stop and I decided to get some cake and water.  Karsten kindly slowed down enough that I could catch up with him, several km later. We then rode together till the aforementioned afterburners. In the back of mind I was thinking that I would return the favor to him after the next stop. But here’s the thing, when we did reach that stop I didn’t even realize it. I saw some banners and balloons and stuff, but I was in a big, fast bunch at the moment and my mind didn’t register what it was all about. According to Karsten, I even missed the brass band they had playing there!

So, although we don’t have any evidence of this, I must have passed him while he was stuffing his face at the stop. In the meantime my group was totally ripping up the road and I was certain we catch him. I’m sure there was a 3rd climb, but it’s pretty fuzzy now, except for the rain. Oh right, I haven’t mentioned the rain. Somewhere on that last climb, or maybe before, it started pissing dow…and it was cold. Another lesson: bring rain stuff when they call for rain. But the meteo was just saying ‘millimeters’ – I thought we’d just have a drizzle. No, it poured and poured for the last 40 or so km.

Anyhow, I stayed with this group (or segments of it) all the way to the end, going very fast and trying to avoid too much tire spray up my nose and in my eyes. I got to the end and looked around for Karsten, only to realize he had taken off (or so I thought). I figured he thought he had waited enough for me that day and took off to warm down or find some food. I went after him, riding up and down the main road a couple times, going to the tent village and the bike parking lot, before calling it quits and making my way to the food hall. Of course, in the meantime, he had finished 3 minutes behind me and waited in the cold, driving rain at the finish line, worried that I had met with some disaster. Our reunion happened here, as I was bringing my tray to the garbage can…

Finally a mid-chew shot of Karsten (but better than his butt) and a part of my face at the dining hall, before we braved the wet once again to ride the 3 km back to our hotel.

More observations, for the record.

1. Lazy is smart. I’m of the mind that you should pull your weight when working as a team, so when I’m in a bunch and most riders are hiding in the middle, letting others do the work for them at the front, it irks me a tad. As a result, at least in this race, I spent (and I think Karsten did as well) an inordinate amount of time at the front of my groups, pulling them along.

Well, seems they are being wise and efficient and I’m burning myself out for no good reason. It’s tricky though. If you don’t pull hard the whole group might not speed up (or even maintain their speed). I experienced that a few times. On the other hand, if you do pull then you tire yourself before the inevitable next climb, allowing the slackers to pass you on the mountain. It all feels so unjust.

I’m going to think about this a while and formulate a strategy for the next race. I am definitely not the type to laze around in the middle of the pack, so I’ll need to try and find a balance. Tips from seasoned vets are welcome.

2. Find a peloton that fits. this might be a recurring theme, I think, since I’m pretty sure I mentioned it in at least one other article. Bunches are funny things. If you get in one that is too slow, you might think you should take off and find another one, and that’s what I ended up doing for the first half of today’s race. However, if you’re already going 28 kph, for example, even though you know you can ride faster, and you fly off the front of the group (assuming nobody follows you) you will be all alone on the road, with possibly no idea where the next group is. It’s a dilemma. To stay means riding below what you think is your limit, but to go means a much harder ride (for those who don’t know, you save anywhere from 20% to 50% of your energy slipstreaming other riders in a bunch) that could be for nothing.

This brings me back to my first lesson. If you start at the beginning of the mass start you are probably already amongst the best riders. If you can’t stay with them then you can drop back to the next group. When you can’t keep up with them, drop back – so on and so forth, until you find your pace. This seems infinitely more efficient than going at it from the ass end.

Up Next: The 133 km Gran Fondo Colnago in St. Tropez in 3 weeks…yikes..

For Karsten: 105 more training days before l’Etape du Tour, bud!

April 7, 2011. Like Dante on a bike, it seems I’m about to descend into Hell tomorrow. With a little luck, I’ll make it out.

I’ve been generously offered a press trip by Freewheeling France, a new France cycling website; and Pavé Cycling Classics, a new tour company in the north of France. Below is the schedule I just received this morning. It is absolutely jam-packed with rides on famous Spring Classics, like Gent Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and of course a long 120 km ride on the rough cobbles of Paris-Roubaix (affectionately known as the Hell of the North) – the whole reason for the trip.

Schedule

I just read through this and thought it might give some idea about how bone jolting the cobbles might be.

Tips

I have a feeling this is my kind of tour company. They even have ‘beer time’ scheduled!

April 8, 2011. Although my weekend in Le Nord was centered around the terrible cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, our hosts William and Alex decided that, since most of us were arriving in the early afternoon on Friday, there was enough time for some pavé riding after lunch – a Hellish apéritf, if you will.

So, after a fine lunch of shepherd’s pie and Belgian beer at William’s place in Lille, we loaded up our bikes and gear and drove across the border into Belgium.

The group included 5 or 6 riders from London – all from the same triathlon club. And here they are, with William’s smiling mug in the forefront.

On the left, in the distance, is Kemmelberg, our destination. This famous hill was an important battle site during WWI and still sees its share of fights during the Gent-Wevelgem pro race in the early spring.

The climbs in this area aren’t long, but they still hurt. Here’s one reason.

And another.

But it was over quick, and there was more Belgian beer waiting for us on the other side. It helps to dangle the right carrot!

After the ride we went back to their ‘HQ’, a wonderfully-situated, elegantly-designed gîte, not far the Paris-Roubaix route.

In the evening it was tinker time and final prep for the riders doing the cyclosportive the next morning.

Next up: Day Two – Wheels on Hell

April 9, 2011. Ever since Saturday I’ve been wondering how I can express what it is like to ride at full speed over huge, jagged cobbles on Paris-Roubaix. I’m sure I won’t come up with anything that could ever substitute the real thing…if you dare to try it! I have read several books on the subject, and have seen all the documentaries there are out there, I’m sure…and still I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Good thing I like surprises.

Our group split up Saturday morning, with the Brits going off early to start the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, a cyclosportive in its inaugural year. Myself, Youenn (a French guy living in San Francisco, and my roomie at the gîte) and Alex warmed up with a ride over to our first section of pavé, the Arenberg Trench. We were ‘lucky’ not to be doing the race since Arenberg was not on their route for some reason. Here I am, pre-damage, at the gate (it is closed to cars to protect the nastiness of the cobbles).

The Arenberg Trench is 2.4 km long and is arrow straight. The cobbles were laid during the reign of Napolean and have not aged well, I can asure you. This section has been used in the race since 1968 and has seen an impressive amount of carnage in its 43 years, including a mechanical in this year’s race that was the beginning of the end for one of the big favorites, Tom Boonen.

Why? First, it is narrow, so it needs to be attacked nearly single file. It is also long and there is a bit of an uphill from around the middle on, so attacks can happen (although very nearly never decisive, since the section is relatively early in the race). The cobbles are in truly disastrous condition as well, so speed is needed to get over them. Want proof?

Alex joyfully informed us how hard and painful it was all going to be before taking off in front of us at a scary speed. The minute I hit the pavé I knew I had entered a whole new world of pain. Going slow was impossible, so I gunned it for the whole length, straight down the middle. It was like riding over a rolling earthquake. There must be some shock absorbed by the bike, but there was plenty left to attack my butt, wrists and brain! My helmet was bouncing around uncontrollably, my arms shaking like jackhammers, my legs screaming already with the force I was asking of them. It was really, really awful.

Then something happened. I began to realize that I wasn’t going to die probably, and my innards weren’t going to drop out my ass, and I started to enjoy this intense punishment. The adrenaline rush was, after getting over the fear, pretty cool. Then it was over and I rejoined Alex at the end, grinning sadistically. Only 14 more sections of cobbles to go…

After a few more the front of the sportive caught up with us. The roads weren’t closed, so were just tucked in and raced along with them. Since the race was on from that point on, I didn’t get many photos. Here is one of Youenn at the end of one of the sections.

For those of you who race (or watch races even) you’ll know how a climb can explode a group of riders. The cobbles are just like that. Alex was always with us on the tarmac between sections, but once we entered into the cobbles he shot forward like a slingshot. I did my best to keep up, but there was no hope, even on the short sections. I can see how a strong rider like Cancellara can drop everybody on these things.

And speaking of big riders, if I never do lose all that weight I’ve been trying to, I think I’ve found my sport. I’m not huge, but I guess I’ve got enough weight to keep me more or less stable on the pavé. Youenn – very light – said he was having a hell of a time just keeping his bike straight, the cobbles bouncing him left and right.

And then it was suddenly all over, but not before one last, diabolical stretch called the Carrefour de l’Arbe, another 5-star section that is very often where winners make their move, as it was this year incidentally. We were lucky enough to witness that move the following day. This is the end of the section and the end of the sportive as well.

Anybody recognize this man? Sean Kelly, one of the all-time toughest cyclists and two-time winner of Paris-Roubaix. This sportive was his first time riding the cobbles here since the mid eighties, when he last last rode the pro race.

This is me, striking a cool rouleur pose, but not quite pulling it off somehow. I’ll work on it.

Before heading back to HQ we visited the Roubaix Velodrome, where the pros would finished the following day. Here’s the famous right turn from the last cobble section into the grounds of the velodrome. Think that arrow is big enough…?

And the final turn before victory.

Then, mercifully, it was beer time again!

Up Next: Mr. Patterson meets his match in Flanders.

My hosts: Pavé Cycling Classics.  My bike: Cyfac   My beer: Brunehaut.

April 14, 2011. The lads of Pavé had a full itinerary set for us on Sunday as well, and we were up and on the road to Belgium by 8am. William, the Brits, Youenn and I (with Alex pulling support duty) did five climbs in all – the Kluisberg, the Knokteberg, the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg then the Koppenberg. All these climbs feature in the Tour of Flanders, the Classic race that happens a weekend before Paris-Roubaix.

Here is the bottom of the Koppenberg. It was Sunday morning and I am sure I have never seen as many recreational cyclists in my life. Everywhere we went in Flanders the roads were filled with riders. I suppose they don’t call Belgium the cycling Mecca for nothing.

These 3 photos were taken seconds apart and you can see the endless stream of riders rounding the corner into the climb. And how was that climb, you ask? First a video to warm you up. It’s amateur, but gives you an idea of what 22% gradient looks like at least. The guy walking his bike up the hill is Fabian Cancellara. No team cars are allowed up this climb, so it’s hike it or go home.

Remember that extra weight I was bragging about yesterday on the cobbles? Well, it didn’t serve me all that well today on the climbs. I suffered badly, but made it up all of them. The cobbles are not rough at all, but they make 22% seem much worse (like it needs to!) than it is. Thankfully none of these climbs are long, so it was over before cardiac arrest set in.

One last thing about this area of Flanders; it is really lovely, at least when the sun is out. Mostly flat, with lots of these little hills if you fancy a climb. Narrow roads all over the place and bike paths galore. The atmosphere is quite different from France as well, with welcoming cafes and restaurants dotted around the hills. Oh, and if you do go, bring lots of money. We visited a great bike shop at the bottom of the Kluisberg. We were almost late for the pro race later and Alex and William had to pull us out to get us on the road again…I’m glad I was broke or it would have been dangerous.

Here are Pavé’s Flickr Photos from the morning.

But we did make it, just in time. After a mad rush back to the HQ for a shower, beer and BBQ (with more beer), we drove over (with a beer for the road) to the scene of yesterday’s misery – the Arenberg Forest.

Once the action started I just blindly pointed and shot. Here are some of the results.

Tip for pro race spectators: if you want to know where the front of the race is, look for a helicopter. You can see from the photo above that they are just entering into the ‘trench’.

Paris-Roubaix is a special race. The gendarmes use off-road motorcycles and the Mavic guys (suppliers of wheels if the team car isn’t available) have to carry wheels with them on the back of their bikes. It’s a rough race.

I took about 20 or so shots like this before we got up-close and personal with this poor guy from Team Movistar.

He had a flat right in front of me. Above, he’s calling a team car he can’t see.

So he waits, wheel in hand.

And waits…

…and while he keeps waiting I notice this on his top tube. This is tape that he has put on, with all the 29 sections of cobbles, where they occur (in km) in the race, and how long they are (also in km). I’m not sure I’d like to know, myself. Could be depressing.

Finally help arrives and he’s off again – just another victim of le trouée.

And so were we (off, not victims…). The idea was to catch the race again up the road a bit, but the cops were on to us (and everyone else) and had all the exits from the highway closed. Instead we sped towards our last chance, the Carrefour de l’Arbe, where our ‘race’ finished the day before.

On the way I snapped a few patriotic folks on the pavé.

As I said yesterday, the Carrefour de l’Arbe is very often the decisive section of cobbles. If the winner has not attacked by then, he pretty much has to there. After this section there are only 3 more easy ones and about 15 km to go to the vélodrome of Roubaix. We parked ourselves a few hundres meters from the restaurant, about halfway up this crowd.

And waited for signs. You could actually see them across the fields. Well, we could see the dust they were kicking up at least. Then that sign I was talking about before…

Then the race director’s car flew by…

And Johan Vansummeren. This was just after he put in his attack on the rest of the front group, and, as it turned out, was THE move of the race. Kudos to Alex and William for the viewing-spot choice!

Some pursuers.

A dusty broadcaster.

More chasers. The one in the green is actually Canadian – a young rider from my home province of Quebec – David Veilleux, who went on to a very respectable 25th place.

I had no idea who I was shooting, as I mentioned before, but I was lucky enough to get Cancellara and Hushovd in this next one. No, not the guys in focus. Look left.

Close up.

And finally, our flat-tire guy (I think) from 80 km ago.

Cancellara went on to finish 2nd, after a very late attack in the suburbs of Roubaix, passing 3 or 4 riders like ‘a hot knife through butter’, as Eurosport reported. Even if he’s got a motor in his bike, he’s still fun to watch.

So Hell wasn’t such a bad place after all. It was tough, no question, but not as hot as all the reports…and they really do have great beer!

Pavé’s Flickr photos from the pro race.

April 17, 2011. I’m discovering another reason for doing these cyclosportives – they are a good excuse to get out and see other parts of France (and Europe, for that matter). I chose this race last Sunday because it was tough (4 out of 5 stars…back to that later) and the course weaved in and out of (and up and over!) the Gulf of Saint Tropez, one of the loveliest and swankiest parts of the French Riviera. We got there a day before the race and walked around the port, looking for the start line.

 

Brigitte Bardot was discovered in St. Tropez. She can still be found in many souvenir shops.

Meanwhile, back in Cogolin (the village I erroneously thought the race was starting and finishing in because the website said so…silly me for not noticing they had last year’s route online.), I checked in and got my number plate, electronic chip, and the helpful tip that I would have to ride to Saint Tropez the next morning if I wanted to start with everybody else.

That’s me in the middle. The young one 😉 That guy behind me probably beat me in the race, so I should stop right there.

Karsten will like this. We chose a hotel right next to the supposed start/finish line, but it ended up being 10km from the start and very close to the finish, but sort of useless since we were checked out by the time I came in. By next season I’ll have this accommodation thing worked out, I’m sure.

I was up at 6 and off on my forced warm-up to St. Tropez by 7.

Notice the new hardware – arm warmers. These things are great and I wonder why I never had them before. Tiny and warm and you just need to roll them down to your wrists when things hot up.

And things did.

The Race – As usual, the start was completely different from all the others. This time they had us start in groups based on our race numbers, which were based on nothing in particular, I’m sure. So, 0-1000 started first, etc. I guess they just want to keep things as safe as possible, but my brilliant plan to be up front at the start was good and truly thwarted (my number was 2151). Anyway, I doubt that plan would have worked on this particular day.

As I stated above, this course was rated 4 stars out of 5 by my cycling magazine. As Shoko helpfully told me later when I was heaving for breath and looking like death warmed over, there’s a reason it’s 4 stars. She was right.

This race was basically a series of climbs and descents, with a 15 km warm-up in the beginning. There were 2000 meters of climbing, which I’m not sure I’ve (knowingly) done in my training or races so far. Luckily none of the climbs were very steep, which is always the death of me. Still it was hard from the get-go.

I did alright for the first 60km or so, but I put a lot of effort on the descents and what flats there were, since I thought I could make up time. I think this is what wore me down and I was never really rested for the inevitable next climb. By the last one I was cooked, but still going at a reasonable pace. I can’t imagine the torture it would have been if I hadn’t been training like I have (actually, I have a good idea. One guy finished 4 hours after me! We saw him riding on our way back home in the car. He gets my respect for not throwing in the towel).

So, as usual, I learned that I need to lose more weight. I think I was going at a pretty good clip on the downs and the flats (less so), so I’m losing all my time when I go against the laws of gravity. My next race (up and over Mt. Ventoux) is 5-stars, so this is getting serious now.

The Bunch – when there were horizontal parts I usually found a group to ride in. The group is an interesting thing. You can be rolling along at 40 kph, but when you are tucked in behind a few riders you are cocooned from the outside world somewhat. Your focus is 100% within the bubble you and the other riders have created (if it’s not, you are probably asking for trouble) and, although the universe outside is flying by at a blur, you can spell out the brand name on the guy’s butt in front of you (if you want to..). You are also protected from the wind and therefore it is easy riding. No wonder so many just hide in the pack and never take their turn at the front!

There was no real drama this time around, thankfully, but it was the toughest race so far, and yet another wake-up call that I need to step up the training if I want to do well in l’Etape in July. Here are my stats:

Distance: 115 km

Total Elevation Gain: 2000 meters

Average Speed: 27.33 kph (this was disappointing at first, but I did get a ‘gold medal’ certificate, so I guess it wasn’t all that bad)

Place Within Category: Bottom 40%…again.

Having your wife with you has many benefits, not least of which is having someone to take action shots of you! Here I am rounding the final corner before the finish.

And then, the best part of any race – lunchtime!

And another one for Karsten, since I got him with food in his mouth last race.

Five more weeks till Ventoux. I hope I can finish like this guy did!

April 23, 2011. My next race, up and over Mt. Ventoux, is really making me wonder about my ambitiousness this season. I’ve never climbed anything near the distance or height of this thing, at least not at race speed.

So, I’m trying to be pro-active and I have started to hit the mountains north of Nîmes to get some elevation under my legs. My ‘coach’, and new-found step-brother, Rob, recommended doing tempo training (20-30 min) for long ascents like Ventoux. So, yesterday I hopped on the train to Alès and rode the route of my first race this year.

The first climb on this route is 8 km long and probably an average of 5% or 6%. It took me 29 minutes to get to the top and, more importantly, my average speed on the tough bits was 14 to 15 km/h – at least 3 km/h faster than what I remember doing during the race in February. I’m either losing weight, getting stronger, or hopefully, both. Still, there is a long way to go. The gradient of Ventoux (not to mention le Galibier and l’Alpe d’Huez that I have to somehow get up in July) gets up to 10% and stays at 8-9% for km after km.

Profil Ventoux

Author - Stephan Brunker

Yes, 21 km of non-stop climbing.

But back to the ride (I can’t look at that graph anymore…). Here’s a shot on the way up.

Up on the next climb I found this little house for rent. Dream on…

At the bottom of the 2nd climb I noticed something I missed when I raced this route – a medieval-looking bridge.

I say ‘looking’ because it turns out that this bridge – le Pont des Camisards – was only built in 1719, making it positively modern for these parts. Why it is named after the Camisards, protestants of the Cévennes that rose up against the Catholic crown in the early 1700s, remains a mystery, since it was built after the uprising. Still, I do love my stone bridges, and this one has character, no matter how young it is.

April 25, 2011.My learning curve continues to be, well, curvy, with my new racing hobby. Luckily I’ve got people around me in cyberspace who know what they’re talking about.

Tim’s keen eye noticed that my saddle might be a little low in a photo or two from my last race. I had tweaked the height fairly recently and figured it must be okay, but over the last couple of rides I’ve put it up a bit and, lo and behold, I’m still not rocking all over the road. I think I’m close to the top, though, but I’ll bet I’ve gained a cm or so and it feels more stable and powerful. Good man, Tim!

I’ve also been in constant contact with Rob, who sends me long, detailed, and very useful emails on anything I ask about cycling. He’s been doing it his whole life and is simply a giant wealth of information. It’s one thing to glean stuff off the internet, but to have someone knowledgable tell you, it has currency – at least for me.

Rob suggested I lower my handlebars, since I was riding a ‘comfortable’ position, i.e. using all my spacers. He went into a discussion of drag coefficients, which, after unglazing my eyes, made me realize that I needed to get myself more horizontal on the bike. The short of it was that drag increases by a power of 3 as speed increases, so, you need to produce a lot more power, the more torso you show to the wind you are creating…or something like that. It sounds more convincing when he says it.

Therefore, I’ve taken out 1.5 cm of spacers (for now). Below is a ‘before’ shot. You can see there is nothing sticking up above the stem.

And after. The difference is pretty dramatic, with the saddle / bars adjustment. Amazingly I can still ride for hours with little or no difference in comfort.

A close-up of the stem. I’ve still got 2 cm to go down before I reach ‘Rob height’. My lower back hurts just thinking about it!


April 29, 2011. Today I took my first step in finding a cycling club, by joining one of the two that exist in Nîmes for a training ride this afternoon.

I knew it would be tough because they put up their Garmin stats on their website – always over 100 km and always over 30 km/h average.

And it was hard. After getting out of town, the coach, Yan, starting ramping up the speed and we all took turns on the front. For what seemed like an eternity we were riding 45 km/h or so and I really thought that I was going to be dropped before the training even began. Mercifully, he slowed it down and we cruised for a long enough time to recover.

And the 3+ hours kept up like that. We’d take a rest then Yan would see a hill and hammer up it, taking the youngsters with him (this is a serious club that seems mainly to groom young riders for amateur races, with a couple of older guys added in to keep them in check) and leaving me to struggle behind, wondering when that next respite would come! However, I’m happy to report, I was rarely the last guy on the road, and on the flats I generally stayed with the pack.

This club even has a car that follows behind with water, spare wheels…and the best of all, wind-free riding if you need it. If someone falls too far behind (you know how I know this…), you jump behind the car and get a free ride back up to the group. I had never ridden behind a car like that before and it’s really fun to roll along at 50, pretty much effortlessly.

We rode the whole 3 hours non stop except for a traffic hazard relatively common in these parts.

I’m not sure I’ll join the club, but it certainly couldn’t hurt my training. It’s very hard to replicate that kind of intensity when you’re by yourself – at least for me. Now if they had a soigneur who made house calls, that might tip the balance…

May 2, 2011.

Fear is a funny thing. The thought of my upcoming race over Mt. Ventoux has been nagging me since I finished with the last one in St. Tropez, which took more out of me than I had hoped for. My fear forced me to ask myself whether I was woefully unprepared for this type of climb, regardless of the hundreds of hours in the saddle this year. Then yesterday my fear thought it might be a good idea to take the train over to Avignon, ride 40 km to the foot of the Giant of Provence, then the 21 km climb up, down, and back to my train station. Fearless might have been easier…at least I’d only have to climb that beast once!

My 40-k warm-up proved to be rewarding, since the route runs through pretty Provence.

While munching on my morning pain au chocolat, I took this shot of what is either a hobbit church or a chapel that ran out of financing after the nave was built. Something is definitely missing.

It was misty when I started and I could vaguely see the outline of Ventoux for much of the way. Clouds hung over the summit, making me shiver just thinking about how frigid it must be up there. But the mist lifted, along with my spirits, and she came into view.

I have to say that, from a distance at least, Mt. Ventoux looks fairly un-menacing. It lacks the craggy sharpness of an Alpine mountain and its gentle slopes (from this angle) belie its height – nearly 2000 meters. If it weren’t for its fearsome reputation (plus the fact that I’d been up by car and motorcycle a few times) I might not have had the respect I did riding up to its flanks.

This is at the roundabout before entering into the village that is considered the start of the climb.

A few roads flow into this roundabout and I joined a steady trickle of cyclists coming in from all sides. At least I wasn’t going to be alone in my suffering! Here is a group of Belgians that I would see from time to time on the climb.

And the village – Bédoin.

Ventoux can be climbed from 3 sides, but Bédoin is the most popular. This is the side that the Tour de France nearly always attacks Ventoux from, having been used 13 out of the 14 times the Tour has gone up. The 2nd route, starting from the north, begins in the village of Malaucène and is the same length as the southern route, and just about as difficult. The last route, from Sault, starts pretty high already, so is not as hard. It joins the southern route at the Chalet du Reynard (photo below).

Once you are in Bédoin there is no mistaking which direction Ventoux is, even if you might secretly wish you can’t find the way!

The Climb

You ride through the village, turn right, then you’re on it. Luckily, it is very gentle for the first few km and the scenery is deceptively bucolic.

But you are never far from a reminder of what is coming. These markers happen every kilometer, I think. You can see that the road is starting to rise a tad, with still 19 km to go.

But sorry, 4% is not what this climb is about. After passing a couple of tiny villages the road takes a dramatic turn to the left and then looks like this.

I’m not sure if you can get a sense of the steepness – I know it’s hard even from TV coverage. But your legs don’t lie, and I won’t either when I tell you that shortly after hitting my first stretch of 9% I wondered if I could make it. This is what I had been dreading all along – a climb that would beat me down like the pretender I really was. Cycling is humbling. Somehow though, I found my rhythm and slowly, steadily made my way up.

The climb does drop down to under 7%, but only after something like 10 km of nearly 10%! It’s horrendous. Or it’s fun. It really depends on who you are, I suppose. I was good and truly dropped by a (very thin) lad on that first 10 km, dancing up the mountain as if nobody explained to him how much pain he should be in. On the other hand, I passed a few myself and I can tell you that there is definitely a correlation between pounds and performance when you climb a monster like Ventoux.

At some point, the trees start to thin and then just disappear altogether. Near the border of this transformation is the famous Chalet Reynard, welcoming shattered souls since 1927.

From the chalet it’s 7 km and 500 meters (up) to go to the summit and, worst of all, you can see it from most of the way up. It looks much nearer than it is, I can assure you. Here it is, from a few rest stops on the way.

If you are worried about water, like I was, there are at least two natural fountains on the way up; one in the forested bottom half and this one, a while past Chalet Reynard.

At only a kilometer or so from the summit you pass this monument to British cyclist Tom Simpson, who collapsed and died here during the 1967 Tour.

You’re almost there at this point, but one thing that makes this climb so evil is that the last kilometer is the steepest part of the mountain – more than 10%. It was grueling, at least for this mortal.

But I made it, and even stood on the pedals and danced the last tight hairpin to the parking lot.

I wasn’t feeling like doing much more dancing when I got off the bike though, except maybe to keep warm. It was around 5 degrees at the summit. This is before I slapped on my fleece headband and long gloves – extra weight you won’t mind hauling up the mountain!

Predictably, the descent was fast and fun, but I had been so consumed with the thought of the climb I hadn’t considered going back down. It. was. exhilarating. Suddenly, I found myself singing Free Bird (well, the parts I remembered…) and passing cars. Great, great fun.

So fear, thanks for taking me up there. At least now I know what I have to do again in 3 weeks…at racing speed. Shudder.

Tips

1. I did the climb in May and it was already crowded with cyclists. I would think the shoulder seasons are the best (May/June – Sept/Oct), since the summer is sweltering hot.

2. Having said that, the top can be cold at any time. Come prepared for the descent (at the very least a windbreaker). Also, the wind can be very, very strong above Chalet Reynard.

3. If you want to avoid crowds, climb from the northern side (Malaucène). It also has a nice, cycling lane.

4. Bédoin has a couple of fountains with drinking water, as well as at least two more on the way up.

5. If you come, stick around a few days. The area around Ventoux is picture-perfect and great for cycling. Sault, for example, is a major lavender region and riding there in June or July is heaven.

6. Come fit and light. I’m only speaking from my own experience, but I had the feeling that any extra weight I was carrying was recognized by the mountain and I was punished for it!

If you’d like to climb Ventoux, or any other ‘mythic’ mountain, you might like Tour Climbs: The complete guide to every mountain stage on the Tour de France. For the definitive biography on Tom Simpson, try William Fotherington’s Put Me Back On My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson

May 9, 2011.

In the interest of transparency (and the fact I have nothing else to blog..), I thought it might be an idea to present some details of my Etape training so far.

Shedding

First, if you remember way back in November when I started this little project by blindly signing up for the Etape du Tour, I was overweight, at least for a cyclist. It didn’t happen overnight, to be sure, but I am happy to report that I am losing an impressive amount of flab. I say ‘impressive’ not because I am surprised how much I lost, but because I am shocked how much I had! I can definitely still pinch an inch, but my core volume has reduced a lot. How much? No idea since I still don’t own scales, but I’ve gone from 34 inch jeans that fit down to 32s that are too big. Still, I’m far from where I need to be, but it’s a start.

Sacrifices

And it isn’t just the cycling that has taken away my double chin. I have not bought a bottle of wine since before the New Year, I think, and have only let myself have a handfull of beers in that time as well. If you know me well, you will be impressed. I almost never went a day without a beer or glass of wine before this year. I agree, this is extreme. It won’t last either, especially now that the summer is here. I’ll try to hang on till after the Etape in July though – plenty of summer left after that, thankfully!

Other vices I’ve cut down on are chips (a long-time love affair with this one), sugar (e.g. the afternoon pain au raisin), and…sort of…butter on my bread. Well, at least now I have either butter OR peanut butter, instead of slapping on both. Some things are just too sacred.

Training

I’ve gone through a quick evolution with training, basically because I started out with no idea what I should be doing. My first blog entry about training last year was simply to ‘go faster’, which, after all is said and done, turned out not to be too far off, but perhaps a bit premature.

Base – I’m very glad I did some reading before just ‘going fast’ for 6 months or so. Early on I learned that cyclists, whether newbies or pros starting a new season, need base training. From what I gather, this involves long hours in the saddle at – and here is the important part – only around 50% – 70% of your Anaerobic Threshold. How do find your AT? At the bottom I’ve pasted part of an email I got from Rob when I started questioning him about training a few months ago. Anyway, I did this sort of riding from January to March, with some hills, sprints, races, etc. thrown in to mix it up a little. I am convinced that this stage is essential. I do still have aches and pains, but nothing like I did when I used to go hard in the beginning. This resilience is due to the base training, I am sure. 

Building – This took a while, but I think I’ve worked out a schedule that works for me, at least for the moment. Here it is:

First, I ride 4 or 5 times a week, but I think in terms of ‘blocks’ instead of weeks. I categorize my training into 3 types:

  1. Short. This could be sets of sprints of various lengths, near, at or even over my AT, depending on length. It might be power training, like hill climbing in a big gear at 30-40 rpm or so. Or, using the the same hill, I might do a few sets of hammering up the hill at near AT. I’m sure there are many more types of exercises I could add, but so far these are what I do.
  2. Medium. Up to now, for me this has been 2 sets of 20 minutes at or near AT. This one is a killer and I usually find it hard to ride the next day. This is one thing I still don’t get, actually. Most serious cyclists ride nearly every day, following a very hard session one day with something different the next. The thinking seems to be that, since you are working differently each day, the body can recover from one day while you are killing it (in a different manner) then next. This works for me after my short days, but hardly ever after my mediums. Maybe it will come with practice. Anyhow, from what I gather, this type of training (relatively long times at near/at AT) is the best. Rob suggested doing this for an entire hour (on a flat road) even. I’m not quite there yet…
  3. Long. This one is simple. 3-6 hours on the bike at anywhere between 50% and 70% of AT. Coming from a touring background, I have to admit that this one is hands down my favorite. I can go far and I can enjoy the ride, not having to stress about that next 20-minute pain-fest that I dread from my mediums. It is also a good chance to work on technique, if I so wish. 
*Short and Medium include 45 minutes of warm-up, plus usually an equal amount of warm-down (i.e. the ride back home).
Depending on how I feel I mix up these 3 training types into ‘blocks’ of two or three days. So, a 10-day period might look like this:
Day 1: Short (short sprints)
Day 2: Medium
Day 3: Rest or recovery ride
Day 4: Short (hills)
Day 5: Medium
Day 6: Long
Day 7: Rest
Day 8: Rest
Day 9: Short (long sprints)
Day 10: Medium
How to find your Anaerobic Threshold (by Robert Armstrong)

1. Give yourself a good 10 – 15 minute warm-up, whereby you gradually pick up your pace to near “race-pace” (i.e. hard as you can go without going into oxygen debt)

2. After you’re good and warmed up, ride a flat section of road that you can maintain a pace that’s as hard as you can sustain for 20 minutes

3. Monitor your heart rate throughout the 20 minutes and the average rate over this maximum, but sustained effort is your heart-rate at your Anaerobic Threshold.

4. Since this will be an all-out effort, give yourself a good 15-20 minutes to cool down.  You’ll want a rest day after this all out effort.

Stats

Since January, when training really started, I’ve ridden nearly 4000 km (one full week – 155 hours – in the saddle), building up in distance over the months. This looks pretty good to me, but putting it into perspective, 4000 km is not too much more than the pros do in a 3-week tour, like the Giro (which is on happening now, incidentally)! Everything is relative.

So, there you have it, my progress thus far. Although I am still unsure about my performance in the Etape, I now think I have the legs to…dare I say it…finish! We shall see in 9 short weeks.


May 15, 2011.Yesterday I went out for a ride with John and an American/Aussie named Eric, which I somehow have no photos at all from. But that’s not why I’m blogging anyway.

John’s house, being equipped with all sorts of essential stuff, has scales, which he ‘surprised’ me with after my post-ride shower. If – and I’m not convinced this is the case – the scales are correct, I am now 69.5 kg; down 7.5 kg from my Christmas peak of 77 kg in Paris. Like I said before, I still have a ways to go, but I do feel a tad proud of myself for shedding all that lardon.

Therefore, this afternoon I will sit down and watch the Mt. Etna stage of the Giro, accompanied by this:

Tortilla chips, salsa (but at least the jar with the least sugar and calories) and a big bottle of what Eric says is a great organic beer from Sommières, up the road from here.

I know I shouldn’t reward myself with bad food (I can’t bring myself to call beer ‘bad’. It’s brought me so much happiness in my life), but I hope you’ll forgive me this short relapse. I’m only human.

Must go chill the beer glass…
May 16, 2011.

I’m writing most of this entry before the fact because I’m not sure I’ll have the energy to do more than click ‘Publish’ once it’s over.

With the next race coming in less than a week I wanted to try and do my ‘last week’ right (we’ll forget that little beer and chips episode that started off the week, shall we..?). And the right way to go could be ‘depletion’ (aka ‘overcompensation’).

What the heck is depletion? I think it is a well-established fact that if you push progressively harder in training you will improve and if you don’t you will stagnate. This seems to be the base behind the idea. But first the program for my next few days.

The Program

1. Go out very, very hard 6 days before the race, with a one-hour ‘all out effort’, which Coach Rob says would be at, or above, my Anaerobic Threshold. The key seems to be to not let up the whole hour and to totally do myself in by the end of it – this is the depletion.

2. Three days before the race do something similar, but only 15 minutes and at an even higher level of intensity, i.e. above my AT. As Rob said in his email, ‘The last 3 to 5 minutes can’t end fast enough’.

3. Do very light recovery rides in between these rides and, I’m assuming, right up to race day.

The Idea

First, it seems important to know that when you train you are actually damaging your body. Thus, recovery after exertion is all important because this is when you gain in strength, speed, endurance, etc. Below is a graph I ‘borrowed’ from the internet. The curved line is performance, energy, strength, or however you want to label it.

Here’s my idea of the idea. The hour that you do 6 days before the race will punish your body so much (the dip on the graph) that it will, over a couple of days, rebound up to, then over your previous state of fitness (peak on the graph), elevating your capabilities beyond what they were before. This is the body ‘overcompensating’ for the destruction it has just endured.

The 15 minute, all-guns-blazing ride 3 days before has me a little stumped, but I think it is supposed to catch your recovery (from the first hammering) on the rebound and ‘springboard’ you to an even higher peak on race day. This isn’t shown on the graph, but I think the timing would be to do the 15 min ride as close to the peak of the curved line as possible (two days after the first hard ride, but this depends on all sorts of factors, I gather). The resulting dip would not bring you down past the ‘homeostasis’ line, and your 2nd peak (hopefully when the gun goes off on race day!) would be even higher than the first one shown on the graph.

Laurent Fignon, the late, great French cyclist, was one of the first pros to use this method (according to him), and stated that timing was of utmost importance when doing this type of training because it would be all too easy to peak before your event, or maybe worse, be still recovering when the race hits, thereby defeating the purpose of all the pain you’ve put yourself through. However, if race day hits on the way up to your peak, or on the way down, you are in theory still above what you were before. Anyway, basically I’ll try anything to give me an edge, so off I go!

For the record, Fignon’s overcompensation was one session of 220 km three days before Milan-San Remo, with the last 35 km absolutely at the limit. So much so that he couldn’t feel his legs when he finished. I might go a little lighter than he did…

Post Ride – Done. Pretty hard. ‘Publish’…

May 20, 2011.

An Inauspicious Start

Shoko will tell you that I have a fairly bad track record when I rent cars. I’m not sure what it is, but for all the money and time I’ve spent on various troubles we’ve had when renting, I might do just as well buying a car. I’m not very happy to report that this day continued the tradition.

Long, ongoing saga short, I left my licence on the roof of the car when packing it and, yes, drove off into the sunrise. We didn’t realize it till we were already in Provence and it was long gone by the time we got back in the afternoon. For the superstitious, this might not have been a good omen.

The More Auspicious Start

But things got better as we got to Beaumes de Venise and met up with Karsten and Sarah, down for a little cycling holiday from Paris. Here is part of the start crowd. There were so many racers that Karsten and I didn’t get across the line till 6 minutes after the start. Yes, I know I said I’d position myself farther up way back…I’m a slow learner.

And the start.

Once we did roll over the line it was a pretty pedestrian ride for the first few minutes; far different from earlier races when everyone was racing for position. We chalked this up to the fact that most people were saving their energy for Ventoux and/or we were near the back and the serious folks were already 6 minutes ahead of us.

No matter, we did our now-familiar ride through the ranks, making a good pace and even enjoying the scenery (this area – Vaucluse – is beyond beautiful). There were a couple of not-insignificant little climbs before we even hit Ventoux, but both Karsten and I continued to roll along at a good pace, I think.

Ventoux The Good

This was a little surprise to me, but the race actually attacked Ventoux from the north side, i.e. from the village Malaucène. When I discovered this the night before (thanks Karsten) I was a bit irked that I’d done my reconnaissance from the south side, but then I thought this would be a great way to compare the two. They are the same length and nearly identical in elevation gain, but our route lacked the many kms of 10% that the south route has, thereby making it ‘easier’. Well, I can tell you that for me, this certainly didn’t hold true.

Karsten and I stayed together for about 2/3 of the way up the mountain, mostly passing folks and even continuing to chat for much of the way. It was too good to be true.

End Times

Probably because of the kerfuffle of losing my license I totally forgot to eat the sandwich I had prepared for myself before leaving home. This meant that, other than a bowl of muesli at 5:30, I hadn’t had anything to eat. By the time I figured all this out we were on the road and I was counting the calories I had in my back pockets – two gels and two bars. I tried to take bites every 15 minutes or so, but once you hit a climb like Ventoux, I guess you need more in the tank. I felt a bonk coming on.

Gerry to Karsten: ‘You go at your own pace. I’ll catch you on the descent.’ (wink, wink)

Karsten to Gerry: A nod. He just flew away, never to be seen again…

I slowed down, sucking on my gel and slurping my sugar-water, but nothing will stop The Bonk. So, I’m ashamed to admit, I stopped. It’s a terrible feeling, knowing you might have the legs and the cardio is there, too, but there’s just no juice left. Needless to say, I’ve learned yet another bike racing lesson.

I suppose I spent 5 minutes resting, rehydrating and refuelling. I was still 8 or 9 kms from the top and looking up at, what looked like to me, a never-ending 9% uphill. I entertained thoughts of turning around even, but then a guy with his little kid came by on their tandem and I thought I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did that. Slowly, the energy came back and I remounted. Still it was a long, hard slog to the top it all my will power to not throw people out of the way to get at those banana chunks and orange slices at the summit!

My time from bottom to top was around 1:55 minutes, which is what I think I did on my ride up the other side (sans photo stops). Needless to say, once all the pain is a distant memory, I’ll be back to see what I can do about getting that time down.

Tuck

Then came some fun. I remembered the descent pretty well from my last climb and started passing riders and cars – Max speed: 75 kph – and had a great ol’ time for those 20 minutes, except for the stiff neck, maybe.

Cramp

Another new experience. After that long, nearly peddle-less descent my legs, obviously thinking their work was over, didn’t like the fact that they were being called on yet again for more work. They went on strike just outside Bédoin and both left and right cramped up. This was really new and I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just kept riding as well as I could…and it worked, but not before slowing down a lot and totally losing whatever rhythm I had built up.

Then, the inevitable final ‘surprise col‘ that organizers always seem to add to races. It was low, but after Ventoux anything that goes up is scary and full of pain.

Done

By the final 10 kms I was cooked, but got myself latched onto a small group that pulled me along (yes, I took a turn or two, which was all I could muster) back to Beaumes de Venise, and a very happy finish line.

Karsten, by the way, finished nearly 20 minutes ahead of me and ended up, very respectably, in the top 30% of our age category. Me? Well behind, but finally breaking into the top 50%, which I can’t be disappointed with, considering I started the season in the bottom 20%.

Then to the best part of every race – lunch!

May 26. 2011. If you’ve been reading for a while you’ll have realized I have had a secret weapon in my training for some time. Well, his clear, concise advice has been so useful for me I have decided to give him his own page and share with my blog buddies.

So, without further ado, I give you Coach Rob!

May 28, 2011. I have been agonizing over what sort of article to do since I heard what kind of training regimen I’d be on from now on since, as you can imagine, with a name like ‘fartlek’, the options for toilet humor are endless. So endless, in fact, that I just had to go straight with this one. The name is funny enough without any elaboration.

Fartlek, probably not humorous at all in Sweden, where it originates,  is a simple enough concept to understand. The name, according to Wiki, means ‘speed play’, and the essential concept is that, the rider will choose when to up the tempo and for how long, mixing up high endurance (in my case), near anaerobic threshold, and even over AT (sprints).

Coach Rob has prescribed this type of ride to me for my long rides (100 km+) up till l’Etape du Tour, 7 weeks away. These long rides, by the way, are going to be back-to-back, starting from 2 the first week, moving up to 3 in a couple more. The idea is to get the body used to longer efforts at higher (and varied) intensity and with less rest, i.e. like l’Etape will surely be.

So yesterday I fartleked my way to my old stomping grounds of Montpellier. Here are some pics from the road.

Aqueduct near Castries

Old mill on the Vidourle River

While in MTP I caught up with old friend, Ed Ward for a kebab. If you don’t know Ed from earlier posts, he is NPRs (National Public Radio) ‘rock-and-roll historian’, and has been doing regular spots on Fresh Air for many years. Check him out. Always interesting stuff. Why is living in France, you ask? His never-dull blog will answer that.

And even though it looks like a shot of my bike with Ed just happening to be in the background, I assure you I meant it as a photo of him.

Before meeting Ed I had a chance to go to my favorite square in town and have a petit café, which unfortunately ended all too quickly. I hate to say this, but France needs more Starbucks!

And that was that. I fartleked back to Nîmes after lunch for a total of 130 km. Today we have a visitor coming in from Japan, so no back-to-back possibilities this weekend. I’ll report back once I accomplish two days in a row of fartleking next week.
June 13, 2011.

Although the final results aren’t online yet, I can be fairly sure that I didn’t smash any records in my 6th race of the season yesterday. In fact, in terms of placing within my age category (my yardstick), it was really disappointing. But read on, I’ll attempt to justify it all in this article!

For this, my last race before the Etape on July 11th, I decided to choose the ‘long’ event. Every sportive I’ve done so far has had 2 or more distances to choose from and up till yesterday I’d always chosen the medium or short version. I figured I needed something to toughen me up a month before my big objective.

I got what I asked for, I guess.

Some race stats – The Granite Mont Lozère is 145 km long with 2640 meters (8661 feet for the metrically challenged) of climbing. So that’s my first excuse. The race was longer and higher than anything I’d done this year.

Excuse the Gerry-centric images in this post. Shoko had the camera, so I got to be the star. Here we are (all 76 of us…so few riders that the announcer didn’t even bother with a loudspeaker) awaiting the start.

The Ill-fated Start

As you can see, I’m in my customary position at the back. I thought this would be fine, since the group was so tiny. Well, at least that meant there weren’t any riders behind me when I realized my front wheel was on the wrong way! Yep, 200 meters after the start I looked down to see ‘0’ on my computer. After fiddling with the magnetic thing on the fork I realized my error and stopped to flip the wheel around (thank you quick release!). This turned out to be a fatal mistake because I couldn’t catch the main group on the 10% (but short) climb out of town. I did group up, but with a smaller, slower bunch and the rest were well ahead when the first climb hit about 15 km down the road. I guess that’s my 2nd excuse…

First Loop – Feelin’ Fine

The first climb (of 3) was 15 km long, but with a sane 5% I’d guess. I felt good and passed a few riders on that one, till I found a group that I could stay with and be content. I find passing people much more satisfying that being passed, I have to admit, but I’m sure my unintentional custom of starting in the back is not the best way to race. Still, after the winding, hazardous (lots of gravel on the turns) descent that went through the start town (Villefort) again, I was feeling pretty good.

Last Long Loop

Yes, pretty good, but I still hadn’t caught up with very many others and, like many a race before, never saw most of them till lunchtime after we were finished.

The last loop was much longer, with two consecutive climbs, culminating on the Col de Finiels, which is Mt. Lozère, the 2nd highest mountain in the Cévennes National Park. I had joined a bunch after Villefort and took turns at the front with these guys till the first climb where, amazingly, we stayed together for quite some time. In the group I had Les Rouleurs, two men who could really push it on the flats, not to mention create a nice windscreen for the rest of us; Le Grimpeur, the climber of the group, who was nearly always at the front when things got vertical, but who later sullied his name by bonking and drifting away behind us; finally the two Domestiques, me and another guy – we were not bad on the flats and nothing really special in the hills. Probably make excellent water boys though.

In the end, our groups broke up near the top of the 2nd climb, with me behind Les Rouleurs (yes, they could climb, too) and in front of Le Grimpeur and my fellow domestique, i.e. no-man’s land. I got to the top at my own pace, stopped for water, cake and orange slices, and rode away, wondering what was in store for me on Mt. Lozère.

Nothing really good, is the short answer.

I suppose I spent nearly an hour climbing after the top of the 2nd col, then The Climb came into view. The top of Mt. Lozère is pretty much treeless, so I had the whole, sickening vista to behold – a giant stood in front of me, seemingly not too far and not too high, but I’d seen enough mountains to know the reality. There was still a whole lot of up.

I should mention here that the way I was feeling on climb #1 had deteriorated into something less than good. I had eaten / drank enough this time at least, so there was to be no bonking like on Ventoux. I was just simply running out of steam after 100 km and maybe 2000 m of climbing. I would like to use this as excuse #3, but I can’t really, since everybody else was doing the same race as me. Where do they get their stamina from??

So I tucked into myself, had my last slice of fruitcake, and slowly, steadily, made my way up the flanks of Mt. Lozère. By the end I was feeling OK again, especially since I knew the last 45 km or so were downhill.

It’s All Downhill…

But it’s never that easy, is it? The ‘downhill’, after a proper descent of maybe 5 km from the summit, was a road that gently went down, following a river. Fine, but there was a headwind for most of the way, which meant over an hour of time trialing to get myself back to Villefort before they ran out of food. I found a rider on the way who was happy to latch onto my back wheel and even do a full pulls himself, and things went a bit faster. Still, it was a hard, hard slog and everything was hurting.

The race ended with a tiny climb and I somehow found the energy to stand on the pedals for the camera.

Then, as usual at cyclosportives in France, the much-welcome lunch and big bottle of water.

What I Learned

1. This cycling game is a long-term effort and if you (or at least me..) want to improve enough to be competitive you need years, not months.

2. Local races in France are  more competitive than those with a heavy foreigner presence (like Ventoux and, presumably, l’Etape du Tour).

3. French riders have a cycling gene that I need to get transplanted somehow.

June 19, 2011.

As with most great ideas, this one was born over a beer. Cycling buddy John and I were trying out a new micro-brewery in Nîmes last week and one of us brought up the idea of climbing Ventoux together. Up till that point I had not an ounce of desire to ascend that monster again this year, but since it was John and since I was drinking at the time, we agreed it might be nice thing to do.

And it was, believe it or not.

We ended up being a party of three, with John’s friend Mark joining us in Beaumes de Venise for our warm up. Here they are enjoying the wonderful paysage of Provence, and trying to avoid the sight of Ventoux straight ahead.

And after filling up the water bottles in Bédoin, the boys with their pre-suffer smiles on.

John, before the climb really started ramping up. How do I know this? No way I could ride and shoot at 10%!

Me, shortly after Chalet Reynard, 6 km from the summit.

I have to say that you never know how things are going to go on a ride like this. I haven’t done much more in the way of training than before, and I carbed up yesterday by drinking 750 ml of beer, with a two-glass-white-wine chaser, i.e. not very smart. Somehow though, I was full of energy and I never really hurt the whole way up. This, as you may remember, is in marked contrast to my last attempt at le Geant, where I met The Man With the Hammer somewhere up the hill from Malaucène. This time I felt strong and I had enormous (for me) amounts of stamina. If this is my peak, I hope I can hold on 3 more weeks till the Etape.

I am happy to report that I was only passed by these guys the whole way up.

The French Army cycling team – I’ve been dropped by lesser men. I reached the top in 1:45, which is, according to me, not too shabby. Here are some shots looking down from the top.

A few of the hundreds of riders who conquered Ventoux today.

A word on my fellow grimpeurs today. John, who has about 4500 fewer kilometers in his legs than me this year, finished right behind me, and Mark, who according to John has ridden even less, made it to the top in a respectable time as well. Hard men.

Click here for a YouTube playlist that Mark somehow had the energy to make.

It was blowing hard today and the wind was out of the north, which means frigid usually. We stayed up top till our teeth started chattering then descended down to Malaucène, on the north side.

Other than my personal best on the climb, I had my personal fastest on the descent, a wind-aided 79.3 kph. I had no idea I was going that fast till I glanced at the computer. I’m not sure it’s wise to be able to ride that fast on a bike.

The ride was not quite done when we hit the bottom of Ventoux, since the car was parked back in Beaumes. This meant another little climb…

…and possibly the prettiest 16 kilometers in Provence.

Only 3 more weeks till l’Etape and I’ve got a massive amount of fartleking to do before then. Now just have to remember my secret weapon for the big race – beer loading!


July 1, 2011.I am only 2 big fartleks and a tapered week away from the Etape du Tour and I’ve just reached a milestone (er, kilometerstone?) – 6000 km this year. And although the folks in the photo below have started without me, I’ve got no time to celebrate. Busy weekend of morning rides and afternoon TdF viewing ahead of me! I do love July in France.

July 5, 2011. Nearly 8 months ago, in a sudden fit of insanity, I signed up for the Etape du Tour, probably one of the toughest sportive races there are out there. Up to that point in my career I had done exactly zero bike races. At that time I identified 3 areas of concern:

1. I’m fat.

2. My knee hasn’t been right in over 5 years.

3. I’m 42.

Turns out there were a few things lacking from this list (a woefully inadequate bike, for example), but let’s take just these three and see how I’ve fared since November.

1. I’m fat. Well, I’m still no Andy Schleck, but since Christmas I’ve come down from 77 kg to what I’m hoping will be 68 kg on race day. 9 kg is a lot of extra baggage to pull up the col du Telegraphe, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez, so although I’m definitely still not at an ideal weight for climbing, it’s a whole world away from where I started.

2. My knee hasn’t been right in over 5 years. This one has been temporarily solved by modern medicine and, probably, building up muscle strength around the knee. The short of it is that I can, for the most part, push my left knee as hard as my right now. Another massive improvement since last year.

3. I’m 42. This one was easy; I just turned 43 since then. Age is not really a factor, I’m finding. For one thing, in most of the cyclosportives I have done in France, guys in my age category are always featured in the top ten. More importantly, I’ve been simply gauging my condition by comparing myself to others in my age group.

When you start out on little adventures like this you really cannot know the fortunes (and misfortunes) that might come your way. Finding my partner in crime, Karsten, was a great move, since we have motivated each other over the months and have done several races together, even though we live at different ends of the country.

I’ve also had the great good luck of finding my step-brother Rob, who has become my online coach and has improved my fitness by leaps and bounds with his simple, effective training tips. Everyone should have a 7-time Ironman in the family!

I’ve also discovered a whole new universe of blog buddies (yes, you!) who have motivated me with both words and deeds (it’s good to know there are others doing the same crazy stuff as you sometimes). Some of these friends might even turn into real live people, if I can find Tim at the Etape next week (look for a guy in a polka dot helmet, probably draped in a boxing kangaroo flag…). Then there are Steve and Peter who I will be seeing in Languedoc later this month, after the Etape when I am allowed to drink beer guilt free…

These next 6 days will be filled with plenty of kilometers, but thankfully not many of them on the bike. We’re off on Thursday for a 600 km drive up to Switzerland, where my budding-artist wife will drag me to an exhibition in Basel, that will be bookmarked by a couple of rides through the (fingers crossed) low hills of southern Alsace.

Then on Saturday it’s to the French Alps for a couple days of anxious recovery rides and beer avoidance. Very, very early Monday morning, if everything goes to plan (ha!), Herr Kaa and I will be in our pens, surrounded by 10,000 of our newest friends, awaiting 3 mythic Tour climbs, a whole lot of suffering, some outstandingly beautiful roads and views, and maybe, just maybe, NO sign of the broom wagon.

Wish us luck!

July 13, 2011.

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.

Musettes, not just for feeding stations anymore.
I modeled it, but I didn’t buy it…yet.

But we were there for business as well. This is me at one of 12 stalls in place to collect our numbers.

Then down the lane where I got my bum cream and (very cool Rapha) t-shirt.

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.

You can tell it’s the beginning. Humans can still live at this altitude…

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!

This is just after you take the sharp right turn over the little stone bridge that signals the start of the real climb.

At the top of the series of switchbacks after that bridge and, unfortunately, not at all at the top of the pass.

The sign says it all. The question is, why am I taking this photo and not driving down the other side of the mountain.

Well, it goes something like this. I get to the entrance of the tunnel near the summit and there are some gendarmes blocking my way.

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? 

Me: Non.

Gendarme: Well, you can go back down, or you can wait here for two hours. 

Me: Merde…

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 then the race came up…

…and over the pass.

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 her 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.

With a two-hour wait, there’s a good chance nature will call.

More novel ideas: This is the bike of a British guy I met in line. The old duct tape the sandwich to your top tube trick!

This might be a good time to refill that drink. The race is about to start!

Le Départ

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.

Shortly after them I got by this man, from the 6000s.

And it went on like this up the Télégraphe…

Till I met my match with this guy, a 9000 who passed me on that first climb and who obviously didn’t belong in his pen…dare I say ‘either’.

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.

Galibier

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).

And just after this left hander begins a long 9% ramp that happily ended at the first feeding station.

And on the way I passed by a surprising number. Must have had a flat.

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 the bridge I was talking about above. It’s after this that Galibier really turns nasty.

A little break from the shots of cyclists’ asses, if you don’t mind.

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 was just before I met my linebacker.

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.

Alpe d’Huez

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.

Looking Ahead

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..?!

34 thoughts on “Etape du Tour 2011

  1. Just checking: why isn’t this part in reverse-chronological order? Just so I have scroll past pictures of your new bike every time?
    Do you have your safety pins for your first race ready yet?

  2. I thought it would work better from top to bottom. It’s only reverse if you start at the bottom! But yeah, I see what you mean about the scrolling.

    You had me stumped for a moment with the safety pin question. Do I really need them?

  3. Best of luck
    Am doing the etape myself this year and while I do not have a dodgy knee, have some of you issues in that

    1. I’m fat
    2 I’m 52

    and being from scotalnd, most of my training so far has been in the gym

  4. I will be traveling half the globe doing my first E’tape this year, Modane-Alp d’huez. Keep up the training and interesting update of your progress!

    Richard Neo
    Brunei

  5. Great blog – I look forward to following your progress.
    I’m doing the Etape myself too, another first timer.
    And like yourself (& Alastair) I have age (41) & weight against me (77kg is a target still…). But worst of all, due to my work schedule I just began training about a week ago & after a sudden realization of what I’ve got myself into I bought a new bike today. Got some catching up to do!
    Best of luck & keep up the great blog.
    Declan
    (A Brit transplanted to Lynchburg, Virginia)

    • Thanks, Declan, and good luck on l’Etape this year! And, may I add a bit of advice you probably are all too aware of already? Get training now! I just climbed Ventoux a couple days ago and I am really not sure I could have done it in the shape (and weight) I was a few months ago. The Etape is going to be basically two Ventouxs in the same day. I shudder to think about it…

      Anyway, keep me updated on the progress. I love to hear about fellow masochists!

  6. Good Luck Gerry,

    Enjoying readin your blog. I’m in a similar boat to you and the other people commenting above.Doing my first Etape this year and having many of the same feelings, troubles and logistical problems that you have faced. Good to know I’m not alone.

    cheers

    Tim.

  7. Great blog Gerry, you should be all finished by now and i bet you did great on those climbs. I started cycling last september… fat, (17 stone 5’11) 37 yrs old …shiocking back problems…now i am an addict to my bike, 12.5 stone and no back pain. I’ve taken plenty of inspiration from your words of wisdom, Thanks…don’t stop the blog its a great read.

    Seb

    • Hi Seb,

      Thanks for the kind words and I’m glad you are getting something out of my words, wise or otherwise!

      That’s some serious weight you’ve taken off. Good on you. I think I might be able to categorize myself as an ‘addict’ as well, now, so I totally understand what you are saying. It is a little addictive.

  8. I hope you don’t mind my asking a couple of questions, the first is where did you keep all the stuff you seem to carry with you? rain jackets, energy shots, not to mention the camera, puncture repair stuff etc especially when weight seems such a big deal.Secondly, How was l’etape?

    • No worries, Seb. I had the same question as you before January.

      Simply put, everything is carried in the 3 pockets most bike jerseys come with. You’d be amazed how much crap you can stuff in there! I very rarely carry a wind breaker, but they come very, very small and most people have them for high climbs. Energy gels, bars, bananas, etc. go in one pocket, camera goes in another, iPhone and wallet in one more. I also have a little took kit that clips under the saddle. Tube, levers and allen keys go there.

      Weight is a big issue, but really there’s no choice when you aren’t a pro. That’s my take at least. You could certainly forgo food on many races, and just take what they supply at the feeding stations, but I don’t know how many do that. My feeling is that, since everybody is adding extra weight, it’s an even playing field, more or less.

      The Etape…don’t want to spill the beans yet! I’m going to blog about it later today. Thanks for asking.

  9. BRILLIANT!!! Well done Gerry…im in…i think…im crapping it just at the thought! mate you’ve trained hard and still found it hard…but a great result. How to i enter? ( am i gonna regret asking that?)

    • Seb, luckily you have until October I think to register for next year. Plenty of time to ponder the pro and cons and get some extra training in. Just check the site for the Etape for news. I think they announce the route just after the Tour de France route is let out – Oct.

  10. yup well i think im gonna give it a go, I quite like the idea of some practice trips to Mont Ventoux i know a nice little place near there called Crillion le Brave, any excuse!
    Out of interest what kind of speeds are you climbing at, and what was your overall time?

    • Glad to hear it. It’s a good excuse to start a blog as well.

      Climbing speeds: really hard to say. I guess I was doing around 11 or 12 kph on most of Télégraphe and only around 8 kph or less on Alpe. All depends on gradient and energy, I think.

      My overall time was 5:40.

  11. Great read…thanks. I’ve been trying to finding out how you get put into which age category. Do you know? Is it your age on the event day or your age when you enter or your age on some other date?

    • Thanks for the comment Graeme. Although they may take age into the equation when deciding which pen they put you in, there are no pens by age. I think they base your place on previous results. That’s it.

  12. Hi
    Do you remember the nets near the road to collect the garbage? – There was one on the starting of Telegraph, and another on the big descent near the tunels.
    I’m looking for a photo of that.
    If you have one, can you please send it to me? Thank you. Regards.

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