mercredi 19 septembre 2012

L'ÉTAPE DU TOUR Acte 1 Albertville-La Touissière

When i entered this 'race' i really had no idea what i was letting myself in for. I have only been to the Alps twice before  - once for grape-picking in the late eighties, and once for a holiday in August 2006 when i rode up the Col du Télégraphe on a mountain track and ran half way up the Galbier in preparation for my first 100km Millau.....
My preparation training had me, for the most part, doing two hour stints on the Home Trainer, and scrambling up and down the hills of Normandy - but NOTHING could really simulate the climbs of the Alps.

AN 8 hour drive took me to the hotel in Muguet, 30km from Albertville on the fRiday (race day Sunday) where i caught up with my two brothers - Simon had pulled out due to a lack of preparation, and Michael was raring to go....this being his 7th Étape. "You'll be fine," he kept saying as i shook my head once more at the mountain profiles. My initial thoughts were that the first of the 4 Cols was difficult if only because i'd heard it mentioned many times - the Col De la Madeleine; the second, the Glandon (Croix de Fer), can't be as bad as it isn't as long, and the last two - well, the third (the Mollard) is only 6km - piece of cake - and the last, well the last is always going to be easier, psychologically. Didn't quite happen like that though. But i told myself to stick to my plan - just ride and enjoy it, which was never going to be difficult with this kind of view :

Saturday was a scorching summer day in Albertville as we picked up the numbers and ate in a brasserie watching the Tour de France. But by the time Sunday morning came by it was cold, windy and rainy (the Etretat tri had come in handy preparation, i thought). After a sleepless Saturday night - not due to nerves really,  but simply not being able to nod off  (though i rested very well) - we were off to Albertville and the start.
9000+ registered, 6700 starters announced... the speaker put this down to the bad weather. The start was easy enough - slow and steady (35-40km/h) all the way to the foot of the Col de la Madeleine. SLOW down - steady drizzle acompanied us - the gradient was getting to 7, 8% but it felt fine.  Mike had pointed out that the climbs are given an average gradient,  which was 6-7%, but they include the downhill and flat parts, of which teh Madeleine has two significant sections... and so i should remember that when it feels easier, then it would be paid for later. As we reached half way and the straighter, flat part - everything was fine still - funny, why isn't this hurting ? I rode alongside and chatted a good 15 minutes with a member of MSA tri club - my club - small world. I stopped at the feed station, filled the bottle and wound my way up to the top  - it seemed to come quickly enough, and ii actually started wondering what all the fuss was about. Then i remembered - i was going at tortoise pace, with absolutely no time or ranking  objective. This included a quick summit stop for a photo (i wasn't going to miss this chance)... and i wasn't alone.
am i pleased with myself !!!

The way down (18km) was not as difficult to handle as i had imagined either, though i was very nervous on the brakes, and really focused on not falling.  Nonetheless, the descent was as tiring as the ascent for me. I hadn't expected it  to be so cold, but with the wind jacket back on it was just ok because the crisp wind at 40km/h+ gets under the skin and into the bones very quickly.  A welcome food stop at the bottom - salty biscuits were on offer and went down very nicely indeed - and it was on
to the Col du Glandon.
Mike had said this was not an easy climb - and after 6 or 7 km at 8% i was starting to understand - final 6km to the summit were  going to be even steeper, hitting 12 and 13%, averaging out at around 9,5-10%. I looked up the sheer height of the mountain and could see the cyclists way above.... this was impressive, some were beginning to walk with their bikes, i just carried on pushing away - the gradient was relentless - so happy to have added the 29 cog the week before (i'm using a Compact pedal set with a 11-29 cog set) - so it's not too bad. The rain has stopped and the sun is now out - wonderful. Clouds float around the summit way above, it is beautiful. The only downside, apart from the 9 and 10, and 12%s is the strong wind as we turn each hairpin, a real killer.
over half-way there !

But I breathe deeply, smile to myself, exchange an encouraging word with the other cyclists and occasional caravan - i am enjoying this. It is very, very hard though and i know i will earn the medal, if i get to the end and escape the fate of being picked up by the "broom wagon". I ask an official  if i'm in danger of this  - "no, you'll be OK". I'm not convinced and push on to the Col de la Croix de Fer, a further 3-4 kms. An easy ascent, but with the wind head on, and the tiredness now in the legs...ooof.
feeling it !

Another,  shorter descent this time - no need for the wind jacket - but as the road flattened out at the bottom, the sun was really starting to heat - i joined a line of 20 or so sheltering behind a friendly motor bike who took us a good 4-5km at a steady pace - this was great - the peloton sensation. I am starting to really like this sport :)
The Col du Mollard was a short 6km climb - short yes, but climb all the same - with the heat, and with so many cyclists now lying, energy-sapped, at the side of the road, waiting their inevitable pick up by the big bus, it was certainly tough. I pedalled away, steady and determined. The km milestones indicate the gradient and it starts to play on the mind when it is constantly telling you 8%; 9% and with passages at 10% - when will it get easier ? The fact is it doesn't ! 
The final descent was the most difficult - extremely technical, with 40+ hairpin bends  - quite a few fallers as i wound my way cautiously down. This kind of descent really takes it out on the arms. It was even hotter now, and my head was starting to spin - i really thought i wouldn't make it and started to worry.... i calmed myself down by concentrating, breathing deeply.... before arriving at the final food stop. I pulled up, took a bottle of Vittel emptied it over my head - "douche de riche", "luxury shower" - it worked and i felt better - i was overheating, the altitude, the lack of sleep, the accumulating tiredness....
I chatted with the helpers giving the water - i asked if the last climb was less difficult... "they all go up" was the answer i didn't want to hear... but it was true - there was only one way from here - UP.
A final 18km and i will have done what i wanted - finish. I was still determined i wouldn't walk, i wouldn't stop, and i would get there.
The first 6 or so km of the climb to the Toussuière were as difficult as the top of the Glandon - a straight uphill... no shade...torture ! Again the constant reminders that we were at 9% didn't help - only when it read 7% did i feel there was some kind of relief. Still i was smiling and enjoying the fact that i was here, still pedaling and getting closer with every stroke and push of the foot. 10km to go - a water trough - cold water - i stop and put my head under the flowing tap - only 10 more... The 9, 8, 7.... counting one by one, standing, pushing, passing to the 27 cog knowing i had a reserve cog, just in case...5, 4 3 - and trhe arch, signalling i was almost there.... but still the road climbed . The spectators were shouting - it gets flat round the corner - they never said which corner though. 2 to go, then 1 the famous flame of the final km -... people behind the barriers clapping encouragement.

My challenge was complete : i finished, i finished feeling good, no problems or injuries, and i really enjoyed it. Again, because i can.