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.