jeudi 20 août 2015


I picked up Mike, my brother, at Geneva airport on the Thursday before the race and he welcomed me with the remark : "they've taken the toughest sportif in France and made it more difficult!".

The closure of the Tunnel du Chambon due to an impending landslide meant the descent from the col du galibier was now off the menu. So the organisers had modified the route to include the ascension of the Col du Glandon for starters, the famous Lacets de Montvernier, les cols du Mollard and de Croix de Fer for the main course whilst keeping the Alpe d'Huez for the desert. Wonderful - 176km long and 5100m of climbing. Oh yes, and there was a heatwave on, meaning temperatures would be soaring into the high 30°cs....!


Picking up the numbers at the top of the Alpe d'Huez on Friday, 3 July was hard work with the heat and high-ish altitude. I'd slipped down the stairs on Wednesday evening and had a sore back and a very swollen left elbow, so i had a funny feeling about this race...something wasn't right!
Anyway, I enjoyed a nice swim at the hotel pool and had an early and comfortable night before a 5h30 breakfast. It was warm at 6h15 when we drove the 15km from les Deux Alpes to Bourg d'Oisans, and the start. We were due to set off at 7h30, second group to go, and the sight of thousands of cyclists winding down the narrow streets was impressive.
We flew to the foot of the Glandon and started the climb. Getting to the summit in 2h from the start was the projected target - keeping a steady pace, HR at 140-144. Got to the top in 2h01. It is a tough climb, with a steep downhill break, which only serves to make the following climb harder. The road seems to just creep up the mountain, is relatively straight and ridiculously steep in parts. The 34-28 set-up I have was a wise choice i thought. The sun hadn't popped it's head over the mountain tops yet, so the temperature wasn't too high. At the summit though, i just knew from the view of the deep and clear blue sky that this was going to be a scorching day. I saw Mike at the food stop, stocking up on calories - i did the same.
The descent was neutralized - to protect cyclists from themselves as the first kms of the descent are really steep and dotted with hairpin bends. My first recollection now is that it sounded like a popcorn factory with types exploding all over the road - due to overheating probably. I passed and stopped when i saw Mike on the roadside - his Aero Carbon 60s hadn't withstood the heat and his rear rim had warped and ripped open the tyre. I wished him good luck, hoping he'd sort out a wheel from somewhere, and set off - gutted for him because it looked like "Game Over". The tyre popping carried on all the way down, so i tried to avoid braking as much as i could. My Easton 40s and their aluminium rims held up fine though. It is a great descent - beautiful surface, and clear vision for long stretches. I was singing "oh oh oh , oh, oh ooooh, yes, I'm the great descender" and smiling to myself as i raced down.
Down in the valley the heat had become oppressive, and it was only up, the beautiful Lacets de Montvernier:

Short, sharp, steep, narrow road....around 3.7km at 8%...nothing too difficult, but with the road full it was almost everyone at the same pace...and by now it was slowing down.
The descent back to the valley was fast, but once on the flatter road - a 1% false flat towards St Jean de Maurienne - the heat was intense. A head on wind, not strong, was actually just hot air moving. My throat was constantly dry and i was drinking a lot. By the time we swung round to the foot of the Mollard, the 3rd climb of the day, it was stifling. Crowds of cyclists were pushing up against a fence at the bottom of the climb as a kindly resident had offered to fill bottles from his own hosepipe... i thought he must have been out gardening and saw one or two thirsty cyclists so offered to give them a drink - but then this finished with his fence being swarmed - he was very pleasant and smiled at all the thanks - but people were beginning to push and jostle when i pulled free, so I was happy to be back on my way.
The Mollard winds through a forest, but there was little shade as the sun was directly above by now.
I noted my calories on the Garmin - 4000 - which read 5000 at the top - incredible! I made sure i kept eating - bars, bananas, and it was a relief to find a food zone at the top. I was still feeling fine and felt like i was moving nicely. I checked my phone before setting off for the Croix de fer, and saw Mike had sent a text - 'borrowed a wheel, on the move'.

Croix de Fer seen during the Tour

The descent off the Mollard was great in parts - new road surface - and dodgy in others - gravel. My arms were beginning to ache and my back wasn't feeling its best. The bottom of the Mollard marked the start of the ascent of the Croix de Fer...this meant an easy start and a tough finish as the gradients ramped up. As we hit the hairpins around 7km from the summit a thin veil of cloud floated over the mountain tops - it felt fresh and cool; i thought the temperature would drop, and even a welcome drizzle would cool us down. It lasted about two minutes, because the sun soon evaporated the cloud. It was cooling because we were getting higher, but the drop in oxygen levels was also felt.
Arriving at the summit was a relief.

     it's tough at the top

There were too many cyclists looking for water so i just carried on down. What a descent - fast and spectacular. I remember descending from the top of the Croix de Fer to the Mollard a few years ago and needing to wrap up due to a bitingly fresh wind; but today even with the shirt open i was feeling warm.
I was down on the bars and hitting 65/70km/h - topping at 75km/h further down. I was still being passed by others as well! The descent ends abruptly at one point and there is a steep 12% climb. I knew it was coming and was ready for the heavy leg feeling - it hits you like a brick in the face as you slow down to a near standstill. As i began the ascent i heard a pppppfffff sound, yes, it was my turn - the front wheel was flat. I stopped and began the change - ouch! I handled the rim and burned myself - it was so hot !! I actually doused the wheel with water from my bottle. Mike rolled up and stopped - he'd caught up an hour on me !!! Amazing. He took a gel from me and I slotted the wheel back in - a fast change. I stuck to his wheel for a while - until the next sudden ascent. I caught up again on the descent into Bourg d'Oisans and hung onto his wheel at 37-38km/h, but i knew i couldn't keep it up and as soon as we began a short ascent after passing the lake i was dropped. That feeling when you know you can't do any more saps the morale. There is a long straight road into Bourg d'Oisans and the ascent of the Alpe d'Huez - it was scorching with dense heavy heat, it was like riding in the desert. I joined a small group that grew into a big group as we swallowed up others and others joined us. We were at an easy 30km/h pace - with everyone feeling the effort and quite probably in fear of the final climb : the wonderful Alpe d'Huez.
I stopped off at the foot of the Alpe and filled my battles - energy drink and water. I made my way out and stopped briefly to put my bottles on the bike - a rider was leaning against a van in the shade next to me. "Ready?" I asked. "I've already started but came down - it's 40°c up there!!" He looked drained and fed up. "Ah well, there's only one way to see...",  and i made my way onto the road. "Good luck!" he shouted. 16km of hard effort to come and I was already well and truly cooked.
'Get to the first hairpin and the most difficult is done,'  i told myself. The first few kms are around 10% and are tough at the best of times, but today the heat was dripping from the sky. I drank at the first bend - the water was already warm. The bends were full of resting cyclists. I pushed on - thinking that as long as i kept moving i was getting closer. I wasn't going at any kind of speed but i was advancing. All the bends are numbered, with number 1 being the last at the top, so you always know how many you have to do - i'm not sure if this is a help or a hindrance to the morale - probably a help on a good day, but that wasn't today because I had a burning desire to just stop and sit down. I stopped in the shade and contemplated quitting. It was so hot, my throat was so dry, i was so uncomfortable, and i simply was not enjoying the effort. Why go on? Once the demons start like this it is not good. A lot of cyclists were sitting in the shade. They looked half dead. But as you and i know : "suffering lasts an hour, quitting lasts forever!"

Alpe d'Huez (screenshot of the Tour)

So, I sprayed myself with water, except it was energy drink - warm and sticky...what an idiot, i'd taken the wrong bottle ! I rinsed myself with the now hot water and thought - "get to the next bend and see how you feel". To my relief there was a water zone - an oasis -  and i just stuck my head under the running tap...what a feeling. How brilliant water is !!!! I drank, filled the bottles and set off again, refreshed and positive again. I wasn't enjoying this but i was determined to finish. I chatted with a Brit with 5km to go. He said the heat was just ridiculous - i agreed. A girl was actually lying in the gutter trying to make the water, which cascades down the mountain at certain points, onto her legs. Yes, the heat was ridiculous.  At 3km to go a cyclist in front of me stopped, stood on the road and let out a huge wail of a was comical, but I felt his pain. A few spectators were pouring bottles of water over us if we indicated to receive the shower - i nodded and felt the cold race down my back, shorts, legs and into my shoes...nice ! Many cyclist were walking and every corner was littered with shade seeking competitors.

Final bend in sight, and i could hear music at the top. Nearly done. I stood to push my way round as the % cranked up. My elbow was in a bad way and i had to sit again. The music that greeted me as i arrived at the village was the Human League's "You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar..." but i couldn't find any connection, and just thought to myself that i didn't feel human one little bit!

Final effort for 3km up to the finish line. It wasn't getting easier. I just wanted to stop pedaling. The Semnoz 2013 was in my head. I got over the line somehow, made my way to the food tent, took off my helmet and lay down. Exhausted. One of the organisers ran up, "Ca va?" "Oui, un peu fatigué".

Mike was behind her - he didn't ask how i was, he was too busy taking photos and laughing, "for the record". I was not looking my best, let's say :

Death by Marmotte

To conclude.
A very difficult day. It was the extreme temperature, more than the actual route which was fantastic, which made the event so gruelling. Ascending the Alpe d'Huez in 40°c temps with 160km already in the legs was not my idea of a nice day out.
I have an overwhelming feeling of not enjoying myself - which is the first aim of such an event for me. Pity. Glad to have finished and overcome the demons of Quitsville, because seeing so many cyclists on the way down climbing into cars having given up was something...
Having said that (don't you just hate that expression?), i'll probably be back again - i still haven't done the Galibier!!
Oh yes, the aftermath of my falling down the stairs -  a chipped bone in my left elbow, which explained the swelling, and a displaced vertebra in the back, which explained the pain...!!
Apart from that....the alps is a fantastic place to ride a bike.