Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Alps - Part 3

After St Jean d'Aulpes, on the outskirts of Morzine we swung westwards over the river and up toward the Col des Gets. It's a short climb by Alpine standards that starts by winding up through chalets and the occasional hotel. The road is well engineered - there are no steep ramps here, and the surface remained dreamlike in comparison with what we contend with back home.

So far so good - though deep down I knew that this climb barely registered as a pimple against what was to come.

The pace remained steady on the lower slopes, people's work levels slowly ramping up. As we rose out of the valley I saw that the group had fractured - so much for tackling the first part of the day as a collective.

People tend to focus inwardly as the road starts to point towards the sky. I had subconsciously reduced the frequency of my checks on the tail of the bunch and was concentrating on my own breathing and pedal stroke, still slightly anxious as to how I was going to fare in this unknown landscape.

Unless you have specific reason there is little point in trying to keep a group of cyclists together on a climb of any duration. Everyone has their own pace, and performs differently depending upon gradient, bicycle choice and myriad other factors. It makes sense to stay close to a rider who is struggling physically or psychologically, but beyond that it is far more sensible to agree to do your own thing, and regroup at the top.

I had remained with the frontrunners for much of the way up, but as the buildings and meadows gave way to conifers towards the top, the pace was squeezed up once again.

I'd managed to stay on the wheel of Nigel most of the way up, a friend and ex-resident of St Albans who had moved back north to the Pennines several years ago. We used to joke that Nigel climbed and descended at the same speed, his big diesel engine always to be found grinding a large gear towards the front of the group on the ascents. A season snowboarding and the move back home to hillier terrain did wonders for his downhill abilities though and he is a strong all rounder, especially on longer rides.

That big gear of his had proven too much for me towards the top, and as my pulse rose too high to sustain I gave up trying to follow. Tim & Robin stayed in-touch a couple of minutes longer, but Nigel also broke their elastic and powered to the top alone. Tim & Robin were 15 seconds down, followed by myself at another similar interval.

The group rolled-in over the next couple of minutes, and we all set out down the valley towards Taninges. Local knowledge from Chris, an ex-pat living in Morzine warned of some potholes towards the bottom. I have learned to enjoy (some) climbing in the last couple of years, but I'm always more at home when the road points downwards. We took it slightly easy for the upper section, getting a feel for the alpine roads, but soon the adrenaline was flowing and the grins were spread across our faces. The sky had turned a glorious blue and the sun was shining. Traffic was at a minimum, the road smooth and flowing as the crisp, clean air rushed by. This was pure fun, and I arrived in Taninges just behind Tim, potholes duly noted and safely circumnavigated.

Our minibus was parked next to a lovely traditional French cafe on the square in the centre of town. We all dismounted and piled inside, refreshments ordered as we took our seats. The group's linguistic capability ranged from fluent French to slow shouty English, much to the bemusement of the proprietor .

The arrow-straight tree-lined avenue out of Taninges gave way to flowing curves as we enjoyed further descending to Cluses. A short cut across town and down a riverside cycle path meant we almost lost our accompanying courier and minibus, but we eventually regrouped before beginning our first climb of any note, the Col de la Colombiere. Undeterred by falling slightly short at Les Gets, I resolved to make sure that I was hitting the summit alongside my usual riding buddies. I would simply hold a wheel and not allow myself to be dropped. I had done the training, there was seldom more than a few seconds separating us on our regular climbs at home, it was just going to be a case of digging in and pushing on through the pain.

The pace started high, and remained so. Through the wooded lower slopes there was little breeze, and although a chill remained in the air I quickly developed a sweat. I was keeping pace but having to work hard for the privilege. As the landscape opened out to a wide meadowed valley it struck me that I genuinely had no idea how long I was going to have to keep this up for. The Colombiere had none of the kilometre markers that are found on many Alpine slopes, so I tried to cast my mind back to stage 17 of the 2009 Tour de France. Thor Hushovd's solo breakaway had hoovered-up most of the day's green jersey points before the GC contenders battled out the stage victory up this very road. I was able to place snippets, but not enough to form a proper picture of what lay ahead. Looking back, this tells me that I was already in trouble. All the information I needed had been pre-programmed into my Garmin, and the press of a button would have shown me distance and estimated time to the top. But the anaerobic stupor was clouding my brain, and I wasn't thinking straight.

As the road opened out into the meadowed valley I had to accept that I couldn't match the pace, and was slowly cut adrift by front men Tim, Robin & Nigel. Ironically the gradient had actually eased off slightly here which should have suited me, but for some reason I didn't quite have the power. I kept-up my effort however, pushing myself hard and clinging onto the notion that I might be able to close the gap further up.

Shortly before the switchbacks at Le Reposoir I remember the seeds of doubt taking root, a hollow voice in my mind telling me that I was no climber, asking why I had come out here thinking I'd be able to ride across the Alps? I'd done nothing more than the odd day in Wales or the Peaks previously, who did I think I was?

By now the gradient had risen again and I had realised that maintaining a heart rate in the mid 180's all the way to the top was neither likely nor wise, so I tried to find a rhythm at a pace where I could still reach the top in a respectable time. I had spotted Chris slowly approaching from behind me, so put on a brave face and tried especially hard to look smooth and unperturbed. He gave me an encouraging nod and a word as he passed, and I think I responded, but my real memory is of the amount of effort it took to smile through the purgatory I'd put myself in.

After he had passed I saw a horizon another kilometer or so up the road. I suspected that it was not the Col, but hopefully guessed that it could not be too far beyond that. The seeds of doubt had blossomed into a full grown war of self confidence by now. Fear and loathing were my companions, I felt weak and was pedalling squares. I pushed on regardless, resolved to make it as far as that horizon up ahead and then reassess the situation.

Thoughts now were just of trying to preserve some dignity. After what seemed like an age I growled my way up another pair of switchbacks and reached the spot I'd seen from a distance. It was a large sweeping right hand bend that gradually revealed a view of the final kilometers and the truth of what was still to come. A near-constant 10% straight drag to the top - at least another couple of kilometers.

My spirit finally broke and I wobbled slowly to a halt at the side of the road. I was not even going to clear the climb without having to stop for a rest. As someone who considers himself a fit and fairly accomplished cyclist, there is almost no greater affront to one's ego. The mountain was teaching me a lesson and I was humbled.

Although lunch was only a few hundred yards up the road I necked an energy gel and sullenly chewed on a cereal bar. I had gone far too hard and damaged myself, my stubbornness and bravado refusing to listen to my body. The doubt and dread that had accompanied me for much of the climb was a sign of my blood sugar plummeting - I had pushed right through 'normal' levels of bonk.

My fear of being passed by everyone was unfounded, only Gary grinding past whilst I stood there giving myself a talking-to. Another brave face put on briefly to mask the misery as he passed. After a couple of minutes I had the wherewithal to remount my bike and continue on upwards. Even with a few calories inside me and an end in sight the final haul to the restaurant at the top felt brutal, and at the Col I collapsed from the bike once again, a sweaty haggared mess.

Really not happy at the summit. image by Cycle-High

Tim had taken this climb in 1h08m, with Robin almost exactly a minute later, and Nigel at 2 minutes. I'd covered the ascent in 1h15m in the end - not that I'd really cared upon arrival. I was just relieved to be up there.

I found my friends seated at an outside table, and pulled up a chair next to them, getting very cold and not really able to say much, apart from some jibberings about this being another Holme Moss, the only other place I've put myself through such misery on a bicycle. I had the sense to realise that I needed to wrap up, and after placing my order I made my way over to the van to put some layers on. The food came eventually, but barely touched the sides. I bought a chocolate bar to follow which helped a little, but I was still cold and uncomfortable. I wanted to get moving, but as we finished eating there were still people from our group arriving at the top. I was evidently not the only person that had found the climb hard.

putting a brave face on outside the restaurant

I kept myself warm and busy with photos and faff, and after what seemed like an eternity we got the all-clear to roll on down to Le Grand Bornand. Cold and still tired I didn't descend especially quickly, riding through the town with a few of the others. We stopped to fully regroup and once again met up with the vans. I was by now feeling a little perkier, but knew that I was going to have to be sparing with my efforts for the rest of the day.

At the last stop we had let some of the sensibly-paced riders of the group ride on ahead, so as we set about the climb of the Col de l'Aravis I knew there were people ahead that I could target and hope to slowly reel in. The early ramps were not pleasant, the hurt of the Colombiere still fresh in my legs, but with a steady pace and a regular supply of food and water I eventually settled into a groove.

Smarting from the self-humiliation of the morning I didn't try to stay on anyone's wheel, and did my own thing, acquiescing to the demands of the road. I kept a careful watch on my heart rate, never letting it rise much above 170bpm, and was able to use this level to slowly pick my way through some of the field. The blue skies of the morning had been wallpapered over by ominous high cloud, and the chill in the air was slowly deepening. At one point I felt myself slipping ever so slightly towards doubt again, but a timely banana offered up by our courier Mike from his van banished those thoughts, and I fixed my sights upon the purple jersey of the next rider up the road.

Russ, a tall and likeable Australian, was the elder statesman of our group and one of the people I hadn't met previously. He'd done his fair share of racing when younger and moved his Specialized Roubaix along at a fair lick with a classy pedal stroke, decades of experience showing through. I knew I was slowly making progress towards his rear wheel, but reckon it must have been half an hour between setting my sights and making the catch. I had been so tightly focussed on my breathing and effort levels after the events of the morning that I decided not to put in the work required to pass him, and so we hit the top together.

Robin had taken this victory, followed by Tim and Nigel both within 50 seconds, myself rolling in about 5 minutes down. I didn't care though - I'd looked after myself a lot better on this climb and arrived at the top feeling positive. I might actually be able to get through the week after all...

The descent to Flumet (or Plummet to Flummet as Nigel christened it) was enjoyable despite the nip in the air, and we waited by the bridge over the gorge before the final climb of the day.

The lower slopes of the Col de Saisies are steep and constant, but we'd had the warning earlier in the day so kept things steady. Nigel was feeling his earlier efforts a little so had opted not to try to follow Tim & Robin, instead pounding out a steady tempo with me. Notre Dame de Bellicombe gave a minute or so of respite, before the gradient pointed upwards one last time.

Our hotel for the night was about half-way up the Col de Saisies, and was a very welcome sight when we eventually arrived. Bikes and riding kit were put in the boot room, luggage and room keys distributed, showers had and protein shakes drunk. We all met up for beers in the bar, swapping a little banter with a group of Dutch cyclists on a similar itinerary. We then sat down for another fantastic dinner and the day 2 briefing. We ate hungrily, asking for an additional platter of pasta and basket of bread which were duly served and devoured. Despite an espresso I was overcome with a wave of tiredness shortly afterwards, so took myself off for a final protein shake and a good night's sleep.
It had been an epic day's ride - one in which I had learned a lot about myself and my capabilities.  In terms of bragging rights for the trip, the writing was on the wall already. I was not going to be picking up much in the way of climbing palmares this week unless I found my legs quickly. And if I was not warmed-up yet, then nor were other people.

As I lay in bed I had started looking for reasons why I'd not been able to hold the pace. With my steel frame I was giving away a kilo or two to most other bikes here, and my light wheels weren't quite so light as some peoples....

No. I checked myself.

My kit was perfectly good. The cold hard truth of the matter was that I'd trained my backside off for a year, and then carelessly stacked half a stone back on at the last minute whilst on holiday with the family. It was my own fault and I was paying for it.

Overall however, I was content. I had given myself a big scare on the Colombiere, and it wasn't a lesson I was going to forget in a hurry. Given the state I'd been in at lunchtime I was heartened that I'd finished the day tired, but by no means broken. Tomorrow would be a new day, and one that I would tackle with new energy and a wiser head.

To be continued...

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