Continued from Part I. More cowbell!
Climb 2 – Col de Glandon / Col de la Croix de Fer
Distance: 15 miles / 24km
Height gained: 1,550m
Time taken: 2hrs 40 mins
The Col de Glandon and the Col de la Croix de Fer are actually two tops joined by a short (ha!) 3km climb up in the high mountains. The majority of the climb is up the Col de Glandon and this was to be the road I'd spend the next 2.5 hours grinding my way up!
There was a small feed station at the foot of the mountain and I stopped to take off the jacket I'd worn on the descent and pick up an extra energy bar.
"The Madeleine was really hard!" I said to the lad at the feed station.
"The next one is just as bad," he replied.
And so it began. The temperature was now in the low 30s now, a bit hot for a lad from Fife. As I started to climb my legs were hurting but I noticed my heart rate was down where I expected it to be, around 145-150 bpm. I actually felt ok despite the heat. Climbing the Glandon was brilliant fun as I'd seen this climb on races on TV and there were cows with cowbells around their necks in the fields making the whole thing feel like a strenuous episode of Heidi.
I was actually overtaking people all the way up this climb as my "comfortable" speed and cadence seemed to be a bit higher. Again there was a village half way up where the road levelled out for a bit. There was an opportunity to fill up our water bottles here so as I was really hot I dumped what I thought was my bottle of water over my head. Except, it wasn't water, it was actually energy drink!
I was now trying to get sticky energy drink off my glasses so I could see where I was going, a clear advantage when descending for 20km! My white cycling top also now had some fetching pink / orange stains down the back and my feet were sticking to the pedals.
As we approached the top of the Col de Glandon we saw lots of the French grey nomads, who drive their motorhomes up into the high mountains to watch the Tour de France come through. They were really generous with their support and we tried to grin and grunt a merci in reply to their Allez! and Bravo!
I looked back down the mountain and there it was again, the broom wagon! Like Pacman it crawled along the road a couple of hundred metres below, gobbling up eliminated riders and bikes. Leave me alone you bastards!
The last ramps of the Glandon were wickedly steep and I must admit I had to hop off and join the walking hordes for a bit. I rode the last steep km and crested the top after around 2hrs 25 minutes.
As I refuelled I admired the incredible scenery I started to think I could pull this off. I'd managed to get up two big mountains and had two more left. I shut my eyes and swayed on my feet a little but I got myself together, put on my jacket and began the 10 mile / 16 km descent to the foot of the Col du Mollard.
Climb 3 – Col du Mollard
Distance: 3.7 miles / 6km
Height gained: 400m
Time taken: 40 mins
The Col du Mollard was a similar height and length to one of the longer climbs we have around Fife, the climb up Dunning Glen. I'd been up that plenty times so thought I knew what I was in for. But as soon as I hit the lowest slopes I knew it would be tough. Into bottom gear and grind!
More riders were being swept up and as I stopped for a drink I chatted to a lad who was riding for Cancer Research UK. He'd just had to abandon due to severe hamstring cramps. He said he would have given me a push as I got going again but his legs were in bits!
I started doing some arithmetic. The organisers had set a maximum finishing time of 6pm. I was climbing at around 7km/h. I'd been on the road for coming up for 8 hours and it was now around 4pm. I reckoned I'd crest the Mollard at about 4.30pm.
This only gave me 1.5 hours to get down the other side of the Mollard and complete the 17km Categorie One climb up to La Toussuire. Hmmm, at my climbing speed I'd need two hours to get up the final mountain. Shit. My heart sank.
About two thirds of way up the Mollard we came across a girl clanging away on a huge cowbell and yelling, "Allez, allez!". Merci mademoiselle, you cheered me up when I was feeling bad.
At the top I stopped for another drink. I realised that I was not going to make the finishing time. We'd had this drummed into us at the pre-race briefings – no exceptions, you will be eliminated!
It's funny how the body reacts to your thoughts – I was so tired and wanted to curl up and go to sleep. I told myself, just get to the bottom of the next descent.
This one was a beauty – really steep with loads of hairpins demanding concentration and respect. 10 miles/ 16km later I flopped at the feed station and found a patch of shade.
So… wha' happen?
I weighed up my options. It was hot now and the food was sitting in full sunlight. I picked up a banana that was scorching on the outside, hot and runny on the inside. Mmmmm, sun broiled banana! I ate it anyway.
I have to be honest and say that by this point in the day I was completely and utterly f****d. My mind had cracked on the Mollard when I realised I didn't have enough time to make the final climb. Swinging my leg back over the bike felt impossible. Time for another phone call home.
"Shauna, it's over. I'm out of time. I can't get up the final climb without getting swept! I'm finished, I'm f****d!"
"What do you mean? Have you been swept?"
"No, but I'm out of time, I won't make it up to La Toussuire"
"Have you been stopped?"
"No, but the bus is here. I'm finished."
"Are you sure?"
And so on.
After 83 miles / 133km, 3,688m of climbing and 4,835 calories burned I abandoned the race.
Dickhead Report, Part Deux!
What I didn't find out until the next morning was that it had taken the fastest elite rider half an hour longer to complete the course than predicted. And partly due to this, the race commissaire had extended the finishing time by one whole hour! That news hadn't make it back down the course.
Would I have carried on if I'd known this, or was I genuinely kaput? I'm not entirely sure of the answer, but maybe I would have clambered back on for a final push.
In truth I feel disappointed that I didn't finish. But I'm cutting myself some slack and putting it down to inexperience and unfamiliarity with the way things work.
A couple of days after the race I had a Skype chat with Julia Jones (coach to the Up and Runners and all-round athlete extraordinaire). She beautifully summed up my learnings from the day:
"You'll take some lessons from this experience, then you'll sign up for another race, and next time you will not get off your bike until they drag you off it".
It was a fantastic experience, I loved it. I'm a cycling fan and riding on those roads was amazing. I've put together a list of some of the positives from the both the training and race below. There weren't really any negatives!
1. Fitness – At the age of 39 I am now a fitter cyclist than I have ever been. The next project is to ride 100 miles in a day (a century) and to keep the fitness up to allow me to do some more races next year.
2. Riding in the Alps – amazing scenery and amazing roads. I watched the Tour de France doing the same stage on Thursday and thought "I got up that!" Apart from the last one, ahem…
3. My first race / sportive was the Etape du Tour - Maybe a tad ambitious but after getting up the Col du Glandon the hills around here no longer scare me. Bring on the Etape Caledonia or similar!
4. Where I started – I started this having been unwell and I trained hard. I nearly made it to the end of the Etape and I have to remind myself of my starting point when I think of where got to and where I will hopefully end up.
5. I'll be back! – I will ride the race again next year and I will apply what I have learned and I will not get off my stinking bike until I am forced off at gunpoint or I cross the finishing line!
6. The MS Society – Thanks to the generosity of many people we made £1,080 for the MS Society. Huge thanks to you all!
Now it's time to bolt the bike back together and get training for the next one.