Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Alps - Part 6

My body creaked like a barn door when I woke on the 4th morning, aches and pains biting with a vengeance. But I had slept really well and once awake I started relishing the prospect of the day ahead, the sunlight and blue sky streaming through the window boosting my disposition.
In my mind, this was the big one. Two large and legendary climbs over the Galibier and the Izoard, followed by a drag most of the way up the Col du Vars, today had 'epic' written all over it.

I followed my strategy of eating a good sized, but not enormous breakfast, packed my kit and dug my bike out of the hotel's garage. Our machines were by now starting to look a little grimy so we broke-out the baby wipes and set about sprucing them up. A few strokes of the track pump and drops of chain lube later everything was looking and running slick, but once again Tim and I had been left behind by the others. I didn't care so much today however, as the quality sleep had made the world of difference against the previous morning.

We rolled out up the shallow approach to the Galibier, and it was impossible not to feel fantastic. Surrounded by stunning scenery, the warmth of the sun was already beaming through the crisp early morning air, and there was barely a cloud in the sky. I was wearing summer shorts, gloves and jersey, and carrying only a lightweight gilet and armwarmers in my pocket for the upper slopes.
After the first couple of miles Tim started to edge ahead, but it was not the unceremonious dumping I'd experienced the previous day heading out of Val d'Isere. By the time we reached the first big hairpin at Plan LaChat he had a few hundred metres on me, and as he passed heading the opposite way up the valley side I could see that he had put the hammer down hard and was clearly aiming to reel Robin in. By now Tim had taken an almost unassailable lead in their 'king of the cols' duel, and was looking to close-out victory on this very mountain.

I was enjoying this ride already, and knew I'd do plenty of catching people myself. We hadn't been too far behind some of the group, and the good feelings in my legs (and the readout on my computer) were telling me that I was moving reasonably well.

As I rounded the bend at Plan LaChat I found Paul waiting by the roadside with his camera. He was taking a relaxed approach to this climb and had stopped to take pictures of the group as we all passed. I'm glad he did too, as this is one of my favourite shots from the whole trip:

Picture courtesy of Paul Hayes, showcasing my non-climbers legs and backside.

From this point the ascent of the Galibier begins in earnest. The road swings back towards Valloire, and ramps up the side of the valley. There are long sections between the switchbacks here, and as the altitude increases so does the rugged beauty of the landscape. I soon spotted Eddie perched above the road with his camera, capturing the view back down towards Plan Lachat, and continued to winch on. The air still had a chill to it, and it sticks in my mind how crisp and clean and fresh it was.

Picture courtesy of Cycle-High. Gareth, Richard and Russ climb in the shadow of Le Grand Galibier.

Picture courtesy of Cycle-HighRobin climbs in the sun. He still has a few minutes on Tim at this point.

Sometimes when cycling on a cold day, for example on a city commute, the air can be harsh and unwelcome on the chest, but here I just wanted to keep filling my lungs with it. Though I guess that may also have had something to do with the thinning oxygen and sustained aerobic exertion that traversing a big Alp entails!

I gradually caught and passed a few people, and then at Granges du Galibier was greeted by the sight of an ageing gentleman playing with his radio controlled car, a look of deep concentration on his face as he pitted it against the steep grass bank across the road from the old farmhouse. Mountain life clearly keeps you young at heart...

Just above Granges the gradient eased slightly, running up the edge of large Alpine meadow. The backdrop of Le Grand Galibier was breathtaking, so I decided it was time for a rare photo stop in an attempt to capture the magnitude of the place.





Moving again, and past the meadow, the gradient kicked up a notch again as the road swung south, before becoming twisty and sinuous for the final kilometer or so before the tunnel. It struck me that this section would be amazing to descend at speed, and so it was placed on my cycling 'to do' list for a future adventure.

Once past the tunnel and Cote Savoie restaurant (why would anyone NOT want to drive over the top?!) I steeled myself for the final assault to the col. There had been plenty of discussion and trepidation amidst the group about this stretch of road, with gradients supposedly hitting 12% at the point the legs are most tired. I kept waiting for these vicious ramps to appear, but they didn't - or at least not in the way I'd feared. In retrospect, I suppose training in the Chilterns had it's benefits here. While it is hard to simulate the long steady climbs of the Alps, we have plenty of short, sharp blasts of 15% or more. So with good legs that day, and plenty of punchy steep slope experience inside them, the approach to the col was dispatched without too much drama, and it felt fantastic to reach the top.

Photo courtesy of Cycle-High. Another of my favourite shots of the trip, cresting the col.

It is amazing how quickly you get cold once you stop exerting yourself at altitude, so once the obligatory picture in front of the col sign was taken I simultaneously juggled the consumption of a banana with the donning of warm kit.

News of the week's King of the Mountains competition was that Tim had caught Robin, softened him up with a few dummy attacks, and then powered away to take the crown. There were now not enough cols left in the week for Robin to counter, which was a shame for Robin as he was strengthening as the week went on.

As we'd got into the high Alps, another battle had begun to play out. Chris and Gary were both very accomplished cyclists having ridden across the USA together the previous summer, and like Robin they had been building form as the week went on. Both of them had topped-out ahead of Tim (they had left the hotel before him too), and it was Chris that had prevailed in what had sounded like a close-fought victory. But the second he crossed the line he dumped his bike, sprinted to give courier Mike his camera and instructed him to capture what was about to happen...

Not content with finishing ahead of Gary, Chris got down and performed push-ups on the road in front of his exhausted friend as he reached the top.

Picture courtesy of Cycle-High. Chris asserting his authority in the mountains.

Justin quickly spotted the genius of this, and presented Paul with the same welcome upon his arrival. The look of bemusement upon his face was priceless.

The Galibier is a very substantial climb and everyone had worked hard to get over it, but the good weather and frankly stunning surroundings had made every second enjoyable. It is fully worthy of the special status it enjoys amongst cyclists. And the icing on the cake was that the descent to the Col de Lauteret was still to come.

Photo courtesy of Nigel Mosley. Playtime.

This is one of my absolute favourite pictures from the trip, and I would urge anyone that thinks it looks fun to make the effort to ride it someday.

A few of the group rolled out, so I decided to follow quickly, my intent being to pass people early and have as much of a clear run as possible. This worked to an extent, but I was then caught behind a couple motorhomes which cost me 30 seconds or so before I was able to pass on one of the switchbacks. Once through I opened things up as much as I dared and enjoyed the beautiful rollercoaster all the way down to our coffee stop at the Lauteret. The road had been glassy smooth all the way, and although there had been a couple of damp patches the grip had been excellent, allowing me to get low and rail the bends fast.

I quickly spotted our destination, the giant bicycles that the Lauteret is famous for sat right in front of it. I wandered in to a large and empty cafe, and was greeted by an Irish girl who took my order. The large, empty restaurant aside, the circumstances could not have been more different from the previous morning's stop in Bonneval after descending the Iseran. The room and the greeting were both considerably warmer, and I felt on top of the world, rather than the hollow wreck of 24 hours earlier. They also had the salty snacks that I had so desperately craved the day before. I bought crisps and peanut M&Ms, ordered a mug of hot chocolate and went and found a seat in an area of tables large enough to accommodate our group.

Tim wandered in a couple of minutes after I had, and everyone else trickled in behind him. The mood of the group was high after the amazing riding we'd just encountered, and our corner of the room was abuzz with chat and banter about what the Izoard might hold later in the day.

Upon arrival I had warned our hostess that there would be 17 of us, and that people would want to pay separately, but that didn't seem to have registered, because settling-up and leaving that cafe presented the greatest logistical challenge we encountered all week. It was beyond either the capability of their till system, or the wit of the now-quite-unhappy proprietor, who complained about having to cancel and re-enter all the orders again, but eventually we got things sorted.

The next section was a long and gradual descent down the valley to Briancon for lunch. It has been said that it is this town, not Paris, where the Tour de France is won, and with the might of the Galibier to one side and the vicious slopes of the Izoard to the other, one can see why.
The surface was good, and although there was a gentle headwind it was countered by the ever-so-slight downward slope. We set out as a large group, but gradually fragmented leaving Tim, Nigel, Robin, Justin and I out in front. Everyone was conscious of the efforts still required later in the day, so while we weren't hanging around, we weren't pushing too hard either, everyone cooperating nicely and taking their turn on the front. After a while though, the pace ratcheted up, and at Le-Monetier-Les-Bains Robin suddenly dropped the hammer and turned everyone's dials toward the anaerobic setting. Whilst this stretch of the ride was only a transition between climbs, and not the kind of road to he proving any points, this was my kind of terrain and I wasn't about to let him ride away. I was about to respond when Tim came past, placed himself directly in front of Robin and squeezed the dial higher still. I had closed the gap to Robin's wheel and sat in for a minute, with Nigel behind, though Justin had quickly and wisely decided that this was no place to be burning effort and maintained his own pace. Tim's pace ebbed slightly after a couple of minutes, upon which Nigel came through, keeping things steady at this high level, before eventually it was my turn. I moved on through to the front, fully intending to very gradually reduce the pace a little, but when I got there a combination of ego, bravado and testosterone got the better of me and I kicked it up again. After holding it high for a minute Tim came round again, and so it went on for 10 minutes or so, each of us stupidly hammering one another. But it was fun.

Upon reaching the roundabout on the outskirts of Briancon we stopped and waited for the rest of the group as we'd been asked to. All the high-speed nonsense meant it took a while for everyone to get there, though I was surprised at how close behind us Gary, Chris and Justin had been. They must have been having some fun themselves.

We followed the minibus into town as a group, and parked our bikes up outside the restaurant. Two long tables had been set up and we set about placing our orders. Most people were sensibly ordering pasta or baguette sandwiches with plenty of carbs. I had a protein craving however, and went for a steak hachee (sloppy beefburger, cooked rare) with fries. It arrived larger and rarer than I'd imagined, and I did have a fleeting worry about it sitting undigested in my belly all afternoon, but then figured that my stomach had now shifted to 'uber efficient' mode in terms of digestion, and wolfed it down anyway.

After lunch I was ready to leave well ahead of the main group. The slower riders had already gone, so I decided to head out on my own at an easy pace, hoping to enjoy the Izoard as much as I had enjoyed the Galibier. Having checked my map I followed the sign that pointed toward Guillestre, the next large town we were due to pass through, and headed out of Briancon at a steady pace. After a couple of miles I started to wonder why the road had turned to dual carriageway and there were no left turns toward the mountain I was supposed to be ascending. A press of a button on the Garmin showed that I was indeed on the wrong road, although the thing hadn't been bleeping at me for being off-course as it normally would have been. I carried on for another mile or so until there was a break in the central reservation, span around and retraced my steps. From the centre of Briancon I quickly found the right road, angling upward from the outset. I had probably wasted around 20 minutes, so guessing that the main group had left the restaurant around 5 minutes after I, realised I was at least 15 minutes behind the last rider on the road - up in smoke went my plans for a leisurely ascent. I was going to have to get my head down and time-trial one of the most notorious ascents in the Alps!

By this point in the week I had worked out that I was able to sustain a heart rate of around 165bpm for prolonged periods, so set out around this threshold, but wasn't happy with my rate of progress. So I cautiously turned things up a notch, and found that with good breathing discipline I was able to sustain a heart rate of around 170bpm without repeating the horrible experience of the Col de la Colombiere from the first day. In terms of my progress up the mountain, I don't think this gave me more than 0.5mph extra on the gradients we were riding, but I was happier knowing that I was moving as fast as I could possibly sustain.

After half an hour I spotted Eddie's silver van above me at Cervieres, though it took me another ten minutes to reach him. I had half-expected him to be worried about me, but he'd said that the last of the other riders had only come through a few minutes ago - I was gaining ground!

While my heart and lungs had agreed to work together at this new-found level, my legs weren't so easily convinced. I began to feel a few muscle pains, not the lactic burn that you get from pushing past aerobic capacity, but more of a dull objectionable throb. I decided to keep pushing at the same heart rate, and before long spotted Ruben up ahead, the sight of another rider enough to spur me on and take my mind off the ache. The scenery had changed from alpine meadows to coniferous forest by now, and the still air between the trees had a mugginess to it, the temperature rising slightly despite the gain in altitude.

It didn't take long to catch Ruben. He had been having a tough week. He had plenty of cycling experience under his belt, as well as triathlons and even marathons, but by his own admission he had underestimated the scale of our trip and was  not properly prepared. He had only really begun any kind of training in June, and wasn't helped by a new bicycle with a long stem that positioned his handlebars too far forward. On a short ride most people wouldn't find that a problem, but for repeated days in the saddle it's a sure recipe for back and neck problems. I had to respect Ruben for his dogged resilience, and refusal to climb into the van despite hours of torture, and on this climb he was suffering as badly as at any point I saw all week. His whole body was curved over to the right as he put all his energy into his stronger leg, and he was wrestling the handlebars to keep the bike straight. I offered a few words of encouragement as I pulled alongside, but honestly didn't think he'd make it more than another kilometer or so.

I passed Hazel a while later, then Paul. On the upper slopes the tree cover thinned, the road began winding more and the gradient increased. Still I stuck to my discipline, keeping the heart rate at 170 and adjusting my gear selection and cadence accordingly.

Ahead of the trip, with no alpine road riding experience, I asked a few friends what big mountain riding is like. I had a few vague answers as people tried to explain how different it is to climb constantly for the best part of two hours, and frankly it sounded horrible. But I knew that it would he OK, lots of people ride in the Alps, and keep going back year after year to do so, but I just couldn't fathom moving so slowly for such long periods. I even kept the 28-tooth rear cassette I'd bought in its box until the last minute. I just couldn't imagine needing a gear so low, surely I'd be able to return it unused and get a refund?

In this age of GPS cycle computers we are spoilt for choice when it comes to data, and at home I am occupied with my speed, how far I've ridden, how soon I need to get home to the family, and my heart rate. Gradient is an interesting number for comparing local hills with one another, and cadence is a useful reminder to change down a gear on hills. But really it's all about how fast I'm going and whether I'm going to cover the planned distance in the target time.

Big mountain riding turns all of that completely on its head. The primary occupation is the climb(s) ahead, how far there is to go, and how steep the road is. You then adjust your gear and cadence to a level where you can sustain your heart rate, and your speed is just a by-product of these myriad other factors. And that's a good thing too, because it's often a depressingly low number. I'll average 17-18mph for a long ride at home, but in the Alps that's down around 10mph, and on the long climbs I find myself sitting below 7mph for long periods.

But importantly, it isn't horrible most of the time, and I can't wait to go back.

The upper slopes were challenging, steep in places, and the aches returned to my legs, despite sighting and passing a couple of other members of our group. The tree cover had disappeared entirely for the final couple of kilometers, and the air had cooled considerably. Despite this I hit the top drenched in sweat from my effort. Tim, Robin and some of the others had been there a while, understandably given my detour, but I knew I'd put in a decent effort and that they wouldn't have been much quicker in terms of elapsed time. Strava numbers later showed that I was 7 or 8 minutes down on Tim and Robin, but a similar margin ahead of Nigel.

The early afternoon had seen the clouds draw in, and the unique lunar landscape that defines the upper slopes of the Izoard seemed grim and stark in the gloom. The air was as cold as one would expect a 2,000 metres above sea level, and still being damp with sweat I found it hard to get warm, even after adding extra layers. I could see sun in the valley where we were heading to the south, so impatiently snacked and faffed around until Ruben, last man on the road reached the summit. I was frankly gobsmacked that he had ridden the whole climb after the suffering I saw him enduring when I'd passed, but he had bravely ground on.

I was looking forward to this descent, famed for steep slopes and a sinuous path through the Casse Deserte and the forest below, but took a decision to make some more photograph stops in this unique landscape. Like many other mountains, the upper slopes are composed largely of rocks and scree, but on the Izoard these are pierced by enormous rock towers that point jaggedly skyward. A short way down, carved into the side of one of these protrusions is a monument to two of cycling's greats; Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet. I had unwittingly pedalled straight past two monuments to Marco Pantani and Henri Desgranges (founder of the tour de France) earlier in the day, so felt I should stop to take a moment and consider the achievements of these two.

Monument to two legends of the sport. 

It wasn't all flashy carbon bikes on the road that week.

Further down there is a viewing area with some space for cars to park, and from here the mountain is breathtaking, the huge shards looming above.

Which are straight, the cyclists or the cars?

From here downwards I was back in my element, flying down the mountainside and railing the bends. The group was very fragmented with people taking various opportunities to stop for pictures, but I had caught and passed everyone by the time the rocky landscape gave way to forest below. From here the road was very quiet, and aside from a couple of ascending cyclists and motorcycle tourists I had the world to myself. With good surfaces and visibility I was able to make the most of the road and really focus on staying smooth and fast.

Photo courtesy of Cycle-High. Forget the guy climbing, we didn't hang about here...

Lower down, once in the meadows, I waited for a while. I really didn't know how long some people had been taking over pictures and hadn't seen either van for a while. I knew I was on the right road but saw little point in shooting off ahead of everyone.

Carrying on down through the meadows I saw one of the reasons why the southern ascent of the Izoard is regarded as such a hard climb. There is a steep and arrow-straight section of road south of Brunissard that comes just far enough into the climb for it to sting tiring legs, but early enough for those tackling it to know that there is still a long way to go. A real soul-destroyer.

For me today however, it was a descent, and one where I opened up almost to maximum, pushing the speedometer close to 50mph, eventually having to slow for the village of Arvieux. It's not generally considered good form to enter a 40kmh zone travelling in excess of 40mph.

We eventually stopped and regrouped at the junction with the D947, where vans and riders from a La Fuga cycle tour were also meeting. 

To point out that LaFuga are one of Rapha's long-term partners describes them well. Their tours have an excellent reputation, but with luxury accommodation and a price roughly three times what we had paid, they offer a service that only a few can afford or justify. We chatted with a few of the riders, some of whom we had passed on the earlier climb. They were an American group, mostly in their 40's and 50's and equipped with £7k superbikes and pot-bellies. If I can afford that kind of a bike and holiday when I'm in my 50's then I'll be happy, and I'll even accept the waistline as long as it doesn't slow me down as much as it did them.

The next section of road, down to Guillestre, will remain etched in my memory forever. It is a fairly major route with a good surface, but starts with pretty unremarkable views. The gradient is gradual, but enough to help with the pace, and before long the sides of the road rise up to form a gorge. After another kilometer or so a raging torrent of a river appears beside the road, and as the river falls away far below, the road continues its steady descent, carved into the left hand wall, weaving over precipices and through rock arches and tunnels. As a youngster I enjoyed the arcade game OutRun, where you pilot an open-topped Ferrari Testarossa through a variety of landscapes, several of which incorporated such features, and the buzz of swooping along this road took me straight back to that game.

Ruben had seemingly bounced-back from his earlier difficulties, pushing the pace down this stretch at the front of the group. He descended quickly all week, in stark contrast to his climbing. You would expect that from a large or overweight rider who can use gravity to their advantage, but he is of a slight build, so must have been finding a reserve of energy from somewhere once the roads pointed downwards.

After two epic climbs earlier in the day, the final drag up to Vars Saint Marie was hard work. Everyone was content just to tap out a rhythm as the slopes were sustained and we were stopping two thirds of the way up - so no bragging rights on offer for the col. When we reached the village we were directed down a dusty narrow back street, via an alleyway to a modest hotel. What it lacked in size and prestige however, it made up for in character, friendliness and quality of food.

Although we stayed in "nicer" places, La Lievre Blanche was my favourite hotel of the week.
Vars St Marie is a ski resort, but not the type that markets itself to wealthy foreign tourists. It is small, very French and has a nice ambience. The owner of our hotel had kept it open a few days longer than she ordinarily would have at the end of summer, specifically for our visit. This meant that the bar had no beer left on tap, though they had plenty of cold bottles and bags of crisps, both of which we hoovered-up enthusiastically in the bar before dinner. When the time came to eat our appetites were still strong and the food was superb. The starter consisted of a selection of cured meats and cheeses, the main a lovely lasagne, and for pudding we had a choice of 4 homemade dishes. Mine was a chocolate mousse, though the creme caramel and ile flotant were both also fantastic.


I had a room to myself that night, with a small balcony overlooking the narrow street. An epic day's riding over two of cycling's most famous cols, capped with a great meal in a fabulous little hotel. This was a great day and one that will live long in the memory.

To be continued...

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Spoiled

Somehow I have managed to exist for almost 17 years as a cyclist without ever having ridden a really serious road racing bike. Don't get me wrong, I've slung a leg over lots of nice bikes, but nothing quite at the level of the full Dura-Ace equipped Cervelo S5 that was placed in my trust last weekend.



It was almost a tragedy, a unique opportunity scuppered by an awkward lift of my youngest son that left me with back pain and incapable of riding on Friday and Saturday. A combination of massage, embrocation and paracetamol got me right enough for an 'easy 35' on Sunday morning.
The thing is, this kind of bike doesn't do 'easy' rides. Within a couple of hundred yards of leaving home I had made two startling realisations:

i. This bike actually fits me.
I naturally have long legs and a shortish body for my height, and coupled with an inch lost out of my spine as a result of a silly accident 14 years ago, I've always believed that most race bikes don't fit me well. Too long and low in general, and for bikes from many manufacturers that is true. Yes, I needed a few spacers above the head tube, and the 110mm stem could have done with being a 90, but with the taller geometry that Cervelo introduced a couple of years ago, this frame actually fitted.

ii. For a 'normal' amount of effort I was moving a couple of miles per hour quicker than I usually do on my trusty steel Genesis Equilibrium.
This doesn't sound like much, but when you consider that its like being given 10% extra speed for free, you can appreciate why the Pros are so particular about their kit. Races like the Tour de France are usually only won by margins of a minute or so after around two thousand miles of racing. With numbers like that, a fraction of a percentage is worth investing in.

Where did the extra speed come from? Two places:
- the rear end of the frame is built from incredibly stout carbon tubes, with zero flex. Coupled with the top end components this translated every ounce of pressure applied to the pedals into forward motion.
- every part of the frame and wheels have been designed to eliminate aerodynamic drag. So even with my bulk atop it, this bike is an awful lot more slippery than my regular steed.

Once I started riding my back felt a lot better, though was feeling twinges over rough sections, so for the opening kilometres at least I tried to keep a lid on the effort. I had agreed to meet the family for coffee up at Dunstable Downs, so picked a route that gave a good variety of riding to get me there.
The first couple of miles out of St Albans were straight, open and undulating where the bike was immediately at home, rewarding smooth effort with a high pace. But with a glance at the bike, even to the untrained eye that should hardly be a surprise. And that's not what really the type of riding that flicks my switch.

Once through the middle of Harpenden I swung west up Park Hill, a short sharp ten-percenter where I gave the bike its first test. I stayed seated, not going full-gas, but the readout on the Garmin told me that I was making rapid progress. I later found that I'd beaten my personal record by a full 9 seconds.

Out towards Markyate I was now into my natural habitat; twisty winding lanes over lumpy terrain. These particular roads are narrow and heavily used by farm vehicles, so there's plenty of mud and gravel to keep things interesting. I'm sure this is not the kind of riding that the bike's designers had in mind, but I was keen to find out how it would perform and was initially impressed. The rear end is far from plush, but wasn't as brutal over broken pavement as I'd feared. And the startling efficiency of the bike kept the speed high, accelerating quickly out of bends that need use of the brakes. Out-of-the-saddle efforts up short rises indicated that the front end might not be as stiff as the rear, with the brake blocks rubbing on the rim when pulling hard on the bars.

On the steep descent to the A5 however, I had a rude awakening. Tweaking the steering angle slightly to avoid a pothole, the bike just did not respond as expected. Increasing the pressure on the bars a little more I was able to coax the bike where I wanted it to go, but it was all a bit approximate. On many lanes I ride regularly there are broken sections that need swerving through at speed, with the good surface only being a couple of inches wide in places. My Genesis handles this brilliantly, inspiring confidence by going exactly where I point it. The S5 sadly, was lacking in that department. It goes fast so incredibly easily, but doesn't always have the manners to behave properly whilst doing so.

Once through Markyate the ascent to the Downs begins. The first 3 miles are at a gradual one or two percent on a good surface. In the opposite direction this route makes you feel superhuman, flying a long at a fair lick, but into the wind I knew I'd be setting no uphill records. Once at Whipsnade however the road swings eastward and enters tree cover for the final mile or so. The gradient ramps up to a steady 6 percent, and working hard I made good progress on this segment to set another personal best.

The weather was bright though cold, but there was no way I was leaving a £7k bike unattended at the Downs cafe, so Kate and the kids were forced to sit with me outside. A quick coffee later and her sister, Mum and Dad arrived, which was my cue to get on with the ride whilst they all disappeared inside for more drinks and some warmth.

Leaving the Downs I'd planned to head more or less straight back home, but with my back feeling better and with such a quick bike beneath me that plan seemed churlish. So I descended to Dunstable (yet another PR) and swung west along the foot of the Chiltern ridge, back into the wind. The plan was to climb Bison Hill, which is a kilometer-long brute that reaches 16% at its steepest, running up the side of Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, but there was an issue nagging in my mind. My own road bike has a 34-tooth front cog, which combined with a 25-tooth rear is enough to get a reasonably fit amateur cyclist over pretty much any terrain in the UK. The Cervelo had the same set of 11-25 tooth rear cogs as my own bike, but a bigger set of front rings, making for higher speeds but harder pedalling. Most high-end race bikes come with a 39-tooth small front cog (because their riders are typically very fit), but I had a feeling that the small ring on this bike might be even bigger than that, and I just didn't know if I'd have the steam to ride up Bison with the gears available. It turned out I was on a true professional-spec bike with 42-tooth small front ring (the same size as the largest ring on many mountain bikes!!), but without the professional heart, legs or lungs.

Whilst Bison wasn't easy, it came and went remarkably quickly. I had to stomp on the pedals out of the saddle to maintain the required momentum, but hit a quick rhythm and dispatched yet another personal best - the seventh of the morning.

The 15 mile run back home via Gaddesden Row and the Redbourn Road saw more personal records set, and a lot of other riders caught and passed. There's nothing too unusual about that, I'm not slow and don't hang around, but today I was reeling-in far leaner and quicker looking riders than usual - the types that either race or look like they do. It was clear that I was punching above my weight. Some of my cheery "morning"s were met with surly grunts or stony silences, some people clearly not used to being passed.

All in, I went out worried about my back, I came home with a bucketload of achievements under my belt and a new found love of carbon superbikes. But I now really, really want what my wallet cannot provide.

I love my Genesis. It has transported me across the Alps and given me thousands of miles of faithful service. Barring accidents and freakish rates of corrosion it will remain with me for many years to come, but I've long questioned whether I could ride faster on a different bike - and now I know that I can. And in road cycling, 'faster' is (almost) everything. The next time I can't quite keep up, or miss a target by a second or two, it's going to be tough to keep on loving the Genesis quite as much as I do.







Friday, 19 April 2013

Showing Off

I showed off last night. I went for an impromptu MTB spin and explored a bit of wasteland I'd seen from the train window on my commute into the office. I had been working from home following a dentist appointment in the morning, and needed to get outside after being hunched over my laptop, caught between working and looking out of the kitchen window all day.

I did it how I used to when I first started cycling. I changed my jeans for baggy shorts, put my helmet, shoes and gloves on and just rode. No tools, pump or drink. No special clothes. My only breach of simplicity was that I grabbed my Garmin.

I found a huge field that I never knew existed less than a mile from my house. The paths weren't especially technical or interesting to ride on, but the sense of discovery was great. Another piece added to the jigsaw map of my local area in my head.

Getting access to the bit of wasteland I'd seen was not strightforward, and involved riding over and through some old dried brambles, putting a tear in the shirt I had on - one that was too good for riding in. And when I got in there the ground wasn't conducive to riding. What I'd thought was a path from the train was little more than an animal track, and the grassy ground had lots of small bumps that gave resistance to every pedal stroke.

But there was a tussock with a hollow on one side of it. Only a foot or so high, but big enough to boost me skyward with a good run-up. I positioned myself, heard a train approaching, and launched myself along the imaginary trail, pumping the wheels through and up as I hit the 'jump'.

It wasn't a big or spectacular amount of airtime, but it was executed fast, and the sky was dusky with the setting sun. It was exactly the scene I'd pictured from the train window on several occasions. I don't know if anyone on the train saw me, but it felt good - like I was saying "Look at me, I'm usually in there with all of you, but not this evening. Tonight I escaped".

It's good to exercise the inner 11-year-old sometimes. Even if you are 37.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Alps - Part 5

I was already awake when the alarm went off, and had been for much of the night. The room had been a little warm with the heating on, and the stream outside the window had been noisy, but neither had been a problem for Tim or Nigel, and would not have been for me ordinarily. I'm still not sure what caused it, but my body had been a raging furnace of heat and energy all night, with my mind racing from one thought to another. One second I would be thinking through the big day ahead, over the Iseran and up the Telegraphe, the next I would be worrying that lack of sleep would leave me tired and unprepared. And the more I worried, the further from sleep I travelled. I did drift off a few times, but don't think I got much more than 3 hours kip in total.

Looking back I suspect my unrest was caused by a combination of large quantities of protein and lots of strong French coffee consumed over the first couple of days, along with my body shifting its metabolism to deal with the efforts we had been exerting. Our lead courier Eddie had told us that it is possible to over-eat on this kind of a trip, and I knew I was consuming a lot more caffeine than usual, so decided to regulate both a little tighter for the remainder of the week - and that worked well.

Our rooms had been in a granite apartment block across the road from the main hotel, and we emerged to a grey and damp morning once dressed. The rough night had nullified my appetite, but I knew I had to eat a substantial breakfast, even though I was intending to stop short of the amount I had crammed in the previous two days. I eschewed the ham and cheese on offer (practically a crime in France), but stuck with a good portion of cereal, pastries and yoghurt, along with coffee and juice. The caffeine took the worst edge off the sleep deprivation and helped me get through the meal, but I was far from feeling full of enthusiasm.

Once dressed and packed, we headed to the lock-up where the bikes had been stored over night. The cool, damp conditions meant that we could wear the winter kit that the altitude ahead would demand, the Iseran being the highest road pass in the Alps, so we didn't need to worry too much about stuffing extra clothing into jersey pockets. Our couriers had been pushing the slower riders in the group to leave earlier in the mornings, and after rest stops, though the temptation to stay and chat had meant that some of them had barely a few hundred meters on us at some starts, which had led to long waits for the group to re-form in places. This morning though, the gravity of the mighty Iseran in mind, people set out dutifully, buying themselves as much time as possible. After these front-runners, my riding peers departed en-masse, Nigel, Robin, Gary, Chris, Justin and Paul all heading up the road together. Tim however, was having tyre issues, so I opted to stay back a minute or two to help him out with his bike. A split had appeared in one of his tyres the previous day, and he had been running on a worn spare. The state of it led him to the decision that a newer tyre with a repair was safer, so ensued much faff, trimming a tyre boot to the correct shape and size and trying to keep it in the right position through fitting and inflating. Eventually we were successful in swapping out the tyre, and rolled up the road about 15 minutes behind everyone else.

If I am being honest, I stayed behind because I was procrastinating. Breakfast had helped a little, but I still felt tired, hollow and ill-equipped even for cycle commute, let alone a ride up one of Europe's highest roads.

We stayed together for the first mile or so, as the road rose gently to the hairpin at Pont St Charles, but even that was a struggle for me to hold Tim's wheel. Under ordinary circumstances there would be nothing to choose between us on such a shallow gradient, but with my fragile state and Tim's keenness to make up ground on the rest of the group, we were oceans apart. The winter clothing and hard effort meant I was beginning to overheat, so I eased off and let Tim ride off into the distance, my body welcoming the lesser pace. This time the decision to take things easier was an enforced one, knowing that pushing hard when feeling empty was a recipe for disaster. I told myself that I would strike a rhythm and catch and pass some of the slower riders, but deep down I wasn't so sure. They had set out well ahead of the main group that morning, and we had been a long way behind. But I was able to comfort myself with the fact that I would not be left behind by our couriers, their strict discipline of accounting for everyone meant that someone would be waiting before long.

Tim looking a little apprehensive on the Iseran
Photo courtesy of Cycle-High

I kept climbing as the road weaved up the valley side, the view to the right back over the resort we'd come from. I sighted and then slowly caught and passed two touring cyclists from Scotland, both laden down with panniers and spinning a tiny gear. One was riding a Genesis like me, so we exchanged a few words, though his machine was far more utilitarian with wide tyres, disk brakes and a hub gear. Given the mechanical and weight advantage I should have hauled past them at a far higher rate of knots than I did, though I still had neither the will nor the means to do this ascent any kind of justice.

Higher I went, expecting to see to see either one of the slower members of the group, or one of the vans up ahead, but the view I got indicated that the road in front was empty. This didn't help morale but there was a job to be done, so I kept my discipline, churning a steady pace and making sure I took a mouthful of carbohydrate drink at least once per kilometer. After a while I felt the need to eat, but was unable to open the energy bar in my pocket with my winter gloves on, so pulled over for a rare breather. I took the opportunity to take a photo of the town below, before continuing to grind on.

The view down to Val d'Isere

It seemed like an age before I saw anyone, before eventually rounding a bend to find Eddie and his silver van up ahead. I was used to seeing our couriers much more frequently on the climbs, and I suspect that if there had been slower members of the group on the road with me I would have done so, but they probably had me pegged as one of the protagonists that required less support, and ordinarily they would have been right. I was still struggling a little physically, but just seeing someone helped a lot from a mental perspective. I don't think I actually needed anything from the van, indeed I had been tempted to remove a layer as I was still hot, though glimpses of patchy snow on the slopes above me warned against it.

Putting a brave face on it
Photo courtesy of Cycle-High

I struck out on my own again a little happier, as Eddie accelerated on past up to the summit. He'd said that I was 10 minutes or so behind the last of the other riders, and though I had hoped to have caught some of the group by now, I wasn't altogether surprised given my shabby state and the 30 or 40 minute start that some people had taken.

The snow patches started to appear on the upper middle section, amidst the switchbacks and steep drops, and at one point I winched my way past a Marmot that was perched upon a boulder next to the road. I was surprised to see that some of its fur had yellow tinges amidst the grey, though this matched the lichen on the rocks perfectly, helping to hide it from whatever it is that eats marmots - eagles I'd guess.

Either I was tiring again, or the road steepened for the final 3 or 4km, and the enthusiasm I had garnered from seeing Eddie earlier had evaporated. The kilometer markers gave me cold comfort, telling me simultaneously that I had completed most of the climb, but that there was still 20-odd minutes of pain to endure. Eventually I swung right into a view of the final couple of kilometers to the col, and could make out distant specks of a couple of people still riding. I was really feeling the pain, but shoved some more energy bar down my neck, took a big swig of carbohydrate drink and gritted my teeth for the final grind to the summit. It hurt all the way, I was getting damp from both sweat and drizzle, and I never did catch anyone.

Chris, Robin & Ruben wrapped-up against the cold
Photo courtesy of Nigel Mosley

Richard, Gareth & Robin looking a lot happier than I did up there
Photo courtesy of Cycle-High

I really don't want to be here...

Once at the top I got cold very quickly. I put on a brave face for a couple of photos, zipped everything up and set about the descent to Bonneval-sur-Arc. I had been last to the top, last away from the top, but there was no way I was going to take a second longer than necessary to get to the bottom. It wasn't about enjoyment or proving any points that morning, it was about survival. I was shivering and a little worried about hypothermia, so took a decision to push the limits on the damp, greasy roads to get to the warmth of the coffee stop as quickly as humanly possible. With any luck I'd get a decent adrenaline hit to help keep me focussed and the fear at bay too. This was the last place you'd want to get the fear. In different circumstances this could have been the best descent of the week - long, smooth, sinuous and once again through picturesque surroundings, but in the event it was grim task to remain focussed on.

I caught and passed most of the riders in our group on the upper slopes, the majority of people dropping safely and steadily to the foot of the mountain. The first few bends saw my tyres drifting more than once, but taught me everything I needed to know about the limits of the grip on offer to my tyres. Those bends also gave me that hit of adrenaline I'd been banking on.

Our second courier Mike had left the col in his van at the same time as I. He'd spoken of some previous rallying experience, and did his best to stick with me, his aim being to arrive at Bonneval before everyone in order to signal the whereabouts of the cafe. On the straights he had the obvious advantage of a sizeable turbo diesel engine and would get close, but through the bends I was able to maintain far more speed and open up a big gap. I probably should have slowed and let him pass, but I'd started to enjoy this descent in a perverse kind of way, and it was fun to keep pushing.
I had stopped shivering shortly after leaving the col, but my damp gloves had kept my hands cold and they quickly tired with the frequent hard braking. I tried to counter this by accelerating less out of the bends in a bid to have to brake less for the next one. The upper slopes were steep however, and this made little difference, though the lower I got, the more effective this tactic became.

Paul negotiating the greasy descent of the Iseran
Photo courtesy of Nigel Mosley

At Le Ruisseau de la Lenta the mountain streams converge to a river and there is a semblance of a meadow or a flood-plain. Here the steepest of the roads are left behind. From above I had spotted a flock of sheep moving toward the road, and sure enough they were blocking my path by the time I got there. I pulled to a stop, Mike doing the same in his minibus shortly behind. I slowly moved through, shouting and gesticulating to shoo the beasts away, the van following with a flashing of lights and blasts of the horn. As the road had shallowed considerably, I pulled hard to the right and waved Mike on through and down on to Bonneval.

On the tamer, shallower lower slopes the adrenaline faded and I began to shiver again, my legs now feeling weak, all energy drained. But I knew that our rest stop was getting close so dug deep and tried to maintain a smooth and still relatively quick pace to Bonneval itself. Upon arrival I saw Mike's van, but Eddie had described the location of the cafe to me back at the col, and it didn't match. Sure enough I continued on sweeping down to the right and found Tim in a car park, the only person to have beaten me to the bottom. He had been waiting only a minute or so, and agreed with me that this was the right place, so leaned the bikes up and hurried inside.

It was a fairly big place that hadn't really warmed up for the day - not helped by the fact that a gale blew in every time someone opened the door. I had a big craving for crisps, planning to eat several packets to quickly take on much needed carbs and replace salts I had sweated out, but to my astonishment they had no savoury snack food at all. I made-do with a large hot chocolate, a Twix and a bag of peanut M&Ms which helped refuel me a little, but I was still cold and shivering quite badly.

As everyone arrived over the next quarter of an hour I moved to a seat further from the cold doorway, but still struggled to get any warmth, so decided to raid my day-bag for a dry change of clothing. Peeling those damp layers off in a cold and drizzly car park was horrible, but as soon a I put the fresh clothes on I began to retain some warmth. The group decided to depart whilst I was mid-change, so I hurried into the last of my layers, hung my wet gear up on the makeshift washing line I'd strung-up inside the larger of the two vans, and pedalled out in pursuit. I still felt far from strong, but knew that the road ahead had very little in the way of climbing, our lunch stop in Modane sitting down the valley and vertically below us. I put my head down, found a quick rhythm and within a few minutes had the group reeled-in.

The drizzle had stopped, and the road gradually dried as we continued straight down the main valley road. After a while we passed Mike who was offering bananas from the roadside. I grabbed one and scoffed it down hungrily, as soon as it hit my stomach I felt slightly better again. This was one of the rare periods where we had all been riding as a single group, though my feelings of stewardship and care toward the group that I'd felt on the first morning had long since evaporated. This was still self-preservation. Over a small rise the group fractured, and the smooth flowing couple of bends of the descent were too tempting to warrant slowing for anyone. The quicker 8 or 10 of us, myself included, continued down the road while the remainder followed.

A few miles further still we saw a spectacular Napoleonic fort above us to the right. By now it was getting quite warm and the time had come to start removing clothes again. Once again I was last away from this stop, picking up Chris's winter gloves that he had accidentally left on the wall, though by now I had started to get my legs back and caught everyone as we entered Modane.

Napoleonic hill fort above Modane

The pizza restaurant that Eddie had booked us into didn't seem very pleased to see us, concocting a story about being full so that we would have to sit outside (there were approximately 4 people in there), so we opted for a more basic pizza takeaway several doors down. It took a long time for them to get through everyone's orders, and typically mine came in the last batch, but when it arrived it was heaven-sent. I'd gone for a large pizza with tuna, olives and capers, and savoured every mouthful. After the morning's experience I could have devoured every last crumb, but felt satisfied enough at three quarters to stop, not wanting to be too laden down for the afternoon's assault of the Col du Telegraphe. We settled-up and procured a few takeaway boxes for our leftovers.

Out of Modane it was a question of continuing down the valley road for a few more kilometers to St Martin d'Arc, before branching left to begin our climb. Spirits had been buoyed by the appearance of the sun and food in our bellies, and there had been some bullish revving of legs and jostling for position as we had swept on down. With my recovery continuing well I'd remained with the front few, with the exception of Tim who's sprinted off ahead to grab some photos.

The Telegraphe is very well known in cycling circles, featuring regularly in Le Tour, though generally because it forms part of a brutal pairing with its big brother, the Galibier. That pleasure was reserved for tomorrow however, so we were ascending only the Telegraphe that afternoon. As a climb in itself it is by no means a pushover, though the road and scenery are good and no sections are ridiculously steep.

Once on the climb everyone's bullishness subdued a little, with the exception of Russ. He powered up the first kilometer with only Tim, Robin and Nigel matching his pace. I followed for a short distance but as the road became more wooded it steepened, and once again I called time on my antics, my heartrate drifting too high. I felt remarkably good, but knew how tough I'd found things that morning so eased back and watched my trio of friends putting in a fair effort to track a rider around two decades their senior.

I took it easy for a while, enjoying the warmer air and watched many of the group roll gradually past me. After another couple of kilometers I decided that I was being too cautious and upped the effort a little. The Telegraphe is another classic alpine zig-zag type of climb, lower down at least, a hundred metres or so of straight road separating each hairpin. After a while I spotted Paul up the road, and gradually reeled him in. After passing I kept a measured tempo, and with Paul staying glued to my rear wheel I realised that games were afoot in his rivalry with Justin. We continued for another five minutes or so, and sure enough there was a glimpse of Justin's figure up ahead. The next 20 minutes was a subtle game of cat-and-mouse. At some point Justin must have clocked that Paul was using my wheel to pace himself up the mountain, as he pulled further ahead several times. I was still feeling good, and could have put the hammer down to catch him more quickly, but was enjoying the current pace and thought it was sporting to support Paul's tactical nous - and it was nice to climb with company for a change. After what seemed like an age we reached Justin's wheel on an open bend around 6km from the summit. I left the two of them to fight it out and gradually pulled on ahead. I was still feeling good, and knew I could afford to risk pushing a little harder with comparatively little climbing left to do.

Next I sighted Richard, and was able to close the gap to him rapidly. He and Tim were the only riders on the trip to be running a full size double chainset, and he rode strongly most of the week - although this was evidently not his best afternoon. He and his friend Gareth were very closely matched for ability, the two were usually to be found within a few bike lengths of one another, but Gareth was nowhere to be seen.

With about 4 1/2 km left to go, the tell-tale purple jersey of Russ came into view. I had wondered how far he would get with the electric pace he started the climb at, and I'd mused over whether he'd been sandbagging earlier in the week, the veteran of the group now exploding into action and teaching all of us young whippersnappers a lesson. Sadly it wasn't to be. I could see he was tired, his shoulders rocking slightly with the effort, but as I drew closer could see that his slick cadence hadn't deserted him - he wasn't pedalling squares yet.

Once past the road was quiet. No targets to chase down, just a couple of miles of smooth tarmac winding upward through the trees. By this point the switchbacks had disappeared, the road weaving left and right, hugging the face of the mountain for the final stretch to the col. I still felt good, and squeezed the effort up a notch again. I started to feel a tingle of lactic acid in my hamstrings, but knew that I could carry this through this to the top. The anaerobic burn in turn triggered endorphins and adrenaline, and I spurred myself on more. I was racing nobody but myself, an utterly pointless exercise given the easy pace I'd covered the lower slopes at - I wasn't going to set any records - but I felt that I owed myself a strong finish to the day after the shocking morning performance.

Into the last kilometer, and I saw a flash of black and yellow up ahead - it was Gareth. He was only a hundred yards or so away, but looked to be moving well so I was going to have to be fast to catch him. Up another notch I went, but he'd spotted me and responded. At 800m he was holding the gap and my legs were aflame, but was able to keep my pace as he ever so slightly slowed. At 500m I knew I was moving in but still had doubts whether I would catch him, though at 200 it was a done deal - I was up out of the saddle, romping toward the top, and passed him with about 150m to go.

At the col there were a few surprised faces. After the Iseran I think some people had assumed I'd be quite a while, but was only 3 minutes down on Tim, and 6 behind Robin who had taken this summit. Gareth rolled in a few seconds after me, followed by Justin about another minute down, himself just a few seconds ahead of Paul.

One feature of the first few days of the trip was sculptures made of straw by the roadside. It seemed that various towns and villages were competing with one another in a contest to see who could construct the most impressive. At the top of the Telegraphe was the winner of this contest - a large and spectacular dragon overlooking the roadside, poised to bite the heads off passing cyclists. 

The dragon on the Telegraphe, sizing Russ up as a snack

The beast in all his glory
Photo courtesy of Nigel Mosley

Time had ticked on whilst we waited for everyone to arrive at the top, and the late afternoon air was getting chilly. I enjoyed the descent to Valloire although it was short in comparison with most we encountered. Passing through Valloire itself, there wasn't a huge amount going on but it gave the impression of a nice place to visit - a mental note made for another time. Our hotel lay a couple of kilometers out the other side, on the road to the Galibier. Remarkably I still had power to burn, so stomped up the steady slope, but was relieved when we finally made our destination.

Although the decor was ageing slightly, this was a nice hotel - you could tell that good money had been spent on the installations, albeit a while ago. The rooms were spacious with balconies, once again I was with Nigel, a twin double this time. I collected my things from the van, lugged them up the stairs and homed straight in on the box containing the pizza slices left over from lunchtime. I hadn't realised how hungry I was, but devoured the contents quickly - almost too quickly, nearly cracking my tooth on an olive stone in my haste.

A shower and a protein shake later I felt more human, and went through some stretches before heading down to the bar for a couple of beers and the obligatory peanuts that get served alongside. I remember enjoying my dinner, but have no recollection of what it was - I was as tired as I have ever been that night. It had been a day where I'd experienced freezing temperatures and warm sun, felt physically and emotionally depleted, followed by strong ride up the Telegraphe and the elation that came with that. I had no time to mull this over as I lay in bed however, because as soon as my head hit the pillow I was asleep.

To be continued...

Monday, 21 January 2013

The Alps - Part 4

I awoke to an alarm. I forget the time, but it was early and could have slept longer. Nigel and I had shared a room, and although it wasn't big it was clean and comfortable enough.

In running through the startup self-diagnostics I sensed a few aches and pains, and the hurtful memory of the Colombiere came flooding back. Hopping out of bed a few rudimentary stretches indicated that that physical damage hadn't been too bad. It would be a lie to say that I'd felt fresh, but I didn't feel incapable of riding.

The energy and recovery products we'd been consuming were starting to result in some extreme flatulence, but everyone in the group was in the same situation so it quickly became a source of mirth and an accepted hazard of cohabiting.

Casting the curtains and patio doors wide we were greeted by some welcome crisp fresh air, a bright blue sky and a blanket of cloud in the valley below us. This definitely helped to inspire us to throw our kit on and head across for breakfast. I can't imagine feeling similarly chipper had it been a sky full of fog and drizzle.


The morning ritual of cramming as much food into us as humanly possible was dutifully observed, luggage loaded and we were off. A few riders had rolled out in advance, but most of us stuck together as a small peleton for the opening kilometers. The upper slopes of the Col de Saisies are less steep than the lower ones we'd tackled the afternoon before, and with a steady pace they proved a good warm-up.

Photo courtesy of Nigel Mosley

The lift station at the Col had just closed after a summer season of ferrying Mountain Bikers up the slopes, a large bicycle and rider statue the only remaining evidence.



Once I had turned a few pedalstrokes, got the muscles warmed and the blood pumping I felt better and more prepared for the climbing ahead. It was clear however that Tim and Robin had forged a strong rivalry for the week's climbing crown, and with Nigel deciding that it was too much hard work and nonsense for him to bother getting dragged into, it seemed pointless me trying either. They had the edge over me, and it would have been a lot of work and pain for a handful of 3rd places. At best.

This left me feeling a little defeated, but also took some pressure off. I did have less experience of this kind of riding than some members of the group so it was probably appropriate that I spend some time learning how to manage the longer climbs. I decided that I would focus on finding the threshold at which I could enjoy the ascents - a pace where the pain was manageable, I could enjoy the air, the weather and the view, and that would deliver me to the top in a respectable time, if not an especially quick one.

What I did promise myself however, is that I would make a point of enjoying the descents. And when I say enjoying, I meant going for it full-on, gunning it down the straights and railing the bends as fast as I could safely take them. The bike had been given a full strip-down and rebuild just before the trip, the rims were in good condition and the brake blocks, cables and tyres brand new. Risk of catastrophic mechanical failure was as low as it could be, and I would remain focussed on other risks as I rode, tailoring my riding accordingly. If I wasn't going to win any climbing accolades this week then I would prove to myself that I could handle a bike down a big mountain, starting immediately.

The descent to Beaufort was a great one to begin with, classic alpine straights and switchbacks criss-crossing the rocky mountain face. On the upper section I realised that with the right zoom level my Garmin's map was telling me what to expect from the road immediately ahead, very accurately. I've long been a fan of using it as a navigational device, uploading a route and following the pink line, but that had always been about making sure I didn't get lost. At a greater level of detail I was able to tell whether the bends I could see ahead were open or sharp, how long they went on for, and whether they were followed by further technical sections or fast straights. Supplementing what my eyes and ears were telling me with an occasional glance at the screen proved to be a great approach to managing unknowns through the week ahead.

Halfway down the Saisies, my wheel magnet launched itself off into the ether, never to be seen again. As the Garmin was in a mode where it was relying upon that for my speed data, the map screen suddenly stopped showing my precise location, and having passed all other riders I had to slow down and pull out my paper map to navigate. There were junctions at most of the switchbacks on the lower slopes, some not signposted, so it would have been easy to take a wrong turn.

At the bottom we reached Beaufort, another charming alpine town, this one famous for producing some of France's best cheese. I deactivated the cadence sensor on the Garmin, and it immediately started showing my location accurately once again.

Our guides directed us up a stonework alleyway with a babbling stream running down one side. Here was our morning's coffee stop, another traditional French cafe, all dark oak and timber floor. Once suitably charged with caffeine and carbs it was time to begin the feature climb of the day, the Cormet de Roselend. We'd been warned that it is moderately challenging, so I decided to stick with my resolution and pace myself carefully.

The road ramped up immediately as we left the town, entering a wooded gorge with a river flowing through, the grey glacial meltwater crashing noisily amidst the rocks. The air was cold and a little damp, but fresh with the earthy smell of the forest. The group began steadily but still did not stay together for more than a few yards, even the easy pace of the quicker riders notably higher than some of the others. I kept with Tim, Robin and Nigel for a while, but as soon as I spotted my heart rate getting too high to comfortably sustain I cut myself adrift and quickly settled into a rhythm, content to winch skyward at my own pace.

Nigel cranking up the Cormet de Roselend. Picture courtesy of Cycle-High

I spent quite a while sharing the road with Justin, one of Robin's old friends from Kent. He and Paul (the owner of the previously mentioned radio) had trained hard in the lead up to the trip, both coming from a mountain bike background and acquiring new road bikes in the preceding months. They'd reached a good standard when it came to climbing and covering long distances, and I was to find myself riding with them both for some long periods throughout the week.

As we climbed higher the road continued to zigzag across the steep mountain, retaining a pattern of trees on the downslope, rock wall on the upslope. Higher still, the woodland thinned out in patches, offering occasional views to the mountains and valleys to the north, but the tree cover continued to dominate for about an hour. Upon rounding a large sweeping left hand bend about two thirds of the way up however, the landscape opened out before us, offering a spectacular view of the bright blue Lac du Roselend and the surrounding peaks. Although only around two thirds of the way up it was impossible not to stop and take in the stunning scenery.

L-R: Justin, Hazel, Myself, Robin, Alan, Tim & Gareth
Picture courtesy of Cycle-High

My weapon of choice, Genesis Equilibrium custom build.

Most of us ate something, faffed with clothing and took the opportunity to snap some pictures. The weather had warmed over the last hour, but the exposed road ahead and further climbing to the col would mean that we'd surely get colder, so had to remain flexible with our layers.

From the stop a few of us rolled on as a group. The road gave us a few minutes to get back into our rhythm, undulating gently round the lake before pointing upwards for the final few kilometers to the col. As had now become the norm, the group fragmented as we climbed, though those of us that had left the lake together hit the summit within a couple of minutes of one another.

Sharing the col with Nigel & Tim's bikes - the picture belies how cold and windy it actually was up there.

It was particularly windy at the col, and after getting the requisite photos we sheltered by the vans, dressing ourselves appropriately for the descent ahead. Our lunch stop lay at the bottom in Bourg St Maurice, but I ate and drank a little anyway. There was 20-odd minutes of alpine rollercoaster ahead that was going to require high levels of concentration and some hard pedalling if I was going to do it justice.

A few members of the group had started to move on, so I performed a final kit check and followed with Tim, himself a very quick descender. As soon as we left the col the road swung left, the upper slopes sitting at 90 degrees to the wind. With his deep section rims the cold crosswind blasts were making Tim's bike a little skittish, so he opted for safety and scrubbed off some pace. My more conventional wheelset was less affected so I pushed on down the exposed upper slopes, passing members of the group one by one. On the approach to one right hand bend I came in a little hot, outbraked 3 or 4 other riders, passing to the left before railing hard across the apex and slingshotting out of the other side. I hadn't exactly planned it like that but it felt good!

Although the roads were quiet, there had been plenty of the ubiquitous motorhomes and touring motorbikes parked at the col, and there was every chance of meeting one head-on whenever a blind bend was encountered. I used various strategies to counter this risk - looking far ahead whenever possible, keen listening, and choosing not to use the full width of the road when cornering unless it was very clear that nothing was approaching. I honed my descending routine for the week on this descent, and it went something like this:

Read the bend ahead. Determine fastest safe line, along with entry and exit speeds.
Look and listen for traffic and other cyclists. Keep doing this...
Glance at Garmin map to verify judgement of the bend.
Adopt the cornering position - hands in the drops, weight centered, body low.
Move to the appropriate position on the road for a wide corner entry.
Brake down to entry speed and select the correct gear for the exit - pulse brakes on and off if braking hard on long descents to avoid heat buildup.
Twist hips and shoulders into the bend, drop shoulder and lean in, looking right the way round and down the road through the exit.
Carve smoothly across the apex of the bend, holding body position until the exit line is found. Straighten up and pedal out.
Grin, repeat.

I quickly caught Robin, Chris, Gary and Alan, who had been first away from the summit, and stayed with them for a fast few hundred yards. The road then changed for a short stretch, becoming narrow and shimmying left and right as it hugged the rock face. I pushed on again, wanting some safety space between myself and the other riders on this technical stretch, so was soon out in front on my own.

As the altitude decreased the slopes became warmer and less exposed, the wind kept at bay by the tree cover. I was able to relax fully, not having to be on guard against the next strong gust waiting to blow me sideways. This helped with the smoothness and accuracy when cornering, allowing me to exit faster, and smile even more. Lower again, the switchbacks gave way to open bends that could be taken faster still, and the speed on straights was getting higher. A long straight section past some ruins tempted me to push even harder to see if I could hit 50mph, but an oncoming motorhome crossed to my side of the road on a high speed chicane, a timely reminder that some caution was required.

The wooded valley eventually opened to alpine meadows and a view down to Bourg, the road flowing down to the right in one fast final swoop before it was regrettably time to roll to a stop and wait for the group on the edge of town.

I have done many good things on a bicycle, but at that moment there was nothing I could recall to beat the descent I'd just finished. Aside from the wind at the top the conditions had been perfect, the road surface had been great and the sections had flowed into one another, bend after bend after bend.

Sometimes when riding you get Zen moments, when you find your body easily doing things that it normally can't: comfortably pushing a higher speed than you are usually able, or simultaneously braking, cornering, changing gear and offering hand-signal warnings to other riders. This descent had been an extended one of those moments. The concentration meant that I saw very little of the view, and looking back at my Garmin file shows that my heart rate was very high in places. Once I'd reached the bottom I felt the pain in my hands from the repeated hard braking and was breathless from the effort, but I was never aware of it on the way down.

Chris Boardman talks about his 'dream ride' in the 1990's when he broke The Hour record. The measurements show that the effort levels he sustained for the duration would ordinarily have had him reeling in anaerobic agony, his muscles tying themselves in lactic knots, but the intense preparation he'd done meant he was able to achieve a calm focus that enveloped everything. I can't compare myself with Chris, or the descent of an Alp with a tilt at The Hour, but I can understand now what it's like to maintain that feeling of cycling perfection for longer than a few seconds.

Lunch in Bourg was good, in a quiet but friendly restaurant in town. I also visited the two bike shops there, to try to replace my wheel magnet and my front light that had also ejected itself on the first day. I found a light, but wheel magnets were a bit thin on the ground. Many bike shops in the Alps become ski and snowboard shops in the Winter, and both were part-way through clearing their shelves of stock. I would continue to run without my cadence sensor until the following day when I was lent one from a spare set of wheels our organisers had brought along.

After a morning containing possibly the best experience I've ever had on a bicycle, the afternoon was a slight anticlimax. Don't get me wrong, a bad day on the bike still beats a good day in the office and all that, but the weather turned very grey for the long and grinding ascent to Val d'Isere. A drizzle set in, turning to heavy rain by the time we reached our destination, and the road was busy with heavy trucks all the way up, piste repair and construction materials being fetched up the mountain to prepare for the winter season ahead.

Our hotel was not open when we arrived, so we piled into a cafe round the corner, where a sour-faced young lady served us extortionately priced hot chocolate, generally complained about our presence and ordered us to sit where she wanted us to, not where we had placed ourselves. Despite the weather and traffic, our spirits were high and could not be dampened by this petulant host. A strong camaraderie was building within the group and this was just another source of amusement and banter.

That night I roomed with both Nigel and Tim, our window opening onto a noisy torrent of a stream that ran behind the building. We had slightly more space than the first night though, and once again the beds were comfortable and the room clean. Dinner was steak with lots of carbs and a good sized pudding, washed down with plenty of water, wine and beer. Definitely what was needed.

To be continued...

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Christmas Post

Every year I have to spend an inordinately lengthy amount of time on Christmas cards. Being the eldest of five siblings, and having a mother who herself was one of five means there is a more-than-healthy crop of relatives to send to, alongside all my friends. I am a slow writer which probably doesn't help matters, but it's always a good couple of evenings worth of work to get the task done.
So, quite why I insist on then hand-delivering cards to my local friends remains something of a quandary.
It was something that my Dad did, I guess. My parents would send and receive literally hundreds of cards every year, so from a postal cost perspective it probably made sense to drive round town and hand deliver cards to local friends. Once I was old enough of course, I used to get sent out on my bicycle to do the necessary.
And it's something that has continued to this day. I cannot bring myself to spend money on posting cards to people that live within a mile or two, so every year there is my now-traditional Christmas postal ride that takes place. It used to be a bit of a drag, but as the family has grown and my responsibilities with it, any excuse to spend time in the saddle is a welcome one.
I usually spread the cards out on the kitchen table and look at who and where I have to visit, planning a logical route. Favourite sections of road are of course factored-in, and it can usually be strung out long enough to make it a fun local blast. It certainly helped when Nik moved a few miles up the road to Harpenden!
When it comes to delivery time, the season dictates that I am layered-up in all my winter finery. The necessity of breathing dictates that some facial flesh is left uncovered, though everything else is a mass of base-layer, merino, thick lycra and neoprene. "Bring out the Gimp"!
For the last few years I've run this errand on my road bike, mudguards keeping me dry, high-powered lights and scotchlite keeping me visible.
A couple of years back December was especially cold, and many side roads had an inch or two of ice upon them. After delivering John's card I ended up in a stand-off with a daft woman driving a large Mitsubishi 4x4. Most of the local highways had been well salted and were relatively clear, but here there was just a pair of ruts up the middle of the road where tarmac was exposed, the rest being solid ice and compacted snow.
We came face to face, me occupying one rut, her straddling both. I tried to gesture and explain that if I ventured off said tarmac I would stand no chance of staying upright on my 700x23c's with 100psi of air inside them. She however, wasn't interested in any such discussion. The windows stayed up, she put her full beam lights on and sounded her horn continuously until I gave up and dismounted. The irony of the fact that she was driving a vehicle perfectly equipped to deal with such road conditions (at low speeds anyway) seemed not to matter. I slipped and fell hard onto my lycra-clad backside as she gunned her V8 engine and slowly rolled away...
This year I think it's going to be a fat-tyred exercise. Nothing against my road bike but I've got a brand new pair of 2.3" knobblies on the mountain bike and I want to know how they're going to perform in the gloop. And there's plenty of that out there right now.
I'll just need to wrap the cards up to prevent them looking like they've been dragged through a hedge backwards en route.