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...

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