Sunday, 22 July 2007

One tiny hill to go!

I'm lying on my back at the top of the Bales, and I can't tell you how relieved I felt. Despite facing one more Category 1 climb to reach the finish, I now knew that barring disaster I was going to finish L'Etape.

The weather seemed to be deteriorating on the top of the Col, and it was windy. I was relieved to be able to rehydrate and ate a fair few chunks of banana and fruity sweets. I was feeling shivery again , so I put on my lightweight jacket before swinging a tired leg over the crossbar for the final time ( I hoped).

The road leading away from the summit has been freshly laid for this year's Tour, and it was a perfect smooth surface. What wasn't so great was the lack of any sort of barrier or perimeter at the edge of the road which made the descent a bit hairy. An 'off' here could mean ... err death ! So, despite the fatigue I made sure I concentrated hard.. Luckily, the beautiful new road made it all a lot safer and I felt like an old pro as I swept through the corners as fast as I dared. Unfortunately, I sounded like a prat because my jacket was flapping ridiculously and the noise was horrific.

Talking of old pros, Greg Lemond was wearing the No'1 bib, and my mate Steve overtook him going up the Bales. He said, 'Hi' and Greg grunted something about, 'Can't do this anymore'. He put quite a few minutes over him and didn't expect to see him again. Steve was halfway down the descent when who should come past him at incredible speed?

Anyway, I had one final climb, the Col de Peyresourde, a 7 to 8 mile climb at 8% gradient. It started in a small town with a big wide road, and just seemed to go up in a constant unpleasant manner. I suspect this would be a reasonably pleasant ascent if it was the first Col of the day, but by now I had been on the road for over 8 hours. It was still very hot and windless.
There ain't much more to say about it except it was another hour and a half of teeth-gritting pedal grinding hellish effort. Everyone was suffering up here but we all knew there would be no quitting. It's one of the Tour's most popular climbs and you can tell why as you wobble your way up it.... beautiful scenery stretches away on your right hand side. I guess it took about an hour and a quarter to get near the top where the road took a right hand sweep. High above I could hear the crowds cheering and hollering, and I could see 4 great big switchback corners. I enjoyed every one of them and felt some energy flowing back into my legs. I tried to accelerate and started to savour the moment. I can't describe the feeling of triumph as I rolled over the top... it was pure joy. All that lay before me now was a short descent before Loudenvielle.

All the agony of the previous hours was forgotten. I started thinking about having a beer, a pot of tea, beans on toast, lying down etc. Annoyingly, there was a short but sharp final climb to negotiate before the final straight. One poor chap was sitting by the road vomiting violently.

And finally, I entered the wide funneled area leading to the finish line. Hundreds of spectators lined the barriers waiting for their loved ones, cheering and clapping. I have to admit, I did the ultimate daft thing. I sat up in the saddle, I pulled up my zip, and then held my arms out in the famous Tour-winner's pose. I'm glad to say I didn't fall off, and I got a huge cheer.

9 hours 58 minutes of ride time. 32 minutes was spent stopped for food, fluids and rest.
My position in the race accounting for the time spent to cross the line at the beginning of the day was 2147 th.
I believe about 8000 started (but I believe numbers were down as the severity of the route put off many people).
2600 people failed to finish.

And that was it.
A great way to spend a day.
It was tough.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Part 2

My previous post left me a little past the halfway mark on the top of the Col de Mente.

I'm pretty sure the vast majority of Etapists had done their homework , and knew we now faced the true test of the day... the hors categorie (ie. the worst sort !) climb Port de Bales. This is about 12 to 13 miles of ascent at a gradient of a little over 6%. 6% ain't much... a piffle.. but unfortunately for the complacent, the French quote averages. We had quite a few miles of flattish riding in a valley following a river into a surprisingly strong headwind before we started to ascend. Like Tom Boonen, I let everyone around me do all the work and made sure I was fully hydrated and refuelled.
One of the great features of the day was the roadside support from local people. This included small impromptu bands, lots of cheering, 'the girl in the red bikini', unfeasibly old people, the inevitable stray dog causing havoc, and the traditional painted slogans on the blacktop.It was really great to hear the cries of 'allez' and 'courage'. In many small villages, people had rigged up hosepipes to cool us down, or were offering to pour water over our heads. I had accepted a good dowsing from someone, but unfortunately most of the water ran into the padding of my synthetic chamois and formed a big soggy mess between my backside and the saddle. Now I know why babies cry when they have soaked their nappies because I immediately started to chafe. It was really giving me grief and I cursed my inexperience for letting this happen. I was also burning in the sun. What sunblock I had applied had evaporated by now and my upper arms were visibly red. Oh well... nothing I could do about it now.

The beginning of the Bales was gentle and I was feeling strong. Another factor of the day which made you feel like a real pro was the constant stream of support and paramedic motorcycles zipping along, overtaking on our left. There was a sudden flurry of activity and as I came around a corner I found out why. A large tree had literally just toppled over across the road and we were having to duck under the trunk. Bizarre. Anyway, the road began to narrow and deteriorate in quality, and after 7 or 8 easy climbing kms the gradient ramped up steeply...... from here on the point I was trying to make about the average gradient becomes relevant. This second half of Bales almost certainly will be remembered as most Etapists' time of suffering. The heat was by now at its worse, and we all hugged the edge of the road searching for tiny nuggets of shade which might have given us a few nanoseconds of heat relief. Hard to believe in retrospect but it's true! This section was very narrow and the road surface had recently been repaired by Bodgit and Scarper because huge sections of tar were melting really badly. The bike seemed to bog down as the friction coefficient peaked. Why waste money on top tyres with low rolling resistance if you have to ride through sticky soup like this? It all added to the misery as we all slowed to our minimum, bottom gear, grinding, weaving and groaning. Regular signs indicated the distance to the top but only increased the torture when a quick bit of maths made it obvious that I had at least another 90 minutes of this hell before I would reach the top. The temptation to join the ever increasing numbers of people getting off for a rest or a lie down was palpable, but I decided that to stop may be terminal and I just tried to keep making small circles with my feet. I also set small targets... the next corner, the next signpost, the next man in tears, the next person receiving medical attention.... that sort of thing.
A steady stream of walkers were clunking up the right hand side of the road in their cleats. One guy lost it and chucked his carbon machine against the rocky side of the road, yelling, 'I can't even walk up the f**^er , let alone pedal'. This actually spurred me on.

I expected my heart rate to be at my known max in the high 160's but for some strange reason I was way down in the low 150's. I can only guess that this was a sign of the virus load in my body that would be giving me the runs 24 hours later. I also experienced a couple of disconcerting sudden shivery sensations that seemed to zip through my body and down my arms making my hairs tremble. I wondered if this heralded the onset of the hunger bonk, so sucked down another caffeine-gel as soon as possible. I was parched too, so stopped in a tiny patch of shade for a 5 minute lie-down and took the chance to drink a good half bidon of water/electrolyte.
Eventually, the trees cleared and the mountain top opened out to more switchback corners and great scenery. I could sense the top of the Col, and sure enough, the sound of cheering and more delightful amateur music started to drift down from the ridges ahead. I dared to succeed. I stopped and looked back down the valley at the slow snake of riders who were still on their way up. A youngish woman passed me on her bike and drew huge cheers of roadside support...' incroyable, une fille!' they were yelling. She grinned as she passed, clearly enjoying herself. I took a couple of photos. Near the top it was much cooler, overcast, and windy. I watched a huge bird of prey soaring on the thermals and made a mental note of the moment. You can't buy this sort of stuff, you know.
There was slight relief from the gradient, and eventually after two hours or so of special suffering I pushed over the top of the Bales. Bliss. I now felt assured of success barring a crash or mechanicals, and it felt good. A moment to relish.

I had a small lie down. Jacko did the same apparently and found himself in someone's own personal toilet area. Nice. I don't think he cared at this point, and nor would you.

More in my next post.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Get ready to ride L'Etape.

It’s Thursday afternoon as I sit here typing. My bowels are still in their own special world of turmoil. I’ve just stepped off the scales and I’ve lost 11lbs since Saturday afternoon. Not surprising really, considering I’ve eaten almost zilch since spending 10 hours in the saddle.

Let’s go back to the big day on Monday.

I was up at 4-15am local time, feeling tired but adrenalized. We had to dress in our cycling kit, pack all our stuff, and then load the bags onto the coach in order for them to be taken to the other end in Loudenvielle. Then a quick breakfast, trying to eat as much as possible, and forcing fluids down to bursting point. What I really needed was a big bowl of porridge and 4 mugs of tea, but it wasn’t to be. We boarded the coach for a quick transfer to a gymnasium where the bikes had been stored overnight in a small town near Foix. Everyone was rushing to grab their bike and other stuff in order to get to their designated starting point as quickly as possible. There was a big queue for the khazi, but it had to be done despite a feeling of panic as the clock ticked by towards the start time. We then faced a 6 mile ride to Foix where we entered our start pen and joined the other 7500 riders nervously waiting for the off at 7 am local time (that’s 6am in England and ‘No’ we hadn’t adjusted within 2 days). One guy crashed when he braked and his bars twisted because he hadn't tightened the clamp properly when he had re-assembled the bike off the plane. He went over the front and seriously knackered his knee. He couldn't continue, and his Etape finished before it had started.

There was plenty of nervous banter and bravado as we all anticipated the day ahead. The weather was perfect, cool but clear. We could hear Phil Liggett over the PA system, and then the klaxon sounded for the off. The hotshots and Greg Lemond were at the front, and I imagine they all sprinted away while we stood still. It took 16 minutes to roll gently over the start line, and my friends Steve and Simon (top Northern semi-pro in the photo above) set a fast pace as we steadily overtook hundreds within the first few miles.

I drafted like a sneaky thing following the big blokes, conserving energy until we reached the first proper climb of the day, Col de Port after about 16 miles. This is a Category 2, so I settled into a decent pace and watched my heart rate, keeping it well down as I ascended reasonably comfortably. There were occasional trains of very fast riders overtaking on the left and you had to have your wits about you at all times in order to avoid collisions. Halfway up the 7 mile climb I let my friends pull away and decided I would proceed at my own pace, but I was a bit disappointed and a little perturbed that I couldn't keep up with them. No matter… all my training has been done on my own.

The woodland cleared towards the top and the gradient seemed to ease as we approached the Col with fabulous views over my left shoulder. I was pretty warm by now and it was obvious we were in for a hot one.

Over the top and then it was time to see how fast I dared to go. This is the first time I have had the chance to descend on closed roads, knowing that a 2CV or a French farmer won’t be coming up the road around the corner. The art is to choose your line to hit the apex in a controlled manner having finished any braking well uphill, weight low, watch the road like a hawk and trust in your tyres, forks and brakes! It was a buzz. Exhilarating and scary as I hit almost 50 mph trying to take it easy. Some of the bends were very tight and the road surface was far from perfect, so total concentration was needed if you weren’t to join the growing number of casualties. Because we were so near the start, it was still very crowded and there were loads of kamikaze dudes swooping down from behind cutting me up and swerving into my line. I saw some bad accidents. One guy unconscious, medics in attendance. One girl sobbing holding her shoulder in the middle of a multi-bike pile-up. Two guys remonstrating with bloodied knees. Sadly, one of our group, Chad, was taken out by an Aussie and fell, collecting a good dose of road rash. By the time he had mended his bike/puncture etc and been sorted by the medics he had lost 45 minutes. As a consequence, he was mopped up by the broom wagon and forced to quit on the 3rd Col. He was gutted. That's his dodgy shoulder in the picture above.

The road then meandered quite comfortably with a long run through a valley for about 25 miles. There were a couple of nice villages with people enjoying a coffee and croissant on the pavement as we whirred past.I can hardly remember anything else, except I made sure that I drafted and conserved energy. The first refreshment stop arrived at 45 miles and I stopped for fruit and water.

At this point I didn’t feel like the real Etape had got going knowing that 4 major climbs lay ahead. Climb 2, Col du Portet d’Aspet was also a Cat 2 and it was fairly comfortable. The descent was the opposite, very steep and scary, and we passed the monument to Casartelli who died in a crash here in 1995. Huge stone barriers line the edge of the road to pulverise anyone unlucky enough to slide into them. Again, I witnessed plenty of trauma as people overcooked it. It’s so sad that some peoples’ Etape experience ends in pain and even hospitalisation for the sake of a little more care and caution.

Almost straight away with no respite we started the Category 1 Col de Mente. It was a bugger. Very steep, very hot and this section heralded the start of the day’s suffering. I was grinding in my lowest gear for an hour, although I couldn't get my heart rate above a meagre 150. After your classic switchbacks in the intense sun we seemed to enter a long straight bit towards the summit. By now , people were walking, sitting and resting by the road. I heard 3 of 4 tyres literally explode. I was so pleased to get up and took 15 minutes for food and water and a lie down.

I now faced the real test of the day, the horrific ascent called Port de Bales followed by the Col de Peyresoude.

There would be real suffering. Grown men cried.

Part 2 tomorrow.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Poorly sick but happy

I should have gone back to work this morning, but I'm still ill. It would have been a day of triumph, swaggering around the hospital with a smile on my face, shaking hands, lots of hugging and kissing small babies. The potential for storytelling would have been enormous, and I would have basked in the glory of it all. There would be no need for any exaggeration.

Instead, I've spent nearly the whole day in bed with irregular but frequent visits to the bathroom for you-know-what.
I've tried to eat a small bowl of grapenuts but thirty minutes afterwards pebbledashing became fashionable again on the south coast.

In all other respects I feel fine. My legs are virtually 'normal'. No aches or pains there. I've got sore botty cheeks because I was chafing for the last 70 miles or so after my chamois seat became soaking wet. I'm a little sunburnt.

I'll tell the full story when I'm feeling better, but thanks to everyone for their congratulations and support.

Can I implore you all to try and watch the Tour coverage on TV next Monday when the pros tackle our route. I hope some of them suffer like we did, and not make it look too easy!

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

10 hours of suffering.

Well.. I did it. Just under 10 hours of suffering.
It was horrific at times. The Bales was pure agony. I saw men crying, collapsing, puking and throwing their bikes against the rocks. The tarmac was melting. Many dropped out.

I didn't really 'go' very well, and I had a strangely slow heart rate. I had 3 shivering episodes which made me think that I was about to bonk. After today I think it was the first signs of a bug.
This morning at 5am I was vomiting by the side of the peage, and unfortunately I've been ill all day, with a fever and shall we say... 'stomach upset'.
I'm too weak to blog properly and I need to dash again.

Hopefully I'll be better tomorrow.

Monday, 16 July 2007

The Big Day!!!!

The current Mrs C here!
I have spent all day wondering how things were going for Pete, nervously anticipating a call or text. It came at 4.50 p.m as a text.
I've done it. 10 hours.
More news - he's fine but has suffered. One of his team mates suffered more so, having taken a fall and had to give up. Very sad after all the training. Hope he's ok.
I've just had a brief phone chat ....4th climb was absolute hell and the 5th climb - er that was hell too....... it was hot, hot, hot, melting tarmac and gravel sticking on his tyres.... no wind except in the valleys where it was against them.... Some of the descending was wild (not by him I hope!) - lots of crashes and people being carted off in ambulances. He was absolutely on his beam end (???)... but now he feels ok.
I'll let him fill you in properly on his return.
For now, many thanks to everyone who has supported him and donated sponsorship money.
Mrs C.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

You don't get any fitter by thinking about it..

I've got to the stage where I'm so looking forward to L'Etape... I probably think about it about every thirty seconds (by 'it' I mean L'Etape; not the other thing we men are thinking about).

As promised, I've had a trawl through my training diary to compile some statistics.
Here we are:

Total weeks: 18 (I haven't counted this week)
Total miles: 2020
Longest ride: 105 miles
Average miles per week: 112
Average time per week: 6:30
Total hours: 118

I hope I've done enough, but to be honest, I couldn't have done any more without ruining my life! I have said all along that the biggest challenge would be juggling family, job, football, other hobbies etc with the need to get out on the bike and pedal. Also, very important, is the need for rest and recuperation in between the sessions on the bike, and the fact that at 47 years old, I need more of the latter than the youngsters in their 30's. Warning to the tyros... as you get older the heart and lungs are fine, and the mental toughness is still there. The problem is the muscles, tendons and ligaments don't quite match up, and it's easy to injure yourself. I have never claimed to be a lard arse at the outset... I suspect I was far fitter than most blokes my age, but it has been a bit tight to get it together in 18 weeks. I am lucky to have retained my fitness into my forties and have a reasonable tall and lean physique for endurance events such as L'Etape. Also, I've managed to avoid any bad colds or other viruses. I hope I have used my time wisely , and applied a bit of science and 'trained smart.'

I'm lucky to be able to afford to buy a top-of-the-range carbon bike, and to get excellent advice and support from Top Northern semi-pro Jacko (he of the shaven legs). Lightweight equipment undoubtedly makes my task easier.

What (if any) have been the highlights? It's nice to know I have become accustomed to long hard sessions in the saddle, having developed the necessary stamina and mental strength. I relished the 100-mile Hampshire Hilly sportive. This was my first real event, and gave me my first exposure to semi-competitive riding and riding in a group (dare I say peloton?). It awakened my competitive instinct, and I loved every mile. I did a good time which gave my confidence a massive boost. I like feeling fit, and hope it helps my football next season.
I also really enjoyed my 4 day sojourn to the south of France to ride with my friend Chris in The Cevennes. Heat, mountains, pain and suffering... a perfect holiday.
I've learned so much about my bike, about the sport of cycling, and I've realised what a massive hobby this is. The cycling world is a big friendly community, and to quote my injured friend Stoney...'cycling is the new golf '.
I've also acquired a lot of knowledge regarding modern training techniques, nutrition and other aspects of sports physiology. Thanks to JBST.

It hasn't all been fun. The weather has been pretty grim at times and I've done a fair bit of riding on wet and windy days. I also had an episode of nagging mardy bum ache which was....well , a pain . I also initiated myself into the brethren of cyclists when I fell off at 30mph and acquired a nasty case of road rash. In retrospect I was lucky not to break anything. Many of the early starts have been grim and required massive willpower. The disruption to normal family life has been wearing and I need to thank my wife and children for putting up with me for the last 4 months.
I was gutted to snap my chain during the Tour of the Cotswolds. Up to that moment I was flying, having started near the back and then overtaking at least couple of hundred people. I had then joined a fast strong group of riders and I felt confident that I could ride with them to the end and so hopefully post a really good time. I felt at my peak that day, but it all went pear-shaped when the old chain gave up. At least I learned something that day about carrying tools for any emergency and the need to replace your chain regularly.

I hope I'll find time to post tomorrow and maybe Saturday. If not, let me offer huge thanks to everyone who has wished me luck and offered support. You are too numerous to count or mention, but can I say 'hello and thanks' to The Shanklin Webbs who have sponsored me AND taken the trouble to send me a card.

Anyway, I'll be 'on the rivets' next Monday, and I'll finish barring illness, falls, catastrophic breakdown or Acts of God (including BA losing my bike in-transit).
Bring it on.