Friday, July 11, 2008

The big bike ride

"Every year, many cyclists are surprised with the difficulty of the itinerary of the ride. This year, once again, you will be attacking mountain passes with steep inclines." Le Guide - The Guide, 2008 Entrants program.

I soon discovered, averages are a statistical cover-up job.

I trained for this event across seasons. Starting off in winter, and despite glorious days, surprised at how cold it was setting off each day. Paddocks between the many olive groves had been ploughed, exposing red soil. On one of my long rides across the plains, I could ride for approx. 120 kms passing five pueblos, but nothing else except olives.

Then came primavera, spring. Rippling green wheat fields. Fields of blazing red poppies. Wildflowers in all colours lining the roadside. And in later spring, in a real Tour scene, masses of suflowers. All towns celebrate primavera with a feria, a fair. (Antequera had a big three day event, similiar to Brisbane's Ekka or a NZ A&P show.) On a number of occasions, I arrived in towns to wait behind women in polka-dotted, flamboyant dresses riding horses side-saddle behind men wearing Córdoban hats and leather breeches. They gathered along with others walking behind gypsy like caravans making their way to the town's paseo where guitars and castanets would be playing. I never came across that on rides up the Akatarawa Valley, I tell you.

Then at the start of June, it started getting hot. Real hot. I had to finish rides by 1:30, and then I never got back at less than 36ͦC. I'd then siesta through the 40ͦ plus afternoons. By the time of the big ride it had become scorched earth. The wheat had been harvested leaving straw stubble, wild flowers were a dried up tangle, and sunflowers had been harvested leaving sad remains. A heat haze hung over the now drab grey olive trees.

I rode Sundays with my club. Saturdays were with five or six guys from the club - we were all over 40 drop outs from Paco's groupo fuerte - in what was my effort season of the week: 120 kms usually nuts out, plenty of big hills. The rest of the week, two or three rides were on my own, with a long ride thrown in, usually doing 430-470 km per week (I did do two weeks of over 500km), and 140-150km long rides (once I did 166km).

Every six weeks, there was a club ride that met clubs from all around the district. Up to 500 of us would doodle around, picking up clubs from towns as we went, usually breaking into an unproclaimed race during the 30km, or so, loop we would do around the host town. One club, fom Campillos, almost caused a riot when the molletes, aciete, jamon, y cafe (breadrolls, olive oil, ham and coffee) turned up 20 minutes late. Dangerous move keeping a Spaniard waiting for his food.

One Sunday at club, a joker turned up obviously well known by all - lots of handshaking, hugging, and two-cheek kissing. I got invited to a ride with him on the following Tuesday. As we went up some hills I noticed he was still in big ring with several gears left. Something was up here. Gregorio, as it turns out, is a 16 year professional, currently riding with Caisse d'Epargne. But his job is purely as a training partner for the big boys. He has never had a start in a major.

My own riding progressed well. I was getting fitter and stronger. I could now dance up the Carratera de Montana, my nemesis when I first arrived in Antequera (and which I have since learned has sections of 16% climbs). I'd get stuck in and mix it with the front boys of the club on the mountain climbs, and there were some beauties. I built a bit of a reputation for myself for being sort of strong on the hills.

I started to feel that I was as ready as I wanted to be, had to be, needed to be for the big ride.

But all this riding did not make Mad a dull boy. Life ticked along nicely. When I'd get home from a ride, and the next day was a rest day, we'd be off - bus or train - and overnight at towns or cities across Andalucía. Sometimes day trips. And at some of the most beautiful of small places. I also read the tome A Stranger in Spain by H. V. Morton (Methuen, 1955). A book written in a style of its time. But really informative, and one Deb and I started to use as a pre-trip planning guide.

It's now July and time for the race. It would be stage 10 of this year's Tour, except we'd do 169km but the boys on the tour would do 155km on this stage. To get 8,000 people out of Pau required a different ride than for 180 of the Tour race. All the pre-race talk was about the two 'hills', Tourmalet and Hautacam. But there are two category three climbs as warm up along the 103km to Pied du Col du Tourmalet. But in fact you are riding 19.6km of steady uphill before reaching the 'official' start of the Tourmalet climb. The Tourmalet climb is 23.4km long, and Hautacam is 15.2km.

I had no expectations. I had but one target: not to be caught by the 'grim reaper' - to be thrown into the bus by the sweep up wagon. Over 1,600 were caught this year. I just wanted to ride 'well'. To be honest, I am still but a cycling babe with one year of training for Ironman, a year and a half off, and now a very interrupted eight months (more like four months serious.)

Entries are limited to 5,500 French entrants, and 3,500 foreigners. I understand 7,800 picked up their race numbers.

I was staying in Lourdes (Man! What a tacky place. I've never seen so many cripples, people in wheelchairs, walking frames, hospital trolley-beds in one place. And, you can bulk buy 5 litre bottles of Holy Water!) which was only a 10km cycle path ride from the finish base camp. But it meant a 45km ride to Pau on Saturday morning where you registered, stored your bike, and visited the big Cycling Expo on display.

As I rode leisurely to Pau, in the lightest of drizzle, I came off while crossing, at very slow speed, a railway line. Not 100% sure, but I don't think I slipped on the line but the smooth concrete either side of the tracks. A bit of skin off the elbow, a bruise on the bum when I landed on top of my allen-key tool in my shirt back pocket, and a smashed helmet. That's why you wear them. But nothing really, I was fine. Talk for the rest of the day was about all the people that came off on the railway tracks. Picked up a new helmet at the Expo.

The big drama was all the people flying from England whose bikes hadn't turned up. All were sorted eventually, but some not until 1:00am race morning.

The weather forecast for Sunday race day was crap. After months of heat training, not a cloud for months, the race start in Pau was 15ͦ C and raining. It was going to be cold on the mountain tops.

We were started by race number, in blocks of 1,000. Apparently taking the best part of half an hour to get everyone rolling. I started in the third wave, the 2,000s.

It was the usual start to this type of event. Some take off like shit from a shanghai, others a bit more reserved. Almost straight way people started tripping over each other and going down, usually to restart. For me the 103km to the foot of Tourmalet went like a dream. I was really pleased with the way I handled food, dinks, and most importantly pace. I kept a nice clear space, just enough, in front of the front wheel the whole way. It was just as easy to drop a train and join a group being passed as it was to hook onto a passing train if some of the locomotives up front of your train were starting to look like puffing billys.

I generally knocked along at 38-42 kph, tucked in behind - a lesson I learnt from my good mate, Blimp, back in Noo Zillan. But often, an express train of neo-pros, pro aspirants, and good old wannabees would just woosh past. They looked great. Envy.

I was somewhat surprised to see people struggling a little on the cat 3s. A wet, cold day meant the course was lined with cyclists stopped taking a pee. People queued for ages at refreshment stops to get drink refills, whereas I just pulled into a petrol station used the tap, peed in their garden, and took off.

I was relaxed, it was going well. I saw a couple of prangs at traffic islands, but luckily the groups I found were well behaved and lots of good hand signalling.

Lots of crowd support, even for this the 'dreamers' event. Village strets were jammed with crowds leaning into your path, and in the countryside farmers rang cow bells and cheered. Wearing my shirt drew applause, the Rooster being the national mascot. There was, in fact, much admiration of my large coq, as they say in France.

Tourmalet. Advertised as 7.5% average climb. What a joke. Each kilometre is signposted with forthcoming gradient. The first 4-5 km never got over 5.5%, that's got to affect the average. Later, some were 10% and 11%. Tourmalet, however, is a pretty constant climb, just up, up, up. As it turned out, I had ridden steeper climbs in Andalucía than I would this day. But these are way long! Tormalet really is a big climb. In training, I had found a 10km climb, of maybe 5-6%. Funny thing was, going into this event I had no idea what a 7% hill was, or if you showed me a hill I wouldn't have a clue as to its steepness.

But, without wishing to sound big headed, I rode up well. No grunting, no groaning. Passed by very few, and passed heaps. Lots were off and pushing. I never stopped, of course. With about 10 metres visibility because of fog it felt like you were always about to crest, but it just kept going ... going ... and going. It was quite massive.

And, it started to pour raining with one kilometre to go.

At the summit of the Col, there was a bit of a tangle as everyone stopped to put on a vest for the cold downhill ride. I also lined the inside of my vest with a plastic garbage bag liner. I also took the opportunity to give my lower back a quick stretch. Good idea.

But then, horror.

As I rolled off and down the other side of Tourmalet I quickly discovered I had no brakes. Nothing. I am grabbing great handfuls of brake, squeezing like crazy, and getting quicker. I try to slow myself with my foot. Useless. I start whizzing around the first half dozen bends. I am shitting myself. Where will this end?

I just miss a couple of guys on one bend. I am starting to panic. There's cliff drop off one side, and a rock bank the other.

Then I spot one of those gravel uphill slopes for out-of-contol cars to use to kill speed. Itake it. Deep gravel road, lots of rocks, up I stay upright and after 20-30 metres uphill I come to a stop. I get offf, sit down, and take a breath.


Good sense would have said, that's it. But you get driven. Obsessed.

The options appear to be either pull out of the event, or try to fix my brakes. I didn't carry spare blocks, and it would be near impossible to replace them on the ride anyway. On the wet roads I had seen glistening diesel spill (so many cars use diesel now.) I guess I might have picked some up (?). I spent over half an hour taking out my wheels, rubbing the rims with my removable sleeves, and rubbing away at the brake blocks. A Mavic support motor bike stopped, but I pretty much got "Tough shit". It wasn't a tyre or tube problem.

I gave it another try. They were better, but a long way from being good. They allowed me to get along, clutching the brakes, at reduced speed. But should I let go, I couldn't stop again - resulting in me having to use a driveway to stop again. Steep bits of hill just build up speed again, requiring more emergency procedures.

I'm scared. Frustrated. Disappointed.

I have to inch down the mountain, crawling along. I think I'm in a bit of shock from the scare of the top couple of kms.

The steep downhill is for 19km, and that's a long way of being scared. The road levels off somewhat at Luz Saint Sauvuer, but still downhill. But actually now eased off enough to get back onto a train, a good idea as for the very first time there is a light headwind. I feel lucky to have survived getting to the foot of Hautacam. Some villages on the way down were outright frightening with turns and road furniture (islands, barriers etc).

But, 'great', I think. I don't need brakes to ride up Hautacam. An ascent of 15.2 km at an average 7.2% gradient. But it is not constant like the first climb. For instance one of the markers says average 11% (so much for the mountain 7.5% avareage!) but it is close to level for the first 400 metres. Man, was it steep over the last half km. Two and half km from the top, (after 166.5km of riding!)there is a 13% half kilometre. There was also a lot of zig zags on Hautacam.

Going up Hautacam, we only got to use one side of the road, the other half being closed for riders who had finished the event at the top to ride back down. This made the ride up a bit tricky, and frustrating, as you had to weave through slower riders not always so courteous at this stage of proceedings.

I continued to ride strongly (maybe I should have been dope tested - so I could find out what it was?!) It was my dream, and I was doing it. Heaps of people sat on the stone wall at the side of the road. Stacks, just pulled over, u-turned and rode back down the hill - pulling out of the event. Everyone I passed just made me feel good. And the weather was clearer on the bottom sections, but it didn't last.

Then there it was. The famous flamme rouge. The big cross-arched red marker of one kilometre left to go. Up on the pedals. I get excited and make a charge for the finish, through the fog (I've still not seen the Pyrenees).

Fan-bloody-tastic. Not a single uphill stop. All the riding stuff done well. Irony that the problems were downhill, the easy stuff.

It's freezing at the finish at the top.

From my bike computer, I thought I was heading for just under eight hours which kept me going. Even though it has Elapsed Time and Ride Time I think the extended stop probably meant some time out happened. My finish time was 8'19". No excuses, but the brakes repair stop and the crawl downhill did hold me back a bit. Ah well. It's done. I'm happy. And, I did get a gold medal at the finish, in the over 50s age group.

The results site is crap. But I know from the paper that the winning time was 5'38" Pretty impressive. Will be interesting to compare against the Tour time, on Monday 14 July (local time). Also, so you get a picture of who rides this, Laurent Brochard, world road champion in 1998 and stage winner of the Tour de France at Loudenvielle in 1997, also turned in a notable performance - fifth over the finish line.

But, there are photos. Go to:

(For the uninformed, that's a Rooster salute being given.)

But I have to get back down Hautacam, and still with no brakes to speak of. I get another scare and decide to walk down, I can always look at the jokers riding up. No shame. Besides I was tired and cold. I tried restarts a couple of times, quickly bailing out. With one kilometre to go to the finish base camp, I think I see the road leveling out, so hop back on and set off.

Bugger. Out of sight below was a steep drop with a half dozen zig-zags. My bike just picks up speed - I can't stop it. I fly arond some bends, surprising myself with my cornering ability. Again I panic - what next? (Make mental note to myself: If I survive this learn a bail out technique!) I fly around a corner, just miss some guys coming out of a bend, heading straight at a large traffic cone, swerve agin - too much. Down. I didn't look, but it's weird I just happen to notice my speed on the computer as I went down! - 67kph. I'm into a big slide down the road.

Yeah , more skin off the elbow, thigh, knuckles - caught up in the bike when I fell I think as I feel really bruised front and back of ribs. But I'm alive and nothing serious appears to have happened. People rush around me. First Aid is called. But I'm alright. But I'll need yet another helmet. I am OK, I can ride the 10km back to Lourdes.

But I'm sore that night and for the next few days. Stacks of bruising. But man I was lucky. This was probably about the best it could have ended up.

I've woken a couple of times since, nightmaring about what could have been.

So a two sided story. One of hugh satisfaction, one of frustration (not to mention a big fright!)

That's that. Tick.

Don't underestimate these rides through these mountains. They are big. You have to be prepared with lots of big, really big, hills in your training. But the Tour boys do this for another twenty days, let's not forget!

I took Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach (Vintage, 2008) with me to fill in the flying hours getting to France. A powerful piece of wordsmithing. Quite sad by the end, a story of a couple trying to 'get it off' on their wedding night. But I finished it on the two legs up (including an hour and a half delay setting off in Malaga), which was fine because I fell asleep on the return trip!

What next?

aka max

No comments: