Monthly Archives: September 2014

Stage 7 – Dignes les Bains to Vence

This was it. The final stage. Just 127 km to make it to Vence and the end of the real racing. There was still the ride down to Nice but that would be done in convoy and as a victory parade.

My body just had to get me through this last day. Cumulative fatigue has been showing on all of us. My eyes were looking so sunken and weighed down with bags. I'd been finding it really difficult to sleep through the night. The fluid intake meant I was up 2-3 times each night and every time I did my knees creaked and caused me a lot of pain. At least this morning we had some good news. A 7:30am start meant we could stay in bed a little longer. I was looking forward to the ride. I wanted to make sure I gave it everything and improved on my position from the previous day. At the same time I couldn't wait for the emotion of finishing, getting my finishers medal and seeing my wife down on the finish line in Nice.

After yesterdays stage to Mont Ventoux I really wanted to try and give it everything up the first climb to stay in touch with a group of people I knew I should be able to keep up with. It now felt like a familiar routine. The flag dropped and we all rolled slowly out of Dignes. A 3km convoy allowed us to warm ourselves up and get the legs turning. By now the pain in the knees was a constant reminder of the physiological stress of this race. Across the timing mat and the normal acceleration of pace. I tried to stay above 220 watts. This was a strong pace for me but I did want to see if I could do it and then keep going strong at the end. The Col de Corebin was a really pretty climb. You could tell you were in the Southern alps now. I tried to take it all in and make the most of the last 5 hours on the bike.

I crested the climb not too far back from some of the riders I'd been much further back on this week. It felt like I had given it a good shot. Unfortunately the descent was neutralised. Whilst I'm not quite as quick at descending as Ian and Simon I wasn't far behind and descents were certainly sections where I made up places. Even so, this was a cracking descent. Really enjoyable. Sharp hairpin bends, tight narrow road and stunning views out into the valley. Out onto the main road we gently rode down the remainder of the neutralised section in a big group. Across the timing mat and back into race mode. A few people stopped just before but quite a few pressed on so I sprinted hard to join the back of the group and the speed leapt up. No rolling pace line here, just a few brave souls putting in a turn and towing the rest of us along. I was tucked in about 30 people back focussing on staying calm and recovering before the next climb, the Col de Leques.

The peloton didn't last long once we hit the climb. I settled into it and tried to maintain the pace of the previous climb. Fatigue was a problem and I felt pushing that hard for a second time and so early in the day would give me trouble later so I knocked off 10 watts and carried on. Half way up Laurence caught me up. I pushed to stay with him not wanting to drop further back. Even on the last day the urge to race is there for everyone. In fact we all saw it as a last chance to do well and pushed harder. Roll on Nice and a dip in the med! We came over the climb together, grabbed a quick feed and carried on.

Another fantastic descent brought us out at the bottom of the lake at Castillon. It was now getting really hot. The next climb was like going up in a furness. Not a difficult climb but so hot and still trying to push on. Laurence pushed on ahead, I felt like there was nothing in the tank. We were now off the main road and on a quite mountain road. A few km from the top Tim came alongside. Another quirk of the Haute Route. I'd not met either Tim or Laurence before but we'd shared the same flight out of London together. Now here we were sharing climbs on the last day of the Haute Route. Tim urged me to get on his wheel. He was having a good day and we set a fast pace up the remainder of the climb. At the feed station at the top of the climb we caught up with Laurence who'd suffered late into the climb. With the heat we were having to stop at every station now. Water bottles were not lasting long.

On the descent we were flying down but then coming into one of the hairpin bends we saw security guys waving at us to slow down. An ambulance was treating a rider prone in the middle of the road. It was a guy that we had spoken to in the bike check line in Geneva 7 days ago. An american guy, probably in his late 50's riding an amazing screw together titanium travel bike. Turns out he'd come off and fractured his leg. It's devastating when you hear about things like this. We're like one big team and you want everyone to make it to the end. To come so close is gutting.

That slowed us down for a while on the descent. Off the bottom of the descent and it was time to form up a line again. It was a long tab into the Col de Blaine, probably the hardest climb of the day. It was becoming so difficult to stay in the group. We were now 10 people. A couple of us dropped off whilst trying to eat and the chase back on was frantic and leg busting. But you have to do everything you can to stay in the group otherwise you lose so much time.

Onto the Col de Blaine, the climbs were coming thick and fast, it was what made the day so tough. This was short but steep and with the temperature still rising I found it a real struggle. By now it was down to Laurence and me taking it in turns to pace each other up. It didn't take long to get up but then a bonus. The descent was neutralised so as we rolled across the timing mat at the top we could stop for a nice break. The feed station was full of broken people. Peter was there looking like he was having a really tough day in the office. A lot of people were.

Just one more climb remained though. A short descent led us to a long section of flat leading across a plateau and into another long descent. This one would take us all the way to the bottom of the col de Vence. Just at the top of the descent a French guy came past, shouting out, “I know this descent, follow me”. This was brilliant. The guy clearly did know the descent as he picked the apex on each bend, braking just enough to get round the corner. We flew down the mountainside and on our right, amazing views across the Alpes Maritime. We'd left everyone else behind. The sun was beating down. There was not a cloud in the sky. I began to think back across the whole week. Geneva seemed like a lifetime ago.

My guide pulled ahead the minute we started to go up hill. Well I say uphill. It was more of a long gradual drag into a head wind. This was some kind of cruel torture. I had 14km to go, the wind was blowing hard in my face and the road looked like it was going downhill. Only the snails pace I was going at gave the game away. 5 long kilometres passed slowly. I could see a guy about 400m ahead of me but we were going at the same pace so there was no way I could catch him and share the workload.

Then two guys came past, going faster than me but not so fast that I couldn't get onto the back and try to sit there as long as I could. The pace was hard and I just hoped that they wouldn't wave me through for a turn otherwise I'd blow up completely. We caught the guy who'd been dangling in front of me as the pace continued. It was getting so hard to stay on. Then another stroke of luck. I was waved through for my turn just as the road started descending. This was 4km of descent into the final 2km of up to the finish line.

We all knew we were close and had to finish in style. We got quicker and quicker as we got closer to the finish line. The road started ramping up but not too steep so we kept flying along in our paceline of four. Round a right hand bend in the road and up further ramp then we saw what we'd all been looking for, the flamme rouge, well the 1km to go marker anyway. I thought I'd repay the efforts from the guys earlier and went to the front to put in a big effort to the line. It seemed like they'd given everything already as I quickly got a gap. So I pressed on, pushing out as much power as I could. 400m to go and I thought I'd gone too soon. The pain in the legs was horrible. Then there it was. The final timing mat. Leave everything on the road. I got out of the saddle and wrung the last drops of power out of my legs, raised my arms, then collapsed across the finish line. I'd made it. I thanked my companions from the last 9km as they came across the line and then set off down the descent to Vence itself, where a cold beer was going to get demolished.

The descent down was another beautiful fast sweeping one, but with one difference. This time I could see the sea! It also gave more time to reflect on the week. Well more of a reflection of the last ten months. That's another part of what makes this event so special. You can't just turn up and ride. You need to put in a lot of training. Winter evenings on the turbo trainer. The 6am starts to commute to work. The weekends given up to cycling. There's one person for me that's made all of this possible and that's my wife. I've been so lucky as she has been so supportive and understanding of me taking part. She's never questioned the time devoted to training, nor the money spent on kit. And she was waiting down in Nice. Time to get a wriggle on and go see her.

Stage 6 – Dignes Les Bains – Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux. The name alone is enough to strike fear and respect into the hearts of cyclists all over the world. It dominates the surrounding landscape, invading the horizon whenever you approach it. It's difficulties are numerous. First there is the height gain, over 1600m vertical from Bedoin. Then there is the really hard section up through the woods. 12km where the gradient rarely drops below 10%, the overhanging trees creating an oppressive oven like atmosphere in the heat of the day. There are no regular hairpin bends to break up the monotony, just the gentle curving backwards and forwards. Arriving at Chalet Reynard you come out into the moonscape, the exposed rock and earth magnifying the heat and exposing you to the brutal winds that blow through this lone peak. Then the final challenge as the last few bends rear up steeply and mean you have to give your all to get round and over the finish line. This really is one of the most difficult climbs you can do on a bike and one of the most rewarding.

All three of us have previous with the mountain. 5 years ago we did the Etape du Tour from Montelimar to Mont Ventoux. I'd gone okay up the mountain but my time of 2 hours 20 minutes would not be good enough today. Ian had put in a great impression of Caspar the ghost and put in a similar time. Simon had done a good ascent but earlier on this year he had done the Cingles du Mont Ventoux, climbing the mountain from all three sides in a single day. He knew every inch of the climb and that was playing on his mind.

But first we had to get there. 120km of rolling roads and shorter climbs to bring us into the foot of the mountain. By now we knew what was going to happen. We'd cross the timing mat and all hell would break lose as everyone tried to stay with the front group and get a fast ride. I'd decided to start at the front of the second group and try and jump across to the first peloton and try and sit with Ian and Simon as long as I could.

Lining up in Digne there was an air of excitement in the peloton. I think everyone had been looking forward to this stage. The count down finished and off we went. After a couple of kms I had the opportunity to jump the motorbikes and make my way to join Ian and Simon. It was great, finally, to be cycling with them. Then we crossed the timing mat and it all got interesting. I'd not been up in the first peloton before. Wow. This was different level. We were on a tight back road. The pace was incredibly high. 40 – 45 km/h. After every little climb or corner you had to put down about 400 – 500 watts to get back into the pace line. This really felt like racing hard. It was awesome. Coming into a narrow bridge I managed to avoid a crash as people hit the bridge and ran into the back of each other.

Soon however it started to climb. This was going to be about a 2o minute climb up onto the first plateau. Now my early morning lack of power showed again and I just could not stay with the lead gruup. I don't know if it was that I wasn't pushing myself hard enough knowing what was to come, or if my knees just couldn't take the stress as by know the pain in my patella tendon was getting really bad. Over the top of the climb I'd slipped back quite a bit but was still able to get into a big group of people as we set a fast paceline. The first feed station flew by, completely ignored by everyone. Spots of rain made the road greasy but still we rattled along, each taking our turn to do a short stint on the front. At this pace it only took an hour to get to the next feedstation. Here we all stopped to refill and refuel. A lack of organisation meant we all then carried on at different times. I suddenly found myself alone with a group of about 8 people about 300m ahead of me on the road. Decision time, do I put in a masssive dig and close them down to draft through to the bottom of the col de notre dame des abeilles or do I accept that would take too much out of me and continue solo. No way I was going to do this alone. 10 minutes later of burying myself I got onto the back of the group. That was so tough. It took ten further minutes of sitting on the back of the group to recover. I just hoped this hadn't taken too much out of me.

We were in a smaller group now which made it much easier to organise. Most of the guys were from S-Aero club plus a Zimbabwean and his English wife. This is the bit I really enjoy about the Haute Route. We all have a story to tell of why we are here, what we think, what we hope to achieve. The sense of shared adventure is there for everyone. Chatting to the Zimbabwean and his wife we reflected on the standard of riding, which was exceptionally high. There are very few who are out of their depth and anyone finishing in the top 300 would be smashing it in their local sportives. This really does feel like the pinnacle of amateur cycling sportives.

Notre Dame des Abeilles came, we took it easy, not wanting to go too deep too early. Judging by the times later on that day this is where I lost a lot of time. I should have gone harder here but it was hot and I knew there was a massive amount of climbing to come.

The descent down from the top was amazing. We took a different way down to the last time I was here. Tight, narrow and twisty. Just the kind of descent I love. I flew past about 15 people on the descent. Then a right turn, a few kms of gentle slope and across the timing mat. Mont Ventoux started here.

Soon the left turn came and we were onto the climb proper. It's really difficult pacing yourself for this amount of climbing. If you go off at threshold you will blow up before the top. I set myelf a target of trying to stay just about 200 watts and see how I felt come the end. I actually started to really enjoy it. Yes it hurt but the pace was good, I caught and passed quite a lot of people, some with the Haute Route race numbers on. Although it was hot it was not oppressively hot. Jersey wide open I was dripping in sweat but I wasn't over heating and wasn't running out of water. The peddles kept on turning over. It's a mental challenge more than anything, a climb like Ventoux. You have to set yourself for 1.5 – 2 hours of just going up.

On and on the peddles turned. The km slowly ticked down. I was counting down to the feed station at Chalet Reynard where I'd quickly refill with water and drink some coke. 4km to go, 3km to go. I passed a few more Haute Routers. Then I was out of the forest and at Chalet Reynard. A quick stop and off again. I was feeling really good now I knew I only had 6 km to go. I could see the observatory at the top urging me onwards and I put on a burst and settled into a high pace. This bit is where I'd completely cracked last time but it felt like that was not going to happen now. I retook a couple of guys who'd overtaken me earlier. 2km later they passed me again. A proper seesaw battle.

Ian then Simon came flying past down the hill shouting words of encouragement spurring me on. It later turned out that Simon had gone so deep trying to keep pace with Ian in the final kilometres that the medics had put him on oxygen!

As you get to the final km it ramps up to 10 – 11%. You pass Tom Simpson's memorial. So many of the british guys were stopping on the way back down to lay something down. The guys who had over taken me were 50m ahead. That was my target. I wanted to cross the line first. I upped the pace. We got to 30m before the final bend when I put in my effort. Mustering everything left I sprinted round them and up the final steap ramp to the line. Crossing the line and punching the air in delight I was overwhelmed with emotion. This is what this mountain does to you.

The view from the top is amazing. A glass of coke, a selfie and a deep breath of air and a feeling of elation. You feel like you are on top of the world.

A quick word about the family battle between Ian and Simon. They set a blistering pace up the mountain with an ascent time nearly 25 minutes quicker than mine. Simon just couldn't hold on in the last km and Ian crossed the line first. The gap? Exactly 48 seconds. The difference between them at the beginning of the day. They were now neck and neck again. Nothing could separate them. It would all come down to the last stage.