Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Haute Day 4: In the first 30 to top Galibier

Ok, that title is an entirely misleading statement but it was so nice to write. Today was a time trial and so, just as in the Tour, the slowest riders went first with a 20 second gap between each one. I was in the first 30 riders to leave Valloire. By the time I got to the top, most of the faster riders hadn’t even started.

Today was just one climb. After three days of ascending half the height of Everest each day, this is almost a rest day. The 1,250 m (4,130 ft) climb is a little less than Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain.

But it is still the mighty Galibier and my aim is to get there in under 2 hours. Its all in the mind, I say to James over breakfast. I know from the final ascent on Day 2 that my body is capable of more than my mind sometimes wants to do.

Though it was a weird start to the day. I awoke to a text from my daughter: “Dad, you’ve gone viral in Cambodia.” Surprisingly this was not people eagerly reading this blog. A letter I wrote on the train down, about burkinis and men in suits, was published in the Guardian yesterday and seems to have a got a lot of attention.

Off the ramp
Anyway, we start off a ramp just like in the Tour with people shouting our name. Just fabulous. And with a rider 20 seconds each side of you, the competition is on. When I am out riding and see a cyclist ahead of me I accelerate to catch them up. I don’t have to think about it. Its automatic, like breathing. And on this climb there is always a cyclist ahead of you.

Today is an individual pursuit, its you and the mountain and there seems little chance for the chats that got me up the Galibier yesterday. It is 18 km in distance. I only need to average above 9 kph to beat that 2 hours. With nobody to talk to, I find myself doing a lot of “stem watching” (checking my computer to ensure I’m above that speed).

Every kilometre on this, and all French cycling climbs, there is a marker with the distance to the peak and the current altitude. You develop almost an obsession with when the next one will be, when you are 1 km closer.

I reach the half way marker in 45 minutes and as it flattens out a little, Andrew from Surbiton comes past. “Can I get on your wheel?” I ask. “Drafting” would not be allowed in the Tour and the rules are unclear here. “Fine by me” says Andrew and I speed up to 10 mph with little extra effort. We take the turn to the start of the steep ascent and I hold onto the wheel for a few minutes but he is too strong.

Is it just me or are the right-hand hairpin turns always a bit easier? My mind is convinced of it and I always manage to put in some extra speed after the turn.

I also see now the point of power meters. Serious riders (including many on this race) use them. In the gym they find their potential power output and then they can compare what the meter reads as they go uphill, to what they know their body can do. Those figures must be a very a powerful antidote to the message from the mind that you are doing all you can.

Gareth from Guildford (Andrew’s cycling buddy) reaches me on the 9% inclines and we stick together for a while. Finally another person to talk to. “Spin to win” was the advice I heard shouted a month ago as we went up Leith Hill (a mere 320 metres, but the highest hill in South-East England) on the London Ride100. I remember changing down to an easier gear and speeding up, and passing the other cyclists.

The trick is not to push those pedals but instead to be in a gear where you can simply spin them at a high cadence. “Spin to win” I keep telling myself and manage to keep up with Gareth as we pass 7 km, 6km, 5km.

"It says 3. It really does"
“3. It says 3 km” I shout as I see the marker, wondering if I am hallucinating. “It can’t be, its wrong”, he says. “It does, it says 3” We have been so happily occupied discussing the gentrification of Hackney (where I live) and completely missed the 4km marker. It is hard to describe the sheer joy of that moment.

Another kilometre and an organiser shouts “2km to go”. But what a 2km. It looks vertical with nine hairpin bends, although it is actually an average 10% ascent. And, of course, half of them are the easy right-hand ones.

I feel fresh. I feel good. We are not yet at 90 minutes. A very fast cyclist reaches me, but we are on a right-hand bend and I accelerate holding him off for 25 metres. If only I could persuade my mind that every ascent is as easy as the right-hand ones.

Yes, we came up that way
The col is in sight, I manage to hit 14 kph on the 9% final stretch and am absolutely elated to be, once again, on top of the world, and to have done it in 1 hour 42 minutes. There is joy on all sides as we share the moment, have photos holding our bicycles in the air (slightly harder for me, as mine seems to be heavier than everybody elses).

Every club cyclist knows that any decent ride includes a café and cake. Sadly in the Route the rush is always on to either get a good time or finish. Today is gloriously different. We are only timed on the ascent and so coming down we stop at an alpine bar. We sit among the most beautiful scenery you can imagine, stunning peaks on every side, sip our coffees and hot chocolates and watch the faster riders go past.

With Andrew and Gareth at the post ride cafe
This is a place of history. Gareth points out the bridge where Pantini launched his famous break in 1998 to take the stage. We may not have gone anywhere near his pace but we climbed those same roads. It is a great honour to, in two days, have climbed both sides of the great Galibier.

Where did I actually come in today’s ratings? Number 354 out of 390. I’m happy with that. The fastest cyclist somehow did that climb in 53 minutes. Unbelievable.

I retire to our chalet (the delightfully named “la joie de vivre") in Valloire to discover my burkini letter is on Mashable, Huffington Post and all over twitter and facebook. Life is strange. 

See also: Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7Reflections

Monday, 29 August 2016

Haute Day 3: On top of the world

For a real sense of the day, and especially the scenery, check out the Haute Route video. And you can see me in the video (at the end) from yesterday.

Day 3 of the Haute Route could be a little easier than the previous ones. There are just two peaks, though they are Tour de France classics: the 2,360 metre high Col d’isourd and the 2,645 metres Gallibier.

The Galibier was first used in 1911 and on the 100th anniversary in 2011 was won by Andy Schleck after an incredible 60 km break away. A fellow cyclist here reckons it was the most exciting Tour de France stage ever, almost enabling Schleck to take the title from Cadal Evans [in the last year when British riders weren't favourites to win]. The Col d’Isuard was last climbed in 2014 when the Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez won it.

After two days of blistering sunshine, we are told to prepare for storms. They expect rain from 11am, temperatures of 10 degree and possible ice on the descent from the first peak. The key is to get to the Isourd by 10.30 to have a safe and non-slippery descent.

I am wearing or carrying my thermal overshoes, winter jacket, gilet, waterproof top and full waterproof gloves. I feel a bit overloaded but very well prepared.

Friends back home have asked if its painful. Now it may be for those riding at the front. Somebody on the next massage table to mine today commented “it hurts every day, just in a different part of the body”. I’m not in pain, just battling the exhaustion.

The key is the search for the perfect gear. For me every ascent has a gear that is just right. When you get there, you know it. You feel in tune with the rhythm of the mountain and just able to go on and on.

The aspect that makes the Haute Route difficult is the cut off times. For me and those around me, they are tight. You know when you are in danger when the “Lantern Rouge”, a cyclist in a red top bringing up the rear, comes in sight. If you don’t make the cut-off time you are out for that day. Today it is 7 hour 10 minutes for 74.3 miles and 13,610 ft of climbing.

The Haute Route organisers has made sure every rider has their name, flag and team name on their back. It makes it so easy to start a conversation with total strangers and I love it. My cycling mate Alan and me reckon that climbing ascents is so much easier if you talk all the way up.

Oddly not everybody feels the same. As we near the top, reactions include “I’m in the zone” or even “I’m meditating” or "Sorry, I can't ride and breath and speak". But I while away the first hour with a discussion with Sophie, who helped her company win best workplace in the UK and now runs to encourage women (and men) to become more active.

Atop L'Isourd with james
But it is hot. And, like most around me, I am regretting my winter top. Drink more water, I keep reminding myself. I don’t want to dehydrate again. After a 2 hour, 27 mins climb we get to the top of L’Isoard. There is no sign of rain, so there is a glorious descent through stunning alpine scenery.

As we come out of Briancon, we start a long 25k drag up to Lautaret. The advice was to become part of a group but it is me and James on our own. Then a beautifully attired group in blue and yellow, sporting the ‘HC Cycling’ tag come by. “Allez, Henry” one shouts, reading the name on my back. 

They are not even part of the Haute Route, but a group of Romanians on their own 7 day cycling tour.
We jump on and join their group, discussing Romanian cycling peaks, Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson (there is a connection between these). For 10 km we are swept along in their slipsteam, taking us out of danger on time. Thank you, Romania. And thank you again for cycling comraderie. We reach Lautaret with 15 minutes to spare.

Only 5 miles from here
“Is that almost the top?”, I ask pointing up to where the road turns a corner a fair bit up. “Er, no, not quite. Its up there,” comments the guy on the feed station, pointing to a far and distant peak. “But its only five miles.”

I look down and see the Lantern Rouge coming up the valley behind, leading a group of four. It Is time to set off. I find myself with John, my saviour from yesterday. It is again an 8km ascent and we decide to go up again together. “But not like yesterday. That wiped me out.”

We came up that way
We have an hour and discuss everything from Australian Prime Ministers to whether Corbyn is the best leader for the British Labour Party (we don't agree on this). As we ascend steadily upwards and look round at the peaks and alpine valleys, he comments “this is the weirdest place I’ve ever had a political discussion.” But it takes us to 1km from the top, before that final effort.

What could be better than a steady cycle up a Tour de France classic col, stunning scenery on all sides while discussing the state of the world? 

We did it. We made it up the two classic peaks still with 10 minutes to spare. I feel elated, and on top
of the world – in more senses than one. To finish, there is only a 16 km descent to Valloire. I am exhausted but feel good, the first day I didn’t feel in danger of ending up in the "bus".

As we ascended I longed for the promised rain. Instead it was sunny, 23 degrees and I was still in my winter cycling jacket. But it does prove rather useful on the cold, cold descent in the shade from Galibier.

Tomorrow is the “rest day”, just one climb – back up to the top of Galibier, a 1,300 metre ascent in a time trial. But no cut-off so I am safe until Thursday, the toughest day of the week.

See also: Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7Reflections
The monument tot he founder of the Tour, below Galibier

Haute Route Day 2: 2nd highest road in Europe

The second day of the Haute Route involved three fierce cycling climbs, including La Bonette. The organisers say this is the third highest road in Europe but Google puts it at No. 2. 

Oddly, it has only appeared four times in the Tour de France, the last time in 2008. However it was the scene of a then rare British victory for Robert Millar in 1993.

I have to admit I was nervous, having had to drop out towards the end of Day 1. Was it just that I hadn’t drunk enough water or had I perhaps not put in enough training or simply am not up to “the highest, toughest cycle sportive in the world”?

Chatting to others it was clear that nobody had found it easy. “Mental torture” and “in terms of suffering, it was in a league of its own” were among the comments.

So we put together a plan. Team Happy consists of me, James and Toby and our aim is simply to finish. We leave the fastest times to the others. Toby had proved himself the strongest cyclist on the first day, being the youngest in the team at just 49. So Toby would lead us up la Bonnette and we would hang onto his wheel. We would cycle together as a team until the point where we were in danger of missing the cut off time, and then it would be okay to go on alone.

La Bonnett: The View Down
And the ride up La Bonnette - up through the valley, round a dozen hairpin bends, through an abandoned military outpost and onto the moonlike landscape at the top – was a joy. It is remarkable how the psychological will to hang onto a wheel can help you up the longest climb.

It was huge boost to get to the top with a half hour gap to the cut off time. It was the biggest climb I’ve ever done at 5,000 ft of ascent, more than the 4,000 ft of the Tourmalet in the Pyranees for which I had to stop many times. La Bonnett was without a break, a climb of 2 hours 14 minutes.

On top it felt like we were on top of the world, at just under 9,000 ft. Amazing views of the Alpine peaks, and picture book villages. Some of the best views I’ve ever seen.

The 20km descent was another delight. I’m definitely getting the hang of long descents and kept with my team today. Though the sound of an ambulance siren behind us did bring a note of caution and visibly slowed all the cyclists around me. [We later found out that a cyclist had hit a motorcyclist, coming the other way, head-on. He continued and finished the course, before being taken to hospital and being found to have several broken ribs.]

As we set off up the valley from the feed station we formed into a 40 strong peloton and sped along effortlessly though the stunning valley scenery. James, who had got little sleep last night was struggling and me and Toby had a quick consultation on times. The cut off time was tight but not desperate so we resolved to guide James up the col.

We came to what had been described as the “brutal” last 5 km of the Vars, at an average 10%. We ascended at 7kph, as did those around us. It was a sobering thought that the summit was just 5km away but would take us 45 minutes to reach, with the sun blazing down. I took the lead for this climb. Going at a slower pace than I could have, made it a bit easier.

With 1km to go to the top a nice lady from Haute Route, by the side of the road, made an unexpected offer: “water on the head?”, she asked. At that moment I could think of nothing in life that would give me greater pleasure than a bottle of water poured through my helmet. I accepted eagerly, and swear it sped me up by 25% on the final ascent.

More beautiful views but no time to waste. Another marvellous descent and then the final climb. We had one hour to make 900 m of ascent. For comparison it had taken 2 hours 14 minutes for the 1,500 m of La Bonnette, and that was when we were fresh. With 8km to go I had to rest at the refreshment point. I doused myself in water and drank lots.

That chimp inside my head was telling me that I’d done enough, that I should get in that nice bus that would be coming along shortly. Success or failure is so much about getting your head straight.

My saviour, John
And then along came John from Australia, who I’d not met but was to be my hero, my good Samaritan.

“They’ve given us another 15 minutes”, he said. “That’s still 8km in 30 minutes, up an 8% slope, in 30 degree heat”, I responded. Hey, I was tired. “Let’s give it a crack”, he said and off we set, me following his wheel. 

Every time I slipped back he shouted out at me “get back on my wheel”, without looking back. How did he know I’d dropped off? “I stopped hearing your heart beating”. I think he is joking but am not sure.

That is the camaraderie that makes cycling so satisfying. Thank you, John, I wouldn’t have got there without you. Indeed I'm still astonished I did.

I learnt that giving up, like yesterday, can sometimes make sense. And that sometimes it just doesn’t.

Across the finish line I collapse to the floor in the shade, totally exhausted and just lie there for 10 minutes. I have given all I can.

My bum aches. My legs hurt. I feel great.

See also: Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7Reflections

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Haute Route Day 1: The view from the back

Wow, what a day. Incredible scenery, amazing climbs and a great spirit of shared purpose among the more than 400 cyclists who took on the challenge of the Haute Route Alps.

I met Sinya from Japan, the well named Steep and his four colleagues from Costa Rica, Olga and her team of ten from Russia and a group of 15 from Brazil. There were cyclists from just about every country in the developed world, the most international group I’ve probably ever been with.

We started with the Col de Nice. At 414 m it was described at the briefing as a mere “pimple”, not worth worrying about. This pimple is a fair bit higher than any hill in Southern England, but it did serve as a very nice appetiser.

Next came the beginning of the Col de Turini. As we rode up its initial 8% and 9% inclines, mainly in the shade and with little traffic, I discussed the consciousness of the brain, new atheism and the politics of health with cyclists of many nations. While taking in amazing views of the beginnings of the Alps. A joyous experience.

By comparison with the steep initial climb, the top is fairly flat. As a group of Canadian doctors sped past, I joined on the end. It seemed a good group to be with in case of difficulty. There were anaesthetists, heart surgeons. One of them is even able to do a little light brain surgery if needed. And Terry is the oldest person on the Haute Route at 65.

This felt fabulous. By the time I reached the 1,607 m peak I had hardly been out of breath. Could this epic challenge really be achievable and even rather fun?

But then I failed to keep up with my colleagues in Team Happy on the descent and found myself alone and in a fair bit of traffic. And, as we started up the Col de St Martin I started to bonk. (I should mention that “bonking” is the cycling term for running out of energy. So if I ever say I bonked at the top of the mountain, please don’t get the wrong impression.)

I waited, drank, ate my energy bars and willed myself to get back on. I pass through a charming village (St Martin-something), with a market and open air cafes. It is a tempting sight, but it is clear I am close to the cut-off time and need to keep going.

On to the top of the 1,500 metre Col de St Martin. About the most discussion I had on that one was “muy alto, muy caliente” with Street. That was a tough climb.

After a stunning descent through a beautiful alpine valley my colleague Toby, who had waited for me at the top, gathered together a group of stragglers into an effective peloton and took us up the valley towards Auron.

But I had to drop out, after 68 miles, two huge mountains and over 10,000 ft of climbing. I had not taken enough account of the heat, which was now at 35 degrees, and really should have got through more liquid. Suffering from dehydration, with a bloated stomach and mild delirium I sat by the roadside to rest. Nope, not so easy after all.

This is a well organised event. Within 10 minutes I had a mechanic, a doctor and a passing motorist helping me out. The doctor gave me a pill and advised to wait for the Haute Route bus to take me to the finish, to rest and try again tomorrow. It means my chance of a podium place is gone but I can live with that. I still get to ride the next six days, and to realise what a challenge this is. And I still got the free (and much needed) massage.

Tomorrow we start with the Col de Bonette, the second highest road in Europe at 2,715 metres (8,959 ft). That’s quite a climb, and its only the first of three. It should be fun. As long as I drink a lot more water.

Am hoping for cooler weather and even a bit of rain!

See also: Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7Reflections