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

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