Etape du Tour 2011: The real story

This is the official website entry for Act 2 of the Etape du tour 2011.

WHAT A GRUELLING SECOND PART

This 2011 second act will certainly deserves a place on the podium of the most difficult edition.

The roughly 4,000-man amateur peloton set off from the start line at Issoire this morning.

The stage profile already had everything in place to daunt the participants, with constant ups and downs which made it difficult to find one’s pace.

The drenching rain, strong headwinds and cold temperatures (hardly 7°C on the route) did not accompany the riders throughout the entire day, but they did stay with them the whole morning. Typical March weather!

Finally, there were only 1982 finishers in Saint-Flour. Congratulations to all those who completed this freezing adventure!

 

This hardly describes what really happened…..

I got to Clermont Ferrand on a hot summers day. My bike was in transit from London and I met the lovely Iona from Ronan Pensac Tours who drove me to our starting destination and the Hotel d’Tourisme. I was to rest here for two days, register, and prepare for the race.

In my transit to the hotel Iona picked up three other cyclists. Jono (Australian with a love for Pro cyclist Gilbert..Jono had to add that one in), Mark (very aggressive  English cyclist trying to crack 8.40 hours and get a medal) and Jatin (English scientist who loves putting his bike together with meticulous care and wearing plastic bags on his feet when it rains). We were a hit team and on the way to the hotel we  discussed our training regimes and predictions for bad weather on the race. Our predictions about the weather were not bad enough…

On the first two days I hung out with my new cycling mates. We were all excited about the race and went to the village to register. Mark wanted to spend some money and with a snipers eye for race memorabilia soon found a new race top, arm warmers, and cycle cap to buy. He is as aggressive shopping as he is cycling. We picked up our official “man” bags (small white shoulder bags with blue, purple and pink strips) from the race organisers. Mark and Jatin were great company and as with the camaraderie of cycling we shared many jokes. Jono wasn’t with us on the first day. He had flown in from Miami and had jet lag.  I had lunch with him the next day to find out he Captains a 150 foot  yacht around Miami and the Caribbean. He constantly follows the sun and never experiences winter. No wonder he looked so tanned and  relaxed. I had no sympathy for his jet lag.

My bike finally arrived with my riding buddy, Mungo. He had driven 4.5 hours from his house in France. He was tired but we got on our bikes to test them. I have noticed at other triathlon races the bike can often have problems after transportation. We both heard unusual noises from our bikes and took them to the Mavic bike tent for servicing.

I heard a clicking noise and slipping sensation whenever I pushed down with my left foot on the pedal. The bike mechanic said it was my bottom bracket and he could not do anything about it. I did not believe him and pushed for him to tighten up the left crank. He did it reluctantly and surprise it worked. I also had Garmin issues as it was not picking up cadence as I rode. I went to the Garmin tent and they discovered my Garmin was picking up too many bike sensors in the village and could not identify my own. I left the village and after changing the battery found the Garmin was back to full operation.

Our final dinner before race day served up pizza, stewed chicken and rice. It was not the normal pasta and a nice change. Mungo and I put our numbers on the bike and prepared our race kit before heading to bed. Jono, Mark and Jatin were in great spirits. The biggest decision Mark and Jatin had to make was which racing top they wanted to wear. Was it going to be the Kingston Wheelers or official Etape racing top?

At breakfast, 5am, on the morning of the race Mark and Jatin appeared in their full Kinsgton Wheeler race tops. They looked proud to represent their club and actually looked like quality cyclists. They proved they were quality cyclists by the end of the day.

Jono, Mungo and I put arm warmers, gillets and shower proof jackets on because it was raining. The clouds were covering the sky and it was dark. We felt warm in our gear and as we headed to the start line we absorbed the atmosphere. Mungo and I decided to put plastic bags over our socks to test Jatin’s theory of keeping the feet dry in wet conditions. This year they organised 4000 riders into 11 groups  and started each group with a 3minute interval between them. The three of us started in group 7 and we waited about 60 minutes before crossing the start line. The system worked well and there was plenty of space for everyone to ride safely.

I had brought my Oakley Iridium cycle glasses for a bright summers ride in July. They didn’t work well in the dark, wet and steamy conditions we were encountering as we started the race. In the first 35kms the rain picked up but we were sheltered from the wind and it was getting brighter as the morning progressed. Jono rode at a good steady speed as he knew this was a long race. Mungo and I followed suit and we were always with in touch of each other as we rode. The rain got heavier and Jatin’s plastic bag over the feet theory started to back fire. The bags were actually filling up with water and not draining. I could feel my feet swimming in my shoes. At first it was quite nice as the water got slightly warmer as we rode.

After the first hill climb at 40kms we were  riding along open plains and totally exposed to heavy crosswinds, sheets of rain, and the plummeting temperatures. We were in our easiest gear and riding at the same speed we would climb an 8% gradient. Most cyclists formed small paletons to protect each other from the head wins. My glasses were too dark at this point so I took them off and my face took the wind and hail coming at me straight on.

I remember riding and thinking  I had over 150kms to go and at the speed I was riding and how cold I was getting this was going to be a very long day. I was not the only one thinking like this as Mungo and Jono were exactly the same. We even saw many cyclists who were riding in the opposite direction to return to the start line. They had given up and ambulances were giving space blankets to some cyclists stranded on the side of the road. We saw many cycles abandoned along the way waiting for the truck to pick them up.

We finally got to the top of the first small climb. I could feel my body soaked to the core and my legs were starting to shake. The temperature had dropped to below 2-5 degrees as were riding. We started to descend down the hill to the first aid station. The wind picked up and my hands were freezing. I could not reach behind my back to get food and braking was very unsafe. On the way down the hill the temperature must have dropped to zero if not sub zero. Every cyclist going down the hill was braking all the way. I had never seen so many cyclist descend so slowly. My calf muscles started to shake uncontrollably and to stop them I purposely pushed them down against the pedal. It got colder and colder as we descended and it was painful.

The aid station appeared in front of us and I had never seen so many cyclists stopping for help. The aid station was so full I could not see where to continue riding as the road was blocked. Hundreds and hundreds of bikes were in reserved bays to be taken to the finish line. Cyclists were trying to find places to warm up. A gym nearby was open to cover cyclists from the wind. Mungo and I found a small house opened by its kind owners to help provide  shelter, hot drinks, blankets, and food. They cared for us all and were extremely generous. For 1 hour Mungo and I stood shaking violently and I mean violently.  We couldn’t hold our cups still and we sheltered in the corners of the room. We called our driver to come and pick us up.

40 minutes later Mungo’s car arrived to pick us up. The aid station was now deserted and buses had transported probably over 1000 cyclist back to the start line. The bikes were being packed on trucks. I could not believe this was the middle of summer and we were standing in temperatures reminiscent of the middle of winter in London. We got in the car and drove 30 minutes to the hotel at finish line in Saint Flour. I found out later Jono had also thrown in the towel at the aid station and caught the bus to the hotel.

I had a hot shower for 20 minutes and warmed up then realised I was starving. Being so cold and shaking for so long had burnt up serious calories. In the space of 1 hour I ate the following; banger and mash, apricot cereal bar, apple, cupcake, bag of crisps, soup and bread, coq au vin, fries, coke zero, 2 power bars and several biscuits and hot drinks. I was still hungry even after eating all that but I stopped incase I made myself sick.

We got back to the hotel to find out the Gendarmerie had stopped the race at one of the mountain climbs. The visibility was as low as 2 meters and the cold weather was making descending very dangerous. 2000 cyclists did get through before they closed of the road and I waited to see who from our tour party finished the race.

I knew when I finished the race I could not go on. It was too dangerous not only from a riding perspective but also from catching hypothermia. At the time I did not know how anyone could continue the race. I was in awe of those that did continue and even more in awe of those that finished.

There were 4 of our tour party who finished in times ranging from 9-11 hours. They said it was the hardest Etape they had done because of the weather conditions. Several pushed on only because they did not know how to get home. Mark and Jatin had not finished yet and the cut of time was 12 hours. Their bags were the only two left in the foyer of the hotel. I was intrigued to know had they got through the Gendarmerie blockade and had they missed the cut off time.

Sitting at the finish line Jatin appeared from know where and then Mark followed with a medal around his neck. It was a great sight to see these two battlers had completed the distance. They had both been caught by the broom wagon but both had continued the race. They were chasing the broom wagon at stages and Mark describes a yo-yo relationship with the drivers of the buses. He would overtake the bus and the bus would over take Mark. To beat the bus he rode past the last two aid stations straight onto the finish line. He made the cut by minutes and even though the official did not like the line across his race number indicating he had been caught by the broom wagon gave him a medal. Marks aggressive riding and shear anger at being eliminated from the race too early (race organisers shortened the elimination times) got him to the finish line.

Jatin on the other hand thought his race was over. He decided to finish the race anyway and along his journey stopped to take photos, video and have a pee. He was asked 5 times if he wanted to be picked up and 5 times he refused. He did descend the hills very fast and as he crossed the finish line the last timing mat was being picked up. There was no one giving out medals and even though he crossed the finish line he missed out on getting one. Jatin was in good spirits  because he knew he had completed all the climbs. He is a real champion and I congratulate both Mark and Jatin for pushing on through the cold and completing the distance.

I could see Act 2 was a beautiful course and had the weather been better the race had the potential to be magnificent. I did not finish the race but I had a blast thanks to Jono, Mark and Jatin. I am happy I stopped and I enjoyed the entire experience. I have become an avid fan of the Tour De France, been to some amazing places, and met some incredibly funny characters. Cycling is a fantastic sport and I recommend anyone to try it. I am having a good rest from training and will review my plans in October when the next Etape entries come out.

 

 

 

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Ex professional cyclist gives advice on Act 2 Etape de tour 2011

Stage 9: Issoire to Saint-Flour

 

I’ve written this note about the way I would do it so if I say some obvious things I apologise. The first step we would be put through would be to have ridden a couple of the highest mountains, or ones with a similar ascent and height, prior to the day. This allows you to find the right rhythm, pace and gear for that type of mountain. You probably can’t do that unfortunately but it was a huge advantage for someone like me who wasn’t a mountain climber.

The stage is 208km and has 8 mountain climbs, with 3 being a level 2. The two longest climbs come at 91.7km and 146km. The good news is that the mountains at 116km, 127.5km and 139.5km are tough but short climbs, as you are already up the mountain range somewhat.

Prior to the first climb (at 40.1km) focus your mind on getting the rhythm right, get yourself to be absorbed by the bike – you and the bike are one. You are not on the bike, you and the bike are the same – a machine that can go all day.

There is an initial climb of 3.4km at 40.1km (753m). Stay with the bunch but keep well in the middle. It is unlikely that the bunch will split at this point.  If it does it is likely to be a small breakaway: the peloton will almost certainly stay together. Keep within a bunch so you have riders on both sides, in front and behind.  This gives some protection if there is a wind and also provides a measure as to how you are doing. Use this first ‘hill’ to get your position right for climbing, test your legs and test the gear combinations that seem right. Move in and out of the saddle and let your body and legs get used to the traction. The rhythm for the climb is within your whole body – arms, back head, legs etc. The whole body has a rhythm that keeps the legs turning despite the pain.

Keep within a bunch through to the start of the first nasty one – the Col du Pas de Peyrol (1589 m and a 7.7km climb to 6.2%.) You aren’t out to win this race and you must keep at the back of your mind that the last big climb starts at 146km – a long way away and you must be in shape when you arrive at that one.. The Col du Pas starts at 90.8km: make sure you have got yourself into a mindset of pain acceptance but knowing you will come through it. [I found this invaluable.] You have about 30 kms after the Cote de Massiac to ensure you have a smooth rhythm. Don’t talk unless you really have to, don’t socialise, just focus on the task ahead. Visualise the climb and how you are going to make it up as easy as possible (not easy but easy as possible;) visualise your legs moving in a steady rhythm; embed the feeling that you’re a part of the bike, not riding it but part of one machine, you and the bike.

When the climb starts keep within a bunch for as long as you can. Do not share the lead unless you really have to. Swing in towards the rear but not at the very end of the bunch. Keep adjusting your gears to ensure you have a steady rhythm in the legs. Focus on the rhythm of your movements. Do not look up; focus your eyes on the immediate road ahead (I used around 10 metres); do not think about how far you have come or to go. Get into an almost robotic rhythm – get your mind into a state where it excludes all thoughts of the end of the climb and is fixed on the immediate bit of road you are on (say 10 metres ahead.).  Think of each 10 metres as a success as you move through it. When you turn a corner do not look ahead to the next unless it is within your immediate sight line of 10 metres.

If you can’t stay with the bunch do not give up or cease the rhythm. Try and find a rhythm that still keeps you moving up the mountain. Form your own bunch and work together if possible.

Once at the top (and you will make it) DO NOT use energy in chasing those who might have got ahead. You have 3 smaller climbs over 40 km. and two are at 7.9% so do not under rate them Descend in a way that allows you to reset your legs, get your breathing under control, drink and eat if necessary, Follow the same approach on the shorter climbs. The critical issues are rhythm and mind set – do not allow the thought of giving up even enter your mind. Focus on the immediate road. I used to say to myself “That’s another ten; that’s another ten” all the way up.

You need to prepare for the last big climb. You come off the Cote de la Chevade at 139.5km and start climbing again around 148km so you have only 8.5km to get in shape. This is an 8km climb at 6.1% – nasty. Now start to move your mindset to the finish. When you cross over this one you have a nice long decline with a few bumps and then a couple of hills to climb. Although you still have 54km  to go from the top of Col de Prat de Bouc the worst is over. You can afford to really suffer on this one if you have to. If you are struggling, and the legs are in pain, try and find a rhythm that maintains but doesn’t increase the pain – mindset again is vital. Tell yourself that your legs can make it; they have made it to here. “Another ten behind me; and another ten. And another ten…” Don’t try and keep up with anyone on this mountain if it is draining your energy. Set your pace, your rhythm and focus on the10 metres ahead. Do not look up – 10 metres at a time is all you have to cover at any point. Keep in your mind the worst is over once you cover the top of this mountain – then it is downhill mainly and home.

Rhys,

This might sound a bit ‘new age’ but it is how I did it.  I studied the route of each stage well before the event. The night before a mountain stage I looked at a map of the route, thought about each mountain, thought about the pain I would suffer based on previous mountain climbs that were similar. I visualised what I would seek to do on each based on the length of the climb and the gradient. I also made sure I had a plan in mind if I stayed with a bunch and one if I was dropped. I was a very good descender but did not burn energy doing so (unless it was essential in terms of race position and the team.) You will burn a huge amount of energy on each mountain so conserve all you can off the climb. For the first 20kms or so focus on rhythm, on becoming part of the bike. Avoid distractions and keep your mind focused on those things alone. Do not think about the length of the stage at this point nor how long to go. Get yourself in a state that says “this is how I will ride, can ride, for as long as I need to – even if it is all day,”

Hope that helps.  That’s how I did it and hope there is something there that you can use. See you before the event anyway. Give me a call if you want to chat about anything in this. If it is crap then throw it away – I won’t be upset.

Regards,

Alan

Last 1.5 weeks of training before the Etape de tour 2011

The last week of training was a killer. My coach had me train 4 days in the week and a combination of long rides, time trials and medium distance rides in big gears to make my legs work harder. I then travelled to Switzerland to watch the Ironman and have come back to another 2 hour bike session.

I certainly hit my biggest weeks of training on the last two weeks and with cycling there really isn’t such a thing as an easy week. My coach had me ride 2 hours this week to keep my legs going and the day before the race there will be another 1 hour ride. I was tired at the end of last week and still feeling the affects of travelling to Zurich and getting up at 3am for the race preparation and race day.

It was good to get back on the bike with my riding partner yesterday and push hard. My body seemed to forget what pushing hard on the bike felt like.

I still need rest before the race and I have been crabo loading. My appetite has increased significantly with the amount of training I have been doing. I am eating pasta and rice with simple toppings to keep it easy on my digestive system. There will be a pasta pasty the day before the race and I am looking forward to eating well from here on in.

My racing bike is now in transit to France. My riding partner is taking it on the back of his 4×4 vehicle as he has a house in France. I am packing tonight and then off early to get to the airport on time. I have made a list of everything I need to take. It is vitally important to remember my medical certificate otherwise I would not get my race number to ride. I also arranged travel insurance with Snow Card. There are few companies providing full medical cover for bike races.

In the last three weeks I have been having problems with a loud noise coming from my bike when I ride up hill. I had my bike mechanic come to my house twice to sort it out and to change my gearing to a 34 on the front and 28 on the back. He changed the chain and also gave the bike a new pedal bracket. I tested the bike yesterday morning and it was still making a noise so I took it to Sigma sports where my bike mechanic works to have another look.

The noise was not coming from the pedal bracket it was somewhere around the steering column. He chose to lube the entire headset and we thought it was sorted but then I tested it and again the noise was present. This was getting frustrating and I was worried as I was giving my bike over for transportation to France that day.

I was testing the bike and then another Sigma bike mechanic heard the noise. He said it had to be the front wheel axle. He lubed the entire area around the axle including the connection with the front forks. Magic, the noise was gone. It showed me how difficult it can be to judge where noise is coming from on a bike and to lube the bike if it has been in the rain or not been serviced for a long time.

I am relaxed mentally and I am looking forward to the entire experience. I will be with 5000-6000 other riders and having a riding partner makes all the difference as it will be along day. I am expecting to do it in 9-10 hours. The professionals rode stage 9 on the weekend and there were some serious accidents. The wet road can be dangerous on the hairpin turns so braking carefully and slowing down is important.

This is it I am about to do the Etape de tour 2011. It has been tough training as the rides have been so long and I have worked at the same time. I am glad training is over and now I am ready to race. On my website I am posting the entire Act II guidance booklet from my tour company. It contains everything a rider needs to know. On the following blog I am also putting the analysis of the Etape stage by an ex-pro cyclist. I asked him to break the race down as if he was doing it and his insights have been extremely valuable.

I will read over advice from cycle fit, look at the course and then watch the Tour de France to prepare. It is surreal knowing I am about to take on a stage of the current Tour de France.

 

Training stopped and pulling out of the Etape Du Tour

It has been a tough three weeks. I was training well and my hill climbing had improved significantly. My training heart rate had elevated and I was enjoying the power up the hills in my legs. I had 7 weeks to go to Etape but have had to pull out because of work commitments.

It has been a mental challenge changing my mentality and knowing I was not going to do the Etape after 5 months of hard training and this included training in winter. I had just bought a pair of Zipp wheels and I had not even used them. I think the toughest challenge was knowing I was not completing something I had set out to do. I do not give up and this was a contradictory decision to my belief patterns. I also had been training consistently for over 1.5 years as I had done the Ironman last year. My body was used to training regularly and my mind was used to having a target to aim for and forcing myself to train through tiredness and a busy life. If I did  not have training to do I felt I had lost some purpose in my life. There were many people who knew I was going to do the Etape and now I had to tell them I was going to stop. Was I letting myself down?

I went through several phases of saying yes I will give up and then no I won’t. I loved the rides in the morning in the country side with friends. I enjoyed the challenges of climbing the hills and the sensation after training of completing my goals and having the rest of the day to relax. I temporarily stopped training and in that week it was a revelation to have so much time to spare. I got so much more achieved at work and I was able to meet up with business contacts. I also felt more energy and sharper at work.

I had clients come into me at work who were also training for the Etape and they made me envious. I spoke to a client who had not done anywhere near the same amount of training and I questioned whether I could do it with much less training. I decided to speak to my coach and pose the question of less training. My coach set me straight and said there is no easy way. You either do the training or you do not compete. He explained the need to train properly and it is not a race to take lightly. He immediately asked how many days I was willing to put into training and then told me I would need to train in France to get a proper perspective on hill climbing. The UK hills are nothing like the hills I would climb in the Etape.

I thought about the demands on my body and time and the need for me to be at work. I had completed the Ironman last year and that was my main physical challenge. The Etape was an event I wanted to do but did not have the same intensity to complete. I listened to my body and the experience of not training for a week was enjoyable. I finally decided to give up after changing my mind about twice.

Making the decision to give up has to mean give up. There is no looking back again. The worst part was now seeing my Zipp Wheels and wanting to ride on them. I have decided to continue shorter rides on the weekends to help a colleague train for his Ironman. This would involve about 3-4 hour rides and maybe every 2nd weekend. I did not have to train in the week.

I know my body will lose strength and my leg size will decrease. It is still disappointing when I think about it but I am happy with my decision now. I have committed myself to work and I am enjoying feeling less tiredness and more alert at work.

My coach has said I must set a new target otherwise I will drift into no mans land. I will be thinking about this over weekend. I still want to have a focus for training. I might look at short distance triathlons with less training and work on my speed. I think my legs are built for speed on the flats when riding my bike and I know my swimming can improve. My running is terrible but I can work on this as best as I can. Let see where my decisions take me. I am apologies to all those people reading my blog and wish you a great cycle at the Etape, I am jealous.