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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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 before riding in Portugal

Last weekend I went on a 4 hour ride in the hills in Surrey. In the ride we purposely looked for the biggest hills and climbed one after the other. I have to admit I bonked. It was a tough ride home. My coach then set me another 4 hour ride in two days time and then time trials around Richmond Park. All this before heading to Portugal and riding 4 days of hills.

I was worried my body would tighten up with extreme increases in training and after bonking. I rode to box hill for my 4 hour ride and could feel my legs tired at the end. They did not have great energy to push hard and in fact they ached as I was coming home.

Today I attacked Richmond Park and I was determined to beat my best time of 19.53mins for 1 lap.  I did not know if my legs would cope with only two days rest. I accelerated out of my seat and set the stop watch going. I did not look at the watch until I crossed the finish line and just thought about pushing hard. I am learning to pace myself and at times when it was painful I think if I go faster this is when I actually make up time at the end.

I rode anti clockwise and the wind was almost neutral if not slightly a head wind. I stayed low on the handle bars and controlled the gear changes while in this position. I could feel my legs were tiring at the tops of hills but on the flats I recovered fast and my heart rate was easily maintained. On the flats I accelerated and was staying above 40 km/h on them. In the final straight a rider was pushing hard in front of me and I picked him out to catch. In the last 10 meters I passed him. My time 19.10mins. I was definitely stronger today and that was after doing two 4 hour rides in the space of 6 days.

My legs are adapting to the training and in Portugal I hope to get the climbing muscles working and learn how to pace myself for the long accents. My next goal is to get to 18 mins around Richmond Park. I will then officially be faster than my coach.

In the next blog I will talk about my training and what I learnt about hill climbing on the bike.

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.

Hill climbing lessons, time trialling and post training fatigue

My coach wanted me to train three times this week. A few weeks ago I was getting too tired with work and life and decided I would make an effort to look after myself better. I therefore decided to train twice instead this week. My coach wanted to come out with me on the weekend and also take my good friend an ironman athlete. He wanted to push me up the hills and make it a hard training session.

Earlier in the week I had a decision to make between time trialling or hill climbing mid-week. I decided to do time trialling as I knew there would be hill climbing on the weekend. I rested with no weight training during the week.

The time trial was done in Richmond Park and in the past I knew I could do a round in just over 20 minutes. It is not a consistent time trial because the wind can blow at different speeds and the traffic can vary depending on what time of day you go. My main ambition was to set my stop watch and see that I done a round of Richmond Park in under 20 minutes.

I had two laps to do with a warm up lap at the start and half a lap cool down in between. I decided to go clockwise around the park for my first lap. I dropped the gears and started the push. In my mind I knew I had to pace myself to keep a consistent speed around the park but also knew I had to push harder and harder. I did not look at my watch at all during the lap. The traffic was building up and when I stopped at roundabouts I counted the seconds so as to subtract it from my final time. The wind was against me along the flats and it hit me on the final stretch of 400 meters. The flat was where I could really pick up my time but the wind had other ideas. I pushed right to the end of the lap and looked at my watch 20 minutes and 15 seconds. If I subtracted 10 -15 seconds off for traffic I think I would be in on 20 minutes but I really wanted to see the watch say 20minutes or less.

On the second lap I decided to ride anticlockwise to see if I could change the effect of the wind and hope the traffic lessened. I took aff again and as I was riding my fastest up the hill from Roehampton Gate to Richmond Gate another cyclist blew past me. He was sitting in his seat and probably travelling three times faster. I was absolutely amazed at his leg strength and as he pulled away into the distance I felt such a weak climber. I stuck my head down and pushed harder. The wind was assisting me along the flat but caught me on another section of the lap and the traffic held me up more. Coming in the final 400 metres I pushed and pushed and my right calf suddenly cramped. When I tried pushing hard with the right leg it cramped. I didn’t want an injury so eased off the pedal pressure. I crossed the line in 20 minutes and 30 seconds. If I did not have the cramp I think under 20 minute was a sure possibility. I  would wait until next time.

I have been focussed on getting my hill climbing stronger and all I want to do is climb hills. I get out of the seat of the bike more and maintain a better speed up the hills. On the weekend my coach and the ironman athlete took an alternative route out to Box Hill. This route had hills with 11 an 15% gradients with a variation of long and short distances. My coach told me to push hard on the first hill. I accelerated away and half way up totally blew up. My lungs were about to blow up and my heart could not pump any faster. I slowed right down and my coach blew past me. I told him I went to fast at the start and the lesson I got was to pace myself better for the entire hill. If I do not know how long the hill is I can underestimate its length , therefore, it is better to keep a steady pace and when I see the top push hard. I asked him why he could blow past me so easily and he explained my training had not included many hills and I was heavier that he was so it was easier for him to pedal up the hills. I wondered if my leg strength needed work and he thought they were ok. So it is lots of hill climbing and practice to get my technique correct.

Our training ride on the weekend started in wet conditions and I have never seen so many riders on the side of the road with flat tires. My coach said it is because of the rain and the water lifts sharp objects to the surface of the road. I had just made this distinction when my front tire blew a flat. I pulled out my inner tube and it did not have a valve or a locking screw on it. I pulled them off the flat tire to use. Remember not all inner tubes come with valve and locking screw so check this out when you buy it. I pumped it up with one CO2 canister but it was not fully inflated. When I climbed the hills again I could feel the front tire compress and I was losing valuable energy and momentum and speed. I pulled out a second canister and inflated the tire more. It was much better and next time I  will leave the canister on the valve until I feel the tire is fully inflated.

In the same ride the traffic was awful as we were still riding t 1pm. My front wheel hit the curb when slowing up and because my foot was still clipped into the pedal I fell over. My right hip and hand took the brunt of the fall. Fortunately I had fallen badly once before and knew this was a minor one. I continued riding but I could certainly feel the stiffness come on that night.

I have woken up this morning and feel exhausted. I was going to get to work for 10am but I am still at home. I am going in at 12pm instead as my body is tired. These long fast rides need good recovery and I am feeding my body good food and resting. Still feel like I need more sleep but that will come with an early night tonight. I am not going to train today or tomorrow and when my body feels strong again I will hit the gym. I am learning how to get the best out of my body. I might be able to train tomorrow in the gym.

This coming week my coach wants me to do hill repeats in Richmond Park, gym session based on endurance and then a 6 hour bike ride. I plan to ride on saturday to allow my body to recover on Sunday before the week begins. I want to ride my  6hour ride by myself to go at the speed I want and to ride several hills. I think my strength is improving on the hills and I am certainly going to make the effort to get all the hill climbing I need completed.

Testing myself with other riders and advice from riders who have done the Etape before

This weekend I took two other riders with me to Box Hill. One of them is a rider I will be riding with Etape Du Tour with and the other is training for an Ironman. When I ride with other riders there is such a range of abilities. It is important to ride safely and sensibly where everyones abilities are taken into consideration.

The rider who is travelling with to the Etape has a home in France and has completed a week of hill training in Portugal. He has got strong climbing legs and left us behind on the hills. We did not mind as he waited at the top and we joined him on the downhill.

We all rode together and it was a beautiful ride in warm and windless weather. I think this ride highlighted the need for me to do more hill climbing. My bike mechanic is going to take me out the hills up north of London. I plan to take a trip in June to Portugal to train for hill climbing there too.

I met a friend for lunch and he has done the Etape a few times. His advice was eat loads, hydrate and pace yourself up the hills. He said you burn loads of energy with hill climbing and if you don’t eat you could Bonk and that is the end of your race. He advised I take a gillet for warm doing downhills. He also said to use a wind trainer and cycle in  low hard gears for 1.5 to 2 hours to get my legs prepared for hill climbing. It is always useful to talk to riders who have done what I want to do.

I like going out for rides with stronger riders as it pushes me and I learn my limits. I feel exhausted today but that is all part of the training.