All posts by James Flynn

Haute Route Rockies 2017 – ride report

Descending McClure Pass, Stage 6. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 / Photorunning

‘No, sir, we cannot put a smaller chain-ring or a bigger cassette on your bike. You already have the lowest ratio possible. Welcome to the Rockies.’

Brian, University Bicycles, Boulder, Colorado. Two days before the start of Haute Route Rockies 2017.

I was in Colorado for the first American edition of the Haute Route, seven days, 815 km and 16,000 vertical metres, all at altitude. One of the toughest multi-day events for amateurs in the world. And Brian’s statement did little to ease my nerves.

When I have entered big events such as this in the past I have worked pretty hard on my training during the lead up period. This time, unfortunately, I had to turn up to the starting line seriously under prepared. For reasons no one has been able to adequately explain, I decided in my mid 50’s to enrol in a fairly demanding post-graduate course. I was now at the pointy end, with big exams shortly before and shortly after the trip. At the beginning of the year I had to make a choice – commit my after-work time to study or commit to training. Training lost. I cancelled my scheduled trip to Victoria for the 3 Peaks. In the 26 weeks leading up to the event I managed only ten trips to the hills. Only a handful of those were more than 100 km. No early morning intervals. No back to back long, hard rides. No coach scheduling / monitoring / pushing me. My daily commute plus sporadic sessions on the Watt bike was all I could find time for. My strength and endurance plummeted. It was going to be a long week.

Day 1, Boulder – Boulder: 107 km, 1,900 m vertical

107 km, 1,900 m vertical – not much different to an SPR Sunday long hills ride. Except North Boulder Park, the Coode St jetty equivalent, was over a mile above sea-level and we kicked off with a HC climb that contained a significant stretch of dirt road.

Sunshine Canyon. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 / Photorunning

Boulder is at the base of the Front Range, the ‘foothills’ that guard the eastern aspect of the Continental Divide. Our first day was flat for about 500 m, then it went straight up. Sunshine Canyon had a few steep pitches and included about 15 km of slippery gravel. I took it gently (well, as gently as one can on a climb with a HC classification). The gradient eased at Gold Hill, a fascinating old ‘wild west’ town (we had stopped there for coffee on a recce ride a few days before). Undulating gravel followed for 20 km before we were rewarded with a spectacular descent back to the plains on a beautiful, wide state road, super smooth surface with sweeping curves and very little traffic (marshals were on most corners and we had police escorts but the roads were always open). A bit of a slog along gently undulating territory got us back to Boulder. Day 1 – survived.

Gold Hill Road. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 / Photorunning
Descent, Stage 1. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 / Photorunning

Day 2: Boulder to Winter Park: 138 km, 3,500 m vertical

I’ve lived in Boulder for 28 years and I’ve ridden up Magnolia Drive once’.

Connie Carpenter-Phinney, Olympic Road Race Gold Medallist, 4 World Championship titles, 12 US National titles, US Bicycling Hall of Fame & US Olympic Hall of Fame member. Pre-stage briefing, Boulder, June 2017.

I was about to venture into territory that even the legendary Connie Carpenter-Phinney had never been in: climbing Magnolia Drive for the 2nd time. My first attempt, two days prior to the start, led me to the bike shop that generated the quote with which this story started. I got to the top on that occasion, but only just. To be fair, it is a brutal climb and I was jet lagged and unused to the altitude.  It is the steepest paved road in Colorado, kicking off with a vicious 14% for the 1st km and averaging 10% for 7 km. Some of the early switchbacks nudge 18 – 20%.  When Olympic champions who live 10 km away choose not to train on it, you know it isn’t gunna be fun.  On my earlier foray Niall Henry kindly stopped to wait for me three times as I battled painfully up the pitches. I don’t think I have ever seen Niall struggle on the bike as much as he did that day – only his superb bike handling skills kept him vertical as he tried desperately to ride at my barely discernible pace without falling off.

Magnolia Drive. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 / Photorunning

Fortunately Magnolia seemed a bit easier 2nd time round (NB easier, not easy). I managed to survive the steep pitches and got to the top feeling relatively OK. We rolled across some compacted gravel roads for a while before another section on the state highway that traverses the Front Range, wide shoulder, not too much traffic so lots of fun. Another dirt climb followed with the big one of the day, Berthoud Pass, saved till last. Topping out at 3,446 metres, this was the first of four ascents above 3,000 metres for the week. Like stage 1, I took it very steady, passed by lots of riders on the Berthoud climb but just happy to get to the finish at Winter Park in one piece.

Central City Parkway Climb. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 / Photorunning
At the top of Berthould Pass. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 /Photorunning

Day 3: Winter Park to Avon: 153 km, 2,000 m vertical

‘I’m never going to do another Haute Route’.

Jim Flynn, Toulouse, France August 2015.

My sole previous Haute Route experience was in the Pyrenees in 2015. I treated that event like a race. I finished relatively high up in the GC for an old fella, but it hurt a lot. Looking back at the story of that ride, there is a consistent theme of pain & suffering :  ‘my legs screamed’, ‘exhausted, I crossed the finish line’, ‘suffering severely’, ‘slumped on my bike’, ‘couldn’t move’, ‘work, work, work, thrashing myself’ are just some of the phrases included in my blog ( https://www.southperthrouleurs.com.au/2015/08/29/haute-route-pyrenees-2015/  ). It was an amazing week but I was determined not to put myself through that again. Once was enough for me.

There is, however, another way of tackling the event. We travelled that year with a group from Manly who essentially treated the week as a club ride (albeit, a pretty solid one!)– lots of regroups, steady pace, chatting away en-route. They enjoyed themselves.

Maybe I could enjoy a Haute Route too??

With Niall Henry, en route to Avon. Picture courtesy of Peter Leman
climb, Stage 3. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 / Photorunning

My lack of training actually turned out to be a godsend. I was reasonably confident that I had the baseline fitness to get me to the finish line before the sweep wagon and that became my main priority. There were a few unknowns, namely the effects of the altitude and my lack of ‘bum on saddle’ time, so I deliberately started out very gently with the aim of easing myself back into form. I slipped back into my old cycle touring mode, where I would ride for hours and hours working about as hard as I would now on a recovery ride.  I didn’t care how long it took me to get to the top of the hills. And it felt really good! It was actually quite liberating for me. After six years of dedicated training, power-based interval sets, time-trial torture sessions, smashing myself in a race to chase down a break, I settled back and enjoyed myself. The result was sensational. I stopped at the drinks stations instead of pushing through. I chatted to fellow riders from all over the globe. I loved breathing the fresh, mountain air. I marvelled at the scenery. I tapped up the climbs and luxuriated in the long, sweeping descents. I still did some work, especially towards the end of the week, but unlike in the Pyrenees, I always kept a comfortable distance away from the red zone.

It was a week in which I was constantly reminded why I love riding my bike so much.

Stage 3 was a bit like a transition day, quite long (153 km) but with no massive climbs. Three climbs, two of them on beautiful, quiet backroads, a fast descent and then a short climb to Avon, another day completed.

dirt road magic, Stage 3. Picture courtesy of Peter Leman

Stage 4: Avon to Avon: 17 km, 650 m vertical

‘Time-trials aren’t for people who like pain, they’re for people who love pain.’

Gilbo. A few years ago, when he used to do TT’s.

The traditional time trial stage on Day 4 of the Haute Route can be approached in two ways – either a torture session aka Gilbo style or as a rest day. I chose the latter. It was a relief to only have a short 17 km ride to tackle, especially as we had two massive days to follow. I slipped back in the rankings. Who cares?

Starting line, Time Trial. Picture courtesy of Peter Leman
Finish line, Stage 4. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies / Photorunning

Stage 5: Avon to Snowmass: 164 km, 2,700 m vertical

‘I haven’t been this high since I was at university’.

Safest to attribute this to ‘anonymous’. Independence Pass, Colorado, June 2017.

Billed as the queen stage, Stage 5, 164 km long with 2,700 m vertical, including three serious climbs, was always going to be a challenge.

I have been privileged enough to have ridden up Alpe d’Huez (1,860 m) , Mont Ventoux (1,912 m), Col du Tourmalet (2,115 m), Col du Galibier (2,656 m) and Col Agnel (2,744 m). Today, however, I was venturing into unknown territory, climbing Tennessee Pass (3,177 m) then the mighty Independence Pass, at 3,687m, the highest paved crossing of the Continental Divide in the USA. Some form was starting to creep back into my legs and I felt strong enough on the Tennessee climb to drag a few people up the hill behind me.  Independence Pass was long (27 km) but gentle, with most stretches between 2 and 4 % (with a bit of a kick near the end). I had no thoughts of attempting to challenge Strava records at these heights so slowly but steadily tapped my way up and felt pretty comfortable at the top. I certainly noticed the effects of the altitude, in particular my heart rate seemed to be about 10 -15 bpm lower for a given perceived effort compared to what it would have been at sea level. It was a bit difficult, however, for me to quantify what effect the hypoxia had on my performance because I deliberately kept to a tempo that I knew I could sustain. Talking to those who were pushing themselves, though, it appears that power outputs were down by anywhere between 50 and 100 watts above 3,000 m. Each increment in altitude seems to get exponentially harder. How people can climb mountains like Everest at > 8,000 m without supplementary oxygen is beyond my comprehension.

With Peter Leman on the ascent of Independence Pass. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 / Photorunning
Independence Pass. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 /Photorunning
With Peter Leman & Niall Henry,  Independence Pass.

Stage 6: Snowmass to Crested Butte: 170 km, 3,000 m vertical

‘I agree, darling, you really do need another bike’.

Robyn Fary, Applecross, April 2017

OK, I made that one up.

Unlike the European Haute Routes, part of the Rockies brief was to include at least 20% of unsealed roads for us to play on. I had ridden dirt once on my Dogma (from Observatory down Lockwood Road to Mundaring Weir Road) and found it decidedly unnerving. New Bike Time, I reckoned. Hello Roubaix: endurance geometry, 28 mm tyres, disc brakes, even suspension in the head-set, it fitted the bill perfectly for this event. The gears were more than adequate for everything but Magnolia (and I don’t think there is any combination of gearing that would make that climb comfortable). The price I paid was an extra kilo to carry up the hills but it was well worth it, especially on some of the more technically challenging sections of course. I ended up actually looking forward to the dirt sections and enjoyed them more than a lot of the bitumen.

climbing W Sopris Creek Rd, Stage 6
Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 / Photorunning

Stage 6 was the ‘dirtiest’ day, with about 80 km of dirt riding in the 170 km stage. Kebler Pass, the 4th and final of our 3,000 m passes, was unsealed. It was one of the most beautiful of all the climbs, with carpets of wildflowers, forests of aspen, spruce and pine trees and amazing views of the surrounding mountains. The highlight of the day, however, was the sighting of a bear and her cub on the lower reaches of McClure Pass. Perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Crystal River, she watched serenely as we pedalled past. Perhaps we were too skinny a bunch to entice her down for a meal?? I was grateful she stayed where she was. I am confident that, if she had approached, I would have easily smashed my five minute power record, regardless of the altitude and the lack of training.

Yours truly in the aspen forest. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 /Photorunning
Peter Leman on the Kebler Pass climb. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 / Photorunning
All the hard work done. With Peter Leman, Kebler Pass, Stage 6

Stage 7: Colorado Springs to Colorado Springs: 70 km, 1,400 m vertical

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine into trees.”

John Muir, Scottish – American naturalist

The Rockies are stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful. Our ride took in only a small portion of them, but I saw enough of them to make me want to come back. The accompanying pictures will, I think, be more effective than words in describing the country we rode through.

With Niall Henry in the Garden of the Gods. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 / photorunning

We were blessed by extraordinary weather – the worst we had to put up with was a bit of a chill on a couple of mornings that quickly dissipated as the sun rose. We were warned to be prepared for everything (the ski slopes at Winter Park were still open two weeks before we arrived) but arm warmers and a gilet were more than enough for the week. We were truly spoilt.

Unfortunately delays in a bus transfer (the only one of the week) meant our last stage was truncated: a ceremonial parade through the Garden of the Gods and Old Colorado Springs, a seven km timed stage with a small climb then a roll back to the finish to collect our medals.

with Peter Leman & Niall Henry, Colorado Springs, June 2017

I hadn’t planned to ride the following day but Niall & I couldn’t resist the temptation to ride the beautiful loop on Gold Camp Road that the organisers had planned to take us on the day before. It was a fabulous way to finish a very memorable week on the bike.

Niall Henry, Gold Camp Road

I would highly recommend a Haute Route experience. It is challenging, but the cut off times are very generous and I think almost all club members, with the right training, could complete the ride. The organisation was very efficient, with bike boxes collected on D1 and delivered to your final hotel on D7, luggage transported daily to the next hotel, a back pack available at the finish line which could be used to have clothes / shoes to change into, plenty of food at the rest stops, safe roads, en-route mechanical support. Most importantly, there was a wonderful atmosphere, with plenty of camaraderie amongst the riders. Even Emma Pooley, who not only won the women’s race but beat all comers on Stage 5 (first female to lodge the fastest time of the day after almost 100 Haute Route stages) tweeted ‘what a fun and friendly environment’ it was to race in.

There were some fabulous videos produced by the media team each day. This one sums up the week quite well. (Incidentally yours truly features briefly @ 1.30 in the video on a rough track where I trailed the motor bike for a few minutes).

A particular highlight of the Rockies ride was the frequency and duration of the un-timed sections, on some days more than 50% of the stage. This gave even the hard-core racers (and there were a few ex Olympians and national champions at the pointy end) the opportunity to enjoy the jaw-dropping scenery.

Climbing Batttle Mountain. Picture courtesy of Peter Leman
traversing the valley, Stage 3. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies / photorunning
picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies /Photorunning
Independence Pass. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 /Photorunning
Avon – Snowmass, Stage 5. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 / Photorunning
Red Cliff Bridge, Colorado. Stage 5, Haute Route Rockies 2017. Picture courtesy of Haute Route Rockies 2017 / Photorunning

Stage 8: Denver, Colorado to Perth WA: 16,255 km, 10,900 m vertical

‘Of course, go off cycling overseas again with your mates, I’ll be fine at home’.

Robyn Fary, Applecross, April 2017

OK, maybe this one isn’t true either…

I would like to acknowledge and thank Robyn for her kindness and graciousness in yet again supporting me in my cycling indulgences. Our original plans included her travelling to the States towards the end of the ride so we could have some time in the mountains together but these plans were shelved because of my need to return to study for my remaining exam.

Hoping to make it up to her with a trip early next year.

She is even muttering about going somewhere without my bicycle.

I didn’t realise such destinations existed….

The day I beat Chris Froome

For the past 26 years, the Tour de France organisers have given average punters the opportunity to race a real mountain stage under pro conditions the day before the big boys, with fully closed roads, police escorts and yellow, polka dot & green jerseys for the winners. Recently the format has been expanded internationally and Australia got its first taste a couple of weeks ago in the Snowy Mountains. The organisers drew up a challenging route, with 157 km including 2,700 vertical metres and a ‘mountain top’ finish at Perisher ski resort. A shorter but not insignificant ‘ride’ course skipped the Perisher climb but still entailed 123 km & 1,900 vertical metres, a solid day on the road.

The race commenced at Crackenback, half way up the hill to Thredbo. I was pretty nervous about dropping down to Jindabyne with over 3,500 other riders, particularly as we were being set off in groups of 1,000, but the starting line was located in a small valley with a four kilometre climb out, which was enough to split the mob into manageable groups.

Choosing a pace is always challenging at the beginning of a ride like this. Going out too hard means you run the risk of running out of gas on the long climb at the end, too easy and you miss out on the opportunity to work in a group with the big fellas on the flatter sections. The leading riders headed out at a pace that I knew I couldn’t match so I slotted in behind with the groupe poursuivant, nervously hoping that they weren’t going to smash me in the middle section of the ride. About 50 of us got to the top of the first rise together then descended down the hill and safely negotiated the sharp right hander at the edge of the lake. At the event village in Jindabyne I dumped my wind-vest & arm warmers at the foot of my patient, long suffering wife and, spurred on by her encouraging words, crossed the dam wall and climbed out of town for the next phase of the race.

The next part of the route was spectacular. Rolling hills, some short and sharp, some long and taxing, but nothing too extreme. The weather too, was perfect – the biting early morning chill had disipated, the skies were clear, no wind and a very comfortable 20C as we rolled north to Rocky Plain then headed south east through picturesque country. The pace was, at times, kind enough to let me enjoy the panoramic views of the Snowy Mountains. Knowing the road was clear of traffic made the long, sweeping descents really enjoyable. Corners swept of debris, superb road surfaces, marshals and police coordinating traffic, a solid group rolling through smoothly– it was cycling nirvana.

Snowy Mountains
Snowy Mountains

Berridale, at 75 km, hosted the battle for the green jersey. For a climber like me, the sprint was of no interest but I hung onto the back of the group, just for fun. It was, for me, a warm up, for The Wall.

Green bike at Berridale, picture courtesy of www.destinationjindabyne.org.au
Green bike at Berridale, picture courtesy of www.destinationjindabyne.org.au
More green bikes, Berridale, picture courtesy of www.destinationjindabyne.org.au
More green bikes, Berridale, picture courtesy of www.destinationjindabyne.org.au

 

More rollers to Beloka, where things started to get serious. My group worked well together and tackled the long false flat aggressively, if a little nervously, as we headed up the valley. A, short gentle dip down to a bridge. Grazing country disappears. The bush takes over. We are back into the mountains. 100 kilometres on the clock. The next big challenge of the day was upon us.

kangaroo crossing the road, Col de Beloka
kangaroo crossing the road, Col de Beloka

The Beloka climb is not for the faint hearted. Three kilometres long, it is known colloquially as ‘The Wall’. Unlike climbs like the Goose, which start relatively gently then kicks at the end, Belokia assaults you at the onset, smacks you in the face right at the start. You cross the creek then climb a cliff:  never below 10% for the first kilometre, said my Garmin, with a peak of 23%. At one stage I logged 8 km/hr with a heart rate of 160. Ouch. It hurt even more knowing you are only 1/3 of the way. The gradient eases in the middle, ‘easy section’ but the torture of the intro meant I was still hunting desperately for another gear to help me keep my cadence up. A stiff kick in the slope at the end to squeeze even more lactate into the screaming, burning legs. Then the road flattened. I was at the top.

Not surprisingly, the group I was with was blown apart by the climb. I was doing OK for fuel & fluids so didn’t stop at the refreshment station and made my way back down the hill. For the first time on the ride, I was without friends. The gradient was too gentle to freewheel so I pushed on solo for about 10 minutes. I caught a couple of riders ahead of me but they weren’t willing / able to work so I struggled on by myself. I started to fade, still a long way to go. Looking over my shoulder I was relieved to see a group of riders 50 metres behind me, bearing down with a fearlessly determined driver at the front. I eased up, had a drink and some food, then hitched on and joined the train.

The end of the descent at the outskirts of Jindabyne was pretty close to the finishing line for those who had signed up for ‘the ride’. For mugs like me, however, who had signed up for ‘the race’, there was still 30 km to go. Virtually all of it uphill.

As far as bike rides to ski resorts go, the climb to Perisher is relatively benign. Hugging a creek, it rose gently through the valley at a very respectable 3% average gradient. There were a couple of nasty bites but no tortuous, Alpe Du Huez ramps, no Ventoux forest of 10 km @ 10%. But we still had 120 km of racing in our legs at the bottom, so it wasn’t easy.

I felt pretty strong at the base of the mountain, and climbed solidly for most of the way. A few of the leading group had burnt too many matches on the early sections and I managed to reel in quite a number of riders.

Not far from Perisher
Not far from Perisher

For me, however, the race was about 5 kilometres too long. The last leg hurt. The outskirts of Perisher appeared, but the road kept rising. A nasty kilometre push up out of Smiggins Holes took me to the highest point of the race. The finishing line was in sight, mercifully downhill, 500 metres away. I ‘sprinted’ across the line, then collapsed, comforted and supported by one of the many volunteers who had given up their day to support the riders.

L’Etape 2016, tick.

Five hours, 9 minutes in the saddle was enough to secure me 73rd place overall. Almost 1,900 riders started the race I so was pretty happy to end up in the top hundred.

At UCI events riders are grouped by age but there was no mention of intent to do this in the pre-race blurbs for this event. I discovered later that night that they had in fact graded us into 5 year blocks and was extra-chuffed to find out that I clocked the fastest time of in the 55-59 year old category.

jgf-descending
enjoying a descent

Chris Froome, rides for Team Sky, a few race victories under his belt, was the ambassador for the race. He started last. According to the pre-race publicity, he was to ‘ride through the groups’. I think the plan was for him to pass all the riders, so we all had an opportunity to ride ‘next to’ him. I beat him to the finish by about 20 minutes. Pretty impressive, I reckon.

So, why did I I beat Froome? Was he out of season, a bit overweight, had too many Kosciuszko Pale Ale’s the night before??

Nah – I am pretty confident that, even with a splitting headache, he could have beaten me riding a kids tricycle with one leg in plaster.

I beat him to the finish line because the organisers made one, simple error when they calculated the splits – they failed to take into account what a nice guy he is.

What to say about the man? I have read a few lines penned from people who met him during his brief stint in Oz and spoken to some people who spoke to him, and some who rode with him on the race.

The story? Universally positive.

A description of Froome’s ride is told beautifully on a widely available blog, written by Harrison Bailey, a young guy who was tapped on the shoulder a couple of days before the race to escort him along the route. They rode hard for a couple of hours, then stopped at a refreshment station. No TdF rolling refuel, he spent 15 minutes talking, posing for selfies, I reckon there must be hundreds on facebook of grinning riders and vollies standing next to the man. He stopped many more times, abandoning any pretence of catching the riders at the pointy end of the race. Reports of his enthusiasm, behaviour and willingness to engage were universally positive. This picture, I think, sums up what he brought to L’Etape Australia 2016.

Chris Froome at a rest stop , picture courtesy of www.destinationjindabyne.org.au
Chris Froome at a rest stop , picture courtesy of www.destinationjindabyne.org.au

Respect, Chris Froome.

Froome 2 km from the finish line, picture courtesy of www.destinationjindabyne.org.au
Froome 2 km from the finish line, picture courtesy of www.destinationjindabyne.org.au
Froome at the finish line
Froome at the finish line

I am in my mid 50’s, and have cycled all my life. I have signed up to many events in Australia (and around the world) but never, ever, previously experienced the enthusiasm and the community involvement that I encountered on L’Etape Australia 2016. Crowds lined the route like nothing I had seen before – clad in yellow in Jindabyne, green in Berridale, polka dots galore in Dalgety and Beloka. Hundreds of old bikes lined the roadside, all painted in yellow, green or polka dot colours. Not far out of Crackenback I spied horses grazed on the high grounds under the protection of yellow blankets, near the sprint all the shops, houses & road signs were decked in green tule, school kids in yellow screamed encouragement as we rode past, polka dot parties galore in Baloka. The Jindabyne shops joined the party – skis and snowboards in the display window of the ski shop were painted yellow, every shop I saw had either a bike, a banner or some sort of TdF colour on display. Kudos to the organisers, but special thanks to the many volunteers, townsfolk & the farmers along the way who, instead of resenting the inconvenience of having roads closed for a day, embraced the event with a passion that stunned me. I will never forget the warmth of the congratulation I received from the local woman who adorned me with my finisher’s medal as I stumbled from the finishing line at the end of the ride.

Well done, Snowy Mountains,  #destinationjindabyne.

Hope to be back next year.

Gran Fondo World Series Perth Qualifier 2016 – 55-59’s race report

The UWCT roadshow came to town this weekend. With Perth hosting the world championships this September, the 5th iteration of the local qualifying event took on a whole new dimension. The prospect of getting to race for a rainbow jersey without even having to leave town has seen lots of locals heading to the hills over summer. The SPR training rides have been amongst the biggest the club has seen. A large contingent of interstate & overseas visitors also flocked to Perth, with over 1000 cyclists lining up for Friday’s time trial and / or Sunday’s road race.

Elizabeth quay GFWS Perth FB page
Elizabeth Quay – photo courtesty of GFWS Perth facebook page

SPR colours flew proudly and prominently on both days. According to El Prez over 10% of entries were from our club. A few were racing in other colours but green & white was seen prominently in all age groups. It was fantastic to get so much encouragement from supporters all along the route, especially but not exclusively at Mundaring.

The road race took in 3 hills with a total of 1,400 metres of climbing.  Female riders and old blokes like me (55 yo +)  started at Lightning Park (118km) with the rest starting 27km further back at Elizabeth Quay.

Unfortunately, the organisers had neglected to consider either port-a-loos or a key to the change rooms, so it was boys to the left, girls to the right in the bush prior to the 6.30 starting gun.

toilet Lightning Park
‘The toilets, Lightning Park. Photo courtesy of Cathi Dixon’

The early stages of most races are usually a bit messy, with a bit of nervous jostling for positions & wheels and only a few prepared to do any work. Our group’s first 20 km was actually incident free, perhaps because we had access to both lanes of the freeway, a relatively small pack (103 registrants), and maybe, sadly, because of the relatively genteel nature that comes with our sadly deteriorating testosterone levels? We negotiated the U-turn off the freeway without casualties and made our way up Military Road to the foothills, where the real race was about to begin.

I was nervous about the sharp right at the bottom of Ridge Road and had manoeuvred myself up to the front of the peloton, managing to take the turn comfortably in the safety of 4th wheel. The first steep section of the climb saw a lot of riders churn pass me but I held a steady tempo and managed to reel most of them back before we veered left onto the Zig-Zag track. An old train track, its gentle 2% gradient was a pleasure to climb and I found myself emerging at the top with a group of about ten riders, only 20 seconds behind the leading bunch of five. We continued to climb solidly up to Kalamunda and some strong work on the descent to Aldesyne Road saw us catch the leaders just before the next rise.  The pace up the 2nd climb of the day to the Camel Farm pushed me at times but I managed to hang on and enjoyed the fast descent into Mundaring Weir still at the pointy end of the race.

Laurensia on the Zig Zag Damien Wyer
Laurensia on the Zig Zag Track. Picture courtesy of Damien Wyer – This Photographic Life
Mark Edmiston Damien Wyer
Mark Edminston on the Zig Zag Track. Picture courtesy of Damien Wyer – This Photographic Life
Bonner up the zig zag Damien Wyer this photographic life v2
Mike Bonner on the Zig Zag Track. Picture courtesy of Damien Wyer – This Photographic Life

Enjoy it while it lasts!

The 7.4 km rise out of the weir only averages 3% but there is a short section at the bottom of 7 – 10% and it was here that Mike Bonner chose to see if he could get rid of some of the wannabes. About 8 riders survived his kick but I, unfortunately, was spat out. It was looking like a long, lonely climb till I glanced behind and was cheered by the familiar sight of Stuart Gee only a few metres away. He looked strong and quickly took over and started dragging me up the hill. I did a few turns but Stu did the bulk of the work, unflappable, like a machine, it made it so much easier to keep up the pace with someone like Stu to help out. A 3rd rider caught us only to sit on the back and take the free ride, a bit annoying but nothing one could do about it.

Getting fluids at the feeding station at Mundaring was a priority for me as it was already quite warm and I had been on the limit for most of the climbs.  There was an enormous line of keen volunteers from SPR dangling bottles but unfortunately a slight downhill gradient meant that most of us approached the station way too quickly, it was a big relief to get a bottle on the 2nd attempt and I was very grateful that there were so many to choose from.

We crossed the highway and tackled the rollers on Stoneville Road. Our group swelled to six courtesy of one rider who had bridged thru Mundaring town as well as a couple of casualties who had fallen off the leading bunch. A Peel rider enthusiastically encouraged and cajoled us into working together and we managed a fast but smooth, consistent roll right through to and down Toodjay Road, continuing along the Reid Highway in the same vein. We picked up a few more stragglers, lost a couple and passed a couple of sad individuals fixing punctures.  At this stage we hadn’t seen the leaders for some time and I wasn’t sure how many were ahead of us but thought, for the first time, that maybe a top ten position was in the offing?

Turning off Reid Highway onto the Mitchell Freeway saw us 15 km from the finishing line at Elizabeth Quay. We were now, unfortunately, heading straight into a headwind, it was starting to get hot and our bodies were tired. There was a distinct lack of enthusiasm to drive from the front so it was a pretty slow slog home. Forcing the pace at this stage was, in fact, pretty pointless, as we had a clear road ahead & behind us so it made sense to ease off a little. I had finished the last of my water but sucked a gel in the hope it would give me a bit of energy for the finish.

Cycling is a nasty, nasty sport. As I looked around at the group I realised that my best buddies for the last hour and a half were now my mortal enemies (apart, of course, from Stu). We had all worked really closely together to get us in such a good position – but now it was every man for himself.

I was feeling pretty good, but was realistic about my chances in a sprint – some of the guys had tree trunks instead of legs and I accelerate about as quickly as a Pilbara iron ore train. I decided to attack as we passed in front of Parliament House but was, not surprisingly, reeled in pretty quickly by most but not all the group. I settled back into the pack and five of us headed down the off ramp towards the finish. I had slotted into 5th wheel, a mistake, unfortunately, as when the heat was put on just before we tackled the left then the right hand turn into the final straight I was too far back and despite my best effort, couldn’t match the others and finished 5th out of the five.

The sprint for 4th place, 55 - 60yo's
“the sprint for 4th place – 55 – 59 yo’s”’ – Photo courtesy of Mish Ferguson

As it turned out, only three riders had crossed the line before us, meaning we had sprinted for 4th spot so, despite fading at the end, I had still managed to finish in 8th place – pretty stoked with this, especially packaged with my 5th in the time trial two days previously.

Michael Bonner had, not surprisingly, been really strong in the hills and had done the lion’s share of the work in the segments I was with him. He was rewarded for his efforts with 3rd position, a fantastic result. Unfortunately Stu struggled with cramps over the last 30 km but still held on to 9th position – three SPR riders in the top 10, sensational work team.

There were many other great results amongst the club, most Queen Amanda Nabi with top spot in the TT and 2nd place in the road race, Davina also podiumed with a 2nd in her road race and lots & lots of riders qualified.

It was a great weekend of cycling for me.  The planets aligned in all respects  – the training had been perfectly directed (thanks heaps, Brad Hall @ exercise institute ), I felt strong on both days, survived the turns in the TT and positioned myself well at most of the critical points in the road race. Most importantly, I was lucky enough to avoid punctures, mechanicals and crashes. I was buoyed by the strong support by SPR members spread all along the route on both days – really appreciated, thanks heaps to you all.

Others, unfortunately, were not as lucky as I was. It was heart-breaking to hear of so many strong riders who had spent months of intensive training not making the cut. There were way too many punctures (rumours of tacks, though I am yet to speak to anyone who actually saw one on the road or pulled one out of their tyres???), dropped chains in the TT, a few crashes (fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, none too bad) and some riders just had a bad day.  Racing can be cruel.

For the rest of us who got lucky, bring on September!

Haute Route Pyrenees 2015

stage 4 tt finish jgf

Find the highest roads in the Pyrenees. Join the dots. Seven days. 792 kilometres. 16 major climbs, 18,300 vertical metres: welcome to Haute Route, Pyrenees, 2015, billed as the toughest, highest cyclosportif event in the world.

I nervously lined up with the other 360 riders at the starting line at the Atlantic beachside resort of Anglet. I knew that each individual stage, whilst tough, was doable. How, though, would I cope with backing up day after day? It was impossible to train for this event in Perth. Only one way to find out if I could do it – start pedalling.

Three nervous West Australians at the starting line, Haute Route Pyrenees 2015
Three  West Australians trying to look brave at the starting line, Haute Route Pyrenees 2015. Picture courtesy of Hauteroute.org
Stage 1: Anglet - La Piere Saint-Martin
Stage 1: Anglet – La Piere Saint-Martin

Stage One was no gentle introduction – 137 kilometres with almost 3,500m vertical (as per the official guide – Garmin & Strava all gave slightly different altitudes, I have used the guide as a reference for this article). The 54 kilometres leading to the first climb looked flat on the course profile but it actually involved almost 1,000 metres of climbing through rolling hills at a very fast pace. I tried as hard as I could to stay with a pretty strong pack, burning, in retrospect, a few too many matches. Reviewing the data, I did what for me would, back home, have been a pretty solid training ride. And where had it lead me to – the bottom of the 1st climb on Day 1…

The Col de Burdincurutcheta was brutal. It kicked immediately for two kilometres at 12%, steeper than almost anything I had ridden before and far, far longer. The gradient eased for the rest of the seven kilometres of climbing but never below 7%.  My legs screamed. I immediately regretted my decision to only put on a 28 to complement my 34 on the front. I struggled to keep my cadence high and spent most of the climb pedalling between 50 and 60. What I used for strength-endurance training in Perth became ‘survival’ mode on the Haute Route.  It was going to be a long week.

Climbing the Col du Burdincurutcheta with Niall, 15 August. Picture courtesy of hauteroute.org
On the upper slopes of the Col du Burdincurutcheta with Niall, 15 August. Picture courtesy of hauteroute.org

A brief downhill quickly lead us to the 2nd climb of the day, the Col de Bagargui. It was mercifully short, a gentle 5% over 6 kilometres. I cruised to the top, topped up my water bottles and headed gingerly down the mountain.

The descent from the Col was terrifying. The road was narrow and steep, the surface slippery from the rain that had fallen a few hours before. I am a nervous descender at the best of times. I gingerly entered tight switchbacks with blind corners. Almost overshooting the 2nd corner did nothing for my confidence. Getting to the bottom became a matter of survival for me. As we dropped to the valley floor I was passed by heaps of riders, all more skilful, reckless and / or braver than me, but I didn’t care – I was very relieved to finish the drop with all body parts still connected.

The 3rd and final climb of the first day was to the ski resort at La Pierre Saint-Martin, made famous this July by Froome’s attack seven kilometres from the summit that destroyed the pack and ensured he would wear the yellow jersey into Paris for a 2nd time. I had read in the race guide that the climb was 24 kilometres long @ 6.5%. This is a gradient I love. This mountain, however, taught me how deceptive ‘average gradients’ can be. La Pierre Saint-Martin is typical of the Pyrenean climbs, beginning with a long, gradual rise alongside the river at 2-3%. The further up I rode, the more worried I become – if it is this easy down here, what will the 2nd ½ be like? I was to find out soon enough.

It hurt.

Five kilometres from the finish, I spotted a French rider 10 metres ahead of me. He was clearly in trouble. Swaying on his bike, zig-zagging across the road in an attempt to ease the angles, he looked like he was really close to giving up all together.

20 minutes later, when I looked up, he was still 10 metres in front of me.

It was that sort of day.

Exhausted, I crossed the finish line. I had survived. But how would my body cope with the rest of the week after such a punishing start?

Stage 2: Pau - Pau
Stage 2: Pau – Pau

Day Two was longer (159 kilometres) but with less climbing (‘only’ 2,550 metres). It included the classic Marie-Blanque and the Aubisque followed by a short climb to the Col du Soulor. The Aubisque was a majestic ascent, I could understand why it has featured in so many Tour stages. The major descent of the day was down the Soulor, less nerve-wracking than the previous day’s downhill section but again I took it cautiously and was very relieved to get to the bottom safely and roll back on the 25 kilometres neutralised section to Pau.

This two minute video may give you a feel of what stage two was like: highlights are Niall Henry climbing solidly @1.05 & a sound bite from Jacques @ 1.18.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=es8Ra4QfE00

The days were long: alarm at 5.30, bags to the foyer, breakfast, ride, eat, back to the hotel, eat again, shower, attend the briefing outlining the route for the following day, dinner, hotel, organise kit for the following day, bed. Usually it was well after 11 pm when I got to turn out the light and sleep. I always set two alarms in the vain hope that it would help me get going in the morning, but it was still an enormous struggle to drag my weary legs out of bed to face the next day.

Eating was another real challenge. It was almost impossible to eat enough to match the calories burnt each day. When riding, waiting till hunger hit was not a safe option, so it was a constant battle on the bike to keep the intake up. No niceties here, food was shoved unceremoniously in the mouth with the sole purpose of fuelling the engine. I will be happy if I never see another muesli bar again.

Stage 3: Pau - Hautacam
Stage 3: Pau – Hautacam

Legs were struggling Day Three but we still had to ascend the Soulor (up the opposite side this time), drop down the other side of the mountain and climb the mighty Hautacam before rolling back down the mountain to our hotel. Another day, another 2,900 metres of climbing.

On the way to the summit of Hautacam, 17 Aug 2015. Picture courtesy of Hauteroute.org
On the way to the summit of Hautacam, 17 Aug 2015. Picture courtesy of Hauteroute.org
Stage 4: Argeles-Gazost - Saint-Lary Soulan
Stage 4: Argeles-Gazost – Saint-Lary Soulan

Day Four, the ‘queen stage’ of the race, had the Tourmalet for entrée, the Col d’Aspin for main course and the Col d’Azet for dessert. I loved the Tourmalet. For the first time in the week for me the ride leading to the base of the climb was at tempo, not at threshold, so I felt fresh at the start. Misty conditions meant that I saw little of the mountain but the gradient was a steady 7%. The hairpins kicked at up to 12% but they were only brief and survivable. I got to the top feeling strong but worried about the long descent to follow – it was with great relief that I was informed that treacherous conditions on the road meant that the officials had neutralised the long descent – no pressure to race down the mountain. Even so, it was a nerve-racking ride in very cold, slippery conditions. A café just before the next timed stage did a roaring trade as shivering cyclists poured in, desperate to get some feeling back into their peripheries.

my hand trying to thaw out after the descent from the Tourmalet
my hand trying to thaw out after the descent from the Tourmalet

One of the biggest challenges of the Haute Route was working out how to pace oneself. I knew how much I could sustain on a climb in Perth, but how would that translate to the massive climbs that the Pyrenees delivered? And backing up day after day? On Day 4, I got it right. The Aspin was a bump and I felt strong at the bottom of the Col d’Azez. The gradient let me spin, the seven kilometres flew by and I raced to the summit (the end of the timed section) well ahead of others close to me in the GC.

Stage 5: Saint Lary-Soulan - Pla D'Adet
Stage 5: Saint Lary-Soulan – Pla D’Adet

Day Five, the ‘rest day’ of the race was a 12 kilometres individual time trial from Saint-Lary-Soulan up to the resort of Pla d’Adet. 12 kilometres wasn’t long, but the altitude gained was the equivalent of doing 30 Mount Streets without the benefit of the roll back down in between the efforts.

The race dealt up good days and bad days: Day five was, for me,  a struggle. I tried my hardest but paid the price for my strong finish the previous day, suffering severely on the long 10% sections. I plummeted back down the rankings. Looking at the picture taken at the finishing line, however, I think that I gave it my all.

Almost at the finish line, Stage 5
Almost at the finish line, Stage 5. Photo courtesy of Hauteroute.org
Stage 6: Saint-Lary Soulan - Superbagneres
Stage 6: Saint-Lary Soulan – Superbagneres

The toughest stage of the race was Day Six – only 123 kilometres but with four major climbs giving a massive 3.9 kilometres of vertical (almost as much as the 3 Peaks Challenge). The first ascent, back up the other side of the Col d’Azet, was my favourite of the week. My legs felt (relatively) fresh after the short ride on the previous day, the skies were blue, the views magnificent, the length (10 kilometres) and gradient (7%) were both kind and I reached the pass feeling fantastic.

Two more very significant bumps (the Col de Peyresourde & the Port de Bales) lead to the mighty Superbagneres, 32 kilometres above the road. A 20 kilometres false flat at a relatively high speed meant that I wasn’t as fresh as I would have liked at the base of the climb but I was determined to do my best. This was, however, the climb that destroyed Bernard Hinault in 1986, savaging his lead over Le Mond and denying him his chance to claim a record 6th TDF victory. Legs sapped by the three previous climbs, it was an agonising journey up to the top. The Garmin told me I had done 110 out of 123 kilometres: I was almost home. The vicious gradients of the middle slopes, however, sapped the life out of my legs. The summit village emerges from the trees 3 kilometres from the finish, achingly close but still a long, long way away. I pushed on towards the finish, trying hard to ignore the pain. I kicked as hard as I could with 300 metres to go. When I crossed the timing line I rolled off to the side and stopped, slumped on my bike. I couldn’t move. It took me at least 5 minutes to summon the strength to traverse the 20 metres to the support van. It had been undoubtedly the hardest day of cycling of my life.

descending from Superbagneres, 20 August
Enjoying the neutral descent from Superbagneres, 20 August. Picture courtesy of hauteroute.org
Stage 7: Bagneres-de-Luchon - Toulouse
Stage 7: Bagneres-de-Luchon – Toulouse

The final day, theoretically a ceremonial role into town, happened to include the most challenging climb of the week. The profile of the Col de Mente made me very nervous – 9.2 kilometres at an average of 9.8%, it was longer & steeper than the torturous ‘back of Falls’. Despite (or because of?) the week of climbing I actually managed to find a rhythm and really enjoyed the ride to the top. Blissfully for me, the 1st 2 kilometres of the descent were neutralised because of roadworks. A re-group at the start of the next time section found me with about 10 other riders. As we still had quite a bit of descending to do, I expected to be dropped quickly by them but managed to stay with them – this didn’t bode well for the 90 kilometres grind to the timed finish, but I didn’t care, all I wanted to do now was cross the line. I made sure the SPR flag was waved with a few turns at the front, but, to be honest, I did a lot of cruising down the back. The group wasn’t very fast but time was now immaterial to me – I just wanted to get to the finish. The pace picked up with 10k’s to go, some big guys who had been passengers for most of the ride moved up to do some work. It was a fabulous feeling to roll across the last timing mat. Haute Route Pyrenees 2015 – tick.

I have never done anything as hard as this in my life before. I have ridden up big hills in the Alps, but the added pressure of trying to climb (and descend) at race intensity added a totally new dimension to the ride for me. Apart from the neutralised zones, there was no opportunity to relax and enjoy the ride – it was a constant matter of work, work, work, thrashing myself to catch a group that had dropped me on a descent, grinding out a constant tempo on a climb, constantly checking my output when the gradient eased to ensure I was maintaining my watts.

My primary objective when I signed up for the Haute Route was to get to the finish line alive – a bonus if I managed to complete all stages without being swept up by the Lantern Rouge. Finishing the race is no mean feat, but posting a competitive time was also a carrot for me. At the end of Day 1 I found myself in 75th position and more or less maintained that for the rest of the ride. Final standing for me was 78th overall, 12th in the 50 – 59 yo group. I was the 2nd of a fairly large Aussie contingent to cross the line. Given that it was a pretty strong field, with a few riders at the pointy end currently riding peripheral UCI circuits, I was very happy with my place.

Niall Henry also comfortably made the top 100, an extraordinary effort considering the mechanical /electrical issues he had to contend with. Heading out of Pau on the 3rd day he managed to complete 45 kilometres of tough, rolling hills stuck in his big chain ring, His front derailleur failed again on the TT and he rode up the mountain alternating between the big ring and grinding, grating, clashing on the small. He spent the last two days on two different, borrowed bikes but still managed to post a very respectable time – I am in awe of his efforts.

Niall Henry. And his friends.
Niall Henry looking determined. With his friends. Picture courtesy of Hauteroute.org

Similarly Jacques did an amazing job. He suffered more than most on the 2nd day and almost withdrew because of back issues but still managed to plough on, getting stronger each day. His ambition was finish in the top 150 and he ended up not far off the top 100. An outstanding effort.

Jacques Pretorius ascending the Tourmalet
Jacques Pretorius ascending the Tourmalet, 18 Aug. Picture courtesy of Hauteroute.org
Niall Henry, Jim Flynn & Jacques Pretorius, 21 August 2015
Niall Henry, Jim Flynn & Jacques Pretorius, 21 August 2015

It was the toughest event I have ever entered. By a long shot. I had ridden to my limit for seven consecutive days. I was pretty chuffed to finish. 54 years old, juggling training with a busy job, how good was I.

Then I stood and watched Christian Haettich cross the finishing line.

A horrific accident at the age of 15 left him with a left arm amputated above the elbow and a left leg that ends just distal to his hip joint. Determined not to let his handicap restrict him, he took up cycling. He started trying to ride on the flat, then the hill at the end of his street. He must have fallen off hundreds of time. Gradually he built up his strength and started entering events. He wasn’t very fast – at the Haute Route he had special dispensation to start ahead of the elite riders, and was often the last to complete the stage, sometimes perilously close to the cut-off time. He did, however, manage to complete the race within the time cut, to rapturous applause from bystanders, police, officials and fellow riders alike.

Christian Haetich. Picture courtesy of bbc.com/news
Christian Haetich. Picture courtesy of bbc.com/news

Toulouse, however, was just the end of week one of Christian’s challenge – he was one of 36 riders who signed up for the triple crown – back to back Haute Routes in the Pyrenees, Alps & Dolomites, all equally as challenging, with only one rest day in between. As I type, he has completed the Haute Route Alps and has one day of rest before he tackles the Dolomites route. Can he do it? I reckon he can. Cos he has already completed a Triple Crown in 2013.

The world is truly full of special people.

 

Tour de Boland & The Argus – SPR South African expedition race report

The Argus (or Cape Town Cycle Tour, its official name), is one of the world’s great bicycle rides. A spectacular 109 km loop south of Cape Town, it skirts the Indian & Atlantic Oceans and finishes at the foot of the majestic Table Mountain. From humble beginnings almost 40 years ago, it has grown to become the largest community ride in the world, with entries capped for the last few years at 35,000. It is a race that caters for all. At the pointy end, it is a prestigious race to win – a must on the South African professionals’ calendar, the best local riders were joined this year by Mark Renshaw, Mark Cavendish and a number of other high-class international riders. Its not just the world’s best, however, that are attracted to the ride. For amateur racers, it offers a unique opportunity to push the boundaries with the luxury of full road closures.  Unlike other community rides, which can be quite chaotic at the start, strictly enforced seeding criteria ensures that non-elite riders who wish to race the route are guaranteed to start in a competitive group. Casual riders (fancy dress, BMX bikes, you name it, they are there) are also well catered for, with thousands of spectators turning up to cheer them along the route.

Mark de Castro, ex Cape Townian & a ten times Argus finisher (eleven if you count the year he did it twice) had been hankering for a bike trip back home for ages. He finally put up a notice on the SPR blog late last year & four of us signed up to join him. As a five year club member, I was the newbie of the group – Jerry Ghossein, Mark Schneider, Mike Coote & Mark de C were all riding with the club even before it became SPR. 8,700 kilometres seemed like a long way to go for a day ride so we also signed up for the Tour de Boland, a 5 day race in the week leading up to the Argus.

The Boland race has been on the satellite pro calendar for a few years (Drapac sent a team across this year) but it also has a large amateur section for mugs like us. Monday morning saw us signing on with 500 other riders at Paarl, about an hour east of Cape Town. We were sent off in four groups at 10 minute intervals. Leading out were Jerry & Mike in the 40’s division (starting at the same time as the 30’s and the juniors). Next away were the over 50’s masters, including Mark de C, Mark S & I, grouped each day with the elite women. Last but not least was a mixed bag of open riders, with Mark de C’s brother Bruno, in the pack. A very strong rider, Bruno had only limited training because of a back injury, so elected to take it (relatively) easy in the open (untimed) group. The pro’s followed about an hour later.

 

Team SPR + Bruno de Castro, starting line, D1 Tour de Boland
Team SPR, starting line, D1 Tour de Boland – Bruno de Castro, Mark Schneider, Mike Cootes, Mark de Castro, Jerard Ghossein, Jim Flynn

The 114 km first stage headed out of Paarl in the direction of Franschoek, home to some of South Africa’s best vineyards & finest restaurants. After a ten kilometre neutral start the pace picked up, so I had only fleeting glimpses of the beautiful township as we hurtled through to the major challenge of the day, the 7 km / 7% climb up the Franschoek pass. Unsure of how my legs would cope with 5 days of hard racing, I took it easy on the ascent, even finding time to take a quick snap of the view en-route. A quick but challenging descent (the road was still open to traffic) led us to an open plain into a horrendous, hot, dry, gusty head wind. It was hard, draining work but our group of three gradually grew to a pack of 10 and we worked well together. The road turned north after 20 km and the wind became kind, blowing us to the finishing line at Worcester, where we crossed five minutes behind the leaders.

view from Franschoek Pass
Franschoek from Franschoek Pass
Mark de C & Jim, Day 1 - picture courtesy of Capcha / Cycle Nation
Mark de C & Jim, Day 1 – picture courtesy of Capcha / Cycle Nation
Patrick's van wasn't always available. This is the SPR team bus, backup version.
transport end of Day 1 – SPR team bus (backup version)..

Day 2, Worcester to Op-die-Berg, looked like it was designed for me – a few rolling hills to start with then 2 solid climbs, including the Gydo pass @ 80 km for a total of 1,278 m climbing over 111 km. The wind that had tormented us the day before abated during the night. There was no relief, however – our reward was furnace-like conditions. The temperature at Cape Town that day reached 42C, the highest in recorded history. I am not sure what it got to inland but it was certainly a few degrees higher. It was a tough day for riding.

 

replacing the battery in Mark de C's downtube motor, Worcester, Day 2, Tour de Boland
replacing the battery in Mark de C’s downtube motor, Worcester, Day 2, Tour de Boland
view down the Gydo Pass, Day 3, Tour de Boland
view down the Gydo Pass, Day 2, Tour de Boland

I was determined to keep the leaders in sight for as long as possible so stayed close to the front for the first half of the stage. An attack was launched at 60 km, near the top of Mitchells Pass (a similar climb to Welshpool) and I managed to get onto it and was with a leading group of about 10 riders when we passed through Ceres. Enthusiasm to push the pace in the heat was limited, however, so we slowed down at an improvised feeding / fluid zone (much appreciated fluids from a couple of the escort vehicles) & were caught shortly after by the 2nd group, who rode with us to the base of the Gydo Pass. Two riders (including Paul Kraus, the eventual winner in our age group) got away early on the Pass (10 km /5 %). About ¼ way up the hill I was about 20 metres off a small group of chasers but felt OK and mustered up the energy to bridge across to them. Five of us got to the top together. We had a hot, flat 20 km to go into a breeze. One of the riders, Anton Duvenage, a short, stocky rider with legs like tree-trunks drove the group. I reckon he did 15 of the kilometres at the front, he was like a machine. I managed a few turns to give him a break but the rest of the group sat on wheels. Anton just ploughed on regardless. I felt bad not contributing more, but didn’t feel quite as guilty when I discovered after the ride that he is the current South African champion in both the road & the TT for our age group! I finished the stage strongly and eased off, only to discover that what I thought was the finishing line was just the turn leading to the finish – this mistake cost me a position but I had no complaints about my 5th place, the closest I have ever got to a podium.

 

Mike Cootes at the drug van, end of Day 2, Tour de Boland
Mike Cootes at the drug van, end of Day 2, Tour de Boland
loading the trailer, end of Day 2, Tour de Boland, Op te Berg
loading the trailer, end of Day 2, Tour de Boland, Op-die-Berg

Day 3 was the individual time trial, 30km, back down the Mitchell Pass to the delightful town of Tulbagh. I knew I would struggle on this course – I am not a strong time trialer & am a worse than average descender. In addition, my fancy flat-profile handlebars could not take clip-on bars,  leaving me sitting up into the (inevitable) headwind. The two leaders, both on dedicated TT bikes, flew past me like I was standing still. Clunk, clunk, down the leader board I fell.

 

Morgansvlei Country Estate, via Tulbach, our accommodation for 3 days. Parts of the estate date back to 1710
Morgansvlei Country Estate, via Tulbach, our accommodation for 3 days. Parts of the estate date back to 1710
Mark de Castro, Tour de Boland time trial D3. Picture courtesy of Capcha Photography
Mark de Castro, Tour de Boland time trial D3. Picture courtesy of Capcha Photography

The most prestigious stage of the race, Day 4, Tulbagh to Riebeek-kasteel, was also the longest @ 138km. There was over a kilometre of vertical but this consisted of rolling hills only. I was feeling strong enough to try and push the pace up the biggest bump, a 3 km long rise at the 80 km mark, but it was not enough to split the pack. A strong move 10 km from the finish by Gary Beneke (entitled to rainbow stripes on his jersey courtesy of a 2012 victory in the 50 – 55’s category at the UWCT World Championships at Pietermaritzberg) was enough to give him stage honours. I sprinted for what I thought was 4th spot, only to discover that another rider had snuck away, so ended up with another 5th placing. It was also, I discovered, my position in the GC in my age category at that stage.

The 5th & final stage was a short 72 km back to Paarl, finishing at the Taal Monument (the only monument to a language [Africaans] in the world??). There was no chance of me making up eight minutes on the 4th place getter so I focused on marking the two riders in our group who were just over a minute behind me. The three of us got to the bottom of the final climb together. The monument is on a short, steep hill, only 2.8 km long but at an average gradient of 8% with pitches up to 12%. It was a tough way to finish. I worked hard to hold a wheel, was just beaten to the summit by Jose (in 6th position) but did enough to hold onto my 5th position in GC. I was exhausted but happy.

 

Start of Day 5, juniors, 30's & 40's, v Castell
Start of Day 5, juniors, 30’s & 40’s, Riebeek-kasteel
Finishing line, Day 5, Taarl Monument, Paarl
Finishing line, Day 5, Taal Monument, Paarl

I wasn’t the only tired Aussie at the finish. Jerard had crossed the line before me, 12th in GC in his category, an amazing effort given he was riding solo against some pretty strong teams. Mark de Castro was next up the hill. Unquestionably the most fearless descender in the club, the highlight of his Tour was a scintillating time on Wednesday’s downhill TT. He also rode strongly on Day 4 and, like Jerry,  finished not far off a top 10 position. Mike Cootes, a relative newcomer to the racing game, relished in the conditions. His big frame meant he couldn’t survive the aggressive attacks that featured in his group’s climbs but he seemed to get stronger as the week progressed and recorded a very fast time on the final hill. Mark Schneider was out of form coming into the ride courtesy of an inflamed tendon. He suffered on the 2nd day in particular and was very close to withdrawing but fought on and, like Mike, became stronger on the final stages. Bruno’s back gave him curry and he, too, contemplated quitting but that ain’t the de Castro way and he, too, finished the race proud and satisfied.

rehydrating after the Tour de Boland, Cape Town B&B, Friday 6th March 2015
rehydrating after the Tour de Boland, Cape Town B&B, Friday 6th March 2015

Saturday, our rest day, found us at Convention Centre, registering for the Argus. Unfortunately fire had broken out on the Cape and the hot, windy conditions made it difficult for the firefighters to control. Significant property & road damage ensued. The iconic Argus route was inaccessible, so the organisers decided to send us on a shortened, 47km out & back route on the M3, a glorified ‘Freeway Bike Hike’, rebadged as a solidarity ride in honour of the fire crews who had worked tirelessly all week. Given the devastation, there was no place for complaints.

 

The registration, starting pens, route marshalling & finishing areas were superbly organised. Despite the thousands of participants I didn’t feel crowded or in danger. A couple of minor climbs saw a few riders spat out the back but I managed to stay with most of the group (we started in batches of about 150) till the 2nd last corner leading to the finish. Cav came 6th in the sprint behind Nolan Hoffman. My time (1 hr 10 min) saw me 337th out of just over 32,000 finishers. I was ‘only’ 9 minutes behind Cav. For the 1st time in my life, this gave me the opportunity to directly compare my performance to an elite rider – same road, same conditions, his group left 10 minutes before ours. Initially I was a bit chuffed, as the time gap sounded pretty close to me. Unfortunately I made the mistake of setting my timer to see just how long 9 min really was. It was sobering to realise how far away from the top boys I was, the gap is a long, long, time, particularly given such a short route – I think the chances of a pro team wanting to sign me up are pretty slim!!

 

Group 1C at the starting line, Cape Town Cycle Tour, March 2015
Group 1C at the starting line, Cape Town Cycle Tour, 8 March 2015

After the race Mike, Mark de C and I headed around through Sea Point to ride one of the really pretty sections of the traditional route. Mike was on a mission to make it a 600 km week and he was only 49 km off his target. We had a coffee at Camps Bay and finished with a cruise up to Signal Hill to soak in the views of Cape Town harbour and Table Mountain. We were a little disappointed not to ride the full classic route but this was a pretty good 2nd prize. It was, in fact, even better in some ways, as we had the opportunity to enjoy the coastal views at our leisure, instead of the alternative, race view of a piece of tarmac, a wheel & a lycra-clad butt.

 

Haut Bay to Camps Bay, Saturday 8 March 2015 - picture courtesy of Mark de Castro
Haut Bay to Camps Bay, 8 March 2015 – picture courtesy of Mark de Castro
Looking back towards Table Mountain from Signal Hill, Sunday 8 March, 2015
Looking back towards Table Mountain from Signal Hill, Sunday 8 March, 2015

We were also fortunate to have ridden the most spectacular part of the traditional circuit on a recce ride the previous weekend – the 20 km stretch around Chapman’s Peak should be on all cyclists Must Ride Before I Die list, a truly magnificent piece of road carved through a cliff high above the ocean.

Team SPR at Chappies Peak, Cape Town, 28 Feb 2015
Team SPR at Chappies Peak, Cape Town, 28 Feb 2015

It was a fantastic 10 day trip.

Special thanks to Mark de Castro for organising the expedition.  He sorted out all the logistics issues, it was almost like being on a guided tour. In terms of ways to improve, I did point out to him that on our Procycling.com trip to Europe last year our bikes were cleaned for us on a daily basis, but Mark unfortunately failed to take the hint and provide a similar service – maybe next trip, Mark?? Seriously, he did a fantastic job. His cousin Patrick kindly provided us with a van and bike trailer – thanks heaps, Patrick.

Thanks also to my wife Robyn & son Brendan for affording me the luxury of the trip, and also to Anthony Giocoppo from Hall Cycle Training, who managed to facilitate a three month program for me that carefully took into account my rotating shifts, let me continue to do my favourite rides and still managed to push me enough to get me fit enough to survive the distances intact.

The Argus has been ticked. Sort of. I got to experience the beauty of Cape Town, the skills and efficiency of the organisers, but I didn’t hop on the plane feeling I had truly ridden the true Argus.

Maybe team SPR will have another expedition in 2016???

Mark???

 

Gary Boylan, Bronze Medal, World Championships

Congratulations to SPR club member Gary Boylan for taking out the Bronze Medal in the time trial in the 60 – 65yo category at the UWCT World Championships in Slovenia last Thursday. Gary had worked incredibly hard for this event. He managed to complete the course at a blistering average of 44 km/hr  & was rewarded for his efforts with a podium finish at the highest level. Sensational stuff, Gary!

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Alpe D'Huez, Col du Sarenne, Col du Lautaret & Col du Galibier

Alpe D’Huez is on most cyclists’ bucket list. The mere mention of Galibier is enough to make some cycling tragics weak in the knees and a bit misty eyed. Could a mug like me do both in one day??

From our base in Grave, we headed down a spectacular valley. A few years ago, this road was the favourite haunt of a machine known as US Postal, who famously charged down the lower slopes at 60 km/hr to deliver Lance to Le Bourg-d”Oisans, the small village at the base of Alpe D’Huez.

The route also has a special place in Australian cycling history – it was here in 2011 that Cadel made an extraordinary unassisted effort to make some valuable time on his rivals. He wasn’t first up Alpe D’Huez that year, but his ride down from the Lautaret that day was one of the keys to his success that year.

The group left at a sensible pace, given the day ahead. Then Jerard took off. I don’t know what possessed him, maybe he thought he was on the US Postal team, but suddenly it was on. He did a really long turn. I sat back for quite a while. Then, I thought, if he can be an idiot, why can’t I? So I sped past him and set the pace. For about 30 seconds, I was strong. Then I was cooked. OK, peel off, I settled in behind Steve, who was next in the line, ‘for a rest’.

Steve Cunningham, our tour leader, is one of the most humble, unassuming men I have ever met. He also happens to be an ex-professional cyclist and is still in very good shape. He has tolerated our various foibles on this trip with remarkable equanimity. He has guided us at very respectable pace throughout the week. But, if we wanted to play, he was quite happy to join in. I was on his wheel for a few minutes. I am pretty sure he was only in tempo mode but I found myself struggling to get my breath back. I braved a glance down at my Garmin and saw I was churning out 380 watts in his slipstream. Whooo, boy, time to ease off – this isn’t my league. I fell off the back. We still had a lot of cycling to do.

Alpe D’Huez is a ski resort. It isn’t extraordinarily high (1,860 m) and the climb isn’t particular long by the standards of this region (13.8 km @ 8.1% average). Those who watched the stage in last year’s race would realise that the village isn’t even at the top of the mountain – the Col du Sarenne is a further 8 km and 228 vertical metres up the road. The main reason it has iconic status as a Tour climb is the fact that it is one of the few locations in France that has the infrastructure to host an uphill finish. On race day, its slopes host hundreds of thousands of spectators, some camping out for days in order to obtain their favourite vantage point. The hill has become the people’s favourite.

The switchbacks from about corner 15, Alpe Du
The switchbacks from about corner 15, Alpe D”Huez, Le Bourg d”Oisans in the distance. Picture courtesy of Steve Cunningham, procyclingtours.com

We had been warned not to overcommit on the lower slopes, in particular to save our legs for the final few km, where there a few pitches of 10 – 12%. I headed up the hill, counting down the 22 numbered corners. I tried to maintain a steady tempo, keeping my power within 10-15 watts of an output that I knew I could sustain for an hour. Surprisingly, Jerard stayed in my sight. He looked uncomfortable – his upper body was swaying, his rhythm was off, it was obvious he was having a bad day. Later he was to discover that his back brake was rubbing slightly, but neither of us knew it at the time (I honestly swear that the 5 minutes I spent with his bike at the coffee break was spent looking at the geometric aspects of the frame….).

Three quarters of the way up the climb I was feeling good enough to pull my phone out and took a quick snap of the valley below. It wasn’t too long before we were at the outskirts of the village. We rode through the souvenir shops that are clustered around the false finish, Jerard less than 50 metres ahead of me. I had followed him all the way up the hill but had ignored the temptation to catch him for a number of reasons, not the least being the likelihood that I would blow up if I tried. We were on a relaxing holiday, a cycling tour, not a race. My aim was to maintain my tempo, my own pace until the finish.

But we were on the upper slopes of Alpe D’Huez.

And there was a Dome boy, looking slightly vulnerable, just ahead.

Not long after the final switchback I bridged and we rode together under the tunnel. The actual TDF finish line is surprisingly difficult to find. Predictably, Dome-boy missed the right hander shortly after the tunnel. I was really tempted to hit him then but chivalry got the better of me so I waited while Steve guided him back casino onto the course. Due to some administrative blunder this section of the road was still open to the public, so, ushered by Steve, we took the first roundabout on the straight section slowly. The second and final roundabout beckoned, the finishing line 250 m up a gradual slope to the left.

It was almost time to attack. Dome-boy isn’t renowned for his bravery around difficult turns and the previous morning I had a master-class in cornering from Steve, a guy who has mixed it with the best in the sport.

Time to go.

I smashed the corner (after first checking for on-coming traffic, Robyn) and charged up the hill, the finishing line on Alpe D’Huez in my sights.

The crowds were going wild, the noise was deafening. I had 2 bike lengths on Dome-boy when the 100 metre sign flashed by. He isn’t a strong sprinter. The stage was mine!

My head became giddy – the podium, the champagne, the fame. Would they rename one of the switchbacks after me? Years on the circuit have ensured that I am fluent in French & Italian of course, but my Spanish, Dutch & German are rudimentary at best – would they provide an interpreter when I faced the international press??

The final straight, Alpe Du
Dome-boy & me, the final straight, Alpe D “Huez, 30 June 2014 (the crowds have been photoshopped out).
Picture courtesy of Steve Cunningham, procyclingtours.com

There was one small, technical hitch.

On a scale of sprinting prowess that scores Jerard as ‘not strong’, I would be classified as ‘not even pathetic’. There was a whoosh – he was gone. Game over.

I limped across the line. No kisses from the podium girls for me.

We regrouped and had lunch. ½ the tour group headed back down the hill, the rest of us rode on up to the Col du Sarenne. For me, this was the most enjoyable part of the day. The road past the resort was relatively free of cyclists (unlike the lower slopes) and the higher reaches offered amazing views in all directions. Sarenne means ‘serene’ and it is aptly named.

Col du Sarenne
Col du Sarenne

The road was narrow but in good condition up to the Col. Unfortunately, the descent was a bit like riding on a goat track. The tarmac was pot-holed and we had as a bonus recently laid tar (still sticky) with loose gravel around it. I think our descent times were similar to our climbing times – Mark Schneider, not known as the most fearless of descenders, was actually first to the bottom. It wasn’t much fun at all.

 

The descent down Col du Serenne. Picture courtesy of Steve Cunningham, procyclingtours.com
The descent down Col du Serenne. Picture courtesy of Steve Cunningham, procyclingtours.com

Back on good road and it was a long slow haul back up the valley, through Grave and up the Col du Lautaret (a route that will be ridden on stage 14 of this year”s tour). From here it was only eight kilometres to Galibier. We had originally planned to ride the pass via the classic route that incorporates the Col du Telegraph but weather conditions the previous day meant that the program had to be rearranged and we were thus on the less travelled but equally challenging southern approach.

The view back down the valley from Grave
The view back down the valley from Grave
Jerard climbing the Col du Lauteret
Jerard climbing the Col du Lauteret

Eight kilometres isn’t far – I ride further than that to work each day.

Galibier from the Lauteret. The pass is just to the left of the 2 small patches of snow directly above the arrow on the sign
Galibier from the Lauteret. The pass is to the left of the patch of snow directly above the arrow on the sign

I gulped when I was shown a tiny speck, impossibly high, and was told it was a car just about to reach the Col. There was no thought of turning back, though, having come this far. We all refuelled and headed up the mountain.

Col du to Col du Galibier. Picture courtesy of Steve Cunningham, procyclingtours.com
Col du Lautaret  to Col du Galibier. Picture courtesy of Steve Cunningham, procyclingtours.com

My legs were getting tired but all I knew I had to do was tap out a steady rhythm and I would get there. I was really appreciative of the 29 tooth cassette that I had bought after suffering on the Col D’Agnel. However, despite maintaining what I felt was a constant effort, I noticed my power output slowly falling. I tapped the headset a few times, hoping it might have been due a sticky dial, but no difference. I think the altitude, the long day, the long week, finally caught up with me.

Jerard and I were together till 3 kilometres from the pass. He sat in front for a while and then gradually started pulling away. When he saw me off the back he kindly offered to wait so we could finish the climb together but I waved him on – it would have been great way to end the ride but I couldn’t lift my speed and I was worried he would seize up if he sat up – 3 kilometres was still a long way on that road at that altitude.

We both made it to the top of Galibier, tired but happy, a real sense of achievement. Our reward, again, was magnificent views. It was bitterly cold up at the top so I was grateful to be able to hop in the van and put on my warm clothes before posing for a picture.

Col du Galibier. Picture courtesy of Ed, procyclingtours.com
Col du Galibier. Picture courtesy of Ed, procyclingtours.com
Schneiderman arriving at Col du Galibier. Picture courtesy of Ed, procyclingtours.com
Schneiderman arriving at Col du Galibier. Picture courtesy of Ed, procyclingtours.com
The view, Col du Galibier. Picture courtesy of Ed, procyclingtours.com
The view, Col du Galibier.
Picture courtesy of Ed, procyclingtours.com

The descent was challenging. Despite wearing two pairs of gloves, within a couple of minutes my fingers were numb and gripping the brakes was quite difficult. It was late in the day but the skies were clear and the breeze was slight, conditions infinitely better than encountered by the pros coming off Stelvio at the Giro this year – I have no idea how they managed to stay on their bikes in such freezing weather, I couldn’t have done it.

As I got lower in the valley I started to get some circulation back and the last few kilometres back to Grave were memorable – clear views, smooth roads, 5% gradient and home not too far away.

Kudos again to Steve, Michelle and the team at procyclingtours for facilitating the ride. Tasked with shepherding a very disparate group of cyclists, they managed to get all riders up Alpe D’Huez and, with the judicious usage of a van shuffle or two, all but two of the group up the Galibier. A very impressive effort.

Numbers-wise, the six of us who rode the full route managed 128 km with about 3,280 m of climbing. Alpe D’Huez took me 1:03, Jerry a bit less. We were a long, long way off the pros’ times but still pretty happy with our efforts.

Another fantastic day of cycling.

The beer tasted good that night.

Mont Ventoux

I have always been fascinated by mountains. Almost a full row of my bookshelf is dedicated to books on Everest and other alpine peaks. Summiting a high mountain was the stuff of my dreams, but one experience of snow camping was enough to make me aware that my physiology was not compatible with all that white stuff. When my fingers & toes thawed out about five days later I decided that there was no chance I would survive on any high altitude climbs.

So what about riding up hills?

Cycle touring fostered my love of climbing. I discovered that, with the right gearing, any incline was possible, even on a bike loaded with camping gear, clothes, food and water.

Jump a few years. Heavy steel frame replaced with paper-thin carbon, the panniers stowed in the loft – a whole new world of climbing beckons. 2013 gave me a taste of big hill racing at the UWCT final in Trento and the 3 Peaks Challenge in April this year saw me ride up Hotham, Australia’s only HC peak. What next??

In the cycling world, only a few mountains have attained the iconic status of Mont Ventoux. More words have been written about this climb than just about any other bicycle route in the world. Scribes far more eloquent than me have described Mercx’s triumphant struggle, the awful last ride of Tom Simpson and the 2000 Pantani / Armstrong duel. It is a mountain that is both majestic and brutal. Howling winds near the summit can destroy even the bravest of souls. Its moon-like upper landscape adds a certain mystique to its character. Standing at the base on a beautiful clear day, I knew I was about to embark on one of the world’s classic climbs.

We commenced our day at Bouson de Romaine. 25 km, including one small pass, took us to the small village of Bèdoin, the start of the most famous of the three routes up the mountain – a 22 km ascent with a gain of 1,560m at an average gradient of 7%. The ride to Bèdoin included one small pass so there was no complaints about not being warmed up prior to the climb.

ventoux from Bedoin

The ascent can be divided into three stages, split by the trees. The first few kilometres through farming land came at a gentle 5% but this was still enough to spread our group out. This was a ride where it was really important to climb at one’s own pace, no prizes for chasing a stronger rider then blowing up ½ way up the mountain.

The border between the farmland and the forest became closer and closer. It wasn’t too long before, with a sense of trepidation, I followed the road around a left hand bend and saw a path through the trees that seemed to go straight up. This humbling stretch delivers an aching, unrelenting 10 km @ 10%. ½ way through it realised I had overestimated my ability to climb this gradient for this length – I thought that a 34:27 would do me, but looked longingly at the bikes with triple chain rings or dinner plates on their rear wheel. No choice left but to grind and sweat.

It was, I was told, a relatively quiet day but there were still hundreds of riders on the road. Many nationalities were represented. There was the occasional hello but for the most part people rode silently, concentrating on nothing but channelling energy through to the pedals. The trees hid the summit for most of the forested portion but an occasional corner offered the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the famous tower, a scarily long distance away.

Eventually the trees thinned and the gradient eased.

Vegetation originally covered the mountain right up to the summit until Napoleon decided that the particular species growing on the highest slopes was just right for his warships. The removal of the trees left the soil exposed to the gale force winds that the mistral offers the mountain. The soil was stripped away, leaving the rocks exposed. Nothing has grown since. It is an eerie, forbidding, mystical place..

Out of the forest, the upper slopes and the summit
Out of the forest, the upper slopes and the summit

Heat bouncing off the rocks at the height of summer can make the ride even more challenging but, fortunately for us, the weather was exceptionally kind when we climbed, high 20’s at the base, low teens at the summit, with a cool breeze. Despite the favourable conditions I struggled through the last 6 km. At one stage I felt a bit light headed and my peripheral vision got a little hazy. The later symptom I have had a few times when I am really pushing myself so I eased off a fraction and it went away. My heart rate monitor malfunctioned near the start of the climb so don’t know what my true suffer score was. To give you an indication of the difficulty, though, Strava gave Jerry a 259, trumped by another member of our party who scored 348 (with 100 equalling 1 hour at maximum effort).

I stopped briefly one kilometre from the summit to pay my respects to Simpson. It was not even lunchtime but there was already a large assortment of rocks, bidons and energy bars at the foot of his memorial, which is, apparently, cleared daily by the officials. I added my offering, a small stone carried up from the low slopes, and paused briefly to reflect on how a combination of drugs and passion tragically destroyed a  young man who was pursuing the sport he loved. My legs felt like jelly when I hopped back on the bike but I do not regret the decision to stop.

The thin air at altitude made the summit look deceptively close but it was still a long slow struggle to the top. Finally, however, the last turn appeared and I pretended to kick as I ‘powered’ across the line. Ed from the tour group was a welcome sight as he shouted encouragement to me as I rode the last few metres.

The summit was, not surprisingly, packed with cyclists. I happily climbed off the bike and stood and savoured the views, luxuriating in the knowledge that the big challenge for the day was over – I had made it to the summit of Ventoux.

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Tired but happy

J. Ghosshein’s name is now enshrined in the history books as the winner of the Ventoux stage of the 2014 Tour de Procyclingtour. I was 5 minutes behind him with a time of 1:39, an average speed of just under 13 km/hr. I downloaded the file onto Strava and spent a few hours trying to filter out other riders so I could get on a leaderboard, but gave up – not even ranking based on age, sex, nationality, shoe size, bike colour and favourite football team was enough to get me on a front page. Very humbling indeed.

Mark Schneider arrived looking strong not long after me. All the members of our group achieved their goal of cycling to the summit. It was a great day.

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With Mark & Jerard – Team SPR, summit of Mont Ventoux, 26 June 2014

We were all lead, aided and encouraged by the fantastic team from Adelaide based procyclingtours. I have carefully avoided organised tours up till now but have nothing but praise for Steve, Michelle & their indefatigable assistants Ed & Diego. They were efficient but not officious, friendly, highly organised and supportive – highly recommended.

Bouncing around blogs before I left I found a site about a group of people who ride the mountain twice, even three times in the same day. Foolishly, I sent the link to Jerard. We knew that three climbs would be impossible because we wanted to stick with Steve’s favourite route, which included a longish loop from Sault around the south that descended through the spectacular Gorges de la Nesque.

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Gorges de la Nesque road.

Back at Bèdoin, however, we had to decide if we would tackle a 2nd ascent from Malaucène. Steve had spent all day quietly and patiently listening, offering very sage advice on the pros (there were a couple) & cons (there were many) of back to back attempts. I think he was pleased to witness the gradual fading of our enthusiasm & bravado. The decision not to do the climb again was the right one but it still really hurt me to turn left at Malaucene and head back to our hotel. In order to get rid of the frustration caused by actually deciding to do something sensible, I got out of the saddle and tried to ‘hammer’ the last small pass of the day. Looking now at my power on that climb I realise how tired I really was. I am confident that I still could have made it to the summit a second time but am equally sure that I would have been completely wiped out the next day – another epic ride that incorporated a 45km ascent to the Col Agnel, one of the highest passes in the Alps. As it was I really struggled up that incline – I am sure I would have ended up as a miserable passenger in the bus if I had climbed Ventoux twice. Maybe next time.

I didn’t conquer Mont Ventoux. To me, conquering something implies superiority, power, greatness, and these are qualities that I do not possess. Nor did I tame her – that suggests that I was in control, but I know I was only able to reach the summit due to her kind disposition on the day. What I can say, however, is that I have had the privilege of paying due homage to the Giant of Provence. And, in return, she was graceful enough to give me one of the greatest days cycling in my life.

3 Peaks Challenge 2014

I finished the last ride report I wrote (http://www.southperthrouleurs.com.au/2013/09/24/uwct-championships-trento-italy-50-54s-race-report) with a flippant ‘Did someone mention 3 Peaks?’

It was a throw-away line to tidy up the article – to be honest, I had to google 3 Peaks to make sure there was in fact a ride. Who in their right mind would want to ride up to 2 different ski resorts over a 235 km course with over 4.5km of vertical climbing?
Welcome to 3 Peaks 2014.

So how did I end up at the starting line? I think we all like a challenge, and 3 Peaks is, perhaps, the most challenging single day amateur road race that Australia has to offer.  A bit of peer pressure, my roster looked good for early March – why not???

Registration the day before was a smooth process. The ride up the hill from our accommodation (Bogong Village, 15 km down from Falls Creek) was a bit more strenuous than I would have liked 24 hours before a massive event but it was good to have the opportunity to test out the corners on the way home. I am pretty ordinary descender and was particularly nervous about the start of the race – 30 km of almost uninterrupted downhill on a cold morning, no warm up, with a crowd of testosterone-fuelled riders all desperate to get down the mountain as quickly as possible.

Sunday arrived with almost perfect weather –  a bit cool  (10C) at the start line but warming up quickly as the sun came up, with the early start (0630 for the 1st wave, which included most of the SPR contingent) getting us out of the Ovens River valley before it got too warm (30C at Bright that day, but mid 20’s on the high plains that day).

My friend Niall Henry & I had done a bit of training together, we are pretty evenly matched on the hills and we get on well so we decided to tackle the ride together.

with Niall at the start line, Scody 3 Peaks Challenge 2014
with Niall at the start line, Scody 3 Peaks Challenge 2014

Niall (an SPR member for a year or two, but not known to many in the club as he has only done a handful of the group rides) came to the road scene from mountain biking so he was in his element on the drop from Falls Creek (1600m) to Mount Beauty (365m). I think he could have stopped off at Bogong Village, had a cup of tea and still beaten down to the bottom but he patiently rolled with me as I slowly worked my way down the hill. I was very relieved to arrive at Mount Beauty safely. A quick skit through town and it was straight onto the 1st climb of the day, Tawonga Gap: 7 ½ km at a bit over 6% for a gain of just under 500m. It was difficult to know what pace to tackle this at, given there was still almost 200km of cycling to be completed. We took it relatively steady, Niall driving at about 270 watts for most of it (the powertap wheel stayed at home,  I rode my Shamal’s so didn’t have power). Quite a few riders passed us but I was content to let them go, with a plan to ease into the day with the hope of arriving at the last climb relatively comfortably.

The drop from Tawonga Gap was fantastic, long sweeping bends on a closed road. Unfortunately we heard later that one rider came off quite badly on one of the straight stretches – haven’t heard how he went, but my overall impression of the day was that there was far less carnage to write about compared to my previous write up on the Trento race.

A group of about 8 of us (including Matthew Seale) finished the descent together and started a pace line on the very gentle climb up to Harrietville. The roll became longer and longer and I think there was almost 40 riders in the bunch when we pulled off  at the drink station for a top up of our water bottles – 75 km under the belt and the biggest ascent of the day ahead of us.

The course profile
The course profile

Harrietville to Mt Hotham has the distinction of being the only Hors Categorie climb in Australia. It had been on my bucket list for a long time and it didn’t disappoint. Despite being HC it was actually not the most difficult climb of the day. It was long (30 km) but with an average gradient of only 4-5%, a few steep ramps but  a mid-section with a false flat that saw us pick up casino online quite a bit of speed. I actually had time to enjoy the spectacular views of Feathertop and the surrounding bare ridges rising over the forested valleys and slopes.

We still had a bit of energy left in the legs at the summit and managed to earn ourselves a Strava cup, 10th overall for the rolling descent from Hotham summit to the lunch stop at Dinner Plain (13km, average speed 40.3 km/hr). The organisers had arranged a valet drop off service here so we ditched the warm gear we had worn on the 1st descent, grabbed some more fluid and food and got back on the road in about 10 minutes.

Leaving Dinner Plain led us onto the beautiful Bogong high plains. I had ridden this road (in the opposite direction) when it was still unsealed, solo, 30 years ago, on a touring bike so relished the opportunity to see it again from the comfort of a sleek racing bike in the company of a peleton, which varied in number from 3 to 6 as we gradually descended through the rolling hills to the old gold mining town of Omeo.  I was paranoid about dehydration and cramping so again filled up the bidons at the designated refuelling station. The few minutes lost were worth it, I think.

Omeo marked 158km on the dial – only 77 km to go.

A few km out of Omeo saw us turn out of the valley for a long but gentle climb towards Anglers Rest, the 2nd of the designated valet drops. We nervously but safely traversed a precarious bridge crossing ½ way along. The splintered, widely spaced wooden beams were the down fall of Matthew Seale, however – he nobly sacrificed skin off his arms & legs to save the paintwork on his Willier, great effort on his behalf to finish the ride, given what lay ahead.

We all knew that the ‘back of Falls’ was the big challenge for the day. Dave Manners (who rode the Alpine Classic in January, different starting point but same route) had warned me – ‘its like riding up Gooseberry. For 9 km.’

It couldn’t be that bad.

Yes it could.

I think it would be a tough climb when you are fresh. When you turn into it with 200km in the legs, it is torture.

We struggled up. There were casualties. Tom Barratt, who had blitzed the 1st ½ of the ride, struggled to keep any food of fluid down about 10 km out of Dinner Plain – we saw him 3 km into the climb, standing beside his bike, his face a variant of SPR green, looking very sad and sorry. Others, I heard, stopped and cried. The ride booklet said it was 9 km at 9% but the 2nd ½ had some flat bits, I swear that the 1st 4-5 km felt like 15% – I had a compact on the front and a 27 on the back but was grinding at a cadence of 50, hoping desperately that my Garmin wouldn’t go into auto-pause mode as I struggled to maintain momentum.

At 210 km the road flattened out and we got some relief. I hadn’t studied the profile in enough detail to remember what was left of the ride – I knew we had more climbing to do and I knew that the last bit was relatively flat but couldn’t remember how long the easy run home was. Fortunately the last two or three ascents were short and relatively gentle and at 225 km we crested a ridge and saw the ski slopes in the distance. The last 10km was fast – not much energy left but we were spurred on the thought of finishing.

At this stage Niall & I had no other riders to work with.  We picked up a solitary cyclist about ½ way up the 2nd last climb but he sat on our wheels till the finish, a bit annoying but both of us pulled some long turns and we swept over the Rocky Valley Dam wall at the base of Falls, up the final pitch and crossed the finish line together.

As is often the case after an event such as this, I was a bit emotional after crossing the line. And tired. Exhausted, actually. And thirsty. It was an exciting place to be, riders still poring in, people standing, people collapsed, all had given everything to get to the finish line.

I had hoped to do under 10 hours so was pretty pleased to clock 9hrs 10 min on the route – 8hrs 53 min riding time. This pace saw Niall & I come in, I think, 103rd  & 104th  respectively, I was very happy with this result given that there were over 1,900 riders on the starting line.

I was particularly pleased to have shared the ride with Niall. For the majority of the ride he drove me just a little harder than I would have gone if I was on my own. As it turned out, I did have the reserve to cope with this and so got a much better time courtesy of him. There were, I think a couple of occasions when he was flagging and I spurred him on a bit – it was a great partnership.

John Doyle was the next SPR rider across the line. The wounded Matthew Seale and the ill Tom Barrat crossed the line not much later – an amazing effort on Tom’s behalf given his inability to keep any fluids down for the 2nd ½ of the race. Nick Churchill was very close on their heels and all the above riders nabbed a coveted sub 10 hr jerseys, fantastic achievements all round.

SPR ride of the day undoubtedly went to Ben Madsen. We knew he had the history (he finished 16th last year on a different but equally challenging course) but has been troubled a bit by injury of late and I wasn’t sure what form he was in? Dropped on the Thursday fast ride a few weeks ago didn’t auger well, I thought. But he had been saving for the day! I think we need to test him – he flew around the course. In the leading bunch till ½ way up Hotham when three freaks managed to get away, Ben was in 6th position less than 2 km from the finish when, due to, he thinks, fatigue, he miscalculated a very slight turn and came crashing off his bike. Broken finger, skin off a few limbs, puncture and bent chain rings, he still managed to get his bike into some semblance of working order and cross the line in 11th position with a time of 8 hrs 17 mins. His Strava ride (just posted today, I think) has more cups than grandma”s china cabinet. In awe.

Jerry Hall-Ghossein also had a blinder of a day, coming in 34th at 8 hrs 42 min. His hard work on those KP & Reabold repeats is certainly paying off.

Special mention to new SPR member Peter Leman. Pete spent 2 days in bed at the beginning of the week with a nasty chest infection. He could barely talk the day before the ride (a blessing, really, because when he does talk not much of it makes sense 🙂 ). He still managed to complete the ride despite feeling absolutely wiped out before he even got on his bike – a truly extraordinary effort.

3 Peaks is over. For another year.

I hesitate to finish with thoughts of the next challenge.

Because, driving up to Falls, Ben mentioned he was thinking of doing the Haute Route…..

 

 

PS – ride video on the 3 Peaks website – Matthew”s bruised & battered back features @2.43

https://www.bicyclenetwork.com.au/general/great-rides/42359/