Adventures, Races, Kit and Life
An incredibly beautiful but gruelling race. The magic of the Tour de France, less than a week before was very much alive and you could feel and live the intensity, adrenaline and excitement. It’s a well organised event with plenty of support stations to help you battle on through, all of which were genuinely needed with midday temperatures soaring in excess 40 degrees ( the downside of picture perfect weather ). I was lucky to join a great bunch of hardcore tri lads, whose banter helped enhance both the build up and race itself, lucky to have fantastic support from my family and was delighted with my personal performance on the day. The iconic Alpe D’Huez triathlon is now ticked off the list!
The Rock Racers
The Rock Racers are a legendary, elite triathlon club. The lads were battle hardened in the tough and gruelling conditions up north and forged from the earth, mud, rock and rain drenched Yorkshire tarmac ( winter is coming ). Desperado drinkers that without a doubt had the sexiest kit in the Alps and sure could whip up a fantastic pre race dinner. I was very lucky to become an honorary team member of The Rock Racers for the event, and to benefit from a combination of their decades of racing wisdom, the seemingly 100’s of tri mags scattered through the chalet and share the experience with them.
• Eddie – surrounded by drama had the most eventful race. He was initially victimised by the evil race marshal, for his limited empty bottle tossing ability, then forced to return up a steep descent in order to narrowly avoid disqualification and then having suffered a nasty blow out, needed to continue the race, and some intense downhill mountain descents, with the risk associated with a badly torn tyre. Hard as ( finger ) nails !
• Ben – with his magic hands and his scientific approach to racing. Knowing all the facts, methodical, and busting out a solid and steady performance. Excelling up the hills ( considering there are none within 30 miles of his home ) and battling with the hot conditions during the run. He looks great wearing a damp tea towel on his head!
• Rich – the Clark Kent of the gang. The genuinely understated elite. Cool, calm and collected, a no nonsense approach to nailing the course like a British champion !
• Mark – a man created by the gods to wear the “go hard” lime green tri suit ! Bouncing back from injury and apparently juggling a few extra kg, he was keen to enjoy the experience and push himself to the limits, and mild heat exhaustion. Seen in both a fashionable green headband and later also sporting a wet white towel karate kid style.
• Colin – “The Hill Billy” parachuted into the mountain environment. An elite paratrooper approach to a massively gruelling event, executed with the efficiency of a fine tuned military operation. No nerves, no nonsense, and no prisoners on that monster climb, as he delivered an exceptional performance. I was relieved to know that even Colin’s bum gets saddle sore!
The day started with a fast 700m, multiple hairpin descent, gliding through thick alpine forest. We cruised down from our chalet high up the mountain in Oz Station, to the start, situated at the picturesque Lac de Verney and it had already been a great day ! Before the race even began we were all topped up on adrenaline fuelled by gravity, buzzing with excitement and a little healthy nervous anticipation.
The water temperatures were significantly colder than expected at 14 degrees. Racers waded in, shuddering with the initial shock as they splashed water on their face and it slowly filled their wetsuits. Brrrr ! Very different to Hong Kong ! I noticed a few people with sleeveless wetsuits and was grateful for the loan of Greg’s perfectly fitting “blue seventy”. I had planned to let a little water trickle down my neck to increase the lubrication around my shoulders, thus providing a more efficient swim, but it was just too damn cold ! We paddled to the start line and patiently trod water until suddenly, as I didn’t hear a signal, the race and the chaos began.
I was not prepared for the swim start. Even if I had been warned, I would not have been prepared. Suddenly 800 swimmers treading water in a confined space, all thrashed forward in a mass of flaying arms and legs. Basic science – the horizontal human requires more space than the vertical human and this space just didn’t exist ! The person in front of me was blocking my way ( probably fiddling with their GPS watch ) and the people behind me were physically attempting to swim over the top of me. More akin to a rugby initiation, swinging arms bashed into my head, ribs, I took a painful kidney punch. I swallowed a mouth of freezing water and had to fight my way back from under an idiot attempting to swim through me and desperately tried to battle onwards and find a little space. I quickly understood how you could drown !
Primal Fight or flight, and in this case fight AND flight instinct kicked in ! I was both incredibly angry ( and nearly thumped a couple of heavily flailing swimmers ) and actually scared as I was quite literally out of my depth. My heart was absolutely pounding, as I clawed my way through the icy waters, my priority to get out of there, meaning that all plans to stylishly and efficiently glide, and breath every 3 strokes, and on alternative sides were instantly forgotten. It was a battle for the first 700m, until there was finally an opportunity to get away from the pack and find a little breathing space.
I finally found my rhythm although not my style and slogged through the water. The wetsuit made a big difference and I finished the 2,200 meters in about 35 mins ( my wetsuit-less HK 2000m open water swim had taken 40 mins ). I staggered out of the water dizzy, with a bit of a head rush from the cold and the intensity, and shuffled into transition. The route was lined with 100s of spectators all cheering which gave a great buzz.
I quickly slipped into my trusty “Heinz Baked Bean” cycling shirt and was off. From the start I was pleased to hear pretty much every British spectator shouting “Go Baked Beans” and even an occasional “Alle le Baked Bean”. Just the attention I needed to help with motivation. Right choice on the top !
I was out of the water unexpectedly fast and therefore in amongst some of the faster tri-athletes, and used this to my advantage on the next 30km of cycle. It was all downhill or flat, which meant that if I could keep up with the pelaton, and ideally draft a little it would serve me well. We rocketed along the course, up to 60km per hour, much faster than I would normally ride, overtaking moving cars ( which I wouldn’t have done on my own ), gliding around corners, and blasting through some of the small villages, which all passed by in a blur. It felt like I was on television and in The Tour de France ! It felt absolutely GREAT ! Yehaa ! With my adrenaline capacity at full saturation and endorphins pumping into the blood at maximum levels, the 30 km literally shot by.
Once we hit the very start of the first climb, 1,000m up Alpe de Grande Serre, the fast boys rapidly disappeared into the distance, seemingly not noticing the 13% gradient. I dropped into my easiest gear and plodded on in a determined fashion. I soon felt akin to an articulated lorry trudging up a hill in the slow lane, being overtaken and overtaken by the rest of the traffic. In fact a lot of traffic, and 200 cyclists nipped past, with their skinny little legs casually pumping away, on bicycles that looked like they had just been issued by NASA and weighed a fraction of the hamburger I was already fantasising about !
Not quite enough to counter the motivational slump but the views were actually really rather delightful, particularly to the north, where snow capped mountains peaks, gave way to huge jagged rocky cliff faces, that loomed above the green glacial valley floors. I’m pretty sure I got to appreciate them a whole lot more than the other riders!
Finally I reached the peak, sucked in a big breath, washed down a gel and the reward, the 1000m descent started.
I instantly switched straight back into Tour de France mode, supported by the appropriate “Ski Sunday” music in my head, and my adrenaline levels rocketed. The descent was fantastic. On my well oiled bike, I reached speeds, that reminded me of the feeling I had during my skydive in Wanaka. Later, my trusty Garmin GPS watch told me I had been reaching speeds up to 65km per hour.
Charging forwards at full speed then breaking to glide into the bend, body at an angle making the most of the centrifugal force. It was an intense experience as I carefully selected the optimum line, and adjusted my body position to navigate each hairpin bend at maximum speed, then enthusiastically pumping the legs and peddled to accelerate back into the next straight…. The sound of an ambulance siren in the background was a subtle reminder to stay focused, very focused !
Once more the scenery was incredible. Even better than the ascent. We rushed through the ripe greens and yellows of the farmers fields, meandering through perfect little sandstone villages that had stood for centuries, over crystal clear rivers, all with a background that saw the jagged alpine mountains slowly metamorphosised into beautiful rolling hills. I made a mental note not to forget just how incredible the scenery was as I whooshed through it.
The Col d’Ornon was a long and steady climb, as you ascended by 700m. The gradient was not so steep so it was more comfortable to ascend and nice not to be in the lowest gear and have a reserve. With no shade the day’s temperatures had started to get hot and become increasingly noticeable. The support stations along the route were excellent and provided everything you needed to refuel and hydrate. My favourite station even had delicious country ham and fresh local cheese available to wolf down, and wash down with some Gatorade ( which admittedly spoilt the taste ) as you hastily refilled your water bottle.
Once over the peak there was another adrenaline fuelled, incredibly fast, meandering downhill section, this time with significant drop offs that meant that there was no room for mistake as any errors meant hospital, if you survived them at all. I took it a little slower here, but it was still shockingly fast and before I knew it I was most of the way to the bottom the Alpe D’Huez.
This was the climb I’d been dreading and quite rightly so. The 1st 6 bends are particularly hard, and even more so after 100km of racing flat out and 1,700m of climb weighing down the legs. It was as if my feather-light racing bike’s wheels had suddenly been substituted with milestones ! Even in my lowest gear each push of the peddle demanded a huge physical effort and a need to rise out of the saddle.
30 minutes later the cumulative effect of the first 10 bends had left my legs feeling like jelly. There is no shade on Alpe d’Hues and it had got incredibly hot, especially when combined with the physical exertion of peddling 90kg up a steep gradient. My arms were starting to burn and i could feel my skin going leathery…
Despite some massively appreciated cheers from my parents, Eddie and Ben as they passed, my adrenaline levels had long since plummeted, And i quickly became more and more aware of the discomfort I was physically in. My feet were swollen after 5 hours ( the longest time ever ) in my cycling shoes and I could feel some painful hot spots sparking furiously as I pushed downwards against gravity. My bum felt numb but it couldn’t have been because it also had started to hurt so much ! I started wondering if I was at threat of becoming a saddle induced eunuch ! Varis out of Game of Thrones sprung to mind for several bends, haunting me with his laughter ( I already have the bald head ! ). I was left with the dilemma of whether to rise out of the saddle to relieve the pain in my bum, and the threat of joining the eunuch community, and help use my weight to propel me up the hill, but this meant increasing the pain in my feet…. Catch 22 ?
Somehow I made it to the top! It was an enormous relief ! I don’t think I looked at the view once on the way up and barely took my eyes off the tarmac just 3 feet in front of me. Although initially uncomfortable it was great to start jogging. My running shoes felt like slippers in comparison to the rigid cycling shoes. But it was far from the time to put the feet up and reach for the pipe, I needed to get my breath back, heart rate stable and then begin to aggressively hunt down some of those 250 wafer thin cyclists that had shot past me.
I hunted them down one by one, target by target, and had the satisfaction of overtaking 90 runners. I probably got a little excited, and underestimated the impact of 5hrs 30 mins in the saddle and by the 3rd and final lap I had pushed it too hard, and was really suffering, and nauseous with the stifling heat. I reached a point were I was voluntary visiting the dark places in my soul, just to keep my self going. Not a time to crack me open and look in my head! I dug deep and demanded my last reserves of tenacity, determination, fortitude and blind resolve to propel myself onward.
My number one supporters, my parents cheered me over the finish line. They are wonderful !
Swim 35 mins 107th and 25th in age group
Cycle 5 hrs 30 mins 367th and 90th in age group
Run 1 hr 58 mins 258th and 61st in age group
Total 8 hrs 10 mins 275th and 69th in age group
Some fantastic time with my folks before they become grandparents again, and some great new mates from The Rock Racers.
With 2 suffering mild heat stroke, and wearing cold, wet tea towels on their heads, and 2 of us sitting on cushions to try and manage the painful buttocks, we still managed to celebrate with a few desperadoes, fruit beer and body refuelling with high calorie alpine mountain style “raclette” ( cheese, cheese and more cheese ). Unsurprisingly, It was not a late night !
The Rock Racer’s pre-race feed dished up by the Howarth brothers.