Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Learning to weave - Etape training camp in Wales

After the write off that May has been to me (30km and a couple of turbo sessions in four weeks) I've just riden 300km with 4,500m of climbing in two days and most of me now hurts.

For the first time all of Team Underprepared gathered - all five of us heading to Llandudno in North Wales for a two-day training camp. I learnt a lot, the first thing being that two members of Team Underprepared are actually really rather well prepared indeed.

Paul, me, Andy, Bobby and Pez at the top of a hill - when in doubt... Lunge.
Bobby and Andy disappeared off into the distance again and again. Andy stronger, but Bobby refusing to let him get away and managing to stick with him almost all the time.

They set some seriously impressive times on recognised climbs riding with multiple Etape veterans. Basically, they could both ride the Etape now and be fine.

Pez and Paul put in good showings for the most part while I, fresh from a string of weekend weddings and Eurovision parties coupled with mid-week work drinks and non-work drinks - with a two-week virus thrown in for fun - barely made it.

Bobby and Andy disappearing off into the distance, as usual
I said once before that there were no mountains in England, and while there might not be anything as high as Mont Revard or the Semnoz in Wales, it has mountains all right - and roads steeper than just about anything pro riders face.

The lovely people at Mash the Pedals run Etape training courses in North Wales, through some stunning scenery, fully supported with a van and food along with Matt (Etaper, 5th in the Dragon ride and 12 in the Etape Cymru his trainers were zip-tied to his pedals after he forgot his cycling shoes) and Dave (another really good rider) guiding us through the hills and valleys.

After a rain-sodden drive from London the night before, Day One dawned bright, clear and with an almost perfect cycling temperature. Warm enough to just wear a jersey and bib shorts, but no so hot you were suffering in the sun. A gilet in the back pocket for descents and you're good to go.

A glorious day for a ride
I learnt early I was off the pace. Trying to stick with the others up the climbs saw my heart rate spike into the 180s fast. Basically I couldn't live with them, any of them. But I also learnt that didn't mean I couldn't make it.

The pattern was set early: All together on the flat; hill starts; Andy and Bobby pull ahead with ride-leader Matt; Pez and Paul pull ahead of me more slowly; I drop into my bottom gear and spin my legs until I catch them up at the next junction where they've stopped to wait for me.

Descending Andy was better than me, but not by a lot, Bobby about the same and Pez and Paul a bit further back. On the flat I was holding with anyone. But almost every hill I couldn't punch my way up standing on my pedals saw me spat out the back of the group, generally to be joined by Dave - the other ride leader and a thoroughly lovely man who let me hide from the wind behind him while he towed me back to the main group.

Dave at the top of a hill about to tow me back to the main group, again...
Sadly, I needed to learn a new trick half way through Day One. Three climbs and 63 kilometres in we hit a gate. On the other side of the gate was a 2.8km closed road, that averaged 9.5% with sections over 15%.  I discovered weaving.

Now I've always disdained weavers, why would you make a climb longer by sweeping left and right over the road? Why not just man up, push the pedals harder, and be done sooner? I'd missed the point. It's not how long it takes to get up the hill, it's whether you actually can or not.

The bad hill

The heart rate monitor came into its own here. I knew I could sustain 160bps more or less indefinitely, but pushing much higher and I was in trouble fast. By weaving I could lower my effort into the sustainable zone.

It was achingly slow. I was almost 10 mins down on Andy (who set a top-five time on the hill on Strava, a Hill that's used by local clubs as a hill climbing time trial). I was 4:20 down on Paul and 3:30 down on Pez. But I made it up.

The view from the top was almost worth the cycle there (Pez's bike)
After all, I'm not training to beat them, I'm training to beat the broom wagon. According to the official broom wagon times I need to average 6.8kph on the Semnoz, I made it up this one at an average of 7.5. I know this was a quarter of the distance, but I also know I found a way to do it. Not a good way, and hopefully I'll be in better shape by July. But a way.

Weaving up a hill isn't pretty - far from it - but it does get you up there. With a heart rate monitor keeping you out of the red and with enough food and drink, it means I can do it.

But the biggest question for me right now is "What if?". Last time out with Paul and Pez, a month before Wales, I was at least on a par with them. A month of partially self-inflicted nothing from me and training from them and I'm a mile off the pace.

I can only hope to try and make up for it in the few weeks  I have left - Wales was a start, next up King of the Downs on Sunday.

One more shot for the road

Friday, May 17, 2013

Etape du Tour 2013 - route recce by an ordinary mortal

One of the best things I’ve found since starting this blog is the people you meet – at least electronically.

So far at least two of them have ridden the actual 2013 Etape du Tour course; this is what Mel found out…

Mel's ride

(note – I am particularly bad at geography so all directions to be taken with a pinch of salt!)

Earlier this week two of us set off to ride the Etape du Tour 2013 route. My friend David (a great cyclist) runs a cycling holiday business here in the Alps and wanted to scope out the ride for his upcoming guests, I (not a great cyclist at all) just wanted to see what on earth this horror of kilometres and altitude could be like and whether riding it in June would even vaguely achievable. 

It was a beautiful sunny spring day with sky blue skies and temperature around 18C. As perfect a day as you can imagine.

We parked the van in Saint Jorioz missing out the first 10k from Annecy, just a flat spin along the lake. Shoes, helmet, wheels attached, sun cream on... we’re off. Almost immediately after the little church of Saint Nicholas the road starts to go up. 

It’s fine though, with nothing over 6%, mostly less and you can take it easy and still chat without getting puffed, then before you know it there’s a tiny descent into the village of Leschaux and that’s one Col done already!

The route turns left here and you find yourself on a long rolling downhill running along the wide basin of this hanging valley. At times the descents get slightly steeper and there were a couple of fairly sharp bends which threw me a bit. Up to your right and a few km off, you can see the ominous form of the Semnoz looming larger and larger, but soon the road takes you away from it and with the sun shining and the birds singing it’s easy to put it to the back of your mind.

This bit of the ride is really gratifying as the gradient makes you feel powerful. David’s advice was to tuck into the pack here and try to make up some time– and in fact the wind does start to hit here with some force, so this would really help on race day.

On you roll, through green fields and pretty little hamlets zipping past into Le Châtelard and then down a weirdly straight section of road with some more sharp turns at the bottom and then you turn round out of the wind and start going up towards the Col des Prés.

Again, this ascent was fine, I was pacing myself with the thought of the rest of the ride ahead, so it all felt relatively easy (!). After the first 5k or so to Aillons-le-Vieux there is a slight downhill/flattish part where the wind blew harder and I tucked in behind David for a while to save my legs.

Then you are up again, the gradient is a bit harder here, but before you know it you’re at the top of the Col des Prés. Two down!

Me still happy on Col des Prés
After that, it’s time for 10k of super amazing, fabulous descending first on the grassy plain and then plunging down into the forest with rocky cliffs to the side of you all the way down to Thoiry.
There are a few evil hairpins here where my speed dropped to practically zero, I was wondering how interesting this was going to be with 1,000 riders on all sides. I’m normally rubbish at descending, but trying to stick close behind David and following his line made everything so much smoother. Those who love the downhills are going to adore this!!

After the descent there’s a tiny little up which pains the legs if – like me - you forget to keep spinning a little on the way down, and then you emerge from the forest onto the plain again with a tremendous view of the Chambery valley before you. 

Almost half way into the ride I was still having quite a lot of fun, but my bidons were almost empty and Through Saint Jean d’Arvey and I was looking for anywhere to fill up. I didn’t find anywhere.

Now here I have to admit to being a rubbish map reader, I thought that the next up was an easy 6k, but after 7k I began to despair of this stupid hill as I ran out of water and energy. Which is when we realised we were in the middle of the 16km of the Mont Revard!

I was sweating & puffing and starting to be thirsty so David gave me his spare bidon – bless him! – and even stopped to decant it into mine whilst I carried on my weary way until he caught me back up (didn’t take too long).

We carried on and on, the air started to chill, or maybe it was just my blood, as the kilometres began to pass slower and slower. Finally we arrived in the ski resort of La Feclaz where snow still lay on the ground in shady corners. I suddenly realised I was dying for sugar and a fruit bar later had a new lease of life. Lucky really, as there was still another 4km up to the top of Mont Revard (and no, you don’t have to get all the way to the observatory that you can see from the road, but nearly!).

I don’t know whether Mont Revard would have been so hard if I had been mentally ready for it, in fact I’m sure it wouldn’t have been. But it’s still a long hard slog, which seems to go on forever and I was quite miserable for the whole of the unexpected 10km. So expect to suffer a bit here.

All I can remember about the descent is that it was long and glorious and freezing, with sweeping roads and a few more hairpins, through the shady forest and down into the warmer inhabited lands below with views of Lac Bourget steely blue in the valley.

The next bit of the ride feels quite tame and domesticated, buzzing along with apple trees in blossom and little deserted villages in the sunshine. No bassins however and not a bar in sight. I drank all the rest of David’s water and thirsted until finally we found a gushing dragon-headed fountain by the side of the road and then a supermarket to get coke & choc before the next big effort.  

David on vertigo bridge

There is a bridge somewhere here. Narrow and fantastic as it spans a ravine so deep you can’t seem to see the bottom. Very vertigo inducing – don’t look down! Afterwards there is a little more rolling flat through Gruffy, Chambert & Quintal, spoilt perhaps by the sight of the Semnoz that stretches up in front of you on the right and which you loop around before you begin the ascent.

And so, the Semnoz…..

I thought that I would be tired here and after the first couple of km, which are not that bad as your legs have had time to recover, but still a bit too steep for comfort, everything started to be dreadful.

I wish I’d written about it on the day, because actually as David said it would, the whole ghastly experience of it has begun to fade. But I can tell you that the distance-o-meter seemed to stop moving, every 100m felt like a 1,000 and the altitude just seemed to crawl by. By this point I was eating everything I had to eat and still feeling hungry, my back & shoulders & feet started to hurt.

Legs must have been numb because I don’t remember them hurting, but I just didn’t seem to have the energy to make them go any faster, in fact if David hadn’t taken my mind off it all by relating rather interesting facts about the Giro(!), I think I would have probably just wilted onto the side of the road in a weary pile.

However, I kept going and going and going and finally after a particularly unpleasant patch of 14% we emerged out onto the barren windswept top of the hill. Ski lifts and pistes still with patches of snow still on surrounded us, and the view I think was rather fine.

However, my brain was still out of action so I don’t really remember much here. In fact I was so knackered that I forgot we’d completed the Etape route, and set off down the other side just feeling rather cold.

David took it all in his stride
Me? Not so much
Another wonderful descent, made more so by the fact that you’ve done everything you need to do for the day (apart from a little bit more climbing to get back over the Col de Leschaux – hardly anything). We went faster down here than I’ve ever been, and even overtook a car on our way. And so back to the van with aching shoulders and sore feet and a great sense of achievement.

So summary – it’s doable! Great fun apart from the two big climbs which are just incredibly sapping after all that time on the bike. Would I do it again? Of course!! See you in 7 weeks!

Stat's blast
  • Distance ridden - 145.9km
  • Metres climbed - 4,189m
  • Moving time - 07:11:38
  • Elapsed Time - 08:26:10
  • Max Speed - 63.7km/h
  • Avg Speed - 20.3km/h
  • Calories - 4,483

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Faffing and chilling - how to get caught by the Broom Wagon on the Etape du Tour

[apologies for too many words, and not enough pictures in this post - pictures will happen eventually]

Sitting on the turbo for the second time in two days, numb despite the new bib-shorts, legs screaming, bored senseless and with sweat forming beads on my shoulders and dripping from my nose I had a thought: 'This is where you climb the Alps.'

It was a good thought, especially at the end of an interval session. But it was just a thought, untested. It didn't matter unless it showed on the road too.

Well on Sunday I had the first real test of the effects my April training plan. A 78-mile sportive with 1,400m of climbing with a silver medal time possible. Just about.

Pez had worked out that if we climbed as well as we did on our 50-mile Alpine training ride, then added in another 28 flat miles at 18.5mph, we'd scrape home in time. Just.

I spent the day before eating - constantly. In theory I was filling my muscles' glycogen stores for the next day. In fact, I was just loving the idea that I could eat as much as I liked for once.

I still managed to mess up my preparation, forgetting spare inner-tubes, tyre levers and arm warmers (fortunately my pump lives on my frame). On the plus side, I now have spares.

More confusion hit us at the start, following some other riders from the station, we ended up at the second-reserve parking overflow area. Not the start.

We made it to the start to discover Paul had ended up at the first reserve parking overflow area. We needed lockers for spare kit. They took a rather long time to find, as did the 20p coins we needed to make them work.

All that meant we were among the last riders to start the course, rolling off, starting our stopwatches and heading for the early hills.

The course was front and backloaded with climbs. Three hefty ones at 1 mile, 6 miles and 16 miles, then nothing worth mentioning for 45 miles, followed by two nasty ones at 65 and 71 miles, then descend home.

Wiggle Ups and Downs course profile

We got over the first climb, then something odd happened. I rode off the front.

In all our rides together, with the exception of a few descents, I've never ridden off the front of our group of three. I led the group over the second climb, went ahead, then stayed ahead. For 20 miles.

My long lonely ride last sportive meant I was comfortable alone on the road, what I didn't expect was Pez and Paul not to be sitting on my wheel. They weren't. I couldn't even see them.

I stopped and waited later on (to be fair not for very long) so we were all together when we hit the first feed station 29 miles in. That was also time for a clock check. We were six minutes down on our "silver medal time" schedule - but the food station (gloriously stacked with Jaffa Cakes) was also a couple of miles further in than we thought it would be. It was still on.

The next 30 miles was flat, we needed a good pace. Paul led us out, Pez replaced him after three miles, I replaced Pez at the front after another three. We were riding hard as a unit, and - in another first - crushing other riders beneath out wheels.

I lost count of the individuals and groups we just streamed by. Starting almost last has some benefits, certainly psychologically.

The next feed stop came quickly, really quickly. We almost didn't bother with it. But I'd lost one of my bidons on a descent earlier on, and needed to make sure my remaining one was full.

We rode off with me in the lead, I pushed on the flat - feeling every single pedal stroke - I lost the others again. Waited for them to catch up, and we went hard. Well, for a while.

This stretch between feed stations was more than 20 miles long, it finished just before the final climbs began. We just got tired and our speed drifted lower. At the final feed station, 63 miles in, we faffed.

A look at my watch told me we had 1 hour 15 mins to cover the 15+ miles to the end. We knew there were two major climbs as well (one over 18% in gradient). We faffed some more. We lost Paul for a bit. We found him. There was now 1:10 left. I called it.

We weren't hitting silver time. We should just chill out and ride in.

So we did. Well, I did. Leith Hill is about a mile long at 8%, with sections at the end well in the 20%s - I rode it at my own pace, got off at the top, stretched, chilled out for few minutes, had a gel and a drink, then went off for the descent followed by the final climb.

Whitedown Lane is if anything worse, a nice 18% sign to warn you, then sections that felt well above this. After sticking with or beating Pez and Paul up all the climbs so far, I was 20-30 secs behind them on both of these.

I turned on the afterburners after eventually cresting it and time trialled the last few miles to the finish, averaging in the mid-to-late 20mphs for that section. 

Then I looked at my watch. And swore. A lot.

We underestimated how fast the final section would be and I'd missed the silver time by a handful of minutes. Minutes I'd wasted chilling on my own at the top of Leith Hill, faffing at drink stops, not bothering to push on when I knew I could have, even stopping at the second stop.

Worse, I'd let Paul and Pez ride off ahead of me, they might have actually got the time. I'd be the only one not to and it would be entirely my own fault.

I met them near the finish line to discover that while they'd beaten my by three and a bit minutes, in the end they still fell frustratingly short of silver time as well.

But, bike washed (bike wash stations are a godsend when you live in a flat with no outside space), tea drunk and goody-bag received (with a handy pocket-guide to the prostate inexplicably included, along with toothpaste and shampoo) I couldn't be downhearted.

I'd ridden 78 miles - my longest single-ride ever and remarkably close to Etape distance - and felt good. I'd held my own with my fellow Etappers and left other riders trailing. After five-and-a-half hours in the saddle I'd powered my way home with energy to spare.

To finish the Etape I'll need to be better than that. And climb an awful lot more over the same distance. But riding against the clock for the first time was great experience (even if we did mess up) and I'm getting closer.

  • I can't climb - still. I can output a moderate amount of energy for far longer than I could, but when the gradient rises abouve 7% I blow up fast. I need to work on my maximum output (interval sessions and hill climbing practice at a guess).
  • Don't faff if you're against the clock - obvious really.
  • Peanut butter and jam sandwiches = Quick release carbs + slow release carbs + protein + fat all in a tasty, easy-eating form.
  • Turbo sessions seem to be working, keep going (or step them up, even)
  • Eat all day the day before, not (just) a massive pasta-dinner.
  • Maybe start doing back exercises