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

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