Etape du Tour 2019

By John Thomas   22nd July 2019

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Albertville to Val Thorens – 135kms – 4500m climbing

 

This was to be my 14th consecutive Etape du Tour having first discovered this event in 2006. Like every year that I’ve participated in this amazing event I was nervous, excited and so looking forward to getting my teeth into this unique event. Every year the venue is different, borrowing a classic mountain stage from the Tour de France and giving all keen amateurs a chance to ride the course, on closed roads, just like the pros. Every year’s course is different with it’s own character and memories but the one thing that’s always ever present is that it’s tough. A proper challenge for every level of cyclist.

This year’s course was a moderate length at 135kms but with nearly 4500m of climbing included it was destined to be one of the toughest Etapes in recent years. Starting in Albertville we would first scale the beautiful Cormet de Roselend, then the Cote de Longefoy followed by the huge final climb from Moutiers to the finish in Val Thorens at an altitude of 2360m.

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I arrived in Albertville at 5.45am with other riders enjoying our Alpine Cadence support. The race would start at 7.00am. An early arrival was important to get a decent, forward placing in your start pen. The usual nervous toilet visit done it was time to enter the pen or sas as the French call it. Sas 0 was reserved for the faster riders, those that had proved themselves in previous editions of the event. Entry to each sas was strictly controlled this year to ensure that no one sneaked into a different one to that which they were assigned. Sas 0 was like Fort Knox! High fences making it impossible to escape or enter from anywhere but the controlled front and back.

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I was frustrated at having not arrived quite early enough to be at the very front. I was about 300 riders back from the front meaning I’d probably need to put some big early efforts in to get where I wanted to be. Much of the first 20kms of the race was going to be pretty flat and I wanted every opportunity to be towed along that section by the strongest riders.

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Didi the Devil gets us in the mood at the start

The atmosphere was fantastic as is always the case in this event. Bernard Hinault, the ‘Badger’ was chatting away with riders at the front and Didi the Devil was certainly getting everyone revved up

6.45am, I just want to get on with it. Nervously looking for things to do to fill the time, I must have untied and retied my shoe laces half a dozen times. 4 energy bars and 3 gels in my back pockets, I’ll munch on one bar now and the rest would get me through the ride. Two 500ml bottles of energy drink on the bike with my friend Nick ready to dispense 2 fresh ones to me mid course.

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7.00am and we are all go, ACDC’s Thunderstruck is blasting out out as we cross the start line, what an atmosphere, I’m so happy to be getting on with it after all the anticipation. The first 2kms is flat and very fast. I need to be nearer the front. Plenty of other riders have the same idea though so those first 2kms are more frantic than I would like. In a ideal world I’d be ‘sitting in’ from the start and conserving energy, or at least trying not to go over my power ‘threshold’ too much. The necessity to get to the front meant a few big efforts as I glanced at the alarmingly high numbers on my power meter. After 2kms we hit a 3kms uphill section to the village of Venthon. It was crucial to be in a good position at the top of that where the leading riders might form a group and start to ride away from the rest of the field. I hit that section with at least 200 riders still up ahead creating the spectacular sight of a peloton, a swarm of riders rising up the road in front of me. The road was wide enough for me to keep passing riders and move up the road. That 3km section was fast. 7 minutes of effort at around 330 watts output. Early on in a race those numbers feel easy for me but it’s over my sustainable threshold of nearer 300 watts so those 7 minutes had already put a dent in my resources for the day that could come back to bite me later.

We crested after Venthon and then the road was fast and flatter all the way to Beaufort. I found myself in a big group. I looked ahead anxiously to try to spot the red commissaire’s car ahead to indicate that I was in the lead group. I glimpsed it ahead through the forest of riders. That was good news. My efforts had got me where I needed to be. I’d earned my easy ride for while. So much of cycling is like that, big efforts at the right time so that you are rewarded with rest and speedy transportation.

Then there are shouts, there’s a rider down. We safely negotiate him and his bike. Turns out it’s Richard Scales, who I was battling with in Alpe d’Huez last week. He’s ok and he would re join the group again, a little battered but intact. We arrive in Beaufort as a big group of about 300. We’re ahead of my estimated schedule, we’ve averaged about 33km/h from the start and climbed about 500m. It’s going fast. I’m slightly annoyed at the size of the group I’m in. Slower riders on that 3km climb out of Albertville have managed to catch me and the others. Maybe I needn’t have put those early efforts in after all? Anyway, what’s done is done, I’m in a good place right now.

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Beaufort was the start of the first ‘proper’ climb of the day. Cormet de Roselend is more or less 20kms long, all up apart from a flat 3 km section that starts about 9kms from the summit. Our 300 strong group disintegrates on the lower slopes as the top contenders push the pace on and slower climbers fall back. This suits me fine, I find myself somewhere in the middle of things. I’m on a climb I know intimately and I can dictate my pace on my terms. I ride up keeping an eye on my power meter to ‘cap’ my efforts and ensure I don’t go too far into the red.

At this point I was finding myself surrounded by familiar faces. Hervé Gebel tapped me on the shoulder to let me know he was there. Hervé and I have had lots of friendly battles on the roads of France in the last couple of years. I eased past the slight figure of Gilles Lacrampe, another local friend and rider. Cormet de Roselend went totally to plan for me. A good firm effort all the way, just under threshold power all the time. I found a strong, broad shouldered rider to hide behind on the flat bit too which was a bonus.

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4.5kms to go on the Cormet – go Alpine Cadence!

In readiness for the Tour coming through I’d daubed the road with giant ‘Alpine Cadence’ slogans on the Cormet a few days before so that felt pretty cool riding over those. I topped out at the top of the Cormet in good shape and really looking forward to the descent.

The descent of Cormet de Roselend down to Bourg St Maurice is one of my absolute favourites. 19kms that incorporates everything you want from a great descent. Open and fast at the top, tight and technical in the middle. In the final metres of climbing the Cormet I’d surged a few metres ahead of my sub group. I wanted this descent to myself, I knew it so well and didn’t want the complication of unpredictable riders taking dodgy lines in front of me.

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Cormet de Roselend – one of the bests descents in the Alps

It was fantastic, so good to be able to ride a road like that knowing it’s closed just for you. Every inch of the road available for the best lines ever. That’s a fantastic feature of the Etape, properly closed roads, it feels wonderful. The technical hairpin section half way down slowed down riders ahead of me who were probably doing it for the first time. Passing them needed care and a bit of shouting to let them know you were there but all went well. Coming into Bourg St Maurice was fabulous, great crowd support and so weird to be able to fly through my home town without waiting for traffic lights to change, brilliant.

The next 10 kms or so was undulating but enough flat to lend itself to getting into a group and working together. Before long there were about 15 of us making really good progress through a chain of villages. Past my little village of Bellentre seeing familiar faces cheering us on was great. Doing a race on home turf is pretty special. So many people recognised me during the day and cheered me on. No idea who you were sometimes while I was concentrating in the ‘zone’ but thank you anyway!

Next climb on the agenda was Cote de Longefoy. 10kms long with the first 6kms the most challenging followed by a fast an undulating 4kms to the top. My friend Nick along with my daughter Matilda were stationed near the bottom of the climb to provide new bottles for me and other friends and family in the race. Nick efficiently got me sorted with full bottles and I was on my way without having to stop. I got into a good rhythm on the first half of that climb. I was relatively comfortable and my power numbers were all ok. A few minutes before this climb I’d felt the first twinges of cramp. I was worried that I’d maybe gone too hard early in the ride and was starting to pay. But no, legs were back on track and Cote de Longefoy passed quickly and uneventfully.

 

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The descent down the other side was a tricky one, very technical, very rough in some places and one to reward the rider with local knowledge. As per the Cormet de Roselend I accelerated near the top so that I had no traffic immediately in front of me. The first couple of kilometres down the other side is tight and rough. Even knowing the road was closed I couldn’t help the odd safety dab on the brakes through the village at the top. Cats and dogs don’t always know the road is closed. You still need to be ready and alert.

Further down the descent the road is good, many of the corners recently resurfaced. I was happy on there. I heard some noisy brakes from a rider behind me who was clearly a very confident descender. I made it easy for him to pass me, I was happy with my speed and I didn’t want pressure from behind. Les Plaines, the village at the bottom was full of atmosphere and support. Perfect new tarmac and a feeling of threading a needle through the narrow gaps between the houses. Closed roads really are the best!

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up through the vineyards after the descent from Longefoy

That 10km descent was rudely followed by an uphill dig of about 600m. A nasty reminder that the legs would have to work again. Richard Scales was at the side of the road. He’d overtaken me at some point after his crash but now he was cramping as well as nursing a broken handlebar from the crash meaning he could only ride on the ‘hoods’ and not on his ‘drops’. He was having a hard day. I chased down 2 other riders to ride the next 3 or 4kms with which were downhill and flat. We were about to begin the main event.

To this point we’d ridden 100kms with 2400m of climbing under a belts. Only 33km remained, but 2000m of climbing all the way up to Val Thorens. For my level I had 2 hours of managed pain remaining. Many of the later riders would spend upwards of 4 hours enduring this single climb.

The first 11kms of the climb are fairly sustained, averaging about 7% with a few steep ramps thrown in to keep you awake. This forested road would provide some welcome shade as the day warmed up to it’s forecast maximum of 33°. That 11kms went well for me. Another rider held my wheel for a while without ever taking his turn in front and started to irritate me. I wasn’t in the mood for giving someone a free ride and on one of the steeper ramps I squeezed up the power a little so as to detach him. He was like a fly that I needed to swat and I was happier without him.

All the time up those early kilometres of the final climb I was reminding myself of how far there was to go. This day was all about not ‘blowing up’. Staying disciplined and saving yourself for what’s to come. I was ‘chugging’ my way up at around 250 watts and everything seemed under control.

A short descent followed before the climb resumed on the approach up to the village of St Martin. We were now 20kms from the finish with about 1300m of altitude gain still to look forward to. The next stretch was exposed and straight. No hairpin bends to look forward to just a straightish drag that appeared to have no ending. Hard on the mind and the body.

I’m good a dealing with heat, I never at any point on the ride felt too hot or uncomfortable in any way. Saying that I was getting low on water. A ride of this length would usually only need one bottle change for me so about 2 litres for the whole thing. As I approached St Martin I had to make a big decision. There was a feed station there where I could get water or whatever I needed but it would cost me time. Could I maybe get to the finish with the dribble of water I had left and just deal with it? I did the maths. Still 17.5kms to go, about an hour on the road. I need to stop a get water.

I loosened the tops of my bottles before I got to the feed station to make it easier for filling. I pulled up at the table and the people there were incredibly helpful and efficient with getting me replenished. Fresh water in one bottle, coke in the other. Perfect, on my way again. Probably only about 30-45 seconds spent getting sorted but then a frustrating forced detour to rejoin the course meant the whole process of stopping probably cost me the better part of 2 minutes. In retrospect though, a good decision, that coke was good! Nothing better in my world for getting me to the finish line of an event than coke.

I trudged on. I was annoyed at the lost time and losing touch with the riders I’d been with but knew I’d made the right decision. The next few kilometres up to Les Menuires ae not particularly steep but they are, quite frankly, boring. It’s a drag. More straightish roads that just go up. Give me hairpins any time to break up the journey. I soldiered on. Sure, I was getting tired but I was overtaking a lot more people than were getting me. I was getting the feeling that I’d paced things well and that I would gain places in the final few kilometres.

Les Menuires was great. So many people out to cheer. I loved cresting there and flying down the short descent afterwards in front of all the crowds. After Les Menuires it was all up. 10 kms left and 700m of altitude to find. I saw flags blowing and in the right direction. We were getting blown all the way up the final valley. When you get a tailwind you don’t notice it until you look at the trees and flags to see which way they bend and fly. If that wind had been the other way around we would all have been out on that final hill for a lot longer. Most riders’ anecdotes of this day will talk of terrible heat with little appreciation of how helpful that wind was. I noticed it anyway!

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at last some hairpins as we approach Val Thorens

6 kms to go and I’m ok. My power is going right down, struggling to maintain more than about 230 watts but, I’m still passing people and clearly there are plenty of folks in more trouble than me. Reaching 2000m now so power outputs start to get affected by that too so all in all nothing to worry about with the numbers. 4kms to go and I know I’m not going to blow up. This thing is in the bag. I can start thinking about emptying the tank a bit. I can see Hervé Gebel just ahead and I’m gaining on him fast. I head past him and invite him to follow but I think he’s spent. Someone at the side of the road shouts ‘quatre vingts neuf!’ confirming to me that I’m safely in the top 100 riders. A good feeling as a top 100 ride in this event is always a good target for me. 3kms to go, at last hairpins! A few stretches back into the wind to let us know that it’s there. Through the tunnel and into Val Thorens itself.

Almost at the ‘Flamme Rouge’. The final kilometre banner. The finish was 1km out of town and up an unsealed road with a steep final 500m to do it’s best to finish us off. Through the Flamme Rouge and then a short descent before the gravel finish. The finish line is in sight and so are more riders who I can potentially pick off and beat to the end.

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a tough final 500m

That last 500m was hard but I reeled in a couple of more riders to finish happy and strong. I didn’t get a chance to fully appreciate it but I think putting the finish where they did was a great decision. A proper, tough characterful finale to an otherwise bland and monotonous climb. I can’t wait to see all the official photos so I can enjoy the memories.

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Cedrick Dubois winning the event in 4 hours and 47 minutes

I crossed the line and was pushed away from the finish just like the pros on a steep finish and got a medal looped around my neck. I was very content and relieved. A well paced effort, well finished and most importantly I was safe and well. I had a few moments to myself to ponder over what I’d done and then I spotted another friend and rival, Robert Alpen. We often finished these sorts of things in very similar times and had joked at the start about seeing each other somewhere on the final climb. He’d had a fantastic ride and finished 6 minutes ahead of me. We had a cold beer together at the finish (superb that there was a bar with free beer at the finish) and I was really pleased for him that he’d done so well. Neither of us at that point knew our result for sure but Robert reckoned he was close to top 50 which would be incredible.

After grabbing our post race meal I had a chance to check the results on my phone. All I could see was the first 10 riders scratch plus a list of the age category winners and I was one of them! That was a big surprise, I’ve been in to the top 5 a few times in the Etape for my age group but this was my first time winning it. Very proud to be on a list of category winners with the likes of Nicolas Ougier and Cedrick Dubois. I finished 87th overall in a time of 5 hours 26 minutes.

So a very content John Thomas started heading back down to Moutiers to start the process of organising vehicles for the other riders in our party to get back home. I was able to ride down the same road we’d raced up and able to witness the procession of riders still on the course. Not too far down the road I spotted my other half Carolyn making good progress. She was looking comfortable and relatively happy and I could see that she was on a good ride and would have no problem completing her 10th Etape du Tour. She was was one of the few cheerful faces that I saw on that descent. The level of suffering and distress from all the riders I saw grew greater as I descended further. The look on people’s faces as I rode past was a common anguish. I felt guilty riding past them only having had to do 5 hours and 26 minutes of work when all these people I was seeing were destined for lots more time in the heat of the day. It’s a brutal sport and event in many ways. Those of us who finish nearer the front finish before the worst heat, we are better trained and accustomed to the whole thing and although it’s a tough day for me I can only begin to empathise with how hard it must be to be out there for up to 12 hours in an environment that is so alien and beyond what those poor bodies and minds have probably ever experienced. Hats off to every single person who even attempted this or any other Etape du Tour. Cedrick Dubois was the official winner of this race but the real winners are the vast majority of the field who have achieved their personal goals by simply finishing.

That ride down really was an eye opener to see what thousands of human beings are prepared to put themselves through for the sake of a bike race.

I’m lucky to have completed my 14 Etapes and many other cycling events in recent years. The Etape du Tour retains something really special. It’s totally unique. A very exciting experience in so many ways. Like each one I’ve done, the crowd support is incredible and so uplifting. The organisation of the event is fantastic and seems to get better still every year. Well done Etape du Tour and I can’t wait to do you again!

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If you fancy a crack at this incredible event in the future and any advice on doing so than please contact me on info@alpinecadence.com.

www.alpinecadence.com

https://www.facebook.com/Alpine-Cadence-Cycling-167868076559955/

 

 

 

Haute Route Alpe d’Huez stage 3

By John Thomas July 14th 2019

Individual Time Trial   15kms    Bourg d’Oisans – Alpe d’Huez

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The final stage of this 3 day event was the tough but uncomplicated task of climbing against the clock up the famous hairpins of the Alpe d’Huez climb. After a 1km run in to the climb we would embark on the 14km of climb at an average gradient of just under 8%.

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The whole field of about 270 riders would set off individually in 20 second intervals in reverse order of where they ranked in the General Classification from the previous 2 days. So, slowest first with the top riders starting last.

After 2 challenging mountain stages with multiple climbs, it would be easy to think of the prospect of just doing one climb as almost a relief. Time trials are tough though. No hiding behind other riders, no respite, just an hour or so of sustained and carefully managed pain! Some riders would maybe relax a little and cruise up not overly concerned as to their result. For many though, including me, it was a last chance to make up time on rivals and give the mountain everything we had.

Pacing a time trial is a skill. An experienced rider, especially when armed with a power meter, will know exactly what output they can sustain for an hour. Riders refer to it as their Functional Threshold Power. The perfectly paced one hour time trial will be bang on that FTP figure all the way through with an ’emptying’ of effort at the very end with anything that’s left. FTP figures are corrupted by fatigue so the sustained effort possible after 2 big days might well be less than that with fresh, rested legs. My FTP is around the 310 watts mark so I decided to use a 300 watt benchmark to regulate my ride.

I was sitting 8th overall so one of the last riders to start. Chasing over 200 riders up the Alpe and about to be chased by 7 very strong riders behind me.

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I headed down the ramp feeling fairly relaxed and fairly confident that my legs would perform after a really good previous day. I’d got a 2.5 minute advantage over Richard Scales in the rankings who was 9th overall and knew that I ought to be able to hold that position. My best previous time up the climb was 51 minutes and I anticipated something closer to 53 minutes today.

The first kilometre of the climb is the steepest at about an 11% gradient. Easy to push too hard too early. No matter how good I might feel, too many 350 watt efforts early on would be paid for dearly later in the climb. I capped my effort on those early slopes to 300-320 watts even though I felt that I could go harder. That discipline to not go too hard at the beginning is absolutely key. I was happy, Richard, who had started 20 seconds ahead of me was in my sights. I moved past him after a couple of kilometres, catching your next man is always a big confidence boost and vice versa, a big blow to the catchee.

5kms up the climb I was going well, every time I glanced at my power it was in the 300/310w range, perfect. Cornering is an art in itself on something like the Alpe. The hairpins are generally quite flat followed by a sudden ramp into the next straight section. As you approach the corner you need to change up a gear or two and lay the power down to get some momentum into the next ramp. If you want a good time you cannot afford to relax on the flat bits, quite the contrary, you need to consciously work more on them to keep your power figures up. Good hairpin technique going up can easily save a second or two on every bend. This climb had 23 hairpins so worth getting them right.

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I had a middle section of consolidating. I felt like I was going well, overtaking people and none of the 7 chasers having caught me. The only thing that could really go wrong would be for me to ‘blow up’ having over estimated my abilities in the early part of the climb. I deliberately eased a fraction to around the 290 watt mark to play things safe. Still going hard, still the expected hurt, but knowing that a slightly lower figure would almost guarantee I go well to the top.

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With 4kms to go I was still feeling comfortable. I started to press harder. Into the 300’s again and feeling good. I love the last 1.5km of this climb. I knew if I could get to the 1.5km point I would get the rest done at a good speed whatever happened. The last part of the climb rewards the rider that knows the road and gets in the right gear and keeps the momentum going.

2kms out and still good. Doing the maths I knew I was on a decent time. I was approaching the entry into Alpe d’Huez, the ‘old Alpe’ finish and as I passed that point in about 46 minutes I knew a 51minute time was on the cards.

For the last 1.5kms I changed into the big ring on the front as a way of forcing me into pushing hard all the way to the finish. I stayed strong to the end and carried plenty of speed up through the finish. All I had left was ’emptied’ on the final ramp with a 600/700 watt effort to get me over the line.

In many ways it was a positively uneventful way to finish off the event, an efficient execution of a job. After the excitement of the previous 2 days of road racing and in the thick of lots of action this was a very different and personal experience. I paced it well and wouldn’t change a thing about how I did it. 51 minutes and 5 seconds was just a few seconds behind my best time set 4 years ago but with the 2 previous days in my legs I was super happy with that time. I’d joked with friends a few times in recent years as to whether it was do-able to get up Alpe d’Huez in under your age. At 51 years and 10 months I think I can say I’ve done it now! To put that into some perpective though, consider Ralph Sigg, also in this event. I think he’s 64 years old and he clocked a time of just over 53 minutes today! Impressive.

The best time today was posted predictably by Ruari Grant in 44 mins and 45 seconds. Brilliant effort and very much mixing it with the times that the pros record on that climb. Well done Ruari who won the overall event in style. Also big thanks to Ruari and Hannah for their encouragement this week. So good when riders of that calibre take time to encourage lesser mortals like me.

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The finish area was full of atmosphere and emotion. So much relief, pride and satisfaction from all the riders achieving their different goals in the event, for so many it’s just about finishing.

My effort this morning was the 7th best of the day and got me a couple of places up the overall ranking to finish 6th for the whole event. I ended up a clear 4 minutes ahead in my over 50’s duel with Richard Scales so very happy indeed with my 3 days of effort. So looking forward to resuming that battle with Richard in a few weeks time in the Pyrenees!

As is always the case with Haute Route it’s all about the people, the experiences on the road I had with the likes of Richard Scales, Dan Moignard, Peter Rowley and Hervé Gebel were brilliant. So good to share these experiences with like minded riders who are passionate about the sport of cycling.

So, my first 3 day Haute Route event is done. A very good experience indeed and certainly one I’d recommend highly. Exactly the same support and back up that you experience in the 7 day events but extremely easy logistics due to staying in the same place for 3 nights. This year also saw the inclusion of a ‘compact’ course each day. A shorter, easier route to make it even easier for more less experienced cyclists to enjoy the Haute Route experience and support without the pressure of the bigger course and it’s time cut off times.

For me it’s still the 7 day events that make Haute Route the thing to do, an incredible challenge and pro cyclist type experience. The 3 day events though, provide a fantastic starting point for anyone contemplating a 7 day version.

Alpine Cadence and I  will be at Haute Route Pyrenees and Alps in a few weeks time with some of our riders taking on both weeks consecutively for a mammoth challenge. We’ll also be at the 3 day event at Ventoux in early October. Full details are available at www.alpinecadence.com, drop me a line if you fancy joining the action!

Haute Route Alpe d’Huez stage 2

By John Thomas July 13th 2019

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Bourg d’Oisans – l’Alpe d’Huez

 

Stage 2 was to be a relatively short affair, just 70kms but squeezing in 2800m worth of climbing over three main climbs. We would ascend the first few bends of Alpe d’Huez to la Garde and then continuing upwards along the spectacular Balcon d’Auris to complete a 10km first climb. The next climb was another 10km effort up to Les Deux Alpes via the steep forest road via Le Ponteil. Col de Sarenne would be our biggest climb of the day climbing nearly 1000m over it’s 13km and the day was to be rounded off with the final 3kms of the classic Alpe d’Huez climb.

I woke up feeling good. I slept really well and my legs felt hugely better than the day before when they’d been sore and cramping after the event. Adrian Beer and I descended from ADH down to the start in Bourg d’Oisans. That descent was a great start to the day, tuning body and mind into the bike handling that would be so important at times on today’s stage. A lap or two of Bourg d’Oisans completed our warm up and we headed to the start.
I was really happy with what I’d achieved the day before and to be honest if I got get another top 10 finish or there abouts I would be happy. My big decision for the day was whether to get embroiled in a battle for my over 50’s category. The previous day, Richard Scales had taken 22 seconds out of me and I knew from racing with him in the Pyrenees last year that he was super strong. He’d beaten me there over the week and I was very respectful of his level. Aiming to beat or stay with a particular rider in the field can sometimes work or can equally be disastrous if you set your sights too high. Sometimes it’s better to ride your own race and just let your own fitness level manifest itself.
As this was a short 3 day event and not my main target for the year I decided to go for it. I’d ride with Richard for as long as I could, get a feel for his strengths and weaknesses and then make a decision as to what to do later in the stage. Although I’d ridden in the same events as Richard before I’d never really riddenalongside him on the road so I was keen to see what he was made of as it’s was pretty nailed on that we’d be having more battles in the future so knowledge was needed!
From the centre of Bourg d’Oisans we headed out for a neutralised 1.5km to the foot of the Alpe. The top riders from the previous day were all ‘seeded’ at the front so it was easy for me to be just behind the commissaire’s car as we hit the climb and the start of the timing. As we crossed the start line I found myself right at the front, quite a cool feeling! For the next few hundred metres I headed up on the front with a close eye on my power meter to keep the numbers where I wanted them to be. After a couple of minutes the very top guys like leader Ruari Grant came past me. I let three of them go, riders of a different class, nothing to be gained by chasing them. I forged ahead waiting to see the likes of Richard Scales in the corner of my eye. Richard appeared along with Dan Moignard and I got on Richard’s wheel. I was in unknown territory, Richard and Dan generally finish ahead of me in races and going with them felt like a gamble. I stuck with it, yes, it was a firm pace but my legs were good and the power numbers were not too alarmingly high. As we passed la Garde we turned left and the road flattened. Richard pulled us along that flat and windy section and I could see that he was a good bike handler choosing some good lines.

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We headed up the spectacular Balcon d’Auris which is carved into the cliffs with stunning views and vertical drops to our left. All was good. I’d left my ‘groupies’ from yesterday well behind and I was coping well with my new ride partners. We crested the top and then descended for a couple of kilometres. Richard was quick, I followed his wheel as best I could. His descending ability was strong and I’d have my work cut out to stay with him. I did though. A short lump and another 4 km descent and things were going really well. Richard had pulled us to within a few seconds of Ruari and the leaders.
We started the second climb together. It started with a steep 3kms through the forest averaging around 10%. I settled in behind Richard, Dan and a couple of other characters. I glanced at my power numbers, all good, I felt totally comfortable and the numbers were sustainable. I was enjoying my new place in the race. Richard made a few moves up the road, not attacks, but enough effort to see that he was keen to push things on. I certainly couldn’t see any glitch in his armour. After some respite on the spectacular and vertiginous balcony road near Le Ponteil we turned right onto the main Les Deux Alpes climb, about 5 kms left at an average of about 7%.

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All was still going well. With about 2kms to go on the climb Peter Rowley, who had impressively steamed past me yesterday, laid down the gauntlet and pushed ahead. He established a gap on our little group fairly quickly and I knew from what I’d seen yesterday that he was very strong, especially on the 6%/7% gradients. Richard decided to chase him, I did not. Richard worked hard to bridge the gap but couldn’t quite get on Peter’s wheel. I was pleased with my patience!
The timing would stop at the top of Les Deux Alpes to be followed by a neutralised descent. That meant that there was an opportunity for seconds to be gained by racing to the top. I was feeling strong and with about 500m remaining I rode away from the group and bridged to Richard. I went past Richard and I could hear his bike straining under the effort he was putting in to get on my wheel. I was learning all day about what made Richard tick and he certainly made it clear that he cared about me riding past him. Richard stayed on my wheel to the top, we both put a very big minute’s effort in there and swamped Peter in the process.
Richard and I had both flexed our muscles and this was turning into a great battle. Could I stay strong enough on the Sarenne to take time out of him and overhaul his 22 second lead on me? I had no idea but my legs were still feeling good. I love the Sarenne, it’s my type of climb. Wild and spectacular, a narrow rough road and plenty of steep sections near the top. It’s funny how your experiences on a climb dictate your opinion and attitude towards it. I’d only ever ridden well on the Sarenne and my memories of it were really positive, I was looking forward to it 13km of challenge. I’d overheard Richard earlier in the day talking of his not so positive experiences on the same climb. I had the edge in that respect.

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There’s almost a gentlemen’s agreement in these event that after a neutralised section you resume the timed section of the race with the same group that you finished the last section with. That didn’t happen this time though. I got to the timing mat at the foot of the Sarenne having lost touch with who was ahead or behind me. In that neutralised section riders eat, pee and do what they have to do in different places and then generally meet up just before the mat. It looked today though that a few riders just wanted to do their own thing and ‘time trial’ up the climb. My head to head battle with Richard was not going to happen, we’d both be destined to ride to the finish separately and then wait to see who was fastest. I headed over the mat on my own. The first kilometre of that climb is tough at about 11%, legs were good though. As I climbed higher I felt good. I was enjoying being on my own in such a fantastic place. I was going well. The kilometres to go markers came at me frequently, much quicker than they’d come at me in the latter stages of the previous day. I had no idea where Richard or any of the other riders in the field were. All I knew was that I was strong and there would be others who weren’t. A good feeling.

 

As I got closer to the summit I started to think about the descent on the other side. A rough, narrow road to Alpe d’Huez that I knew really well. I topped out on the col in strong form and pedalled my heart out down the other side. The first part of the descent is 1.5km of nearly straight but very lumpy road, descending at about 9%. I knew that with the right amount of tension on the handlebars those bumps could be ridden fast and no braking required before the first corner. Certainly a massive advantage to know that road in advance. There’s no way I’d stay off the brakes down there if it was my first time, which I knew it would be for some of my rivals. The next 8 kms or so had ups and downs, where again, local knowledge was key. As I approached ADH I was feeling inspired. So happy with how I’d ridden and a real feeling of eating time into some of my rivals. We weren’t finished yet though, we would descend underneath the village so as to climb the final 3km of the classic climb into the village. That same climb yesterday had wrecked me as I’d ‘survived’ to the finish. Today was very different. I was still chucking out good power numbers and feeling great. I rode strongly all the way to the finish, a real feeling of making the most of good legs and trying to make every second count. All the time in those closing stages I knew that people behind me would be suffering, I wasn’t, it was time to stick the dagger in and give it a twist and exploit my good legs for every second they could give me.
As I crossed the line, Fergus Grant, the official announcer had surprise in his voice. He knows me and my level but I think he was genuinely surprised to see where I was in the race. ‘Here comes………JT…………I think………………….3rd rider in the stage!’

Wow, that felt amazing. I was third over the line but needed to wait for all the calculations at the end to see how my final result would pan out. Third on the line was pretty cool though in an Haute Route! The rest of my rivals finished in following minutes and a few minutes later I discovered that I was officially 4th on the day. So happy. One of the best executed bike rides I’ve ever done. Lots of good decisions made and a body and legs that totally did what I asked of them! I ended up taking 3 minutes out of Richard on the Sarenne meaning I’d grabbed the lead in the over 50 category. Up to 8th overall in the GC and a very satisfied bike rider indeed. Race days are not always as good as this, I needed to savour it and work out what had contributed to it.

One more day to go in this fantastic event. A 15.5km time trial tomorrow morning up the ‘proper’ Alpe d’Huez climb. Time trials are as hard as you make them, let’s wait and see what happens!

Haute Route Alpe d’Huez

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by John Thomas – July 12th 2019

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Stage 1

Haute Route Alpe d’Huez

I’ve been lucky enough to compete in 4 previous Haute Route events but this is my first venture into a 3 day event having done the 7 day versions previously. 3 days based in the cyclist’s version of Mecca with 2 big mountain stages followed by a time trial up the Alpe to finish on Sunday.
I really didn’t know what to expect from my performance, I’ve guided and ridden lots of Alpine Cadence trips so far this year so plenty of miles in the legs but no competition riding to this point so this would be a test of fitness. Stage one looked pretty daunting for my first race day of the year. 123km with 3700m of climbing. Col de la Croix de Fer from both sides followed by a summit finish in Alpe d’Huez via the Villard Reculas road.

I get so wound up and nervous before events and this one was no exception. It was such a relief to get the thing started and ride. We rolled out of Alpe d’Huez at 7.00am, a chilly, neutralised 18kms down to the foot of the first climb where the timing would begin. Those neutralised starts are painfully slow and controlled but a necessary part of making the day safe. I think I got more use out of my brakes in those 18kms than in all my riding put together in the previous months!
The timed section approached, I’d got myself where I wanted to be, near enough to the front. Over the timing mat and it’s game on. So good to be pressing on the pedals in competition at last. The big challenge for me would be to cap my efforts in the early stages and not get carried away with feeling too good. My power meter would prove invaluable in those early stages, helping me to limit my efforts and save energy for later. In the early stages of an event, especially with fresh legs, it’s so easy to go ‘into the red’ without realising. Big power efforts that are over your sustainable threshold seem easy in an exciting and adrenaline fuelled environment. My power meter made me behave.
Two or three of the stronger riders attacked off the front but I stayed in my little world of control and stuck to my numbers and discipline.
The first 6kms of the climb are fairly unrelenting at about 8% most of the way. My legs felt good and I crested that first 6kms feeling happy with how things were going. Another indicator for me was that I found myself in the same group as Hervé Gebel who I’ve ridden with in previous Haute Routes before. He and I have had some good battles and we ride to a similar level. I knew he’d been training hard this year from seeing all his amazing rides on Strava so I was happy to be at his level.

A short descent followed and then the climb reinstated itself with some tough double figure percentage sections. My speed and line on the short descent had given me the jump on the group behind and I found myself about 100m ahead of them. I forged ahead, still feeling good and the gap behind me grew to the best part of a minute. The problem was that I had no one to ride to. Up ahead was lots of road but no sign of any other groups to bridge to. As we climbed higher I felt the wind in my face, not good on your own. It’s far easier to ‘break away’ or stay away with a tailwind. A headwind plays into the hands of the chasing group. I was resigned to realising that I’d be better off back in that group, saving energy. I didn’t like the idea of ‘sitting up’ though and letting them absorb me, luckily one of the group started to work hard and he pulled the group towards me without me having to ease too much. For the final 6kms of the climb I was back where I belonged in the group. My 7 or 8kms off the front of them would have cost me a bit of energy but in a way it also gave me the confidence that my legs were there.
We crested the Col de la Croix de Fer after 24km of climbing. Two more climbs to come, would my legs last?

After descending 15km down the other side we took a hard left to ascend back up from the other side. I was with Hervé and a few of the group I’d been with on the first climb and I sat in and ‘enjoyed’ the ride. That second climb was perfect for me, a firm effort but I was always relatively comfortable. As we approached the top of the Croix de Fer for the second time I started to think about the long descent down the other side. We’d be racing down the same 24kms that we’d climbed earlier. A very fast descent that I knew well. I knew Hervé was a very good descender but I was unsure about the others. Just before we crested the col I came to the front so I could dictate the descent on my terms. A slight tail wind made it super fast. I saw so many bewildered faces on the slower riders in the same event who were still going in the other direction.
I can descend pretty well but it scares the hell out of me. The implications of what can go wrong are horrible. I’m always so relieved to get a descent safely done. It’s also an opportunity though. If you’re fairly competent at it you need to exploit it and in some cases drop riders who are less skilled. That’s basically how cycling works, when you know you are strong at something you need to make the most of it and exploit the weakness of the others. They will do the same to you when they get their chance!
Hervé and I got to the bottom of that 24km very swiftly. He’s great to ride with, picks a good line and I can trust him 100% at the 80km/h + speeds that I’d guess we were moving at.

One climb to go. Alpe d’Huez via Villard Reculas. About 18kms and 1100m of climbing left. Again I was really happy to be with Hervé. If I could get to the finish near him I’d be happy. I got on Hervé’s wheel and he seemed strong. I would have liked to have taken a turn on the front but his pace was just a fraction too heavy for me. I felt bad that I couldn’t help him. After climbing for about 5 kms I was close to letting him go. I’d convinced myself that he was stronger than me and for a few minutes I just felt like I’d had enough. The mental and physical effort of staying on someone’s wheel when they are going a fraction harder than you want to is tough. I was so, so close to going for the easy option, let the elastic snap, let him go, then I can cruise to the finish, albeit slowly and settle for wherever I come in the race.
Those thoughts changed though, another voice in my head was saying how well things were going. The power numbers were looking good, legs felt strong, maybe it was just a brief drop in motivation. I decided to take my turn on the front, I moved past Hervé more comfortably than expected and let him draught me. I looked back frequently and it looked like Hervé was losing touch. He was having his own battles and struggling more than I’d realised. I eased off a few times to give him a chance to get back on my wheel. Especially after I’d used his wheel so much in the previous kilometres I really wanted to return the favour and get to the finish together. He was spent though and I was still feeling reasonably ok. The gap widened and we were separate riders on the road.
After Villard Reculas the road flattened for a couple of kilometres along the spectacular balcony road that links with the classic Alpe d’Huez climb. I hit that classic climb with 4km to the top and 4 of the famous bends to negotiate. Now it was me that was spent. My power dropped off and I was starting to crack. This would be a tough 4kms. Peter Rowley, a young British rider that had been in my group earlier was steaming up the road behind me. Impressive. He’d paced himself well and was overtaking his way to a very strong finish. As he passed me I slapped him on the back and told him to finish the job off in style.
I was on my last legs, counting down the metres. Those behind me were struggling too though so I was still holding my position in the field. The last kilometre was easier and flatter, I mustered enough energy for a strong finish and I crossed the line about a minute ahead of Hervé.

I came 9th on the day which if you’d offered me beforehand I’d have bitten your hand off. Very happy to ride to a decent level after having not raced for so long. Just ahead of me in 8th was Richard Scales, another oldie like me and a very strong rider, I was delighted to be within a minute of the likes of him. Overall a great first day. Legs are sore now though! Really hope I can recover for tomorrow. A shorter but very spiky stage awaits us tomorrow culminating with the climb of the Col de Sarenne. Tough but a very beautiful place to have pain inflicted on you. Bring it on!