By John Thomas July 13th 2019
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.
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%.
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.
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!