Briançon to Pra Loup, 104kms and 2300m climbing. Our penultimate day would see us roll out of Briançon before taking on the viciously steep Mur Pallon, then onto the Col de Vars and a summit finish up to Pra Loup.
I woke up feeling good. Really pleased and relieved at how I’d performed over the last few days and starting to believe that I could do it again. Every day I’ve almost been expecting to ‘crack’ at some point. Now, with just two days to go, the belief that I might get through without cracking is there.
A very pleasant, albeit chilly 7kms of neutralised riding out of Briançon was a stark contrast from the 3 hours of action that would follow. As we reached kilometre zero I was right at the front and cruised up the first 2kms of 4% climb with no one too fussed to go hard or break away. As we crested we faced about 7kms of gently downhill. The first small climb did nothing to separate the leading 100 riders or so. Things started to kick off. The pace at the front went through the roof as we topped out. I was uncomfortable. High speed, surrounded by riders much further down the rankings, riders I didn’t know. I lost my nerve. Riders streamed past me as I was sifted to an unconfident rear of the peloton. I can descend pretty well but the swarm of riders just scared me.
I was relieved as the road went up a bit. The peloton compressed and slowed. I came up the side and worked by way back towards the front. Happy now.
25kms into our ride we would hit the Mur Pallon. 1.4 kms at 12%, still climbing gently for a couple of kms after that. Then the timing would stop, effectively creating a hectic and intense mini race as everyone clambered for precious seconds on their rivals.
I’d done my homework and knew exactly where the Mur started. I’d got myself fairly well forward as we hit it. I was primed for about a 6 minute anaerobic effort. A very painful effort ahead, into the red. Not what a 52 year old body wants or maybe should be doing.
Up we go. Yep, this is hard. Plenty of riders are hungry to go for it, maybe an opportunity for some. That means we all have to go hard, very hard. If there was no timing mat at the top it would be a different story. we’d maybe have cruised over, knowing that things would regroup anyway. Stopping the timing changes everything.
Hurt, hurt, hurt. I make good progress. All the riders I think I should be with are around me or behind, I’m doing well. Some riders excel at these shorter, over threshold efforts, all depends on your physical make up. For the ‘steady state’ aerobic type rider that I am I still do ok on the punchier stuff. It hurts everyone though.
The Mur came to an end but the pain didn’t. Still a 2km push to the timing stop. All of us desperately clinging to wheels that would drag us there. Jeff and Mitch, close to me in GC were in the mix with me. Over the line and time to breath.
Later I would see that I’d pushed about 330 watts for those 6 minutes and beyond. It felt a lot more. Adrian Beer managed 400 watts and came over the timing just behind me.
A brief respite as we negotiated a fiddly untimed descent. A chance to take a leak, breath and take a drink. Back to the valley floor and game on again. A big group of about 80 headed over the timing mat for race part 2. The next few kms were reasonably chilled for me. A couple of rises but a fairly flat run in to the Col de Vars.
Col de Vars is 19kms long. I know it very well. A sustained first 8kms at an average of nearly 8%, then a flatter 4km section and another 7kms at about 6% to finish the job. As we hit the climb I felt in good shape. The strongest riders in the field formed a front group of about 20. I was content to ride my own pace and let them ride off. That group’s initial pace on the first slopes of Vars was more than I would sustain. I had a collection of riders on my wheel.
As we progressed up the Vars we established a very definite second group. A few of the leading group found the pace up there too hot and came back to us over the course of the next few kms. I didn’t need to push. I could chill and hide. All my ‘race within the race’ people were near me. I felt good though and I enjoyed being on the front. Conditions were calm and climbing at the 15-18 km/h that we were on the first half of the Vars would not provide much sheltering benefit from a group. I was happy leading. I could choose a pace that suited me. I chugged away at about 260 watts. No one seemed to want to crank things up from there. Things were calm and efficient.
We crested the first 8km and onto the middle plateau. Fast through a couple of villages and rapidly onto the final 7km section. At that point we reeled in Alan from the UK who’d got dropped from the leading group, we made him welcome! At this point it became clear there was no point at all in racing to the top. Getting down the other side as a group would be important to make good progress on the subsequent flats. We needed each other. Cycling is fascinating in that one minute you need each other to make communal progress, then you reach a point when you most definitely don’t!
Our group made good progress and we topped out on the Col de Vars without incident. The descent down the other side is fast, technical and varied. I know it well. As with a few descents in this event, I wanted the front. I knew we’d end up as a group in the valley but for me it’s less stress to get on the front and choose my line. I went well, smooth and efficient. One rider caught me after about 5kms, Louis-Paul, very appropriate. I was glad to see him. He’s a very smooth bike handler and I was pleased he was there. Earlier on the climb I thought I saw him struggling to stay in touch, he was totally back now by virtue of his descending skills. Surprise, surprise Bruno appeared, another very efficient descender.
Things started to flatten, we could relax and let everyone chase to us. We got to a point where we had about 12 riders, I think we might have lost some on the descent. Anyway, 12 was good. We got to work. It took a few minutes to get properly organised but we ended up working pretty well together with everyone contributing to the common cause. We reached Jausiers and then Barcelonnette very swiftly.
They took us on a rough lane around Barelonnette. I was irritated. Bumpy, holes, if I get a puncture now I’ll be totally pissed off. I didn’t, back to the smooth road as we approached the final climb to Pra Loup. 8kms at about 6%. At the upper end of what you’d call a ‘power climb’. One where bigger gears can be pushed and bigger, powerful riders stand a chance against the skinny climber types. I like power climbs. 6% is a good number for me!
In the early stages of the climb I came to the front and pushed ahead. I just felt like it. It must have looked a bit arrogant to those behind. My legs felt strong and I was keen to push. Round the sharp right hander with 6kms to go, flat corner, lots of power. I knew there would be damage behind. If I couldn’t sustain this I’d look pretty stupid, but I could, at least for a while. Our group of 12 was split. Mitch and Jeff on my wheel, the others falling off. Legs are feeling good but too many watts. I need help and I told Jeff and Mitch that. They obliged and in the mid section of that climb I sat in behind them, still a big effort but just enough respite for me to recover and contemplate the finish.
Now, the order we would come over the line was not really going to change anything. If the three of us all pulled away from everyone behind we’d have done well. But, it’s a bike race, even if we were only racing for what turned out to be 15th position on the day. 1km to go, I know if I can stay with these boys until 300m out I’ll back myself to beat them in an uphill sprint. Mitch winds up the power, it’s too much and Jeff and I drop off. If Mitch keeps that up he’s got us beaten. 500m to go, Mitch is not pulling away and he’s within reach I reckon. Wait, wait, 250m out and I give it all I’ve got. I came past Mitch pretty quickly but he gets on my wheel. Shit, the finish is about 100m further than I thought, I’ve mistimed it. I hang on as if my life depends on it. Just pipping Mitch to the line. What a great race we had! For a few moments I feel like I’m going to have a stroke or something. Probably my biggest effort on a bike this year. 2 minutes later I’m good and we shake hands and big up how well we did up that climb. I don’t mind admitting it feels fantastic to be having superb battles with fellas young enough to be my kids. Cycling’s good for that sort of thing.
So I got 15th and I’m still dumbfounded as to the numbers I’m still generating on stage 13 of this adventure. I managed to chuck out 340 watts for the last 1.5kms and about 280 watts for the final 8kms. I had no idea I’d be capable of that at this point.
The rest of our team are now positioned as follows in the GC, only real hiccup today was a nasty crash for Mark Fairgrieve but he’s ok and was able to continue albeit having lost a fair bit of time:
John Thomas 13th, Adrian Beer 61st, Felix Hoddinott 79th, Mark Fairgrieve 96th, Duncan Carrier 152nd, Mark Roberts 164th, Paul Martin 223rd, Luiz Capelati 236th, Jardel Andreis 272nd and Andrea Azevedo 294th (17th lady).
Tomorrow is gigantic and not just in terms of how much beer I plan to consume in Nice if I finish safely. We have almost 200kms of riding to do and 3500m of climbing! I think it will be the toughest and biggest final day on an Haute Route ever. Still a lot to do tomorrow. Cimes de Bonette will be our sharpener for the day before a very lumpy dash to Nice.
Can’t wait to finish and wish this dream ride would never end all at the same time!
Please be patient with my final blog at the end of tomorrow, I might have other priorities ahead of writing another 2000 words! It will appear though, eventually, I promise!
See you in Nice!