Taiwan KOM Challenge – final preparations, the bike, the course and getting there

By John Thomas, 16th October 2018

Just 10 days to go now until the big day and preparations are all going to plan. Last weekend I returned from our Alpine Cadence Giro Sardegna trip, my last big block of riding before Taiwan and what a fabulous block it was! In a big week covering the northern half of Sardinia we racked up nearly a 1000km and a very significant 16500m of climbing.

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It was a very enjoyable week as usual with several returning Alpine Cadence riders contributing to the great riding on the island. Doing a trip like Sardinia is always varied. The terrain and the strength of the riders on our trip meant plenty of quality kilometres with some big efforts mixed into most days. Without really trying to manufacture a ‘training week’ it ends up being so in a very natural and enjoyable way. The only real difference compared to the same trip last year was reducing my intake of Ichnusa beer a little, I bought a crate of the stuff to enjoy at home in November instead!

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On my return from Sardinia I’ve spent the last week doing shorter rides of 2 hours or so. Saturday was my last big ride before Taiwan. I headed up and over the Col du Petit St Bernard, over into Italy and then went hard up the Colle San Carlo, 10kms @ 10% before heading back over the Petit St Bernard and home. A chunky 135km with 3250m of climbing. That ride into Italy was absolutely stunning. The autumn colours are reaching their peak right now and it really is such a pleasure to be out there. I feel so lucky to have found passion in a sport that is so beautiful. It is a fabulous environment to do the  hurt and suffering that is necessary to get better.

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I’ll keep riding in most of the next few days before I travel to Taiwan but the volume of riding will come right down. Still a few intense efforts to remind the body of what the top end feels like but shorter rides to make sure I’m not too fatigued before travelling.

 

The bike

I’m not one for having a selection of bikes. I love the idea of N+1 being the ideal number of bikes to own (being the number of bikes owned already) but in reality I don’t need more bikes. I ride the same bike all summer, in the winter if I get a chance to ride I use an older, scruffier version of the same bike, they are my 2 bikes. When people ask me what bike I ride my answer is usually ‘a black one’. It’s plain and unbranded and I quite like it’s anonymous and mysterious look. I put it together myself, the frameset is from a Chinese manufacturer called Hong Fu, they also trade as Avenger bikes for the Asian market. When I tell people I’m on a Chinese frame there are sometimes some raised eyebrows, I know there are lots of sceptics out there, perhaps rightly so as I suspect there are plenty of poor quality frames and bike equipment made in China. With Hong Fu though I am a very happy customer, 3 frames purchased from them now and can’t fault them. They are light, certainly strong enough for me and my style of riding and their bargain price means I can devote money to a decent groupset and wheels. All in all I’ve created a bike that works for me and doesn’t cost a fortune. I quite like the fact too that it’s unique, all the components I’ve put together make it my black bike.

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So, is it good enough for Taiwan? It’s been my trusty steed for many events and I succeeded in my 12 hour climbing World Record on the same bike a couple of years ago so it’s proved that it’s pretty fit for purpose. For Taiwan though I wanted to make sure I’d done all I could to maximise my chances and my confidence so I had a good look at every aspect of the bike and made a few small changes.

Gearing and weight were my priorities. My present gearing of a compact 50 – 34 crankset combined with a 11 – 29 cassette on the back has served me well in every type of ride I do, should I change? Reading some of the reports of people who had done the Taiwan KOM I started to worry. A section of 300m at 27% was advertised on the course profile as well as plenty of other steep ramps towards the end of the event. I went through a period of convincing myself that I’d need a bigger cassette on the back. This was annoying, I would needed a longer caged derailleur to get a 32 on the back and bigger gaps in my bottom end gearing. As I investigated more I found that most of the blogs and reports that had scared me had been written by riders of a lower level level than myself, maybe I’d be ok with what I’d got. GCN presenters Matt Stephens and Simon Richardson rode the Taiwan KOM (great video report here) and they did it on 11 – 28s as did Emma Pooley who has won the ladies event twice and will be there again this year. I’m not suggesting I’m faster than those characters but I’m in the ball park for climbing speed. Listening to them talk about the course being tough but no regrets on gearing helped me. I decided to man up and stick with my 11 – 29. Maybe I’ll curse that decision in the latter stages of the event but I’ll deal with it. I stuck on a nice new chain and a new Chorus cassette (I cannot justify the expense of Campy Super Record cassettes).

Apart from my Chorus cassette the rest of my groupset is Super Record, can’t improve much on that. I’ve used Campagnolo Bora One 35 clincher wheels for the last couple of years, can’t fault them and at 1400g a pair they’ll do just fine for Taiwan.

I started to look at any ways in which I could make the bike lighter without compromising reliability. My bike had weighed in at just over 7kg but with a few relatively inexpensive modifications I’ve managed to get it under 6.8kg. New skewers, lighter inner tubes and new bottle cages were the main contributors to shaving off about 250g. Not much difference perhaps, the maths says that 1kg of weight costs the rider around 1 minute over an hour’s climbing. My 250g was only going to save a few seconds but the psychological advantage felt in it being lighter makes me feel good, another stone that I’ve not left unturned in my efforts for some useful gains. Incidentally, the Taiwan KOM even is not a UCI sanctioned race so there is no minimum bike weight. The UCI limit of 6.8kg would normally render make my bike marginally illegal and I know that many of the rides in the event will be on bikes much closer to 6kgs. My 250g saving has cost less than 100 euros, the money required for me to get my bike from 6.78kgs to 6kgs would be exponentially astronomical, just not worth the gains, I’m happy with what I’ve got.

New tyres, skewers, tubes, bottle cages, cables, chain and cassette…….my black bike is ready.

 

The course

And on to the event itself, what do I know and what’s the plan? A combination of course profiles, Google Streetview and Nicolas Raybaud’s video of his race in 2016 have given me lots of insight as to what to expect on race day.

The first 18kms of neutralised, flat start along the coast looks quite brisk. I’m used to some painfully slow neutralised starts to some amateur events I do in Europe but this looks like it’ll be a good warm up that only take about 30 minutes. As the race enters the Taroko Gorge the timing starts and the pace will wind up. The next 66km up to the 84km point gains 2400m of altitude, a relatively humble average gradient of less than 4%. At 84kms there a short descent of around 4kms before the real race starts, 15kms to the top with far steeper gradients that seen earlier on the course.

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The last section is tough, that’s for sure, but it’s not the bit that concerns me most. That final section will certainly sort everyone out and separate all the fitness levels in the field, the challenge for me though will be to get to that point in the race without having burnt too many matches earlier on. The earlier parts of the course will be fast and the adrenalin and the atmosphere of the event will make it very easy and tempting to hang in there with the top guys. How often do you get a chance to ride and race with the likes of Laurens Ten Dam, Jan Bakelants and Emma Pooley?

The first half of the event is going to be a discipline test for me, knowing when to let people go, knowing when to let the elastic break and not fighting it. Of course it’s a balancing act, on flatter sections of a huge climb like this there’s a huge benefit in draughting stronger riders. It’s crucial however that getting a pull from the strong guys doesn’t turn into a struggle for which the price will be costly later on.

I want to ride strong at the end, I want to be one of the riders who is working my way through the field at the painful end not one of the riders ‘going backwards’ and haemorrhaging time due to excessive efforts earlier on. Ultimately it will all come down to decisions on the day but I’m determined to be realistic and respectful to the better riders and let them have their race. Better I let them go sooner rather than later so that I can dictate my pace. We’ll see! I always have a good plan but it doesn’t always happen! My power meter will hopefully help me to behave myself with my efforts. There’s no question of riding the whole thing ‘to power’ or a fixed number, it’s too irregular a climb for that. The power figures will help though in warning me when I’m going into an unsustainable ‘red zone’ for too long and helping convince me to back off.

So if I let all these top riders head up the road away from me what am I trying to achieve? Well, simply to deliver the best ride I possibly can and be strong at the end. The race has around 80 elite riders and then the rest of the 600 strong field will be categorised by age with me being in the oldest category 50+. I don’t mind admitting I’d love to win that category. It’s a realistic goal looking at previous results and times but it depends so much on who else turns up! Doing well in my category needs to be a by-product of a well paced ride and not a goal in itself. Saying that, if I see a few grey hairs on a rival rider as the event progresses I’ll certainly be watching them more than the young ones!

 

Getting there

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At the end of this week I’ll fly to Taipei, the big city at the northern end of the island of Taiwan. I’m heading there from Milan with a brief touch down in Hong Kong. I’ll arrive on the Sunday with 24 hours in the city to be a tourist, I can’t wait! I plan to head up the Taipei 101 tower at sunset and just take in the atmosphere of being somewhere so new and different. Oliver is going to meet me there and then we’ll train it down to Hualien on the east coast on Monday.

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Hualien is the start town for the event and we’ve decided to get down there early to relax, soak up the atmosphere and hopefully get rid of any jet lag effects before the event on Friday morning. Most of the riders, ourselves included, will be staying in a big, international type hotel that will be the administrative headquarters for the event. It should be quite a buzz with riders arriving each day from all over the world.

I expect we’ll do a few short rides in the 3 full days that we have there leading up to the big day. Just enough to keep the engine revving but nothing big enough to tire us out.

Once I’ve arrived in Taiwan I’ll keep writing about the lead up days to the event, in the meantime here are the links to my previous Taiwan blogs if you’ve missed them:

Taiwan KOM – Overview

Taiwan KOM – Training and preparation

And for more information on all the cycling experiences that we offer at Alpine Cadence please have a look here: www.alpinecadence.com

 

 

 

 

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Taiwan KOM Challenge – training and preparation

By John Thomas, 8th October 2018
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To have a goal for 2018 of riding competitively up a mountain for about 4 hours at the end of October has certainly created some changes to my normal yearly routine. Those folks who know me well are used to the non cycling version of me, ‘October John’, who emerges from ‘Cycling John’ every autumn as I basically hang the bike up at the end of the summer, let my hair down, have a few drinks, eat what I like and turn back into the person I was before I discovered road cycling in 2005. I always look forward to being October John, a healthy interlude (for the mind at least) before winter sets in, followed by around Christmas, the pangs of needing to ride the bike again in readiness for spring.

It’s a cycle I go through each year, a good one, one that gives me some down time from my cycling passion and helps me stay hungry for more when I resume.

This year there is no October John, there will most certainly be a November John, his stint will begin on the evening of October 26th after I complete the Taiwan KOM!

Through September I typically ride in the Dolomites and Sardinia on our Alpine Cadence tours and I’m usually already gently transitioning into October John. No more races to worry about, a few Moretti and Ichnusa beers help me get a little bit bigger and happier as I round off the season. This September is different, for the first time ever since I took up cycling I’m actually thinking about what I eat and drink in an effort to stay in good condition for Taiwan. I love the racing aspect of cycling and I love to do well. All the events I’ve done in previous years have been in the spring and summer. The riding I do as an Alpine Cadence guide means I’m in pretty good condition from May through to September simply by the riding I do. I naturally come down to a ‘race weight’ of around 66kg in late May and it seems to stay that way through the summer as I ride and race enough to not have to worry too much about what I eat and drink. Typically in September my extra beers and less volume of riding takes me up a couple of kilos.

I need and want to go to Taiwan strong and light. The strong bit is probably the easy bit, staying light until the end of October needs a definite effort. I’ve certainly not got obsessed with the eating thing but since the middle of the summer I’ve drunk less alcohol than I normally would and taken more notice of what I eat. I am a binge eater and drinker normally, I have a sweet tooth and my usual eating and drinking habits would probably cause outrage to many of the people who I race with who I suspect generally look after themselves a bit more carefully than I do! This summer I’ve been heading to the fridge as per normal but stopping for a moment and more often than not grabbing for the San Pellegrino in place of the chocolate. I read somewhere that fizzy water is the pros choice to fill themselves up a bit and keep the weight off. Not sure if it’s true but it’s working for me!

I’ve also cut down on carbs. I typically consume lots of them, perhaps more than I need. in recent months I’ve tended to go for a bit more protein and moderating the carb intake. Certainly not to any Atkins diet extremes but just changing the balance of what I eat a little. I’ve realised also this summer that I tend to eat a lot of sugar in my diet. Again, I’ve moderated that, lots of Cokes have been replaced with San Pellegrinos.

So, to sum up what’s been going in, no extreme changes, just keeping an eye on what I eat, not stuffing my face whenever I feel hungry and keep the alcohol down to a sensible level.

 


 

My training to do well in Taiwan would need to be focused and oriented to the needs of the event. Disregarding the first neutralised 18kms of the event I needed to be prepared for a more or less constant effort for the next 85kms which was going to take me a little over 4 hours. I would have to be prepared for a final 10kms or so that would be very steep at times and between 2500m – 3275m in altitude, certainly high enough for an altitude related performance drop. Another major factor would be the timing of the event, late October, by far the latest event I’ve tried to do well in, deep into my usual ‘October John’ phase.
So, where to begin. Any rider preparing for a big event needs volume, miles on the bike. I’m lucky, my self created job with Alpine Cadence provides me with lots of miles, and importantly, miles of every type. I seldom ‘train’ as such, the vast majority of my riding is done with Alpine Cadence guests, leading them around the beautiful roads of Europe.

When I ride in big events in the summer I often do well off the back of the major trips that I’ve guided during May and June which is our biggest concentration of Alpine Cadence trips. I’ve already had my ‘summer peak’ this year with plenty of good performances in races, now I would need to either prolong the peak or peak again to be able to race well in late October, a new experience for me.
Late summer, as mentioned earlier, is usually a wind down for me, I ride the few trips that remain in September but there’s less motivation to ride any more than that. The last few weeks have followed a different pattern to previous years. On the trips themselves such as the Giro Dolomiti, I’ve been riding extra miles at the end of big days with the guests. After making sure that guests are safely checked into their hotel I’ve been heading off to hurt myself. Looking for climbs and riding hard. Trying to simulate Taiwan and having to ride hard after having done plenty already.

I recently did a loop from my house known locally as the Savoie Chicken due to the route shape on Strava. 250kms in total but the main climb, Col de l’Iseran, hit after having already ridden 180km. Again, riding hard up that after 6 hours of work already made me think it was good practice for Taiwan.

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I also used the Iseran a couple of weeks ago to satisfy my altitude concerns. I headed to the top from my home, 57km and 2000m of sustained climb, not dissimilar to the demands of the first half of Taiwan. Once at the top I headed down the other side and rode up the final 2.5km @ 10% five times to put myself into plenty of discomfort between 2500m and 2770m, the highest riding around where I live.

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I’ll most likely head up there again and do something similar in the next week or so. It’s as much training the mind as it is the body. Convincing myself that I can work hard at altitude and that I can work hard after already having worked for a few hours. I’m also very aware of the fact that I’m very lucky where I live and with the lifestyle I’ve created. Through taking advantage of all that I would be better prepared than most in Taiwan.

The goal of doing as well as I can in Taiwan has certainly kept me very motivated. Having a goal in endurance sport is vital for motivation, things can get very boring and tedious very quickly without a goal. Fabulous, enjoyable bike rides can rapidly turn into boring chores when the motivation fades and the rider wonders what they are out there for. This summer I’m loving every minute on my bike, I generally always do, but this summer perhaps even more. Being strong and lean feels good. Regardless of what happens in Taiwan I’ve really enjoyed the process so far. Staying strong and light further into the Autumn has not been as hard as I thought it might be. Body and mind are feeling very good! I think riders who have come on regular Alpine Cadence trips have noticed my increased enthusiasm and staying on top of my game through September has perhaps improved their experience with our trips too, I hope so.

I’ve never been someone to follow rigid training plans, I’m quite a disorganised person in many respects and it doesn’t work for me to stick to rigid plans. I ride when it suits me and I listen to my body and mind and I ride accordingly. When I ride outside of the organised trips that I guide on I’ll often go for a 20 minute warm up and then I decide what ride to do. I do what I feel is necessary. Perhaps I need a long ride, perhaps I’m overdue for an intense 30 minute effort, perhaps I’m feeling tired and need to chill and recover, perhaps I need to ride the flats and get away from the hills close to home, perhaps I just need to go to explore a new road. Whatever I end up doing it’s like I’m filling in the gaps. Doing what I think I’ve not done enough of as well as, most importantly, doing what I want to do. I love every ride I do, it’s never a chore. I love going easy and I love battering myself to oblivion and everything in between. This year has not really been any different. Just riding hard for a bit longer in the season and enjoying it for even longer than normal!

Quite a number of the riders that I ride with have set and rigid training plans. I appreciate that their busy lives sometimes require that so as to make effective use of their available time. I can’t help but think though that it effects their enjoyment of the sport, are they really loving every ride like I do? Not sure. I’m lucky with the time I have available, I know that. I’m also convinced though that you need passion to really get good at something. Understanding training principals is important of course but enjoying the process has got to be there to truly realise your potential. If I do well in Taiwan it’s down to my sustained love for the sport of road cycling rather than a conjured up training regime.

Cycling has lots of numbers, so much data to be able to quantify one’s efforts. I’m not ruled by the numbers at all (plenty of people are) but I enjoy the maths and find the numbers aspect another fascinating side of the sport. So what numbers would I need to be good in Taiwan?
Firstly power. The magic number that so many cyclists want to increase is their Functional Threshold Power, the maximum amount of power output that a rider can sustain for one hour. For climbers and time trial riders it’s an indication as to their ‘threshold’, beyond which an effort becomes unsustainable, the rider having ‘gone into the red’.

My FTP in recent years has reached a peak each summer of around 300/305 watts. This summer has been a strong one for me reaching an FTP of around 310 watts. As soon as a rider goes uphill that FTP figure means very little outside the context of the rider’s weight. This summer, as in previous years my weight came down and stabilised at about 65.5 kgs. Watts per kilo is basically the equation which determines how fast you’ll be up a hill. For me this summer my 310 watts/65.5 kgs gives me a figure of just over 4.7 W/kg, about as good as I’ve ever been since starting road cycling in 2005. To put that figure into some context, a Tour de France winner needs a figure of between 5.5 – 6.0 W/kg. Most male pro cyclists in their different guises (sprinters, rouleurs, climbers etc) would all comfortably be above 5 W/kg. Another reference  perhaps more applicable to the amateur cyclist reading this is that a rider needs a sustained figure of 3.8W/kg to achieve a sub hour time on the famous Alpe d’Huez climb (Tour de France finish, 13.9km, 1160m of ascension).

The graph below is brutally accurate. My best time up Alpe d’Huez is just under 51 minutes, a couple of years ago when my W/kg figure was around 4.55 for an hour. If I went there now I’d expect to convert my  current 4.7 W/kg into a sub 50 minute time. I pretty much know if I went there well rested with no wind on the day that’s what would happen. The maths of cycling up hills is very predictable.

 

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Another way in which the numbers reflect the rider’s level is through VAM, (velocità ascencionale media). This is a figure that expresses the rate at which someone goes upwards,  the number of vertical metres climbed every hour. This figure is not definitive as it varies on different gradients but it gives a good indication as to where a rider is. Those top Tour de France contenders with W/kg figures approaching 6.0 can get expect VAM figures in excess of 1600m/hour on 8% climbs. My 4.7 W/kg equates to about 1250m/hour. My VAM figures in races and big efforts within rides have been higher than ever this summer. For 20 minute efforts I am now capable of climbing at around 1350m/hour and 10 minute efforts see that figure rise to over 1400m. In the latter and toughest part of Taiwan KOM I will not be achieving figures anything like that but knowing that my capacity and threshold efforts are better than they’ve ever been before makes me feel confident and that I’ve prepared well.

In the next part of this blog I’ll talk about my bike and what I’ve done to maximise it doing the job for me and the tactics and planning of riding the event itself.

If you missed the first part of this blog click for my overview of the Taiwan KOM Challenge

Taiwan KOM Challenge – overview

By John Thomas, 18th September 2018logo-taiwan-challenge

In just over 5 weeks time I’ll be competing in perhaps my most exciting cycling event ever, the Taiwan KOM Challenge. In the weeks to come I’ll write about every aspect of the event including my own preparation, equipment choices, the course, the logistics and the race day itself. 

So what is the Taiwan KOM and why am I doing it? I first heard about the event about 3 years ago. I heard talk of a massive climb from sea level to 3275m, an uphill race that was gathering international stature and attracted some top riders in a quest for some late season prize money that was on offer for the winners. My curiosity drove me to find out more. Of course I’d heard of Taiwan but I didn’t know exactly where it was or what it had to offer. As I found out more I became keener for a piece of the action. In October 2017 I watched highlights of Vincenzo Nibali winning the 2017 event with Cadel Evans coming out of retirement to come 10th. The idea of being able to line up with riders like that in a new and exciting place was just too tempting, I was in!

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The first Taiwan KOM took place in 2012. A 105km course from the coastal city of Hualien on Taiwan’s eastern shores to the top of Wuling, at 3275m, nestled high on the central spine of the island. The race takes place each autumn and attracts 500-600 riders to the start line. The event is open to anyone who thinks they can manage it although a 6.5 hour cut off time scares many off I’m sure. There are more lenient ‘sportive’ type events up the same climb earlier in the year for those looking to ‘enjoy’ the climb more!

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The course starts with a ‘neutralised’, untimed 18km running along the coast north from Hualien. Organisational cars and motorbikes keep the pace regulated at about 35km/h so it will effectively be a 30 minute warm up. At the 18km point the course turns inland and starts to climb. Constantly uphill for the next 87kms with the exception of a short descent about 20kms from the finish. As you can see from the profile the gradients vary hugely and the last 10kms to the finish has some very nasty ramps that will certainly hurt when there are 3 or 4 hours of climbing in the legs already.

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A soon as the neutralised 18kms is done riders then enter the Taroko Gorge. If you try Googling Taroko Gorge you’ll get some dramatic claims: deepest gorge in the world, most dangerous road in the world, most beautiful place in Taiwan, 400 workers’ lives lost in constructing the road…….suffice to say it’s a pretty full on place and I can’t wait to ride it!

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The top of the course at Wuling is at 3275m and is just one of a whopping 286 mountains in Taiwan that reach over 3000m. Not sure how they calculate but the island claims to have the largest number and density of high mountains in the world. I just hope that I can get to the finish at Wuling on October 26th and be ‘compos mentis’ enough to appreciate the amazing place we will have ridden to.

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Racing in the event and enjoying a new place and culture was not an experience that I wanted to go through alone. Sharing the whole thing with someone else would make it  even more enjoyable. Oliver Reeves, our second guide for Alpine Cadence was the obvious choice, he didn’t take much arm twisting, he was on board.

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In the next part of this blog I’ll explain how I’ve prepared so far for this event and what I’ll be doing in the next few weeks to maximise my chances of doing well.

 

Haute Route Pyrenees stage 7

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We made it! The whole team has completed stage 7 safely here’s the tale of how it went.

 

Our final stage would see us ride 125kms and a humble 1400m of climbing in relation to previous days. Our only major climb for the day would be the Col d’Aspin, 12km at an average gradient of 6.5%. Today was always going to be fast, a mad dash up the Aspin and then the prospect of some fast group riding to the finish, the day did not disappoint.

We started in Peyragudes in cloudy conditions but none of the rain that had been forecast. We were lead for a neutralised 14km down into the valley. As the flag went down the pace was fierce. We had about 5kms of flattish terrain before the Aspin and it was clear that some people wanted to get there first. We were strung out at high speed and gaps were forming already. I rode smoothly and got myself into a good position in the first 20 riders by the time we hit the lower slopes of the Aspin.

My legs felt good, I was riding better each day, back to the form that I showed in this event last year. I felt strong and ready for what was going to be a potentially frantic couple of hours of racing. Everybody went hard. The last climb in the event, why wouldn’t you? The faster you went the better group you could be in on the other side and all the way to the finish. I found myself moving up the field. There were 10 or so riders up the road but I was feeling good in the group behind. The ‘Cafe Pod’ van came past with ACDC blaring out from it’s speakers. It was inspiring, some were probably annoyed by it but I was in the mood for strong sounds and strong riding. I looked behind me and there was Felix from our team. He’s been riding stronger and stronger each day and he was clearly happy to be on my wheel. I kept on leapfrogging a few more riders as we progressed to the summit and as we crested I was just behind Alastair.

Unlike yesterday this was going 100% to plan. At this point there were 7 riders who had crested before us. I was at the sharp end of the next group which consisted of about 15 riders. The descent went well. A few tight bends in the first 5kms needed plenty of concentration. Hannah, the ladies’ leader, had crested with us but she got detached at this point. For a moment I wondered if I could or should help her get back on. That moment passed, ‘look after number one’ said the more powerful voice in my head. The descent got straighter and easier, super fast, an absolute buzz to share it with 15 other good riders. So much concentration required though, touching wheels or misjudging a line at these speeds could have horrific consequences. Road racing is dangerous, there’s no two ways about it, but it’s so addictive and exhilarating too. Concentration is the key, keeping your eye on the ball all the time.

As the road flatted further our group started to work together. Alastair, myself and a few others started to rotate and take turns on the front. We were fairly dominant in trying to organise and encourage the others to work. There were doubtless some tired legs in that group of 15. Some just wanted a free lift to the finish. We needed as many as possible to participate and help. Alastair, myself and Felix all had good legs. We didn’t want a ride, we wanted to work and push things on. Alastair was lying 8th overall in the rankings and Hervé lying 9th had got himself into the front 7. For Alastair’s sake we needed to work to make sure his 8th place was secured. For all the rest of us too it was in our interests to ‘gap’ those behind as much as possible to give each individual in our group a chance to either guarantee his place or to move up the rankings.

We continued to forge on. Not everyone was working but the majority were getting involved at least some of the time. There were about 7 of us who were working all the time. To have 3 of our team in that group was fabulous. We were all decked out in smart AC white jerseys and we rode well. I felt so proud.

There were 3 nasty climbs, each lasting a couple of kms in the last half of the course. Alastair pushed hard over the penultimate one and for a few moments I felt vulnerable, possibly close to losing the group. My fears were short lived, we crested and my legs soon recovered.

Alastair was good for pulling us up the climbs, other riders including myself came to the front for the descents and technical sections through villages. All good.

One final lump before the finish was followed by a descent of about 2kms and then a slightly uphill kilometre to finish. The pace was massively wound up, we all emptied ourselves with a big sprint at the finish, all coming over the line in a similar time. The positions didn’t matter, the time gaps ahead and behind us would.

Such relief, we’d made it. 7 massive days of bike racing in an incredible environment. Hervé had got back 6 minutes on Alastair but not enough to take his 8th position. I’m so proud of what Alastair achieved this week. He’ll cherish 8th place in the Haute Route Pyrenees for a long time just as I do with my top 10 finish from last year.

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Shortly after the finish we gathered at a café, had a beer or two and waited for the rest of the team to finish. Then, we cruised into Pau as a team of 10, chatting away and gloating in what we’d all achieved. Martin, who has supported us all the way drove our support vehicle with us, we were back together after a week of spreading ourselves over the Pyrenees.

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Each and every member of our team should feel very proud. We’ve been on an amazing journey of endurance sport combined with so much more. The feast on the eyes that the scenery has provided, the immersion in the culture of the area and the community of personalities that we’ve all become part of in our own sections of the peloton is immense. It’s been a huge week physically and emotionally for all. Enjoys your beers tonight and savour your memories. I don’t think this will be our last Haute Route!

I feel unbelievably proud.

Final General Classification results are as follows:

 

Melanie Batchelor 16th lady

Men’s:

Alastair Roberts 8th

John Thomas 15th   (3rd 50-59)

Felix Hoddinott 39th

Mark Fairgrieve 52nd

James Richens 62nd

Riccardo Clerici 94th

Duncan Carrier 106th

Brian Moher 107th

Ian Arthur 197th

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Haute Route Pyrenees stage 6

Stage 6 had a bit of everything, 129km and 3300m of climbing with a huge variety of riding wrapped up inside it. We set off from Saint Lary in the perfect conditions that we’ve become accustomed to this week. It was pretty much racing from the gun today, a neutralised first few hundred metres and then the 10km climb of the Col d’Azet at an average gradient of about 7% to very much wake us up.

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There had been talk among some of the leaders of going up the Azet a bit easier and no attacks. For a moment I thought we might be in for a nice steady climb with everybody preserving themselves for the rest of the day’s challenges. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was very much game on as soon as the flag went down. I was not in the mood for this. I’d been riding well over the last couple of days but I was tired and could really do without a maximal effort right now. As we got a couple of kilometres up the climb about half a dozen of the very strongest guys started to get away. Then a second group formed with about 10 riders including Alastair who had got himself exactly where he needed to be. I was then at the front of the rest of the field. Gaps were getting bigger all the time. Decision time. Do I settle in and ride as one as one of the stronger riders in the group or do I bridge the gap to the group up the road. It was like a game of chess. On the other side of this climb we would have a descent of about 7kms and then about 60km of flat and sometimes rolling terrain. Every rider today was thinking about that 60kms, being in the right group in that valley section would be crucial.

I went for it, I squeezed out a big effort and got closer to the group ahead. No one followed me, I was in the void. I got closer to the group ahead but couldn’t get onto it. I timed the gap in my head a few times I was within 20-30 seconds of them and the gap stayed steady. Brent Holmes was with me, that’s cool. He’s become a great rival to me this week, he’s in my over 50 category too and we’ve been having a good battle for the podium of the old blokes. He’d been with the group I was trying to catch and had dropped off, I’d come the other way. We worked together for a while. It’s hard to speak at these intensities but I uttered enough to suggest that the gap was staying steady and that was good.

I had a plan. I convinced myself that if I could get over the top of Azet within 30 seconds of the group I’d be able to reel them in on the descent. There were some good descenders in there but some weaker ones too. As Brent and I came into the final kilometre of Azet I pushed on as much as I could and rolled over the top about 25 seconds behind, Brent was a further 10 seconds back.

I knew the descent fairly well, 14 hairpins to negotiate. 100% concentration, get this job done. Cattle on the road slowed me a little but not much. 14 bends to come, surely I can pull back a couple of seconds per corner. No. I passed Swiss Marco quite soon, he had lost touch with the group he’d crested with and was struggling on the descent and would be of no help to me at this point. Every corner I rode smoothly, my line was pretty good, power back on at just the right point. Why can’t I see my prey? The group was staying away. I’d underestimated there abilities. When I eventually got to see them at the bottom of the descent they were still around 30 seconds ahead. Pissed off. Plan not happening. What do I do now? I chased for a couple of kilometres, big effort. Maybe the group would cruise and hesitate for just long enough. No. I look back and there is no one, Brent and Marco are a minute or more behind me. I’m totally isolated. My only hope is a vehicle coming past that I can draught. Not totally legal but we all do it now and again. If a Mavic car came through I knew I could get on the back, I’ve done it before with them. It’s harder with the public as they come past too fast. I looked back for suitable vehicles, nothing. I chased for a little longer and then the fight ended. Well and truly pissed off. At exactly that point Brent and Marco came into view behind me, I sat up, cruised and waited for them to catch me.

Brent’s good on the flat, no slouch on the climbs too but certainly stronger than me on the flat. The three of us talked briefly. My opinion was that the group ahead would be uncatchable and that whatever we did together would inevitably get swamped by the next group behind. 3 riders, unless they are incredibly strong cannot compete with groups of 10 or more that are working together.

Brent and Marco wanted to work. I said the group ahead was at least a minute away but they wanted to give it a go. Outvoted I worked with them but my heart was not in it. I felt I was wasting energy for an unassailable cause. For around 15kms we worked smoothly taking generally one minute turns on the front. Marco went hard up a short climb. ‘Let him go’ I said to Brent, ‘this is not worth it, another group is going to come through anyway’. I was irritated, annoyed, still pissed off. Not with the guys but with the fact I’d ended up in no man’s land. I love the tactical side of cycling and my decision making is usually pretty good. This had gone wrong. Then I got stung by a bee that had got into my helmet. Now a bee sting is really not an issue compared to the pain of cycling but it still added to my general pissed offness.

Just as we were deliberating, the anticipated group from behind came past us. About 20 of them, perfect. They were moving well and there were enough of them for me to hide for a while and chill at the back. I was back where I belonged and I knew the next few kilometres would now be ok. I was just annoyed at how I’d got to this point. I could have cruised up Azet with these guys I was with now and I would have been a lot happier and more comfortable. Ok, forget what’s happened, I’m here now, let’s look forward.

My attitude changed and I enjoyed the transport that was provided for me. It was perfect. Fast enough but not too hard. Coming through from behind came Austrian Jurgen and Dutch Robert. Jurgen was sitting 4th overall in the rankings but had had a mechanical problem so he was working his way back through the field. Robert was the super strong time trial rider that had rescued me on day one. Jurgen and Robert drove things along at a fantastic rate for 20kms or so. I was hiding. My legs felt tired. The Port de Bales was coming up.

Port de Bales sells itself as a 20km climb but the guts of it is 11kms long rising about 1000m. The run in to it was fast thanks to Jurgen and Robert. As we hit the first steeper ramps with 11kms to go the group of 20 or so riders exploded. I stayed near the back and ignored everyone else. I wanted to find my own rhythm and pace myself carefully for the hour or so of climbing. Half of the group chased Jurgen, big mistake. He’s a class act and they would discover a couple of kms up the road that they should have let him go. It was classic tortoise and hare stuff, I held back and took my time, at one point I was the last in the group on that climb and by the top I was, by my reckoning, the fourth fastest up there. I went well and passed the majority of those that had all gone too fast too soon.

Bales felt good, my legs did the job, my efforts earlier in the day had not caused any major problems or repercussions so far. I knew the climb well and I was pleased with how I’d dealt with it. Brent and I had ridden most of the climb in close proximity and I took 30 seconds advantage from him at the top.

After a neutralised descent the next job was Col de Peyresourde. 9.8kms at an average of 6.5%. It’s not too tough but it’s a bit of a drag with no spectacular bends to look forward to until the very top. The rest of it is relatively straight and mind numbing.

I started up it with Alastair, Brent and a couple of others. All went well, Alastair soon moved up the road and he ended up topping out on the Peyresourde 3 minutes ahead of me. I was happy, I rode with Brent for most of the way and then pulled away in the second half to gap him by a minute or so.

Then for the spectacular finale of the day. We flew down a short descent of about 3kms and then turned left up to Peyragudes. 3kms of climb left and the day was done. I had no riders in sight ahead and Brent was still a minute back. Now it was all about the clock and just getting to the finish ASAP, no one to race. The next 2.5 kms posed very little concern but the jewel in the crown of the day was still to come. We were to finish on the Altiport runway at Peyragudes. 350m at an average gradient of 18%. The same finish used in the Tour in 2017 when Bardet won the stage. He got up there in just over a minute then, we wouldn’t.

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I’d ridden it before and I knew what to expect, I was looking forward to it. My only objective was to ride straight up. Most of the field behind me would end up tacking their way up it in an effort to contort the gradient in their favour. I went straight up it, agonisingly slowly taking over 2 minutes to scale what Bardet did in about half the time.

It was an incredibly painful finish but truly spectacular too to have the airport closed just for our event. As per routine I saw Alastair at the top, great performance from him again. We were both happy with what we’d achieved. Alastair finished 9th to stay 8th overall and I finished 15th to remain 15th overall in the men’s event. I need to highlight the fact that I’m 15th in the men’s as I’m 16th overall. Hannah Rhodes Patterson is riding incredibly well and beating me most days and lies ahead of me in the ranking. Sophie Poza, today’s ladies’ winner is only just behind me too. Those girls are really impressive and great to see quality lady riders in this event.

Big shout today for Felix who finished a superb 29th, his best day yet. Well done to all the team, all finishing safe and sound and relatively happy!

One day to go. One major climb. We’re nearly there!

Haute Route Pyrenees stage 5 Individual Time Trial

Every 7 day Haute Route event has a time trial. In many ways it can be seen as a bit of a day off. One hill to climb, a much later start, so longer in bed and plenty of recovery time in the afternoon too. This has been a very ‘front loaded’ Haute Route with 4 very tough days to start, every rider was going to appreciate this day.

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Nethertheless we still had a tough climb ahead of us. 23 kilometres to the Lac du Cap de Long at 2170m above sea level. As in the pros’ grand tours all the riders start the time trial in reverse GC order. The slowest riders in the field would start at 9.00am with the leaders setting off at around 11.00am. With 20 second intervals between each rider it makes for an exiting and sometimes scary game of chasing or being chased. Riders are sometimes torn between riding their own, well paced ride or getting influenced by the riders behind and ahead of them.
Time trials are a skill to be learned and a very different dynamic to the other ‘on line’ stages when the whole field starts together. Time trials are about pacing, emptying one’s reserves over the duration of the course. It’s crucial not to go too hard too early, blowing up at the end is disastrous for a good time. The ideal is a ‘flat lined’ effort with an ‘emptying’ of whatever is left in the last few minutes.

 

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I wandered down to the start to see the first members of our team setting off. Ian rolled down the start ramp, cheerful as always. He’s in his first Haute Route at the age of 66 and he’s doing brilliantly. Consistent in his chirpiness and his riding, long may it continue.
I headed onto the course to ride the first few kilometres and familiarise myself with the gradients, bends and anything else that would help me to be as prepared as possible. The first part of the course was the easiest, gentle gradients of 2-5% for the first 9 kilometres. This section would be the toughest for me though. The final 14 kilometres was much steeper with irregular gradients but an average of around 8%. The physiology of bike riders, even the best ones, varies massively. The skinnier, climber type riders, which I would be classed as, would fair better on the steeper stuff. Bigger, more powerful riders would relish the flatter sections and dread the steep. This was a good time trial in that it at least had elements of both but the bias and majority of the course favouring the climbers.

I knew I would lose time on the flatter section to one or two of my ‘beefier’ rivals but I rode it smoothly and sensibly and managed my losses well. I knew that as soon as the road steepened I would get my chance to get my own back. I know it sounds crazy to the less informed bystander but as I was heading over the flats I was eagerly counting the kilometres down and hoping the steeps would come and rescue me soon.
Those steeper slopes did arrive and I was able to get into a rhythm on terrain I was more suited to. All was going well. No one had passed me at this point and I was homing in on several of my rivals up the road. For a few kilometres it became a case of ‘settling in’, monitoring heart rates and power output and just keeping the ship sailing nicely on with a view to ‘emptying’ whatever I had left at the end.
I love corners, they are an opportunity for me to gain seconds. Corners generally have different gradients on the inside and outside and skilful use of the right gears and right line can create almost a ‘slingshot’ effect out of the bend. Lots of riders are not so strong at this, they don’t practise or even think about it much. I do. I love the fact that I can sneak seconds here and there without extra physical effort.
As we got about 6 kms from the top some of the strongest riders in the field started to pass me. That was fine, I anticipated that, I was gaining and passing the people that mattered to me. The very best guys could sail on up the road and I wouldn’t care. Alastair pulled along side me and eased past. He’d started 2 minutes and 40 seconds later than me. I knew if he was riding well and as per previous days he should be catching me soon. For the first time ever in an Haute Route TT I was genuinely thrilled to see someone go past me. ‘Get in, get it done!’ I shouted. I’m so happy to see Alastair riding so well and getting just reward for the effort he’s put into the sport this year. Alastair eased away and I continued without any dramas. It certainly wasn’t easy, when I write that I’m in control of things like I was at this point, I’m actually in a lot of pain. It’s really hard. But it’s pain that I know I can manage and an effort that I can sustain. Again, it must seem weird to the less informed. Cycling is all about managing pain and discomfort better than your rivals and getting to like it!
Into the final 3 kilometres, still ok, still gaining, overtaking the right people. With 1.5 kms to go I knew there was a short descent prior to the last dig to the finish. I knew that many of the riders would be unaware of it. I pushed massively in the 300m prior to that descent to take more momentum down the hill and knowing I’d have a few seconds of recovery. Again, course knowledge and tactics saving me a few seconds. I got my reward of passing a couple of riders up the next ramp with my extra, preplanned momentum.

The final kilometre was a series of tight hairpins stacked on top of each other with a superb backdrop of lakes and mountains. Although I pushed myself to the limit I still had a tiny space in my brain to appreciate how spectacular this all was. Dozens of cyclists coming together as a result of the staggered start and now emptying themselves in a serpent of human pain to the finish line. It was an incredible sight. Each night The Haute Route organisers show an amazing video with footage of the day, I so hope they got that bit.

I crossed the line. 73 minutes of very hard work. I was happy. I recovered very quickly, an encouraging sign that I’m in ok condition. Yet again, straight to Alastair to let him know what I thought of his ride. Awesome, he’d come 6th, incredible. I was very happy with my 15th. After the ride I would upload all my ride data and very happy to see an average 274 watts of output for those 73 minutes. A fresh me without 4 massive days previously would be capable of about 310 for that period but I’ll take that 274 all day long in these circumstance! Most riders stayed at the top to take in the views and reflect on what they’d done and where they’d done it. Lots of selfies and scenic photos. Hard to envisage a better place to finish a time trial.

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As we headed carefully back down the road Alastair and I stopped for a few more photos. We both shared a powerful sentiment that we were so lucky to be cyclists. The place we were in was very special. Do footballers, tennis players etc get this buzz from the different pitches and courts they play on? I don’t think so. We’ve picked an incredible sport to try to be good at.
All good from the rest of the team, no mechanical problems or dramas to report. We are all another step towards riding back into Pau on Friday. Tomorrow’s stage is another meaty day, 130kms with 3400m of climbing. It also incorporates the Peyragudes Altiport runway as our super steep finish. 300m at 18% to finish us off like it nearly did for Chris Froome in the 2017 Tour de France. It’s sure to be another very memorable day.

Haute Route Pyrenees stage 4

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Stage 4 was always going to be massive. 4000m of climbing crammed into 102km takes some doing. Today we would scale Tourmalet again, then the gorgeous Hourquette Ancizan, with the Col de Portet providing a vey tough finish to the day.
Again, perfect conditions. The forecast was for even warmer temperatures. Suits me fine. I’m happy riding in the heat although many of the field would not be today. The only adaptation I make on hot days is popping electrolyte tablets into my drinks to manage the salty losses I sweat out on days like this.

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I was positioned right near the front at the start. We had a neutralised 8kms to start the day. I was in the second row, just behind the race leaders Ruari and Hannah. I loved those first 8kms. Being right at the front is very cool. No stress, no jostling for positions, the rest of the field respects the riders at the front and doesn’t barge in. The race director’s car along with the gendarmes and security motos make us feel very special and for a few minutes I can pretend to be a pro. I love it.
The timing started and the pace quickened as expected. The peloton stretched as we travelled gently up for about 15kms to the foot of the Col du Tourmalet. All was good with me, legs and body feeling OK. The Col du Tourmalet from the Luz side is 17kms long at an average of nearly 8%. It’s tough enough but fairly regular. The pace up the Tourmalet was firm but not too frantic. Everybody, including myself, was showing the day some respect and fear. Everyone would need plenty of beans left for the end of the day up Portet. The leading 40 riders started to split, for me it’s a relief when that happens. The very strongest 10 or so riders moved up the road and I found myself in a group of the ‘best of the rest’. I was really happy with how I was feeling, my power meter and heart rate numbers tallied well with how I felt. I felt good and the numbers confirmed it. I was really happy with the riders who I was with too, Alastair was there, Hervé too. Riders that I’d struggled to ride with in previous days now became easier to ride with. All the signs were good.
Mike Cotty who I’ve raced with on previous Haute Routes started to press on up the road from our group along with a couple of other riders. I was happy with where I was and not interested in chasing. One of the riders who went with Mike was Kristof, just ahead of Alastair in the overall GC. I told Alastair that a split was happening and that I was staying put. Alastair started to chase, he wanted Kristof’s wheel. Alastair chased for some time without success, he looked more laboured than I’d seen him in previous days. He ended up being absorbed back into our group and I kept encouraging him to ‘sit in’, to just follow another rider in our group and get things under control.
He did so and in fact got stronger at the top of Tourmalet. Hervé, Alastair and I crested in quick succession. A super efficient bottle delivery from Martin kept Alastair and I on the move without any delay. Then, ahead of us was a 17km descent to the foot of the next climb. That descent is very fast, after a few bends at the top there a long open sections where a rider can really let things go if they have sufficient skill and knowledge of what’s coming up.

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The roads for are not closed for the Haute Route, they are controlled and marshalled but there are still public vehicles that need to be safely overtaken on such descents. Most drivers pull over out of the way as soon as they realise they are in the thick of a bike race but a few screams and gestures are sometimes required too to get past. I lead a group of 4 or so riders down the first 5Kms, I had no idea who they were, just 100% concentration on the task. As we sped through La Mongie one of the riders came past me, it was Bruno Bongianni. This was perfect. I’ve raced with Bruno before and he is as good a descender as I’ve ever seen. I’m no slouch myself but to be able to follow his line for the next 12km was fabulous. The road surface was immaculate and we hit speeds of 85km/h as we hurtled down to Ste Marie de Campan.

 

We turned hard right and started our climb of the Hourquette Ancizan. This climb starts very steadily and doesn’t really challenge until it’s last 9kms. It’s not a super tough climb but very beautiful and as quintessentially Pyrenean as you’ll ever get. It’s gorgeous and every time I ride it I promise myself I’ll come back to it one day without a bike and just enjoy the area. As we headed up the early kilometres we were joined by more riders, I was delighted to see Alastair among them. I was concerned that the speed of the descent might have ‘gapped’ him too much but far from it, he’d only taken 20 seconds more than myself on that descent. He had worked hard as the descent flattened to get back on board our group, brilliant.
Our group forged on up the Hourquette together, everyone content to push on at a nice firm pace. The descent off the Hourquette is narrow and rough, the organisers sensibly neutralised it meaning a relaxed descent and plenty of time to eat, drink and contemplate our finale.
Col de Portet is big. At 2215m it is now the highest sealed pass in the French Pyrenees, a full 100m higher than Tourmalet. It’s steeper too. 16km at an average gradient of 8.7% is hard, especially at the end of a day. It was used for the first time in this year’s Tour de France and we were ‘lucky’ enough to be the first amateurs to race up it today.

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Just before the final climb I had a minor panic as I realised I had no food left in my back pocket but I was rescued by the ladies leader in the event, Hannah who slipped me an energy bar just before the climb. The first few kilometres of the Portet are particularly tough, lots of double figure gradients and a very hot experience with no shade whatsoever. The road scribes it’s way up the flank of a valley with very few significant bends and therefore offers no rewards or changes in scenery like a ‘switchback’ road does. For about 8km the road just doesn’t change, hot and steep. Our group started to fragment on this stretch, sure it was tough but I felt on top of things and I found myself riding just behind Bruno Bongianni who I’d descended with earlier. Alastair was up the road and going well. About halfway up this beast of a climb it changes it’s character suddenly, we bear right and head up a series of hairpin bends up into the meadows. The gradients ease a fraction, it’s a little cooler and the changing panoramas help to anaesthetise our pain a little.
I’m still going well, still hanging on to Bruno. We have to negotiate cattle meandering on the road and the front end of my bike is slapped hard by a swishing tail. I’m knocked off balance and close to falling. That got the heart rate up even more. I’m now counting down the kilometres and just wanting it to be over. As we get 3kms from the finish we can see the red inflatable arch at the finish, it looks a long way up. The final kilometre is a beast at nearly 11% most of the way but the pain is short lived and the finish is there. I’m so happy, my legs have done there job, I feel like I’ve finally had a good day from start to finish and to do it in a place like this is incredible. As per routine I congratulate Alastair again, he finished 8th and maintained his 8th position overall. My 13th on the day lifts me to 15th overall in the men’s rankings, very happy to be moving in the right direction.

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Alastair, myself and several of our group spent some time at the top to recover and just savour the moment, you’re not often in places as special as this so let’s make the most of it. I reckon it had been one of my best ever days on a bike, and I’ve had a few good ones! Eventually we headed down the same road back to our overnight in St Lary. On the way down we were able to cheer on each an every one of our Alpine Cadence team members as they toiled their way up the Portet.
No dramas to report, all the team finished safely with Riccardo’s 66th on the day perhaps the most outstanding result. Tomorrow we have the Individual Time Trial, just 23km and one 1400m climb to do, almost a day off!