This blog will have two parts, my usual detailed race resumé followed by what I hope might be the start of a constructive discussion regarding how high performance can be obtained to do well in an event like this and….I want to bring up the subject of doping! Make sure you read the last bit for that.
Anyway, on to the stage. Today was a short one. 80kms with 3 very different mountains to climb. From our start in l’Alpe d’Huez we’d climb the Sarenne…..neutralised. A first for me to go up a mountain in a race and not be timed! The necessary neutralisation would continue all the way down the other side, a wild, rough and narrow road certainly not suitable to race on. Timing would start at the foot of the Col du Lauteret, a drag of 24kms at about 4%. A fast descent and then the main event and deciding feature of the day, the Col du Granon providing a spectacular summit finish after it’s gruelling 11kms at a painful average gradient of 9%.
We woke to a dry but cooler day, rain forecast later in the day but looking ok for the duration of our efforts. The neutralised section passed uneventfully, at least for those of us at the front. The Commissaire took us up Sarenne at nearly 4 watts/kilo, a nice sharpener for the leading riders but an impossible pace I would guess for 80% of the field behind us. I didn’t get a chance to look back but the 450 riders in that section must have been spread over a huge distance. The Sarenne is known for its griffon vultures. They must have been licking their beaks in anticipation looking at some of the struggling bodies on bikes at the back. And the timing had not even started yet!
Once off the Sarenne descent we were able to have a bike race. The flag went down and we were faced with the Lauteret. I would describe the Lauteret as a group ride that goes up. Not exactly a stiff climb and a col that would seldom cause big separations in a peloton….you would think. Almost instantly there were attacks, they were all chased down creating an uneven albeit pretty fast beginning to the race. The pace settled and the attacks subsided. We were riding into a headwind too, which makes life very difficult for an attacker to make his effort stick. The drafting benefits of a peloton into a headwind create an even bigger differential for the lone rider to defeat. To break away into a headwind you need to be confident and very good.
At last there was an attack or at least a change in pace that caused a split. The strongest riders in the race were away, Ruari, Guillaume and Fortunato. One more hopeful rider went with them but was back to the rest of us very soon. It was a relief to see those three go up the road. They are all a totally different level to the rest of the peloton and without them would mean a more settled ride for us. One that I would feel more in control of.
Racing with Stephen Blackburn in the Pyrenees last week I learned a lot. I learned from him and my own experiences in the first 2 stages there that I’m often too far back in a group. Too exposed to all the changes in pace and the risk of splits in the group. Since then I’ve made a conscious effort to be further up the group. It’s easier, less stressful and you feel that you can contribute to how the group behaves rather than being a victim at the back. For the mid section of Lauteret I was right at the front of the group, maybe 50 riders at that point. The pace became almost too comfortable, no one wanted to push on. The front rider would pull off in the hope that the group would come through but it started to get tediously slow. I felt good and led the group, not fast but fast enough to at least keep thing moving at a steady pace. I rode at a pace that suited me and 50 riders behind me conformed for a while!
As we got nearer the top the pace increased. Nicholas Roux, a legend in cyclosportive racing started to show his strength. He’s won countless big things including the Etape du Tour. When he comes to the front you take notice, this was a changing of the guard at the front from a middle aged wannabe like me to a top calibre rider with history.
We went over the top going hard. Straight into a fast and open descent. No hairpins to worry about, just 20kms or so of wide, smooth road where the brakes could have some time off. Into a headwind our speeds were kept to about 70kph, that same descent when the wind turns around gets closer to 100kph. The headwind kept us together too. All good, a straightforward and unstressful ride, we like that!
On the flats near the bottom Nick and Rashid pushed ahead. No one really cared or gave chase. Those two would hit the final climb about a minute ahead of the big group. 1km to the climb, still gently descending, a roundabout and hard left turn to negotiate. This would thin the group out. I wanted to be first there, I know the road and nailed the line. At least I’d start the climb in front and be able to decide what to do as I saw riders come past me. Hit the climb at the back and your options are much less already.
Into my rhythm, I wanted to ride this tough climb on my terms. Riders sailed past me. I ignored them, or at least until Richard Scales came past. He’s a great marker for me. Riding well now after a difficult and incident filled 11 days. He was going well. I went with him. I’ve got a decent lead over him in the over 50 category GC for the Alps and if I could ride and finish near him it would be no bad thing.
Aussie Mitch was there, Ewen, Chris, Sergio, Nicholas C I think. We made good progress, faster that my mind and body wanted but nether the less good progress. Gaps appeared. That whole group of 50 of us that hit the climb were now massively spread. I kept my eyes on Richard as he started to gap me. I didn’t need to go with him but I did want to stay in touch. I took time gaps in my head and at one point he stretched the gap to about 25 seconds. This climb is tough. Unrelenting. No flat bits. Just up. It’s a stunning place…..when you’re not burying yourself in a bike race. Today it was just hard.
4kms to go and I felt in control. On my limit but confident that I could stay there. The young bodies of Mitch, Chris, Sergio had all got well up the road. I was still happy though, in touch with Richard, Following Australian Ewen’s wheel to shelter from the wind.
2kms to go. Getting closer to Richard, maybe 10 seconds. He responded and put some big efforts in. I never got closer that 10 seconds. Maybe if this was a one day event I’d have had the motivation and the legs to try to take him before the line. I’d be happy to finish just behind him though. My overall GC battle with Louis-Paul was under control, he was somewhere back down the road. I was ok where I was. Those last 2 kms were hard. Every one battling for positions, a rider in blue challenging me from behind. We all pushed very hard at the end, very painful.
I crossed the line in 20th place, 14 seconds after Richard who got 18th. Time gaps from positions 8-22 were pretty small so I was very happy there. The position you come in on the day doesn’t really tell the story. That 20th was just as good a ride for me as previous days where I’ve come 10th-13th. The time differences are the important thing and we’re good there.
Job 11, done 3 to go. Another massive step closer to the end. I really enjoyed today, especially the lead up to the final climb. I’m really enjoying being a player in the peloton, not just a hanger on at the back. My good form and knowledge of the roads is helping me to contribute something and I love it. This is my 6th Haute Route and I really feel comfortable now at the sharp end of things, more than ever before. I hadn’t raced much this year before HR Pyrenees and the first couple of days there scared me as I got used to group riding again. My confidence is growing now though and it’s a lot less stressful.
Onto the results from the rest of our team, position on the day followed by Alps GC:
John Thomas 20th (13th) (1st in combined GC)
Adrian Beer 59th (64th) (14th in combined GC)
Mark Fairgrieve 88th (76th)
Duncan Carrier 139th (149th) (28th in combined GC)
Felix Hoddinott 83rd (86th)
Mark Roberts 169th (152nd)
Paul Martin 206th (242nd)
Jardel Andreis 246th (270th)
Andrea Azevedo 268th (284th) (18th lady)
Luiz Capelati 308th (220th)
So onto the next part of this blog. I find myself riding this double Haute Route at a level above anything I’ve done before. At the age of 52 my pure speed up a hill is the best it’s ever been (lots of PR’s on Strava this year) and my endurance and ability to finish days off without blowing up is at an all time best. Sure, it could still fall off a cliff in the next few days, but even if it does I’m immensely proud….and fascinated with what I’ve achieved so far. The 2 week event is a totally new experience for me. 11 days of racing done and I’m in far better shape, body and mind than I expected at this point. I’ve raced hard every day. Especially in the Pyrenees I made no allowances for having to do the Alps next. I’ve raced every day as if it was a one day event. I’ve loved each day and I’ve surprised myself.
Plenty of people have commented to me, lots who have raced with me before. ‘How have you got better?’ has been the theme. This bit of the blog is not intended as a egotistical big myself up exercise, more so to bring up a couple of key subjects. So why am I better now than previous years? What’s changed?
Firstly, miles, lots of them. I’m lucky to be a cycling guide as my summer job. I don’t really ‘train’ much, I ride a lot with clients of different levels. This year I’ve done nearly 12000km since March compared to perhaps 9000 in the previous few years on the same dates. Also I ride a lot of mountains. I live in them and this year I’ve already done about 250,000 metres of climbing. Curiously too, I ride a lot of slow miles, sure I put regular efforts in but the vast majority of my mileage is at low intensities.
I started cycling in 2006. To that point I was not a ‘fit’ person. Drinker, smoker, ‘normal’ life. Since then I’ve ridden more and more kilometres year on year. I think I’m still benefitting from the improvement gains of any new cyclist as they put miles into their legs. I think this accumulated mileage, starting relatively late in life is offsetting the inevitable decline of age. If I’d started at age 20 I’d have maybe peaked in performance at 30 or 35. Starting at 38 means my peak is…..realistically….perhaps now, or quite soon. The graph line of my accumulated miles improvement has yet to cross the graph line of age decline. Of course it will, but I’ve held it off. Maybe my annual mileage would need to continue to increase for me to delay my peak. Clearly there’s a limit and I suspect not too far away.
So many of my middle aged rivals in things like HR have been great bike riders when they were young, they are slowly but surely on their way down in performance. Year on year I’m still getting better. I know that will end soon, hopefully not just yet!
So, I’m late to this game, I think that has helped me, giving me room to improve. Also I’m incredibly passionate about the sport, I’m not sure I would be as much so if I’d ridden all my life. I’m still getting better…..and I’m still learning all the time.
If I was on the other side looking at me as a rider I’d be raising eyebrows, maybe wondering if doping was involved. No one like talking about that stuff, I do though!
I’ve achieved what I’ve done in cycling from passion and hard work, I love every moment I spend on the bike and I feel that I’ve absolutely exploited my body and mind to get the very best performances I can. I’m really proud of that. I’m also really frustrated.
I’m pretty sure that doping is widespread in amateur cycling, much more so than pro cycling. It’s easy to get hold of stuff and testing is rare.
I would love to know where I stand in the clean race. Wouldn’t you? I’m not picking on any individuals here whatsoever and I’m not sure this is an issue with the leading riders, maybe more further down the rankings, maybe in age group categories? I have no idea and no particular suspects in mind but the law of averages tells me that an event like we are in at the moment must have some doping offenders in it.
Documentaries like Icarus make suggestions that the top 20 guys in Haute Route are superhuman and implies doping. Being in that top 20 category myself I’m not sure that it’s as rife as suggested but I do think there is a significant problem. People will do almost anything to reach their cycling goals. Age group categories or simply trying to improve on a previous performance are very, very important to a lot of riders.
Haute Route is fabulous, I love it. It talks about us having to be prepared for drug tests but when does it happen? I would love to be considered good enough to warrant a drugs test! It almost one of my ambitions!
I’m sure drug tests are expensive. I get that. For want of a figure let’s suppose it costs 5000 euros for one session of tests where perhaps 10 riders are tested, scratch winners, age group winners and a couple of random ones. Spread that cost over the whole field and absorb it into the price of the event. Wouldn’t you be happy to pay about 10 euros more to know that testing would actually happen? To know that you are in an event that polices the problem and potentially scares a few riders away would be a fantastic thing and ultimately would draw in more people I believe. Haute Route would become even more attractive to, let’s hope, the non doping majority.
Rant over, my point is made. Come on Haute Route, get on top of this doping thing pro actively. We need and want testing to complete what is otherwise a fantastic contest and event.
Please, please comment on this below or somewhere! Maybe I’m in the minority with how I feel, but if I’m not lets get some words said and get some momentum going to change things for the better.
See you all at the time trial!