Greg completed a once in a lifetime ride, did all his prep pay off?
The race has come and gone. I finished 122, Mike was 113 and Howard snagged 89th. And I had thought I was done with racing! As expected, I suffered and yet loved every minute of the race. 260 people started the race but many dropped out or were time cut. I knew I would be undertrained for this event, but I planned to use every trick I ever learned to finish it healthy, happy, and to have had time to look around and enjoy it. I wanted to see France from the saddle, and write it up into a blog to share, and maybe inspire some other to do the same. Every box got checked.
Day one: We descended from Alpe D’Huez village at the top of the climb--where most of the entrants were staying—and followed the green signs to the mass start in downtown Bourg d’Oisans. The first climb began on the lower 4 of the famous 21 Alpe D’Huez switch-backs. They are also the steepest ones. People went ballistic from the gun, and Mike moved ahead quickly as Howard and I kept ourselves in check. I kept promising Howard that people would start coming back to us as they began to pay the penalty for an over-ambitious start. Part way up the climb we diverted to a narrow pastoral road nick-named “The Balcony.” About half way up my prediction began to come true as riders drifted back to me and Howard, who were keeping a close eye the back part of the group. We descended and the climb up to Le Deux Alpes, a sister peak to Alpe D’Huez. The views are just amazing, with steep valleys at the bottom of jagged, snow covered peaks, waterfalls, and stone and wood, pastoral architecture in the form of farmyards and quiet villages. It’s important to remember to look around. Descending fast from the Balcony, Howard watched as I over-shot a corner and ended up in a farmyard. I swear I watched a Tour de France rider do the same thing in the same farmyard about 5 years ago. Then again, a lot of farmyards here look alike. I would live in any one of them. I don’t have a picture of it, but this is a nice picture.
About 5k from the summit of Les Deuz Alpes, word began to go around our growing group that we were going to miss the cut off deadline. The organizers don’t want people who aren’t up to the task doing a true death march up there. The Lanterne Rouge, a former pro who hangs around the back half of the group providing information, floated by and said about half of the people would miss the cut off. He didn’t think the organizers would apply it, since over a hundred people were outside the time. But no promises. Till that point I had been holding a steady, comfortable pace, but I worried that I may miss the cut off by a minute and never forgive myself. Others must have thought the same, so everybody gunned it. For 3k my heartrate got up to ten beats above my threshold. I knew I would pay later. I did. La Sarenne was next, and as the local mechanic at Cycle Huez said, “That side of the valley is hot.”
Mike had waited up for me and Howard at the untimed rest stop atop Les Deux Alpe, and he rode with me now until I told him to take off and make time. I settled into my own rhythm and told myself, “when I signed up for this there was no way I was going to get out of it without some suffering.” La Sarenne is a 19.5k climb that averages 7%. It begins on narrow tree-lined roads, which on race day featured students on a day trip yelling encouragement: “Allez Greg, Courage Greg.” (We have our names on our numbers) A third of the way up it becomes open, steep and narrow. It also seemed to funnel the hot wind at exactly the same speed, up the hill, as I was moving. And there were hungry horseflies. I was pleased to see this flag.
Around this point I began to pass a lot of people walking their bikes.
Then for good measure the organizers ran us down the mountain again and had us climb the last three switch backs of the traditional Alpe D’Huez climb, to bring the total metres for this day’s climb to 3600. We rode between the Tour de France barriers that had already been placed to prepare for the race, happening 7 days later. Campers along the road, as cycling fans staked out their spots to watch their heroes cycle past. We watched these people as they were perfecting their sites, or sitting, eating and drinking. Many gave us waves as we went past and yelled out, “allez.”
Sometimes they wave flags.
For the second day--150k over the Cols of Croix de Fer, Glandon and Alpe D’Huez--I decided I needed to start thinking about actually racing. The time cut off would happen at the top of the first major climb, and I didn’t want to be cut and miss out on any of the suffering that I had paid for. So I decided to be first to the start line. We had a controlled trip down Alpe “D’Huez before the race start, but I intended to stay at the front all the way down and get a good jump on everybody. You will see sneaky me ahead of nearly all the other riders in this picture.
Mike and I stayed directly behind the official pace car that took us down the hill to the start. I continued to roll over the start line as others took off jackets, etc. For a brief while I was in the lead. Mike and Howard eased past me before the top of the Croix de Fer, but we met up again at the fuel stop at the top. Word was out that tired riders stretched out for well over an hour behind us already, so my strategy had worked. I had earned the right to suffer for hours and hours more.
The rest stop was busy.
Mike and I did the downhill together. He’s had an Italian motor bike, and has spent time learning about the theory of the best lines to race around corners. We rode the next 30 or k together, working the downhills and the flats together to beat the wind. Just before the final stretch before the Col Du Glandon a spoke broke on his back wheel, and I was alone again as he waited for the Mavic support techs.
I was now disappointed to be solo into the wind, but soon I heard in a thick accent,
“Come on Greg, let’s go.” I jumped into a fast paced group that was going by and I realized they were Russian speaking. I took one pull as we cruised through the village of St Etienne de Cuines, and my heart rate soared. I let them slowly pull away as we moved up onto the Glandon.
The climates in France are localized. At the Bottom of the Glandon, a 20k 7% climb, it heated up under a high sun. Mike’s Garmin read 32 degrees. The markers came by very slowly.
My power began to drop significantly over the last 5 or so kilometres. It was a relief as the sun covered over with cloud, but that gave way to concern when 3k from the top, on the steepest section, it began to rain. It felt nice, but I feared the cold and slippery descent on the other side. I fueled up again. (My plan was never to pass a rest stop to save a moment) And Fortunately I was able to rely on excellent race organization, as they had plastic smocks available for cold descents. I descended in relative comfort. Then I had a long slog alone, into a strong wind, since Mike had lost a spoke and Howard had, midway up the Glandon, left me behind ☺ I believe this is a picture of the long valley where I fought the wind
The final climb was a trip up Alpe D’Huez via a lesser known route, through Villard Reculas. It was a spectacular trip through the quiet Village and beyond, on a road just wide enough for a horse cart. At one point I came up on a family out for a walk, and along with the usual chorus of “Allez, Allez,” the father asked if I wanted a push. Of course I said yes, expecting a little shove. He gave me a world class, Tour de France push, sprinting behind me with two hands on my lower back, propelling me 50 metres up the hill. His family loved it and I said “merci, merci,” very sincerely. We finished, again, between the Tour de France barriers on the Alpe D’Huez upper switchbacks. As I neared the top to young French girls hung over a barrier, softly saying “Allez,” with their hands out, offering me something. I had to check this out. I drifted over, and took the three almonds from their hands that they were offering this struggling man. There is nothing like the culture that the French bring to cycling.
I finished in 9.5 hours, which included rest stops. I was physically shattered, but I had loved every minute of the ride. I had forced myself to take some pictures along the way, which was a hassle at the time, but I’m grateful to have them now.
The final day’s ride was short but hard: a time trial up the famous 21 switch back of Alpe D’Huez. Don Gallo had organized a pool regarding my time up the mountain. The pool rules were simple. Don allowed me between 1:15 and 1:45 to make it to the top. People could choose which minute I would finish on and the winner took half the total with the other half going to Pancreatic Cancer research, in memory of Bruce Gordon. The cost to enter was $10 and Don sold out the pool. The final rule was that if I went under 1:15 Don paid an extra $50 to cancer research, and if I went over 1:45 I would do the same. I made a post in Don’s Facebook timeline that Ron Golden and Mike McKague were the two smartest entrants. Ron works with us at the Bike Doctor and because he took the fastest spot, he gets a raise. And Mike, who has raced against me lots, took the slowest spot. The start was very professional, with an announcer and a ramp. Here is another rider just getting going.
My legs were good enough and my time was 117:44. Not quite fast enough to get an extra 50 out of Don, but I practically died trying. Brian Breit won the pool.
Haute Route events are well organized, and they deliver what they say they will. There is a ton of support, and a volunteer at every little corner out in the country.
And the Mavic support vehicle is ubiquitous.
At about $1,400 Canadian the entry fee might seem somewhat steep, but with the amount of support, the meals provided, etc, I’m more than happy. In terms of the experience, it feels like a privilege to finally absorb some of the French cycling culture, which I have marveled at for 30 years since I began watching the Tour de France. At the final buffet I had the chance to absorb, from a glass, some of the French culture that is a part of cycling here.
Thanks to Mike Trehearne for talking me into doing this event, and to both Mike and Howard Hemingson for being reliable, entertaining partners, optimistic and funny through our common travails.
If anyone wants more information, please contact me, Greg McKee at the Bike Doctor, Saskatoon.