Saturday, 20 March 2010

Peyresourde loop

At the start of the week, Chris and I talked about building up to a grand finale to mark the end of my adventure. Despite being pretty tired, we decided I should have a crack at a ride the length of an early season sportive but with a proper TdF climb thrown in for good measure. That climb ended up being the Col de Peyresourde, a cat 1 mountain that the peloton will be taking on during stage 16 of this year's race.

The loop was around 105km and was mostly flat before the Peyresourde with some newly surfaced roads (something else to thank the TdF for). Unfortunately, there was plenty of wind and it was all blowing my way. My average speed slowed to around 19kmh and whilst making such pedestrian progress I decided to pull in for lunch. The situation with the wind is definitely something I will have to monitor closely on Etape day and factor into my broom wagon calculations.

In a small cafe in the town of Sarrancolin, I indulged in some typical rural French behaviour and asked the waitress for some red wine with my lunch. The old riders of the 50s and 60s used to raid bars and cafes before climbing the brutes of the Tour so I thought I'd try and do the same. I'm not sure whether that hampered my progress at all, but with the wind still gusting it took me a lot longer than I wanted to reach the bottom of the Peyresourde.

Fortunately, there was plenty of great scenery to keep me occupied. The western approach of the Peyresourde climbs up out of a valley flanked with snow-capped peaks. The gradient was steep without being savage. I've worked out that if the km markers say 7-8%, that means you are in for some 10% sections interspersed with some relief/recovery inclines. Any km markers that say 9% or more mean it is time to grit your teeth and grind away. With less fuss than I anticipated, I rounded the corner toward the summit (was this the red wine kicking in?) and found myself full enough of energy to crack a smile to all passers by. It was a great feeling to get up the Peyresourde so well, even if I did not break any records doing so.

As with Superbagneres, the descent towards Luchon was worth all the effort. Technical at the top, there were some great views to enjoy whilst swishing through the hairpins. With that first section out of the way, it was time to get the wind whistling through my helmet, put my nose closer to the handlebars and build up some speed. Working on my descending was a primary aim of this training week and with some tips given to me by Chris I was gaining in confidence. So much so that I ended up passing 3 cars on the descent (one was only a Fiat Panda, so I'm not sure I can count that one!) which was a real rush.

Back in Luchon, I passed the billboards advertising the arrival of the Tour. As the road was now flat, it gave me the chance to consider a few things. Like how on earth could anyone actually race up the mountain I just ascended? I mean the riders actually jockey for position, push out elbows, accelerate and counter-accelerate. I had felt good counting out my effort one revolution at a time, but there was no way I could have gone any faster if required. The experience gave me an even greater appreciation of the feats of professionals.

Leaving Luchon, the wind that was against me was now behind and I pushed for home at speed. I completed the loop with a ride time of 4hours 52minutes (not including my stop for lunch). Not bad for 102km covered and more importantly, I had a great time in doing so. Here are the stats from the Garmin.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Hospice closed, so things got a little silly...

Yesterday I set off at a fairly leisurely pace to cycle the 25km south from Bertren to Luchon. The sun was shining and when I stopped for lunch at a cafe in Luchon as recommended by my hosts, the temperature was a positively sweltering 20c. With time on my side, I set off for the climb of Hospice de France, which shares its first 6km with the climb of Superbagneres. After taking the left fork to Hospice, it soon became apparent my planned route would not be possible. There was heavy shade from trees to the west and there was plenty of snow on the road. The way to Hospice was shut.

This is where my ambition ran away from me a little. I rolled on back to the turning which takes you toward Superbagneres and thought to myself, "you've come all the way here, why the heck not?". By way of background, Superbagneres is a fair brute of a climb that lasts 18.5km in total - not a climb I had contemplated on doing when I flew out to the Pyrenees on Monday. Chris told me earlier in the week that it is only 1km shorter and climbs up only 200m less than the Tourmalet. "If you can climb Superbagneres, you can climb the Tourmalet" he said. With his words running through my head, I thought I'd give it a crack.

The gradient is a fairly steady 8-10% after the first 6km but it is the sheer length of the climb that makes it tough. Mentally riding within yourself for 90 minutes is not easy. But the views of the climb easily distract, there were huge mountain ranges to be seen over the border to Spain and with plenty of hairpins I really did feel like I was accomplishing something. In actual fact, I thought it easier to climb than the much shorter but much steeper Portet d'Aspet.

There is a ski station at the top of Superbagneres and I got some strange looks off the skiers on the slopes. But that made me feel all the more cool - I had got to the top under my own esteem, they had used a chair lift!

One more thing - the descent. What a descent! There are long straights in amongst the stunning views and switchbacks that mean you can really fly down the mountain. I was getting braver and leaning further down towards my handlebars and even registered my quickest speed on a bike (a rather pedestrian 67kmh may not seem much in comparison to the pros, but I felt like I was flying!).

I cannot understand why the TdF organisers don't visit that climb more often - I had a great time climbing it and the views in places were beyond words. Getting up Superbagneres gives me plenty of confidence going forward. I've only been riding a bike seriously since December, so if I can drag myself up 1800m in mid-March then trust me, anyone can!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

On the agenda today

Just sat down with Chris and his set of maps and decided to head south to Luchon today. Apart from being the arrival town of stage 15 of this year's TdF, it is also the gateway to a few climbs. One of these, the Hospice de France quite closely mirrors the profile of the Col de Marie Blanque (especially the savage last 3kms). A good chance then to test out what it will feel like come July 18th. My legs are a little deadened from the efforts of yesterday, but hopefully I will get up there in one go. I'll be making a long coffee stop in Luchon before and afterwards though!

Portet d'Aspet

After watching the Cyclefilm DVD, I decided that conducting a reccie of the Pyrenees would be a sensible idea - plus it would probably be a lot of fun. I have an extra week of holiday to use up that my girlfriend doesn't have, so I booked flights to Toulouse and away I went. As luck would have it, I found a company called Pyractif that as it turns out, is run by the same guy who drives the minibus in the Cyclefilm DVD (Chris). He has been very helpful and has selected a few rides for me to cut my teeth on. Yesterday's ride took in the Portet d'Aspet which has been used a number of times in the TdF.

The climb was a bruising encounter - the average gradient was 9.5% with a 600m stretch at 17%. To say I was gasping for air would be an understatement, I really thought I was going to come to a standstill and fall off my bike at one point. It comes to something when reaching a section of 10% stuff is seen as a bit of a break!

Panting away I reached the top and felt a great sense of achievement in doing the ride in one go. The summit tops out at 1069m - I view anything above 1000m as a real Col so I was feeling very smug. The descent down the hill was some of the best fun I have had on a bike, albeit I was scared stiff for the majority of it. I stopped on the way down at the memorial erected for Fabio Casartelli, the Olympic Champion who lost his life on the Portet d'Aspet during the 1995 TdF.

The experience taught me 2 valuable lessons; 1) I need to do plenty more training and 2) I really need to get some tips on how to descend, as my skills in this area are still squarely at novice level.

Here is the Garmin readout from the ride.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Spring Onion Sportive

On Sunday I made the 50 minute journey west out of London to Leatherhead in Surrey for the Spring Onion Sportive organised by the friendly folk of the South Western Road Club. I made it there a little early, set up my bike and after a hearty cup of tea I was off. We started in groups of 10 - 15 at 2 minute intervals. As everyone was keen to stick together early on, the first 10k gave me a bit of experience of riding in a group. As a novice/aspiring amateur cyclist I found this really useful and although I don't quite have all the etiquette down, I felt safe and my speed was good.

The majority of the course was challenging but not soul-destroying. There were many of the typical English climbs of less than 1k in length but including pitches of 15%+ which made sure my heart was really working hard. After about 2 hours 20 minutes, the fine sunny weather we were enjoying became accompanied by some strong winds. I was riding on my own at this point and suddenly saw my average speed plummet. Dragging a friend out to complete these sportives with you really can help out when the gusts pick up - I felt like I was pedalling in marmite for some flat sections! Thankfully the wind died down towards the end and I was able to make better progress.

At the 80k point of the ride, I had a nagging feeling the organisers had thrown in one last hill. As I had come back from a holiday the night before the race, I hadn't had time to give the course profile another once over. However, I was soon to find out. The final ascent was so ultra steep I could almost hear the cackles of the organisers as every rider struggled to a near standstill (one unfortunate chap even gave up the ghost and walked to the top). If the 23% hairpin wasn't enough, SWRC had also arranged for a photographer to take snaps of the grimacing faces so all the competitors could immortalise the moment - I can't wait to have a laugh at what I looked like! Still, I made it to the crest and on the end.

All in all, it was very well run. There was a good feed station, excellent signage and it all made for a very enjoyable ride. Sportive one down, on to the next challenge!

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Race time

Tomorrow I will be making the trip across west London to take on my first sportive of the year - the curiously named Spring Onion which departs from Leatherhead in Surrey. It's a 100km loop that includes a thigh-trembling 1,400m of climbing. The rational part of my brain is excited about the prospect of getting out in the fresh air and doing some good miles (especially as the weather looks so enticing). However, even Dave Brailsford and the Team GB psychiatrists would have a job on their hands trying to silence my chimp today for a number of reasons:

1. This is my first attempt at a sportive since my debut in October. Things didn't go well then (I spent most of the afternoon off the back of our small group and gagging for air).
2. Only this morning did I arrive back in Blighty after spending a week in Cape Town, which involved far too much carbo-loading in the form of chips and afternoon beers.
3. Since my last post (where I confessed I have yet to have a puncture), I am fairly certain my luck will run out very soon and I don't want to be left stranded/embarrassed at the side of the road.

I'm sure that when the time comes I'll be up for the challenge - but perhaps I'd better go and watch my Milan-San Remo 2009 DVD for a bit of inspiration!

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

A shameful secret

This post will probably receive a lot of disapproving shakes of the head from roadies everywhere when it is read, but it is about time I let the cat out the bag. Since I bought my first road bike late last summer, I have had the good fortune to have avoided all pot-holes, broken shards of glass, sharp stones and other assorted enemies of the road tyre. In 9 months of biking I've never had a puncture, not one, which in turn means that I have never actually had to fix one.

I’ve recently booked a biking trip to the Pyrenees (more on that another time) and the thought of being stuck at the top of a chilly mountain whilst clutching at a set of tyre levers wondering “what the hell are these things used for?” prompted me to run a puncture-fixing drill. So last night I cleared a bit of space in the living room (the missus is currently away on holiday so I didn’t get told off for fixing my bike indoors!) and set to work. I deflated the tube, played around with the tyre levers and eventually managed to get the tyre and the inner tube off. That act in itself took me far too long. The real pain however came in trying to put the tube and, more particularly, the tyre back on the wheel. The diagram I pulled off the net was not helpful at all and minute upon annoying, agonising minute ticked by as I wrestled Steve-Irwin style with the tyre. If that happened during the Etape I would have been in the broom wagon for sure - the whole embarrassing attempt took me just over an hour in total.

My blood was about the reach boiling point but just before steam started pouring from my ears I managed to find the trick to it and eventually got it sorted. I also took the opportunity to test out the new mini-track pump I got from Wiggle recently (very handy by the way). Despite the fact I probably burned more calories sorting the tyre than cycling along to Fight Club, I’m (fairly) glad I gave it a go. Better to discover the ins and outs of bike maintenance in the comfort of your flat than on the side of a road in the pouring rain. Maybe I’ll need at least one more try though…