Tuesday, November 6, 2007

2004 Etape du Tour

As a novice 'racing' cyclist I had never ridden anything close to 148 miles. Sure, I've completed several centuries but had never gone much farther than the century mark. So when I decided to enter the 2004 l'etape du tour it seemed like a stretch but I thought I could do it. Heck, it was just the longest stage (237 km) of this year's Tour de France with nine categorized climbs ranging from the mere cat. 4 Le Mont Gargan to the ominous sounding cat. 1 climb of the infamous Col du Pas du Peyrol (a.k.a Puy Mary with the steepest gradient in this year's tour - 12%) with a smattering of cat. 3's and a couple of cat 2's. So why is it, two weeks after the race I have still not ridden 148 miles? Funny you should ask, but let me tell you.

Let me just pick up my handy 'excuse-o-rama' rotary file and pull out a few candidates. Actually, let's take a look at what not to do to identify my reasons for not finishing. 1. Never make equipment changes the day before the race. Yes, I had my crankset changed from my Shimano 105 - 53/39 to the Race Face compact carbon crankset - 50/34. The problem was that my original crankset crank length was 170 mm and the new crankset had a length of 175 mm. You say, that's only a difference of 5 mm. What's the problem? Well the guy from Performance Tech. Support informed me that I would need to lower my seat approximately one centimeter after installing the new crankset but he didn't tell me the consequences if I didn't. Besides, I rode my bike for thirty minutes the day before the race without any discomfort. Surely that was enough, not! I rode for about 4 hours over the first two categorized climbs and really started to cramp hard in my thighs before I decided to lower my seat to see what might happen. After lowering the seat, I felt much better instantaneously but could not put any strain on the thighs whatsoever without more cramping. 2. Always eat something substantive before you ride. The French refer to breakfast as 'petite dejeauner' which means little lunch. For breakfast they gave us a package of 'Madelines' or index finger sized cookies (2) and a dixie cup full of espresso. Why didn't you bring some food of your own? I did. I brought some cereal bars and power bars but planned on relying on items purchased in France. Yes, I did buy several boxes of bars upon arrival in Paris but much to my dismay, my children had eaten them by the time we got down to Limoges. I even tried to buy more the day before the race but the store would not let us in at 7:23 because they closed at 7:30 p.m. Yes, I know what you are thinking but this is France after all and there was somewhat of a language barrier not to mention I thought they were going to provide us with breakfast. Why not eat at the hotel? That would have been a great idea except there aren't too many hotel restaurants open at 4:30 a.m. which was the time check-in began and when breakfast was supposed to be served.

The race started relatively promptly at 6:30, but with 8,500 cyclists on one small town European street, the going was rather slow. I estimate it took me maybe ten minutes to cross the start mat from my position in the front of the penultimate starting 'corral'. There was an elimination zone thirty kilometers into the race whereby you had to be past that point in the town called Linards by 8:00 a.m. or be eliminated from the race. To make this point you had to average 19 miles per hour for the first 30K. I made this point with around 12 minutes to spare so I was in pretty good shape or so I thought. Not too far after the first elimination point was the first categorized climb, the cat. 4 Mont Gargan. I had no trouble spinning up this climb in my 34/25 at about 11 mph. The descent of this climb was fun and fast with the exception of the gendarmes blocking a lane on a 90 degree left turn to protect the rest of us from slamming into the ambulance that was parked just beyond the turn for one of the race's first victims. After the descent we quickly began the ascent of the cat. 3 Col de Lestards. It was a longer and steeper climb than the first climb but again I was having no trouble spinning up in my 34/25, until I decided to jump out of the saddle to accelerate up a steeper part of the climb and get past a block of fellow competitors struggling on the climb. Right after I jumped, both legs cramped hard in the thighs and calves. In all my training I never cramped in my thighs and just once or twice in my calf (sprinting away from a dog) so this was quite a surprise. It seemed all I could do was wave my arms all over (language barrier) to indicate I needed to stop so get the 'H” out of my way. Of course I couldn't just stop pedaling without 'Arte Johnson-ing' on the climb so as I kept pedaling and worked my way over to the right side of the road I sort of worked the cramps out and was able to continue without stopping but realized that I would not be able to stand and pedal in my current state. See note above about steepest gradient in tour. So at three hours into the race and at the top of the climb known as the Col de Lestards we encounter the first transponder mat. Unfortunately, there was a minor cyclist traffic backup of about two hundred yards so I ended up walking over the top of the climb. This descent was also fun and fast and after the ambulance I was able to let the speed out. At about the four hour point I was not feeling good. The legs and rest of my body felt like a massive cramp was about to set in. This was when I decided to stop to lower my seat the centimeter or so that was recommended. Believe it or not, five minutes after adjusting my seat the 'crampy' feeling had subsided and I started feeling somewhat comfortable. The first rest stop in the town of Egletons was encountered at about the 4:10 mark. I had envisioned masses of folks handing out feed bags like in the tour but we had to stop and serve ourselves. There were tons of folks there and it was hard just to find a place to lean your bike. After taking too long at the rest stop (five minutes) I got rolling again and ended up hooking up with a group of 30-40 riders going about 25-30 mph for about a half-hour. That was the best part of the ride for me but it broke up on a descent right before the Cote de Yries - de dejalet, another cat 3 climb. After another relatively easy spin up, we descended and then began ascending the Cote de Soursac (cat. 3). The descent following this climb was remarkable not only because of the ambulance (former World Champion Tony among others) but also because of the scenery. At the bottom of the descent was the Barrage d'laigle, a dam across a river with a lake and very scenic on both sides. After crossing the dam, we commenced climbing the Cote de Chalvignac (a short but steep cat. 3). I cramped on the climb but was not too unhappy about stopping to stretch and soak in the scenery. At the top of this climb we began the ascent of an uncategorized rolling ascent of 1500 feet over 30 kilometers up to the second rest stop in the town of Salers. According to our race guide there was supposed to be food and water at the stop. Since I had run completely out of both food and water between the first stop and this one, I was highly interested in stocking up since the 'real' climbing was about to start. Much to my chagrin, there was only liquids, no food. Needless to say, I began to worry that I might bonk without any food because I had eaten all my powergels thinking that the cramps were related to low electrolytes or not drinking enough so I was experiencing some gastro-intestinal discomfort. The departure from Salers marked the beginning of the ascent of the cat. 2 Col de Neronne It is a longish but not too steep ascent up a very scenic valley, maxing out at about 2500 feet. As I ascended this climb I thought I might have been hallucinating when I saw an unopened granola bar on the road. I convinced myself it would be worth it to turnaround and check it out, so I did. It was exactly what I thought it was so I picked it up and ate it. Then I passed half a banana, ditto. A partially eaten slice of bread in the grass, you bet. That was all I found but I may have even debated stopping for some road kill but lucky for me there was none on this road anyway. At the top of this climb the race photographers were positioned to get a scenic photo of you with nothing behind you except air and the edge of the road and for me it was the 8 and one-half hour mark. As I crested the Col de Neronne I was savoring the descent down to the start of the climb of the Pas du Peyrol but that savoring quickly turned into disgust when I found I had to pedal to keep my speed around 14 mph. It wasn't too steep and was very twisty. At the bottom and there it was, the sign marking the beginning of the climb of the cat. 1 Col du Pas du Peyrol, 5.5 km @ 8% average gradient, and all but two other riders are walking there bikes. I cramped at the start of the climb and stopped to stretch on a bridge where I found a miracle, two cookies and cream powerbars. I grabbed them and quickly stretched looking forward to the ascent. But as I was getting ready to remount my bike, the end-of-race vehicle over took me. They told me the sag bus was 15 minutes behind so I could sit and wait for it. I told them I wanted to keep riding and they said I could but had to stop when the buses overtook me. I said O.K. and started spinning. I saw the 4 km to the summit sign and I'm still spinning. 3 km to go and I'm spinning away. There the 2 km sign and I'm still riding, until a sharp left turn and the 12% gradient begins with just over 1 km to go. Of course I cramp, but decide to walk on towards to the summit. Twice I tried to ride but cramped almost immediately. I had to stop and put on my jacket because of the cold but finished walking to the top of the climb where alas, there was food and beverages in conflict with my race guide. Here is where the language barrier took its toll. I wanted to continue but did not know if they would let me and tried to ask but got blank stares. After ten minutes at 5200 feet I was frozen and shivering uncontrollably and decided I wanted those buses to arrive now. My race was over. Yes, I was disappointed because I didn't finish since that was my ultimate goal. But I was still satisfied because I'd gained valuable experience for when I attempt the etape in the future, over my wife's dead body.