Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Etape Du Tour......I should have stayed at home!

This was my second time to be taking part in the Etape Du Tour. Having successfully passed the on line entry scramble several months earlier I was once more about to make my way down to the Pyrenees once more.
I previously did the Etape in 2005 taking in the Marie Blanque and Col d'Aubisque and loved every minute of it so was looking forward to once more going up the Aubisque and taking in the Tourmalet for the first time. The Col d'Aspin I had completed from the other side to the route we would be doing in the Etape two years previously whilst on holiday so wasn't too daunted by that.
Training wasn't too bad leading up to this with the Tour de Weald sportive and SDW (nearly) double attempt in the bag at least my legs would have some long miles in them. The best laid plans can count for nothing and it seems for me at least Friday 13th arrived early and decided to pack her bags and stay for a long weekend.
The fact that I for once arrived on time for the ferry from Dover only to be told it was delayed should have been an early warning. The plan was to catch the late night crossing, drive for a couple of hours and then get some sleep in the car before the long haul down to Argeles nestled between the Hautacam and Aubisque to meet up with friends from France from my previous excursion in 2005.
The main problem with driving on your own in France is negotiating the tolls on the peage. Its always funny how the French drivers all head to a different toll booth than sit behind the English plated driver trying to scramble across the seats to reach the pay machine. This is where I also discovered the sign on the machine was lying. The 'Visa' sign obviously didn't include debit visa cards as it refused my card then spat my peage ticket out which then blew under the car requiring a quick jump out the car and crawl under the car to retrieve it whilst having irate people queueing up!

I eventually arrived in Argeles in the evening on Thursday after leaving home the night before having sampled numerous type of random coffee flavours at the services, being stopped by the Gendarmerie on exiting the peage at Bordeaux and re-confirming previous driving experiences in France that the French do drive like nutters. After locating the holiday village and meeting up with cycling friends Johan and Akiko and downing some food it was off to get some proper sleep.

The day before
Friday arrived with clear blue skies and 25 degree heat. The three of us headed out in the bikes in different directions. Johan off to the do the Aubisque, Akiko off to stretch her legs and as for me, well I thought a part way ride up the Tourmalet was in order. A nice little spin up the road from Argeles to Luz St Sauveur to where the Tourmalet climb starts and then I carried on up to Bareges for a spot of lunch and more coffee before heading back down to Argeles once more.Everything was ready for the next day and confirmation from several people that the weather forecast was good for the big day.

4:30am Saturday morning came round a bit too quick after the worst nights sleep for a long time which was probably about 3 hours in total. Breakfast downed then on the car and off to Pau for the start. Now I don't ask for much in life but  when you have forked out a fair bit of cash for race entry and to get down to the ride I would expect more than 2 toilets for about 8000 competitors. It was also whilst waiting in my pen for the 7am off  I was looking at several riders complete in full cycling tights and long jerseys, thinking....blimey they're going to overheat in the sun. I had gone for copious amounts of suntan lotion and thin socks and mesh base layer vest to keep cool with a windproof jacket to keep the chill off if needed on the descents. Ah the irony of this that would come back to haunt me later.

The start..and the closest the sun ever came
Our pen eventually got through the start at 7:15am and we headed out through Pau en route to Laruns and the start of the Aubisque. A nice spin down to Laruns followed and several chats to fellow 'Brits abroad' before the first climb of the day. It was still really gloomy as we started the Aubisque and I was starting to slightly question my dress code for the day. A third of the way up and the misty rain had really settled in and it was at this point I made the big mistake of not putting on my jacket as i was trying to keep my momentum going. By the time I got to the top of the Aubisque I was soaked through. There are some lovely views from the top but there was no chance of that today. Jacket on, bottle re-filled I headed off down the descent. About 5 minutes in to the descent and I was starting to get quite cold. It will be ok because it will start warming up soon I thought or maybe not. The Col du Soulor is not much of a climb, merely 2km long, but when your legs are really cold it was a grind. Once over the Soulor it was downhill all the way to Argeles. It had stopped raining but I wasn't getting any warmer. My feet and and hands were feeling numb and then when I started shaking uncontrollably from the cold I knew things weren't going too well. The only cheerful bit of the descent were the two donkeys standing in the road who really couldn't care if there were 8000 cyclists coming down the mountain. I was also noticing several riders who had stopped by the emergency services points wrapped and were now wrapped in foil blankets.

The view from the top of the Aubisque
 I eventually freewheeled into Argeles pretty much a broken man. In the main square where the feed zone was the medical team were hading out foil blankets non stop. I headed straight here and had one put round me straight away as could not stop shaking and this was followed by some heavy duty coffee. There was now quite a gathering of foil wrapped riders in the square and the nearest coffee shop was full of the sound of rustling foil as riders tried to get warm. There was a British woman in the shop who had come off on the corner and slid down the road on her back when her hands had got so cold she couldn't actually feel the brake levers. I sat there and tried to get warm but it wasn't happening and the reports that it was 5 degrees at the top of the Tourmalet wasn't filling me with excitement. Still feeling cold I made the decision to abandon. At least I wasn't alone in this. One chap who I had been sitting in the shop with had done the Marmotte the weekend before, but like me doesn't do well in the cold cycling weather ( I don't think you will ever see me at Strathpuffer!). So there it was, I decided to cycle back to Pau to get my car rather than sit on the bus of shame for several hours, but not before one of the officials appeared to take great pleasure in placing several red crosses on my race number.
A quick sandwiche du jambon, a franglais chat with a local who informed me that there was good place to eat 5km in the other direction and i was off back to Pau along the flattest route possible. Even with foil blanket still wrapped up under me it took me a further 30mins of cycling to be warm enough to remove it. A good 50km later and i had made it back to my car to find my 'waterproof' case for my phone wasn't exactly that as I poured the water out of my phone and it decided to cease working. Not ideal when you have the contact number on there of the place I was meant to be staying at in the finish in Luchon and also Akiko and Johan.
I made my way to Luchon and there were plenty of riders finishing the ride, some visibly shaking from the cold. I wondered round trying to hopefully find Akiko but to no avail. After several attempts at trying to use the public payphones I eventually managed to call home to find that my wife was ill. Its amazing how helpless you feel when you are stranded 800 miles away, with no mobile phone, oh and a bank card that decided to stop working resulting in a frantic call to my bank to sort the problem. You get to the point when you wonder 'what next'. I guess the uncooked meat in my steak burger was the last straw and it was at this point i decided to write this off as one very bad weekend and get in the car for the long haul home., eventually getting back home late on Sunday after an uncomfortable sleep in the car at the services somewhere near Brive with a foil blanket and red crossed race number as souvenirs.

I've not been defeated, merely delayed and I will return to complete that route next year when on holiday down there.

Best wishes to Akiko also who i later discovered had been carted off in the ambulance on the descent of the Tourmalet after succumbing to the cold whilst trying to fix  a puncture.

In the words of Big Chris from Lock Stock.......its been emotional!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

24/12; The story of a Broken man

If I’m honest the build up for this race was somewhere between shamble and completely chaotic; through no fault of my own on the Monday before the biggest event so far this year I had a bike with a crack in it, no gazebo and no kit. Thankfully the most important element of the preparation was getting loads of miles in and feeling really strong on the bike. Errrmmmm no can’t really help you there either…

So all in all between trying to maintain a normal life, working two jobs and organising a third Bontrager 24/12 had somehow sneaked up on me and was now a little more than a week away. Gulp.

I knew I had the mileage in my legs, having recently ridden the length of Wales in the midst of an extreme weather warning I was pretty confident I had the head for it too but as is always the case with endurance racing, and indeed riding, the proof is in the pedalling.  With my legs held together by Scott Cornish and his magic rock tape and some work on my knee with any luck I had the pedalling sorted...
Thankfully the help and support side of things was covered; not only did I have what has to be the best support crew in the business, Heather and Mark, but the usual suspects were to be racing as well meaning that there would be an abundance of friendly faces on top of the usual lovely people this sort of event attracts.  Looking back im not sure what I was worrying about, as Loco’s Gareth kept saying, its all just ridding your bike ‘innt?

Luckily working in a bike shop does have its advantages, a hasty late night call to one of the most helpful people in mountain biking, Brant @ On One promised to dispatch a new frame the very next morning, this still left it all a bit close – a chance conversation with Jez @ Trek secured an ex demo Superfly 100 that with any luck would arrive the week before the even. No chance to test the bike off road but from what I had heard they were simply stunning bits of kit and let’s be honest, I had 24hrs to get used to the thing!

Working Friday and then driving down in the evening had its own bag off issues, not least the timing involved in getting three people from across the country to one point on a Friday night – it was late by the time we set off and the rain was getting biblical, honestly I was wondering whether I should have brought the canoe rather than a bike.  Thankfully by the time we had reached Plymouth it had calmed down. We quickly put up the gazebo, tent and emptied as much of the car as we could and then headed off to curl up in a warm bed for the night, this as it would turn out was possibly the best decision we made all weekend.

Apparently there was nearly a decision made to evacuate the campsite as the weather was so bad, this we only learned when arriving back on site after a warm shower and a nice breakfast, suffice to say we were not flavour of the month among those who had been woken up by streams of water running through there tents.

Lining up at the beginning of 24hrs is always an odd experience, a strange calm descends as your brain try’s to comprehend what you are about to make it do.  The first lap was as always a challenge in not getting caught up in the mad dash to the singletrack, slightly slower than usual due to the mud but strangely the sky had cleared; after all the issues it was finally riding a bike.

I sometimes wonder why I write these things as to be honest I really cant remember anything about the race, it was sunny, then it rained and then it was dark. Then it rained some more… I’m guessing it got light again at some point although I cant really remember when; all I can remember is that it got REALLY hard at about 8 in the morning. 

Last time I raced a 24 solo at Newnham I went out far to fast and blew up after about 8 hours – as you can imagine I was pretty paranoid about this happening again, especially with all the support and effort people were putting in around me.  Throughout the 1st 12 hours of the race I was making a point of spinning and being as smooth as possible and honestly I felt great, worryingly great.  Without warning this ended as the end of the race drew near.

Im not going to lie, im no Matt Page, I was broken with four hours to go, I was holding on by a ledge and that ledge was getting smaller – the fire roads instead of being a distraction from the fun singletrack were now becoming lifelines allowing me to regain composure, eat and drink before the next bit that I had to be alert for. With two laps to go i was not only counting down the laps but the puddles – I can honestly say if it wasn’t for the support of Mark and everyone else on site I wouldn’t have felt comfortable riding those last few hours.

As they say a photo tells a thousand words, I think this one has a book in it…

All thats left are the thank you's of which there are many
Mark and Heather, possibly the best pit crew in the business.
Gareth, Alex, Scott Zoe and Mark, basically all at Loco Tuning.
Scott Cornish for creating art out of Rock Tape and generally holding my legs together for 24hrs
Simon, Bethan, Clara and the Bikeshed Wales lads
Jez @Trek.
Jon @ Scimitar.
Mud Dock Cycleworks
Oh and Matt Carr, although my helmet does still smell of beer...
And many more that i have doubtless forgotten (And in some cases remembered ...) but you know who you are :-)

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