Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Final race report Part 1- L'Etape du Tour: Be careful what you wish for...

What a day, what a day.....where do I start?

Saturday- July 16th
Woke up in the hotel and grabbed a quick breakfast (well, actually 2 breakfasts: one at the boulangerie across the street at 6am- nothing like fresh croissant and pain chocolat, and the other at the hotel- more croissant and pain chocolat). The trip organizer, Sports International (a company out of the U.K.- awesome logistics I have to say) had a coach bus waiting for us at 8am to travel to the race/event village, first to handle registration and then the build out of our bikes.  Registration was smooth and quick, leaving loads of time to purchase teeshirts, jerseys, etc.  Then went to build up my bike. Things went smooth.  A couple of small adjustments by the guys at Wiggle (they had 1/2 a dozen mechanics on site in case anyone had issues).  After the build out, we all left our bikes at a secure location which was monitored and watched 24/7.  Back to town by 3:30pm, I set off to prepare for the next day's event: clothing, food, supplements, etc.  Then it was a quick dinner and got to bed early.

Sunday- July 17th (Race Day)
While I knew that rain was forecasted for the early part of the morning, no one could've predicted how this day would roll out.  Downstairs at 4am for breakfast, then it was back to the room to get changed into race gear (should've been Armageddon gear).  As I looked out the window, it was clearly raining.  With that, I brought along on the bus to the event, a rain jacket, a rain vest, both full and half fingered gloves, arm warmers, over boots.  I assessed the weather while picking up my bike and determined that I'd skip the rain jacket and over boots, and go with the rain vest, arm warmers and half-fingered gloves.  In hind-sight, some potentially poor decisions (or guesses rather), however I now know that none of the gear available would've made one bit of a difference.

I checked my bike, my cycling computer, the air pressure and then jumped on my saddle for the quick 2 km ride to the start pens (I think there were 12 pens holding in total approx. 6,500 racers).  The very first thing I noticed was the overwhelming security and seriousness the French treat this event (and cycling in general).  Yes, I knew that the roads would be closed for the race, just like in the Tour de France.  But, I immediately felt like a pro as every single intersection along the race route was closed off personally by police, with thousands of others assisting in making sure we were on track and avoiding the various road furniture. (The only way to describe it is to literally watch a stage of any major cycling race, and just replace the pros with regular folk, although there were pros racing this event that happened to skip the TdF this year.)  Now I'm in my pen at around 6:30am and the rain (which had stopped and caused me to make poor clothing choices earlier) started again.  Then the wind picked up and never let up. So, all before the start time of 7am, we were all shivering and wet, hoping we would get warm when we started to ride.  I'm not exactly sure what time I actually got off as the first pen was released at approx. 7am.  I was in the 7th pen and certainly didn't leave before 7:20am.  I wasn't worried about the timing as the bikes had an electronic chip that would set off once you crossed the start line.

Off we go, it was as I expected.  The very first mile, everyone's getting situated and up to speed, and then comes the craziness (as always). The pace immediately shot off to approx 24-28 mph.  Everyone grabbing the wheel of the guy in front of him.  I'm loving the pace as I'm tucked in a peloton of a hundred or so riders, but all I can think about are the conditions.  Very wet roads and very twitchy/nervous/aggressive/anxious riders.  Bad combination. My group catches the rear of what must've been the back of the 6th pen.  This is all great as I'm on course to do about 24 miles in the very first hour, but then remind myself that we're not even close to the climbs yet.  I immediately let the peloton go and settle into my own pace at the very first feeling that they are moving at a pace I wouldn’t be able to sustain for an hour. (I remember looking down at my odometer and at the end of the second full hour I had logged in only 30 miles total. A drastic difference from the first hour.)

Before the start of the race, I was thinking that bad weather would work to my advantage.  My thoughts- sure, anyone can ride in the beautiful sunshine, but turn on some mixed weather and only those who can tough it out would survive.  Little did I know how that thought would come back to test me on a personal level.  Not less than an hour into the race did the heavy rain and gale type wind (and cold) settles in on the region.  For most of this miserable day, it was b/n 35 degrees and 44 degrees.  I was wet and cold as was everyone else.  For a while the heat I was generating just barely compensated for the coldness and wetness against my body. But soon all things started to fail.  I wasn't staying on top of my nutrition b/c I couldn't reach into the pockets on the rear of my shirt to grab some food because my arms were so cold and hands numb. (More than anything, this made me very nervous as I couldn't really shift nor eel myself grabbing my brakes too well.) Thus without eating I wasn't feeding the furnace which only led to the continuation of the vicious circle.  (Why didn't I simply stop and eat? Good question, but the concept of stopping when you're in the middle of a group who is partially shielding you from the wind wasn't an option.) Everyone, I mean everyone, was suffering.  Once of the oddest sites I've ever seen were all the abandoned bikes along the road.  I'm not talking your average Schwinn, but HUNDREDS of hard core carbon fiber bikes just leaned up against fences along the course.  (Note- we were told that if you get pulled off the course for injury or choose to quit, there will be a "Broom" truck that will come by throughout the day and pick up the bikes left along the road.)  It was clear that the riders must have already been picked up or grabbed a ride in the many ambulances who were dealing with what seemed like hundreds of hypothermia cases.  (Obviously you got to be pretty miserable to simply leave your wheels on the road.  Granted, the public wasn't on the road that day so maybe the fear of having you bike stolen was low, but just an illustration of how ugly it was.)  I saw countless of cyclists in the doorways of people's homes trying to get warm, or being toweled off by the local residents.  Hats off to all those residents who stood out to watch the event and shared what they had with all of the participants- food, hot tea, towels, clothing and their homes. This is all BEFORE the first feed/drink station.

Feed Station One- Pure carnage.
The approach to the first feed station was a long fast 2 miles down a steep hill. Barely being able to feel my brakes, I safely found my way into the town of Allanche where they staged the first fuel pit stop.  There, I quickly scoped out where the food was, the bathrooms, etc.  EVERYONE was shivering uncontrollably (me included).  I've only felt that uncontrollably cold once before and it's no fun. The worst part about this was that the event organizers weren't prepared to deal with the sheer numbers of soon to be hypothermia cases in Allanche, nor the numbers who were quitting the race all at the same time.  (Literally, how to transport the thousands, yes thousands, of riders now stuck in this little town.)  I didn't realize the numbers of people quitting, until I saw the lines and lines of bikes leaning against each other in a penned off area. Stupid me, I thought that all these bikes were from riders on a bathroom line.  (But no line anywhere.) Then I noticed race staff taking bikes from riders and the riders going into the (warm) coach buses. I must have seen at least 1,000 bikes, maybe more. Shivering uncontrollably as I was, I scanned the square for a bakery or cafe.  Having found one I leaned my bike up against the wall of the cafe (there were hundreds of people scattered in bakeries, butchers, cafes, etc.) and quickly went inside and ordered up a hot chocolate.  Then another.  Not able to warm up after what must have been an hour, I went outside to decide whether or not I was going to continue on or throw in the towel. (How quickly nature can make you consider shelving all that you've trained for.)  I stood outside by the pen of bikes all waiting to be loaded onto 18 wheeler trucks, getting rained on some more in an attempt to make up my mind.  I can't tell you how many times race personnel asked me if I was "finis"?  I would simply respond "Je ne sais pas" (I.e., I don't know).  With a smile they would walk away and must have been thinking that it was only a matter of time until I too gave up.  After 5 minutes back in these miserable conditions, I didn't give it another thought- on my bike I went.  Not sure what it was exactly that got me back on my bike, but I kept on reading the potential final scripts in my mind- "Ed comes to France and quits...", Ed decides to continue and ends up in a ditch on the side of the road, frozen..."; "Ed decides to continue and finishes somehow".  With Melisa in mind, Alpe D'Huez (the name my father in law gave the yet unborn child) and my mother in law Grace, who's in a current fight for her life, makes my near hypothermia seem insanely trivial, I put down a ton of calories and was off into the freezing rain and wind.

Fighting back the chill
Once back on the bike and with belly full, I just kept thinking "baby steps".  Just focus on one mile and then another mile and so on.  Soon, I seemed to be gaining a bit more of my heat and the rain slowed to a mild drizzle. The air still cold (and much colder on the downhill portions), I tried to vent my shirt as much as possible to start the drying process. As you would imagine, there weren't many riders out there in front of me at this point.  (Remember, I was in a cafe for an hour and didn't see many riders leave that town after I got there.) As I would pass through the little towns, the people lining the streets would cheer loudly egging me to continue yelling "Bon Courage!" and "Allez allez!".  What a great lift those towns’ people gave me throughout the day.  Eventually some other riders road up to me and we decided to ride together for part of the next hour or 2. Luckily the sun came out for a bit while I approached a long 2 or 3 mile steep climb.  I knew I'd be burning the fire real hot on the climb so I used this time wisely to open up my rain vest and pull down the arm warmers in an attempt to get a bit dryer.  It seemed to be working.

The French...
Feeling a bit rejuvenated for the first time, I pushed on fairly hard and came to the base of the Puy de Mary. (It's one of the big climbs on the route.)  There, there were about a dozen or so riders who were stopped and clearly arguing with race officials.  Apparently, the race officials and the police were not allowing the riders to go over the Puy de Mary since it was snowing on the pass and was 35 degrees.  In fact, they were sending back the riders who hadn't already passed over the other side of that summit. With more riders coming now to this point of the course, the arguments and pressure of the moment b/n racers and race officials was getting quite heated.  Then more police showed up and a "broom" truck and several coach buses (obviously the plan was to convince the riders to quit and hang it up). Gotta love the way the French reasoned with the riders- essentially we've decided how things will go and that's that. Not interested in getting caught up in this commotion, I wanted to figure out a way to continue to ride. I recalled from the race map that the route went over the pass into the town of Murat. I also remembered that about a 1/2 mile back up the road (yes, straight up a 10% grade I just bombed down) there was a road sign that indicated straight to "Murat". (We had turned right and came down the hill.)  I mentioned that to one other rider and in an instant we started to ride back up the road to that intersection. (We didn't want to be involuntarily pulled off our bikes by the authorities.)  When we got to that intersection with the sign to Murat, the race staff who had the road blocked off just let us through and we continued on to Murat.  (As I understand it, anyone that came after us to that intersection was told they could carry on with the race but had to avoid the Puy de Mary climb.  (I felt bad for those 50 or 60 riders who were now arguing with race officials as they probably threw in the towel, either out of disgust with the race officials or b/c they were convinced by the officials to call it a day.)

Part 2 tomorrow....

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