July 17, 2013

"Imagine the hardest thing you can imagine and that doesn't come close...."

Team Dave - Mission Accomplished
The team pondered on this comment from twice finisher and racer Justin Belcher over lunch, but one's imagination cannot extend to this thought - quite simply, you have to take on the experience to understand the true meaning.

Now completed, Team Dave rider Slip (Stuart) Read describes his experience perfectly after not only grinding his way to the finish line like the rest of the team, but also nursing a broken bottom bracket bearing over a Tour de France Queen's stage - La Marmotte 2013.......
Alpe d'Huez warm-up ride
We stayed in Alpe D'Huez village for the duration, at 07:00 on the Saturday 6th July morning we descended to Bourg D'Oisan at the foot of the mountain and along with 7000 other cyclists ready to start, warm and sunny morning. Everybody excited in anticipation of what was to come.
We got going at about 08:00 and headed off along the valley floor for 10km; the initial enthusiasm meant the speed from the start was pretty high, approx 25 mph; we then turned right off the valley floor and after another couple of kilometres started the ascent of Col Du Glandon (18km long with average grade of 7.5%). What amazed me immediately was the steepness, most of the time we were riding a grade of 10% plus, there was a couple of flatter sections which brought the average down, but most of the time we were pushing hard to keep a decent speed on this climb. 

Start Line Mania at La Marmotte
I quickly lost the rest of Team Dave, Andy got stuck at the start sorting out his gillet and the two Steve's left me behind after a 5 km on Glandon, at this point I did not think much about it, I was conserving energy, keeping my heart down, and thought they were simply pushing harder than me.
With thousands of riders on the climb at the same time, the road was jammed with 6 or 7 riders wide; the faster ones on the left side the slower on the right; I started on the left, but after an hour I found myself hugging the right of the road, trying not to get in the way of faster riders, things weren't quite going to plan, I had not expected this, thought I could hold my own for much longer than this, my spirits dipped a little, but I kept telling myself I was holding back to be fast later on. I pushed on keen to get to the top of Glandon and onto the first descent.

TD Looking pensive at the start line
A little over 2 hours saw me finally crest the Col Du Glandon (crest sounds a bit grand since what really happened was I got off and fought my through hundreds of other cyclists stopping for water and nutrition at this first stop). It was chaos up there. Thank god my plan did not involve stopping there or I would have lost vital minutes trying to fill my water bottles. My plan was to stop at taps at the side of the road on the descent of Glandon. I pushed my way through the crowds and started the descent. This part of the ride was not timed as there had previously been too many crashes on this section but it was the first chance to get up some speed so although I was not going flat out, I enjoyed the speed of the descent. Consequently I completely missed my water stops on the way down. The village I was meant to stop at flashed past and by the time I realised this was my water stop I was too far down the road to go back.
Doc on the Glandon
I hoped I might find another stop not previously mentioned, but before I knew it I was at the bottom of the mountain with no water in sight and the next water stop 20 miles further along the the now baking valley floor. I checked my water supply; 3/4 of a bottle of water left, that will have to do I thought. The aim now was to get into a large group and have somebody else at the front doing all the work,shelter as much as possible from the wind and conserve as much energy as I could for the ascents of Telegraph and Galibier. As seemed the norm for this ride, things did not go to plan. I just could not find a group of the right speed - I was either passed by some flying Spaniards or stuck with a slow moving Belgium. I was constantly having to jump to the front to get onto a group, or falling off the back concerned I was using up too much energy trying to stay with faster riders. For about 50 mins this carried on and eventually we arrived at St Jean Du Maurienne, at the foot of the Telegraph and my chance for a brief rest whilst I queued with hundreds of others to fill my now empty water bottles.

I was feeling relieved I solved my water issue and felt that although I never found a group in the valley to shelter in I was doing OK; my strength would tell on the climbs to come I told myself - Oh My God how wrong was I!!

Everest on the Galibier
The Telegraph was considered the easiest of all the days climbs, only 12km long and averaging 7.1%. I settled into a nice rhythm at the bottom, over took a couple of cyclists and started to feel confident again, but this mountain just kept on going again. The stats said is was on 7.1% average, but really most of the time I was climbing a 9%-11%. After 2 km my speed dropped from 10.5 mph to 6 mph and I was again hugging the right hand side of the road to avoid getting in the way of the fast riders. At this point I started to think I might have a mechanical issue, and getting a new (second hand bike) 1 month before the biggest ride of my life was a pretty stupid decision. My spirits dropped even further as I was being over taken by those twice my weight, who seemed to not have taken the whole weight loss thing as seriously as me. Rider after rider was going past me, so I pushed harder, determined to prove I was better than this; I'd trained hard, I'd done a great time in the Dragon ride a month earlier, I could go faster, but by the time I got to the top after another 1.5 hours of climbing I was completely exhausted. As I slowed for the feed stop at the top I only just had the strength to unclip my foot and stood there in the middle of the road for at least 2 minutes. I could see this other rider looking at me with concern all over his face, but I simply could not move for a moment. My legs were shot, I could hardly walk.

Taking a breath at the feed zone on the Galibier
Eventually I staggered into the feed zone and just sat on the grass in the shade for about 20 mins trying to figure out what had happened but what seemed strange was my heart rate was not high but my legs were like lead weights. I was completely demoralised, nobody to talk to (despite being surrounded by hundreds of cyclist); what could anybody do other than offer conciliation. I decided to text Sal and let her know thing were not quite working out, exhausted at half way and the two worst mountains to come. Thank god Sally got my text, if she had not replied I'm not sure I would have completed the race. Her simple words of encouragement gave me the strength I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself and just keep peddling. I figured by now the bike was the problem, the bottom bracket (where the pedals attach to the bike) was not spinning properly and every peddle turn was costing me extra energy, pretty much like riding with the brake on.
Slip cramping up...
So I was resigned now to a very long day in the saddle. I knew I just had to find a pace at which my now sore and tired legs could sustain for two of the biggest cycling challenges there are, the Galibier and Alpe D'Huez, a combined 30 kilometres of climbing at the now familiar 10% plus gradients (for those who are unfamiliar with gradients, this is roughly the same as the hill from Bodicote Mill up the the Grove, only it lasts a bit longer). A familiar pattern was now occurring, I would plod along pushing as hard as I dared, desperate to avoid what happened on the Telegraph. My spirits were picking up again as I was reconciled to a very long and painful day, still I kept telling myself I was just out for a ride with 7000 friends in the Alps, this seemed to help relieve the pain for a few minutes until the road ramped up again.

I stopped after 10km up the Galibier at Plan L'Achat, just before the road really ramped up to 12%+. I readied myself for this well known tough section which climbed up to 2740 meters. I climbed back on the bike and rounded the hairpin that led to the first steep section. Oh no, not cramp again! After just 50 meters of this climb the cramp started in my upper left leg, but fortunately my previous experience with cramp meant I knew I just had to push through it and with gritted teeth and sweat streaming off my brow I just kept the legs turning through the cramp. I could see the road flatten out at a hair pin and new that if I could just get to that section the cramp would release me and I could carry on. I made, and with even more trepidation I began the slow plod to Alpe D'Huez. No more stops for 8 km saw me arrive to the last couple of hair pins before the summit. We had been told this section was really steep, but by now everything was steep and this section seemed no steeper than the rest but I was pretty chuffed by then. At the top of Telegraph I wasn't sure I could continue, but I'd just climbed one of the most Iconic mountains in the Galibier with a busted bike and was OK. I decided to give it everything I could for the last 100 yards, get a sense of achievement from it, It was great. I over took a couple of riders and almost sprinted across the line. Until that point the only riders I'd passed going up Galibier were either walking or standing at the side of the road, so this was a little victory in my now very tired mind.
Don't be fooled by the smile/ grimace
So far the ride had taken me 7hrs 20min and the Galibier itself had taken me 2hrs 15mins. I never thought I would enjoy a ham baguette as much as I did the one at the top of Galibier. The only concerning thing was that I could barely walk, my legs had been pushing so hard for so long that they were now seizing up and just standing up was difficult. I sat next to a Frenchman from Lille resting on a wooden wall, he looked better than I felt, but he had resolved himself to not climbing Alpe D'Huez. The Alpe was 12 km (14 km if you go all the way to finish line) and averaged 8.3% steeper than any of the Mountains we had done so far. I could not think about it, I was hurting really bad, but since we were staying in Alpe D'Huez I pretty much had to at lest make an effort to climb it. Besides, I could see down the mountain, and there was still riders kilometers below the summit, so I was perhaps not the slowest after all. I had hoped that Andy would pass me at some point, he is by far the best climber in Team Dave so he was never going to be behind me considering how slow I was going, but he must have passed me in a feed stop, so I was going to have to face Alpe D'Huez alone.....
Everest snow bound
The descent off of Galibier, once past Col Du Lautaret is the best descent I've ever done, it was just a shame that I was in so much pain with my legs. It took me about 5km just to get them turning the peddles again and this was going down hill so they weren't even taking any strain. Every few hundred meters I would spin the legs around to try and get rid of the lactic acid that had built up and get them into some sort of shape for the climb to come. 

I stopped at the feed zone at the bottom of Alpe D'Huez, for a rest and another ham baguette, I was sick of my energy gels  by now and I was craving something savoury. I sat on the curb next to a Frenchman who cracked open a cigar case and lit one up. I asked him if it was good for going up the Alpe, he said he had already been up and had come back down to wait for his son - I guess he deserved his cigar. As I mounted my bike an English guy remarked to me that this was not likely to be his most proud 2 hours on his bike but I dare not think about how long it was going to take - that was too much. I just needed to keep turning the peddles over, hairpin by hairpin, all 21 one of them.

Pelo on the Alpe d'Huez wall of pain
The first 2-3 sections were the worst apparently, but as far as I could tell the whole mountain was bad. I knew by now I would have to stop so I tried to set mini targets. I first stopped at hairpin, this would get the mythical worst bit out of the way but the trouble was nothing was going to make me feel better - so just get on with it. Half way up the next section my phone went off, I knew what this was immediately; somebody had finished and was texting to arrange a meeting place, which we had forgotten to organise the day before, so part of me thought I'm not that far behind, I'm on the last mountain I'm going to get an OK time - 1 hour later I'm still on Alpe D'Huez, I made it to hairpin number 8 and texted a reply, bit garbled by this stage, but at least they knew I was OK and on way up the Alpe.

The problem was even in my lowest gear I just could not make my legs go faster than 40 revs per min. Normally I would climb at about 80 revs, but I just had nothing left at all in the legs. I reached the 5 km to go sign - over 65% of the way up the mountain and I looked down at my computer to see I was only doing 6 kph, another hour of climbing, OMG!!!!

Doc on the Galibier summit
I tried to stand but could only manage 10 yards. Tried to sit more upright as by now my back was killing me, but my arse had been in the saddle for over 11 hours by this point and sitting up was simply agony. There was some relief as I climbed the Alpe at about 3 points of the ascent water stations were happy just to tip cups of water over me as I passed, and one kind fellow was stood in a mountain stream throwing whole bottles of ice-cold snow melt over any passing cyclist who nodded as they approached; my god was that a cold shock though (Steve Long later recalled that this guy had missed his head in his attempt to dowse him and hit him squarely in the groin area, bit of a shock that one).
I was not the only one struggling, by this point in the ride everybody bar the best were at the end of there normal endurance capabilities, so strewn across every hairpin was cyclists seeking shade, sitting on the walls, lying on the road in the shade of the wall, those taking their shoes off to try and relief the pain, and those with just enough energy to walk for a bit before making another effort to ride to the top. One rider seemed to be teasing me, I must have passed him 6 times, whilst he rested only for him to constantly cycle past me again. Alpe D'Huez although only 14km took 2hrs 10mins, nearly as long as the 18 km Galibier, but the Alpe was far harder, the steepness was unrelenting and the heat was the worst of the day.
Slip grinds it to the finish
The sense of relief at finishing was immense. No real joy at this stage just plain old thankful to be able to get off the bike and not cycle anymore. That was the hardest thing I have ever done in my whole life. The shear constant effort at the extremes of ability for hours on end is something I never thought I could do, but I did it, and I did it with an unhelpful bottom bracket. 
God knows how, but amongst the hundreds at the finish I bumped into Steve, Stephen and Andy, all had finished much fast than me, but all had suffered just as much as me, especially on the Alpe D'Huez. My ride time was 12 hrs 2 mins the fastest of Team Dave was 9hrs 24 mins official time. My official time was 11 hrs 2 mins, as they deduct the descent of Glandon for your official time. The race winner was a Belgian with a time of 5.5 hours - unbelievable!
Everybody was very tired, Andy had to drive me back to my hotel as I could neither cycle or walk that far. That evening in the restaurant stories were shared and as each hour passed talk changed from never again to if I do it again. By the morning we were going to give it another crack at some point in the future....!
What an experience; great weekend, great challenge, with great friends, what more could anybody want... other than to do it faster next time...
Stu 'Slip' Read

Team Dave return in one piece on the chunnel