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Cracked by the Alps

It’s taken me a while to get round to writing about this race, mostly because it’s taken weeks for me to get over the emotional trauma! Suffice to say, the race didn’t go to plan for me. I came into the race in some of the best form of my life, but for whatever reason – probably a case of getting a bit overexcited and doing too much training the week before in the Alps – I didn’t have it in the race. In a race as tough as Savoie, where some of the best climbing talent in the world takes on a course which finishes uphill literally every stage, if you’re not a your best, then there’s no way to bluff your way through. I mean, even bloody Adam Yates finished 20 minutes down the year before! (Top tip: don’t look at last year’s results before the race has even started).

I don’t want to sound too negative as it was a great experience, but it’s hard to swallow the disappointment when I know that I’m unlikely to ever race over similar terrain ever again. Anyway, here’s how it all went down. (Not many pictures as they don’t take pictures of the back of the race!)

Stage 1

On paper, one of the easiest stages of the week with just three Cat 3 climbs before the final 12km summit finish at Valmeinier, just off the top of the Col de Telegraph. But as pundits the world over love to say: it’s the riders that make the race, not the course. Unfortunately, it seemed like most of the riders were intent on making the race as hard as bloody possible! Unlike in the grand tours where a break will skip away early before being mopped up on the final climb, the first hour was total chaos with riders pinging off the front constantly to form a front group which swelled to 40 strong and was soon zooming off into the distance. Bye!

It was inconceivable to me how the pace could be so high when we still had 3 mountains left to climb. At one point I hitched a ride in a group with the top 2 GC riders from the previous year and thought I was quids in – this was ticket to the front. But flying up the long 3% false flat up the valley at over 40kph, I couldn’t hold the wheel and had to sit up if I ever hoped to make it to the finish. Looking back at my power file, I know I should have been able to make it to the front, but on the day, it just wasn’t happening. By the time the gps ticked over the 50km mark, the race was totally split to pieces and we’d yet to even hit any of the longer climbs. Any hope of a decent result in the race died right there as I struggled to comprehend just what the hell had just happened.

Though the race was over for anyone not in the front group, there was still the matter of getting to the finish within the time cut. Luckily, I’d done just enough to get into a decent group and we got to the bottom of the final climb with loads of time to spare. Though finishing 14 mins down on the winner sounds pretty terrible, I think it would have been wise for me to have lost even more time just to save my legs a little for the following stage! No longer racing, it was simply a case of survival and any extra effort beyond making the time cut was simply wasted. I’d learn to swallow my pride over the course of the week, mostly because I had absolutely no choice in the matter.

The view from our hotel at the finish

Strava

Stage 2

Though the winner of stage 1 had put over a minute into the rest of the field, half his Rusvelo team (of 6) had dropped out of the race already, either missing the time cut or getting DQ’ed for holding onto a car. Thus, any hope of order and control being imposed on the race was out. It was going to be stage 1 all over again only this time we had 150km and 4 Cat 2 climbs to get over. Joy.

Again, a large 30 strong breakaway went clear and again, I managed to get into a small bridging group including the leader of the KOM classification, only to get dropped. When I was picked back up by the bunch, it was the yellow jersey himself driving the relentless pace. A couple of kilometres later, I just managed to stay in the peloton over one of the early uncategorised climbs (still around 2km long), cresting the top literally last wheel. I don’t think I can describe in words just what I was feeling when I glanced back and saw the commissaire’s car - a mixture of dread and fear that sat heavy in the stomach. It was an inevitability that I was going to get dropped, the question was just how far into the stage I could get before it happened.

The answer came pretty soon after as I was dumped unceremoniously out the back door in the opening few kilometres of the first Cat 2 climb. There were still 100km to go in the stage, and honestly, I thought it was curtains for me. I plugged away trying to keep the back of the cars in view, hoping to be able to catch back on the descent. I went over the top and gave it full beans, but within a few minutes I’d already used up one of my 9 lives. A motorbike outrider had inexplicably stopped on the inside apex of a corner while a team car was stopped on the outside. I was coming up on this mess at over 60kph when the team car decided to get going again, veering left as it did so. There was no time to brake so I just had to aim for the gap and hope that my spacial awareness was on cue today. I managed to just squeeze through, feeling the motorbike’s wing mirror graze my left hand side, and shot out the other side having just avoided a pretty serious crash by the skin of my teeth.

Team cars and other dropped riders proved a constant hazard on the technical descent (at one point, there was a bike just lying in the road with no rider to be seen), which led me to another off when I missed a hairpin and ploughed straight into the Armco barrier on the far side. Luckily, I’d managed to slow it down enough so that the worst I came away with was some crushed fingers and a graze on my chin. I hopped back on the bike but by now the adrenaline was pumping and it was all starting to feel like an out of body experience. I made my way gingerly down the rest and sprinted onto the back of the small group at the bottom.

We were absolutely smashing it along the valley going through and off, gaining on the peloton ahead which we could just see in the distance, but just as it looked as though we were going to remake contact with the race caravan, the road tilted upwards again for the 2nd climb of the day.

This one was even longer (only in Savoie is a 14km climb at 7.5% labelled a Cat 2!) and by this stage I wasn’t racing any more, simply surviving. The temperatures were pushing over 30 degrees and the sweat was dripping down into my graze – just another bit of pain to add to everything else. When I passed a sign signally 10km to go to the top having already been toiling away for the good part of 20 minutes I may have let out a tirade unfit to be printed.

I was in a small group of around 5-8 at this point, when a team car pulled up and told us to wait for a big group which was just behind. 15 minutes later, this group still hadn’t shown up and no one around had any sort of clue just where we were in the race. You’ll hear all about the grupetto and how well it’s organised during the Grand Tours, but in a smaller race such as this, there’s rare to encounter that level of cooperation so you can’t really expect a group to come along and just make the time cut.

All the time, our group was swelling and reducing in numbers as riders rode off the front, blew up, or simply packed it all in. At this point, still so far from the finish, I was having a serious internal debate about just what the hell I was doing putting myself through all of this misery. It all seemed so utterly pointless. I’d come to race, but this wasn’t racing, it was just surviving.

Finally, a sign indicated the top of the climb and it was time for a rolling descent into Megeve, before dropping down into the valley and the 2 final climbs up to the Plateau d’Assy on the other side. As if my day couldn’t get any worse, I managed to get stung on the quad by a wasp just as I was picking up speed on the descent. To be honest though, the pain barely registered such was the mental and physical hole that I was in.

The one bright moment of the day came when I was joined by a Euskatel rider who was obviously a pretty good descender and a dab hand at this grupetto business. We bombed the corners with only a single outrider ahead of us leading the way through the caravans and other vehicles which had been let onto the course. The craziness of the whole situation sort of passed me by in the moment, but looking back I realise just how mental some of the stuff which goes on during a bike race is.

The 1st time up the rather steep, but mercifully short at only 5 km, finishing climb was a grind, but we were soon under the finishing banner with the announcer telling the crowed that we were 22 minutes down – our first time check of the day. At that point, relief washed over me: by my reckoning, I’d have at least 18 minutes to lose in the next 10km (5km descent and 5km climb) and I’d still make the time cut. I was going to finish after all. This wasn’t going to be all for naught.

The final time up the climb was even slower if that was even possible – I was barely turning over 50rpm as the gradient shot over 20%. All the while, each quick look over my right shoulder would reveal a terrific view of the Mont Blanc massif, glimmering white against the vivid blue sky. If nothing else, at least I was somewhere special.

And then it was over. 32 minutes down but beyond caring at that point. I slouched into a camping chair and simply stared ahead in numb shock, going over what had happened the past 5 hours. It all felt like a dream. A very bad dream.

Strava

#ruinedselfie

I doubt anything could have cheered me up fully that evening, but the chefs at the race hotel had surely tried their best. The “starter” buffet itself would have been plenty enough for me which quiches, various different types of salad and more colours than I saw during the entire Tour de la Manche. We had 3 different choices for main course and even more for dessert – I left with a full belly even if my legs could barely make it up the stairs.

Stage 3

In theory, the easiest stage of the week at “just” 90km (due to the TT later on in the day) and with only a 3rd Cat climb to Les Gets and the final 20km drag up to the finish in Chatel to contend with. As most racers will tell you though, sometimes the shorter stages are the hardest as the intensity is that bit higher. The length coupled with an early intermediate sprint at the 10km mark and no neutralised section meant that the start was almost like a Kermesse. If you missed your pedal at clip-in then you were at the back of the bunch from the get go!

I found myself in good position at one point and used my momentum to chip off the front for a bit, but nothing was really sticking and I got brought back. There goes my one effort I was thinking. As we hit the climb, things were still all together and the GC boys were coming out to play. The race leader, Mickael Ignatiev had shown some weakness yesterday and had just about held onto his jersey so the other teams were smelling blood and looking to isolate him again.

For my part, I started the ascent reasonably well positioned in the front half of the peloton (or whatever was left of it after yesterday’s sufferfest as 40 riders had abandoned) but began drifting almost as soon as the road titled upwards. At times like this when you are struggling just to hold the wheel, it’s advisable not to look at your powermeter, but I did and what I saw wasn’t encouraging. Power that I could easily hold for over an hour in training, I was struggling to hold for even 5 minutes during the race. I was well and truly f**ked and was dropped before even seeing the “5km to the top” sign which prompted another outburst unfit for print.

Over the top, I got in a small group with a teammate, a few riders from 2 of the other Belgian teams and a Belkin rider (flatlanders unite!), and we got a bit of through and off going in an effort to make the time cut. Even with this effort though, I was on my limit and with 20km to go, I completely cracked, mentally more than anything. I could sense that I was just digging myself deep into a big hole of fatigue which could potentially compromise the rest of my season and for what? It wasn’t like I was even in the race at this point. A stage win was an impossibility, while even just getting into the day’s break seemed so far out of my league that I’d pretty much given up all hope of that.

I hit the lap button on my Garmin, put my hands on the tops and looked around me for what felt like the first time all week. The pressure of the race lifted from my shoulders and it felt good. I was even overtaken by 2 cyclists just out on their Saturday pootle but I didn’t take the bait and stuck to my guns of taking things as easily as possible whilst still maintaining forward motion.

I eventually cruised into the finish after 2.5 hours and was told that in fact, I had made the time cut after all?! Crap. I mulled things over in my head during the lunch provided by the race, but the thought of having to get back into lycra for the time trial was appalling. This was it.

Strava

I asked my directeur sportif if I could DNS the following TT, explaining my reasons: there wasn’t a hope in hell I could do anything on the coming stages and I was just doing myself damage for nothing.

10 mins later and after speaking with the team manager, he came up to my room and handed me a skinsuit. The life of a pro bike rider felt pretty crap at this point.

Stage 4

I’d actually brought along my TT bike (an old model the team bought a couple of years ago) to the race especially for this stage, which, although short at only 9.3km, would be good prep for the national TT the following week where I hoped to go well. Though in no fit physical condition to get a result of any kind, hopefully, the bike would mean I would save a bit of energy in making the time cut. This I calculated to be just over 14 minutes based on a winning speed of about 48kph.

Having swapped my cranks and brake pads over from my race bike, I headed down to the start area to get my bike checked and get in a recce/warm up lap on the course. The UCI regulations concerning time trial bikes had been changed again this year so that the reach measurement was defined to the tip of the shift lever when placed horizontally, as opposed to being measured to the pivot point. This put anyone not riding electronic shifting at a pretty big disadvantage as they immediately lost around 5cm of reach if using old-style shifters which are quite long.

Quite why the UCI felt the need for this change is beyond me as mechanical levers don’t provide extra leverage beyond their pivot point. Most shifters are only ever horizontal when in the biggest cogs at the back, which doesn’t happen an awful lot in TTs. When in the 11 tooth, the shifters are pointing vertically downwards making it impossible to even hold them and thus gain a reach advantage! Anyway, rant over. Sometimes it’s best not to try and comprehend what goes though the minds of a few people in Aigle.

So I rock up to the measuring jig, itself on an incline and wedged with bits of wood taped to the base (hurray for accurate measurement!) and hand my bike to the UCI technical person.

-It’s too long. You must reduce the reach by 2cm

Unconcerned, I explain that as a rider over 190cm tall, I’m eligible for an extra 5cm of reach under the UCI rules. Indeed, I’ve set my bike up on the assumption that I would get this exemption.

-What is your number?
-34
-That number isn’t on our list
-How do I get it on the list?
-We told all directeur sportifs that they had to notify us of any exemptions yesterday after the stage
-…

So I rush back to the hotel (up a bloody hill) and set about pushing my aerobars in as far as they will go: about 2cms worth of difference. Back down the hill, bike on jig…

-It’s too long. You must reduce the reach by 2cm
What the f-?

At this point, there was no way for me to reduce the reach any further as the bars were clamped right up against bottom of the s-bend. I rush back up to the hotel and set about swapping my cranks, wheels and brake pads back onto my road bike.

I just had time for a quick 2 minute warmup before I had to head back down the hill for my start. My bike goes through bike check again and my heart nearly stops as the commissaire whips out a spirit level to measure my saddle angle, but it passes and I’m through. Phew.

The TT course itself was pretty descent, starting off with a fast downhill through town straight after the start (I hit 92kph and I could have gone faster if I’d ridden the course beforehand), before a headwind false flat downhill leading to a roundabout and the gradual climb back up to Chatel for the same finish as Stage 3.

I thought I was going to struggle to make the time cut, especially now that I was on a standard road bike, so I just gave it all from the get go. With 1km to go, I saw that I was easily going to make it inside 14 minutes so I knocked it off a bit. Done, and no chammy time for at least another 12 hours.

Strava

Stage 5

Never have I been so nervous, afraid even, of not even making it to the finish of a race. With two 1st category climbs including a summit finish, this was perhaps the hardest stage of the week, though stage 2 would run it close. Typically on the last stage of these French stage races, anyone dropped from the front will simply pull out of the race meaning that there is no one to form a grupetto, making it hard to get to the finish within the time cut. The situation might be different in Savoie however, as the difficulty and reputation of the race would mean that riders would value finishing the race and keep pushing on even when dropped. Whatever the situation out on the road, it was going to be a tough final day in the saddle.

Like stage 3, there would be no neutralised section today so it was full gas right from the clip in. In fact, the break went right from the whistle and consisted pretty much entirely of riders on the front row at the start. Within 100 metres of the race, they were away and despite plenty of bridging attempts from the peloton, no one could make it across.

At about 10km into the race, we hit a small climb just steep enough to employ the inner chainring. Over the top, I attempted to change back into the big ring but nothing happened. I looked down and sure enough the derailleur was moving, but not enough to make the shift. I gradually drifted towards the back all the while frantically twisting my barrel adjusters to no effect, until I was last man and furiously aero-tucking and spinning out the 39x11 just to stay in contact. Luckily, I only had to hang on for another 10km before we hit the long drag up to the base of the 1st climb where the pace dropped enough for my cadence to drop below 120rpm.

After a good 10km of this 3-4% drag, we turned off right over a bridge and hit the climb of the Plateau de Glieres proper, the same climb we would be tackling from the other side to finish the stage off. Immediately, the road turned into a wall and with a 2nd kilometre at an average gradient of 15.1%, I was soon getting tailed off the dwindling front group. Despite that, I was actually feeling pretty good after my near rest day the day before and was passing quite a few guys who had gone too deep and blown. I found myself riding with a teammate, Australian Tim Cameron our team’s best rider on GC, who was having a hard day. I tried to pace him up the climb as best I could figuring we’d need each other on the flat sections of the stage if we had a hope of finishing.

Just as the road reached the plateau that gives the climb its name (and also site of a key French resistance movement in WW2), the tarmac ended and we were onto gravel roads. This section was identified in the road book, but I had been expecting something akin to the Tuscan strade bianche in smoothness, not the snooker ball sized chunks of rock that now faced my fragile tubulars. At racing speed, it was simply carnage and much too rough to race a road bike over. Still, there was nothing for it but to give it the beans and trust in some of the skills I’d developed racing cross and mountain bikes to get me through. Nearly 2 kilometres later, I popped back onto tarmac and had a look behind. Tim was nowhere to be seen so I decided to stop and try and sort out my front derailleur problem before starting the decent. A minute of faffing later, the cause of the problem still wasn’t apparent so I hopped back on and joined my Euskatel grupetto buddy for the descent. We were then joined by 3 other riders and started pushing to bridge to the group in front on the flats.

At this point, I was still doing my best to keep things spinning in my 39, sitting on the back and tucking during fast sections and then contributing to the pace when the road tilted upwards. Frustrated, I started to try and wrestle the chain onto the big ring with my fingers, but it would consistently drop back down after a couple of seconds. What this fiddling did achieve was that I realised that the problem lay not in the cable tension, but in the fact that my non-driveside crank was gradually working its way off the spindle. In my rush to swap cranks before the time trial yesterday, I had obviously failed to install them properly and then forgotten to check them this morning. It was the lateral play in the cranks – pretty significant at this point – that meant I couldn’t shift.

2km later, shifting became the least of my worries as the left hand crank just came off, still attached to my shoe. At least I’d given it a decent go, but my race had now come to an end. I unclipped and started walking along the road, waiting for the broom wagon to drive past (my team car was ahead of me at this point with the one teammate who was further up the road). A grupetto rolled past me, including a Tim and another of my teammates, so I shouted that my crank had fallen off and watched them ride off. A few metres down the road I came up to an intersection with a police motorbike stationed in the road to prevent traffic from coming onto the race route.

I walked up and asked how far away the broom wagon was.
He said he didn’t know and enquired as to my problem.
I showed him my crank.
-What sort of tool does that need?
-5mm Allen key

To my surprise, he rummaged around in his pannier and whipped out a set of Allen keys, so I set about putting my cranks back together and tightening it all up. I was soon on my way, heart racing, adrenaline pumping, and the use of my big ring at last! What a crazy day this was turning out to be.

Despite having nearly quit the race the day before, I was now pretty pumped up and motivated to finish this thing off. A few kilometres down the road, I came across the team car which had been informed of my problem by my teammates ahead, and had waited for me. The chase back on started first with a bit of motorpacing, before reason prevailed and I just got a big sticky bottle. Hanging on at 80kph, I slingshoted back past the ambulance and into the grupetto.

The rest of the stage was uneventful; the grupetto working well together to make the time cut in the most efficient way possible. I had to stop once more to re-tighten my cranks, but apart from that it was quite stress-free and was got to enjoy some quite wonderful scenery. The final climb was completed safe in the knowledge that we were all going to finish the race – something to be proud of given the high level of the race.

Strava

 

Despite completely cracking mentally on Stage 3, I was glad that I had continued on, even if disappointment still lingered over the sudden disappearance of my form coming into the race. It would have been nice to have come here and given the best of myself, but at least I wasn’t leaving empty handed – I’ve got a few good stories to tell the grandchildren one day.

 

Thanks to the Dave Rayner Fund (@DaveRaynerFund) for supporting my 2014 season in Belgium with team Terra Safety Shoes. In addition to the blog you can catch my day to day ramblings on twitter: @liamtglen

For 5 years, racing was my life and I went all the way from a newbie bonking after 40 miles, to a full-timer plying my trade on the Belgian kermesse scene. Unfortunately, the pro dream wasn't meant to be and these days, you're more likely to find me bimbling about country lanes and sleeping in a bush on the side of the road.

5 comments

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SamShaw [267 posts] 3 years ago
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Another captivating read, well done for finishing - it sounds brutal!

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700c [1130 posts] 3 years ago
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Riveting account of a tough pro stage race, really great blog, and bravo for completing despite the adversity.

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mooleur [537 posts] 3 years ago
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Amazing insight once again, well done dude! Every blog of yours I read just makes me want to buy you guys a HUGE ice cool pint and a slice of cake.

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notfastenough [3725 posts] 3 years ago
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Bonkers. Here we are, glued to the TV for our daily dose of 'the aggregation of marginal gains', while you're caught up in a Benny Hill sketch featuring a man from the UCI that thinks gear levers are an aero advantage, a gendarme wielding Allen keys, and a left leg still attached to part of a bike. Class blog!

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domofarmfrites [20 posts] 3 years ago
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Nice post.

Its good to hear your experiences. I guess though this shows the risk of not tapering for a big race and ibnstead getting carried away with training in the week before it. I would expect though that with a bit of rest you would probably be flying the week or two after such a race!

Also from the profiles, there was probably not much of an effect from altitude, but coming from low altitudes, you may have been at a disadvantage compared to those who regularly live or train in the mountains.

Either way, don't dispair, just keep writing and enjoying your experience  1