The Etape – So I Cycled Up a Mountain or Two

•July 22, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Ready? No? Here we go anyway….

Thanks to the sterling efforts of the drivers Dave & Gair, our party of crack cyclists got to its French base in Saint-Gervais-Les-Bains late Friday before the event without too many mishaps or forgotten luggage, a little shower gel left at our Dover stopover being my only casualty. We will quietly gloss over the bit where we ran over Gair’s helmet en route and our good natured mangling of the French language at the service station stops  (je suis désolé).

The scenery got progressively more interesting as we turned east towards Switzerland (which unfortunately we never quite strayed into) and the mighty French Alps themselves. The mountains  looked almost unreal, like matt backdrops painted by a slightly overly enthusiastic set designer.

 

StGervais

A slightly blurry picture of St Gervias and beyond from our accommodation

 

Saturday saw us cycling  past the start line at Megève up towards the ski resort to the event village to complete our registration and a grab a few Trek goodies. A slight misunderstanding meant that we were not freewheeling down to Megève as thought, but cycling up not an unsubstantial 350 metre odd incline. Who puts their registration point halfway up a mountain? ASO were obviously sadists.

The event village was heaving when we got there, with lots of bike related stalls and a few other sights of interest, like the classic neutral service car pictured below from Tours past. I’m not the most kit focused of cyclists, but it was nice to wander round and look at bikes that were either totally out of my price range, pretty impractical, or both for a change. Foreshadowing the race, the only thing lacking was shade, as it was getting seriously hot.

 

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Retro fun

 

The ride was a chance to gauge fitness ahead of the sportive. My training was on a bit of a knife edge in the run up, trying to get in the requires mileage with a couple of niggling injuries that I didn’t have the time to shake. Too much training and you pick up an injury, too little and the mountains would break you. Despite the taper and ice / anti-inflammatory regime of the preceding week, the day before I was still wincing whenever I got above walking pace. This was going to be interesting.

We were to cycle a reduced Stage 20 of the Tour de France, but while this was a bit of gut punch when originally announced – who wants to be associated with ‘that’ Etape, well known to be a somewhat anemic challenge – as it happens this was to prove a blessing considering the ride to the start line and the fact our car was parked at the top of the mountain that Andy Schleck won in 2010. With these additions, we would be riding more distance and height than the Tour riders on the official stage.

 

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Revised course with Col de la Ramaz removed due to safety concerns

 

Having  got up far too early (a reoccuring theme of my cycle sportives) we arrived at Megève and spent time soaking up the atmosphere. Then with a blast of nerves and excitement off we went, time to put all that training and prep (I had even semi-seriously shaved my legs like a good little cyclist that I’m not really) to good use. No safety briefing on road etiquette, this was on closed roads all the way! They were playing Highway to Hell as my wave crossed the start line, which made me smile.

I’m on my way to the promised land, whoo!
I’m on the highway to hell
Highway to hell
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Welcome to Megeve

 

There were lots of enthusiastic spectators on route, especially clustered around the accessible bits of the climbs and little villages that were strung along the route, with the lots of shots ‘allez, allez, allez!’ (much more motivating than come on!) and the odd cowbell. One enthusiastic wielder  turned out to be an actual cow, so it appears even the farm animals are cycling mad in France. The multi-lingual ASO support staff were also pretty chipper (thanks guys!), handing out much needed goodies, including big wedges of cheese (just to show how wrong all those French stereotypes are!), at the food stops.

The event was actually not as physically punishing as I had feared, I think I found the Lionheart comparatively harder, so the training and kit upgrades since April were obviously working and the injury had cleared up overnight (perfect taper timing it seems). It was the usual fare for me, dropping right out of the back of the wave as we headed downhill then catching up and passing some of them again as we headed up the Flummet ascent.

 

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Going a lot slower than it looks

 

This made pacing a bit hard, as I ping-ponged around groups and I found myself surrounded by slower cyclists on the climbs as the better climbers generally had the descending skills / chutzpah to match. Still it was nice to power past people whenever the road started to head upwards, a contrast to the downhills, which mainly consisted of garbled prayer, incessant brakes and trying to avoid be a nuisance (stay to the right!).

On the flat section, I found myself in a few groups, but all proved too slow in the end. I actually rode off the front of the couple chaingangs (close knit, rotating formation of cyclists) when taking my turn at the front and ended up riding most of it as a lone rider.

 

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More ups please. No really.

 

The threatened thunderstorm had held off but it was punishingly hot as we approached midday and early afternoon. Pushing up the Col de Joux Plane there were cyclists in any patch shade as if discarded by the side of the road. This part was pretty brutal and I was plotting my course not skip past the steeper gradients at the hairpins but to pass through any of the little shade falling on the road.

While the Joux Plane was a bit of a blur (sweat and sun cream is a pernicious combination), the flat sections and relative ease of the early climbs meant that I got to experience a little more of the  amazing, wonderful alpine scenery than usual, when generally the abiding sportive memory is often lycra backsides.

 

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Not too shabby

 

Then after enduring the final descent, I really don’t like downhills, the finish line beckoned. Relief, but there was more to come. In terms of stats:

  • 15,000 registered attendees
  • 11158 finishers
  • 4000m+ climbed
  • Just under 150km (both inc journey to start & bonus mountain) cycled
  • Finish time 7.01.33 (main route only)
  • Overall Place 8766
  • Climbing 1 (Col des Aravis) 00H 29’25”
  • Climbing 2 (Colombiere) 00H 47’33”
  • Climbing 3 (Joux Plane) 01H 30’53”
  • Cumulative real time 02H 47’51”
  • Climb ranking 4766e / 11164
  • Average climbing speed 10.37 km/h

 

Full Strava links to the event can be found here – Prologue / To the Line / Etape / Avoriaz.

 

Finish Line

Not taking the finish pose entirely seriously

 

After collecting some much needed food (& a nifty little cap / medal combo) at the impressive sports centre at Morzine, we had the little matter of climbing an extra col at end of race – Hors Catégorie (HC) Avoriaz. Here the melted tarmac was at its worse, sticking stones, gravel and tar to our tyres and making a horrible noise. Quick tyre pressure release later (having already seen somebody have an explosive blowout on the final descent) and we were back on the bikes for the final effort.

 

Avoriz

Picture on an Avoriaz hairpin bend. Absolutely not an excuse for a rest.

 

Success. Phew. Completing the course meant that at the timing of writing £1,821.65 (plus gift aid) had been raised  for Mesothelioma UK. A big thank you to all to sponsors, big and small, including all the MesoWarriors that follow my mum’s blog. Any last minute donations can be made here.

Monday was a ‘rest’ day. Of course the two maniacs I was with choose to go for 48 mile ride over the local mountain goat trails on their racers, but I contented myself with a short recovery run around St Gervais with its bridges, urban chateau and the dinky little funicular railway up to Mt Blanc proper. After all, need to stay fresh for the next challenge.

Marathon anybody?

 

 

 

 

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Etape Training – Early Days Recap (1)

•May 5, 2016 • Leave a Comment

So last year in a fit of madness and bike related hubris I signed up for the Etape du Tour on 10 July 2016 and this is first of a series of blog posts where I attempt to chronicle the experience and shamelessly solicit for sponsorship money!

Setting the Scene

The Etape is where rank amateurs up to semi-pros tackle a stage of Tour de France a few weeks before the professionals ride over it. Closed roads, feed stations, broom wagons for the dying, the whole caboodle. Indeed, the Etape is generally acknowledged as the pinnacle of the cycling Sportive calendar, due it the participation numbers, route toughness and its draw on the mythos surrounding the Tour itself.

Tour-de-France

Pic 1 – The Peloton sweeps through the south of France  [official tour media]

They generally set the Etape on one of the Tour’s more challenging mountain stages and this year is no exception as we will be riding the Queen Stage – 20: Megève to Morzine. I’ll look at the stage in more depth in a later post, but suffice to say its 89 miles – which is fairly middling in Sportive terms – but it is around 8000 metres of climbing that is the real foe.

Allez, allez, allez!

About Me

I’m a reasonable fit person, pretty competitive and have completed one  Sportive before – the not inconsiderable Dragon. However, I’m not even a club cyclist and let my cycling slip for various reasons post-Dragon back to a resounding zero. To be honest, I’m much more of an explore interesting places and country lanes on a mountain bike type rather than a tapping out a high tempo ride on a carbon beast, bedecked in lycra and all the gadgets. So this will be a challenge to up my cycling game without losing the sense of fun.

Small Beginnings

I started off the year doing a lot more running than cycling due to the weather and often being in different locations to my bikes, so was in the strange position of starting my Etape training being a lot better runner than cyclist. Up to early April (the magic 3 months to go panic point) the plan was simply to slowly increase the length and speed of cycling trips, roughly alternating between faster short trips and longer expeditions. Principal aim:  try not to break myself with too bad an injury in the early days of the season as I get some miles in my legs.

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Pic 2 – Ashton Court’s Giant Head near the beginning of a jaunt along the Strawberry Line

To this effect the start of year saw me heading off to Severnside, cycling round sections Avonmouth still under construction with heavy duty roads, industrial backdrop and nothing else bar yet to be developed, blasted levels. A weird experience akin to the feeling of seeing old power stations on abandoned coasts.

Other more normal places included the Strawberry line; Radstock / Frome, the Kennet & Avon Canal and the ever reliable quick dash to Bath and back, all the while offering a quick prayer of thanks to that most giving of Gods, Sustrans, and its many glorious cycle paths around Bristol. No killer distances, but a nice steady increase when looking back on the training log.

Oh, and I saw a couple rowing a sinking bath tub down the canal at Avoncliffe and didn’t get a photo. Such is Avonlife.

Get Involved Blurb!

If you would like to support my effort and a great cancer charity in Mesothelioma UK you  can sponsor me here. All donations greatly received! You can see my progress on the rather wonderful Strave app here if you’re feeling curious.

Next time out – picking up the pace(ish) and the Lionheart Sportive.

Dragon Tamed

•June 8, 2015 • 1 Comment

This is the companion piece to my last blog post on the Wiggle Dragon Cycle Sportive. Spoiler alert: I survived

Early Starts

Maybe somewhat surprisingly, Dave & I got to Margam Park with little hassle and minimal flaffing around, leaving Bristol at a far too early 7:15am for a night owl such as myself. I’d readied the bike and packed my copious supplies the night before; I even had the chance to tuck into a luxurious second breakfast of marmite sandwiches as we drove over the Welsh border.

As this was a ride into the unknown for me, I had three goals for the day, get round the course before my lift home got bored; not to embarrass myself too badly in front of the proper cyclists and not to finish last. Dave had loftier aims of finishing with a respectable time within top the 3/4s of the Medio Fondo finishers. Then, after bumping into another friend Gair in the event village complex, we were off, gathering speed as we swept in groups past Port Talbot and then out into the hills beyond.

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Quietly confident

Ups & Downs

The hills were, as expected, pretty brutal, but manageable given the hill climbing training I’d done (thank you Dundry!). The difference in riding through the Brecons was actually pretty noticeable though, long climbs and descents as opposed to the quick, steep ups and downs of the rolling Cotswolds, or Mendips landscapes easily accessible from Bristol. The descents were actually more problematic for me, coming off Rhigos the first climb where I was physically shaking at the bottom from the combination of the windchill, possible top speeds and need for hydration.

Note to self: must work on those descents (I blame a couple of past brake failures for my habit of being the slowest cyclist that has ever ridden downhill) and on the hoof drinks if I’m going to do this more often.

The views were impressive with the Welsh countryside basking in the summer sunshine but I have to say I spent most of the time fixated on the road surface and keeping up with the guys in front to appreciate them as much as I should. I might go back later in the summer with a camera and do a slower photo / sight seeing ride because they deserve far more!

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The Devil’s Elbow – the prettiest and steepest part of the course. This is the shallow part!

I only suffered two minor mechanical faults on route, a pothole mis-aligning my front wheel and brakes at the five mile point that gave me a scare with what I thought was a buckled wheel turning out to be a minute’s fix and my gear getting stuck on the middle chain ring on the last climb. I was lucky, I found out later that Gair’s gear changer snapped off with him in top gear 40km out – the Dragon devours bikes!

Apart from the landscape, what really struck me was how different the experience riding the event was over my solo training runs as I have never ‘raced’ and don’t belong to a cycling club. The two feed stations on routes were buzzing with life; having a constant ever changing guard of people around you gives everything a different feeling (a godsend to have a climbing buddy) and no route finding woes – just follow those red arrows (hats off to HumanRace for their organisation) and the steady stream of cyclists disappearing into the distance.

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Out on the course

There’s even cycle sign language that I was only dimly aware of previously, people flashing signs at a dizzying speed for a novice like me. Pothole! Coming through! Beware the raptors! Car! Never mind the buzzcocks!

Finishing Line

Well I didn’t slay the dragon (I think they’re an endangered and protected species in Wales – you can get in trouble for that), but I think I more or less tamed it. I completed the course in 7hrs 31mins and that put me on page 21 of 37 of the provisional results, so I actually didn’t place too badly. My companions Gair and Dave rolled in just over 30 mins before me, impressive guys.

Route Details and Stats courtesy of Strava

https://www.strava.com/activities/320464611/embed/8153149c56e5e7e0f5aa6177b1397bc037ee81fe

All in all it was a great day out. I actually felt pretty okay at the end as good food discipline (feed stations are an amazing concept – turns out I took far too much food with me) and nursing a damaged knee over the last half of the course meant I was pacing myself; had someone given me a bionic leg I reckon the adrenaline would have carried me over a fair few more miles.

I think I’ll probably try the Dragon again in some form or other, but hopefully will continue the learning curve of the last few months as well by embracing new challenges So, maybe the L’Etape du Tour next year?

Oh and you can still sponsor me at JustGiving if you’re feeling generous.

Dragon6

Two cycling stalwarts – Dave & Gair – and some guy, all with precious Dragon medals.

Taming the Dragon

•June 6, 2015 • 1 Comment

Intro

So I thought I’d dip my toe back into the blogging world with a quick post on what’s been happening recently, namely cycling. Lots of cycling. Lots and lots of cycling.

Tomorrow I brave the Welsh mountains as part of the Dragon Ride 2015, my charity event for this year, with my friend Dave. Next year might be triathlon time, at least for me, but this time round we’re sticking strictly to two wheels where I have at least a modicum of natural aptitude. My event flavour (there are five different events under the Dragon Ride banner) is 153km Medio Fondo with just under 8000ft climbing. Gulp.

Training – The Good, the Bad and the Scenic

Let’s get the bad out of the way first. Work complications have meant the majority of my training has fallen into the last two and a bit months, which has been a blur of training rides; relearning and sometimes learning long distance cyclecraft; recovery techniques and fixing bikes. While its not been a half arsed effort (its at least 3/4 arsed or higher!) I have been playing catch up right up to the last minute.

My last real training ride was a 86 mile ride to Avebury stone circle and back to Bristol last Wednesday, which was really too close to the event, but a calculated risk as persistent issues with my racer mean that it was my only opportunity for a long ride on my chosen bike for the event. So far the racer has eaten two pairs of tyres, eight inner tubes and required a gear tune up. Training has also accounted for a broken mountain bike (courtesy of the Dundry Hills); a pair of shoes and my back (I will probably spend more time stretching out it out than my legs on race day).

On the bright side I can now actually  effortlessly change a puncture; have a raft of proper cycle kit and the weather’s been pretty kind, both for training and predicted for tomorrow. No major injuries means I’m feeling pretty positive about completing the event and not embarrassing myself too badly in front of the proper cyclists. I’m even packed my kit!

Dragon3

And finally some of the places I’ve cycled through over the last few months have been just jaw droppingly gorgeous places and routes that I finally got to tick off the ‘list’. Trooper’s Hill within spitting distance but never seen; the Chew Valley on a misty evening; Glastonbury Tor in the sun; the Avon towpath down to Bath; the Strawberry Line and Two Tunnel Sustrans routes and Cheddar Gorge, complete with kids – of the cute goat variety – playing chicken with the traffic and winning hands down.

Dragon1         Dragon2

What’s Next

I plan on keeping the fitness up, though I will probably change emphasis to running in anticipation of getting a few Park Runs sorted and maybe a half marathon or two in the future. And there’s always the Taff Trail ride I kept planning but never quite made it. Then there’s Silbury Hill, Lacock Abbey and Gloucester all within range, so maybe long distance cycling will suck me back in sooner than I think.

Bon voyage!

Links

If you’d be so kind as to….Sponsor Me!

Details of….The Dragon Ride

Zombie Interlude (and other menaces)

•July 8, 2011 • 1 Comment

It what appears to be re-occurring theme of this blog it’s more zombies today in a slightly whimsical interlude. Unintentional, but I obviously have zombies on the brain.  Brains! Grrr. Argghh!

In the wake of the shocking news that Leicester City Council is horribly unprepared for the forthcoming zombie apocalypse, back in Bristol we can sit back in our top of the range survival shelters knowing that the mighty and wonderful Bristol City Council have their fingers on the pulse (or lack of it). Their wide ranging contingency plans include alert status on ambient zombie levels and useful tips for staff that include remembering to “fully disconnect the brain-stem from the body through either blunt force or full head removal.”

A friend of mine had understandable concerns upon closer study of the leaked formerly top secret document, which also covers the partial exemption and accreditation of the more versatile Council staff in the training to handle pirate outbreaks and for spotting the difference between genuine hot air balloons and evil, giant, floaty space aliens.

She correctly points out the guidelines don’t mention if the pirates would be old school pirates, Hollywood pirates or Somali pirates.  Is this connected to why a trained and accredited zombie situation handler would only be considered partially cross-accredited to deal with a pirate outbreak? Does it depend on the respiration status of the pirate?

However, I can exclusively reveal that sources close to the Council have assured me that the so called Zombie Pirates Menace is a well known cross pollination of recognised threat types and are fully confident that the Council have this scourge well covered (possibly with a rusty boarding pike and swivel gun?) as part of their existing worst case scenarios.

While the ravages associated with the more standard pirate tropes are harder to combat, lacking as they do a number of post-mortis vulnerabilities, we can be thankfully a world wide shortages in parrots and pieces of eight (due to tighter trafficking legislation and growing levels of Chinese consumption) means that they tend to be limited to specific Bristolian environs like King Street and thus can be avoided with care (until we go on holiday or emigrate).

I just fear the inevitable crossbreeding of ninjas & pirates, and this fateful day is coming my friends, for then the civilisation as we know it will crumble and be scattered as dust to the four winds. Though, for record, I welcome our new ninja pirate overlords and their reign of tyrannical enlightenment.

More Post Are On Their Way

•June 26, 2011 • 1 Comment

Review: The Disappearance of Alice Creed

•May 19, 2011 • Leave a Comment

So with the chemical cocktail of whatever local anesthetic they use for dental work still coursing through my veins, I will now attempt to write some coherent film related sentences and then place them roughly in the right places. That stuff really does weird stuff to my head, never the most orderly place to begin with!

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a taut, lean thriller starring Gemma Arterton, the incomparable Eddie Marsden and Martin Compston. You should bear in mind that it can be a pretty brutal ride in parts, if lacking the sustained overt violence of some films. It also has one of the best opening set ups I’ve seen in quite a while. Dialogue can be overrated sometimes.

The story line is tightly focused around the kidnap of the eponymous Alice Creed and the resultant fallout. The film doesn’t shy away from what a nasty, degrading business kidnap is and for this it should be commended. I can’t comment too much on what follows plotwise without compromising the many twists the film throws our way.  As a low budget thriller, you pretty much expect impressively acrobatic leaps and fast paced character development. As always the trick is guessing where they will fall and hoping they mesh organically into the narrative.

Simply put, most of these dramatic contrivances work on a basic level, but some don’t. Together they push the credibility boundary a little too far on occasion and you end up with the feel of a thought experiment writ large playing out before your eyes. Much like the excellent (and better) Hard Candy (incidentally my curveball choice along with Casablanca and Once for Valentine’s viewing), which you could never take at face value, but suffered less from this altered reality approach. Alice Creed also glosses over a few things, the final execution of the kidnap plot’s end stages for example seems to be lacking the fastidious preparation of the earlier sections and frankly seem a bit half arsed.

So maybe not a true to life thriller or textbook exercise in logic, it plays fast and loose with reality a little too much for that, but an interesting cinematic experience nevertheless. I knew one of the major plot points going into the movie and I think it would have been a better experience going in fresh and in a state of constant suspension.

The film does score highly for the acting on show, essential given the pared down cast, with Eddie Marsden winning the acting crown hands down with his unshowy performance as the grizzled ex-con Vic. The film feels almost theatrical in tone in places given its claustrophobic setting and unremitting focus on the three leads. You could see this story working well on the stage with minimal adaption and that’s a compliment as far as I’m concerned.

A well directed first feature outing for J Blakeson, the story benefits from his dynamic, cut down style that flows well from beginning to well executed finale. The middle section is where maybe where the film loses its way slightly with maybe one too many plot holes and turns for its own good.

Finally the well scored ‘action’ sequences (mainly carried out at walking pace!) that bookend the film deserve a favourable mention. In fact the use of sound is pretty much spot on throughout without ever taking centre stage.

Despite missing a few beats here and there, The Disappearance of Alice Creed is well worth checking out for some low budget British crime fare that ain’t all about the geezers and cockney wideboys.

Rating 71/100