Tuesday 28 August 2012

Haute Route: Ride, rinse, repeat

05:15 Do dooby do, de do doo... Do dooby do, de do doo...
05:15 and 15 seconds. Grab phone. Swipe off the alarm. Time to move.

Departure for the first stage was at 07:15, which meant that breakfast at the hotel was from 05:15. Early eating was essential if we weren't to start the stage still bloated with stuffed-in croissants, coffee and carbs. My personal strategy was to start with a recovery drink the moment I woke up, to get the first major dose of calories into the system with the minimum of chewing. Chewing wasted energy.

05:25, leave the room (full of banana flavour powder and water) and get to breakfast. The ten minutes between the alarm and going out also included dressing (normal clothes) and applying sun tan lotion to the head. This was probably the most important thing I learnt on the whole trip. Get your lotion on early to allow it to absorb, cutting down on the chances of sweating it out and into my eyes later on. Breakfast was either coffee and a small ham roll (for me) or coffee, muesli, yoghurt, juice, banana, croissant with ham and cheese, coffee, pain au chocolat stuffed with ham and strawberry jam, coffee and coffee (for David). That boy can eat. He also takes around 5 coffees to get fully concious, which provided many moments of amusement over the week as he kept bumping into walls and forgetting exactly why he was in France.

06:00, back in the room. Apply arse lard, dress in bike kit, make drink bottles, sun lotion rest of body, stuff jersey with pre-selected snack selection, pack day bag with recovery drink and sandals, pump tyres, attach Garmin, pocket route cards, phone and cash, put on helmet, gloves and sunglasses.

06:40, leave for the start.

06:45, arrive at the start. Hand in day bags, which would be available at the finish. Mill around. Chat. Try and sound confident. Look for fat people. Fail.

David and Tony were confident enough to join the self-selecting "elite" group on the first day. On subsequent days this would be limited to the top 75 riders. On the first day, anyone who felt they had a chance of the top 75 could join it. Half the field chose the elite group.

07:15, unleash hell. Or rather, unleash heck as we rolled gently out of town, Europop ringing in our ears. We left in groups of about 50 people, initially led by a moto. Over the first 20km or so the groups would compress and expand like a bicycle slinky, crushing up to near stationary at corners before expanding into longer lines on the straighter sections.

There were two starts to each stage - the first section was always untimed and therefore neutralised, with no racing allowed. This meant that we avoided any frantic action when people were tightly bunched up at the beginning. Everyone had an RFID tag on their bike so we were timed individually from when we each crossed the timed start line to when we crossed the finish.

Of course, once we realised that any faffing before the timed start didn't affect our times, something happened just before the line. The mass piss. Bodies everywhere, weapons in hand. I feared for the vegetation. I pitied the women who had to observe this and find somewhere slightly more discrete (behind a Mavic service car seemed to be popular).

On the first day, as we hit the first categorised climb (Col de Romme, 9.5km at 8.8%), you could spot the UK riders who'd never been up a real mountain. They attacked as if they were hitting a 200m Cotswold lump, and suddenly found themselves in a little trouble when it carried on... and on... and on... David told me that in the front group, someone who'd overestimated their ability was walking 250m into the climb. Oops.

I geared back (lowest please!) and settled into a rhythm. Admittedly, I was slightly excited too and probably went harder than I should have. I overtook plenty of people but I wouldn't climb as hard on any other day. Over the top of the climb I quickly topped up my bottles at the feed station and swept down the descent.

Mmm, swoopy.

Argh, crampy.

Another lesson. When you've climbed quite hard, you'll build up all kinds of crap in your muscles. If you let your legs cool on the way down, when you want to use them again they won't be happy. Almost everyone I spoke to after the first day complained that they were cramping on the inside of their thighs, near the knees. Almost everyone had never had this before. The solution? Pedal hard downhill whenever you could. The cramp never came back.

120km and three Cols after starting I arrived at Megeve. Another routine to learn.

Finish. Stop moving.
Finish plus 5 minutes, start to move again.
Finish plus 10 minutes, find the bike park. This was secure and also contained our day bags. Store the bike, grab the bag. Put on sandals. Find some water, make the recovery drink. Drink.
Finish plus 15 minutes, fail to stretch. I can do that later.
Finish plus 20 minutes, get some lunch. Each stage finish provided hot food - some kind of salad, some hot protein and carbs, veg and a dessert. The lunches varied from tolerable to "I'd pay for that in a restaurant", no mean feat with mass catering. Find team-mates and co-riders, eat as if I'd not eaten for a week.
Finish plus 40 minutes, find the hotel.

After day three this routine was pretty much nailed. There were variations - sometimes some gasping on the floor was involved, sometimes an extended volley of abuse at the course designers. Once I felt fine.

The rest of the day consisted of washing, eating, sleeping, failing to find the Vuelta on the TV, failing to get a decent wifi connection and failing to find a decent restaurant. Actually, in Megave we found one of the better ones of the trip. By 10pm we were back in the hotel room, pinning numbers on jerseys and getting food ready for the next day.

Set the alarm for 05:30.

Ride, rinse, repeat.

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