Sunday, August 11, 2019

From the Archives - Riding La Marmotte - Part II


This is the second part of the heart-wrenching (for me) tale of racing La Marmotte, a 108-mile cyclosportive race in the French Alps I did in 2003. For the first half, click here.

La Marmotte Part II – July 5, 2003

At the halfway point, the race seemed to be going just about perfectly: after my audacious full-throttle ascent of the Col du Télégraphe, my heart rate was back down to a sensible 162 bpm, my average speed was 16.7 mph (seemingly on track to best that of the previous year’s winner), and I found myself in a small group of very elite looking guys, exceeding my own expectations.

There was just one problem: it was here that I cracked.

Something had given. Some bodily threshold had been exceeded. Something had gone wrong with the human machine. There was no sound of the transmission dropping out and landing on the ground, but I did feel that sudden loss of power your car suffers when, say, the timing belt breaks, leaving you just enough juice to get over to the shoulder if you’re lucky. But I wasn’t lucky: I had half the race to go.

Perhaps one day sports medicine will have everything figured out, and the exact cause of such a meltdown will be easily and precisely diagnosed. It wasn’t a blood sugar crash; I’ve had that and know what it feels like. This was different. I found myself struggling just to keep going. The short descent to the feed station at Valloire had become long, and felt like a climb.

Had I missed it? I asked a couple of guys in the group where the food was; actually, I tried to ask, but in my turmoil couldn’t form the sentence properly in French. Or maybe the words were right but the volume was too low. Finally a guy seemed to understand: he motioned toward his mouth and said “manger?” I think French wasn’t his first language, either. I nodded. “One kilometre,” he said. It ended up being two, and very long ones at that.

The feed station was a couple of card tables. The guys working it kept asking if I wanted water. They’d evidently not heard of Gatorade, the word I thought would best convey the idea of caloric drink. I started shouting, “Sucre, sucre!” and one of the guys finally got the point. He filled my bottles with a liquid the color of weak lemonade or dirty water. I grabbed a few handfuls of dried apricots before pedaling onward, beginning the bleak climb up the Col du Galibier. I cannot recall feeling more despondent, before or since. Where was my body, the good one that had worked so well? What was happening to me? And how could I possibly make it all the way to the finish, with the fearsome Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez still to come?

The energy drink was so weak I thought it might be water. I plodded along, already in my lowest gear, not quite believing what I still had to do. My legs were now impotent Wiffle bats, and either my heart wasn’t being asked for more than 145 beats per minute, or it couldn’t fill a bigger order. Everything had gone slack; pedaling hard was like trying to pluck a broken guitar string. I started getting passed by my competitors. Finding the road ahead too depressing to contemplate, I stared miserably down into the ravine off to my right, and saw an actual marmot down there. It was running, half tumbling, and I was surprised how big it was. Shaped like a groundhog, it was the size of a dog. It finally tumbled through a hole in the ground into its underground lair. Where could I go?

I ground my way up the climb, looking down occasionally at the switchbacks below, seeing rider after lone rider, the original packs having exploded long ago. Though many of my competitors looked as wretched as I felt, others had doubtless been pacing themselves, biding their time, and would finish strong. Occasionally I would marvel at how quickly I was gaining elevation—the Galibier forces you to—but at other times I would look up at the mountain ahead, the dizzying switchbacks, the increasingly stark landscape, and feel despair beating at my door.

It was an amazing road, very exposed, rather bleak but oddly pretty against the backdrop of formidable snow-covered peaks. As I passed above the timber line, vegetation became sparse and the air grew chilly. Though it had been hot on the Télégraphe, there was still snow up here. I ate apricots as often as I could (even in the cold air, the sweat leaching through my jersey had completely rehydrated them), and kept working on my bottles until they were empty.

The road narrowed. Signs posted by the race organizers taunted me with the number of kilometers remaining. The remaining switchbacks, of which there were quite a few, were all laid out before me, in plain view, a scaffold of fiendishly steep roads, like a parking garage, and I began to bitterly resent the very idea of subjecting humans to such a thing. This climb is sick, I thought. The whole enterprise seemed an abomination.

My calf muscles started cramping up, for the first time in my life. They threatened to go from pliant muscle to useless stone. Each time a calf hardened, I had to back off and let it recover, over and over. I was on the verge of panic, fearing my legs would lock up and I’d tip over.

Toward the summit, spectators began to appear. There is a certain breed of French spectator—maybe not even a breed but a single one, though I noted his presence often enough to assume a whole race of men—who is a connoisseur of suffering, who studies it intently like a sommelier sampling a fine wine. I encountered one such fellow, a small man with a dark beard, on the last kilometer of Galibier. To say he cheered me on isn’t exactly right: he saw right into me, touring my pain as if exploring a dark cave. To borrow from Poe:
Deep into that darkness peering,
long [he] stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams
no mortal ever dared to dream before.
He made a gesture, holding his hands low, palms up, fingers curling and uncurling, and murmured gently in French, making a throaty rumbling sound like the burbling coo of a pigeon. It was encouragement, to be sure, but scaled to the nature of my endeavor, so much more attuned than someone shrieking “Go, go!” or “Allez, allez!” I don’t know that I felt inspired, but at least I felt appreciated, that I hadn’t suffered unseen. 

The very top of the climb finally came into clear view, and I realized this was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen, on as perfectly clear a day as could possibly be. The distant snow-covered peaks looked like you could reach out and touch them. The atmosphere, completely free of glare, fog, and mist, seemed to shimmer somehow, and sparkle. And yet, I couldn’t enjoy it—imagine trying to take in a masterpiece of landscape painting while somebody strikes you repeatedly with a hammer. As I crested the summit, cheered by a large handful of what seemed, at least in my quasi-delusional state, to be a group of old French peasant women from the countryside, I felt that I would weep, if only I had the energy.

Once I began the descent from Galibier, I felt like a bike racer again. For maximum aerodynamic advantage, I didn’t put my jacket on. Sure, the air was frigid, but what’s a little cold when your entire body is screaming out in anguish? I took the curves good and fast, and though I only passed a couple of guys, I’m sure I extended my tenuous lead over many of the riders behind me. Moreover, I was going fast, and for awhile could forget how weak I was. I didn’t kid myself that the resting would do me any good—that would be like “fixing” a TV with a burned out tube by letting it sit awhile. But as the road flattened out somewhat and a group of six or eight guys caught me, I was able to do my share of the work and we were making good time.

It’s close to 30 miles from the top of the Galibier to the base of Alpe d’Huez, and I was relieved to be in a pack as we were fighting a stiff headwind. One of the guys in the group was massive—I reckon he was a Dutchman—and he and I took up the bulk of the work. Since powering on the flats uses different muscles from climbing, I was riding fairly well and my spirits improved a bit. (Going through tunnels in a group, by the way, is kind of a trip. Needless to say you have to have complete trust in your fellow riders; you can’t see each other too well in the dark and have to be very smooth. I enjoyed the visual effect of seeing only the silhouette of the rider ahead of me, like a paper cutout against the light at the end of the tunnel.)

Around 10 miles from Bourg d’Oisans (my grasp of distances, in fact of numbers in general, was shaky at this point), we hit a small climb steep enough to require the small chainring. To my horror, I threw my chain. A guy in the pack pushed me along while I tried to shift the chain back on. A nice gesture (if also pragmatic), but it was in vain. I had to stop to put the chain back on, and watched miserably as the group rolled away without me. Fighting the headwind by myself the rest of the way to the base of Alpe d’Huez, still with empty bottles, losing even more time to the crush of riders behind me, brought my morale all the way back down to Galibier levels, maybe even lower.

I rolled into the second feed station, drank a big bottle or two of water, and ate a million orange slices while a woman filled my bottle with Coke. This was the same woman, by the way, who served the hot lunch back in elementary school, whom I would watch slopping the food grumpily on the tray on those sad days when I forgot my sack lunch. The intervening decades have done nothing to improve her cheerless attitude. But then what was I expecting, Mary Lou Retton?

I hit the road again, pleased to have, at last, a full-strength sugary drink to help me up the climb. Then I remembered my emergency medical stash: two Tylenol and a NoDoz in my jersey pocket. I reached in there and felt around, and all my fingers found was a paste of completely dissolved tablets. I considered smearing this into my mouth, but it was hot now and I’d probably hurl.

Just before the road started to go up, a large pack of riders, maybe 10 or 12, passed me at a good clip. It was a menacing reminder that, poorly as I’d been riding, I still had a vast number of racers behind me and a potentially decent position to defend. My ride time at this point was a bit under 6 hours and 15 minutes. If (hypothetically speaking) I rode Alpe d’Huez as fast as I’d done it in training, my goal of 7 hours for the whole course was still within reach.

But of course I wasn’t going nearly as fast as before. It was a slog.

I can’t recall exactly when I got Ravel’s “Bolero” stuck in my head. Normally my brain chooses rock music as accompaniment for cycling. A short climb on a training ride might invoke the guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”; on a particularly fast team ride recently my mental deejay chose Beck’s “Loser” (perhaps for ironic effect); and on the Col de la Croix de Fer earlier in this race I’d somehow dug up “Gates of Steel” by Devo. I almost never get classical music. But the utterly repetitive, plodding dum-de-de-de-dum, de-de-de-dum, de-de-de-dum-dum-dum foundation of “Bolero” matched my cadence and my eternity of rote suffering pretty well. In fact, my fried brain left out most of the more interesting melodies laid on top of this backdrop, and created a new extended dance mix of just the dum-de-de-de-dum business. It was the quasi-musical equivalent of a prison sentence, and thus perfectly appropriate.

Rider after rider passed me. Looking for some vestige of athletic dignity, I made a habit of checking their numbers. A low number meant a high finisher last year whom I’d caught and dropped earlier—slightly less demoralizing than a high number, indicating someone who’d not finished high before, maybe a first-time Marmotte rider like me, and moreover someone who may have started well behind me, maybe even minutes behind me, who had paced himself perfectly throughout the ride and would use the entire Alpe d’Huez climb to pass people. The majority of the riders overtaking me did have low numbers, and were obviously classy riders I couldn’t be ashamed of losing to. But among them were also high numbered riders whose form wasn’t even that good, whose bikes were older and lesser than mine, who didn’t have team jerseys—riders I know wouldn’t be passing me had I not completely botched the race by going too hard on the Col du Télégraphe.

The switchbacks on Alpe d’Huez are numbered, in descending order as you climb, so in theory you can mark your progress, like a countdown. But this only helps when you feel like you’re actually making progress, like the distance between switchbacks isn’t stretching out before you.

Alpe d’Huez had a lot more spectators than the Galibier, but many were there to cheer specific riders, and others seemed to be observing the spectacle without really engaging with it emotionally. Sure, a great many did cheer, but I couldn’t help notice others who looked at me with pity. Others seemed to consider me almost contemptuously, as you would look upon a scabby, humiliated dog wearing a giant satellite-dish collar.

Here and there I encountered the connoisseur-of-suffering type, always a small, bearded Frenchman, always making the finger-curling gesture and the rumbling burble of encouragement. (Could it have been one guy, somehow zipping ahead on the course? Or maybe a hallucination?) In most cases what I was seeing was not a lack of enthusiasm, but rather a kind of restraint, as though spectators were thoughtfully letting me die in peace.

One fellow told me, in French, that if I would sit down in the saddle he’d give me a push. Unfortunately my sluggish brain only parsed the sentence some 10 or 15 seconds after the fact, so I didn’t sit down; even so, he did give me as good a push as possible without crashing me. The climb went on and on, and finally after the last switchback I knew I was near the end. At this point I saw two riders in my sights and decided to pass them. After all, I had to feel like I was beating somebody. I managed to get by them, but they weren’t exactly fighting.

Finally I reached the top. Alpe d’Huez had taken more than an hour and fifteen minutes, almost half an hour longer than it had in training. I hit the flat section at the top and began sprinting, not for any particular reason other than to get the last bit over with. There was fencing set up along the sides, and some turns, and thick crowds, and I did have the thrilling feeling of going pretty fast. Not because I was, of course, but because I was finally on a flat road—it’s the same phenomenon that produces the feeling of floating over the ground after you’ve been on a treadmill for half an hour. A couple hundred meters from the line I even had the presence of mind to zip up my jersey. The road was slightly downhill now and I flew toward the line, spotting Erin and my mom right there on the sidelines, cheering me on. I crossed over the black pad that stopped my timing chip, but was so disoriented I didn’t grasp its purpose. For some reason I expected some official to come wave a wand of some kind at my ankle. I tried to pose a question to the riders around me and got nothing but exhausted, blank stares. Finally I realized I was really done.

My family found me right away and my mom conjured up a ice-cold Coke.

I straddled my bike for awhile, trying to figure out what to do. I could barely stay up, but climbing off the bike meant lifting a leg high enough to clear the saddle, and I wasn’t sure that was possible. So I just slumped over the bars and mourned my awful ride.

I managed to dismount and collapsed on a patch of grass. I wasn’t even prepared to deal with the Coke. Erin was excited, figured I’d had a great ride, and had no idea how emotionally crushed I was. She asked me how it went and after I felt I’d regained enough composure to talk, I tried to answer her. But what could I say? “I blew it,” I finally said. A wave of feeling poured over me, something between relief, awe, and despondence. After six months of intense training, burning off more than 20 pounds of extra body mass, and all the psyching up for this one event, I almost had a brilliant ride but instead fell far short. What difference might better judgment have made? I was having difficulty explaining myself, and difficulty trying to eat, and eventually found myself sobbing into some orange slices.

Erin couldn’t understand. I’d looked pretty fast to her, having finished before she’d really expected me to—especially, she said, since the form and physique of the riders who’d come in before me seemed, to her, much better suited to such a course.

I lay back on the grass and Erin held a jacket over me to block the sun. She was a bit concerned. I didn’t look so good.

After I rested awhile I felt better, and after a kiss from my little daughter was able to smile a bit.

Even so, Erin insisted I get checked out in the medical tent. One medic looked me over and then called in another guy, a big bearded dude with yellow teeth and cigarette breath, who explained that my body was having trouble re-oxygenating. He talked for some time, and the odd thing is I understood everything he said, though he was speaking French at a very fast clip. He prescribed pasta. Within half an hour I felt well enough to pick up my diploma and medal, turn in my timing chip, and make it back to the car.

Looking back now, I’m not completely displeased with my performance. As badly as I blew up on the Télégraphe, I did manage to salvage the ride somewhat, and I only missed my (albeit arbitrary) goal by 23 minutes. And to have achieved the fitness I needed even to compete in such a thing is something I hadn’t done in 12 years. Now that I know the course, and what not to do, it seems a shame not to put that knowledge to use … so I hereby resolve to return to France one day to settle my score with La Marmotte…

My Stats

*I don’t have the rate of vertical gain for the Télégraphe or the Galibier... I was too shattered to remember to start and stop the lap timer on my altimeter.

  • The winner, Laurens Ten Dam, was from Holland and finished in 6:07:04, a new course record. [Ten Dam went on to ride for pro teams including Rabobank, Giant-Alpecin, and CCC, and finished 9th in the 2014 Tour de France.]
  • The second place rider was also Dutch, and finished only 41 seconds behind. (My wife, driving up Alpe d’Huez during the race, was able to watch these two duking it out.) Third place went to a Frenchman, 3½ minutes behind second.
  • The top woman finisher was French, 36 years old, and placed a very impressive 50th with a time of 6:55:19. There were 72 female finishers under age 40, and 36 who were 40 or older.
  • The top finisher in the men’s 40-49 age group was a Frenchman, age 42, who finished in 10th overall with a time of 6:29:14. The top men’s 50-59 was age 54, from Andorra in a stellar time of 6:49:35 (31st overall). The top men’s 60+ was 62, from France, in 8:03:04 (496th overall).
  • The youngest men’s finisher was 16, from France, in 10:00:43 for 2,475th place. The youngest woman was 20, from Holland, in 10:32:40 for 3,039th place. There were two 71-year-old men, one from Belgium and one from France, finishing in 11:50:47 (4,036th place) and 12:52:26 (4,457th place) respectively. The oldest woman was 48, from Holland, in 13:05:39 (4,486th place).
  • The last finisher clocked in at 13:49:40, an average speed of 7.9 mph.
One American beat me: a 42-year-old who placed 91st (20th in his age category) with a time of 7:07:21. I’d hoped to be the top American. But then, I’d hoped for a lot of things.

Here is a breakdown of where the 2003 finishers hailed from. (Not listed: the ~2,000 who dropped out.)

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

From the Archives - Riding La Marmotte - Part I


Since 2003, I’ve been an occasional contributor to the Daily Peloton. A few years ago, my stories there vanished due to server problems, and then the magazine went offline altogether. Recently it’s come back up, but all of their archives are gone. I don’t know if these will ever be restored, so over time I will re-post my Daily Peloton stories here. What follows is the first article I ever submitted. It concerns an ill-fated bike race I did in the French Alps a lifetime ago. (Update: Part II now posted here.)

La Marmotte – July 5, 2003

What is La Marmotte?

La Marmotte is a French “cyclosportive” (like a granfondo), which pits riders against each other but also scores each rider according to his or her time. The top riders really race, while the less sportive aim for a bronze, silver, or gold “diploma.” Many of the 6,000+ riders are just hoping to finish. The route is a 100-mile circuit over three of the toughest Alpine passes of the Tour de France, followed by the 8-mile slog up the legendary Hors Categorie Alpe d’Huez, for a total of about 17,000 feet of climbing. La Marmotte has been held for some thirty years. A Belgian journalist told me it’s a rite of passage for any Belgian who wants to call himself a cyclist. It is most popular among the Dutch and the French.

My Background

I began bicycle racing at age 11 in 1981, in Boulder, Colorado. From 1984 to 1985 I worked for the Coors Classic bike race. I moved to California in 1987 and continued racing, mostly at the collegiate level, with the highlight being a national title in the team time trial in 1990. Following college I have continued to ride, and recently joined a local Berkeley-area team, East Bay Velo Club. I learned of La Marmotte from my brother Geoff, who lives in Holland. I decided to get as fit as possible this spring and then return to racing for one day.

Course Recon

The Tuesday before La Marmotte I drove, with my mom, my wife, and my 18-month-old daughter to Le Bourg d’Oisans so I could ride Alpe d’Huez, atop which the race finishes. The place was already swarming with cyclists, either training, doing reconnaissance, or simply being seen. It was starting to sprinkle when we stopped just outside of town to unload my bike. By the time I started the ride, it was raining in earnest, which seemed fitting weather for such an epic climb.

The Alps are not like any mountains I’ve ever seen. They are much more abrupt than the Rockies and the Sierras, by which I mean they have no foothills. They’re like cartoon mountains that kids draw, steep and spiky and sharp. After just a few of the 21 switchbacks, I could look down at the town below as though I were in a helicopter.

It was very motivating to be on such a famous—and grueling—climb, especially with all the other riders, and I hammered all the way up. My time to where the climbing ended (a few minutes shy of where I later learned the finish line would be) was 47 minutes (ten minutes off Marco Pantani’s record).

On Thursday we drove the whole course so I could ride the descents. (I’d read about how difficult and dangerous these were.) Driving up the Col de la Croix de Fer, we couldn’t believe how long it was, and how steep. No way! I kept thinking. As I later learned, this climb is also Hors Categorie.

At the top it was sprinkling, and very cold, and it took some gumption to get out of the warm car and begin the descent. The first section was very technical, steep with lots of hairpins, but smooth. About halfway down the road passed through some villages and changed to a lousy chip-and-seal surface with lots of loose gravillons, as the signs warned—slippery, coarse gravel. I slid around a bit and learned that you cannot brake or steer when on the loose sections—you have adjust your course beforehand and roll over them as passively as possible. The rain picked up, and the road got slick. Despite the cloud cover, there was enough glare to produce a terrifying effect: when I entered the first tunnel I suddenly became completely blind. There were no lights! I felt like I was falling through space for several seconds before my eyes adjusted.

The next few tunnels were lit, perhaps only because they had sharp curves in them. One tunnel ended right at a ninety-degree turn. This was really one of the sketchier descents I’ve ever done. The idea of doing it in a pack, especially given the range of skill levels represented by an event that draws from totally flat places like Holland and the UK, was frankly pretty scary. I decided to ignore the advice of a Belgian team staying at my hotel, and to do the Croix de Fer good and hard on race day, to get free of as many of the larger groups as I could.

After the descent, the route follows some narrow, flat roads through a couple of towns and then heads up the Col du Télégraphe, a really steep (and arguably underrated) 2ème Categorie climb. It peaks near the town of Valloire, to which the road descends briefly before the start of the Col du Galibier. (The climbs are practically contiguous.) The Col du Galibier, another Hors Categorie, is the most formidable of Marmotte’s climbs. It’s over 11 miles at an average grade of 7%, and peaks at almost 9,000 feet elevation.

It was very cold at the Galibier summit where, with a sense of resignation, I took the bike out of the back of the car and assembled it again for the descent. The pavement here was very good—clean and fast, though with lots of curves, some of them very tight. After plunging past the summit of the Col du Lautaret, about halfway down, the road straightened out a bit and went through several more tunnels. This brought us back to Bourg d’Oisans and the road up Alpe d’Huez to the finish.

Just driving the course was oddly exhausting. In fact, after a large lunch on Friday at an outdoor café in Bourg d’Oisans, as I idly watched cyclists go by, I was suddenly overcome with dread and began to wonder why I ever wanted to do this thing. It was a pit-in-the-stomach sense that I’d made a huge mistake. (Fortunately, by the time I digested that meal, I was fully amped up again.)

The race

I slept poorly the night before the race and was awake before the alarm. The saintly proprietor of our inn, the Hotel Panoramique, had arranged a pasta breakfast for the riders at 5:15, but I was too nervous to fully enjoy the camaraderie or even the food. My wife and I parked the car a quarter mile from the starting point, a supermarket at the base of Alpe d’Huez. I offered Erin a ride to the start line on my bike, but she wouldn’t have it. I arrived and was routed to the area for numbers 400-2000. I was 908, a relatively low number based on my early registration, but being this far back would mean probably never having contact with the leaders. The throng of riders stretched as far as I could see.

Stupidly, I still had the key to our rental car in my pocket, and when the start time approached, and my wife hadn’t shown up, I began to worry. Without the key, she would be stranded in Bourg d’Oisans, my mom and daughter would be stranded at our inn in Mizoen, and nobody would be waiting for me at the top of Alpe d’Huez. I found some fellow riders willing to hold my bike, and I took off looking for Erin, running through the throngs in my cycling shoes. Thousands of riders and spectators crammed into the parking lot and its feeder roads, and I was despairing. Ten minutes before the start I finally spotted Erin running toward me. (She’d been misrouted.) We got back to my bike with just minutes to spare before the start. You could say I was warmed up.

I lost four minutes just getting past the start line. Once I got onto the open road and began hammering, it was like one of those racecar video games—I was passing people continuously, weaving through them and the countless support vehicles. All the way to the bottom of the first climb, I was in my top gear, doing thirty. At the base of the Col de la Croix de Fer, I could see streams of riders several switchbacks up ahead. How demoralizing.

I set a very high tempo all the way up the climb, continuing to pass massive numbers of people. The farther along I got, the higher the caliber of the rider. My legs were very good and fresh, and I was keeping my heart rate at about 162 bpm, 87% of my maximum. (I thought this should be sustainable because during the Markleeville Death Ride in 2001, I was above 160 bpm for 2 hours and 25 minutes.) At the summit of the Croix de Fer, my average rate of vertical gain was 4,260 feet per hour, which cycling coach Stefano Ferrari says is fast enough for a peloton finish in a Tour de France mountain stage. Things were looking up.

On the descent I caught a small group, maybe eight guys, and was relieved to see that they were all great descenders, streaming through the turns without breaking stride. The deep, loose gravel I’d encountered in my recon was gone—it turns out to have been part of a repaving project. The unlit tunnel didn’t freak me out nearly as much as it had the first time. I threaded my way through a couple of grisly crashes but stayed up.

After the fast flat section through St.-Jean-de-Maurienne, I began the Col du Télégraphe alone, after shedding the guys I’d worked with to get across. I continued to pass guys here and there, and couldn’t believe how strong I felt.

A very lean, compact rider passed me, and—admiring his smooth, consistent form—I considered going with him. Pacing myself and erring on the side of too-easy had gotten me solid, but not brilliant, results in the past. I thought of the real winners I’d known, the eye-of-the-tiger set, who seemed too obsessed with victory to assess the risks of overextending themselves. I rashly decided to get the guy’s wheel.

His pace was smooth and consistent. My heart rate increased a fair bit. I was well aware of being at the redline, but the rewards were immediate. Now we were catching riders at a far better rate, including a wiry young fellow who latched on. I was starting to get a bit concerned about fuel; I’d given up trying to eat an energy bar earlier in the climb and was low on energy drink.

Still, I felt great and stayed with the two riders for most of the rest of the climb. About three fourths of the way up we caught a group of eight. I took this opportunity to scale back my efforts, letting the two go and staying with the small group to the summit. By this time, my bottles were completely empty, but I knew we had the first feed zone in just a few miles, after a short descent to Valloire at mile 60. The race seemed to be going just about perfectly: my heart rate was back down at a sensible 162 bpm, my average speed was 16.7 mph (with 4,000 feet of future descending banked), and here I was in a small group of very elite looking guys, exceeding my own expectations.

There was just one problem: it was here that I cracked.

To be continued…

Check back next week for the frightful second half of my heart-wrenching tale:

Riding La Marmotte - Part II

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Friday, July 26, 2019

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2019 Tour de France Stage 19


When it comes to bike race reporting, I don’t pull punches. In fact, I take wild swings like a drunk. That’s both the benefit of, and cause of, being a mere blogger. If you crave irresponsible, opinionated reporting that careens between snide and goofy—that is, the very reporting this sport deserves—then read on. Today I provide blow-by-blow coverage of the crucial penultimate climbing stage of the 2019 Tour de France. The route covers 126 kilometers (79 miles) over five categorized climbs, including the Hors Categorie Col de l’Iseran, and finishes just after the summit of the Category 1 Montée de Tignes. Here are the overall profile and the detailed profile of the Col de L’Iseran.

Tour de France Stage 19 – St. Jean de Maurienne to Tignes

 As I join the action, the riders have 58 miles to go and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) is, bizarrely enough, getting his leg taped up while he rides. He’s really grimacing, clearly in all kinds of pain. His pedaling is all gimpy.

Now they’re taking the bandage off. It’s so weird and sad.

He’s back on the bike but going backwards. Sprinters are passing him on the climb. Looks like his race is done.

The leaders are a little less than two miles from the summit of the Category 2 Montée d’Aussois. Wow, I got here really early. Jet lag.

 Groupapa-FDJ isn’t sending anybody back to help Pinot. I guess his team knows something we don’t, something that makes his race irrevocable. Maybe he can finish within the time cut, if it’s a temporary problem, and still ride tomorrow but that seems like the best case scenario.

Up the road, there’s a large breakaway, a couple dozen riders, about 45 seconds ahead of the peloton. The break includes Rigoberto Uran (EF-Education First) and Alejandro Valverde (Team Movistar), so I’m not sure how much leash they’ll get. And—my feed craps out. This is not cool. I’m actually (finally) paying for this so it should be rock solid.

While I wait for my feed to come back, and in case you’re a little behind on what’s been going on over the last 2½ weeks, here’s a quick recap. Since I last reported on Stage 14, the general classification hasn’t changed much, but the riders have worn themselves out even more. Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) is still in the lead, but by only a minute and a half over Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) who now leads his teammate, last year’s Tour winner Geraint Thomas, by just five seconds.  In fourth is Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma), 1:47 behind Alaphilippe. Pinot sits fifth, a mere 3 seconds behind Kruijswijk (though that’s irrelevant now).

Ah, as my feed returns the footage is of the Groupama-FDJ car, meaning Pinot has withdrawn. What a shame, he was having such an awesome Tour.

Stage 15, the last in the Pyrenees, was absolutely brutal, with Pinot attacking again and dropping the rest of the GC contenders. Alaphilippe showed his first signs of faltering, though he fought hard and lost only 1:16 to Pinot, 58 seconds to Bernal, and 27 seconds to Thomas. He was admirably wappered at the finish.

The break is gradually increasing its lead. Uran finishes a long pull and peels off.

Stages 16 and 17 were flat and pretty boring until the sprint finishes that only matter to the sprinters. Yesterday’s stage, the first in the Alps, featured four categorized climbs including the HC Col du Galibier, though up the “easy” side from the Col du Lautaret. It was a thrilling stage, with Alaphilippe dropped on the Galabier but managing, through fearless and flawless descending, to latch back on to the main GC group. Bernal was the big winner on the day, gaining 32 seconds on the other GC contenders. That might not seem like much, but only 20 seconds separate 2nd place from 5th now. Any of these top five (well, top four now) could reasonably end up winning this Tour.

The other big winner yesterday was, of course, the stage winner, Nairo Quintana (Team Movistar). He’s had a rough Tour but moved up to 7th place with this ride. He also showed real class, dedicating his win to his team, who are a) really strong and leading the team GC, and b) apparently a bunch of dicks. I’m referring to Stage 14 when they worked really hard to set him up, and he failed to deliver, and they totally bagged on him. Alejandro “the evergreen doper” Valverde was particularly caustic and I hope he totally cracks today.

I took a little break during the (probably) boring downhill and now the riders have about 40 miles to go and are on the Col du Madeleine. My little cat, Freya, is jealous of my attention to the laptop and is literally sniffing around. She’s sniffing my mouse. Does she know it’s called that? I won’t take a photo. I’m resisting the impulse. The Internet is replete with cute cat photos.

The announcers are saying Pinot had a muscle tear in his thigh and was having trouble walking yesterday evening. Such a shame … I really respect that guy.

I’m not sure why the Col du Madeleine is so famous if it’s only a Cat 3. Perhaps it’s the way they’re approaching it. Anyway, the gap of the leaders is now up to 1:23, but that’s still not a ton with the really big climb yet to come.

In other Tour news, Luke Rowe (Team Ineos) and Tony Martin (Jumbo-Visma) got into an altercation the other day and have both been disqualified. It seems Martin whaled on Rowe with a folding chair and then threw him out of the ring. Rowe responded by grabbing Martin by the scruff of the neck and bashing his forehead repeatedly into the turnbuckles. (Full disclosure: I’ve embellished a bit here. Their altercation was the cycling equivalent of this and both riders kept the rubber side down.)

Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), who had a great ride yesterday to take over the polka-dot jersey of best climber, is paying dearly today and may well lose the jersey. Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) is leading the chase for Alaphilippe. He looks pretty tired. I mean, duh.

My cat has abandoned. She just doesn’t understand this sport.

If you saw footage or photos from yesterday’s stage you surely noticed the big bloodstain down the front of Quintana’s jersey. The announcers are saying that it wasn’t actually blood, that (as Quintana explained) he missed while eating a gel. That’s total BS. It was blood. Nobody misses that badly with a gel. It’s not like you squirt them into your mouth from two feet out. You zip out the gel, so the “nozzle” of the gel, where the bleb is (that little membrane left over when you tear the head off), is inside your mouth. I think he had a nosebleed and doesn’t want to admit it, as this might give comfort to the enemy. If you think this is a conspiracy theory, I will ask you: who are my conspirators?

Here is Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Merida), just behind former Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali, who led him out to take maximum KOM points at the summit of the Madeleine.  How cool is that, having a champion like that helping you out?

So here’s a fun fact: today’s stage has a net elevation gain of over 5,000 feet. This might not seem like a big deal, but here’s why it matters: despite all the climbs, there’s less descending, so a great descender who gets distanced on a climb won’t have as much opportunity to catch back on (like Alaphilippe did yesterday to rescue his yellow jersey).

They’re on the short flat section before the base of the Col de l’Iseran.

You might have wondered, if you read my last report, who the hell Gomez is. I didn’t discover my error until yesterday. I meant Bernal. It was so early in the morning when I started, and I was so groggy, I used the wrong surname. In my defense, Bernal has a lot of them. His full name is Egan Arley Bernal Gomez. I wonder if he has a nickname on top of it, making him, say, Egan Arley “Bernie” Bernal Gomez. If he were a rapper, I guess his name would be something like MC BurnGo.

So, Team Movistar is comfortably in the lead in the overall team competition. There’s probably no way they won’t clinch that, which is a shame because the teams in 2nd and 3rd are both American. That’s kind of the only way the U.S. has distinguished itself in this race. our top rider, Ben King (Dimension Data) is sitting in 69th overall, close to two hours behind.

The yellow jersey group is dwindling as Team Ineos drives the pace on the front to keep that gap down to a manageable size. (Uran sits in 9th overall, about 4 minutes behind Bernal in the GC.)

Daaamn, look at that road! Look at that gnarly climb! In cycling, the better advice than “don’t look down” would be “don’t look up.”

I would say Uran is making this race harder for pretty much all the contenders. Without him in this break, the GC group might be more complacent. Instead, Ineos is pushing hard and the others have to match it. That will soften up Alaphilippe, needless to say, before that last brutal climb.

So, if this break were to stay off, it’s hard to say what Bahrain-Merida’s goal would be: maximum points for Caruso, for the KOM competition, or a stage win for Nibali? Actually, if they are really crafty they could get both: the summit of the Montée de Tignes is 2 kilometers from the finish line. But this is all just daydreaming … with like 27 miles to go, their gap is dropping.

Dylan van Baarle, an Ineos domestique, detonates and falls off the pace. So does David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), Pinot’s super-domestique. I guess Gaudu has less incentive to stay up, since his continual sacrifices for Pinot have put him pretty far behind on GC. Who knows, if he takes it easy he could have a big day tomorrow and hunt for a stage win—though I’m kind of dreaming. The guy is so young, he’s gotta be completely fried at this point.

Thomas takes a huge pull!

And now Alaphilippe is really struggling!

And now Bernal goes!

The break dissolves! It’s a free-for-all! Alaphilippe isn’t panicking, but he’s losing serious ground.

Alaphilippe has lost about 20 seconds to Thomas. Kruijswijk and his teammate Laurens de Plus are still with Thomas. Not sure what the gap is up to Bernal but he’s increasing it. I think he’s caught what’s left of the breakaway.

Alaphilippe is just dying!

Bernal has caught Nibali, Uran, Warren Barguil (Arkea-Samsic), Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and maybe one or two others tucked in there.

And now Nibali is dropped. The pace is relentless. Alaphilippe is now a minute behind Thomas and about to lose the virtual GC to Bernal. And now only Yates can hang with Bernal.

And Yates is struggling to hold Bernal’s wheel!

They’re less than a kilometer from the summit. Kruijswijk and Bennett are biding their time, perhaps unwisely as that final climb isn’t that long and Bernal is gaining a lot of time. This tiny group is about to catch Uran, and Nibali sits on them.

Bernal is over the summit. Now we’ll see if he can hold his lead on this descent and build an even bigger gap on the final climb. He’s got 52 seconds on the Thomas group.

Alaphilippe is not yet over the summit, and has lost about a minute each to Bernal and Thomas. Look at that amazing vista! I’m sure he’s not able to enjoy the view.

Yates is chasing down Bernal! He wants a third stage win!

And now the announcers are saying there’s a storm brewing, and there’s ice on the road ahead! They’re showing it! There are snowplows on the course! The organizers are talking about neutralizing the race!

OMG! They’ve announced that they’re stopping the race! They’ll take each rider’s time at the summit of the Col de L’Iseran! The announcers are getting this from the race radio! What a bizarre turn of events! So Bernal will be the stage winner, and takes over the GC! But nobody has gotten word to Bernal or the others! They’re still barreling down the descent toward the ice! A motorbike is gesturing to Bernal and Yates but they ignore him!

The Race Director of the Tour, Christian Prudhomme, is talking directly to Yates! It’s crazy!

And now the word is getting out, and the riders are grasping that this is really happening, and they’re starting to chill out.

Bernal has got to be pretty stoked, even if he didn’t get to celebrate his stage win. It’s an unmitigated shame for Yates, though, who has been deprived of the opportunity to win the stage.

So a number of very disappointed riders today, but I’m sure many more are just as relieved to have their suffering end sooner. I’m reminded of the time my brother, my nephew, and I rode up Mount Baker in Washington state, and were turned around by snow before we could make the summit. My brother asked his son if he was disappointed, to which the lad replied, “I’m stoked!

Alaphilippe, of course, is not stoked. He looks frankly a bit put off.

It’s a workday, so I’m not going to hang around for the podiums and interviews and so forth. I hope that Alaphilippe is philosophical about this and doesn’t whine like a little bitch about losing the opportunity to chase back on on the descent, because let’s face it, he was cooked. The non-drama-queen and honest statement from him would acknowledge this. And in fact, he might take some solace in the albeit remote prospect that he’ll recover well for tomorrow and actually benefit from this bizarre shortening of the race.

The announcers are saying a number of riders, including Yates, are P-I-S-T pissed. (That’s my wording, not theirs.) But here’s some footage of a snowplow clearing the road ahead, and anybody who looks at this ought to conclude that the right decision was made.

I’ll post the stage and GC results here a bit later. They’re gonna take a while, because officials will have to decide whether to award the time bonuses on the stage, which could be pivotal in determining the overall. And now, I gotta go! Thanks for tuning in.


As it turns out, the race officials ultimately decided not to award any stage placings, rather than going with the order riders finished the last climb. I am a bit disappointed, because those who lead over the climbs should be rewarded, but I appreciate their rationale. (That being that it’s more fiscally efficient, as you don’t have to dole out the prize money!)

Here is the GC after the stage, heading into the last day in the Alps and thus the last day of real competition. I would be really surprised if anybody bested Bernal tomorrow ... but then, I was really surprised by today’s stage!

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