Sunday, July 25, 2021

From the Archives - Daily Peloton: Everest Challenge 2009 Stage 2


This post continues the saga, from my archives, of the 2009 Everest Challenge stage race. This originally ran in the Daily Peloton. (My dp stories were lost after a server meltdown, so over time I’m re-posting them here.)

The report below is of Stage 2 of the race; for background info and my Stage 1 coverage click here.

Here’s the Stage 2 profile. Just look at that final climb … over 10,000 feet of vertical gain. Abominable, especially after all the suffering preceding it.

Racing the Everest Challenge, Stage 2 – September 25, 2009

We ran a bit late in the morning and barely made it to the start line on time. Lucas had just enough time to check his placing from the previous day and was ecstatic to discover he’d finished sixth. So long as his legs and/or cracked crank arm didn’t fail, he figured he had a good shot at a top five overall. I decided it was just as well I didn’t know how I’d finished on Stage 1. I felt pretty good about my performance; to find out I didn’t place very high would have been a downer, while finding out I’d placed, say, top ten might have put unwelcome pressure on me during today’s (final) stage.

I did get a little hint, though. A Masters 45+ rider rode up next to me and congratulated me on the previous day. “You seemed to get stronger during the race,” he said. “I was trying to reel you in for over an hour but never actually did. Several times I thought I had you but realized it was just another rider you’d passed.” I asked if he knew how he’d done, and he said eighth. I was really stoked—the times of the 45+ riders are actually pretty similar to those of my 35+ field. (Cycling is a perfect sport for crusty old veterans, and the harder the course the better. If there was a doping control at this race, your typical 45+ would likely test positive for piss and vinegar.)

Oddly enough, I felt totally fine throughout the first climb, to Glacier Lodge. This was a 9-mile 8% grade topping out at 7,800 feet. The temperature was perfect; I managed to find others to make pace with. Here I am slogging away.

After a little over an hour I saw Lucas, then Paul, then Jamie coming back down the mountain, and then suddenly I was at the top. I took on a bottle of energy drink and launched myself at the long, relatively simple descent. Man, what a blast. For the next nine miles, I averaged over 43 mph, peaking out at 52, all the while averaging a heart rate of just 108. There was nothing to do but hold a tight tuck and pass climbers. I wish life itself could be like this: automatic, effortless success, just for being me. I blew by Jamie and thought of holding up for him, but figured he’d latch on during the flat section anyway. Sure enough, he did, and as we motored across the flats toward the second climb, I found another big guy to work with and we made contact with a group of about ten riders, including Paul.

The second climb, Waucoba Canyon, is the least difficult of the whole race—8.5 miles at 5%, to a summit of 6,645 feet. Paul, Jamie, and I worked together in our little group, which was really satisfying—after all, I’d barely seen these guys the previous day. The only question was, how long could I last at this pace? I wasn’t hurting yet, but day-to-day recovery has been a weak point for me ever since 1991, when I went from racing every weekend to just jumping in now and then. Plus, the temperature was already climbing; it was 80 degrees and not yet 10:00 a.m. 

The terrain was sparse but picturesque—like something out of the Road Runner cartoons, with ruddy, sandy hills rising up on either side, dotted with scrubby dabs of shrubs. The road snaked this way and that through the canyon.

I continued to marvel at the elite company I was keeping and the race I was having, and then suddenly—as if Fate had read my mind—I started to have stomach problems. Not nausea, but a sharp pain, like my gut being tied in knots. I didn’t have to ease up, but I was good and worried now. I didn’t complain to the others in my group—no sense tipping my hand—but suffered silently and went easy on the energy drink. All I could do was hang tough and hope my stomach problem would resolve itself.

[I’ll tell you something now that wasn’t in my original dp story: the stomach problem was due to the race-provided Heed energy drink. I’d been warned … it was notorious for causing stomach problems. One pal said, “It gave me such bad gas, my stomach bloated like a beach ball, and every time I farted my belly would get visibly smaller.”]

After about forty-five minutes we started seeing riders coming back down toward us. Among the first was Lucas, out in the wind by himself. He shouted for us to come up and help. I couldn’t understand what exactly he expected us to do—suddenly spark across, making it to the turnaround and back down to him like a fricking boomerang? Exactly what kind of rider did he take me for?

Before long we reached the turnaround, and I actually stopped, to get my bottle refilled with plain old water. I’d brought a baggie of drink mix with me, and in less than thirty seconds had mixed it all up and was back on the road. The group I’d been in had dispersed, but in no time I caught Paul and Jamie. “Oh, good, our descender is here,” Paul said. They took my wheel and we bombed the descent together, averaging close to 40. We passed a number of guys, none of whom was able to latch on. And you know what? My stomach was all better.

Now came the climb I’d been truly dreading: the endless slog to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest , 21 miles at 6% for a total elevation gain of 6,160 feet to peak out at 10,100 feet. As race director Steve Barnes had pointed out, there’s actually some descending along this route, which dilutes that 6% figure. And, of course, this was the sixth major climb in two days so we were all pretty knackered going into it. Top it all off with temperatures in the nineties and you’ve got yourself a real smackdown.

Fortunately, Jamie, Paul, and I were in a group with four others, and one of the riders had private support: a friend who would drive by in his Volvo, park ahead of us, and hand up bottles. His largesse extended to anybody riding with his pal; I had at least three nice, cold bottles of water from him (though Paul never did get the vodka martini he’d requested).

The pace felt comfortable to me, and my heart rate was only in the low- to mid-140s. The heat was a grind, but at least I was hydrated. The situation seemed too good to last, and it was: Jamie punctured, not to be seen again until the top. I felt a strange survivor’s guilt, with my 55-gram inner tubes and four-inch almost-worthless clip-on pump. I kept thinking, “That bullet was meant for me….”

Then I saw a familiar orange-clad figure up the road. Funny how you can recognize a rider from a mile away just by his position on the bike. It was Lucas, and we could tell he was having some difficulty. Gradually we caught up to him, and it was pretty clear he’d gone out too hard, probably due to irrational exuberance over his great ride the previous day. Lucas and I decided that I should pace him for the rest of the climb to defend his overall placing. We watched Paul and the other two ride away, and then over the next hour and a half, I watched my power meter and knocked out a steady, sustainable pace and kept Lucas out of the wind.

I didn’t struggle with this decision. I’ve always managed to be on teams with superior riders, making me a natural domestique, and I say this without shame. In college I always supported my star riders and it paid off—they won a lot and I felt it an honor just to contribute. My favorite event? Not surprisingly, the team time trial. So now, personal ambitions aside, it felt good to make myself useful on this endless climb.

As we gained in elevation, the heat subsided, and eventually we began to see scraggly, bent-over, blasted trees: the ancient bristlecone pines forest we’d seen on the map. By “ancient” I mean these are literally the oldest living organisms on Earth, some of them almost 5,000 years old. In other words, they are as old as I felt as I toiled away, mile after mile. I have to chuckle at the phrase “bristlecone pine forest,” though; “forest” suggests abundance, and this looked more like the dregs of a Christmas tree farm after a retail frenzy. I don’t think you can get a real forest this close to the tree line.

I suppose I shouldn’t admit this, but in addition to gazing at the pines I took a moment here and there to appreciate the vistas spread out before us—the best of the whole race (or maybe I was just finally able to lift my head up and pay attention). But most of the time the climb was a fairly grim affair, as I maintained a steady pace and kept an eye on Lucas. From time to time his muscles cramped, and I tried to help him ride through this by offering what little encouragement I could. (As he knows, I’ve never had a muscle cramp in my life.) I felt a little like a motivational speaker at times, and this was the image I had in mind:

It’s a refrigerator magnet my wife picked up during our recent vacation in London—a replica of a poster produced by the English government during the onset of World War II. Not that we were at war of course, but the sentiment seemed fitting at the time.

Exactly twice a rider came by us. Each time, I quickly asked what category he was: any answer but “35+” was the right one. Otherwise, I’d have to make a quick decision whether to keep pacing Lucas, or get medieval on the guy’s heinie. It seemed to me there couldn’t be that many 35+ riders ahead of us, and I didn’t want to miss out on a possible top-ten finish to post on my bike club’s website. Fortunately for both of us, neither rider was a 35+, and we did our climb mostly in peace.

A word of advice to anybody who tries a race like this: don’t look up—the grade and peaks ahead of you can be demoralizing—and don’t look down at your bike computer: the mileage ticks by so slowly you start to wonder if the damn thing is working. Don’t count down the miles—just turn the pedals. And don’t forget about fuel! Though each sip of energy drink brought with it a brief wave of nausea, I was diligent about drinking. To bonk after this much hard work would be a tragedy.

Finally we got to the really steep pitches that announced the imminent final summit. Looking at the percent-grade graph on my PC, it’s no wonder we suffered here: the graph looks like an electrocardiogram, with all the peaks just above the 10% line and the dips just below it, for an average grade of 8.5% over the last 2.5 miles. With my 39x27 I was weaving across the full width of the road like a drunken paperboy on a steep driveway. I’m surprised I didn’t wear out my bike’s headset. Lucas, sensing somebody coming up from behind (there was nobody) started sprinting and I had to yell at him to sit back down lest he suddenly detonate.

Actually, I was worried for myself as well: Lucas normally drops my ass on the big climbs, as does Paul, as does Jamie, and all day I’d felt like I was crashing the strong men’s party. It all seemed too good to be true and I was sure at any moment my legs would seize, or I’d puncture, or get struck by a stray bolt of lightning. But we avoided disaster, and the steepest sections didn’t find me over-geared.

At long last, to our delight and relief, we finally crossed the finish line. In our euphoria we forgot the “exit interview,” and after a short descent to the food station had to double back and do a final bit of climbing to make sure our numbers had been recorded by the race officials. Finally we coasted back down, ditched our bikes, and joined Paul for some well-earned relaxation. Miraculously, for the second day in a row there were enough chairs to go around. I chatted a bit with the guy next to me, who turned out to be the winner of my category, Mauricio Prado. Next time I’ll watch for him.

Lucas tends to sweat a bit when racing in the heat.

We all got medals for finishing (which meant everything to my eight-year-old daughter upon my triumphant return home).

Jamie and Craig rolled in, and we ended up spending about an hour at the final summit, punch-drunk on endorphins and exhaustion. “I will never do this again,” I thought to myself. “At least not until next year.”

Results and stats

The “Bay Area Five” ended up having solid results, perhaps better than we’d anticipated:

  • Paul: 4th on Stage 1, 7th on Stage 2, 4th overall, Masters 35+ (and almost 17 minutes faster than last year!)
  • Jamie: 5th on Stage 1, 8th on Stage 2, 6th overall, Masters 45+  (and over six minutes faster than last year, despite his puncture!)
  • Lucas: 6th on Stage 1, 9th on Stage 2, 7th overall, M35+
  • Dana: 9th on Stage 1, 8th on Stage 2, 8th overall, M35+
  • Craig: 12th on Stage 2, M35+; alas, the officials failed to get his number on the first day

(As I mentioned in my Stage 1 report, I had no specific goal for this race other than to finish, ideally with dignity, whereas my daughter predicted a top-ten finish. I guess she was right … but I’m still not into goals.)

Some notes on the following graph:

  • My bike computer does a rudimentary power calculation based on my weight, my speed, and my elevation gain (f=mgh), ignoring wind and rolling resistance, so the wattage is on the low side
  • My altimeter was reading low as well, compared to the elevation marker signs
  • The vertical line down each graph shows where the stage finished
  • In each graph, the average values listed along the right-hand column ignore the final (untimed) descent; note the net elevation gain of 5,814 feet!
  • My average heart rate not counting descents was 143 for Stage 2 (vs. 149 for Stage 1)
  • The temperature readings are often exaggerated in these graphs, probably due to the sun baking the asphalt (of course, the rider feels this too)
  • You’ll want to click on this image to zoom in, obviously

Appendix - bits and bobs

Ever wonder what cycling road racers eat? Well, for a long training ride it’s this. And what shouldn’t racers eat? This. And what did I eat during the Everest Challenge? During Stage 1 I consumed seven gels, six bottles of energy drink, and a bottle of water. During Stage 2 I ate six gels, and drank four or five bottles of energy drink and about three bottles of water. And what did we eat before and after the race? Click here for the full food-and-camaraderie report.

Finally, you may wonder if, having conquered the Everest Challenge, I have any advice to offer for anyone contemplating such a brutal event. Why, I’m glad you asked! Check out this post.

My pals and I rode the Everest Challenge five more times, from 2010 through 2014. I’ve chronicled all of them in these pages; if you’re interested just Google “albertnet everest challenge [year].” If this tale was too rosy for you, rest assured I didn’t always manage the race so smoothly … I had some years where things went badly enough to satisfy your thirst for schadenfreude. Enjoy please enjoy.

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

From the Archives - Daily Peloton: Everest Challenge 2009


I originally wrote the following story for Daily Peloton. Their servers crashed a couple years ago and all their content was lost, so I’m gradually re-posting my dp articles here.

You may have noticed that I already did a post on this topic (in fact, here it is now). Well, that was the report I sent around to my bike club, adhering to our standard format of focusing mainly on the food and the camaraderie. My dp story was about the actual race. This is about the closest thing you’ll ever see on albertnet to a true race report.

Racing the Everest Challenge – September 25, 2009

I was encouraged recently by some cycling friends to join them in racing the Everest Challenge, the California-Nevada Climbing Championship. It’s a two-day stage race covering 206 miles with 29,035 feet of cumulative vertical gain. (The name refers to the total elevation gain being equivalent to the height of Mount Everest, which I’ll admit I didn’t grasp right away.) Being a large guy much better suited to fetching things from a high shelf than to riding a bike uphill fast, but having suffered gloriously in similarly brutal races (like La Marmotte), I was naturally intrigued and decided to take the plunge with four of my Bay Area cycling pals.

Now, if you had infinite time and patience, I would give a full background on the five of us, worthy of The Deer Hunter, but I’ll try to keep the following bios brief. Three of us are on the East Bay Velo Club—Lucas, Craig, and I—and we’re pretty big guys. Lucas is the most serious racer and not coincidentally the fastest. Craig, who used to play football, came to cycling only a few years ago but is strong like bull. The other two riders in our group, Paul and Jamie, who race for other teams, are built more like climbers, and (not surprisingly) climb more like climbers. Jamie is in the Masters 45+, and the rest of us are 35+.

This story is an eye-witness account of my experience, not full coverage of the race. I’m sure the winner of the pro classification did far more glorious things than I did, but I wasn’t there to see it. Continue reading only if you’re interested in the humble struggle of a mere mortal against man, nature, and his own limitations.

I’m not big into goals, and simply hoped to finish this race with some semblance of dignity. (My ever-optimistic eight-year-old daughter, on the other hand, predicted a top-ten finish). My strategy, to the extent it existed, was to pace myself well and hope the other racers would cramp or something. I learned the hard way during my first La Marmotte effort not to go out too hard; pacing myself more carefully made my second try less horrific. Craig also had experience with this kind of race, having done the Everest Challenge the previous year, and we advised Lucas, who is a fire-in-the-belly, impetuous type, to control his baser impulses and pace himself. His response was impassioned: “I’m gonna race! That’s what I do! I’m a bike racer!” Needless to say we gave him endless crap for the unspoken rebuke buried in this wild speech. Meanwhile, the three of us joked about taking advantage of our non-climber physiques by team-time-trialing for the flat section before the first climb, after a brief neutral section, to try to gain an advantage over the guys who weren’t doomed at birth to struggle in the high mountains.

It was a seven-hour drive to Bishop, where the race is based. As soon as we reached town, we got a taste of a) the community’s awareness of the event, and b) its sense of humor:

[A note on the above: I’d gotten this photo from Paul, and discovered, well after the fact, that this Wendy’s wasn’t actually in Bishop, and it was probably pure coincidence the sign talked about a challenge. Thus this was a factual error in my dp story. I’m leaving it here as a warning against unintentional fiction in bike race stories.]

We did a quick evening ride around Bishop to spin the legs, then headed to the local fairgrounds for a free pasta meal and a mandatory pre-race meeting. A whole bunch of volunteers from the community were serving the food, and the mayor of Bishop gave a speech. The hospitality was charming, and the food was good. Lucas, a born competitor, tried to match me plate for plate on the pasta. The fool! He had a stomachache the rest of the night. (If I could design my own triathlon, it’d be cycling, typing, and eating.)

After dinner the race director, Steve Barnes, gave us a slide show with instructions and advice for race day. This could have been a boring affair, but slides were mostly beautiful, sometimes terrifying, and above all useful. Meanwhile, Steve has a great sense of humor. Several times he said, with great relish, “You’re gonna be cooked!”—the verbal equivalent of rubbing his hands together in glee at the suffering that was to be had. Advising us not to run the stop sign at the end of the neutral section on Stage 2, he said, “Don’t worry about gaining a few seconds. Listen, when you wake up on the second day, you’re going to be asking yourself if it’s even a good idea to have bikes in your life.”

Stage 1 was 122 miles long, with 15,465 feet of climbing. The Masters 35+ and 45+ started in one big group, five minutes behind the Cat 3s. After the short neutralized section, Lucas inexplicably—yet all too predictably—went straight to the front and lit it up. I learned later that one rider had gone off on his own, and his buddy had boasted to Lucas, “He’s going to solo the whole thing and win it.” What would normally be standard-issue smack-talking had the effect, on Lucas, of the mind-control techniques of a Jedi master. Lucas couldn’t stand the thought of some guy winning in such a bold manner, so he totally threw down. By the time we hit the first climb, we’d caught the Cat 3s and absorbed them into the frantic serpent our peloton had become.

Here’s the profile of Stage 1:

The first climb, the oddly named Mosquito Flat, was 22 miles long, with an average grade of 5%, for almost 6,000 feet of total vertical gain. It was brutal from the very beginning. The pack stretched out like a rubber band and then blew apart into a bunch of separate echelons. As Craig would later put it in a haiku he e-mailed to the club:

First climb of the day
Lucas drills it at the front
Scattered peloton

As you can see, these aren’t the lush, green mountains of the western slope of the Sierra Nevadas, or of the Rockies. These mountains are stark and barren, almost lunar. Mother Nature isn’t offering the moist, fresh, fragrant breezes mimicked by so many air fresheners, but rather a dry, hot wind blowing across expanses of plain rock and low, scrubby brush. The terrain seemed to say, “You not in for a refreshing alpine vacation—you were brought out here to die!” And yet, there’s a stark beauty to it all, which I managed to notice even as I buried myself in the effort.

I knew better than to try to hang with the leaders, being well aware of my limits. I’m no Alberto Contador; in fact, I’m more like the UPS guy: not necessarily talented, but well trained to do things efficiently. My main ability in cycling is marshaling my resources effectively: I strive to stay out of the wind, avoid accelerations, and ultimately do less work than the next guy. So I sought out guys tapping out a similar pace, so I’d have someone to draft who wouldn’t destroy me.

The climb ground on for close to two hours. It’s an out-and-back deal, so eventually I started seeing my pals coming down the other way—Paul, Lucas, and Jamie (I can’t remember in what order). Craig was somewhere behind me and I hoped to regroup with him later. Finally I reached the first summit. This was the high point of the whole race, 10,250 feet above sea level (incidentally, more than 1,500 feet higher than the summit of the Col du Galibier, frequently the highest point in the Tour de France). Volunteers handed up bottles of energy drink. I started the first descent.

As a rule, I cut through the wind pretty well. I must have heavy bones, like a penguin. But I didn’t exactly bomb the downhill … the road was unfamiliar and had deep cracks in it, causing lots of lost water bottles. The lower half of the descent was smoother but had long, sweeping curves that were a bit hard to judge. Several times, riders ahead of me went into a curve too fast and ended up on the wrong side of the double yellow. I slipped back a bit—I’m a father of two, after all, and a son, and a husband. Why take unnecessary risks? After all, the whole race is unnecessary; in fact, the whole sport is unnecessary. Moreover, there was always somebody behind me to come by and help me close the gaps on the straightaway.

On the flat section before the second climb, I was in a group of at least twenty guys, and it looked like we might actually get a rotating pace line going. But alas, there were too many riders whose experience didn’t match their strength, and the line broke down again and again. It was frustrating and futile, like trying to herd Ewoks without a proper whip. Finally I resigned myself to dawdling in an inefficient, disorganized collection of individuals.

At the base of the second climb, Park Creek, eight miles long at 7% for 3,000 feet of gain to a 7,425-foot summit, our group blew to pieces. This time I didn’t make any effort to match anyone, and settled in to my own private slog up the mountain. The first climb hadn’t been too hot, only touching 80 degrees, but now the exposed asphalt was absolutely baking in the sun, the temperature well into the 90s. One really fiendish aspect of this climb was that it looked almost flat. I thought something was wrong with me—here I was in my small chainring, on a flat road! My bike computer set me straight: what looked flat was 5 to 6%.

That’s not a particularly steep grade, of course, but that’s what these climbs were like—through their sheer length, they killed you softly. (Fortunately this phrase didn’t occur to me until later, or I might have gotten that “Killing Me Softly” song stuck in my head. That, of course, would have unraveled me psychologically.)

When my head wasn’t down I gazed out over the very strange terrain—countless little scrubby mounds of bush, like oversized razor stubble on the mountain’s face. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Sweat drips painted my handlebar stem. My legs still felt great, but the rest of me was questioning the whole enterprise. This was the kind of scorching weather that normally keeps a sane person indoors—the kind you rush through on the way from the air conditioned car to the air conditioned house. What were we doing out here? Happily, the climb was “only” an hour long, and before I knew it I saw my pals, then the summit a few minutes later. (My altimeter was malfunctioning, so the summits came before I expected them. I wasn’t complaining.)

After a brisk, fairly simple descent I hit the flat section leading to the base of the third climb. The wind was back, blowing its hot breath right in my face. I stopped very briefly at the car to snatch a couple of bottles of my preferred energy drink and then resolutely plowed through the wind for about ten miles. With nobody to share the work, I really suffered. I went pretty hard, with my forearms on the tops of the bars to get more aero—effective, but hell on my forty-year-old back. Finally the third climb began—not that this was a respite of any kind.

This climb, South Lake, was another killer—over 20 miles long, averaging 6% for a cumulative gain of 5,410 feet to a max elevation of 9,835. It was the harder for our having done eighty miles and two grueling climbs already, and the temperature was still in the high nineties at the base. My legs were plenty heavy by this point, my back in great pain, my feet burning, and one of my toes felt broken. But nothing had gone seriously wrong and I felt I was making pretty good time. The question was, how long could I keep this up?

I came upon a lean, compact rider with whom I’d shared the pace making on the first climb. He had stopped to take a leak, but I knew he’d catch back up. When he did, however, he went sailing right by me. “I guess he found his legs,” I thought. But over the next mile, he gradually came back. This race is like that. I rode with him for a while and he complained, “I’m from L.A. and haven’t been able to train for two weeks because of the fire.” Where had I heard this before? Ah, from this same guy, during the first climb. Frankly, I was a bit insulted. Why should he have to make excuses for riding at my pace? What am I, chopped liver? But I humored him, saying, “If it’s any consolation, I’m coked to the gills on EPO, HGH, testosterone, and pot belge.” No, of course I didn’t say that. I just kept quiet, and a couple minutes later the guy dropped silently off the back and I never saw him again. Guess he lost his legs.

I went as easy as my gearing, a 39x27, would let me—which wasn’t very easy. I’d been warned by everybody to get a compact crank for this race, but I refused. This sport is already too damned expensive—I’m not shelling out $600 for a new drivetrain for this one event. So throughout the stage I did my best to keep something in the tank for the grand finale of the climb, a 15% section in the last mile, known to stop riders cold. Mile after mile I grinded patiently along, wondering in all seriousness how many more pedal revolutions I had in me. The trouble with the shallow grade is that it takes forever to achieve the vertical gain you need; the distance between elevation markers seemed endless.

It started to rain. This felt great, and lasted just long enough to cool me off. At these higher elevations the heat had largely subsided and we had some cloud cover and a the cool sighs of tall evergreens. The main difficulty now was how long I’d already been out, and how long I still had to go. I couldn’t wait for this climb to be over. The joke was getting old.

Finally, I hit the really steep section I’d been warned about so many times. I was actually happy to see it, because a) it meant I was almost done, and b) I suddenly seemed to have plenty left in my legs to mount an assault. It was steep, sure, but nothing worse than the brutal pitches on my standard Berkeley Hills training ride (which I call the Hill Climb Extravaganza). For the first time all day, I didn’t hold anything back—I had no choice, after all. Before I knew it I had crested the summit, and thought to myself, “Is that it, mountain? Is that all you got?!”

Too many times I’ve finished a race only to have the officials fail to spot my number. In theory this wouldn’t happen here, with racers trickling by one by one at low speed instead of flashing by in a giant pack. On the other hand, I reasoned, this might be a bit like the X-ray at airport security, where a firearm can actually slip by an inspector who’s gone so long without seeing anything interesting that his eyes have glazed over. So as I passed the officials I yelled out, “I’m number 96. Did you get that? Number 96?” Two officials called back, “Yes, 96!” I replied, “And that’s the finish line? And I’m done?” They assured me, laughingly, that this was the case. It seemed too good to be true.

By this time, Paul, Jamie, and Lucas had settled in nicely, having already located their bags of warm clothing (shuttled to the summit by the race organizers), and were relaxing in chairs, eating tasty hot food and telling war stories. I found my clothing bag, slumped in a chair, dragged arm warmers squeakily over my sticky arms, and dug out my camera. Hence these photos.

Soon Craig arrived, found a chair, rested a bit, and joined in the merriment. Note my bluish lips in this video … I’m a little low on oxygen.

And note the salt deposits on Craig’s face.

You know what feels really great—like unbelievably great, better than any spa treatment? It’s sitting around, not pedaling, after a race like that. We took our time, drank Cokes and V-8 juice, ate bean and cheese quesadillas and homemade soup, and I enjoyed a tall stack of real Oreos. I happened upon the race director, Steve Barnes, and thanked him for putting on such a great race.

Whatever curses we’d earlier hurled—at the mountain, the race, God, or whomever—were now forgotten as we basked in the triumph of completion and an end to the suffering.

After our battles on Stage 1, the return to civilian life was a bit rocky. The descent back to the car was a blast, and our second dinner went smoothly enough, but when we returned to the motel and tried to get organized for the following day, we found we couldn’t think straight. All we had to do was lube our chains, set out clothing, pin our numbers, pack our bags, and mix up some more energy drink, but this seemed to take hours. Though our spirits here high, we’d become temporarily stupid; groping in vain for simple words, we substituted profanities, sometimes using the f-word as a noun, adjective, and adverb in the same sentence. Moreover, Lucas made a shocking discovery: his effort the previous day had cracked the left arm of his crankset! (Actually, it’s worse: this was a compact crank on loan from a teammate.)

As tired as we all were, nobody slept well. Twice I woke up from nightmares of crashing on a descent (which is odd, because I don’t consciously fear descending). I did have one pleasant dream, though: it was of being at the summit of the final climb of Stage 2, eating hot food, having some laughs with my buddies, and above all enjoying the huge sense of relief at actually being done with the Everest Challenge. Alas, when I woke up from this, during the wee morning hours, I was hit with the unpleasant realization that it had only been only a dream—I still had another day of brutal racing ahead of me! If I’d been nervous about the difficulty of Stage 1, the prospect of mounting my bike again for yet more abuse now had filled me with intense, bowel-constricting fear.

Results and stats

We didn’t get our Stage 1 results until the next day, but I’ll give them to you now:

  • Paul: 4th place in the Masters 35+
  • Jamie: 5th place in the Masters 45+
  • Lucas: 6th, M35+
  • Dana: 9th, M35+
  • Craig: alas, the officials failed to get his number

Some quick notes on the following graph:

  • My bike computer does a rudimentary power calculation based on my weight, my speed, and my elevation gain (f=mgh), ignoring wind and rolling resistance, so the wattage is on the low side
  • My altimeter was reading low as well, compared to the elevation marker signs
  • The vertical line down each graph shows where the stage finished
  • In each graph, the average values listed along the right-hand column ignore the final (untimed) descent; note the net elevation gain of 5,067 feet!
  • My average heart rate not counting descents was 149
  • The temperature readings are often exaggerated in these graphs, probably due to the sun baking the asphalt (of course, the rider feels this too)
  • You’ll want to click on this image to zoom in, obviously

Tune in next week for my Everest Challenge 2009 Stage 2 report!

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2021 Tour de France Stage 15


We’re into the final week of this year’s Tour de France. The UCI has demonstrated, by dismissing Chris Froome’s positive drug test a couple years ago, that they’re not really interested in enforcing the doping controls, so it’s been a very fast race so far. Now, if this kind of off-the-cuff comment offends you, go find some other coverage. Otherwise, read on for my biased blow-by-blow of Stage 15, which has some big mountains.

Tour de France Stage 15 – Céret to Andorre-La-Vieille

“They’ve got a lot of climbing still to come,” the first announcer says. Following which the second announcer says, “They’ve got a lot of climbing still to come.” The second guy could have just said, “indeed,” or “word,” or even “yeah,” but that’s not enough words. These guys are like grade school kids trying to nurse a two-page essay out of almost nothing. They have hours of coverage to fill so they repeat themselves, and each other, constantly. And now they’re talking about why most of the peloton wear white socks and white shoes. “Looks better,” one says. This is false, as is the contention that most shoes are even white. These guys are “talking dog farts,” as I like to say (though usually in reference to myself).

So as I join the action, there’s a breakaway of like 32 guys, who have 9:37 over the peloton. It includes Dan Martin (Israel Start-up Nation), Mike Woods (Israel Start-up Nation), David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), Julian Alaphillipe (Deceuninck-Quick Step), Nairo Quintana (Team Arkéa-Samsic), Nielson Powless (EF Education-Nippo), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team), and Sepp Kuss (Team Jumbo-Visma). Back in the peloton, race leader Tadej Pogacar sits on while his UAE Team Emirates teammates drive tempo.

They’re not worried about the break. Though it has some riders who were supposed to be a threat on GC, none of them is anymore.

The announcers are blathering about what wheels the riders choose for a stage like this. I find this only marginally more interesting than yesterday’s discussion of a rider whose jersey lacked a zipper. The announcers droned on and on about this, to the bemusement of my wife, who (on a lark) decided to watch for a bit. After about five minutes of this jersey analysis she couldn’t take it anymore … it was actually even worse, she felt, than listening to me talking about the Tour. Anyway, all this is to say that nothing noteworthy is happening right now. They’ve got 72 kilometers to go.

“When they get to the main climb today there is almost no way they will have more than one bottle on their bikes as they will be looking to save weight wherever possible,” the announcer says needlessly. Why do I share this? Because I’m probably suffering even more than the riders right now, after hearing this blather for two weeks already, and I want you to appreciate my sacrifice in reporting all this.

They’re showing this morning’s interview with Alejandro Valverde:

INTERVIEWER: What is the hardest climb on the stage today?

VALVERDE: I don’t know yet, the race hasn’t started yet.

INTERVIEWER: Yesterday you were leading on the steepest part of a big climb and the announcer said you love the steep bits. Is this true?

VALVERDE: Of course not, I’m fricking old. I start these big climbs at the front so I can drift backward gradually, disrupting everyone’s rhythm and stretching out the group, so I can hopefully not get dropped.

INTERVIEWER: Your sunglasses are ridiculous. What’s up with that?

VALVERDE: I’m hiding my crow’s feet so as to not give comfort to the enemy.


VALVERDE: It’s pronounced touché, numbnuts.


So what’s happened in the Tour since my last report?  In the GC battle, Pogacar continued his dominance, destroying his would-be rivals and bringing his lead to over five minutes on the next rider until yesterday, when Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) got into a good breakaway and moved into second overall, “only” 4:04 behind Pogacar. Unless something truly remarkable happens, the GC is now a foregone conclusion. A bit more interesting has been the ongoing success of Mark Cavendish (Team Deceuninck-Quick Step) who keeps winning stages, and recently matched the Tour stage win record of Eddy Merckx. At least twice, Cav’s chain has fallen off right as he crossed the line, which is pretty crazy and explained (perhaps) here. In his last win, his phenomenal lead-out man, Michael Mørkøv, threw his chain in the final sprint, too, at least 50 feet before the line! That Mørkøv still finished second shows what a total badass he is, as if his awesome name with those weird bend-sinister Øs weren’t enough. These are the little nuggets of interest we have to look for when Pogacar is so dominant that the race itself is dull.

Now they’re showing the pre-race interview with Guillaume Martin.

INTERVIEWER: You’re in a great position now.

MARTIN: I’m not going to complain about being second overall. But really, I suck at this sport, and I’m going to get shelled today. It’s a pity since I ought to defend my position.

INTERVIEWER: That’s awfully humble of you.

MARTIN: Please, just leave me alone. I’m extremely fragile.

INTERVIEWER: Sorry. Sorry, dude. Sorry.

The race is still pretty boring. The announcer is running down a list of all the fines riders had to pay yesterday, for infractions like littering, taking a feed in the wrong place, and so on. It’s slightly interesting I guess. Now they’re talking about how riders share prize money with their teammates blah blah blah. The break still has 9:53 and they’re 1.6 kilometers from the summit of the Col de Puymorens (literally translated the Climb of the Little Morons).

Now they’re showing an interview with Gaudu.

INTERVIEWER: Are you feeling better after blowing chunks the other day?

GAUDU: Excuse me?

INTERVIEWER: You know, hurling.

GAUDU: Sorry?

INTERVIEWER: You know, booting. Barfing. Puking. Spewing. Upchucking. Vomiting.

GAUDU: Oh, right, right. Yes, I’m feeling better. I hope to have a better day, maybe getting into a breakaway. If there’s cooperation between the riders we could have a chance.


GAUDU: Pardon?

INTERVIEWER: Cooperation among the riders. Between would mean just two riders.

GAUDU: This interview is over.

The breakaway is almost to the summit where Michael Woods (Israel Start-up Nation) will try to defend his newly acquired KOM jersey. Okay, here they go … it looks like Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) is going to get it!

Wout Poels (Bahrain-Victorious) took second on the climb, with Woods only managing third. What do Poels and van Aert have in common? I’m deeply suspicious of both, Poels because so many riders on his team are obviously lubed (see my last report), and van Aert because he’s an awesome sprinter, rolleur, and time trialist and yet won the biggest mountain stage of this year’s Tour, twice up Mount Ventoux, in a solo breakaway. That would be like me suddenly writing an Oscar-winning screenplay or something. (And yet I like van Aert. I can’t help it.)

Back in the GC group, Richie Porte (Ineos Grenadiers) drills it on the front, trying to set up an attack for his teammate Richard Carapaz, who sits fifth on GC, 5:33 behind Pogacar. Behind him are a bunch of Movistar guys, setting up their top guy, Enric Mas, who’s ninth, 7:11 back.

Now the GC group crests the summit of the Puymorens. They’ll do a short descent before tackling the Category 1 Port d’Envalira.

Okay, this is interesting. Jonathan Castroviejo (Ineos Grenadiers) is having a terrible problem with his back itching, and attempts to get some relief from a soigneur in the team car. “Up a little, just to the left—oh yeah, that’s it, oh, yeah, just a bit higher now,” he says.

We saw a similar issue yesterday with Omer Goldstein (Israel Start-up Nation), who wasn’t reachable by his team car and had to scratch his own itch, his arm snaking up through his jersey for several kilometers. This was much more interesting to my wife than the discussion of the amazing zipperless jersey, but ultimately not enough to keep her watching.

They’re into Andorra now and here’s a nice aerial shot.

As near as I can figure, Andorra (its own country, or at least an “independent principality”) is basically a ski resort.

Julien Bernard (Trek-Segafredo) leads the break. He is one of the only bearded riders in the race.

Nibali attacks, and the breakaway pretty much explodes!

Quintana attacks and immediately gets a good gap!

OMG! Quintana isn’t screwing around here, he’s leaving them in the dust!

Quintana is putting the pussy on the chainwax!

Back in the breakaway things consolidate a bit as they organize a chase.

Quintana takes maximum KOM points. He’s got 25 seconds on the chasers.

And now van Aert takes the sprint from the break, and could possibly move into the KOM jersey if he keeps this up.

Back in the main GC group, Ineos is driving a ferocious pace and Pogacar has lost all his teammates. The GC group is dwindling, as the gap to the breakaway comes down.

And now the GC group is over the penultimate summit.

Suddenly, Ineos has more guys: two have dropped back from the breakaway to help. We can expect a big attack from Carapaz on the final climb. By “big” I mean he might force Pogacar to briefly ride out of the saddle, and may even get him breathing through his mouth.

Guillaume Martin, oddly enough, is dropped on the descent. This is unconscionably sloppy riding for any pro, but especially a guy sitting in second on GC.

The rider two behind Pogacar here, in the white jersey, is Jonas Vingegaard (Team Jumbo-Visma). The jersey is on loan from Pogacar who obviously holds it. Vingagaard is the only rider to have distanced Pogacar on a climb in this Tour, so perhaps he’ll be able to do something today. He sits fourth on GC, 5:32 behind.

Now the GC group is led by Lukas Postlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe), working for his teammate Wilco Kelderman (seventh on GC).

Guillaume Martin is going all-out trying to chase down this group. He’s working with Mattia Cattaneo (Deceuninck-Quick Step) who sits tenth overall, 9:48 down. I’ll bet Martin wishes he’d zipped up his jersey before the descent.

I wish they’d show the breakaway and whether Quintana is still out ahead. Okay, here they are. Van Aert leads and you can see Quintana back in there. The way he seemed to walk away from this group on the last climb, though, I think he could still have a chance for the stage win and a return to the KOM lead.

Okay, let’s see what we can learn about this GC group. Ineos is dominant, obviously, with four guys. It looks like Vingegaard has a teammate, just behind him.

Whoah, some dude misses a downhill corner! Look at him, over on the right!

That was Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck-Quick Step) and he managed not to stack. He’ll be able to rejoin the group. Whew!

In the breakaway, which has reached the final climb, Quintana attacks again and opens a big gap!

The break explodes again, and van Aert is totally dropped!

The break closes the gap to Quintana.

Woods takes the front.

Bizarrely, Quintana is suddenly getting dropped!

Gaudu attacks!

He looks pretty good and only two riders, Valverde and Kuss, seem able to react.

Back in the GC group, Ineos still leads as they tackle the early slopes of this final climb.

And now in the break, the American Sepp Kuss attacks!

He’s looking awesome!

Behind him, the breakaway is in tatters!

Kuss grows his lead! He’s had a lousy Tour so far but perhaps that changes today! Yeeeeaaaah, boyeeeee! He has four kilometers to go on the climb! He’s knocking out a blistering pace! ‘Mer’ca!

Back in the GC group it’s just Ineos, Ineos, Ineos.

Geraint Thomas detonates. So does Steven Kruijswijk (Team Jumbo-Visma), who had once been considered an outside favorite for a strong GC finish.

Kuss’s lead is coming down a bit. Valverde is all alone trying to bring him back.

The GC group has reconsolidated. Kelderman takes the front.

Ben O’Connor attacks the GC group! He’s sixth on GC, had been in second after his stage victory, and looks pretty good though the gap isn’t opening up. It’s odd … he’s been yo-yo’ing off the back of the GC group today but keeps coming back. I wonder what happened to Ineos?!

O’Connor is caught. Now Pogacar takes the front … not for any tactical reason whatsoever, but simply because he can.

Now Vengegaard attacks!

Only four riders are able to respond, but the way Vengegaard keeps looking back, he’s clearly not committed.

Up ahead, Kuss holds his lead as he nears the summit, but doesn’t extend it. He may well need more than 26 seconds on Valverde since there’s a 15-kilometer final descent before the finish.

Back in the GC group, Vengegaard attacks again. I’m not using an exclamation point here because his attacks aren’t hard enough. Why not save it all up for a single powerful attack? I know, I know … armchair general here. Anyway, it’s worth noting that Vengegaard looks like that kid in Home Alone.

Kuss takes the summit with a 24-second lead. I hope he’s feeling ballsy today.

In the GC group, Rigoberto Uran (Team EF-Education First-Nippo) attacks! As solid a rider as he is, this almost never happens!

Pogacar is on him pretty much instantly.

Carapaz counters! Finally!

But nobody can shake Pogacar so it just keeps coming back together. You can tell by the width of this group that everyone has just sat up.

O’Connor attacks again but of course it’s useless because he never looks ahead—always behind.

Kuss bombs the descent. His gap is coming down a bit but basically holding? I think …?

Pogacar attacks over the summit, just to show everyone it’s hopeless.

I’m defecating bricks. Valverde is an expert bike handler and very wily, and I could totally see him catching Kuss. But, so far, he’s not closing it up. Kuss was a mountain biker, remember … so he can descend well. That’s what I keep telling myself, of course.

In the GC group, van Aert is helping out Vengegaard. I guess he dropped back for him.

Kuss has just 3.6 kilometers to go! GO, MAN, GO!

I am so pumped! This isn’t just patriotism, mind you. I have to respect Valverde’s racing, but at the same time he’s a filthy doper. So this is a morality play. Kuss goes under the 1KM kite!

Under half a K! No sign of Valverde!

Here it is! KUSS HAS GOT THE WIN! He throws his sunglasses to the crowd! Nice move … the crowds love him and I didn’t care for his sunglasses.

What an amazing finish! I hope Kuss isn’t disqualified for littering. He could argue that his $200 sunglasses aren’t litter, I suppose. And now Valverde crosses the line, defeated, having been unable to touch Kuss on the descent.

Van Aert leads in the GC group. Vingegaard gives a little one-handed victory salute, which is really weird. I mean, he failed to make up any ground on Pogacar, after all. Maybe he’s just stoked to preserve his fourth place. Or did he make up enough time on Martin to get on the virtual podium? Could be … Martin is still out on the road, who knows how far back!

Valverde congratulates Kuss. I have to admit, I kind of have to appreciate Valverde even if he’s a doper (did I mention that already?).

OMG. Guillaume Martin is only just finishing now. He’s lost minutes after letting that gap open up on the descent. What a disaster. He needs to take some descending lessons from Kuss.

Now they’re interviewing Kuss.

INTERVIEWER: So, anything to say for yourself?

KUSS: To be honest I was suffering a lot in this Tour so far. I didn’t have the spice in the legs.

INTERVIEWER: What does that mean, “spice in the legs.” That’s not a thing.

KUSS: What do you mean? It’s totally a thing.

INTERVIEWER [after looking up phrase on smartphone and showing it to Kuss]: Look, I just googled it, bitch. “Spice in the legs” is not a thing. You’re tryin’ to make it a thing!

KUSS: Okay, fine. You’re right, it’s not an expression. I’m sorry, all right? I’m a bit brain-dead and emotional and that just came out.

INTERVIEWER: You won a Tour stage but that does not make you an influencer.

KUSS: Got it.

INTERVIEWER: Did today’s stage go to plan?

KUSS: I knew today’s route, it finishes where I live and I was really motivated for the stage. I had the legs, and my girlfriend and her family were on the climb, which meant a lot to me.

INTERVIEWER: Dude, she sounds hot.

KUSS: This interview is over.

Here is the stage result. Looks like Quintana clawed his way back to the lead chase group.

And here is the new GC.

And now Chris Froome (Israel Start-up Nation) crosses the line, only 23 minutes down. This is a great result for him because he TOTALLY SUCKS now. I’m not going to chalk it up to his terrible accident and injury as that was years ago. He’s just not on the kind Ineos lube anymore. You can hate me if you want.

Here’s Sepp Kuss on the podium, celebrating his first-ever Tour stage win! I see his sunglasses have already been replaced. That’d be nice, to be sponsored like that. And TO WIN A MOUNTAIN STAGE OF THE FREAKIN’ TOUR! Woohoo! ‘Mer’ca!

Woods lost the KOM jersey today. Here is the new leader, Wouter Poels, on the podium. There’s something a bit fishy here. No, I’m not just talking about the eerily strong performances of everyone on Bahrain-Victorious, including their domestiques. I’m talking about how Poels’ head seems to be Photoshopped onto his neck here. Doesn’t he look weird?

Van Aert accepts today’s Combativity award. We have this category in my family, too, but it’s not a laudatory label. It’s more like an accusation, and alas, I’m quite capable of mixing it up with my teenagers in this realm. But at least I don’t own any unripe-tomato-red suits like this podium guy doofus.

And now we see Cavendish crossing the line with his teammates, safely within the time cut. Really, the remaining Pyrenees are likely the only obstacle left to him taking the green jersey all the way to Paris.

Well, I guess there’s almost no way Pogacar can lose this Tour. His main risk is that by making his so-called competitors look like such chumps, he’ll disgrace the race to the point that nobody will care about it anymore. Look how ridiculously comfortable he looked today:

Next weekend is a time trial and the parade into Paris, both of which will be mainly boring, so this’ll be my last blow-by-blow until the Vuelta. Long live King Kuss!

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