Time – Mont Blanc, Megève – Rider Down.

06 June 2010 Time – Mont Blanc, Megève
GPSies - Megève Mont Blanc race

Swiss competitor Boris Chervaz, age 39, when descending in the Gorge d’Arly below Flumet, at 11am, lost control of his bike (probably) due to a hole in the road and went over the roadside barrier falling 80m down into the gorge. He apparently bounced off a rock and landed unconscious upside down with his head in the cold water. It took an ambulance crew about 7 minutes to reach him, where they administered CPR, but in vain. It was the first death in 21 years of this race (7 years sponsored by Time). He was one of the top riders in the field.
The Time race is a big one. There are three courses and you can decide during the race which one you want to take. Considering that the climbs are monstrous it is sensible that you are left with the option of changing course depending on your form on the day. The courses are 85km, 115km and 145km, with 2100m, 2900m, 3980m of climbing respectively. Using maps instead of accumulated GPS data for altitude it would appear that the climbs are possibly even bigger.

Having “hit the wall” in the previous race I prepared for this one with a little more attention and two days of complete rest before the race. The previous weekend I had overtrained slightly, which had the effect of reducing the amount of high quality, or high intensity exercise possible during the rest of the week. I still managed a good, but relatively short workout on the bike on the Thursday, but it was clear that from then on rest and recovery would bring the best result. Saturday evening, the day before the race, Christiane prepared me a very large plate of wholemeal pasta – which I ate only a couple of hours before going to bed early in preparation for getting up at 5am. Megève is only about an hour’s drive from where I live – so there was no need to camp out this time.
It’s strange because I’m generally not at all superstitious, but while waiting for Chris I noticed a jet black cat spread out across the pavement in front of me and had a creepy feeling that something bad was going to happen that day. I’ve not felt that before any other race.
Chris was supposed to pick me up at 5:45am but predictably was almost half an hour late. If there is one thing I really hate it is people not being punctual (and waiting in queues) so I was understandably grumpy when he arrived after waiting outside with my gear for half an hour. The grumpiness washed over as we got underway. Chris owns a dark blue classic Japanese 750 horse power extreme gas guzzler 4×4 pickup that is astonishingly impractical – except perhaps if you mount a rear machine gun on it and give it to the Taliban. Yes we did manage to squeeze my 6.7kg bike in there – just! It’s fast though and the air conditioning was greatly appreciated on the return journey – but the seats are really crap and uncomfortable – designed to specifically herniate your discs. I was much more comfortable sitting on my 135 gram carbon bicycle saddle. Still it was pointless taking two vehicles and it’s better to have company on the drive anyway. Knowing that I wouldn’t have much space for my kit I carefully optimised my affairs the evening before the race.
Bike cleaning and maintenance are crucial aspects of preparation. It’s when you clean the bike carefully that you spot anything that might need attention. Modern bikes don’t need much mechanical intervention with most of the bearings being sealed and modern design being very mechanically efficient in general. My pedals have titanium axels and remain one of the few things that require careful attention. I noticed that one of the pedals was turning too freely, which means that it needs more grease. To get the grease in there is a hole accessible by removing a small screw. I used a big syringe filled with special Dupont Teflon Fluoropolymer grease to inject it into the bearings under pressure. The chain was cleaned with organic degreaser and a dry oil applied (the liquid evaporates leaving a dry film that doesn’t attract dust or dirt). I noticed that the chain is already stretched after only about 1100km so it will have to be replaced soon. The only other parts requiring oil are the front and rear derailleurs. Everything else was checked for looseness but everything was firm and good. I’d pump the tyres up to 110psi pressure in the morning. Water bottles with sports drink mixes were prepared and place in the refrigerator for the morning. I prepared an extra bottle to drink on the way to the race. In addition to this (and a normal porridge breakfast) I had prepared a pre-race high protein/energy mix that looked and smelled disgusting. It looked exactly like something a baby might eat. During the trip to the race I slowly managed to swallow this horrible stuff and wash it down with the sports drink. Chris had prepared a special cake which to my surprise smelled even worse and he appeared close to vomiting when eating it as he was driving. We were not going to start this race with a shortage of carbohydrates in our systems.
On arrival at Megève, parking close to the race start was simple as it was very well organised. As usual (in France) there was a toilet right there in the car park – always the best place to park! We went to sign in and collect our start numbers. This involved finding our names alphabetically to get the number – me 2486 and Chris 2484 and then collecting the electronic number itself to attach to the shirt and the number for the handlebars (mainly for the course photographers benefit). They gave us “Time” (sponsors) shirts to wear and I chose to use one. Chris stuck with his Bourg St Maurice Vélo Club shirt. Predictably, I went straight through this process without a hitch but Chris had not sent in a photocopy of his license so he had to wait in the queue for “incomplete registration”. In addition I had brought 8 safety pins to attach the numbers to the shirts – predicting correctly that Chris wouldn’t have any. (Hope that you re noting all of this Chris!). Being around Chris is a bit like herding cats – but then so much of life is a bit like herding cats.
The morning at home had started miserably, with rain, though near Megève the weather was cloudy but still sunny and warm. Overhead a hot air balloon passed only about 100m from us – the air was still and calm. Before getting the bikes out we found a small bar to sit down and have a coffee – or rather pre-race caffeine fix – and one last decisive bowel movement prior to anything from 5 to 6 hours of intense physical effort. I had dressed in the morning with all of my racing gear, and heart rate monitor already under my normal clothing – so it only took minutes to get ready. We didn’t warm up at all as we both decided that any effort used prior to the start would be seriously regretted on the last big climb of the race. It was thought that to get all 2300 riders through the start line would take about 12 minutes, so we muscled right into the front as usual to assure a good start. Four minutes from the start I left Chris with my bike so that I could take a pee under a tree – a great initiative started by a French rider which sparked a rush to water that giant plant in front of several thousand spectators. Start position wasn’t too important because the real start and finish times would be registered electronically individually for each competitor.

Never having raced over 3000m of climbing before I had decided to pace myself carefully – to ensure getting to the end with some strength left over. The main aim was to keep the heart rate mostly just under Lactate Threshold level. Lactate Threshold is where the body starts to produce lactic acid (and other chemicals) faster than it can eliminate them. At or above Lactate Threshold you are living on borrowed time before your legs get heavy and become useless. Much of training is to raise this threshold higher (to a higher heart rate) and to make the body more efficient at tolerating and eliminating accumulated Lactate. (Current theory disputes this as lactate is a fuel – but lays the blame on other chemicals that accompany lactate) My lactate threshold was 150 to 155 beats per minute heart rate. I intended to remain below that or around 152 as a steady state for greater efforts. Within minutes of the start I was at 170 and the plan was already out of the window – racing is racing. Another bad sign appeared only a few minutes into the race – though less based upon superstition – when there was an almighty clatter just ahead as about half a dozen riders and bikes hit the deck. I was surprised to see them all getting up as it sounded really bad. The first 13km was mainly downhill to Flumet and for this stretch I was close to Chris. It has taken a few months to become comfortable handling such a light bike, especially with the brakes switched over (continental style) with the back brake on the right. Now that I’m comfortable with the lightness and twitchiness (especially in the wind) I feel at home on the bike and enjoy attacking on the descents and flats at higher speeds. From the moment we hit the first big climb – up to the Col d’Aravis I was going backwards and started losing ground among the front runners – so I said goodbye to Chris as he went by. Half way up this long climb we were given a report that we were 8 minutes behind the leaders – that was quite encouraging as it already felt like it should be much more. I found myself eventually however among riders who were at a similar pace and there were a few who had already overcooked it and were dropping back rather rapidly. My heart rate was pretty much inside or above the Lactate Threshold, but I decided it would be an interesting experiment to see if it could be sustained and that I’d eaten so much carbohydrate that it might afford some protection anyway. I really didn’t want to go any slower as it would have felt wrong. The first hour at this intense level of effort I completely failed to drink or consume any form of additional carbohydrates – which is a real mistake. It’s just really hard to make yourself take even a sugar rich sports drink when your stomach has its blood circulation reduced to less than one tenth of normal due to all the blood going straight to the muscles in your legs. I knew I’d pay for that at some point later on. The descent from Aravis was fast and I found a group to work with and to keep up a constant 50kph on the flats. I didn’t realise it at the time but I was reaching 75kph on the descents. (data analysis from Garmin unit)
Climbing up to La Clusaz I felt good enough to appreciate the scenery, the warmth of the sun and just enjoy feeling good. The endorphins must have kicked in. It was getting hot in fact and the full length zip in front of the Time shirt was appreciated because the shirt would be opened wide to let the air in and sweat out. There was basically a lot of climbing and descending – so it’s hard to remember what happened where. There were quite a few crashes with ambulances attending the injured; As usual I don’t know where the ambulances came from – they always seem to be there when needed though. At kilometre 63 I overtook one rider who was totally inspiring. He had only one leg and one arm – both on the right. His left leg was amputated at the hip and left arm at the elbow. The arm stump could rest on a device mounted on the handlebar so he had some stability and control from it – but all the pedalling was with the right leg. Pedalling with one leg is not easy as you have to pull the pedal up and over the top on each cycle – propelling the bike on the upstroke. I passed him on a steep hill climb when I was suffering with two legs and arms. That sort of puts things into perspective a little.
Racing downhill to Flumet to complete the first loop I noticed on my computer that I was on target for a 5 hour pace for the 115km course – which is the one I intended to complete. I felt good and strong, so can only attribute the slowness in the climbs to carrying an excess of fat in in the region of 10kg (22lb). The fat isn’t too visible on me as it isn’t so much around the midsection, but it is spread around the whole body. Imagine carrying 10 bags of sugar up the hill – or 10 litres of water (in addition to the 1.5 litres in the water bottles). This power to weight ratio is really poor and I even notice that I roll faster than most people when going downhill due to the extra weight (but not extra wind resistance). This explains why I make up a lot of ground on the descents and flats where I can use my power effectively.

At Flumet we had to choose the course and I branched off for the 115/145km route – though I was tempted to go for the 85km one. During the following descent into the Gorge d’Arly I noticed, just after a major roadworks deviation (road was closed to normal traffic but not to us) that there was another ambulance and police at the roadside with people signalling again to slow down on the corners. What I didn’t know is that this is where Boris had died only minutes earlier. When the climb up to Les Saisies ski station started it was marked with a “14km to summit” sign that was very demoralising. I was now struggling to keep my effort level in the Lactate threshold zone, but with an effort I managed to keep it close – about 149bpm or around 151bpm which was inside the zone – but it was becoming hard. At that point I decided to use an energy gel which I had in the format of a 100grams – “three doses in one” screw top pack. The gel was a disgusting sticky strawberry flavour and almost made me puke. I washed it down with plain water I’d taken onboard at a refreshments stand at the top of La Clusaz. My speed was now relatively slow and I was being slowly overtaken by people all the way up the climb – but I didn’t mind as I could plod steadily along and wasn’t really bonking as had happened in the previous race. This time though the legs were relatively painful – but that’s still preferable to bonking and I think that is more directly due to lactic acid (lactate) build up. During this climb I was overtaken by a skinny guy in a triathlon suit pedalling away quite rapidly using a triple front chainwheel. I envied his extra gears at that point. He looked a bit weird though as he had a handlebar mounted water bottle with a big straw to drink from and was definitely different. He stopped at a refreshments stand that I skipped and so I overtook him again, but then he passed me again. Eventually the hill became very steep and to my surprise I passed the triathlete here and despite his triple chainwheel he was weaving across the road. It was then that I noticed my heart rate was back up above the Lactate Threshold and this was about 04:30hrs into the course. The last 6kms of the climb were interesting because the gel had worked and my strength had returned in full. Lots of other riders were now cracking, stopping completely exhausted at the side of the road to get a breath or even walking due to cramps. I just went from strength to strength. I noticed near the summit however that although there were perhaps about 100 riders or so behind me I couldn’t see any more in the distance – which appeared a bit odd. At the top of the big climb up to Les Saisies the course divided again into the 115km and the 145km, but it seemed that the 145km had been closed, so everyone was funnelled onto the 115km course. Later I found out that only 15 riders made it onto the 145km course before it was closed – those were the 15 riders (for the 145km course) ahead of Boris when he had his accident. What I also didn’t realise was that shortly after I passed through Flumét where the 85km course split was, they had closed the 115/145km route where Boris had his accident and everyone else was funnelled on to the 85km course. That’s why there weren’t so many people behind me.
It was a long descent from Les Saisies and I was able to catch a quite a few riders in front of me as I had good energy levels despite it now being over 5 hours since the start. We arrived back in the Gorge d’Arly and the bottom of this descent with about 10km left to climb back up to Megève. I could see many riders bunched up ahead and as I felt strong I decided to attack. To my complete amazement I was able to sustain this effort right up until the end, overtaking loads of people who had left me behind on the climb up to Les Saisies. It was a very good feeling to be so strong at the end. Quite honestly I didn’t think it was possible to race over 3000 vertical meters and still feel good at the end – at least I believed that I wasn’t built for that sort of thing. How wrong! My finish time was 05:28hrs and my target had been 05:30. In the event, the race had been cancelled and all classifications and prizes dropped. Chris and I left straight away, stopping for food on the way home. The race was officially abandoned at the request of the local authorities due to the danger of oncomming cyclists during the ambulance recovery and evacuation of Boris. The vast majority of the cyclists were detoured onto the short course at Flumet to allow the evacuation to proceed without risk. Despite all this the race was a breakthrough for me personally and it meant a lot to a lot of people so I think it is much better to remember the fate of someone lost in this positive context. Chris’s time was 04:42hrs, five minutes better than last year, which is good considering he suffered a virus and missed a lot of training very recently. Going by last year’s classifications my time of 05:58 would have placed me in the middle of the field (having lost loads of time on the final big climb to Les Saisies) – which is to be honest much better than I would have expected. My target of 05:30 was “optimistic” and only if nothing went horribly wrong. In the event it was a great surprise to meet that target.
Obviously my fitness level has increased. According to SportTracks its already at the same level now in early June that I reached in early October last year. Probably more importantly I’ve learned the value of nutrition for endurance sports. Compared to my first competition in late August last year when I ate and drank nothing during the course and did not consume anything special in advance, yesterday was a totally different game. I drank about 5 bottles of sport drink (or water and gel) during the race, but should have drunk another 2 during the first hour. From reading on the subject I now know that glucose is the key nutrient for endurance – it even directly controls a genetic trigger – like a hormone would. For the time being though my aim will be to lose weight – and that means exactly the opposite – avoiding refined carbohydrates.

Analysis: 70% of total time was above Lactic Threshold – 3:42:26hrs (Lactate Threshold 151)

Zone 5c Anaerobic Capacity Ave 167 (97% max), 4.23km, 0:08:03hrs, overall 2.5%
Zone 5b Anaerobic Threshold Ave 161 (93% max), 8.45km, 0:24:47hrs, overall 7.6%
Zone 5a Super Threshold Ave 157 (91% max), 18.44km, 1:23:53hrs, overall 25.6%
Zone 4 Lactate Threshold Ave 152 (88% max), 25.14km, 1:45:43hrs, overall 32.2%
Zone 3 Tempo Training Ave 147 (85% max), 12.27km, 0:41:30hrs, overall 12.6%

The remaining, 19.6% would be on downhill sections

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