Le Challenge Vercors

Le Challenge Vercors 168km 3200m climbing

Result: 222 out of 331 overall. 45 out of 72 category. 06:33:32 hrs, Ave Speed 25.15 kph
Ave HR 148 bpm, 10160 calories, 72.3 kg

The Vercors
The Vercors is an amazing mountain range sprouting up from the plains near Grenoble. It is both wild and inaccessible with steep cliffs and impressive gorges all around. Those qualities made the Vercors a major centre for the French resistance in WW2  – the “Maquis de Vercors” who were destined to distract and slow down the German forces in preparation for D day – but who were ultimately abandoned by the allies and suffered heavy loss of life as a result. Cycling around the Vercors and enjoying the great beauty and majesty of the area it’s hard to imagine any of this troubled recent past.
The Vercors appears to have it’s own micro climate so despite generally warm weather we awoke to freezing cold and ice on the tents. The beads pictured on the tent below are not water they are solid ice. Normally ice forms crystals and fern type patterns so it was unusual to see round beads like this. One advantage of the ice is that it seemed to shut up the frogs. The same “duck” sounding frogs that were at the Ventoux were also beside this camp site. There was a small stream – passing close by and it was great to see that it was full of trout and life.

Finding a place to eat was not a problem here – the only restaurant visible (L’Etale) was empty at 7:30 pm and it was a pasta resaurant. We both opted for seafood salads and then pasta & bolognaise. The quality was excellent for a change at one of those remote venues and I walked out of the place with my stomach feeling distended but very satisfied and set up for the following morning. I’m probably going about this all the wrong way because as usual ended up with gut ache throughout the start of the race – but never bonked – so I don’t know. Chris got to watch the European cup final in an empty bar and as much as I found it boring I tried to take an interest. Why does the entire management team sit on the sidelines wearing grey suits and chewing gum constantly with their mouths open? They must be uniformly moronic. Football is not a sport – it’s a game and not a particularly good one at that.

It was already chilly walking back to the camp site and tents for the night. Fortunately I’d taken Christiane’s advice and put socks on before going to sleep. Apparently sleep is just impossible if your feet are freezing – it seems to be an automatic response of the body. My sleeping bag is down filled although it is a lightweight “summer” one and so my only problem was sweating and condensation inside the bag. Chris in his tent was freezing and didn’t sleep apparently – but I heard him stirring at 5:45am and starting to cook his breakfast. I’d cooked my own breakfast at night because I didn’t want to mess around with cooking in the morning. The grass and earth was a bit lumpy but I’d stabilised the porridge/banana mix on the gas stove and had it cooking nicely. Turning towards the tent for a minute and then turning back I was gutted to see the stove burning grass and porridge already feeding the worms. Grass being relatively clean it was all scooped  back into the pot and the cooking resumed. At least the most messy job was done and out of the way for morning. 
Morning temperature was 2.5°C at 7am and so it wasn’t appealing for the start of the race. It took quite a while for the sun to reach the valley floor where the campsite was situated but even when the sun was up it remained at only 5°C. With clear skies this would obviously change quite soon. Decisions had to be made about what to wear. In the end I opted for no extra clothing – just tee shirt and shorts and it was fine. The adrenaline in the race had me warm within 5 minutes of the start – or at least oblivious to the cold. General tiredness had me feeling slightly cold and shivery until a couple of hours from the end – but I don’t think that was due to weather.
There were only two options for distance – either 100km or 168km. Either too short or too long! The only sensible option really was the long course because we are preparing for long races in July anyway. 168km over a mountain range would be a much greater challenge than 86km over the Ventoux the previous week – and that seemed to have stretched me to my limit then. My body was a bit tired from all the training during the week and I did not feel confident at all about racing such a long distance (100 miles) over mountains. Mentally, there was not a lot of positive dialogue going on inside my head – but quite a lot of excuses instead. I could think of many reasons for bailing out but ultimately it would be the best training option no matter how it was looked at. 332 participated in the long course with over 400 in the short course but as usual there was no way of identifying who was on which course. Everyone starts together in a mass start and much later the route bifurcates separating out the competitors. Chris and I started somewhere towards the back of the bunch because due to the cold we had no intention of turning up early. 
Right from the start it was obvious that Chris was on fire and was not suffering from the same negativity as I was. I just stuck close by but couldn’t get into it at all – every effort seemed to come against my will. Chris was climbing fast so I just kept by him and we overtook a lot of people in the first couple of hours. My unconscious brain had clearly decided that it was not cooperating with my intentions – it just wouldn’t let me get into it – probably due to a combination of tiredness from training and the knowledge that this was going to be a very long day in the saddle hauling excess fat up steep hills. It’s like the brain establishes your permissible parameters in advance and there’s no way to override it – other than training. Chris had left me behind by about 50m on the second col, just before the major descent off the edge of the Vercors down to the plains below. My extra weight as usual kicked in to good advantage on the descent and I soon caught up and started overtaking everything in sight – including cars and anything else that got in the way. There was one plateau and luckily I’d found a partner to share the work and slipstream but we soon came to the bifurcation and everyone around us went left – on the short course – and I alone turned right into a very long tunnel going downhill. I could see a group in the distance inside the tunnel so that confirmed that no error in direction had been made and so I had to step on it to try to catch them – but they were fast! After the tunnel there were some bends and on each bend the group slowed a little so it gave me the opportunity to gradually catch them without expending too much extra energy. This was an excellent move because eventually we arrived on the flat plains with a long stretch ahead of us and with this group being large I could just tag on the end anonymously and be pulled along. When you are not feeling too good then there is no motivation to go to the front and work hard. Chris had a similar experience at the bifurcation. He was with a good group and they all went the other way leaving him on his own – but completely isolated. He went though the monster tunnel thinking that he’d made a big mistake and was going the wrong way – there were no other cyclists in sight. Eventually Chris was able to spot us from above but my group was by this time half a kilometre ahead of him. Apparently my bright La Plagne colours were visible and he could see me tagging along at the back of the group. Chris wasn’t standing for this humiliation so he powered on by himself fighting to catching up with this group – which is extremely hard with no one to provide slipstreaming and a period of recovery for your legs. Arriving at the end of the plains and the bottom of the Col de la Machine – the major climb of the day – Chris caught up with us seconds later. I knew however that at this point I’d have to let eveyone go because I’d not manage to sustain the power output to hoist my excess flab up that hill at the speeds we had been going at without completely exploding. Rather than Chris speeding off ahead I deliberately slowed down to a speed that my body and brain could tolerate – which was not the sort of speed you really need for a race like this. When hovering around 9 or 10 kph on a steep climb then this is survival mode. At 12 to 14 kph that’s reasonable. At 7 to 8 kps then you’re in trouble. I settled into the 9 to 10 kph mode and still couldn’t get any sort of positive dialogue going on inside of my head – it was just going to be an unwelcome grind.

Plateau on the Col de la Machine

Carrying extra weight produces a really disadvantageous power to weight ratio – which is demoralising. People that you can keep up with easily anywhere else just leave you standing still on the steep pitches and there’s nothing you can do about it. I slogged all the way up this 12 km climb and then after a small plateau the climb resumed but was not quite so steep. Somehow at this point the feeling of mental “resistance” disappeared and I accelerated up to 14 kph – but not just due to the slightly less acute gradient – it was a mental shift too. From that moment on I was “in the game” or “in the zone” and I have not a clue as to why this should happen after 4 hours of unenjoyable effort. I covered two cols at this higher velocity and then teamed up with a couple of others to fight our way against the wind on the return stretch right up the middle of the Vercors. Half way along this stretch a big steam train of about a dozen riders tore past us – so we jumped onboard and ramped up the speed once again. Now I could rest anonymously at the back again and didn’t have to pull at the front. Unfortunately there was a very steep 10km climb still to confront after this long haul. The first 6km were the steep ones and people were off their bikes walking – lying on the ground – grinding to a slow crawl – everything you might expect to see due to exhaustion. I had to slow down again due to the steepness but mentally it wasn’t such a struggle as earlier on. I dropped into bottom gear and managed to keep up a good fast cadence trying to spare the muscle power of the legs. Occasionally I’d dropped down to 7 to 8 kph but not for long and managed to stay between 9 and 11 kph. One cyclist overtook me on this climb on a bike with straight handlebars and a very high seat post. I could see that he was pulling up completely on one side at a time – like I did last year. He was young and probably has good back health so was getting away with it – but although it gives much more power it does wreck your back eventually. It was good to be able to recognise the pattern though. During the final 4km of the climb I was able to attack again and catch some of those who had dropped me on the steeps. On the descent from this col I encountered another fast descender and we stuck together for the next 20 km until the end of the race with good pacing and teamwork to get across the flats and climb the remaining more open and faster gradients. I seemed stronger than he did and enjoyed working in front after each recovery period slipstreaming. It felt like an effort that was being rewarded as we wound in two other competitors and dropped each of them behind.

It’s a strange feeling making those alliances with complete strangers who you never see again after the race. Part of the attraction of the racing is the party atmosphere – the coming together of people to share and motivate each other. There was a lot of chatter on this course with many a friendly comment from passing strangers.

Chris finished 15 minutes ahead but had seriously bonked during the final climb and couldn’t get his heart rate over 110bpm again despite stuffing himself with sweets at the final refreshments stand half way up the climb. I’m glad that I’d moderated my pace because it was enjoyable during the final few hours right up to the finish line – but this wasn’t really a conscious decision – I’m not sure what it was. Getting off the bike I felt fine. Last year my legs were often in serious pain for 10 minutes forcing me to sit down – but now even with much greater demands there is no post race trauma like that any more.

The long course was won overall by Nicolas Ogier from the Macot La Plagne club. It’s a strange club to be in because it just seems to exist around this one successful rider and his family. There is nothing organised between other members – just the wearing of the La Plagne colours sponsored by the ski station – which slightly offsets the cost of participation.

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