Nationalities Participating
France, Belgium, Scotland, England, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Slovenia, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Poland, New Zealand, Sweden, Singapore, Luxembourg, Uganda, Australia, Japan.

“Vaujany” is definitely one of the most spectacular cyclosportives and perhaps one of the toughest. 173km and around 4000m climbing in a stunning environment with a veritable wall to scale at the end. Not that you get much time to look at any of this when you are focussed on either racing or surviving.

Allemont municipal camping site below the dam would be home for the night. Good choice! It would mean an early start and several kilometres riding to warm up, including climbing the dam, to get to the race departure at 7:15 in the morning at a small hamlet called Le Verney. The camp site was quiet and cost only 7 euros for the night. After registering there and putting up the tent in the allocated space it was around 6pm and that left plenty of time to drive up to Vaujany to collect the electronic timing chip for the race. Driving up there the unrelenting steepness was impressive – the whole way. This would be the final climb of the race and could present a serious problem.

Allemont is a small but attractive village on flat ground which is part of the plains of the Bourg d’Oissans valley. There was one small pub restaurant open in town and they had a sign up saying “Spaghetti Bolognaise 8.50 Euros. All hours! This is my sort of town! Sitting down to order I made acquaintance with another lone rider from Chamonix and then soon after was joined by my young neighbour from the campsite. Everyone was heading for a pre-race pasta feed – but to be honest there were not a lot of other cyclists to be seen. There were in total 664 participants but not many were eating out in Allemont. The company however made for a pleasant and interesting evening meal. On returning to the tent I cooked breakfast, cleaned up and brewed coffee to fill a thermos flask so that nothing would have to be done in the morning. Even the water bottles were filled and isotonic/protein mix added – the cool of the night preventing any risk of bacteria doing too much damage.
Earlier this week I’d noticed that having completely stuffed myself the night before a major workout I was able to get through the actual workout on a minimum of sugar and isotonic drinks. With this in mind I continued feeding myself until going to bed. Once again this strategy seemed to pay off perfectly the next day.


The campsite was wonderfully quiet but the sleeping bag was way too warm. The night passed restlessly feeling soaked inside the bag – even with it half open. This was also a concern regarding potential hydration issues during the race – especially as no thought was given to it first thing in the morning and the only drink consumed was coffee. The smartphone alarm was set for 5:30am but sweat did the job long before that. Pre-race nerves or adrenaline had already started to play their part the day before and sleeping is never as deep as usual in those situations. Eating the cold porridge/banana mix in the morning was hard work – but the coffee went down very nicely in comparison. The campsite facilities were close by. Such facilities make camping more attractive (in good weather) than spending the night in a van. Getting shaved, washed without difficulty and having clean toilets makes life easy. One great advantage of doing all the serious eating the night before is that there is no stomach discomfort through the start of the race. I’d mixed up some pre-race carbo loading chocolate breakfast but decided not to eat it. In the event this turned out for the best because the young neighbour had nothing to eat and so I offered it to him instead. I couldn’t let him go to the race hungry knowing that I had all that uneaten food lying around.
Air temperature was quite low in the morning due to the clear sky at night causing heavy heat loss through radiation. Leaving at 6:30am in a tee shirt to ride to the start required a measure of self confidence to say the least, but there were many others doing the same: either a confirmation of sanity – or perhaps the opposite, I’m not sure which. Arriving at the start there was an official who directed me to another entry gate about several hundred metres away. On the way there others were coming back the other way – there were people going in all directions. Eventually, after arriving at the other entrance and attempting to enter there was another official who barred the way and told me to go back to the first entrance as it was for the long course. This explained why people were all over the place. Arriving back at the original entrance the first official tried the same routine again but this time I just ignored him and barged on through because there were only minutes left before the start – real chaos! This untimely distraction didn’t leave a comfortable margin of time to get the gear properly sorted out. The Garmin Forerunner 305 had an extended battery pack mounted beneath it on the handlebars so that it would hopefully last the distance. The idea was to switch the pack on at some point to charge the Garmin for about an hour. Eventually this charging was started 3 hours into the race and it worked perfectly keeping the Garmin going strong to the end. The smartphone was also logging everything with the GPS and 3G running sending all the data direct to internet in real time. This was partly a test to see if it would last the race on its own battery. (It did last a full 8 hours! Then died completely when I tried to make a call.) First attempt to get the Endomondo app running saw it fail to log heart data, but on re-starting the heart data was there. Unfortunately it went unnoticed that it immediately stuck at 95bpm for the entire rest of the workout! Had there not been such a disorganisation by the officials causing time to run out this would definitely have been spotted and the functioning properly verified. The idea is eventually that the app and smartphone take over from the Garmin  – but for the time being it’s still best to have both.  The real time internet data will allow progress on future events – such as the Marmotte and Etapes to be followed by friends and for them to send audio feedback – hopefully in the form of encouragement. Regardless of this glitch Endomondo did give audio split times every kilometre for the entire race – which is very useful – especially when you feel that you are really struggling and then you hear a reasonably good time for the last kilometre. Sometimes your own perception is not accurate so it’s like having a personal coach. Only one earbud was used so there was no isolation from other cyclists. It was tempting to put music on to ease the pain and discomfort of climbing or to drown out the internal negative dialogue – but somehow that just didn’t seem right. One guy did overtake me however on the final climb with his own personal disco booming out of his pocket!

Final Climb to Vaugany

The Race
Early in the evening before the race I’d driven around the departure area to become familiar with it, eventually locating the local parking area which would obviously be jam packed the following morning. For the moment it only had one occupant – a small car with a bike in it. Saying hello to the occupant it was clear that he was glad to find someone to talk to for a moment and he proceeded to explain to me the entire course route with its difficulties, dangers and the mistakes to avoid. The start was a 20km descent followed by a 15km steep climb up to the station of Alpe du Grand Serre. Basically the start would be really dangerous and there would be crashes to avoid and then it was important to avoid going too hard on the first climb – though practically everyone would! His advice was accurate – along with a stack of detail that he provided regarding dangerous corners on the descents. He was planning to set up a tent there overnight and to stash it away in the morning – camping wild being illegal in France. His logic was good because he would be on location for the start – but I preferred the comfort and security of the campsite and village.
Starting off in the race I remember saying to myself to take it easy because it was going to be a really hard day. Next thing my heart rate was almost maxing out in the battle to stay with the peloton. So much for good intentions. Everything said the evening before fell into place and every avoidable error was made almost joyfully.  After a while I found myself in a group dropped by the main leading peloton which disappeared  ahead with the security vehicles. The pace in this group was still good, but eventually the group fractured and we were forced to fight to re-form. It was a real battle to avoid getting dumped even more. People were jockeying for position left, right and centre and surprisingly we caught up with the front peloton again 15km later after averaging 60kph over a few kilometres. The sight of being in the main peloton again with the security escort 20km after the start was impressive and beautiful. While remarking on this and enjoying the view as well as taking a well-earned breather being sucked along in the peloton there was a cry of alarm ahead and the bikes separated like a wave exposing a victim still rolling on the ground and another bike at the side of the road with the bushes shaking where the rider had vanished into them. I’d anticipated this because the peloton had suddenly narrowed slightly to accommodate oncoming traffic on the wide main road – but it was a big peloton with too many people crossing over onto the oncoming traffic lane. Trouble and falls were inevitable.
My main concerns however were more personal – namely, that my legs might not have recovered from the major 230km workout and subsequent 5 days recovery prior to this race. Energy levels had been seriously low only a few days earlier. Plan B was to bail out after the first loop (there were two sections) and complete only the short course if there was a problem. Straight away I knew there was no problem – the legs were 100% and only fitness would limit performance. This was a serious result already!
The first climb of the day up the Alpe du Grand Serre was fast and after 10 km of climbing the average speed so far was an amazing 31kph (Endomondo audio feedback!) – which considering the severity of this climb was a crazy figure despite the gradual descent at the start of the race. Warnings had been given about not doing this, but they were not heeded by many. Part of the fun of racing is racing! If you get dumped at the start you can’t really race at all because you are on your own plodding the whole way. I’d decided to race through the first 110km loop and then kick back a bit on the additional loop which was added for the long course. I wanted to get my heart rate up and battle hard through the main section to get the maximum training effect from it. The climb was made noticeably easier because of losing 5kg in weight over the past few months. One of this day’s objectives was to lose another kilo. (It worked – weighed in at 69.0kg this morning) To be a properly good climber I’d need to lose another 9kg but this would also create a really “haggard” look so it might not be a great idea. The young neighbour in the campsite weighed only 60kg and was very good in comparison. He finished in 6:30hrs but this was slow for him because his legs were already very tired from having climbed a couple of big cols the day before the race. He was still about 90 minutes ahead of me!

The high valleys and pastures around the mountain range we were now circumnavigating after the Alpe du Grand Serre were varied and constantly interesting. I was in a continually breaking and re-forming fast peloton the whole way until the final steep section of climbing before the big descent down to Bourg d’Oissans. At the 82km mark on this climb my legs started to hurt and the only option was to back off with the effort, depressingly, letting the others go for the first time today. I frequently appear have leg trouble between 80 to 90km, though oddly, it usually passes after that, perhaps because of being forced to slow down a bit and recover. The descent towards Bourg d’Oissans was steep and dangerous with vertical cliff faces dropping thousands of feet over the edge. One rider overtook me and then on a tight bend misjudged it and lost grip with his back wheel. Fortunately the tyre caught itself and gripped just in time to stop him going down. He was shaken for a few minutes but then regained confidence. Eventually we formed a group of five good descenders and stayed together to the bottom to then form a bigger and faster peloton to traverse the long straight plateau against the wind at around 40 kph. Organisation of our group along this straight was impressive – one long line with the front guy peeling off to the outside each few minutes and slipping back to the end. Perhaps 10 people working in unison and turning a long hard slog into a very fast and efficient passage. Not a word was spoken by anyone – everyone knew what to do despite the completely international nature of the group.

Click to expand…. (altitude profile, heart rate and speed against time)

Arriving back at Allemont at the end of this first loop the bifurcation between short and long course came up to greet us. The little voice inside the head was saying “Take the short one – your legs are already cooked completely”, but some higher conscience (or stupidity – take your pick) insisted on continuing on the long course – starting with a formidable climb directly to Alpe d’Huez ski station. Much of the time up until now my heart rate as indicated on the Garmin had been well in the red – so there was no way that this sort of effort level could be sustained and there was no mistaking the discomfort, leg and body pains that goes along with this. It was time to lift the foot off the gas pedal and find a sustainable rhythm that might let the pain in the legs recover a bit. Pain isn’t the most worrying thing. The real worry is that perhaps you will run out of strength completely or that the legs might cramp up and stop working involuntarily. The long back-road climb up to Alpe d’Huez was a continual slog but during this period it became clear that the legs could cope. I’d been focussing on using core muscles actively the whole day – but found that this was hard to do – indicating that overall energy levels were perhaps not at their very best. Each time the gradient seemed to be too steep I could either get up off the saddle to stretch the legs or stay seated but dig deep into the core muscles – both work. Temperatures were now climbing faster than we were but one advantage of approaching Alpe d’Huez was that the air was getting cooler at altitude. The Macot-La Plagne shirt I was wearing has a full length zip and that was excellent because it opened all the way down and having the shirt fully open makes a really big difference to cooling. I’d only buy a shirt now with a full length zip.

Climbing from Alpe d’Huez to the Col de Sarenne at 2000m altitude was rough. The road was terrible – a real mess and dangerous. The final stretch up to the col was steep and straight and this is where people started to openly crack for the first time today. While I was slowly recovering from earlier exertions through keeping a moderate pace others were now cracking completely and stopping. Nobody was actually walking yet though. Descending from this col was a real nightmare. Not only were there deep trenches crossing the road for water run off but there was fresh gravel everywhere. This was a road made for mountain bikes not road bikes with skinny tyres at 120psi. You could tell if riders knew what they were doing because if they did then they didn’t slow down for the obstacles but kept speed to ensure getting through. Momentum really helps – despite being scary. Arriving eventually at properly smooth tarmac it was a great relief to very tired arms, neck, upper back and blistered hands, but it was still very steep with sharp hairpin bends so there was hard breaking all the way down to the dam, eventually rejoining the main road there. A couple of guys passed me but I let them go to permit more recovery from the last climb and the legs didn’t want to cooperate too much anyway. After a lot of descending we returned to the valley floor and once again ended up on the amazingly long straights directly into the wind. The guys who passed during the descent – or rather during small climbs between parts of the descent – were now specks in the distance so it was now just me against the wind and the prospect of a long hard and tiring slog – but then someone appeared at my side. Slipstreaming for a while brought great relief and gave the legs and body some time to adapt to working again at a faster pace. When my human wind-shield pulled out to let me take over I was both physically and mentally recovered and ready for it. Perhaps I’d pulled in front for about 5 minutes when we reached a major roundabout with several exits but no signs for the race. I continued around but the guy in my slipstream went straight on – and while I was faffing around trying to figure things out the next guy appeared and also went straight on. Breaking all the rules of the highway code I then rode around the roundabout the wrong way up against oncoming traffic to get back on track – already 500m behind the other two who had joined up together. This was a critical moment because there was still a long way to go against the wind so I dug deep with the core muscles and went after them – aided by a shallow incline slowing them down a bit. Heart rate was quickly back up to 167bpm and within a couple of minutes they were caught so I could rest behind them for a while and recover. Energy spent catching them would easily be compensated for on the long flats ahead. We averaged around 35kph along the flats this time – a bit slower than the previous time through this section (shared by the two different loops) but not bad because the wind was higher and we were much more tired and less numerous. Along the way a few other riders were collected, arriving at Allemont again in a small peloton ready to attack the final climb together. It was a bit like playing cat and mouse with people for most of the second stage of the course. Everyone by this stage of the game finds themselves close to other people of a very similar performance level – so you keep on passing and then being passed by the same people. I was well organised with drinking and eating, only having to fill one bottle at each second drinks station and drop a couple of isotonic tablets into the water, taking seconds altogether at each stop (The isotonic “Isostar” tablets were wrapped in tin foil in my pocket – to protect them from sweat but to make access very quick). Some people would pass me climbing and grind on ahead then seem to stop for ages at the refreshments so I’d pass them again – and this would happen over and over. The guy who dumped me at the roundabout earlier was a clear case of this. When we got to the final climb up to Vaugany he just left me behind – but later on he stopped for drinks and this time when I passed him he never caught me again because I was able to dig in and accelerate a bit towards the end – plus there was enough water in my bottle to see me through the final kilometre. I’d consumed small gels from tubes during the race and put the empty tubes in the pocket holding a spare air tube and high pressure CO2 kit. The tubes had continued to leak with sugary gel and everything was glued together by the end of the race – but at least I hadn’t littered the road with rubbish!

The final climb was fearsome – averaging 10% over 5km and as hot as a furnace. People were dropping like flies on this climb. The further up the mountain you got the more people there were walking or just hanging over stationary bike frames at the side of the road. I’d been worried earlier on that this might be my fate too but on the contrary there was plenty in reserve and once again I could dig deep into the core muscles or get up off the saddle to stretch and breathe. There was never any danger of stopping. Right at the bottom of the climb an older rider (at least mid 60s) came along side and talked out loud about how tough this was going to be. He had a pot belly and was small, thickset and with a little moustache. Not only was it surprising to see him at all, but then he just cheerfully said “bon courage” and vanished up the hill in front of me! Disturbing! I can understand a slender 30 year old doing that but this was a real surprise. I later heard that Jenny Longo at age 52 came second in the French national road championship again – she will be in the Olympics again for sure. Cycling turns the rules upside down. Towards the top I started reeling in some of the guys who had passed me earlier on so that was a good sign. On the other hand there were some guys really flying up the hill. Where they came from I’ve no idea but they must have been saving their energy for the end. I was happy to have raced properly hard early on and then stretch myself beyond perceived limits regardless of getting a less than optimum result as a consequence. It was certainly better overall training this way. Getting off the bike at the end didn’t feel as horrible as it used to even on the short races – the legs were fine and there was no breathlessness. There were perhaps about 20 minutes of feeling generally hammered but nothing specific. I used this time to get food and sit down on a bench to eat it. The food was inedible rubbish and the bench had no back to it so it was unpleasant. In compensation though everyone at the table was very friendly and communicative and it was only then that the real international level of participation came clear. Sitting opposite was a New Zealander, next to me were Germans and then English and French.

 The utterly CRAP “” after-race food! (I didn’t eat it)

Overall placing 223 out of 405 finishers
Age category placing 35 out of 80
Time 07:55:53 (first place 05:35:51, last place 10:54:24)
Overall speed at end of the first loop was 27.3kph and for whole event 21.81kph

After Race

With fantastic summer weather and the friendly family atmosphere of the event I managed to hang around the finish area and meal tables just relaxing and recovering for a couple of hours. Cycling back down from Vaujany to the campsite at Allemont I didn’t anticipate the sight of so many people who still hadn’t finished – walking, struggling on the bike, standing still or sitting on embankments to try to get some energy back for the ferocious climb. The heat was probably even worse by now so they were seriously suffering. I find it hard to comprehend the winner arriving 02:20 hours in front of me – but somehow have no trouble identifying with those trailing 2 to 3 hours behind me! 

In Allemont my neighbour in the campsite was dozing on the grass and despite his 06:30 approx time he said that he didn’t enjoy the race because of being too tired. He had a bit of a headache now. I always get a headache after this sort of level of exertion so it was encouraging to hear that others do to – even fitter people than me.

The Day After
To my great surprise the morning after the race I felt great – no fatigue and no headache. Even the legs felt great if just a little bit tired. Later on I verified this by going out for a trail run on the usual circuit (6km with 900ft climb) and knocked over 4 minutes off my best time running “barefoot” style – down to 32 minutes now. The run felt great! During the fast descent I could feel the hamstrings a bit which is unusual for me but probably ties into this way of running. It’s the first time that I’ve really felt like I was properly running since changing technique completely. Coordination is now getting good enough to be able to look for a little speed. The feeling is great – just running on thin Vibram Five Finger Bikila’s – even off-road. I discovered that you really can’t “pump” with your arms when coordinating this because your body goes into total confusion if you do. The impulse has to come from the core muscles and the intention to pull the leg through from behind. This 32 minute run did more to tire my legs out though (due to going faster than usual and forcing muscle adaptation) than the marathon bike race! Running is such an enjoyable way to “recover” from cycling – but only when using the calves to absorb the landing and running with “barefoot” mechanics.

A really great day and excellent event – much better than the Marmotte (which is next week!). It is amazing to find that despite long training sessions and races that recovery is actually dramatically improving instead of leading to over-training.

Things I’d forgotten
Pillows. Head torch. To apply bum protection cream before the race!
The bum surprisingly survived despite the heat, sweat and distance. The torch was solved by downloading an app on the smartphone enabling its LED camera flash light to be used as a full continual torch beam – it was excellent and I read for a while with it too. The phone was on charge all the time from a back up USB battery pack so it would still be at 100% for using GPS in the race.

Duncan Gross the New Zealander I met at the end or the race will be posting headcam video footage of the race on his blog – switchbackpublications.blogspot .com

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