Les Bosses du 13, 2011

The “Weather From Hell” that has characterised every season this year continues. Another race transformed into a course in survival by torrential rain, low temperatures, high wind and lightning. This didn’t prevent 2383 brave souls from lining up at the start through an early morning deluge for the 2011 Bosses du 13 – Marseilles’ annual open cycle race.


It’s quite a big commitment when you have to travel half way across the country for a race. The Sun was out though and weather warm so despite an ominous looking weather forecast everyone was relatively optimistic. Chris was travelling with his wife Lesley and daughter Emily with a view to introducing both of them to bike racing and I was travelling with Christiane, having persuaded her to take a break from her music for a couple of days after her successful (but stressful) concert on Friday evening.

On the way to Marseilles we would pass next to the Vercors massif. Most people head South on the West side of this mountain range due to the uninterrupted motorway. We chose to take the East side due to predicted motorway traffic jams and also the fact that the East side is shorter and much cheaper as there are less road tolls to pay. The East side is also more scenic although a bit slower and we stopped for lunch at the esoteric “Beach Road” Snack Bar – within sight of the stunning Mont Aguille (pictured here). Christiane had climbed this face many years ago and so it was the perfect backdrop for a break. We had our lunch at the “beach” in the middle of the mountains. Unfortunately the restaurant was really a bit scabby and “cheap” though expensive at the same time – but it was warm and sunny and the surrounds were stunning.

We would all be camping at Cassis – a famous seaside resort about 15km from the race start at the Marseilles university campus. Fortunately Chris would arrive early on Saturday morning after an overnight stop en route because advanced booking was not allowed and the site would definitely be full later on when we arrived. Chris booked emplacements for us too.  There is only one snag about taking your partner with you on this sort of event – and it’s called “STRESS”! Stress saps energy and is not good preparation for a race. This is beyond a doubt why most guys go to those events alone or with mates – but not with their other half. Nightmare! Enough said about that. 

We all met up in Cassis for an evening meal and found a pasta restaurant in the port. The service was absolutely crap – not only did Christiane and I get served incorrect dishes but we eventually waited about 90 minutes before eating anything. Emily discovered an open and cooked “muscle” in her dish was actually full of mud instead of muscle. The little marina/port is a virtual tourist factory – just horrible. I was the only one to actually end up with an edible dish but the “fresh” pasta was pretty poor quality. Eating was now too late which would guarantee needing a pee in the middle of the night and indigestion during the race. Good start! We should have cooked up a spaghetti in the camp site. Chris’s bill was ridiculously high due to his starters. In the actual camp site we found that we were separated from a main road roundabout by a small wall and bush. The traffic noise on a busy Saturday night was aggressive. Fortunately I had ear plugs but Christaine didn’t and she hardly slept. During the night the weather broke and a few drops of rain had already started. It was hot enough to sleep without any cover though – in fact a cover was too warm. The fact that the air was still warm would make a correct choice of clothing for the race a bit tricky. All of my errors this year had left me freezing so I decided to accept the risk of taking too much clothing instead (and got it right this time). We were all up and moving by 05:30hrs. I’d forgotten milk for the porridge but was amazed to discover that I preferred it cooked in water. Mixed with a banana it was pleasant to eat. We each had a big mug of coffee and then off to the bathroom. We had to get out of the camp site by 06:30hrs at the latest because the 15km road to the race start over the Col de la Gineste would be closing completely to traffic at 07:00hrs. Chris had to lift his tents because he wouldn’t be coming back, but Christiane and I were spending another night there so didn’t quite have the same pressure. Regardless, Chris was off out of the camp site before me. Last thing I did before driving off was to give Christiane her umbrella – a very good move! Arriving at the campus and parking at the roadside the heavens opened up and the rain poured down. I got changed and prepared inside the car while watching many others outside getting soaked and inevitably cold as a result. Eventually the rain subsided just before heading off to the start. Chris was parked across the road so we met up there. I’d added a base layer and and waterproof plus had waterproof foot covers.  My telephone went into a waterproof pouch. Once again I’d forgotten to fill the water-bottles! Unbelievable! Luckily there was enough water in the car to fill the bottles – some of it gaseous water – but that’s not a problem. At the start we both filed into the priority starting pen and were glad not to have been waiting there like some for the last hour. Despite there being almost 2500 at the start we managed to bump into both Jacques Mat and Richard Pellicier from our own cycling clubs. Lesley and Emily were starting unofficially as Emily is still too young to race officially. They were intending to do the short 85km course. Chris and I were aiming for the long 158km course and Jacques and Richard were going for the middle one. You can change course during the race at certain bifurcation points so nothing was fixed definitively.
The Race
This year’s start was a new formula – with the first descent from the campus “neutralised”. Annoyingly they didn’t let all the priority numbers through before they opened the gates for everyone else. Regardless we were still quite close to the front and we were very grateful that the start was neutralised because the road was partially flooded and even this gentle descent was dangerous with brakes not working properly – especially for those with carbon rimmed wheels. One kilometre or so further on, at the base of the first climb – the Col de la Gineste (heading back to Cassis) – we all had to regroup and stop along the road for a second official start. Chris and I climbed the kerb to move much further up to the front – but Chris remarked that we had managed to ride over some broken glass (which probably cost him badly later on)! Within a few minutes the start gun went off and we were on our way – straight into the climb. I had to remember to start both my Garmin on the handlebars and the Smartphone GPS app with the handsfree button. I had earphones on – just one inserted – to listen to both distance/time feedback and also music. The official race time was definitely 30 seconds too much according to my Garmin. Don’t know how they can generate those inaccuracies – their clocks can’t be synced properly.
The first climb was horrible because we were not warmed up at all and the peloton predictably set off like a rocket. Some of the others had already climbed some of this earlier to warm up but would have paid the price of being caught in the torrential rain.
Within minutes, despite heavy legs, my heart rate was 170 bpm. I’d had a break of two full days from cycling due to a serious need for recovery so starting a climb like this from a cold start was not a pleasant feeling. Chris was effectively pacing me at this stage and I just stayed on his tail. I did notice however that Chris doesn’t maintain a steady pace – he has a tendency to accelerate then back off again – which is a bit tiring. I much prefer a constant pace and effort. Changes of pace hurt! It was fully predictable that starting with the front runners it was going to be a fight to stay with those around us – and that was the whole point of the exercise. You stay with the fastest that you can manage to stay with. Time lost at a slow start is never recovered – even if you think that you are conserving energy. Much is gained by mucking in with a fast peloton. Richard for example is a faster rider than me – especially on climbs – but due to starting slightly further back it took him around 45 minutes to catch up. If anyone has a mishap – puncture, cramp, long pit stop, fall, pause to wait for someone etc. – you generally never see them again, unless they are at a completely different performance level. At the top of the Col de la Gineste there is a long plateau with various dips and rises but it is fast because it is mainly descending. Chris, being prudent, slowed down a bit on the wet descent so I pulled ahead slightly. The descent to Cassis would be immediately followed by a steep climb back out of the hollow where the pretty port was situated. This second climb is steep and when Chris caught up on me he opened a gap of about 100m. I was going though my usual difficulty in adapting to big changes of rhythm – switching  from steep descending to steep climbing. Several others started to overtake me when I recovered my legs and wits and then just stepped on the gas. One burst of power was enough to close the 100m gap even though it was in the middle of the climb and my heart was now up to 174 bpm. From there we stuck together for another descent and then the first proper long climb of the day. Half way though this climb Richard caught up from behind and was soon leading our small peloton – stretching it out – and then snapping it into bits. I could see up ahead that Richard had become Chris’s “hare” – as Chris had been mine up until now. There was no way I was going to join him on that adventure – feeling nauseous from lactic acid already. My head was now starting to feel woolly too from all the lactic acid – or whatever it really is that causes those disorienting effects. For me there is a clear signal there to “back off. 

There is always a price to pay for redlining too long. I was only able to sustain those levels during the first half hour then a reduced level until two hours into the race and then it became a struggle to just maintain a good cardiac throughput. After the two hour mark the only other time my heart reached 170 bpm was in the final uphill sprint for the finish line. The progressive decline in cardiac performance was totally in line with overcooking it at the start. Still it was satisfying to hear on the audio feedback that the 30km mark had passed at exactly 1 hour despite this being well into the 3rd climb of the day.
Mistral Full Force!
Around 1hr 20mins into the race and at the start of a long steep descent it started to bucket down with rain again. This time we were all drenched and freezing even at only 1,300ft altitude. The infamous Mistral wind had picked up too and so there was no escape and no mercy.  The Mistral rips down though the centre of France from the North West to Marseille in the South East driven by a cyclonic weather system in the North East and anti-cyclone in the South West (Spain). The cyclone turns anti-clockwise and the anti-cyclone rotates clockwise – the two combining together to blast right down towards Marseilles. The weather had been perfect for weeks right up until the day of the race and then we were hit with the full force of the Mistral weather system. Luckily the first front to come though with the lightning and rain is a warm front or we would have been in even more trouble. The following day the wind actually blew us off our feet and it was cold even at sea level. The race would have been a disaster had it been just one day later.
DecisionLong Course or Middle Course

During that descent, with poorly functioning brakes and bad visibility, freezing rain and accumulating cold I decided to follow my backup plan to switch to the middle course. Chris had telephoned me before the start of the race when sitting in his car during the downpour and even talked about not starting. I pointed out that we were allowed to change course and so could opt for a short one if the weather was too miserable. I think that most people did because 1221 did the shortest course and only 214 (Chris included) did the long one. I couldn’t even use sunglasses for eye protection because of the water coming off the tyres of other riders. It was better just to get all the road grit directly on your face, head and in your eyes than be blinded by your glasses. Another consideration for me was the fuzziness in my head after starting too fast. I didn’t want to really overdo it and the middle course seemed like the right compromise. It was with a sense of regret however that I turned towards the middle course at the appropriate bifurcation near the 55km mark (Gémenos) – but that regret didn’t last long and eventually the decision proved to be a wise one for me.

Dramatically Thinned Field
The first bifurcation for the short course had been at 50km (Aubagne) and after the second bifurcation the field I was participating in had suddenly dropped from 2383 to a total of 440. In other words, instead of being surrounded by constant possibilities for working partners there was suddenly almost nobody. Most of the involvement with others up until this point had been a bit of a blur due to the fast turnover of individuals, but now the nature of the race would change. First of all there was a long section of flats and I ended up pulling a small peloton along, just as I’d been doing shortly before the second bifurcation. I knew that this wasn’t wise and sure enough when we slammed into the next section of short but seriously steep climbs I was dropped like a sack of potatoes. There was a long hilly section of about 10km with climbs so steep that I’d have to drop right down to bottom gear and stand up on the pedals just to stay on the bike, then steep narrow winding descents. For about 5km I wasn’t able to catch the peloton of five others, but eventually I recovered from the efforts on the flat section and was able to bridge the gap. The group was caught due to fast descending but there was a scary moment when on a sharp bend at a junction my front wheel drifted slightly on the wet road. I’d been forced to brake hard due to arriving at the sharp junction at high speed following a descent and had just a very slight pressure on the front brake later than I’d normally have chosen. Fortunately it was only a tiny pressure on the brake and not enough to cause an accident. This manoeuvre not only allowed me to catch the group but to overtake them and leave them all behind on the next climb. They soon caught up and for the rest of the section we worked together and then hit the big climb of the day as one group. This climb to the Col de l’Espigoulier was about 12km long and going up to 2332ft. Although the gradient was not all that steep it did mean keeping a good speed and high work rate. Some other riders caught us from behind and stepped up the pace. This time I had to accept that I couldn’t stay with the group and settled into my own pace. Most of the climb I’d have to do on my own so I put both my earphones in and decided to listen to some music at least. It became colder again as the altitude increased and eventually we were directly inside the clouds. The fact was that I was about to cover most of the remaining 60km almost as a solo time trial with the nasty Mistral wind to deal with on the return leg. I knew that there would be others coming up from behind but as long as my energy levels were reasonable there was no reason to slow down. I had a good pace, just not quite as good as the faster guys I was along with at the moment. On the way up this climb there was a lonely outpost of a refreshment stand and I had time to organise my water bottle before stopping there for a minute to get a single refill. I drank a cup of Coke and ate a half banana while my bottle was filled and my two Isostar tablets added for me. I’d eaten a gel further back when I’d caught up with the small group but it had been a real challenge due to the narrow twisting roads. It had taken about 5 minutes to get the contents of the gel into my mouth. I’d also eaten a few almond based energy cubes to try to top up along the way. Reaching the top it was cold and miserable so it reassured me that it was the correct choice to settle for the middle course. I’d been suffering a sore back for some time as well so that wasn’t much fun either. Prior to the back hurting there had been a sore stomach, but fortunately that didn’t last for a long time. The back was more of an issue but oddly that cleared up too before the final climbs of the day. The only issue that eventually remained with me was tendinitis in the left foot. The peroneus brevis insertional tendinitis had returned – confirming that this is caused by cycling not running.
Way Home
Descending the other side of the col it was steep, fast, wide and twisty. Today it was also wet so it was not possible to go fast. There were not many others visible at all but about half way down someone overtook me quite fast. I’m quite a good descender even in the wet but this guy was moving. What caught my attention was that his line was not very good and that despite his high speed he lost a lot of time on the actual turns and I would catch him up again without trying. His turns were too round and he didn’t cut in close to the apex to increase his effective turn radius. Eventually he went into a turn and was just disappearing from view when I saw his back wheel go from beneath him and he hit the deck. There had been quite a few others on the ground at various bends during the day but this was the first time I’d seen someone actually losing it. Luckily he jumped straight back up and as I went past acknowledged that he was OK. I just continued the descent back towards Gémenos on the long solo effort. At some point back on the flats the wind was starting to cut into my speed and strength when someone overtook me very strongly. I stood up on the pedals and accelerated after him to get shelter on his wheel. After recovering and noticing that he was looking behind to try to signal me to do a turn ahead I stepped on the gas and got in front. Not only was I only capable of staying in front for about a minute at 40kph into the wind but this was all he needed to recover himself and take over again. This continued for several kilometers and pushed up my flagging heart rate once again. There was a peloton ahead which we were closing in on and there wasn’t far to go when I just couldn’t keep up the pace any more. I think that he accelerated in fact and he was quickly up with the other peloton but I only lost ground from there on. It wouldn’t have made much difference because we were soon about to come across some long sections of climbing heading back towards the coast and I’d have lost the peloton there anyway. Once again I was climbing alone and the rain came down in buckets again. I had a waterproof jacket with me but had failed to organise putting the thing on and was soaked to the skin anyway so couldn’t see much point in using it now – but it might have kept the wind off me to some extent. The weather was confusing though and it was generally just being wet that caused the chilling. Shortly before reaching the top of the climbs I was joined by a small peloton from behind and was able to hold on to them. This helped enormously because after the following descent there was a long flat section into the wind and so being in a group brought the speed up to a good level and we stayed together all the way into Cassis for the last time.
Last Col
The final col would once again be the Col de la Gineste. Rising up from Cassis it is steep to begin with and I was immediately dumped again. My speed was still respectable but just not as fast as the others. I hadn’t cracked but now the Mistral was blasting downhill directly face on and I felt the strength rapidly draining away. This was to be a long 9km climb. One strong athletic guy in dark grey passed me and I couldn’t even try to get on his tail. This was repeated by another in white and blue moments later. Eventually another strong rider wearing the name of the Avignon de Pontet Triathlon club came charging past me but somehow I accelerated and got in behind him for protection from the wind. I guess I’d gone through my usual slow transition from flats to steep climbing and was now able to use my legs once more. After a few minutes the protection allowed me to recover more strength and it was not difficult to stay on his wheel. As the kilometres wore on the two who had passed me earlier on began to crack and we reeled them in and overtook them with a couple of kilometres to go to the summit. They managed to hang on close by and when an even faster rider shot by close to the summit I let my triathlete go after him and eased off for the final hundred meters or so – only to be rapidly caught up in a few seconds by both “grey” and “white and blue”. The descent back down towards the start was uninspired, perhaps to the strong frontal wind. The others continued to pull away from me. I had no desire to go after them and needed to recover from the really hard climb where I’d gone way beyond my expectations and not lost any time. Nearer the bottom of the climb someone shot by me and I accelerated again and caught his slipstream. He rapidly reeled in the others against the wind and I just tucked into an aerodynamic shape to profit from it. We hit the climb back up to the university and the race was on again. Two or three who were behind me charged ahead and I found myself alone but going uphill at over 30kph and holding it steady. “White and blue” never caught me again and I saw one guy up ahead – it looked like the guy who had fallen earlier and who had just caught up with me again at the bottom of this final climb – his legs were tying up on him though he was about 200m ahead. On the final uphill section of the race to the finish line I went after him and he was looking behind and could see me coming. He managed to resist and held me off by about 3 metres at the finish line. Other than that he was wasted. My legs were painful getting off the bike and I was glad that it was over. It was my best result of the year outside of individual hill climbs. I came 13th out of 55 in the age category and 153rd overall out of 440 on the middle course.
Harrop Puncture Epidemic
Chris had stuck to his plan to do the long course but suffered a puncture and lost about 15 minutes with difficulties in fixing it. He was at the top of a col when it happened and was frozen. Lesley had two punctures and ended up running barefoot in the torrential rain looking for cover and assistance. Luckily someone helped her both times – the second being someone who had abandoned the race anyway due to the weather. Emily apparently enjoyed the little bit she had been able to do despite having to cut short and only do the 50km trail in the end. Christiane sat all morning on the beach under her umbrella playing a low D whistle and harmonica wishing she was somewhere else.


(Middle Course)
1st place      03:41:30   33.9 kph
Me  153rd   04:26:57   28.1 kph (13th out of 55 in Age Category)
Last 440th   06:46:15   18.5 kph
(Note: my own recorded time was 04:26:16)


Starters:      Total 2383
Finishers:    Total 1875
Short Course      1221
Middle Course     440
Long Course        214

After Race

The food wasn’t too bad after the race – it was just edible. I felt wasted – fuzzy head – painful legs and a general tiredness.  I saw Chris arrive after I’d already changed clothes and eaten and that made me even happier not to have stuck with the long course.

Christiane and I later looked for a better restaurant to eat in Cassis and found an excellent one in a side street – great quality and not over priced. We were even lucky to have booked because when we went back to eat there it was literally booked out. Sleeping was better because it was much quieter but during the night the Mistral picked up even stronger and the wind did a good job of keeping us awake as it shook the trees around us and battered the walls of the tent. The 35 euro popup Decathlon tent did incredibly well and resisted all the elements without a hiccup. We got up early in the morning – around 6:45hrs and packed everything into the car to then go and get breakfast at the port. In the café the newspapers were there and the results of the race were to my amazement already published in full – so that made for some unexpected entertainment. After breakfast and settling up the account at the camp site we decided to take advantage of the bit of sun that was shining through and explore the peninsula that Cassis is part of. This includes a famous trail called Les Calanques (origin Corsican for “inlet”) The area had been a source of calcium for industry until 1981 and is now a protected nature site. The inlet is populated with hundreds of parked boats now as an inlet marina and all the traditional industries have vanished. They had included tanneries, quarries, lead production and hosts of other things. The rock is quite special and the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York is made from Cassis rock. We also learned that the cliffs opposite at 394m vertical are the highest coastal cliffs in Europe and the area of the bay is where Saint Exupéry lost his life crashing his reconnaissance plane “The Little Prince” in 1944.  We stopped for a drink at a small bar/cafe and witnessed a Canadair firefighting seaplane scooping up water in the bay area without actually landing on the water. It had to come in very close to land due to the waves caused by the Mistral. The wind had now picked up so much that we were blown off our feet by a strong gust and it was clear that if the race had been on this day it would have been a disaster. Those winds would have been completely unmanageable at altitude.
The adventure still wasn’t over because we ended up driving home through torrential rain and high winds. I had the voice switched off on the GPS and missed a turn off and ended up on the autoroute for Gap. To our horror this was not only the wrong direction but from start to end of this autoroute there was absolutely no way to get off it. It’s one section of 40km and there are no exits anywhere! We didn’t lose a lot of time though because it was fast and so was our escape route back through the hills to get us back on track. When we came past the “Beach Road” Snack Bar again and Mont Aguille we were astonished to see that it was plastered with snow. In fact at home all the hills were plastered with snow at altitude. One day later the weather would be back to clam, sunny and warm. That’s the third time this year that the weather has specifically singled out race day to do its worst. We’re getting used to it now.


Body weight is now down to between 67.5 and 68 kg. That certainly improves performance. Next year I don’t want to spend all summer fighting the damage done over the winter by re-gaining tons of fat. This will remain my upper weight limit from now on – no more compromise!

The hardest aspect of this race for me was in maintaining mental focus. This wasn’t a psychological issue it was due to excessive lactic acid production. My body wasn’t processing it fast enough and so it made thinking difficult. This seems to imply that more power and speed training is needed and that perhaps I’ve focused too much endurance work during the summer. My best performances are on short powerful climbs but that’s probably just because it suits my body composition better than pure endurance. It still needs proper training. Lack of concentration on pedalling technique caused the foot tendinitis to return quite severely. Worst of all was the impossibility of thinking clearly at road junctions. The management of the course was absolutely superb with controllers and police covering every possible incorrect exit point and blocking the traffic. Even with all of this extremely clear indication going on it was still hard to deal with anything where awareness was required. The feeling is similar to hypothermia where the brain just stops working properly. I was able to keep focus on the overall effort level and on bringing the work towards the core muscles – but this was the minimum required for survival at this pace.

During the final climb back over the Col de la Gineste I had to ask myself what was it that made the difference when I used the triathlete for pacing. Much of the time I didn’t even slipstream, I was more off to his side. Without him though I’d have slumped. I’d often wondered why pros use pacers on steep climbs when drafting isn’t possible. It became obvious to me now that the real issue is mental. When you are tired or trying to conserve energy you simply can’t do a lot of mental work. Thinking takes energy. Organising takes energy. The pacer sets a rhythm and a work rate. He fights to maintain constancy. All you have to do is stick with him and narrow your focus internally – resting the mind while strengthening its focus – not worrying about anything else. It’s all about information and organisation.

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