Type 1 Cycling

Type 1 Cycling

Thursday, October 31, 2013

mHealth Grand Tour day 12 - Ax Les Thermes to Berga

I just wanted to write rule #5 repeatedly for this post. It was the longest, highest and furthest I have ever ridden on my bicycle. Not only that I rode most of it by myself.

The day started with breakfast, the physio strapping up my back (Still a bit sore from when someone went into the back of me in July), and a reasonable amount of faffing. I hold my hands up I was rubbish at getting out on time in the morning. But I knew it was going to be a tough day ahead and wanted to make sure I had what I needed.
Back taped up and ready to go
Final preparation before getting out in the morning
Tyres pumped, bottles filled and food stuffed into pockets. Clothing layered and zipped up. Off we went significantly later than planned. Today it was just me and Andy leaving together. Others were skipping the first mountain or at least getting a lift some of the way up. The 11 previous days of riding were really starting to take its toll. It was a cool morning and there was a dampness in the air.  It wasn't exactly raining but it was far from dry.  We started out down the hill from the hotel and then round the bend and off we went up the climb.  It was clearly marked on the side of the road, and we had a long way to go.  We set a nice energy conserving pace and settled into the climb.   A little way up one of the vans came past and stopped up ahead.  Simon and Veronica got out and decided to join us.  The four of us rode together stopping once for a clothing adjustment and a blood sugar test.  The climb is a long one, almost 19 Km and 1250 m of altitude, fortunately the gradient is reasonably constant.  There are flatter sections and steeper sections but at an average of 6.8% it wasn't going to be leg breaker, just really slow going.  There were markers along the way telling you what the average gradient of the next few kilometers was going to be.  This was fine when it said 5 or 6% but when it went up to 9% that's when I knew it was going to start getting hard.
Katie starting the climb of the Col du Pailheres
After about an hour Andy started getting tired.  We stopped so he could walk it off and release some of the lactic acid build up.  Simon and Veronica headed on without us.  I was getting antsy and wanting to push on, but it was useless if Andy couldn't keep up.  We pushed on trying to keep an even pace without tiring ourselves out too much.  Hugh, one of the GSMA riders, came past us and Andy had to shout at me to not go chasing after him.  Its very easy to unintentionally increase ones pace when you are overtaken by someone. A little later I stop to take a quick picture, this was totally pointless, as I found out later Howard had taken a much better shot from the exact same place.  The mountain top was covered in cloud and looked very far away.  Andy encouraged me onward and once again we were on a steeper section a few switch backs before it flattened out temporarily.  Approaching an hour and 20 minutes into the climb and it was starting to ramp up, the signs at the side of the road telling us discouraging things like 8% or even 9%, there was still a long way to go.  I look behind and Andy was further back than he should have been.  Starting to struggle a little with the gradient.  We stop and rest again, and then again a few minutes later.  I was getting cold standing around and slightly worried that at this pace we weren't going to finish the day.  At this point Richie one of the guides, responsible for making sure the riders at the back were OK, had caught up to us.  He looked after Andy for the rest of the climb and I went on ahead by myself.  It turned out that Andy had been unable to get into bottom gear, something Richie was able to fix and helped him manage to make it to the top of the climb.
Some of the views on the way up with the peaks surrounded by clouds

On of the many hairpins on the climb
Andy following me up the climb
I didn't mind climbing by myself, this is something I am well used to.  I was surprised at how good I was feeling considering I had a long day the previous day, it was a lot of consecutive kilometers.  I was a bit nervous that I didn't have enough gels on me.  I am always taking too much food on my rides, but for me its just too much of a risk to be stuck with out sugar.  I saw a van stopped ahead.  It was the support vehicle for the Etisalat team.  I stopped briefly to ask them if they had any spare energy bars or gels.  They happily handed me a few and I carried on.  The next section was a number of switchbacks.  Steep switchbacks.  It was well above 9%.  I was remembering what I had learned from the GCN videos, about cornering going uphill and focusing on just getting to the next bend.  I could feel myself rising quickly looking down below as the one or two riders behind me were following me up.  I was happy to see Andy and Richie making good progress.  Six bends later and I was on a straight.  It was exposed and getting cold.  I could see some others ahead pushing their way up the mountain.  Visibility was getting harder and harder.  I switched on my lights for a little extra safety.  The road bent round to the right ahead of me and the gradient showed no signs of slacking off.  I just hoped that after that bend ahead I was almost there.
It was THAT steep 
Looking back down the climb
The weather at the top - awful, the riders who made it - happy
Andy celebrating his first HC climb
A quick look down at my Garmin told me I couldn't be far away from the summit.  I tried to remember the relevant points from the previous night's briefing 20 Km stuck in my head and slowly but surely I was getting there.  I rounded that last bend and it was bleak.  The higher I climbed the more exposed it got, wind, rain, low visibility and just so cold.  Fortunately I was still working hard to get myself to the top and seeing others ahead gave me encouragement.  I saw Nikki over at the side of the road trying to get an extra layer on to protect her from the cold.  I pushed on determined to make my first ever Hors Categorie ascent.  The road narrowed down to a single lane and I started to make out cars and people ahead.  I was there.  I saw people stopping to chat to the support staff in the cars, I saw others putting their bikes on the cars unwilling to continue, and others taking pictures at the top of the climb to show their achievement.  Me, I was freezing I just wanted to get off this mountain.  As badly as I wanted a picture at the top, I wanted to finish the day more, I rolled over the summit and started my careful descent.
The start of the descent, with the names of the TdF riders

That cold plus windchill, brr.
The road was wet, the rain was coming side ways and it was icy cold.  I looked down at my Garmin, 2 degrees.  I just thought to myself, lets get out of here and I did.  The beginning of the descent was a little hairy, steep and sharp bends on narrow roads.  Not a lot of room for error and I was really cold too.  I had to fight the urge to speed up and get off this mountain and just keep the bike steady.  Crashing here would be really disappointing.  As I descended I could see the paint still visible from this years Tour de France, the riders had come up the opposite way from us.  I was glad we did it the way we did, it looked much harder from this direction.  After about 3 Km I couldn't feel my fingers, I stopped on a wide bend and shoved my hands in my armpits to try to get some feeling back.  It work at least for the moment.  Even with all my layers on I was not able to keep from getting really cold.  I am glad to say that it was not the coldest I have ever felt on a bike.  I continued knowing that the faster I descended the warmer it would get, the caveat to this was that the fast I descended the colder the moving air made me feel.  I was pretty sure that there was a stop at the bottom of the descent so I would have the opportunity to sort myself out then.  It did warm up and the sun teased me with a brief appearance before scurrying off back behind a cloud.  As the road straightened out I began to speed up and relax, still cold but buoyed by my progress.  I could here a car behind me but I was just going to stay safe and let them worry about getting past me.  As it turned out it was a Tour car and Simon and Veronica had opted for the easy way down.  As I arrived at the first stop I was greeted warmly with a blanket and the opportunity to sit in the van with the heating on.  Simon lent me some gloves and an additional undershirt.

The cold descent
Everyone was cold
After about half and hour I was back on the road again.  I was far behind and and out on my own.  Most of the TeamBG guys including Andy had got a ride further along the road to some flatter terrain.  I was back climbing again.  This time not nearly as hard as the previous one.  I was dressed appropriately as well though as it started to warm up I had to start stripping down some layers.  As I made my way up the second if two climbs the clouds disappeared and the the air warmed up. I stopped to strip off a layer and shove it in my pocket with the now superfluous gloves. I also tested my blood sugar as I didn't believe what my Dexcom was telling me. It was correct of course, I had to learn to trust it more. I kept climbing a little longer and the road flattened out to this incredible national park. A plateau high up in the Pyrenees, wide open green space, and lakes surrounded by the higher mountains.  The broken up forests indicated the the ski resorts.  The sun shinning in the beautiful blue sky made this one of the most memorable moments that I had on tour.  It was incredible.  I snapped a few pictures from my phone while moving.  But I knew I was far behind.  I kept my pace not pushing too hard, the gradient allowing me a little more speed than I had been going up until this point.  I allowed myself to enjoy the views while hoping Howard was taking some great shots that I could use for the blog later on.  The only other rider I saw on this stretch was Josefin, a TeamBG member from Sweden.  I passed her, worried about how late I was I just carried on hoping to get to lunch before it was too late.  I made it to the border town of Bourg-Madame carefully following the tour direction signs.  As I rode through the small town I somehow totally missed the sign indicating that I was crossing the border.
Riding through the National Park

The ski slops scar the mountainside

It was just stunning.

Some mountains behind us, other still to come.
As I exited the town I came to a big double roundabout.  I couldn't see a single yellow sign.  I rode round the roundabouts looking for some indication of where to go next.  There were certainly signs indicating that I was now in Spain but nothing telling me where to go.  I rode back through Bourg-Madam until I found the previous sign that I had seen.  I made sure I headed off in the right direction.  I went back through the town the same way looking for a sign that I might have missed.  Nothing, and I still apparently missed the border sign.  I arrived back at the roundabout and called Adam, fortunately I had his number in my phone.  I told him about the missing signs and he directed me from there, reassuring me that I was near lunch.  Back on track I made it to lunch.  They had picked out another glorious spot and the good weather made it the perfect place to stop and take a rest.
Stopping to take a shot of the skies clearly before me
Enjoying the warmer weather

Nikki, Katie and Andy spotting the border 
When I arrived most of the riders were still there, though some preparing to leave and others eating or getting physio treatment.  I lay on the grass and rested for a bit.  I caught up with the other riders then started to organize some lunch.  While having lunch James the physio re-taped up my back.
Simon relaxing at lunchtime

Great spot for lunch, so peaceful
"Would you like me to rip this tape off quickly or slowly"

"Quickly of course, don't mess about." (see rule #5)

I took my time, not really faffing just trying to recover enough to finish the day.  I took some insulin, and at the time I was really unsure whether it was too much or too little.  I ate, and by the time I was done and on to my coffee most people had left.  I was told to get a move on.  I went to my day bag and changed into just a long sleeve jersey but making sure that I had my jacket in my back pocket.  Experience telling me how ever nice it was now, it was going to be cold coming down from the next huge climb.  The guides who were responsible for marking the back of the tour were insisting that I left.  I was literally the last one.  Josefin had already left.
Heading up the final big climb of the day

It was only 2% because of the 3Km downhill, the uphill bits were much harder. 
Pockets stuffed, water bottles filled and I was on my way again.  The road rose up a bit straight after lunch and then flattened off for about 4 Km.  The weather still warm  had my jersey unzipped and enjoyed the easy ride before the upcoming climb.  I checked my Dexcom and I was rising up towards 200 mg/dl, a bit higher than I had wanted, maybe I didn't take enough insulin for lunch.  I turned a big corner and the road started to head up, gradually increasing pace.  I saw Josefin ahead of me and made sure she was OK before continuing on.  I passed through a mostly deserted ski resort town.  I then got a warning from my Dexcom, two downward arrows and FALLING in big letters across the screen.  I was no where near low, but definitely coming down.  I checked again, even lower, OK time for a gel, and some energy drink.  Suddenly I am really not feeling good.  I stop my bike and check my blood glucose, 60 mg/dl, well that confirms that - way too much insulin at lunch, I hadn't even be going an hour.  I had another gel and waited a few minutes, I checked my blood sugar again.  Once I saw it was on the rise I had an energy bar.  This time it was Josefin who passed me and checked that I was OK.
The clouds coming in, make for an excellent picture

Take a pic at what I thought was the top of the climb
Feeling better I continued on up the climb, passing Josefin once more.  Shortly afterwards I looked behind and  saw Richie and one other guide approaching us.  Richie caught up to me and guided me through the rest of the climb.  The air getting slightly cooler as the climb got harder.  Richie was amazing, he helped me set a good pace, encouraging me on and telling me when to get out of the saddle for the steep bits.  He described what was coming up so that I could gauge my effort.  There were some brutally steep 10% ramps that he helped me through before he turned back to help Josefin. He left me after the steep sections giving me instructions for the rest of the climb.  The gradient returned to 5%-6% and I pushed on past the ski stations finally arriving at a large car park at the top of a hill.  I looked around, thinking OK I made it, now its downhill to Berga.  I snapped some pictures of the stunning views and put on my jacket, the weather was starting to turn.  The wind was picking up and it had a bite, and the clouds were starting to fill the sky.
Team Novo Nordisk making the top of the climb before the weather deteriorated

Others not so lucky

Andy at the top of the climb, note that he is not suitably dressed
I started my descent. Shortly into the descent I see that the road in the distance went up hill sharply.  I thought to myself that that can't be where I am going, I must be turning a corner and going down between the two peaks.  No! A few minutes later I had reached the start of the next climb.  I saw ahead of me a car with people by the side of the road.  Were they part of the tour? would I have people to ride with for the rest of the day?  This next climb averaged around 7% and although it was only about 3 Km long at this point in my day it was really hard work.  The weather was getting cooler and the wind was picking up too, it was quite exposed.  I reached the car and realized that they had nothing to do with the tour, disappoined I continued on up the climb.  Fifteen minutes later and praying that what looked like the top of the climb was indeed the top I saw the sign by the side of the road indicating that I had made it.  I looked over and saw one of the vans from Team Orange, but nobody in sight.  I thought that was weird.  I found out later that the driver of the van had wanted to do the descent and then crashed.  The van had been abandoned until much later that night when someone had to go and collect it.
The most amazing descent 
This time I knew I was on the real descent, we had been promised by Adam that it was the best descent of the tour.  And I was not disappointed.  Very few hairpins or sharp bends allowed me to keep a decent speed the whole way down.  I definitely had the right clothing on as it wasn't too warm especially in the earlier parts of the run down.  I was tired at this point so I wasn't pushing it, rarely peddling and just letting gravity do the work.  It was 20 Km of pure enjoyment.  Soon I was at the next refreshment station.  Greeted, as ever, very warmly by the awesome girls who looked after me so nicely.  I check my blood sugar, and refilled my bottles.  I made sure that I had enough food.  They told me not to hang around too long as I was running out of time and I still had 40 Km to go.  I asked what had happened to Andy.  He had left lunch with no warm clothes and had arrived at the stop freezing.  At this point he called it a day and got a ride with the Doctor's car back to the hotel.
Fantastic views the whole way down
Off I went in the late afternoon light.  The weather was fine but I was starting to get concerned about how much daylight I had left.  What was worse the next section was uphill and after 140 Km with some big hills these small hills felt hard.  There were some steep ramps that made it hard to get in a good rhythm and it was pretty slow going.  Thankfully they really weren't too long and I was through them and back going down hill, and most importantly enjoying myself.  Soon the light was fading and first I removed my sunglasses and then turned on my lights.  It was definitely later than I had wanted to be out.  I heard cars come up behind me and  I moved over and waved them through.  One pulled along side me and the window wound down.

"Are you ok?" it was the girls from the rest stop.

"Yes fine thanks"

"Do you want to carry on"


"Ok we'll drive behind you and light the way.
Chris and Katie roll across a bridge shortly before Berga, I came across here in the dark
Now with someone watching me I had the impetus to go a little faster.  I knew I wasn't too far from the hotel and it was largely flat with only a few small kickups before the finish. My own personal support team followed me all the way home.  I was glad to have them behind me, I did not feel nearly as safe in the dark.  A few kilometers from the end was a short 2 Km climb, it was only graded as a category 4 but at the end of the day I didn't have much uphill speed left.  The van pulled alongside me and asked if I am OK as I had dropped my speed from 30+kmph to around 10kmph.

"Yes this is just the speed I go up hills"

Finally I reached the top and was an easy run down through Berga to the hotel.  Yoann was sat on the steps of the hotel and welcomes me, and I get congratulated by my own personal support crew.  I thank them and run inside.  Andy was there and helped me get my bike organised.  I showered and came back down for dinner.  Not the best food ever but good to be done with the day.  I got some late night physio and then off to bed.  Sadly the next day was the last but it was going to be a great one.

Strava ride info here

Full gallery here mostly provided by HowardSayer.com

My Dexcom output for the day

What I noticed with my blood sugar was that it didn't matter what I ate when going up hill it was when I was going down hill that my glucose started to rise. This is because I am working hard, so burning off anything that is being absorbed, additionally less sugar is being absorbed into the blood because digestion is slower when my muscles need blood and oxygen.  Of course when I am cruising downhill for an hour my liver and muscles continues to break down the glycogen stores and my bowels digest and food, raising my blood sugar.  

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