The seventh day of the Haute Route is rife with controversy. It’s a two-part stage with distinct start and finish lines for each stage. Two stages in one day, cutely named Stage 7A and Stage 7B. Rumors have been circulating throughout the week that one of the stages may be shortened or outright canceled. There’s apparently some concern with the length of time that the stages will take for the riders at the back of the pack.
There’s also a concern of severe weather. At the safety briefing the night before Stages 7A and 7B, the MC makes a comment about keeping us appraised of the weather conditions. This almost leads to an all-out mutiny. It starts innocently enough with a rider asking what it would take for the stage to be canceled (the answer was “really, really severe weather”), and it ends with riders yelling things like “We ride”, “You’re not canceling the stage”, etc.
Part of me is kind of embarrassed by the conduct. The other part of me is like “Well, at least someone said it”. There’s no damn way that, after training for a year, and after all that I’ve been through both in training and throughout the course of this week, that I’m not going to ride every last mile that I signed up for.
A couple of riders have mentioned to me that they hate the uncertainty of it all, and that it’s messing with their ability to prepare mentally. I’m riding every damn mile, no matter the decision from the race directors. So it really changes nothing with my mental preparation.
In fact, I don’t even check the weather report when I wake up on the morning of the final stage(s). I’ll pack my rain jacket, which I’ll want for the top of one of our climbs anyway. Outside of that, I’m not going to spend any time or energy psyching myself out about what could be.
I’m super fatigued at this point. My legs don’t necessarily feel any different than any of the other days, but I feel the energy drain at this point. Everything is just a little bit more difficult. After eating breakfast and packing my luggage up for one last time, I make my way to the start line. We start where we finished yesterday – at the top of the Pra Loup. Our hotel is about 400 meters down the hill. Yippee. Free climbing at 6:15 in the morning.
Because I’m so spent, I triple check that I’ve got everything I need as I start spinning up the climb. I’ve made it about halfway when I realize that I’ve left my water bottles in my room. That’s kind of a big deal. I turn around, retrieve the water bottles, and now have given the Haute Route 600 meters of free climbing.
Free climbing isn’t exactly something that you want to do on a day like today. Today’s two stages are a savage way to close out what’s already been a savage week.
Just under 125 miles on the day. Two major climbs – one in Stage 7A and one in Stage 7B. 12,300 feet of climbing on the day. We’ve had 0 days with more miles, and only 1 day with more climbing. Talk about going out with a bang.
I’m much more nervous for Stage 7A than I am for Stage 7B. Despite Stage 7A only being 44ish miles, it’s got an absolute bear of a climb. Cime de la Bonette. The highest paved road in all of Europe.
14.35 miles. 5,400 feet of elevation gain. Climbing to 8,900+ feet.
Guess who’s had problems with altitude this week? Guess who’s on low rest? Guess who’s smashed to pieces?
Guess who doesn’t care?
I’m going to light Bonette on fire the same way that I’ve lit all the other climbs of the last four days on fire.
Stage 7B is less daunting, despite being significantly longer. Coming in at just under 80 miles, and with many of those miles being net downhill on the way into Nice, I’m not overly concerned with Stage 7B. It’ll be tough, no doubt. But I’m not exactly scared of it. I should be fearful of the climb up Saint Martin – a 10.2 mile climb – but it looks to be very consistent and within my sweetspot (albeit on the upper end of that sweetspot).
It’s going to be a long day, but I’m going to soak it all in. Today is the cherry on top of what has been an incredible, once in a lifetime experience.
We’re out of the starters block at 6:30. It’s chilly…especially for a Floridian. And we’re only 15 minutes or so away from starting a climb that tops off at nearly 9,000 feet. Climbing heats the body up. Altitude and wind towards the top of the summit cools it down. Picking the right gear is going to be tricky. But I dress warm, knowing that I can always remove layers and pack them away in my jersey. I also want to be sure to have my rain jacket, given the concerns about the weather. Although, by the time that we start, the rumor is now that the weather looks much more favorable.
The Bonette is daunting, especially given the struggles I’ve had with altitude headaches and even moderate cramping on Stage 2. But I’ve heard that it’s perhaps one of the most beautiful climbs around. Some of my fear is assuaged by the excitement to see what its slopes have in store. Plus, I think a healthy fear of such a brutal climb is probably wise.
Not only is the Bonette long, it’s relatively steep given its length. And the worst comes at the top, where gradients will exceed 12% for much of the final 2 kilometers. On the whole, the climb comes in at a 6.9% average gradient. At least it’s a very consistent climb though.
I know that if I can make it up the Bonette that I can handle anything that we’re going to get presented with today. So I’ve once again resolved that I’m going to go full-out on the climb. I’ll recover on the descent and I’ll recover on the 45ish minute break in between Stage 7A and Stage 7B.
I also know that I can’t go quite as hard as I went on the final climb of the day yesterday. I can’t red-line like I did practically from the start of that climb. Given how long this climb is, how steep it is, and how high it is, I probably need to go at about 90% of what I went on the individual time trial up Izoard, or at 90% of the final climb yesterday. Patience and prudence must be part of the strategy.
We’re practically right on to the start of the Bonette without any chance to warm the legs up. At this point, I’ve had so much practice this week with bringing the legs back from the dead, that it feels mostly easy to find the rhythm and to settle in.
That’s a nice confidence boost. To feel like I’m riding well from the second I hit the climb. Nice.
Also bolstering my confidence is that, like other stages, when I’m riding in my rhythm, I’m passing and not being passed. After about 15 minutes of climbing, I’ve probably passed 50 to 75 cyclists.
Out of the corner of my left eye, I see a train of 4 or 5 cyclists coming up to pass me. Woah. I’m hammering. These guys are super hammering.
It’s a team of Mexican cyclists. Most of them live in Mexico City – at 7,300+ feet in elevation. These jokers can climb.
My first inclination is to let them go by. Patience and prudence.
But as was the case with my roommate going up Pra Loup, I start to wonder to myself “What are these guys doing that I couldn’t be doing”. I hop on their wheels.
They’re putting it down. I don’t know if this is sustainable, but I’m going for it. I’m going to hang on their wheels for as long as possible.
After five minutes or so of hanging with them, I’m really questioning the prudence of this decision. But I’m reminding myself that I’ve thrown caution to the wind since Day 3 and it’s worked out for me. One more day of it.
As I’m having this conversation with myself, a Canadian rider hops on our 6-person train. It’s a battle of the gringos. Who can hang on to the Mexican pain train the longest?
After 6 miles of climbing, and with 8.3 to go, we lose the other token gringo of the group.
Everyone is feeling the effort. Everyone except the conductor of the pain train seemingly. Two members of the team look like they’re starting to crack. They start standing more frequently than they need to. They lose some of the consistency in their pedal stroke. Sure signs of cracking.
I’m on the edge but I’m still in my rhythm.
It happens so quickly too. The two that are now at their limit had looked so strong for so long. They were smoking it for 45+ minutes. And they went from smoking it to smashed in the blink of an eye. It’s a scary reminder to not go too far outside my limits. But knowing exactly what my limits are is a very inexact science.
They only hold on for another kilometer or so. They’ve cracked completely. The conductor plows ahead. Now with only 4 of us in tow.
We push on for another 15 minutes, surging past cyclists with each kilometer. A few brave souls try to hop on the pain train, but every one falls off within 50 meters or so.
It’s the train straight to hell.
But the scenery on the way to hell is magnificent. Bonette is living up to its reputation.
We’re now approaching the two-thirds mark of the climb. We’ve been climbing for just over an hour. It’s steep. It’s fast. And it hurts like hell.
I’m sitting in fourth position. The conductor and the guy on his wheel look unstoppable. The guy in third position is looking a little more questionable. I wonder if there was a guy on my wheel what his analysis of me would be. I certainly feel very questionable, but I think that I look closer to unstoppable. Hide the fatigue.
We get to a section where the road kicks up a little steeper. Any little uptick in tempo or in steepness is hard to respond to given how much work we’ve already put in. The guy in third position [in our pain train] can’t respond. He’s cracked. He falls out of line and I push forward to get onto the wheel of the number two guy.
The gringo is hanging tough.
The conductor and his assistant quickly realize that they’ve lost another teammate. There’s a brief slowing of the pace. Hallelujah. They back off ever so slightly to see if their teammate may rebound. Catch another wind and rejoin the pain train. I look back. It ain’t happening. He’s smashed. It’s written all over his face.
The pace slows once again as the conductor and his assistant start yelling back to their dropped teammate. I have no idea what they’re saying, and the pace has now dropped below the rhythm that I’ve established. The rhythm that I’m in is very, very aggressive and I don’t want to risk falling out of that rhythm.
I go out and around them and continue blazing a trail up the Bonette. Vive el gringo.
With 4 miles to go, the road is littered with cyclists that are just totally blasted. With each pass, I feel more and more determined to make it to the top without cracking. Keep pushing. This is the worst climb we have left. Own it.
With 3 miles to go, the road pitches up a little bit higher. We’re going to be at an 8.5% gradient for the next couple of kilometers. This is where I really start feeling it.
I’ve got to put more power through the pedals to keep the same cadence – or to stay in the same rhythm. We’re now at 7,500 feet or so. My breathing has been labored from the start of the climb, but it now feels shallower. The cool air stings my lungs, and I never quite feel like I’m getting enough oxygen in. Elevation, we meet again my friend.
But at this point, it’s all kind of lumped into the category of “general suffering”. Be the strongest when things are hardest.
I make it through the steeper section, and we now have a little bit of respite. We’re still going up, but it’s at a much more gradual rate. This is the calm before the storm. Awaiting us at the 2km to go marker is a brutally steep section that doesn’t dip below 10% gradient.
I love it. Throw it all at us on the last day. Give it all to me. Let’s go.
When we hit the 2km to go marker, I’m not totally loving it though. These are the dreaded steep sections that I don’t particularly perform well on. And it’s at altitude. I’m having flashbacks to day two.
But I’m not losing places. In fact, I’m still picking up distance on fellow cyclists with each pedal stroke. It’s just not nearly as rapidly as I was on some of the more sane sections of the climb.
It doesn’t matter. At this point, it’s a battle of the mind versus the body. Or the body versus the mind. I don’t even know anymore. I just know that this climb is hard as hell, but I’m determined to be just a little bit harder.
1km to go. The climb has now pitched up to nearly 15% gradient. The terrain has turned to a quasi moon-scape, with both lush and craggy mountains all around. It’s a 360 degree mountain panorama. Utterly incredible.
I’m really smashed, but I’m almost at the summit. I push and I push and I push until I don’t feel like there’s much left, and mercifully, the summit reveals itself. Only 200 meters to go.
I hit the top of the climb. I’m beat, but I’m supremely proud of the fact that I rode one of the two or three hardest climbs in the race so well. I just hope that I can recover enough to ride the remaining 95 or so miles really well.
Luckily, the next 16 miles are all downhill. Unluckily, for the guy who doesn’t like descending, the next 16 miles are all downhill. At least it’s an untimed descent, and at least it offers other-worldly views.
After snapping a few photos from the top, and after zipping up my jacket, I head off on the descent. I touch my brakes for the first time and they make a ton of noise. Uh oh. I thought long and hard about replacing the brake pads before Stage 6, and I’m wondering now if I’ve worn out the pads to the point that I’m going to have a terrifying descent. I try to calm my nerves, but this is scary.
We round a bend and the brakes perform just fine, even despite the noise. I strategically hop off the bike at routine intervals. I don’t want the brakes overheating and I want photos of what is proving to be an amazingly beautiful descent.
By the time we’ve hit the midpoint of the descent, I’m really not even thinking about my brakes anymore.
But to make matters more complicated, the descent is cold. My hands are starting to go numb. After descending for 20+ minutes, everything in my body aches. When descending, the position on the bike requires a lot of hand strength, and can really put the upper back and neck muscles to the test. After 6 days of long descents, and with no real way to simulate such long descents, I’m really feeling the pain.
After 45 minutes or so, the descent has ended and the finish line for Stage 7A is in sight. Stage 7B is set to start in 45 minutes. I grab some food and find a sunny spot to try to thaw out. Cyclists are buzzing all around, and I’m just kind of lounging in the sun. It’s a nice way to relax after what was a savage climb.
Stage 7B actually begins with a long, gradual descent. Because it’s a mass start, everyone is bunched up. A massive group forms and I make sure to get in it. It’s probably 150 to 200 riders. This is dodgy. We’re riding 3 and 4 wide. Handlebar to handlebar. Wheel to wheel. The slightest touch of the brakes or wobble could have catastrophic results.
It’s hard to not let the mind wander in those moments. The thought that keeps scrolling through my head is: how terrible would it be to crash out on the final stage?
We’re riding fast too. Averaging nearly 36 miles per hour. Hitting the turns hard. It’s fun and terrifying all at the same time.
I try to position myself near riders that I’ve spent some time with throughout the week. I also study some of the nearby riders. Who looks the most comfortable on their bike? That’s who I want to be around.
No matter how safe I try to make this descent, it’s an inherently unsafe situation. 200ish fatigued riders, racing aggressively, at speeds approaching 40 miles per hour, on roads that most of us have never been on before. If that sounds insane…well…it is.
After about 50-minutes, the super group hasn’t dissolved but there also haven’t been any incidents. We’re now at the base of the Saint Martin climb. 10.2 miles of climbing at a 6.2% average gradient.
This is another climb that’s right in my wheelhouse. Now, I wish that I could give you a detailed re-telling of the Saint Martin climb, but I can’t. I recall riding it really hard and riding it really well. Outside of that, I don’t remember much.
I was kind of in a trance throughout Stage 7B. The only real thoughts throughout the majority of the stage were pertaining to what needs to be done to finish this thing out the way I want to. I felt like I owed it to myself to commit every last ounce of energy – mental and physical – to Stage 7B.
I know that I picked up a ton of places on the Saint Martin climb, and I know that I felt comfortable enough on the descent to not lose a lot of places. I took the descent aggressively, but never once felt like I was out of control. After everything that I’ve been through, riding the last descent as well as I did may be one of my proudest accomplishments of the entire race.
Towards the bottom of the descent, I’ve latched on with a group of 15 or so cyclists. The descent is more gradual at this point, but we’re absolutely ripping it. Leaning into the turns. Pedaling on the straightaways. No fear, only focus. Man, this is how cycling is supposed to be.
I hang with them for 30 minutes or so. We’re riding very well together. I plan on sticking with them until the finish line – which is now only 25 miles away.
A thunderous boom echoes throughout the valley. And the skies open up. It happens just that fast.
Torrential rain. Thunder. This is hairy.
I’ve ridden through rain a ton in training, so I kind of shrug it off and pat myself on the back for all those wet rides that I suffered through. But this is approaching a different level. The rain is coming down so hard that it’s almost blinding. And it’s cold rain. Oh ya, and we’re still kind of going down hill and around some bends at this point.
This is crazy.
And then it starts hailing. Small hail for only a minute or two.
Crap. This thing is going to get canceled.
At this point, I’d be ok with that. Not because I’m fatigued, but because I’m legitimately concerned about my safety and the safety of everyone out on the course. I have virtually no control of my braking at this point. I grab the brakes and seemingly nothing happens for 15 seconds or so. I’ve got to squeeze the brakes all the way, and hope that they catch at some point.
Low visibility, limited ability to control the bike, roads I’ve never been on before. It’s a dreadful combination.
I see some riders pull over. It’s probably the smart move. But I trust myself enough in the rain that I keep plugging on.
I kind of laugh to myself about the general insanity of the situation. This is miserable? But would I have it any other way? Throw it all at me, Haute Route.
The truth of the matter though is that the storm takes a lot of wind out of my sails. I’ve endured and I’ve suffered. All week. My gas tank is on E. Physically, I still have some strength left in the legs, but I’ve gone under on fuel. I planned on stopping at the second to last feed station, but the blinding rain led to me riding right past it without even realizing it.
I have no idea how many miles we have left to go at this point. And I’ve made the mistake of convincing myself that there’s only a few more miles to go. There aren’t, and I’m going to have to suffer for thirty more minutes until I hit the final feed stop. From there, it's another 30 minutes to the finish line.
When I see the 5km to the feed station sign, I almost cry. I’m shocked. I thought it was 30 seconds or so away. It’s 10 more minutes. For the first time in the race, I’m ready to wave the white flag. I’m fighting back, but the fight is just to survive at this point.
Finally, the feed station comes into sight. It’s only 11 miles from the feed station to the finish line.
I gave up caffeine after my accident, but I need a boost. I start pounding Coke and shoving in crackers and bars. Each time that I start to head back to my bike, I say “Ah one more cup of Coke”. I must have put down five cups before I finally make my way back over to my bike.
I start pedaling and within 5 minutes I’m shocked at how much energy I now have. I realize just how much of my willingness to wave the white flag was tied to a lack of fuel. I was way below on my fuel and my mind and body were quitting on me as a result.
The final 11 miles are untimed. I don’t want to ride these miles leisurely because I really do want to push all the way to the finish line. And, even though I would ride faster in a group, I want to ride the last miles solo. I want this time to myself.
In the final 11 miles, I find myself constantly shaking my head back and forth. The head shake is usually proceeded by a “I can’t believe it” thought. I can’t.
I can’t believe that I’m going to finish this race. I can’t believe that I’ve ridden this well after being left for dead on Stage 2. I can’t believe that I’m even at this race. I can’t believe that I’ve made it through every descent.
I can’t believe that my soon-to-be-fiancee is waiting for me at the finish line. I can’t believe I’m in freaking France right now, riding the same roads that have cracked even the pro cyclists. I can’t believe that all the training paid off.
I can’t believe just how amazing this experience has been.
Most of all, I can’t believe how incredibly lucky I am. I’ve just ridden arguably the hardest amateur bike race in the world, and in doing so, I’ve crossed a bucket list item off, and have raised nearly $6,500 for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
I shake my head because I can’t believe how lucky I am.
I’m lucky because my entire journey was a journey of “we” and not “me”. It’s incredible to reflect on all the “we” moments that allowed for me to complete this race. I think about how remarkably lucky I am to have a support system that allows me to pursue my passions – my passions on the bike and in the community.
I think of how remarkable the love and patience is from my parents and my partner – I mean they had to put my socks on for me, and watch me struggle to learn to walk again. For weeks and weeks. How lucky am I that they were with me for every step of the way? Not only that, but how lucky am I that they still supported me in the pursuit of a dream of mine? Think about that for a second. I’ve had a bike accident in the mountains. An accident that was so severe that I was entirely dependent on them. And I tell them that I’m still going to take my bike to some of the most extreme mountains in the world, and ride one of the toughest races around. They didn’t just allow me to do so, they encouraged me in every way possible – mental, emotional, and even physical (thanks for the massages, Yas!).
I think about all the people that invested in my cause and in my story. People that gave up their hard-earned cash to support the cause that I’m passionate about. That’s powerful. I had dozens and dozens and dozens of people that donated the money they worked so hard for. I think about the people that invested their emotional capital. Whether it was friends, family, or acquaintances; whether it was post-accident, mid-training, or mid-race. I received so, so much support. I could not have done it without the support.
I made new friends, new training partners, new memories, and gained new perspective. While pursuing a passion of mine. How lucky am I?!?
I think about my journey throughout this week and how it can perfectly encapsulate life at times. Bad things are going to happen. Adversity is going to happen. My race, and my journey was not defined by the adversity. My race was defined by my response to the adversity. By my belief that we are stronger than any adversity that we’ll face. By my belief that adversity only makes us stronger, and makes us better equipped to handle our next bout with adversity.
I think about the fact that no matter the obstacles that we face, life is too short to lay down. It’s too short to not appreciate the special people in your lives. It’s too short to not chase dreams, and to not appreciate the journey to those dreams. It’s too short to limit ourselves. Especially since most of the limitations are artificial – many times self-imposed.
It's too short to do anything other than to relentlessly pursue your passions.
THE PRE-MARRIAGE STAGE
Ok, let's be honest. This is what you all came here for, right?
Once I hit the finish line, I find Yasmin, and we have maybe the best hug ever. I'm so happy to see her, and I'm so appreciative of her support. I wouldn't rather be anywhere else in the world.
And so, I pull out a sweaty ring, that I had been hiding in my bike shorts the entire race.
I had actually planned on proposing the evening of the race But by the time that I retrieve my luggage and my bike bag, and haul them across town to the transit station, it's starting to get late. And by the time we figure out that we can't take the bus to our Air BnB in Eze, it's even later.
I had planned on proposing at the botanical garden that overlooks Eze. You'll see why...
I figure that if we go there at 7:00, right before it closes, that we may get to see the sun setting, and that we may be mostly alone.
We don't even make it to our Air BnB until 7:00. Ok, plan B. From doing a little research, I know that the Nietzsche Trail is within walking distance of our Air BnB. And I know that hiking the trail can provide some incredible views of the Mediterranean. Instead of proposing at the botanical garden, we enjoy a nice dinner on Saturday night, and we agree to wake up early and try to catch a sunrise on the Nietzsche Trail.
We both wake up before the alarm goes off on Sunday morning and we head out on our adventure. I grab what Yasmin thinks is a box of Cliff Bars and stuff them and a water bottle in a backpack. Off we go.
It's dark when we start and we're navigating by flashlight on our iPhones. What a fun little adventure. As we hike higher and higher the various stages of the morning light reveal the sea and the surrounding mountains. It's beautiful.
I discretely scope out places with the best views as we hike to the top. I find a good option towards the 1/3 point of the hike and bookmark this spot.
After about an hour, we've reached the top of the climb. The view is great, but not nearly as great as the spot that I had bookmarked earlier.
I sit down for a few minutes. I'm kind of stalling. Trying to decide if this is the spot. Oh and my legs are kind of gassed out, so they don't mind the rest. It just doesn't feel right here. This isn't the spot.
We start the hike back down. The sun is now peaking around a mountain and the vibrant blues of the Mediterranean Sea are intensifying with each passing minute.
This is more like it. The timing is right.
We reach the location that I had made a mental note of earlier. I set up one of our phones as a camera and explain that I just want to get a few photos. I set the camera on video and rush back over to Yasmin, with the ring concealed in my shorts. (I fished it out of the backpack and moved it to my shorts while Yasmin was ahead of me on the hike.)
The rest of the proposal is going to remain private, but it was perfect, and I'm thrilled that I now get to call Yasmin my partner for life.
We spend the rest of the day exploring Eze and the surrounding villages, even venturing over to the Italian border.
After one of the most amazing days imaginable, we're scheduled to fly out on Monday. Hurricane Dorian has other plans. For Yasmin's flights at least. Somehow, my flight into Tallahassee is fine. Her flight into anywhere in Florida isn't going to happen for another 10 days.
Following some airport stress and some logistical gymnastics, we find flights out of Paris that will work for both of us on Tuesday. We rent a car and head off on another adventure - a cross-country trip from Nice to Paris.
By the time it's all said and done, we won't end up getting a flight out of Paris until Thursday. I think we made the most of our time in Paris...
Two weeks after it began, the most amazing, most life-changing experience must conclude. We're headed back to Florida...engaged. Like I said in the final paragraphs of the recap of Stage 7B, I'm so, so lucky.
What an amazing life.
With nearly 190 miles and over 21,000 feet of climbing still left, it feels weird to say it, but this thing is almost in the books. At this point in the race, I’m beyond fatigued, but I now know that I can complete the race. I’m riding very well and very confidently, and I trust that I can continue to use this positive energy to hammer through the fatigue.
As with previous stages though, I try to focus only on the day’s task. If I spend any time thinking about the fact that we “only” have two days left, then I’m overlooking two hard days of cycling, four major climbs, and 190 miles of punishment for an already tired body. I can’t afford to get complacent at this point.
In fact, I don’t want to celebrate how close we are to the finish line. I’ve thrived on the idea of making this race as hard as possible. On pushing myself to the absolute limit every day. I want more opportunities to do so. I want more opportunities to make memories. I don’t want this thing to come to an end.
And with the thoughts of this race nearing an end, comes a little bit of a funk. I’m kind of melancholy today. I suspect that it’s a combo of fatigue, the fact that I’m an introvert that has been extroverted for 5 days in a row, and the blueness about the race concluding.
It’s all good though. I just want to get on the bike and hammer.
Today, we have just under 65 miles. We have a short, steep 2km climb called the Pallon, we have a long, difficult climb called Col du Vars, and then we have a moderately long, averagely steep climb called Pra Loup.
I’m not too terribly intimidated by today’s stage profile. Col du Vars is the only thing that scares me. Nearly 12-miles. A 7.9% average gradient, despite 3.5km’s of flat section in the middle of the climb. That means that everything else is really steep.
But I’m confident that I can ride Vars well. Col du Vars was on Le Tour this year. I recorded the stage and studied the climb. It’s really the tale of two climbs. The first 6 miles or so are really steep. Then a flat section. The remaining 4 miles are well within my sweetspot.
Further resolving my confidence is the fact that I’ve climbed Vars before. Well…kind of. Two weeks before the race, I had a close friend of mine, and a complete freak beast in his own right, over to my house. We set up our trainers (stationary bikes essentially), replayed the stage of The Tour where they climbed Vars, and we went to work. With the climb profile right in front of me, we changed gears to simulate the different gradients. We kicked our asses for an hour. And it hurt. But it prepared me well.
I message him the day before Vars and express how excited I am to climb it for us this time. His encouragement is perfect fuel for the mind. As is the fact that Yasmin’s flight arrives in France tonight. I’m so excited to see her, and I can’t wait for a huge hug at the finish line.
A reminder of the love that I have back home is much needed at this moment. I have the best support system in the world. I’m so lucky in that regard. And it’s nice to feel like I’m not alone in this. It’s especially nice to know that I’m not alone when I’m in a bit of a melancholy mood.
I’m kind of in a weird spot. Where I’m a bit blue, but I’m still really confident and really ready to hop on my bike.
It’s a relief to get to the start line and to lock in. To only have to worry about the stage ahead of me. I’m focused and I’m ready to have my fourth good stage in a row.
We have about 15 miles of mostly flat terrain before we hit Pallon. The legs seem to feel like they have some juice still left in them. I doubt that I have any top-end power left, but I feel like I can ride really hard again today.
We hit the Pallon, which is a really short climb at 2km, but it’s quite steep. The average gradient on the climb is over 10%. I’m crushing the Pallon. Well…there goes my theory about not having any top-end power left.
Pallon comes and goes quickly. And after five or so minutes of descending, we’ll be on the slopes of the Col du Vars. Despite Vars not being the final climb of the day, it’s my main event.
Vars is going to be a 15-round heavyweight title fight.
As we start off on the climb and get hit in the face with 9 and 10% gradients within the first couple miles, it’s even more apparent that Vars is going to be hard as hell.
I’m hitting Vars as hard as it’s hitting me though. I’m pushing early. Determined to smash this climb as my buddy and I smashed it in training.
I remember from that training ride that I was totally gassed out within the first 10km. Hell, I even told my buddy to gas himself out the first 10km. There’s a downhill coming. That’s the recovery spot.
I’ve just got to have the confidence that I can let it rip on the steep sections, after 5 days of cycling in the French Alps. Trust that I can do so, and trust that I can still recover enough to finish the climb off.
I call back to this quite frequently, as I’m hurting early. I’m huffing and puffing and my legs are barking at me. It’s hard to be hurting so early and to be seeing a marker every few minutes reminding you that you’ve still got a bunch of kilometers to go. Mostly though, I’m appreciating the challenge and having fun with it despite the suffering.
Gas out now. Recover on the downhill. Trust it.
I hit the 10km to go marker and I feel like I’m really in trouble. Both my mind and my body are telling me “You can’t do this for 6.2 more miles”.
It’s hot and I’m gassed. As a former football coach of mine said “Fatigue makes cowards of us all”.
I’m feeling like I could be ok with being a coward.
Nope. That’s not good enough, Jason. Keep pushing. Trust the strategy. The downhill is coming soon.
After a few more painful minutes, the downhill section is upon us. Thank God.
I switch over to the big ring and the legs respond quite nicely. I was attacking the climb with quite a bit of power and cadence. It feels nice to at least back off the cadence a little. It feels nice to not have to be going uphill for a little.
But I don’t let myself relax too much. This is the recovery portion of the climb, not the relaxation portion. There’s still 7km to go after this downhill section. There’s still 25ish minutes of the pain cave ahead. Don’t trick yourself. Just because this section is easy, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the climb will also be easy.
The kilometers tick off quickly on the downhill/flat section. Just moments ago I couldn’t wrap my head around sustaining this effort for 10 more kilometers. All of the sudden, we’re passing the 8km to go marker and I’m still in my big ring, going slightly downhill.
With 7km to go, the road has tilted up once again. Here comes the second half of the climb. The first kilometer eases back into the climbing, and unlike yesterday’s stage where I struggled going from flat/downhill to climbing again, I’m able to find my rhythm immediately.
The legs and the body are tired, but I’ve got enough left in the tank.
I remind myself that I’ve prepared specifically for this climb. I’ve crushed the last four stages. I’m battle tested and able to suffer. I need to call back to these moments to keep myself going up the climb at an aggressive pace.
I’ve been motoring by cyclists since the start of the climb, and now that we’ve hit the more gradual, sustained portion of the climb, I’m really moving past people. As I ride by, I can almost see and feel the effect that 5 days of brutal cycling, combined with a nasty climb on day six can have.
I know that I’m probably going to end up getting passed at some point. I’m determined to not give any passing cyclist that same feel. You’re not going to ride by me and say “Man, that kid is really hurting. He looks like he’s on his last legs”. No matter how true it might be.
I pride myself on my ability to suffer and to ride the strongest when I’m suffering the most. I hide my fatigue from others. I hide it from myself. I’m fighting that internal battle as I pass the 4km to go marker.
Keep taking in fluids. Keep taking in fuel. Keep pushing. Hide the fatigue.
3km to go. The idea of 3 more kilometers seems too much. 1.85 miles. That sounds better. Pedal through the pain. Suffer better.
Hey, at least my suffering comes with some incredible scenery. Other-worldly views. This is amazing. Transcendent beauty.
Past the 2km to go sign and the top of the climb is now in sight. I’ve got this.
I push all the way to the summit and go straight over the top without stopping. I’ve got the right amount of clothing on, and I’ve got the right amount of fuel to get me through this stage. I think.
The descent down Col du Vars is breathtakingly beautiful. There are some sharp turns – usually in the form of switchbacks – that require my full attention though. I take the descent a little more aggressively than some of my descents from earlier in the week, but I’m only average at best on the descent. I lose maybe 10 or so places. No big deal.
Towards the bottom of the descent, many of the cyclists that went by me have formed a bit of a group. The descent is much more gradual now, and it makes sense to try to work as a team to knock out the miles in between Vars and the final climb of the day. I dip into the power reserves to surge forward and latch on with the group. I’m glad that I have.
After 4 or 5 miles, our group swells to about 20 people. One of them being my roommate, who is placed in the top 75 overall. Wow. I must be riding really well today.
We’ve got a bunch of alpha males in the group. Guys determined to set the pace. Cool. Have fun with that.
I sit on the very back of the group, chat with my roommate, stretch, and get some fuel down. I’ve still got to work hard at times to stay in the draft, but for the most part, I’m sitting back and watching as guys needlessly smash themselves to pieces just to go maybe 0.5 miles per hour faster.
I sit in the draft, conserve energy, and lick my chops. Let’s see these alphas keep up with me on the last climb of the day. Bet they’ll wish they had some of that energy back.
With about a mile to go before the climb, the pace picks up sharply. These guys are absolutely smashing it. I stick with the group even though it’s more work than I’d like to be putting in before a 4.85-mile climb.
We hit the Pra Loup climb. This is one that should be right in my wheelhouse. 4.85 miles, not overly steep, (6.3%) and super consistent.
Within 35 seconds of climbing, I’ve left the alphas that were so hard-pressed to push the pace on the flat lands in my dust. I’ve also opened up about a 200-meter gap on my roommate.
He’s a monster. He rode the Pyrenees the week before, and he’s riding really well this week. He’s smoked me on every stage. He just spins up the climbs like it’s nothing.
So despite the power reserves feeling a little low, I’ve got all the motivation I need. I want to test myself against this climb. I want to test myself against this stage. And, now, I want to test myself against my roommate.
After 1km, I’ve moved the gap from approximately 200 meters to approximately 300 meters. I’m riding really, really well.
But I’m also running really low on fuel. I haven’t taken any additional fuel on board at any of the feed stations. I’m running on something like a sleeve of energy chews, a Cliff Bar, a bottle of water, and a bottle of Precision Hydration. I’m feeling depleted. Especially in regards to my fluids.
After 2km of the climb, the gap has closed from 300 meters back to 200 meters. I doubt that he’s picked up his pace at all, because he’s the picture of consistency on a climb. I suspect that I’ve just come back to earth a little. But hey, through two kilometers of the climb, I’ve held the gap right at 200 meters. Maybe I can ride this thing out all the way to the finish.
We pass the 5km to go sign. We’ve now been on the climb for just under 3km. The gap is probably hovering right around 150 meters. It feels inevitable that he’s going to catch me. But I’m going to make him work for it.
I seem to have been putting distance into him when the gradients were in the 6.5 – 7% range. On the 5-6% gradients, he seems to be making up time in bunches. We’ve got mostly 5-6% gradients left, with one kilometer at 7.9%. Let’s see how this shakes out.
With 4km to go, I’m absolutely red-lining. I’m breathing as hard as I was at the top of the Izoard – the full gas, individual time trial. My legs are hurting as bad as they did on the Granon – the 7-mile, relentlessly steep climb from Stage 4. My body is feeling as depleted as it did on the Loze – the brute that finished off Stage 2.
This is one of the easier climbs, and I’m pushing so hard that it feels as painful as any other moment of the race. That’s the power of pride, I suppose.
With 3km to go, he’s right around the bend from me. Maybe 50 meters. I don’t even bother looking back anymore, because the pass is going to happen. And at this point I can’t worry about it, or focus on it, because I’m just that smashed. I need all my energy focused on continuing to crush this climb.
Right around the 2km to go marker, he pulls up beside me. He’s super nice, and I’ve enjoyed rooming with him. I’m glad to see that he’s performing well, and I’m honestly glad to have a little company. Beating him up this climb was never anything personal. It was simply a nice, little distraction. A motivational tool to keep the pedals spinning.
It’s also about the camaraderie and about making memories. As roommates, we’ve shared so much of this experience. I’ve shared some of my vulnerabilities throughout the stages. We’ve battled through the experience together in many regards. It’s cool to be smashing one of the last climbs of the week with him.
He opens up a gap of about 4 or 5 bike lengths just in the time that it takes for us to exchange pleasantries. Let him go. Don’t be stupid. You’re already red-lining, Jason.
I do. He’s now 10 bike lengths in front of me.
I start looking at his cadence. I look at how quickly he’s going up the mountain. What is he doing that I couldn’t be doing?
I put in a huge effort to reel him back in. Huffing and puffing, I pull up onto his wheel. He’s impressed to see me again, and makes a comment about how I’m riding really well.
Me? This dude is barely even breathing. I’m dying.
For the next kilometer, I yo-yo back and forth. I stick with him for maybe 30 seconds, and then he opens up a small gap. I put in a big effort to get back on his wheel, and I stay there for maybe 30 seconds. The process repeats a few times. I don’t have any more big efforts to give. I didn’t think I had any to give to begin with.
We hit the 1km to go mark. When I reeled him back in a few minutes ago, I thought maybe I could surge in the last 1km and get past him again. At this point though, I’m totally done. It’s only my pride and my stubbornness that’s even allowing me to maintain the current level of effort.
And as we hit the 1km mark, I start to lose distance on him. Every 45 seconds or so, he calls back to me. “Only 800 meters to go”. “Come on. 600 meters left”. Etc.
He means well, and I love the encouragement. But I can’t even fathom hanging on to this level of effort longer than 5 more seconds, much less 500 meters.
He’s probably got a 10-second gap as we approach a quarter of a mile to go. Every bit of my pride wants to smash it and catch up to him. But I can’t. I physically can’t at this point.
I’m still climbing well, just not quite as well as he is. And I’ve completely red-lined at this point. It’s only a couple minutes to the finish line though. I just need to find a way to keep the body going a little longer.
We round a bend and the finish line comes into sight. Thank God.
I stand and put what little energy I have left into the pedals. Even though I’m beyond smashed, I’m going to finish this stage on my terms. I’m going to finish this race on my terms.
I cross the line. Head fuzzy. Every part of my body feeling the effort. Soaked in sweat. Proud of my effort. And excited for the next day.
I haven't really posted at all about the post-stage process, and I think this blog might be a good opportunity to do so. One of the things that I overlooked was the number of time-sucks on a multi-stage, multi-city race. I'm sharing some of these to continue to give you a behind the scenes look at my experience, and to also provide some indication of what to expect for anyone that might be considering a multi-stage event.
The caveat though, is that Stage 6 was the worst post-stage experience that I had. Keep that in mind.
I've finished the stage in exactly 4 hours. So it's 11:30ish when I hit the line. The first thing that I do is rack my bike in the designated bike park area. Next, I find the nearest hydration station, and I pound some fluids. More so than normal, because I feel like I've gone under on my fluids today.
Next, I head over to the Services tent where I can book a massage. I'm in line for maybe five minutes, and I'm able to book a massage 20 minutes in advance. Awesome. I find a bathroom to change clothes in. Wait in line again, and by the time that I'm done changing, it's time for my 12:20 massage. I head over to the massage area, wait in a queue again, and hit the massage table at 12:25.
Oh and the massage is delightful. For the first time, I've got a masseuse who doesn't try to carry on a conversation. This is perfect, because again, I'm feeling a little melancholy today. I had even considered putting headphones on before the massage but I thought it to be in bad taste. After 20 minutes of working exclusively on my legs, I unfortunately have to stand and resume my life as a functioning human being. Dang.
I've checked one thing off the "recovery" list. Now, it's time to refuel. I head over to the lunch area and I again wait in line. Twenty minutes of standing around. I'm served a rather small lunch, but it is a nice, healthy blend of carbs and proteins. I find a place by myself to eat my lunch. In past stages, I've been sociable and I've made friends. Today, I just want to be alone.
It's now 1:30 - roughly 2 hours since the stage concluded. The next thing on the checklist would be to find my hotel, to get my bike back to the hotel, to find the bike park at the hotel, to find my luggage and drag it up to my room, to unpack my luggage, to clean my bottles, and to lay out my clothes for tomorrow's stage. That process tends to take 60-90 minutes.
We don't get to check into our hotel until 5:00pm tonight. And then we need to find food and make it to the safety briefing. I'm actually going to tonight's safety briefing, since tomorrow's stage is a little bit different (two stages in one day), and because I need to figure out some of the post-race logistics. I've blown off all other safety meetings after the "It's going to really suck" briefing that we got before Stage 2. I'd rather get extra rest than get psyched out about the next stage.
I find a place in the race village to just relax. My relaxation station is an inflatable lounge chair. I spread out in the lounge chair and feign sleeping so as to not be bothered by anyone. After about 15 minutes, I'm in such a deep state of relaxation that I don't need to fake it. I'm in that state between sleep and awake and it feels great right now. But I'd much rather be back in my hotel and not having to deal with all the little time-sucks that I listed above.
After maybe an hour of laying around, I need to find a little more food. I was already under-fueled on today's stage, I don't feel like the lunch was hearty enough, and we've got 125 miles of riding tomorrow. I find a little grab-and-go place, and snack on a Nutella crepe with an Orangina. Delish.
It's now 2:45 and I figure that I might as well find the hotel. Maybe we'll get lucky and they'll start allowing people to check in early. I grab my bike and all my other stuff and I make the 0.6-mile walk to the hotel. I show up and there are about 200 cyclists milling around outside. I find a chair next to my roommate, and wait around for 15 to 20 minutes. Word has started to circulate that one section of the hotel is ready for check-in, while the other isn't quite ready yet.
This is a complete poop-show.
We make our way to the lobby and wait in another line. 15-minutes later, we have the keys to our room. It's now 3:30. By the time we get our luggage up to the room, and the bikes down to the bike park area, it's 3:45. The safety meeting is at 6:30.
I unpack my suitcase, get my bottles all cleaned out, get my clothes laid out for tomorrow, and make sure that I've got enough food for tomorrow's stage. I exhale and I excitedly hop on the bed. Finally time to prop the legs up and get some rest. It's 5:00 now.
We need to get food before the safety briefing because we're in a ski village in the summer - there are only like 3 restaurants open. So we figure we'll beat the rush, and get dinner in before the meeting. This means, we've got to leave the hotel in 15 minutes. Yikes. 15 minutes of laying down in the bed and then we're back on our feet again.
Finding food is difficult in Pra Loup. We settle on a bar that happens to be serving bruschetta and then a crepe place. Both places are not adequately prepared to handle this type of event - both in scale and scope. I'm glad we got in before the real rush hits.
Dinner took longer than expected, so we're now late to the safety meeting. We make it there at 6:40 and it's so packed that there's nowhere to stand. 40 minutes of standing and then it's back to the hotel.
It's 7:40 by the time I get back to the hotel. I get ready for bed, and I'm in bed and resting by 8:00. Yasmin's flight arrives in Nice at 8:40ish, and then she'll be catching a cab to our Air BnB in Eze (about 30 minutes from Nice). I'm super nervous about this cab ride, and I know that I'm not going to get any sleep until she's at the Air BnB safe and sound. We're in pretty constant communication from the time her flight lands until her cab arrives at the Air BnB in Eze at 10:30pm.
Tomorrow's stage starts at 6:30. I need to be up at 5:00, and that's even cutting it close. I've had about 3 hours of time off my feet at this point in the day, I'm not optimally fueled, and I know have a maximum of 6:30 hours of sleep.
So you want to do a multi-stage bike race?
Please note that I'm not complaining at all about the circumstances. This is what we signed up for. And there's no way that I could complain about circumstances that involve free massage and my soon-to-be-fiancee arriving in France. But these are the time-sucks that make rest and recovery even more challenging. These are the factors that make getting into your routine impossible. These are challenges.
But this week is about overcoming all obstacles. Smashing through any challenge. And low rest or not, I'm going to crush tomorrow. Both stages. All 125 miles of cycling.
After Stage 3’s all out assault on Alpe d’Huez, I’m expecting to wake up with the deadest legs I’ve ever had. Following Stage 3, I got another massage and after a nice, balanced meal for lunch, I totally dominated a cheeseburger and fries. Hey, it’s protein and carbs, right?
As I roll out of bed, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that my legs are very fatigued but not totally dead. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t have any real nagging injuries to the legs at this point. I was worried a little bit about some pain in the IT band that I experienced during Stage 3, but I don’t feel any real discomfort in my knees, hips, elsewhere. I am carrying a bit of a wrist injury, that has gotten so bad that I can't squeeze a bottle, but I don't really even feel it while I'm riding. So I guess that's fine?
In the lead up to the race, my entire strategy was to survive through day three. Day four was going to be a day where I reassessed how I felt, and how I wanted to attack the final four stages. In my mind, Stages 4 – 7B would be where I was going to let it rip.
My legs don’t necessarily feel as though I could “let it rip” on today’s stage, but they also don’t feel nearly as terrible as I would have expected.
But I welcome the shift in perspective that has gone from “Conserve energy. Try to make it through” to “Let it loose. Ride hard every day”. That shift occurred on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez and I’m going to keep riding that wave for as long as I can.
I’m also trying to avoid the pitfall of thinking that today and tomorrow are “easier” days. Yes, they’re easier than yesterday, but they’re going to be hard. Everything will be hard at this point.
It’s really tempting to look at Stage 4’s profile, and to look at it as an opportunity to really take it easy. I mean, I could cruise on today’s stage, go moderately on tomorrow’s individual time trial, and I could come back fresh as a daisy for stages 6, 7A, and 7B. Maybe.
I’m not here for that though. Today, we’re riding as hard as the legs will allow.
Stage 4 is a 50-mile stage, featuring two major climbs. The climbs couldn’t be more different. Lautaret is another one of those super long climbs. In fact, it’s our longest climb of the entire race – coming in at 15.28 miles. Lautaret is nice and gradual though. With an average gradient at 4.2%, this should be a climb that I can hit in a heavier gear and rip through with my high cadence.
After Lautaret, we have a long descent, leading in to our final climb of the day – Granon. Granon is a freak. 7.1 miles and an average gradient at 9.2%. The last 5 miles of the climb are at a consistent 10%. That’s very steep for a decently long amount of time. It’s gonna hurt.
The stage starts with a punchy, short climb that’s unnamed. I had overlooked this little guy on the route map, and it actually ends up hurting a bit more than I would have hoped. It’s a small climb (3km or so), but when you’re not expecting it, and when you’re still trying to get the legs warmed up following the most insane of all smashfests, it’s enough to hurt. It makes me start to doubt if I’ll be able to go as hard as I want to today.
Screw all the doubts. I left them behind the morning of Stage 3. Just ride.
We have a beautiful, but very sketchy descent down the Col du Sarenne before we reach the slopes of Lautaret. The descent is sketchy enough that the race directors have made this an untimed section. I can see why.
It gives me an excuse to take my time, snap some photos, and really ease my way into the stage.
After about 30 minutes of descending, it’s time. Lautaret. 15+ miles. Let’s see what we’ve got, legs.
The first four kilometers of the Lautaret are incredibly gentle – like 2 and 3% gentle. I smash them in my big ring. For those that don’t know, the big ring is basically what you use in the flatlands. The small ring is what you use on climbs. I’m using my flatlands gearing in the French Alps. What a badass.
Or dumbass. I don’t know yet. I’m being super risky, but it feels good. I’m finding that taking risks like this have been buoying my confidence. So I’m going for it.
One of the guys that I met following Stage 3 happens to ride up beside me in the first few kilometers. He’s a beast. And he’s also one of the nicest guys I’ve met. Oh…and he happens to be tall as hell like me, so I get a great draft off of him. I hop on his wheel and we trade off work for the first 6 or 7 kilometers.
We’re working hard and we’re ripping by groups of cyclists. Occasionally, a cyclist will hop on our little mini-paintrain, but they only seem to last a couple minutes. Each one says something like “You guys are crushing it” as they fall off our wheels.
I don’t know that this level of effort is sustainable, but I’m going to hold it for just as long as I can. I proved to myself on Alpe d’Huez that I can hang in the pain cave for as long as needed. I’m going to test that capability again today.
The climb pitches up a little bit more after the 6km mark, but it’s still at a very gentle 5.5 – 6%. I’m in my small ring now, but I’m shifted down a couple gears heavier than I could be. As long as I can keep my cadence high, and as long as I feel like I’m light on the pedals, I’m going to stick and stay and make it pay.
Around the 8km mark, my friend says something along the lines of “You’re a machine. And you’re going to be alone here in a second”. I think he’s gassing me up a little, because he’s strong as hell. But sure enough, within a minute or two of him saying that I’ve ridden a way from him. About a kilometer later, I look back as we round a bend and I’ve put a significant amount of distance between the two of us.
I am climbing like a machine.
Or a wild banshee. Or a young, dumb kid who’s about to eat a massive helping of humble pie.
I don’t know which one of these it is yet. It’s the great mystery of cycling – or at least it is when you don’t ride with a heartrate monitor or a power meter.
Unlike previous stages where ticking off the kilometer to go markers felt like they were taking forever, I find myself totally surprised by how quickly they’re going by. I’m shocked when we pass the 12km to go marker. Wow. I’ve ridden more than half of this thing already.
The back half of the Lautaret is a little steeper than the first half, but it’s still within the gradients that I would call my sweet spot. This is my type of climb.
By the time we hit the 10km to go marker, I figure that I’ve passed over 125 cyclists. I’m on fire right now.
7km to go. Things are getting difficult. The lactic acid is creeping in. The fatigue of climbing for over an hour is setting in. And the climb is beginning to open up. We’re exposed to a brutal, consistent headwind.
Most cyclists have grouped into packs to break through the wind. I come up on a pack of about 30 cyclists. I tuck in at the back of the pack and I take shelter from the wind. After about 10 pedal strokes though, I’m realizing that I can’t ride at the cadence that I want to and ride with this group. I have to make a decision. Stay in my rhythm, but fight the headwind on my own and work harder as a result. Or stay with the group, but risk losing my rhythm and risk having to climb in a way that I’m less comfortable with.
I untuck myself from the shelter of the group and head on up the road on my own. The other cyclists in the group are looking at my like I’m a wild man. I am a wild man.
I’m getting my ass kicked by the wind, but I’m still putting distance between myself and the group. And I’m still in my rhythm. I made the right decision.
Three kilometers later, I’m presented with nearly the same scenario. And I make the same decision. Even though I’m more fatigued and more in fear of the headwind.
I’ve passed the 5km to go marker, and I know that I can hammer it home for the rest of the climb. I know that my level of effort at the beginning of the climb was very, very aggressive, but I’m happy that I went for it. This is the best that I’ve ridden all week.
Major confidence boost. Strongest climb on the longest climb. Not bad for a Florida flatlander.
With 2km to go, I’m sick of the wind. I’m ready to get off this climb for that reason alone. I’m hurting, but I don’t feel like I’ve dipped too far into the power reserves. That’s the beauty of a nice, gradual climb.
We hit the summit and I stop for a quick bite to eat and to throw on my jacket. I’ve worked up quite the sweat and we’re about to descend for 15 miles. It’s going to get chilly.
The descent is actually even more gradual than the climb was. Perfect. My kind of descent too!
I’m thrilled by the idea of not getting passed by all the same cyclists that I passed on the way up the climb - which I now estimate to be 200 cyclists.
The descent is wide open and devoid of any switchbacks or otherwise technical turns. It’s great. I’m actually able to pedal on the descent, and I estimate that I’m traveling comfortably at 40 mph.
The only thing that I’m not loving is that there’s a decent bit of traffic on the road. Cars stacking up behind cyclists becomes a concern, and I actually have to pass a few cars on the left side of the road.
A few kilometers further down the descent, a large van passes me. It does so very respectfully – leaving plenty of room between me and the van. But somehow the wind coming off the mountain, plus the draft coming from behind the van, catches my wheels just wrong. I start to get the speed wobbles – a dangerous, rocking back and forth of the bike. It’s been known to throw cyclists off bikes at high rates of speed. Luckily, I know how to deal with speed wobbles. Knee to stem, and touch the rear brake ever so gently. Unluckily, I’m so whacked from the climb that I grab for my front brake initially – the worst possible thing you could do. After quickly releasing the front brake, I remember what I need to do, and I bring the bike back under control.
Here’s where I probably should have curled up into a ball. I already had a major accident on a descent. I’m already skiddish about descending. I’ve just had a scary moment.
I resume pedaling and pick up the speed again. I’m committed to taking this descent aggressively but intelligently.
Well…mostly intelligently. Another van has stacked up behind a couple cyclists that are ahead of me now. The oncoming traffic is heavy enough that I’m not going to pass this van on the left side of the road. There’s about 3 feet of space for me to make a pass on the right side of the road.
Brakes? Screw it. I hit my line at about 35 mph and thread the needle in between the van and the edge of the road. I actually have to duck to clear the vans side mirror. Nervy. And ill-advised. I’ll never do something like that again. But today, today is about crushing this stage from start to finish.
We descend through a village that is actually busier than one would be comfortable with while going at a high rate of speed. No close calls. No issues.
The descent is over and it’s now time for the Granon.
After what was a really long day in the saddle yesterday, it feels bizarre to be turning onto the final climb of the day after less than three hours of riding.
I try to wake the legs up again – a task that is significantly easier after having pedaled a good bit on the descent off of Lautaret. The legs feel pretty good at this point.
But Granon is not the type of climb that I’m particularly well-suited for.
The first four kilometers are at a gradient that I can spin through with my high cadence. I do just that, and I feel pretty good after about 20 minutes on the slopes of the Granon. Hmm. Maybe this is a climb that suits me.
Hell, even if it isn’t, I just need to throw everything that I’ve got at it for an hour or so.
In the opening kilometers of the climb, I’m riding by cyclists one by one. Nice. This is going to be my climb. I’m going to make it that way.
At the 5km mark, the climb pitches up to above 10%, where it’s going to stay for the next 6.5 kilometers. Ouch. I keep the cadence high even though I’m not quite as light on the pedals as I previously was.
It feels a lot like Alpe d’Huez in that regard. Where I’m not killing the climb with cadence, but I am hitting the climb hard with a combo of a pretty high cadence and some decent power. It’s a painful way to ride a climb.
I feel like I’m going to blow up big time, but I worry only about riding as hard as I possibly can. If I blow up, I blow up. I’ll figure it out from there.
At the 6km mark, I go by an Aussie. Friendly guy. He says “Jason, I love the way you climb. No muss, no fuss. No massive accelerations. No breaks. Steady and powerful”. He also says that he’s going to hop on my wheel and hang with me until the end of the climb.
At this point, and given where I am in my pain cave, I’m not much in the mood for company. But let’s see what he’s got. At worst, it may break up the climb a little bit. But I don’t expect that he’s going to hang on my wheel the whole climb. In fact, I could use the confidence boost of dropping him at some point.
He sticks with me for another kilometer or two. Longer than I expected actually. We don’t say much, but we do trade a few comments. I’m usually sociable on rides, but I’m so on the edge that I need every bit of focus to perfectly walk the tight rope between mind overpowering the body and body overpowering the mind.
With 5km to go, my cadence has started to slow. Granon is a freak.
So consistently steep. Nothing flat. Nothing less than 10%. Not even 10 feet.
I’m desperately in need of 5-10 seconds of flat, but Granon ain’t giving it to me. It’s a bastard of a climb. My only solution is to alternate between standing and sitting once again. Stand and power through. Sit and try to conquer with cadence.
With 4km to go, the climb has revealed the roads above us. Similar to the Glandon yesterday, those roads look steep and unrelenting. It’s going to take a massive effort to get up this climb.
I take in a gel and hope for a quick burst of energy – real or imagined.
We’re hitting switchback after switchback. Seeing where we’ve come from and where we have yet to go. It’s very taxing mentally, but I’m still pushing hard as hell.
How cool would it be to crush Stage 4? I mean how’s that for responding to getting smacked in the mouth? Spirits low after Stage 2. Borderline impossibly hard Stage 3. All of it. And here I am with an opportunity to smash Stage 4. Just 4km to go.
I hit the 3km to go mark and I’m really struggling with the gradient. This is a steep climb. But everyone around me is struggling with the gradient. I’m still picking up places every couple of minutes, so even though I’m struggling, I know that I’m still riding well.
Each kilometer feels like it’s taking an eternity. It’s a stark juxtaposition to the Lautaret climb that felt like it flew by.
By the time I’ve reached the 2km to go mark, I’m at the point where I’m questioning how much harder I want to work. I’ve seen the road ahead. This is going to be tough. And I’ve already worked really hard.
How much harder do I want to work?
Shut the hell up and pedal.
Stop making this more difficult than it already is. Grind it out to the finish line. Get food. Get a massage. Get some rest.
That’s exactly what I do. I grind out the last 8ish minutes of the climb and get right on my rest and recovery program.
Today was a hard day.
In my pre-race preparation, I’ve identified Stage 5 as a prime opportunity to get some rest. It’s an individual time trial up the Col d’Izoard. This next statement is going to qualify just how crazy the Haute Route is. Today is only a 12-mile climb. And that’s considered a quasi-rest day.
Thankfully, Stage 5 starts and finishes in the same location. And I start at 10:30 as compared to the 7:00 and 7:30 start times from past stages. It all adds up to extra rest time. I didn’t realize just how much time would be required to manage the luggage each morning. When the race starts and finishes in a different location each day, you essentially have to unpack and re-pack your suitcase every single day. It’s a time suck and it’s an aggravation.
Especially when you’re having to get that all sorted out before a 7:30 start time. Breakfast, getting all your clothing situated, getting your bike prepped, getting food and bottles ready, getting luggage re-packed, and then getting down to the start line all takes time. Like significant chunks of time. So not having to deal with my luggage today, and not having to set off on the stage until 10:30 is a big deal.
The extra rest doesn’t necessarily translate to extra fresh legs though. The fatigue has really set in, but I trust that once I get the legs warmed up that I’ll start feeling good again.
I head down to the start line a little earlier than usual. I’ve never done an individual time trial, so I want to get a feel for how this thing works. An individual time trial is a pure race against the clock. Each rider starts individually (as compared to a mass/group start). No drafting. No working with a team. Just each man or woman racing on their own against the clock.
Riders start in 30-second intervals. If you’re having a good day, you’ve got plenty of carrots in front of you. If you’re having a bad day, you’re going to be a carrot.
At 10:15 I need to check in and report to the starters corral. It’s just a little pen where about 20 anxious cyclists are awaiting their name being called. I really want to use this time to dial in, and to focus on the task at hand. So I intentionally avoid making eye contact, and I try to strategically place myself away from the chatty cyclists.
My name gets called and I move into a queue. I can see a starters stage, a ramp, and a countdown clock. This is official. This is how the pros do it.
I head onto the starters stage and I block out the urge to get carried away with just how freaking legit this is. Focus on what’s important.
10 second countdown.
And I’m off. Down the start ramp, cameras flashing, Col d’Izoard awaiting.
We have about a tenth of a mile of flat land and then it’s straight onto the slopes of the Col d’Izoard. No chance to warm the legs up. It’s straight down to business.
The excitement has got the best of me and I feel myself pushing right from the start. It takes less than a minute for my breathing to become labored. I mutter to myself “Aggressive but sustainable”.
I’ll come back to this mantra several times throughout the climb. Aggressive but sustainable.
At the one-minute check, I have a good chuckle. Aggressive – yes. No doubt. Sustainable – ehhhhh.
Within the first three quarters of a mile, I’ve already passed two cyclists. A nice confidence boost, but largely insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Today is me versus the clock. Me versus me.
Col d’Izoard is another one of those iconic climbs in the world of cycling. I feel the allure of the climb. I want to test myself on these slopes. I want to come away from this day knowing that I threw everything I had at the Izoard. It’s cycling in its purest form.
Izoard starts rather gently and kicks up the last half of the climb. The gentle section comes in the form of nearly 10km at an average of 4%ish. The remaining 10km is much steeper, at about 7.5%. But it’s consistent. Sweetspot.
The generally accepted rule of thumb is that you never want to gas yourself out too early in a climb. But I’ve also read up a little bit on this climb. Many cyclists have come away from this climb feeling as though they didn’t push hard enough on the “easier” section at the bottom. I’m not going to make that mistake. If I’m going to make a mistake today, it’s going too hard. I’m not erring on the side of caution. I’m trusting myself implicitly.
Aggressive but sustainable-ish.
After 15/20 minutes of climbing, we hit a downhill section that lasts for about half a mile. I switch over to my big ring and I put the hammer down. We twist and turn around the mountain, and I do my best to keep my speed up through the bends. The road pitches back up, and I start to struggle.
Going from little ring (climbing gearing) to big ring (flatland gearing) requires a change in cadence and a change in power. I’m going from a little lower cadence and higher power (big ring) to lower power, higher cadence. I’m going from my climbing rhythm, to my flatland rhythm, and back to my climbing rhythm again. Hopefully.
I can’t seem to find the climbing rhythm. My legs and my breathing are confused. I quickly get out of the saddle and stand, as a way of trying to bridge the gap between going from power to cadence so quickly. I’m really nervous that the legs, which opened up nicely, are just going to slam shut.
But after a minute or so, I find the rhythm again. My all out assault on Col d’Izoard continues.
I tell myself that I’m not going to concern myself with whether or not I get passed by anyone today. However, after 25 minutes of chasing carrots, I’m curious to see if I’m anyone’s carrot. I look back discretely, and I don’t see anyone for at least a quarter of a mile. That gives me a chance to look back more obviously. I still don’t see anyone. None of the carrots that I passed. None of the cyclists that I fear are using me as a carrot.
Sweet. Nice confidence boost.
I’m now halfway through the climb. I’m all the way in the pain cave. My assault on the Izoard has been unrelenting. I don’t know if I’m walking the tight rope between aggressive and sustainable, but I’m damn sure aggressive.
And I’ve now got the steeper section of the climb awaiting. I’ve been climbing for a little over 30 minutes, and I likely have 40 more minutes to go. I don’t allow myself to think about how much longer I have to go, because I feel like it would break my spirit. Being so deep in the pain cave, with no real sign of relief anytime soon would not be helpful. So I don’t allow myself to think more than a kilometer or two ahead. Keep ticking off the kilometers. Each one brings me closer to the summit.
The camera crew again pulls up beside me. I swear they only pull up beside me when I’m gasping for oxygen, tongue out, making a complete mess of myself on the bike. I jokingly gesture to them that I’m spent. I give the universal cycling sign for no mas. But I know that I’ve got at least another kilometer of fight in me. I hope that after that kilometer, I’ll find another kilometer of fight, and so on.
I’m absolutely ripping up this mountain. I’m passing cyclist after cyclist. I’m so locked in though that most times I don’t even realize that I’m making a pass. Complete tunnel vision. Me and the road.
I do occasionally break free from the tunnel vision to enjoy the sights. I remind myself that nothing is more important than that. In between labored breaths, screaming quads, and sweat pouring out of my helmet, I find moments to appreciate the sheer beauty of our surroundings. This is a dream come true.
The last 5km of this climb may turn out to be a nightmare though. I’ve been climbing at full effort for nearly 50 minutes now. After four days of really freaking hard cycling. I’m very fatigued at this point, but I know that I can push through the pain. My muscles are burning. My lungs and even my core are stinging from sucking in oxygen. My head is fuzzy.
Be your best when things are the worst.
I’ve got this thing figured out. The next 5 kilometers are going to be no different than the last 2 or 3 kilometers that I’ve ridden. Based on these kilometers, I know what gear I can sit in, I know what my cadence should be, and I know just how hard I can push. As with Stage 4, it simply becomes a question of how hard am I willing to work for it?
Answer: really hard.
With 3km to go, I haven’t slowed down at all. I don’t know that I’ve sped up, but I know that I haven’t slowed down. I continue to rip by fellow cyclists, but I have no idea how many at this point. My confidence is bolstered by the fact that I haven’t yet been a carrot. I’m on fire right now.
The views at this point are absolutely stunning. It’s almost as if mountains from all over the globe have been picked up and placed right in front of me. Some slopes are sandy. Some are craggy. Some are lush and green. Simply amazing.
I’m determined to smash this climb all the way to the summit. My energy is waning significantly, but as I cruise past the 2km to go marker, I know that I now only need to hold on for 5 or 6 more minutes.
The road now looks like a photo taken from a cycling magazine, or calendar, or something. It snakes its way up the mountain majestically. Switchbacks serve as perches for the cyclists that have already completed the stage to cheer on their fellow competitors. We hear their shouts carrying through the mountain, even with them being 500 feet or so above us. You can see cyclists gradually snaking their way around the bends, with a beautiful Alpine landscape as their background.
It’s so incredibly cool.
The coolness of it all just gets me even more fired up. Empty the tank.
Before I know it, I’m on the same perches with the same cyclists I heard a few minutes ago cheering me on. “It’s right around the bend”. “Full gas”. “Keep going”.
You got it.
I’ve passed the 1km to go marker. I can hear the announcers voice, and I suspect that I’ll be able to see the finishing line very soon. I am gassed.
But I’m not heaving, and I’m not seeing stars yet. That must mean I’ve got something left. I pick up the pace one last time, shifting heavier to get every last bit of power out of the legs.
The summit comes into sight and I maintain the last little surge that I’ve got left. I hit the line, and as I did in Stage 2, I collapse onto my handlebars. Chest puffing in and out rapidly. Head buzzing. Waiting for the return of feeling like a normal, human being as I exit my pain cave.
As I’m bent over my bike, gasping for air, I feel the satisfaction that comes with completely emptying the tank. If you took a snapshot of how I look after Stage 2, and how I look right now, they’d probably look identical. Collapsed on the bike. Gassed. Chest puffing up and down.
What’s different is that I’m beyond proud of my effort, and supremely confident that I’m going to destroy the last three stages of the Haute Route. The same couldn’t be said after Stage 2.
Now, this is fun. I can’t wait for Day 6.
the queen stage
Yesterday’s climb up the Loze was the hardest thing I’ve ever done on a bike. And I’ve done lots of things on a bike. I’m absolutely smashed to pieces after Stage 2.
I do everything right from a recovery and a fuel standpoint. I get a massage after Stage 2, I try to get as much rest as possible, and I make sure to take in a good blend of carbs and protein.
I need to do everything right if I’m going to make it through Stage 3 – the Queen Stage of the bike race. Stage 3 has been on every cyclists mind since the course was revealed. And it’s often been the talk of the peloton. Everyone is scared as hell of Stage 3.
Why? Because it’s an epically hard day.
90 miles. 15,600 feet of climbing. Madeleine. Glandon. Alpe d’Huez. Names that echo in eternity for all cycling fans.
A 15.25-mile climb. A 13.25-mile climb. And cycling’s most iconic climb to top it all off. Over 35-miles of pure climbing.
This is a Tour de France day. Possibly even harder.
On fresh legs, today’s stage would be incredibly challenging. I don’t have fresh legs. In fact, I wake up the morning of Stage 3 and I feel absolutely horrible.
I have a headache for the third day in a row. This time, it’s a throbbing headache, likely the result of sleeping at altitude (our hotel was at 5,200 feet). Energy-wise, I feel spent. I’m exhausted from two hard days of cycling and I once again haven’t slept well. And I’m struggling with the fact that I haven’t ridden as well as I expected. I post a pre-stage video on Facebook in which I state that I’m feeling kind of like a large walking, talking trash bag.
This is going to be rough.
As I go through all the pre-race matriculations – eat breakfast, put clothes on, bike prep, water bottles, getting luggage ready, etc. – I’m dreading the day. I’m not excited about it, and I’d probably rather not even do it.
No matter, the bike is pointed to the start line. The start line is probably 5 minutes from our hotel. As I slowly get the pedals turning, I find myself lost in the beauty surrounding me. Red and orange clouds kiss the mountains that are surrounding us on all sides. Daybreak revealing the utter majesty and vastness of the Alps. It’s stunning.
Here I am cruising around on my bike, being treated to the most tremendous beauty imaginable. What could be better than this?
Seriously. What could be better than this?
I’ve dreamt of moments like this since I first saw the Tour de France. And here I am. Living it. This is amazing. What the hell do I have to be worried about? Discouraged about? Nervous about?
And just like that, the switch has been flipped. I’m ready to enjoy today. I’m going to dive into this day. Fully immerse myself in this experience, because I may never get it again. I’m going to ride the same mountains that the most famous names in all the sport have ridden. I’m going to suffer. I’m going to work. And I’m going to absolutely cherish every minute of it.
Stage 3 begins with a 15-mile descent. We’re descending off the final climb of the day from Stage 2 – the Loze. It’s a cool way to start the day. Especially for my newfound confidence and eagerness. It’s like starting the day off by saying “Hey, look how awesome I am. I climbed all of this yesterday.”
The descent off the Loze will drop us of right at the base of the Col de Madeleine. Holy crap. We’re about to climb the Madeleine!
I’ve seen this climb on multiple tours. Each time I’m amazed that the TV broadcast can go to commercial 3-5 times before the climb has even concluded. It’s a looooong climb. And it’s an absolute must-do for any cyclist. And I’m about to ride it!
Madeleine is perfectly suited for me. It’s a gradual, consistent climb that doesn’t really ever get too steep. It’s a climb where I can utilize my high climbing cadence to spin my way up the slopes. Quick and light on the pedals. Kill the climb with cadence. That’s my style.
Although…I don’t really want to kill this climb necessarily. I want to ride this climb aggressively but well within my limits. It’s too long of a climb on too long of a day to take any chances. If I go out too hard on this climb, I’m going to take an already hard day and make it exponentially harder.
If I need any reminder to keep a lid on it, I’ve got one every single kilometer, when those nice, little signs that I told you about in the last blog, pop up. I see the first marker, and it says 25km to go. This is unbelievable. A 25km/15-mile climb. Time to do some epic climbing.
Most of the time, when I’m in the right climbing rhythm, I tend to ascend a little more quickly than the cyclists around me. This rings true in the early miles of the Madeleine. It’s definitely a nice boost of confidence, but to a certain extent, it really doesn’t matter at all. I’m climbing Madeleine how I need to. Nothing else matters.
Madeleine is a fun climb. For the first 10km or so, the road meanders through varying terrains – some pastures, some forests. The road snakes playfully so as to provide a view of where you came from, as well as a view of where you’re going.
After about an hour of climbing, the big mountains are in view. To the best of my memory, the mountains are almost in a J or even a U shape. And you see one, solitary, small road that is determined to wrap itself all the way around the mountains.
Each turn brings with it a new, even more awesome view than the one previous. By the time we hit the 5km to go marker, Mont Blanc’s imposing figure, along with the surrounding mountains – our playground on stages one and two - now becomes visible. Mountains as far as the eye can see.
With 5km to go, I feel the tinge of fatigue that is simply unavoidable when you’ve been climbing for over 90 minutes consecutively. But I’ve ridden this climb really well, and I will continue to ride this climb well. I should be feeling tinges of fatigue at this point. I shouldn’t concern myself with them.
After ten more minutes of climbing, we get what might be my favorite view of them all. The road has taken us to a horseshoe, where we can admire the peak of Le Madeleine. We feel incredibly close to the mountain at this point, and the detail that I can see as the sun hits the slopes is remarkable. I wanted to fully immerse myself in today’s stage. I feel fully immersed at this point.
There are now only a few kilometers to go. I’m almost sad to see this climb come to an end, because I have truly enjoyed it. But we’re approaching the two-hour mark with very little respite on the legs. The body is ready for it to be over, and after snapping a few more photos and videos, I suppose that I’m ready for it to be over now too.
We hit the summit, I get off the bike to snap one last photo, and to get some fuel in.
Fuel is going to be a critical component on today’s stage. I’m going to be on the bike for 8ish hours, and the climbing is going to burn tons of energy. I cannot risk going under on fuel. I remind myself of this at the top of the Madeleine, and throughout the stage, as I continually take in calories even though I may not necessarily want to.
Madeleine – done. Two big boys remaining on today’s stage. But for now, it’s time to descend. And you guessed it – a long climb means a long descent.
It’s chaos for the legs. Two hours of getting pummeled. Nearly an hour of not having to work at all. Rinse and repeat.
I’m getting more and more comfortable with the descents, but I again don’t take any risks at all coming off the Madeleine. I’ll make up my time on the climbs. Plus, I enjoy looking at astonishing views of the Alps versus gluing my eyes to the tarmac. If I lose a little time because I’m stopping to smell the roses, so be it. I’ll remember those views long after I forget exactly how long it took me to complete the stage.
The descent ends virtually right at the beginning of our next climb - Glandon. This one is merely a 13.25 mile climb (as compared to the 15+ miles of Madeleine). Piece of cake, right?
Glandon gains nearly as much elevation as does Madeleine though. Despite it being two miles shorter, Glandon gains 4,800 feet while Madeleine gained 5,100. In other words, Glandon is no slouch. Steeper, and still long as hell.
Glandon is also not nearly as consistent as Madeleine. The climb flattens out for about a mile at almost the halfway point. From there, it gets steep, with the remaining miles coming in at 10%+ gradients.
I’ve prepared myself for Glandon to be the hardest climb of the day. We’re not even halfway through the stage, so we don’t even have the mental boost of it being the last climb of the day. It’s going to be where the fatigue kicks in heavily, and we’ll still have to drag ourselves up arguably one of the harder climbs in all of cycling (Alpe d’Huez).
I’m glad that I’ve prepared myself this way, even more so when I’m about halfway through the climb and I’m not being treated to the same amazing views that distracted me on the Madeleine. Glandon is kind of meh. Beautiful – don’t get me wrong, but nothing compared to what we’ve already seen. We meander through pastures and along a stream, but the dramatic mountains aren’t exactly in sight.
With 9km to go (a little less than 2/3 of the way through the climb), the scenery improves. Not that it matters too much – the climb is the climb. And thus far, I’ve found the climb to be challenging but doable. I’ve been able to get into my climbing rhythm and my cadence keeps me spinning my way up the mountain at a rate that I’m pleased with.
After a few more kilometers, the Glandon finally shows us what its got in store for us. We’re suddenly surrounded by mountains, and we can see a road bravely winding its way up what appears to be a really steep slope. It’s daunting. You look up and see nothing but road and climbing ahead of you. All the while knowing that it may be 20 or 30 minutes before you even make it to the road that you can see above you.
The climb is the climb. And today I’m determined to keep my spirits high. But the Glandon is testing me in all ways.
I lose a little bit of the mental edge and allow myself to start thinking about the next climb. I tell myself that I’ve only got a little more of Glandon left, then Alpe d’Huez, then the surprise of a lifetime. I get to tell my girlfriend that I’ve booked her a surprise trip to France. Can’t wait!
Thinking about that phone call injects just a little more energy into my body and mind. I’ve been all alone on the climb, and even just knowing that I get to call my partner and talk to someone who understands me, buoys my emotions.
The recalibration comes at the right time, because the steep stuff now awaits. The road ahead is so daunting. It’s laid out in front of us. Mocking us. Challenging us. It’s not changing. It’s not making any concessions. Here I am. Climb me if you can.
I’m burning a lot of matches in the last 3 kilometers of the Grandon climb. But unlike previous stages, I don’t allow myself to fret over the amount of energy that I’m expending. I’m calm and confident. I’m expending this much energy because that’s what it takes to get over this climb. I’m not working too hard, or not saving enough energy, or all those other ridiculous thoughts that I allowed myself to fret over on previous stages. I’m riding this climb as I need to, and when I get to the next climb, I’m going to do the exact same thing.
I’ve got this thing figured out. Stage 3 – I’m not afraid of you. Haute Route – I’m not afraid of you.
Make no mistake though, Glandon is tough. It punches me right in the mouth. The only difference is that I’m better able to take the punch today.
I hit the summit and I remind myself that I’m smashing the hardest stage in the hardest race. I’ve got one more climb remaining and then I’ve conquered the stage that put fear in everyone’s hearts in the months leading up to this race.
Alpe d’Huez – bring it on.
The descent off the Glandon is long and fast. Brimming with confidence, I convince myself to let it rip on the descent. No more doubts. No more fear. I’m going to smash the hardest stage in every way possible.
That decision is only made though after I’ve seen what looks to be nice, wide roads, and a very good road surface. I’m still not descending as quickly as other cyclists, but I’m holding my own.
I’m beginning to love descending. The views on the descent are always the most amazing, and leaning your body and bike into the corners is really quite fun. It’s almost hypnotic.
And as I’m gaining more and more confidence and slipping further and further into my state of hypnosis, a bee flies directly into my helmet. How is this even possible?
I feel the bee squirming around in my helmet, but I’m locked in. I’m not going to jam on the brakes and stop midway through this descent. The bee will find his way out of my helmet, and all will be well.
Until it’s not. And until it stings me. I keep plunging down the mountain.
The bee sting is almost a welcome distraction. The pain in my legs doesn’t even register anymore.
After a few more minutes the descent has flattened out, and there’s even an uphill at one point. I use the uphill to bring the bike to a halt and I quickly rip off my helmet and readjust it. A bee sting. Seriously? Whatever. Next stop: Alpe d’Huez.
We now have 10 kilometers in the valley before we hit our final climb of the day. I latch on with a group, and for the first time all stage I’m not alone. As with day two, the miles in the valley don’t feel great. My bike seat is once again proving uncomfortable and I honestly just feel bored by the miles in the valley. It’s like a cab ride from the pre-party to the actual party. No one looks forward to the cab ride. Just get me to the damn party. Let’s go.
I stop off at a feed station at the base of the climb to make sure that I have enough fuel to finish off the day. It’s going to be another 75ish minutes of climbing. I put down another Cliff Bar – my third or so on the day – and grab some quick fuel as well (gels). I’m thinking a quick shot of carbs and glucose midway through Alpe d’Huez will give me just what I need to blast through to the summit.
Alpe d’Huez is one of the steeper climbs that we’ll have. Coming in at 8.1 miles and with an average gradient of 8.1%, it’s going to be a rough finish to an already rough stage.
Alpe d’Huez is notoriously steep at the bottom of the climb. Before the stage, I’ve told myself that I’m going to ease through the bottom portion of the climb and then give it all that I have on the last 5 miles or so.
But when I hit the climb feeling very energetic, and when I’ve ridden well all day, that plan goes right out the window. I go for it right away.
At this point in the day, the fatigue is very high for all cyclists. I see it in their body language and on their faces as I go ripping up the climb. It’s high for me too, but I’m not accepting anything less than lighting this climb on fire. Start to finish. Full gas.
Alpe d’Huez is famous for its 21 switchbacks. It’s surreal to be hitting these switchbacks, and to be seeing names of former Tour winners on the placard for each switchback. It’s surreal to be taking this big of a risk on this big of a stage. But Alpe d’Huez lives in lore partially due to it being a launching pad for the bravest of cyclists to go out on an attack. This is my attack. It’s nowhere near as impressive as the pros of the Tour, but damn it I may only get to climb Alpe d’Huez once in my lifetime. I’m attacking.
After 10 minutes of going full gas, I’m wondering if I can sustain this effort. It’s been a long day, and that window could slam shut at any point. But this is my chance. I’m pushing until the legs can’t go anymore. So I re-steady the mind and I settle in to what is going to be a painful ascent.
I’m alternating between seated and standing. When I’ve pushed so I hard that I feel the lactic acid building up, I switch to standing. I remain aggressive when I’m standing, and the different position on the bike seems to be at least holding the lactic acid at bay. I switch back and forth between seated and standing, doing my best to keep the hammer down.
At the halfway point, I’m considering waiving the white flag. We’ve still got five stages after this one. Be smart, Jason.
I am being smart. I am listening to the voice that says that I can do it. I am trusting that all the training miles I’ve put in are going to allow me to smash myself to pieces and to recover in time. I am building my confidence back up. I am punching back, instead of being punched. I am being smart.
Any thoughts of waiving the white flag are quickly dissolved when the camera crew comes riding up behind me. The camera may catch me cramping up and crawling my way up the last mile or so, but they’re not going to catch me waiving the white flag.
I jam a gel in my mouth and hope that it can keep me fueled enough to push to the top of the climb. A minute later, I realize just how depleted I’m feeling. I jam another gel in my mouth. The mind is going to this finish line at full gas. You’re coming with me, body. Whether you want to or not.
The camera crew sticks with me, and they’ve now even got a drone buzzing around me. This is badass. Apparently the camera crew wants to capture the various stages of death. I don’t know which one I’m in right now, but it’s the one that involves drooling on myself, borderline hallucinations, and extreme depletion.
My body is screaming at me to slow down, but I refuse to relent. I do throw the body a bone on a couple of the flatter switchbacks. I use those 10-15 feet to spin quickly and lightly. It’s a brief respite, but it’s something.
I hit the 5km to go marker. 3.1 miles to go. This is rough.
Ok, time to play that game again – the whittle down the km-to-go markers game. This time, I convince myself that I only need to get to the 2km to go mark. From there, the next sign I’ll see is 1km to the finish. If I can push right up until I have nothing left at the 2km mark, I trust that I can dig deep to push to the finish. If I can’t summon every last bit of strength on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez then why am I even riding a bike?
4km to go. Take in some fluids. Grit the teeth. Push.
The next two kilometers feel like an eternity. Eyes glued to the road ahead. The road ahead going up and up and up. Body on the brink of shutting down. Mind struggling to keep the body going.
This is what you wanted, right?
2km marker comes into sight. Time to execute the plan, right?
Too bad it’s not so much a plan. There’s no real strategy at this point. No finesse. Nothing complicated about it. It’s a simple question – how hard will I work for the next 5 minutes?
Five minutes, Jason. You’ve climbed for five hours today and the only thing separating you from the summit is five minutes.
It feels like too much to bear. I’m at the absolute edge. I’ve pushed on this climb alone for 70 minutes. Full gas. I owe this to myself.
The 1km to go sign mercifully comes into sight. I’m totally blasted at this point, but it doesn’t matter. Only another couple minutes. Hang on just a little longer and you’ll always have this memory to be proud of.
Shortly after the 1km sign, the road actually flattens out. Then it dips. What the heck? It’s actually mostly downhill to the finish. Anti-climatic but not unwelcome.
When the road flattens out a little, I’m actually shocked by how I feel. My legs are rubbery and I’m definitely fatigued. But I feel like I could ride Alpe d’Huez at least one more time. I was just in that kind of mood. I was prepared to suffer all day today, and to thrive when times were the most difficult. And I did.
I push to the finish line and I’m so damn proud of myself. I knew that this race was going to smack me in the face. I just didn’t know that it would be on Stage 2. I didn’t know that my low would come the morning of the hardest day of the entire race. And I didn’t know how I would respond.
I responded. And I’m damn proud of the way I responded.
It’s August 22nd, and it’s finally here. It being the Haute Route Alps - the highest, hardest cyclosportive in the world.
Well…it’s kind of finally here. August 22nd is the day of my flight to Geneva. And, truthfully, I’m more intimidated by the travel day than I am by the race at this point. That’s because the travel day presents tons of variables – uncontrollable variables at that. Will my bike make it to the destination? Will I be able to sleep at all? Will I be able to overcome the jet lag in time? Will I make it through the flights without picking up a cold?
I don’t have to worry so much about the last question, because I’ve actually already picked up a cold. My girlfriend (soon to be fiancée; see Stages 7A & 7B post) has been battling a respiratory illness all week. I’ve tried everything to combat the inevitable onset of the illness – zinc, lime and honey, Emergen-C, a million oranges a day, a million Gatorades a day, sleeping in separate rooms, etc. And it’s not working. By mid-week, I’m feeling rough. Low energy, sore throat, fear of this thing that I’ve got getting worse. On the 22nd (the day of my flight), I wake up at about 3am with a painfully sore throat. Like a it-hurts-to-swallow sore throat. I fear that I’ve got strep throat. I lay awake for about an hour trying to come up with a plan for how I can get in to see a doctor before my 12:00 flight.
I wake up a few hours later and the throat hasn’t gotten better or worse. But after a quick diagnostic, I’ve at least convinced myself that I don’t have strep. Yasmin and I run to the nearest Walgreens to load up on zinc, cough drops, and Emergen-C before my flight. This sucks.
I’m so frustrated, distraught, and outright scared that I’m not in a positive space. This is the hardest event that I will ever be attempting, and I’m terrified that I’m going to be attempting it in a compromised state. Even more compromised after what will amount to a 30-hour travel day.
Control what you can control, Jason. Fight back against this illness as best you can and let the rest take care of itself.
I arrive at the airport and reach my gate with no difficulty. Well, aside from the TSA agent inspecting the Cliff Bar box where I was hiding Yasmin’s engagement ring. Whew. Good thing she’s not traveling with me. I position myself in clear view of the plane’s luggage stow and I watch like a hawk as my bike gets loaded gently into the airplane. Ok, all is going well!
After a quick skip from Tallahassee to Atlanta, I rush to my gate so as to watch the luggage get loaded onto this plane. This time though, the view is obscured. I remind myself that I’ve gotten myself all worked up about variables that I can’t control and convince myself that all will work out as it should. The gate next to us boards for their flight to Amsterdam, and we board for our flight to Paris shortly thereafter.
The flight from Atlanta to Paris is without incident. It’s also without sleep. Which is fine. I’m happy to stay awake in order to take my zinc in every two hours, to walk around and keep the legs stretched out, and to pound Pedialyte to keep ahead on my hydration. I’m controlling what I can control.
Next up is a flight from Paris to Geneva – my final destination. I’ve got a rental van booked for the transfer from Geneva to Megeve, where the race starts. I’ve booked a van so that the bag that I’m transporting my bike in will fit comfortably. Every little detail has been looked after. In Paris, I’m able to see the luggage being loaded, but they’re loading the luggage while we’re boarding. I keep myself at the absolute back of the boarding line in the hopes of seeing my bike bag go into the luggage stow, but no such luck. Again, I remind myself that everything will work out. Just get to Geneva as healthy as possible.
I land in Geneva and I make my way to the luggage carousel. I wait and I wait and I wait and my heart sinks as I watch bag after bag come out with no sign of my bike. This can’t be happening. No way, right? I go to the luggage service counter and they inform me that there’s a separate luggage carousel for bikes and other abnormal-sized items. My heart sings. I zip over to the luggage carousel only to find it full of bike bags and boxes that are not mine. One after one, eager cyclists grab their bikes off the carousel and exit the airport. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.
Not for me. Not today. I find my way to the lost luggage counter where they inform me that they’re already aware that I had two bags not make the flight. Two bags? I only checked one item – my bike. I can tell that this is going to be a complete s-show. The airline representative speaks vaguely and tells me that maybe my bike is coming on the next flight over from Paris to Geneva. Sweet. I’d love a little more specifics, but I’ll hang around another 40 minutes for the next flight to arrive. In fact, I’m not going to leave this airport until I have my damn bike.
The next flight arrives, and with it comes 5-10 more bikes. None of them mine. I go back to the lost luggage counter again and this time, I’m a little more persistent. I’m respectful, of course, but look – this is an expensive item to be lost, this is a critical item for a bike race that I’m participating in 30 hours from now, and it’s utterly incomprehensible that you can’t tell me definitively where this item is. It has a barcode. After an hour of getting nothing more than “We just don’t have any info at this time” and “There’s nothing we can do”, I’m resigned to leaving the airport without my bike.
Battling a cold. No bike. Absolute nightmare scenario.
It’s now 1pm local time on Friday. I’ve been awake for 31 straight hours. I sheepishly drive my mostly empty rental van to the Air BnB, which is located about 15 minutes from the race start, and is situated with an absolutely stunning view of Mont Blanc. I’ve only left the airport after the airline has assured me that, despite having no idea where the bike is, that they’ll get it delivered to the Air BnB no later than Saturday morning. I call the airline on my drive and I’m presented with a new theory – the bike is not in Paris as originally thought; it’s in Amsterdam. Ok. That would make sense. The flight next to me [in Atlanta] was going to Amsterdam. Cool. Bike is in Amsterdam, you know when the flights from Amsterdam to Geneva are scheduled…soooo when’s my bike coming over? “We can’t provide that info for you at this time”.
Despite the distressing conversation, I am able to enjoy the sights and sounds on my drive. And boy, are there some sights and sounds. I’m absolutely in awe of the endless mountain-scape. It’s a sea of mountains. Vast and breathtaking. Majestic mountains as far as the eye can see. This is my playground for the next week…assuming my bike arrives.
The process of calling and trying to determine when my bike will make the trip form Amsterdam to Geneva repeats about 6 times until finally I give up. I’m spending so much time and energy on this that I’m not focusing on the race. Maybe the best thing at this point is to just relax and trust that the airline will get their crap together.
I do. I relax in the hot tub. I do some stretching in Mont Blanc’s shadow. I enjoy the beauty and vastness of my setting.
And as I’m doing that, I miss a phone call at 6:00pm from a Geneva number. I listen to my voicemail and I’m beyond relieved to hear that my bike has arrived in Geneva and will be delivered at some point this evening. I’m exhausted though and I had no plans on staying up much later than 7 or 8. I’ve now been up for 36 straight hours, while battling a cold. I need some sleep.
I nap for about 30 minutes as I await my bike delivery. I’m in a deep, deep sleep. So much so that my Air BnB host has to actually come in to my bedroom to shake me awake. My bike has arrived. Yes! I quickly open the bike bag to verify that it is my bike (which it is), and I head back to the bedroom to resume my slumber. I glance at the window and see a majestic sunset that I otherwise would’ve missed if I hadn’t been awoken at that exact time. You tell me that wasn’t fate.
I sleep really, really well. I wake up after about 9 ½ hours of sleep and the first thing on my agenda is to get my bike assembled and in working order. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that I actually feel better than I did the previous days. Maybe I am beating this cold! My bike is here and I’m feeling better. Things are really coming around!
I open my bike bag and I find a bike that’s damaged beyond repair – well, beyond my capability to repair at least. The shifter on the right handlebars has been bent at almost a 45-degree angle. It’s severely damaged and I wonder if it could even shift the gears properly in the current condition. I’ll never know, because the rear derauilier is also severely damaged. For those that don’t know – the rear deraulier is the mechanism that moves the chain from gear to gear. So when I flip the little switch on my shifters to change gears, the rear derauilier actually completes the shifting of the gears. Both pieces that are required to shift gears are broken. I’m about to compete in a race in which shifting gears is required, critical, crucial, [insert synonym conveying extreme importance here].
Absolute nightmare CTD.
Good thing that the Haute Route is a top-notch event. They actually have the same Mavic bike mechanics that worked the Tour de France a few weeks earlier. If they can’t fix the bike, they have spare Mavic bikes that I could ride. Obviously, I want to ride the same bike that I rode in all of my training (that’s why I paid an arm and a leg to fly it over), but I’ll at least have a bike to ride no matter what happens. I head over to the race check-in and I drop my bike off right away with Mavic. The mechanic takes one look at it and says “Ay yi yi”. Awesome. He needs a part to fix the bike; a part that is specific to each make and model of bike. Good thing that a training partner of mine who also happens to be an Haute Route ambassador told me to bring this exact part. I leave the bike, and the spare part with Mavic and I head over to the check-in tent.
I try not to be neurotic about the bike repair, and I give the Mavic mechanics time and space. They’re dealing with enough neurotic cyclists at this point, I’m sure.
I come back about 90 minutes later and the bike is sitting in the bike rack, looking as beautiful as ever. I take a quick peak, and ya it looks like it’s ready for the mountains. But I can’t take it for a test drive yet because I haven’t checked into my hotel yet; so I’ve got all my luggage and everything with me.
It’s noon and I’ve been dealing with this bike situation for long enough that I’m now starting to run behind on my fuel. I skipped breakfast in order to get the bike serviced as quickly as possible, which is obviously not a good idea when fuel is one of the most essential aspects of this race. I figure that I’ll find a pasta place nearby, check in to the hotel, and then take the bike for a test run.
The pasta place ends up being a pizza place – that’s all that I can find. The walk to the hotel ends up taking 30 minutes in the blazing hot sun, with all my luggage in tow. And the check-in time ends up being totally inflexible. I wait until 2:00, anxious as hell to get on my bike to ensure that it’s working. In my mind, at 2:00 the day before the race, I’d be laying in my bed, watching a movie, with the bike and all clothing ready for tomorrow’s adventure.
I finally get to my bike and I take it for a test spin. The legs feel good. The bike feels incredible. Finally…things are starting to work out. It’s only 16 hours or so before the starters gun goes off, but I now know that I’ve got a functioning bike and a functioning [mostly not sick] body.
I find a panini and pasta place to get some carbs in and I get back to the hotel room around 8:00. Between the cold, the bike issues, the sub-optimal fueling, the jetlag, and the overall lack of rest, my typical pre-race process has been totally smashed to pieces. But I’m sure that this week is going to require much adapting, and I’m sure that this is just a small preview of the challenges to come.
I sleep terribly. Maybe six hours, with two hours being the longest consecutive sleep that I get. Ugh.
But the excitement is high. I’m about to embark on a once in a lifetime adventure. A bucket list item. The race that I’ve spent 14 months training for. The training that sent me to the hospital, and sent me into surgery. The recovery. The massive miles post-recovery. The awful interval workouts. The agony of waiting. The stress of the last few days. It’s all behind me now.
Everything is laid out in front of me – 7 days, 8 stages, 475 miles, 70,000 feet of climbing, the most agonizing and most amazing climbs in all of cycling.
Here. We. Go.
My goal for the race is to ride each day better than the previous one. I’m not so concerned about the overall rankings, as I want to ride my own race from start to finish. I trust that if I listen to my body and that if I execute an intelligent plan from day one that I’ll perform well. Smashing myself to pieces to place in the top 100 or top 200 or whatever it is would jeopardize my commitment to riding my own race and to executing an intelligent strategy. So I plan on carefully controlling my effort on day one. If I place highly, cool. If not, no worries.
Stage one consists of 60 miles of riding and over 8,500 feet of climbing. We depart from Megeve and we finish in Megeve. The climbs du jour are Le Bettex (4.5 miles), Plateau d’Assy (3.9 miles), Cote de la Provence (maybe 3.5 miles), La Cry (6.3 miles), and Cote 2000 (4.9 miles). The way the stage is set up is quite daunting – you basically have 20 minutes to warm up the legs and then it’s climbing time. Up and over Le Bettex, you get a sketchy descent that can reach high speeds on bad roads, and by the time the descent is completed, only a few miles separate you from the base of the next climb. After Plateau d’Assy there are some flat miles, but the final three climbs are stacked so closely together that it’s virtually one big, long climb to finish out the stage. It’s essentially 15 miles of climbing broken up with small, short descents.
And I’ve convinced myself that Stage 1 is going to be a “control your effort”/”warm up day”. Really, really poor mental preparation.
I’m from Tallahassee, Florida. I don’t routinely climb for multiple miles, uninterrupted. I’ve spent some time in the [small, Alabama] mountains in preparation, and I’ve simulated this level of effort as best I can with plenty of interval sessions, but I realize quite quickly that the training I’ve done isn’t going to result in my breezing through stage one with little effort. And that hurts my psyche right away. From the very first climb, where I’m winded and feeling like I’ve used more power than expected to get over Le Bettex.
Le Bettex was the first time in which I experience this weird blend of thoughts – a blend that I haven’t experienced in other races. It’s a mixture of “holy crap this is awesome!”, “this is going to be way hard”, “am I properly trained?”, and “am I burning too many matches too early?”. The thoughts revolving around whether or not I can sustain this level of effort for 7 days are particularly damning. Not only am I not focusing properly on Stage 1 (because I’m worrying about Stages 2-8), I’m also creating this circle of doubt that is really shattering my confidence.
Overwhelmingly though, I’m enjoying the experience. The views are amazing and I try to allow my enjoyment to bring me back to center.
Le Bettex boasts incredible views of Mount Blanc. I snap a handful of photos and videos as I make my way up its slopes. I’m climbing well, and I’m passing many cyclists, but again, I’m nervous about how hard I’m working currently.
I approach the descent with extreme caution. My Air BnB was on the slopes of Le Bettex, so I knew just how sketchy the descent was. I also know that you’ve got a bunch of alphas, full of adrenaline ready to bomb the first descent of the race. I hug my brakes and descend in the manner that feels comfortable to me. Every single place that I picked up by climbing better than my fellow cyclist is lost on the descent. Plus some. It’s a good reminder to not worry about my placement. Ride my race.
After Le Bettex we have a handful of miles in the valley, where we’re treated to amazing views of the surrounding mountains – many of which we’ll climb either on today’s stage or on tomorrow’s stage. Then it’s on to Plateau d’Assy.
Plateau d’Assy turns out to be an incredibly frustrating climb. On paper, the distance and the gradient look really, really manageable. In reality, it ends up being 0.75 – 1-mile steep sections followed by plateaus, followed by another steep section, followed by a plateau, etc. With a climb like this it becomes nearly impossible to get into a rhythm. My psyche is already at a weird place and I’m now struggling with the second climb of the entire race – and a climb that, on paper, should be a really simple one. By comparison to some of the monsters awaiting us, this climb is a mere molehill. Confidence shrinking.
I hit the summit of the Plateau d’Assy and I’m not exactly feeling how I’m used to feeling, but I’m going to keep plugging along and hope that I get into the swing of things soon. Following Plateau d’Assy, we have about 35 minutes in the valley. I’m thinking that this is where the legs are going to come around and I’m going to settle into a rhythm. Everything is going to click.
It doesn’t. But that’s ok. Just make it to the next climb. I’m a good climber. I’ll find my mojo on the slopes of the 3.5ish mile Cote de la Provence. We hit the climb and I get into a great rhythm almost immediately. I’m climbing well compared to the fellow cyclists around me. I think I’ve got my mojo back. Yet, something still feels a little bit off. My stamina, my breathing – it’s just not where it usually is. Whatever. Keep riding as best you can.
Part of the funk could be attributed to what has become a very warm day. I haven’t necessarily recognized it because there’s no humidity; so compared to what I’m used to, it doesn’t feel hot, but it surely is. I probably haven’t taken in enough fluids given the heat and the amount of climbing that we’ve done, but I don’t think that this is the issue. Something else is going on and I just can’t shake it.
We hit La Cry, and somehow, despite studying the stage map and despite even having a miniature version of the stage map stuck to my bike, I mistakenly think that we’re on the last climb of the day. Usually, I’m very sharp and mentally strong. Today, I’m just off.
La Cry is where this stage gets really serious. It’s a 6+ mile climb that leads into our final climb of the day. La Cry is another climb that looks much easier on paper than it is in actuality. On paper, it’s just a 6+ mile climb at an average gradient of 5.8%. Not bad. In reality, the first 2 miles or so are spent at a nearly 10% gradient, which gives way to a mile of 6% gradient, which gives way to a mile of flat, followed by two miles at nearly an 8.5% gradient. It’s not an easy climb. And it’s fully exposed to the sun. I’m struggling but I’m pleased to be ticking off the miles one-by-one on our last climb of the day.
It’s only when I finish the descent of La Cry and see a sign pointing us away from the finish area that I realize that I’ve still got Cote 2000 ahead of me. With already fatigued legs, a mind that’s not my ally on today’s stage, and a discouraging performance thus far, I’m not excited by the prospect of climbing for another 45 minutes or so. But it doesn’t really matter whether I’m excited or not. That’s the task at hand.
As I’m starting Cote 2000, there are cyclists on the descent. Holy crap. That means that these guys have finished the stage an hour or so ahead of me. An hour?!? Another dose of discouragement. Not at all how I expected day one to go.
Cote 2000 isn’t the prettiest climb to start off. And there’s actually a significant amount of vehicle traffic. It’s hot and I’m hurting. I just want to get this damn climb over with as quickly as possible. Cote 2000 isn’t a particularly challenging climb, but my general funk has made it a challenging climb. I struggle to find a good rhythm and the times that I do find a good rhythm, I sabotage it by getting out of the saddle and climbing even though it’s entirely unnecessary.
I even start to feel signs of cramping coming on. What the heck is going on?
The climb opens up with about 3k to go, and we’re treated to an absolutely stunning view. Ok, I’m fine with suffering if this is my view. At one point, we climb past a small airport amounting to nothing more than a landing strip and maybe one hangar. It’s nestled in between this vast horseshoe shaped mountain, and as a small plane approaches for landing with the mountain backdrop, I can’t help but feel like I’m on set at a James Bond movie.
It really is breathtaking. It’s also fully exposed to the sun.
I ride the last mile or so of the climb rather poorly. I’m sapped. And I’m super concerned about making it through the week. I may have bit off more than I can chew.
At the finish line, I hear fellow cyclists chattering. One of them remarks about today’s stage being the easiest of all stages that we have. He’s probably right, but after really struggling on the day, it’s not at all what I want to hear.
I wish I would have been able to find the clarity that evening, and to remind myself “Damn it, you’re awesome. Just be awesome, and just ride your own race.” But the doubts are really building up.
In retrospect, I realize just how hard of a stage it really was. I was battling very low rest, jetlag, and the heat. The course gave us some steep, punchy climbs – which is not my specialty; I’m much better suited for long, consistent climbs. Yes, on paper Stage 1 should have been the easiest day. In reality, given the circumstances, Stage 1 was always going to be one of the hardest days. I wish I had come into the stage with that mentality instead of with the mentality that it was going to be a nice, easy warmup stage.
If Stage 1 was a reality check, Stage 2 may well end up being a real-life disaster. That’s essentially what I took away from the pre-race briefing that was held at the conclusion of Stage 1. The MC has taken a significant amount of time to detail just how brutally hard the last climb of the day is going to be. To paraphrase “Tomorrow is going to suck.” Awesome. Just what I want to hear after struggling on Stage 1.
My pre-race strategy was to “take it easy” on days one and two, as day three is an incredibly challenging day. My whole goal was to make it through day three and to reassess everything from there. If all was going well, I planned on letting it loose on days 4 – 7.
However, after Stage 1, I now know that there’s really no such thing as taking it easy. Stage 2 is going to require everything that I have. I just have to hope that I can recover and regroup for Stage 3.
Stage 2 presents us with just shy of 76 miles, and 11,600 feet of elevation gain. That’s a challenging day by anyone’s standards. We’ve got three major climbs on the day – Col des Saisies, Col du Montagny, and Col de Loze. Saisies is long and gradual. Montagny is not quite as long, but is a little punchier. Loze is both really long, and really punchy at parts. It’s the dreaded long climb that also requires you to power through some really steep crap.
It’s going to be a tough day.
And it’s going to get right down to business right away. We have about 10-15 minutes to warm up the legs and then we’re on the slopes of Col des Saisies. 8.5 miles with nothing going above 10% gradient. This is my type of climb.
But I’m still feeling just a bit off.
On or off, I remind myself that I cannot afford to smash the first climb of the day. Ride in rhythm and let it all work out. I shift into an easy gear, whip up the cadence and get to work.
Saisies doesn’t have the same take-your-breath-away type of beauty as some of the climbs yesterday, but I’m really enjoying it. It’s tranquil and it treats us to the natural beauty that can occur as the first rays of sun touch the mountain pastures.
Through 3 miles, I’m happy with my cadence and I’m happy with how I’m riding. Keep executing this gameplan and everything is going to work out.
By mile 6, I’m starting to feel a little fatigued. This is a long climb. It’s not long compared to what we’ve got in the coming days, or even at the end of the stage, but geez, climbing for 6 straight miles ain’t easy. Whatever. 2.5 to go.
I look ahead and I see two large cows crossing the road. The oncoming traffic is stopped, and the cows are taking up about half of our side of the road. I pull my phone out to take a picture of the large bovines with bells around their necks. How fun.
I’ve watched four or five other cyclists ride right by the cows with no incident. But as I’m approaching the cow suddenly turns around and starts to move in my direction. I swerve to avoid any potential cow on cyclist violence, and I laugh about the whole experience. That’s one way to break up a climb.
I hit the summit of the Saisies feeling better than I felt yesterday. This is the longest climb that we’ve had in the race, and I rode it well. I can do this.
The descent off the Saisies is quite nice, but as with most descents, I don’t take any risks. It’s too early in the day, and too early in the week to be risky.
After the descent we’ve got a long stretch of about 35 miles in the valley. I need to find a group to work with in the valley. Break the miles up, share the work, and don’t waste any energy. That’s the plan. So when we’re approaching the end of the descent, and I’m able to latch on with a good sized group, and a group that’s riding really well together, I’m over the moon. Things are going to work out today.
I’m riding with the group, making friends, and not doing a whole lot of work. Life is good. Then, I go to reach in my pocket for a Cliff bar. I’ve done this literally no less than 500 times in training. However, this time, as I’m reaching for my middle pocket, I manage to hit the bottom side of my right pocket – where I keep my phone. The phone goes flying out of my pocket, onto the pavement, and I have to stop to retrieve it.
Bye bye group. Damn it!
As I’m cursing myself, the Mavic support vehicle comes screaming up. They assume that I’ve got a mechanical issue. In the process, they actually run over my phone. So much for things working out today.
I’m now riding solo, eating a headwind and generally being upset. I’m not being aggressive with my pace, and I’m kind of waiting for another group to come along.
After what feels like an eternity, but only ends up being 10 miles in actuality, another group comes plugging along. I happily hop on and work with them for the next 15 miles or so. I’m not riding particularly well though and I’m really, really hating my bike seat. I just can’t get comfortable.
The group has broken apart at a feed station. It’s now the 45-mile mark of the stage. We’ve got maybe 5 more miles before we take on the Montagny and then the Loze. Much like yesterday’s stage, the climbs are stacked so closely together that you can basically consider them one, major climb separated only by a short 10-15 minute descent.
The valley has been almost entirely exposed, and I don’t realize it but the sun is sapping up my energy and leaving me with a decent sunburn. No wonder I feel a little drained, and a little discouraged. Not this again.
Montagny is another one of those deceptive climbs. At 6.15 miles and an average gradient of 5.8% it shouldn’t be too bad. However, when you remove the 1.5ish miles of mostly flat at the top of the climb, it really ends up being a 4.5-mile climb at about 8.5% gradient. It’s not overly steep, but it’s just steep enough that I can’t quite get into my ideal rhythm.
Montagny is also fully exposed. It’s a fun climb though that reveals the same valley that we traversed just moments ago in its full beauty. It also wraps around in a way that we can look down and see the winding roads that we slogged through just to get to where we were at that given point. It’s fun to peer over the edge and see the suck that we’ve just come from.
I make it over Montagny feeling ok. Much like yesterday, I don’t feel like I’ve ridden poorly but I also don’t feel like I’ve crushed it. But I’ve ticked off another climb, and I only have one more standing between me and another stage being completed.
Too bad the one remaining climb is a complete savage.
14.5 miles. Climbing to 1.5 miles in altitude. Multiple sections at the top of the climb with 16% and 18% ramps. Absolute savage.
I hit the bottom of the climb, and I try to wrap my head around what’s going to be 2 hours of straight climbing. Each climb in the Alps has little markers at each kilometer. They tell you how many kilometers to the summit and what the average gradient of the next kilometer will be.
I come to love and despise these markers.
It’s not particularly fun to have a marker pop up reminding you that you have 20km to go, and that the next km is going to be steeper than you’d like. But it also becomes a fun game. My first game is to whittle the climb down to under 20km to go. Then 11km to go, because that marker represents more than halfway. Then 5k to go. Then 1k.
It’s not a fun game though. Because it feels like I’m stuck in purgatory between the 20 to go and 11 to go markers. This section of the climb feels like it takes forever.
Overall though, I’m in a good rhythm. There are some sections that I feel like I should be killing with cadence, but I just can’t, and I end up grinding through them as a result. But overall, I’m riding well. Riding smart.
No matter how smart I’m riding, this climb is a brute. And it’s hard to not start thinking about the queen stage – Stage 3 with its 15,000+ feet of climbing on the most iconic climbs in all of cycling. Man, if this is tough, what the hell is tomorrow going to be like?
The first 10 miles of the Loze climb have not been particularly stunning. After nearly 90 minutes of work, we’re rewarded with the most awe-inspiring scenes imaginable. The road opens up and there are mountains everywhere, with the sun perfectly illuminating the slopes. The occasional cloud compliments the white, snow-spotted mountains. Greens. Blues. Grays. Whites. No words. Absolutely stunning.
It’s a weird, almost poetic dichotomy. Here I am dying. Smashing myself to pieces. Breath heavy. Legs heavy. Thoughts all over the place. Utter chaos. And here the mountains are. Pristine. Beautiful. Unchanging.
I’m in awe and I’m in agony at the same time.
By the time the climb opens up, we’re at over 5,500 feet. I don’t spend any time thinking about this, but for a guy that lives near sea level, altitude is not my friend. Every foot that we climb makes it harder to get oxygen in. Which in turn makes it harder to feed the muscles and to clear lactic acid. This is a critical process, especially for a guy that needs to keep the legs going for 7 straight days.
The climb has also become completely exposed to the sun. It’s a tradeoff that I’d happily make though, given the views that we’re being treated to. But it’s one that I think I’ll come to regret. I’ve underestimated the affect of the sun and the heat (even though I’m not necessarily feeling the heat).
By the time we reach the 4km to go marker, I’m hurting. This is what I signed up for though. To test my meddle on the most legendary climbs in the world. And right now, I’m being tested.
My legs are starting to cramp up. Any little uptick in effort is difficult to recover from. My mind is starting to play tricks on me, likely a result of the 100 minutes of consecutive climbing.
The best part? We haven’t even made it to the tough stuff yet.
With about 3km to go, we hit the first of the punchy section. It’s about a quarter of a mile of 15%+ sections. Full power. Full effort.
Desperately searching for a third or a fourth wind. Desperately searching for oxygen. For the legs to come back. For the tinges of cramping to disappear.
After the kickers, we get our first little bit of downhill on this climb. I’m actually kind of ruing the downhill. I’m already smashed. A little downhill isn’t going to help. Plus, every foot that we go down, we’re going to have to climb again. Give me all the uphill right now. Let’s get this thing done.
After the downhill, we’ve now got just over a mile to go. The gradient pitches back up again to about 9%. On tired legs, it’s steep enough that I can’t get into my light and quick cadence. I’m stuck between cadence and grinding. But I’m getting it done.
The summit comes into view. Holy crap, we’re going to have to work for this. The summit gets as steep as I’ve seen. And I’ve seen some steep stuff.
I’m so shattered at this point that I question if I can actually get up the climb.
Just shut up and pedal.
The last quarter mile is a bloodbath. 18% ramps at 7,500 feet of altitude. After climbing for two hours. F my Loze.
Just shut up and pedal.
This is the hardest thing I’ve done on a bike. And I’ve done lots of things on a bike. I power through the first steep section and have only one more to go. Finish line in sight. More climbing. More gassed.
I get up and over the last brutally steep section of the climb. I hit the finish line and I collapse onto my handle bars. Gasping for breath. Hoping for a miracle recovery before tomorrow.
The Great Race: A New Fundraising Initiative
Holy crap. Holy crap. Holy crap. My race across the French Alps is less than two months away. Those words don't seem real even as I type them.
Sadly, that also means that my fundraiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters will soon be coming to an end. To date, we've raised just shy of $3,800. Every dollar of that goes towards matching underprivileged local youths with mentors. With each youth/mentor match costing approximately $1,500 per year to support, we've raised enough money to match 2.5 youths with mentors.
My Tour de Mentor campaign is all about utilizing my passion for a cycling as a means to raise awareness and funds for a local agency that does so much good for our community. Hopefully, the campaign does one or all of the following:
As we come to the finish line of the campaign, I know that there's still much hard work ahead. In my training, I have six more weeks of hell before I begin to taper. In my fundraising, I know that now is the critical time to close the gap between what we've raised and what the goal is - $10,000. It's going to be a tough push to the finish line.
And with that in mind, I thought what would be more appropriate than a race to the finish line? Races are won and lost in what I call "The Championship Miles". In most races, this is the last 20% of the race. We're here now. This is the last 20% of training and fundraising. These are the championship miles.
So at this critical time, I want to throw down the gauntlet. We're going to race. And it's going to be one hell of a battle. Hopefully one that leaves me totally smashed to pieces while leaving the coffers full of donations (donations that will support local youth mentorship).
Ok...how does it work? Simple. In July, I'm going to race against your dollars. My goal is to ride more miles than dollars that are donated to the fundraiser. So if the total donations for the month of July are $1,500 and I ride 1,501 miles in July, then I win. However, if I only ride 1,400 miles and the total donations are $1,500, then I lose.
Got it? Good!
Now, I should warn you - I'm hyper competitive. Like don't even want to lose a game of Monopoly to my Little Brother competitive. Oh, and I've been taught the art of trash talking by the most skilled trash talker in all the land - my father.
So ya...don't let me win. Open up those wallets, support a great cause, and serve me a piece of humble pie.
So usually I like to document my race day experience as quickly after the event as possible. But there’s nothing usual about the Cheaha Ultra. There’s nothing usual about completing the race and immediately thinking about where I’m going to lock my bike so as to not have to see it, much less ride it ever again.
It’s also unusual that I’m not unflinchingly positive about all things Cheaha. It may be recency bias, but even as I write this, I don’t know if I’ll get back to the days where I loaded my bike up on my car, pointed the car to Cheaha and tried my best to contain my excitement the entire way there.
Trips to Cheaha were like my Christmas’. Cheaha State Park itself was my Santa Claus - an abundant source of happiness, and the deliverer of the gifts that I most cherished. And, man, Santa Claus never disappoints.
…the Cheaha Ultra is basically the jackass in your second grade class who told you that Santa Claus isn’t real.
THE TERRIBLE TAPER
To properly recap my race day experience, I think I probably need to provide some context. The Cheaha Ultra was a part of the bigger picture – my participation in the Haute Route France as a fundraiser on behalf of Big Brothers Big Sisters. The Haute Route features 70,000+ feet of climbing in 7 days, spread over 500 miles; numbers that are equal parts intimidating, exhilarating, and impossible to replicate…especially for a Floridian.
In April, I really focused on trying to recreate the day-after-day strain that riding 500 miles in 7 days will cause. April was a 1,000+ mile month. With such a workload, I didn’t do some of the things that I think make me an effective climber – things like driving up to Cheaha for a weekend, strength training, and plyometrics. I was just all-out gassed and couldn’t find ways to fit those workouts into my regimen.
In May, I dialed back the mileage to approximately 200 miles a week. In an attempt to revive the dead legs, I continued to neglect climbing-specific workouts. Then…with one week to go until Cheaha, I panicked a little bit. I hadn’t done any strength training in nearly 5 weeks, and so I hit the gym pretty hard. Much harder than I usually would days before a race like Cheaha.
I think it proved to be a very poor decision as it relates to the Cheaha Ultra. However, riding the Ultra on what might have been somewhat compromised legs may prove to be a brilliant decision for the long-term goal. I guess we’ll find out when I get to France…
THE START (MILES 0 – 20)
As I discussed in my Cheaha Preview post, I’m a firm believer of showing up early and taking it nice and easy early on in the ride. I also believe fully in practicing what I preach.
I showed up about 30 minutes later than planned, and because I was riding around the parking lot, jamming out to hype music instead of…you know…paying attention to what was going on around me, I damn near missed the start of my wave.
I do have time to post this video before the race gets going...
Because I nearly missed the start, I didn’t get a chance to try to seed myself intelligently in the wave. I would’ve loved to have identified a group right there at the start line that I could ride through the valley with. Instead, I found myself working the first few miles to catch up with a group that I thought would work well together in the valley.
Even better start. Nailed it.
Regardless of the rocky start, I picked a good group and we were riding mostly well together. There was what felt like a decent headwind and there were plenty of passengers not willing to do much work at the front, but even though I’m doing more work than I’d like, we’re making it through the valley. Ticking off the miles without hammering it.
Ride smart in the valley – check.
THE PARKWAY (MILES 21 – 38)
We hit the first real climb of the day – the Skyway Climb – and the group falls apart. I expected as much. That’s what the Parkway does to groups. I ride away from the group and ride by many cyclists from earlier waves. I’m climbing really well, but I’m reminding myself not to push too hard, too early. As I’m reaching the top of the Skyway Climb I send a quick update to my mom and my partner. Something along the lines of “Didn’t feel very good to start, but rode past a bunch of people on the first climb. Good sign”.
While I’m crafting that message, I ride by a cyclist who is stopped one the side of the road with the SAG vehicle. He’s pumping his tire up as I pass. He looks really strong, and looks like he would’ve contended for a UCI spot. Now, he’s on the side of the road within an hour of the race start, likely out of contention. Cycling is a brutal sport.
A minute or two later, that same cyclist pulls up beside and eventually past me on one of the little rollers. I think of hopping on his wheel and putting down some tempo, but he’s likely going to be riding even harder than normal to try to chase back some time. Plus, today is about riding my race. But when we get to another roller and we’re only separated by maybe 20 feet, I decide to close the gap down and get the benefit of the draft. I figure that any additional effort required to stay on his wheel will be more than offset by the energy savings of drafting.
We work together until we hit the named climbs, and we come back together after the named climbs. Horseblock, Not Again, and Oh Shift come and go with nothing of real significance happening. I feel like I’ve worked hard to get over these short, punchy climbs, but I remember that these climbs always require lots of power. No biggie.
THREE-MILE CLIMB (MILES 39 – 42)
Because I don’t like descending and because I wanted to give the legs even a few extra seconds of recovery between Oh Shift and 3-Mile Climb, I let my newfound friend go. I don’t want to be tempted in the least bit to try to ride at someone else’s pace up 3-mile, and even if I did, I figured he would blow right through the aid station.
It’s the right decision, and it actually becomes an interesting way to break up the climb. My new friend becomes a rabbit. After about a quarter of a mile of climbing, he’s coming back to me pretty quickly. After about half a mile, he’s in my rear view. After a mile of climbing, he’s out of sight. I get so lost in this little game that I almost totally forget that I’ve already ticked off the suckiest part of 3-Mile. Nice.
I’m climbing really well.
Legs feel fresh, and I feel like I’m working within my limits. It may be the upper ends of my limits, but I’m confident that the level of effort that I’m exerting on 3-Mile is a sustainable effort level for the Ultra.
I even take a minute to post a quick video...
On the climb, I focus on getting down a good amount of fluids, pouring water on my head to keep the body temperature down a little bit, and attacking the climb with cadence.
Before I know it I’m turning into the Bunker Tower Loop.
By the Bunker Tower Loop, I’m feeling it a little bit, but I know that my legs can recover. I’ve put in enough miles in training and I’ve ridden this climb enough that I trust that I’ll recover. Plus, today is all about fighting back.
I hit the top of the climb 21 minutes and 46 seconds after I started it. Not bad.
ADAM’S GAP (MILES 42 – 55)
Descents are usually my least favorite part of cycling, but given the temperatures and given how long of a day I’m in for, I actually welcome the descent down Cheaha. I take it easy and cautiously and focus on trying to get some juice back into the legs.
I pop in my headphones to help alleviate some of the fear that comes to me from just the general noise of descending. Man, I got some good songs queued up. I’m jamming.
Now I’m really having fun. Feeling good on the bike. Jamming out to some solid music. Mountains in sight. Love it.
Putting my headphones in, while generally frowned upon, was so clutch. Adam’s Gap is a really difficult portion of the ride. The back portion of the out-and-back is really mentally taxing…oh and with some punchy climbs, it’s not exactly a cake walk physically either.
I was committed to riding my own race all day. Buuuut on an out-and-back you see your fellow competitors…and you start to measure yourself against them. I see about 25-30 cyclists ahead of me. I figure most of them are riding the Challenge, which would likely place me in the top ten of the Ultra. Interesting.
Holding down a top ten spot becomes another welcome distraction. Another game that I can play to fight off the fatigue. But I’m not going to blow my race up just to hold down a top spot. The Ultra is such a long race that even though it might feel like your window is wide open for hours and hours at a time, it only takes minutes for that window to slam shut.
THE 7-MILE CLIMB (MILES 62 – 69)
I make it through the short, punchy stuff on the run-in back to 3-Mile Climb and I’m still loving life. I figure that if I can fight off the fatigue until the top of Cheaha then I’ll be golden. That’s my mindset as we make the left-hand turn headed to Lake Chinnabee. It’s a big “if” though.
The Challenge has now separated from the Ultra, and all the guesswork that I did about my placement will now be put to rest. I’m shocked that by mile 3 of the trip down to Lake Chinnabee that I haven’t seen the race leaders.
Wait…am I in the lead??? No way. I can’t be.
Another mile goes by. Well…maybe I can be. But, seriously, there’s no way, right?
A few minutes later the race leader comes into sight. I’m surprised that he’s out in front by himself, and I expect a group of cyclists to be right on his heels. I’m kind of right, as there are 2 more cyclists about three quarters of a mile behind him.
I have another fun game to play. Counting.
I’ve seen three cyclists ahead of me, going in the other direction. There’s one guy in front of me. That makes me 5th. How many more am I going to see?
Answer: 3. I hit the bottom of the 7-Mile Climb sitting in 8th. I stop at the rest station, because damn it, I’m riding my own race. More fluids, some salt, a little fuel. Ok, back on it…and quickly.
The first mile of the 7-mile climb is the toughest. It’s steep enough that it hurts no matter what gear you’re in. Again, I try to kill the climb with cadence. High pace, low resistance. That’s the idea.
Well…until I make contact with the two cyclists that were just ahead of me on the descent. That whole riding my own race concept goes out the window for about half a mile, as I just drill it. I want to send a message to both them and to myself. I’m here to climb. I’m here to suffer. Bring it on.
I’ve taken the first mile and a half of the climb pretty aggressively, so I very much welcome the rolling hills portion of the 7-mile climb. I use these miles to re-calibrate a little and to try to re-focus on the remaining three miles of climbing that await us after the rollers.
I vow to ride the last three miles of the climb aggressively but within my limits. I’m pushing it, but I’m still staying as light and quick on the pedals as possible. I come out of the saddle every mile or so just to break the climb up a little, and I generally do a very solid job on this climb. I knock out 7-mile climb in just under 42 minutes.
But by the time I make it to the top, I’m starting to feel some of the stress that the heat plus climbing can bring on. I once again stop at the aid station to bring on some more fluid and fuel. I don’t want to hang around too long, because I’ve now got ambitions of a top five finish, but I make sure to take enough time to get everything that I need.
THE PARKWAY PART 2 (MILES 70 – 82)
Once again, I take the descent carefully and I definitely lose time as a result. Ride your race, Jason.
I’ve done a good job preparing for all the punchy stuff that is awaiting on the Parkway, and I’m not making the mistake of looking ahead to Bain’s Gap or Chimney Peak. I’m putting down some good miles but the fatigue is starting to set in. I keep telling myself to fight it off until the end of the Parkway. That becomes my intermediate goal.
…but then…the wheels fall off.
Bad quad cramps. What the hell? At mile 75?!? I’ve put in the mileage. I’ve hydrated smartly. I’m ready for this. What the hell is going on, body? Don’t do this to me!
I find myself taking down even more fluids, banging on my quads, and trying to find moments to stretch out a little.
I’m going to ride until my quads seize up and refuse to move, or until I hit the finish line. Whichever happens first.
So on I go. Putting down some pretty good miles and occasionally catching an awful cramp.
…but then…the wheels fall off…again.
This time, more literally. I start to feel my rear wheel wobble a little and I feel this sinking sensation. Is my damn tire flat? Unlike my quad cramps, I can’t ride through this one. The near deafening pop that I hear as I’m trying to figure out if I’ve actually got a flat confirms that there’s no riding through this.
Oh, and this is one hell of a flat too. It actually blows the rear tire right off the rim. I can’t even spin the wheel without the tire snagging on my brakes. I spend about a minute monkeying around with the wheel and I decide that the SAG team would likely be a much quicker option.
Problem – they’re 3-5 minutes away. Ok, I’ll just get the wheel unseated and the tire popped off. Get the new tube unpacked for them so that we’re ready to roll when they show up. They show up ahead of schedule, quickly determine that I need a whole new tire, and get to work.
As I’m siting there with the SAG wagon, the two guys that I worked so hard to pass on 7-mile climb go cruising by.
Cycling is a brutal sport.
I try to put the most positive spin on it possible. I look at it as a way to recover, to stretch the legs, and to give the mind a little break. But I’m basically incapable of standing still. A local journalist that is embedded with the SAG wagon takes an interest in why I’m riding. I tell her a little of my story, I tell her about my fundraiser, but the whole time I’m talking the only thought that I’m having is “Come on, come on, come on…”.
I’m so appreciative of the SAG team though. Top-notch work out of them, and even just their presence was reassuring. I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts, and panicked about changing a tire as quickly as possible. I thank them profusely as I roll away, but it’s probably still not enough to express my gratitude.
By the time it’s all said and done, I’ve made a 10-minute donation to the course. I’m now sitting in 9th. Rough stretch of miles for me. Cramps and a flat. Hey, but I’m still on the bike and it’s still moving in the right direction!
I’m able to finish out the Parkway really strong. The legs do feel significantly fresher post-flat. And as I’m convincing myself that the flat might have been exactly what I needed, I start to cramp up again.
Ok, cramps. I see you’re coming with me to the finish line. Let’s go then.
THE VALLEY PART 2 (MILES 83 – 92)
We’ve got a glorious 10-mile section of flat road immediately following the descent from the Parkway. As we’re starting the cross-valley slog, a rider with a Challenge bib pulls up beside me. He says “Hey, I’m looking to split some work if you’d be interested”. Umm. Yes. Definitely interested. Like I’m going to text you 5 minutes after you give me your phone number interested.
We start to work together and I’m a bit miffed at what feels like a headwind again in the valley. How can that be possible? We had a headwind on the way out, now we’ve got it on the way back? Whatever. Throw it all at me, Cheaha. I can handle it.
It’s mile 90 of the race and I’m hiding my fatigue really well. Sadly, my quads aren’t cooperating. But even then, I try my best to only stretch out the cramp or to massage it away when I’m on my newfound friend’s wheel.
We’re riding well together and we pick up a couple small groups of cyclists as we pass by. By mile 3 of the valley, we’ve got a nice little pace line of 8 cyclists. That’ll work.
I desperately want to be a passenger and skip my turns at the front. I almost convince myself that I deserve it because I’m riding 26 miles further than anyone else in the pace line. However, either my pride, my sense of fairness, or both takes charge and I find myself putting in more work than I’d like to at the front.
We hit the split point for the Ultra and Challenge, and I point my bike towards Bain’s Gap.
BAIN’S GAP (MILES 93 – 103)
I’m downright fearful of Bain’s Gap at this point in the race. I remember it nearly being the final nail in my coffin on both of my previous Cheaha Ultras, and I don’t expect anything different today. Try being confident heading in to a super hard climb, while you’re cramping on the flats leading up to the climb. It doesn’t work so well.
It doesn’t matter. Confident or not. This bike is going to the finish line. These shoes are staying clipped in. And that’s just that. There will be pain. There will be suffering. Like it? Cool. Don’t like it? Tough luck, kiddo.
I get to a really weird spot mentally – one that I don’t find myself in very often – I don’t know how bad I want to suffer on this climb. I don’t know if I really want to smash myself to pieces.
As soon as that thought pops into my head, I try my best to just let it float right out. And as I’m doing that, the 8th placed cyclist comes into view ahead of me. I kind of laugh to myself as I now have a new reason to suffer. I’m good mentally, but am I good physically? I guess we’ll find out…
I came into this Cheaha stronger than I ever was, and I hoped that this would translate to some moments in the race where I said “Heyyyy, that wasn’t as bad as I remembered it to be”. Bain’s Gap was not one of these moments.
Brutal, brutal climb. And the worst part is knowing that it’s an out and back. Bain’s Gap mocks you as you’re inching your way up the 15% gradients for the last 800 meters. It’s laughing, saying “I’ll be here for you, honey” as you struggle to try to keep your lunch down and your head from seeing stars.
Oh, and I’m very much struggling to keep my lunch down and to keep from seeing stars. But, at least I’m not cramping. I’m throwing everything I have at this climb – which isn’t much – and I’m just hoping that I can somehow recover to do it all over again.
By the time I reach the crest of the climb, I’m toasted. I don’t know that there’s any coming back from this.
Thankfully, there’s a nice, long downhill to the rest stop. That nice, long downhill is a double-edged sword though. It’s nice now. Won’t be so nice when the bike is turned around.
After taking a few moments at the rest stop, I get back on and get ready for more intense suffering. Bain’s Gap sucks. I make my way up the 8-9% portion of the climb and prepare for the 3-4 minutes of ensuing pain that the 15% gradients will once again bring.
As I’m doing so, the 7th placed cyclist comes into view. And I couldn’t care less. I’m fried. I don’t want to think. I’m putting every last bit of energy that my fatigued mind and body have into these pedals. I slowly, but surely gain on him and by the time we hit the 15% gradients, I’m riding ever so slowly by him. He says “Good job” and I’m literally so out of breath, and so close to hurling that I can’t even respond with a simple “Thanks”.
Mercifully, the top of Bain’s Gap comes into sight. I don’t even try to hide my fatigue at this point. The guy I passed can see it all that he wants. I’m hurting. It’s me against me. What he doesn’t see is that I’m willing to shatter myself to pieces to get to this finish line.
COTAQUILLA (MILES 115 – 118)
I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to be cramping on the flat portions of the ride, knowing that the hardest climb is ahead. And it’s incredibly challenging both mentally and physically to be fighting off cramps for hours. So when I’m occasionally catching a cramp on the section of flat land before Cotaquilla, I’m just all kinds of frustrated. But what can I do? Fight like hell to get to the finish line. That’s it.
As I approach Cotaquilla, I remember that one blog post of mine. You know…that one where I referred to Cotaquilla as “more of a mole-hill than a mountain”. Bet you don’t feel the same way right about now, do ya? The irony of it all brings a rye smile to my face. For like a minute. Then I catch another quad cramp.
The climb starts and I try to change the mindset – this climb is easy. It is. Trust that it is easy. It’s only hard because you’ve smashed yourself just to get to this point. But, on any other day, this climb wouldn’t cause any concern. So why let it cause concern now? Stay quick and light on the pedals and knock this thing out. Be confident in your capabilities. Get through it.
This mindset works, but I am still suffering. The fatigue is very high at this point and I do need to concern myself with what awaits – Chimney Peak. But I really try to stay in the moment, and to whip through Cotaquilla.
After 11 minutes of effort, Cotaquilla is in the books. I make a quick Facebook post that goes:
There are a few miles between Cotaquilla and Chimney Peak. Mostly flat. Which means mostly cramping. The 8th place rider has been gaining on me since Bain’s Gap. I see him as I peak around a turn. Usually, the pride would kick in and I’d do everything in my power to hold my spot.
But my pride has been taken from me. The Ultra owns my pride at this moment. Maybe I’ll earn it back on Chimney Peak.
The 8th place rider zooms by. Damn.
CHIMNEY PEAK (MILES 121 – 125)
The moment of reckoning is here.
Chimney Peak is here. With its brutal 20%+ gradients, and an unrelenting tilt at the top. The dreaded climb that requires punchy power, sustained climbing, and more punchy power. It’s an evil beast. And it’s at my doorstep.
At this point in the ride, Chimney Peak is not a question of physical capabilities. If you’ve made it this deep in the ride, then you’re capable of climbing Chimney Peak.
It’s not a matter of can you? It’s a matter of will you?
In my first Ultra, I didn’t. I unclipped at the bottom – which is the dreaded quarter mile at 20% - and I unclipped again at the top.
In my second Ultra, I didn’t. I unclipped at the top – also dreaded, but closer to 16% than 20%.
In my third Ultra, I wouldn’t be unclipping. That was my mindset.
I told myself coming into the climb that nothing else mattered. Forget all the concern that you’ve had all day about the cramps. That doesn’t matter now. You’re going to finish the race. That much is assured. How you finish the race is in question.
Are you willing to climb Chimney Peak? Yes. Ok, then nothing else matters.
And that’s how I go about it. I hit the base of the climb and I brace for the suck. I’m prepared to go until I can’t go anymore. I shift down to my easiest gear, put my head down, get out of the saddle and try to hold on.
I refuse to lift my head because I know that flashes of mental weakness can pop in at any moment. I can’t have that right now. And I know that looking up to see how much of the 20% section that I have remaining could be one hell of a conduit for weak thoughts.
I hit the steepest portion of the bottom section. My front wheel is coming off the ground as I try to pull my pedals through. I get dangerously close to swerving off into the ditch. Whatever. It doesn’t have to be pretty right now.
Legs screaming. Gasping for air. Body temperature rising.
I finally lift my head up because I know that I can now see the crest of the bottom section of the climb. As I do so, I see the cyclist that zoomed by me just a few minutes earlier. He’s unclipped and is walking his bike. Been there, brother.
Seeing him walking his bike reminds me of how I felt on my previous attempts. I don’t want that feeling. I don’t want to come away letting Chimney Peak cloud my sense of accomplishment.
I clear the crest of the bottom section. Chimney Peak at least gives you a nice little downhill/flat section before pitching back up at 10 – 16% for the last mile and a quarter.
I’m in trouble. Relax, Jason. Get oxygen in. Today, you will. Remember that. Stretch the legs a little, bring the heartrate down, then re-focus. You’re not done yet.
I take my time on the downhill/flat section, and the cyclist I’ve just passed goes by me. Bummer. Maybe I’ll get 7th back on the last slopes of the last climb. That would be a really cool deal.
The road pitches up and it’s time for more suffering. Within 200 meters I’ve regained 7th place, but I really pay no mind to it. I’m in a battle with myself at this point. Today, I will. I will climb Chimney Peak.
We round the last bend and it’s all laid out right in front of us. A brutal, brutal stretch of road that tilts up at a demonic gradient.
Remember what you’ve got through just to get to this point.
Remember what you felt like when you let Chimney Peak get the better of you.
Remember that you’re willing to go through hell to get to this finish line.
I inch my way up the climb. Killing the climb with cadence is not an option at this point. Too steep, too many cramps. I’m muscling my way through it, throwing everything that I have left at it.
I’m 3/4 of the way up the climb when it tilts up even more. This is where I unclipped last year.
I don’t know if I can do this. I’m dying here. I think I’m going to unclip. I think I’ve given it everything I have.
Then, the students that are manning the rest station start to cheer me on. I’m thinking, “Ya, ya. Whatever. You don’t know what I’ve been through, guys”. And then one of the young men just happens to say the perfect thing. He screams:
He’s right there. Outwork him.
I know that he was referring to the cyclist that I’d been jockeying back and forth with. And I certainly took it that way, but it became more than that. Outwork him. Him became all my doubts. All my angst that I had about this climb. All my insecurities. Outwork them all. Prove to yourself that you’re stronger than all of it.
And I did.
I made it to the top, turned the bike back around, and cruised to the finish line. Told you that you were coming with me to the finish line, quad cramps.
Now, if you want to help me reach the finish line in my fundraiser - an initiative that aims to raise enough funds to match 6 underprivileged youths with mentors - please mosey on over to the donation page!
CHeaha course preview
Ok, so training is going swimmingly. You’re doing all the right things and putting in all the right work. Perfect. Now, we need to strategize to ensure that all this good work doesn’t go to waste on race day. So, this post will provide a course preview along with my recommendations on how to survive…err I mean attack…the Cheaha Challenge and Ultra.
First things first, show up early. I hate getting to races early and sitting around waiting anxiously. But this is one race that you’ll want to show up early for. That’s because there are a lot of people that do this race. Simple things like getting into the parking lot, going to the bathroom, etc. all take just a little bit longer. If you get there earlier than you need to be, you can always occupy some time by taking your bike over to one of the many free mechanics that are on-site. Nothing wrong with a quick checkup before you head for the mountains.
Cheaha starts in waves corresponding with the race distance that you're doing. Get to the start line early enough to hear the instructions, then get in your wave. Once you clip in, you'll be pointed towards the mountains, but first...
Another benefit of getting to the race early is that you can start to scout out people that you might want to ride with. This is important because I’ve found that it’s very, very worthwhile to find a group to ride with for the first hour of the race. Why? Well, because with the exception of one small little pitch upwards at mile 4.5, the first hour of the ride will be spent in the valley. Flat, fast, and perfect for a pace line. Get in a pace line and take advantage of the draft. No one is giving out medals for the hardest working cyclist in the first hour of the race.
I’ve seen many a cyclists that didn’t look like they belonged in the pace line that they were in. You could tell they were working too hard. Inevitably, they all look like they’re on their last legs by the time you see them again on the Adam’s Gap out and back at mile 50. Don’t be them. Get in a group that is comfortably paced and cruise. This is going to be one of your few opportunities on the day to take it easy. Take advantage of it. I cannot stress this enough.
I'm a proud Big Brother, and despite my Little wishing that I wouldn't run so much, a proud endurance athlete. I started my endurance career by signing up for a marathon when I couldn't even complete a 10k, and I started my Big Brother career by volunteering when I wasn't sure I even could offer a youth much. Both processes have showed me that stepping outside of your comfort zone serves as the best method of improving yourself.