Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Racing in France

Racing in France

The Journey:

After 4 weeks in Belgium, on the 27th of August, I boarded the train to France for a few days of racing and training with the reserve team of AVC Aix-en-Provence. Somewhere in the 4th hour of the 5.5 hour journey, I got really excited when I realized I was chasing my dream of racing and cheese tasting in France. The very next moment I felt deeply grateful and lucky for the support I’d received from countless friends and family members to do so. Damn, there are onion-cutting ninjas in my room.
On arriving at the Aix-en-Provence TGV station, I made my way to the bus stand. My Inspector Clouseau mode was ON, after hearing the horror stories of pickpockets being a-plenty in France as I took the bus to the city. 

Not this mode, but I did blend in as much as possible

The GPS app displayed that the youth hostel where I was staying to be 1.5kms from the bus station in the city and I decided to walk there thinking “How hard can it be?”. Turns out lugging a bike box for 45mins can be more taxing on one’s arms than expected and it was not made easier by the small 200 metres rise towards the end which felt tougher than a HC climb.
I arrived at the youth hostel and started setting up my bike only to realize in horror a few minutes later that I had forgotten my pedals back in Belgium. After a brief anxiety-attack and a glass of cold water, I messaged my team manager and was comforted when informed that the team had spare pedals but I’d have to wait for a couple of days till I could get my hands on them. *sighs sadly*

Here's Robbie displaying accurately how I felt during those 2 days

2 very long days later, I met my team manager and visited the team service course to meet the rest of the staff who were all extremely welcoming. I got the pedals I was in much need of and was also given a tour of the team’s facility and 90+ years of history. But then disappointed to learn that there were only 2 more races left in the season there. The same day, I moved to a studio apartment and was delighted to have my own kitchenette, plus the swimming pool in the facility was a much welcomed bonus!

In the first ride there, I was awed by the beautiful scenery of Provence and felt so so good to finally hit some climbs after 3 weeks of riding in Flatland of Belgium. My first race was in 5 days’ time, so I decided to hit as many climbs as possible and when my teammates asked me if I was interested to join them on a ride up the Mt. Ventoux, I tagged along without hesitation.

Ventoux Day:

Riding up the Ventoux has been one of the most painful yet exhilarating experience so far. The 22kms climbs starts of easy, with everyone first-timer thinking “Oh, this isn’t too bad. This feels similar to the cat 3 climb I do back home, only longer”. But when the gradient clicks up as we enter the forest, one is always found gritting his/her teeth and grinding the granny gear for the next 9kms which average 9.5%. At the Chalet-Raynaert check point, the gradient “eases” back to 6% till the final 500m when it goes up to 11%.

The summit is at 1900m and is freezing cold. Surprisingly though, the 1.5hrs spent grinding up, went by like 15mins! With the head feeling not so taxed, I decided to ride the 90km journey back home. Passing through quaint French towns, riding in bike paths in the beautiful Provence forests, passing through the beautiful lavender fields and nearly passing out on the final cat 3 ascent back to my hotel room (With. The..Last kilometre…Never….Seeming…..to……end) made this day the second most memorable I’ve had on the bike.

Life's a climb, but the summit makes for a good photo-op!

The Racing:

“Yellow weather warning – Strong winds in the afternoon” was what accuweather.com reported the next day as I headed out to check out the course of my first race a couple of days later. “Well, at least it’s not red” - I said to myself and headed out to check out the two cat2 climbs in the course.
As I exited city limits, the wind gained speed and was rocking trees violently due to the force of the fiery winds. And the deeper I rode into the countryside, the harder the conditions were getting. As I exited the tree line, my bike was rocking violently.
I can't wait till I have grandchildren, “When I was youngster, training & racing in France, I rode up 7% climbs while facing headwinds of 50kmph! Headwinds, ya little brat! Did ya hear me, of 50kmph!”. Of course, I’m not gonna tell them I was doing so at 9kmph.

Came across this signboard while recceeing the course!

A quick recovery day which involved me nearly blacking out while skypeing my folks due to the tiredness later, I lined up for my first race at GP Puyloubier. When the Garmin displayed the temperature as 43 degrees at the start line, I knew I was in for a tough ride. The race was 5 laps of the 15.5 kms course with the headwind-cat-2 climb right at the beginning.
The heat plus the fatigue of the last few days resulted in me having one of the worst days on the bike and I got dropped before the start of the second lap. I returned my BIB numbers and was feeling less bad on seeing in lap 3 that there were only 15 or so riders remaining in the race from the 60 starters. “Onto the next” as my coach says.
Pinning on my numbers at Puyloubier. One of those days spent in the hurt locker.

Return to Ventoux:

I took advantage of the warm weather and plenty of climbs all around Aix-en-Provence and logged in 17.5hours of riding in the next six days. On my penultimate day of riding in France I headed to a race at Bedoin with my teammate David. If you are a bike racing geek like moi, you’d realize that Bedoin is the town at the base of Mt.Ventoux. That race involved a neutral zone around the base of the climb and then a race from the bottom to the top!

F: “hey man, how’s it goin?”
Me: “Who are you?”
F: “I’m fatigue. Just thought I’d catch up with ya”
Me: *Gulp*

In the neutral section, I felt like my legs were jelly but was pleasantly surprised on hearing that former Tour de France KOM winner Laurent Jalabert was also doing the race. Once the flag got dropped, David surged to the front and lifted the pace as he was aiming for a wind and PB that day. 3kms in - 

Me: “How long before I should drop from the front bunch to avoid a burnout?”
F: “3kms ago!!!”

I did drop back a few seconds later and saw 10-12 riders pass up ahead. In the second bunch, I was mildly distracted by my inner fan girl as Jalabert came up and began setting the pace. At the 5km mark, we enter the forest region and the gradient kicks up. I quickly found a good rhythm. Having changed into a bigger cassette than the last time, I was able to maintain a higher cadence of 70rpm! 

The next hour and 20minutes were spent being dropped by “Jaja”, then catching up with him before being dropped again and then catching up. Again.

The last 2kms, were more of a mental battle than a physical one as I struggled to fight away fatigue and lactic acid. With black spots appearing in the edge of my eyesight, I had trouble maintaining a proper line ascending. The recognizable lighthouse at the summit, was my northern star as sweat swept into my eyes and the sheer hurt spreading through all the neurons as I emptied the tank in the final 600 metres. I hit the lap button and a warmth of joy came about as I realised I had beat my previous timing by 5 whole minutes!

All's well that ends with a PB!

After the descent, my teammate suggested we do a 65-70km spin around the mountain as it was a beautiful place to ride. I signed up, wrongly assuming it would be flat. 11kms into the ride-

David: “this is where the first climb begins.”
Me (in horror): “There are climbs in this route? This is the first?”
David: “Yup, one cat1 climb and one cat2 climb”
5.5hrs, 3350m of elevation gain and 20mins spent in a bonk on the ascent up Mt. Ventoux from the rear, later, I finally made it to the parking lot where we had parked the car. After a quick lunch, it was back to the hotel.
On the last ride the next day, I took in the sights of Aix-en-Provence, which has been the most beautiful and the second hottest (Chennai tops the list) place I’ve ridden in so far.

Even the sky seemed breath-taking at "Aix"!
Packing my bike box and bags, I was a bit sad to say goodbye to the climbs and stunning scenery but was excited to head back into the comfortable bikepaths of Belgium and the madness of kermesse racing, both of which when used right ought to be the perfect preparation for the national championships scheduled for the 2nd week of November.

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