Update: You can now see the headcam video in HD on YouTube
Despite not being able to ride regularly for the past 2 months, I decided to enter a cyclosportive event around Marseille and the province of Bouches du Rhone. It’s a pretty big event apparently and you can chose which course you want to do: 164km, 136km, and 94km. I thought I’d do the 164km course because, well, I guess that’s just how I roll. We’ll just gloss over the fact that I haven’t done a single interval all year and I’ve only dipped into the anaerobic zone a few times. Due to previously mentioned mechanical difficulties, it wasn’t until 7pm the night before the race that the back-up parts arrived and I could get rolling again. After a quick test spin, preparation, dinner and relaxing, I set the alarm for 4am… just 3.5 hours away.
We drove in darkness under the stars past the beautiful villages of Ciotat and Cassis before arriving in Marseille for the event. The start was a little hectic – as expected – as 2500 cyclists tried to funnel from a parking lot onto a single-lane road. To make matters a little more confusing, everyone started at once regardless of the course they were set out to accomplish. You could even choose to change your course during the race if you felt like to wanted to pack it in early.
We climbed the fabled hills outside of Marseille under the dark early morning shadows of the limestone cliffs. Soon I glanced over my shoulder to see the city of Marseille illuminated in a hue of yellow while still climbing the darkened pitch. Suddenly the road turned sharply and we were immersed in orange sunlight that turned the surrounding cyclists into mere profiles on the horizon, casting beautiful shadows on the road in front of me.
It was a colorful group of cyclists especially at the beginning as some riders had a solid 5 minute head start and were set out to do shorter routes. There was a strong showing of women as well as older veterans. About 40 minutes into the ride, I did a double take as I saw a guy with a bionic leg. Pretty impressive.
Soon I grouped up with 3 or 4 guys who seemed strong. We rode together for a while as we maneuvered past several hundred cyclists. After about 40 miles I saw the first fork in the road, dividing us from the 94km participants. To my shock, one of the strongest guys turned off… “Geez, his day is almost done!” I thought. “I didn’t get up at 4am to be finished by 10!” Three of us continued, staying together for the most part. Then we came upon another fork in the road as I was doing a pull at the front. I turned off onto a small road for the 164km route and glanced over my shoulder. Everyone behind me continued straight ahead and were quickly out of view. I was the only one on the road.
“Did I miss the turn? Maybe the sign meant ‘turn right at the next round-about’ instead of ‘turn right NOW’…” After a few hundred meters I looked over my shoulder again to see a large cluster of 6 or 7 guys. It was clear at this point that the roads would no longer be full of cyclists. The 164km course was definitely not the most popular loop. I learned after the race that only about 8% of all riders do the 164k loop when I looked over the results from 2009. About 1300 do the 94km loop, 550 do the 136km loop and then there are about 250 wayward cyclists who are deranged enough to think that bigger is always better. Oh well, time to get comfortable because our loop was just entering the base of a 14km climb!
The roads were much more lonely now and it was getting hard to mentally keep a high pace. The roads snaked their way through the valley as I gazed up at the majestic mountains that towered above. The long course was not just long, but relentless. We climb over this mountain pass that rises 2000 feet then do a loop on the other side, then climb over the same damn mountain again from the opposite side! Yup, time to get comfortable… or something like that.
I noticed 2 cyclists about 400 meters up the road and tried to catch them. Of course, 400m looks like a short distance but it’s several minutes at climbing speeds like these. I tried to get a good song or something in my head. Some old Offspring or something would be perfect. I always did well in MTB races 10 years ago when I had Offspring playing in my head… I could only remember a few lines though and just repeated it over and over, but it helped…
“Live fast cause if you don’t take it, you’ll never make it!
Live like there’s no tomorrow
Ain’t gonna waste this life
There’s no tomorrow – you ain’t gonna live it for me…”
– Offspring “Youth Energy”
Then again, maybe that beat and amped lyrics are better suited for a 90 minute mountain bike race or crit… It was a lost cause anyway. You can’t control songs that play in your head. They play organically. So soon my awesome tune got interrupted with some sort of lame whooshy pop song from the radio that I hate. Damn it.
I finally caught up and passed the 2 guys and descended down the back side of the mountain. I realized that the Garmin is a pretty big advantage when descending hairpin mountain roads by zooming in on the map so you can see exactly how tight the blind curve that is rapidly approaching really is. I’ve been doing this all year but it’s just more for safety when I’m riding in new places… but in a race, you can save a bit of time. If the road makes a 150° turn on the GPS screen, I really slow down and take it easy. However, sometimes it looks like it’s going to be a big turn but the GPS map shows that it’s just a little squiggle… so I put faith in the Garmin gizmo and pedal through the corner at full speed. I wondered if Team Garmin Transitions had an advantages in some of the descents in the grand tours…
It was getting a bit lonely on this side of the mountain. Even the roads were open to traffic… a testament to how few of us were actually riding this section. Suddenly myself and one other guy were riding through a village and were directed onto a small farm road. It was a bit rough and got very narrow. A sign read, “Sommet: 6km”. I knew the elevation of the summit was around 2400 feet so I liked to gauge the progress with my current altitude since these “Sommet” signs were too few and far between. My computer said the current elevation was 1200 feet. This meant that in less than 4 miles it was going to climb 1200 feet! “Geez, this is going to be steep!”
True to form, the farm road pitched upwards. I dug down to ask my legs for a little more power. The response was just a horrible feeling like a vice clamping down on my entire thigh; both the quadriceps and the hamstring muscles were cramping up in chorus. I backed off immediately and a jolt of alertness came over me as if I just sat on a tack… I took some deep breaths while pedaling softly (or as softly as one can up a 13% grade) in an attempt to flood my muscles with more oxygen to flush the lactic acid way.
After the clamping sensation passed, I tried again to add a little power, just 10% more this time… again the clamp began to bite down. Although all my gears worked, I now only had a single-speed. The guy I was riding with pulled away from me. I had to let him go. I suffered alone on the heavily forested road that was no wider than a single car… just managing and moving forward.
100 meters from the summit a guy pulled up beside me. I tried to keep pace but it was no use. My muscles weren’t even up to the task of working hard enough to make me breath hard. It was clear that the final 50 miles would just be a cruise to the finish. The grade finally dropped below 10% and I thought I could coast for a split second to regroup… oawwwwwWW… nope, NOT pedaling was NOT an option either.
During the long descent I was fine unless the road turned hard to the left, as I could not leave my right leg extended to properly make a left turn without it cramping up. It got real bad on a long hairpin turn and I thought I might cramp up to the point that I can’t brake free from the vice’s grip. A guy caught me just at that point. He probably thought I had a severe lack of descending skills…
The final “big” climb is probably my least favorite stretch of road of all-time. It only climbs 750 feet or so but it’s long and straight and there is always a 20-30mph headwind. In fact, if it was a mild downhill section, it would still be as slow as mud due to the wind kicking up from the Mediterranean. It’s a beautiful stretch of road though and many tourists love it, but not me. I got to know this section well when we were in Marseille 6 weeks ago. It sucked then. It was worse today with even a stronger wind. I knew we were close to the finish but I had nothing left and the wind was not a big motivation booster. I stayed with a group of 4 guys but on several occasions wanted to let them go and limp home… I had to convince myself that it would be worse being alone in this wind.
We were now reintegrated with riders who did the 136km course. I passed one guy who appeared to be a 136 guy who then passed me a minute later. “You wouldn’t be so spry if you had done that damn *@&%#! climb and 28 extra kilometers!” I thought to myself. I’m sure he was a nice guy, but those are the thoughts that enter your head on a windy uphill slog with no end in sight.
I finally got to the finish was pretty happy that I was able to thread-the-needle with my effort and not enter into a perpetual catatonic cramp that would have prevented me from riding. My GF was happy to see me finish but was a bit surprised… “I was beginning to think I was waiting for the last guy!” She didn’t realize that so few of us completed the ‘Grande Boucle’ and most people had done much less. As it turned out, I managed 110th place out of 270 overall finishers with a time of 5:44.01 and 24th out of guys in their 30’s. Not too terrible considering I had a good pace only the first 50 miles.. and then just rode along for the final 50. Perhaps without the cramping and having to let some guys go, I might have been able to cut 10 or 12 minutes off to get into the 80’s which is where a lot of guys I was riding with ended up… but the winner was 4:39… really? 104 miles with almost 10,000 feet of climbing in 4:39… and they had to sprint at the end for the victory??? Wow. Chapeau!
At the cafeteria-style lunch, a nice lady in charge of handing out the bread gave me one piece of baguette but then hesitated on the second…
“Voulez-vous un cul?” she asked.
“Pardonez-moi?” I said, wrinkling my forehead. “Le…quoi?”
She smiled, probably noticing my foreigner status, and explained to me with great joy and enthusiasm that “le cul de la baguette” is the hard end piece. Some people like it, some people would rather have the softer middle.
“Ahh! Bien sur! J’adore le cul!”
Yes, it’s a bit harder than the others, but sometimes you just want something you can bite down hard on and find satisfaction in the struggle.