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Tuesday, 26 June 2012

QBH ride report; 'Racing' a Sportive....

This is a ride report post Quebrantahuesos (QBH) which we did as a group of 9 from the Bespoke Clan.  Tony, Ollie and Ben DG took all the bikes down in a van as they wanted to return laden with wine. As such when Ben and I flew to Zaragoza on Wednesday it was just with hand luggage – amazingly civilised. We were met by our hosts for the event, John Fegan and his team from TraininSpain who would look after us throughout the trip. The drive to the host town of Jaca took 90 mins. As we got closer to Jaca the mountains started to appear in the distance, and the butterflies started!

Ben and I met up with the Bespoke van crew on later that evening and had a very late dinner. The other 4 riders (Paddy, Philip, Ian and Harry) were flying into Barcelona on Friday and then driving up themselves. I think poor John was bemused by the antics of the Bespoke clan and our multiple modes of entry into Spain!

The Thursday was very relaxed and none of the locals had descended into the town yet. However Friday was a different matter and the town was mobbed with very serious looking locals all riding in matching team kit. The bike porn quotient was very high indeed - Boras, Lighweights and Zipps were everywhere. Everyone also seemed to ride a size 52 with a slammed stem as well. I felt like a giant and thought what the hell am I doing taking on these waifs at their own game?

5'6 and tanned vs 6'2 and pale in a Spanish mountain sportive????
Their weekend rides involve the Tourmalet, mine involve Toys Hill in Kent
They can descend at 80kmh whilst putting a gilet on - I have still not quite mastered riding with no hands in a straight line
All of a sudden this seemed a very stupid idea….

Pre race shake-down ride. I could live here very happily indeed

The event itself is a huge deal in Spain. Its 205km long and goes over three Cat 1 climbs for a total ascent of 3500m. Compared to the Marmotte or some Etapes its probably a tad longer in distance, but with “only” 60-70% of the climbing. There are c 9000 riders, but there is a ballot system as over 30,000 usually apply. So everyone who is there is really up for it, and all the local clubs take it seriously and even set up their own water and feed stops on the route so their riders don’t have to stop and waste time. Very PRO. As a side note thats why using an operator such as Traininspain is vital - we side-stepped the ballot and were given guaranteed slots.

This was the first Euro sportive I have done since 2007 (the interim period is known as the Ironman wilderness years).
The big difference from previous events was that we went as a group, and I was riding with my loyal domestique Ben Hallam.  I was really looking forward to riding with him (in 12 months of working together we have never actually been on the same road at the same time!).
This was only the third sportive he had ever done, and would be the longest. But given the fact he is an ex-Pro cyclist and I am not, I was hoping he would be gentle with me.
The Gold Standard for my age group was 7.55, but I was told by one of the Traininspain party who had done it before that sub-7 was considered a good time. So that was the secret goal. Ben said he would ride hard for as long as he could, but given he has hardly been riding this year (too many weekend bike-fitings!) he was unsure how long he would last. His speciality was on the track, so he is very much a fast twitch explosive rider. 200km would be a great test for us both.

My form has been all over the place this year. Work has been manic (a good thing) and with two little boys under two the motivation (and ability) to do more than 3 hrs on a weekend is very limited. My usual ride partner, Dean, has been flying this year and I have not, and I have been getting a regular kicking from him. However the last month has seen an improvement and I have been feeling better. I have also started doing some sessions with Ben who has got me using my glutes far more in the pedal stroke and also worked on my core so I no longer get massive lower back pain on longer rides. The changes are measurable and its the best I have felt on a bike in a while - I just wish I had started in November and not May!  Apparently I posted the fastest time on a sportive last weekend, ‘beating’ the second fastest time by 20 mins. So the form is coming back, and I was cautiously optimistic especially when we realized it would be a hot day but not scorching.

At the start - wishing I had brought arm warmers !

The start was the usual bun fight. The first 2000 places are for seeded riders who have posted  good previous times, and they are in separate pens with the rest of us mortals started at the back. There was also a distinct form of Spanish queuing going on, so it seemed ages before we started after the official cannon went off at 7.30am (looking back it was actually 7 mins before we crossed the start line).
As such we never got to ride with the really quick riders as they were well up the road before we had even started. 

An Idiot Abroad: Season Three

If you look closely you can just about see the blue banner which was the start line

The start was absolutely bedlam. One minute we were slightly chilly at the start and then next we were doing 50 km/h. Ben told me to stick on his wheel and he was going to get us through the field. It was amazing to watch, as he would  go through a gap I could not even see and then if a group was going to slow we would simply go through them– pretty cool when the passed group was itself doing 45 kmh ! Like a good surfer checking out the waves, he would also be constantly studying the road and all of a sudden we would go onto the hard shoulder to catch another fast moving group. Although we were flying I felt very safe - it felt like being a pro and being looked after by a loyal lieutenant.

I had not been feeling great all week –so much so that on 2 days before we did a climb and my HR was at 170 and I was getting dropped. I hoped it was down to travel, lack of sleep and a bit too much to drink! However it was enough to spook me, and so on the big day I did not wear a HR monitor at all –I was scared if my heart rate was too high it would start to freak me out, and instead I decided ignorance was bliss and that I would be guided by the force.

30 km into the ride and I felt knackered – my legs were really heavy and I thought we had gone out far too hard and the whole day was going to be a disaster. Whilst I enjoyed trying to follow Ben’s wheel I also found it quite stressful – you could not really daydream like I seem to do on these events !
I then told Ben to slow down and had abandoned all hopes of a good time – simply getting round would be the goal.

Luckily the first climb (Somport) was about to start, and as soon as we were going uphill my legs warmed up and felt great. Ben and I were riding tempo, so a reasonable effort but still talking to each other, and we simply carved through the field. It was a very cool feeling to be dropping locals on their own mountain. As we turned a hairpin it flattened out to a plateau and there was a TV helicopter above filming the event. As Ben said, if that did not inspire you you might as well get off the bike now…….

On the recce of the Somport (when I had my high HR disaster) we noticed a few quite steep ramps. But on race day we did not feel them at all – it was weird  how easy the climb was. As soon as the gradient slackened we would click down a gear and press on, which always bodes well for the days ride.
Before we knew it we were at the top of the Somport and I stopped for water.

58 km in and I looked at my Garmin and we had been riding for 1.39. I was told to break 7hrs you should be there in 1.50 so we were well ahead of that and then we got the bit between our teeth.
In PRO style, locals were given out newspapers to put under your jersey – something Ben and I were happy to take given we had no Gilet or Arm warmers and there was lots of cloud as we looked over into France.
Team Bespoke - I am desperately trying to keep Ben in sight as he descends
In the UK I consider myself a reasonable descender, but am happy to concede I am very slow compared to the Euros. So much so that Ben predicted he thought he could put 15 mins into me on the descents alone in a big mountain sportive. I said at high speeds (75Kmh plus) I start to think about my family and what the hell am I doing this for. Ben said you cannot think like that if you want to be a good descender. I said that I do and I cannot help it. He said you must not - and back and forth it went.  Oh to be single, carefree and talented.....
The plan was Ben would push on the descents and freewheel at the bottom of the climb until I joined him. I was doing 75 kmh and still dozens of people passed me. A guy actually screamed passed me as he was getting arm warmers from his pocket and simply steering the bike by gripping the top tube with his knees.

However the descent passed in a blur and at the bottom I was really pleased when Ben was smiling and shouting encouragement and said he had hardly waited at all at the bottom (a lie I am sure designed to build my confidence). The descent was actually chilly as we descended into France and in the valley it was overcast. This thrilled Ben who shouted “perfect weather for a ginger person”. That was his catalyst to get us to push on and we made good progress through the valley.

Soon we were at the bottom of the Marie Blanque, which I had heard horrible things about from Ollie. Its basically pretty easy for 5km and then a grind for the last 4. There are no switchbacks to break it up either - its pretty much straight up. Although we had made great progress we were amazed how many people were still ahead of us – thouands it seemed.
Once again the same pattern emerged -  as soon as the climb started Ben and I pushed on and went passed people who seemed to be grinding quite alarmingly. It was great to have enough gears to spin up – as such it felt we were in control of our speed, unlike so many climbs when it dictates your pace to you. However, just when I was getting cocky, sure enough the last 4 km sucked, and I was soon in my 28 and very much feeling a touriste…..

At the top of Marie Blanque is 105 km, so we gone done half way (if not quite half the climbing). Time was 3.08 so we were making great progress. It was certainly hot, but it never felt as stifling as I have experienced in previous events.
The descent off Marie Blanque was crazy fast, but by now the adrenaline was flowing and whilst I was still getting passed, it was far less frequently.

The middle bump is Marie Blanque and thus c. half way. But we had the Portalet to go and that can break you if you have gone too hard too soon

The valley run in was uneventful except for the fact Ben and I were doing through and off and pulling a group of 30 locals for large sections. When we flicked the elbow to get them to pull though they didn’t, so Ben gave them a total bollocking and some of the stronger boys eventually came to the front.  I have never been so proud of him, especially when he was taking massive pulls at the front doing 48 kmh.

Everyone who had done the event said that the last climb, the Portalet, would make or break the ride. In our pre ride briefing the day before John Fegan had repeated this, and said show it some respect as if you have gone too hard beforehand you will soon know!
Its 28km at 5% - so plenty of time to blow if you had gone out too hard. Sure enough as we turned into the start of the climb Ben shouted to me “these f*kers have blown – if we push on they will go bang”. It was brilliant – Ben is so chilled out at work, but I was seeing how on a bike his strong competitive edge comes through.

Before the event Tony had shown me an iPhone video he had taken of his little three year old boy Lucas dancing to the song 'Titanium' (don't worry I had not heard of it either). Anyway it builds into a crescendo and the little man is getting super excited. Tony is shouting 'wait....wait' and little Lucas is shouting "Now daddy, now". The song then goes mental and Lucas starts jumping around manically.
So that video inspired the trip catch-phrase and at the start of every climb Ben and I would shout "wait, wait" and then accelerate shouting "now daddy now". What fun we had - the locals thought we had been in the sun too long.

As we shouted 'now daddy, now' we clicked down some gears and pushed on, and sure enough after 5 mins thirty riders became two.

We met another Brit on the climb, who was also part of the TraininSpain crew. I had not had a chance to speak to him in great depth, but on race day I noticed he had a Rapha Cent Col Challenge jersey on, so I knew he would be tidy on the climbs and we agreed to work together as a three. After 5kms of tempo riding Ben suddenly said to me –“you to need to push on I’ve blown”. I said no, I would wait for you but he said to crack on otherwise all that pulling on the flat and the scary descents would have been for nothing. I climbed another 2 km and then there was a water stop which I pulled into to wait. After a couple of mins I could not see him, so decided to carry on as I know what its like to feel pressured to ride at someone elses pace when you are not 100%. Besides I knew we had a big descent  to come where Ben would take masses of time out of me.

The Portalet might now be my favourite climb in the world. Its long, but not really steep, so you can really attack it if you are feeling good. Some parts of it actually flatten out so I was out of the saddle and into the big ring feeling like a rock star. I caught up with a skinny looking local and we worked together for almost 12 km. That’s why I love cycling – we had nothing in common apart from a mutual interest in grafting for each other.  The last 3 kms of the climb are exposed and there were thousands of spectators – a real carnival atmosphere. By now I had realized I had run out of water and food and was beginning to suffer for the first time in the entire ride. Fingers tingling, light head – yep that’s right I am about to bonk.
There were loads of club team supporters at the side of the road giving their riders food and drink, and even team cars on the course. Super PRO – but none of them had any interest in giving drinks to a pale Scotsman.

However a young boy pulled a can of ice cold coke out of a cooler and gave to me. Now this boy was in no way affiliated with the event – merely out for a fun day with his family and he was giving me food and drink they had bought especially for riders. I LOVE THIS EVENT.
Massses of crowds at the summit, so it would be rude not to get out of the saddle and pretend it was easy. I was told its 1.15 from here to the finish, so you had to be there by 5.45 to break 7hrs.
I was there in 5.18. This is on........

The descent was outrageously quick – masses of road space so very safe but quite exposed and I was a bit concerned my deep wheels my get blown about. I daren’t look at my speedo, but afterwards so I had done 89kmh – a record for me.
Is that a smile or a grimace?

The descent flattened out and a group of 10 of us formed. I was desperate to hold onto their wheel as this would be my ride in to the finish. However I bottled it going through one of the 2 tunnels and lost their wheels. I was furious with myself as I was all alone now and we had a flat section and then a small sting in the tail climb to go. By now I was properly bonking and was desperate for a group to hide in. No such luck. Eventually I hit the last climb, Hoz which is 8% for 2kms and suddenly felt very very hot indeed.

I have just put some Rotor Q rings on the bike which I love (I find its made my pedal stroke much more powerful as I can get into the power phase much quicker than before). However the instructions do say to ride for 500kms to adapt as it will use different muscles. Instead I had only done one previous ride on them and on the climb to Hoz all of a sudden I got the most outrageous cramps on the inner sides of both legs. I had never had this before – it was surreal.
Looking at my implied power numbers from Strava (I am such a geek) and this where I really suffered and lost a lot of time. I did the 3 big climbs at c 280 watts, but could only do 233 for this little one. The summit could not come quick enough.

There was a feed station at the top which  pre-race Ben and I had both agreed we would not stop at given its less than 25 km (most of which is downhill) to go.
Alas desperate times call for desperate measures, and I stopped and wolfed down two cups of coke in a desperate attempt to get sugar into the system. I knew the hard work was done, but there were a few cheeky hills which really stung after 180kms.

The last climb up Hoz - by now legs were on fire

As we came off the Col we looked down to a beautiful reservoir on the right hand side and I could see a group of 10 riders ahead of me . I dug in with all I had – 52/11 and absolutely killed myself to get their wheel. I eventually got there and then the road straightened and we were on the main road back to the finish. I saw we had 15km to go and we were motoring at 45km. It was a great feeling, everyone was working and taking pulls and there was a general feeling of satisfaction as everyone knew they were on easy street now. As a side note I am convinced this is why all our legs felt so good the next day – we had time to flush out the toxins. None of this finishing on Alpe D’Huez nonsense.

I knew I was on for a good time as everyone in my group had an orange jersey number and they were all below number 500. My number (9017) stood out like a sore thumb. As we turned into the finishing straight everyone sprinted for the line but I was happy to leave them well alone and crossed alone to a time of 6.23 which I was thrilled with.  Someone said I was the second non local (behind another Traininspain rider). The winning time was 5.44 and the guy who finished second was an ex Pro who served a ban for EPO.
Most importantly the winning ladies time was 6.30 so I did not get chicked !

13 minutes later Ben finished with a cracking time of 6.36. The man is a hero of mine. He had an eventful time as well. After I left him, he slowed right down and got as much food and drink down him as he could. We figured I put 20 mins into him on the climb but he clawed lots back on the fast descent. On the wicked fast section 20km to go from the the finish he was bored with pulling his group so bridged solo to the next group. I simply have no idea how strong you need to be after 180km to ride 20 people off of your wheel. The mind simply boggles.

The 7 other Bespoke riders had a great day out as well and posted cracking times with Tony and Ollie getting Golds as well, and the other lads getting silvers. A special mention must go out to my man Ben De Groot (whom I did Challenge Henley Ironman with last year).  This was his first ever sportive, and first time he had ever climbed (and descended) a mountain. Every night we were in Spain he and Tony would be in the bar till 1am and they had missed Friday’s shakedown ride as he was the worse for wear (he denies he was hungover - and Tony said that when Ben goes to bed he does not sleep, he is merely planning the next evening's entertainment). Ben had caused a huge outcry amongst the fellow hotel guests as he was seen smoking outside. A cyclist smoking?!  But as Ben said, everyone tapers differently……

Big bad Ben - crushing Spanish dreams one pedal stroke at a time

Despite this non-conventional training  approach he posted a fairly staggering time of 8.23 to get a Silver. Somewhere (deep) inside his body is some athlete waiting to get out. He told me to put on the blog it must have been the Parlee Z5 he was riding, and he would be happy to write a testimonial to that effect! It was great having people who so obviously viewed this as a bike ride AND a holiday. We will never win these events, so lets just have some fun whilst we take our precious holiday.

Ollie - took on the Marie Blanque for a second time and this time won, on his way to a cracking Gold time

Tony decided to go local and put as many layers on as possible.

Harry had his bike stolen recently and had to hire a bike for the event. We picked it up in Spain, and this was the first fitting Ben has ever done that involved  riding up and down a hotel corridor as he raised the saddle in 5mm increments.

Ian is a very big fan of the bike-fisting service we offer at BPL

Paddy attacking out of the saddle. He was wearing white shorts and there was all sorts of witty banter at dinner the night before about going easy on the shellfish

As an avid Chelsea fan Philip has fond memories of Barcelona. So much so that on this trip he decided not to return with the others but instead spend an extra night there…..

Because the event was not as savage as some of the French ones, everyone felt great afterwards and after a cheeky ‘pro kip’ we were ready to go to dinner. Ben De Groot and Tony (who else) had become firm friends with a local barman, Pancho, and we went to his bar for mountains of tapas and then steaks washed down by some lovely Magnums of Rioja. You have no idea how much food 9 starving cyclists can eat.

Pancho's bar. 

What made the evening even better was the fact that Spain were playing France that day and given the French border is only 50kms away there was a cracking atmosphere. After Spain one we went into the main square and drank cocktails into the early hours of the morning.  A fabulous end to a fabulous day.

The day after the ride we drove back to airport and stopped to have one last look at the amazing scenery

I started writing this report on the plane and already planning my return.  Its simply the best event I have ever done. Hard enough to be a real challenge, but not so hard (Marmotte anyone?) that its just a slog.

Speaking to Ben at the finish line and you could see he had a real gleam in his eye. He told me that was as close to racing as he had felt in years, and it had awakened something in him. In the bar after the event, when all the war stories were flashing, we plotted how we could do a better time next year.

Ben still thinks I am too quad dominant (hence back ache) and says my glutes need strengthening. The Rotor Q Rings definitely help, but its much better to improve the body than throw money at kit (and this is a retailer talking!).
He thinks purely by making these bio-mechanical changes he can improve my threshold power by 20-30 watts. So thats not training harder, or doing lots of intervals. Thats simply pedaling better…. 
Also, if I improve my core strength I won't tire so much at the end of the ride, so what little power I have left after 6hrs is not wasted.
Interestingly at the Col de Marie Blanque my elapsed ride time was 3.09 and the winner was there in 3.01. So we were only 8 mins behind at the half way stage….

However the winner pulled out a further 31 mins into me on the second half and that is because I slowed down far more than he did. You can blag a shorter ride, but these 200km events are savage and will find out any weakness you have.
So masses to work on, and am really excited to see what gains I can make. Now if only I could find a Performance Lab that offered all these services under one roof……..

If (when!) we return we would be seeded riders which means we will start with quick boys.  That means the trains will be quicker, and you will be climbing in smaller groups with less queues at the feed stops. If I can 'grow a pair' on the descents and simply train smarter (thats a different blog piece but I am convinced sessions with Ben doing core work and peddling bio-mechanic sessions will be the best time I will have ever spent improving my cycling) I think you could get close to the really pointy end of this event. At long last those winter rides will now have a purpose…..

I probably spent more time writing this report than I did riding the event! So well done if you managed to read it all. If I can say one last thing:


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