As I write this I’m half way between London and Washington DC. It’s two weeks, almost to the minute, before I’m due to collapse in an exhausted, but deeply satisfied heap at the top of L’Alpe d’Huez and, frankly, it’s starting to get a little bit too real.
It’s on that I haven’t made progress in the last 9 months- less than a month ago I’d never ridden 100 miles and I’ve now done it twice. The first time was over a course that involved 7,000 feet of climbing, the second just under 10,000. That’s roughly half and two-thirds respectively of what we’ll face when we leave Gap.
And everyone tells me that, although they feel infinitely longer, the climbs on the Etape won’t be as steep as they were on the Circuit of Cotswolds, where the gradients twice headed beyond 25% for sustained periods.
Anything over about 18% is somewhat academic for me – an extra couple of degrees doesn’t matter much when you’re walking – but what the two centuries proved to me is that I can climb 5-15% all daywithout much difficulty (or, to be fair, much if any speed…).
The cut-off times don’t look too bad, either – in spite of RCUK’s attempts to terrify us by actually describing the climbs... I crawled around the 105 mile Circuit of the Cotswolds course in eight and a half hours and the time limit on the Etape will allow me two hours to do the extra seven miles. Which seems about right.
So, the riding’s not worrying me too much. And the bike’s almost in final spec. As supplied by Wilier the Le Roi was a very nice handling – if slightly harsh riding – pro-quality aluminium frame and carbon fork, with pretty decent road racing components – Ritchey RCS stem and bars, carbon seatpost and Campagnolo Record everywhere. The Conti GP 3000s had been well used, so they were replaced with a pair of 20mm GP 4000s, which was a mistake and then with an Attack/Force pair which seem to have improved the already impressive handling.
Unfortunately, the bikes were in Dutch classics configuration with a 52-39 chainring on the front and an 11-23 cassette on the back which wasn’t going to get 15 and a half stone of fat forty year old up an alp in a month of Sundays, let alone 10 and a half hours.
Initially, I toyed with fitting a triple but that would have meant new front and rear mechs and a new bottom bracket, so I opted for a compact chainset. Of course, Campag only does the compact cranks for the top-end gruppos in carbon, so I opted for the somewhat cheaper but only fractionally heavier Chorus version. A couple of hundred winter miles with some dirty overshoes and the logo will be sanded off anyway…
The theory is that you need a new front mech for the CT cranks to cope with the 50-34 chainring difference, but Adrian managed to get it to work fine. Which was a shame because I’d already ordered the CT front mech and was just waiting for it to arrive.
I did my first century on the first drivetrain revision and it was fine but I didn’t feel I had a lot in reserve with the sprockets I had on there. So I bit the bullet and bought a 13-29 cassette – which required a new rear mech.
After about 35 miles on the Circuit of the Cotswolds I was riding along chatting to a guy who commented on how much easier the course was than he’d been expecting – just gentle rolling countryside. I was about to ask him if he was joking when the road turned left onto a single track road and went straight up. Half way up the second part of the climb I pulled a muscle in my calf which I had to nurse the rest of the way round. By 45 miles any gradient longer than a sleeping policemen had me reaching for that 29 tooth sprocket. And, if I’m honest, I was tempted on a couple of the more challenging speed bumps. But even in that state got to the 25% hill at about the 60 mile mark before admitting defeat and walking what I naively assumed would be about half of it (it turned out to be more like 90%...)
With about 12 miles ago I was chatting to a rider from Royal Sutton CC who seemed indecently fresh, but was pleasantly surprised to find that he did 3 or 4 of these things a year and that he’d only left about 20 minutes after me. I was somewhat less chuffed when he admitted he’d stopped off for lunch…
So, replacing the drivetrain and losing a stone in weight have both helped – as have the miles I’ve put in. On the one hand, the miles I’ve managed are far less than everyone tells me I need but, on the other, far more than I’ve ever ridden before. And they’re going to have to be enough now. There are two weeks to go. I plan to lose another half a kilo (by fitting a pair of lightweight wheels – with my diary for the next two weeks they’re only likely to offset the body weight I’m going to add back on…) but there’s not much more I’m going to be able to do in terms of miles.
Tomorrow and Wednesday I’m at a conference in the US and then flying home. Thursday I’m off to see a client in France. Friday I have a morning meeting and might manage to squeeze a short mountain bike ride in during the afternoon and maybe a club 10 in the evening; Saturday I have commitments with the kids all day; Sunday I’m photographing a mountain bike event. Let’s be generous and call that cross training… I usually have to scramble up the odd dirt bank loaded down with equipment.
Monday I have meetings all day, Tuesday I might, just, get to Hillingdon to practice at the pace I’m going to need for the first 50k of the Etape. Wednesday I’m running a training course; Thursday I might get a ride in during the morning and then in the afternoon I fly to Geneva, flying back on Friday night to photograph a track race on Saturday morning, then flying out to Lyon on Saturday evening to get to our Etape HQ (a field with a tent in). If I manage a gentle 30 miles or so on the Sunday after signing on (and before the World Cup final…) I’ll have squeezed in 65 miles in a fortnight. Hardly ideal preparation, but when I look back on how stupid the whole idea was in the first place; on the series of colds and chest infections that kept me off the bike almost completely from the beginning of November to the end of January and on how much further, how much faster and how much, erm, uphiller I can ride now compared to nine months ago I’m confident I’ll be getting to the top of d’Huez on my Wilier, not in the back of the bus. I just hope my team mates are waiting at the summit with a cold beer.