Quebrantahuesos ~ UCI Round 4
Unlike the Marmotte where I never saw a single one of the furry little creatures, here you see hundreds of them.
These five foot tall birds with the wing spans of truck, circle you constantly as they glide the Pyrenean updrafts. Very disconcerting.
The Admin bit...
To the race, and the classic climbs of the Tour of Aragon.
Turn up the day before the event and it's 38 degrees. Finding shade and drinking enough fluids is my main concern. I follow the crowds to the local sports hall, sign on and get my numbers and goodies.
On display are the medals and trophies to be awarded after tomorrows race. I hope I don't win one because I don't think I could lift one up if I did. Looking around me at all the slim, tanned, 50 kilo five foot riders signing on I think the chances are low.
Good, one less thing to worry about. I can now sleep soundly. After hearty meal at least.
Five, four, two,
After a hotel booking fiasco I wont bore you with, I arrived at the race with moments to spare. Already in my race kit, I stopped the car put the front wheel in the bike put on my helmet just as three official looking cars went screaming past at what seemed 100 mph.
There were crowds, police and spectators everywhere and somehow I found myself on the course about 400 metres after the official rendezvous. Then a commissaire's car went past just as I was putting my helmet on and five seconds later all hell broke loose as the biggest peloton you've ever seen came screaming towards us.
I dived on the bike and started pedalling, somehow found a gap and held my breath as we sped through the narrow streets of the town at 30 mph.
It's 8:00 am, the first kilometre of a 205 kilometre event, I'm at my anaerobic threshold, my heart is already at 195 bpm (my max is 234) and I haven't had my pre-event wee! It's going to be a long day. Luckily the temperature is around 20 degrees. Time to settle in.
I fight to stay in the top 50 to 100 as we head out on to the motorway that will take us to the Puerto de Somport. The first 20 kilometres are neutralised, if 25 mph can be called neutralised. There are police cars and bikes everywhere. Half French and half Spanish. Other bikes have photographers going up and down the line taking your photo. The atmosphere is electric.
At one point I look back to see the longest line of riders ever. Fifteen wide spread across the motorway and as far back as the eye can see. It's possible to lose or gain 50 places in the blink of an eye as riders puncture or move line causing others to brake and gaps to open.
Unlike the previous race in Italy, everyone stays upright as we get to the base of the first mountain.
Steady the Ship
At 1640 metres the Somport is big. I know this, because I drove over it the day before to get to the event.
I try to climb with the leaders who are just riding within my limits. At 16 kilometres and 5% it's a long drag and it starts getting chilly. But I ride well and at one of the flatter sections half way up I put on my gilet.
I can see clouds ahead and I think we're going to be riding through them. As we get nearer the summit, I can see we will. Becasue I can't see the top. If that makes any sense.
The descent is unbelievable, on the drive over I'd already marked out where I thought I could top 50 mph but in the rain and fog? Is that wise?
As we reached the top I could hear cow bells ringing and crowds cheering. I'm still in the first hundred or so and don't appear to be suffering too much from the manic start.
Two Spanish team mates come past and I jump on their wheel. We come around the corner and can see the customs post at the summit.
There must be 2,000 spectators here! The noise is unbelievable and the temperature gauge, on the Customs Shed, is reading 2 degrees. It's so cold that there's condensation on my eyebrows and can only see about 10 metres in front of me. The hill is getting Lobster Pot (a stupidly steep hill in Jersey) steep but the wall of sound from the people keeps you going.
everyone's standing behind the camera!
The two riders I'm with are obviously locals as everyone is cheering them on, either that or they've mistaken me for someone good.
As we reach the top a youngster passes me a newspaper. A quick "gracias" and it's up the jersey, a swig of a drink, ignore the first feed station and hit the descent with a mission.
Hang on to your
Now. The bit between the Spanish customs point and the French one, about a kilometre away, has to be rougher than any cobbled road I've ever ridden; and I've ridden a few.
Somehow I survive the massive pot holes, the ice and the washboard roads while forcing myself not to brake. Once through the French side we hit the twisty bits. Marshals are standing at all the danger points with flares and torches marking the edge of the road. The fog is getting worse but at least they are prepared.
I descend as fast as I can making up places everywhere. These Spanish riders may be able to climb, but downhill?
Just as I'm about to turn in to a big wide hairpin, I hear the tell-tale, gripless, swishing of rubber sliding across tarmac.
I look under my shoulder and there's someone totally out of control skidding to oblivion. I straighten my bike and head wide with the brakes full on just as matey hits the deck and slides under my front wheel. I can see his shorts being ripped from his bum and notice he's Italian. From his kit, not his bum!
He's the one and only person all year to overtake me downhill. As his back wheel passes under me, I turn in and continue uninterrupted but relieved.
It's now a 30 k flat out scream to the foot of the formidable Marie Blanque. As we approach the foot, although still in thick fog. A group of around 30 of us has formed and I'm fighting to stay in the top six.
In front of us in the fog we can hear all sorts of shouts in many tongues. Everyone eases instinctively but no one brakes. Then it's mayhem...
Running alongside us to our left are two spooked horses. This isn't good. The road is now opened to traffic. We're doing 25 mph, slightly downhill, in thick fog, on roads we don't know and we've somehow formed in to single file as these horses run at our shoulder with nostrils flaring and horse spit everywhere.
Horses are like women, some have a mind of their own and can become unpredictable ~ someone said.
We approach a sharp bend and the horses begin to just ease back as they become uneasy about the cliff face to our left and the low wall and river to our right. In the blink of an eye I decide to go, just as two other riders get the same idea. We sprint for this bend like it's the finish line on the Champs Elysees.
Somehow we get in, scrub off speed and get round, give ourselves a smug grin and get back to work.
I suffered on the Marie Blanque like I've never suffered before. Everyone in the world overtook me. It was a disaster; and I'm only at the half way mark. This "hill" is a baby compared to the Portalet to follow, so I'd better recover and recover quick.
Determined not to stop I pass the water station, grab a bottle and drink it's contents. I throw a gel down my throat and grind out in my lowest gear for another half hour. What a mess. The crowd at the top give me a lift and spirits rise as I eat on the descent and at least start to feel half human again.
Then comes my next big mistake. I change down to too low a gear too early on the Portalet. Spooked by it's 1800 metre peak and 29 kilometre climb I over compensate (or whimp out, depending on your view) and end up climbing like a novice.
All those I passed descending the Marie Blanque come past me again, and all those that never passed me before now get the chance. As we reach the top I'm sure I'm in last place.
I decide I'm not going to stop at feed stations. Just grab what I can, fill my bottles on the move and make up lost time. I pass what seems like three hundred people on the descent as the roads are still wet and riders are being, possibly, over-cautious.
Probably with good reason. We're back in Spain and the roads have become narrow, twisty and very, very slippery. People shout out as I go past ~ not in admiration!
Strike up the band
Somehow I'm feeling rejuvenated and quite strong. I'm in a group of about eight as we fly through a small village where every single house is decked in bunting. The whole village is out cheering us on and a band is playing at one end while loads of people with cow bells are at the other. You can't not be spurred on.
I get a second wind as I climb the Puerto de Hoz. It's a 10%-er and 5k long but I feel okay. We've been surrounded by motorbikes the whole day and just as we get to a particularly tight and steep section the kid on his Honda next to me changes down. An almighty bang comes from his gear box and his bike stops dead.
He manages to stay upright but balancing a bust CBR 600 with your missus on the back on a 10% climb, surrounded by bikes gives him more headaches than he actually needs. I wish I could help but I know I mustn't stop.
Back to Base
I ride like a man possessed back in to Sabinanigo. Again I literally pass around another 200 people on the descents to the town. Jumping from group to group almost at will. I do love a good descent.
With 5k to go I look behind me and I'm at the front of a group of around 200 riders. A few come through to help with the through and off and I take a rest. As we pass under the flamme rouge I go to the front and give it everything.
Dianne even took a photo of me leading out this massive line of strung out riders. Blew up before the line. Looked good though!
Two hundred and five kilometres. The longest I've ever ridden. Came in 746th which wasn't too bad after the day I'd had but what did cheer me up no end was the time.
Not only had I made the cut for my age-related gold medal I'd even beaten the time for the scratch group. So it's off for some food and a nap.
Next week it's across the border to France for the L'Ariegoise and a run up the Tourmalet and Plateau du Beille. And the sun's come out again. These races just get better and better.
PS. Dianne bought a bike and rode one for the first time in about 40 years, she's a very fit 52, and not really a cyclist. Rode for a kilometre alongside a river then turned around and came back. Very tired and puffing a lot.