Yesterday’s briefing started with “good or bad” news: due to impending thunderstorms over Nice and the Col de Vence, police required the race organizers that the police convoy should arrive on the Promenade des Anglais at 13:00 instead of the planned 16:00. So we had to depart earlier and scrap the 1200m climb to the Col Saint-Martin. I was very happy to hear this!
This morning I got up the most tired of the entire week. Probably the result of the super tough marathon stage 6 and the fact that there was people noise until 2am outside my hotel room that resumed by clean up work at 5am. One thing I know: I just did not get enough sleep this week and the sleep deficit, on top of the massive physical demands, were starting to take their toll. This became painfully clear after the 68km neutral convoy when we crossed the timing mat and the race was on with the last climb to the Col de Vence.
The starting pace was ferocious and I followed for a few km but had to slow down quickly. The reality sank in: rather than racing, I fell into yesterday’s mode of damage control and followed my own pace that I knew I could sustain (for hours–that’s what I had trained for. More on my ex-post insights on my Epilogue blog when I have time to compile and write). Again I got passed by many at impressive speeds, which is quite demoralizing. It is one thing letting go of the group that you know has better riders, but it’s quite another to see new faces pass you and eventually ride with people you had not seen before…
But so it was, and I was actually quite fine with it. For me, it had become, quoting Shannon, a battle between me and the mountain. I was digging deep, going as hard as I knew I could sustain, and all I wanted to do is get over that timing mat on the Col as soon as I could. Hopefully I wouldn’t lose too much time, but I was no longer worried about that.
For the second time in a row, I found myself holding the wheel of a woman, Andrea Perezgil from Mexico, for one good part of the climb. Interestingly, on the steeper sections I would do better: I can climb out of the saddle “easily” and for relatively long time and would pull ahead then. With about 14km to go, a good train passed with the Italian team (one of those guys gave me his bottle yesterday) and then I dug deep, deep, deep: I knew I had to hold on because the last few km before Col de Vence are rather flat. You must dig deep to then reap the rewards of fast drafting, saving 30-40% of power, on the near flats. So I did and was happy to make it over the finish with this good group. (Again, on the two final small bumps in the last km, I pulled ahead–most riders were equally dead, so I just have a power-to-weigth advantage that shows on the steeper sections.)
Joy it was to have finished, safely, and, as it turned out, with decent general classification: 121 out about 600 in 27:58 for the timed sections (I will add up my Garmin times to include non-timed sections and get total time in the saddle). All my three objectives accomplished. Man, man, this has been a week like I have never experienced before. The Haute Route marketing promises indeed delivered:
- The experience of a lifetime
- The highest and toughest cyclosportives in the world.
Admittedly, I can’t attest to “in the world” because I have only done one cyclo-sportive before–the Horribly Hilly Hundred in Wisconsin and that one is not timed. But I know this: the quality of the field is high and deep; incomparable with HHH, and it was the toughest racing and riding I have done ever. No one-day race can ever compare to this stage race.
With the race and time-worries over, vacation could start! I shared many experiences with my Dutch buddy Henk Rensink: we had ridden together (he finished 109th in 27:43!), had several very pleasant meals together, and shared the misfortune of having our bikes stolen. In addition, Henk had his battery dropped of his rental bike with electronic shifting (which he loved and said I should try it), had a flat, stopped after going over the timing mat at a summit in the mistaken belief that the timer had stopped. To top it off, he crashed exactly at the finish carpet in Nice looking at his wife and missing the little bump: he needed 7 stitches in the head but was still having his great smile after all that. I am impressed by this man! Here’s a picture of us having lunch and a glass of wine (which Henk loves and I used to and may get back into again) in Vence, with our “finisher” medals:
After some free time in Vence, we regrouped at 12:00 and went in convoy to Nice. The arrival at the famed Avenue des Anglais was more beautiful, emotional and impressive that I expected. To arrive here where the pro-peleton has its final sprint is special. And the expectation of seeing my mother and aunt near the finish brought tears to my eyes. I wish my wife and kids could have been there to share the completion of this deeply emotional experience, but that will happen on Monday!
In Nice, it was saying goodbye’s to new friends who I know will remain friends forever. I hope we will share more great rides together in the future, and that is quite likely given that they all live, or plan to live, around here:
Stephan Vander Maelen–born natural talent and best Belgian finisher: 63rd in 26:33. Stephan caught up with me with 2km to go to the finish of the first stage (my best stage) and told me to hold his wheel (but I couldn’t: he finished 44s before me as 70th that day). Later I would witness his smarts (directly let the front group go when they attack the first climb and go your own pace immediately and continuously) and powerful endurance (I would, stupidly, hand on longer and then be forced to let go, only to be caught later by Stephan and eventually dropped). Turns out Stephan grew up around Brakel, 15km from where I grew up. This man is so strong and rides only once per week on Sunday mornings!!!!!!! “OK, the week before Haute Route I also rode on Saturday.” Wow!
Finally a picture with my Canadian friends Gerry Patterson and his brother-in-law Rob Armstrong. Gerry now lives in Southern France and writes the awesome Vicious Cycle blog and we share training stories during the lead-up to Haute Route. Gregarious, and always encouraging, coach Rob plans to retire here in France. From Gerry’s blog stories and climbing times I knew we’d be seeing each other on the mountain. Indeed, we did. While they finished much stronger than I did, we ended up in “sandwich” position on the GC: Rob finished 118 in 27:55 and Gerry finished 124th in 28:02.
Finally here my picture with Daniel Franke and Silvan GÄRTNER, whom I first met during dinner in Serre Chevalier, the evening our bikes got stolen. Daniel is a gentleman, riding without stress, just “doing his best”. He lent me his tool to raise my saddle on Stage 6. Daniel is an “iron rider,” meaning he will do the double and do this all over again next week in Haute Route Pyrrenees–as 127th in 28:06, I have no doubt he will do great again and am looking forward to hearing his report! Silvan and I were ranked 91 and 92, 20s, apart at the beginning of stage 6 when he encouraged me to hang on, but he got stronger (and I weaker), and he finished 89th in 27:13.
I am missing pictures with my mama, tante Magda, and my family–I hope to share some later. Now breakfast and a day of leisure in Nice!
The official stage info:
- Stage 7: Auron – Nice
- Saturday 24.08.2013
- Distance: 167 km
- Cols & Ascents: 2
- Total Ascent: 2896m; Total Descent: 3725m
- Stage Difficulty: 3/5
Official info from HR: A mellow descent to the Mediterranean coast and a gentle cruise into Nice – the final destination of this cycling journey? Not really! First of all, there’s 1500m of climbing to the Col Saint-Martin, followed – with great care please – by the Gorges de la Vesubie. The final hurdle is the Col de Vence, which at nearly 1000m altitude, marks the very end of this 129km timed stage.
And finally! It’s done. At Vence, the peloton of the Haute Route Alps will regroup and ride as one, arriving together on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Getting to the end of this ‘highest and toughest cyclosportive’ is no mean feat! And cycling in a peloton along the Promenade des Anglais into the centre of Nice, after 7 long days in the saddle, is a memory to keep forever …
Climbs of the day:
• Col Saint Martin: 1500 m altitude, 1100 metres altitude gain over 16,5 km.
• Col de Vence: 962 m altitude, 462 metres altitude gain over 16 km.