I’ll admit it, I was proper worried about today when I went to bed last night. What with the pain, the pills, the swaying, the sleepiness…it’s hardly surprising, right? By now I know I can cycle for hours, and I know I can cycle up hills, albeit very slowly. What was worrying me was that my body was going to let me down. That I wouldn’t be able to do what I know I should be able to do. Even so, I slept mostly ok, with the usual pre-sportive nightmares, and having gone to bed reasonably early, I’d had a fairly respectable 6 hours or so of sleep when the alarm went off at 4:45am. As I faffed, still swaying from time to time, I wasn’t feeling too bad, and I was too busy getting ready to have much time for serious focussed worrying. Besides which, I wasn’t really awake! I kitted up, got the bike down to the lobby to be loaded into the van, and then went back upstairs for pills and more microwave porridge. It’s all part of the superstitious routine, the arcane ritual. It went down better than it did the night before too, which was nice. I meant to grab coffee downstairs but when I got down there, all otherwise ready to go, I realised I’d left my breakfast token upstairs and I really couldn’t be bothered to go back up to get it again – the coffee just wasn’t good enough to warrant that. Breakfast isn’t usually a token affair there (ha ha), but apparently a lot of the gendarmes, outriders, etc., base themselves at the hotel for the day and there’s no such thing as a free breakfast ;).
Anyway. Just for once everyone did what they were told, and we were all ready to go before 6:00am. I guess we were all quite motivated, and it wasn’t raining, which is always a good start. I was feeling properly nervous, all pre-exam butterflies multiplying in my guts. The sort of bubbling that make you think that further eating might be a properly bad idea. But this is actually good thing. It’s all part of it. I know that. Hey, if you’re not nervous about facing a big challenge, it’s either not a challenge or you don’t care, in which case why are you doing it? So we were all pretty quiet on the way down to Sabiñánigo – off in our own thoughts. One of the advantages of doing this as part of a well-run package is that you don’t have to worry. They know when to leave, where to park, how it all works. It takes a whole level of potential stress out of the equation. The vans parked up on the industrial estate, and discharged us and our bikes on to the roadside, ready to ride to the start line. Apparently they’ve moved it all around a bit this year but, what with this being my first time, it made no odds to me. Together, we rode around the outside of town, past the pens where the pros, the known to be fast, and special people like Jonathan get to be, to join the rapidly building queue of riders stretched out down the high street. It was nice to have a group to be hanging out with – the Maratona puts girls in a different pen, ahead of the groups. and waiting on my own wasn’t a lot of fun last year. Not that there was much actually going on as we stood around; some photo ops, and a steady stream of people disappearing behind bushes, buildings & cars to make sure they were as light as possible for the ride ahead – but companionable silence can be nice.
The remaining time passed faster than I’d expected and, although it was pretty chilly hanging around, the forecast was good and the skies were clearing all the time. At 7:30pm a big firework went off over the town, announcing the start of the race. This didn’t make a blind bit of difference to us, stood miles back, but it was nice to know things were finally officially underway. Eventually the advancing wave of movement swept us up, and we were all cautiously picking our way along the road, pushing not pedalling, muscles cramping up, getting closer and closer. We were turned around to the right, all the time carefully and slowly spreading out, trying to avoid any domino effects. The distinctive sound of clicking cleats rang out, we swung around to the left, and all of a sudden we were going down the straight, under the arches, and, beep beep beep, we were over the start line and on our way.
Ok then. This was it. *gulp*. I’d done a bit of swatting up beforehand. Not a lot, but I’d looked at the route. I’d watched Michael Cotty ride it on the Cyclefilm preview DVD. Three times. Even he made the Marie-Blanque look like hard work… But we weren’t there yet. We were on the first 15/20 km fairly flat and therefore fast section out to Jaca. Big groups formed and split and rushed past as we went down the blissfully closed main road. Chris and the other lads in our group left me for dust without a backwards glance, which came as no surprise to anyone. I think I even left a few behind myself. But I was well aware, after last week’s Great Western sportive, that hurtling off in a group in haste would only result in repenting at leisure later, so I was happy just to go along at my own pace. It was however the first time I became aware that cycling with girls is not something the Spanish cycling male likes to do. Neither behind nor in front. Any hint of such would result in sudden turns of pace, or the need for a toilet stop, or oh look we must grab that passing group. Poor little male egos ;). Still to be fair, I’m happier to ride on my own when there are this many others around, there’s less chance of other riders’ stupidity causing me problems or worse. More, much more than this, later…ooh, the suspense.
As we reached Jaca, we joined up with the route we’d done as part of the trial ride the day before. A degree of familiarity was quite nice, as at least I knew that some of today’s climbing was within my abilities. It was time for the 28km climb that is the Col de Somport. Ooh goody. At least the weather today was nicer. Low sunlight casting long shadows all over the road, which would be a problem with your average UK road surface, but not on lovely smooth foreign roads. How do they do that?! I was able to concentrate on what I was doing; looking after myself, taking photos, and enjoying the view. The river flowing down the valley we were riding up was still in full flood, there was snow on the mountains ahead of us, and it was all very pretty. It’s a long climb, but not a very steep one, which is probably why we’d been warned to take it easy and pace ourselves. Like I can do anything else. I just engaged crawler gear, plodded along…and hit new territory soon enough. The climb went on and on and on, and so did I. In fact I was actually finding it relatively easy, as these things go. It was still pretty chilly though, I only warmed up enough to get the arm warmers rolled down and the odd zip undone, nowt more. I don’t like to be too hot, and I ride better if I’m not. I guess it was only somewhere around 10:00am when I reached the 1632 m top. I know a lot of people don’t stop at the first stop here, but I was keen to make sure I always had enough fluid on board. My diddy Cinelli frame only allows for 1 large and 1 small bottle, which means less liquid to hand and that one has to be decanted into the other rather than just swopped over…it’s all a bit of a palaver. One of the most important things about today was going to be keeping hydrated and getting enough fuel in – and we all know how rubbish I can be at that! So I stopped to top up. My bike, my elbows and I made it to near enough the front of the chaos to get hold of a couple of water bottles. Bottles full, Nuun tablets added, time to get going again.
I gather they were handing out newspapers at the top somewhere but I missed that. Stuffing them down my jersey would only have made me look fat, right? ;). I did make sure everything was zipped up again, and my arm warmers rolled back down, but even so, OMG I was SO cold on the way down. It wasn’t massively technical, it was fast, and flying, it was frequently in the shade, and it was absolutely FREEZING. All the way down from 16oom to the valley floor at 300m with nothing else to do but hold on, take the line, and concentrate on not getting in the way of anyone else’s line. My jaw started to hurt from being clenched together so tightly. My core temperature dropped so far that I was shaking and my wobbling legs made pedalling hard, on the rare occasions I got the chance to try that. Luckily my overgloves and toe covers helped keep me in touch with my extremities. It’s nice to be able to feel to brake! It seems churlish to complain about such a lovely descent but…well, I came close! After what seemed like, and may quite well actually have been, hours – I was spat out into an opening up valley, for a few miles of flat hurtling along in the sunshine, slowly warming up. One of our group, Rick, went past and chatted to me briefly, before being sucked away by the group he’d been chasing down. A group ahead of the wheel is worth more than two that might come along from behind later ;). After a while I seem to recall there was a funny little detour through a small town, which involved a stretch of some less than pleasantly surfaced road. It didn’t last too long though, which was just as well, and like it or not, we were getting closer to the next, possibly the biggest, challenge of the day. Oh yes, here we are, at the right turn for the Col de Marie-Blanque, marked by hundreds of scattered newspapers. I pulled up a little way along the road, on the right. I might not have had a newspaper to throw away, but it was time for a gel, something to drink, and to stash as many layers as possible away. Mock my size of a planet saddle bag if you will, but it serves its purpose extremely well, and swallowed all up as requested.
Right. On to the Col that Eddie Merckx rated as one of the hardest he ever had to climb. Which is a tad daunting! The road is narrow and tree lined, very English country lane, and it’s a ride of two halves. It starts with around 5km of slow gradual climbing. You could feel everyone holding back and taking it easy, knowing what was to come. I’m glad I knew, or it would have come as a nasty shock. Because the next 4 or 5 km were at 10% or more, each one handily marked as ever by those little signs. I like them. I like knowing what I have to face, and how much further I have to fight to get to the top. Being down at the slower end of the field, the narrow road was full of riders walking. Service vehicles – ambulances and outriders – were trying to get up the hill. Spectators were lurking. At one point one of them had even managed to park or break down on the side of the road somehow. It was chaos. My biggest concern was not the 13% I was currently grinding up, but staying on the bike as I dodged riders giving up, zigzagging, trying to get through… If I’d have had to stop I’d have been really cross, and I came so close. Minimum maintainable momentum…just! When I cleared that bottleneck I found a surprising burst of energy and kicked away from them to find some clear road. Anger is still an energy it would appear ;). It’s a hard climb for several reasons, but partially because it’s not that attractive. It’s hidden amongst trees, the views are lacking, and it’s too busy for you to be looking at them if they were there anyway. And it was getting hotter… But it’s not that long, even if it maybe sometimes feels like it. And the top is a little bit anti-climactic too, though I was very proud of myself for making it up without walking so had a big grin on my face anyway. I couldn’t get near the sign to get my photo taken with it, but hey, I know I was there :).
I contemplated putting everything back on again for the descent to come, but decided just to put the gilet on, which turned out to be sufficient as by now it was warmer and this down was also a lot shorter. I do like downs, did I mention that before? I’m fairly sure I enjoyed this one. Where wiggles were really an issue, there were always marshals waving red flags, which was very helpful. The Cinelli corners like a dream, and I don’t think I got in anyone’s way as a result, so it was fairly relaxed by my standards. After enjoying all of that, I think this was where Sean, who thanks to a nasty puncture on the Somport was having a bad day at the office, went past me, again chatting briefly. It was nice to break up the resolutely Spanish silence a bit. This really is a local ride, I reckon 95% of the riders are natives, and oddly enough that’s kind of nice. They’re all pretty good riders, as rank amateurs don’t do an event like this, and I guess they’re used to riding together, they seem to have the same kind of riding style? They certainly don’t talk to outsiders much though. Unlike the supporters, who were out in numbers along the route all day and who loved shouting encouragement to everyone. Venga, vamos, valientes, championes! And just for us girls, guapa, chica…oh yes, they like to cheer on girls. Apparently I have a lovely smile too :). Novelty value probably, what with us being so in the minority, but being specifically cheered on always made me produce that smile and gave me a bit of a boost, so I’m not going to knock their motivation!
There wasn’t really much of a break between the going down and the going back up again. We only had one more really big climb to do, the Col de Portalet, with 120km already in the legs. At some point we went through a town called Eaux Chaudes…were we all about to be in hot water? Well it made me giggle *grin*. It’s a very long climb – 29 kilometers, informatively counted down one by one again. It’s probably heresy to say it, but I actually got a bit bored early on. Kilometres of not much gradient at all with not much to look at. Let’s get on with it! Luckily that changed, since as we climbed the scenery improved, opened out, grew even.
There was a dam with paw prints up it. Rivers, waterfalls, snow, mountains, blue skies. I chatted briefly to a Dublin Wheeler which perked me up a bit and kicked me out of bored more. I bumped into another Chris from our group at a food stop somewhere too – making a total of four conversations for the day. Every little helps. Actually I stopped at most of the stops along the way. Never to eat, always to drink, which saved me from too much fighting through crowds to get what I needed. There were no toilet facilities, so there were some interesting side of the road stops along the way but hey, needs must and all that. The need of such is proof that you’re hydrated, which is a good thing. At the last couple of stops I also discovered the wonders of full fat coke, which was a new one on me.
By now it was verging on too hot occasionally, so I did a bit of shade hunting where possible and there was also enough of a breeze that appeared just as you were wondering what to do about the heat, to take the edge off. Every time we went past a waterfall there was a cloud of cooler air around it to ride through. Where tunnels were built over the road to make sure the water flow went over the road not down it, there was dark and coolth. It was turning out to be long, but doable, and scenically it was a lot like the Galibier, or the Giau, just less challenging when it comes to gradient. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t begin with a G? As you can see, I look pretty happy to have made it to the top – many thanks to the rider who offered to take my photo :).
It’s very hard to share the downhills with you, at least photographically, what with the whole holding on, potential need to brake, having too much fun to stop thing going on. And I was enjoying it. Oh yes. It’s even easier to have a blast when you know the worst is behind you. Well, ok, that was almost true. There’s one last stinger in the tail – a detour for the Hoz de Jaca climb. I’m not sure why this is necessary. It’s certainly gratuitous. Sure, the views of the reservoir are nice, and riding over a dam on the way down at the end is novel, but other than that it’s very narrow, and on roads with dodgy surfaces that anyone would lose time on. The actual climbing section wasn’t quite as steep as I had it in my head that it was going to be – I think the worst km was only at 9%, not the 11 or 13% that I was expecting, which probably helped mentally. So I just got on with it. I pottered my way up and enjoyed those views. And hey, with that done and having gone up, I could now kick off and enjoy the fruits of my labour. A down. One more descent, and about a 20km flat run in to the end. And I knew, unless my fuel ran out, I’d made it. Talk about motivational :D.
After some very technical down, which came complete with padded corners (I kid you not) the roads opened out again, and the sense of anticipation growing around me was almost palpable. Everyone was head down, focussed on the end. Now, not being immodest because it’s nothing to do with any skill on my behalf, it’s size and aerodynamics, I am pretty darn good downhill. If it ain’t too technical I will probably go past you, and I won’t start pedalling again until well after you have. Amusingly, this did not go down well with some. I was amused, they weren’t. As I flew down, various riders tried to keep up, to get back past me. Nah, not going to happen, not on my watch *grin*. A large group of sorts was coalescing ahead, and I quite fancied joining them. But they were going just that bit too slow and the idea of braking all the time to keep with them and losing my hard earned momentum…? Well I tried to be restrained, honest, but I got bored. I wanted to have my fun. So I went for it. Straight down, straight past the second star to the right, on into the inevitable heading for home headwind. Very happy to be doing what I do best. About 10 minutes later the group arrived, huffing and puffing, behind me, led by one of those old foreign cyclists (in a white WC jersey?) who were clearly born in the saddle and have never left it. He made some comment to me which I think, with my rusty language skills, went something along the lines of dropping them all like that was a tad on the rude side and that catching me hadn’t been easy. I just grinned at him. Makes me *grin* even thinking about it now actually. So onwards we headed as a group. I took a turn, he took a turn, a couple of others also joined in. The majority sat behind us, as a silent mass, and let us get on with it. I took quite a few turns at the front, because I could keep it up and they couldn’t. Fast downhill also equals less problems in a headwind. But as we got nearer the end, I was informed that I’d done enough and they’d be getting on with it now. Ooh, there goes the ego again, do you not want leading into the finish by a girl then? Funny as…! They led off and tried to drop me, but you can guess how well that went. Eventually I let the more obviously grumpy about it of them get a bit ahead, just to avoid what was possibly going to be agro otherwise. Effectively we did a 20km time trial to get to the end, and I bl**dy loved it :). I rolled over the finish line with a mahoosive grin on my face, and was both surprised and chuffed to find Chris there waiting for me. It was so nice to see a friendly face, to share my buzz with. I’ve finished my last two foreign rides on my own, this made a lovely change. He’d been in for like two hours! He was also very relieved to see me smiling – apparently he’d got two appropriate reactions prepared just in case! *grin*.
Looking back behind me at the finish line, the official clock, which started when the first rider rolled over the start line such a long time before, was reading something like 10:08. Knock twenty minutes off that to get our start time, and not only was my ride time of 9:12 ish properly under the 10 hour mark – my secret unofficial target – so was my official time. Cue even bigger grin :). Chris tolerantly let me bibble away in debrief stylee as we headed for the event village. Let’s face it, I needed my free beer. Or two. Or three ;). We found John, who having gotten his Gold was hanging around collecting strays, and were joined one by one with the last few of our group. After a while sat drinking that beer, I collected my official certificate and my SILVER medal. Silver!!! Happy dance time! 🙂 To say I was pleased would be a serious understatement. And yes, us old women only have low standards to aim for, but I don’t care. SILVER!!! :D.
Cycling time: 9:16 hrs.
Distance: 124.2 miles.
Avs: 13.4 mph.
ODO: 2638.4 miles
It’s not about the time really. That’s just the icing on the cake. I was, and am, just so relieved and pleased to have made it when I had seriously doubted that it was possible 12 hours before. I’d taken the pills, and made a point of eating regularly – bars for the first few hours, then a mix of gel/bar towards the end – even when I didn’t want to. Two bars and 5 or 6 gels I think. I stayed hydrated. I rode within myself and didn’t blow it. Maybe I could have done some of it faster, or pushed harder, as my legs on Marie-Blanque suggested. But then maybe I wouldn’t have made it round? I did my best, even if my best is slow compared to a great many. It probably sounds weird, but I actually didn’t find it quite as hard as I was expecting to. And I still had enough left in me to kick Spanish ar*e on the way home, which I enjoyed way more than I should have done. I can’t tell you how much fun that was :). Quebrantahuesos 2013 – done!