On July 31st I decided to undertake my toughest race yet – 135km with 4300m of elevation gain. The distance may seem fairly insignificant but the climbs were going to be fierce. I set the race as a challenge to myself, the goal was simply to finish. It would take some of the “race” pressure off, I thought. But of course, I was stressed in the lead up to the event, I didn’t know the course at all (let’s be honest, I haven’t reccy’d a single course this season) and I was generally worried about being out there alone for 7 – 8 hours. Unlike other Cyclosportives in the area, there were only two courses in La Bourgui: the short was 77km with 2300 m climbing, so whoever did the short course would be waiting around a very long time for me to come in.
I rode out the night before to stay with friends who were going to ride the next day. I barely slept. Normally, the thought of lying in bed listening to a storm would be wonderful. Instead, it filled me with dread. The alarm went off at 5am and it was still raining. Pouring in fact. And very dark. I got myself organised and had breakfast with Sian – who’d be doing the short course that day. As we drove out through the fog and rain, our spirits dropped. Was it worth driving out to the start? Would we start? What level of rain were we willing to put up with to do the course? It was still raining when we arrived in St Martin Belleville for the start line. We saw fellow riders abandoning the course before they even reached the départ – driving back down the hill or turning around in St Martin Belleville. We decided to pick up our numbers and sit in the café to wait the weather out. Perhaps they would cancel? Or delay the start? The course began with a 22km descent, the kind of start that would ruin a ride before it even began. Not only would it be dangerous but you’d be soaked, your shoes filled with water, and facing a fairly unpleasant few hours in the saddle.
At 7:40, the rain finally stopped. To one side of the valley, it almost looked as though the clouds were lifting. They assured us that the weather report was clear. We’d seen the same but in the mountains you’re sometimes better off trusting your eyes and your instinct.
We made a quick decision to just do it. I would take the short course if the weather was bad and we both agreed that there was no shame in pulling out during the race itself if it hailed (as one guy told us when deciding to turn around).
I’m now even more nervous. I haven’t brought a rain jacket but my friend lends me a wind breaker. I skip the sunnies because you can’t even see to the other side of the road at the start line, and I forget about sunscreen. Hell, I’m wearing arm warmers and a wind jacket. In the middle of summer.
The race pulls out and I’m jittery on the wet roads. The first ramp winds up steeply – the idea is to thin the field a little before the descent – and I get jostled by guys pushing past. I hit the descent and I’m just nervous, avoiding the white lines and taking it embarrassingly slow. “No crashing, no crashing”, I tell myself. I’m usually far more confident in the wet, I’ve descended in the rain dozens of times but today I’m just not on it.
Still, I get to the bottom and hit the first climb up to Doucy. Clearly, I’m not on form and my legs are slow to respond but I just chug away, my friends snapping at my heels on each hairpin. The first climb was fairly steady but without knowing the course, it was difficult to gauge. None of the climbs in the race were particularly well-known and as a result didn’t have those wonderfully motivating signs that tell you how many kilometres to the summit and the average gradient of the next km. Not to mention, when it rains, my garmin gradient monitor completely stops working, to the point where I was climbing but the Garmin showed a gradient of -26% !
But as I topped the summit, riding along with one of my competitors, the sun started to come out. I could do the long course, I thought to myself. I would get away from the race vibe – which wasn’t doing it for me at all – and into the long-haul, solo endurance course that I was actually far better suited to. And even more so when not feeling my best. So as we hit the descent to Moûtiers, I made up my mind. I’d come here to do the long course and I was just going to get through it. I turned left at the roundabout and followed the 137km signs… to my peril, I thought!
The next climb felt longer and tougher but I was really happy to just settle into a pace and ride along on my own, all the pressure was behind me as my friends and otherwise competitors were hitting the 23km final climb to Les Menuires already. The sun was out and the scenery was just spectacular. Of course I didn’t have any sunglasses or sunscreen and I was aware this might be a bit of a problem down the line, not to mention the fact that I hadn’t brought enough food for the grand parcours… I’d be stopping at every ravito today!
Indeed, after 15km at around 7 – 8%, I was thankful to reach the food stop at the top of Notre Dame du Pré, where I downed a couple of glasses of orange juice, shoved bananas in my mouth and back pocket, along with some cake, and refilled my water bottle. “The first woman!”, they exclaimed. “The only”, I responded with a smile.
I also started passing the first of many cheer squads of the day – friends and relatives on the climbs and people of all ages in the villages. The kids stretched out their hands for high fives as I rode past, others had horns. “Allez, allez, courage”, they cheered and clapped. And of course “C’est une fille!” they’d then scream, which only encouraged me even more. I love racing in France.
But the best cheer squad of all is your mates. The long course was passing right by Sian place, and Nick and the kids had set up a special ravito station for the weary riders. I’d left a bidon with electrolytes, an energy bar and some gels that I was definitely going to need. But I never expected the full cheer squad, with my name written across the road and a flag all for me! I’ve never been so happy. I pulled over for a quick update on how I was doing and to get some encouraging words from Nick. I also shoved some gels and bars in my pockets, and a few lollies and biscuits from the stand. I didn’t even mind that it wasn’t the summit of Villette, I was just glad for a little refuel.
After Villette, I knew there was a dangerous descent. Nick and the kids had warned me it wasn’t ‘roadbikable’ and at the start of the race there’d been an announcement about the dangers of this particular section. I was wary, particularly as it had rained again and the roads were going to be wet…
I reach the top and all the warning signs are there. In addition to the usual “soyez prudente” signs at the top of any race descent, there was “danger” “racines” and a lot of fluorescent markings on the narrow road. It was steep. Very steep. Narrow – too narrow for a car to pass I would have thought. And the hairpins were very tight. It was also wet. But the real danger were the tree roots that bulged through the asphalt. But I just took it all in my stride. I was cautious and slow around the bends but I just let the brakes off and bumped over the tree roots with glee. What fun! At the bottom, I was almost sad the descent had to end. The volunteer directed me off to the right, down what looked like a gravel path. “Are you sure?”, I asked. He just nodded and assured me this was right. It turned out to be less gravel and more of a run down country path that led off to the next climb. The views were stunning. And I felt invigorated.
The cheer squad at the next corner directed me off up the hill. It was a tight turn and I hadn’t anticipated the climb, so everyone had a laugh when I had to stop to get in the right gear, and they gave me a little push up the hill. From here, it said 5km to the summit. What a relief. Only from the “summit”, it’s actually another 4km climb to Hautcour! Still, those 5km were amazing. A beautiful narrow road along the side of the hill, a steep valley falling down to the left, the path winding in and out of the trees and through the wildflowers. The section from Aime to Hautcour was the absolute highlight of the entire course and I can’t wait to come back.
From here, it was a swift and fairly easy descent but I was flagging. I hit Moûtiers for the third and final time, and was glad to just be nearing the end. I stopped at the next ravito station for more water and a bit of a snack before hitting the final climb. 23 km to the top. I could do it. I’d heard it was ‘only’ 7%. Normally, that would be fine. It wouldn’t phase me. I could ride 7% for hours. But after this day, I was dreading anything. A false flat felt like a slog. I had caught up with an older gentleman who at least knew the route and off we set.
The first several kilometers were 8 – 9% and my legs were reaching their limit. This was an unofficial back route to Les Menuires and of course, no signs. But the organisers had added summit signs to encourage the racers. 22km to the summit, 18 km to the summit, 15km to the summit… and once we hit the main route up to St Martin Belleville, it eased off to the promised 7% with some extremely welcome flat sections. I dropped the older gentleman as I found my rhythm and just settled into the final slog. It wasn’t so bad. I hit single digits – 9 km to the summit – and I just knew it was all going to be ok.
There was a final ravito stop in St Martin de Belleville – where the race had begun – and I grabbed a bottle of water. Gulped half and threw some over my head. 5km to the summit. I was mashing on the pedals, rocking in the saddle, and just willing the end to come. As it flattened out, I imagined I could see the col at the end of the road, indeed, it was only a few kilometres to go! As I reached 1km, I began to wonder if my friends would still be there. I was making good time, I was on track for close to 6:30 and I was hoping they would be waiting around for the podium and prizes. A few hundred metres from the end and I hear Sian call out, “Alexis!!” . I was at my limit. My stomach had started to feel awful – I think 5 gels might be my race limit – and I was exhausted, hot, sunburnt, and my eyes were red from the sun. As Sian ran along beside me, I could see the Arrivé. Passing under the red arch, I was just so glad it was over. A few congratulatory hugs and everyone helped me grab my bag and head to the showers. There was still time for food before the podiums.
What a day. I was glad to have made it. There were only about 40 people crazy or foolish enough to do the long course and I was the first of two women. The second was about 45 minutes behind. I was proud of myself for getting to the end, in a decent time, and in decent form. What a day.