The alarm clock rang at 05:20 and the breakfast was served from 05:30. We got an extended version of the classic Petit Déjeuner, reinforced with a sweet rice pudding.
It was cold outside but there were no clouds, so I decided to use knee warmers, arm warmers, time trial overshoes and a windstopper gilet to go in my back pocket.
I got on my bike to get to the start and I could tell immediately that something was wrong with my rear derailleur. It went straight from 17 to 21, not stopping on 19, both when I shifted to higher and lower gears. I could not get the chain up to my lightest gear, the 23 sprocket, either. Should I adjust the gears just before the race or should I let it be? Two weeks earlier I had adjusted the gears just before a 300 kilometre race back in Sweden and this had not turned out to be such a good idea. There had been a lot of chain scratching when I had put some pressure on the pedals and I did not want this to happen again, so I let it be.
We were divided into different groups for the start based on our start numbers. There were different start groups for numbers 0 – 1 000, 1 000 – 2 000, 2 000 – 4 000 and 4 000 – 7 000. I started in the last group, probably because this was my first race, but I was rather early and turned out at the front of this group. We all stood in a long line next to a small stream with the church to our left. Everything was very well organised.
Waiting for the start.
I heard mostly Italian and Flemish around me. Most riders we wearing short sleeve jerseys and shorts, but a few had long sleeves and leg warmers on. There was a tension in the air. Some riders tried to laugh it away, but most were standing on their own in the crowd. A few minutes before the start I walked down to the river and paid homage to nature.
My watch showed 07:15, which was the official start time, but not much happened. A few minutes later the church bells started to ring, and although I did not see anything happen, I realised that this was the start signal. It gave the race a grand framework and a feeling for the connection between the spiritual and worldly parts in this world. It also gave an indication of how much this race actually meant to the town.
It took a while before we started to move. Most had one cleat in the pedal and kicked the bike forward. After a minute, or so, the pace increased and it was possible to actually ride the bike. We reached the start at main square three and a half minutes after we started to move and were by then keeping a decent speed. I passed the starting line, the Kiwin registered, I reset my trip meter and we were off.
I do not think the road was closed to traffic, but we used the whole roadway. Officials waving flags were posted on some of the traffic islands, just as in Tour de France. The slower riders kept to the right and the faster ones to the left. I jumped between different groups until I came so far to the left that I found the pace fast, but comfortable.
The first 15 kilometres were more or less flat. We followed the road towards Grenoble and turned right towards Croix de Fer after a while. At one point the road climbed almost vertically along the side of a dam, and the road was completely straight between the hairpins. The view of the road, crowded with riders, was magnificent and as made for a photo.
Col de la Croix de Fer
After the dam we reached the first part of the climb up to Croix de Fer. The climb can be divided into three parts, interrupted by two short descents.
The climb was steep, the road narrowed and the speed dropped dramatically. Riders filled the road and because of the low speed, it became completely crowded. I moved to the far left side so I could overtake other riders. My speed was around 13 km/h and I soon identified other riders that kept about the same pace. Not many riders were going faster this far back in the field and it was a relief to see that not all participants were supermen that flew up the mountain.
The first part of the climb is about six kilometres and was covered without any problems. We got to the small village Le Rivier. The road descended three kilometres after the village and there were some pretty sharp hairpins at the end of the slope.
When I came out from the last hairpin I encountered a horribly steep climb. I shifted quickly from the large chain ring via the middle one, down to the small chain ring, and the chain jumped off. I got out one foot, climbed off the bike, put the chain back, but what was I supposed to do now? The whole road was packed with riders and I was standing on a terribly steep hill. After a few, very long moments, I realised that I could not just stand there and watch as I was overtaken by virtually all other riders. I got one cleat into the pedal and in one way or another I managed to click in the other one at the second attempt. The panic was over and I could continue upwards.
I continued to overtake other riders. After a while we had to give room for an ambulance that was heading up the mountain. A few minutes later I saw it again, when it was parked and the staff were attending a rider that had collapsed and was lying on the road.
Halfway up the mountain I began to team up with riders with start numbers around 1 000 and 2 000, who were riding about the same speed as myself. About half of the others were already using their lowest gear, so it was no question of saving gears for later. I used 30 – 21 for most part of the climb.
I saw a rider on a C40, wearing a Euskaltel outfit and who was riding at a wonderfully nice and smooth pace. I held his wheel and got a very smooth ride. I was forced off his wheel a few times, but I got back to it without being too rough.
We reached the second descent after climbing another nine kilometres. It was less than two kilometres long and ran along the side of the mountain. The road was straight with free view, so I just freewheeled down to the bottom of the descent. I had learnt from my earlier mistake, so I shifted gear nice and easy well before the climb started and once again retook my position behind the C40. When we came closer to the summit I felt I could up the pace, so I overtook him and could then see that he had start number 1735. He had probably no idea that I had been holding his wheel for about ten kilometres.
The third part of the Croix de Fer climb was five kilometres and several photographers were taking their shots just before the summit. The number of spectators had increased gradually and there was a cheering crowd at the top.
At the summit of Croix de Fer.
It was possible to top up with water, but I had still plenty and felt well, so I just passed the stop. The sun had climbed high in the sky, so I did not feel the need to use the gilet on the descent.
The first part of the descent was quite twisty and I did not find any good line through the hairpins. From now on we only used the right side of the road. I was constantly overtaken by other riders and soon number 1735 passed me. After a few kilometres we came to a small village and afterwards the road became less technical and I could increase the speed.
I caught up with a group of Dutchmen and we stayed together until the first of two short climbs. The views were great and under different conditions I would have stopped and taken photos, but now I just pressed on.
The descent continued, was interrupted by a short climb and all of a sudden we had reached Saint Jean de Maurienne. It was time to take off the arm warmers. There were officials posted in the roundabouts and showed us the way through the town, out to the main road towards Saint Michel de Maurienne.
The road climbed gently during the 14 kilometres between these towns. We formed a 20-man strong pace line and cruised at a comfortable speed. We kept a good pace without pushing ourselves too much, since we after all only had climbed the first mountain, so far. Most of us took the opportunity to eat and drink during this part of the race.
As soon as we entered Saint Michel we turned right in a roundabout, rode under a viaduct and started the climb up to Col du Télégraphe.
Col du Télégraphe
When I had planned the race I had viewed the climb from Saint Michel up to Col du Galibier as one climb, interrupted by a short descent. When the climb began I realised the psychological advantage in seeing it as two separate climbs, so I aimed for Col du Télégraphe as the second climb of the race.
The pace established again around 12 – 13 km/h and quite soon I identified a few others that were riding at the same speed. I followed a group of three riders in red jerseys from Saint Tropez cycling club. The road climbs mostly through forests, so there was not much of a view. Not much happened during the climb, but when we got closer to the summit I could feel that the effort of all ascending was getting to my legs.
Every fifth kilometre there was a sign indicating the distance to the summit and the last five kilometres there was a sign every kilometre. Unfortunately, all signs were not placed with one kilometre intervals and some signs were missing. I began to feel insecure about the actual distance to the top. I felt I could do without a few hundred additional metres at 7 %.
Eventually we reached the summit and again were greeted by a large crowd. We descended the five kilometres to Valloire and I took the time to eat and drink. Valloire hosts one of the two feeding stations in the race and this was the place where I had intended to do my only stop during the race. I felt that I needed more energy and I ran out of power bars faster than I had planned, so I had to fill my pockets as well.
Valloire was full of private feeding stations that various travel agencies had put up for their participants, but I could not find the official one. Slightly frustrated, and running out of food and water, I started to climb up towards Col du Galibier.
Col du Galibier
The climb was steep and the speed hit all time low. We were met by a large number of quad bikes and after a while we passed the rental station. The road became virtually flat two kilometres up the climb and I saw a bunch of riders standing next to the road, filling their bidons with water from a tap. I stopped, filled my bidons and jumped on the bike again. Drinking non-bottled water did not bother me; I needed every drop I could get hold of.
Back on the road I wanted to check how I was doing compared to my plan and when I was fiddling about in my back pocket, I managed to drop my last power bar. I cursed, but did not turn around to pick it up. A few hundred meters later I arrived at the official feeding station, located in Verney. There was an incredible buffet, containing everything from dried fruit to buns and croissants. I filled my stomach and my pockets with bananas and oranges. At this point I was so annoyed about all the fuss about unnecessary stops and loss of power bars, so I jumped on the bike as soon as I had got the food down my neck.
The climb continued and I had to revise my preconceived notion of Galibier. My strongest impression of the mountain was from watching the 1998 Tour de France on TV. I remembered how Jan Ullrich, wet and cold to the bone, descended through the clouds and was dropped by Marco Pantani, who virtually sealed the victory in the general classification with this stage win.
I had pictured Galibier as an unfriendly, cruel and barren mountain, but that was far from what I was experiencing. We rode in bright sunshine and the surroundings were more like alpine meadows. The landscape was idyllic and this was in strong contrast to the steep gradient that was draining me of my energy. I did not know how much impact the altitude had, but I knew that last few hours of climbing had done lots of damage.
Halfway up the mountain I was really tired and I started to feel cramp in both thighs. Eventually I had both cramp on the inside of the right thigh and at the front of the left one. I tried to vary my position on the bike as much as I could, but with four kilometres to the summit, I had to get off the bike and stretch my legs. I do not know how much it helped, but it was a relief to get a break from all the climbing.
Back on the bike, the road continued upwards. I really missed my 23 sprocket. The signs indicating the distance to the top seemed to be placed randomly along the slope, or maybe it was the fatigue that made me upset of small matters. With three kilometres to go I was completely exhausted. I stood on the bike more or less all the time and made around 10 km/h. I counted down every time I passed another 50 metres on the trip meter.
With less than one kilometre to go I could see the summit, almost just above my head. I immediately looked down at the road ahead of me. It seemed totally impossible to get up there, but I just keep focusing on the next 50 metres.
Again there were photographers taking pictures of the riders and I could not help smiling at the metamorphosis that had taken place since the last photos were taken. At Croix de Fer I had been riding well and had felt strong. At Galibier I felt like a crippled man on crutches.
At the summit of Galibier.
There was a small feeding station at the summit, so I filled my bidons, had some bananas, put on my windstopper gilet and took off downhill.
The descent was wonderful. Although it was steep, the road took long, sweeping curves and I found my line immediately. I continuously overtook other riders, as well as the odd car, and after eight kilometres of sheer joy I reach Lautaret with rattling teeth. The air was warm, but I was completely soaked with sweat and the wind chilled me down additionally. My teeth stopped sounding like castanets when I reached La Grave.
The descent was broken by a three kilometre climb and I took the opportunity to take some pictures from the bike. The following descent ended with some abrupt curves where gendarmes where placed and directed meeting car drivers, so they did not cut the corners. I took off the gilet and pushed it into my back pocket. I had hardly seen any other riders since Lautaret, but the last five kilometres to Bourg d’Oisans were almost flat and small groups of riders were formed.
The descent from Galibier was interrupted by a light climb.
My original plan was to skip the feeding station in Bourg d’Oisans, but I had not had enough food, so I had no choice. At the stop I met my wife, who had been standing there for a while. She asked how I felt and I told her that Galibier had been horrible. She told me of another rider who had stopped earlier and almost started to cry when he had talked about Galibier. She also told me that ambulances had been running in shuttle service since 10 a.m. and that a helicopter had been up a couple of times. I could only tell her that I had not seen any crashes, but a fey guys being so exhausted that they could not complete the race.
I was still doing well compared with my plan, but my legs felt as if they had been run through a mangle. I only hade some Coke at the feeding station, because that was where I happened to stand. The bananas were located too far way, and I had not the will power to get to where they were placed. A bad move, or the lack of it!
I got on my bike again and almost immediately passed the start line for the timing up to Alpe d’Huez. I had not set any goal for the climb, but I had a dream, or an idea about doing the climb in less than double the time than Marco Pantani did when he set his record. It would give me about one hour and fifteen minutes to get to the top. In my current condition this would be very difficult …
As soon as the climb began I cursed that I had not fixed the 23 sprocket. I tried to shift to the lowest gear a couple of times, bet the chain would not stay on the largest sprocket. I found out that if I pressed the gear lever continuously, as when shifting to the lightest gear, the chain would stay on the sprocket. It was not an ideal solution, but for short periods of time I could use the 23 sprocket. I really would not mind having a 25 sprocket.
Upwards to Alpe d’Huez …
I tried to compare the feeling from the previous day, when I tested the lower part of the slope, with my current impressions, but my brain just could not do that equation. I wondered if the times in the individual time trial three weeks later would be compared with Pantani’s and Armstrong’s times that had been set at the end of a tough mountain stage. That would really not be a fair comparison.
I returned to my own condition. The speedometer showed one figure values most of the time and I could not feel the slight decrease of the gradient that I had noticed from the car after three kilometres. The climb just went on forever and I used every hairpin to recover as much as possible by taking the longest way through the curves to bring down my heart rate.
There were riders on their way down the hill after finishing the race and I tried to calculate when they would have finished the race, but I soon realised it was rather meaningless. I struggled on and in a small village officials were handing out water bottles. I rode past one of them and grabbed a bottle. I had the three or four gulps of cold water it contained and it felt wonderful.
The cramp in my thighs came back and I wondered how far I could go before I had to get off the bike. I kept on riding until hairpin number 10, where I had to climb off the bike and sit down for a while. I gave my thighs a massage and wondered if I should walk for a while, but my club jersey prevented me. It looked bad enough having climbed off the bike.
I continued upwards. I had dropped all thoughts about doubling Pantani’s time, even if only counting my time on the bike, since I thought this would be to cheat with the figures. My single goal was to finish within nine hours. Both the time and the trip meters were adjusted to measure the time when the bike was moving and since I had stopped so many times, I had no clear picture of how long I had been on my way. Since the start had been delayed and it had taken a while to get to the start at the main square in Bourg d’Oisans, I could not calculate for how long I had been going. However, I was fairly convinced that I would finish within my nine hour limit.
With about four kilometres to go I was overtaken by number 1735, but I had not the power to stay with him. Somewhere between hairpins 2 and 1 I felt so exhausted that I had to climb off the bike again. A Danish car was parked by the road and a woman asked me in Danish if I wanted her to hold my bike. I declined politely, since I needed the bike as support when I stretched my back and tried to recover.
Almost there …
Eventually I realised I had to go on, so I got on the bike and pressed on upwards. I passed the Alpe d’Huez sign and continued to climb through the village. The road climbed under a bridge and after a while it levelled and the last part towards the Palais des Sports went actually slightly downhill. There were railings the last few hundred metres to guide the riders to the finish. The area was crowded in the sun and it was a wonderful feeling to pass the finish line.
I took off the number from my bike and handed it over at the secretariat. In return I got my diploma that stated my time. I found somewhere to sit down and recovered my breath.
The diploma said my official time was 8:55, i.e. the time from 07:15 until I crossed the finish line, and that my real time was 8:43, i.e. the time from that I passed the start. It was enough to get a golden diploma. With this in my hand, I could buy myself a medal. The medal is paid for separately, but I thought it was fair enough, since the price for the race was only 30 Euro.
My bike computer said I had spent 8:28 on the bike, so I had been off the bike for a quarter of an hour. The official distance of the race is 174 kilometres, but my trip meter showed it was more than 178.
Food was included in the price for the race, but there were people everywhere and I just did not have to power to fight the crowd. Pictures from Croix de Fer were displayed at a set of tables, but there was too much crowding there as well. After I had recovered for a while, I bought a La Marmotte jersey and then left the finish area for a café where I could get something to drink in peace.
The finish area up at Alpe d’Huez.
I called my wife and after a while I took off downhill. There was an unbroken line of riders all along the climb. I stopped a couple of times to take some photos. When I got down the hill I really felt for the riders who were about to start the climb up to Alpe d’Huez.
Back at the hotel I took my bike to the storage room. The bikes of the two Spaniards were there already and we met later at dinner. They had completed the race in 8:30 and asked if I had fulfilled my goal. Well, indeed I had. I asked them the same question and they had achieved theirs as well, so we all congratulated each other.
To the dinner my wife and I celebrated with a bottle of local wine. What could be more suitable than a wine made of Gamay grapes that had grown on the slopes of Galibier?
My race in figures
|Time on the bike:
|Croix de Fer, part 1:
||6 km at 7.5 %
||13.0 km/h, 174 beats/min average heart rate
|Croix de Fer, part 2:
||9 km at 6.9 %
||13.4 km/h, 170 beats/min average heart rate
|Croix de Fer, part 3:
||5 km at 6.7 %
||13.9 km/h, 170 beats/min average heart rate
||12 km at 7.2 %
||12.7 km/h, 170 beats/min average heart rate
||18 km at 6.9 %
||11.6 km/h, 169 beats/min average heart rate
||14 km at 7.9 %
||10.3 km/h, 170 beats/min average heart rate
The distances and gradients do not claim to be exact.
Out of the 5 800 who started the race, 4 400 completed it. The fastest time was 6:03 and the last man finishing did it in 13:21.