In the whole lead-up to this trip to Europe, I’ve focused more on the Roc des Alpes Marathon than the actual World Champs race. To be held a week before Worlds, I knew that if I was ever to have a chance at getting a podium in a UCI Series marathon in Europe, the Roc was it. The course suited me perfectly, with long climbs and plenty of them. A good result would earn me some points that would get me off the back row of the start grid at World Champs a week later, and give me a boost of encouragement I sorely needed. In short, Roc has been a big goal.
Roc des Alpes – the lead-up
If you read my last blog you’ll know that our arrival and subsequent week of ‘training’ in La Clusaz was made really difficult by freezing weather and persistent rain, plus the recurrence of an injury I’ve trained through for months, but which I thought had been dealt with by cortisone injections. On Friday, the day before the race, I wandered about the cold, wet village, went through the motions of registering and doing a pretty lame pre-race workout, but went to bed wondering if I would bother to race at all. I didn’t want to flare up the pain in my back further.
I didn’t want to ruin my bike and my health in the poor conditions. I didn’t know if I would be able to handle the muddy trails. It seemed best to just complete our media work and decamp as soon as possible to the south of France, where summer was forging ahead regardless of the dreadful weather plaguing the rest of Europe and the nation.
But after yet another sleepless night spent rolling on trigger balls and listening to relaxation recordings I rose with one thought: I’ve trained with discomfort every day for four months for this race. Why should I not race for fear of a bit of discomfort? I pinned the number on my jersey and filled a bidon with energy drink.
Mike was feeling unwell with jetlag and tiredness so decided he wouldn’t race but would support me in a feedzone or two. I didn’t say much but secretly I was thrilled. Nothing feels better in a tough race than having someone you love out there supporting you. I was so resigned to having a bad day that I felt no nerves and roboted through a typical race morning routine. A big carby breakfast.
Filling my pockets with spares, tools, and food. I checked the weather for the 100th time that week and worked out what to wear. I ran out of time a bit. I did the worst warm-up ever of precisely 2 minutes 33 pedalling uphill. I arrived at the front start chute for UCI riders numbered 10000 to 10050 (I was number 10039) and found I was not to be allowed in as I had no UCI points. Mike went in to bat as capital T Team capital M Manager and explained that in Australia we don’t have many XCM races that give points and the UCI Commissaire looked me up and down a few times then decided that I’d pass and waved me in. I pulled in next to another woman and tried to smile at her but she was either terrified by me or not interested in making friends.
Race briefing. The sun tiptoed out from behind some clouds. The road ahead shone blindingly. Still no nerves. We were warned about the mud, and told that after the descent off the Col des Aravis we’d be through the worst. 30 seconds to go. I did something someone wise had advised me to do and shut my eyes to take 10 deep breaths. A song I really like came over the loudspeaker. 10 seconds to go. I opened my eyes and there it was. Nerves, excitement. I felt ready to race. Then the gun.
Like all euro marathons, this race started with an immense climb. After about a minute I settled into my rhythm. The other woman from the start chute had immediately disappeared behind me. I hung off the back of the front group of men but as the road kicked up let them go. We turned off the main road and hit gravel. Then rougher gravel. I started to reel in guys who’d gone out too hot. I started to enjoy myself immensely. We climbed and climbed. I kept an eye on my heart rate and the race time and at 20 minutes I shut it down from threshold riding to sub-threshold and settled in around a group of guys. When we reached the top nobody could contain themselves. Conversations sprung up around me. Views of snow-capped giants! Mont Blanc! The sun! Green rolling pastures below! It was magnifique! Our first descent followed, and our first taste of mud.
And here’s the thing. I got through it really, really well. Barely a soul passed me as we descended over technical roots with drops behind them, sliding around corners, and down steep chutes of crude oil. My little dropper post was a godsend. I barely remember what followed but when we passed through the Col des Aravis feedzone Mike wasn’t there. I’d beaten him to the top but it didn’t matter, we were descending now and there was another feedzone at the bottom.
I can barely describe the descent it was so varied, so long, so extraordinary. It had every kind of trail, every kind of technical challenge, and all of it was coated in every different kind of mud you can imagine. Slippery, greasy mud; deep, wet mud; thick, clay mud; mud mixed with rocks; mud mixed with grass; and my favourite, mud mixed with leaves. There was uphill mud and downhill mud, wide mud traps that I called ‘cyclocross mud’, flat mud sections that were barely rideable, unless you found a line through an adjacent paddock and worked out how to rejoin the route. There were steep forest trails over treacherous roots and rocks where I worked out how to tripod with my dropper down so I could effectively sit on the saddle and stick a foot out moto style, alternating feet depending on which way the next steep hairpin corner over black porridge went. I let go of the brakes and remembered what I’d been told about riding mud: everything happens the same as in the dry, it just happens a lot quicker. This removed all the fear I’ve felt in the past – mud wasn’t some mysterious bike-grabbing force trying to trick me – it was just an accelerant, and all I had to do was stay right on my toes. I nailed it all, barely losing a place. I was also grinning from ear to ear.
French crowds – merci à tous
The crowd helped. The capacity for the French people to come out of their homes, drive their cars deep into the forest, park, open all the doors and the boot, put on blaring techno, and stand in freezing foggy weather to scream and clap and shout at bike riders is both touching and remarkable. Every single person lining the route, and there were hundreds of these people, yelled at me: ‘courage!’ ‘allez allez!’, and, my favourite ‘première fille!’ In fact, on seeing me, the ‘première fille’, many spectators simply went berserk with joy. It was hard NOT to smile. Then there is a certain kind of Frenchman – quiet, intellectual, grey-haired, woollen-jumpered – who became positively emotional when I passed. Some of them teared up, and seemed profoundly moved by the passage of the première fille. They muttered encouragement between sobs. My heart soared.
I came out before the feedzone where an official was yelling out everyone’s place with tremendous enthusiasm: ‘Quarante-sixième! Quarante-septième! Quarante-huitième! I was in 46th. My bib number was 39. I decided to try to beat that. At the feedzone I refilled my utterly disgusting bidon coated in cow shit with ‘syrop’ (syrup, a bit like cordial – cherry flavour!) and made the decision to stop so that a nice gentleman with a hose could wash down my bike a bit. I was surprised to see about an inch of mud packed onto my saddle, compressed from my sitting on it, and looked down. The bike was an unrecognisable mess. I held my sunglasses (with Adidas’s ‘bright’ lenses – amazing) under the stream and after a minute pulled my bike away and back onto the trail, ten metres into which I encountered another epic mud trap where everything was immediately coated in thick black sludge again, including my glasses. Oh well, the wash must have helped a bit.
After more techy riding over rock drops and slippery corners we reached the big climb that would take us up about 1000m. I was ready for it. I sat at sub-threshold and tried to reel in the seven men I needed to get up to 39th place without letting my heartrate creep up. At first it was slow, but we hit some techy climbing sections where a lot of men got off and soon I was passing blokes left right and centre, all the while focusing on keeping my heartrate low. I had a great song stuck in my head. The weather was holding. Alpine cowbells tinkled a gorgeous soundtrack to my pedalling and the air was full of sweet-smelling flowers. I had worn my ‘winter’ weight fluffy team bibs (a birthday present from Mike for our Euro adventure), a short-sleeved undershirt (white, oops), armwarmers, and my jersey. With my gilet in my pocket I’d struck just the right balance of warm and light. I was eating and drinking well – perfectly in fact. Everything was going exactly as it should. I had plenty left in the tank and my legs felt amazing.
Many Australian men hate getting ‘chicked’, and it was fascinating to learn that French men are equally averse to getting ‘mademoiselled’. I mademoiselled a good few guys, with one particular man in brown knicks (in fact the first I passed on this 10km climb), deciding stay with me. Brown-knicks-man’s heavy breathing was my companion for the rest of my race. And before you judge him, if there was ever a day to wear brown knicks, this was it.
Halfway up the big climb. At this point you’re probably wondering how my famous injury is going. Thanks for asking! It was hurting quite a bit and the pain was starting to slow me down. I put in a little surge to pull away from brown-knicks-man because I needed to take some tablets and pulling out a baggie with a couple of pills in it and washing them down with syrop seems hardly in the spirit of the sport, even if it is just ibuprofen. This action had the same effect as taking a caffeine gel. After 20 minutes I felt like I had a new body and tore away from another couple of men towards the summit of the climb at 2,000m altitude, still saving plenty for the last mountain another 15km away where I planned to unleash hell. Première fille! Allez Allez!
I was drunk with elation (and hypoxia) by the time I crested the day’s biggest challenge because the hard part of the race was over and I knew I could do it. The techiest bits of trail were allegedly behind me and there was no physical challenge this race could throw at me that I didn’t feel equal to. I could finish the toughest, the best race of my life and write a perfect and pleasing final chapter to my racing career, such as it was. This was how the story of that miserable week, the miserable last couple of months, the striving and sacrificing and being poor and getting up at 4am and not having any superannuation and the disappointments, and selfishness, and failures for YEARS – this was the end point. That was just an epic narrative arc and today I’d write ‘The End’ and close that book forever. I was ready to overcome everything I had ever feared and avoided in One. Epic. Race. I was going to make everyone proud.
The Tour de France passes over the Col des Aravis this year, a Cat 2 climb. The Roc des Alpes passed through it twice, but not over it – that would be too easy. Each time we passed the Col it was on a descent, having climbed immensely higher than that pass at 1500m. In short, the Roc des Alpes does the TdF cols the hard way! The sweet-smelling alpine pastures had been replaced by a rocky moonscape of scree and gravel. We descended through freezing mud puddles, past piles of snow, through skiddy switchbacks for a very long time before finally, passing through a series of unavoidable deep puddles, arriving at the feedzone, and there was Mike. Oh, how I’d been looking forward to seeing him! There was so much I wanted to tell him, so much to say, but all I managed was ‘everything’ when he asked me what gels I wanted, and ‘no’ when he asked if I wanted my jacket. ‘You’re doing so well’ he said, and I was away, past another woollen-jumpered, teary Frenchman and back into the trail – the other men I’d been riding with had either stopped or gone on ahead. I was completely alone.
When I had passed through the Col des Aravis the first time, maybe 50 minutes into the race, Mike was still climbing up the hill. He got there, looked around, realised he’d missed me, bought a coffee, played with his phone, drank the coffee, paid, went back outside, chatted with people, then spotted the woman in second place, perhaps 30 minutes behind me. With full credit to the women who finished this immensely tough race and who I’m sure had their own mechanical and physical challenges, it’s more than likely that I had an advantage of at least an hour by the time I passed through the Col the second time, three hours into my race. I had ridden into the low thirties in the men’s event. It was just a matter of getting to the finish line. When you have a gap like that, only two things can stop you maintaining your position: a devastating injury or a terminal mechanical.
More crowds, more photographers. I was aware of a helicopter. I was aware that it was cold. More puddles. Then a field where I took whacky lines through steep, clumpy mud and managed to stay upright through everyone else’s footprints. Smiling still. Over a bridge and there it was. War. A mud trap as far as the eye could see. I started out riding it, enjoying my new mud skills. It got thicker, deeper. I slid in all directions and gave up trying to ride. I rounded a corner and for the first time, despite all the challenges I’d got through, I just couldn’t believe what I saw. The claggy, deep mire went on forever. Unrideable clay mid-shin deep. I carried on pushing my bike but found it wouldn’t budge. The clay was clogging the fork and the rear dropout so the tyres couldn’t rotate, oozing like playdough through the cranks, between the pedals. Brown-knicks-man caught up to me and climbed up an embankment to stumble along a pocked, grassy ledge alongside the mud trap. I scrambled up behind him but with so much mud on my bike I could barely lift it and couldn’t keep going in his wake. Several men caught up to me – nearly as many as I’d passed on the climb. I stopped and pulled handfuls of mud out of my drivetrain, then took stock.
In situations like this, when I’m not sure what to do, I simply pick someone or a group who seem to have a handle on things and copy them. These men simply trudged along through the mud trap, so I slid back down the embankment with my heavy, immovable bike and copied, picking it up, lifting my feet against the suction, putting the bike down again, and repeating, step by step, again and again. Eventually we got to the end of it. A slippery descent through the same mud led back into the forest and, I can only assume, something better. I pulled more mud out of my drivetrain but it was a useless, Sisyphean task. I was covered in mud, sinking in it, my bike weights 10kg, but I could barely lift it – I can lift over 20kgs like that easily (I know this from lugging bike boxes around airports). What I had there was more mud than bike. The mud was swallowing us. I copied what the men passing me did. I jumped on and pedalled. A creaking sound such as you’d expect from a bike completely clogged with mud. Then a crack. No torque. I jumped off. My chain broken? I can fix that. It looked slack, but wasn’t broken. Then I saw it. My rear derailleur sticking out at a sickening angle. A broken hanger? I can fix that. I wiped away some mud and saw shards of carbon fibre sticking out of my frame and the bolt for my rear derailleur sheared off. A nice man who was not in the race but was (crazily) traversing the mud trap anyway got off to help me. He looked at me with sad eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘is dead’.
I speak reasonably good French and had been merrily chatting away in French all day to anyone who was up for it, but now I had nothing but English. How could I make him see how much this meant? How essential it was that this couldn’t happen?
‘But I’m winning’ was all I could manage. The man shook his head. ‘Sorry’. He got on his bike and kept going.
When we’d washed my bike twice and taken it apart, Mike worked out what had happened. The chain had jammed at the lower jockey wheel, breaking the rear derailleur. The hanger had twisted and completely rotated around the axle, tearing through the carbon of my frame.
I stood there in disbelief, looking longingly at the sludgy trail up ahead. On my right I could see the road up to the Col des Aravis through the trees, a few hundred metres away. I didn’t know it but Mike had seen at least two other people rolling down it with broken derailleurs not long before, victims of the same section. I went over some fencing tape and lugged my bike across a soggy, muddy paddock, over more fencing tape, then down a precipitous hill on my bum, through another tape fence, and finally to an ancient little stone bridge across the river that Mike and I, only yesterday, had stopped to admire on our pre-race ride. I grabbed the last bit of fencing tape and the world ended. It took a while to realise I’d received a solid electric shock. Thanks universe.
I stood sodden and stunned on the side of the road, hoping that Mike, descending from the feedzone where I’d seen him only 20 minutes earlier, might ride past and somehow rescue me from the nightmare. A couple of Frenchmen, junior versions of the woollen-jumper wearing types, with glasses and everything, stopped and asked if I was okay. I showed them how my bike had broken. ‘Was it on that traverse up there?’ The guy asked. I nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said, staring up at it. ‘Of course. I’m sorry.’
I wedged the rear derailleur on top of the cassette so it wouldn’t drag on the ground and dropped my dropper, sat on my bike, then set off down the road, which went all the way down to our hotel in La Clusaz. As soon as I got going I had the sensation of being punched in the back of the head and in the kidneys. I stopped, shocked, but it was just immense clods dislodging from my tyres. A car passed me achingly slowly, four faces within peering at me in horror. When I got to the hotel I loitered for ages in the carpark, hoping Mike was about to appear from the feedzone. I had no phone and we had only one key and that was with Mike. After 15 minutes I started to get very cold. I snuck in the fire escape, dropping a trail of clods, and knocked on our room door. No answer. No Mike. After another 15 minutes’ loitering I put my relatively clean vest on over my jersey, removed my shoes and socks, rubbed my face, and went to reception in an utterly repulsive state to ask for a key. The receptionist didn’t bat an eyelid. Should’ve done that earlier. I texted Mike, who was all set up at the next feedzone waiting for me. And that was that.
I didn’t cry. Maybe a couple of dry sobs, then later that evening a couple of slow tears. Overwhelmingly, though, I just couldn’t believe it. I still can’t. Somewhere back there in the past is the moment when I could have stopped this happening to my bike. I could have, for example, picked it up very early on and carried it through, as I saw one other guy do, and saved it. I could have, back in Brisbane, elected for normal, heavier jockey wheels that wouldn’t have clogged and jammed as easily as the hollow ninja star ones I was running – that might have helped. I could have battled along on that pocked ledge with brown-knicks-man and maybe got away with it. I could have pulled mud out of the rear derailleur, rather than the cranks, when I stopped those two times to try to shed the worst of it. I could have sacrificed my bottle of energy drink and squirted it on the drivetrain, but I’m not sure that would have helped. In my fantasies there’s a fountain, a man with a hose, a stream – where I wash my bike off and jump back on. Two nights have passed, both have been full of thoughts and even dreams where I get it right and my bike survives those 500 metres of devastating mud. Mike heard me talking in my sleep about the race last night. I hope I find peace with it soon.
Someone said to me that it would be okay because there would be another race… Another UCI Marathon? Maybe not. Yes I have World Champs, and I’ll do my best, but this was different. This was all about me. This was a big, fat, number one. On that start line, in the last 10 seconds, when I found my mojo, I found it because I told myself a story. At that moment all the recent little challenges of life were embodied in 74-kilometres of muddy trails through the French Alps, and I was going to beat them.
The Roc des Alpes was the best race of my life until it was cut short, so it’ll never get to be the best race of my life. I’ve never felt such strength, such elation, such capability on a bike. Never raced through such impressive country and with such a positive atmosphere – it was beyond words. That’s what made pulling out a nightmare. Crossing the finish line after going through that terrain, after that week of mental strain would have been the sweetest finish of my life. Not winning, overcoming.
Another one? You see, after pain, stress, training, huge expenses and distances travelled for just a couple of events, I was ready to give this away. Before I pulled out of the Roc des Alpes, this trip was my last hurrah, then I’d race until the end of the year and subsequently take it easy. Stay fit, sure, but just enjoy it. Let my body heal. Come to Europe and do a road tour with Mike over all those easy-peasy TdF cols. Cycle around Japan on a tandem. Stuff like that. Now I have unfinished business… can I get fit, save up, come back, do this again next year?
Fellow Australian Jenni King had a fantastic result on Sunday’s Roc des Alpes race, coming second in the half marathon in very similar conditions.
When I was out there winning that race I got a sense that I might cross the finish line in front and, as I often do during a five-hour marathon, I started writing my race report in my head…
This is what I was going to say. I was going to say that I dedicate the win to my husband Mike, who has quietly in the background and often without thanks picked me up, driven me about, sat in waiting rooms, emailed people, cooked dinner, cleaned my bike, organised trips, found opportunities, protected me, comforted me, trained with me, listened to me, and sacrificed his own riding, racing, his home, and his friendships, to make my life choices possible. He fixed my bike by plundering his own for parts. He will ride the risky, broken swingarm for the rest of the trip.
I have a lot of people to thank, not least all of you who’ve sent me messages of encouragement and support and friendship in the wake of this (let’s keep it in perspective) disappointment. I don’t have a win to dedicate to Mike, but I hope that hundreds of people read to the end of this exceptionally long race report so they can witness me thank him from my deepest heart.
I love you Mike and I can’t wait to cycle around Japan on a tandem with you. I might even let you sit at the front.