Thursday, July 12, 2018

Mavic Haute Route Rockies 2018: Stage 2 Boulder to Winter Park (Post Race)

As you probably gathered I gave up posting during the event.  I simply did not have the energy or time to create a new post after each stage.  Rather than stress about providing content I decided to share the experience afterwards.  It has taken me a little while to post as I had to recover from altitude sickness that hit the evening of the last stage.

Please consider a small donation to Team Type 1, the official charity partner for the Haute Route by visiting my fundraising page, no amount is too small.

Stage 2 Boulder to Winter Park

89.3 miles
12,173 feet of climbing
High Point 11,297 feet (Berthoud Pass)

Stage Results

General Classification (GC):  22nd (+16:11)
Age Group 45-54 (AG):          4th   (+12:09)

At 4:30 am I was up before the alarm ready for a 5 am breakfast and a 7 am start.  I am not a morning person and I neglected to train for early morning starts and I knew they were going to get old quickly.   The start line was buzzing and the sun was shining as everyone prepared for what was going to be a big day in the saddle.

Inside track:  An advantage of being part of Team Type 1 is that Phil knows, or is known by most, if not all of the organizers and ex-professional riders in the event.  That is not to say they are not approachable, just that it made introductions easier.

It was after one such Phil conversation that I met Colby Pearce (former US hour record holder) and snagged a couple of selfies.  In stage 1 Colby established himself as the leader in the 45-54 age group and was sitting 8th in the GC.

At 7 am the peloton rolled though Boulder  with a police escort.  It would be a short warm up with the first timed section and climb (Sugerloaf) starting at mile 5.7.  With grades exceeding 15% we would climb to the summit, descend for a short section then climb again to the finish at mile 15.8.  As I looked down at my Garmin I was frustrated to see a blank power reading.  My power meter problems were persisting and I would have to ride the day without it, even though I was using it re-actively due to the altitude it was still a mental blow.  I would have to rely on my heart rate as a guide.

I was learning that timed sections make for very interesting race dynamics.  Racers seemed to hit the first time section hard giving you the choice to either go with them and potentially over commit, or ride your own pace and lose contact with the main group.  With three sections I opted for my own pace and soon found myself working my way through riders as I paced the climb.  Later I would discover I completed time section 1 in 39th place, 17:49 down from the race leader but only 4 minutes off of my rivals.

At the feed station the team re-grouped and moved out with a larger group to share the effort over the 9 miles to the second timed section at mile 24.1.  The second timed section would be a mix of climbing, descending and gravel, over rolling terrain.  The start of the section came after a descent where I found myself out in front of our group with a few other riders at the base of the first climb.  I felt comfortable and sat in to share the work.  We pulled away building up a lead when I stood up in the saddle and my chain snapped.  It took me a second to register what had happened and then my heart sunk.  My chain was wrapped around the bottom bracket and I was going nowhere.   When I finally unwrapped my chain I discovered that the speed link had failed.  There is a first time for everything but really at the start of a timed section, did it really have to fail now, apparently the answer was yes.

The main group soon came by and with luck the Mavic support car was right behind them.  I was losing time but my hopes lifted when I saw the Mavic car.  He pulled over and came to help.  I told him what had happened and he took my bike.  In retrospect I should have taken some pictures as it would turn out that I had plenty of time.  I was however metaphorically hopping from one foot to the other.  I was really grateful that I had support but the support was taking a painfully long time as the mechanic rummaged around in his box for a speed link then to my horror struggled to connect the chain.  I could see that the link was not seated properly as he continued to try to force it to lock.  I finally had to point out the problem and then seated the link myself.  It locked and he took the bike and spun the chain on.  I thought "that's it, I am off",  within a couple of peddle strokes something was wrong, the grinding sound was a dead giveaway.  Stopping I discovered the chain had been run behind the front derailleur.  I had to break the chain, re-thread and re-join it.  I had lost somewhere in the region of 10 to 20 minutes in one go.  Finally I was back up and riding and feeling a whole lot of pressure to ride hard to limit my loses.

Without the support of a group I put my head down and ride solo, the scenery was a blur as I focused on the effort.  Soon  I was turning off the road and onto gravel where I redoubled my effort to claw back time.  By the time I reached the end of the section I knew I had committed a significant amount of effort.  I finished the section in 56th place, 31:04 down from the race leader and losing around 14 minutes to my main rivals.

From the feed station we had a 23.5 mile ride to the final timed section of the day.  The climb to the summit of Berthoud Pass and the high point for the day at 11,297 feet.  We rode as a small group as the weather started to turn.  With the first drops of rain we pulled over to put on jackets, which was a good decision, before long it was not only raining, it was hailing.  The weather remained changeable as we continued on.  After the effort in time section 2 I knew I needed to recover and allowed myself to yo-yo off of the back of the group as they pushed harder than I wanted to ride.  The trade off was a lack of shelter but I needed to conserve energy.  As we approached the feed station at the base of the climb I was joined by another rider and a Colorado native.  He said there was a storm front coming and we were in for "some special Colorado weather."  I had no idea what that meant but it did not sound good.

As soon as we arrived at the feed station there was confusion.  We were told that due to the weather timed section 3 had been neutralized and that the day was over.  Team members started to get changed and pack up their bikes.  A police officer confirmed the situation and I stopped my Garmin and prepared to get changed.  What we did not know was the ramification of not finishing the last time section.  Then someone said they were checking with the Haute Route officials.  Then it got even crazier.  The official word from the Haute Route was that the road was clear and the timing section open.  The police officer was shaking his head and reiterated, it was a bad idea and riders should finish here.  We were caught between the risk of weather and being told the timing section was open.  If we wanted to complete the race we had to ride.  Fortunately I had packed some warmer clothing in my sag bag and after pulling on knee warmers, thin glove liners and my rain jacket I headed to the start of the last timed section of the day.

As I hit the start of the 12.7 mile climb I had no idea what was ahead, had I known I would have packed up at the feed station and called it good.  The climb was not steep, but it was long and high.  It was not long before the altitude started to sap what strength I had left after an already crazy day.   As I got higher, I started to fight a sick sensation in my stomach and head forcing me to ease up on the power.  Then about 3/4 of the way up it started to snow, then the wind picked up and it became driving snow reducing visibility and making for a surreal experience.  Head down, I was managing my body and focused on getting to the top.  After what felt like forever I finally crossed the line but the weather and altitude had exacted a cost.  I had arrived in 64th place, 38:14 down on the leaders and losing almost 20 minutes to my rivals.  I would not know the times until much later.  As I reached the summit in the driving snow my only thought was to finish the stage.  One of the Team Type 1 crew said "do you want to go on?" followed by "Phil went on and is just ahead of you",   In my exhausted and altitude befuddled mind the only option was to go on and finish.  I shouted into the wind and snow "I will go on".  Boy was that a stupid decision.

Let's recap the conditions (picture by Rupert Waterhouse as the weather closed in).  Driving snow with temperatures well below freezing. Visibility a few feet ahead and road conditions treacherous.  I had nothing on my head other than my helmet with lots of air vents, thin glove liners, rain jacket, short sleeve jersey, shorts and knee warmers, oh and toe warmers over my shoes.  I was not exactly prepared for the conditions I now found myself in.

As I started the decent, snow drove into my face and helmet simultaneously freezing my head and blinding me.  My eyes felt like they were freezing and I had to clear the snow from my glasses to see.  The faster I went the worse my head froze forcing me to ride my brakes to both stay safe and try to reduce the cold.  It was a losing battle as sensation in my hands was almost gone.  I considered pulling over but with no shelter on the side of the road I feared freezing whilst waiting for help.  Instead I held on to my brakes feathering them as best I could.   The cold was so painful and I felt waves of sickness.  Then things took a more worrying turn as my vision started to tunnel threatening a potential black out.  I shook my head and focused on staying conscious, I chanted to myself  "stay up, stay up, stay up".  I knew if I could stay together a little longer the temperature would increase as I lost altitude.  I just had to stay upright and conscious, then I felt it, slightly warmer air, it washed over me like hope and I knew then I could hold on to the finish.

As I crossed the finish line the announcer called out "another Team Type 1 rider is in", but my scrambled mind barely registered the words.  I heard someone say "lets get you warm" then someone else lead me to an underground garage.  The words and the result were very different.  I was left freezing cold and confused.  What the official had done was lead me to the Haute Route bag drop.  Had they taken a moment to appraise my condition they might have really helped and limited what happened next.  My bag was not there it was with Team Type 1.   I looked around like a dummy for a few minutes trying to figure out where I was and what to do when I saw Phil's bike outside a cafe across from me.  I used it as a beacon, put my bike next to it and headed inside.  Phil, looked at me and said something like "you too", I just nodded and sat down at a table.  I was so, so, so cold.  I just sat there in cold, wet clothes and started to shake.  The shaking increased and was so violent I could not think, speak or control my body.  My bag arrived and somehow I forced myself out of my wet gear and into dry clothes but the shaking got worse.  The riders at the table were trying to look after me.  They got me a tea and hot soup but I could not hold them for shaking, I could not think straight, all I could do was shake.  I was really grateful for the support and help.  After what felt like ages I was able to get some hot tea and a little soup down.  The shaking continued all the way to the team car and back to the hotel.   I ran a hot bath, then crawled into bed and fell into a fitful sleep for a couple of hours, skipping the riders briefing for the next day before dinner.

In retrospect I was very, very lucky, things could have gone horribly wrong in so many ways. Ironically the Haute Route decided to neutralize the entire stage due to timing issues and what I can only assume to be mixed messaging as some riders where neutralized before the climb.  The neutralization would go in my favor with regard to the timing.  Although I finished 32nd I had lost considerable time due to a broken chain and adverse weather conditions.  I had gone far deeper than planned and the aftermath of the cold and shaking had taken a considerable toll on my body.  How I would perform in stage 3 would depend on my recovery and that meant sleep.

Afterword:  Looking back on the events of that day and how the Haute Route managed the messaging left me with a very mixed feeling.
By neutralizing the stage the effort and advantage built up by some was completely washed away.  In addition the effort expended was in some cases unequal and some might say unfair going forward.  I both benefited and suffered as a result of the stage.  My time loss was wiped away but conversely I raced hard expending a great deal of energy for nothing.   More concerning to me was the poor judgement call on behalf of the organization and the decision to go against the advice of the local police officer who's appraisal of the situation was completely accurate.  In hindsight I feel they could have aired on the side of caution.  Thankfully no one was harmed but that could so easily have been a different story as I later learnt my experience was not unique.  Things happen and hindsight is 20/20 vision and whilst different decisions might have been possible I want to believe decisions were made to give riders the opportunity to compete and finish.  What I found disappointing was how the Haute Route managed the decisions and outcomes after the fact.  They behaved as though it simply did not happen.  The Stage 2 video contained no reference to/or mention of the weather conditions.  No photographs where shown and to all intense and purpose the stage was all blue sky's and clear riding.  When someone pointed this out in the rider meeting there was nervous laughter and a quick change of subject.  In my opinion this was disrespectful to the riders that had pushed through and overcome extreme conditions regardless of whether they should have been put in that position or not.  I know the day will forever be etched in my memory as one of my most epic and grueling days of riding, as I am sure it will be for many others.

Keep it Rubber Side Down and MaxLifeOut ....

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