L'Etape de la Defonce 2016

Team Kingston Wheelers : Joe, Tom, Javier and Lawrence

Stage 1 – TTT

Go! Tom steps on the pedals and there we go. I'm racing my first ever team time trial alongside with Joe, Tom and Lawrence (I think it is the first one also for them). Everything happens fast, we are pedalling full speed up hill and I can hardly sustain the pace. It took me 30 seconds to realize I had not started the Garmin, I was too worried about breathing and pedalling fast. Joe passes Tom and takes the lead, things get worst for me. He is strong and is pushing hard. I realize I'm next on the line, very soon I'll have to face the head wind. Not sure how I knew it was my turn. If Joe had made a sign with his elbow I certainly missed it. I don't even know what I was looking at, all I know is my brain was not processing what my eyes were seeing. That takes energy and I'm pretty sure all my energy was being used in turning the pedals. When I magically decided it was my time I took the lead pretending to have everything under control? "Don't worry fellas, I'll take it from here" an external observer might have been tricked to think. Far from true. As soon as I was in the front I realized the head wind was stronger than I thought, the ramp steeper than it looked and my capacity to sustain the power I was pushing was limited to a few more seconds. I started to internally cry for someone to take over.

I guess it was Lawrence who came to the rescue; but I was already in trouble. My power was decreasing rapidly and that little jump you have to make to join the tail of the group didn't look that little anymore. It was only 2 minutes into the team time trial and I feared I was going to be dropped. And in fact I almost was. A gap opened, not very big, just a couple of meters, but it was there. And the only reason it didn't grow bigger was because the road levelled and whoever was in the front slowed down a bit (a little tiny bit I have to say) and looked back to check if we were all on. That was the fraction of a second that allowed me to connect. Someone shouted "we're on" and there I was at the limit again.

If this were an American film, I would have gone through my limits to find an unknown source of energy that would allow me to not only sustain but increase my power. And do that in such a way that I would take the lead and power the rest of the time trial with some epic music sounding on our ears while time keepers would be amazed with our performance as we crossed the line in slow mo.

The reality was that in the flat section that came I skipped a turn and took the opportunity to adjust my Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) from "There is not enough air in the universe" to "I could shout a word if I need to", which, by the way, it is a huge improvement in RPE.

And this was good because both the downhill section and my turn to get to the front (again) were approaching. I'll be honest; despite being a bit recovered I didn't went all out in the downhill section. It was a fast descend but the head wind meant you had to keep pedalling if you wanted to gain speed and I just wanted to recover a bit more. My colleagues passed me, we approached the roundabout, mini sprint to get out of it and soon enough we faced the last climb. Joe in the front, then me, then Lawrence and finally Tom.

Joe set a pace that I immediately identified as more than challenging. I shouted "steady" with one of my last controlled exhalations. Joe eased a bit but I knew that was not enough, I was not going to be able to sustain that pace for the rest of the climb. The problem was I was out of breath already. The bell came to save me when Lawrence shouted from behind. Joe loaded an easier gear, upped his cadence a little bit and the result was a pace I was able to sustain (just). Lawrence was struggling and Tom was shouting to Joe to slow down. I think I shouted something like "we are almost there". Well-intentioned but almost useless in these circumstances, especially if you consider it was clearly not true. I hope it was not my shout what ended up demoralizing Lawrence but the fact is a few seconds after I have said my words he hit his limit and asked us to carry on without him.

That meant troubles for me; without him pacing us I crossed the line from "I'm surviving" to "I'm dying here" in a fraction of a second. By the time we finishing the climb I was again about to blow up and, again, I was saved by the bell. The road was now slightly downhill and we were riding at full speed. Tom shouted, I think Joe shouted something as well, even the motorbike driver that was following us shouted asking us to go for the final push. I didn't shout, I had enough with trying to follow Tom and Joe in their sprints. I crossed the line a fraction of second behind them; 18 minutes 11 seconds after the Go! That precipitated this carrousel of feelings.

I waited for Lawrence and when we got the four together I remember feeling very, very, very happy about our performance. It was only the second time we rode together and I thought we coordinated reasonably well. Sure we were not the fastest, in fact we soon met Paul and Colin from Paceline and they told us they rode it in 17:30 but that didn't change my perception. It is very strange how as soon as we finished I felt relieved and saw everything from the positive side. I was really happy.

Stage 2

We finished the first stage around 10:15 and the second stage was starting at 13:30. That meant we had some time to recover, eat and prepare for the second act. At 13:15 we were briefed by the commissaries and at exactly 13:00 the race started with a neutralized section. A short one because as soon as we were out of Cowbridge the lead car accelerated and we were racing. That was around the same point where the TTT had started earlier in the morning and that meant the race started uphill with the first prime less than 3km away. You can imagine what happened next, the pace spiked suddenly and I struggled to keep up. I was moving backwards, everyone was passing me. But I didn't panic, I knew this ramp was short and I was not going to be dropped. I recited to myself my mantra for the occasion "I wasn't dropped here, I'll do well".

The ramp finished and I was still in the bunch, time to move up. Because that is what I was conscious all the time in this stage, where I was in the bunch. I constantly was trying to be near the front. Not easy because I probably don't ride aggressively enough but I was using the bunch to protect me from the wind and so it was easier to move towards the front. Soon enough came the "climb". In all fairness it is not a proper climb, it is more like a series of short ramps that all combined form a section of around 10km uphill. Still the peloton attacked it at full speed and I had to put all I had to keep up with the pace. And I did. And as soon as we finished the climb I reminded myself, "I wasn't dropped here, I'll do well". And the way of making sure I'd do well was to make a mental note of this climb to make sure I was well positioned in the following lap. Being near the front means you are always near Paul, Colin and Sam from Paceline. They seem to be always well positioned and always attentive to what is happening on the race. Took another mental note reminding myself to try to be close to them.

Soon I recognized the road we were riding. It was the road from our hotel to Cowbridge. That was good news because that meant I then knew what was left out of the first lap and that I then knew all the route with the only exception of the (uphill) final straight. We started the second lap with the ramp that started the TTT and the first lap but this time it didn't felt that hard. In fact I was climbing faster than the majority of the peloton without needing to push me to the limit. When the real "climb" came I was sitting fifth or sixth wheel and climbing well within my capabilities. That can only mean the peloton had slowed down in the second lap but I was not the one that was going to complain. I also saw Sam from Paceline at the front. He was climbing very well, in fact he was one of the riders contributing to push up the pace a bit. I missed his movement but he later told me as soon as the road flattened he found himself ahead of the peloton with another rider on his wheel. They pushed on, caught a rider that was ahead and formed a breakaway of three. Now that I know this stage route I think that is the best moment to try to get away from the peloton; just after the top of the climb in the second lap. I think he played it very well from the tactical point of view.

I missed his movement because as the climb finished I, and all the peloton, took a few seconds to recover and lost the focus on what was going on at the front. In any case I was very happy at that point, "I wasn't dropped here, and I’ll do well". With the second climb out of the way it was time to get ready to the final part of the stage. That was the same section we had ridden at the TTT extended with 1.5km climb that I didn't know. As soon as we entered the ramp to the A48 I saw Joe crashing on the left hand side. A rider went down in front of him and he couldn't avoid the crash. It didn't look bad but I felt really sorry for him. He is very strong and I'm sure he would have done very well in this uphill finish. It looked to me that no one wanted to set the pace up this ramp. I guess everyone was thinking of conserving energy for the final rush. The flat section came and I was near the front.

In the descent to the roundabout I saw Sam and another rider on the other side of the road. Then is when I realized he was in a breakaway (I later learnt the third breakaway rider had missed the last turn and has been caught by the peloton earlier). I was really impressed he managed to stay away considering the speed at which the peloton had been moving. We took the roundabout and started the climb (the same second climb we rode in the TTT). The peloton when a bit all over the place. Some riders going backwards, some riders sprinting to move quickly to the front. I, knowing the climb, ignored all those movements, set my own pace and focused on avoiding riders as I was passing them. I still had the opportunity to see Joe descending at the other side of the road. I felt happy for him that meant the crash was not serious; sure he would lose some time, but he was still on the race. As I was topping the climb Paul passed me on the left and say a word of encouragement. I jumped on his wheel as he was passing and we overtook a good number of rider as Paul was powering it on the flat with me stick to his wheel. The descent came and we caught with Colin. The climb to the final line started. I didn't know this section so I figured trying to match Pauls and Colin's pace was a good target for me and that is exactly what I did. We crossed the line in the same group 44 seconds after the winner; I was given 32nd. I was really happy with my result.

Back to the HQ I found our team was not the luckier in this second stage. Lawrence had crashed and was a DNF. He was ok but still lots of cuts and brushes. Tom was caught by a gap at the back of the peloton at the beginning of the second lap and found himself chasing the peloton with a rider on his wheel for a whole lap. Despite all his efforts he ended up losing 15 minutes in the line. Joe had recovered from his crash yes, but ended up losing 3:52 in the line.

Stage 3

Sunday didn't start very well. First it was raining. Then, when we were to get our bicycles out of the car we found out that Joe's frame was broken and unsafe to be ridden. That was really disappointing; he crashed, he now was out of the race and he had a broken frame. It then was Tom and myself the only two wheelers for the third and final stage. 70k with 900m of climbing. As we said, just a club run at K0.5!

Very diligently I had put a note in my frame with the kms for each climb. I was prepared but I also was pretty sure of what was going to happen. The bunch was going to stay together until the first climb. That first climb would be climbed all out and groups would be formed but those groups would not merge again. To be honest I had not much faith on me holding it in the front in that first climb. We rode the 10k from the hotel to the HQ and the excellent news were my legs were feeling great. It was like if I were totally recovered. I wasn't feeling any tiredness from the two stages the day before. That, surely, should have been my brain tricking me but it was a great feeling. The stage started and the rain kept falling. It was not cold and it was not raining a lot but just enough to make everything more challenging.

My glasses were fogged half of the time. I didn't want to take them out because I wouldn't see anyway with the rain and the spray from the road on my eyes. The notes I had in my frame were mostly useless because I couldn't read my Garmin. At some point I thought I have to buy a new, better, pair of glasses. The ones I have are the cheapest I found at Decathlon (9€ if I remember correctly) and I'm pretty sure there should be glasses that perform better in these circumstances. In any case I did very well getting my gel well before the first climb and making sure I was in the front when it started. Not that it helped much. With only 25km in the legs it took me a while to find my own pace and I felt like the whole peloton was passing me. I still managed to climb at a very decent pace according to my capabilities so I won't complain. In fact as soon as we hit the top of the climb I started to pass riders. Tom had finished just a bit ahead of me and I was trying to catch up with him. Descending this first climb I saw Sam on the right hand side of the road. He was looking at his bicycle. I figured he had crashed but he looked all right to me. The descend was fast and wet so I'm not surprised some crashes happened.

The second climb came and this time it was easier to me to set my own pace. I was starting to feel great and actually I was enjoying the stage (why I was actually enjoying a hilly stage on a rainy day when I had been dropped is beyond me?). Another fast descend and a group was formed. Almost automatically we started to work together taking turns. Tom and myself did our share. The problem was that part of the route was not very good to ride fast as a group, too many turns and roundabouts. In fact very soon came the third climb and there we all were on our own. In the fourth climb I saw ahead of us a group of riders and I figured that if I could bridge to them I could gain some time. As I felt I had good legs I pushed it a bit and got away from my group. What a great feeling when climbing you leave your group behind!!

Still my movement was a bit of a nonsense. I couldn't bridge quickly and soon I found myself in no man's land. I gave it a few seconds to consider what to do, easy up and wait for the group or keep pushing and waste energy? Against my logical mind I opted for keep pushing. Luck played in my favour. In the descend a couple of riders caught with me from behind (I'm a crap descender) and the riders in front of us slowed down for a traffic light before realizing a marshal was retaining the traffic for them. Those seconds they slowed down allowed us (me, the two riders that had caught up with me in the descent and the rest of the group that was coming from behind) to catch up with them and a group or around 20 riders formed. With all the hills passed it was clear for me that this group was going to finish together. I was very happy because Tom was also in the group and we both were riding well compared to the rest. In fact after the stage we commented that we both felt the group was riding too slow in the climbs. When we entered the A48 Lawrence and Joe passed our group in the car. As they passed they waved at us and we saw them. It was great to see they were involved in following the race.

The group was speeding up as we were approaching the final ramp to the line. This is the same final ramp as in stage 2 so I didn't worry about what the others were doing. I knew the climb and I knew how I was going to climb it. Still I found myself pretty much at the front of the group climbing at my own pace. A few riders sprinted but most of them were, like me, just riding a pace they could constantly sustain. I ended up crossing the line the 6th of that group of 18 riders. 36th in the stage, 8:15 after the winner. Not a result to be proud of but I was really, really, really happy with it. It was a great result for me.

Overall this has been a great experience. I loved every minute of it. Spending time with Joe, Tom and Lawrence was great; we had a relaxed and fun atmosphere that helped to deal with all the bad luck we had as a team. Now the problem with this great experiences is I always want to repeat them. In particular once I know the stages and knowing they are the same year after year I would like to have another go preparing more specifically for it. The only problem is this weekend, third weekend of June, is Quebrantahuesos weekend and that takes priority for me. But in previous years this race was held in July, if next year it does not clash with the Quebrantahuesos (or if I don't get a place at the Quebrantahuesos) I'll ride L'Etape de la Defonce and I'll do better. You can bet on that.