- Total distance: 64.3km
- On-bike ascent: 1300m
- On-bike descent: 5000m
Sunday dawned clear and stunning, although at altitude it had been a cold night. Heading out for an early morning spin to check the bike was all functioning correctly, I headed up the valley slightly to see a family of marmottes relaxing and feeding on the edge of the river. I’ve caught sight of one or two when skiing in the late season, usually from a chair lift, but I was so close to these ones and managed to fire off a couple of camera snaps without disturbing them too much.
Eventually the time came to clear our timing chips for the first time and head to the ski lift for the first assisted ascent of the week, and then on to the opening stage of the event. The Solaise chair lift was well known to me from skiing here in winters past, and from the top we headed briefly down a marked red trail to help get a feel for the mountains before a short climbing traverse to stage one, and hundreds of sheep making the most of the grassy slope.
I forget how hard riding gets at altitude, and combined with a full face helmet (to avoid further facial and dental re-arrangements), the short climb had me breathing hard, and had certainly warmed me up for the next section.
The stage itself was a narrow ribbon of singletrack winding around the hillside crossing some evil and large water-bars (up to 12″ high vertical slabs of rock), a few gentle hairpins and open sections before heading into our first piece of woodland singletrack and the end of the stage. I felt rusty and while I got down okay, it didn’t feel like it had flowed at all, but at least it was one down and four to go.
The liaison section took us back into Val and up the Olympique cable car ready for a timed descent down towards the Tommeuse lift and an undulating traverse over to Tignes and the centre of Tignes le Lac. The first half of the descent went well and I enjoyed the chance to ride a nicely smooth man-made trail, but either I missed a marker arrow or someone (walker, not rider) had chosen to move the signpost, so it was several more minutes of descending towards La Daille before realising that I was no longer in the correct location. My hope was that by heading that way I could get back to the Olympique and re-start the stage after explaining the situation to the race marshals. On returning to the top of the mountain and the start of stage 2, I found I was one of about 15 riders who had all managed to miss the correct route and head back down the wrong side of the mountain, so while having expended some extra energy and done another 1000m of unplanned descending, I also found out that we could re-start the route and not face any penalty.
Attempt two went okay, although once again the altitude made the traverse a real physical challenge, and I still didn’t feel entirely happy with my riding before dropping into Tignes and the lunch stop for the day.
Stage three started badly, when in usual French style the lift was shut due to lunch. A large contingent took the opportunity to have a coffee at a nearby café and wait for the lift attendant to return.
From the top of the lift we rode and walked a fantastic ridgeline before tagging our timing chip and continuing along the ridge and then back along a blue trail into the valley below. The original plan was for us to ride down a footpath which would have been more challenging riding, but in spite of the organisers best attempts to (legally) close the trail at the top and bottom, too many walkers were finding their way on to the trail and it was decided that the safest thing would be to re-route that section for everyone to avoid any accidents. Overall the section went okay and I was beginning to find my flow.
Dropping back into Tignes le Lac, we then headed up another chair lift to a run that would eventually take us out to Tignes le Brevieres several hundred metres below our current position. The ride began with a traverse across a steep scree slope before dropping into a meadow with a wealth of lines to choose from. Unfortunately while sliding the rear wheel around one corner, I popped the rear tyre off the rim costing me valuable time. Making matters worse, on trying to fix it, I found out my pump was no longer working. A passing competitor eventually offered me their pump and I was able to continue riding but I had already lost a vast amount of time, and was considering playing my ‘wild card*’ on this stage.
The liaison between stage 4 and 5 was going to be a long one, with an 8km descent along the road to Ste Foy, and then a 900m vertical climb on tarmac and fire road. In the afternoon sunshine and with limited breeze, this was a particularly hard task, and I’d missed out on the opportunity to fill my water container up after the stage 4 debacle. I ran out of fluid just before the top of the ascent and failed to spot my dehydration and need for some form of energy boost, but as it was getting late and I was towards the back of the group of riders I opted to get going straight away. Ultimately, this was to prove a stupid decision as shortly after leaving the start of section 5 I got out of shape coming into a stream and hit a rock throwing me off course where I smashed my right thigh into a large boulder. The pain was pretty excruciating and while I lay there I considered walking up and quitting the stage at that point. After a few minutes I talked myself out of the negative thoughts and decided to press on, hoping the pain would ease, after all it was probably just a dead leg caused by the impact. My descending became very cautious and stuttery, and I was struggling to cope with a trail I should be able to ride easily. Mid-way down the timed section was a road crossing which then led to some more singletrack. Unfortunately in my tiredness and pain I mistook the arrow to point further along the road, so I continued to climb for 15-20 mins before realising I’d gone wrong. My leg was still incredibly painful, and I knew I wouldn’t finish the section (as I hadn’t been able to find it) so I would have to play my wild card on this stage. I eased to the road at the bottom of the section and checked out with the timing marshal, finally wending my way back to the night’s campsite in Seez several kilometres further on.
I was spent, the naivety in not taking on enough fluid or food had ruined me, and a silly riding mistake meant I couldn’t really walk properly. Arriving in camp I did my best to drink plenty of fluid, and take some painkillers and apply some Arnica to help with the leg. Getting to the dinner venue hurt like crazy, and I knew I was going to be struggling to be fit for day two. I was so annoyed with myself and went to bed angry and frustrated at being stupid.
* – One ‘wild card’ is issued to each rider for the event, allowing them to use it in the event of a bad run or a mechanical which would allow for a timing correction on one stage, placing them in the average position for the rest of the days stages. Once used it cannot be used again. It must be handed to the timing team at the finish of the days stages.