Saturday, August 12, 2017

Climbing Col d’Izouard

For some reason I had always wanted to climb the Col d’Izouard an hors catégorie (HC) climb near Briançon in the French Alps. Maybe because I got it muddled up with the Col d’Iséran the highest point of Europe in Val d’Isère where I often ski. Anyway this year I chose it as our Étape challenge, which is102 kms in distance and involves 2800 metres of climbing.

The Tour de France were doing it this year in Stage 18 and I remember watching the whole stage on TV and the commentators were saying it was an absolute brute of a climb.

It started in the valley easily enough with some gentle 16 kms or so of climbing through a beautiful canyon full of white water rafters. Then it kicked up to about 8% for a few kilometres before the really big climb of the day the last 14 kms that averaged about 9% with the odd spells of 11 and 12%. 31 kms of climbing in total.

Lisa and I flew to Turin along with my faithful cycling buddies Simon and Deborah, we picked up a car and drove a couple of hours to Serre Chevalier a family ski resort.

It was very hot as Europe was experiencing incredible heat nicknamed Lucifer with temperatures up to 47C but the forecast for the next day was only 33C and I figured it would get cooler in the mountains, after all we were going to climb to 2365 metres. But that night was really warm and I didn’t sleep that well, however, after a filling breakfast and the normal ablutions we were ready to go.

The first part was mostly downhill as we had to lose about 1000 metres. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky it was just glorious, and who wouldn’t want a long downhill start to what was bound to be a tough day. The first 50 kms could have been on the busy main N94 road so I had plotted a detour on a D road, which crossed the other side of the river Durrance and was much prettier and safer.

As we came into L’Argentière la Besée Deborah said her heart rate monitor had stopped working and wanted to find a shop to buy a battery. This she was able to do and then began a weird situation when her Garmin picked up all three of our heart monitors making it rather difficult to pair her own. I told her to go into the shop and connect with her Garmin where she would be out of range from ours, which seemed to work. So after a half hour we set off again. After about 10 minutes we crossed a roundabout and were faced with a wall of straight road ramping up at a continuous 12% seemingly endless. This was totally unexpected and proof that I should always check things out on Google Earth. It just went up and up and really took the stuffing out of us, which was to have a detrimental effect on Deborah later on. Although we had the most stunning views at the top our legs felt a bit jelly like which did not bode well for the Izouard.

Anyway we reveled in the glorious descent down to Guillestre where the Col d’Izouard began and where we had arranged to meet Lisa. Lisa used to ride support on our big annual rides but had justifiably got fed up driving behind me on a mountain with headlights on at 1000 in the evening! However we persuaded her to come on this trip and spend some downtime in the mountains with an option no pressure on supporting us again. Bless her and fortunately for us she volunteered to ride support on this one and we had arranged to meet to fuel up in Gullestre.

Problem was our route bypassed the town and so we had to try to find each other. We stopped outside the town to try to wait for her but with only a road number to identify where we were plus the fact we were going uphill it was exceedingly difficult to find. But find us she did after about 20 minutes of looking and we gratefully refilled our water bottles and gorged on fruitcake and bananas. Plus I am always really happy to find an excuse to rest my legs knowing full well what was in store.

So off we went, Deborah had been highlighting her heart beat which was showing 185 bpm on the climbs but what was worrying was that it didn’t drop back all the way down to 113 bpm when on the flat, not that there was much of that! Simon wondered if it was her heart rate monitor that was playing up that was the hope anyway. By this time the temperature had risen to about 37C so possibly her heart rate rose also as a result.

We started the long gradual climb through the canyon uneventfully. We were fortunate to have quite a strong following wind, which is unusual, but a huge blessing. Had we been battling into the wind it would have been cruel indeed.

Then the road took a bend and started to ramp up to about 8% and the serious business started. I was feeling OK but decided to keep my power output low and just follow my heart rate to about 145 bpm as my guide for the right amount of effort to get me to the top.

Around 2 kms from Arvieux I was getting really tired and the heat was beginning to tell. There were still 13 kms to go and we hadn’t hit the tough bits yet. Deborah was feeling the heat also and wanted to stop from time to time and get her heart rate down. I was delighted to rest up also and I was beginning to let negative thoughts enter my brain, which I could fortunately still banish. Lisa had gone ahead to meet us at La Chalp the next feeding point but I called her and asked her to come back down to Arvieux. On the approach to Arvieux Deborah said she was going to stop, as her heart rate just wasn’t performing as it should, the temperature had reached 45C and Simon was worried. All the way up Simon had stuck with us rather than shoot ahead which he was very capable of doing but he kept saying we should remain as a Group no matter what and at that time was pushing Deborah up the mountain as best he could.

We stopped at a café in Arvieux and met up with Lisa and by this time at 1600 metres with 700 m of climbing still to go I was having those negative thoughts of giving up. Especially as Deborah had decided to stop and the car was there the temptation was huge. I said I wanted to stop here for about an hour, eat something and then make a decision as to continue or not.

After coffee, water and ice cream it was time to go on. Deborah put her bike in the car and it was agreed Lisa would drive up another 2 kms and I would see how I felt when I got there. Off I went with Simon and fortunately the gradient was only about 7% at this stage so I didn’t feel too bad. I knew I was dehydrated but all the energy bars and drinks up to then had made my stomach feel a bit like it didn’t want anything else. But water was the key and I had to force it down. We got back up to Lisa just before the really steep bit and 7 kms to go and I knew it was decision time. But I couldn’t give up even though I felt dire.

So off again but I figured that to get to the top I needed to have a plan so rather than saying to myself I must get to the top I started to split the journey into bite size chunks. First goal was to reach the steep bits now only 1 km away. Then get to 2000 metres, and then get to the Casse Deserte, which was this amazing grey moonscape area remote and ashen and about 2.5 kms from the summit. I remembered there was a short downhill bit soon after that so that would be another target, then get inside 2 kms which meant I couldn’t possibly give up, then 1 kms then the top.

It was a huge struggle to keep going especially as I was now on the last 8 kms averaging 9% but my legs were still cycling circles instead of squares and putting in a bit more power just to test my fitness yielded positive results so that made me feel better. I kept going for about 1 km then I saw a bench off the side of the road so I pulled in sat down put my head in my hands and waited for my heart rate to come down to 115 bpm. By this time I was delighted Simon had gone off alone and would meet us back at the hotel. I hadn’t enjoyed holding him back but he was very sporting staying with me up to then. Then off I would go again slightly revived till the next focus point, passing a worried Lisa and Deborah on the way. They kept driving a couple of kilometres ahead of me and waiting in case I wanted to stop. Along the way there would always be these resting points, which I could use to recover. I eventually got to the Casse Deserte which was stunning scenery. Lisa and Deborah were waiting in the car with water and my gilet as the temperature had dropped to 27C by then and it was windy. It was so beautiful especially as I saw the long awaited half kilometre downhill bit close by. Off I went down it followed by a steep kilometer leading to the last kilometer where I stopped again to get the heart rate down. Now for the final assault and on rounding a hairpin I saw the end and Lisa again in the car.

What a relief couldn’t believe I had done it. Photos all round. All that remained was a 19 kms descent, which I pretty much had to myself as it was 1900 and the sun was going down. It was great to zip along on empty roads and by the time I got to Briançon and had to start climbing again back to the hotel my legs were working again, all was well.

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