TCR DAY 4: GETTING HIGH (Darren Franks)

This article is written by – originally posted to his website  – Darren Franks and re-posted here with his kind permission. In this post Darren eloquently writes about his effort in The Transcontinental Race number 4 and his toil passing through the Swiss Alps, what it takes and what separates racers.

 


 

TCR DAY 4: GETTING HIGH

DAY 4

Once more I woke up without an alarm and was feeling pretty great. I’d rested for 5 and a half hours and was abusing the breakfast buffet around 9am when Matt Falconer (#154) appeared. At the time I wasn’t sure if he’d spent the night here or if he was just passing through the checkpoint. We chatted and I mentioned the total lack of phone signal I’d had since CP1. He’d had the same issue once before and discovered it was our use of flight mode as a battery saver that was jiggering some internal settings. Matt was already/still in efficient mode and so after a quick selfie he was out the door and on the road.

From here at checkpoint 2 in Grindelwald my route traversed the Swiss Alps to checkpoint 3 in Alleghe, Italy. 500km and 12,500m of climbing. This section had me genuinely worried ever since it was announced the year before. My knees have been through the wars and are no strangers to the surgeon’s blade. They’d also flared up quite badly in the past few weeks. In last year’s race 50% of riders scratched and I knew that if I was going to fall it would be in the Alps. I’d exceeded expectations so far and was a day ahead of where I thought I might be. This made it easier to switch into survival mode. No heroics. Just stay in the race until you clear the mountains. Ahead of the race I’d been having regular session with my physio, Sophie, and she’d shown me how to tape my knees to help limit the damage. I’d been carrying three pre-cut applications of K-Tape and had been holding onto them until the lumpy bits. Now was the time.

“I was now in survival mode. No heroics. Just stay in the race until you clear the mountains.”

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Judiciously cropped for your viewing safety.

With taped knees, a fat belly and shamelessly bulging pockets I wheeled my bike outside the hotel to see riders in various stages of their passage through the checkpoint. I clipped in and rolled down onto the road, out of the saddle. I’d rounded a corner and covered a good 500m before I sat down to settle in for the climb. Even so, I’d be surprised if the checkpoint crew didn’t hear my screams as arse met saddle. The pain fluctuated throughout the days but I could always be sure it’d be excruciating first thing.

The next section was a mandatory parcours over three high mountain passes. The first and most imposing  was the Grosse Scheidegg. This is a stunningly pretty but very steep pass, draped with a narrow ribbon of tarmac and closed to motorised traffic, except for the postal buses which fill the road entirely. They also have right of way and cyclists are obliged to leave the road to allow them to pass. The bus drivers know this and so, apart from the odd blast of a horn before they round a blind corner, you don’t get much quarter from them. If you ever have the good fortune to be riding up this savage beauty you’d be well advised to stay sharp and always have an escape route.

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Tortoise and hare

The Scheidegg was billed as one of the three most formidable riding challenges of the race, with it’s steepness being the main contributor. The 6-7% climb out of Grindelwald lulls you into misplaced confidence. The road closes to traffic and funnels into the single lane. From here it’s an average 11% for the next 7km, to an altitude of 2,000m. As I clear the thick trees of the lower slopes I eventually see some riders ahead of me and I begin to reel them in, very slowly. Very, very slowly. Nothing happens all that quickly on the way up an 11% slope! Dragan (#137) is quite a character. His thick glasses, unassuming ‘get the job done’ persistence and polite and perma-chirpy nature made me think of Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards anytime I saw him. He’d been in and out of CP2 while I was having a lazy breakfast and he was now walking up the Scheidegg as I passed him. I remember feeling smug and superior at the time; misplaced arrogance, I would eventually come to realise.

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Grosse Scheidegg, Switzerland

I also remember needing to stop for something, though I can’t remember what. I do recall putting it off because getting started again on such a steep slope can be tricky, especially clipping into the pedals. Once I had stopped I ate and drank; things which are almost impossible on the steepest pitches. I checked social media, fooling myself that it was a zero cost opportunity while I was refuelling. In my mind too much resting was laziness and weakness and I managed to convince myself that this wasn’t what was happening here. Looking back through the data though I can see I was stationary for 10 minutes, which is a long time to be dealing with a small mechanical and some basic refuelling. I have very mixed feelings about stops like this. The head says they were probably necessary in the wider perspective of the race but the heart is heavy with guilt when I think about the time lost.

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Grosse Scheidegg, Switzerland

“The traffic counter looked like the timing gate from a ski race so I made the requisite noises. Beep… beep… beep… BOOP!”

Around half way up is a lightweight barrier that I guessed is to monitor bus traffic and make sure two don’t meet each other in opposite directions, because there’s absolutely nowhere to pass. To my eyes it looked like the timing gates at the start of a downhill ski run so as I approached I made the requisite noises. Beep… beep… beep… BOOP! This would not be a medal winning run though. ‘Steady and persistent’ was the mantra.

Despite the indulgent pauses I managed to catch all of my prey on the remaining upper slopes. At the highest point is the Berghotel alpine restaurant where I stopped for lunch. I rested my cap on the table and was amazed at the amount of sweat it had absorbed. I’m not a big sweater but the cap was drenched. Thank god it was an overcast morning. Service was very slow – something of a theme in Switzerland – but the food was spot on. A huge sausage braised in caramelised onions and massive helping of potato rosti; a local speciality created to satisfy the needs of active mountain folk.

“‘Don’t be a ****’, I remind myself. This descent is narrow with mixed surfaces, blind corners and massive self-important buses.”

It’s the height of summer but at 2,000m it can get pretty nippy, so I layer up before the descent. ‘Don’t be a ****’, I remind myself. This is a narrow path with mixed surfaces, blind corners and massive self-important buses. It’s not the time for taking liberties. I deliberately stop a hundred metres down to take a photo, thereby killing any idiotic thoughts about trying to set a KoM time on Strava. I’m cautious but confidence builds with each swooping corner, each hairpin and each open stretch of exhilarating acceleration. The bike feels amazing. The hydraulic disc brakes inspire enormous confidence and the tyres bite hungrily into the road. The crisp mountain air reddens my cheeks and freshens like an icy plunge pool. The adrenalin surges as I weave through the most picture postcard terrain in Switzerland. It’s peppered with adrenalin spikes when I approach cyclists climbing the other way, weaving across the road in their struggle, often with their heads down. “YO!” seems to be my default phrase when I need to grab attention quickly. Odd, I never thought of myself as the kind of guy who says ‘yo’.

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The small village of Innertkirchen sits in a tiny, flat basin, crowned by high mountains on all sides. As I roll through I’m looking for an open shop to buy supplies for the next sequence, which I know will be tough and sparsely populated. I also need to drop all these layers as the temperature is roasting again and I’ve got the Grimsel Pass coming up. In the last year I’ve grown to enjoy the challenge of climbing but less so in a race situation, where my weakness punishes me. Even so, I’ve been really looking forward to the Grimsel and Furka passes since they were announced as a mandatory part of the route back in November. A decade ago I ran a tour company bringing drivers to the best roads in Europe and these passes were always a highlight. I couldn’t imagine at the time that I’d be back one day to tackle them on a bike, let alone in the middle of a race like the TCR.

The Grimselpass is 25km at a fairly steady 7%. It’s 1,500m of vertical gain but it’s never ferociously steep. 7% is – or rather was, before the TCR – my ceiling for comfortable climbing grades. I’m able to pace myself steadily up the pass, taking the cobbled old road around the longest tunnel, prohibited by race organisers. With 300m left to climb I come to the high alpine lake and trundle my way along the dam path for a photo. I’m struggling for water now too and start scouring around looking for a trickling stream of alpine water to quench my thirst and refill my bidons. They’re everywhere when you’re not purposefully looking for them but stubbornly elusive today.

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Chris White (#24) on the Grimselpass, Switzerland

I can see another rider approaching the hairpin so I wait for the only car in the shot to disappear behind the trees. I tell myself that it’s an altruistic act to get a better photo for whoever that rider is but in reality it’s driven more by an OCD sense of perfectionism to get the best shot.

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The need for water is getting desperate now and I finally find a stream I can reach. I’d prefer something trickling off rocks than through a pipe that I can’t see but beggars can’t be choosers. On hands and knees I reach down with my bottle and gather up half a litre of icy cold and crystal clear water.

The rider I’d snapped turns out to be Chris White (#24) whose awesome online Transcontinental and bikepacking resourceproved to be incredibly helpful in my research and preparations. Being completely new to ultra-distance (and fairly new to cycling in general) his work gave me a short-cut to the knowledge I needed to design and build my race bike and kit list. I only had a couple of opportunities to test everything out before the race and without this head-start I doubt one iteration would’ve been enough refinement. It was great to be able to thank Chris in person and I stopped again to get another shot in gratitude.

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Chris White (#24) on the upper slopes of the Grimselpass

At the summit Chris pressed straight on with the descent while I wasted 30 minutes trying to get some food at the small restaurant. Staff seemed supremely arrogant and dismissive to anybody who wasn’t local. In the end I gave up, ate some more pain d’epice from my stash and layered up for the descent. Heading out to the bike I met another rider who’d stopped at the summit. We chatted for a minute until we saw James Hayden (#75) crest the pass, back from the dead after a chest infection saw him rest at CP1 for a day and a half. Watching him layer up on the move, without breaking his pedal stroke, gave me a kick up the arse and I decided I’d catch up to him for a chinwag. Ordinarily this would sound supremely optimistic but the next 5km were downhill. I quickly zipped everything up and leapt onto the bike to give chase.

His 30 second headstart was clawed back around halfway down the pass. Descents like this require focus and the full width of the road so I just overtook when I caught up with him. The road drops just 400m and then rears up instantly into the Furkapass, where I knew he’d very quickly catch me up. In hindsight, I’d overdone the layers a bit. It was cold, sure, but the descent was only 5 minutes at 60kph and I now find myself at the foot of the Furkapass wearing full warmers, overshoes, gilet and goretex overshorts. I followed James’s lead and dropped all the layers I could while pedalling. I knew James wouldn’t be stopping and I was keen to take advantage of the distraction he offered. Within a couple of minutes of starting the climb he’d caught me and I upped my pace to match him.

He must’ve had the same conversation with every rider he’d overtaken since CP1 but I was keen to chat about his recovery and his plans for the rest of the race. It had to have been a phenomenal ride to cover the ground he had made up in such short time. We took some snaps, with James gracious enough to wait for me to get it onto the big ring before pressing the button.

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Climbing mountains in the big ring. Standard.

James also runs a power meter and shares his data openly on his blog, which is a fascinating read. I love data and here was a great opportunity to compare metrics in realtime with a race favourite. Side by side, James was putting out 230W to push his 70kg body and (if I remember correctly) 13.5kg bike up the pass. My 80kg body and 17kg bike needed 275W to match that pace. More critically, James’s extra fitness means his effort was in a comfortable zone that he could maintain all day. To keep up I was working at a higher percentage of my available power, at an intensity that runs an energy deficit.

“Not that James was looking back but I let him get just out of sight before I unclipped and hunched over the bike in an undignified, sweaty, jelly-legged heap.”

When you watch professional bike racing, like the Tour de France, you’ll often see domestiques (workhorse teammates) absolutely bury themselves on a climb to tow their leader as far as possible before releasing him to chase glory on the final kilometres. When they finally ‘crack’ they do it spectacularly. They go from the fastest man in the race to pedalling squares at a snail’s pace, looking like they’ve no business being in a pro bike race. I had similarly cracked. I should’ve declared it much earlier but I was clinging to the hope that I could stay with James to the summit – or at least close enough – and then I’d have an advantage on the next descent and could recover. Less than 200m from the top and I knew I was done. I was able to stave off the heart attack just long enough to wish James luck and promise to see him in Turkey. Not that he was looking back but I let him get just out of sight before I unclipped and hunched over the bike in an undignified, sweaty, jelly-legged heap.

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Hotel Belvedere on the Furkapass, with the Grimselpass in the background and the village of Gletsch in the valley below.

As soon as I stopped the intense heat of my effort hit me. I felt like a boxer skipping in a sauna, wearing a bin bag, trying to lose weight before a big fight and I couldn’t get out of my cold-weather layers quickly enough. I rummaged through my food bag and wolfed down a nusstorte I’d picked up on the way into Switzerland and one of the flapjacks I was still carrying from London. With a more sensible pace and some fuel in the tanks the final 200m of climbing wasn’t as punishing as I’d feared. Layers back on and it was time for the descent.

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I’d covered less than 100km but the late start, the lumpy terrain and the gratuitous pauses meant that the light was already fading. The sun sets earlier in the mountains and I had to decide whether I’d start the next climb in the dark or accept a short day and rest up early. The climb itself would be great to do in the dark but the descent would be bitterly cold. Looking at my route files it looked like I’d have a big chunk of climbing and descending to do before I found any hotel options and sleeping rough in the mountains was never part of the plan. Decision made. I opened booking.com and bagged myself a room in Andermatt. An early night would mean I could get good rest, start early and get back on the kind of schedule I’d planned to keep.

Arriving to the hotel I find Paul Buckley has beaten me to it and I join him for dinner. The service is frustratingly slow again. They’re quick to seat the scruffy cycling hobos into a corner table, out of the way, but painfully slow to deliver menus. Barefoot and down to my sleeveless base layer I break cover and wander through the virtually empty restaurant to find some menus, lowering the tone of the place enough to spur the manager into action. Pizza, gnocchi, pannacotta and Coke remedies the situation as Paul and I share stories from the two days since we last met up.

I’d have a decent night’s sleep tonight so I gave my kit a wash, confident it’d be dry enough by morning. Before the race I had grand ideas about stretching at every stop but so far I found I’d only ever remember this when I’d got rolling again. My achilles had started to grumble so I invested some time in giving them a good stretch. My knees didn’t feel too bad at all, considering what I’d asked of them. Hands, neck, shoulders and back… all fine. I cleaned myself up from the sink, avoiding the shower to preserve my K-Tape for another day. I smudged copious amounts of Sudocrem across the open wounds that now constituted my arse. If I could sleep face down and give things some air maybe I’d wake up and somehow find things had improved.

TCR wisdom suggests the third day is the toughest for most riders. The day where cumulative fatigue hits them hardest, before their bodies have given up resisting. I think I lasted an extra day. Hopefully that meant I’d hit the trough and tomorrow would see an improvement with less of those guilt-ridden pauses.

[Strava file]
Distance: 95.7km
Climbing: 3,074m
Time: 6h 13m