Like all good things, this Blog series must also come to an end. For those of you diligent enough to read through the preceding five posts, I give to you, the final part in this series.
Ride bikes? Follow the Tour de France? Chances are you’ve heard of the Col du Tourmalet.
It is hors catégorie – beyond categorisation; an exceptional climb.
I was quite happy not knowing what HC meant on Strava prior to the final stage of the Trois Etapes. Hearing from my team mates about how tough the 17.2km/1268m climb was; did not instil me with a lot of confidence.
As expected, Day 3 did not begin at the foot of the formidable mountain, it started outside of the hotel in the car park on a somewhat chilly morning. Fatigue had well and truly set in my legs and overall, I felt tired. I fought constant surges of nervous energy and heard Scott Sunderland’s words in my head “nervous energy is wasted energy, you’ll need it on the bike“. So I concentrated on the task ahead.
I broke the final stage into four sections:
1. The Warm-Up – Lourdes to Pouzac – 25.7km/334m
2. The Prep – Pouzac to St-Marie-de-Campan – 14.3km/323m
3. The Climb – St-Marie-de-Campan – Col du Tourmalet – 17.2km/1’268m
4. The Finale – 48.3km/-1’734m
The Warm-Up was surprisingly tough for most of us. The humidity and short, sharp pinch climbs got the body nice and warm and sweaty. The difficulty was short-lived however as we descended into Pouzac. A quick stop for food and water followed before we headed off with a couple of the other teams.
The Prep section was exactly how it sounds. We rode with some of the other teams and postured ourselves for the upcoming climb. This was the time to eat and drink and get the mind ready for the mountain looming ahead of us.
The start of The Climb out of St-Marie-de-Campan was incredibly daunting for me. I made the decision to ride by myself the night before and tried to block out everything else around me. For the first time since January I was sans beard and hoping it wasn’t going to end like the last time I rode without my beard (hint: I crashed, was injured, got stitches and had months of limited feeling in my left arm).
For me, riding Col du Tourmalet was always going to be cathartic experience. I was going to carry some demons on my back up the mountain; and by finishing I was hoping to leave some of them on the top. After the initial disappointment of not riding it days before on my birthday; I was quite content in the knowledge that I would face the mountain for the first time on race day.
The Climb itself was tough and I found myself constantly out of the saddle, taking back a few gears to charge up the mountain; albeit for a fleeting moment.
The majority of the team finished the stage well ahead of me. At La Mongie, 5km from the summit, I was briefly held up by a herd of sheep crossing the road. A quick dismount, the bike on it’s back wheel and some select swearing at the woolly beasts ensured I was able to weave my way through the throng and get back to the business of finishing off the ride.
To be honest, I don’t remember much of the climb itself. I focused on not grinding away; instead I focused on maintaining a constant rhythm and getting to the next distance marker. My cadence dropped the closer to the summit I got. I was standing more often, taking gears off the mountain and not giving them back; I was slowly building to a crescendo. This was my chance to push myself past my threshold, through the boundaries and drop some of the demons I had carried up the mountain so far.
After I crossed the finish line, I felt a wave of emotions. I lost my breath and had to take a few minutes to compose myself; but I knew the team hadn’t finished just yet. Adam was powering up the mountain after pacing himself early on; making the best of the individual timing on this stage.
We each took a few moments to talk amongst ourselves and revel in the realisation that after all of the training, all of the riding and numerous setbacks we had, as a team, climbed and conquered Col du Tourmalet.
We didn’t stay on the mountain long. Soon we started the descent down the other side of the mountain. It was time for the Finale. Something that I truly enjoyed. There were many “whoop! whoops!” as I sped (for me) down the winding roads towards Lourdes; all the while thinking to myself “I actually finished!” and smiling.
Day 2 of the Trois Etapes started exactly the same as Day 1, except for the stiff legs and the requirement to become a walking billboard for Rocktape! Thanks to my time in the Army and numerous injuries I no longer have much meniscus in my left knee. Combined with a constantly strained and stretched patellar tendon, previously torn medial ligament and a fractured patella that often dislocates my left knee is somewhat useless when made to work.
Luckily for me, the main issue from Day 1 was in fact an iliotibial band (ITB) strain in my right leg. Even luckier for me was Jenine, the team swanier, who was able to strap my knees and quads so well that almost all discomfort disappeared as soon as I was warmed up on the bike.
Stage 2’s timed section was 75km into the day’s ride, which made for an interesting and extended warm up. We were only about 5km into the ride before Dan suffered a flat and had to swap out his wheel. This short stop was followed up with a couple of quick roadside toilet breaks and food stops. There were a few small climbs and lots of winding roads for us to enjoy on the way back out to the Col du Soulor. A few blind corners equated to a few close calls with cars which just made the ride more interesting and raised the heart-rate.
The timed section began at the small village of Ferrieres, at the foot of Col du Soulor. This time we would attack the mountain from the other side; the more scenic route to be honest. The race format for the day was the fastest six riders of each team completing the 12km section. This meant Adam and myself would lead the team out of Ferrieres at speed and then drop off when we could no longer maintain the pace.
More by my lazing position in the shade than anything else; I was chosen to lead the team out and onto the climb. I was a little nervous about this as I wasn’t the strongest climber in the team and by going flat out I was risking bonking before I had even started the stage proper.
I put this aside and decided to just go for broke from the start. I basically went as fast as the gradient would allow me to go. Almost immediately the rest of the team called out to back off a little, but this was replaced moments later by calls to speed up again. I held onto the front for close to 1.5km before I had to drop off. I watched as the team sped past me and a minute later watched as Adam dropped off from the front as well. By this stage the climb had well and truly started and the rest of the team settled into a slower, albeit, still faster than me, pace for the next 10km up the mountain.
I struggled to keep my heart-rate up as I went further into the climb. Unlike the day before I wasn’t getting passed as often and soon found a good rhythm alternating between sitting in the saddle and standing up for the climb. In my head I had a little mantra each time I stood up and sat back down “I take two gears and ride”/”and the mountain takes them back”.
Eventually I saw the end of the climb at about the 2km to go mark. Up until then I had been enjoying the beautiful vistas around me. By the time the 1km mark appeared I decided to up the pace and sprint towards the line. I won’t lie and say I broke any records; but for me being able to give everything I had to the mountain meant a lot.
When I reached the top of the mountain I learnt team-mate Shane had pushed himself so hard, he had an impromptu nap on the side of the road with the local sheep. Once he was given the once over and was ready to get back on the bike we headed towards to the hotel with a short stop for coffee on the way.
As I said in Part 1 of this series, the journey to get to France was a long one both in distance and in time spent preparing.
But it seemed on the morning of Stage 1 of the Trois Etapes, it had all crept up on me and I was left wondering if I had done enough training or was I going to embarrass myself and the team.
My race preparation was simple: breakfast, shower, get dressed, pack my bag, FaceTime the family and finally downstairs to the bikes.
When all the riders were downstairs, Scott – now race director – gave us the rider’s brief and all the teams headed off for the short ride to the Mayor of Lourdes’ residence in the heart of the city.
We arrived at the Mayor’s residence and signed on for the race. From there we lined up in front of our team car and started the 40km ride to Arrens-Marsous for the start of the first climb and timed section; Col du Soulor.
The first 40km of Stage 1 was relatively easy, but soon we felt the temperature and humidity rising, which was going to make the next 7.4km of climbing somewhat more difficult. The first timed section was based on the first six riders of each team crossing the line. The decision had been made that the team would ride together until the two slowest riders couldn’t keep up and would drop off the pace. For me, I dropped off after about 1.5km but never lost sight of the team while on the climb.
The climb up Soulor was the first real climb that I had done in months and was a very big challenge; both physically and mentally. I set a reasonable pace from the start but stayed below my threshold; something I found difficult to do as the gradient increased steadily the further into the climb I got.
After what seemed like an eternity in the saddle, I crested the top of Soulor and crossed the timing mat. A quick lunch followed with before we rolled down the sweeping decent towards the second timed section of the day; Col de Spandelles.
We reached Eschartes, a tiny village at the base of Col de Spandelles, and prepared for the next section. This time our four fastest riders were to set the team’s time for the stage.
A few minutes after the frontrunners were well and truly into the stage the rest of the riders started the difficult 10.5km climb.
I dreaded this climb but decided to just grind my way up to the top. It was hot, it was steep and the little bugs that kept stinging my back were not helping at all. The climb seemed like it wouldn’t end and every-time I looked up to the summit I could see other riders at various stages on their way to the top.
I had my jersey undone and I was sweating profusely, as I neared the marker signalling the final kilometre I ran out of water and steadied myself for what would be a difficult final few minutes until I crossed the timing mat. When I rounded the final corner and saw our driver Bruce cheering me on I took a moment to zip up my jersey and started a little sprint towards the line.
The 30km ride back to Lourdes incorporated the other side down the Col de Spandelles; a somewhat sketchy road complete with potholes, gravel and hairpins. By the time I arrived back at the hotel I was exhausted but extremely elated that I had completed Stage 1 of the Trois Etapes. After a difficult lead up to the event it was a massive confidence boost to finally have finished the first day of riding.
Sunday, 3 August
My first night in Lourdes was shared in a room with two other Soldier On riders; a tight yet restful night after trying to get sleep the day before without much luck. After breakfast Adam, Matt, Justin and I met Andy and Jodie for a coffee in down-town Lourdes. Although we were still down two riders (they were en-route from San Sebastian) a quick walk around the busy square followed before we decided a lazy spin to get the legs moving after all the travel was needed.
The easy 63.5km ride saw us head out to Luz-St. Sauveur for some sight-seeing and a taste of the Pyrenees’ weather. This was the ride in which it finally sank in that we had actually made it to France and in a few days time would be representing Soldier On in the Trois Etapes. The ride out was quite an emotional experience for me as it was the culmination of months of training, many set-backs (physically, emotionally and mentally) and a few late minute changes to the travel that threatened to delay our arrival. The ride was very enjoyable and we all soon found a nice rhythm riding together after a few weeks apart. Not wanting to push too hard on the first day in France, we headed back to Lourdes to catch up with the other two riders, Dan and Shane, as well as team driver Bruce.
Dinner was a casual affair at a local restaurant (not called a French restaurant in France) which proved challenging for this vegetarian; luckily salads are quite common in most European countries – albeit with an excess of tomato and cheese.
Monday, 4 August
The next day’s ride was a typical coffee ride that would see the entire team, and driver Bruce, explore some of the local countryside over a relatively easy 47km. There was of course a couple of ugly ramps leading up to a hill-top church including a nice little 28% stretch that left me trying to bite my front wheel!
For the first time since the Trois Etapes was confirmed, Team Soldier On had it’s full roster and was gearing up for the race in four days time.
Tuesday, 5 August – My 33rd Birthday
The plan was simple… Breakfast and then an easy ride to the Col du Tourmalet followed by a quick descent back to Lourdes. But like all simple plans; this one wasn’t. Not even 10 minutes into this ride and I was separated from the rest of the group thanks to some red lights and me not knowing the route out of Lourdes.
Suddenly I found myself riding alone and heading out of Lourdes towards the airport; definitely not the way to Tourmalet. After stopping and some back and forth messaging later, I decided I was too far away from the team and went for a solo ride instead.
I spent my 33rd birthday riding the French countryside; not a bad day at all.
Wednesday, 6 August
A very unexciting day of eating, resting and tapering for the three-day race.
Lourdes put on a fantastic day of sun and warmth; the perfect day for a slow and steady ride to spin the legs.
Thursday, 7 August
With the entire Soldier On team finally in Lourdes, photographer Matthew and manager Clare arriving the night before, it was time for us to have a look at some of the unknown sections of the race; this time in the cars!
We drove up the Col du Soulor, Col de Spandelles and Col du Tourmalet. I can honestly say after the day-trip I was dreading each of the climbs, especially the goat track that was Spandelles!
In the afternoon we set off for another short ride to keep the legs fresh for the first stage of the race the next morning, this time we were joined by coach Scott Sunderland.
In mid 2012 I started mountain biking, something that would ultimately serve to fill the huge void that had been left in my life when I hung up my uniform. A tight-knit community of caring, encouraging and like-minded people enabled me to feel part of a team once again. And in late 2012 I approached a the contemporary veterans group ‘Soldier On‘ and asked if I would be able to fund-raise in a mountain biking event called The Battle of the Beasts. When the dust had settled and my aching body had calmed I had raised a substantial amount of money that would directly assist younger veterans like myself that were struggling with the visible and hidden scars incurred during our service in the Australian Defence Force.
In less than a week Team Soldier On will be in France preparing for the Trois Etapes. The journey so far has been a tough challenge for all riders with some injuries, a car VS cyclist incident, two training camps and thousands of hours spent on our bikes.
The ride will be tough and but with the support of our family, friends and supporters Team Soldier On will power up those big climbs in the French Pyrenees.
The month of June was incredibly hectic for me. My job decided it wanted to try and take over my life and then my daughter, Celeste, decided she wanted to enter the world. Only one of the those events was a priority in my life and it definitely wasn’t my job. My training as a result suffered and I barely managed to get a handful of short rides under my tyres before our second Team Soldier On training camp came around. The second training camp was based out of Kingscliff, just south of Tweed Heads near the NSW/QLD border over the weekend of 28-29 June 2014 . The plan was simple; coach Scott Sunderland was going to make us climb some hills and ride some big kilometres akin to what we will be facing in France for the Trois Etapes. I don’t enjoy flying and certainly don’t enjoy flying with an expensive bicycle packed inside an expensive bike bag that screams “stack as much heavy crap on me as possible”. While the flights to Coolangatta went off without a hitch (top effort QANTAS) – the flights home came very close to being labelled a cluster-f**k (thanks VIRGIN Australia) complete with delayed/cancelled flights and high-end bicycles being sent to the wrong state and being ignored by the Virgin airport staff!
After arriving at the Peppers Salt Resort & Spa at Kingscliff we headed off to the local restaurant strip for dinner before heading back to our rooms to ready our bikes for the next day’s riding.
On Saturday we set off about 20 minutes out of Kingscliff with coach Scott following us in the support vehicle and photog Matt zooming past us in the search for optimal photo locations.
The ride started easily enough with a few short climbs before suddenly becoming a decent 8km climb followed by some very sketchy (for me) descents. I was definitely in the red zone early on in the ride and was finding it very hard to regulate my breathing and lower my heart-rate.
The months of training was certainly evident in the other guys, but as the ride progressed I knew I wasn’t keeping up. Some more sketchy decents saw our driver Bruce (this time on a bike) overshoot a corner and meet the bushland up and close.
As the day was drawing to a close and we were heading back to Kingscliff, I was steadily dropping off the pace and eventually pulled over and jumped in the SAG wagon with Matt.
The evening culminated with a group dinner and short presentation to coach Scott.
Sunday saw us step off from the hotel nice and early for a brisk ride before tackling some more climbs. I pulled up reasonably well from the day before and was looking forward to some more riding.
The morning air was cool and very nice to ride in. We eased into our first 20km at a nice quick pace with all riders taking turns at the front.
At around the 35km mark I knew I was in trouble. In just two short days I had ridden further and harder than I had in the past three weeks. My troublesome knee wasn’t the issue this time; it was my hip. I had ridden past being uncomfortable and was now experiencing some fairly acute pain in my hip and glutes. I made the hard decision to stop riding and once again jump inside the SAG wagon with Matt.
I watched the other guys ride from inside the van as Matt drove the van and took photos. I was quite disappointed in myself for not riding through the pain; but considering I’ve just spent a week of intense physio and rest I’m glad I didn’t injure myself any further.
At the end of the weekend we were all tired (some sorer than others) but more determined for the Trois Etapes in August.
Please support us we head towards this once in a lifetime opportunity to raise awareness and much needed funds for Soldier On.
From 7 to 10 August, seven riders from Soldier On and a pro from Orica GreenEdge will compete against other charities in a ProAm riding over some of the Pyrenees’ most stunning and difficult climbs.
Team Soldier On is comprised of current and former serving Australian Defence Force members; some who have been physically and/or psychologically wounded during operational service.
We have been training as a group and individually for a number of months under the guidance of coach Scott Sunderland; including the Remembrance Ride conducted in April this year and our inaugural training camp in Thredbo last month.
Please support us we head towards this once in a lifetime opportunity to raise awareness and much needed funds for Soldier On.
Over the weekend of 10-11 May 2014, I was lucky enough to attend the first Team Soldier On cycling training camp at Thredbo NSW.
Thredbo? Really?… Well that was my first reaction when I saw the week before the training camp that it was in fact snowing in Thredbo Village; exactly were our base camp was to be. Combine this with one of the worst weeks of my working life as a civilian and I was not exactly enthusiastic about attending a Scott Sunderland training camp.
I drove down on the Friday night after work (in retrospect this was a very bad idea) and met up with some of the other guys at Cooma before heading to our accommodation in Thredbo; the Navy Ski Lodge. The drive was itself was uneventful, white line fever had set in and the alpine roads were starting to look like a rally track. Luckily we arrived at the lodge, unpacked and headed to the pub for some late night beverages.
Let’s get something out of the way early. Thredbo is a very small town in the off-season. The locals are young, in their early twenties and all work at the resort in some capacity. The moment we stepped into the pub we stood out more than the bollocks on a bulldog. This was fact not missed by the locals; both male and female. After a few quick drinks we left and retired to our rooms for the night.
The temperature was colder than Canberra and the weather was expected to take a turn for the worse the following day. The change swept through in the early hours of Saturday morning in the form of howling winds and pouring rain/sleet. By the time we woke up it was apparent the rain was set in for the day and that the last thing anyone wanted to do was go outside and ride bikes.
Breakfast was a sombre affair and I soon took over the TV room and switched on RAGE; my usual Saturday morning routine. The general (un-official) consensus was that riding in the rain and cold was not the preferable option against a warm ski lodge. We broached the subject with coach Scott, who while enjoying a coffee, was in agreeance that riding in the terrible weather was not a good idea and we should get through some required administration and team tactics instead.
After a couple of hours spent in the TV room discussing our next few months and future Soldier On Cycling plans; it was time to break out the trainers and don the lycra. What better place to set up than in the kitchen?
I sat in the kitchen, ate my risotto for lunch and awaited my turn on the bike. As I watched the other guys sweating profusely I regretted my decision to eat just prior to riding my bike.
After my turn on the bike I spent some more time with my hand in a box of BBQ Shapes and headed to the pub….to rehydrate. Andy cooked an awesome pasta dinner for everyone and we discussed the next day’s plan. Option A: Good Weather – drive out to Jindabyne and ride for a few hours including the climb back to Thredbo or Option B: Bad Weather – pack up, head to Canberra and ride around the Brindabella’s.
When we woke up to clear skies and relatively warm weather it was clear Option A was a goer.
A quick coffee stop in Jindabyne and it was time for some rolling in the Jindabyne hills with Scott dishing out some quality coaching.
The ride was enjoyable and we were quickly warming up on the climbs; but the flats and rare descents reminded us that we were still in alpine country.
The climb up to Thredbo was a quad burner and an exercise in heart rate management. We took turns at the front and found our rhythm all the way back to the Ski Lodge. Our first real test as a cycling team tackling some decent climbs similar to what we will be facing during the Trois Etapes later in the year.
Stay tuned for more updates on Team Soldier On!