Haute Route 4: Still in the game
By John Whitney in Alpe d'Huez | Wednesday, August 22, 2012 4.30pm
Time trials don't get much tougher than on Alpe d'Huez Manu Molle
To say I'm hurting right now would be an understatement. With four stages down and three still left to go, the Haute Route has proved to be every bit as demanding as billed.
While the hors d'oeuvre of stages one and two - 120km and 105km to Megeve and Courchevel - proved tough, it was stage three's unrelenting parcours from Courchevel to Alpe d'Huez that shook up the leaderboard.
138km might not seem extreme in the context of an Etape du Tour or Marmotte, but add in the fatigue built up through the two previous scorching days, ascents of Col de la Madeleine, Col du Glandon and Alpe d’Huez back-to-back and the mercury topping out at 35 degrees on another oppressively hot day, and you've got yourself a recipe for suffering.
And so it transpired. No less than 96 of the 600 riders missed the cut-off point, each of them crossing the finish line with the unsettling feeling their time was up. They would still be allowed to complete the race, and be credited with times for the remaining stages, but as far as an overall finishing time was concerned, they were done.
Overnight though, the organisers granted a few of them a stay of execution, extending the cut-off in time-honoured style, perhaps giving them the benefit of the doubt in light of the furnace-like temperatures and that almost a sixth of the competition had been wiped out.
I'm not sure the organisers - and riders for that matter - can decide whether this event is a race or a sportive. It's certainly a race up front, with the likes of former French BMX pro and runaway leader Peter Poully and his British namesake Emma Pooley in command of the overall men's and women's categories.
Many of the amateurs, too, are desperate to get as high a placing as possible and are always ready and willing to plunge themselves into the red on the ascents and take mad risks on the descents.
For many, including myself, it's a gruelling battle to just finish the race with a classification to our name. We've still got more than half of the 21,000m total elevation still to come in the next three stages and with every passing hour it becomes more of a challenge to stay in the shape you need to be to ride.
Massage is becoming increasingly vital for everyone involved and helps to make a small dent in the huge muscle damage from all day riding. And each day it gets harder to actually get one. At the summit of Alpe d'Huez yesterday, the massage room was like a war zone, with battered bodies lined up waiting for their rub down.
Rest day = mountain time trial
At least we all get a rest today - of sorts. Whether a time trial up Alpe d'Huez could ever be described as a rest is debatable, but the way I look at it, one hour of agony is better than seven hours of agony.
It was an unbelievable experience, each rider starting from a ramp in Bourg d'Oisans at 20 second intervals. According to the organisers, the last time a TT took place in a race of this size was 2004, when Lance Armstrong took victory in 39'41".
Nobody was quite that fast, although Poully gave it a good go with a stunning time of 42'20". The guy who finished second, Mickael Gallego, three minutes down on Poully, sailed past me with five corners to go, out of the saddle in the big ring and legs charging like pistons. If only I'd followed his wheel...
I was pretty content with my time of 1hr 4min though, considering what's been and what's still to come. It was good enough to edge me close to the top 200 on the day which, bearing in mind some of the cycling talent here this week, is no mean achievement.
More importantly, with just three stages remaining, and I'm still here, still fighting and, crucially, still in the game.
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