La 77

Overall Distance 145k Time Taken 4:02
Height Climbed 955 metres Brevet Gold
Distance Climbed   Position 59th vet
Date April 2007 Country France
Entrants 1189 Region Paris

Here we are again for another year frolicking around Europe.  It's the first Sunday in April, 2007 and the first sportive of the season is just outside Paris at a place called Melun. 

To be honest not the most salubrious of places, you wouldn't want to honeymoon here, but for bike racing it's proper northern classics country.  Flat (ish), as windswept as it comes and loads of forests with those horrible "dead" French roads that just suck the energy from your legs.  So with those positive thoughts to open a new season, lets get down to action!

Enter early!
This would be the 14th edition of the La 77, if I'm not repeating myself (the & La), and it's the first sportive cum race of the French season.  Worryingly, it's open to National and Elite riders and this year saw some top, top riders entering.  One being Eric Leblacher, Credit Agricole and FdeJeux pro who road in the 2005 Tour and another being Dimitri Champion of Bouyges Telecom.  With the field limited to 1200 it was always going to be a big affair.  I signed on the day before and the organiser took pity on me (you should register the week before) because I'd come all this way, he gave me a start number of 1163.  Just made it.

Not only was it going to be big, it was going to be fast.  As I was unloading the bus at the Ibis, not 600 metres from the start, a gang of skinny rakes jumped out of their car and began assembling their Litespeed Vortex's, complete with Lightweight carbon wheels.  You know the one's, the 3,000 a pair wheels!  I was thinking of protesting because I don't think the riders came up to the UCI minimum weight limit, let alone the bikes.  However, in the spirit of entente cordiale I let it go.  Especially when I saw they had red numbers.  Normal plebs like me had black, previous race winners were given red. 

Calm before the storm
So now I've identified which wheels to follow all I've got to do is find them amongst the massing throng.  There's 1189 starters, I'm 1163, guess which end of the grid I'm at?  I'm that far back I can't even see the front, but all of a sudden, bang on 9:00 am, the nervous chatter stops and the clack of cleats engaging begins.  It's 12 degrees, not a cloud in the sky and we're about to go racing, once we've passed over the timing mats a hundred metres away.  My only concern, it's windy.  And wind always means trouble, always!

First off we have to negotiate ourselves out of the industrial estate from where we've started.  That means straight roads, roundabouts, potholes and gravel strewn 90 degree bends.  It also means making up places.  This is the time to strike.  I aim to get past as many people as I can before we hit the open road.  Because once we do, we're going to have to work a whole lot harder.  It's windy remember, and wind means three things; line-outs, echelons and crashes.

The Fast and The Furious
Once we cleared the industrial units we're in open country and heading bog-straight, east, down the D408.  Into a headwind.  It's ten miles to the first turn and it's head down. eyes up and pay attention as though your life depends on it.  It's absolutely vital that you keep your wits about you on days like this.  Crashes seemed to happen every kilometre as people fought for wheels and fought to stay upright.  I counted at least six people on the floor, before we got to the first turn.

The speed was unrelenting.  Here is my fastest hour of the race.  It's from kilometre 1.75 (the last roundabout where someone was already on the floor) to the first hill at kilometre 41.  A "modest" 196 watts but a speed of 39.5 kph.  Ignore the cadence blip, it's a double count in the software, but the heart rate is correct!  As is the 704 kJ of energy burnt.  You'll also see we covered our fastest kilometre in 1:11.  The world record on the track is only just under a minute!

As you can see I got my warm up done in the first hour.  Mainly by jumping on trains going to the front and hanging on for dear life.  But you have to take care when jumping on a train or passing slower riders as this is where the accidents happen.  The last thing you need is someone jumping in to your comfort gap.  So you have to make sure you don't leave a half-open invitation.  Although you don't want to be right on the wheel of someone of whom you're unsure, it's better than the alternative.  A trip to the tarmac courtesy of a careless queue jumper.

Red Alert
I felt sorry for the "red numbers" because no one really wanted to help them.  They would be the engines of the train for most of the day.  Maybe these red numbers weren't  the badge of honour they'd expected.  They just made them targets.

Once we got the first "fast hour" out of the way, things got more serious.  We climbed a few hills to get on to the plains of the Forest of Villefermoy.  When in the forest area it wasn't too bad, but once on to the plain it became echelon and line-out city.  You quite literally had to fight for wheels or shoulders, depending on the wind direction.

Tour de France style, the street furniture began to arrive.  Our group must have been two hundred strong when we hurtled towards a central reservation.  As I was on the left hand side, we ended up on the "wrong" side of the road.  We now had two groups either side of the hump and moving at speed. 

Then there was a shout, and a bike goes down bouncing along the hump on "my" side of the road.  I bunny hop the bottle rolling across my path and somehow we all stay up, cursing our luck that we've lost fifty places to our compatriots on the other side of the road. 

Then chaos reigns.  I actually saw it happen.  Someone, on the opposite side of the hump, turned to look at our crash, drifted off his line, then took three out on his side of the road.  The fifty places we lost (and more) were made up in the blink of an eye.  People were now getting more nervous and with good cause. 

Clothes maketh the rider
I really am something of a snob when racing.  Which from a Scouser is a bit rich, but needs must,  When racing away I always look at the riders immediately around me.  Are their legs shaved, are they wearing fresh, kit, is their bike clean, do they have their number on straight, are they wearing a good helmet, do they keep looking behind them, are they wearing socks!? 

You can allow one indiscretion of the above at most.  If anyone has two or more, always move away from them, always.  They may be fast and they may be strong but are they a cyclist in the strictest sense of the word?  Can they handle their bike in a situation, hold a line, ride smoothly and not slam on brakes without thinking of the consequences?  Are they likely to look behind them and drift off line, or worst still, just pull over without checking their overlaps. 

If there's ever any doubt, move away.  Never ride on the wheel of a person with whom you're not comfortable.  It's not worth taking the risk.  And the socks?  No socks equals triathletes!  Strong as oxe's (oxen? ox-eye?) but more used to time trials.  Riding in peloton's of 1200 spooks them!

Power Hour
When we got to kilometre 56, the speed dropped (slightly), the wind blew (massively) and the power increased, just.  The wind and the undulations played havoc with the groups.  It was at this point that I lost contact with, or should I say sight of, the lead group.

I could always see the lead car and the leaders as I made my way from the back to the frontish of the ride.  But I was soon to pay the price.  With the speed as high as it was it was impossible to get any food down me.  Every time I went to get my food I'd lose around ten places.  So in the end, I didn't. 

You can see from the stats that I struggled to spin in to the wind.  My cadence has dropped from 96 in the first hour to 88 in this.  Watts are up but speed and cadence are down.  That's me grinding it out that is.

I also got dropped, on a motorway bridge of all things!  How sad is that.  The elastic just snapped and I couldn't get back on to the echelon to save my life.  I sat up, took a gel, a big swig of my drink and waited for the next train.  When it came I was ready.

Chute Alors!
As we entered the last 50k things took a turn for the worst.  As we left Moret-sur-Loing we turned to head home and picked up a massive tail wind.  Now normally I like tail winds, but not in events like this.  Once more we had a massive group of at least 300 riders.  I took a look over my shoulder as we took a sharp left and new we'd be in trouble.

Tail winds lift spirits and bring people to the front.  People who might not necessarily be there if it was a head wind.  They then get near the front and realize they don't want to be there so start brushing brakes or looking around.  The more the shouts picked up the more nervous I got.  I forced myself to fight my way to the top ten of the group.  Then I felt a bump and the shouts began.  They never stopped.

That horrible, sickening sound of carbon and alloy sliding across tarmac went on for far, far too long.  Normally I never look back at an accident, only because I don't want to cause one myself.  But the frenchie next to me looked and the anglo saxon that came from his lips forced me to do the same.  I looked under my arm, then wished I hadn't.

It was a wide, long, straight as a die, Roman Road.  It was two lanes wide with the added hard-shoulder, cycle lane type thing on each side.  It was kerb to kerb riders on the floor and people just riding in to them.  The pile just got bigger and bigger.  It was a crash of Tour proportions; there had to be at least 150 riders on the floor.  You can't dwell on these things, you just have to press on.  Sounds mercenary, but you have to let the professionals get on with their jobs.  The marshals, doctors and organisers would take care of things.

The Final Push
This four hour race was a race of three very specific hours.  Hour one was all about speed.  Hour two was all about power and hour three, the final hour, was all about heart rate explosion and survival. 

In the final hour we covered 34 relatively safe kilometres.  To be honest, the cadence was still down as I was, by now, a little fatigued.  I have no problems with the distance or the time in the saddle, as I've ridden longer and farther in training.  But you just can't get the sustained speeds you need when training on an Island nine miles by five and where the longest straight road is just three miles in length!  Still, that's why we're here, it's a preparation event for what's to come.

So for the final hour heart rate's an average, 194 bpm with 221 maximum.  My heart zone graphs for the event show 30 minutes at Level 5 and 33 minutes at Level 6.  This equates to 25 minutes at 200-210 bpm and 24 minutes at 210-220 bpm.   But just look at that Pace figure!  We covered one of the kilometres in 61 seconds!  And just to assure you, there was no downhill.  Honest!

At the 10 k banner I was 20 riders from the front of a very, very fast moving train of around 100 riders.  I began to move forward on corners and roundabouts until, with 2k to go I was about sixth wheel and feeling bloody marvellous.  This was going to be a good sprint finish!

Then, with my heart pounding and my legs burning we entered the final kilometre and a sign showing a hairpin turn.  All roads appeared to lead up, this wasn't going to be nice.  The final K had 700 metres up hill at 6%.  This was to be my downfall.  I went backwards quicker than a French TGV in reverse.

As riders passed me on all sides I stayed in the big ring and grabbed wheels where I could.  When we reached the top people started to sit up.  So I began picking them back off again in the last 300 metres.  Determined to have a sprint at the end I jumped with 200 metres to go and managed a feeble 460 watts; the 660 watts you can see on the left was actually on the climb.

You can see that my average heart rate for the last 9 minutes was 210bpm, and the average speed, including 700 metres of crawling up a climb was 34 kph.

Worth the effort
As ever at the end the old heart flew up to 220 bpm and I managed  to push out 137rpm for the sprint but in a low gear.  However, as feeble a sprint as it was, it paid off.  I was the 387th person back across the line; remember I was around the 1100th across it at the start.  Which means I overtook at least 713 people out on the road. 

I finished 59th vet in a time of 4 hours, 2 minutes and 58 seconds to take a Gold Brevet position.  The last person to do so.  The person who finished behind me in the sprint was 4 hours 3 minutes, he was the first person to get a Silver Brevet.  So the moral of this tale is, always, always, always, sprint at the end of a race. Because sometimes that two seconds can make all the difference.

A fantastic race, if a little nervy, excellent organisation, marshalling and support, a nice bidon and polo shirt at the end, and an excellent after race meal.  All in all, a top day out.  Although I did feel sorry for all those that hit the deck.  It's not a nice way to start the season.  Of the 1189 that started 1069 finished, quite a few of them in hospital.

As for French Pro, Dimitri Champion he came in at 3:30 and, according to Dianne who saw the finish, let Eric Boucheret take the sprint, the other pro Eric Leblacher, was 7th, seven minutes down on the winner!  And my Lightweight-wheeled chums?  Never saw 'em!  But I think one of them was the one that won at an average speed of 43km/h!

website La77

Ibis Melun