Roger Walkowiak ~ June 2011

Chris Stephens & Andrew Perree

The week before heading down to Vichy for La Roger Walkowiak, temperatures were reaching in excess of 30 degrees in the Auvergne region.  The day we drove down to our destination, it was warm, sticky and promising rain. 

Unfortunately the promise was fulfilled and it proceeded to hammer down for most of our first night.  The following day brought more rain, and a significant drop in temperature (think where you live on a damp early spring day).  Still, there were a couple of days before the event, and surely it would get warmer and drier?

After two days of trying to entertain two four year olds and a one year old (the swimming pool was shut), I was left wondering whether the 172km of 'undulating' roads presented by the 'Wookie' could be any more difficult?  I would soon be put out of my misery of not knowing.

On the day of the event, temperatures hadn't lifted much above 15 degrees or so, but at least it was dry.  The usual ritual of removing excess clothing, and preparing bottles and food etc was carried out, but one big mistake was made.

The Impetuosity of Youth
The removal of leg warmers would prove to be a major error, or as Tony would say: 'two words Chris; nigh-eve'.

Andy Perree and I were competing in the 172km distance and were therefore placed in the lead group of riders.  Dianne was riding the 66k event and Tony was competing in the Trophee Passion 113km race. He was placed several pens behind us.  Before we set-off I wished him a good ride, to which the answer was: 'don't worry I'll see you before the turn-off'.

Here We Go,,,
We were soon off, and hurtling out of town at a reasonable lick with the 'hills' of the Auvergne region making the horizon.  As we got closer to the 'hills', a familiar backside came into view, and there appeared to be steam coming out of it.  Sure enough it was Tony, although how the hell he had managed to get past Andy and I: a) without us noticing, and b) given the speed that the group was travelling at, I'll never know.

I'm sure there's a logical explanation, but given b), it was no wonder that Tony was now suffering a bit. We wished our team leader well, and continued our journey to the 'hills'.

Now, I have put the word 'hills' in inverted commas, as despite the lack of altitude (none of the climbs were much over 1000m) each climb was long (8 - 15km).  The first 'hill' was pretty tough, and Andy and I stuck with a decent group of riders who were happily setting a barely comfortable pace. 

About half way up this climb, a sign was posted claiming that photos would be taken in a couple of hundred metres.  Spotting my chance, I surged to the front of the group and started to set the pace.  One or two riders tried to take over, but I was not going to be beaten to the click of the shutter.

As you can see the resulting photo was well worth the effort, and if you can spot a smile, it is because I was quietly chuckling to myself at my own vanity. 

The rest of the climb was tough after my considerable efforts to ensure a quality holiday snap.

Wrap Up Warm?
The descent was cold.  Very cold.  My naivety at removing the leg warmers meant that my teeth were chattering and legs were tightening all the way to the bottom of the valley.  It was a great descent, but it was too cold to enjoy it fully. 

I tried to block out the cold by thinking of hot cups of tea and bacon rolls.  Before we knew it our group was at the bottom of climb number two, and for once in my life I was glad to see the road heading upwards - at least I could now warm-up.

Apart from the cold, I was feeling pretty good.  The legs and lungs hadn't been hurt too much by the first climb, and I found myself dictating the pace at the front of the group.  Riders came to my shoulder and went, no-one was shifting me from the front. 

Going Well
At this stage, it all seemed too easy. The numbers were good: heart rate in a safe zone, and manageable power; and the body and mind felt good as well.  At times it felt like I was hardly breathing - I was starting to think that this might be one of the most enjoyable sportives I had ever taken part in.  Towards the top, the effort started to tell a bit, but still felt good going over the summit.

At the beginning of the ride, I’d had in mind that there was a possible escape plan (to follow the 113km route) should the body be hurting too much to continue.  At this point in the ride, and during the descent from the second climb, I had no inclination of turning off at the sign for the 113km event, and we passed it without consideration.

Another teeth chattering and slightly more bone jangling descent was causing my lower back to tighten.  No danger, a few stretches on the way down, and surely I'll be ok.  Wrong!

Getting Bad
The road started to go up and things start to go from bad to worse. Andy and I were still together, but Andy was starting to suffer from the effects of the cold as well.  His leg muscles were starting to knot on climb two, and he told me to press on to the finish.  There was a feed station at the top of this hill, and I indicated that I would see him there.

The contrast between climb two and climb three could not have been more marked.  The relative ease of climb two, was replaced by a lower back pain which meant that every pedal stroke involved a shooting pain through my back and down my left leg. 

I couldn't get comfortable and intermittently jumped from saddle to standing and back again. Nothing worked, the pain was constant. To make matters worse, our group had completely splintered and there were riders all over the 'hill'.

I had been with the lead riders of our group, but the pain was causing me to waver.  My pace dropped and I started to slip backwards. The climb was a war of attrition, but I resolved to press-on and stretch out at the summit.

Reaching the summit was a blessed relief and meant that I could finally stretch the back out.  It didn't seem to be working, but at least I could refuel the body and wait for Andy; who soon arrived.  We proceeded to consume some cake, sliced orange, and salami - the hot tea and bacon sandwich would have to wait.

That was the hard work pretty much out of the way, all that was left was a mixture of downhill and false flats to the finish.  Surely that wouldn’t be too hard.  Wrong again!

The back pain was increasing, particularly as it was a very bumpy descent.  I struggled to hang on to Andy's wheel as we headed downhill, and the teeth started to chatter again.

I consoled myself with the fact that we were on the home stretch, and that a warm shower and cup of tea were within reach. A speedy descent, and we'd be there.

Gotten Worse
Then I heard the sound that all cyclists dread.  The release of air that could only be a puncture, or an emission of bodily gas caused by the consumption of energy bars and bananas. 

Unfortunately it was the former, and whilst I bemoaned my luck, I was glad that it was a slow puncture and not a blow out on the descent.

I shouted to Andy, but he was gone (or so I thought). I rapidly repaired the puncture and stretched my back, and started to head downhill again.  As I neared the bottom, I spotted a cyclist heading up in the opposite direction.

After noticing that I’d dropped off his wheel, Mr Perree (far left) had slowed, and a fast advancing rider had asked him whether he was looking for his compatriot. 

On answering positively, the rider told him that it was 'grave'.  You can imagine his surprise, relief, and ultimately annoyance at starting to climb back in the wrong direction, when he saw muggins hurtling towards him with a minor grimace that was an attempt at a smile.

Time to crack on.  As we headed down, a large bloke and an elderly bloke (even older than Tony) both caught us up.  The large bloke would make an excellent wind break, and the old bloke would provide an 'if he can do it' mental fillip.

Andy and I both 'tried' to take turns on the front, but the large bloke was near impossible to round. He was setting a decent, but not remarkable pace, but every time I pedalled hard my back hurt, and every time Andy pedalled hard, his muscles knotted.

It was at times like this that one wonders what the hell we were doing, so we left the big guy to it, and both acknowledged that any sprint at the finish would be his without contest.

I think you can imagine the relief we both felt at reaching the end after 172km of mixed emotions and there wasn’t even an attempt at a sprint. There had been some great climbs and descents, but the cold and the pain had been tough to handle. All in all, a character building ride. Now where’s that cup of tea?

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Editors Note: Andy & Chris came in 148th & 149th respectively in 6:26 and at an average speed of 26.7 kph, for the 172k race with 2450 metres of climbing, to pick up Silver Brevets.

Here they are in happier circumstances, contesting the sprint for the event we rode two weeks before this one, the Marc Gomez.

And here's our Walkowiak report where the only glimmer of hope was Dianne taking first lady!