I was lucky enough to be offered a last minute offer to ride Haute Route Ventoux, a new 3-day event run by the Haute Route, the brand that have gained fame through their ‘highest and toughest’ 7 day sportives through the Pyrenees, French Alps, and Italian Alps and Dolomites. Having spent a lot of time riding overseas in the summer, and refusing to accept the season was over, I allayed fears about a lack of form following rehab time for an injury picked up on the Haute Route Iron, packed my bags, and headed out for my date with the Geant de Provence .
At a similar period, I’d been chatting with the guys from Topical Edge, an American brand producing a sodium bicarbonate-based lotion that they state helps you ‘train harder, go faster, push longer, and recover quicker’. I was exposed to the product at the Haute Route Pyrenees by new friends at Velonews, and was keen to try it out to the fullest. Ventoux provided the perfect opportunity to try this lotion and its lactate buffering properties, something designed to help you beat the burn of intense effort and aid your recovery afterwards.
The following piece aims to look at my experience of Topical Edge and how it effected my performance at Haute Route Ventoux, whilst giving an insight into my ride and the feel of this new event. A review with in a review of sorts.
Make sense? No?
Well just read it and you’ll work it out.
A brief lesson in lactate
You know the feeling. In the closing phases of your road race, the final kilometres of that time trial, or darkest depths of that final interval on the turbo trainer, your legs are screaming for mercy, shrieking in agony and demanding you to stop. This pain is a sign you’re over your lactate threshold. What does that actually mean? Not many of us athletes like to throw the term about, but don’t genuinely know. This is a basic explanation….
During exercise, your body breaks down glucose to produce energy. At lower levels of exercise, this is done through the use of oxygen. As the exercise becomes more intense, there’s not always enough oxygen to go around, and lactate is produced – and this lactate is precious fuel for your muscles, as it can be broken down in the absence of oxygen. Your body isn’t so good at burning off the build up of acid that results from this production of lactate however, and when acid combines with lactate lactic acid results.
When this lactic acid builds to an uncontrollable level, you’ve reached your lactate threshold. The reason your legs burn so bad when you get to this point is because as lactate builds, the level of hydrogen ions in your blood increases and the pH of your cells drops below the normal level and also become acidic, causing pain and impairing muscle contraction. However, thus acid is buffered by bicarbonate, of which we have a small supply in our bodies. However, when our natural bicarbonate is used up, the pH of our cells drops, leading to acidosis. This leads to a build up of free radicals, which damage muscle mitochondria – the powerhouses of your muscles – and causes DOMs. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness… that feeling in the hours and days after your workout that stops you from walking up the stairs like a normal person, and turns you into a groaning and whimpering mess until the muscles have recovered.
Bring on the Bicarb
Sodium Bicarbonate is able to play a big role in the above process, however, and its impact has been studied since the 1930s. The presence of bicarb in the blood serves to raise pH levels, thus buffering the impact of lactic acid, which in turn is associated with reduced free radical production, and the potential acidosis of the muscles and blood that they cause. As such, your muscles keep pumping as they should do, and your mitochondria are protected from the damage described above – thus reducing the resulting damage-triggered inflammation and possibility of the dreaded DOMS.
Sodium Bicarbonate isn’t anything special – just the baking powder you find in Sainsbury’s whilst you’re looking for the peanut butter and bananas. On understanding the potentially huge impact that it could have, athletes, particularly those taking part in shorter events such as rowing, track cycling and running, started supplementing with it. It was simple, just get the powder, mix it with water and chug it down. However, it’s not that straightforward – incorrect dosing or a particular intolerance would lead to extremely unpleasant side effects, some of which may have left athletes wishing they hadn’t chosen white shorts for that session.
And herein lies the beauty of Topical Edge…..
What is Topical Edge?
Put simply, Topical Edge is a lotion that allows Sodium Bicarb to pass directly into your muscles and blood through the skin by leveraging the company’s transdermal (through the skin) delivery system. No more drinking a concoction that may come straight out the other end. Instead, rub the lotion onto your legs prior to exercise, ride off joyfully into the sunset, and let it do its thing. And if you want to recover faster, slap some more on when you get back home – perfect for intense training blocks or stage racing like the Haute Route.
The product was developed in late 2016 and has gone through several clinical trials, which have gone on to prove that application:
- Reduced muscle soreness following intense exercise
- Lowered heart rate and rate of perceived exertion under the same training loads
- Elevated lactate levels to fuel the muscle
Having also been certified to be free of banned substances, is Topical Edge a miracle elixir, the holy grail for endurance athletes (other than coffee course)? Could well be. I used the product before and after each stage on Haute Route Ventoux, and my results were pleasantly surprising. Admittedly, I was carrying good form from my two weeks of Haute Route in Summer, but I’m sure Topical Edge must also have played a role.
Let’s find out just what happened down in autumnal Provence then….
Life on the Edge; my ride on Haute Route Ventoux
The race kicked off with a bang; a 20km downhill charge to the base of the first col of the event, the Trois Termes. The peloton barrelled through tiny roads and around villages strewn with road furnitute at 40kph, surging through pinchpoints and concertina-ing through junctions. Acceleration after acceleration at max power resulted in this frenetic bid to hold wheels, the madcap on-off output of a holding it down in a bunch.
The Trois Termes arrived, and the leading bunch of 100 or so was together, with me in it. Full of adrenaline and post-taper enrgy, the pace over the col was spicy to say the least, and it took every ounce of mental and physical strength to hang in towards the front over the climb; an effort that I later learned had yielded both a 5 and 20 minute all-time power PB. Inevitably the group split on the climb, and I was left in the the second group on the road, roughly riders 25-50.
Following the climb, the cruel parcours meant there was little time to let the chain go slack for the whole day, with descents being short and relatively untechnical, forcing you into pedalling through them rather than freewheeling and recovering. Somehow, the legs held out and I held on in my group all the way through to Sault, the town marking the start of the final climb and summit finish – the approach to Ventoux from the easiest side. The infamous mistral wind that tears its way across Provence was on fine form that day, meaning we couldn’t scale Ventoux to the tower at the very summit due to safety; whippety climbers riding to 1900m in 100-150kph gusts isn’t the wisest of moves. Whilst the winds denied us the true top of the col, coursing through the foothills in a group left at the mercy of winds of the extremity i’ve never experienced before was quite a memory, and something that whittled our original group of 25 down to slightly more than 10; lose a wheel for a second and getting back on was night on impossible.
As we climbed together from Sault, the pace slowed, and I rode off the front with two others, an attack that I was nervous about from the moment it commenced – would I merely be reeled in minutes later, left to hang my head in shame as my cohort looked over me in pity? To my immense surprise and delight, my breakaway companions and I held out to the summit, and I finished 29th on the stage out of nearly 400.
On reviewing my race file, I saw that I’d hit 5 and 20 minute power PBs on that initial climb. Elation at my form was tinged with fear however – day one of a stage race isn’t always the best day for hitting new highs due to the risk of inadequate recovery. Sure enough, the foam roller, lacross ball, and Topical Edge was deployed to the utmost that evening as I sought to remedy any damage I may have done…
Day two. A biggun. Long, rolling, and capped off with an ascent to the summit from Malaucene, an approach to Ventoux of less legend but equal difficulty to the mythical Bedoin climb.
For the first 50km, the pace was steady, and without any major attacks or accelerations, the front group on the road numbered as many as 100. We nervously waited for the action to kick off, engaging in that unique activity of chatting with strangers in the peloton yet also subtly fighting them for a strong position at the front of the bunch.
Sure enough, as the short and shallow climbs that littered the day started increasing in intensity, the action kicked and we accelerated from cruise mode to warp speed. The slightest rise in gradient at the base of the Col D’Aulon and the smallest of accelerations, and the group shattered into numbers no greater than 20. With a long stage approaching, and a long steady drag to Maluacene – the start of the climb to the summit – it was essential to stay in a good group to arrive early at the base of the col and achieve a good placing.
The legs needed a big kick and snap to hold a decent position as the race exploded at the Col D’Aulon. Being a diesel engine, I always find this particularly difficult, yet the legs hung on in there. Over the next hours, we accelerated and regrouped, accelerated and re-grouped, constantly in and out of the red, constantly over and under threshold. I somehow hung on to the second group on the road (again!) through to the base of Ventoux. Despite my fears of having gone too deep on stage one, I was pleasantly surprised – the legs felt as strong and fresh as they would have 24 hours prior.
The Malaucene climb to the summit of Ventoux awaited. After a pause at the feedstation in Malaucene, frustratingly watching many of my group ride on, I faced taking on the ascent alone, with a series of carrots to chase down in front of me. The Malaucene ascent is no ordinary climb. Towards the middle, we were faced with almost 5km of cruelly straight road, never letting back from a gradient between 9-12%. No chance to recover, no chance to freewheel. Diesel engine on, I rode my way through the group in front of me to take 19th in the day – a position I’d thought way beyond my limits. As the kilometres of that final ascent ticked by I felt myself strengthening, and the power gradually increased. The burn just didn’t burn like it should.
The final day of the race, a Time Trial up the best known and most feared climb to Ventoux, starting at Bedoin. Again, the Mistral denied us the 1900m summit, and we were forced to settle for a finish at Chalet Reynard, a 16km ascent over 1100m, finishing at 1400m high. After a cruelly short neutral section lasting just over one minute, the solo purgatory commenced. What followed was almost exactly an hour of climbing, the exquisite pain of pushing as hard as you could, yet measuring your effort to the minutiae to avoid an untimely explosion in the final kilometres.
At the start of the day, I was placed 20th on GC, and the time gaps to the five or six riders behind me numbered mere seconds. There was no room for weakness or failings today, or I’d slide several places on the GC. With no opportunity for drafting or race-craft, this was a pure test of power to weight, and an insight into how well recovered – or not – you were.
The Bedoin climb is a cruel one – through dense forests, with no view of the plains below to provide an indication of progress and increasing altitude, it felt like you were wading through mud. The very slightly meandering road, with only one true hairpin and only a few ‘bends’ to speak of, furthered this, always promising a deviation or change in gradient, yet never actually delivering the respite it constantly teased you with. You could see your GC foes in front and behind you, gradually increasing or decreasing the distance between them in a desperate slow motion chase to Reynard.
In the initial 10 minutes, I was concerned I’d gone too hard, the power number on my screen was higher than planned, and I wanted to let it fall. But my legs wouldn’t let that happen – they refused to slow. Over the hour, that power number somehow stayed EXACTLY the same, to the very single watt. For the first time ever, I’d conducted a perfectly paced effort, setting a one hour power record in the process. Whatsmore, this hour long time trial effort was almost exactly at my threshold power – the wattage that experience and field testing had suggested was the most i could push over a 60 minute effort when fresh, and in ideal conditions. To be able to do that on the third day of a pretty feisty stage race was a great feeling and again, a massive surprise for me.
I finished the event in 21st . Slipping only one position on the final time trial felt like a victory for a rider who thrives in the long burn of a 4-hour race as opposed to a bullish one hour charge. Having come into the race off the back of injury and a prolonged layoff, I was delighted.
An incredible way to end the season, and an insight into a beautiful yet brutal part of France.
So what am I saying?
Experience has shown that I am not an athlete that recovers very well. During week long Haute Routes, my performance has typically declined over the week whereas many seem to strengthen day by day. My dip in form has possibly been due to poor day-to-day pacing, but, knowing how my legs have felt on day seven of some events, DOMs and fatigue has definitely had a large part to play.
Using Topical Edge before each ride to protect my muscles from the acidic effects of lactic and save the mitochondria from the debilitating damage that leads to DOMs meant that i was able to perform day after day, producing PBs through the race. I think for me, that’s where the lotion was most valuable – the way in which it boosts recoverability. The lactic buffering properties on the road were also invaluable for sure, particularly when the action kicked off in the bunch and hard acceleration and big efforts were required to hold wheels – an activity that is deeply anaerobic and painful. However, I think the mid-ride buffering effects would be more noticeable were you to use it for a short Time Trial, Road race, or track event, where your threshold is being tested and exceeded throughout.
It was awesome to be able to perform to my best throughout the Haut Route Ventoux. It was an amazing event that became about so much more than the fearsome mountain and the weather station at the top. Even though we only did make the very summit once, the riding away from the mountain itself, through Provencale planes, gorges and rolling hills, rendered more stunning by the autumnal colours and soft light, is up there in some of my top riding experiences ever. And to be able to experience a race that brings together frenetic group riding with attritional climbing was fantastic. It truly was an event with something for everyone and with a different vibe every day.
I’d love to go back.
Thank you Haute Route.
Thank you Ventoux.
Want to know more about Topical Edge? Check out the site here: https://www.topicaledge.com.
Unfortunately Topical aren’t yet able to distribute to the UK, yet this is due to change very soon. It’s well worth keeping an eye on these guys. In an era of marginal gains, I’d say that what this lotion can do for you could be far more than marginal.
Massive thanks to Ade and Shelley from AlpCycles for making this happen.
Photo credits: AlpCycles, Haute Route