Stage 10 of the 2008 Tour de France will be remembered for the brave attack by Remy di Gregorio on the Tourmalet, Pieopoli’s stunning win, Cadel Evan’s come back from a crashing the day before to take Yellow. Others though will remember how a week before on July 6th 7500 amateurs braved fog, rain and cold to tackle the Etape du Tour on the same course – an event that will go down as one of all-time toughest physically and mentally – a legend.
Etape du Tour Souvenirs: Photo © Mark Sharon 2008
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.” Shakespeare’s Henry V
Success is a great analgesic or “amnestic” if one is completely accurate. It certainly is the latter, because what other explanation could there be for my even considering doing the Etape du Tour again in 2009 just a few days after completing one of the most horrible editions of all time – a day of rain and fog, bone-etching cold, muscle-destroying climbs. Misery on two wheels – but as King Harry exhorts in the literary opening to this piece, who would have missed it!
Weather always plays a part on cycling. That’s what makes bike races like the Etape the challenge they are – what might be a tiring but predictably doable ride one day can be turned by weather into a scary fight against exhaustion, hypothermia or heat-stroke. And of course there is the usual danger of riding in the company of 8000 others.
While everyone’s sincere hope at the hotel the night before was that the météo was wrong this was setting itself up as a cold rainy event. Even as we stood in the pouring rain loading bikes into the back of the car we prayed for the next day to dawn clear. And to think just two days before I had climbed the Hautacam in temperatures around 30°C.
Etape du Tour Welcome Village Entrance: Photo © Mark Sharon 2008
Etape du Tour Signing On: Photo © Mark Sharon 2008
Fortunately the experience of the Welcome Village wasn’t marred. It’s always a multicultural affair, though two nations dominate – the French of course, but so too the Brits – some 1750 of them. But Aussies, Kiwis, Japanese, Malaysian, South Africans, Dutch and Spanish, added their voices to the throng collecting race numbers, and studiously noting the set-up for the Départ, and eyeing up the weather.
Etape du Tour 2008 - Checking the Start System: Photo © Mark Sharon 2008
The concession stands were seeing high demand for rain-jackets and long-fingered gloves alongside the multi-deals on energy products.
Etape du Tour 2008 - Johan Museeuw promotes one of his own bikes: Photo © Mark Sharon 2008
No wonder. Race Director Jean-Francois Alcan informed me that the temperature on top of the Tourmalet was down to 4°C or 5°C, and the Hautacam wasn’t looking much better. I joked that I hope he had plenty of thermal blankets in stock – his laugh betrayed a certain glee at the prospect of us suffering. Then again what can you expect from a man whose stock in trade is coming up with challenges which push ordinary men and women to their limits. It’s a tricky one – like the “within an inch of your life” situation – how do you know where the limit really is?
The Départ was 7am, which meant getting up in the dark, forcing oneself to down a breakfast the size of a banquet, praying that the call of nature would respond to loads of black coffee, before cramming into a car and racing through misty rain in the dead of night to get near the start before the Gendarmerie closed the roads – damn uncivilized what!
Some creative driving by moi-même delivered us to the start zone at 6am. For this Etape I was joining up with five French mates, one of whom is a good friend called Maurice Chabot. Maurice and his wife Francoise have been a fixture in my Etape life since my very first back in 1995. Back then they owned a bakery in Aime in the French Alps, the start of that year’s Etape which finished on Alpe d’Huez. Aime boasts just three hotels, so much of the field was billeted with the town’s householders. What luck to be put up in a bakery – it must have been the excellent pastries that fuelled me up Alpe d’Huez. After a decade watching me do the Etape Maurice is now an Etapeur himself and, to my chagrin, is much better than I am.
Come dawn, the previous night’s heavy rain had abated to become a light misty drizzle, which meant hanging around waiting for the start was a moderately dreary affair. There is nothing like an Etape start though to give one a shiver even on the warmest days. It’s a long enough wait and the anticipation of getting under way worrying if one had forgotten something was bad enough even without the weather.
Then it was too late – we were off, like the clappers. Ahead 169km of Pyrenneean mountain terrain - first foothills, then two big climbs: 2115m Col du Tourmalet and the 1530m Hautacam.
I have been part of some quick starts, but this quick start didn’t let up for nearly 60 miles (100km), a distance I covered in three and half hours or so – eye-wateringly quick for me. Unfortunately, despite a couple of 4th Category climbs, this only got me as far as the foot of the first of the day’s two giant challenges – the Col du Tourmalet (2115m) – an 18km climb at an average gradient of 7.5%.
By this time the rain was back, a steady drizzle that just soaked through everything. Ideally I would have pulled on the rain-jacket but despite the temperature I would have boiled. There was nothing to it but to keep climbing, knowing that come the descent I was going to be cold, very very cold.
No part of the Tourmalet is easy. Even the lower section which should be a warm-up throws in a couple of sections at 12% and 13%. From six kilometres in, the profile is essentially a straight-line to the top, though where they get the average of 7.2% from I don’t know. According to my Garmin 705 the average grade, even without the couple of places where it spiked to 17% (mainly on the inside of bends I was too tired to negotiate properly), should be nearer 8.5% - and let me tell you the difference matters.
I wasn’t just climbing a mountain though; I was climbing three year’s worth of mountains. The last two Etapes had been disasters. In 2006 I had made it to within 8km of the top of Alpe d’Huez before succumbing to stomach problems. In 2007 I hadn’t even made it that far before the same problem struck. Maurice was sure I he was jinxing me – his first Etape was 2006. I was having none of that malarkey. I am afraid it was down to not enough training, too much beer and probably too many sugary energy drinks.
Three hours is a long time when you are tired, soaked to the skin, covered in road dirt, without even a decent view to take ones mind off suffering. Hell isn’t down – it’s definitely up.
At least technology can take away the sense of isolation which can descend even when riding as a peloton. My wife, who had remained back in England looking after the children, managed to get through on the phone a couple of times to gee me on. I must have looked odd seemingly talking to myself on the handfree insisting that she remind me that if (ok, “when”) I bring up the subject of a repeat effort this is proving one of the most miserable days of my life.
Next is call from team-mate Jean-Francois Bretou who was forced to abandon suffering from the after-effects of a broken leg the year before, and finally from Francoise who is overjoyed that I am by now over the worst of the climb.
By the time we got to La Mongie the mist had closed in, but at least the resorts ugly concrete buildings were harder to see. How anyone let them build such a monstrosity amongst these beautiful wild mountains is a mystery. The name even sounds like a dog with fleas. It did have two major attractions though. The first was the feed station – though hot cocoa was not on offer – while the other was the elimination point which I had managed to reach with an hour to spare.
While the gradient on the remaining section was if anything steeper, somehow knowing that the summit lay just a further 3.8 km ahead put a veritable spring in my step. Though, the conditions meant that I wouldn’t actually see it until I was just about on top of it – literally. Fortunately my latest toy, a Garmin Edge 705 which I was using for the first time in anger was proving an asset. It’s mapping combined with altitude gave me a precise position so even not being able to see the col even when I was a few hundred metres away wasn’t a problem.
At last I passed beneath the great statue Octave Lapize (1887 –1917), winner of the 1910 Tour de France, but I had to temper my sense of elation with a reminder that in 30 miles (50km) I would have to do the same thing all over again.
While I may not climb very well (my average speed up the Tourmalet was a scant 5 mph), descending is altogether my forte. Managing to clock 53mph (85km/h) at one point, I must have overtaken 300 others on the 21km run down to Luz St. Sauveur. It wasn’t quite quick enough to off-set the cold which was reaching into my muscles and bones, but at least I reached the valley linking Luz with the foot of the Hautacam in reasonably good form and able to still feel my fingers and toes.
Another 17km took what was now a rag-tag bunch of back markers to the foot of the Hautacam. Compared with the conditions atop the Tourmalet, here it was almost balmy, and most took the chance to pull off a couple of layers and fuel up.
The climb starts properly Ayros-Arbouix, and here there was a sight to rejuvenate the most flaccid of spirits. Hundreds of people were lining the roads pressing in on both sides in a cheering, screaming tunnel. Most have walked up from the Finish Village at Lau Balagnas to cheer on friends and loved ones. I spot Jean-Francois who leaps out to give me a cheer and a push. Around the corner is Francoise. From a bag she pulls out my secret weapon for the climb – a can of a certain brand of caffeinated energy drink. Then with another push from a spectator I am off, feeling like someone “going over the top” at the Battle of the Somme.
Continued in Part 2