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Riding L'Etape de Tour by Nigsy
 
By Janna Trevisanut
Date: 7/31/2002
Riding L'Etape de Tour by Nigsy
 

I decided to ride the Etape du Tour in a complete moment of madness. For those of you who don’t know, the Etape du Tour is an annual event which has been running for the past 10 year, and which takes in one of the mountain stages of the Tour de France a few days before the pros ride. The "race" has European Pros riding (Christophe Rinero won in 1994), top amateurs (I rank just a tad lower!), the roads are completely closed, there is mechanical backup, food and water stops and it’s all electronically timed and filmed…the nuts! I’d looked at the route when it was published and it attracted me because it was short and had only 3 climbs…well so I thought, don’t know how I missed seeing that 4th one.

The nerves started with about a week to go. My training had started off quite well, from November through to the beginning of February the appalling English weather had failed to give me even a hint of a cold and I had ridden at least 3 times a week on low intensity rides (as per C. Boardman, the master of crashing). Two weeks' holiday were booked in February, rides of up to 4 hours every other day were ridden and confidence was high, unfortunately that was as good as it got. By April my motivation was starting to wane, training was playing havoc with my social life, Laura (the girlfriend) was getting increasingly irate with me getting up at ridiculous times in the morning to "get the miles in". It wasn’t until mid June I realised how off course I had gone and a combined knee and back injury didn’t help to raise already lowered spirits.

A crash with a triathlete with 3 weeks to go didn’t help matters, with a wrecked set of gears and a bank balance £450 lighter, as you can tell my excuses were going quite well!

With bike packed, sponsorship form completed and life assurance signed (Laura wanted my car and stereo apparently) I set off to Heathrow with my partner in crime, Richard, who was to accompany me for the duration. Now Richards’s idea of training was to only drink 10 pints twice a week and to walk to the curry house. He had done about 4 weeks of exercise bike work in the gym and had been out on the road with me once. In his US Postal gear he cut a sturdy figure, reminding me more of a rugby player than a well-honed endurance athlete. On the plane we met a few fellow cyclists who, to use their own words, "hadn’t done much training but we do the odd triathlon (2 had done the Hawaii ironman!) and have recced the whole route." By the end of the flight we realised we were going to get our arses kicked. After a long coach trip we arrived at the bottom of Les Arcs (where the Big Mig cracked in 1996). Me and Rich proceeded to go white as the mountain ramped up and up, hairpin bend after hairpin bend…..we both seriously considered taking the next flight home, or at least fall off spectacularly quite early on. Once we were happily settled in at the top of Les Arcs we set about assembling our bikes, enjoying some fine French cuisine and down to a local bar for a few sherberts. After possibly the worst night sleep of my life we trundled down to breakfast to be told that we would have to ride down to the start village and ride back. Riding down to the start village didn’t really bother me…but riding 18kms up an HC mountain with an average gradient of 7+% the day before the stage didn’t sound the best!

The descent from Les Arcs in the pissing rain was quite amusing, especially as the French had neglected to tell us that they were digging huge holes in the road which didn’t really go well with the 20 pairs of Mavic Kysrium wheels careering down them. Once at the start village we collected our race numbers and took refuge from the rain in a little pub and drank some hot chocolate. Richard had already decided he didn’t want to ride the 30kms back to the hotel, so we set about trying to find the easiest, and more importantly, flattest route back. Luckily we rode into (literally) an old guy and his wife who were climbing random mountains, he took us to a ski lift (handy) that took us virtually to the top, with only roughly 2 kms to ride ourselves…nice!

We readied ourselves for our "Pasta party" but we were to be sorely disappointed. The organiser had neglected to tell the hotel of our "high carbohydrate" needs, we were therefore served salad and a sad looking piece of salmon. We left the restaurant in poor spirits and hungry bellies. 5 Mars bars and a Lucozade later, I started to feel a bit better, attached my race number and settled down to sleep.

At 4.30 am we were rudely awoken by my alarm and Richard had his first of many "toilet" stops. The coach left at 5.45 with one poor guy having to cycle down because they couldn’t fit his bike on the van. The coach was deadly silent.

When we reached Aime, Richard yet again decided that "a big crap" would lighten the load on his bike and started to queue for a toilet that made the one in trainspotting look like the Queens private cubicle.

We were in the 3-5000 section, but because of the impromptu toilet stops…..we were right at the very back. By this point I had already decided that my only goals were:

a) To Finish
b) Not stop on the climbs and
c) Slit my wrists if Richard beat me.
 

After the announcer finished reading out the names of the favourites…Christophe Rinero, Jerome Chiotti and Alain Prost! we were underway…well after about 10 minutes we were.

I shook hands with Richard and took his picture, little did I know I wouldn’t see him for another 8 hours!!

The pace at the start was pretty slow, with most people content to have a bit of a chat and just roll along. After about 10 mins I had an incredible urge to pee, this was to be the first of MANY MANY toilet stops. The route map showed the first 13kms to be uphill, but it hardly felt it as we cruised along, many obviously worried about the first mountain, the 19.4km brute, the Cormet de Roselend. We piled through the village and turned a quick corner and there it was…a huge group of riders starting the col, unfortunately travelling at roughly 2 mph! This was to be a feature of the early part of the Roselend, slow progress, followed by riders coming to a complete standstill and extreme low speed crashes! We eventually started to get going but the progress was painfully slow, after about 4 very nervous kms we turned up a hairpin and everything stopped for about 0.5kms; people were walking and we couldn’t see why. We dismounted, as riding was impossible, and trudged up the mountain. I looked to my right to see a young lady squatting on the floor with her shorts round her ankles taking a leak, if only I was quicker with my camera I could have made some money with those pics! Finally the field started to clear and we managed to get going again. It was at this point that a yellow flash out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. A yellow jersey in full US Postal kit with the £3,500 top of the range Trek bike, sprinting past the field out the saddle Lance style, this raised a few wry smiles from the wily old French campaigners. I would meet this guy again further up the road, but more of that later. The road was still pretty packed and the pace fairly slow, but this gave me a chance to admire the superb views, further up, the field was thinning and this was when I had my first nasty shock of the day………..a sign saying 15kms to go! This is when reality set in, I was in 39x25 and pedalling quite easily and a nasty section of hairpins and steep parts started hitting us, I changed down to my bottom gear of 39x27 and tried to "spin" it. I came to the conclusion, if I wanted to save my legs (what for, I never did find out), I would push low gears at all times and keep well within myself. Back down the road Richard was having problems of his own, after deciding to keep his rainjacket on at the start , he now had no opportunity to take it off……..as he was cooking in his jacket he decided to take a drink and promptly dropped the bottle to the shouts of "Sacre bleu!" With only one water bottle and temperatures rising he was going to be in real trouble.

I on the other hand had decided these low gears were brilliant and was spinning away quite happily, avoiding various objects strewn all over the road, Oakleys (at least 4 pairs) and pumps galore. The road then flattened out, went down hill for a bit then up again but not so sharply. I got to the front of a small group going fairly sedately and upped the pace a tad. A few guys just kept on my wheel for the next km. I then put in an (old style) Virenque attack out the saddle for about 20 seconds and came up to another group, my legs had decided I wouldn’t do that again and for the rest of the climb I rode at my own pace. The last 3 kms seemed to just drag on and on, with the temperature cooling and the wind increasing, the views however made up for it and so did the sight of the feeding station at the top of the climb. After spending about 10 minutes munching bananas and taking on too much water (again) I pulled up the arm warmers and took off down the mountain. Now, I’d never cycled down an Alpine descent before and the whole experience was quite unnerving at first, especially with the maniac Frenchies passing at the most ridiculous points. By now I was wishing I had put on a jacket for the descent, my whole body was shivering and shaking and it was turning into a really rather unpleasant experience. When I eventually reached the bottom I stopped to have (another) pit stop. We cruised through the town, which had a nice set of cobbled speed bumps in it, the crowds were giving us a few cheers and I thought to myself "you know this isn’t so bad". The next Col would change my mind! The Col de Saises loomed up next, a hair pin right and the 15km climb started in earnest. Now on paper this looked the hardest climb and it really wasn’t wrong. The gradient, whilst not being a complete killer, was just so relentless, seemingly no breaks at all, combined with the heat which was by now (with helmet on) starting to get very uncomfortable. However these were the least of my worries. I started to get a worrying pain in my stomach, which seemed to get worse and worse, combined with my need to pee (again!!!) - I really wanted to stop and sort myself out. However, I said no stopping on the climbs and that was the way it was going to be, people were dropping like flies on this climb, the combined gradient and heat cutting people down one by one. I looked to my left and saw the crumpled figure of the Lance Armstrong wannabe looking suspiciously like he was being sick…I never saw him again! It was turning into a battle of wills and I just decided to carry on plodding up the road…stomach cramps worsening. By the time I got to the top I really didn’t feel so good, I decided to stuff myself with anything I could lay my hands on, stale sandwiches, bananas, oranges, etc., until I started to feel a bit sick…I reckoned by the time I reached the bottom of the descent I would be ready to go again.

Rich however had died a thousand deaths. His tactic of riding 200 metres then getting off for a breather didn’t seem like a winner and he soldiered on to the top of the Saises where he was caught by the broom wagon on the descent which ordered him to stop and pull over. They stripped him of his number and time transponder (like the real tour) and he climbed with great regret into the back of the bus.

The climb of Col de Aravis was, dare I say it, quite easy. The road really didn’t ramp up to any degree and there was a huge flat section in the middle where I decided to ride along with a saucy looking French girl with very high riding shorts. The last few kms dragged on a bit, but I decided for the first time to put a bit of power down and started to go past quite a few riders. People lined the roads outside their chalets holding cold mineral water out for you to take. I took a bottle from a girl, who ran alongside me for a bit, I then threw it over my back…chriiiiist the shock almost gave me a heart attack!

Top of the Aravis, more food, more toilet! The descent from the Aravis seemed to go quite quickly and at last I seemed to be getting the hang of the Alpine downhills, over taking quite a few people and also on hairpin bends which required a bit of bottle!

Just before the Colombiere loomed into view I stopped to take off my jacket, have a piss (I now had the bladder of a small mouse) and take it all in. My legs still felt pretty good, I hadn’t really pushed myself so far, being a bit apprehensive about my lack of familiarity of the terrain, the distance and the very hot weather. I decided I may as well go for it. I started the Colombiere in 53 x 19 (for show!) about 0.2 seconds later I changed into the small ring! The start of the Colombiere didn’t seem too hard and by spinning my gears very fast I started to pass people. The heat was pretty awful but I felt good, I looked at a few cyclists faces and I realised that all these guys were completely shot. I came across 6 American guys dressed in US postal gear, I made some smart aleck comment about Armstrong and went past. This went on for the next 9 kms, going past people like they were standing still, I wish I’d done this earlier!

But I had got a bit overconfident. The road started to steepen and I was slowing down a tad and my legs were beginning to hurt. I looked to my right and saw the most horrendous sight in front of me, a 2km wall. I thought to myself (and apparently so did virtually everyone else) "I’m not going to get up that!" I’d already changed into 39x27 and now my mouth was wide open. I crawled past people for the next km until I saw the 1km to go sign. Relief you would have thought…but no, the road ramped up even steeper; I tried getting out of the saddle but decided an Ullrich sit down special would be better. 2 riders went past, people at the side of the road were shouting "Allez Allez". It wasn’t helping. Someone shouted "100 metres to go!" Thank God! My eyes were transfixed to the road, I rode another minute or so ("how much *uckin longer!!!?). I then saw a mark on the road "200 metres" aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh That bastard French woman was lying!!!!!!! By now I was making noises from the effort. I still don’t know how I made it, they were the worst 200 metres of my life on a bike, but make it I did. By now I’d had enough, forget the water and food, just stick the jacket on and fly down the mountain. The Colombiere was by far the most technical descent of the 4 with plenty of "fly off the edge" opportunities (a lot of people crashed on it) and I now started to enjoy it. 3 of us went through the town together and started TTing to stop anyone catching up. 1km to go!!! Crowds at the side of the roads roaring us on. A couple of dodgy turns and 50 metres to go. The 2 guys in front start to blow kisses to the crowd, sneakily I sprinted past both and give a Virenque style salute to the crowd. I had finished in over 7 hours, halfway down the field, hours behind the winner but I had had my little moment of glory and it felt very good!

Richard arrived 2 hours later, after having a nice ride on the bus!

If any of you love the Tour de France, go out and do this, I guarantee you won’t regret it.

--Nigsy


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