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
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.