After all my training and Sportive riding in 2007 by mid July I was finally ready and set off for France to ride the Etape. The event was a public event over closed roads, following the route of a stage of the real Tour de France that year. The route started in Foix and continued over more than 100 miles and five Pyreneen mountains to finish in Loudenville.
Bryony and I, with my bike in a bike-box, flew out the Thursday prior to the event in order to give me time to acclimatise to the weather and to hopefully relax (no chance).
I put the bike back together on Friday morning and rode a leisurely 45k or so, just to make sure the bike and I were ok. There was a heavy tailwind on the way out so it was a very fast ride for no effort in the outbound direction and a bit of work on the return.
The next day I had to go to Foix to register; public transport being non existent in the area and having no access to a car at this point, I had to cycle there (the round trip was 96k) which wasn’t ideal but did no damage. The Etape Village in Foix was great, registration was quick and easy with much free crap handed out along with the race transponder etc.
I met up with several other riders from my work and we had a good lunch before I rode back. The wind was very strong by now so the ride back was more work than I really wanted to do two days before the race but as I said, no harm was done.
The hotel was filling up with cyclists, some English, some French (including an older guy to whom the hotel owner said “Well, you’re not here for the Etape, I can tell”. On speaking to the bloke on Tuesday morning, he told me that it was his eighth Etape!). Two English guys who had arrived on the Saturday were badly let down by British Airways who mislaid their bikes (they eventually turned up, just in time, but must have been a huge amount of added stress).
My nerves were building now and I slowly got more mad over the weekend. Months of training and preparation leading down to one day, as well as providing focus, tends to build it up to an insane degree. I had to check with Bryony at one point that the flies buzzing around my head were real.
With both Bryony and I being non-drivers, the logistics of the Etape were a nightmare (especially the ending up nearly 200km away from where you started). Fortunately a good friend agreed to fly out and help us. My friend Rupert came out on the Sunday, picking up a hire car en-route, so all was set for the big day. Except my stomach/alimentary canal which showed evidence of some of the stress I was suffering – I won’t go into details.
A big pasta meal the night before the race set me up before an early night – it was noticeable who was drinking alcohol and who wasn’t. The two French riders that would finish in sub eight hour times were drinking water. I drank both wine and beer.
An early night was followed by a ridiculously early morning, getting up at 3.30 (2.30 UK time). A shower followed by breakfast and we were off just after five. I was even more grateful than before for Rupert being there to drive – my fallback plan had been to cycle from the hotel to the start if necessary, not realising that it would still be pitch black at that time (being that much further south). On the way there we saw cyclists riding in the dark, with no lights, on the hard shoulder of an unlit dual carriageway – could have gone very badly for them.
On reaching the outskirts of Foix, more and more cyclists appeared until they were almost a constant stream – we stopped and I got set up to ride the last bit to the start. I had to promptly stop and find a quiet spot as my previously non-functioning lower alimentary canal decided it wanted to resume function with a vengeance. I’ll spare you some of the horror, suffice it to say that there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England (well Scotland, but you get my point).
Feeling somewhat better, I made my way to my start pen and met up with the other riders from our company. Tension, excitement and nerves were all building together, you could feel the jittery, jumpy enthusiasm everywhere. Just before seven, Greg LeMond said some words, none of which I heard (I didn’t realise at the time but he rode it also. He beat me, obviously.) Then we were off, with our pen being released very shortly after the first.
I was completely overwhelmed by the experience and rode nervously among the bunch, quickly losing touch with my team. It was awesome though, the crowds at the start seemed as big as anything at the real Tour and the cheering and clapping was very moving; it felt very much like you were part of the Tour.
After Foix things started to settle down a bit, although faster riders still swept through – I probably lost time here as I was trying to avoid a crash, something that happens very easily in those conditions, and the road went up and down a bit before joining the dual carriageway south to Tarascon. It was here that I caught the first of the riders from my team; he would pass me again later until I retook him again on a later climb. I saw my first rider with a puncture and thought (not for the last time), “Glad that’s not me”.
At Tarascon the ride turned west and into the hills. It started climbing almost immediately – although the first mountain itself is only classed as 11k of climbing, you’re climbing for roughly 20k as the build-up to it is quite lengthy. The climb helped steady me and I rode it at as even a pace as possible – the gradient was manageable and quite steady which enabled me to keep up a good rhythm. While I got passed by a lot of riders on this ascent, I was passing a reasonable amount myself – imagine that there are four lanes of traffic with the one on the right being slowest, and the ones getting progressively faster towards the left, if so, I was alternating between the slowest and next slowest lanes (it’s not exactly like that but does as a rough comparison – the convention is that slower riders ride on the right uphill).
I took it easy and enjoyed it, helping to settle down my earlier nerves. Sadly after reaching the top, my nerves were blasted again by the long descent. I enjoyed this one least of all the descents, I don’t know why as the others were probably worse (they were all very different so it wasn’t a case of getting used to it). I lost time, confidence and road position on the descent and reached St Girons about twenty minutes outside my planned time, which was massively dispiriting.
As previously planned, Bryony and Rupert were waiting there and gave me food and water, which saved me from the time-consuming melee of the first feed station, and I was on my way in less than five minutes, sandwich in hand. Sadly the other two sandwiches fell out of my jersey somewhere, which was a blow when I realised later on reaching for one. Lots of stuff got dropped on the road, caps, food, bidons and some every expensive looking (broken) sunglasses.
Having lost planned time, I was extremely concerned that I wouldn’t finish; when Bryony had asked me how I was doing I was very negative – I only had an expected margin of about an hour over elimination and I had lost twenty minutes of it in the first and easiest 70k of the race. I didn’t see how I was going to finish in the allotted time but was determined to keep going. The next 25k or so were mostly flat and I attacked them with the intention of gaining as much time back as I could. I chased down group after group, breaking from each to the next until reaching the next climb – Portet d’Aspet. This one was deceptive, the long lower part was easy, the top half very steep. It, like the one before it was a Category Two climb, but had some of the steepest sections of this year’s Tour. Despite this I did ok, feeling strong on the climb and I was in good shape by the summit. At the top I was only seven minutes down on my planned time and considering I felt ok after two climbs, I now had some hope of completing.
After the summit was the descent, the one I was fearing. Partly because of the gradient 17%-19% in places, and partly for the shadow that the death of Fabio Casartelli throws over it. As it was, I didn’t find this too bad, possibly because I was expecting much worse after the previous one. Personally it was my second favourite/least worst. The bends were mostly ok, with the most dangerous bits clearly signed, so I did alright on that one. I still got passed by a lot of people, people who I had overtaken on the climbs but descending well is part of riding so I knew I would need to improve on this in the future.
Casartelli’s monument is quite stunning; some riders were stopped there, but I continued on as that seemed the thing to do to me – it’s saddeningly so close the bottom and shows how close he was to the end of the descent.
Immediately following the descent of Aspet, we rode straight onto the foothills of the Col de Menthe, the first Category One climb of the day. Bryony and Rupert did make it here but we later worked out that they had got there shortly after I went through; it was apparently a good place to view the riders, swooshing down one hill, then starting up the next with big grins on their faces.
Apart from the top third, I actually enjoyed climbing Menthe, possibly because my confidence was back and my nerves gone; it felt like a ride by now, not an impossible task. Other people were visibly suffering too which helps; from now on I would see riders coming back down the hill the wrong way or lying down by the side of the road. Numb faces watched riders continuing, some were doubled over their handlebars retching, others looking resolutely away. It’s cruel but I fed off their suffering. Every one of them in pain made it easier for me to keep going and showed me where hard training pays off. I was suffering too – I’ve seen the official photos and I’m in pain but I’m keeping going (the photo sites were quite funny in a twisted way, there was usually a sign giving 50 metres warning and we all noticeably tried that bit harder for the camera, and then noticeably slowed down afterwards – they should have done a shot 50 metres later to show the before and after, it would be very amusing to contrast the out of the saddle, confident cyclists becoming wheezing pedestrians 30 seconds later).
By now, the heat was up and more and more riders were walking; I would do so later but stayed in the saddle for Menthe. I did stop here and there for water and ‘comfort’ breaks, fortunately nothing like early in the morning. At the top of Menthe I was still only seven minutes behind, although like everyone I lost time in the resupply at the second feed station; these really are a mad scrum – there had been an unofficial one at the top of Aspet, a big trough marked ‘drinking water’ although I’m not sure how drinkable it was after riders had dipped their helmets in it. We drank it anyway. Water wise I went through a considerable amount – I started with three litres and ended with about one – through resupply I must have drunk about ten litres of water in total, a third of which were heavily loaded with electrolyte powder.
The descent of Menthe was the only one I can say I really enjoyed; it consists of lots of hairpins – having reasonable trust in my brakes, I could build up speed and brake quite late before the turn. It felt good to be three climbs in, especially being up and over my first Category One climb. I had passed another two of our riders on the way, in fact the hairpins on the climb were great as you could look back and see the scale of the event because as far as you could see, there was a steady stream of cyclists making their way upwards.
The organisation involved in the Etape was stunning, there were motorbikes riding through constantly which were in touch with support vehicles. I know of one rider who had a wheel buckled in a crash, and within minutes, the Mavic service vehicle was there with a replacement wheel – what would have been the end of his ride in a UK event became just another experience of the Etape and one a bit closer to the real Tour. There were care vehicles, ambulances, and doctors, all there to assist as required, and it made the task of riding a lot simpler.
After Menthe we rode into a headwind, making a mostly flat part hard work. We rode through a few villages; at one just before the start of Port des Bales Bryony and Rupert were there with the crowds cheering, which was a good sight – I was still only about 7-10 minutes down by now and felt fairly certain of making it.
The crowds on the day were brilliant, at the start, finish, in villages and on the mountains. Clapping, cheering and shouts of “Allez, allez!” and “Courage!” really helped, especially towards the end, so big thanks to all of them.
The Port des Bales was a killer, although the first eight kilometres were ok. After that it got steadily steeper, a short respite and then back to steep before finally levelling out at a little at the top. This one broke a lot of people, most certainly me included. A twenty kilometre HC (Hors Category) climb. It was brutal and the sun was out in full force; I rode through melting tarmac under a blazing sun and understood what it is that makes a Tour rider and that I don’t have it. I kept going up the endless slopes but I was walking here and there – once you start doing that it’s hard to stay on the bike at all but I had to as much as possible or get swept up by the broom wagon.
The melting tarmac stuck to my tyres and I was worried about getting a puncture as all sorts of crap was picked up by my tarry wheels. I can’t remember where it was exactly, Menthe I think, where someone’s inner exploded while climbing – about fifty of us heard it and it was immediately followed by an “Ooooh!” of sympathy from fifty voices (all thinking “Glad it’s not me…”).
I was in a lot of pain before the end of Port des Bales but eventually it ended. It’s hard to recall just how much it hurt but it was a proper bastard. After a short stop at the final feed station at the top I started the descent, which was another bad one. It was steep, narrow, unfenced with very steep sides and a dodgy rain gutter on the other side. If the surface wasn’t so new I think this could have been a lot more dangerous – watch out for this one on future Tour de France stages.
Straight after this descent we were on the last climb, the Category One climb of Peyresourde. It’s the one I have ridden lots in simulation on my turbo trainer, although never after such a hard day before reaching it. I found this one very hard too, although I think on fresh legs it would be very enjoyable.
I passed lots of riders who had cracked – more vomiting, lying by the roadside than on the previous climb even, and the ambulances seemed to be doing more work too. I knew what I was waiting for, the hairpins that finish the climb can be seen for some way and I had been looking forward to reaching them and looking back over the view. It’s the one on my turbo trainer DVD as mentioned and it was on the recce DVD I bought, a long sweeping look back down the valley, to the east and over the many miles already ridden – you can also look down and see the long line of riders making their way up the valley. The supporters were great here too and they helped propel me up the final slopes – I raced (a bit) for the line knowing it was the last real climb of the day; stopping to put on my windproof for the final descent, it almost wasn’t just sweat I was wiping from my eyes.
Barring accident or severe mechanical problems I had done it, I was over the Etape, just the fast descent to Loudenville (and a short but nasty little kicker of a hill before the downhill sprint for the finish). I descended alright on this one, it probably helped that it was one I ‘knew’ from my training DVD but it was also a good fast, straightish road.
After the fast descent, a left turn and then into the final climb, adrenaline pumping through me, I attacked the last hill, overtaking some riders struggling on the unexpected ascent. I felt good and was determined not to be overtaken by another rider from this point on and I wasn’t. The quick descent started and I went down it aggressively, not giving up the line and overtaking all I could – I saw the Flamme Rouge, the sign that there was only one kilometre to go and went mental, putting everything into it, overtaking a last few, one right on the line which felt great.
Across the line and into the finish pen, they took my transponder away, gave me my medal and sent me off for a bag of free food and bowl of pasta. It was over. I had done it.
It’s hard to describe how it felt, even shortly after I could hardly hold it in my mind. I knew it was a big achievement for me but having done it, it already felt smaller, although not undiminished. I suppose when something becomes achievable from having once been improbable, then the scope of it changes.
There’s a bit I’m fond of in the Ken Burns TV series about the American Civil War/War Between the States that I always remember. The historian Shelby Foote is quoting a Southern author (might have been Tennessee Williams) who wrote about the moment before Picket’s charge at Gettysburg – the moment is still unwritten, it hasn’t happened yet and so there’s this moment where anything is still possible. In a very small way being on the start at Foix was like that; it was an unknowable moment for me that can never be repeated, yet will always be there.
In reality I finished just over twenty minutes over my estimated time at 11 hours and twenty one minutes.
It’s important to add that it wasn’t just my training and preparations that got me through – there were the spectators on the day, my family who offered support, particularly my sister Mairi in training up for and riding with me in the Etape Caledonia. There were my friends whose interest and enthusiasm helped motivate me through the winter months when the Etape was an impossibility.
Especial thanks go to Rupert and his incredible selflessness in coming all the way out to drive endless miles in the hot sun.
Finally thanks to Bryony for her support throughout this – for her it meant some sacrifices in personal time (i.e. I was often never around, off cycling somewhere) and lots of stresses and strains.
I couldn’t have done it without any of you.