Pulling on a waterproof cape in the Alpine town of Albertville stands a once 16+ stone man. The drizzle from the clouds dancing round the peaks of the surrounding mountains started to become more persistent. Having clashed the peddle of the hire bike against my knee just outside the hotel and fallen off on the way to Pen 6 - an hors category bump had started to swell on my leg - and the specially purchased Muvi Atom camcorder had been smashed. The day had not started well. It would get worse.
The previous day had been 37 degrees - and an ill-advised trip to acquaint myself with the hire bike ended up in a 29 mile ride and a 700 metre climb. Ouch - silly move. This could be blamed on my making friends with two pals Dave and Jez whose ride I managed to tag along with.
This spirit of friendship was entirely in keeping with the whole of the experience, an espirit de corps and an undercurrent of gallows humour prevailed. This was an easy place to make friends among the cycling community and swap stories of sportives and listen intently to the veterans of past Etapes, such as Mike – a 68 year old scotsman who had completed the infamous Tourmalet last year.
In the evening, Albertville was not the sort of place for hungry cyclists to find a plate of pasta, as thousands of participants sought to stoke up the carb levels last minute. The Italian restaurants couldnt believe their luck and profits.
Before bed a last check over the kit – pack the pockets with gels, make up a last minute peanut butter sandwhich for the ride, charge the Garmin and squueze the tyres, sleep would be nervous and flitfull. I packed my travel bag for Monday morning so that I could fall out of bed and leave first thing.
The Day (Hurt)
And so back to the beginning. Looking at the cloud topped mountains in a plastic rain cape. Gauging Leith Hill against these megaliths and shuddering. One by one the pens were released and at around 07:30 – so was pen number 6, our pen.
The plan was to hit the first flattish 11 miles at pace to try and get a bit of time on the broom wagon, whose aggressive timescales had been a constant source of conversation over the previous days.
Then came Madeleine. I am not the first Englishman to go to France and fall for the charms and beauty of a French temptress. Her wonderful shaded woodlands, her gently melting glaciers, this French seductress had everything including cowbells. And just when you thought you had her conquered – she would turn sulkily and throw a 10% gradient in for a few KM – to test you – to prove yourself to her, to let her know of your true intensions.
Then she will tease you further – even encourage you with a downhill section to rest the legs. Madeleine was beautiful and at the summit the tough chase was made all worthwhile the reward being stunning views and the chance to top up the water bottle before she gently guided me downhill on the spectacular descent.
If Madeleine was the belle of the ball – then the Glandon was her watchful, plainer, aggresive chaperone. Undertaken as the sun was rising higher, the harsh tarmac reflecting the heat. This climb was painful, punchy and sharp of tongue and gradient. Quick with a put down there was to be no subtle chase here, this was a war of attrition on the legs. The scenes may have been spectacular at the top – but the effort had been too great. Lots of climbing – kilometer after kilometer of 10% above the tree-line in the harsh sun
The Glandon left nothing to the imagination laying the spectacle of what was to come crudely out in front of me, bearing witness to a train of pain laden cyclists on the roads and ramps ahead and overhead as the imminent torture was exhibited. The only way to tackle this was not to look too far ahead – or up.
Ironically – I climbed the Glandon at good pace – and put forty minutes on the broom wagon. This came at a cost. And in the few kilometres between the Glandon and the Croix de Fer, I was struck with cramp.
At 2000 metres in the sky, lying on the tarmac, in the sun, I was slain. The pain was unbearable. I tried to remount the bike – but the pain kicked again as I started to peddle. Shouting and writhing in agony, a few gels and bars were thrown at my prone body by sympathetic cyclists. Thirty minutes, two salt tablets, a gel and an encouraging word from Dave who approached – and I tentatively restarted. The damage though had been done – the fear of the cramps returning would stay in my mind for some time – it never did.
The descent was not worthwhile as half way down it was rudely interrupted by the Mollard. Like an annoying little brother at 400 metres of climbing the only redeeming feature a bagpiper at the crest, a fuel station, some helpful onlookers and a very tricky descent to follow. From the crest of the Mollard onwards – people started to break.
There then followed the longest 20 KM I have ever done. The climb to La Toussuire may be the last climb of the day – but it was ugly. Not even the pompom girls dancing at the foot or the thought of the end could aneasthetise the body from the pain and the sheer hurt. All vegetation stripped back from the road – ugly ski resort flats on the crest of the hills, this was no Madeleine. This was an ogre. Looking at my Garmin the gradient always seemed to read 10–12%. It felt it too. Each pedal stroke hurting. The road along the way was littered with broken spirits – hiding from the sun clinging to the cliff – some sitting staring in to the distance – some walking barefoot – others just waiting for the broom wagon.
The last five kilometres were the hardest. In to a headwind – this effort required the same kind of effort as the last two miles of commute on a friday in November, or taking on Barhatch Lane at 90 miles. Uphill – and in to the headwind the legs as tortured as the soul, eyes fixed on the town in the distance, ears listening for the tell tale sign of the broom wagon that never came. The Flambe Rouge was in sight but was too far. Still no broom wagon – it dawned on me at last that I may just finish. Through the flambe rouge and up the High Street – the sound of the end and at last – the medal.
I have been asked two questions since returning yesterday. How does one train for the Etape? Would I do it again ?
Firstly - I built up a level of fitness by commuting then topped this off with the skills learnt in sportives.
The poor – rain drenched commuter builds up stamina and spirit. Unlike the sportive rider - not for him the choice to return to bed if the weather is nasty – or cold – or torrential.
Yet - unlike the commuter - sportives teach the skills of nuitrition, of riding in large groups, planning a ride, climbing hills, riding in unknown territory and riding at pace. After a few sportives - as I was trying to get Gold times – I learnt to pace my rides – pick the fast sections – when to rest and leave enough in the tank to complete the last – often hardest – climb of the day.
When the flambe rouge was 5KM away – and I had nothing left, it was much the same as tackling White Down or Barhatch Lane after 90 miles.
I must mention the cameraderie and friendship. I have already planned the next sportive with Dave and Jez – looking forward to climbing up the Col de BoxHill – and this time enjoy the views without the pressure of feeling I need a Gold time or avoid the Broom Wagon.
As for would I do it again next year ???? Never. Never ever. Only 363 days to train and I am desperate for a shot at the Alpe d'huez, or the famed Tourmalet ! ! ! !
Garmin details below:
Gav's Etape Du Tour - ACT I by gh74761 at Garmin Connect - Details