The closest of calls

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July 29, 2015 by shortbloke

Hard. A word that comes close to describing the 2015 Etape du Tour, one of the biggest and most iconic amateur cycling events in the world.

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Tough. Brutal. Punishing. That gets a little closer. A little. Still not quite there though.

2015’s Etape was Stage 19 of the official Tour. Starting in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, it wound around over 4,000m of seemingly endless climbs and exhilerating descents, traversing the Col du Glandon, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Mollard and finally the climb up to the ski resort of La Toussuire.

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This part of the world is stunningly beautiful.

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Huge skies, lush green valleys peppered with chocolate box chalets and family run cafes serving beers in small glasses and squares of cheese sprinkled with celery salt.

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All criss crossed by lovingly maintained tarmac winding up into distances beyond the line of sight.

 

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On a normal day, the enormous silences are broken only by the gurgle of mountain streams and the occasional ding of a cow bell, hanging round the neck of an actual cow.

On this day, with over 13,500 riders strung out across the valleys, the casual mountain calm was broken by the constant click-click of extremely expensive gears changing in unison as the tarmac tipped up and the painful screech of overheating clutch brakes as it tipped down. Every now and then the rude din of an ambulance rushing to pick up a rider in distress would drown out the additional noise of the road side spectators, idling the day away cheering on the amateurs while waiting for the pros to come through a week later.

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There is no doubt, the Etape due Tour is more than a ride. It’s an unforgettable lifetime experience.

Having pulled a coup by registering on the Friday rather than the Saturday, when queues to get rider packs were apparently hours long, we spent Saturday resting by the lake side in Aix-Les-Bains, a village some 87KM from the start where we were staying (unlike YB who booked early and got himself into the village at the end of the route).

In the evening we set about getting our bikes ready in the hotel car park. Oddly, the tour people had punched holes in the bike numbers upside down. After some pfaffing and a borrowed hole punch, numbers and timing chips were safely clipped to the bars. Bottles filled and last minute oiling done, the bikes were packed into the van ready to go.

As usual, I wasted some time in the morning debating my clothing strategy. In the end I wore a string vest under my shirt, in an attempt to reduce dehydration. The vest holds the sweat against you longer, reducing excessive evaporation and therefore reducing the overall amount of fluid lost through evaporation from you torso.

Always a tricky one that. Allow more sweat to evaporate, get cooler faster but and risk dehydration. Or avoid dehydration by retaining fluid in a vest, but risk overheating with an extra layer of clothing. I’m yet to decide which is the better strategy.

All the cool guys pin their numbers over the pockets of their cycle shirts, right at the bottom. I chose not to do that because I was worried I would get a pin in my finger as I reached for one of the 10 or so gels I planned to carry. Instead, I pinned my bib number right in the middle of my back. There has to be a better way than using safety pins to do that, but I’m yet to find one. I saw an interview with Paula Radcliffe once. She apparently kept the same safety pins through her entire running career. A lucky charm of sorts. Perhaps I should have tried that.

One disappointment was that the name and country on the bibs was in a really small font. The Maratona bib numbers had the names and countries in really large letters, so you could easily see the names and nationalities of the riders around you on the ride. That’s a good idea. The Etape guys should do the same.

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The day itself started at 5:30am with porridge, tea and assorted fruits. By 6:00am we were on the road heading for the start.

As we got closer, the traffic levels got pretty extreme. People were parking all over the place, on the side of roads, random fields, where-ever there was space. Some were literally miles away from the start village, choosing to walk and ride in rather than risk not finding a spot to leave their vehicles. We chose to push through and try to find a place to park in the actual village. We lucked out, parking on a random garage forecourt right in the middle of the village.

We had all been allocated different start pens, based on previous performances. The pens were distributed all through the village, blocking every road entirely. There was nothing in the way of motorised vehicles moving anywhere that morning. I somehow can’t imagine many English villages putting up this level of imprisonment.

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The locals seemed unconcerned, watching the madness from their bedroom windows, taking pictures.

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I was in pen 9, out of 15. Pens were let loose in waves, perhaps 6 or 8 minutes apart. Things did not start well for me. About 500m in I got the most extreme chain suck ever, which pushed my chain right out of the rear derailiuer. Breaking rule #49, I turned the bike on it’s bars and got my allen keys out to fix it. By the time I was back on the road pen 9 was long gone and the pen 10 riders swept me up as they swooshed by. Not the last time a rider from a pen behind me would leave me for dead that day.

As I crested the first ascent I felt a nudge and looked round to see NTB, fresh as a daisy, having caught me up within what felt like a few minutes of the start, despite having started in pen 15, some 30 minutes behind me.

He of course then left me for dead and eventually finished a full two hours ahead of me. A stunning performance for his first mountain ride. From the Blokes, only YB, who – thin as a pencil, lithe as a cheetah and trained to within an inch of his life – is now in a different league to the rest of us, finished ahead of him (by some margin I hasten add).

There was worse to come.

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The Glandon is some 22K long. It’s a long drag of a climb that steepens in the last 5Km to between 8% and 12% gradients. I found it very taxing, especially since I hit it right in the middle of the hottest part of the day. And I was not alone in feeling like I wanted to just get off my bike and go home.

At about 5Km out form the top, there were probably around 9,500 riders ahead of me and perhaps another 4,000 odd behind me, most of whom I was later to realise would be swept and driven to the end in an endless stream of broom wagon coaches.

At that point, some 5Km form the summit, the ratio of riders to walkers laboriously pushing their bikes up the hill, shoulders slumped and heads dropped, hit around 50-50. Many looked like they intended to walk the entire route. By the time I got within 2KM of the top, it was carnage. The number of walkers reached what looked to be like 70%. There were bodies strewn around the sides the roads as far as the eye could see. Fully spent riders sat with their heads in their hands, despondent, broken. Others lay flat out besides their discarded bikes, unable to even keep their eyes open, let alone their pedals rotating.

Though not moving terribly quickly, I did stay on my bike, most of the time. Sure, I stopped – just to catch my breath you understand – a few times in that last couple of Ks. Well, quite a few times actually. Probably too many times if I’m totally honest. But I did not walk a pace. Not one single pace.

Eventually, after much grimacing and a few more minor rest stops, I pulled into the feed stop at the top, just a touch surprised to have actually made it.

I decided it was time to shed some weight in one of the only two facilities available to the entire cohort of women and men like me, who had not managed to complete one the more important pre-race activities before starting the event.

As a I stood there waiting, with the inevitable small group of women, it crossed my mind that if the Tour people want to attract more women, they really need to provide more facilities. Two cubicles per feed stop for literally thousands of people is a little sparse to say the least.

All of a sudden the man with the megaphone announced that unless we left the feed station that very minute the race for us would be over. The broom wagon was literally two minutes away. How was that even possible? Had I really been that slow up the Glandon ?

Apparently so.

The call of nature would have to wait.  Like a herd of gazelle with the scent of cheetah in their noses, there was a sudden rush of panicked riders flooding out of the feed station, leaping somewhat awkwardly onto their bikes and pressing on to the peak of La Croix de Fer.

With no toilets at the Croix de Fer, it was straight onto the descent down to the start of the Col du Mollard. Just as we crowned the peak, a female rider was asked by her male companion why she had stopped to put her jacket on. “I don’t know, but everyone else is so it looks like a good idea”. “I’m not following them, they’re a bunch of faggotts” came the reply.

Well, call me a faggot, but the wind can get quite cold on your chest moving at 50kph unprotected down the side of a mountain. I wore my wind cheater on all the descents. A good decision because I stayed really rather toasty, which made it much easier to enjoy to experience (rule #5 not withstanding of course).

Having tucked my wind cheater back into my back pocket I was wearily pressing on up the Col du Mollard when a big red car with a digital timer on the roof came past. “That’s it, we’re toast”. The Irish guy next to me dropped his shoulders and sighed, realising we had just seen the broom wagon sweep past us. It’s not actually a wagon full of brooms. It’s a red timer car. Strangely, the big digital timer on top was not switched on. That should have been a clue.

Shortly afterwards two separate guys on mopeds came past with megaphones announcing (in French only, which was not entirely useful) that the road ahead was closed and the race for us was over.

Everyone around me sighed and groaned. That was it. We were done. All that training wasted. At the top of the hill we would all be guided into a collection of coaches and driven to La Toussuire, the end of the line.

I was not as deflated as I thought I would be. I was so tired that feeling disappointment seemed like too much energy to expend. I was however determined to ride as long as they let me. Unlike many others, who decided the game was up and started walking their bikes up the hill as the broom wagon car disappeared into the distance.

At the top I asked one of the staff manning the feed station what was happening, basically asking what I should do next, assuming he would point me at a waiting coach. The road was still open I remarked, casually. Does that mean the sweeping was yet to commence? “If you go immediately you might be OK” came the response.

He did not have to tell me twice. As the the guy from the sweeping team literally put his hand on the fence, preparing to pull it over the road in front of me, I finished zipping up my wind cheater and slipped past him on to the descent. I’m not sure it would have been possible to have a closer call.

Probably because everyone behind me was prevented from coming down, and many in front of me had not bothered, for the first time all day I had the road to myself.

It was glorious.

Whether on skis or two wheels, I love descending a mountain at speed, especially with clear sun and the valley spread out ahead of me. It drives the feeling of being alive into me more firmly than any thing else I have ever done. Having an empty road, just like an empty piste, makes the experience even more thrilling.

I caught what was left of the pack head of me near the bottom and pulled into yet another feed stop, now desperate to answer what had become a very loud call of nature (fortunately I was fully equipped with the requisite supply of toilet paper kept soft and dry in a re-sealable plastic bag). Revitalised, refreshed and ever so slightly lighter, I was soon off again, more than a little bemused that I was still on my bike.

Arriving at the base of La Toussuire I pulled into the last drink station there was and drank an entire bottle of energy drink, re-filled with more and pressed on into the ascent.

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At the 15KM mark the organisers had thoughtfully placed a huge sign saying “15KM to go”. Standing in front the sign I thought two things. Firstly, I tried to process the fact that there was actually only 15KM to go. I can do this. I can really do this. I can get a finishers medal.

An hour previously I had been through an extreme low, the kind of low that follows the sure realisation that you’re not up to it. That there will be no finishers medal to put in a box and never look at again, no finishers t-shirt that, still with the lingering smell of grand-dad, will one day be proudly worn as a night dress by a yet to be conceived grand-child.

After that, even the low of realising I was basically the slowest out of over 9,000 riders felt like a massive high. I was going to finish. I really was.

Secondly, I better let the Blokes know I wasn’t dead.

The Blokes, all of whom were at that point already in the bar in the village (restraining themselves due to the impending 20KM roll back down the hill to the van) later said they were pretty sure I would be swept when they got that text. But I had the feeling that even the French would not deny me the pleasure of a finishers medal on the very last ascent.

The 15Km passed without incident. In fact, I completed the last 2KM with a burst of surprising energy. Amazing what 2 bottles of energy drink can do for you.

After a little over 11 hours in the saddle, I finally crossed the line and picked up my finisher’s medal. Almost the last of over 9,500 to do so, but not one of the close to 4,000 who did not.

Cool. Very cool.

IMG_36332 hours behind TNB, not far off 4 hours behind YB and almost 7 hours behind Froomie is not an entirely fantastic result. Almost last out of 9,500 riders. Hardly fabulous.

But it felt, well, great. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so relieved in all my life. On Col du Mollard, when I thought it was all over, I had been resigned. Standing in La Toussuire, a finishers medal round my neck, I felt elated.

 

So what did I learn?

I can do this. I can ride over a mountain. I can ride over more than one mountain. I knew that already, but it’s nice to reminded.

I need to push a little harder. I never went over 163bpm on my heart rate. I can do better than that. I can push harder. I like to enjoy my ride and I am prone to poodling a little. I like to take in the scenery. I like to promenade and soak it up a little. But in an event like the Etape, pushing it really is not an option. It’s a requirement. The French broom wagon may be more lenient than the Italian ones, but they still swept some 4,000 riders off the road.

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Pacing is crucial. I came in the final 2KM faster than most of the other Blokes. That’s because they were basically spent and I was not. Do the math. Who paced themselves close to their capacity and finished in a respectable time? And who nearly got swept off the mountain ? Part of that is practice and self awareness. Part of it is just being soft. Rule #5.

Getting Fluids and nutrition right is essential. The food stops on the Etape are appalling. They ran out of still water and were giving out Perrier (who wants to be full of gas pushing up a mountain?). The food was limited and not appetising. Worst of all the fight to get close to the tables was like a badly organised rehearsal for a battle scene in a cheap period drama. I wish I had not bothered. Next time I will carry my own energy powder, eat my own Cliff bars and fill bottles at the very many public water fountains there are all over the French alps.

I really must learn how not to stop. Ride slowly when necessary, but not stop. I have over 90 minutes of stoppage on my Strava time. 15 of that was for the mechanical, 15 of it was a hold up while some unfortunate fellow was choppered off the mountain, having come a cropper on the descent of Col du Chaussey. The rest, all 60 minutes of it, was standing on the roadside breathing heavily or wasting time battling through the feed stops. There’s a time and place for poodling. The Etape is not one of them.

Wearing a cycling cap might not be a bad idea. IMG_3609I see a lot of guys riding, in all temperatures, with a bandana under their hats.

I have always found that too hot. This year for the first time I wore a light cycle cap under my helmet. One made from the same material as sports shirts. Breathable and porous. Pouring water on it definitely kept me cool. At least while the saturation lasted. More importantly, it kept the sweat out of my eyes very effectively. All through the ride I was watching sweat that would normally have been stinging my eyes swing gently from side to side as it dripped harmlessly off the peak of my cap.

 

Always carry a small amount of toilet paper. The extra weight carrying it is more than compensated for once it’s been used.

It’s all about the training. NB told me I rode the ride I trained for. He was right. I did lots of commuting and quite a few circuits over the Cols of North London.

That’s not enough.

If I am to stay out of sight of the broom wagon and out of the 9,000’s I need to bore myself silly doing do hill repeats. I need to miss fewer long Sunday rides. I need to do more Sportives over the Surrey hills. I need to find a gym and you know what, I might have to ride in the rain. Well, let’s maybe not go that far, but I need to do more training.

This year I made it by the skin of my teeth…… let me just savour that a little..

I. made. it.

But I didn’t really prepare well enough. On the day, it showed.

Next time I’ll try to make it a little less obvious.

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