As the first post of this blog stated, it was never supposed to be this way. I was a mountain biker through and through and would never delve into the world of tight lycra, clipless pedals and dropped handlebars. That would just be saaaad!
Fast forward to now, particularly Sunday 16th July 2017, and the culmination of 10 months of 5am starts, 100 mile training rides and no beer had brought me to the pinnacle of amateur road cycling. The setting would be Briancon, the challenge, a 180km mountain stage of the 2017 Tour De France. Opened up to around 15,000 ultra-mamils each year, the Etape Du Tour is widely regarded as the biggest annual sportive in the world and one not to be taken lightly. Traditionally run a few days before the pro peleton of ‘La Grande Boucle’ come through, the Etape route is run based on the ‘Queen Stage’ of the Tour, being the hardest of the days in the mountains and one that could likely be the decider amongst the world’s greatest riders. 2017’s running of the event would conclude with a summit finish of the Col D’Izoard, a 14km ascent with an average gradient of 7.5% up to 2,360m. Nothing short of an absolute beast after 166km in the heat of mid July!
The Etape would, by a very long way, be the biggest and most challenging event I’d had ever taken part in. Longer, higher, harder and greater than any of the many sportives I’d completed since accepting my mamil existence a couple of years previously. Along with months of training, overall preparation for the event would be key, and wanting to worry about as little as possible where logistics were concerned I opted to book a place with 44/5 Cycling Tours. Named after the longitude and latitude of the legendary Mont Ventoux where they base themselves, Gerry Patterson and John Helmkampf provide bespoke and hassle free cycling tours around Southern France to velo-minded groups from around the world.
My Etape experience would start with an uncomfortably early flight to Turin out of Stansted, joining thousands of mid-Summer holiday makers on charter flights to the Med. With the bars of the departure lounge packed with people drinking pints of beer at 6am because “it’s the rule on holiday”, I was getting looks with my porridge, fruit and juice that would suggest I was the odd one out amongst the masses. With my flight arriving into Turin on time, any concerns over punctuality would be replaced by the welfare of my bike after being in the hands of the airport baggage handlers. With my soft bike bag rolling off the oversized luggage carousel surrounded by hard cases, I feared my choice would cost me, but after a quick inspection it seemed that all was well.
Walking into the arrivals area of Turin Airport, I was quickly scoped out by Gerry and John of 44/5 who were providing transfers to our chalet accommodation in Briancon. Whilst waiting for a couple of other flights to come in from further around the globe, we chatted and shared stories of famous cycle routes whilst grazing on the finest pizza that the airport convenience store had to offer. Despite being only 9am, out of course calories really wouldn’t matter for the next two days!
Once the remaining attendees of 44/5’s group for the Etape had landed, we were quickly on our way through the Alpine roads of Northern Italy into France where our luxury chalet awaited. Whilst cruising along in our minivan, Gerry gave an impromptu run down of iconic cols in the area. “Now this spot on the way to Montgenevre is where Armstrong and Pantani famously battled for a stage win”. Further along we were shown the start of the Col De Lauratet among others, and it was clear that I was amongst a highly knowledgeable group with a true passion for the sport. As we arrived at our chalet and unloaded our bikes, it was clear why I’d chosen to spend a bit more than going with a Sports Tours International package with thousands of other riders, as the view down the valley from my room shows. With every mod-con provided including a pool table and a private chef for good measure, everything was covered off and I felt in extremely good hands. The only thing I’d have to concentrate on for the next few days would be my big day on the bike.
Rather than waiting until the Saturday when it would be frantically busy, I took the first opportunity in Briancon to walk down to the Etape Village and collect my race number and timing chip. With the mid-day heat into the 30s, I was happy to do little more than surrender my medical certificate and verification in exchange for my envelope and goodie bag. With a complimentary Rapha wallet and commemorative multitool I’d be the envy of my friends back home, and after a short walk around the stands of every major cycling brand who were ‘pedalling’ their wares in the village I headed back to the chalet. Unbeknown to me the Tour’s greatest superfan, Didi The Devil, had been in and around the village that day and I’d unfortunately missed my opportunity for a selfie. With the job of getting my number ticked off the list, Saturday had a new goal, and Didi wouldn’t be getting away again!
As dawn broke on the eve of the Etape, the sun shone through up the valley and into my chalet room and I knew that today would be one of relaxation, hydration and carb loading. With Gerry and John kindly ferrying their group of 14 Etapers down to the Village, we ambled round with our own thoughts. Some wanted to remortgage their family homes to buy a Rapha jersey, some were happy to just take in the sights. For me it was all about ‘that’ photo, and within minutes he was spotted. Clad in red lycra, tanned from many a month stood by peleton filled roads in the sun, and looking bored from years of excited mamils demanding selfies, there he was. The man, the myth, the legend, Didi The Devil! Running over like an giddy child on Christmas morning, I thrust my camera into the hand of a passer by and left little option but for him to put on his game face. Despite a total language barrier he duly obliged, and made the weekend so far one of continuing firsts!
That afternoon, with my only objective for the day complete it was time to start getting my head in gear for the next day. With a 44/5 organised shakeout ride along the flat to Vallee Claree, many of the group donned our complimentary cycling jerseys and stretched our legs for the first time in days. Quickly making our way out of Briancon flanked by John and Gerry in the minivans we made short work of the gentle 15km route to the point where we’d double back. The legs felt fresh, the bike had made it in one piece, and in the warm weather I felt strong and ready for the biggest cycling day of my life. With an organised group meal at Restaurant La Gavroche in Briancon (no connnection to Michele Roux’s Mayfair establishment) on the evening, we loaded up on plates of fine French cuisine accompanied by additional huge bowls of spaghetti. The restaurant management clearly knew who they were catering for that night, and what would be required. With good conversation, delicious food and only a small glass of wine consumed, the only thing left do to was have a bloated, pasta laden amble back to the chalet for an early night of inevitably broken sleep.
My assumptions of a lack of sleep before such a big day had proved right, and as I watched the sun rise over the mountains in the early hours of Sunday morning I wondered how this would impact on my day. Luckily I was able to doze for a couple more hours before it would be time for a full breakfast. Chef Matt was already in the kitchen in full flow, and heading to a table of fresh pastries, fruit and coffee would be enough to get me going. The group sat in relative silence without the bravado and camaraderie of the previous two days, as last minute nerves and psychological preparation took hold whilst we took on the first round of many, many calories for the day. As I donned my new and unworn Mavic lycra with the nervous anticipation of a groom with a Savile Row suit on his wedding day, I then made the final checks of my bike
and headed off to the start with several others from the group who were also allocated in Pen 9 out of 15. With pens of 1,000 cyclists leaving every 7 minutes, the ex-pros and previous winners at the front would already be well on their way along the route whilst I was only making my way to the start.
Making it down to the village, previously published directions and rules on how to get to your start pen were totally to pot. With police directing cyclists in opposite directions to where we’d been told, the area had quickly descended into chaos and was doing nothing to help my anxiety. I eventually made it into my pen thanks to a few sharp elbows through the crowd, whilst worrying that my rear mech would take an unwelcome knock in the scramble. With a 45 minute wait, myself and others around me patiently shuffled forward as the groups in front were periodically released. Making it to the famous ‘Depart’ banner displayed across the road, the crowds had gathered by their hundreds and the noise and atmosphere on the line was indescribable. With Didi there in full flow, dancing and shouting at participants, I took my second opportunity of the trip and managed a bonus high five with him as I crossed the line. Today had started well, and it felt that way.
As was predicted by the face of the Col Collective YouTube videos Mike Cotty, the start was very fast, on the wide N94 road leading south out of Briancon. Previous concerns about the need to average 31kmh for the first hour were quickly gone, as I dared to look down at my Garmin in the middle of a tight peleton to see a speed of 45kmh. At this point I wasn’t even pedalling, and despite some small uphills and undulations for the first 50km, the sheer volume of cyclists meant the benefits of drafting would be constantly available. With police at every junction and pockets of crowds lining the road with clanging cowbells and shouts of ‘Allez’, it truly felt like we were pros for the day, and despite dozens of sportives under my belt, the early stages of the Etape felt truly special.
As I reached the first categorised climb of the day, the Cote Des Demoiselles Coiffees, I was able to look to my right as the road ascended to the side of the Serre Poncon, a large lake of crystal clear waters surrounded by mountains in every direction. In the early morning sun the landscape was nothing short of beautiful, and being conscious of the time schedule and dreaded broom wagon was the only thing that stopped me from pulling to the side of the road to take photos. Luckily, per below, the official photographers were numerous and saved me the job!
Climbing this first of the categorised ascents was as expected and my previous comparisons to Mallorca were accurate. With further motivation from the enthusiastic supporters at the roadside and hundreds of fellow participants around me I was able to make short work of getting to the top, and descended to the first feed station at 48km, knowing that all the way I was making up time versus the dreaded broom. Arriving to a sight of row after row of water bottles and snacks, with a quick fill of the bidons and a handful of pretzels from a buffet table, I wasted no time and was quickly back on my way. The next stop would be at the 100km mark in Barcelonette, and after a predominantly downhill first section I knew I could afford to press on as I’d expended very little up to this point.
Not hanging around and staying within the group was the best thing I could have done. With the next 30km being mainly false flat with a very gradual climb up to 1,136m, cycling in the pack was key to a strong pace, and as part of a group my speed rarely dropped below 34kmh as I made it comfortably to Barcelonette. There at the second feedstation, the mad scrambles of the Etape that I’d heard so much about were there for all to see, as cyclists were desperate to grab at the free bottles of Evian being handed out by volunteers. I was fortunate enough to park my bike next to a local resident who was filling bottles from a running tap, and making best use I took the time to shower my head and clean away the salt and sweat that would otherwise be stinging my eyes for the rest of the event. With the first 100km complete and knowing that by this stage I had well over 2 hours advantage over the broom wagon, I allowed myself 10 minutes to get my breath and compose myself knowing that the hardest moments were still to come.
Continuing along the the false flats up to the last water stop before the Col De Vars at Les Glezoilles, I continued to make good progress and began to realise that my 10 months of worry about the broom wagon were somewhat unfounded. I’d worked hard at my training and as I cycled at a good pace it was starting to pay off. Reaching the foot of the Vars at 122km, the road quickly pitched up to around 7% and I knew from my research that the next 9km would need to be taken at a steady but manageable pace. The distance and gradient were the same as Sa Calobra in Mallorca that I’d done several times, and this one could be ticked off the list without too much bother. At least that was my assumption.
How wrong I was! At around halfway through the climb it was like cycling into an open oven door. The midday sun had brought the temperature up into the 30s, and the combination of over 120km cycling already in my legs and the added altitude meant that I was a world away from the comfortable Springtime slopes of the Balearics. Whilst maintaining the pace with the other cyclists around me, including a guy with a snapped seatpost who was cycling out of the saddle until a Mavic support car came by, I felt far
from comfortable and risked going into the red knowing that there was still the small matter of a summit finish of the Izoard to think about. I did what felt right at the time and pulled over to the side of the road for a 5 minute breather. With water in my bottles and a bundle of time against the schedule, I knew I could afford the break and that it would be better in the long run.
The Col De Vars continued for what seemed like an eternity, getting gradually steeper as the kilometre markers passed by. As the landscape became more open and baron, I made the soul destroying mistake of looking up the mountain to where I could see the end of the climb. A constant stream of cyclists formed a line like ants into the distance, and I whilst nothing in my mindset was going to make me give up, I began to realise that the first 100km of the route had made up only a fraction of the overall challenge. From hereon in, I needed to dig deep and get my A game on if I was to maintain that time gap!
Grinding out the last few turns of the climb, the top of the Vars was not only signified by the cresting of the hill, but also one of the final water stops of the day before the long descent into Guillestre. My breaks and slow pace had meant that I’d lost 10 minutes of my buffer zone, but still having over a 2 hour gap I wasn’t concerned and took the time to take on fluids and compose myself before what would be a very fast 30km donwhill. I was starting to feel the pinch at this point, and any unnecessary exertions such as walking over to the Col De Vars sign for a photo would have to wait for another day and I clipped back in to hang onto my bike through the technical, sweeping turns to the bottom of the mountain.
Reaching the small town of Guillestre which would host the last feedstation of the day, Etape fever had clearly taken hold. Cheering spectators lined the route, with the continued clanging of cowbells, children holding out their hands for high fives from passing riders, and even a roadside choir in full volume for good measure! Whilst sportives in the UK are often seen as a hindrance to motoring locals, we were thanked and praised by the crowds for coming through their town, a bizarre but uplifting gesture. Cyclists were making full use of the last opportunity to take on calories before the Izoard, and I wasn’t one to miss out. Grabbing at slices of salted bread, crisps and cheese to make myself an improvised sandwich with a side of pretzels after a day of sugary gels was a welcome savoury alternative, and as volunteers handed out bottles of water and glasses of Coca-cola in the afternoon I gladly obliged. With 150km out of 180 completed but with the small matter of the Hors Categorie Col D’Izoard standing in between me and a coveted finishers medal, I was so near but yet so far.
During my research I’d made assumptions about the Col De Vars and how straightforward it might be, and it was a lack of proper thought that had caught me out. The Izoard would be a different story, as with greater stature and Tour pedigree would come a plethora of online reading material and YouTube videos about the climb. I’d climbed Mont Ventoux, being longer and steeper in mid-Summer heat, and had accepted within my mindset that after 150km the last leg of the day would be nothing less than hell on Earth. As I set off from Guillestre at an unrushed pace, I was quickly into the fast flowing gorge of the River Guil. With white waters crashing down the rocks next to the road the air was cooled and the sound of the flowing river made for a welcome distraction from the anxiety of what was to come. A 16km false flat of no more that 3% would need to be ground out before the climb got serious at the famous junction for the D902 road, and in the shade of the rocks with plenty of cyclists to draft with, the pain of
the Vars became something of a distant memory.
Short work was made of the gorge, and as I turned onto the last 14km which would average 7.3% I’d built up a buffer of 2 1/2 hours before the nemesis broom wagon would come through. I felt like there was energy left in my tank, and barring a major mechanical failure the finish was coming into sight. As I’d done through the entire route, breaking it into chunks would make it more manageable, and a mental note of the three villages on the climb, Arvieux, La Chalp and Brunissard meant I would tick these off as a section complete as I rode skywards. Passing through Arvieux was the start of the familiar Tour mountain sights as seen on tv, with motorhomes parked along the route and fans who were camped out waiting for the pros to come past in four days time, ensuring they had prime position to cheer on their heroes.
As I made it to La Chalp, the gradient had become relentless and the trees were thinning out to leave me completely exposed to the burning sun. Regardless of my half Indian heritage, the choice of factor 50 sunscreen proved correct as the temperature on my Garmin read 35c with not a single cloud in the sky to protect me. Water fountains along the route meant I had the opportunity to wash the salt from my face and not waste my bottles, and with sweat steadily dripping from my nose onto my toptube, I pressed on with countless others whilst the ‘Allez allez allez’ of spectators rang in my ears. The kilometers markers passed by at an ever slowing rate, and with 7km to go the gradient they reported seemed to only get worse. 9.8%, then 9.9%, into double figures at 10%, every tiny increment became more and more disheartening as I passed over 2,000m in altitude to where oxygen becomes more and more of a luxury. With my legs burning and begging to stop, I feared that pulling over to the roadside would mean I’d cramp up and not get going again. My head was dialled in, and I’d prepared so much that I knew the job would be done, but knowing I could now get off and walk and still be within the time limit, I answered to my legs and allowed 5 minutes of respite.
With my Garmin synced up to my phone, messages of support and encouragement from back home in the UK were bleeping through as the minutes passed by. The tolerance of my family and friends over the last 10 months of hearing me talk about nothing much else than the Etape was further motivation to see this one out to the end. On a 10% slope, clipping back into my pedals was a job in itself, and with 2km until the rocky moonscape of the Casse Dessert I pedalled hard, passing a number of people that by this stage had opted to continue on foot. Turning a right hand bend, the sight of the road dropping away from me with a baron panorama of towering rocks meant the descent through the Casse Dessert was here. For a single but meaningful kilometre I would freewheel through pinnacles of stone and past the bronze plaques paying homage to Tour legends Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobbet. With a final 2km of climbing to go, I was riding out my dreams in the path of these famous names of the sport, and daubed graffiti on the tarmac and clapping fans made it feel like it was anything but an amateur event.
With blurred vision from sweat in my eyes and exhaustion I was able to make out a poster at the side of the road. “1km to go. What’s 1km in the space of a lifetime!” After 5,000km of training rides, countless early morning starts and obsessing over the numbers the end was finally in sight. With many cyclists around me now walking, I encouraged some to see out this last stretch and ride it, but to no avail as they were physically done in. From YouTube views I knew that the sight ahead of me was the final corner, with the mountainside crowded with fans, and with a single raise of my fist in the air their volume of shouting and applause provided enough of a high for me to speed
to the finish line.
As I passed under the ‘Arrivee’ banner for the finish, the crazed man himself, clad in his red suit was there on the line and with a high five I was able finish this monumental mountain stage as I’d started. With hundreds of cyclists milling around and taking photos, for the first time in the day there was no urgency, the job was done and I’d completed what would likely be one of the hardest physical and emotional challenges of a lifetime. As I reflected on my achievement the salt in my eyes was washed with tears and all I could think to do at that moment was phone home. My wife who’d been following my progress online knew that for the first time that day a phone call home wouldn’t be bad news, and was able to share in my joy. As my emotions subsided, the reality dawned that at the top of a mountain there’s not actually a lot to do other than the obligatory photo in front of the Izoard sign and a Facebook check in. With the social media requirements ticked off, a long and unhurried 20km descent to the Etape Village in Briancon was required in order to collect my finishers medal. Crossing the finish line after a total of 200km and over 9 hours in the saddle, the confetti and cheering crowds mattered little compared to the weighty chunk of yellow painted metal placed around my neck, tangible proof that months of hard training had paid off.
Too exhausted to bother with the celebrations within the Etape Village and the famous pasta party, I began the short ride back up the valley to 44/5’s chalet. Arriving back into the garage where our bikes had been stored, over walked a smiling John to welcome me back safely. Knowing I’d been so long without a beer, he reached the peak of personal service by handing me a cold bottle of lager before the more routine matters of the group celebratory dinner. That night we gorged ourselves on barbecued steak, red wine and desserts without a care for waistlines or cycling form. As the town concluded its Bastille celebrations with fireworks and music, we clinked glasses on the deck of our chalet overlooking the valley and saluted a job well done.
After an overnight stopover in Turin which allowed for a further day of fine food and wine, I flew home and reflected on the last few days with something of an empty feeling. Months and months of preparation, focused dieting, meticulous studying of the route and hard, hard miles every weekend had concluded with my best ever day on the bike and a huge personal achievement that would be difficult to top. So where to go now? The local sportives of Warwickshire won’t feel the same again, and as amateur cycling events go the Etape is at the top of the pile so I now have the struggle of where to go next. After all, like I said at the start, it was never supposed to be this way!
Thanks for reading.