Etape Jitters...

Lance was wrong. It’s ALL about the bike. Or that’s how it feels, having recently joined Kingston Wheelers cycling club and signed up for a hellish day of pedalling in the Alps. Never have I spent so much time orbiting the indifferent deer in Richmond Park, or rubbing manically at oily marks on my once pristine bike frame. What possessed me?

Not only am I attempting a real 187km stage of this year’s Tour de France, it ends on one of the most infamous and daunting climbs in that strength-sapping race, L’Alpe d’Huez. Do four revolutions round the park at top speed do this task any justice by way of training? I doubt it.

Not even repeated ascents of Box Hill’s three mini switchbacks are much good as preparation - and you can’t stop for coffee and a sticky chocolate bun on the Alpe’s Hairpin 15.

There’s a word which looms larger as I strain to increase my cadence up Sawyers Hill, ‘hell-for-leathering’ it as best I can, towards the horizon. This multi-syllabled term warns and mocks me in equal measure. And as the fateful day draws near, I can finally make it out, “comeuppance”.
It could be the title of a film about great cycling failures - the sorry flip side of ‘Overcoming‘.

Although I anticipate nothing ‘great’ in my forthcoming disintegration. Because I‘m bound to crumble as soon as the alpine highway angles itself upwards, which worrying development will inevitably take place tens of kilometres before the dreaded Alp rears up nightmarishly ahead.

By the time I’m sweating and wobbling up the slightest French incline, going spectacularly backwards in real terms, as the other jet-propelled Etappers fly past me, it’ll be far too late to have regrets about missed - or neatly avoided - training opportunities.

It’s a deeply moralistic pursuit this cycling lark. Ullrich waits for Armstrong after the latter falls coming into contact with a spectator’s bag in the Pyrenees in 2003; Eugene Christophe, a star from the Tour’s infancy, receives a ten minute penalty, despite heroic solo efforts to repair his broken forks, because of minimal help from that bellows boy (but rules MUST be adhered to) and dopers now are routinely rounded up and expelled from the sport.

So what sort of reckoning can I expect, a lazy trainer, whose philosophy has less to do with calculating heart rates and getting the miles in - and much more to do with the credo, ‘I’ll make it somehow, by the seat of my Lycra pants‘? On the principle that you get back roughly what you put into something, I’m now fatalistically convinced of one terrible truth. I know precisely what form my Etape comeuppance will take - the worst possible kind. It will have four wheels not two, and is known universally as - the broom wagon.

Etape 2006 (Gap - Alpe d'Huez)

It’s July the tenth and I’m barrelling down the road from the village of Fressinousse towards Gap for the start of the Etape. Our bikes had been stored 9k from the start line by Baxters Tours, hence this first descent of the day at six in the morning.

My Etape started well, breezing along the flattish roads, jumping from bunch to bunch. Each time I moved forward to catch a slightly faster group I was acutely aware of a thread of Etappers slotting in behind me. No doubt everyone was trying to heed the advice about sitting on wheels to minimise effort.

At this stage the weather was glorious, bright and airy; complementing the stunning views perfectly. It didn’t yet feel like we were all rolling out on what would be an epic day.

I bumped into fellow Kingston Wheeler Rob and we hit the wall of walking riders at the first feed stop together. I held the bikes and Rob fought his way in to get water and food. It was chaos, but nothing like as bad as what was to come later.

When we passed the first elimination point in very good time, I was feeling confident that this might be easier than I’d anticipated. Deluded as ever.

Approaching the Izoard was when I first noticed the temperature rising. I’m thankful for the fountain in the first village where I replenished my bottles and had a legitimate reason to stop pedalling upwards for a moment.

But it was starting to get a little surreal now. I recognised someone’s distinctive Audax UK cycling shirt and sure enough it belonged to a rider I’d met on L’Etape du Thanet, an Audax ride billed as perfect training for this event, except that in Kent you don’t get mountains. I fell into conversation with a fellow Scot from Inverness who couldn’t understand why he’d been the only cyclist partaking of a wee dram the night before the ride. Then I touched someone’s wheel just before the Casse Deserte. Equipped with a triple chainset he’d been going incredibly slowly and I couldn’t slow down in time. I crashed onto the Tarmac but no damage was done.

Chapeau to the spectator who called out to us in French, “just two hundred metres to the top”. But the feed stop round that bend on the summit of the Izoard had been ransacked. It looked like a besieging army had just left to storm a city, leaving all their rubbish (in this case empty water bottles) behind. I did what everyone else was doing and queued up in the small souvenir shop to buy water. Of course they’d run out too and I had to settle for two cans of fizzy Perrier. None of this was good enough for the middle aged French cyclist who jumped the queue in front of me, before walking off contentedly clutching an ice cold can of Heineken.

I tried to curb my phobia of descending and hit 42mph coming down the Izoard which is fast for me. I don’t know how many other Wheelers noticed the cyclist being attended at the side of the road quite near the top. He was wailing and keening in raw pain.

With the worst of the three mountains conquered, I thought I would be fine. The feed station at Briancon was a melee. I had to rest my bike on the ground, on it its side, and watched in horror as a tetchy French cyclist nearly stomped over the spokes without seeing the bike at all. The only comedy moment of the day was the chorus of multi-lingual expletives which soiled the air when we turned into the cliff face that was the road out of Briancon. Nasty little surprise that one.

It had been a mistake to focus on the Izoard being the toughest climb. The gentler-sloped Lautaret was equally tough because of the build-up of heat and its seemingly endless length. I got sick of staring up at that tunnel on the top of the road without it getting any closer. An alpine ‘newbie‘, I also thought for one stomach-knotting moment that we had to cycle up the incline to the right of the tunnel - which in fact leads to the peak of the Galibier.

I was using the need to take on fluid and bite into my energy bars as a feeble excuse to stop for a quick rest all the way up the Lautaret. Back in the saddle I was going OK and kept catching and overtaking the people who’d just passed me while I was stopped.

Rob and I bumped into each other again at the top at about 2.45pm. I took the stomach cramps and hollow feeling in my guts as a sign that the bonk was just around the corner, so I sat for fifteen minutes and ate a ham sandwich purchased from the café at the summit - it was just like Box Hill with slightly better views and without the OAPs. Hard as it was to swallow, the sandwich undoubtedly saved my Etape.

With an hour to get to Bourg d’OIsans before the broom wagon I hit the descent and threw caution to the wind. What an amazing ride that is. Flying through those tunnels down the side of the gorge.
After another chaotic food station experience, I approached the bottom of Alpe d’Huez in a group, cursing the whole way under my breath, as I thought the elimination car would stop us at any moment. I hit the first ramp up to Hairpin One at about two minutes past four.

This is where the invading army of cyclists I’d seen earlier started to resemble a routed force, in defeat and disarray. There were bodies everywhere and walking wounded wheeling their bikes pretty aimlessly upwards. I joined the throng and tried to keep pedalling but the psychological battle was almost over and I soon joined the foot soldiers, walking up, telling myself I’d remount at the next bend.

I still had my secret Lance Armstrong plan up my sleeve. Stand on the pedals, stay loose and emulate his 2001 romp up the hill. You can tell how successful this strategy was, by how long the climb took me! Ninety five per cent walking and five per cent cycling I fear. But I was determined to finish and kept going. I was never tempted to sit down and wait for the buses which started passing us after about Hairpin Nine. By the fourth last bend, I spied an official photographer up the road and got back onto the bike for the final push. I passed a stricken cyclist who asked me to find his Sport Tours rep and get them to send help because he couldn’t move his legs - at all.

Speeding up (a little) through the ski resort as the gradient eased, I did get part of that Armstrong plan just right. I crossed the line to a surprise medal (it was after 6pm) with the classic Lance face on - a dead Elvis grin.

Lessons learnt:

Short of doing two hundred repetitions of Box Hill wearing a specially heated suit every weekend, the only training which could prepare you adequately for the conditions encountered on this year’s Etape, is to do the actual course in advance. Or at least ride other, very similar events, in the same area. I had enough distance in my legs beforehand but not enough proper, sustained climbing.
A 202km Audax I did in the Brecon Beacons, in 25 degrees of heat, came the closest to replicating Monday’s conditions but it was still not sufficient. The other thing which would have helped was different gearing. I will definitely have a compact fitted the next time I tackle anything like this. On the plus side, at least the Alps is no longer an unknown quantity. I’m
going to know whether or not my training’s going well or whether I’m not doing enough now, because I have a clear idea of what’s in store.

Etape 2007? Bring it on.

The 'Look' of Lance - Alpe d'Huez 2001:

(This account first appeared in 'The Hub' - Kingston Wheelers' online magazine - )


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