June 2010: Cold, raining Melbourne.
“Boy, I can’t wait to get to France for L’Etape. We should be able to improve on last year’s 1800th position. It’s going to be so warm, with lazy days filled with riding, Le Tour and croissants”.
July 18th, 2010. 5AM.
“Awesome, I can’t wait to see the broken souls on the side of the road.” (Last year up the Ventoux saw hundreds of broken souls lying on the road, or straddling their bikes, heads down – defeated. What they were thinking, only they will know, but I sympathise with them).
Rolling into town with expensive carbon weapons adorning car roofs everywhere dialled the excitement up. After last year we knew what to expect, but it still doesn’t get old. 10,000 people. A Le Tour etape.
Here’s a video.
After getting sorted, we started rolling through Pau’s darkened streets. Gendarmerie manned side streets already. Rolling through old French village streets, some cobbled, with hundreds of other cyclists was awesome.
The start of L’Etape is divided into cages of thousands of cyclists. For instance, the first 500 (or so) are off first as there is an elite cadre that actually race L’Etape. Then it’s 500-1500 and so on, most of whom are probably just out to survive.
As we rolled through the streets, marshals sent us onward to our cage. It was incredible. A maze of streets as cyclists split off to their start areas. We arrived at ours, about 1/3 of the way from the front.
We had 45 minutes to now wait. Nervous laughter and jokes built as tension and excitement built.
7AM. Le Grand Depart.
Allons y! We’re off. “This is AWESOME.” Smashing through hundreds of people out of Pau. The start was an incredible milieu of hardy souls from across the planet. Sky seemed to have half of the field, each with their own individually-named kit.
We had started at the top of the hill above the Pau train station (Gare de Pau). We rolled down the hill via a couple of switchbacks (which will be fun for Le Tour stagieres). Passing the Gare, we were away!
7.33AM. Climb 1.
Everyone takes off. I intensely focus on keeping my heart rate between 160-166bpm to prevent lactate onset. I am successful in that, but not in losing a couple of minutes to our group on a 400m ascent.
This does not bode well.
I drop like a rock off the back. “This is AWESOME.”
8.10AM. The Col du Marie Blanque.
Ordinarily a short 1000-odd metre climb would prove to be a minor ascent, but I feel bad already. Very, very bad.
Everyone takes off as I obsessively focus on keeping my heart down. Recent experience shows me that my fitness is so poor that if I elevate my heart beyond 178-179, I start wheezing, unable to get oxygen. A bike fit by Brian at Lomo got my saddle up 34mm, and a visit to the excellent Dom at First Place Osteo showed I was keeping my left heel too low through each revolution, which was compressing my right hip up toward my shoulder and creating a rounded/crescent shape to the right, thus causing shoulder issues. He also noticed I was recruiting my chest muscles, which was constricting my breathing.
Of course, remembering to counter all these things, as people pass you, and the angry juice starts flowing through your veins, is very, very hard.
The Marie Blanque is surrounded by verdant forest and is absolutely gorgeous. As a result however, it is extremely steamy. Sweat pours off my head as I battle with muscle fatigue which has cruelly set in much, much too early.
“This is interesting. Hmmmm. Why are my legs not working?”. Telling my legs to “Shut up, legs” just makes them more unresponsive. “This is crap”.
Wade from CyclingTips taps me on the shoulder, as he cruises up in the big ring, no compacts, and with a malfunctioning pedal. What an animal. I tell him to get it out of the big ring as it’s frankly embarrassing. I mean, who rides around up Cat 1s in the big ring. Shocking. I suddenly feel very small in the world when confronted by all of this.
Wade sticks with me for a bit, until I wave him off.
I finally crest the top, already very uncomfortable. Discomfort is made all the worse by the fact people are spinning past me like I’m standing still.
This is an inauspicious start.
The gang is waiting, and we head off the back. Again, I drop like a stone, as we descend a long way down, and quick.
There are already people crashing on the descent. I am passing many people who had passed me on the way up.
10.30. The Soulor beckons.
We arrive at the bottom and are at the bottom for a mere few kilometres again until the road starts rising to the Col du Soulor.
I am quickly dropped by everyone and I know that’s it for me keeping up with the crew for the day. I whack my SMASHFEST iPod nano playlist on (think: Rise Against, Rage, Tool, Propagandhi, Pennywise etc) then settle in, zone out and try and concentrate on my heart.
All is going swimmingly thus far.
The scenery is spectacular. Given that my hopes of finishing top 500 have been smashed apart, I resign myself to my fate and resolve to enjoy the scenery and get photos and video.
Summit minus 3km, cramp strikes. Right hamstring twinges and pings without warning. I am hamstrung (ha-ha) by the roadside as cyclist after cyclist goes past, sympathy etched on their faces.
I battle on, very, very much conscious of the twinges now, as each time I ramp the speed up and start passing people, BOOM, twinge city, population me. It’s a psychological killer, knowing you have plenty of space left in the heart rate, but your body’s physiological state is so poor, you can’t take advantage of it.
I arrive at the peak, the crew had gone, so I was on my own. I stop for water, and to take the scenery in. Seriously, France has to be the equal-most (Australia equal #1) spectacular country I’ve been to (beats a Canadian winter or spring hands down, as well as NZ, from what I have seen thus far)
I again descended like a madman, keeping my legs loose.
I hit the bottom and barely have time to recollect my scattered senses into some resemblance of logical and rational thinking, when, again, we head uphill.
I grit my teeth and push on.
Approx 2.30PM, approx 20km to go. (Time is a bit loose here, given at this stage I swear there are Smurfs and Fraggles and even Big Bird on the road willing me on. )
We start the ascent into a valley which I’ll freely admit is spectacular. I am riding a nice tempo up the 5% gradient, and passing people. TWANG. My right adductor goes. I know now that I am in very deep trouble (for want of a better word, let’s say I am in deep sh!t). Once the adductor goes, it’s curtains. I have around 20km to go.
We pass through a valley replete with verdant forest, streams of fresh Pyrenean H2O, and with craggy peaks peering at us from distant places (places that I incidentally am pedalling to).
Some more riding and we hit the town at the base of the Tourmalet (Bareges I think?). Crowds line the street, and the road kicks cruelly but irrevocably, UP. My absolute horror climbs are ones where minimum tempo can be set, and/or which go up with no switchbacks or changes in scenery (e.g. Hotham or Alpe D’Huez I can rip up, it appears the Tourmalet, I can not).
Wade again catches me, and nurses me along for about 7km. Thanks Wade, you saved my bacon. Having someone there setting a pace pushed me a bit harder.
Approx 3.30PM, and around 10km to go.
Broken souls now begin to litter the roadside as the relentless grade starts to take victim after victim.
Yoda appears on the road. “Do or do not, there is no try, hmmm?” I have cramped several times and still have 10km to go.
Shut up, Yoda.
The cramps are increasing in intensity and frequency and I am becoming extremely frustrated and a bit distressed at having to stop so often and at being unable to ride. I’ve never experienced cramps before on a ride, or in a race, and it’s starting to get to me. I however resolve myself to the fact that this is to be my fate until the end, and that come hell or come high water, I am beating this mountain. Failure is not an option. They are carting me off in an ambo, or I am riding to the top, with no walking.
I continue on, and it’s now so hot (36 deg C on the Garmin) that I am passing onlookers who are heaping water from mountain streams onto everyone’s heads. Many people are at the Tourmalet for the tour stages in several days time. They are a big part of the tour, and, a big part of the Etape. My thanks goes to each and every spectator willing us on (no props to the Brits camped up about 7k from the top with a keg of beer – bastards!).
I come around the last bend before the final 4km ascent which winds its way ever so slowly up the summit. The worst part is you can see what’s ahead and it is not pretty. In fact, it’s incredibly ugly. 35 degrees centigrade. Hot, sticky roads. And an unforgiving road ascending into the high Pyreneees.
I happen upon Morgan, one of our crew, who has stopped due to heat exhaustion. The gendarme has called an ambulance, so I leave her my phone so we can call her later and keep going.
There are 4km to go. This will prove to be the toughest ride of my life thus far. It is at this point that thoughts of stopping and walking, or stopping altogether enter my mind.
This is my brain trying to convince me my body has had enough. I tell my brain that failure is not an option and press on. My brain quietens.
There are 3km to go.
I am starting to feel quite ill. I am having to ride in an extremely compromised manner to compensate for the cramps and it causing extreme stress on my body which is starting to break down (I’m looking at you, Mr Glute!).
There is evidence of people’s physical sickness on the road.
As the Hoff says, “this, is a mess.”
This is carnage.
There are 2km to go.
It is at this point my right adductor goes again, but, unlike the last cramps, I cannot relieve it. An older French spectator comes over, and asks if I have a cramp. He goes to work on my leg, rubbing it in a way I’d have thought would not be effective. Cramp gone.
I mount the bike and go.
I start reeling people in as my heart ramps up and my legs respond.
Snap, my right hamstring goes, a cruel 1km from the top. I ignore it, and resolve to a final kilometre up off the seat, pedalling like a straight-legged lunatic robot, mashing up the mountain.
There is 1km to go.
I am not stopping now, and force my muscles to do what I need to get me home. Things are desperate.
The cramp dissipates and I sit down and spin up into the last 100m, hundreds of people lining the road.
Approx 4.30PM. Le Sommet du Tourmalet.
My face takes on a stony, impassive look (think Menchov) as I limp over the line, a long, long, long way behind where I expected to be.
I finally arrive at the summit deep, deep in the red. A sense of relief and accomplishment washes over me. I’m incredibly, incredibly disappointed but with all that I’ve been through with my health, I’ll take it.
In any case, it’s excellent training for the Melbourne-Warnie >:)
I stop briefly to take in the magnificent vistas and bump into Wade who’s taking some happy snaps.
I roll down to La Mongie to collect my medal. I find the guys and word Matt (Morgan’s fiance – congrats guys for getting engaged on the trip, on the top of a Col no less) up on what’s happening.
“Guys, that was AWESOME, I can’t wait to do it next year.”
(Cruelly, the organisers put the food hall at the top of another small climb).
Stopped up for pizza at the bottom.
My thanks go out to the following people.
Kate F: you are amazing, and every guy should be so lucky.
Mike, Clarky, Matt, Morgan: for waiting for me and nursing me along.
Sdot: for the awesome team support, and driving us all home.
Wade: thanks for nursing me along Wade, you’re a gentleman and all-round nice guy.
In case you are interested, here are my Garmin stats.
The link is here.
Critically, I lost about 90 minutes of time due to cramps. 90 minutes. That time puts me in the top 1500, rather than 3200th or so.
About 3000 people abandoned L’Etape (~30%), which shows you how hard it was.Many people including me were way, way under or illprepared. I’m torn between a sense of accomplishment for finishing it, and a huge sense of disappointment for the poor showing relative to last year (though it must be said, I was in peak physical condition last year).
I wouldn’t swap the experience for quits. If you love cycling, I honestly believe everyone should try L’Etape.
It’s almost impossible to describe the excitement of smashing through French village streets with thousands of people yelling “Allez! Allez! Bravo! C’est bien!”.
Do it, you’ll not regret it.
- Don’t fly in too close to L’Etape. Give yourself a week. Seriously. Planes are horribly dehydrating.
- Don’t fly via the States. Folly. We flew for 40 hours so we could get 2 x 23kg. Not worth it. Cheap is not always best.
- If you drink a lot of water, take loads of the right type of hydration on board, often (thanks for the tip Wade).
- Don’t go out too hard.
L’Etape du Tour and Cycling in France Information and Further Reading
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