Sportive blogger Gavin Hughes reports back from the biggest date on the international sportive calendar, l'Etape du Tour.
Preamble (The Hurt minus one)
Pulling on a waterproof cape in the Alpine town of Albertville stands a once 16+ stone man, nervous, wet and scared. The drizzle from the clouds dancing round the peaks of the surrounding mountains started to become more persistent. Having clashed the pedal of the bike against my knee just outside the hotel and fallen off the bike on the way to Pen 6 - an ‘hors categorie’ 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 could get worse.
I tried to put to the back of my mind the previous day - where I had probably ruined my legs, caught sun-stroke and destroyed the objective that I had been working towards for the last nine months. For the best part of a year the completion of the infamous Etape Du Tour had almost consumed me - and the day before - like a child on Christmas Eve - the excitement became too much.
It had been 37 degrees - and an ill-advised trip to acquaint myself with the fully carbon bike I had hired, ended up in a 29 mile ride and a 700 metre climb. I just couldn't resist the ride to the foot of the first scheduled climb - the Col Du Madeleine and the first few km of the ramps. Ouch - silly move. This could be blamed on my making friends with two pals Dave and Jez whose training ride I managed to tag along with. Their enthusiasm matched my own - and a sneak preview of a real life mountain was too great a temptation to ignore.
This spirit of friendship was entirely in keeping with the whole Etape experience. This was an easy place to make friends. Stories were swapped of past sportives and veterans of Etapes gone-by spoke to wide-eyed listeners, telling tales of a temperamental Tourmalet or Alpe D'Huez. Veterans such as Mike - a chisel faced friendly Scotsman of 68 years who is proof that this pastime we share keeps you young, fit and devilishly handsome.
With news that Wiggo was in yellow and Froome in polka dot - us devilishly handsome Brits were in devilishly good moods - desperate to emulate our heroes on the massive slopes of Stage 11. The Etape - being a real stage of the Tour - fosters a very real connection to the Tour that must be unique to the sport of cycling. In what other sport can the lower echelons feel such a connection?
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 couldn't believe their luck and profits. Some Etapers disappointed in the lack of pasta availability in the restaurants - were forced to find their carb content in Weiss Bier and Leffe.
Before bed, a last check over the kit – pack the pockets with gels, make up a last minute peanut butter sandwich for the ride, the Garmin was charged and the tyres had been squeezed, sleep would be nervous and fitful. I packed my travel bag for Monday morning so that my aching body could fall out of bed and leave first thing without having to think about too much other than recovering from the Hors Category climbs and any possible high altitude hangover...
Day of the Hurt
And so back to the beginning. Looking at the cloud topped mountains in a plastic rain cape. Gauging Leith Hill against these testaments to glacial features. One by one the pens were released and at around 07:30 pen number 6, my pen, was unleashed on the world. Co-pen dwellers, Dave, Jez and I had cooked up a plan.
We were to hit the first flattish 11 miles at pace to try and get some time on the broom wagon, whose aggressive timescales had been a constant source of conversation over the previous days. From there on in it would be spin, climb, descend, recover, repeat.
And in stepped the climb to the Col de la Madeleine. My first experience of an Hors category climb - Madeleine is something not to be forgotten. 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 melting glaciers and gentle ramps, 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 reveal 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 next climb - Col du Glandon - was her watchful, plainer, aggressive chaperone. The foot of the climb was hit as the sun was rising higher, the harsh dark 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 – kilometre after kilometre 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. Allowing the poor climber to bear witness to a train of pain laden cyclists on the ramps overhead as the imminent torture was vulgarly 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 pedal. Shouting and writhing in agony, a few gels and bars were thrown at my prone body by sympathetic passers by. Thirty minutes, two salt tablets, a gel and an encouraging word from an approaching Dave– 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 a right hander - bleeding speed from the bike and the approach of the Mollard. Having met the Belle of the Ball and her Chaperone - the Mollard was an annoying little brother. Only 400 metres of climbing, the only redeeming feature a bagpiper, a fuel station and some helpful onlookers (thanks for the push), cheering and kindly encouraging us, even pouring cool water on our overheating bodies. From the crest of the Mollard there followed a tricky technical descent, twisting and turning on the rough surface of the road. And a nasty shock for anyone who thought that the day's work was done.
In England a country mile can last about five miles. The French appear to have a country gradient - these are listed on the side of the road at km intervals and generally read 6%. My Garmin and I beg to differ.
The climb to La Toussuire may have been the last climb of the day – but it was ugly. Not even the pompom girls dancing at the foot of the mountain could distract the mind from the pain of the body. All vegetation stripped back from the road – 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 sides competing for shade– some sitting staring in to the distance – some walking barefoot – others just waiting, waiting for the broom wagon to end their misery.
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 wet 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, under the finish and the loneliest, most precious medal ever awarded.
Ever the pessimist - I was disappointed with my time - 10:33. Interestingly - my climbing time was 6:48 - which begs the question - what was I doing for the best part of 4 hours! My average moving time was 9MPH. The Garmin, however, gives me a moving speed of 10MPH - and a moving time of 8:58. Surely this is the goal for next year. So I have an ACT I tee-shirt, a Rapha ACT I cycling jersey and a medal to prove it. It shouldn't matter the colour of the medal - but to me it does. Happily my pal Dave also appeared in the finishing paddock.
The Hurt +1
Along with many other people who know me - I find myself asking - how on Earth did I manage to complete this?
The Sportives I targeted in May and June laid the foundations for my Etape. They provided me with knowledge and confidence that proved invaluable in both the build up to and the actual ride itself. By completing sportives - I had familiarised myself with: ride-nutrition, riding in large groups, planning a ride, climbing/descending hills, riding in unknown territory riding at pace, and leaving enough in the tank to complete the last - often the hardest - climb of the day. My first few tentative shorter sportives provided a gateway to the longer, more demanding ones. True - I had not ridden in the sort of heat and completed the kinds of elevation, but I felt I had prepared as well as I could.
Two days after the event - and I am still reflecting on this marvellous experience. I feel an even stronger connection with this sport, with the 2011 Tour de France and with Stage 11 particularly (my stage!). As a child, this was not my sport - my sports were rugby and cricket, but I never got anywhere near playing at Twickenham or The Oval - or my boyhood dreams. Yet I feel - having suffered on the same roads and mountains - a very real and strong tie with cycling heroes past and present and with these beautiful mountains - each of whom I feel has its own persona, and part of me wants to discover more of these majestic characters.
As for would I do it again next year? Never. Never ever. Not on your nelly. However, as I consult my calendar, I estimate that it is only 363 days until next year's Etape! Madly - I also have half an eye on the Marmotte - I understand this entails the Glandon (again), Galibier, Col du Telegraph and Alpe D'Huez - but it would be a fool who endures such an undertaking.
What Next ? Sportives - of course. There is a whole "summer" left . The North Downs, South Downs - the last stage of the Tour of Britain includes all my training hills and of course - the Olympics, for whom I have volunteered as a Surrey Ambassador to welcome visitors to the area.
Lastly - I must mention the camaraderie and friendship. I have already planned the next sportive with Dave and Jez – looking forward to climbing up the Col de Box Hill in October – and this time enjoy the views without the pressure of feeling I need a Gold time or avoid the Broom Wagon and also reacquaint myself with these two partners in pain. Bring on the next sportive.