Following on from his first post about preparing for the Étape du Tour cyclosportive, guest blogger John MacLeary tells his very personal story of tackling the fearsome event.
In the hall of the mountain kings
When the Tour de France first ventured into the Pyrenees 100 years ago the 110 cyclists who started the 2,943 mile race had no idea what lay ahead. Indeed, they certainly didn’t realise that they were about to rewrite cycling history.
Octave Lapize, the eventual winner of that year’s race was, however, in no doubt about his feelings towards the race organisers during the epic 10th stage that has gone down in Tour legend.
“Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!” [You are murderers! Yes, murderers!], Lapize yelled at their car near the summit of Col du Tourmalet. Last Sunday I rode the Etape du Tour that paid tribute to Lapize.
This year’s Tour has been a fascinating spectacle and Christian Prudhomme, the current race organiser, must be praised for that. That said, I’m sure there were more than a handful of riders who were cursing Prudhomme, the modern day assassin.
Being one of life’s great worriers, and with one failed attempt at L’Etape du Tour already under my belt, I decided to tackle this year’s event with a somewhat laissez-faire approach. When the 2009 edition reached its climactic conclusion on Mont Ventoux I was a broken man both physically and, more importantly, mentally.
This year, however, I did a very stupid thing. I refused to analyse the course too closely.
Ventoux, as any British cycling fan will tell you, holds a special, and somewhat morbid, place in our hearts. It was there that Simpson collapsed before uttering the immortal words “put me back on the bike”. But as ground control called to Major Tom, one of Britain’s greatest ever cyclists died of a heart attack in a helicopter en route to hospital.
Ignorance is bliss, so I’ve been told. This bliss-like state was shattered just two nights before this year’s Étape as our ‘team’ were given a breakdown of the route by our organiser who had taken the time to do a reconnaissance ride a few weeks back.
In summary, we were told the first serious climb, the Col du Marie-Blanque, was a toughie. Only nine-and-a-half kilometres in length, it would be the shortest of the three main climbs but with four of them ramping up to an average of 14 per cent – maxing at 17 – would be hard. The second, the Col du Solour, would be 22km with an average of just 4.5 per cent. Then, of course, there was the fearsome Col du Tourmalet which clocked in at 18km at 7.5 per cent.
Averages, though, can be deceiving and, even with my limited experience, I should have known better.
Hammering the pedals
My training schedule included many trips to the Surrey Hills with several short and sharp climbs that regularly reach gradients of 25 per cent, so the Marie-Blanque, strangely, didn’t concern me. In fact I was riding well and felt good.
Others were less fortunate and simply hit the wall before toppling off their bikes. One of these involved a friend who was luckily unhurt, but shaken. Cruelly, I laughed at him – but stopped to help him up.
A beautiful descent followed at speeds of up to 60kmph – my bike computer later told me I reached speeds of over 100kmph during the long 181km ride. Terrifying stuff. I’m just glad I didn’t clock that at the time.
Descending is a skill that as a kid I never had. Now, however, it’s where I come to life in the mountains. I’ll happily admit that I’m a rubbish ascender, but a fearless descender. I have to be – need to make up time.
Last year I often suffered during a descent with awful back pain. But after taking up yoga earlier this year I now find it a painless experience. When you are regularly breaking speed limits set for motor vehicles the last thing you need are back spasms. Anyone considering long-distance riding should seriously consider yoga. Odd as it sounds, it also helps you to learn how to breathe – quite an important element in life, but particularly during climbing in high altitude.
Again, others weren’t so good. Several crashes ended riders’ days and I just pray there were no fatalities. Of course, I refused to cast my gaze towards their bodies as they were stretchered into waiting ambulances. It sounds daft, but – and I’ve heard the professionals say this – if you ignore the injuries, it didn’t happen. Like I said. Ignorance is bliss.
After 20km or so of descending we were treated to a short-ish stretch of flat riding. After taking the wheel of, who appeared, a half-decent French club rider, I gathered pace and made time. But I got carried away. The bunch I was drafting were going too slow for me. I was, after all, a proper rider now. I’d dropped people, in style, on Marie-Blanque, and was ready for more action. Eddy Merckx and Fausto Coppi, both heroes of mine, would have been proud – briefly. With a 50-man chain-gang developing I decided the experienced riders were too slow.
Hammering the pedals was easy. Loaded on gels and energy bars I was a rock ‘n’ roule star who had nothing to fear. Bring it on. Dispatching one group was easy. The second, less so. I knew I would later pay a dear price for such bravado. Did I care? Not a jot.
World of Pain
In my short-lived experience of riding cyclosportives one of the most common, and annoying, pieces of advice I have heard is all about ‘conserving energy’. “Tuck in the bunch, save yourself,” I’ve been told. Hell to that. I love riding hard and fast.
This approach, though, comes at a price. After roughly four-and-a-half hours in the saddle we approached the Solour. At first I found this 22km climb easy. I didn’t even realise I was even on a climb for the first 6km. Indeed, at around 10km into the second first-category climb of the day I started to think this cycling lark was easy. Boy, did I soon pay and learn a valuable lesson; listen to those more experienced.
During the final seven or eight kilometres of climbing I entered a world of pain that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I was, as Sean Kelly would say: “cooked”. How I reached the summit of the Col du Solour I’ll never know. But I did. If the mountain has a heart, or ear, I just want to say “sorry – I didn’t mean to disrespect you”.
Standing atop the Solour I found myself shivering in 30 degree heat. I don’t mind admitting I was utterly terrified that I was about to collapse with either heat exhaustion or sunstroke. All alone thousands of miles from home I’ve never been so relieved to see my friend – the same one I laughed at following his Marie-Blanque tumble.
Two down, one to go. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? After hitting my maximum, terrifying, speed of over 100km – which saw me destroying a French Miguel Indurain lookalike who, himself, was a fine descender – confidence rose. Suddenly my inner-city training paid dividends as, a clearly baffled Indurain, struggled to bunny-hop the many speed bumps in our path.
‘Keep your smooth tarmac lad and get over to Hackney,’ I thought to myself as I glided over the treacherous road-furniture. Forget Paris-Roubaix, riding in London on a day-to-day basis is a tough apprenticeship.
As my wheels ate up the kilometres, fears of the Tourmalet vanished. On reaching Luz-St-Sauveur, the start of the Tourmalet climb, an eerie silence fell. Crowds of enthusiastic spectators armed themselves with bidons filled with ice-cold water and, at one point, local firemen with hosepipes.
But this would not be enough to drag our tired and sorry souls to the summit of Col du Tourmalet. The final 18km of this epic ride was tough.
The opening six or seven kilometres were ok, though once we arrived in Super-Bareges and the switchbacks kicked in, all hell broke loose among the riders desperately trying to escape the dreaded broom wagon. Many dismounted after a tough day caught up with them. Some lay roadside in agony. Vomiting and reaching for breath, broken men and women saw their dreams evaporate.
With one failed attempt at the Etape I was determined, like never before, to complete the challenge. I was, now, in classic Tour territory and desperately wanted to enjoy the experience of climbing this iconic mountain. Having had a few days to reflect on the ride I still can’t decide whether I actually enjoyed tackling the Tourmalet.
As my mind drifted I found myself imagining the sensation of crossing the finishing line. Welling up with emotion I gave myself a hard talking to: “concentrate, focus, switch off”. It worked. After finding a steady rhythm where I was averaging just 7kmph my basic math skills told me I’d make it to the summit in the sky ahead of the broom wagon.
With seven kilometres to go a French woman broke the silence. At first I thought she had asked me a question: “Sept kilometres?” She repeated her question, somewhat more desperately. “Sept kilometres?” She then entered a personal monologue. She was in a terrible place and this was no time to help fellow riders who had lost the plot.
Head down. Keep right on to the end of the road. Four kilometres from the line the elimination car passed me. “Bastards,” I shouted while shaking a clenched fist. If I were to be stopped I seriously think I would have punched somebody. Anybody. With heavy legs I felt like I was in reverse. For whatever reason my bike wasn’t working, my chainring was too big and somebody had switched my cassette. I was almost hallucinating and had no idea what was going on around me.
Riding a simple bend became the most difficult manoeuvre known to man. On more than one occasion I found myself riding, almost, off-road and over the edge. As the two kilometre to go marker came into view I started to consider chucking bits off my bike to save weight. Indeed, I even thought it a wise move to throw my jersey off – after all, what use is it now? Sodden with sweat it’s just weighing me down. I resisted.
With one kilometre to go the Tourmalet ramped up to 10 per cent. Knowing the pain and ignominy of being shepherded into the broom wagon kept me going. I had around 15 minutes to beat it; “don’t let them bastards grind you down,” I told myself.
Counting down the metres seemed a good idea. “One pedal stroke, two pedal strokes, three pedal strokes…” If I could count to 10 everything would be fine. Do it a hundred times and I’m finished. However, after around 200 metres I could no longer count beyond five. I was in serious trouble. As ‘riders’ around me walked towards the line I, stubbornly, rose out of my saddle and kept going. Ok, I couldn’t count to 10, and neither could I ride in a straight line, but I wasn’t going to walk. Never walk.
One last tricky bend put me in sight of the line. After almost 11-and-a-half-hours I finally saw the finishing line. Remarkably there were still spectators behind the barriers cheering. Cornering into the summit finish is a moment in time that will last with me forever. I’ve been to some great sporting events and been lucky enough to watch my football team win one of the greatest ever European Cup finals in Istanbul. Like that victory, this was epic and emotional. Though, unlike in Istanbul, I did manage to stem my tears of emotion. Just.
After almost collapsing at the line I stood atop the Tourmalet the proudest man in the world. Ok, I did a bad time, but was relieved to have beaten the broom wagon. Minutes later my friend Hamish crossed the line and we almost embraced – a la Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador.
It had been one hell of a ride. It was, as Vinnie Jones would say, emotional.
Equipment (not supplied by Evans)
The bike: Colnago Primavera; Shimano 105 groupset and pedals; FSA bottom bracket and compact chain ring [50-32]; Shimano Ultegra cassette [12-27] and chain; Mavic Aksimrace alloy wheels; Continental Grand Prix 4000 tyres; Selle Italia SLR saddle; Fizik handlebar tape and Garmin Edge 705 computer.
The kit: Nalini bibshorts and jersey; Assos socks; Assos mitts; Adidas arm-warmers; Rapha rain jacket; Giro Isos helmet; Specialized carbon soled shoes; Madison glasses (at £15 the cheapest piece of kit I own).
Food: Other than ‘proper food’ eaten before and during the ride (i.e bananas), PowerBar Gels (10 consumed); PowerBar Energize C2Max Carb Mix bars (about 6 eaten); PowerBar Ride – peanut and caramel flavour (four munched). Several horrible tasting French anti-cramp gels were also necked at the various feed stations.
John MacLeary, cycling writer for The Telegraph