Only you can. Each year since 1993 and now in its 22nd ‘Edition’, L’Etape du Tour (eng. Stage of the Tour) is where ASO – the company that owns and runs The Tour de France – run a sportive of one of the real stages of the Tour de France a few days before the big boys ride it. It’s a proper dress rehearsal – with closed roads, support cars/bikes, and an audience cheering the cyclists on. Anyone can sign up, pay the entrance fee, and get a single day taste of what Team Sky and the rest of them do for three weeks solid.
Of course you’ve got to be completely barking mad to think you’ll be able to finish – let alone race in it, after all those pros are, well, pros.
Given that for some insane reason I’d decided to ride in the Raid Pyrenean (450miles along the length of the Pyrenees in 100 hours) in August, and my training this year has been building towards it, there was just a single key element missing. Big hills.
I’ve never ridden anything remotely as big as a Pyrenean mountain. Hexton Hill, tick. Bison Hill, tick. Holme Moss, tick. Even Honister Pass, tick. My previous post about the Fred Whitton and subsequent Dartmoor Classic shows that I’ve put a fair few hills into my legs. But Alpine and Pyrenean mountains are different.
The Etape route this year is Stage 18 of the Tour – from Pau to Hautacam. Hautacam is a ski resort (1560m ASL), so it’s obviously an up-hill finish. But they sneakily take you over the top of the Col du Tourmalet (2115m ASL) before getting there.
Having ridden the Fred Whitton and been assured that there is nothing that steep on the Etape, it felt achievable. The roads are very good, and the gradients are 6%-10%. The climbs just go on for a loooooong time. A very long time. Think about your longest climb… For me: Holme Moss in the Nemesis ride. Doesn’t compare. It’s 4.5miles and 5.6% (although the last half mile is 11%) and you climb 1,300ft. The climb from Bagneres de Bigorre to the Col du Tourmalet is 24miles and 5,500ft – and it’s just up, up, up, up, up all the way.
But I digress.
Having decided that a few of us fancied the Etape, a group of six of us emerged: Edward Valletta, Rob Martin-Smith, Stu Brown, Michael Coomber, Trev Marshall and myself. Trev and Stu suggested they drove down with the bikes, and the four of us could then fly, making the transport costs lower, and also providing transport in France. It sounded like a plan. Andy Faden and Simon and Marina Short also got places, but were travelling under their own steam.
Friday morning (18th) in the warm sunshine saw me collecting the other three from Bedford to drive to Stansted for our flight to Biarritz – Trev and Stu had been on the road four hours already by this time. The usual airport waiting games were enhanced by the additional games of Spot the Etape T-shirt and subsequently Edward building a statistical analysis of hairy vs. hairless cycling legs.
Landing at Biarritz in the warm was a pleasant surprise, and talk turned to coping with the heat and how we’d possibly over packed warm clothes. The hire-car to get us to the hotel in Lourdes had air-conditioning, so that was good. Unfortunately it didn’t have an engine that wanted to run for more than 10 seconds before spluttering, dying and then refusing to start again. The replacement car was fine – although navigating the on-board star-trek console in French was entertaining to say the least!
And so to Lourdes. We beat Stu, Trev and Andy (don’t ask me why the van has a name, I don’t know) and went for a wander round the miraculous town of Lourdes. Our hotel was on the Boulevard de la Grotte, which hadn’t inspired confidence in its state of repair, but we needn’t have worried overly. It was small (especially the shower) and basic – but we were here to ride, not be pampered. Lourdes is famous for St Bernadette and her miraculous magical waters in the Grotto, and the Bvd de la Grotte provided the gamut of shops selling all manner of religious tat and other things: from solar-powered Pope’s, through chinese-manufactured rosaries to replica guns and oriental swords.
Over the obligatory pasta on Friday night, we discussed the logistics of getting six of us and six bikes the 40km to Pau for the start, and then getting back to Lourdes from the finish at Hautacam about 15km from Lourdes. One of the deciding factors for staying in Lourdes was the downhill, flat run from Hautacam and cheaper hotel prices – as soon as the Tour and Etape venues were announced, affordable Pau hotels became as rare as a Lance Armstrong apology. We decided to take the van & prepared bikes and leave them overnight in Pau, and all drive over in the other car on Sunday morning. Two people (presumably Trev and the next best survivor) would cycle over to Pau from Lourdes to collect the vehicles.
Day T-1 – Le Village Depart
Saturday morning’s croissants & baguettes accompanied discussion about clothing and coping with the heat after another hot, sleepless night. The drive over to register in Pau was making this suddenly seem very real. Le SatNav wasn’t needed as we neared the Village Depart as the steady stream of cyclists clearly showed the way. A brief queue to register then collect our Sac Cadeau (our free rucksack) and Etape T-shirt was followed by a mooch round the expensive tents hoping to tempt Euros from the wallets of entrants caught up in the excitement of the imminent events. I bought a ‘stay cool’ base layer which seemed a bargain and my old one was looking tired – had money been no object there were plenty of expensive toys on sale. I limited my frippery to the official Etape Jersey (well – it would be rude not to after they’d had them made specially…) but They said it would be ‘bad luck’ to wear it until I’d completed it. I can’t find this in The Rules, but wasn’t going to argue – and having paid for it, it was another reason to finish. I certainly couldn’t ever it wear in all conscience knowing I’d DNF’ed.
After lunch, as we tweaked our bikes and made final adjustments, the temperature soared. The sun beat us all into a sweat and even drove some of us to wear the tasteful (!) Skoda hats from our Sac Cadeaux. It was going to be a hot ride – even with thundery showers forecast I was glad I had remembered sun-cream and my new shiny stay-cool base layer. Most of the adjustments and checking had been done back at the hotel, so before long we all piled into the Citroen and headed back to Lourdes for yet more pasta & carb loading.
Zero Hour – The Etape du Tour 2014 – Pau
We had arranged with the very helpful hotel manageress for our Petit Dejeuner at 5am so that we could be on the road to Pau by 5.30. We all had different start times – either chosen by dice rolling or some Tour de France Sorting Hat – and mine meant that I had to be in my pen on the Place Verdun by 6.45. Edward wouldn’t be leaving for another 2 hours after that, with 10,000 cyclists between us. As we drove through the pre-dawn gloom, we passed more and more cyclists and cars bearing bikes before we pulled up next to the van holding all our semi-prepared bikes.
Although not as organised as Mike – who had already packed his jersey and labelled his top-tube with the route, I had been very organised and methodically packed my rucksack with all the things I’d need on the day. Gilet, rain jacket, long-gloves & short-gloves (apparently the mountains can be quite cold) as well as various gels and food. I told myself – the last thing I must do when we left the hotel is to forget anything critical like my Garmin.
Sure enough – the last thing I did when we left the hotel was to forget my Garmin.
I searched every pocket of my rucksack in the early dawn light in the Pau car park. Twice. A third time. Frustration rising quickly. NOOoo! No Garmin! It was my essential tool to enable me to pace myself, watch my heart-rate, know how far I had to go, remind me to eat & drink regularly, know the time – and hopefully keep a record of my completion. I was running an app on my phone so that friends and family could follow me en route, but that wouldn’t help me while riding.
Instantly in a foul mood and mentally knocked sideways, I had to head up to the pen before the cut-off and tried (only partially succeeding) to put it behind me.
Already nearly 10,000 cyclists were starting to coalesce into the dozen pens that would be released one at a time when the flag dropped at 7am. The weather was cool and clear, the atmosphere was electric, and before long we rolled out through the start gate and were off!
The pace shot up rapidly, the roads were clear, smooth and dry. I jumped into a few groups, but it was clear that a winnowing out of non-group-riders would happen. I was surprised at how few cyclists seemed to be used to riding and working in groups.
The first half of the route held only two minor bumps. The fact that they were officially Category 3 climbs didn’t really matter. Pretty much everything pales into a ‘minor bump’ when you compare it with the Tourmalet… With the Tourmalet on our minds, I think everyone just down-shifted and pushed through them without really noticing.
At mile I-don’t-know-what I decided to stop at a feed stop – it turned out to be the stop at Bagnere de Bigorre, the last stop before the slog up the Tourmalet. I was 45miles in, further than I’d expected, which was nice. I was about half-way, but only in a road-distance sense, both the mountains were ahead of us. And the rain started. Food and water replenished, I joined the majority and donned my jacket and rolled up the road.
You’ll see from the profile that the run up to the Tourmalet is uphill before you even get to the official climb – just like Bison Hill, only bigger. It sneakily (or thankfully, depending on your perspective) gets slowly steeper as you go, and with the rain and clouds slowly soaking away the view and into my clothes and skin it seems to go on forever. officially it’s 7% average over 17.3km, but you’ve been climbing a steady 4-5% by the start, an the last 5km are all 9%.
Edward summed it up. Once you get near (!) the top and the km markers countdown to 10km, you feel that you’re nearly there – it’s only 10km. That’s about 6miles. Nothing really. Only you look down and see you are doing 4mph. You’ve got another hour and half of this to go!! Having now watched the Tour Stage 18, I can tell you the views were spectacular: they were just hidden behind a wall of water and clouds.
At about kilometer T-9 somone called a cheery “Hi Craig” as he slid past me. I spotted some Bonito shorts and deduced that it was Simon Scott. He’d waved a ‘good luck’ as I passed him and Marina in the Pau car park, what seemed like days before. “Hello Mr Scott!” was returned by a surprised Colin turning back grinning (grimacing?) and calling “Mr. Cripps actually!”, and then he was gone into the mist before I could apologise.
Turn the pedals. Count the strokes. Look for the next target to grind to. Turn the pedals. Find a song with the same beat as your cadence to sing in your head. Count the ambulances (8) and support bikes (15). Anything to pass the time. Get a rhythm. Breathe. Turn. Turn. Turn. Blow water off your face. Repeat ad exhaustam.
The sadistic powers in ASO put a feed-station at La Mongie, a scuzzy-looking ski resort. I say sadistic, as by this point I was thinking that it must be the top. I was blanking out the 5km-to-go signs, obviously. A quick stop to grab a cheese roll and refill water again before pushing on up through sheep-sh*t covered roads under running water like a sewage-powered fishmonger’s window.
Somewhere near the top, I paused to rest my legs and get some shelter from the driving rain beside one of the many camper-vans that had staked their Tour Spectator claims. It was all closed up against the elements, and the dog whimpering inside didn’t sound happy. It was only when the whimpering became more rhythmical and the van started rocking with more and more vigour, that I realised that singing slow songs and counting pedal strokes weren’t the only ways of killing time on the Tourmalet. Time to push on…
As I approached the top of a water whipped Tourmalet, the crowds cheering sounded fantastic. What dedication: standing up here in this soaking fog! And then I heard Phil Liggett cheering on Cav to the finish and realised, as the Tannoy posts hove into view, that I was listening to an old TdF recording. The Col du Tourmalet was filled only with soggy cyclists and support vehicles. Dismounting to see if there was any view worth seeing (nope), I walked from the esplanade to a summit blocked with drenched, panting cyclists and ambulances. I stopped only long enough to wring out my clothes, switch to long gloves and don as many layers as possible – wet though they were.
‘King (cold) of the Mountain
The descent was treacherously wet. With the wind now whipping stinging raindrops into my face, I gave up on goggles and went with the screwed-up eye technique instead. I appear to be a better (more foolhardy?) descender than most, as despite the wet roads I was whipping past everyone else. It may be that my brakes just weren’t working as effectively, but I certainly wasn’t passed by anyone going down. I did see two chaps getting into a Mavic car about half way down, unable to stand through shivering. And two ambulances were parked by a hairpin bend where someone had failed to follow the road. At least he appeared to have ended up on grass rather than over a crash barrier.
I tried hard to work up some warmth by pedalling during the descent, but the concentration and braking needed to keep to a sane speed through the plummeting hairpins was tiring and I could feel the warmth ebbing from me with every turn flushing a fresh coldness through one shoe then the other.
We descended into the slightly warmer air at Bareges, another ski town about halfway down the descent and the rain had eased. They had laid on a food stop – which had transformed into a heat stop. It was crammed with people wringing out clothing, wrapped in space blankets and nearly all shivering uncontrollably. A brief respite here from the wind and the combined damp warmth of twitching cyclists restored a bit of heat, but I felt that to push on and pedal hard would warm me again. This was helped about 50yards down the road by a resident and her neighbour who had a relay of cafetieres and were providing hot black coffee to grateful cyclists. There was no need for spoons – each of us clasping the mugs between shaking hands agitated the coffee enough to dissolve the sugar instantly…
With drier roads, warmer air, and more reasonable downhill kilometres ahead of me, my idea of working hard to warm up provided the best part of the ride. Hopping between groups I eventually found what turned out to be a Frenchman who was travelling at just the right speed. We bowled along, pushing harder, warming up, consuming the miles and quickly zipping past other freewheeling groups through spectacular scenery. In the forefront of my mind was keeping some reserves for the next climb, but spinning my legs was clearing the Tourmalet tiredness nicely.
And Up Again
Another pit stop at the bottom of Hautacam meant I could refill a bottle (no sense in carrying two up the mountain) before embarking on the slopes through the crowds. The ‘village arrivée’ was at the bottom of the climb, as there was only one road up and not much space at the top.
Although steeper than the Tourmalet (12% in places) it is more varied, and shorter (13.6km). From my point of view the biggest thing in its favour was the fact that it had stopped raining. This meant that the views as we climbed were spectacular. The downside was that I could frequently see strings of cyclists on roads waaay above me, rubbing in the metres still to ascend.
Turn the pedals. Breathe. Sing the song. This seemed less tedious than the Tourmalet – the varied gradient and views provided welcome distractions, and as the trees and bushes dwindled as we neared the top, it started to sink in that I was actually going to finish. Colin called a cheery “keep going!” on his way back down having finished. I recognised him this time.
Like all the cycling challenges I’ve set myself, with enough preparation and training it all just comes down to a mind-game. Your body can always push itself further than your brain had previously thought it would – Jens Voigt’s “Shut up legs” quote pretty much sums it up. If you can get your brain into that mindset, then you can achieve more than you thought. Even a sprint finish at the top of the Hautacam: not having my Garmin meant I’d been cautious and still had energy left at the end.
Time was pushing on so I collected my Finisher’s Sticker, and given that the clouds had cleared it was worth taking some photos (including the obligatory selfie including the finishing line). I called Sarah to let her know I’d finished – she’d been following my progress on the RideWithGPS site – and experienced a sudden flood of emotion that writing this is actually bringing back. Discussing the day in the bar later, I wasn’t the only one to well up at the top of the Hautacam. This is what it was all about – pushing yourself to complete something that you weren’t sure that you could achieve, and then achieving it.
Etape du Tour. Tick.
Now just the 28km back to the hotel – but it’s all downhill, so that’s alright. Let it rain – I don’t care: I’ve done the Etape.
During my descent of the Hautacam I passed both Edward and Marina, and once I’d collected my medal at the village arrivée bumped into Simon. The others had long since headed back to warmth and dry clothes at the hotel. Michael had taken a nasty turn with the cold and spent 90minutes under observation in the medical tent due to borderline hypothermia. He’d ended up getting a taxi back to Lourdes.
Simon and I tucked into to mediocre pasta and hoovered up other food on offer while we waited for Edward and Marina. After the others had arrived and we had all had our fill of carbs, time was ticking on and we headed back into the rain along the smooth, flat cycle-path that took us back to Lourdes; to hot showers, warm food, cold beer and our fellow survivors to compare tales of the day.
Entrants – 13,000
Starters – 9,876
Finishers – 8,453
Feet ascended – 15,371ft
Distance – 108miles
Elapsed time – 10h29m
Riding Time – 8h35m