Tuesday, 19 July 2011

L'etape du Tour, 11th July 2011

This time last week was my wedding anniversary. 13 glorious years with the Gabster. So what was I doing waking up from one of the worst night’s sleep I’ve ever had, in France, in a little Alpine village called Lanslebourg-Val Cenis, on a sofa, sweating like a dog outside a butcher’s shop on a summer’s day?

The bloody Etape du Tour, that's what,an actual stage of the Tour de France, opened up to 10,000 lucky amateurs, cycled on closed roads a week or so before the pros come through and show us all how it should be done. It had been an obsession for months, ever since I saw the route of the tour announced and hoped that they'd be picking the Alpe de Huez stage. But now, as the moment of truth was upon us, I'd changed my mind and I wasn’t going to do it. Oh no, I had decided umpteen times throughout the night, on my trips to the loo whenever the cramps took hold and woke me up, as I lay tossing & turning, convinced I had sunstroke, or flu, or something, anything, that there was no way I could do it. How could I? I wasn’t fit enough, I wasn’t light enough, I wasn’t very good at eating at the right times, I hadn’t done enough training, I was scared of cycling in big bunches, I was terrified of going downhill in big bunches, I knew I was going to fail – what was the point?

Needless to say,sitting around the breakfast table with 4 sleepy guys at 5am, my plaintive looks & sighing & woeful expression were roundly ignored. No one was going to give me any sympathy or even respond to my pathetic attempts to get out of it, so I decided I’d just have to go. On very little sleep and let’s say somewhat drained from my nocturnal challenges. And not 45 minutes later, I found myself in the van, heading down to Modane. This year, we were to go up 3 Alpine passes, finishing at the top of the almost mythical Alpe De Huez. And as if all that weren’t already bad enough, there was a time limit which we had to worry about as well, the so-called broom wagon, chasing after us, sweeping us up if we were too slow, putting us out of our misery.

With so many people taking part, the organisers had turned the centre of the small town of Modane into a giant holding pen for MAMILs with their varying levels of fancy bikes, eying each other’s gear, reacting or not, relaxed or feigning it, but mainly waiting. Waiting inside one of the twelve starting pens to be released and get started on the 109km that lay in front of us. Waiting to see whether all those months of training would pay off. Waiting to see whether the adrenaline would carry them through. Waiting to see when rather than if the Broom would catch them. (I may of course just be projecting here!)

It’s hard to prepare for the Alps in the South East of England. It’s not that we don’t have hills, we do – lots of them, far more than you realise until you start riding around on a bike seeking them out. But the hills we do have tend to be shorter & steeper. A typical Col will go on for about 8-10 miles, steadily uphill all the time, gradient changing frequently, usually hovering somewhere between 7% and 9%. Relentless. Add the mid-summer heat to the equation and you get some kind of idea of what it’s like. On Telegraphe, the climb is mainly wooded, and you try and cling to whatever shade you can like a limpet, even at 9am in the morning. Once you get down to the start of Galibier, 18km or so of climbing, there isn’t any shade, and you can certainly forget it on the Alpe as well, where, all being well, you’ll be arriving at around 2pm to start the 14km, 22 hairpin climb, in the blazing heat.

I had tried to prepare, but it’s not been an easy year, not least because my 5 year old daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in April – so what guilt I already had for sloping off on a Saturday for a few hours was exacerbated. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my amazing wife, who was happy for me to go out and get fitter and try to lose weight, and wouldn’t let me get out of it, no matter how much I tried. Deciding to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) was another motivating factor, and my incredibly generous friends & family have helped me to raise over £600!

As time went by I did several long rides in the hills around Kent & Surrey, a couple of 80km runs with my friend & cycling mentor Ian, who was very encouraging & supportive as a coach, as well as being able to provide helpful tips on the route, having done it himself a couple of times on an even madder challenge called Le Marmotte. I also did an 80km sportive, my first, at the start of June, with Tom, a fellow sF rider, in absolutely filthy weather – steady, heavy rain throughout, headwinds, cold, miserable & perversely enjoyable.

However, I was also having knee problems, so wasn’t able to do as much training in the week as I’d wanted to – I did ride to work a few times, but it’s a 60km round trip on fairly busy , crappy suburban streets so wasn’t that enjoyable. My last training ride, the 100km North Kent Bikeathon, foreshadowed what would happen the following weekend, when for the first time I started to get backache. I’ve long had back problems, but hadn’t had a problem on the bike. I tried to ride it off, but with a week before the main event, and discretion being the better part of valour, I retired at the first place I got to with a railway station – which ended up being 2/3 of the way around the course!

And so on Sunday we found ourselves in France, resplendent in our company sponsored gear, cycling the 30km or so down the valley to Modane to sign in for the main event the next day. We got the new timing sheet which just showed that despite the numbers, they hadn’t really changed anything. The broom was going to start at 8am, and as it turned out, 3 out of the 4 of us doing it hadn’t started by then, so the clock was against us from the start! Nevertheless, we tried, unsuccessfully in my case, not to obsess about the broom wagon, and ate spaghetti, bread & had an early night. An early night which would prove, as I mentioned above, one of the longest & most uncomfortable I’ve had for a very long time.

Having miserably failed to conquer the nerves and execute my foolproof plan formulated in my midnight delirium to get up early and hide somewhere until the others had left, I found myself in the starting pen at 6.30, as ready as I was going to be, trying to feign confidence. We listened to the increasingly tiresome announcer waffling inanities, interviewing Alain Prost, doing his 10th Etape, then singing happy birthday to some 70 year old man. As the wry Aussie alongside Alister & me noted, this was probably a gift from his kids trying to get their hands on their inheritance early. Eventually, around 8.05, we started shuffling forwards, then the sound of the cleats clicking into the pedals filled the air, and then we were rolling.

The good people of Modane had turned out to see us off in some numbers, and the first few miles of the roads out of town were lined with people cheering us on, jangling cowbells, and generally making a racket. It was quite emotional, and I was glad of my shades! The road down to the bottom of the first climb was long, wide and fast – I found myself topping 60kph without realising it – snaking down the valley between the soaring mountains to St Jean de Maurienne where we suddenly turned a corner, crossed a bridge and started climbing.

Even though I knew it was coming it still seemed to be upon us before I was ready for it, and there was no build up – it just started. Suddenly everyone was bunched up again, heading up the mountain road, 6 or 7 abreast, peeling off layers, going at different speeds. There was an air of excitement, people were talking about just getting to the first elimination point. It was a bit manic. I tried to climb at my own pace, but there were so many people that you either found yourself behind someone going too slowly, or in front of someone going too fast. It was quite difficult at the bottom to get into your own rhythm, but once it started to thin out as we got higher it was easier. It wasn’t long before my back started to ache, and combined with the energy loss & dehydration from the night before, I was struggling. I wanted to get as far as I could, but I was revising my ambitions downwards quite rapidly.

Then I did something I hadn’t done on any of my training rides – I stopped. I stopped for a rest, got off the bike and sat down in the shade for a while. I probably didn’t need to, I could have gone on, but I think I had convinced myself by this time that my day was going to be a short one. I tried to stretch the back a bit, but it wasn’t until a chap with one leg cycled past that I pulled myself together, hopped back on the bike and carried on up the road. Not long after this I heard a bellowed “Come on sparesFinder” from behind – I didn’t turn back to see who it was for fear of cycling over the edge and into the forest, but a few minutes later, Tom appeared next to me, and proceeded to nurse me up the next few kilometres, talking about anything other than what we were doing, pointing out the local botany, lifting my spirits. I’d like to have been able to talk back but I was pretty knackered by this stage, and after a while I dropped back a bit and let him go on. And had another rest.

About 3km from the top there was a village, and some local people had come out to cheer us on, but by this time the numbers had thinned so much that there was little noise – just the birds, the whirr of the pedals, the steady sound of your own breathing. It was very tranquil and I sat down again just to enjoy it. And because I was a wimp. The tranquillity was broken by the distant sound of motorised vehicles and a motorbike pulled up alongside me, pointing back to a car about 150m away down the hill, informing me that I was at the end of the race and had to get a move on if I didn’t want to be eliminated. Despite everything that had happened, and my subconscious acceptance of the inevitability of the broom (not so subconscious really!), I really didn’t want to get eliminated before the top of the first mountain. I leaped back on and got up the last mile as fast as I could and made it ahead of the broom – though not ahead of the van taking down all the signage!

After a quick picture, I jumped back on and enjoyed the 5km descent into the charming ski village of Valloire, where the first feed station was and the climb to Galibier started. There was a welcoming committee in the village cheering us through, even the “lanternes rouges” like myself, and the proximity of the broom added a further frisson of excitement to the day.

However, I knew my ride was over when I saw the road up out of Valloire, and there were other people there falling off bikes with exhaustion or claiming altitude sickness, and being a curious fellow, I hung around a bit to see what was going on with the broom. I just can’t resist a bit of gossip! The broom came and were very nice – I had no intention of getting in the bus, so they put a red cross through my number, cancelled my time on the race computer and left me to it sitting in the shade by the side of the road, watching the end of the race go by. I gave my wife a call to tell her what had happened, allowed the pent up emotions to flood out, then called up Mark and arranged for him to come & collect me. After a nice lunch, we then drove up and cycled down the rest of the route as far as the bottom of Alpe De Huez, where we met the others.

My race was run. I had cycled around 900km in preparation for this, somewhere between a third & a half of what was required by some accounts, and managed about 33km on the day before retiring. I was upset that I hadn’t been able to do more, upset that I hadn’t managed to conquer the nerves, upset that my back had let me down. My legs were fine. I didn’t feel tired. I just couldn’t continue. Then I started to remember a few things: this is a stage of the Tour de France – it isn’t supposed to be easy, it’s one of the hardest cyclosportives out there! I had given it a go and got over 1 mountain, despite my physical limitations. I hadn’t done anything competitive for years, since school, maybe since ever, and I’d certainly never done anything remotely like this. I’d never done any sport that required endurance. And I’d raised over £600 for Diabetes Research. I did feel a bit of a fraud for not feeling physically tired anywhere apart from my back, but there was nothing I could do about this – other than get fitter and try again another year.

The next day I proved to myself that I wasn’t a complete no hoper by going out on a morning ride up an alp behind the hotel not dissimilar from the one I’d got over, albeit slightly shorter. And I made it. Without the pressure of the broom, without the nerves, without the razzamatazz of the big event. In some ways the relative ease with which I was able to do this was even more annoying than the nerves of the previous day but it showed me that I was heading in the right direction, I was capable, I could do it – “all” I need to do is drop several kilos, get to work on the core fitness, train longer and hope against hope that the next time I’ll be able to cope with the nerves. And I really hope there will be a next time!

My friends also had mixed success – Tom, who started 15 minutes after the rest of us, was eliminated on the lower slopes of the Alpe, devastatingly. Alister managed to beat the broom despite having 20% less gears than the rest of us – performance of the day without question, and David, with 3 etapes & 2 marmottes worth of experience as well as several other crazy rides to call on, unsurprisingly breezed home in a mite over 6 hours. Meanwhile our sterling driver Mark cycled down the Col du Glandon, so even he got a taste of the action.

As for me, my journey from fat lad on a bike has only got as far as slightly less fat lad on a bike, rather than svelte alpine cyclist just yet. There’s always next year - though I may opt to spend that wedding anniversary with my dearly beloved, especially if I want to get to the following one!