l’Etape du Tour 2010

Posted on August 12th, 2010 by Tim Bell in Cycling in France, French Cyclo Sportives, Garmin Edge 705, The Road to Tourmalet

The Tourmalet

After several years of ‘soft’ Etape du Tours, the 2010 edition was considered a return to devastating form. The organisers could hardly have it any other way, this being the centenary of the Tour de France’s first trip into the high mountains, so they laid it on thick.

Col du Tourmalet Jacques Goddet Memorial

Jacques Goddet Memorial, Col du Tourmalet

Much has been written and said about the historic significance of all this, Octave Lapize whispering “assassins” to the organisers as he ground his way up the Tourmalet’s dirt track on a single speed bike all those years ago, and I don’t intend to go into that here. The point is that we had an absolute blinder of a course to ride which would, when Schleck and Contador made a little history of their own, provide the crowning moment in probably the finest Tour de France I can remember.

But my God was it hard. This is the world’s greatest amateur bike race, I only got my road bike in January, and was doing this without a support group – what was I thinking? Whatever training you do, it is unlikely you will ride 100 miles and only then embark on an Hors Categorie climb, unless you live at the top of a mountain or have access to a helicopter. It would be advisable, moreover, to devise and follow some kind of systematic training plan. By trial and error I had surprised myself on the Ventoux Sportive six weeks earlier, having got over initial knee problems by incrementally building up my distance and climbing abilities, but a combination of hubris and badly-interpreted advice would hurt me on the Tourmalet.

Tapering

I heard that you build up endurance over a long period of time, but likewise lose it slowly. Power or speed can be acquired and lost more quickly, so depending on how much training you’ve done it is recommended that you ‘taper’ the volume in the weeks before your main event. Taper too little and you risk burning out and racing with tired legs. Taper too much and you risk losing fitness through de-training. After creaming round the Ventoux Sportive, I felt like a good aggressive taper should do the job and welcomed ‘less is more’ into my schedule with open arms; in the six weeks before the Etape I did two rides of around 50 miles, interspersed with some 10 and 20-mile bursts. But we’ll return to the consequences of this miss-step later.

Lourdes Vegas

Lourdes Vegas

The event has been growing rapidly, adding around 1,000 participants a year to reach the 10,000+ who signed up this time. Of those, 8,818 picked up their entry numbers and 8,389 shuffled to the start line, and of those 1,499 never finished. More than 2,600 riders were Brits, and booking your place is no longer a formality so I went through La Fuga who had organised my Ventoux trip earlier in the year. They look after entry and, more importantly, run a bike shuttle service meaning I just had to deposit my precious with them and worry about turning up at the airport on time. Having subsequently heard that Easyjet left 21 bikes on the runway from one plane alone, offering those passengers the bleak choice of renting or not riding, I was doubly pleased with my selection.

Base Camp

The Smoking Nun in Lourdes

Damning evidence: The Smoking Nun

Our hotel ‘La Solitude’ was in Lourdes, roughly equidistant between start and finish to minimise transit times, and a good source of holy water for the bidons. What a strange place, blending the French passion for Catholicism with their open thirst for commercialism in a small but perfectly-formed nightmare. So organised is this quest to relieve the believers of their Euro that the one-way system is reversible, meaning all purveyors of tourist tat get an equal crack at the sick. The fact this totally screws up sat-nav systems is just an added bonus. As with all French towns, the pharmacy takes pride of CBD place, which came as something of a relief to me. At 9:00am on the pre-Etape morning I was its first customer of the day with a condition that, for the sake of discretion, I shall not name, but if it has Cockney rhyming slang it might be ‘Nobby Stiles’ – and it is almost certainly the last thing you want when you’re about to spend 8hrs+ sitting on a razor. Definitely the wrong kind of ‘roids for a bike race.

Wheelchair Lane in Lourdes

Wheelchair lane in Lourdes

Having divulged this embarrassing information to the pharmacist, her eyes lit up with enthusiasm and she handed over a huge box of pills and a tube of ointment, explaining that not only would this solve my current predicament but would also guard against that uniquely French and utterly mysterious ailment ‘heavy legs’, if I swallowed four a day. Necking my tenth pink brick of the afternoon, I pondered with glee how it might feel to have legs of feather as I danced angelically up the Tourmalet the next day.

That was my second major error.

Chicken to the Slaughter

l'Etape du Tour 2010 Final Prep

l'Etape du Tour 2010 final prep

La Fuga had 50-60 riders split across two hotels and we congregated for the Saturday leg-loosener, an easy 30 miles down to Argelès-Gazost and back with a little climbing in the middle, before final preparations; team briefing, pasta dinner and an early retirement but, obviously, not an early sleep. Setting up a 3am alarm call somehow never lulls me off, and it arrived as rudely as you might expect. Enviously regarding the next table’s pre-ordered spaghetti breakfast, I slurped my tepid porridge and tried to think positive thoughts. On the drive to the start line, I felt like the only sentient chicken on an abbattoir shuttle-bus. We reached our starting coop with the sun just starting to rise, heard the countdown over a tannoy system and started moving fowards, eventually crossing the start line and feeling a surge of adrenalin piqued by the impressive crowds of spectators. This defined ‘mass-start’, and being swept along by the peleton was wonderful up until the moment I realised I couldn’t get my chain on the big ring and would spend most of the first 30 miles spinning out. One minor mechanical adjustment later and I could get back to the business of totally failing to adopt a sensible pacing strategy.

Mistake number three.

I hadn’t gone into this with any numbers-based goals, but had decided that the real achievement would be to treat the ride like the celebration of cycling it is in general, and my reward for six months of dedication in particular. I wanted to ride within myself until the Tourmalet, at which point I would start reeling in the fools who burst from the gun, and squeeze out my last ounce of energy on the finish line. Ha ha.

Mountain One: Col de Marie-Blanque

Col de Marie Blanque Descent

Col de Marie Blanque Descent

My impression of the Pyrenees to this point had been that of a holidaymaker who arrives at the hotel in darkness and approaching Marie-Blanque felt like finally opening the curtains. The clouds which had shrouded everything were suddenly lifted, the place looked fantastic and my plans to take it easy sailed out the window. This first real climb of the day, a Category 1, began after 55km and the crowd was supposed to have thinned by now, but all I could see was a wall of heaving lycra. That was probably a good thing, because without that it would have been a wall of vertical tarmac. The Col de Marie-Blanque is 9.3km at an average gradient of 7.6%, but that doesn’t tell the story of the final four kilometres which are all well over 10%, reaching 15% in parts. I was feeling good and going past a lot of people, weaving left and right to find the gaps which were still rare when our descent started. The first part of it was fairly disappointing given that I had to pedal, but the views were heartstopping as I approached the first official food station, unlike anything I have seen before. Knowing that I would have my private La Fuga food stop after 100km I pressed on and down the steep part of the descent. Counting seven or eight unseated riders decorating the first hairpin, I decided to take it easy. I hadn’t been overly concerned about going up the hills before this race (ha ha), but was worried about coming down them given my lack of experience and the sheer volume of bikes. Do you pick a racing line around the bends, or stick on your chosen approach line? And what’s the rider in front going to do? I found it difficult to overtake and to descend with confidence, which is a shame given this is one of the few opportunities amateurs get to ride down iconic hills on closed roads.

Mountain Two: Col du Soulor

No matter, back on the rolling flat I found a perfect peleton to help me hold some energy until the Soulor, and was happy to cower in its confines. I kept getting shoved over to the right; ‘gutter grovelling’ I believe it’s called, but gradually learnt to assert myself and hold a position in the most sheltered part of the bunch. A French guy who looked 50-plus mentioned my gilet, a memento from my trip to Nice, and I just had time to explain I was an English fraud who had only been to Nice once before he powered away, revealing two prosthetic legs turning the pedals. That was to be my second most humbling experience of the day, and I later learned he finished in the top 20%. I reluctantly peeled away from the group after seeing the first La Fuga stop and was happy to hear I only had 35mins deficit on the leader, so made a rough calculation that I should finish about an hour behind by the end as I was over half way already. Ha ha. Given that the heat was now oppressive, this was the point at which I should have shed my shirt or gilet and knee warmers, but I forgot in my haste and came to regret mistake number 4. Adrian, one of the Ventoux veterans, turned up at roughly the same time and we set off up the Soulor together, determined to maintain a sensible pace. Conversation was replaced by grunts about half-way up and I had my nose to the handlebars, just keeping the pedals turning at a reasonable cadence, and found myself alone as the first real mountains hove into view.

Col du Soulor Summit

Col du Soulor summit: Contador left behind

It is a 22km grind upwards, but the real Col du Soulour begins at Ferrieres and is 12km at 7.8%, kicking up sharply around a hairpin and then – unlike Col de Marie Blanque – keeping a consistent, knee-grinding gradient that never drops below 6% but thankfully doesn’t rise above 9%. I was feeling as good as could be expected but, having soaked my knee warmers in cold water at the first feed station, was now feeling pain in both knees and so started adding to the pharmaceutical cocktail in my stomach with super-strengh Nurofen. In retrospect, the sore knees were as much to do with tapering too much and now being beyond any distance I had recently ridden, but the cold knees probably didn’t help much. Help came in the shape of suffering riders to overtake and crowds lining the roads, getting ready for the main event to roll through twice in the following week. Every town we passed was out in Sunday best, pumping out music and cheering us through, giving me all the encouragement I didn’t need to knacker myself too soon. We had been promised a stunning descent from the top of Soulor and it didn’t disappoint. The field was slightly thinner by this point and while some care was still required, it felt like a quicker and more flowing ride than off the Marie-Blanque. But to be honest I wasn’t taking much in by this stage; the sun was still rising in the sky but a fog was draping my thoughts as I rolled into Adast and the second La Fuga feed station. I shed the knee warmers but not, for some reason, shirt or gilet, had a bite to eat from the personal bag I had left with them (though not nearly enough – mistake number 5), and saw Adrian come and go before I tagged onto a good-looking peleton with the grim knowledge of what lay ahead weighing me down. I’m not sure why I made so many basic errors, my only excuse is that by the time you’re in deep trouble, rational thinking is replaced by bravado, fear and delerium – each taking turns like three drunken stooges doing the Bee Gees at a karaoke bar. Maybe in the future, basic things like clothing, nutrition and hydration will be on automatic pilot, but as a novice these were the first things to go.

The Final Mountain: Col du Tourmalet

Col du Tourmalet panorama

Col du Tourmalet panorama

33km is not so far, but when 11km of it is false flat with sections up to 6%, and the remaining 22km is the Hors Category Col du Tourmalet in shadeless swelter, and you already have nothing left to give, you are definitely in big trouble. Having been doing all the overtaking up the Soulor, I now found myself going backwards through the group, unable even to sit in the middle of a big pack rolling along the valley floor. I shot a glance over my shoulder and saw I was now at the back of the bunch and there was no one else in sight. It felt like looking directly down into very deep blue water from the side of a sinking boat, without so much as a Great White for company. Getting dropped here was just not an option, but meant putting in an effort that I had hoped to reserve for the final stretch of the Tourmalet. Ha ha.

l'Etape du Tour 2010 - my lowest ebb

My lowest ebb

Going through Luz-Saint-Sauveur I rounded a corner and saw a temporary arch with a huge digital clock marking the start of the real Tourmalet. The crowds were enormous by this stage and I tried to give them an effort but was pretty much finished already, in my bottom granny gear and gradually slowing down. Just as my swollen, double-socked (why?!) feet felt like they were about to burst my clips, I saw someone with his shoes off and feet dipped in a mountain stream off to my right. I wasn’t about to repeat my regret of the Ventoux when I’d seen an old guy dip his entire legs in a water fountain but had failed to follow suit, and peeled off to join this enterprising individual. Mistake number 6 had been to fill my bidons exclusively with energy drinks which I tended to sip conservatively, so I was desperately craving fresh water and sated myself from the stream. I was warned off doing this on safety grounds, but knew any bugs would be obliterated by the chemistry lab that was my aching gut. Temporarily refreshed I wobbled up towards Bareges, a steep section roughly half way up. There was a party going on to my left and, unlike the majority of specators who were offering bottles and sponges full of gutter water for head-splashing purposes, someone was brandishing a glass which looked suspiciously like apple juice – but which everyone was refusing. I instinctively doubled back and asked what he was offering; ‘pastis!’. Oh yes… perfect material to wash down a few more Nurofen. I wasn’t sure if he had been offering the entire glass, but wasn’t taking any chances at this critical stage.

l'Etape du Tour 2010 final stretch

The last bit

With a little fire in the belly I dragged myself to the drinks station with 8km remaining. I was not the only one suffering by now, there were already plenty of walkers slipping on their cleats, but that provided no succour. There was no sense of competition with anyone else, it was just me and the mountain. Well, everyone dressed in Team Sky kit was competition, but apart from that… After the water stop I got about 1km further before the ultimate shame; I put my foot down outside an official stop. By now it wasn’t just that I was surrounded by people walking, or riders on their backs in some tiny nook of shade, but there were grown men on their phones sobbing like babies, and others throwing their empty guts up. I pretended to myself that I’d made a rare stop just to take some photos, it was spectacular enough for that, and for some reason chose a spot in full glare of the sun. Remounting soon afterwards, my inexperience at hill starts revealed itself as I cleated my right shoe and put the hammer down, then promptly followed it to the ground. I would have been embarrassed if any of the riders behind me were actually looking at the road in front of them, instead of the road beneath.

Knowing there were 6-7km remaining, I had never felt anything like this and promised myself another two stops before the end. The crowds camping out by the roadside meant that wasn’t an option, pouring cold water over my neck and cheering every pedal stroke. As with the Ventoux, this mountain saves its best for last and in that final, solid-wall km I was counting every metre. I could remember every bend of it when I watched Schleck and Contador dance up it through the mist (yeah, that would have made it easy..), and suffered the indignity of attempting to raise my arms aloft over the line before realising I was going so slowly that this would have secured a second unscheduled appointment with the ground. It got a half-cheer from the crowd anyway. Fully humbled now. The officials were trying to ensure everyone cleared the narrow mountain-top pass immediately, shoving them down the steep 4km descent to the finish village further down. Not an option for me. Off the bike, I found a wall and leant against it until I found the strengh to lie on my back, and was just passing out when a medic checked if I was OK. “I’m fine, just fine!”. Then we repeated the dance, and this time I got up and started down to collect my medal. I don’t remember seeing anything up there, not the big restaurant or the famous Jacques Goddet memorial – just a crowd of faces, a finish line and a lot of pavement pizza.

After the Finish

Best Coke Ever

Best Coke Ever

I wobbled slowly down, clenching the brakes hard and smelling the rubber blocks thanks to the wandering cattle, delerious riders and winnebagoes complicating a tricky-enough section of barrier-free mountain. Handing in my timing chip, a medal was slung round my neck, a goody-back token thrust into my palm and small bottle of sweet Evian presented – which turned out to be strawberry-scented. Some kind of sick joke. I then learned that the finish village was somewhere up a very steep-looking hill. Ha ha. Knowing that La Fuga’s VIP Station was waiting for me some 14km further on, I wrapped my twitching fingers around the brake levers once again, and threaded my way through the traffic until the brakes were smelling enough to suggest they had turned to treacle. For the last hour or so, all I had been able to think about was my desire for a cold glass of Coke followed swiftly by a glistening bottle of beer. As I stopped to pull out my map, let the brakes cool down and generally regain some composure, a disembodied voice piped up: “Francais?”. “Non, Anglais.” “Ah. Coca Cola?” “Mon Dieu!”. After I finished the Coke and got chatting with the group huddled around their BBQ, they insisted I stay for a beer. It was enough for me to get a little bit spiritual, and fortified me for the final plunge to safety.

La Fuga's finish station

Fin

As I turned into La Fuga’s finishing area, a cheer went up from the group of returned riders that was slightly larger than I had hoped, but any such thoughts were quickly expelled by the thrill of stuffing cheese and ham sandwiches with salty peanuts and crisps, and adding to my already-substantial alcohol intake for the day. There was enough time to top up my sunburn (mistake number 7 was not wearing any sunscreen… we did start in the dark after all…) and swap war stories before transferring back to Lourdes for an almighty celebration meal with new friends, before an early night and an even earlier alarm call for the flight home. For a good week or so afterwards, if the thought of my ride up the Tourmalet so much as crossed my mind, I felt instantly nauseous and a little bit like crying. My mind even went so far as to believe it understood why veterans don’t like to talk about the trenches, and I suppose that partly explains why so many of my generation seek out voluntary suffering like this. We’ve had it all too easy.

Results and Resolutions

So how did I do? It took me 8 hours, 55 mins and 8 seconds from the starting line, which put me in 2,645th place out of 6,888 finishers. There were 1,749 in my age group, and I was 791st of them, average speed was 20,11km/h, and time up the Tourmalet was 2 hours, 16 mins and 40 seconds; all of which amounted to a bronze certificate. By every measure this was a worse performance than my ride on the Ventoux Sportive where I had an average speed of 21.04 km/h,  got a silver certificate, and if average heart rate is a reasonable indicator of how hard I was able to work over the ride, I had 150bpm on Ventoux compared with 145 on the Etape. Given how I felt I’d raced, my results were a hugely pleasant surprise, but by the same token, I was disappointed with my time and position, and should have done much better. The fact that this is a true statement is a source of comfort when I think about what I achieved over six months, but we’re talking crumbs here.

My training over that time amounted to a total distance equivalent to London-Moscow by road, which I figured must be roughly 20% of the way round the world until I worked out it is actually less than 5%, which just goes to show how screwed-up our perception of the planet is, thanks to the Euro-centric Mercator Projection. I think I’ll put that round-the-world trip on hold for the moment. Silver at my next Etape will do.

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