Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Unbroomed - riding the 2013 Etape du Tour

So the thing you don't want to hear getting on to a plane flying you out to the Alps to ride a stage of the Tour de France is that your bike didn't make it.

I'd done all the preparation I could. Laid out my kit. My contingency kit. My documents. My spare tubes and multi tool (plus spare multi-tool). Pump, then CO2 + spare gas canister. My food for the ride. Spent an hour checking my gears. Packed sun cream and wet weather gear. Had a haircut and, ahem, shaved my legs.

I was packed and ready and I weighed in at 69.5kgs ahead of my carb loading.

Kit ready
Then my bike didn't make it. Not on my flight and not on the next flight from London either. I filed a report at Geneva Airport and considered the practicalities of bike hire.

How was I feeling? Empty. Not excited, not scared - empty. There was simply nothing I could do between Friday and Sunday that I hadn't already done or failed to do. The Etape was coming - all that was left was to ride it. I went and registered.

Etape village where we had to register (and get a free T-shirt and backpack)
The bike turned up late that evening, thank the almighty. I resolved to also put my helmet, gloves and sunglasses in my hand luggage next time (possibly my saddle too) to go with my pedals, race-day kit and shoes. That way if things went wrong again all I'd need was the bike itself.

We took a 40km tour of Lake Annecy the day before the ride - which was perfect. A bit of climbing, a bit of descending, and a flat spin to check out the bike and my legs - all was working well (although Pez punctured, and two inner tubes later headed to the Mavic stand at the Etape village where the mechanic found a piece of glass lodged in his tyre).

Lake Annecy is pretty
I crammed as much food into me as I could, had a single beer, and went to bed early. Tomorrow was D Day.

Starting out
The pen was packed. Pen 11, the pen of champions. I spent a lot of time looking for idiots. I was hoping for lots of idiots. I really didn't want to think that the hundreds of people who fail each year were the ones that prepared well.

Moody, busy, we prepared to roll out
There were remarkably few idiots. There were remarkably large numbers of incredibly impressive bikes. I mean, I ride a £2,400 carbon bike, and I have never been so comprehensively and consistently out-biked. Bianchi Oltres, Specialised S-Works, Colnago CX Zeros – Dogmas, everywhere. I've never seen so many pro-level bikes outside of a professional peleton.

One person was stretchered out of the pen. Getting that far then not being allowed to start - gutting.

Then off we rolled, if a little delayed. I used my London to Brighton experience to get a jump on Pez and Paul - forcing my way further and further ahead among the packed cyclists. Fewer people in my way when we got rolling or hit squeeze points on the road was high on my agenda.

Pen of champions
And then we were through the timing point and off for real - and I just didn't know why people were going so slowly. The first 7km is the only flat on the course. We should have been in a peleton doing 50kph. They weren't even doing 30. I could need that time later, there was no wind, the roads were closed and there was no reason not to be going faster.

I hit the left of the road - the fast lane - and pushed. Riding solo I was well over 30kph and frequently over 40. I eventually found a wheel going at a decent speed to follow and spent the last couple of ks of flat in a mini-group buzzing past slower cyclists.

A sharp right at a roundabout and then the first climb. The Cat 2 Cote du Puget. 5.4km at 5.8%

Now my plan - if you can call it that - was to use as little energy early as I could get away with, make up time going fast on the descents and on the flat, and keep as much in reserve for Semnoz as possible.

Fighting trim
It turns out I was deeply wrong about my cycling ability.

I cruised up Puget - but I never left the left lane. The overtaking lane. I was cruising in a low gear, spinning my legs and putting in as little effort as I could get away with, and I was passing cyclist after cyclist.

This was repeated on Col de Leschaux (3.6km at 6.2%) - which I rode up chatting amiably to someone in a Sky jersey who laughed when I compared the congestion to Ditchling Beacon at the end of London Brighton. Somewhere around here Paul finally caught up with me and rode by putting in - if anything - less effort than me.

Now I should point out I wasn't going fast, just faster than my pen-mates and the people in the pen ahead. But passing that many cyclists on a hill felt really wrong.

As well as being - incredibly - faster than most of the people around me I was also faster on the rolling country. In many cases a lot faster. My experience on the flat at the start was repeated.

People just seemed happy at 25kph on the flat. Madness. Although this time I didn't find a group to ride with, I did make the effort to remember to look right - at the scenery.

It's stunning. Beautiful. Magnifique, in fact. The blue lake surrounded by mountains. Rolling hills and green meadows filled with sheep and cows. The towns along the way as pretty as you like, and filled with people shouting encouragement.

I skipped the first drinks stop, stopped at the second to grab some food, and headed onwards towards the Cat 3 hills of Côte de Aillons-le-Vieux (6km at 4%) and Col des Prés (3.5km at 6.5%) where the same experience repeated itself. Not pushing but going faster than most, staying in the left lane. Passing people.

Then I learnt I was wrong about another assumption. Descending. It turns out I suck at descending.

Stop posing and get your hands on the goddam drops!
The first descent worth the name was down Pres to a drinks stop at the foot of Revard. Everyone whistled by me. Pez - a self-confessed poor descender - beat my time down that hill.

My climbing experience was reversed, all of a sudden it was me standing still as seemingly the whole of the Etape zoomed by me. It was the people as much as the road - I think - the ones in front, the ones going by, the ones behind shouting at me for trying to take a racing line.

The roads were closed but after almost coming off twice in the last two rides when people stopped in front of me I just didn't trust them. Certainly not when an off could end my day.

After refilling my bottles and downing a gel and most of a bar at the drinks stop at the bottom of Revard, Pez caught up with me. I'd expected it sooner if I'm honest. He's a better climber than me and I didn't get too much of a jump on him at the start, but had somehow managed to stay ahead over the first 65kms. That ended on Revard.

65km - the serious bit begins
The serious bit
Now, the 2013 Etape had two clear parts. The flat-uppy-rolling-uppy-downy bit, where none of the hills are that long or that steep and there's 1,500m of climbing over 65kms. Standard fare for a British rider really, if anything easier as they tend to throw steeper hills into sportives over here.

Then there's the Alpine bit. Two thousand-metre climbs. Both more than 10km long. And it was hot. Really hot. With no clouds and very little shade.

I started Col du Mont-Revard (16km at 5.4%). The plan was easy - sit, spin, keep the heart rate down and keep doing that for as long as it took to crest the summit. It took me 1hr 36mins.

Any concept of a fast or slow lane was replaced with a universal hunt for shade. Riders seeking out any scrap of cover they could. I drank a lot. I got hotter.

Eventually sitting for that long made the pain from my back too much, I got off and stretched and popped a couple of ibuprofen I had in my saddle bag. It wasn't my only stop to stretch and rest my back.

Pain from back growing. Scenery nice, mind.

After what felt like a geological epoch had passed I reached the top and a welcome food and drinks station. I grabbed some food, re-filled my water bottles, put my gilet on and headed down the descent. 12kms of it. Being passed constantly by everybody (I think I might have gone by one man on a mountain bike or similar, but that was it).

This should be spectacular in Le Tour - fast, sweeping bends. Even with my wimpy descending I averaged 40kmph down here, the pros will destroy it.

Then, at the bottom, I was off - 19 kilometres of rolling countryside as an aperitif to La Semnoz.

It was as glorious a stretch of road as I've ever ridden. I didn't find a group, although did find a couple of wheels now and again. But cruising along, out of the saddle, in the saddle, through the winding closed roads of France through villages and cheered on by locals (who were fantastic throughout) was a true pleasure.

I forgot I was in the Etape, I was just loving it. Almost done, sun shining and...  wait. What the eff am I doing? Why am I thrashing myself just before the hardest hill I will ever ride? I slowed down. A lot.

And then, Montée finale du Semnoz.

The Semnoz
It's officially 11.5km at 8.3%. It's not. It starts 3km sooner (with this 3km at 8.2%). And the 8.3% masks a multitude of gradients. The first 2km consistently over 12%, then a break, then hard, really hard, again.

I caught up with Pez at the food stop in Gruffy - with a band playing and volunteers spraying hoses over hot riders. I stole one of his super-gels (50g of carbs! Plus caffeine!) filled my water bottles (one with caffeine-carb drink, one with electrolyte) stuffed some cake and dried apricots in my mouth and set off.

It broke me.

Just 11km after the food stop there was another drinks break 8km from the finish. I didn't even make it that far.

In my bottom gear, going slow, the kilometre signs seemed light-years apart. I was weaving. I was the only person weaving. I had no clue why other people weren't weaving. Especially as I kept passing the non-weavers. Plenty were walking.

The heat got worse. It was about 3pm, as hot as it gets. There was no cover. I drank as much as I could stomach. It tasted bitter in my mouth. I wished, wished, I'd had the sense to have plain water in one of my bidons. I would have drenched myself in it.

Every. Pedal. Stroke. Hurt. My arms looked like they were glazed; such was the uniform coating of sweat. My head was getting hotter and hotter, my hands started to shake. I was 500m from the drinks stop and I couldn't keep riding.

I saw some shade by the side of the road, and threw myself and my bike into it.

"Oh. Hello Pez," were the next words out of my mouth.

After an indeterminate period sitting in the shade with Pez trying to cool down. Trying to drink the too sweet, too bitter, brackish liquid I had with me. Mostly not moving. We set out again.

Of course, this is when it got easier, almost downhill to the drinks stop. Obviously.

I learnt from my mistake and poured out the electrolyte drink and filled up on plain water. I also poured most of a bottle of it over my head, arms, neck and back. I absently wondered if this would break my phone. It didn't seem to matter much.

I set off again.

The final eight kilometres were hard. But also the last. Seven months training for eight kilometres. Only an hour more. That's barely even a turbo session.

Six kilometres. I got off and stretched my back. Five kilometres, four. That's half an hour. I can do this. It's not getting easier, but I can do this. Three. A stretch. Back on the bike, my god it's hot. Why isn't it levelling off near the summit!?

Two. Just two. I might only be doing 7kph, but even at that speed it's just over 15 minutes left. One. One kilometre and I'm done.

500m - it's time to kick. I went up through the gears. 200m. I shifted into the big ring. Sur le effing plaque - to paraphrase. I stood on the pedals. I sprinted.

I crossed the line, got a sticker, and promptly threw up. Somehow, I'd just ridden a stage of the Tour de France.

Out of the saddle, big ring, sprinting with the last ounce of energy I had

The best sticker I've ever been given
Our Etape in Numbers:

Rider     Total Time     Ranking (out of 11475 starters)     Climbing time     Climber ranking
Andy     6.12               2848                                               3.39                     2194
Bobby   6.25               3543                                               3.52                     3131
Paul       7.29              6768                                               4.36                     6548
James    8.01              8213                                               4.48                     7335
Pez        8.05              8353                                               4.45                     7167

How did you get on?


  1. You made it! Epic!

    Saw you passing alongside the pen in the morning, but was jammed into the middle of the pen so couldn't say hello.

    That was utterly brutal. Saw one guy being put into the recovery position by an outrider in the middle of the road on Semnoz, obviously at the precise point where he'd collapsed off his bike.

    I'm never going to trust gradient maps again. Or recce videos.

    Absolutely loved every minute of it though - managed 6:53, so very happy with that.

    Now, how do you go about signing up for this Marmotte thing everyone's talking about?...

  2. Good to see you in the pub after. Hope you enjoyed many more fire-based beverages.

    My official stats were:
    TOTAL - 6:36 (4102nd)
    CLIMBING - 3:51 (3115th)

    Here's to bigger and better next year...


  3. Fabulous! Well done James. Amazin a effort up the Semnoz, it was a real bugger wasn't it. So hot, but I couldn't be bothered to stop for water coz the thought of getting off my bike was too tiring to contemplate! Thought my lungs were gonna explode, in fact I ended up in the medical tent after the finish unable to catch my breath, but once the guy in the next bed's mate had bought me a beer (!!!) I was fine :) Love France !

    Time 06:07:11. Rank 2610 Cat rank 36 (old birds)
    Climbing 03:42:19 Rank 2434

    What an incredible journey it's been. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.
    Bring on next year - wahey!

    Mel x

    Ps hope you're not gonna stop blogging now that its over? Otherwise we'll all be bereft! What's your next challenge?

  4. So I did finished too :)
    8h30mins only 9159th climbing - 5h18 - 8918th (6691bib)

    Somebody here was apparently "out-biked". Ahem, ahem, I did it on a rented SCOTT METRIX 20 - 11Kg, 50-36-26 and 32-11 gears with disk brakes that were slightly slowing the wheel till the mavic guys adjusted it in Feclaz, a bell and a lock to carry with me all the way till the end and a seat that was uncomfortable after 30mins already :)

    I was still beastin'

    Got the bike on Saturday. Took it up the 1st climb onto Puget, was way too hot and had to refill my bottle there and back to Annecy. Had a picnic, ate, drank and slept. Woke up early (could not sleep) and took the bike down to the front of my starting pen. 7 people were there. Locked it down and walked back to the flat I stayed at, only 10-15mins away. Had breakfast, got dressed, grabbed my bidons, food and other stuff and walked back to the bike on my 2nd attempt :)

    All went well with me and I was keeping myself constantly under the red zone all the way till the end!!! Never felt that I'm pushing too hard, never thought that I wont make it, never stopped to push the bike or to take a break. But was close to it on Revard.

    Up Col des Pres there were a few Brazilian guys that passed me (I was being passed on every single climb constantly by others), but on the descent I really felt the balance and the disk brakes and I went for it. I did passed them and loads of other people back and got in front of them.

    Up Revard they passed me again, as well as others, but again on the descent I was FAST!!!!! Took me cca 13mins to descend and my slowest recorded speed was around 25Kmh. I heard people braking behind me much sooner then me. I was passing people left, right and apart from the long straight, when some Italians got me, I was really in my zone and speed. Slid the rear once only a bit at an exit and that was it. Safe fast descent for me.

    2Km before Feclaz food stop I run out of water. Did not filled up at Saint-jean d'Arvey - mistake. I was struggling to get up to Feclaz and was dehydrated (felt classic symptoms, dizzy head, pumping heart, heavy breathing) took me just under 2h to get up Revard.
    I spent 29 mins at feclaz, drinking, eating, drinking, getting supplies, drinking and waiting for the mavic guys to adjust the rear-brake and refilling water again. Lesson learned. Spent another 15mins at Gruffy and 8 at Quintal.


    1. Do you remember the little village and the 180 turn at the bottom of Revard? I was going down alone that yummy fresh black asphalt and fast, so I decided to take the best possible line. Crowd behind the plastic ads, cheering for me only, hehe. Policeman blowing his whistle. me slowing down from 60 to 47. Taking the inside line still going fast not releasing the front, neither the rear, and in the middle of the corner the backwheel slid out loud and big. I did felt the rear going out from under my bottom and heard the tyre scream on the asphalt. The crowd silenced. Released the brakes a bit and straightened the bike aiming straight at the last plastic ad. There was a young girl right behind it and a women sitting behind her there. The girl got so scared, she jumped out from her chair or whatever she was sitting on, and even screamed a bit. I stopped some 5-10cm before the barrier :)
      Said "No worries". Pushed bike back a bit and went off with the sun and 100 pairs of eyes pushing my back. Awesome :D
      I wish someone would record it and put on youtube :)

      Up Semnoz I decided to take it easy again. Heartrate under 125/140 but sweating a lot and drinking even more. And was passing not only the ones pushing, but some on the bikes too. However, I was being passed by even more :(
      Now I wish that I would push at least after Quintal a bit more. Saw so many people passing out. Will never forget that I passed a rather good looking lady in a pink-ish top before and after Quintal too. She was pushing both times. Another guy just stopped off the road on the bike and the only thing keeping him from falling was another guy holding his arm standing in the shade where he stopped. Another girl stopped and 2x spectators took her off the bike while pouring water over her head while she did sound like someone having a heart-attack and spitting her lungs out crying. She looked seriously bad.

      Up Semnoz I had a chat with a Swiss/french guy. Had a recovery drink and went down for my medal :)

      Celebrated with at the place where I stayed with that french family and could not make it to the pub on Sunday. Maybe at another race ;)
      Clear cycling time was 7h20, and I could do under 8 just by being smarter at the stops. Should have done at least one sportive here in UK before the etape. Oh well, I went there for the medal :)

      Its been a pleasure to read this blog guys.


  5. I've followed this blog a bit before the etape, and I'm happy to say I ended at 4020, a bit better on climbing (surprisingly), even though my day before D included a cigarette, a few beers and leaving Chamonix at 5 am to make it to the start position in time. It was pure joy all the way. Let's all do it again!

  6. Nice to see a plan come together, congratulations! Now that it's all a distant memory, I wonder what next year has in store. It's a slippery, slippery slope!