Thursday, July 3, 2014

T' Tour de Yorkshire - Etape training?

(Warning, this is long, but does have some pictures)

This weekend I got on my bike and tried to ride the first two stages of the 2014 Tour de France back to back.

That's more than 350km, with 6,000 metres of climbing, in two days. I was in no way ready.

The weather was cold and showers were forecast on and off all day, I found myself envying Pez’s knee warmers and wishing I’d packed a softshell.

But even that couldn't dampen the enthusiasm on the morning of Day 1 - exactly a week before Yorkshire hosts the Grand Depart - I got my gear together, packed my pockets with gels and headed to the pre-ride briefing. 

Safety briefing + professional riders
There was a real buzz at the start, three members of the Wiggle Honda team were riding with us and Yorkshire had thoroughly bought into the Tour's visit: The streets, homes, businesses and public spaces were en fete - bunting and decorations everywhere, strings of knitted polka-dot, green and yellow jerseys, roadside decorations, yellow-painted bikes everywhere and signs welcoming the Tour to every village and town the route passed through. It was hard not to be infected by the mood.

And off we rolled.

The Grand Depart - Leeds to Harrogate

Our route cut out the neutralised start from Leeds, leaving from Harrogate instead, and joined the ride when the racing proper starts - the total distance covered was pretty identical to the official ride.

Stage 1 is meant to be a sprinter's stage. "Flat" as the official guide has it. It's not. Well, not to me anyway.

Not flat
I started well, not quite as well as Pez, who found a quick group and pushed ahead of me. I spent 20kms chasing him, and them, down.

Just as I succeeded, passing him on a small descent, my GoPro escaped. I was trying out the camera - fitted to my handle bars - to capture some of the scenery while riding and some footage if possible. 

Chasing Pez, moments before the camera escaped
The plan failed when the clip on the bike mount broke and it skittered away across the road. I stopped to reclaim it and lost Pez, and the group, again.

After the GoPro had been stuffed into my back pocket (a real shame, I was looking forward to getting some footage of the climbs, descents and scenery while riding - and it was working well, as shown above), I re-started - catching up with Paul Adams. I'd never met him before, but in a pleasing symmetry he had No.1 on his bike and I had No.2. "Do you mind me asking your name?" I said riding up next to him, my best guess on how I got such an illustrious number was my alphabetically friendly surname.

We got on, and merrily tapped away together with one of his friends at an average speed a little above 25kph, catching up with Pez (who joined our mini-group) reminiscing about the London Revolution and last year's Etape which he rode as well.

Pulling into the first, picturesque, break stop 65kms in all was well with the world. I grabbed some food, said hello to the llamas in the field next door (ah, local wildlife) and got ready to leave.

The stunning break stop
The first categorised climb was coming - the Cat 3 Cote de Cray - in a few kms and I wanted to be ready. Pez and I rode out (Paul and his friend left ahead of us) and I blew up. I'd blown up with 120kms still to ride.

How badly? Really badly. Really, really badly. The first minor incline saw Pez drop me, and me get dropped by everyone else on the road.

Paul provides a nice comparison point at this point. We hit that first break stop together, with all four of us helping out on the front of our mini-group on the ride over and me - in Pez's words - being the hardest to follow when on the front.

Paul beat me by one hour 18 minutes on stage one.

The next break stop wasn't for another 60 kilometres, over the top of two categorised climbs, and I just couldn't climb - all the power was gone from my legs. I tried eating a lot of gels and drinking plenty too, with no effect.

I cycled along on my own, chatting occasionally with other riders (two groups other than ours were riding the Grand Depart that day, some planning to keep riding the route a week ahead of the pros until the very end of the race). I used the time to marvel at the truly stunning scenery. 

Seriously, if you haven't been, go. As beautiful as any part of the country I've visited. And take your bike – a lot of the roads have been resurfaced for the Tour and there are some great and challenging hills if you fancy it.

Hills on the ‘flat’ stage
The subject of hills brings me to the second categorised climb of the day - Cote de Buttertubs. It's listed as 4.5km at 6.8%. If only it was.

Because that might be the average, but the gradient is far more punishing. It starts with a 17% ramp, flattens, then ramps to 13% again, then is big-ring flat, throws in another 20% ramp, flattens, up to 20% for a bit again, and then it really punishes you.

About the fourth or fifth time this happens, you hit an evil corner on the back of a non-flat section, curving up and around to the left ramping to 18% for the last bit of the climb and just in front of a cattle grid. The man in front of me got off his bike - punished once too often - I followed him. It was only 50m of walking, but my legs - already in a horrid state - said "no more".

It's a perfect hill for a breakaway to form on. Especially as it's followed by a 2km, 9% descent. Seriously, I averaged 54km/h on this (peaking above 65km/h), and I was on non-closed roads and taking things pretty cautiously. The pros will be flying.

Eventually I made it to the break stop on the other side. Pez had already been there 15 minutes. I crammed more food into me, re-stocked on gels and we set off together again. He dropped me the first time the road even inched up.

There was another Cat 3 hill along the way - the magnificently named Cote de Grint on Moor - but by this stage my brain had switched off so all I can tell you is I got over it. I didn't walk again, I remember that much.

But, while I'd settled into my non-functioning state, there was hope to come. 40kms from the end a nice man in Wiggle kit and a Very Expensive Bike (Carbon, Zipp wheels, electronic groupset etc etc) let me latch on to a group. After explaining the concept of "drafting" to the other riders, and learning and then using everyone's first name a lot in a slightly middle-manager-after-a-training-day manner, we rode on... slowly.

Misery loves company, as the saying goes, and while none of my fellow slow coaches were riding day two, riding with them made me feel a lot better. It wasn't fast, but it was social, and while I was dropped on the hills by everyone even in this slowest of groups, we finished - crossing the line together and posing for a picture.

It took me 9:33:24 in total time with 8:38:59 of that riding - on a sprinter's stage I'd averaged just 22.4kp/h. Pez beat me by another 15 minutes, after once again setting out from the break stop together.

Yorkshire businesses bought into the Tour
One of the draws of this ride for me was the idea that I'd be riding supported for back-to-back stages, making the experience closer to that of a real Tour de France rider.

There was a Team Wiggle Honda mechanic on hand - who took a look at my creaking bike (the hope was that a worn bottom bracket was holding me back on the hills, grinding under pressure, rather than terrible form. He checked the bike and proscribed "lack of chain lube" as the actual problem - which, to be fair, had my drive train running silky smooth the next day).

I bolted down a plate full of carbs (lasagne, plus rice, plus potato salad, plus a bread roll) and headed for a massage - anything to try and get me through the next day and a remarkably relaxing experience.

I showered, ate another big meal in the evening, had a single beer and hit the hay early. It was the best I could manage.

To try and increase my chances I was trialling beetroot shots - loading up for two days before the race and then one on the morning of Day 1. There's increasingly large amounts of research that say they could help, nothing says they hurt and top athletes (including Mark Cavendish) use them.

But they're vile things. Horrible tasting and nasty to drink. I looked at my beetroot shot for today with disgust. I put it back in my bag, unopened. If they help, they clearly didn't help enough on Saturday and I just couldn't face drinking it.

At this point I honestly didn't know how I was going to get back on my bike for the ride to the safety briefing - let alone finish what has been described as the third hardest stage of the race this year.

Day 2 briefing
Day 2: York-Sheffield
Oddly, once on the bike I was feeling better than I was the day before - more comfortable than the end of the ride on Saturday - or perhaps just more accustomed to my pain.

Once again, we altered the route a little for Day 2. Ditching the pan-flat opening 30kms down a major road and picking the ride up just north of Harrogate ahead of the climbing starting.

And there was a lot of climbing. Nine categorised climbs (we missed the final one in the city centre), 3,600m+ up - more climbing than last year's Etape - and effectively no flat. None. 

Much climbing
It should make for a great stage, which is calling out for a breakaway as forming a train to chase one down will be all but impossible. A good day for a hilly classics specialist to win - possibly even Simon Yates - a bloody awful one for me.

But I had a plan. We formed "Team Tortoise"*. 

Pez was struggling towards the end of Saturday too, and had found a couple of other riders  to finish with: Rich-who-is-actually-from-Yorkshire and Nick from near us.

I got together with them early on, and we stuck together with the express purpose of getting each other to the end, no matter how long it took. It took a really long time.

Along the road another rider joined us - Tim - and it was him and Pez competing for who was climbing best of our groupetto, who came next was anyone's guess. 

Nick had a metal plate in his right leg, with pain shooting along the length of it when putting stress through - think climbs above 10%. His biggest cog on the back was a 25, not nearly enough. But he was the heart and soul of the group, keeping spirits up, chatting away and happy to take really long pulls on the front on the flat and pacing us up shallow hills.

Rich had a dodgy right knee, meaning he simply couldn't climb the steep stuff after the first couple of hours. He was also fun, funny and good company.

But patched up, injured and exhausted riders, forming an autobus to beat the clock and finish the stage is as much a tradition of the Tour as polka dots, bunch sprints and breakaways.

We endured. We supported. We survived.

So much climbing
And there was a lot to endure - 20k in was Cote de Blubberhouses, cat 4, with a descent leading straight into a 24% ramp leading onto another long drag up. I made it up out of the saddle. The views from the top were spectacular and there was the reward of a long descent.

36k in was another climb - uncategorised - followed by the longest flat section of the day (for us) - it was only 10km.

Stunning, lots of climbing though
The scenery was spectacular throughout - bridges over rivers leading to rolling woodland, farmland with stone-walled fields - frequently filled with sheep, cows and horses (we only saw llamas once).
In fact, "what about sheep on the descents?" was a serious question in the safety briefing. That said, the baa-ing at one point was almost musical.

The roads on day two were frequently beautiful too - the smoothest I've ever ridden on. In fact, I've never loved a road surface so much while hating the road itself so fiercely.

There was a lot of hating on Sunday. While the first climb (Blubberhouses) was mostly fine, the others weren't. Oxenhope Moor (cat 3) hurt, Cragg Vale (the longest climb in Britain at 8km+) was relentless if uncomplicated and allowing me to burst at the end to try and bridge to Pez and Tim - and at least there was a long descent after. Ripponden (Cat 3) hurt - lots – starting with a really high gradient, then dropping to a mere 10% for the remaining kilometre.

Two kilometres after you crest it you're onto the Cat 3 Cote de Greetland - and this is the one that broke me.

You see, I had attached a route profile to my top tube - but it was lies. After Ripponden it was meant to be flat, downy, a bit uppy, then big downy.

What it actually was was a 6km climb - the Cote de Greetland – when I was expecting a descent. Every time I rounded a corner and saw more climbing a little bit more of my spirit broke.

According to my top tube, the descent started about 95km in and there was no more climbing. In fact, it didn't start until almost 100 and came after an entire, Cat 3, unmarked, climb.

Top tube of lies
I lost the rest of Team Tortoise (after being first to Ripponden), I trudged on. Slower. And slower. And Slower. I rounded a corner to see even more climbing, I'd been climbing for seemingly ever, I looked once more at my Garmin (100km registered) and my top tube (meant to have been descending 4km ago) and got off my bike. 

Fuck it. Fuck the climbing. Fuck the lying route profile. I was promised a descent, I deserve a descent. I'm absolutely not climbing any effing more. I looked up, saw the scenery and took a photo (above). I trudged on.

There was only 60km left, according to the lying route profile, I could walk that. Probably. Maybe I should get back on the bike, the next break stop wasn't for another 20km+, after the Cat 2 Holme Moss.

I got on, rounded a corner, and saw Nick and Pez waiting for me at the summit. I finally got my descent.

Back together
We were still a long way from home, but I was back with the groupetto. Back chatting, back riding and with a Cat 2 (my first) to come.

I'm not saying it wasn't brutal, but it was expected this time. The gradient sat at 11% and stayed there, for about 5kms, you just ground through it.

I unzipped my gilet to my waist. My jersey then got unzipped to my sternum. My cadence dropped to 40, then 35. It was as hard a climb as the early part of Semnoz, if not as long in total. I clicked up a couple of gears and went out of the saddle for a bit, sat down and clicked down again, I ground and ground and ground and this time I knew when it was ending. This time I had road markers telling me how much further there was, letting me know how far I'd come, with 700m left I sprinted.

Top of Holme Moss plus Derbyshire
Still not done - and losing my bottle
I'd passed the highest bit of the course now, with a final break stop mid-way down the descent - I crammed my face with anything I could lay my hands on like a four-year-old on Halloween - but this particularly nasty stage wasn't done yet.

Three more categorised climbs and a few uncategorised ones in a brutal final 40km awaited. There was simply no flat. You were going up, or down, with what felt like a lot more up (although wasn't).

"I can see Sheffield. It's downhill! Why am I climbing?" as one of the other riders put it.

The top tube profile (which inexplicably I still trusted) at least warned me it was going to be tough, we pushed on. We ran out of water. Eventually a support car came by - we hadn't seen another rider or support car for hours - and filled up on water and food, although Pez missed out initially (he was a little ahead of us on the road, when we met him we shared our water with him) he caught up with the van later.

A little later I threw the new water away - literally - near the back of the autobus I reached for a drink, Tim braked in front of me and I was caught with one hand full of bottle and another on the top of my bars and almost no time to react. I hurled the bidon into a bush (a present for the fans) and hit the brakes. Pez, the only man behind me, burst out laughing.

Lantern Rouge
We were officially the last people on the road and still riding at this point.

We kept going. Kept riding. Kept together except when Nick and Rich's knees forced them to walk up some of the steepest parts. The others waited at the top.

Inexplicably, I was first up the final climb - beasting the descent, almost missing the double-left turn into a seriously steep Stephen lane (1.6km at 10% average and starting harder) - and then we were done. Done, done and done. Well, almost, there were a few ks of descending left. But this time it really was all descending.

Team Tortoise rolled to the finish, lined up ahead of the timing mat and crossed together - all five of us – Tim, Pez and I recording times within a second of each other and Nick and Rich a minute slower thanks to a slightly later start time.

Once the day before times were included I finished last.

But that sentence doesn't quite read right. It has one word too many. Because despite blowing up badly on day one, breaking mentally on day two and taking longer than anyone else to complete it, I rode the first two stages of the Tour de France back to back. I finished.  With a little help from my friends.

*this is my name, other members of Team Tortoise might not appreciate the analogy. But, slow and steady seemed the way to go.


  1. Well done James, sounds like a tough old route. Been reading your blog as I train for my first Etape, been a great read. Maybe see you in a few weeks!

    1. Hopefully - I haven't looked into pubs yet, but I'm sure I'll find one ahead of time...

      I think the most important thing I've learnt in the last couple of years is you can keep going if you just dig in - which this weekend reminded me of quite often....