Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Wet, cold and hard - Riding the 2014 Etape du Tour


Warning, Sunday 20th of July, the weather forecast is not good:
- wind
- rain
- cold températures

It was July 18, 2014, and I was sitting in Pau having dinner when those words reached me from ASO, the Etape du Tour event organisers. They recommended warm clothes, long fingered gloves and rain gear. I was hundreds of miles from home and had already packed. I'd forgotten long fingered gloves.

There was more than a day until we set out to ride the 150 kilometres from Pau to the top of the Hautacam, by way of the Tourmalet, and I was already in trouble. At dinner the night before kit options were discussed, dissected, rejected and proposed anew as we consumed monstrous amounts of pasta. By the morning of the race the weather had overtaken the two HC climbs to be the major source of concern for riders.

But even that took second place to the buzz of anticipation as we rode from the hotel into our starting pens.

I love the feeling in the pens before the Etape. Thousands and thousands of riders itching to get going, but a bit scared of the ride. Checking out the different kit, the ideas on show from others. One man with gels taped to his top tube, people with print outs of the key climbs laminated and taped to their stems. The bikes - from vintage steel to cutting edge carbon aero (for a mountain stage?). The chat as you tried to evaluate who to ride with, who to stick to and who to let go. How much the skinny blond kid from Essex who loved climbing was going to beat you by....

The air was humid, the sky overcast but mercifully dry, we rolled out.

Overcast but dry in pen 7
Flying start
And I went for it. There are two categorised climbs in the first 75k of the 2014 Etape. Both would be feature climbs on any English sportive – 2km at 7% averages - but they barely held me up. My plan was to ride, try and find a group doing at least 35kmh on the flat, stop as little as possible and get to the foot of the Tourmalet fast.

It more or less worked. Starting in pen 7, there were at least a couple of thousand people behind me on the road, where last year there was almost no one behind going faster than me on my own (they'd all uncatchably ridden off ahead of my starting place in the 11,000s), this year there were wheels going by me at realistic speeds.

Well, some. Because my body had decided to ride hard. I was tapping along at 35kph for most of it, often over 37kph. My legs were just pushing out power at a rhythm that felt like I could do it all day. On the Montgaillard descent I averaged 51.4kmh over 2km, just 29 secs behind the pro times over the segment, I was flying.

Flying early on
Now and again a wheel would come by, sometimes I'd follow for a while, then I'd generally get bored, go to the front and ride on or lose them in the traffic of other riders. Periodically I'd notice a few people on my wheel behind me.

I felt strong, the weather was good and I reached the foot of the Tourmalet in less than three hours. I idly worked out this pace put me on for a sub 6-hour Etape (hills aside, I inwardly joked).

But there was trouble brewing, I pulled in for my first stop of the day to refill my water bottles and grab a gel or two as the rain began to spit and the mountains were obscured by cloud. "It's lashing down at the top," we were told.

Gilet back on, sunglasses off, red rear light attached, I set out to tackle the Tourmalet. That was the end of the fun.

Bad times coming
The first mountain
The Tourmalet is hard. Hors Categorie according to the Tour de France. 17km at 7%, with an easier start meaning it's at a 9% average for 12 of those kilometres.

It's harder in the rain. Sat, for (in my case) two hours in the driving rain, getting wetter and wetter, knowing that after an hour of this you're still at least an hour from the top - listening to your bike make horrible noises.

And they were horrible noises. The bike had been serviced, lubed, cleaned until even the chain and cassette shone like new (which they almost were), with a new bottom bracket fitted in the run up to the Etape this year. It was riding like a new bike - utterly smooth and with the hum of the tyre on the tarmac the only noise the day before the race.

Then it rained, my dry lube washed off and it started making the most disgusting sounds - so loud almost everyone who passed me or I passed (more of the former than the latter at this point) commented or at least looked across to see what was going on. I began to get worried something was seriously wrong.

I got off to check it. The wheels were running smoothly and the brakes in good order. The cranks were fine. It was the chain - the loud, loud chain - squeaking like a mad thing.

While stopped I also poured out my newly filled back bidon, the 700 gram saving seemed more important. I was getting slower and slower, wetter and wetter, soaked to the skin despite my "No Rain" gear. My feet started squishing as I pushed down for each pedal stroke.

After an eternity of grinding my way up at a horrible speed with my heart rate jammed at 150 and staying there (long, consistent grinds are by far my least favourite sort of hill) I crested the top. It got worse.

Two hours of this + horrible bike noise
Coming down the Tourmalet
It was 5 degrees at the top of that mountain, I was soaked, and I was in the middle of a cloud. Visibility was about 20 metres on a wet Pyrenean descent and while I'd remembered a back light, I think I was the only one.

I'd got a branded bin bag from my tour operators to try and help with the wind, rain and the cold, but I was already soaked through, couldn't see and my hands were getting colder and colder. Being able to brake became a real concern.

I resolved to get out of the rain as fast as possible - which wasn't fast. I averaged 30kmh down the first 10km of the descent – slower than I’d ridden on the flat. On a dry day the pros went down at 60+. From being a few kmhs slower on the Montgaillard, I was now at half their speed.

That said, I was faster than most other people - being passed only once - despite my terrible speed. The majority of other riders seemed to have decided that the right solution to the freezing cold and lack of visibility was to go a lot slower and spend longer on the hill.

By contrast I was hitting the brakes and pedalling at the same time to try and generate some body heat to compensate for the increased wind chill of going faster, but it wasn't enough. I pulled over and got off under a small overhang by the side of the road after about 10km, I ate some food and shivered for a while - sucking on my fingers to try and warm them up faster.

I got back on and continued descending - we were far from done. From the top of the Tourmalet to the foot of the Hautacam it was 40km downhill. It should have been glorious.

The first village we came to on the descent had bikes abandoned outside sporting goods shops (presumably people going for extra layers), bikes abandoned outside bars and cafes and then someone shouted to me something about a thing 500m on my right.

I looked up going by and there was a marquee of sorts set up and hundreds of bikes scattered around, I went and sheltered under the marquee stamping my feet and blowing on my hands. Dry was a bit better. At this point a man came out of a door to a building on my left: "It's warm in there and they have coffee," he shouted to me as he left, I went through the mystery door.

It's hard to describe that room in retrospect. A bit like a Scout hut or community hall about 40m long and 25m wide, few windows and little light, with a small cafeteria window at the back. The heating was on full blast and the air was thick. It had, maybe, 1,000 cyclists in it – shivering in multi-coloured lycra.

The warmth hit my like a wave, I started creeping through the crowd towards the coffee window at the back, my body trembling a bit less now, as others rubbed their hands together over radiators or sat wrapped in thermal blankets. Many of them would not be riding again.

An indeterminate amount of time later I had a tiny coffee in my hands (about a double espresso worth, in a plastic cup, made with half a spoon of instant and sugar as that was all that was left). I drank it and forced myself to get back on and ride - there were only 40kms to the end and I'd almost stopped shivering.

As I descended into the valley the skies cleared, the rain stopped and the air warmed up - although not immediately. I began to feel warm again.

I was almost done and flying again as feeling and blood returned to my legs. I made it a point of honour than no one else with a wind sail/branded bin bag would pass me on the descent. I almost succeeded, then chased down the one man who did pass me.

Bin bag/wind sail man behind me a bit later on
Sting in the tail
Except, of course, I wasn't almost done. There was the small matter of the Hautacam - 13km at an average of 8%. Hors Categorie again. A punishing summit finish to the race – but at least it wasn't raining.

More, as the end slid closer with every kilometre marker I passed, my bike sounded closer to the end too. The noises were getting worse - I was chastised roadside by an elderly French spectator for using the wrong oil on my chain. I politely informed him that his information was very useful... yesterday.

But it was preying on my mind. How badly was this hurting my bike? How much energy was I wasting that could be better used climbing? In fact, what was preying on my mind the most was the thought I had put a mini-tube of wet lube somewhere in my back pocket that morning.

I got off, flipped my bike upside down roadside and proceeded to empty every single pocket along with my saddle bag before - maybe three hours too late - finding the tiny tube of Muc Off Wet that I was given in a goody bag after some sportive or other and had with me both in France and on the ride for no reason I could think of. I carefully applied it to my chain link by link, checked my hubs and cranks were spinning smoothly, the brakes were positioned correctly, ran through my gears and downed a caffeine gel.

Race face - driving up the Hautacam
Bike running silent again and full of sugar I went harder. I liked the Hautacam - well, I liked it a lot more than the Tourmalet. The climb rocks up and down in percentages, there's less grind, more power climbing in shorter bursts. A British sportive rider is, almost by default, a "rouler" or a "puncheur" in French terms - accustomed to shorter climbs with higher gradients, happy out of the saddle. I'm more puncheur, if a not very good one. The Hautacam suited me fine.

Two kilometres and I upped my cadence. One kilometre and I pushed again. I clicked through the gears, up one at 500m, up another at 400, again at 300 - I shifted into the big ring at 200 and tried to sprint out of the saddle over the line. I got it wrong, of course, over gearing and grinding not sprinting those final metres – someone I overtook earlier on the climb re-passed me at this point – but that was it. Done.

Despite the rain, the fog, the cold, the shivering, the wrong clothes, a squeaky bike and the wrong lube I'd finished the 2014 Etape du Tour – 150km long and 3,700m up from Pau to the top of the Hautacam. An awful lot of people didn't.

View from the top of the Hautacam - somehow I'd done it
A few thoughts to add:
I've just been reminded of the massive crowds at the foot of the Hautacam. I'd forgotten them, but they were so supportive I effectively missed the first 2km of the climb while riding with a big stupid grin on my face.

There was great support throughout - with people cheering far up the side of mountains despite the rain. One couple dressed in brown rain ponchos that made them look a lot like Jedis.

Lying kilometer markers. So. The official Etape kilometre markers (for the climbs) disagreed with the permanent roadside ones ones, quite a lot, about percentages. Also distance to the summit. And why, WHY IN GOD'S NAME would you have an inflatable "1km to go" sign/arch in a different place (500m back) from the "1km to finish" sign. I actually stood on my pedals and shouted "LIES" at it.

Stories were told, in hushed tones, of a man on a Raleigh Chopper who completed the race (some say he cheated and had some hub gears added). I can confirm the presence on the Hautacam of a man with one leg. Cheat. Saving all that below-the-knee leg weight. I was passed by at least one couple on a tandem.

My Garmin died in the clouds on the Tourmalet, and recorded my top speed as something like 270kmh. I feel this might not be true. It came back to life a few km from the top of the Hautacam, but it means I couldn't really compare segments to see if I beat anyone (at all) that I know.

I took a packable shoulder bag with spare food and water for the wait in the pen this time around - the spare stuff could be binned and it meant I could eat until the last minute. Worked well.

Not a single vendor at the start village where we signed on had "gants long", despite the ASO warning - I would have paid many, many euros for them. They did have ASSOS gloves for €10 though.

Magic blue tape!  My right knee had been hurting since Yorkshire, three weeks previously, it was getting worse, with me pedaling one-legged by the end of a ride in Surrey. So I went to the Sports Tours physios in the Etape sign-on village and spent €10 getting kesio taped - that's the blue stuff you see professional athletes (including Tony Martin in his solo victory on stage 9) use. It's magic. My knee was 100% fine for the Etape and it stayed on for four more days while I was riding in the Pyrenees, also keeping me pain free. Amazing. The second it came off, the knee started hurting a bit again.

And in case you care - I finished in a shade under 9 hours, with a bit less than 8 hours riding time. The gave me an overall rank of c6,700 (of the 9,800 that started) and a climbing rank a bit higher at 6,600.


  1. Very good write up and congratulations, of course. We all had a hell of a ride, you even stopping for an extra drink, and on the go bike maintenance almost Go, Go, Gadget style :)
    Don't want to hijack your blog but a few thoughts from me:

    My bikecomp was dying straight after start, and I took it quite easy till Tourmalet, even had a chat with a few english guys on the way. I liked the steady-ish gradient, but it was way too boring to climb up. A man in front of me stalled and fell, so I stopped and forced to stop the guy behind me too. Same happened up Hautacam but there I went on around him.

    Knowing the weather conditions the almost non-existent warm tea or coffee was a big disappointment for me both at La Mongie and at the top of Hautacam. The organizers could have sorted it out, I would rather have one of my bottles filled with hot tea then water at the time.
    Spent some 27mins at La Mongie trying to warm myself up drinking one of the last cups of coffee and when I realized that the shivering won't stop I waited just a minute more for the rain to cease to an acceptable level and jumped back on the bike pushing hard to warm myself up. First few minutes were wet and shivering and freezing. Possibly the worst moment I ever had on a bike.
    I have never been so under-dressed for a ride, even left my full waterproof over-trousers in the room I stayed at. That was my own stupidity.

    Do you remember at the 1st hairpin descent, a biker whistling all-out in the middle of the rain/mist? As soon as I heard it, slowed down. I too chose the quickest possible way down Tourmalet, the shivering of my hands became so severe that I had to slow down from 40-50Kmh, because I wasn't able to hold the handlebar straight. Didn't count how many people overtook me but half way down I overtook an ambulance. Did 10Km in 32Kmh and 20 in 35Kmh. On the way down my left thigh and right hamstring were getting cramps. Had to pedal just to keep them moving and stretching. At one point I thought of getting off the bike for a few mins but took the risk as the roads opened up and the gradient eased a bit and was able to pedal more and once I got warmed up a bit, the cramps stopped too. Was holding the brakes with 2fingers and the handlebar with 2fingers too, but without gloves I lost the feeling in them, that didn't bother me, but the rear brake became so wet that the front one became my main braking, about 2/3 to 1/3. (disks on road bikes anyone???)
    I got to the waterstop at the bottom of Tourmalet just before a medical helicopter was landing. Made up some 800 places on the descent till Hautacam.

    Hautacam was brutal. One of the 11% gradients started with a brief downhill. I was thinking to myself how brutal this has to be to average 11%
    Those roads were more interesting but mentally more challenging too, still, saved my 'race' there passing people left and right making up another 700places. Passing people en-masse uphill is a great motivator :) also was telling myself that I am going home now.

    Didn't stick in the finishing village for too long, wanted to get out and was lucky/unlucky at the same time with STI and got back to my room in Pau just after 10pm, still a bit wet, smelly, hungry not really believing that I have done it.


    1. You're not hijacking - the blog was in part designed so people could share/chat about their own experiences...

      In terms of sorting things out (and tea or coffee would have been ace) - not a single vendor at the start village had "gants long", despite the ASO warning. I would have spent many euros on them if they had. I left my waterproof jacket in my room as well, and went with the Gabba/No Rain gear. Stupid. Really stupid in retrospect. I'm also buying some neoprene gloves, I reckon they're about the only thing that would have done the job.

      Sounds like you had a pretty awful time of it on that descent - I wonder just how much further I would have finished if I'd managed to Rule #5 my way to the end without stopping half way to enter the magic hut... Then again, by that point I'd stopped caring about my time and was simply trying to make it to the end. Impressive work sir.

      Someone afterwards reckoned that on a clear warm day we'd all have about an hour knocked off our times when you combined stopping to warm up time with faster descending - seems about right, although some would have saved a lot more.

    2. I had disks on my road bike. Loved, loved, loved them on the Tourmalet descent. Usually I'm one of the slower descenders, but this time I was able to sail past people as I was confident I'd be able to stop.

      Agree about the gants long. We headed off to Decathlon near our hotel in Tarbes, to buy a pair. Anybody selling waterproof, rather than aero, shoe covers would have made a mint too.

  2. Great write-up James - Heavy dose of rule #5. Can't believe how much easier those soft pros had it conditions-wise when they went through!

    Maybe see you on the start-line in 2015?

    1. They're soft, aren't they ;)

      (I actually went to the bottom of the Hautacam to watch it - a lot of them had dialed out by then, with nothing to ride for just spinning along)

      Planning many things for 2015, Etape is on the list, but I'll wait to see where it is before deciding whether to sign up.



    2. A good route might tempt me onto the Etape next year. Also looking at the Maratona dles Dolomites - spoke to a few people who said it's their favourite of the big sportives.

  3. Nice one, James. I'd love to see a photo of that hall full of bikes. Its sounds like a disaster zone. I think you guys got it a bit worse, in terms of weather, than we did. Still it was pretty frigid and wet.

    1. Thanks Gerry! Really different from the thumping heat last... Just read your write up - great overall position! (and you reminded me to add in a few stories that I might forget otherwise at the end)

      I remember the hall as if from a dream. TBH, by that point I was scared of getting my phone out to take pics in case I dropped it from shivering/ruined it with water.

      Now what shall I do next year...


  4. Smart move; I managed to kill my phone for three days texting my Dad from the top of Hautacam.

    The second time I pulled in on the Tourmalet descent to squeeze some feeling back into my hands, the guy stopped just ahead heard me swearing, and twigged that I spoke English. "How you doing, mate?" he asked. "I can't feel my hands, and I can't see anything out of one eye," I replied. "Other than that, I'm F*CKING FANTASTIC!"

    He looked at me like I was insane. I looked a bit more closely at him, and he didn't seem to be particularly f*cking fantastic. His face was green.

    I mumbled something apologetically, and rode on.

    The Hautacam descent wasn't remotely as uncomfortable. Still, when I came to the bit that had been downhill going up (you know what I mean...) I found I couldn't physically shift gears. I was able to brake okay; but pushing from the elbow, pushing from the shoulder even, I could not get the lever to budge.

    Crazy stuff. The hardest thing I've ever done, and - even though I wanted to die at several points - the most fun I've ever had.

  5. Really enjoyed this write up James and your blog in general - I rode the etape this year as well and I always love hearing how others are training and how they found race day. This year was also my second time etapping and I just couldn't believe how different the conditions were to all that heat in annecy. Still, an unforgettable day and hopefully it will be third time lucky in 2015 and conditions will be perfect!