When I signed up for L’Etape du Tour in November last year, it seemed unreal and very far away and almost like a game. Back then it wasn’t certain, yet, whether we would pull off this whole European adventure. Signing up was merely a matter of keeping the option open and for an extra ten Euros, there was the cancellation insurance. Without John signing up for it and telling me about it during one of our Fixie Riverloops, it would have never crossed my mind to endeavour something this big.
It was going to be my toughest ride ever, and a huge physical and mental challenge.
I still can’t believe I finished. After seeing the Pros suffering on La Toussuire today, I have a completely new appreciation of professional cycling and what those guys do. Without the last two months of climbing high mountains in the Italian Dolomites, and the French and Italian Alps, I wouldn’t have pulled it off. I haven’t told you all and everything about my L’Etape preparation over the past weeks and some of it will have to wait till later. I’m sure you will be able to put the pieces together. This report had to be moved up and out of the chronological order. Some of the ride is already a blur in my memory so if I don’t write about it now, I will have forgotten.
After meeting up with John and Narelle on Friday afternoon at the registration in Albertville, we went for a little leg stretcher ride. There was lots of catching up to be done. John and Narelle had been touring in a Motorhome through Europe prior to coming to Albertville. There were holiday stories, news from Australia, and the every-day happenings of the past three months. It was kinda cool, the Hey, pinch me! Is this real? way of riding with good friends, so familiar cycling buddies, on so unfamiliar roads.
On Sunday morning we woke up to the sound of rain on the Motorhome roof. Glimpsing out between the curtains, it looked wet and grey and, frankly, miserable. The beautiful mountains were hidden in a haze of dark clouds. The previous day had been beautiful, so this came as a shock, maybe not just to me. Maybe it was the reason the local newspapers would report in their Monday morning issue that out of over 9000 registered cyclists, only a mere 5688 started. Neither for John nor for me there was a question of not starting. There was just a quick wardrobe re-think!
By the time we found our start area, the skies looked already clearer. It was hard to contain my excitement. The wait was probably one of the worst moments of the entire day. The first riders rolled out at 7am but with my bib number 9139 it took another 45min before I was finally rolling, 45 min of stressing about the chaos of a mass start. But worries were completely unfounded. The start was very relaxed and safe. The entire organisation, in fact, was faultless and one of the best I have seen. Already at registration there were never any long cues, there were armies of helpful people pointing people in the right direction in all thinkable languages and assisting with the most outlandish of requests, like for example printing my doctor certificate, which I had only as pdf on my laptop.
People had their bikes checked and prepared at the Mavic tent, all completely free, and I had my brake pads changed. We watched the Tour de France stage at the big screen and their was entertainment at the departure village all day. The many exhibitors of marvellous bike stuff posed a great danger to my holiday budget.
But all this was forgotten, once we were on our way. The skies cleared more and more and before we hit the bottom of the first climb of the day, the 25km long Col de la Madeleine, the roads had dried and there were glimpses of blue sky. My last hard ride had been L’Alpe d’Huez on the Wednesday and after three days of rest and only very short, easy spins, my legs were fresh. Straight away I found this sweet rhythm, which was only interrupted occasionally when riders swerved or bunched up ahead of me. My heart rate was sitting pretty at ten beats below threshold, and soon I found a wheel that I followed. Number 9764 was setting a tempo that suited me to the ground. It didn’t take him long for him to notice me on his wheel. He smiled, introduced himself and we became a team for the entire length of the first climb. Matthew was French, spoke English, and it was his first L’Etape as well. Trés bien!
Just before the top of La Madeleine I spotted John. It was great to see him riding so strongly and being in such good spirits. He was having a ball with this climb.
The descend of the Madeleine was a lot less scary than anticipated. I had read all this hair rising reports of tight switchbacks, narrow roads and, combined with thousands of other riders, I assumed it would spell disaster. But apart from loosing John, the descend was actually great fun.
John and I re-united at the feed station at the bottom of the next climb, the Col de Glandon and Col de la Croix de Fer, as we had agreed. Water bottles were filled with friendly cheerful smiles, bananas and bars were handed out freely and in large numbers, and despite hundreds of cyclists scrambling for supplies, things went smoothly.
I was nervous about the next climb. The last few kilometers were said to be tough but there was a little surprise waiting for us before we hit the climb. Alberto and Narelle had somehow managed to park the Motorhomes and cheered us from the sidelines. It was awesome to see them so excited. A quick kiss and off we were again. The next few kilometres, it was very much the same routine. I settled into my rhythm, conserved energy and climbed slowly and steady. I could have sworn, John was sitting pretty on my wheel and I pointed out potholes and other dangers to him until I realised that I had lost him. There were cyclists all over the road, a constant stream that never broke up and whenever I got glimpses of the road above, I would see the colony of colourful ants snaking up the mountain.
The higher I got, the prettier the landscape became. Meadows, high peaks, a little lake and more rocky peaks. The sheer beauty of three sharp, grey rocks, sticking out behind the summit, almost took my breath away. And the prettier it got, the tougher it got. Col de la Croix de Fer comes in a double pack. Two for the effort of one – almost. I rolled over the timing mat at the Col de Glandon knowing that there were still a few more kilometres to go to the summit of Croix de Fer. But thankfully, these three kilometres felt almost flat. I resisted the temptation to whack it in the big ring and hammer. The euphoria of having completed 96km of the 152km course was inappropriate. 56km might sound easy on the flat but there were still two Cols to climb.
Another long descend and Col du Mollard with it’s 6km was refreshingly short and easy. The 17km descend from Mollard were beautiful but the fatigue started to set in. My back was aching, my hands started tingling, my shoulders hurt and I got really pissed off with my lack of descending skills. I thought I wasn’t too bad… for a girl, but once again being caught and passed by all the guys who I had overtaken on the previous two climbs was frustrating. The experience was shared by a French guy who – in passing on the last climb – complaint to me that he was fed up with seeing me coming pass on every previous climb. We both laughed when I mentioned my frustrations with the downhill parts.
So all was going well. I had spotted Narelle and Alberto briefly on the bottom of the last climb. He had called out to me that I was looking strong and given me the little push. Again too unexpected and by now too fatigued to think quickly, I had missed the opportunity to throw out my overshoes, arm warmers, wind jacket etc. I kicked myself for having to carry all the by now useless luggage with me for the last 18km to the ski resort of La Toussuire- Les Sybelles.
Only 18 km – about one and half hour of climbing and this would be all over. That’s what I calculated in my head. I was still feeling good. I was once again in my rhythm, once again recognising guys as I passed them.
And then, with only ten kilometres to go, the lights went out so suddenly and unexpectedly that it took me a while to realise in how much trouble I actually was. At first I felt slightly unwell. Cold shivers ran down my arms but I knew this feeling from the Marmolada climb when I overheated. A quick rest would fix this, I thought, and decided to stop under a tree in a shady spot for a moment.
It was hot by now, 35 degrees Celsius. I poured half of the water of one of my bottles over my head, ate another bar, drank half of my other bottle, still full with some rehydration formula that I had scooped out of a bucket at the last water stop. I assured the roving assistance guy that I was ok. The concerned look on his face was a bit unnerving so I accepted the extra bottle of water he passed to me from his motorbike. There were white streaks on my bib and jersey. Nothing new to me. Soon I felt better and got back on my bike.
Three kilometres later the cramps started. Debilitating and painfull like never before, I was stuck on the side of the road. Seven kilometres to go. I tried not to panic. My mind was set on finishing. Back on I got, only to stop in agony 500 m later. Someone walked passed me, pushing his bike. I started walking, too. This became my routine for the next four kilometres, walking until the cramps subsided and gingerly nursing the legs to turn the pedals. Riding was better than walking but walking was better than giving up. It couldn’t be helped now.
There were four feed stations and a number more water stations along the route and according to my pre-ride plan, I had stopped at each and every one of them except the first one. I had refilled my water bottles, drank and ate as much as I could. I didn’t care how long it would take me to cross the finish line.
Two hours and seven minutes it took me to climb this last mountain of the day but I made it and when I rode through the red kite that indicated one kilometre to go, I welt up. I swallowed hard. I didn’t way to cry. I felt so emotional and I begged my legs to bear with me and not make me walk across the finishing line but even that I would have done!
There was still the ride back down to St Jean de Maurienne, falling into Alberto’s arms and walking to the Motorhome. A shower, food – lots of it, wine, too, and the joy of hearing that my friend John had made it, too… most of the afternoon is a bit of a blur but what I will remember for the rest of my life is the cheers, the support, the generosity of people with their time and enthusiasm for the sport of cycling. I couldn’t have done t without the support, especially from Alberto. Thanks!
Even though the result is not important to me because finishing this challenge was my goal, here are the stats for those interested:
Total distance: 152km (With the descend from La Toussuire I ended up riding over 170km – my longest ride ever!)
Total meters of ascending: 4750m
Time to climb Col de la Madeleine (25km): 1h55’59”
Time to climb Col de Glandon (20km): 1h56’45”
Time to climb Col du Mollard (6km): 0h31’27”
Time to climb La Toussuire – LesSybelles (18km): 2h07’20” (I climbed La Toussuire again a few days later with fresh legs and it took me about 1h24′)
Total time climbing: 6h31’31”
Total time from start to finish: 9h35’08” (This includes stops at feed stations etc. My total moving time according to my Garmin was 9h10′)
Age group: 33rd out of 93
Overall: 2277th out of 4422 finishers