July 20, 2018 by Mark Burton
— This beast was part of a double challenge including RideLondon on 29th July. A group of us are riding to tackle homelessness by raising money for SPEAR – your donations would be massively appreciated! Find out more here —
So, there it is. After months of mildly intense training, very intense worrying and extremely intense consumption of pork pies, the Etape is officially conquered!
170 kilometres long, 4000 metres of vertical gain and temperatures touching 30 degrees meant this was about the hardest thing I have ever done – a sentiment echoed by my equally ill-prepared comrades Harry and Andrew, who raised boatloads of cash for Macmillan. So in no particular order other than that which my still-recovering brain can produce, here are some thoughts and tips for any eejit thinking of doing it next year.
It’s really hard
No sniggering at the back. This was a very tough event (understatement alert). The distance is one thing, but it’s the climbing that really cranks things up, as well as the heat of an Alpine summer. You are out there all day, literally – I completed in a majestic 9hrs40 while my buddies rolled in after about 11 hours. I’m a skinny waif and I burned 5000 calories during the ride. 3000 starters didn’t finish. Admittedly the winner did it in 5’15 but presumably they were aided by a good-sized motorbike engine and enough salbutamol to knock out a Tour de France favourite (joking, I am just bitter). I also met a guy later who did it in 6’55, but he had shaved legs and thus I consider him a professional.
It’s a constant battle to stay fed and watered. Hundreds of people were walking the climbs. Things will start to ache that you didn’t know existed. Your soul will hurt. You may occasionally weep uncontrollably, perhaps for example on the final descent, where the combination of blurred vision and going downhill at nearly 50mph really adds a certain je ne sais quoi. You almost certainly won’t want to get on a bike again afterwards, unless you have foolishly signed up for RideLondon shortly afterwards. However…
It’s amazing and you can and should do it!
Pain and misery aside, the Etape was an incredible and rewarding experience. It was a massive challenge, but it’s achievable for anyone who puts their mind to it. It’s extremely well organised, with the same support setup as the actual Tour de France stage which follows a few days later. The crowds of people who line the streets in support all the way are incredible and give you a big boost, and the occasional spray of a hose to cool you down. There’s a great sense of camaraderie among participants; everyone is in the same, painful boat so you help each other out, chat to others, egg each other on and work together to get through it.
The setting was nothing short of spectacular. Even on the toughest climbs there were breathtaking mountain views all around which take the edge off the hurt. All the roads are closed which makes a big difference.
At the finish the sense of achievement was really quite overwhelming. Your legs ache, your brain is foggy, you smell, you need new teeth from all the sugar you’ve consumed and you’re bleeding because an insect got into your jersey and tried to eat its way out.
You’re at the bottom of a mountain, but you feel like you’re on top of the world.
Train – or don’t. I trained for about 6 months – a couple of short indoor classes at H2 Soho paired with a longer ride at the weekend of 50+ miles. Conversely, Harry did no training whatsoever and still finished 2 hours behind me, albeit by running away from a gendarme who told him he was too late to the last climb and had to get in the ‘recovery vehicle’. So your options are do some training, or disobey the police.
Fuel – I carried 8 energy bars and ate them all. Half a bar every half an hour seemed to work. Learn from my mistake and get more than one type unless you REALLY like the flavour of artificial apples. Clif Bloks were my go to towards the end; they’re like gels except without the sensation of warm bodily fluids. Keep drinking and refill at every feed station. At the stations, drink the Coke they offer and have some sugary or carby stuff, but the ham and cheese platter will not be your friend.
Pace – It’s 4 marathons, not a sprint. If you find yourself pulling a peloton of 100 people at 40kmh in the first 10 minutes, as I somehow did, you have become over-excited and need to calm the eff down. Sit on wheels and save energy. Be sensible on the descents: there are thousands of you and only so much road so there are a few nasty crashes.
Chat – especially going uphill. Talking to other humans drowns out the dark, existential questions in the mind as you go. I met a friendly Dutchman on the first climb and we chatted about pure nonsense for most of the climb until his vastly superior fitness left me for dead. Talking also stops you from over-committing and burning out.
Optimism – generally, but also specifically when you sign up. They’ll ask you for an expected finish time, go for about an hour quicker than you think is realistic. I was perhaps too honest and thus went in the very last wave, meaning loads of standing around, increased threat of getting swept up and more time in the heat of the day. You want to be in a slightly earlier wave if possible, but be a bit careful – too early and you will spend all day being overtaken which can’t be fun.
Chamois cream – if you value or simply want to keep your nether regions.
Loo roll – nature will probably call, and the portaloo or bush you visit probably won’t help you answer. It’s also cheaper than sacrificing your gloves.