Back in the saddle: the Etape 2018

A few years ago, I went through a slightly odd phase of signing up to long distance cycle tours. You may remember the general gist of how these things went – badly. If you don’t, here’s a brief recap:

12 weeks to event – I’ve signed up for this event! It’s 500 miles of mountains, yay!

11 weeks to event – Start of training phase

10 weeks to event – This will be a piece of piss, I did a lap of Richmond park today and it was quite easy

9 weeks to event – End of training phase

8 weeks to event – Tapering and carb loading phase

1 week to event – Dawning realisation of imminent failure. Prayer.

Event – Failure

Repeat annually.

I thought, having passed the cavalier days of my mid/late-20s, that a more sensible side was emerging. Perhaps I could finally accept that, fun though it is, cycling fundamentally does not like me. Perhaps I would find solace in more genteel pursuits like tiddlywinks or endless FIFA tournaments, at peace with my spindly chicken legs and ryvita-based knees.

Perhaps, perhaps.

So to bring you up to speed, the older, wiser me has foolishly signed up for the Etape du Tour in a little under a month’s time.  

Whilst I don’t need to reiterate what a poor decision this was, I will enlighten you with some of the hilarious challenges that this ride will throw my way.

The Etape

The Etape du Tour is an annual one day ‘race’ (lol) which follows the same route as a stage of the Tour de France. More precisely, it follows the ‘Queen Stage’ route of the tour de France, which is a pretty piece of phrasing which actually means ‘hardest stage’. Given that this is meant to be the hardest stage which is meant to test the limits of professional cyclists, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that this is going to be a ‘challenge’. Google suggests that it should be quite easy – top article titles include ‘Etape: the agony and the agony’ and ‘Etape: how much pain can you take?’. So yeah, lots of fun there.

A quick glance at the route confirms and compounds the fear. At 169km it’s already long enough to be a challenge, but what’s really, really going to hurt is the climbing. This year’s edition has a cool 4,017 metres of climbing in the day – put another way, it’s got Box Hill but for 100 kilometres. Just typing that makes me feel quite sick. What the route doesn’t really mention is the nature of the climbs. The Plateau des Glieres is not only an 11% average for 6km, but has a top section which is entirely unpaved, just for laughs. The Col de Romme and the Col de La Colombiere join forces to form a sort of double act from hell right at the end, like Ant and Dec. For context I was once overtaken on the Colombiere by two Americans pushing 70, on touring bikes, not putting in any effort, possibly smoking. I classed that as quite a successful day too.

How we laughed.

Thankfully, I won’t be taking on this challenge alone. As well as 15,00 wiry, angry French cyclists I’m pleased to say that the non-famous, globally un-renowned Mackenzie brothers have also signed up to this suicide pact fun, wholesome event. Together we make a great team, and each bring something different to the group. Harold brings height and a digestive system that could kill an adult moose at 40 paces. Andrew also brings height and an air of mystique, as I have not seen him in the best part of two years. I’m not sure what I bring but I know that it is different to the above. Our team aim is to finish in front of the rather ominously titled ‘recovery vehicle’, i.e. in under 12 hours.

Training

In truth, our group training has been somewhat hit and miss. On one hand, we’ve sent each other a lot of messages about cycling which has surely done some good. On the other, we haven’t been on any actual rides. Harold and I tried to go for a ride but were beset by two minor issues – he had a slight physical issue in that he’s not been on a bicycle in a year and his legs stopped working almost immediately, I had a slight mechanical issue in that my pedals fell off. Overall it went well.

I have been doing some actual training for this, much as that goes against tradition. I can cautiously say that I’m in the best cycling shape ever, although admittedly this is a particularly low bar to beat. As well as the occasional long weekend ride, I’ve started doing a fair amount of indoor cycling (or, y’know, spin as it’s otherwise known). I was a bit apprehensive about indoor cycling as every class seemed to advertise terrifying promises: ‘pumping beats’, ‘mood lighting’, ‘sense of community’. I had visions of suddenly spending all my time lifting small weights above a bike and getting really into kale.

Thankfully, I found H2 in Soho instead, which has been brilliant. All the bikes are hooked up to power meters, so you can actually track your progress against your own abilities. You also gain the ability to instantly become the most boring person in any given room by talking about power, watts and FTP – handy when you want some alone time at a party or family gathering.

Seriously though, this has made a big difference to my fitness as the classes are taught by knowledgeable coaches who consistently push you. It does translate massively to how you cycle on the road. As an example, I went on a weekend trip to the Alps a couple of weeks ago with the ever excellent Traverse Aravis (who are setting up an alpine cycling club by the way) and was pacing up climbs in half the time it took in 2016. As mentioned before, the bar is low so I’m still not fast, but it’s made a difference at least!

Training has been somewhat curtailed in the last couple of weeks due to my bike being stolen. I’ve tried putting on cycling gear and running to Richmond mimicking a cycling action but it hasn’t really worked, so I’m probably moving into the carb-loading and tapering stage. At 4 weeks out I am hitting this perilously late by my own standards. As I understand, my cycling pals are just getting into their training phases now, so we’ll see whose approach works better on the day.

I suspect neither.

Bonus ride

Given how easy the Etape looks, I thought I’d add a Brucie (RIP) bonus and have a crack at the RideLondon 100, which I’ll be taking on alongside some great people to support SPEAR, a homelessness charity based in West London. Harry and Andrew will be riding the Etape to raise money for Macmillan cancer support.

To skip to the obvious destination of the past few sentences, it’d be eternally appreciated if you would like to sponsor either (or indeed both if you’re feeling particularly generous) of these events and the very worthy causes they’re for!

Asking you to pick between fighting homelessness and fighting cancer feels a bit morally iffy, so to make your life easier, just pick link A or link B if that’s easier. Or if you want to choose one specifically, click wildly and randomly on these links until you find what you’re looking for.

Stay tuned for more tales of ineptitude and poor preparation in the coming weeks…

 

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Cycling the Alps: Tour du Mont Blanc

Remember last year, when I signed up for that stupidly long, stupidly mountainous cycle tour, and complained about it endlessly? Remember that?

Yeah, so it sort of happened again…

If no, incidentally, you can read about it here – although be warned, this is going to be quite similar.

If you’re terribly busy and important and want the short version, here is the entire article in a comma separated list:

Training regime and lack thereof, subsequent struggles through lack of preparation, lots of mountains, small amount of passing out, heat, fun, amusing anecdotes and similes, mention of good cause, link to charity page. Bye.

For the rest of you, allow me to paint a picture made of words…

Part 1: The training phase

I should put it out there straight away – I’m a terrible cyclist. Not in a ‘self-deprecating, I’m actually shit hot’ sort of way, but in a ‘I do not mix well with bicycles’ kind of way. I lack power, strength, application and stamina – my knees are made of dynamite and explode at the first sign of a derailleur – I’m semi allergic to hills. All poor traits to be taking into a 3 day, 330km ride with 10km of elevation gain.

So you can imagine my training was quite intense. Well keep imagining, because it wasn’t. My sportsman’s regimen consisted of 5 gentle rides to work, three weekend trips to Surrey involving a lot of whimpering, an ominous quantity of moussaka and a startling amount of weight gain.

If you would like a PDF of my ‘from fit to fat in 6 cheese-filled weeks’ training plan, please contact me directly.

So that’s the training part covered.

Part 2: The first day

Having dragged my bike, my pitiful legs and my freshly portly arse to Geneva, we set up camp in La Giettaz. There were around 30 of us for this trip, which is run by Traverse Aravis – if you’re looking for a spot of alpine cycling you won’t do better. Quite a few of us had done the High Alps Challenge the previous year as well as a lot of friendly new faces, so we spent some time catching up, swapping stories, and lying about how little training had been done.

As we prepared to set off from our luxurious chalet accommodation, I was cheered by the fact that it was sunny. At least I won’t be cold, I thought.

I certainly wasn’t wrong, as the temperature swiftly proceeded past 30 degrees and never looked back. I thought about this moment the next day whilst lying in an Italian layby, in 38 degree heat, with the world spinning, trying not to be sick. I concluded that the world is a cruel and wicked place that turns cheerful thoughts to dust for its own childish amusement – and if you take one thing from this blog, it should be that.

We set off as a group, whizzing down to Flumet to start the first climb, the gentle 14km of Les Saisies. As opening climbs go, it’s quite a nice one – not too taxing, a few flat sections to catch your breath, and relatively short. An amuse bouche of a mountain.

Needless to say I was broken by the top.

After a quick break for bananas and weeping, we zipped down towards Beaufort to tackle the main course for the day – the Cormet de Roselend. At 21km, this one is a bit more of a beast. It’s steep, long, and you’re stuck in a forest for ages so you can’t even mumble gently to yourself about the pretty views and freak out passers by. The real kicker is a lake at about 15km, which looks an awful lot like the summit but is in fact a large, cruel joke leading up to another 7km of steepness. It was also blisteringly hot. You don’t really notice it at first, but all of a sudden you find yourself cycling at 6km/h and realise that despite 7 bottles of water, you’re currently on 0 wees for the day. It’s not a pleasant experience.

You’ll notice there are no photos thus far. In my defence, I was sulking so I didn’t take any.

All in all, not a fun day – although the evening was somewhat better. Not only were we served industrial quantities of chicken ft. pasta cooked in chicken fat – a surefire classic – but we were also treated to several hundred cows strolling down the high street, which was entertaining until they started charging at us. Fortunately there was a Frenchman on hand with a large stick to save us via the medium of flagrant animal cruelty, which was welcome if morally difficult.

Part 3: A day of two hills

After the warm up day, we got stuck int the main event. Day two ran from Seez in France, up the ironically named Col du Petit St. Bernard, down to Aosta in Italy, and up the accurately named Col du Grand St Bernard, finishing just past the Swiss border. Everyone was in good spirits, if a little daunted by a 116km day involving two 30km+ climbs.

It’s rare that I have cause to celebrate my cycling achievements, but I have to declare that I absolutely blasted* up the first climb. There is nothing ‘petit’ about the Petit St. Bernard – It’s 30km long with over 1,300m of elevation gain – but for some reason (possibly a deep physical trauma) I felt in good shape. I gave that hill every shred of energy I had. I pushed deep into my energy reserves, imagining myself as some kind of lightning bolt on wheels. Bradley Wiggins would have struggled to beat me, I was certain of it. And so it proved, as I made it up the climb an outstanding 25th out of 30 participants, many of whom were taking it easy anyway, one of whom was on a mountain bike with panniers and another of whom was on a tri bike with approximately 0 gears. It was without doubt the pinnacle of my cycling career.

*sort of

I felt like a pro, as evidenced by this photo, which I thought at the time caught me in a dashing pose, but actually makes me look as though I’m on day release. Why am I holding a small bag? Who knows.

Fit.

Fit.

Sadly, it sort of unraveled a bit from here.

After lunch, I got a bit over confident and tried to stay with the lead group on the run down into Italy. This was fine until my chain fell off – twice – and despite one of the group superstars dropping back to pull me back onto the pack, I am not cut out for 40km/h on the flat and was knackered by the bottom of the climb.

By the time we started, it was 38 degrees. One of the features of the Grand St Bernard is its consistent approach to shade. There is consistently no shade. It’s also 32km long and steeper than the petit version. After pushing on the first hill, then breaking myself and my bike on the flat, I promptly overheated.

I first noticed something was wrong when I started shivering – one of the less common reactions to warmth. I first noticed it was time to stop when my vision started blurring and the overwhelming urge to re-examine my lunch kicked in.

I eventually found a shaded layby to pull into and found another victim huddled there looking equally shell shocked. We decided that enough was enough and called for the support car. They gave us ice cream and put the air con on, so any regrets we had about stopping vanished quite quickly.

Everyone else somehow slogged it to the top – and that’s no mean feat. Even on its own it would be a tough day’s cycling, but on the back of a previous monster climb and in unbearable heat, it was a superhuman effort. Massive credit to everyone who made it.

We got the ice cream though.

We stayed overnight at the monastery on top of the mountain. It’s quite a picturesque little spot if you’re ever in the area!

Considerably easier in a car

Considerably easier in a car

Part 4: Lies, damned lies and average gradients

Having had considerably more rest than most others, I was well up for the final 140km day. We started with a leisurely 40km descent down into Switzerland, towards Martigny. There’s a very long section of open-sided tunnels on the way, and whilst I wouldn’t recommend trying to see how fast you can go whilst you’re in them, I did and it was brilliant. I felt a bit like Lewis Hamilton at Monaco – except a lot slower, wearing lycra and having to make F1 engine noises with my mouth.

The fun ended when we took a sharp left to Chamonix, up the Col de la Forclaz. This averages 8% incline, which in layman’s terms is a bastard, with the occasional 12% bit thrown in for fun. I made it up by muttering obscenities under my breath and, oddly, singing Jack Johnson songs. I don’t even like Jack Johnson, nor do I know many of the words to his songs.

Something something banana pancakes

Something something banana pancakes

To be honest, I don’t remember much of the rest of the day. Some highlights I do remember are as follows:

We saw an ibex. It looked well angry:

He will have you

He will have you

 

We did an off road section! A bloke called barrée kept blocking all the routes in the area, meaning we had to sneak down some closed roads. Many of these seemed to be homages to the wonders of gravel and fallen leaves, which obviously make for ideal descending.

The last climb was a killer. ‘Averaging’ 7%, it must have been closer to 20% in a lot of places, and after 110km I was definitely not in the mood for it. After a brief tantrum I got on with it, finished the climb, and then got caught in a storm of some kind.

As a mark of how far behind everyone else I was, I was the only one to get back to the chalet wet.

After a bonus climb back to the finish from Flumet, and 300km and 3 days later, it was finally done. Everyone was a mixture of relief, hunger, thrist and tiredness. A few Kronenbourgs and a monstrous bbq soon dealt with that, followed by a celebratory Genepi or three and a lot of laughs with the whole group. A great end to an eventful few days!

Overall it was a tough but rewarding trip. I might take a small break from stupid activities for a while, but knowing my easily led disposition I’ll have signed up for a sponsored bungee jump or similar by this time next week. Watch this space.

We were all cycling for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, so please take a minute or two to have a look at all the great work they do – and there’s a link to the donation page up top if you feel compelled to part with any cash (pretty please?).

A massive thanks to Michael, Marjolein, Sue, Matt, Cliff, Barry and Kate for looking after us so brilliantly for the whole trip and making it so much fun – and thanks to everyone else who took part for all the laughs, camaraderie and hopefully not ironic applause when I staggered in an hour after everyone else.

Same time next year??

Stupid decision #6,322: Cycling the Alps

You’d have thought I’d have learned not to yes to charity challenges without thinking after the previous travails of Skydiving and Attempting to do running (with obstacles) and then actually doing running (with obstacles).

You would be wrong.

Allow me to paint you a portrait. Picture the scene: It’s a cool inter’s day in a London office. A friend saunters over and enquires, “Do you fancy riding from Geneva to Nice next July?”, to which I respond “What? Yeah, fine.”

Portrait complete. In a couple of months I will be, somehow, undertaking the task of cycling from Geneva, in Switzerland, to Nice, in an entirely different country (which should have been the first warning) in a week. After casually signing up for said adventure, I belatedly decided to look into some crucial factors, like how far it is and if there are any hills. I found this reassuring blurb from the High Alps Challenge website:

The total height gained over the week is a over 11500m !!! Nearly one and a half times Everest from sea level!

Taking in some world famous ascents…

Col de la Colombiere, Col des Aravis, Les Saisies, Cormet de Roseland, Col de l’Iseran, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier, Col de Vars, Cime de la Bonette

Notice the three exclamation marks on the 11500m.

Overall distance is also around 600km. I’ve also looked up some of those ‘world -famous ascents’, and they seem to be famous because only a moron would attempt to ascend them in anything other than a car. One particular favourite is a casual 35km non-stop climb, which I presume will result in me being carried up the hill in a sled of some kind, whimpering.

Allow me to give you an insight into my cycling pedigree. My greatest achievements are:

  1. Owns a reasonably smart bike
  2. Hangs washing on said bike

Which isn’t exactly a Lance Armstrong level of commitment or doping, both of which would help but only one of which is an option due to the fact that performance-enhancing substances aren’t currently available in a soluble, Berocca-like effervescent lozenge.

As such, I’ve had to resort to training. Here’s a brief rundown of my current training regime:

  1. Rode to Southend. Was genuinely overtaken on a small hill by a 74 year old man on a bike from the past. Arrived at destination and had to have a long lie down on a soft rug until legs worked again.
  2. Took the train to Surrey. Attacked the first hill for approx. 100m before stopping, exhausted, shouting “I can taste blood!” to a bemused comrade. Walked up 3 of 5 subsequent hills
  3. Increased cheese and wine intake to increase levels of protein and blot out terrible sense of foreboding.

If you want to picture me cycling, imagine the bit in nature shows where a lion singles out the weakest of the herd – you can spot it immediately and tell that it’s fucked.

Oh dear.

Oh dear.

Also, even if I make the climbs I’m REALLY BAD at descending and so I’m likely to hurl myself off an Alp at some point, looping gracefully through the air like a gazelle in lycra.

And if that isn’t worth donating 5-7 pounds for then I don’t know what is.

As ever, I’m going to ask for your hard-earned dollar at this point. We’re raising cash for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, and between four of us hope to raise about £10,000 for a superb cause.

If you have a few quid to spare for an amazing charity, or you simply enjoy the prospect of me in a lot of pain, you can donate here.

I’ll keep you posted on training and progress ahead of the big event, so stay tuned for what is likely to turn into an increasingly panicked set of posts before I change my name and move to Venezuela to avoid cycling through the Alps.

Because let’s face it, I’m fucked.