Riding the Etape du Tour as a very average cyclist

— 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.

Document from Mark

The lady next to me has absolutely smashed this picture

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.

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This sort of thing

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.

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How you pose vs how you feel

Top tips

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.

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To be clear, they’re the freaks, not me

 

 

 

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…

 

New Year celebrations ‘somewhat premature’

As 2014 rumbles into its third consecutive day of being unfathomably awful, the wild celebrations and raised hopes of the nation are starting to look slightly misplaced.

Expectant Britons awoke bleary-eyed and possibly next to a stranger or farm animal sometime around tea-time on the 1st of January, certain that the financial worries, scandal and general dampness of 2013 were a thing of the past. Many were devastated to find that 2014 was possibly more shit than its predecessor; elation turned to embarrassment as roughly 99% of the population remembered sincerely believing that 2014 was going to be great, and telling this loudly and repeatedly to friends, loved ones and people they met on bridges just hours beforehand.

Probably caused by immigrants.

Probably caused by immigrants.

If the first three days of the new year are a good barometer of the rest of the year, and they almost definitely are, the UK is in for a metaphorical and in all likelihood literal shitstorm over the coming 362 days.

The first concern is the weather, which has cranked up a notch since midnight two days ago from ‘Biblical’ to ‘how does one construct an Ark?’ on the Beaufort scale. Dorset has gone from ‘quite waterlogged’ to ‘pretty much an extension of the sea’ on the Guardian’s how-flooded-is-my-county infographic, while in other parts of the UK the flood warnings have gone off the traditional Yellow-Amber-Red scale and into the little used ‘black’ warning, which is simply the word ‘REPENT’ written in blood on a wall.

In society, everyone is now even more skint than last year, ironically due to overspending on New Year celebrations. Hearteningly, BNP aubergine-in-chief Nick Griffin has been declared bankrupt in possibly the only positive news story of the year so far. He has also added some ironic cheer by announcing that he is writing a booklet on how to deal with debt – likely to be as useful as Accrington Stanley’s guide to winning the Champion’s League.

Back on the downside, every celebrity from the seventies is still a paedophile, your job is just as tedious as it was last year and if the Daily Mail is to be believed there are Romanians and Bulgarians stealing that job, as well as your car, home and spouse, as you read this.

In sport, the England cricket team continue to push the very limits of sporting ineptitude and poor decision-making, culminating in electing to send Michael Carberry out to bat with a potato masher, putting a blancmange in at number eight, and then bowling underarm to Brad Haddin.

Time will tell whether 2014 will carry out its threat to be a complete bastard of a year. If it is, there are already plans afoot to alter the traditional New Year’s celebrations across the country from a joyful, welcoming occasion to a sinister, threatening one. Fireworks and champagne will be replaced by hard looking bastards with clubs, muttering threats. Auld Lang Syne and ill-advised kisses will make way for battle speeches, manly fist bumps and three minutes to ‘get tooled up’. 2015 will of course be welcomed in a civil enough fashion, but it will know that the second it tries to dick us about we’re going to smash it’s fucking teeth in.