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

 

 

 

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High Alps Challenge -a week of going up mountains on a bicycle

So here it is then, the write up that literally three of you have all been waiting for. As you may or may not know, I’ve spent the last week slowly creaking my way up 10 Alps, using nothing more than my legs, my fox-like sense of cunning, and a collection of components commonly known as a bicycle, all in aid of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (ahem).

For those of you who don’t have the time or inclination to read through the rest, I don’t blame you and here is a small set of responses which will answer all of your major questions:

– Yes, it was great

– Yes, it was a challenge

– No, I didn’t get in the van

– Yes, I did get caught picking wild flowers at the side of the road

– No, my legs are fine

And now the slightly longer version:

Day 1: Geneva to La Giettaz

I should probably do a day 0 which details the hilarity of trying to pack a bike box, the rush to Evans to buy a pedal wrench, and the fun of wheeling a bike through an airport, but I won’t. You’re safe. After an almost incident-free trip out to Switzerland, we set out from our lakeside campsite in search of mountains. First up, after a 50km slog on the flat we arrived at the base of peak number 1, the Col de la Colombiere. I will admit to feeling a certain amount of trepidation at this point, coupled with the strong urge to cycle into a field and hide, then maybe living feral for a week. The thing with mountains is that you can see them from quite far away, and they are both big and imposing. With jelly legs that were only partially caused by my alarming lack of fitness, we set off on the first climb. I probably needn’t have worried – it was awesome. I quickly found my lowest possible gear and didn’t leave it for several hours. The thing with cycling in the Alps is that it’s not necessarily that steep, it’s just long. It’s certainly steep enough to keep you wishing for more gears to drop into, but you get into a rhythm quite quickly and just keep your legs spinning. The weather wasn’t great but the views still quickly move from pleasant to spectacular in no time at all as we found ourselves chugging through pretty villages and saying hello to bemused cows. Up towards the top it starts to become pretty steep – the last 3km go 9%,10%,11% in gradient which is a bit sad. The weather was also turning threatening, and the only saving grace was bumping into a young couple on mountain bikes, one dragging a trailer full of luggage and the other dragging their infant son in a small buggy. They were moving so slowly that their bikes were weaving, and even though they were close to one another both remained tight-lipped and stony faced. Being a fundamentally bad person, I wished them an overly cheery hello and burst past them to the top, reveling in my superior bike speed. They, meanwhile, are probably either still on the mountain or getting their vows annulled. After a quick break for cake and hot chocolate – a common theme through the week -we set off on the descent, which is both hilariously dangerous and addictively fun, to the point where I was secretly making aeroplane noises to myself on the fast bits.

The top of Colombiere (post cake)

FYI – I’m in the crappy green gilet looking like an idiot

After a wet jaunt down to the bottom we had to come back up another Alp, the Col des Aravis. At 9km this is something of an Alpine tiddler, but by this point my body was beginning to feel the gravity of the situation and I had to keep talking to myself and passing livestock to distract myself from the internal protests. At the end of the day we cruised into the tiny village of La Giettaz to a surprise: a roof and a warm bed, which was nice given that the weather was doing this:

Lush

Lush

Meanwhile, our support crew, the beautiful bastards from Traverse Aravis, slept outside in the rain, which must have been awful. Sorry guys.

Day 2: La Giettaz to Bourg St Maurice

Feeling full of beans – or more specifically pasta and porridge, our staples for the week – we set off on day two after an expert stretching sessionP1020187 If you notice that the gentleman on the right is walking with a bit of a spring in his step, it’s because he has spent the last three minutes applying chamois cream to his nether regions, in full view of all of us. As I work with the man it’s an image I cannot unsee and am reminded of on a daily basis. Anyway, I’m now going to stop with the precise metre by metre account and switch to a key summary of each day.

Key Climbs

Les Saisies and the Cormet de Roselend. The former is quite good fun. After being completely left for dead by my group – a recurring theme I was happy to go along with – I got into a hell for leather race uphill with and elderly Belgian woman, which I won by a good ten yards. I’m not sure she knew we were racing. The Roselend is a strange beast – about 23km long and all damp, enclosed forest for the first 15. After that you come across a reservoir and small restaurant, where it took me 5 minutes to successfully order chips, which were then sent to another table. The remaining 8km climb up and away from the reservoir are, in a word, magical. Climbing by bike is so much more bearable when the scenery is fun, and the top of the Roselend is up there with the best.  IMAG0078

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A properly gorgeous ascent, capped off by a mad descent which is so beautiful you struggle to keep your eyes on the road – no photos unfortunately, I struggle to stay upright with two hands on the bars.

Notable incidents

First pangs of knee pain – more on this later

We met a Nowegian couple who had done the entire climb on a steel tandem, immediately making them the greatest people in the world. They told us about some abandoned hot springs that you could bathe in at the bottom. When we arrived it seemed to be full of crack addicts, so we cycled on. They just went straight in, presumably because they were cooler than us.

We also stayed in a small village outside Bourg St Maurice on Bastille Day. The French seemed intent on celebrating Bastille Day by sending up three fireworks and then blowing up small sections of their country with massive explosives. Fair play to them, the sound of explosions bouncing off mountains is brilliant.

Day 3 – Bourg St Maurice to Bramans

Key climbs

The Col de l’Iseran, which I think is French for arsehole. Over 45km long, coming up from Bourg St Maurice through Val d’Isere and up to 2,770m, which for the uninitiated is pretty damn high. There are good and bad points to this kind of altitude. The bad points are that it’s cold, rain evaporates when it hits the ground and the lack of oxygen means you struggle to cycle. The good point is that the lack of oxygen makes you feel amazing, so you don’t actually care.

Notable incidents

In Geneva airport we met a Belgian man, early 60s, who got off the plane in his cycle gear, pulled his bike out of a box and cycled out of the airport. We saw him in Val d’Isere, 3 days and 250k later, eating a large pastry and watching a group of gypsies dance.

I also had to be dragged up the last couple of km by one of the guys who was cycling with us. He could have been done about 20 minutes earlier but stayed back to make sure I made it. For this I am eternally grateful. I also lost the plot slightly and started picking flowers, which I intended to press and give to my girlfriend for reasons I can no longer recall. I had nothing to press them with apart from some socks. They died. I probably won’t give them to her – she’d find it odd even by my standards.

On the way down I got into a race with a Renault Clio, which I only narrowly lost after nearly stacking it on an unexpected corner. The gradient then evened out a bit, and we took a leisurely spin back to our campsite. On the way we stopped in a village and, like the athletes we are, bought a large quantity of local cheese and ate it on the the street with our bare hands. It was a fine decision.

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By this point I have also started stopping regularly to take photos, conveniently resting my aching limbs for up to 10 minutes. As such I have about 200 photos that will never see the light of day again.

The other new news on day 3 was the bit where my knees started to feel like they were about to explode. This may have been in some part due to my chronic lack of training, which one flatmate described, accurately, as “playing FIFA and ODing on Pringles.” But being a real man, I wept quietly, complained loudly, considered quitting or re-visiting the ‘go feral’ strategem, and eventually got back on my bike, all sulky.

 

Day 4 – Bramans to Argentiere la Bessee

Key Climbs – Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier

Quite rightly known as a horrible pair of climbs, these bad boys are back to back, 12km and 19km respectively, and about 7% in gradient. Telegraphe is ok, aside from the fact it was touching 30 degrees and they had decided to re-surface the roads in preparation for the Tour de France, which then didn’t go up it. Bastards.

Galibier is a bit of a different prospect. There are some very steep sections which you really, really feel. I can’t quite pinpoint why it’s tough, but it really is. About 3km from the top, where the gradient starts to ramp up, I had to stop with one of the gang to take on water, eat an energy bar, do a bit of a pep talk and break wind with reckless abandon. The top is an absolute stunner though.IMAG0120 IMAG0121 IMAG0122 IMAG0119

Probably my favourite view of the week. Quite how people race up here is completely beyond me though.

Day 5 – Argentiere to Jausiers

Key Climbs

Col du Vars – by which point I was very close to giving up. 20 odd km of climbing on swollen knees and being instantly dropped by most of the others was less than fun. In the end I resorted to fiddling with my seat post for some time (not a euphemism), which seemed to do the trick.

Notable events

Nothing much, it’s a bit of a blur. The most memorable part of it was being chaperoned up the entire climb by a massive swarm of flies. They don’t really tell you about this – “come to the south of France, it’s warm and there are flies everywhere” is not the best slogan, but they were properly annoying. I cycled into a ditch trying to get rid of the bastards. Eventually I decided they were my entourage and were hyping me up the hill like a lot of tiny, filthy MCs.

As I said, slight mental breakdown.

Day 6 – Jausiers to Isola

Cime de la Bonette. The second highest road in Europe, which I bet the French are pissed off about because all of the signs say it’s the highest. It isn’t. But it is still very high at 2,800m, with a 23km climb. The last 400m are about 15% and, as a tired Frenchman I was cycling with remarked, “it is a wall”. I liked that guy- we had a sense of camaraderie built on the fact that neither of us spoke the others language, with the exception of the phrase “it is a wall”, which I learned while working as a painting and decorating consultant in Rennes. The camaraderie was such that I completely left him for dead on the last push, adding to the string of hollow, empty victories that got me through the week. The full list of vanquished foes is:

– Elderly Belgian lady

– Tired Frenchman

– Really, really old couple

– Couple on mountain bikes with child

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These pictures are also quite fun because you can look back on the roads below and think, “I cycled up that.” Which is a very odd thought.

Day 7 – Isola to Nice

Legs were really starting to complain by this point, but it was a fairly easy 90km down to the sea. We all grouped up together for the last climb, a tiddler with 500m of gain, which was nice. We must have looked quite strange – 10 knackered, smelly cyclists slogging up a hill singing Bob Marley songs, but there you go.

Eventually we arrived on the seaside after ignoring pretty much all the traffic regulations in Nice. Then we did this.

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Then we jumped in the sea for the most rewarding dip of my entire life.

And that, my pedigree chums, was that! 570km along, 11.5km up, and we were on the beach in the glorious sunshine of Nice. Job done.

Have to say a huge thanks to:

– Everyone who sponsored me/us – we’ve raised almost £5,000 between us for a superb cause

– Michael, Sue, Cliff and Trigger for looking after us (and especially me in my daily moments of doubt) like champions for the entire week, feeding us like kings and offering the kind of support that just makes you keep pedalling.

– The rest of the gang – you know who you are. Thanks for dragging my slow arse up mountains, showing me that neat trick with the energy gels in water, bringing the laughter, bringing the champagne, bringing the meat and cheese, singing loudly and often, and making the whole week incredible.

– All the support from back home. I had some flaps before going and various people set me straight and made me go – it was one of the best things I’ve ever done so thank you!

So, anyone fancy it next year?