Around teatime on Sunday 19 July 2015 I was five kilometres from the finish of the Etape du Tour, but I was also off the bike and "bringing up my boots" by the side of the road up to the alpine ski resort of La Toussuire. The bike wasn't in much better shape as the brake pads had worn right through after three difficult mountain descents. The stomach cramps had kicked in and five kilometres uphill seemed like a long way to go.
The build-up to this point of existential crisis had started with a flight out from Heathrow to Geneva a few days earlier accompanied by both my wife, Phoebe, and my bicycle. After a day of sightseeing in the city and around the lake we drove our hire car down to the Alps and the start town of Saint Jean de Maurienne. The town itself is more functional than picturesque, but the mountains rise up from it on every side which made it the ideal start point.
The 2015 Etape mirrored Stage 19 of this year's Tour de France, which took place on the following Friday. The 134km route from St Jean de Maurienne took in a "Hors Categorie" climb, two Category Ones and a Category Two finishing at La Toussuire (Les Sybelles) having completed over 4000 metres of climbing.
The Etape route was almost circular and so it went back into St Jean de Maurienne before the final climb of La Toussuire. On arrival on the Friday the main priority was to sign on at the finish and collect my number and race pack. We joined a stream of traffic driving up the mountain in mid-afternoon. Someone had already manage to steer their hire van into a ditch at the side of the road, but after a slow crawl towards the top we were stopped by marshals with about two kilometres to go. It seemed that only those staying in the ski resort were allowed to drive up to it so we parked up on the roadside and walked the last bit.
The event village had loads of trade stands of all the major cycling brands peddling their wares along with a giant screen showing that day's stage of the Tour and a fast food outlet. There was no queue to sign in and after presenting my medical certificate, passport and entry form I was handed my number and event pack. A little further on a free (good quality) rucksack was also handed out. The village was also open on Saturday for registration but I was glad to sign on and get away to avoid a bigger melee the next day.
All of the prime accommodation either at the finish or near the start looked like it was booked up by cycling tour companies before the route had even been announced. We ended up booking a small apartment at another ski lodge, Le Hameau Des Aiguilles, about half an hour drive from the start. It was only on arrival that I realised that it was in fact located atop the Col du Mollard which was on the route at the 103km point. You could see the route from our room.
The views of the Alps from our apartment were amazing. Our digs were low end but functional self-catering premises with a small kitchen, dining/lounge area, a separate bathroom and a windowless room with bunk beds. Everyone seemed to be there for the same reason as us as you couldn't move for bicycles.
After reassembling my bike on the Friday evening we relaxed in the sauna and swimming pool on Saturday before going back to St Jean de Maurienne for lunch, topped off with an early night.
The 12,000 participants were divided into twelve groups for the start on the Sunday. These went off at intervals between 7:00-9:00am. You had to be in your designated pen about half an hour before your start time at the latest. In theory, the fastest riders went off first and so on down to first timers in the last group in order to avoid traffic jams. On registering for the event I had to list previous finishing times and a proposed target time for the event. I had a "did not finish" from my debut the previous year. I was also wary of falling into the clutches of the dreaded broom wagon so I was creative with my target time and ended up in group five out of twelve.
There was loads of parking in a variety of fields on the outskirts of town so it was easy for my wife to drop me off and drive back up to her bed. Town was a mass of cycles trying to get to the three different areas that converged on the start. Although the marshals were trying to get riders into the right pens I saw quite a few in the wrong start group, presumably to try and ride with friends or get themselves up the road. Due to a misunderstanding of the signs I realised too late that I was in pen seven instead of five.
After what seemed like an interminable wait, but was probably only 30-40 minutes we were off. After three flat kilometres it was immediately onto the category one climb of the Col de Chaussy. Wide roads at the bottom gradually narrowed further up the mountain and you had to have your wits about you at all times due to the volume of riders. The instructions were to ride on the right and pass on the left but I often found riders diving up my inside. There was also a danger of getting boxed in behind slower riders so it required sustained concentration to plot a course.
Col du Chaussy
The locals were out in force with cowbells and cries of "Allez, allez, allez" as we passed through the increasingly sporadic mountain villages. Eventually the climb changed from hugging the cliff face to opening up across a field as the top came into view at 1,533 metres. I felt pretty good on reaching the top without any drama. The climb was 15.5 km at an average gradient of 6.3% and a maximum of 8.4% so it seemed like a steady, fairly rhythmic process.
The drink station at the summit of Col de Chaussy proved to be a taste of things to come. It was a bit of a rugby scrum due to the number of riders and the fact that there were only a few areas to lean up the bike. There were toilets including open air urinals and plenty of Vittel bottled water. I believe there was powdered energy drink although I used my own tablets.
The subsequent descent had hardly started before it came to a grinding halt for everybody. The narrow road swept down, but not too steep. There was then a left hand bend which went slightly uphill and across a narrow, unguarded bridge with a substantial drop either side. Again, due to the number of riders, it was impossible to sweep round the bend without putting yourself in danger over the bridge so everyone was off and walking for about 300 metres. The situation wasn't helped by an ambulance, sirens blaring, trying to make its way through the field. The rest of the descent was a typical winding alpine affair to the food station at the bottom. Cue more scrambling for provisions. The food on offer wasn't very inspiring for a major event like this, especially the large amount of wheat/gluten based products.
The next 30 kilometres were the only flat part of the course along the valley floor and it also included a short timed sprint section, although no one seemed to bother to turn on the style when I went through. I managed to follow some wheels for a bit until once again everything came to a grinding halt, but this time on a wide flat section. I picked up and carried my bike off the road and round as much of the stationary peloton as I could. There were some police at the front channelling riders onto one side of the road. I assumed there had been another accident although there was no evidence to back up my theory.
Col de la Croix de Fer / Col du Glandon
The weather all day was sunny, in the high 20s without being oppressive, with hardly any wind. I had been trying to save as much energy as I could on the flat because the main event was just around the corner - the Hors Category climb of the Col de la Croix de Fer. There was also a timed King/Queen of the Mountain section up the Col du Glandon which took up all but the last few kilometres.
The raw data said 22.4 kilometres of climbing to 2067metres at an average of 6.9%. It didn't sound that bad, but I had read some ominous reviews. The climb started quite innocuously with about six kilometres through a forested section on a fairly constant 7% gradient. The chatter in the peloton stopped and it was near silence as everyone seemed to anticipate the challenge ahead.
There was another drink station half way up and then a couple of easy kilometres of a gentle slope as we went through a small town. However, this was the point when things got serious. The landscape opened up for some stunning views and the average gradient ramped up to 9% and 10% for most of the rest of the climb. I could see those in front spiralling up above me at certain points. It was the length of the climb that told on me as there was no real respite, and it was then that my first stomach cramps kicked in and I ended up walking the last two kilometres.
The feed station at the top of the Glandon was even more chaotic than the previous ones due to the lack of space. I managed to attract the attention of one of the volunteers who threw me a bottle of water over the heads of those at the front and then I was back on the bike. The shallow slope to the top of the Croix de Fer was only notable for some thigh cramps that I rode through. I was also passed and repassed by a man on a stand up bike, like a step machine in the gym.
The descent seemed to go on for ever. I put my wind jacket on but had to take it off again halfway down as I got too hot. Not being the fastest I also had one eye on the cut off time as I was only about half an hour ahead of the dreaded broom wagon after my walk of shame on the Glandon. I was only taking on bananas, water and the odd gel at this point in order to try and quell my tummy issues.
Col du Mollard
What would have been nice at this point was a flat run in to the final climb. Instead there was the category two Col du Mollard. This was perfectly fine on its own, but combined with the previous climbs it served to dent any hopes of recovery. Someone tried to engage me in conversation on the way up but I wasn't in any real shape to reciprocate. I did use my secret weapon and put in a call to Phoebe, to come out of the ski lodge and meet me at the top. Rendezvous successfully achieved I dumped all surplus clothing and other items on her and didn't bother stopping at the drink station at the top as my bidons were still relatively full.
A second reason to press on was that I was now only 15 minutes ahead of the cut off point. I knew if I could make it down to St Jean de Maurienne and the last food station and cut off point I would then be free to climb La Toussuire without any time pressure. Phoebe reported that a later group were told by the organisers at the top of the Col du Mollard that they had been timed out. They argued en masse that it wasn't fair because they had been delayed en route by some of the crashes and blockages described earlier. In the end the group forced their way through and rode on.
I knew the descent of the Mollard from driving up and down it the two previous days to and from our ski lodge. It was technical with many hairpin bends. I took it as safely as I could, but that also meant a lot of braking - although I rolled into town having gained time on the broom wagon. At the last food station hose pipe showers were on offer to anyone who wanted a fully clothed refresher, although I declined.
The final climb of La Toussuire seemed like an impossibility at this point. The notes say 18km at 6.1%, but I felt fatigued and the stomach cramps were still there. The crowds in town and at the bottom of the climb were really supportive and I started up with a renewed sense of purpose. In some ways it was good it was all climbing, as I realised I had no brake pads left and a grab for the brakes had absolutely no effect whatsoever. I went as long as I could and then the cramps took over and I was walking again on the steepest sections. These were gradients I had mastered successfully on the Col du Chaussy but the combined effects had left me a shell of that rider. I got back on when the slopes eased off but I was slipping towards the back as everyone else was cycling past.
I passed a water fountain and trough in one of the villages and it was swarming with riders filling up their bottles. I pressed on to the final drink station further up and sat down to regroup, contemplate my existence and deliver a pep talk to myself. I felt like I couldn't take on any food or water at this point and shortly after was when I stopped and threw up.
I soldiered on as best I could, walking and riding. Even a short downhill section had problems as I had no brakes for a right hand bend at the bottom and almost came a cropper. I'd like to think I finished with style after all the tribulations. The last two kms flattened out and even though I was in the last hundred finishers there was still a welcoming crowd to cheer me across the line. The sun had gone by this time as it was early evening, 11 hours and 45 minutes since I had started.
I was given a medal and a finishers t-shirt and then retreated to the pasta party. Unfortunately, once again there was no gluten-free option so I accepted two sad looking sausages instead. One bite, spat out and they headed for the bin. Phoebe then joined me with a tale of a three-hour trip to get to the finish in the car. With no brakes I would have been stuck without her, although we saw others descend back to St Jean du Maurienne as we drove back down.
The following day at Geneva airport I got talking to another participant. He said it was his first Etape, but his friend had completed the last nine and decreed that this one was the second hardest. I was too tired to ask what was the number one. We both agreed it was the hardest thing we had done and neither of us felt the urge to have another go.
I wheeled my bike bag round to the oversized items conveyor belt in the airport only to find three other bags of the exact same make and colour all heading for different locations. Heart in mouth I watched my baby disappear, wondering if I would ever see it again. Thankfully, we were reunited at Heathrow; and by that time I was already contemplating an entry for the 2016 Etape, in order to try and complete it with some more panache next time...