One of the major differences between Tour de France competitors and those doing the etape is that the professionals don't have to worry about the logistics of getting to the start line. With this year's etape Acte I starting in Modane, a small village on the French-Italian border with a population of roughly 3,000, it was going to be tricky for the 7,000+ etape-istes to find accommodation nearby. When the etape route was announced last October all the hotel rooms and ski chalets within a 40km radius were booked within 24 hours and many of the riders I spoke to said they had ended up staying as much as 60km away.
Aldus and I (and a lot of Aldus' wife's relatives) go skiing in Sauze d'Oulx every winter and we stay in Ciao Pais, a rifugio half way up the mountain. Looking at a map we realised that we could get to Modane in 35 minutes from there and we knew it would be a good base with familiar surroundings and excellent food. I persuaded Tristan, one of my French-speaking employees, to act as a driver as we needed someone to drop us off at Modane and pick us up at the end of the ride and, for some reason, neither of our wives were keen to volunteer.
On Saturday we went to pick up our race numbers for the etape at the race registration village. Instead of this being in Modane, the registration was in a ski resort called Valfrejus, about seven kilometres out of Modane. We tried to drive up to Valfrejus but the police said we needed to park in a nearby carpark and take a shuttle bus. Three packed shuttlebuses whizzed past us before someone in the carpark radioed down to the town to tell them to leave some spaces for the people in our carpark. By this time Aldus was suggesting we got our bikes off the car roof and cycled up to the village. It was a good thing I persuaded him out of this idea as it was about 35 degrees and what he didn't know was that there are 14 hairpin bends to the top and those cyclists who had decided to do it looked somewhat drained at the top.
When we got to the registration village there were tons of stands selling expensive bikes, replica shirts, food supplements and cycling holidays in other parts of France. There was also an impressive stand from Rapha, plus their cycling club van selling espressos and showing live coverage of the Tour. We quickly registered after showing our medical certificates and passports and received our race numbers for the front of the bike and the back of our jerseys (plus safety pins to attach them) as well as a bag full of promotional nonsense (but a quite attractive mussette (feeding bag)).
Aldus went to get our wrist bands from Sports Tours International, the travel group who have a very close relationship with Mondovelo, the etape organisers, and through whom we had booked our entry into the etape. We had booked a race only package (ie we organised our own travel out there) but in order to ensure we could get a space in the etape we had to go on a fairly expensive training weekend in Yorkshire. At that weekend STI's organisers had told us all about how they had their own feeding stations along the route as part of their brilliant service to their clients. About 10 days before the etape we found what race numbers we had been allocated, with my number being 9702 and Aldus' 9686. With what we had been told was 10,000 entries (although it turned out that it was in face nearer 7,200 and hadn't sold out) that meant we were right at the very back of the field, which has potentially has some fairly serious negative consequences. The main danger is that the race organisers have cut off points along the way and if you don't get there in time then you are stopped and swept up by the "broom wagon". If there are any bottlenecks along the way or crashes then being at the back means you are most likely to get swept up. A flat tire or any mechanical failures are likely to spell an end to your etape, whereas if you are nearer the front you would have plenty of time to change a tire. Your starting position is determined by previous form, either in etapes or sportives. Aldus and I had told STI that we were aiming for a "silver" time in the etape, which was an exaggeration of our abilities but we had been told by previous participants that it was worth over-exaggerating our abilities to get a better start position. So how had we ended up being right at the back? Hmm.
Our email to STI asking what information had been submitted by them on our behalf received an evasive reply, saying they did not keep records of that information. Given that Aldus' age had been entered wrongly (which put him in a younger age group for medal categories), we had our suspicions about STI's rigour. When we went to the Mondovelo registration area to get Aldus' date of birth corrected, we asked what had been entered for our previous experience. "Rien", was the response. Aldus went off to STI to get our wrist bands so that we could stop at their feed station. He pointed out that our late start time was a potential issue and he was told that the best thing we could do was go all out in the opening 15km and overtake as many people as possible. The STI representative started saying that the wrist bands were only meant for people on the full travel package (rather than race only entry) but the look on Aldus' face as he started saying this persuaded him that he was better off letting it slide on this occasion.
On a side note, if anyone is thinking of doing an etape I would strongly recommend avoiding Sports Tours International. It is true that they have very close ties to the organisers and as a result do manage to get good accommodation close to the start line. I am sure people have good experiences with them but my experience is that they are disorganised, complacent and don't deserve your business.
We got back to the car two hours after parking; a lot longer than we had thought but apparently it took people upwards of five hours to do the same process the next day. So if you are doing an etape and can get there early to register then definitely do so.
Our plan was to recce the route and ride a small part of it. We set off out of Modane, along the valley to Saint Michel de Maurienne, noting the great road surface and the constant downhill for 15km, which would make for a fast start. At St Michel de M the route turned left and started climbing immediately, to the top of the Col du Telegraphe. The route looked fine, a consistent 7 degree slope, plenty of trees to provide shade and a steady 11.5km slog. At the top there was a 4km downhill stretch before the start of the climb to the Col du Galibier, one of the legendary climbs of the Alps. There is a long section of what the French call "false flat" (it looks flat but you can tell from your legs that you are climbing) before the road starts going sharply up for roughly 7km to the top. The landscape is extraordinary with no trees and lots of scree faces; it looks a bit like a moonscape in places. 4mm from the top we stopped and decided to ride the final stretch. It was tough - we averaged only 10km an hour even with fresh legs - but we had the advantage of very un-Galibier like conditions in that it was sunny and had hardly any wind. Its reputation is for high winds and either rain or snow. At the top we posed for pictures alongside various other cyclists and bikers (of the leather clad variety). We then descended from the top of Galibier, which we took reasonably carefully but still averaged over 50kph. By then it was too late in the day to recce any more of the route and we headed back to Italy.
On Sunday we rested, went for a short walk in the mountains, checked our bikes and assembled all our equipment for the ride, carb loaded with huge bowls of pasta at lunch and supper and went to bed early in preparation for our 4.30am start.
Neither of us slept well. We were both nervous about the prospect of riding with so many other people and also the threat of the broom wagon. At 4.30 we showered, ate a large bowl of muesli and by 5am we were off to Modane. We arrived at about 5.40 and set about unpacking the bikes and packing our jerseys. I was carrying eight fruit bars, electrolyte tablets, a loo roll (for use near the start line), a rain jacket, factor 50 suncream, credit card, driving licence and some emergency cash.
All riders are placed in one of 12 different starting cages and have to be in place by 6.30am for a 7am start. We set off to cage 12, which was on the far side of Modane. Fortunately we were early enough to be at the front of the cage. I stood out from everyone else because I was wearing a pair of baggy tracksuit bottoms and a sweatshirt to keep warm; one other rider actually asked if that was what I was wearing for the race. We met several other people who had been on the STI training weekend in Yorkshire and had been similarly unlucky in their starting position allocation, including one woman called Vicky who was just about the fastest person on the weekend and appeared to go the same speed up hills as on the flat.
At 7am the race started. Or rather it started for those in cage 1. For those at the back we had been warned we had to wait until 8am to start. One of those standing next to us, Paul, told us how he had a conversation with someone at STI about the least experienced riders having an hour's disadvantage over those at the front. "But that's not true, Paul," came the response, "The ones at the front have an hour's advantage on you."
At 7.45am I discarded my extra clothes and we started rolling - very slowly - towards the start line. We eventually crossed it at 8.10am and Aldus set off like a greyhound. I forgot to start my bike computer's timer and only realised nine minutes into the race when I looked down at the speed indicator to see we were doing 60kph. We raced past hundreds of riders, hoping to dodge what we thought would be an inevitable bottleneck at the bottom of the Telegraphe. As it turned out it was busy but not backed up and we needn't have panicked. Anyway, it got our legs going (althogh is against all tactical advice about how to ride an etape) and we set off up the Telegraphe at a steady 10kph. The climb was absolutely fine and I felt in good shape. Aldus was about 50 metres behind me and at about two thirds of the way he caught up with me again to see how I was getting on. I think my chirpy "fine" was a bit dispiriting as I think he was feeling it a bit. At the top of the Telegraphe I had lost him again and I kicked on, headed for a water refill at the next rest stop and a banana.
The ride up Galibier went well too and I got into a good, steady rhythm at a respectable speed. It definitely helped that I knew what was ahead from the recce and was mentally prepared for the task. I reached the top after 3 hours and 11 minutes of riding time. I took a break to take some pictures, eat a fruit bar and send my wife a text before descending, this time rather faster than on the recce. It definitely helped to have other riders around who picked out a good descending line, although I found that a lot of people were faster than me, mainly because of their superior body weight and their lack of fear.
We then descended along the valley to the base of Alpe d'Huez. It was fast and a lot of fun on closed roads, although the tunnels were somewhat scary because of the lack of lighting and the contrast between bright sunshine and total darkness. Most of the tunnel lights seemed to be broken, which was fine on the shorter tunnels but a little bit worrying through the longer ones as you had no idea if there were potholes and if you had gone down you would have been hit at high speed by a lot of cyclists. A quick stop at 67km at La Grave for more water and bananas and another layer of suncream before heading on. And then at the 75km mark we hit a traffic jam. It wasn't clear what the cause was but there were cyclists as far as the eye could see ahead. We waited. And waited. I was surrounded by Brits. Being Brits we all got out our phones and started calling other people in the race, wives, girlfriends etc. After about 15 minutes a couple of police motorcyclists weaved their way through the massed ranks of cyclists (now backed up as far as the eye could see too) muttering about an "accident tres grave". 10 minutes later a rescue helicopter took off about 100 metres up the road (it subsequently turned out that a rider had missed a corner and gone over the edge and down the valley - but there was no further news at the time of reporting on their condition).
We then started up again but with thousands of cyclists all stuck in one small section of the course it was a little bit hairy, especially through the tunnels. One person didn't seem to notice that I was there and kept trying to lean into me and push me into the tunnel wall until I politely pointed out that it would be better if he learned to cycle in a straight line. Within about ten minutes the group was fairly strung out and I attached myself to a train of cyclists who dragged me along the route at a steady 45kph until the bottom of Alpe d'Huez. I didn't stop at the STI feeding stand (the only one that I actually saw along the route) as I was going at a good speed and didn't want to lose the train. I reached the final cut off time at Bourg d'Oisans well ahead of the broom wagon so had a three minute stop for another banana and water refills before tackling the final climb.
Pantani went up Alpe d'Huez in 37 minutes, which is still the record time. Obviously he was on drugs at the time, although that perhaps is the best way to climb it. I wish we had been able to recce the route prior to riding it because however much you read about it, it is impossible to do justice to the endlessness of the climb. You know that you have 21 hairpins bends to tackle but no-one tells you about all the extra bends that are not hairpins or that there is sometimes a kilometre of climbling between the hairpins. Hairpin 21 (the first one you reach) takes a long time to ride and the following two also take a while. Mentally it is a long, hard slog. It didn't help that lots of cyclists who had finished earlier were by this time descending on the other side of the road, including one who had a rider number of 9,500 or so.
By the time I reached bend 13 I was feeling very hot and fairly shattered. I am not sure whether I simply wasn't quite fit enough (I had been out of action for nearly three weeks with food poisoning in June) or hadn't got my nutrition right or whether I wasn't used to riding in the heat. Or perhaps lacking in mental strength.
I decided to take a short break to eat a banana and some sport beans (high energy jelly beans) in the shade, at which point a man next to me (who had been in tears when I stopped) told me that the temperature gauge on his computer was showing 38 degrees centigrade. No wonder I was feeling warm.
Five minutes later I tried to get on my bike again but found I couldn't clip back in to the pedals as the slope was so steep, so pushed for a couple of minutes to the next flat(ish) section to remount. Life was made quite a lot better about three bends later by a man with a hose who drenched me, although I was dry again within less than ten minutes. At bend six there was a water stop, which was much needed as I was almost out of the 1.5 litres of water I had taken on board at the bottom. There was also an electronic watering machine for the village flowerbeds which I stood next to and let it soak me. From there I slogged out the final six bends, grateful for supporters with water bottles that they tipped over our heads and backs, and then tried to race the final two kilometres through the village of Alpe d'Huez, cheered on by the friends and families of lots of riders. I went over the line 7 hours and 5 minutes after the start, picked up my medal and then retired to the shade of a parking ticket hut to wait for Aldus.
Aldus rocked up about 35 minutes later, at which pointed we headed back down Alpe d'Huez, stopping on bend six for a well earned cold beer. Tristan was waiting in the carpark of the Casino supermarket (very appropriate) in Bourg d'Oisans with goats cheese, baguettes and Coca Cola to revive us. We then headed back on the two hour journey to Italy, ready for a much-needed shower and plenty of mountain food, prosecco and good red wine.
My time was later adjusted by ASO to 6 hours 45 minutes and 49 seconds, taking off 20 minutes for the crash, which meant I was 4,158th out of 6,461 finishers (a lot higher finishing rate than in previous years where between 70% and 80% of starters completed) and 1,564th out of 2,417 in my age category (18 to 39). The winner finished in 3.39.10 and the Tour riders are expected to take about 3 hours and 2 minutes, which only goes to show how superhuman the pros are and also quite how far off the fitness level of even good amateurs I am. I didn't finish the race feeling completely drained and I did ride within myself for a good deal of it, mainly because I wanted to save some energy for Alpe d'Huez. If I rode it again next week I reckon I could shave about 15 minutes off my time but no more than that. And I would also probably need a lot more recovery time, as I am back at work and not feeling too tired at all (although the drive back to England wasn't exactly restful).
I was delighted to do the etape (and also to raise quite a lot of money for Coram's Fields charity - feel free to donate at http://www.justgiving.com/etapedutourjss) and thought it was as well organised as any event for that many people could be. It did cost a lot to go and do it (once you have driven across Europe and paid for accommodation and entry - if you include the cost of all the cycling equipment I have bought since October then it is the most expensive thing I have ever done) but it was as good a birthday present as I have ever had (my wife bought it for me to do in my 40th year) and the only problem is that I want to do another one next year!