What’s the best way to start a major sportive? Relaxed, confident, positive. How did I feel on Sunday in the start pen of the 2010 Etape du Tour? Nervous, apprehensive, and a little bit scared.
That’s because my Etape record is not exactly stellar. In 2007, I had a stomach bug and only just finished. Last year I had a major mechanical. So I decided to give it one more go; this was my last chance to do a decent Etape and lay some demons to rest.
And what a route to choose: the same as one of the hardest stages in the Tour de France, with around 4000m of climbing on the 181km from Pau to the top of the Col du Tourmalet, the highest road in the Pyrenees. It’ll be a killer for the pros, and it was a killer for Etape riders too.
But more of that later.
The day began with a pre-dawn ride to the starting pens. By sunrise, we were all corralled according to number: VIPs at 1 - 100, elite riders at 101 - 999, everyone else at 1000 to 10,000. Everyone, that is, except the French riders who blatantly jumped the queue, ski-lift style, and bypass the pens completely.
But all was forgiven at 7am. The wait was over, the start-gun fired, and we rolled out of town. I was still feeling apprehensive, but very glad to get going.
The first few kilometres meandered through the suburbs with drains, grit and speed-bumps to contend with, so focus was essential. And you had to feel sorry for the guys who’d already punctured so close to the start.
Outside Pau we got on a smooth main road, with the usual melee of riders – some taking it easy with 160km still to go, others weaving at high speed through the field as if the finish was just round the corner.
On the route profile, the first 50km looked more or less flat, but that’s only compared to the big mountains. In reality it was a rolling route with a few hills, and even a cheeky little Cat 4 climb which had me reaching for the little ring.
The first big ascent of the day was the Col de Marie-Blanque. A new surface made the average 7% gradient more bearable, and the temperature was still cool, so there were no major problems here, although the road steepened to 10% and narrowed in the last few km, forcing some riders into the ditch, while a concertina effect at the back meant many had to stop and walk.
I topped the summit about two and a half hours into the ride, and probably about half-way down the field, going by the number of people who’d overtaken me. But I was feeling OK, and knew there was still a long way to go. My overall aim was to simply get round without repeating any of the previous year’s disasters, but I also had a target time of 10 hours and was well on schedule for that.
The descent off the Marie-Blanque was beautiful, with not too many hairpins, and lots of smooth curves allowing a swift descent. Too swift for some though; there were several accidents here through the day.
Another 40km of rolling roads took us to the start of the second big hill of the day, the Col du Soulor. This was a different beast, longer and with steeper sections than the Marie-Blanque, and much hotter too, especially the last third of the climb, when we left the forest behind and were riding though mountain pastures, exposed to the direct rays of the mid-day sun.
But with flowers in the meadows, and the high peaks of Pyreneans all around, it was a beautiful view. Shame we didn’t have time to stop and take it in, but by this point we were over halfway on distance. Riders near the front wanted to keep going to get a good time. Riders near the back wanted to keep going to avoid the dreaded broom wagon and voiture d’elimination.
Luckily, we were all helped by the huge crowds of people, clapping and shouting encouragement. It would have been nice to think they were there just for us, but with the real Tour coming through three days after the Etape, these fans were already bagging the best spots. But the cheering supporters gave us humble sportivistes a taste of the pro experience.
The other winners on the Soulor were the local sheep. They tucked in merrily to the energy bars dropped by weary cyclists, and were even licking up spilt gels. I had visions of performance-enhanced moutons charging round the hillside for the rest of the afternoon.
But there was no time for idle musings. If I kept going at this pace, I had a good chance of beating my 10-hour target. So I maintained a steady rhythm to the summit, and then was helped by another lovely descent down to the town of Argeles-Gazost, where the road started gently climbing again up towards the Tourmalet.
The next town was Luz, where we passed the ‘20km to go’ sign. Looking at my watch, I reckoned I was well on for 10 hours, and might even get under 9. I tried upping my cadence a tad, but after a few km I was worried about blowing a gasket too early, so backed off.
But the portents were still good. By now, riders were starting to fade and even at this pace I was reeling in quite a lot who’d passed me earlier in the day.
Other riders did more than fade. They came to a dead stop in the middle of the road, already exhausted. I saw one poor soul simply keel over, not even having the energy to unclip from his pedals.
Above the village of Bareges, it was just 10km to go. That’s 6 miles. Should be a walk in the park. But the road was averaging 10% and was just endless. If ever I was in doubt, now I knew why this is the hardest climb in the Pyrenees. The minutes counted down as usual, but distance seemed to expand, and the kilometres crept by like I was riding in treacle.
With 5km to go, we were way above the trees and out in a rocky landscape. The heat was intense. My feet hurt, sweat was stinging my eyes, and my stomach was churning after one too many gels. But there were even more crowds of supporters here, and I grabbed every bottle being passed up, pouring water over my head to try and cool down.
The metres crawled by. My muscles screamed. I screamed back: Don’t stop. Don’t stop.
With 2 km to go, I’d reached the final zig-zags. On the penultimate bend the gradient eased momentarily. Blessed relief. Just enough to ease the pain.
Then it was 500m, 400m, 300m to go. The crowds were three deep behind the barricades, waving flags and shouting Allez Allez. In my euphoric and mildly deranged state it really did feel like I was riding the Tour de France.
With every ounce of energy gone, I reached the summit and crossed the finish line. It was over. I’d done it.
I freewheeled down to a patch of grass and collapsed. Completely shattered, but totally ecstatic. I’d achieved my aim of getting round without mishap, beaten my 10-hour target, and even got under nine hours. My final chip time was 8.46 - just six minutes outside the silver standard for my age group.
Could I have gone any faster and grabbed those six minutes? I don’t think I could’ve ridden any faster, although maybe I could have trimmed some time with snappier refuelling stops.
But do I care? No. After two previous disasters, I’m just glad to have finished in one piece, delighted have beaten my target, and overjoyed at getting under nine hours. Scraping near silver was an unexpected bonus.
For me, this Etape went like a dream. The demons are well and truly quelled.