Etape du Tour 2010 Big mountains, hot sun & performance-enhanced sheep

Etape Du Tour 2010 Big mountains, hot sun & performance-enhanced sheep

by David Else   July 20, 2010  

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. 

13 user comments

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Anyone else got any Etape experiences from the weekend they'd like to tell us about? If you have post them on here or in the Etape forum topic from last week

Tony Farrelly's picture

posted by Tony Farrelly [4130 posts]
20th July 2010 - 19:25

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Chapeau David.

Nice write up as well.

demoff's picture

posted by demoff [344 posts]
20th July 2010 - 19:28

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Nice one David. Try the Marmotte next year...

posted by Old Cranky [276 posts]
20th July 2010 - 20:38

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Started new blog "tourdafarce.blogspot.com hope others have better experiences of those in "blue"!

Skippy(advocate for "Disabled / Para Sport")@skippydetour. blogging as skippi-cyclist.blogspot & Parrabuddy.blogspot currently on the road with ProTour Grand Tour Events .

skippy's picture

posted by skippy [378 posts]
20th July 2010 - 20:51

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Well done David, I just got home from failing in the Etape...., I'll add my pennys' worth once I've had a shower and put my bike away!

The Man In Black.

posted by gandberg [215 posts]
20th July 2010 - 22:22

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David, great account that really captures the spirit of the day. For me, the first 100 miles were probably the best I've ever cycled. Glorious. And the last 12 miles up the Tourmalet were total agony. Two hours behind you, my demons are not quelled and I feel called back to tackle it again.

Here's my account:

http://happy2cycle.blogspot.com/2010/07/etape-2010-ecstasy-and-agony.html

(Tony, feel free to use any of it on this site.)

posted by happyhenry [1 posts]
20th July 2010 - 23:57

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Sounds like you had an epic day Henry, epic bit of blogging too!

Tony Farrelly's picture

posted by Tony Farrelly [4130 posts]
21st July 2010 - 8:57

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happyhenry said: Two hours behind you, my demons are not quelled and I feel called back to tackle it again.

I know what you mean. And for what it's worth, having done those two previous rides, albeit uncucessfully, I knew what to expect this time and was much better prepared. And enjoyed it more too.

A friend of mine who rides a bike very hard says you should never try to quell your demons, you should feed them and clothe them instead, then they'll work with you when the going gets tough. I'm not so sure, but it certainly does it for him.

David Else

posted by David Else [280 posts]
21st July 2010 - 9:47

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posted by Guy Collier [17 posts]
21st July 2010 - 14:52

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Fabulous crowds. A bit surreal on the Tourmalet as the torture sets in. A grinning drunk German bloke at Super Bareges with too much breath, a can of beer and a vuvuzela (swine). There was a fun group of skinny shirtless Shameless style Mancs with some Happy Mondays Baggy groove music half way up shouting everyone on. You'll be able you spot them on Thursday as there is a little RV camp of Union Jacks. I recognised another pest from last year. A weird bloke with a sound system van. He looks like Burlesconi and dances around to truly awful camp Euro beat in front of you. "MOi et Tu! TU Et Moi!.." On passing a RV with a bike outside the door opens and a skinny Buster Keaton clone in nothing but red bib shorts and a straw boater climbs out with an iced drink in his hand, sneers at me and flounces off to check the view. All this Dante's Inferno nightmare was cured in the last 100 metres where the road curves slightly to the right so you can't quite see the crest. There was a stunning looking English girl in tight shorts and a very posh husky voice all yearning and pleading "Come on.... Only 100 metres left. You're almost there and done soooo well". I told my wife this and she says I was probably hallucinating...

Looking back I realise I was lucky. After the frustrating enforced walk up the Marie Blanque (sheer weight of traffic) we abandoned any thought of beating last year's times and took it carefully. I still had a shunt with someone just after the Soulor. He threw his chain (lots of that going on the last couple of days..) and went down under my wheels. That was in a village and an allen key sorted my bars out. On the long descent to the valley floor from La Mongie I got a front puncture but was only doing 25mph and had enough straight to brake in a straight line before hitting the next corner and flying off into the gorge.

Scenery - Has to be seen to be believed. Cycle heaven.
More women cyclists this year rather than wall to wall Moaca's - Good.
More wobbly cyclists as well - Bad.
Pau - gorgeous place.
Number of Rapha shirts - down on last year.

Team Sky worship? Well.. After shadowing a set of 4 guys in Sky kit for the last 40 miles. I come around a bend on the Tourmalet and there is an RV with a big "Come On Wiggo" poster with Sky branding and that portrait of Wiggo looking like he's just been goosed. Two girls in Sky kit sitting on chairs and an old white haired coach type (in Sky shirt and trackie bottoms and trainers) waiting to pour water over riders. But not just any riders - only Team Sky clad riders! It's obvious I'm British with a Condor bike and "Dolan" Liverpool Mercury kit but after soaking the Sky rider in front he looks at me; I smile and steer towards him and he frowns and pointedly turns heel! Bloody Groupies... I hope Wiggo tells him to bugger off tomorrow

I did have the satisfaction of the company of my friend who texted me on finishing last year to say it apparently wasn't as bad as I had made out... After I'd stopped for him a few times on the Soulor and he'd begged half of my last energy bar at Super Bareges I made him laugh when he suggested he might not make the finish. "Not sure you can finish??! Oh yes you f**king well will! I f**king told you it was hard but you wouldn't listen would you....? He's done the Marmotte and L2P back to back last year and thought this years' Etape was as hard as the Marmotte. I also spotted my French nemesis's some French club squad with cows on their backs walking for the second year in a row. What is the French for schadenfreude I wonder...

I will definitely go back to the Pyrenees and spend a week doing a climb a day but L' Etape is now over for me. I realise now after 2 in a row that I'm 20 years too late to improve. I could spend every spare minute training and still not get under last years 8.5 hours. It's too much pain with too many other riders to want to do it for the scenery when you can do the ride another time without the stress.

I would however thoroughly recommend anyone doing it once - just for the sheer glamour and spectacle. Some tough Geordie stopped with us at the finish to have his picture taken by us. He then paused and said " I feel like crying..." He was right. It is one of those experiences..

Congratulations to those that took part reading this. David: What a relief - and what a time. Chapeau! I have 10 days in Mallorca booked for next year instead and intend to ride around some hills as a double Etape veteran should. Pretending I'm a contender without actually having to rise out of the saddle and try to prove it anymore.

Silly me. You're probably right....

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posted by MercuryOne [1011 posts]
21st July 2010 - 16:17

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that's rotten luck guy, great write-up though.

Dave Atkinson's picture

posted by Dave Atkinson [7231 posts]
21st July 2010 - 16:21

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It sure was Smile

posted by Guy Collier [17 posts]
29th July 2010 - 18:24

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tony_farrelly wrote:
Anyone else got any Etape experiences from the weekend they'd like to tell us about? If you have post them on here or in the Etape forum topic from last week

Great write up, it sure was some day.

There is a report of the 2010Etape du Tour along with some photos and video clips on my blog.

http://cyclegringo.blogspot.com/

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posted by CycleGringo [94 posts]
3rd August 2010 - 8:55

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