L’Étape, Oh Crap! – Race Day, Part I

Here's the first part of Gareth's Etape du Tour race report! Contains farts, cheese, bunting and fleeing from the cops.

Hello again everybody. I'm back home after a quick trip to France and my wee spin through the mountains. I left home early on the Friday and made my way to Albertville via Geneva for the start of Acte 1 of the Etape du Tour. I enjoyed the two hour bus trip from the airport watching the mountains getting closer (and bigger) the further south we went. For a cycling fan, it was very exciting to arrive in Albertville and see the posters announcing the Tour Depart and the bunting made of of minature tour jerseys.

Bunting
Albertville with Tour de France bunting

The next morning I signed my bike bag out of the store and took it out to the assembly area which happened to be in a church yard…

Assembly
The Big Man must have been looking out for me as my bike went back together no problem and the gears etc worked perfectly. A few people were having problems and after having no joy with divine intervention had to search out one of the bike mechanics who were working at the store. After quickly blowing up my tyres it was time for a spin back to the hotel where we were allowed to keep our bikes in our rooms. 

Bike
Twenty kazillion gels not pictured

Then it was off to registration to get my race numbers and goody bag. My favourite freebie was a re-usable shopping bag which packs up to look like a yellow jersey!

Yellow
Wonder if Wiggo gets these too? 😉

The real Tour de France was on TV so I watched that and hid from the sun (35 degrees you know) as I got all my gels, powders, flapjacks, drinks bottles and clothes ready for the race. I stuffed all my nutrition into my jersey pockets and tried to figure out how I was going to get up the climbs with what felt like half a ton of bricks on my back.

After another meal of pasta and water it was time to try and get some sleep.

Race Day

After a nervous night's sleep the alarm went off at 5am. After breakfast and sorting my gear it was off to the starting pen. We had to be there by 6:45, ready to set off around 8am. I had a bit of a job syncing my heart rate monitor to my Garmin as most of the other 5,500 cyclists were wearing similar kit! When I finally got it sorted it read 100bpm which was a surprise as my resting heart rate is usually around 50bpm. I must have been nervous!

It was raining a little but it was nice and warm, around 20'C. As the elite riders departed we moved up towards the starting line. It was really starting to sink in now… I was going to try to ride a Tour de France stage up some of Europe's most difficult and classic mountain climbs! I must admit I may have gotten something in my eye at this point.

Then we were off!

The first 19km / 12 miles wound through Albertville and snaked round to the bottom of the first climb, the Col de la Madeleine. As we rode through the town and villages people were standing watching and applauding shouting, "Bravo! Allez, allez!". The French love their cycling and it was fantastic experiencing this first hand.

The riders were travelling along a a fair rate of knots, around 25 mph / 40 km/h, and I got myself in a mini peloton and tried to keep up. It hadn't yet dawned on me why everyone was flying along at this stage of the race. I was intending using the relatively flat initial stages to warm up the legs and get ready for the climb!

Climb 1 – Col de la Madeleine, Hors catégorie climb

Stats:
Height above sea level:
1,950m
Distance: 16 miles / 26 km
Height gained: 1,530m
Time taken: 2hrs 20 mins

The longest climb I'd done in Scotland was about 3.5 miles taking around 20 minutes so I was now entering unknown territory. As we climbed up through the trees the gradient wasn't too bad, around 10%, and as we rode around hairpin bends and up ramps I was feeling ok. I was still struggling to get my heart rate down to where I wanted it but put this down to nerves and adrenaline as I didn't think I was climbing particularly quickly.

We broke out of the tree cover and started getting views back down the valley and it was stunning! At a height of around 1,000m the road levels off for a mile or so so you can get your breath back and get ready for the second part of the climb. I was still feeling quite happy at this point. Then the sun came out!

We still had 950m to climb over a distance of 8 miles / 13km. It was getting warmer and the climbing felt harder. I really started to feel like I'd been going uphill forever and I remembered people who had ridden these roads telling me that unless you have climbed for 2 hours or more without a break then nothing really prepares you for it psychologically. As it got hotter and we got further up the mountain I noticed that I was starting to see double and that my hearing was drifting in and out. Kinda weird!

Now (rather unfairly I think) it turns out that the race organisers start the broom wagon at the same time as the last riders. Wikipedia says a broom wagon is, "the affectionate name for the vehicle that follows a Cycle Road Race picking up stragglers (or sweeping them up) who are unable to make it to the finish of the race within the time permitted." In this case the broom wagon consisted of huge red trucks to scoop up the bikes and Buses of Shame to collect the riders, with policeman and race officials on motorbikes in front, breathing down our necks the whole way. 

Broom wagon trucks poised to sweep, the day before the race
Broom wagon trucks poised to sweep, the day before the race

I hadn't ridden a race before and don't mind admitting I was a little bit green as to what goes on. About two thirds of the way up the mountain a motorbike came up beside my group and the race official shouted "Monsieurs! Out of time! Stop! You are out of the race!".

What?! I hadn't even made the first summit! So that's why all the riders were flying along at the start – to try and get away from these guys! Adrenaline kicked in and I put my head down and pedalled furiously! My first broom wagon escape of the day.

The hairpin bends kept on coming, the temperature went up and up, my vision and hearing got worse. Then I discovered another hazard of high carb consumption and unrelenting mountain climbing. As I made my way up a slope the lad in front of me started farting! Big rippers too! So, not only was my heart rate and breathing around my maximum, I was breathing in farts!

At last I made it to the top and stopped at the water station to refill my bottles. My confidence had taken a bit of a knock after my unexpected run-in with the broom wagon and I felt a bit low for finding the climb so difficult.

After a good drink it was time for the first big descent, around 20km to the town of La Chambre on the valley floor. Lots of technical hairpin bends made the descent really good fun and I reached the bottom with my ears popping from the altitude change.

Madeleine
Check out the picture quality of a vintage 2001 Nokia phone 😉

I stopped at the feeding station and took the opportunity to give Shauna a quick call.

"Shauna! This is really hard and I got caught by the sweep on the Madeleine and I don't think I'm going to get up the next climb and I'm going to get chucked out of the race!"

She told me to chill and get back on the bike.

At this point the bloody broom wagon loomed into view again. I jumped back on the bike, rode around the sweep's accompanying Gendarmes and motorbikes and fled across the flatlands to the bottom of the next climb…

Stay tuned for the conclusion tomorrow!

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11 thoughts on “L’Étape, Oh Crap! – Race Day, Part I

  1. Wow, Gareth. That is bloody amazing. I love the image of the cycling lovin’ French ‘Allez’ing it to the max. That is almost making me tear up just thinking about it. The goosebumps must have been amazing! I love how you’re on the run from the law (if the broom wagons have Gendarmes, then that’s how I’m imagining it).
    Can’t wait for part II – ALLEZ! ALLEZ! ALLEZ!

  2. Gareth!!!! I’ve been waiting eagerly for this report & even hassled Shauna on twitter to try to find out how you got on!! And you leave us hanging!! Hurry up with part 2 please we’re on tenterhooks here 🙂

  3. Have you ever seen “The Triplets of Belleville”? Whenever you mention the broom wagon I’m afraid you’re about to get kidnapped by American gangsters 🙂

  4. [quote]I must admit I may have gotten something in my eye at this point.[/quote] After all that hard work and dreaming it’s the least I would have expected 🙂

  5. This is so interesting and entertaining to read – thanks for sharing your journey! Headed eagerly to read part two…

  6. Hi Gareth (& Shauna)

    Nothing like having the ‘wind’ put up you to bring out the best performance….I’m exhausted just reading of your efforts. looking forward to reading Part 2 shortly.

    Cheers
    MIL

  7. I’m just now catching up on my blogs for the past few weeks. Great post and I can’t wait to read part 2 (also in the queue). I can’t imagine making the climbs you are, it’d be a dream. Keep away from the sweeper!!!