L’Étape, Oh Crap! – Race Day, Part II

Continued from Part I. More cowbell!

Disclaimer: I don't have an enormously fat back - it's just all gels!

Disclaimer: I don't have an enormously fat back – it's all gels and energy drink sachets in my back pocket!

Climb 2 – Col de Glandon / Col de la Croix de Fer

Height: 2,020m
Distance: 15 miles / 24km
Height gained: 1,550m
Time taken: 2hrs 40 mins

The Col de Glandon and the Col de la Croix de Fer are actually two tops joined by a short (ha!) 3km climb up in the high mountains. The majority of the climb is up the Col de Glandon and this was to be the road I'd spend the next 2.5 hours grinding my way up!

There was a small feed station at the foot of the mountain and I stopped to take off the jacket I'd worn on the descent and pick up an extra energy bar.

"The Madeleine was really hard!" I said to the lad at the feed station.

"The next one is just as bad," he replied.

Thanks buddy!

And so it began. The temperature was now in the low 30s now, a bit hot for a lad from Fife. As I started to climb my legs were hurting but I noticed my heart rate was down where I expected it to be, around 145-150 bpm. I actually felt ok despite the heat. Climbing the Glandon was brilliant fun as I'd seen this climb on races on TV and there were cows with cowbells around their necks in the fields making the whole thing feel like a strenuous episode of Heidi.

I was actually overtaking people all the way up this climb as my "comfortable" speed and cadence seemed to be a bit higher. Again there was a village half way up where the road levelled out for a bit. There was an opportunity to fill up our water bottles here so as I was really hot I dumped what I thought was my bottle of water over my head. Except, it wasn't water, it was actually energy drink!

I was now trying to get sticky energy drink off my glasses so I could see where I was going, a clear advantage when descending for 20km! My white cycling top also now had some fetching pink / orange stains down the back and my feet were sticking to the pedals.

As we approached the top of the Col de Glandon we saw lots of the French grey nomads, who drive their motorhomes up into the high mountains to watch the Tour de France come through. They were really generous with their support and we tried to grin and grunt a merci in reply to their Allez! and Bravo!

I looked back down the mountain and there it was again, the broom wagon! Like Pacman it crawled along the road a couple of hundred metres below, gobbling up eliminated riders and bikes. Leave me alone you bastards!

The last ramps of the Glandon were wickedly steep and I must admit I had to hop off and join the walking hordes for a bit. I rode the last steep km and crested the top after around 2hrs 25 minutes.

A short roll downhill and then another 2 mile / 3km climb and I was at the feed station at the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer.

As I refuelled I admired the incredible scenery I started to think I could pull this off. I'd managed to get up two big mountains and had two more left. I shut my eyes and swayed on my feet a little but I got myself together, put on my jacket and began the 10 mile / 16 km descent to the foot of the Col du Mollard.

Climb 3 – Col du Mollard

Height: 1,617m
Distance: 3.7 miles / 6km
Height gained: 400m
Time taken: 40 mins

The Col du Mollard was a similar height and length to one of the longer climbs we have around Fife, the climb up Dunning Glen. I'd been up that plenty times so thought I knew what I was in for. But as soon as I hit the lowest slopes I knew it would be tough. Into bottom gear and grind!



More riders were being swept up and as I stopped for a drink I chatted to a lad who was riding for Cancer Research UK. He'd just had to abandon due to severe hamstring cramps. He said he would have given me a push as I got going again but his legs were in bits!

I started doing some arithmetic. The organisers had set a maximum finishing time of 6pm. I was climbing at around 7km/h. I'd been on the road for coming up for 8 hours and it was now around 4pm. I reckoned I'd crest the Mollard at about 4.30pm.

This only gave me 1.5 hours to get down the other side of the Mollard and complete the 17km Categorie One climb up to La Toussuire. Hmmm, at my climbing speed I'd need two hours to get up the final mountain. Shit. My heart sank.

About two thirds of way up the Mollard we came across a girl clanging away on a huge cowbell and yelling, "Allez, allez!". Merci mademoiselle, you cheered me up when I was feeling bad.

At the top I stopped for another drink. I realised that I was not going to make the finishing time. We'd had this drummed into us at the pre-race briefings – no exceptions, you will be eliminated!

It's funny how the body reacts to your thoughts – I was so tired and wanted to curl up and go to sleep. I told myself, just get to the bottom of the next descent.

This one was a beauty – really steep with loads of hairpins demanding concentration and respect. 10 miles/ 16km later I flopped at the feed station and found a patch of shade.

So… wha' happen?

I weighed up my options. It was hot now and the food was sitting in full sunlight. I picked up a banana that was scorching on the outside, hot and runny on the inside. Mmmmm, sun broiled banana! I ate it anyway.

I have to be honest and say that by this point in the day I was completely and utterly f****d.  My mind had cracked on the Mollard when I realised I didn't have enough time to make the final climb. Swinging my leg back over the bike felt impossible. Time for another phone call home.

"Shauna, it's over. I'm out of time. I can't get up the final climb without getting swept! I'm finished, I'm f****d!"

"What do you mean? Have you been swept?"

"No, but I'm out of time, I won't make it up to La Toussuire"

"Have you been stopped?"

"No, but the bus is here. I'm finished."

"Are you sure?"

And so on.

After 83 miles / 133km, 3,688m of climbing and 4,835 calories burned I abandoned the race.


Top: Route map Bottom: My Garmin race map. Notice something missing?

Dickhead Report, Part Deux!

What I didn't find out until the next morning was that it had taken the fastest elite rider half an hour longer to complete the course than predicted. And partly due to this, the race commissaire had extended the finishing time by one whole hour! That news hadn't make it back down the course.

Would I have carried on if I'd known this, or was I genuinely kaput? I'm not entirely sure of the answer, but maybe I would have clambered back on for a final push.

In truth I feel disappointed that I didn't finish. But I'm cutting myself some slack and putting it down to inexperience and unfamiliarity with the way things work.

A couple of days after the race I had a Skype chat with Julia Jones (coach to the Up and Runners and all-round athlete extraordinaire). She beautifully summed up my learnings from the day:

"You'll take some lessons from this experience, then you'll sign up for another race, and next time you will not get off your bike until they drag you off it".

Race Summary

It was a fantastic experience, I loved it. I'm a cycling fan and riding on those roads was amazing. I've put together a list of some of the positives from the both the training and race below. There weren't really any negatives!

1. Fitness – At the age of 39 I am now a fitter cyclist than I have ever been. The next project is to ride 100 miles in a day (a century) and to keep the fitness up to allow me to do some more races next year.

2. Riding in the Alps – amazing scenery and amazing roads. I watched the Tour de France doing the same stage on Thursday and thought "I got up that!" Apart from the last one, ahem…

3. My first race / sportive was the Etape du Tour - Maybe a tad ambitious but after getting up the Col du Glandon the hills around here no longer scare me. Bring on the Etape Caledonia or similar!

4. Where I started – I started this having been unwell and I trained hard. I nearly made it to the end of the Etape and I have to remind myself of my starting point when I think of where got to and where I will hopefully end up.

5. I'll be back! – I will ride the race again next year and I will apply what I have learned and I will not get off my stinking bike until I am forced off at gunpoint or I cross the finishing line!

6. The MS Society – Thanks to the generosity of many people we made £1,080 for the MS Society. Huge thanks to you all!

Now it's time to bolt the bike back together and get training for the next one.

Au revoir!



35 thoughts on “L’Étape, Oh Crap! – Race Day, Part II

  1. Wow, what an amazing achievement. Well done you!
    I for one enjoyed your particularly strenuous chapters from Heidi. Allez!

  2. Gareth! What a freaking amazing experience! I am so impressed with your cycling and the mere thought of riding those mountains gives me chills. Thank you for taking us along with you…. I had moments of laughing out loud as I read your report. A Heidi Sufferfest indeed. I will be looking forward to reading about next year’s !

  3. Hi ya.

    Cracked me up with the energy drink shower. It must have been gross but…

    Sounds like you really pushed yourself and have gained a lot from this experience.

    Now to get that century. Allez Dr. G!

    P.S. have you guys ever cycled a tandem together?

  4. Well done. You made it 83 miles further than most of us would!

    40 next year…almost time for a mid-life crisis! May I suggest a black open-top car. The red may not go so well with your darling wife’s hair…

  5. Congrats on accomplishing a really good ride, even though the finish was elusive… I think getting as far as you did was pretty amazing. Those hills are unbelievable!

    Now that you know whaty you are up against, you will be all set for next year.

    Maybe a training trip or two to the area with your darling wife would be a good idea? Do as the pros do – train where you race!

    I’m totally jealous that you guys can get to France so easily. It is a long ways for us. My hubby is literally dying to ride in Europe!

  6. Aww Gareth! Gutted for you that you didn’t finish it but AMAZING effort! I’m totally in awe. I’ve just got into cycling this year, and did my first metric century last month – the Highwayman Challenge which was my first ever cycling event!(highly recommended if you fancy a trip over to Ayrshire, beautiful countryside!). A proper century is my next plan too. Reckon you will knock one out no bother, a century on relative flat will be a piece of cake after 83 miles of insane climbs. My next goal is a local (ish) sportive on August 11th – can I interest you in joining me and hubby? I’m doing the 67 miler but he will be doing the 102 miles – it’s lovely and flat, you’d whizz through it!


    Thanks for the great race report and WELL DONE!!!

  7. Dr G!! You had me cheering for you, I’m glad you didn’t make us wait too long for this second installment. There is absolutely NO ‘fail’ in riding 83km in the alps, however disappointed you might be for not finishing. I am very glad you didn’t say “Oh, okay then” and get off your bike the very first time the broom wagon was close – now THAT would have been an anticlimax!
    Every one of your list of positives is an awesome thing, so congratulations 🙂

  8. The Bra Dr reigns supreme over four Cols!! Well done sir. You did brilliantly.

    Really looking forward to hearing about what you choose for next year.

  9. Thanks for your comments everybody! Very kind!

    Beth: that sounds like good fun, I’ll check it out. I haven’t been to Galloway for a few years.

  10. You were awesome. I can’t believe you chose this as your FIRST attempt at a cycling event! Crazy. You did a GREAT job – I hope you know that.

  11. Bravo dr G! God I hate cycling hills. You are a true champ 😉 I applaude your restraint with those broom cars. What the bleep is that all about?! I would probably contemplated violence had they threatened to stop me after all that training and preparation. Loved your quick get away :)Can we get a race report next year as well?

  12. WTG Gareth! I think you’re positively brilliant! (How was that for a Midwest American trying to sound Scottish?)
    When you dumped your energy drink on your head, thinking it was water, it reminded me of the time (back when I used to eat bread), that I used my bread to soak up what I thought was steak juice on my plate. Turned out to be spilled Coca Cola. Bread turned soggy with Coca Cola is not tasty at all! But at least I didn’t end up with Coca Cola on my glasses!

  13. Bravo Dr. G. Doing an Etape as your first race is like a runner doing a marathon first time out. Nutso. Can’t wait to hear about your next.

  14. WOW, Bon Travail!!! Thanks for telling us your excellent story Gareth – I laughed, I cried. You’ve done the impossible – made me think about buying a bike (and finding somewhere especially flat to ride it!) 🙂 Looking forward to hearing how it goes next year!

  15. Tee hee, Bra Dr!

    Seriously though, A-MA-ZING work. So many people in the world never enter a race in their whole lives, and you go for THIS as your first go?! Brave doesn’t even begin to describe it!

    I love the list of positives 🙂 Good luck with the century – can we expect the guest posts to continue, updating us on future biking adventures???

  16. To those who’ve asked, I can do some more guest posts if Shauna will let me!

    Julia – thanks for saying that, I’m pretty chuffed with what I managed, I reckon with a bit more training I can do better next time and I’m really looking forward to that!

    And for all those who fancy getting into cycling you don’t HAVE to ride up mountains, at least to begin with… or just start mountain biking and ride down them like a sensible person.

  17. Totally awed by what you are doing! I have enjoyed the tour ( from an armchair!) since Pedro Delgado won and I fell under it’s spell! Go DR G! No other sporting event comes close!

  18. Congratulations, Gareth! I love how Julia summed up your ride. We are so tough on ourselves at times and need the reality provided by ‘outsiders’. Congratulations too on your MS fundraising total. We look forward to hearing of your next adventure and suggest you find a tour in Oz now that you are more acclimatised to heat. 😉

    MIL & Ray

  19. Inspiring. Amazing. Smile-inducing.

    Such riveting writing too. Now I picture you and Shauna growing prize-winning vegetables in the garden all day and then spending your evenings writing sonnets and prize-winning novels or some such thing. Bravo!

  20. I feel so PROUD, and I don’t even know you! Also, I think this may be the first ever Dietgirl blog post that my man ever reads. 😀 Well done!

  21. Bummed you didn’t make it but you learned a lot and did some amazing climbs. I can’t imagine being able to do those length climbs …. some day! I have a hilly climb in 3 weeks, a 200 km hilly climb but nothing like the ones you did. Congrats on trying, getting as far as you did, and got resigning to keep at it and do it again next year. I’m sure we’ll see a finished Garmin graph next year 😉

    Side question, what gears did you run with front and back? I’ve been debating changing gearing a bit before my ride so I’m curious. Thanks!

  22. Hi Sean

    I use compact gearing rather than standard as I find it makes it easier to climb rather than trying to be macho and struggle with bigger sprockets. I think the small front sprocket has 34 teeth. I also use a slightly bigger rear cassette with a 28 tooth biggest sprocket, standard is 25. I managed ok with this setup and it certainly works well for the terrain in Scotland. I reckon i’ll keep the same setup when I try the Etape again and just work on getting the stamina up a bit.

    Hope your event goes well, 200km’s sounds like good fun!

  23. Wow! Impressive and awe-inspiring! If you need a new challenge you might check out our most popular bike race here in Norway at http://www.styrkeproven.no/en. Styrkeproven (roughly translates as The Great Test of Strength) involves 520 km from Trondheim (which is, by the way, Dunfermline’s sister city) to Oslo, by way of one of Norways highest mountain passes. Would be a nice warm up for next years Alp-season! Keep up the great blog posts!

  24. A little late to the comment party but:

    Flipping Ace! I have so much respect for what you accomplished. Hats off to you, mister (even tiny cycling hats off).

    As for broom wagon – you made the best choice with the information available at the time. Next time, obivously there will be one, who knows how far you’ll go?

    Hope your outing (ahem, eating) to Paris was also excellent 🙂

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