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

Stats
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.

Glandon
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

Stats
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!

Suffer

SUFFER!

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.

Map

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!

BRAVO DR. G! / BRA DR.

BRAVO DR. G! / BRA DR.

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!

Check out these mega mountains!

Just a quickie before I get back to my own far less glamourous adventures… any Tour de France nerds out there? Stage 11 today Albertville > La Toussuire – Les Sybelles is the one that Dr G tackled this past Sunday! If you want to oggle some awesome Alps and you're in the UK, it's live on ITV4 (on telly and online) from 12pm with the highlights show at 7pm.

This video (thanks Gillian!) gives you a great stickybeak at the stunning scenery, too:

The weary bloke has got one more day to recover, by the way, then I'll be cracking the blog-writing whip 😉

We are the champions

After both being bedridden with a horrible fever virusy thing earlier last week, this past weekend Gareth bravely cycled a total of 125 miles in constant driving winds and rain with our equally insane brave friends. And me? I bravely reorganised the food cupboard. It's hard to decide which feat was more noble!

Okay it isn't really hard to decide at all. But I feel an astounding sense of achievement all the same.

I don't know why there are so many jars of olives, either.

Pantry2

(I ran out of containers by the time I got to middle shelf of Side 2. The revolution will be containerised!)

L’Étape, Oh Crap! – Part 4: Keep your hands off your flapjack

Hello everybody, Gareth here… time for another sporadic Étape du Tour update! We're now into Week 14 of the Etape training. Here's some stats to keep Shauna happy:

  • 1097 road miles covered over 74 hours, an average speed of about 15mph
  • 39,000 calories burned (no wonder I'm always hungry)
  • 22,000 vertical metres climbed (the Etape is over 4000 vertical metres in one day!!!)
  • average heart rate 132bpm, maxing out at around 175bpm.

I'll be honest and admit I'm starting to get a bit scared now! I feel fairly fit and have really noticed a difference in my endurance but I reckon this is going to be one of the hardest things I've ever done. I think I'm going to need to dig pretty deep, both physically and mentally, to get to the end.

So, why am I doing this?

I mentioned previously that I was sick last year. In April I developed peripheral neuropathy which started out as three numb toes on my left foot and within a few weeks progressed to pain, burning sensations and pins and needles in my face, hands and feet. The symptoms were quite frightening and the pain and loss of sensation made it difficult to do simple stuff like write or grip. Walking was hard due to the pain and sensitivity / numbness in my feet.

After a few trips to the doctor I was referred to a neurologist who was fairly blunt when giving me a list of possible causes. The neuropathy can point towards a number of problems with one of the contenders being Multiple Sclerosis. I had two MRIs of my brain and spinal cord to check for lesions which can be caused by MS.

The symptoms didn't really let up until the end of 2011 and throughout those seven months I was feeling pretty crap and consequently didn't ride my bike very much. On the plus side I started playing golf with my brother which has given me the joy of playing a sport at which I truly suck! My golf swing was not helped by not having much grip strength in my left hand!

Shauna and I learned a bit more about MS throughout this time and she rode the Cycletta last year in aid of the MS Society. I sponsored her and at the turn of the new year an email dropped into my inbox – the MS Society was looking for cyclists to ride in their Etape du Tour team. There's nothing like a period of ill health to focus the mind so I decided to sign up.

In February of this year I received the good news that the MRIs hadn't shown up any brain lesions. I'd been starting to feel better physically but getting this positive news took a lot of pressure off of both of us. I still don't know what caused the neuropathy.

However, not everyone is lucky enough to get a positive result. Therefore, I'm doing this ride as part of the MS Society Etape team to help support the great work that they do. We have a number of friends with MS and there is also is a high incidence of MS in Scotland, so it's a cause that I really care about.

I have a sponsorship page and if anyone would like to sponsor me I'd be really grateful. I've got a bit to go to reach my target and intend to sponsor myself as a wee payback for the information and encouragement I got last year! Here's the link if you're interested:

http://beatms.mssociety.org.uk/netcommunity/garethsetape

On a lighter note… DICKHEAD REPORT!

Two weeks ago I was out training and had an unfortunate trip over the handlebars! I haven't fallen off a road bike for awhile and it was interesting to rediscover that roads are made of hard, scrapey stuff. I ended up with a nicely skinned elbow, a bruised hip, a bruised thigh and pulled muscles in my back and chest. I also knackered my bike and had to phone Shauna to come and get me as I was thirty miles from home.

Fleshwound
So what caused this unfortunate incident? A pothole in the road? An accident with a car? A collision with an escaped sheep?

No, I was trying to get a flapjack out the back pocket of my jacket whilst riding hands-free. I took a trip over the handlebars for my trouble! I don't think anybody saw me.

The moral of the story is to stop and enjoy your food, instead of eating it on the move like you're Lance Armstrong. It's a good advertisment for the slow food movement.

Anyway, the next time I write it'll nearly be time. There's only five weeks to go! Wish me luck.

L’Étape, Oh Crap! – Part 3: Tiny hats and hairy legs

Here's the latest installment of Gareth's Étape du Tour crazy Alpine cycling adventure.

This is why I'm not a proper blogger! So much for monthly updates. It's good to be back!

Training for the Etape is most definitely underway. I'm following a training programme designed to take me from reasonable cyclist to Etape completist(!) in 17 weeks. It takes a bit of time (four sessions and about 120 odd miles per week) but I'm slowly starting to feel a bit fitter.

It was also a good excuse to get a new gadget, a Garmin Edge 500 bike computer, as the training program is based on heart rate zones rather than my old method of barrelling around until I coughed up a lung. I was a bit skeptical about the heart rate training at first but keeping the pace in check to boost endurance levels seems to be working.

Training in Scotland in spring is always interesting. Rain, wind, more rain, a bit more wind, hailstones, snow, the occasional bit of sun but with bonus wind! The weather means you need a bit more kit than your average Euro cyclist.

The best bit of kit I own is the "wee hat" designed to be worn under the cycling helmet to stop you getting ice cream head at speeds of over 5mph. This was a present from our friends Jillian and Greg in San Francisco and was made by Jillian's friend Sheila Moon. In a nice bit of Scottish health and fitness irony I saw Sheila's company mentioned in a cycling magazine I was reading whilst awaiting the preparation of a fish supper at our local fried foods emporium. Looks like she's still doing well and she can rest assured I offer her silent thanks when I have hailstones bouncing off my skull when out training. 

Tiny-hat

I don't have a picture of the actual Tiny Hat, but this is a good approximation!

If the weather gets too grim it's time for the spinning bike. This can be a bit boring but to liven things up a bit I like The Sufferfest – series of downloadable training videos. They offer gentle encouragement and a bit of hand holding for the wannabe road cyclist, for example:

Grovel
Grovel
Grovel
Seriously though, Sufferfest is good for keeping your fitness when you can't get out on the real bike and they embrace the road cycling suffering thing with good humour. Recommended!

Another cultural thing with roadies (and plenty of internet debates as to the pros and cons) is for male cyclists to shave their legs. It's meant to make it easier to get a massage post race and make things less messy if you fall off but it seems like a big leap for a peely wally Scotsman. I always have this picture in my mind of shaven legged tanned and skinny European cyclists riding up mountain roads before stopping at an alpine cafe for a wholesome lunch. 

Schleck

Andy Schleck pondering what's for lunch

In contrast my hairy legs have been taking me over the many hills of Fife in Atlantic headwinds and driving rain whilst looking forward to sampling the wares of Dunfermline's finest Stephens the Bakers and a cup of tea.

Still, it toughens you up and I'm hoping for unseasonably cold and rainy weather in southern France during mid July. No way I'm shaving the legs though, I need the extra insulation for next year's winter training!

L’Étape, Oh Crap! – Part 2: Just Like Starting Over

Guest post from my husband Gareth. He's writing monthly training updates as he heads towards his Étape du Tour crazy Alpine cycling adventure.

Onward, G!

John-lennon-bike

I've always been really lucky with my health but last year I got sick and it pretty much kept me off the bike from July until New Year. When I tentatively hopped back on the spinning bike to assess the damage I found it fairly depressing. Half an hour in, I was dripping sweat and puffing like an old train.

A trial run on the real bike wasn't much better, ending with thigh cramps five miles from home. I'd gone from a fairly competent and fit road cyclist to someone who was struggling to ride five miles without stopping for a breather!

I was already feeling pretty bad then I read this warning about the level of preparation required for the Etape:

"Try to imagine 2500 cyclists, that’s like an entire UK Sportive not making the finish line – it can be for various reasons – they get swept up by the Sag wagon because they are not fast enough or they physically just cant make it – but as I came up Ventoux in 2009 and the Tourmalet last year, the roadside was littered with bodies of people walking; lying in gutters asleep; people seeking shade; people who had just fallen off their bikes with exhaustion.

It may not be what you want to hear, but so many people are ill-prepared for the difficulty of the Etape or they're simply not fast enough to avoid the Sag Wagon – the Sag is a series of coaches filled with Gendarmes and they hold no mercy for those deemed too slow. If that’s you, you get dumped off your bike, it gets chucked in the back of the truck and you have quite possibly the most depressing coach ride of your life…"

Emily

There are around 10,000 cyclists in the Etape so 25% won't finish? Cue moaning to Shauna: "Bloody hell… how am I going to finish this thing, I can't even ride for 30 minutes on the flat without stopping. What's the point?"

Around the same time I was watching the American version of The Biggest Loser. One of the contestants is Emily, is a former champion weightlifter. For various reasons she gained weight and is now learning how to lose the pounds and deal with the issues which led to her weight gain.

During the episode Emily was not happy with her weigh-in result. She was struggling to come to terms with the fact that she used to lift enormous amounts of weight and now she could only lift relatively baby weights. She started to cry up there on the scale, until the brilliantly crabbit Bob Harper gave her a piece of his mind!

I'm paraphrasing but he pretty much said, "I don't care what you were or what you used to do. I don't care what anyone else thinks! All that matters is where you are now so get on with it!"

(Or as Garth Algar would tell you, "live in the now!")

Garth

The man is wise

Emily and Bob's exchange really struck a chord as I realised I was in one of those strangely exhilarating situations where you only have two choices:

  1. Try your hardest and give it a red hot go, or
  2. Give up!

Has to be Choice #1 really.

There really is no point beating yourself up for the situation you find yourself in. Nothing will change; you'll still be where you are.

So whilst fighting every fibre of my Scottish "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory" being, I experienced a rare bout of positivity. At that moment I couldn't ride 70 miles or batter through a Sufferfest training video. So what. When I got back into cycling twelve years ago I was 30 kilos (65lb) overweight, still smoked and after riding four miles my legs were shaking so much I couldn't get up the stairs! It's all relative.

Lo and behold, we're midway through February and things are getting easier. I can now ride the spinning bike for an intense hour. I still sweat and puff but it feels much better. I'm back to completing Sufferfests and at my pre-Etape medical check last week the doc told me my resting heartrate was nice and slow. It's still a bit too cold and icy here to ride outside regularly but I'm feeling positive and am looking forward to getting my fitness back and ramping up my training for the race.

I'll sign off with a nod to the moral message segment at the end of He-Man and leave it to the brilliant Scott Walker and his brothers to say,"Make it easy on yourself". Au revoir!

 

L’Étape, Oh Crap! – Part 1

Please give a warm welcome to our guest correspondent Gareth, my husband and chief typo spotter. I roped him into telling you about his crazyass cycling plans for 2012. Take it away, Doc!

Bloke and bike, recovering after a long ride.

Bloke and bike, recovering after a long ride.

I've been into bikes since I was a little kid. Anything with two wheels, with or without an engine. I've been riding bicycles from the age of four and motorbikes from fourteen.

When we were weans a bike was a huge part of our lives. We spent days racing each other, jumping over piles of bricks, jumping over other kids like stuntmen and generally hooning around. Sometimes we'd cruise around in pairs like the Californian dudes in the TV show CHiPs. There was much less traffic on the roads back then today so our parents were a bit more relaxed about letting us roam free.

My brother and I raced motocross bikes as teenagers (thanks dad, it must have cost you a fortune!) and I started mountain biking when I sold my motocross bike to raise some funds for university. Mountain biking is brilliant fun and, as long as you don't crash too often, a good way of keeping fit. It's a pretty chilled out sport with ample opportunities for mucking about and jumping over things like the big kids we've all grown into. We're really lucky in Scotland as we have amongst others the 7Stanes mountain bike centres which provide blue, red and black trails with obstacles ranging from easy to deranged!

I slowly became interested in road riding through watching the Tour de France on ITV4. Shauna and I had also made some new friends (hello Gillian and Jason) who were big time cyclists. After a bit of dithering I bought a road bike, a Specialized Allez Sport. It's nothing fancy but after riding a mountain bike for years this thing felt so fast and responsive that I was an instant road riding convert!

Gareth in a knights helmet at Greenwich Museum, because: "if you're going to put a picture of yourself on the internet you may as well use the one when you're wearing a cool helmet!"

Gareth in a knights helmet at Greenwich Museum, because: "if you're going to put a picture of yourself on the internet you may as well use the one when you're wearing a cool helmet!"

Road cycling has its own distinctive culture which to the relative newcomer such as myself seems to be based upon the art of suffering! Suffering is big in road cycling, the ability and willingness to suffer is a badge of honour. Pro cyclists have perfected the art of pretending to suffer in order to dupe their rivals into an misplaced state of relaxation or will strive to appear strong and relaxed whilst feeling like their legs and lungs are on fire. These tactics are used in order to try and gain an advantage on the beautiful and iconic climbs and mountain passes in the Alps and the Pyrenees during the Tour de France.

The names of the mountains sound so evocative and, well, so French: Alpe d'Huez, Col de Tourmalet, Col de Madelaine, Mont Ventoux. Many iconic cycling battles have been won and lost on these mountains, amazing athletes have lived and died. Sometimes when I'd ride up Cleish Hill or up the street back to our house I'd pretend I was leaving Cadel Evans et al in my dust up the slopes of the Galibier! When I watched the Tour on the telly with Shauna I'd say, "I wouldn't mind a go at that!".

Unfortunately about two months ago Shauna called my bluff! I've been given the opportunity to ride in the Etape du Tour which allows mere mortals to ride a stage of the Tour de France a couple of days ahead of the Pros. Shauna dared me and I couldn't look like a chicken, could I?

So, I appear to be entered into Acte 1 of the 2012 Etape du Tour!

The route is 140km or 87 miles up four(!) mountains. Proper mountains. In the French Alps. We don't have Alps in Scotland. And it's never 40 degrees celcius in Scotland. And I've never ridden further than 70 miles in one day. And I didn't have to ride up any of the Alps when I rode 70 miles. And I was knackered. My legs were weak. I bonked.

Here's a picture of the stage:

Etape-Route
You may have guessed that I'm feeling a bit apprehensive so Shauna kindly suggested that I contribute some blog posts to Dietgirl in order to keep myself accountable. After all, who'd want to explain that I skipped a training ride to all of her lovely readers!

So, if all goes according to plan I'll string together some incoherent ramblings over the next six months or so and let you know how I'm getting on.

Well I'd better get back on the spinning bike and get some miles in. Au revoir, a la prochaine!