It wasn’t supposed to end like this. In my mind’s eye i was going to finish the Etape du Tour arms aloft, having mastered a course that all the Facebook experts had declared to be the easiest Etape of them all. Instead i arrive at the summit of the Semnoz at a limp, legs smashed, jersey and shorts sweatlogged, an unedifying spectacle turning the pedals at a cadence that equated to 4kms per hour. There were riders who finished the course walking their bikes up who were going faster than I was … But as we Easy Riders know, finishing is not something; it is everything. And i finished. Just.
It all seemed so promising at the start. 6.30 am installed in a local cafe for “petit dej” waiting for the first wave of riders – of 13,600 – to scream past at 7 am. Wilson and I numbered in the 9000s were not due at the starting gate until 7.45. Plenty of time to survey the scene, take in the magnificent backdrop at Annecy, as picturesque a spot as one can find in Europe. I turned to a gnarled looking local sitting out on the terrace: “Beautiful day for a bike ride” i say breezily. “Oui, mais Il y aura beaucoup qui vont soufrire” he muttered. Hmm, suffer? with this beautiful weather? On the easiest etape ever …? come off it. Time to get going.
the scene at the start looked like a surreal version of one of those historical reenactments of 19th century battles – thousands of lycra clad Mamils with the odd scattering of females and younger colts lined up across acres of fields and streets. Eventually i bump into Wilson. He mutters about lack of rides in recent weeks. Who doesn’t? But we relax in the early morning sun ready for the off.
Eventually we reach the start gate, and head off at a canter. Disobeying all the sensible advice from ER about starting at a reasonable pace, i find myself tearing along at 30+kph for the first hour. Pretty soon the first of the three cat 3 climbs heave into view. I’m clipping along nicely, though note the HRM is saying “too fast”. Ah bugger it. Good weather, good company. Keep it going. we start in the 9000s but pretty soon we overtake some of the 8000s, 7000s, and 6000s. It’s all pretty encouraging. The last i see of Wilson is on the Col de Leschaux after about 40kms. He looks in great nick, weaving in and out of traffic.
The Col de Revard the cat 1 climb before the serious stuff looms ahead. a nice steady climb of 800m or so, 5-6%. folks lined up on the roads villages en fete. Beautiful ambience. However the nagging in my back reminds me that i should have taken an anti-flammatory before heading out. Oops. Stop for water seems to calm things down. Up and over and into the valley between the Revard and the Semnoz, the final “ball-busting” climb: 11kms at an average of 8.5% with long ramps at 10-11%.
From having been pleasantly warm, it is now hot – something like 30-32 at a guess. Keep drinking. The shorts caked now in salt serve as a useful reminder. So do the first twinges of cramp. I need to slow, take the rest of the course nice and easy. I head into the food station reminding myself that except for a croissant and some bread i haven’t eaten anything “real” for 4-5 hours. All good, i head back out ready for the Semnoz.
The Semnoz is completely unheralded in cycling circles – it’s rarely featured in the TDF, though of course features as the last mountain finish this year. Everyone seemed to think it was “tough” but perfectly manageable. With this in mind, i entered the village at the foot of the climb “nonchalent – pas de probleme”. The villagers knew better: “courage monsieur” – “allez. Il faut y aller maintenant”. hmm, three deep on the barriers, the villagers were out in force to witness “le spectacle”.
Straight out of the village the semnoz ramps at 10% for the first 3kms – in what i thought must be around 34 degree heat now. sultry, humid, sun bearing down. After a couple of kms i feel cramp in the stomach of all places. Have i eaten too much? Or too little? whatever it is, it’s a horrible feeling. The cramp is also getting worse and the back is really twanging in that “i really have to stop” voice. the 10%ers give way to 6-7%. but i’m feeling rough and welcome the next and last water stop. I wander around a bit hoping somehow that the knot in the stomach will give way. It doesn’t. There are 3 or 4 bodies wrapped in silver foil being tended to be the ambos. Sun beating down, sweat dripping, i hear a little voice in my head, unmistakably Norman. It says: “stop being soft”. Alright already. Back on the bike.
The rest of the 7kms is a blur of sensations: elation that i can ride for 300-400m followed by intense bouts of weariness and nausea. By now half the peloton has given up on the 8-9% ramps and is walking up – a lycra clad retreat from Moscow. I get on and off may be another 5 times. I get back on again. The big challenge is to get the mind off the pain, indeed off the ride. If only i had my turbo soundtrack with me … so i just engage the guy riding next to me in small talk. He’s thinking like I am: if we just natter away we can do the last 3kms without thinking. This is 90mins into the climb and the worst is yet to come – the final 3kms average 10%. It’s torture. It’s roasting, and worst of all those who have finished are whizzing down the other side of the road shouting “allez, allez”. If i had had a shotgun i would have taken a few out. However the strategy seems to be working. We talk our way up, up, forever up, until passing the final bend. My arms are not aloft. They are limply clutching the handlebars. I dribble over the line at 4kph. It feels feeble. and it probably looks a lot worse. On the other hand, it’s over. Done. Finished.
A mix of emotions washes over one on these occasions. On the one hand, one should feel proud and happy that one has set out to do what one wanted to do. I didn’t have a finish time in mind, but worked out that 6 hrs 30mins would be par for me. I finished in 7 hr or so riding time – but with nearly 9 hours completed, due to stops. On the other hand, i’m also frustrated, even disappointed. After all the training, including some tough climbs in the weeks previously, i know i could have, should have done better. Now 24 hrs later i realise that this is – well, cycling. This is why we get up earlier and earlier, and ride for longer and harder. It is a sport of the infinitely disappearing horizon. Just when one thinks one is approaching ‘form’, something comes along to knock you back. So you start over. Now all i’m thinking about is the next Etape – such a wonderful event. Brilliantly organised and presided over by literally thousands of cheery French locals only too delighted to help, cheer, sing. Such passion – for the anonymous mamils gliding past. I’ll be back – and next time I’ll do …. better.
I’ll finish there – but whilst I have the mike, big thanks to coachs Browney and Norman for their sage help and advice over recent months. Shout outs too to my regular “training partners” BT, Falsh, and BG for coming out in all weather on sunday mornings – and for the flambies. But its ER itself i have most to thanks – 5 years ago a pal in the UK asked me if i would do the Etape with him. I shook my head “no way – too tough”. Well, that’s not the ER way – “only as fast as the slowest rider”. Too right. Anything to keep the pedals turning …