L’Etape Du Tour | From Heaven to Hell and Back Again

As I sat shivering uncontrollably in the hyperthermia room at the bottom of Tourmalet with a space blanket wrapped around me I remembered the conversation with my coach where we had said I should be able to push it slightly harder if the weather was slightly cooler.  Well, we certainly got the slightly cooler weather.

IMG_1011Two days before, Bjorn, John and I had landed in Paris straight from balmy Singapore, and for the last 10 days, we had been watching the weather forecast for Col du Tourmalet, and for the last 10 days, it had been showing the same thing, rain on Sunday with temperatures ranging from 1°C to 9°C.  We were not sure we either had enough clothes or knew how we were going to carry them up Tormalet and Hautacam so that we could wear them down the other side.

The omens were not good, my bike case was so battered that the last of the locks had broken off and all that was holding it together was the strap around it, but we pressed on.  We took a train from Paris to Bordaux, met up with John Henley and Rob Jones to pick up the team bus and a drive to Lourdes to pray for better weather.  Well, actually, the trip to Lourdes was because that was where we were staying, just 40km from the start point in Pau.

Bikes were quickly assembled and mercifully, despite the case damage, there was no bike damage.  The ANZA, ANZA Alumni and ANZA Alumni guests squad made its way for a quick drink to assist getting over the jetlag and a quick bite to eat.

IMG_1014On Saturday we went for a quick ride to stretch the legs out, and make sure that everything was working ok.  I took the expected abuse for having a 34 cassette fitted to my Tarmac  SL4 with the comment that it looked like a satellite dish but it was Rob who was most grateful for the warm up ride as it uncovered his damaged rear tyre  which was replaced after a quick trip to the nearest bike shop.  A drive over the Tourmalet route was on the agenda for the afternoon as we spent some time seeing what we were to face the following day.  It was good to drive the course, but it’s amazing how easy 10% is when you’re in a van 🙂

The morning came and a 4.40 alarm (just like being back home) had me up.  A good old fashioned Jambon Fromage Baguette was not exactly what the doctor ordered, but it was the best we could do before loading the bikes and heading off for the start.  We parked up and, well, just followed the stream of other cyclists all heading in the same direction.  That was where I waved goodbye to my compatriots who would not be seen again for 12 hours.

IMG_0411If you have never done an Etape, then it’s an impressive setup.  The man with the microphone announced that there were 10,000 people who had collected their race packs and so they would be launching about 1,000 people every 8 minutes.  As I had managed to secure a relatively low race number my time came pretty quickly and I stuffed the arm warmers and shower jacket into my ANZA jersey pockets, for once thankful for their generous cut.

I confess I have little recollection of the first 70km of flat.  Flat of course is a relative term in the Pyrenees with 1000m of climbing being done before any of the real hills began.  We quickly ran into the first Cat 4 climb and the descent acted as a serious wake up call.  Dabbing the back brake too hard the back end twitched and I realised that I was going to have to rebalance how much I braked with the back wheel and focus much more attention on the front.  The rest of that early descent revealed that I was not the only one to realise this although the 3 people I passed in the ditches had been less fortunate in the way they learned the lesson.  One ambulance and one guy missing his jersey and half his bibs showed me just how careful I should be from here on, and this was on dry roads.

I remember finding wheels tucking in and being towed while chatting from time to time when I heard British accents.  In particular, I remember one guy saying “better it is cooler rather than too warm” to which I started the conversation with “not if you’re from Singapore, I’m B!@@#y freezing”

Memory really starts at the bottom of Tourmalet, the major food stop, and this is where my obsession with Isostar’s little black packets of gel begins.  They tasted ok so I took a handful, filled the water bottles and headed back to the road.  Around the corner were the much touted catch nets put there to catch the discarded gel wrappers and bits of food.  Ha!  They were not counting on the total inability of cyclists to hit a barn door from 3 feet.  There was rubbish everywhere, but in particular little black Isostar tubes by their hundreds and thousands, and this would be something that continued for the next 80km.

We rounded a corner and there ahead of me was the beast of Tourmalet!  Or rather it wasn’t because all I could see was about 200 meters of the base and then thick grey clouds.  Oh Bugger!  And that was when the rain began.  A quick stop to throw on the waterproof and the arm warmers and away we go.  Still feeling good, but now not so much chatting as everybody settles into their own climbing rhythm.  True to the advice of my coach, I aimed for about 200 watts and just spun the legs.

IMG_1040‘Helpfully’ the organizers had placed red signs every km telling you what the average gradient was over the next km.  Sometimes however you would rather not know that the next km is going to be 11% and you especially don’t want to know when right after the sign you have a little descent!

Higher and higher!

Wetter and wetter!

Colder and colder!

We approached a concrete ‘tunnel’ open on one side, designed to stop the rock slides and snow from getting to the road.  It was just then, about 2km from the top that I paused and thought how surreal this was.

Silence!

No scenery!

No view!

People around me shrouded in mist breathing hard but in their own private hell, their own world of pain!

Just the 10 meters of road ahead

And the little black Isostar tubes!

I finally reach the top, loud speakers playing commentary from Tours de France of yesteryear , the wind is bitterly cold.  Another drink station and I dearly wish there was somewhere to get a hot cup of tea.  As I’m milling around shivering a guy asks me if I’m cold which is when it hits me, I’m freezing, I’m already shivering, I’m wet, and I’m already wearing everything that I brought!

Google tells me (so it must be true) that with an air temperature of 5C and wind speed of 40kph (lets assume that was my descending speed) equates to a wind chill temperature of -1C.

I love descending….. In the dry…. It’s raining, I’m freezing, I’ve already seen ambulances on the small slopes….  A deep breath, and let’s get this over with.

At least I have one alloy braking rim is all I can say and it’s on the front so at least I can control the speed.  I notice that as I change the pressure on the back brake, the carbon braking surface, not a lot happens.  I pity those on full carbon wheels today.

About 7km in, the shaking starts, I’m so cold, that the shivering is making the bike shake so I spot a couple of people sheltering in an open garage and I do the same.  Out of the wind is a bit better and after 10 minutes, I think I have the shivering under control but I’m only a third through the descent.  Back on the bike, off we go.  Finally approaching the end of the Tourmalet descent, I’m in agony, can’t steer the bike properly, pretty much decided that Hautacam is not going to happen.  Not because of the climb, but because I can’t face another descent like that.

I spotted the drink station and as I pulled up, many cyclists are quitting and asking where they get the bus to the finish line.  I joined a bunch huddling for shelter under a souvenir show awning and after 15 minutes a helpful guy tells me that the first aid station has a room where you can warm up.  A lady falls off her bike in tears as she approaches the drink station and a first aider catches her and escorts her to my right.  I follow to what can only be described as a scene from a low budget sci-fi movie.  I walk into a warm room, and everywhere are people wrapped in foil blankets.  All I can hear is this rustling noise and I wonder what it is.  A lady hands me a foil blanket and points me towards the most welcome sight in the world.  A hot tea and coffee station.  I take 2 and find a seat, wrapping the blanket around myself, and it is then I realise what the rustling sound is.  Everybody is shivering and the blankets are rustling, it’s like an insect hive.

IMG_1041More tea.

In another surreal moment (and sorry I don’t remember your name, that hour is a blur, I think it was John) a Singaporean guy spots my ANZA shirt and comes to say hello saying he has ridden with ANZA before.  We shake hands, and exchange pleasantries before he heads back out into the cold.

More coffee.

Hmmmm?   A thought occurs to me.  “Perhaps if I fold up this space blanket, I can wrap it around my torso and the descent from Hautacam might not be so bad”.  It’s like one of those Tom and Jerry cartoon scenes when the angel and the devil appear on Tom’s shoulders and are whispering in his ear.

Angel: “It’s too cold”

Devil: “You can do it”

Angel: “You make stupid irrational decisions when you have hypothermia”

Devil: “It’s not so bad, you’re warm now”

Angel: “You’re going to die”

Devil: “You have your lovely space blanket now”

Angel: “Nobody will blame you if you quit”

Devil: “HTFU sunshine”

That does it, Devil wins!  Blanket wrapped around my torso, and off we go.  Only a couple of weeks later did I see that I had spent 45 minutes warming up.  Those 45 minutes cost me nearly 1500 places!

I felt great with the caffeine and the warmth, and while my legs were stiff, we had a gradual descent over the next 20km to the base of Tourmalet.  I’m on fire, my legs are so strong I’m not sure I have a chain on the bike 😉

IMG_1051All is well in the world again.  The base of Hautacam is sunny, bliss!  I stop to unwrap the space blanket as I’m a bit toasty and ask a lady to take a photo.  She has some trouble and takes about 30 before she is happy.  I set off and about 1km later the rain starts again and the temperature drops, but I’m not stopping now, I have my lucky talisman, my space blanket.  On the climb I pass a few people who have had the same idea and I see silver and gold sparkling under their jerseys or rain tops.

Hautacam is hard!  It feels slightly steeper and it is more relentless, no short 6% sections just 8%-9%-10%-11% all the way.  A few people are walking.  That takes grit, to be walking 6km from the summit you must really want this.  I’m determined there will be no walking but I have to stop a couple of times, to compose myself.  It is here that I’m really grateful for the 34 cassette.  I use it almost all the way up, just spinning, well sort of.  Keeping a steady 7-11 kph speed at around 62rpm.  I work out on the 28 cassette I would be grinding along at less than 50rpm.

My Garmin is broken!

It must be!

It has been saying 143km for the last 4km!  Surly I must be near the top.

Then it ticks over to 144km for another 4km, it’s agony!

How can it be taking this long?

I look up and the clouds clear.  I wish I hadn’t and that they hadn’t as I can see how far up I still have to go.  It’s all very well seeing a sign that says 2km but when you can see how far up the road still has to go…. But we’re nearly there, One more steep corner and I can see the finish and we’re done!

IMG_1066I savour the moment briefly, wrap my new best space blanked friend around me and all I want to do is get down.  Hautacam is a one road up, same road down mountain so they have split the road.  It is narrow so we gingerly pick our way down at 30kph.  Finally I have to stop, the shakes have returned and I ask a Gendarme how far to go.  2km he says so I ride on to the arrival village and collect what it has all been about, my Etape medal, and a lukewarm bowl of pasta and tomato sauce.

Eventually I ride back to Lourdes, again, legs on fire, to be greeted by Bjorn and John who have their own tales of woe for the day.  Alistair, John and Rob come home later.  Rob has had an epic broom wagon adventure but Alistair and John made it through the day.

So, was it all worth it?  Absolutely!  It’s a great event, a shame about the weather but you can’t control that.

Final Thoughts:

  1. Thanks to Richard from Personal Cycle Coaching! I couldn’t have done it without you.  You got me through the climbs, it was my own rubbish clothes choices that hurt me on the descents.
  2. Thanks to Bjorn for seeding the idea in my mind and for all the great organisation
  3. 34 cassette, I love you, you were my saviour, but you have to go!
  4. Bring more clothes.
  5. Pain is temporary, the memory of completing an Etape is with me forever now.
  6. Marmotte 2016?
  7. IsostarIsostar Energy Booster, I hope they have all been cleared away.
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