The scrum for food and water on the Izoard
It’s 7:30am on the road out of Gap. Mountains pierce the pale dawn sky as I ride briskly along the shore of a pretty Alpine lake. At this time of day you would expect to have the road to yourself, but today I’m not alone. I’m one of 7500 riders in the huge cavalry charge that is the Etape du Tour. The roar of 15,000 bike tyres on tarmac fills the air. As we pass through a sleepy village, local people clapping and cheering line the road. I have just one thing on my mind: 100 miles ahead, the other side of two enormous mountains, is Alpe d’Huez and I’ve got to ride up it.
The day passes in a blur: dazzling mountain peaks; azure lakes; sparkling waterfalls; dark, scary tunnels; roadside jazz bands; twisting hairpins; scorching descents; cool water sprayed from garden hoses; and thigh-burning climbs. After 100 miles and 7 hours of hard riding over the Col d’Izoard and Col de Lautaret in the heat of July, the day really begins. I reach Bourg d’Oisans, the small village in the shadow of Alpe d’Huez. Suddenly those 7 hours; those 2 huge mountains; those 100 miles; they all mean nothing. This is what I’m here for. This is what we’re all here for.
There are 21 hairpins on Alpe d’Huez. Everyone knows that, even your granny. What you don’t know until you’ve ridden up it, is that Alpe d’Huez takes you to the limit mentally as well as physically. It’s a relentless, terrible, beautiful climb.
The gradient, especially lower down, is so steep that I keep trying to find a lower gear than the 34×28 I’m riding on. I have to stand up and pedal out of the saddle just to keep going, wasting valuable energy. However, after struggling early on I’m soon into the rhythm of the climb. I’m counting down the hairpins towards the summit, though it hurts like hell: 21 – 20 – 19 – 18… Apart from the terrible pain in my legs, I’m feeling pretty good. Until hairpin 4.
As I approach hairpin 4, I reckon I’ve cracked it. Rounding the bend, I make the mistake of looking up. I can see the rest of the climb high above me: 3 – 2 – 1 – village – and an endless silent agonising procession of bikes crawling along the road, riders labouring to keep moving. At the roadside around me people are slumped in the shade, some sitting, others lying down, some vomiting, some being tended to by friends, others by medics, and riders being loaded into ambulances. It’s carnage.
One second I was fine; the next I’m in a living hell. My tired mind is convinced that after the next hairpin there will forever be another, and I will reach the top of the climb only to find myself once more at the bottom. It’s 35ºC but there are goosepimples on my arms and I feel cold and sick. I was a fool to think I could do this. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I thought I’d cracked Alpe d’Huez, but now it’s about to crack me.
I must stop. I can’t stop. I won’t stop. So I just concentrate on getting to the end of the next white line in the road, a couple of metres away. Then the next one; and the next one; and so on. I still feel terrible, tired, tortured. Just get to the end of the next white line. And the next one. Catch the next rider. Now another; and another. Just one word in my head, going round and round and round. “On, on, on…..”.
After an eternal struggle, I’m round the last hairpin; then riding through the village; then changing into the big chainring to sprint as hard as I can for the finish. Sadly, it’s not quite the sprint I’d hoped for, and I’m pipped on the line. So what, I just rode up Alpe d’Huez.
Two days later, and I’ve hardly stopped smiling. I keep saying it slowly to myself, to savour the feeling. “I….rode….up….Alpe d’Huez”. It took me just under 1.5 hours to climb Alpe d’Huez, twice as long as Marco Pantani’s record, but I don’t care. I did it too.
My ride also raised lots of money for a charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres. If you want to see how much I’ve raised, or even want to sponsor me yourself, visit www.justgiving.com/jimetape. And a big “thank you” to all my sponsors for your generosity, it really did spur me on when the going got tough.
I wonder where we’ll be next year? Whatever it is it should be a walk in the park after this and I wonder if I’ll have stopped grinning by then…