This year I managed to talk a fellow cycling buddy, Henry Harris into joining me on the Etape du Tour. We signed up in November in order to secure much in-demand starting places.
I was sure that all the necessary preparations were in place – training schedules, carbo-loading, bike servicing, new tyres. We travelled over to Lyon and were bussed to Orcieres Merlette, a ski resort 36km outside of Gap. The less said about the Franco-Butlins accommodation, the better.
We registered at the event village in Gap on the Saturday. As we were busting to get on our bikes, we had ridden there. What we didn’t take into account was that the 70+km ride took in about 2,000m of climbing – more than we’d do in a normal training ride. Would this set us back for the big day? Sunday involved dropping the bike off at the start, and trying to get a good night’s sleep, which failed miserably.
4am starts are never my strongest point. I did try to eat as much as possible at breakfast, before piling onto the bus. We picked up the bikes and made it to the start line with about 15mins to spare. Was I nervous? Yes – I left my sunglasses, then my gloves in my bag so had to make 2 trips back to the bike park, before being ready to go.
7am and the gun went off. Unfortunately I was #5712 so had to wait another 20mins before crossing the line. Henry was #3304 so had less time to wait. The first 30kms were undulating and riders tried to get up the road as quickly as possible. Like last year, I went off quickly excited by the magnitude of the event. 30kms into the ride on a downhill section I saw 5 riders go off the side of the road and bodies and bikes tumbled in the gravel – ouch. The news spread up the road and the nearest gendarme called for an ambulance.
I had picked up the Australian National Team kit at the Etape village, which extracted support from the Aussies in the crowd as well as a few conversations along the course. I rode with an Americas Cup contestant from Perth for 20kms until losing him at the first feed station at Guillestre, which was an absolute bun-fight. I’d decided to by-pass this stop as I had sufficient water and food. Great plan apart from the traffic jam of bikes that preceded the stop. Like last year I ended up walking slowly for at least 15mins.
Col d’Izoard (14.2km at 7%)
The idea was to conserve energy and take it easy up the Izoard. Fat chance – I’d averaged over 32kmh for the first 2 hours and the climb is really 26km although the first 12km are below 5%. Towards the top my speed had dropped to 7kmh in places – it was going to be a long day. By the top my average speed had dropped to 21.7kmh. I needed to keep above 19kmh to avoid being picked up by the sweep bus (i.e. race over). I was somewhat frustrated by not being able to get into the highest gear, despite fiddling with the cable tensions en route. Could be a factor later on the last climb I thought.
My first scheduled drinks stop at the top of the hill was a scene reminiscent of a UN food drop in an African drought area. I ended up climbing into the back of a truck, grabbing a 6-pack of water bottles. 6mins for the stop and I was back on the bike. Gilet on, and I was ready for the descent, where I managed to get up to 74.5kmh. By the bottom of the hill I was up to 24kmh average speed so the sweep wagon was a distant memory.
After the descent we hit another feed station at Briancon, which I again bypassed in search of a fast time. The ultimate aim was a silver medal for the 30’s age group. This meant that I needed a time of 8:01 or an average speed of 23.5kmh. However factoring in the Alpe d’Huez climb which I guessed would take 1½ hours (10kmh average), I really need to average 26.4kmh by the bottom of the Alpe. Therefore I was behind, but not out yet.
After a ridiculously steep climb out of Briancon in front of 100’s of spectators (even a few Aussies), we regrouped into small pelotons and cruised towards the Col du Lautaret.
One moment I was happily pedalling along in the peleton, next moment there’s a funny click in my right gear shifter and suddenly I’m in the bottom gear, slowing quickly. I stopped and realised that the rear gear cable had broken and my race was virtually over. Despite some desperate attempts, the only way to fix it was a new cable. There were roving mechanics on the course, but they were few and far between. I took a seat in an adjacent bus shelter and waited. I was soon joined by several retiring cyclists who were suffering from heat exhaustion (temperatures got up to 35C), including a delirious Englishman. Realising he was in a pretty bad way, I hailed a passing ambulance to attend to him.
Thousands of riders passed by, and still no sign of the yellow Mavic mechanics vehicle. After 1 hour a mechanic did appear, but didn’t want to stop, yelling that another 2 cars were “5mins behind”. Never trust the French! Another mechanic stopped, but claimed that only the truck behind could help. After 1½ hours the right mechanic appeared and fitted a new cable. That wasn’t the end of the problem as we realised that my gear shifter had ceased to work completely. All I could do was to get him to put it into the highest gear for the climbs, and look to free-wheel the descents.
Away I started up the Col du Lautaret. I was fairly conscious not to over-do it, but at the same time I had to keep ahead of the Sweep Bus. The last thing the mechanic said to me was that I could get to the base of Alpe d’Huez, but I wouldn’t have enough time to get up it. Red rag to a bull. Was it the Australian top, or the months of training, or the expectations of sponsors, friends and family – who knows? My motivations had changed – all I could think about was getting to the finish and climbing the Alpe.
Col du Lauteret (27km@ 4%)
I made it to the top and still no sweep bus. By the time I was back on my bike the field had begun to be very strung out, and I gradually overtook them, one by one.
The descent was comical. On the flatter bits I would spin in my biggest of 3 gears, and then free wheel when I couldn’t keep up. This continued for the 38km descent until we reached a 5km section of flat. Luckily I picked up the tail of 2 other riders – we knew we had to get to the bottom of the Alpe before 4pm when the route would shut. If it hadn’t been for these guys, I couldn’t have got there myself with my disabled 3-speed bike.
Alpe d’Huez (14km @ 7.9%)
We arrived at the last feed stop at the base of the Alpe and to my relief the road was still open despite being 4:05pm. I was out of water and took the gamble of stopping at the feed station, only to find that they’d run out of water and there was a shuttle system operating with ladies running to taps to fill our bottles. I realised I couldn’t get up the Alpe without water as it’s fully in the sun so waited. Thankfully the road was still open and I began the ascent.
By this point I was at least back with other riders, and I knew that unless another disaster struck I could probably make it. The organisers were to stop the timing at 6pm in order to re-open the road. It was 4:10pm so I had just under 2 hours. The first 2km are the toughest – averaging 14%, the steepest part of the entire route. All I could be was positive, after all that had happened, and once past the steep bit, the climbing became a little easier. The heat started to affect me for the first time in the race, and I knocked over my 1 litre bottle within the first 5km. All I could do was fill the bottle from a mountain stream and hope for the best.
It wasn’t the prettiest ascent but I made it up the 21 hairpins of the most famous climb in the Tour, and in 1hr 34mins, so not far away from the estimate. The last 1km flattens out, and I was able to resume my ridiculous spinning routine (my maximum cadence for the ride was 168rpm – usually it’s 110rpm).
I had made it up, and with 18 mins to spare. A big relief.
3304 – HARRIS Henry – 09h 00′ 52″ – 8h 50′ 12″ (actual) – 01h 59′ 14″ (Alpe)
5712 – WARD Richard – 10h 42′ 08″ – 10h 22′ 59″ (actual) – 01h 34′ 48″(Alpe)
If I take off the 1½ hours forced stop, my time gets very close to Henry’s time. It’s hard to compare that accurately though, as I had the benefit of the stop, but the detriment of a disabled bike for 60km, so who knows. The positives are that I kept going and did make it by the skin of my teeth. Still it was a disappointment not to know what my maximum effort was. There’s always next year…