It’s not often that you get a chance to ride a stage of the Tour. Well I know by now (unless you’ve ridden it) you’ve probably heard enough about the Etape, but I’m actually on about another trip. Clothing brand Rapha and cycling holiday company Sports Tours International got together last week and put on the ‘trip of a lifetime’. Ride the Beauvais to Caen stage (stage 5) of the Tour de France, on the same day that the race does. Ahead of the race proper and with full support. Then get to the finish, hang about with front row seats and watch the pros enter the finale. Stay in a Hotel with a team or two. Then the following day hang about the Ville Depart and rub shoulders with the finest bike riders in the World. It’s early days for this type of exclusive trip, but I bet you like the sound of it?
This year two groups of keen souls were allocated to attempt the feat. One would (just?!) ride the final 140kms of the stage and another group (of head bangers, me included) would take on the complete parcours – 225kms.
Our group’s ‘race’ was to catch the 140km group. They had a head start and more people. We had the stronger riders but a bigger chunk of France to gobble up. A fair contest then, or so it seemed.
French signs provided some amusement
Matt Seaton and Dominique Gabellini are proof that cycling is not just a young man’s sport. OK they’re hardly ancient, but they’re a fair bit older than the rest of the Pro peloton – Matt is Malcolm Elliott’s age (nearly) whilst Dom is (ahem) more Directeur Spotif age. Problem for us is they ride like a couple of neo-pros. Each sprint was a right old mix up and any KOM points sent Dom into overdrive. They were here to hurt one another and the rest of us were getting the short end of the stick. The rest of the group was made up of regular riders Patrick Hayes, Pez cycling’s Nick O’Brien and Trystan from Rapha USA.
There had to be an early start. The race proper was due to kick off around midday and the roads would close at 1-30pm. This gave us 8 hours, just as long as we set off at 5-30am. It was quickly turning into a race for the start line, so after a wake up call at 3-30am and a 1950s style Tour de France breakfast (i.e. early!), we headed off to Beauvais. We hit the road at 6-15am, so time was now the priority, Matt was busy working out schedules as I was working out how many Gels I’d need… 7 hours+ lay ahead…
As we left Beauvais, Dom organized the group into two lines and we worked in an informal pattern to warm up, the first 30kms took about an hour as we tried to muster some strength. It was cold. The early, bleary start was taking its toll. We were in club run mode and Jimmy (our team car support and directeur sportif) was already looking concerned – we simply had to go faster.
So we started shorter turns and a chaingang ensued with all the riders involved. This took its toll on Trystan – he had to miss a few turns (he was on a way too small, borrowed bike). So as we neared the end of the second hour, we’d speeded up a little but at the cost of a much needed extra pair of legs.
Down to five and the group slowly began to accelerate again, aware that there was still a long way to go but also that we had to speed up – this meant we started to get back towards the schedule but were still a long way out from home. We kept losing the van in the congested villages along the route too and Jimmy did everything he could to stay in touch and hand up water, but it was frustrating for all of us especially as we wanted to know how we were progressing and he wanted to keep us fuelled up.
Le Tour – Centenery Bell
The first time check at around 100kms to the 140 group was not good. They were at 45mins. No chance of catching them, I thought, as they had some strong legs in there, notably fellow journalist William Fotheringham who raced on these roads once upon a time and is still no slouch at mustering a chaingang.
By then we were down to three working and two sitting in. Dom was constantly upping the pace and we maintained a good pressure for two hours or so. Thankfully it meant the sprints and hills became less of a bun fight but holding 35-40kmh was starting to hurt after 5 hours in the saddle.
The next time check was more uplifting. The 140 group had exploded and the remaining riders were at 12 minutes with about 40kms left to go. Still a chance I thought, Matt was still going like a steam train and Dom was all out to catch them. It was full gas to the finish line… the problem is I was still on simmer.
We lost Patrick at this point and Nick was gamely clinging onto us like a limpet. It was, however, getting ugly.
A last Gel from the van (10 so far and my guts were like a concrete mixer) and suitably Scottish encouragement from Jimmy (“hurry up you lazy ba….ds!”) as we entered the final 10 kms. I was toast. We were going to make the road closure, just, but not the front group, damn. They were waiting at the 5km to go point so we could ride in to the finish as a “peloton groupe”. Exhausted as we were, it was a happy, chatty peloton that assembled and staggered under the Flame Rouge.
So a very civilized finale (we didn’t/couldn’t sprint) was followed by a long lunch and view of the Tour finish. Our attempts to lure the presentation party out onto the podium for a kiss failed, but we still had a photo opportunity and the chance to stand were Lance et al have done. An excellent day all round (apart from the walk from the restaurant with 225kms in my sore legs…) and a great idea for future trips. The slight competitive edge added some spice into the mix and we certainly know what it feels like to be in a six hour breakaway now – ouch.
The following day was spent having breakfast and coffee in the village depart. A chance to see stars from yesteryear (I saw Virenque, Museuuw, Jean-Francois Bernard and Bernard Hinault amongst a few others) and as the teams arrived the chance to browse the bikes of the pro peloton and see the riders emerge from their team coaches ready for another day in the saddle.
Stage 5 Post Script
Talking of speed, the peloton photographer Graham Watson said recently, that when he started out in his trade he’d return from the Tour with 40 rolls of film and head off to the dark room – people had to wait to see the action from the Alps and Pyrenees for well over a week… those were the days I hear you say and how things have changed. Now you can follow the Tour 24/7. Even watch Patrik Sinkewich’s heart/watt/calorie/boredom rate if you like, live. Watch in glorious Technicolor as his doors blow off as the peloton ramps up Alpe d’Huez and check in with Google Earth to see where they are all at… I just can’t keep up…
So after our sojourn to (flattish) Northern France we bombed off to Gap and the Etape (hence a few slow news days last week) it’s a hard life… I’m just glad I don’t have to get my film processed.
Sports Tours International organised the trip in association with Rapha and the ASO. It’s exclusive and expensive with limited spaces available. Oh yes, you’ll need to be fit too!Details for next year will follow soon, so check the STI website for more: www.sportstoursinternational.co.uk
Loads of (better) pictures by Florian Breiter here