When a friend emailed a group of us in December 2014 asking who was up for riding in L’Etape du Tour, I thought yes...what a great opportunity to tick-off one of my bucket list.
A month or so later when the route was published the enormity of the challenge hit me. We were to cycle stage 19 of the 2015 Tour de France...a 142km mountain stage over five summits, climbing a total elevation of 4500m, or equivalent to half the height of Everest.
Now, I'm a keen cyclist but at that point I didn't know a Specialised from a Pinarello, let alone my ‘chainset’ or the weight of wheels. A new level of MAMIL small talk was to open up over the first team dinner.
My first training ride was on 2 January and I came off my bike on an icy corner. This did not bode well. In the end I settled into a nice routine of a long ride every weekend and then when the clocks changed, a regular commute from Welwyn to the Newgate offices. I felt as though I was getting the mileage in, but there was a nagging doubt about the lack of mountains in Hertfordshire. This was confirmed when a client found out that the highest ‘peak’ I had climbed was 265m...time for some serious nerves.
The day of the race came about all too quickly. We were up at 7am to get into out start pen with 15,000 other riders from around the world including Martin Johnson, the former England Rugby captain. The first climb was 15km up the Col du Chaussy which we were advised to take very slowly to save our legs. This we did, and started the descent a little more optimistically before coming to a shuddering halt as the road was cleared of the first race casualties...a reminder of the risks.
We all met up at the bottom of the valley to ride the next 40km together in a team peloton, picking up dozens of other riders along the way, so we must have been doing something right. However, the race was stopped again, this time to allow an air ambulance to land.
Next up was the start of the iconic Col du Glandon, a 22km climb on which Chris Froome broke team rules and challenged Wiggins in the 2012 Tour. We all made it one way or the other to the much needed water station at the 11km mark to refill our bottles. By this stage the temperature was in the early 30s. The next section is lost somewhere in the back of my mind but involved hairpin climbs, increased heat and cramps hitting muscles in my legs that I didn't know existed. Riders were falling off their bikes at every corner and the sound of sirens became strangely melodic. (This Friday I will be watching in renewed awe as the Pro cyclists dance their way over the summit and carry on without even a pause.)
But for us amateurs it was a little different. We forced ourselves to eat and drink as much as we could before continuing the short (in comparison) climb to the Col du Croix de Fer a 2067m summit. Another descent...and despite the nervousness of getting it wrong...an exhilarating blast of up 75km/h...every metre down earned the hard way.
Spirits by now had started to soar and the prospect of taking on the smallest mountain seemed achievable. The field was starting to thin considerably and there was a growing feeling of camaraderie between competitors. This was just as well when I had to dive off my bike during a particularly difficult cramp attack and was helped out by two Dutch guys. I don't know their names but thank-you! Having plodded our way to the summit it was time for another exhilarating descent through St Jean de Maurienne and past our hotel. Yes, I considered it...over and over and over, but he thought of letting down my sponsors and the British Heart Foundation kept me going.
So now for the final 18km climb up to the ski resort of La Toussuire. By now we were breaking each climb into smaller sections and just aiming for the next corner. One way I found to pass the time was to try to spot a familiar name on the bibs of fellow competitors so it was nice to see Simon Mottram, the founder of Rapha, looking as uncomfortable as I was!
After a couple of hours of slow climbing we were down to the final 4km…we then saw the ski station and there was a realisation that we would actually finish this ride. 2km remaining and the crowds were starting to build. I was behind a Brazilian chap who was getting the full ‘Brasilia, Brasilia…’ chant. And then finally I could see the finish line…500m to go. I heard my name and ‘Grande Bretagne’ announced by the compere…this was my London 2012, my Rio…one last sprint to the finish and it was over. The sting in the tail was having to cycling 22km back down the hill to our hotel…but by then we didn’t care.
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