Thursday, 21 July 2011

Etape du Tour Acte II Issoire to Saint Flour: Hell on a bike

Etape du Tour Acte II, July 17 2011, with Sky Velo
I must have been half way across the plateau when I realised the rain probably wasn't going to stop.

Up until that point I had hoped the slightly lighter patch of grey sky in the distance signified a break in the weather, especially since the WeatherPro app on my iPhone had quite clearly said it would stop raining by 10am at the latest. I had no idea of the time but it felt like I had been riding for hours and we had set off somewhere around 7am. By my reckoning we were in for a dry spell.

It had been an optimistic start in the pens at Issoire. Even though the rain was already making its presence felt, we never expected it to keep up for long, and there were even one or two remarks to the effect that we were "on the edge of it," and "it will pass in half an hour."

As we rolled out of town and through the fields we set a decent pace, cheering villagers flashing by, and by the time we were in the forest heading to the first climb I had latched onto the back of the Sky train being driven by Chris and we were flashing past other riders. I remember thinking "this is alright."

How wrong I was. As the "gentle climb" of the plateau showed no sign of leveling off, or for that matter becoming gentle, the rain hammered it down, the wind driving it stinging into our faces. Somewhere around this point I felt the water trickle into my foot, indicating that my oversocks had been breached. With no cover over that featureless windswept moor, we bunched together for shelter.

It was around this point, somewhere like 40 miles in, that I began to see riders passing me in the opposite direction. Now cyclists are a hardy bunch and have often been known to double up their punishment by returning to the base of a climb and doing it again. Even when I started to pass Etapers sheltering in barns and behind walls it didn't register that they could be giving up.

One final nasty little kick up and we were off that damned plateau, and I would have enjoyed that descent so much more if I could actually feel my fingers. My hands were so cold that they seemed to have stopped functioning altogether and pulling on my brakes became an exercise in willpower.

I got a banana in me at the rest stop at the base of the descent and was halfway through a slice of sponge cake when Lizzie Wiltshire pulled up and said "let's get going so we can warm the fubuck up," or something along those lines because her teeth were chattering.

Shortly after that I was indeed slightly warmer and the weather did seem like it could break. I even think I had dried out a bit. By this time I was cycling with Amber and Simon and as we hit what turned out to be the foothills of the Col du Pas de Peyrol, the sun was shining through the trees.

About 3km up the Peyrol, the road levels out a bit. With the cheers of the spectators carrying from somewhere around the corner I was all set to roll victoriously over the summit when in the corner of my eye I noticed a fluorescent dot bobbing up and down, then another one, and then a red one and a blue one and around then it registered that those dots, barely visible through the clouds, were in fact riders. More or less on cue the clouds parted to reveal the rest of the Peyrol, all 2km of it, and riders winding into the distance like they were climbing a beanstalk.

That last 2km seemed almost vertical to me. I think in reality it was something like 13 per cent. I didn't really notice much detail because I had become transfixed by my front wheel and the piece of tarmac in front of me, on which someone had sprayed the word ‘Chavanel,’ among other things.

There is a video of the summit of the Peyrol taken by a fellow Sky rider, Toby Payne shortly after I had reached it. It is a cycling horror film, chilling in its desolation. You feel cold just watching it. But even that can't portray exactly how windswept and barren that summit is. How when you reach it your head is swimming with the exertion of the climb and no one has bothered to put a barrier on the edge of the road so one wrong turn of the handlebars will have you plummeting off the side of the mountain. The temperature was two degrees up there apparently - factor in the wind chill on the way down and you're heading into minus figures. For the second time that day I couldn't feel my hands.

In my descent-induced delirium I overshot the Sky feedstation by a good 50 yards, sailing across the bridge before I realised I was heading out of the village and turned round. When I got off my bike I was unable to stop shaking and even a silver blanket was not enough to get me warm. I started to wish I'd put an electric heater in my feedbag, or some petrol. Instead I had two cheese sandwiches and a packet of peanuts. After them and a can of Coke and the words "you've got a 4.5km climb out of this village, that should get you warm" ringing in my ears, I set off up the Col du Perthus.

I was warm after that, but I was also feeling the strain. One thing about training in Essex is that while you might get a strong breeze along Southend seafront, you're going to struggle to find a hill more than a mile long. A 5km climb promptly followed by a 4km climb was beginning to take its toll. I was in my smallest gear and in no position to change down. I was, however, getting dry.

I was also on my own, which considering the mood I was in, was probably a good thing. My mood wasn't helped by my mistaken belief that there were three mountains on this ride when there were in fact five. There were three category two mountains. In between them the route was up and down more often than a tart's knickers, as they say in Essex. It seemed that the organisers of the Tour had sought out every climb in the Massif Central and made sure this stage went over it. Right then I hated them for it.

While trying to control my shaking at the Sky feedstation I was told that if I got to 140km, I would be "home and dry". This distance I converted to 90 miles, which, as luck would have it, falls precisely at the beginning of the category two Col de Prat de Bouc. I plodded up that mountain like an old goat, thoroughly deflated, never once changing down from my 28-tooth 'get out of jail free' cog. Every sinew was screaming. It felt like my legs were on fire. I'm sure I was passed by an old man leading a donkey.

The summit of the Col de Prat de Bouc rivals the Peyrol in its moon-like barrenness, but the feedstation there did at least have tea (French , not very warm and no milk) and I also bumped into Zac, who told me his legs were "stiffer than a banker's handkerchief." I think that's what he said, it was very windy.

But my mood had lifted. I was, after all, 'home and dry.' Downhill all the way. That wasn't strictly the case. We were through the category two climbs, that much was true, but home and dry in the Massif Central is never going to mean flat. It is true, however, that there seemed to be more sweeping descents than there were strength-sapping climbs in the last 50km or so.

Just before I passed the point where Juan Antonio Fletcha was knocked from his bike by a TV car on the Tour the week before, sending Johnny Hoogerland flying into a barbed wire fence, the rain started again. Within minutes all those hours of air-drying were laid to ruin and not for the first time that day I felt my shoes begin to fill up.

And then, when I thought it could not be possible to fit a mountain between me and the finish, there was another mountain. With 10km to go I was again staring at the tarmac a metre in front of me, where someone had sprayed the word 'Chavanel'. Again. This climb wasn't even considered big enough to be categorized, although it was big enough for someone to stick a ski station on the top of it.

Somewhere between that mountain, which I'm sure had a castle on it, and the finish, I bumped into James, who coincidentally had been lumbered with sharing a room with me back at the hotel. So it felt we knew each other a lot better than we actually did. We rolled those final few miles in together, both totally exhausted, rain jackets flapping in the wind.

On that final ramp up to the finish in Saint Flour we stopped to take our rain jackets off for the first time that day. We rolled over the line resplendent in our Sky kit to the cheers of a waiting crowd and I felt like I'd just come in from battle. I was physically and mentally spent and feeling emotional. My bike computer was reading 9 hours and 50 minutes, 15 seconds. I later discovered my official time to be 10 hours and 30 minutes, which means I spent 40 minutes along the route eating cake and sandwiches.

Quite why I decided to clean my bike before it was packed away in the lorry I can only put down to the delirium of exhaustion. But it felt good, even if I did miss the coach.

I later discovered quite what absolute chaos the Etape turned out to be. In total only 1,982 riders finished the event, out of around 4,000 starters, as the weather closed in and mountains were shut. Apparently 2,000 didn't even bother to start it.

Out of the many tales of hardship and suffering to come out of the Etape, the one I find the most moving is that of Toby and Kathryn, who were told by the officials that if they were to continue riding they would not be given a finish time. The officials then put a red cross through their entry cards. On they ploughed regardless, over mountains closed by the gendarmes, being passed by and then passing the broom wagon full of swept-up riders, who were becoming more and more vocal in their support for this pair.

They crossed the finish line with the broom wagon and time car following them - the last riders to complete the 2011 Etape du Tour Acte II, and the crowd went wild.

Chapeau to them, and to each and every one of the riders who took part. That was one hell of a terrible day. To the 1,982 riders who finished, I salute you.

Toby's video
The finish line

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  1. Hi Graham, fantastic account of the day. We must have been close in Pen 7 because I was next to Yorick who is at the front of your photo. I wish I had had the presence of mind to get a finish line photo with my medal - that is a great pic! We must have been close on the ridge of hell because I was following Chris too and riding with Lizzie who we later met up with on the Prat and rode in together from there. Conversely I found this 2nd half of the course quite enjoyable but it sounds like I was there a bit earlier than you and I think the weather was better whereas I heard from Toby that it turned wet again later on. So happy for you that you finished and also to ride in with your roomie. I was lucky enough to do the same and it was a truly great feeling that I will never forget. You can see my account here: See you at next year's Etape!?! I am hoping they will find some nice coastal road in Provence for that one!

  2. Hey Tom
    I think we might have rode together the day before when we took the bikes to Issoire, and I'm sure we were all drinking together on the square.
    Just read your blog, you're right, we can't have been far apart!
    And we made it!