It started as it usually does. Back in the Club Bar on Foxgrove Road after a Tuesday evening Club Ride. Perry was asking “Who’s on for L’Etape this year?!” “I’d definitely be on for that!” I heard myself say. The next thing I know a WhatsApp Group has been set up and my place is booked!
L’Etape du Tour is basically the most famous Sportive in the world. It is a chance for amateur enthusiasts to ride a stage of the Tour de France over completely closed roads. The route changes each year and comprises one stage of the Tour. What makes L’Etape so special is the atmosphere on the route with riders from all around the world being cheered on all the way by friendly locals, ringing their cowbells and supporting them up every climb with shouts of “Allez Allez!”
I had seen the pictures from the previous year and marvelled at the amazing landscapes, breath taking atmosphere and the tales of heroics. Our own Supergirl Liz had managed it recovering from a fractured shoulder and dosed up on Codeine. How hard could it be?
This year it was Stage 20 of the Tour De France from Albertville to the highest ski resort in Europe, Val Thorens. 135 KM with over 4563m, of climbing and a couple of eye bulging white knuckle decents. Over 16,000 riders from 42 countries took part. I was joined on the ride by fellow Foxgrovers, Dave, Steve, Colin and Ali. Experienced riders, great friends and comrades. We started out trying to ride together and finish together, but it proved impossible in the conditions. Each of us peaking and troughing at different times so we decided to ride at our own pace without holding each other up. Basically do whatever we can to get over the line.
I felt really great in the morning. Most of my training leading up to the event had consisted of 75km rides at good pace through the Kent and Surrey Countryside. However, my concern was that I had not done many rides over 70km. Sure enough, as we moved into the second part of the ride in the afternoon I started to struggle. Ali dropped back and messaged the rest of us to say go ahead and don’t wait. He’s a good rider but had come in as a late substitute without enough time to fully prepare.
The last 36km from Moûtiers to Val Thorens was very tough, all climbing. By that point the temperature had risen to around 35 degrees. The last 11.5 km climb of 619 m from Les Menuires to Val Thorens seemed to take forever and I found myself wishing I had paced it a bit better and held a bit more back in reserve from the morning.
As exhaustion started to set in I realised that, with 11km to go, I was travelling at an average of 6km an hour and still had around 2 hours to the finish! The temperatures hit 35 degrees and however much water I drank I was still thirsty, my mouth dry and my head felt like it was cooking in my helmet.
Over the last 5 km there is a point where you can see the whole of the ride ahead snaking up the mountain to Val Thorens. It was rather demoralising. Rather than risk heat exhaustion I decide to break the ride down into segments, stop every 1.5 km to pour water over my head and take a few gulps. The problem with the plan was that each time I stopped cramp started to set in and I found it increasingly difficult to climb back on, clip in and get going. By now experienced club cyclists are strewn everywhere. Some have found their lowest gear and are grinding out the rest of the ride. Some are pushing their beloved bikes up the side of the road. Some are sitting or lying on the grass verges, head in hands. There’s an eerie silence. No energy left for conversation. The sun is relentless, sweat is now continuously dripping into my eyes and off the end of my nose. I can hear ambulances in the distance. I'm thinking what on earth am I doing here?!
As we enter Val Thorens a steward tells me that there is no more climbing and that there is just 500m to go. It’s a big fib!. There was at least another 1000m and it gets steeper. I stand up on the pedals trying to summon up one last burst of energy from the reserves.
Never has a finish line and a bottle of beer been so welcome! Relieved and exhausted, elated but totally spent! Dave & Steve are there before me and welcome me in to the finish area. Colin arrived shortly after. He looks shattered!
As I’m writing this a message has come through on my phone. It says "Who’s on for L’Etape next year….?”
Written by Nigel Matthews