All My Little Words

Après le Déluge – What It’s (not) Like To Ride the Tour de France

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on July 24, 2014

There’s no party atmosphere at the top of the Hautacam. No collective jubilation and no private sense of euphoria either. Maybe that would come later. For now the focus is food: Honey bread, salted crackers, orange segments, whatever there is. Then the rain, which had been kind enough to wait until I’d crossed the finish, begins again.

“Go get your medal.” The older chap at the bottom tells me. “You deserve it.” I’d rolled the thirteen kilometres down the mountain to the village, thinking the whole way not of medals but dry clothes, and stopped to ask him where the car park was.

“I think I deserve a bath and six beers.” I reply, resting my leg against my front wheel, seriously hot from all that braking. I didn’t think I did, actually, I just really really wanted them. I certainly didn’t think a medal was in order. I thank him and roll on.

Mark Cavendish was recently quoted as saying that “Road cycling is suffering.” I had just ridden 150 kilometres – 95 miles in old money – of which half were uphill, and at least half – not exactly the same half – I would describe as suffering.

And all I could think was “What was the point of that?”

So what’s it like to ride a stage of The Tour de France?

Probably not much like that, if we’re being honest.

The ride starts from Pau’s enormous Place de Verdun at dawn. Riders enter pens based on their registration number and wait.

Le Depart

Le Depart

Ten thousand unnervingly hairless, scantily clad (mostly white) men. With everyone on one performance enhancing something or other, some chatting excitedly, others lost in solitary thought, the whole thing feels rather like the smoking area of a large Vauxhall club. Only except of course no one would dream of sparking up. Certainly there are as many string vests as you might see on a Sunday morning at Fire.

Most groups doing l’Etape bought their entries together, so have numbers near to each other. We didn’t, so don’t. This means Big Chris is in the 7000s on his own, and starts first, Mark and Lil Chris are both 9’s, two guns later, while I’m 10750, so on my own and last to launch, twenty minutes back.

Passing under the gate I start Strava. We all have timing chips stuck to our number plates and everyone will get an official time but I want more data than that’ll give me. Believe me when I say this is not even the lamest part of the cycling experience.

I want to go fast, as fast as is comfortable, anyway, maybe sharing the work with a few others. As beautiful as the scenery this is not supposed to be a gentle day out in the countryside. I’m not worried about burning out my legs before the big climbs, not on the flatish bits anyway, which make up the first fifty five kilometres or so before the start of the Tourmalet.

Most riders aren’t going as fast as I’d like, though, so there aren’t many wheels to latch onto. People are being cautious early on, which is fair enough. They also generally seem to be sticking to the right hand side leaving the left free. Odd given that this is a closed  road event but I find myself taking advantage of the space, and notice that I pick up the occasional hitchhiker who also wants to go a little quicker than the rest. Some would find this annoying but what difference does it make to me? If they want a tow they can have one.

On the first category 3 climb – a speedbump compared with what’s to come – I meet my man crush for the day. Rider 10621. We’re through the 10’s at this point, surrounded mostly by 9000 numbers and he’s going at a speed that suits me; overtaking people with plenty of space. Based on that alone, I decide he’s a decent guy so I don’t want to take advantage. Instead of clinging to his back wheel and letting him drag me along I keep a reasonable distance and try to mimic his pace. I’m only with him for a few kilometres, but I’ll see him again later.

photo (2)

There’s a simple well-honed technique for clearing your sinuses while cycling. You lean over a little, press a finger from one hand against the corresponding nostril and blow as hard as you can, propelling a ball of mucus to the tarmac. It’s gross but very effective. You’re also supposed to move to one side and look behind to ensure you don’t serve up a splattering to any others in your vicinity. As I’m passing one older rider around the 50km mark he happens to neglect this part of the process and my face is hit with a torrent of snot. It may not be all that sunny, but I’m glad I’m wearing shades.

With their half an hour head start I don’t expect to catch any of our group until we hit the Tourmalet at the earliest. I’m surprised, therefore, when just over an hour in I spy the sleeves of Mark’s multi-coloured jersey and his black Boardman bike. After a quick hello we naturally begin to work together, charging through the little French towns and villages where, the weather still kind, the crowds are out in force. It’s as we take the racing line through a tight corner, with men, women, kids urging us on shouting “allez allez” and “bon courage” that I really imagine I’m riding Le Tour.

Mark’s a lot fitter than I am, but I’m better on the hills, and we lose each other on the third, and last, category three. I won’t meet him again until the finish.   

Col du Tourmalet: 22km. Does that mean to the foot of the mountain or the summit? Either way it’s arrived much sooner than expected. As I approach so the weather begins to turn and my stomach begins to do the same. This will be the first HC (hors category, meaning steep and seriously long) I’ve ever ridden. My first stop of the day is to put on my waterproof – early on I removed my gilet without parking up: what a pro – and pop a caffeine gel in Bagneres-de-Bigorre. Then the climb, and the fun, really begins.

And surprisingly it is fun. Cycling hills – good ones at least – often have signs marking the distance and height to the summit. You’ll either find them encouraging or intimidating depending on how you’re feeling and, at this point, fourteen hundred vertical metres over sixteen kilometres of road, as massive as it is, somehow doesn’t scare me.

The rain isn’t as bad as it could be, nor is it too cold. As my nerves settle. I begin to enjoy the mountain, passing other riders fairly continuously, including one lunatic on a yellow Raleigh Chopper. I shake my head in amazement as I overtake but he’s going incredibly well.

Around 8km from the top the rain gets worse with the only respite coming when riding through the occasional sheltered section. About one hundred metres long one of them has CONTADOR daubed along its supports. He won’t be riding up this in four days time.      

Part of what keeps my spirits and speed up is the memory of watching the 2010 tour on TV. As Contador and Andy Schleck danced through five degree pea soup, the commentators smugly discussed the glorious sunshine they were basking in on the other side of the mountain. That’s what I imagined and I couldn’t have been more wrong.

We ride through a ski resort about three or four km from the top and this is a high point, both literally and in terms of mood. It’s easy to lose the sense of where you are after forty minutes of nothing but uphill road but if ever you need proof that you’re on a goddamn mountain, cycling under chairlifts would be it.

I see the number 10621 on the back of a rider just ahead. I pat him on the back and say some encouraging words that he looks rather perplexed to be on the receiving end of. I’m not sure he actually noticed the bit where we rode “together” earlier, but returns my cheer as we pass the three kilometre marker. I don’t want to make him feel more uncomfortable so I ride on to the summit alone.

At the top of the mountain there’s no sign that it’s going to get any nicer. I’m carrying one more item of clothing that I’m not wearing and although I don’t think it’s going to help, I put it on anyway. It doesn’t help.

I generally think of myself as a fairly nervy descender but I want to get down that mountain as quickly as possible. My reason for risking life and limb is as misguided on this side of the mountain as it had been on the other – it would be warmer, and maybe even drier, at a lower altitude, surely? Wrong. All I could hear as I dropped was the rattle of raincoat against the wind. As I began to lose the sensation in my fingers – first the little one, then the next one up, which probably has a name, then the middle one got a bit tingly, I sort of regretted not bringing the full finger gloves with me. Then I remembered how shit mine are, despite going by the laughable name of “Sealskins”.

The one good thing about this I think, looking about me, is that everyone’s more or less in the same boat. No one is massively better prepared, in terms of their outfit, than I am. We’re all fucking miserable at this point. I’m such a dick. It stops raining for a moment, I feel a wave of relief. It starts again and I’m furious and find myself screaming an obscenity in the direction of the omnipotent.

Aware of my susceptibility to cramp I give my legs a spin. I don’t need to gain any speed, it’s not about that, I just want to know what they might feel like when I call on them again. A couple of muscles in my thigh are complaining a bit but on the whole they feel like they’ll work when I need them to.

Between the bottom of the Tourmalet and the village at the approach to the Hautacam the sun does actually come out for the first time that day. There’s also a brief period here when I can see no one ahead of me, the is the only time I’ll experience that the whole day. A single moment of tranquility amidst six hours of madness.

The foot of the Hautacam is where it gets really emotional, as this is where the participants’ families and friends have gathered to wait. As I make the I turn around the village towards the mountain I’m met with two walls of people lining the road, evoking the scene at the Côte de Buttertubs in Yorkshire on Stage One.

This is incredible, this is exciting and, as blue as the sky is, this is also where the darkness descends. Thirteen kilometres is all that’s left but they’re going to be the most difficult of the lot.

As much as I thought they were okay the muscles in my thighs have cooled down too much. The pistons just aren’t going to fire. The gradient isn’t too bad and I should be able to stay in my big front ring for a fair while yet but I’m quickly down into the small one. I normally spend a lot of the time standing up when I’m climbing but there’s no way this is going to happen now. When my muscles are screaming I can normally drown them out but that’s not what’s happening. One leg is going “I’m sorry, what are you trying to do? No, I’m sorry, no.” while the other is holding a knife to itself and threatening to ping me off the side. I pay attention, drop to my lowest gear and spin. Ten kilometres left.

At the eight kilometres sign (next km 7.9%) I wonder if there is there anything I can put “in” that’ll make this engine of mine work better? I don’t want to stop. At this point, of course there isn’t but I’ll try whatever is to hand. I bite off the top to my last energy gel and squeeze the thing down my throat. These things are horrible. I finish off my water and electrolyte drink as well. The magic fails to appear.

Five k from the summit I’m in agony. Through gritted teeth I’d been chatting with a guy with a Northern accent and discovered an extra gear. It doesn’t help but I’m encouraged and find some extra pedal power from somewhere, leaving him behind. It doesn’t last long, he’ll pass me again shortly.

We’d been a bit obsessed with hydration on this trip with Big Chris paying particularly close attention to the depth of colour of everyone’s urine. I see proof that hydration is not the issue for me when finally I give in, stop, and take what’s politely referred to as “a natural break”. It’s crystal clear, so at least I feel a bit less bad about spilling it on this beautiful scenery. At this point, however, I’m struggling to appreciate my surroundings. I sit down at the side of the road and massage my legs a little, which makes more difference than you’d expect, before I stand up again, clamber onto my bike and reach for the top.

The last four kilometres are a lot easier than the first eight. Unlike on the Tourmalet I can see a line of cyclists above me, as the hairpin turns wind their way up the mountain. I’m know I’m going to make it and when I see the 1km inflatable sign, just above, I’m almost feeling comfortable again. Almost.

I see the last corner and turn into the inside. With the finish line in sight I have no right to sprint after the horror of that climb. I sprint for the line.

And collect my medal at the bottom.

I hate it, but it's kinda pretty.

I hate it, but it’s kinda pretty.

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