Friday, 1 February 2008

A blog entry from someone who rode last year's Etape

The text below is an entry from Andrew Robson's blog (a friend of Tim) who rode the Etape last year.  It is quite sobering.

I am very proud to say that I managed to finish the 2007 Etape Du Tour Mondovelo from Foix to Loudenvielle. It was physically the hardest thing I have ever done or will probably ever want to do. The Etape is a stage of the Tour open to amateur cyclists and has always been the hardest mountain stage in either the Alps or the Pyrenees. This year it encompassed Stage 15 which the Tour will do on Monday 23rd July so to understand just how hard the stage is watch ITV 4 between 7 pm and 8 pm. It is meant to be 15% harder than last years Etape which finished in Alpe D’Huez

Being generally keen on cycling I had read how tough the race was and spoken to people who had done it and decided I needed a challenge. What I didn’t know was 2007 was to be the hardest course in years. The race started at 7 am and having left Foix numbered 8008 with 8,500 competitors in the race I finally got over the start line after 20 minutes with a nice 15 km flattish section before heading into the mountains to get to the Col De Port which is a Category 2 climb of 640 metres (Category 1 being the hardest) lasting for 15 kms. This was in Etape terms a bit of a leg loosener and having got over the top a downhill section where you are getting up to between 40 – 50 miles an hour down into St Girons at 68 kms.

It was going down from Col De Port that you begin to realize just how hard and dangerous the Etape is – an ambulance was in the middle of the downhill section with one of the riders having just been put in the back looking alive but very badly hurt – I can only guess that he was knocked off his bike by another rider doing over 40 miles an hour – this was the first of may accidents I was to see during the race. Whilst you get riders passing you at speeds in excess of 50 mph - whilst they may make 2 or 3 minutes on a descent – 20 or 30 minutes can be made on a climb so it just isn’t worth taking the risks.

Having arrived in St Girons there was a feed station where I filled up my water bottles and took on food – bananas, oranges and sandwiches – and set off on my way. On my way up to Col De Port I had been chatting to a fellow surveyor who had said that a friend of his had done the whole stage in 2 days and couldn’t believe how hard the second part was so as I set off out of St Girons I decided to think of a mountain at a time. Out of St Girons there is a further 10 km of nice straight road with a gradual incline until you turn back into the mountains to do the Col De Port D’Aspet which is another Category 2 climb of 594 metres. Reaching the top I was half way through the race feeling great having got there in just under 4 hours - an hour and a half ahead of the dreaded elimination vans.

Taking the descent I was rather enjoying the first half of my race however cycling next to a friendly Frenchman he politely advised me that the next two Cols were extremely difficult. The next Col was the Col De Mente a Category 1 climb of 549 metres but with the first 2 km at 10% and the final 7 km at between 6 and 8%. The start of this climb coincided with the sun finally coming out and what would turn into a 34 degree hot day. I got to the top but was really annoyed with myself because for most of the climb I was using my second lowest gear thinking it was my lowest – when I did eventually change down I was really annoyed as it was so much easier and it had clearly taken a lot out of me.

Having got to the top sweating profusely I piled into the next feed station. On an Etape you are probably burning up to 5,000 calories and it is very important to keep the energy levels up by eating and keeping well hydrated. Having got through the scrum of the feed station and refilled I set off an amazing downhill descent down into the valley of the Hautes Pyrenees followed by a very enjoyable flattish section of 20 kms. It was during this section that I really got the hang of riding in a Peleton – except due to my size a lot of riders thought it a good idea to use me to head our Peleton. People ride in a Peleton to slip stream the person in front and in a head wind it makes it easier to ride. A Dutch guy finally slipped in front of me and told me to get back – initially thinking he was being rude I suddenly realized he was telling me to get back in the pack to take a breather.

The whole route of the Etape is closed off to traffic and along the course there are Gendarmes on motorbikes and medical staff as well as back up mechanics also all the villagers come out to cheer the competitors along offering water, spraying them with hoses to cool them down and even helping those people who had punctures. I had changed the tyres on my bike before the race to the most durable racing tyres on the market and so far so good – I had not yet got a puncture. Still feeling pretty good at 140 kms – only 60 km to go with two more cols we rode along to the bottom of Col Du Port De Bales which is a non category Col - i.e. extremely difficult. The first 7.5 kms were fairly easy with the hardest section being 7 % however then we turned into the National Park there was a sign showing 20 km to the summit and an incline in excess of 8% up to 1,755 km. Think of the hardest hill you know or have ridden up on a bike and then imagine it is 20 kms long not a few hundred yards.

It was now that I realized why this is the toughest amateur cycle race – the sun was now getting so hot that parts of the road were melting – I was having to drink so much water to keep hydrated and then with my legs really feeling it – I could see people getting off their bikes and pushing. I soon realized that cycling at 6 km per hour as opposed to walking at 5 km an hour just emphasized how steep the mountain was. I was in the end forced off my bike to walk for a bit as I suddenly got cramp in my right calf and I was also beginning to have problems breathing – brought on by the heat and my hay fever so I decided to join everyone else and walk a bit and cycle a bit. Realising that I was beginning to run out of water it was a total relief when a farmer half way up the mountain was offering people water from his mountain spring so I filled up both my water bottles and drank a bottles worth and poured a bottle of the freezing water over my head.

I have never wanted to get to the top of a mountain so much and having finally arrived I made sure I replenished with food and drink as in addition to being very dehydrated, extremely tired, having breathing problems I was also slightly hypoglycemic so made sure I took on some sugar. Taking in the amazing views across the Pyrenees I set off again. So near yet so far – 4 cols climbed – 159 km gone and 40 km to go and one more col – Col Du Peresourde. The descent from Col Du Port De Bales was amazing - on a new road however no barriers so extreme caution must be taken however a 14 km descent which never allows you to catch a breath you end up in the valley with 178 kms gone so 21 kms to go however the Col Du Peresourde is a real sting in the tail a Category 1 climb of 15 kms of 609 metres. With the locals still cheering the competitors along I took the opportunity to cycle under peoples hoses to cool down and have water thrown on my head.

So with one final climb but I was beginning to wonder where I would get the reserves to get up the Col Du Peresourde. I had assumed that the race would take me between 9 and 10 hours however I had never really wanted to analyze the race too much just wanted to go out and do it. However I was now coming up to 10 hours and time was eating into my cushion with the elimination vans however whilst the first 7 kms were just about bearable if I didn’t look ahead and stared at the road below – I was having breathing problems again and getting dizzy so reluctantly decided to get off my bike to walk and try and take on board some more sugar tablets, gels and water but I was in a zone I have never ever taken my body and was beginning to worry about my health however knew that even if I walked I would still go over the top with 40 minutes to spare. An English guy who constantly seemed to be riding close to me went past saying “come on we can do it – not far now”. This was a lot of help. Having finally got to the summit I took a couple of minutes to get my head together before the descent down into Loudenvielle which again is very steep and dangerous however I could begin to finally think of finishing.

3 kms before Loudenvielle you turn off the main road and there is a 500 metre 6 degree climb as a sting in the tail but I dug in and having got to the top I could see the village below and all the tents, crowds - so head down I raced to the finish line and finally getting over the line was one of most amazing feelings I have or will ever experience. Everyone who finish is given a gold medal which is down to the fact that we all climbed 5 mountains. Getting off my bike I practically collapsed but was able to walk to an open piece of ground in the competitors area hearing my wife Jane and son George shouting for me I didn’t have the strength to look up and just put my bike down and sat down put my head in my hands shaking in utter exhaustion and emotion – see attached photo.

I however gave Jane my food and drink token I had been given on finishing who told George to stay with me and ran off get me some food and drink. Next to the food and drink tents were the medical tents where it apparently looked like a war zone people being sick, on oxygen and on drips. Once I was able to get a can of Orangina, a bag of crisps and some pasta down me I started to feel a bit better. There were people out on the course who have done a number of Etapes who were caught up by the elimination wagons so never finished. Over 4000 people didn’t finish and each one of them would have done a considerable amount of training. Greg Le Mond the American ex tour rider did the race and came in 701 in 8 hours 41 minutes which shows how hard the race was. I came 3,649 out of 8,500 starters in an official time of 11 hrs 13 minutes – I couldn’t ask any more of myself.

I had put a lot of training into doing this race and very much appreciate the support of my wife Jane and son George and from friends who have helped with my training and put up with hardly ever seeing me. Would I recommend the race – probably yes however you have to be totally committed to the training and realize you have to put your social life on hold. The benefits are you become very fit, loose a lot of weight and realize even really hard goals are achievable.

I would like to thank everyone who has pledged money to support my chosen charity of the Geoff Thomas Foundation for cancer sufferers - I have had pledges so far of over £1500 and some have already paid direct via the web site. Please either pay via the web site or send me a cheque made to the Geoff Thomas Foundations.

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