Friday, 11 July 2008

Tim's account of our epic ride

The day started as soon as our heads hit the pillow – in an effort to get the suggested 8 hours sleep the night before the big race we retired early only to toss and turn as our minds raced through the task ahead, the biggest yet faced…….104 miles cycle through the foothills of the Pyrenees and then up some of the most fearsome climbs on the Tour. Our fragile sleep patterns were shattered by a massive thunder storm at 3.30am, suggesting the expected rain forecast for the day ahead might be unfortunately accurate. The alarm call at 4.55am was a blessed relief – the day had started!

The prep work the night before paid dividends – there was no last minute panic as we changed and consumed our pre-prepared soaked high carb oats which would hopefully pull our bodies through the first part of the race.

As we entered the start point ( a series of eight holding pens, each housing 1000 cyclists!) it was difficult not to be intimidated by the cyclists on show, most of whom carried no body fat and sported shaven legs (what is that about!) – a phenomenal array of bikes were on show, each looking lighter and faster than our own. A few other odd things stood out – the average age was higher than we expected at c 35-40 years (this was reassuring!) - and a distinct lack of female riders (c 3%). The hour before the race was a long one and our aim was to keep our bodies well hydrated and warm. The tips given to us by previous seasoned Etapers turned out to be invaluable…. the old clothing we held (and had to discard) provided much needed warmth whilst a spare bottle of water meant we did not eat into our precious 1.25 litres of water carried on board the bike, needed to carry us 60 miles to the first feed station.

The constant drizzle became a wet cold blanket that enveloped everyone and the 7.10am signal for the start of the race was welcomed by all. Cries of “We’ve not come this far to fail” and “Pain is temporary - failure lasts forever….” went around as we slowly crossed the start line signified by an electronic bleep triggered by our ankle tracking device. A disturbing part of the hydration process suddenly dawned on Team Etape Virgins – we had only just crossed the start line and our bladders were already bursting! This was a theme of the next 7.5 – 8.5 hours as we all held off the inevitable in an effort to maintain average speed and keep up with your buddies. The start turned out to be a precarious and surprisingly dangerous part of the race, given the sheer volume of people being squeezed through the gate which was no more than 20 meters wide. Suddenly we broke out of the claustrophobic frenzy and we were away, fuelled by a mixture of adrenalin and fear at what lay ahead. We cried out to one another to keep close and we screamed through the wet wide roads of Pau. This is one of only a few races where the roads are completely shut down to traffic for the benefit of the riders, which made each and every rider feel priviledged and what makes the Etape du Tour such a special occasion.

The 104 miles of the Tour is best split into two distinct phases - the lowlands - and the mountains. The Lowlands involved a phenomenally quick ride broadly 60 miles from Pau, through the historic streets of Lourdes and to the start of the dreaded Tourmalet. As we sped through Pau, speeds of 25 mph on the flat were recorded and we averaged 22 mph over the first 25 miles. This phase of the ride involved an impressive 1000 meters of climbing, with two notable climbs of c 6-7% incline, each over 2-3 km. What is interesting is these climbs hardly register on any of the macho information guides handed out prior to the race, however for the uninitiated they formed a rude awakening to what lay ahead! Taking in the hills we still maintained high average speeds of between 18-20 mph.

The vehicle that allowed us to maintain these high speeds is “The Peleton”, the word for a group of cyclists (sometimes as many as 100) who use momentum and body mass to create slipstreams of air and in so doing allow riders to save energy. Typically riders take it in turn to lead from the front to optimise speed however this in itself can lead to jostling and high speed crashes – fortunately we steered clear of these thanks to a smidgeon of courage, communication, nerve and good peripheral vision! The first 60 miles was all about jumping on and off passing peleton’s as one found a speed that suited each rider. What was clear was the energy saved or expunged on the flat was critical when it came to the second and more difficult stage of the race. The art to this technique is never leading the peleton for long – there were times when one ditched one peleton, because it was going too slowly, only to find 5 minutes later you are unwittingly leading a new peleton, with dozens of “wheel suckers” taking a free ride at your expense!

Maintaining speed and saving energy was important however the difference between potentially finishing the race and not was governed by the intake of fuel to balance energy levels and keep the body going. We had all opted for easy access feed bags on the frame which carried gels, malt loafs, nuts and power bars ……anything that got the maximum carb/sugar load into us as quickly as possible to counter the calories lost during the race. Our on board computers (Garmin 303) showed how much energy the team riders used during the ride. This registered between 8-10,000 calories, the equivalent of 4 days worth of eating for the average male. The two feed stations allowed us to top up on certain essential foods but, more importantly, meant we could refill our water bottles – in total we drank between 4-5 litres during the race, a sure sign that our excess sweating was a pre-cursor to potential cramping or, more worryingly, led to a potential BONK, whereby the body effectively shuts down and you can go no further. Towards the end of the race one could see how this manifested itself with humiliating falls as the rider loose their orientation and balance.

Innocent obstacles soon became lethal hazards to all but the focused, as evidenced by the number of cyclists we passed spread eagle, sometimes motionless, at the side of the road. Gendarmes and course officials blew whistles frantically to warn the fast approaching peleton, however this still did not stop wheels clipping drain covers, pot holes or curbs leading to flat tyres and forced delay. One other common mistake was inflated tyres – at the outset and through the duration of the course one could here tyres bursting spectacularly sending its rider into momentary shock whilst working out what had happened.

After the second feed-stop and some 65 miles into the race we were faced by a heart stopping sign that signalled the second stage of the Etape. This read “24 km to the summit of the Col de Tourmalet”! We pushed forward into the mountain stage questioning whether the intense training, which involved over 200 miles cycling a week (much of it over hills) would carry us up and over this climb, which is steeped in Tour de France folklore. The first 4 miles was a relatively benign 4-5% climb. With a degree of foresight and basic mathematics it should not have come as a surprise that for each meter travelled below the total average ascent of 7.5%, simply meant a steeper section to haunt us later on in the climb. Now it is not the fact 7.5% average climbing is that difficult, not over 6-8 miles. But over 18 miles we moved into a brave new world and the battle was as much in the mind as it was in the legs and heart. As the rain continued to drop it intermingled with our sweat which dripped off our brows and noses synching perversely with the pedal rhythm. Our average speed over this section dropped dramatically to 6-8 mph and slower on the steep sections, with markers slowly counting down our progress.

Two miles from the summit we reached Le Mongie feed station, a great example of a false horizon as we had been told we could enjoy the final climb to the summit and take in the panoramic views. How wrong they were – the gloom descended, our wheels skidded on the sheep droppings, making our progress even slower on the tortuous 10% final climb to the summit. A kindly women was handing out newspapers 100 meters from the top – thinking what a bloody stupid thing to be doing we realised our mistake in not taking one as soon as we started our descent. Experienced riders, in addition to pulling on wind sheets, gloves, hats etc were stuffing the papers down there tops to give extra insulation for the 15 mile descent ahead.

We had all looked forward to this stage of the course – a chance to really pick up on our average speed, lean into the chicanes and enjoy the thrill and exhilaration as we wound our way towards the final and most difficult final climb……Hautacam. As the speed built up something strange happened to Tim. His bike began to wobble, so much so there was a genuine fear that a crash was inevitable. It was as if he had had a flat, although the wheels looked fine? His muddled thought process slowly worked out the problem – cold had set in and his body, shaking to the core, was simply reverberating down into the frame and wheels. The only way to deal with this was to drop to below 20mph, frozen hands struggling to maintain pressure on the brakes. This, added to the fact a lot of the riders bombed past at 40—50mph, making the descent a living nightmare with the real prospect of a high speed collisions to curtail the race. Some horrific stories were imparted at the end of the race which verified our fears – the descent in perfect conditions needs 100% focus, however in the cold and wet the need to maintain body warmth is critical so pack assuming the worst. Come what may a “devil may care” attitude helps!

With only 9 miles remaining one could sense the dread of the final climb…….HAUTACAM. Unlike Tormalet it is shorter, prettier and on the face of it less threatening. This again was another massive illusion. This final ascent was made all the more surreal by the noise and support of thousands of people at the side of the road as we passed through the village of……. whose clapping, whistling and cheering lifted our spirits and brought a lump to our throats. Through gritted teeth we put our heads down and went for it……at least for the first 500 meters! Thereafter the legend that is the Hautacam demonstrated why it is such a feared climb and features so heavily in the memoirs of the greats such as Lance Armstrong. It averages 10% along the 10 mile stretch – it is relentless and over the next 10 miles we guessed one in four cyclists would dismount and walk as cramp took hold or the bodies simply shut down with the effort. The Etappe Virgin team all made it up without walking, a fantastic testament to the hard work put in to training in the run up to the race. With only one road up the mountain the road was split in two, a lane up which measured no more than 3 meters and a similar width lane down for riders who had finished. This led to it own hazards as one overtook slower cyclists or those literally falling off there bikes. The slipstream for passing was on the left side of the lane, however the stronger cyclists would soon shout out “a droit!” warning you to pull in as they passed on the inside. On a number of occasions bikes who hogged this right of passage would simply be pushed aside, with expletives and obscenities then ensuing. Sometimes you were forced out into the opposite lane and one then had to dodge descending cyclists. 100% focus was still necessary if we were to finish this race!

At an average speed of 4-5 mph, barely above walking speed, we crossed the infamous cattle grid which signalled just two miles to the summit and the finish. Again maybe we had placed to much reliance on the stories that suggested the cattle grid signalled the end of the climb, and one could enjoy the final run in………this was B******ks. The last 2 miles was as hard as anything and because of the grey and wet cloud, our bodies were screaming out no more. As we crossed the finishing line and heard the bleep, that familiar pain associated with the end of any race, took a hold as we forced oxygen back in to our bodies. Kindly officials helped moved riders forward to collect their medals which now hung proudly around our soaked clothing. Pain gave way to euphoria and a whole range of emotions took over, the strongest of which being one of joy that we had completed what we set out to do six months prior, and raised over £20,000 in the process for Alzheimers Society.

Writing this a week on the Etappe Virgin team riders need to express a huge debt of gratitude to all those who sponsored us and allowed us to double our initial sponsorship target. All the well wishers kept us going when it perhaps was simpler to give up. A special thanks needs to go to our wives who granted us the many green cards which were required to complete our training programme and the race itself.

Now then, what do we do next year?


Anonymous said...

Skinny Mike B now needs funds to buy a set of new slim fit skirts I mean shirts for work.

Datameister said...

Congratulations on all finishing, and particularly without walking. The first time etappers all wish you well, having similarly a 100% completion without walking record.

Evidently, blogging and proper preparation keep you sufficiently honest to do the necessary amount of training. Lets face it, as far as I can see, most failures occurred because people hadn't done enough.

As for next year, well London-Edinburgh-London for me. Unless the Etape is a classic stage of course. to keep in touch and send photos. There are lots of UK sportives........