THE 2004 ETAPE du TOUR
LIMOGES to St FLOUR


The Welcome Village

Limoges is a large town in Central France. So large, in fact, that the first difficulty was locating the 'Welcome Village' to register!

Having registered, we gazed at what lay before us.

The weather forcast looked interesting. A following wind was more than we had dared to hope for. The promised storms in the afternoon were another matter. We had tried out Puy Mary in stormy weather a couple of days before; the high winds and rain that we had encountered were not encouraging!

Waiting

As we stood in the early morning light, we wondered what lay ahead of us. People from almost every country in Europe, and as far afield as South Africa, Australia, the USA and even Hawaii chatted in a variety of languages. Riders were thinking of the 150 miles of cycling ahead of them, of the ten climbs and of the fact that we had to average over 30 kph for the first 30 km to avoid being eliminated! Some were thinking about the fact that the first water stop was about 100 km away, while others were wishing they had not drunk quite so much!

The minutes ticked by very slowly ... 6am music over the loudspeakers.. 6:15 ... Alain Prost was being interviewed ... finally the babble of conversation gave way to a loud cheer as the first of over 7000 riders set off on one of the greatest challenges of their cycling year in a well organized peloton. 150 miles over the mountains lay ahead! A few were ex Tour de France riders. Most riders had trained hard for months. Some had never cycled 150 miles in their lives!

It was 20 minutes before some of us finally crossed the start line .....

The First 30 Km

One thought was uppermost in my mind as we crossed the hilly countryside after leaving Limoges - doing the first 30 Km in an hour! Dismayed by a couple of hold ups and by the 6% or 8% climbs, then cheered by 40 kph descents, heart rates were running at 90% of maximum or more. The possiblity of elimination after all that training, and a hundreds of miles of travel was hard to contemplate ... where was that sign? Would we really be eliminated if we did not reach it in time?

Finally it we reached it - within the hour! Was I the only one to let out a cheer? Sadly riders were in fact eliminated at this point.

The Marathon

And so the ride began - still 130 miles to go - with the pastures of the land of a thousand cows ahead of us, the long climbs of Lestard and its companion mountains, then finally the volcano lands of the Auvergne. At the 200 km mark was yet another possiblity of being eliminated - and not being allowed to finish!

The early morning 10C chill was vanishing now, as the temperatures rose to the low 20s. The going was good thanks to a following breeze, and the sun was breaking through morning mist in some of the valleys.

Having successfully completed the first 30 km in less than an hour, we were able to settle into a strong, steady rhythm. The terrain was far from flat, and the less cautious cyclists took the opportunity to show off their strength on the 6% to 8% climbs. The weather was nearly perfect, and I was beginning to think that this was more like a pleasant Sunday ride than the challenge of a lifetime!

With the following breeze, the usual tactic of slipstreaming other riders did not really apply, and it was sometimes easier to go it alone. At one stage I found myself leading a peloton of some 20 grateful riders, but I felt a bit of a fraud because the going was so easy! We were entertained at various points along the way by an accordion player, a French(?) horn soloist and cheering spectators. As we passed through rustic villages, family groups waved us on and shouted encouragement.

The First Mountains

After 50Km we reached the beginning of the climb culminating in Col de Lestards - some 17 km of fairly continuous ascent with gradients reaching 10% in places, culminating in 7k of 4.7%. This was our first real climb. The descent through shady pine forests was in some ways more challenging than the climb, as the road surface was rather rutted. As we descended, the slopes became steeper, and riders became more adventurous. As we approached the bottom, the hairpins became tighter, and ambulance sirens were heard. A series of gendarmes waved us over to the right hand side of the road, and finally we witnessed the victim of a "chute" sitting in the back of an ambulance with blood around his mouth and chin.

After this, I found that on the two subsequent forested mountains, I was descending more slowly than most other riders, then overtaking them again on the climbs! Another "chute" on a fast descent later claimed two other victims.

At Cote de St Yrieix riders were greeted by loving relatives and cheering friends, though not all riders wanted to stop for a chat or a kiss!

On the next climb, after his mobile phone rang, a rider informed all those around him "it's the mother in law..!" with a slight grimace much to the amusement of those around him..

I was impressed to see a tandem dscending like a fighter aircraft on one descent.

FOOD!

At 90 Km we reached our first feeding station at Egletons - chaos!! A rugby scrum might have been more peaceful - it was a case of barging your way to the front and grabbing what you could! Those skilled at catching were at an advantage as helpers threw bananas and small bottles of mineral water to them. Supplies were generous - water, gingerbread, energy drinks, orange slices, sandwiches... and the car park of the Champion supermarket hosting the melee soon began to look like a gigantic litter bin! As I was delighted to find that I was 40 minutes ahead of schedule (it was an easy schedule..!) and allowed myself a full 10 minute stop. I later heard that the delays were too much for some riders, who had not stopped, even after 90km!

Where Eagles Soar

After ascending Soursac, we reached the long awaited descent down to "Barrage d'Aigle". "Eagle Reservoir" as it might be in English - was aptly named, as birds of prey soar above it, and probably nest in the nearby cliffs. Not that we had time to look for them as we descended down a narrow road, "protected" from the sheer drop by large concrete blocks! After passing through a short tunnel cut through the rock, we emerged at the Barrage itself, decorated by a long string of riders crossing it in multi-coloured lycra.

The Climb to the Volcanic Mountains

At 122 km, this was a key point in the ride, as we started a fairly continuous climb for the next 50 km which would take is from a forest landscape to the more spectacular extinct volcanoes of the Auvergne.

Leaving the reservoir with gradients of 10%, the slopes soon eased off to more modest 6% - 8% climbing continuously, the climbs mercifully relenting at Mauriac, then resuming as we approached Col de Neronne after the feeding station in the beautiful medieval hill town of Salers.

Col de Neronne was not difficult, but the landscape was very spectacular! The road is cut into the right hand side of a ridge. On our right was a steep sided valley, then the rising slopes of Puy Violent!

After passing the cafe at the top (some stopped there for refreshment) we were greeted by signs warning us of "dangerous descents". The road switched to the other side of the ridge, and we were treated to the flattest part of the whole ride - my gradient meter registered a 0% gradient for about 2km! Finally the descent came, winding its way into a wooded valley.

Then the real challenge arrived - the ascent of Puy Mary to Col du Pas de Peyrol. A sign warned us of 5km of 9.62%. That was worrying, but what was more worrying was that the gradient for the first 3 km was quite gentle - till we reached some graffiti in the road proclaiming 2km of 17%! The gradient rapidlty rose... 10%, 12%, 15%, 17%, then touched 20% before moderating a little. More and more people started pushing their bikes. One rider was weaving wildly from one side of the road to the other. I heard that one rider slowed until he simply fell off!

Finally after the 1km to the summit sign, a welcome, flat hairpin provided a brief resting place before the next steep section. At last, after rounding the last bend - the summit!

The descent was more typical of the Alps!

The next summit was Col de Entremont, followed by the fastest descent ever, with some riders reaching 81 km per hour (let me know if you were faster!) on a road as wide as a motorway with a surface to match and a constant gradient for several miles. This descent was just in the right place before the elimination point at Murat, though sadly some were too late. At least they were spared the next climb...

The Last(?) Long Climb

Weariness began to show after 120 miles on the next 9 km climb, on the slopes of Plomb de Cantal - we got to the top eventually!

Another alpine descent was followed by a horror - another unexpected mountain! Spectators urged riders on as we ascended to be greeted by wonderful views over the Central Plateau. - and 27km of almost continuous descent!

Arriving in Style

What a joy to be descending at 30 - 40kph effortlessly after 130 miles of mountanous riding - and the following wind seemed stronger - and not a storm in sight! Even better- we arrived in St Flour on a down hill route, and were spared the last exhausting ascent into St Flour tackled by the Vrai Tour de France!

Three Days Later

It was a joy to see Virenque tackle the same route with such style on the following Wednesday, riding away from Axel Merckx on the dreaded Puy Mary climb, opening an up an amazing 6 minute lead, then riding the last 62kms solo! A true French Victory on Bastille Day!

The first riders completed the 2004 Etape less than an hour behind Virenque's time. But most of us were delighted just to complete 150 miles over nine major cols with around 4000 meters of climb at all. An outstanding achievement!