2009 ETAPE – THE STORY!
As I stood in the starting pen at 6am in Montelimar I was thinking about a typical British obsession – the weather! The forecast for Saturday had been snow at 2000 m, and the temperature had plunges from 31 degrees to 15 degrees in a day, then risen again. Would this be a repeat of the treacherous weather of the 2000 Etape?
In my starting pen people were relaxed and chatting. In the front pen the competition had already started and competitors were already jostling each other for position!
7 am came – the countdown reached zero – and the front pen was off!!
Further back we continued to chat…then we were released and staggered towards the starting pens – then we were off!
Passing through the starting arch, we gently accelerated, the peloton of 8,500 people making its way almost effortlessly through the town. Such was the slipstream effect that I kept glancing at my cycle computer, each time being amazed to see how fast I was going with surprisingly little effort – 18 mph then 25 mph…
In what seemed like minutes we had left Montelimar and were in the open countryside, catching slower riders with low dossard numbers and being overtaken by more powerful riders from the back. At the front of the great peloton, the fastest riders were jostling each other for position.
The first climb, Cote de Citelle presented little difficulty. It was unexpectedly crowned by a small wind farm.
Descending, I was surprised by the first sight of Mont Ventoux. Though about 90 miles away, it looked both menacing and enticing! Our descent was interrupted as everyone ground to a halt because of an emergency ahead, then after a brief pause we were on our way again
In the flat lands around Nyon, the pace continued at 18 – 25 mph. As we hit the first slopes Col d’Ey, the peloton slowed a little. Riders could be seen zigzagging up the bends in the distance.
After a satisfying climb, we reached the summit of Col d’Ey. The descent was dramatic as we descended through bend after bend, our speed checked slightly by the sheer numbers of jostling riders.
After the descent to Baronnies, the feed stop at was welcome and chaotic. The numbers thinned out a bit before the next beautiful climb - the Col de Fontaube.
I was enjoying the ride – great weather and good progress!
The road dropped away after the Col de Fontaube –
We were treated to another splendid descent with the song of cicadas in the air.
Then on through the famous lavender fields of Provence, with exotic butterflies flapping lazily across our path.
The next climb took us to the medieval hill top town of Aurel.
So far it had been more like a cycle tour through the French countryside than a race at this stage. Things were soon to change dramatically!
We reached the drink station at Sault well ahead of the elimination time. Desperate riders were fighting for vital refreshment.
After descending from Sault we faced the first difficult climb of the day, Abeilles, when the gradients became really challenging for the first time in the ride.
Col d’Abeilles is a bit of a joker – we climbing two false summits before we reached the real one!
The third summit was a real one!
The fastest descent of the day followed – coasting down at 35 mph. Riders at the front claimed to have descended at up to 50mph.
As we descended towards Bedoin the lunar landscape topping of Ventoux became clearly visible – out objective was beginning to look achievable! Little did we know what was in store!
As we approached Bedion I reflected on 92 miles of the nicest Etape ever– great weather, good speed, beautiful landscape, and pleasant climbs.
Friendly spectators greeted us with cheers as we entered Bedoin.
The lead group made good progress on Ventoux
Further back we made good progress
However after the Virage de St Esteve we reached the infamous forest section of Ventoux, and the gradients increased to around 10%.
Temperatures rose to 37 degrees, and the pace slowed. Cyclists began to dismount, sheltering under the shade of the roadside trees. Some began pushing their bikes up the steep slope.
Overheated riders cooled themselves with water from a roadside horse trough.
More and more people were pushing their bikes or resting in the shade.
Half way up the forest section I began to dream of a cool lemonade at Chalet Reynard, still several km away. The thought spurred me on!
The gradients rose to over 10% for bend after bend.
After an overwhelming effort we arrived exhausted at Chalet Reynard.
The Café at Chalet Reynard did very good business sandwiches and ice cool drinks, competitors pausing for 20 minutes or longer to recover ready for the final assault on the summit of Ventoux.
Finally, refreshed, riders set off from Chalet Reynard for the last part of the challenge, across the desert of limestone, usually windswept, but today free from even a cooling breeze.
The top of Ventoux towered above us in the blazing sunlight, a procession of riders, looking like mere dots in the distance, struggling up the last few kilometres to the top.
At last - We had arrived!
From the top, far below riders looked like ants tailing off into the distance hundreds of metres below us.
We had ridden with Chris Boardman, Erik Zabel, James Cracknell, Alain Prost, and conquered the mighty Giant of Provence, in company with riders from 50 countries as far away as Iceland, Japan, the USA and Brazil. The winner, appropriately named Dimitri Champion finished in 5 hours 11 minutes and 30 seconds. 7396 riders crossed the finish line.
THE NEXT DAY
After their achievements, 4 members of our group are pictured after a ride to a coffee and cake shop near where we were staying on the following day…..
From left to right, they are Mark, Rocco, Neil and Kevin.
Kevin again excelled, finishing in 6 hours and 3 minutes, ahead of double Olympic gold medalist James Cracknell, and Tour de France riders Chris Boardman and Eric Zabel! He was narrowly beaten by Formula 1 champion Alain Prost.
Everyone staying with us was content to have finished within the time limits, though some had more to be proud of!