ETAPE du Tour 2003 – THE STORY

The Etape began with a visit to the welcome village, top collect "Dossard" numbers and transponders, and to contemplate the difficulties which lay ahead. For the last week, temperatures had breen high, hovering in the 30s. However there was a surprise in store for us! Just after midnight as 16th of July 2003 began a tremendous crash broke the silence of the night. Lightning struck near our hotel in Pau. Not a good omen after torrential rain the night before! I wished I had wet weather tyres on my bike, then went back to sleep.

The Starting Line

5am – up for breakfast. After a huge breakfast I was finally waiting with 7000 others for the start of the Etape du Tour. It was the moment I had been waiting for all year. We heard over the loud speaker that at the front, wearing jersey number one, was none other than Miguel Indurain, five times winner of the Tour de France.

The loud buzz of conversation in many languages competed with the loud speaker announcements as we tensely waited for the start. Here I was, amid some of the fittest cyclists from many nations.

The count down started a few seconds before 7am. Then, at last, the loud speakers announced that the first group were off, headed by Indurain, Alain Prost and Abraham Orlano. As we were released pen by pen we joined the peloton of thousands.

Once we were through the starting arch it was a fast ride – even those of us in the 5000s were delighted to be cruising at a steady 23 miles/hour, drawn on by the enormous peloton, only slowing when we reached the first climb.

We were thankful for the storm of the night before. Temperatures that had been in the sweaty 30s the week before had now dropped to the comfortable 20s.

Cheered on by spectators, we sped through Oloron St Marie with its displays celebrating 100 years of the Tour de France.

After 34 miles, we reached the first feeding station at Arette. Many of us emulated Armstrong by riding across the grass, though to avoid the traffic jam instead of a fallen rider. With the strict time limits this year, many riders tried to bypass the first feeding station (if they could get through!)

A few miles further on we reached the start of the first dreaded climb – Soudet. Billed as having a 7.5% average gradient for 14Km, my gradient meter registered around 14% for long stretches of the climb. Averages are deceptive!

After an unexpected traffic jam near the start of Soudet, riders started climbing enthusiastically, but gradually slowed as several km of hard climbing wore them down. After 7km or so of climbing many of us started to wonder "why am I doing this?" Finally we arrived at the top, cheered by a large welcoming crowd. Where was the feeding stop? Oh no – another it was another km further on!

As we struggled to get near the food and water at the feeding stop we were increasingly aware that the elimination time was drawing near. After the very fast ride for the first 30 miles or so, there was an hour in hand, but I calculated that things would get much tighter later. After limiting my stop to only 10 minutes, I was off down the mountain keeping my eyes open for the dreaded pot holes and gravel we had been warned about, fuelled by spiced bread, orange slices and Vittel energy drink!

The descent needed to be a fast one. Three days before the Etape there had been lose chippings on the descent. Fortunately the potholes had been filled, and there were no loose chippings left by the time most of us descended. However a ski instructor near the front unfortunately found some remaining gravel, and hit the road. He picked himself up and continued, though with blood streaming from his face.

I had dreaded the descents, but found the descent of Soudet more enjoyable than frightening, as the handling of my new Giant TCR gave me more confidence than usual. To my relief riders around me were descending carefully, though I later heard that not everyone was careful (see the quotes section)

We reached the bottom of Soudet safely with a sense of relief then found ourselves riding down a pleasantly wooded a river valley. The flatness of this section came as a relief after the effort of climbing and the concentration of descending, but there were still two elimination zones to contend with, so the pace did not slacken. After elimination zone number 1, we prepared ourselves for the worst climbs of the Etape.

Cote du Larrau

The next challenge was Cote de Larrau. Though only 2.4 km long, it was billed as having an average gradient of 10.5%.

Averages were deceptive again. Much of the climb was 14% and at one point my gradient meter briefly touched 18%. Steady climbing was a good policy to avoid exhaustion later.

The Cote du Larrau had a slight sting in its tail when the climb continued long after the Larrau sign.

Indurain Sighted!

Most of us were not fortunate enough see Miguel Indurain during the ride. While climbing Larrau, Jonathan Roberts not only saw Big Mig, but also actually overtook him! He wrote:

"I did indeed see Miguel Indurain and it made my day to pass him on the Cote de Larrau although he climbed off at the top ... He was riding a beautiful Pinarello Dogma magnesium frame that was a gold colour with Campagnolo kit."

Cow Trouble

At the bottom of Larrau I witnessed one of the strangest incidents of the Etape. Having got into the swing of descending, I was close behind another rider who suddenly slammed on his brakes. I yelled out and just managed to avoid colliding with him. Then, to my surprise, I noticed a rider who had been stopped the road side being butted by a free range cow! After flying from his bike, he landed on the grass, where he sat nursing his shoulder. Another rider was also touched by a cow during a descent. Her reaction was "what are they doing there?" The cow’s thoughts may well have been similar!

The Agony of Barargui

The climb that followed, Barargui must rate as one of the toughest climbs in any Etape. Taken overall, it is only 8.8Km long, and the average gradient is 9.2%. However 3Km before the top, it rises to an average of 12.5% for a km. It this km there are stretches of 20%.

It was at this point, after 70 miles of hard riding, many were reduced to walking, while most of those still on their bikes were reduced to 3.5mph.

The line of bikes stretching out into the distance was replaced by a long line of marching legs! After much agony, welcomed by a large crowd, we reached the "Ravitaillement" at the Col de Barargui. A French rider summed it up for me when she said "Barargui – c’est fou!"

With only 40 minutes to spare I limited my stop to 10 minutes, but found I was unable to eat much solid food.

After Bagargui we entered one of the most scenic parts of the ride, though we did not stop to appreciate it! We donned our waterproofs for the descent as it stated to drizzle, and plunged downward.

Burdincurutcheta

After the climb of Barargui the gentler ascent of Burdincurutcheta was a pleasure. But what a joy to descend Burdincurutcheta at speed – the road surface was nearly perfect, and we sped down Km after Km of fast descent with winding bends passed at high speed! It was one of the best descents ever.

Russian Mountains

At the bottom I found myself in a large peloton riding at 21mph – amazing! Definitely the way to avoid elimination at St Jean le Vieux. I steamed through St Jean without even checking the time – they weren’t going to stop me now!

I was delighted to meet a friend on the climb at Jaxu and especially delighted when I was offered an apple and grape juice!

On the long straight stretches after St Jean it was good to ride in a peloton. Although it was down hill on average, there were frequent hills which the French describe as "Russian Mountains", which became quite wearing, and after 100 miles of hard riding, the last 25 miles seemed to go on for ever. It seemed strange that after looking forwards to the Etape for so long, I had started wishing that it was over!

Finally, after several of miles of struggling into a headwind alone, I stopped by the roadside to eat an apple I had been carrying, really feeling in need of a rest. Riders were streaming past. How would I ever make up the time? Another rider flopped into the grass beside me, lay down and went to sleep! A spectator then wished him "bon nuit!"

Revived, I got back on my bike, and soon joined a chain gang. Great! Four of us doing 21 mph. It was no effort for me, being third from the front. Then the front rider dropped off the front leaving one in front of me. Then the moment I dreaded – I was at the front of the chain gang! Afraid of letting the team down, I gave it all I’d got. 24mph – amazing! After a couple of miles, I looked round – only one follower left! I must have overdone it!

While I was descending a hill, there was a rushing sound, and suddenly found myself surrounded by riders doing 29mph. It was an exciting experience, to be riding so close to so many expert riders in such tight formation! Not an experience I’d want to repeat too often perhaps…

At another point I found myself near the back of a peloton of about 25 riders whose speed kept changing unpredictably, so overtook them, and was then proud to be leading the pack for a few miles. Each time I began to tire, they made a place for me further back. A well organized group indeed! As Justin, one of our party commented later, it was fascinating that pelotons seem have a life of their own, dividing, speeding up, slowing down, almost like a huge living organism.

On last climb before Bayonne, many competitors were walking or had stopped altogether. Some riders were even being pushed by spectators, as complete exhaustion finally set in. Wiser riders who had saved their strength in the peloton behind me went sprinting past at this point – a victory for tactics over pride!

The Finish

On the last stretch alongside the river in Bayonne I too found exhaustion setting in. After covering the last couple of miles at mediocre a speed it was great to be welcomed by the crowd at the finishing line! The final enjoyment of the day was discussing our exploits with other riders caught up in the excitement of the event.

We returned home with stories to tell having competed with some of the fittest bike riders in Europe, America and Japan and some from as far a field as Australia and South Africa. We have ridden over some of the steepest mountains in the Pyrenees, and raced over one of the longest stages in the Tour de France. We have also ridden with one of the greatest stars of cycling (he was there somewhere!) All those who made it beyond Larrau will be able to boast that they got further than Miguel Indurain! We were really honored to have Big Mig ride with us on his 39th birthday though.

A few riders suffered accidents during the Etape we wish them a speedy recovery.

The fastest rider to complete the Etape was Loic Herbreteau, who took 6 hours 17 minutes. Laurant Marcon was second, and Abraham Orlano finished in position 79. Alain Prost finished in position 203 after 7hours 9 minutes, even without an F1 car.

The professionals finished the same course in 5 hours, lead by the heroic Tyler Hamilton, who kept a lead of several minutes for 160Km alone, despite having recently broken a collarbone. How do they do it?

Well done Etappers! It was a tough course!