Dawn on 11th July 2000. Cyclists were walking in all direction looking for their starting pens. The author is among them! (photo C.M.Cogger)
7:30 am came. 7:30am went. The loudspeakers played soothing music. Waiting in a pen with 500 cyclists surrounded by the multicoloured lycra of cyclists from 46 countries, it was difficult to imagine the 93 miles of cycling which lay ahead of us, with a 2000 foot climb, a 3000 foot climb, culminating in the mountain which saw the end of one of Britains greatest cyclists, Tom Simpson – the mighty Ventoux, Giant of Provence, at over 6000 feet.
The light cloud cover with streaks of pale blue in the early morning gave us no clue as to what was to follow.
Finally, a wave of cheering spread from the front of the pen – we were off! A huge peloton of 7500 amateur cyclists about to tackle a particularly difficult stage of the Tour de France – lead by none other than three times Tour de France victor Greg LeMond wearing jersey number 1, followed by formula 1 racing champion Alain Prost in jersey number 10.
A dream? No – the Etape du Tour! An annual event organized by Velo magazine, which allows over 6000 amateur cyclists to tackle a stage of the world’s most famous cycle race each year. This photo shows the rest of the team just after they arrived after a frantic drive from Calais to Provence. They are Mark (left), Norman, and Chris
Meanwhile, back at the Etape ...As we picked up speed I was rapidly loosing contact with the friends. Norman, a marathon runner, who had been showing off the panniers on his old touring bike to bemused Frenchmen on thoroughbred racing cycles, was disappearing behind me. Mark was with him, but Chris had mysteriously disappeared into another pen at the back. He later told us that his initial reaction was " I’ve just realized – this is a race – and I’m at the back!" He was later to prove the most kind hearted of the four of us by stopping to repair someone’s chain and give away his spare inner tube to another stranded competitor.
Once we were through the starting arch where our start time was recorded automatically, the pace increased, and we were drawn along by the huge peloton at 18 – 24 mph. I was trying to move forward through the crowd, slipstreaming wherever possible to conserve energy. Gradually the lower jersey numbers appeared – first the 4000s, then the 3000s, and finally a few below 1000.
The first climb, to Col de Murs, at over 600 meters, was 11km long. Enclosed by rocks and trees on both sides, it was impossible to gauge how far you had got. At the top, the water stop was complete chaos. The road was blocked by thousands of cyclists, and the supply of water had run out! Fortunately, the temperatures were quite low. I was pleased to be able to borrow a large screwdriver from the Mavic technical assistance team, as my cleat had come loose.
The descent was fun, with over 10km of downhill at speeds around 30mph. Most people were descending at the same speed though a few adventurous riders were weaving in and out, making easy progress through the pack.
After the flat lands near Rousillon came the long climb up to St Jean, which resembled Dartmoor scenically. The road contoured its way up one side of a gorge in the Foret de Javon.
The descent into Sault for the feeding stop was very scenic with lavender fields and vinyards carpeting the valley far below in purple and green.
More chaos ensued at the feeding station in Sault. I managed to grab a few slices of orange, while Norman took full advantage of the situation by stuffing some spare sandwiches in his panniers!
I tried to save my energy on the climb up to Col d’Abeilles, only to find myself apparently at the back of the entire field! I quickly recovered the situation by slipstreaming an old professional type, overtaking several hundred riders, and tacking myself on the back of a faster Peloton. The following descent gave you the feeling of flying as we sped downward for kilometer after kilometer, but became unnerving as we plunged forwards at high speeds towards the plane a thousand feet below in gusty wind conditions.
Thee next climb was describes by Velo magazine as a petit patate-
a spud! It was in fact a nasty little category 4 climb called the Cote de Mormoiron.
Fortunately it only lasted for about 2.5 miles
Ventoux finally loomed in the distance, the infamous "Giant of Provence", as we neared the 80 mile mark, having already climbed 5000 feet, with another 6000 foot of ascent to go!
When we finaly arrived at Ventoux, careful pacing earlier on, (and a good granny gear of 30/28!) started to pay off at last, as I overtook numerous flagging riders. The climb seemed endless. Just when you think you are near the top, the sign "11km to the summit" appears. At that point riders were starting to get off and push in increasing numbers. A 22km climb, most of which has a gradient of around 9%, is no small challenge. Alain Prost, the formula 1 racing champion, decided to retire 10km into the climb, despite having performed exceptionally well in the 1996 Etape du Tour, taking 42nd position. The leading lady, Severine Desbouys, was forced to change her rear wheel for one with a lower gear ratio with the help of a support car, in order to conquer the Giant of Provence, reducing her ratio from 39/21 to 39/24. A member of the Equipe de France feminine, she had the Olympic games in her sights. Only 1.5 km from the water stop at Chalet Reynard I started to feel the strain, and slackened my pace by a mile an hour. Probably half the riders were either pushing their bikes or stopped by now. Then the weather deteriorated. The wind rose. The temperature dropped. It was about to rain. I prayed I would get to Chalet Reynard before the rain set in. Then Chalet Reynard! Never mind the water stop – straight into the café for a grand café au lait and a Kit Kat! It was 3 pm – not too bad! I allowed myself a strict 10 minute stop. A fellow rider, Mathew Walker, a veteran of the 1999 Etape greeted me as I struggled to recover before the last 6km of wind blasted mountain. Neither of us saw any culture clash in taking a coffee break on a stage of the tour de France!
Whereas the first part of Ventoux is a sheltered climb through the Foret de Bedoin, the last 6km is a lunar landscape subject to the full force of the weather. As we wound our way along the tarmaced ledge in the mountain serving as a road, the temperature dropped to 2 degrees above freezing. An attempt at sprinting to the finish soon faded as I passed over the mat which automatically recorded our times, meeting an absolute wall of people. Straight into the giftshop to warm up! On with every possible layer! Eat some chocolate quickly!
After ¾ of an hour I thought I had recovered enough to descend the 22km to the reception village at Malaucene. I could not believe the poor visibility, slippery road surface, sheer drops, high winds and low temperatures. Ambulance sirens were wailing as they drove up and down the mountain, rescuing victims of hypothermia. Cyclists were appearing out of the fog at high speed then just as rapidly disappearing again. I could not face riding at first, but pushed my bike down the hill, finally alternating between riding and stopping to warm up, then passing the field hospital set up to thaw out victims of hypothermia.
The café half way down was a welcome refuge before the rest of the descent.
Not long after I arrived at the summit, the route was closed by the police, leaving the last 3000 disappointed entrants unable to finish the course. In all around 700 cyclists were given help. The SAMU medical staff finished assisting the recovery of their most seriously affected patients by 17:30, when a helicopter was used to survey the route to ensure that there were no further stranded cyclists on the course in difficulty.