Like the two previous Etape du Tour events, the real challenge was at the end. But not in a way that anyone expected! However, starting at the beginning, the long awaited 22nd July had arrived. Months of preparation were about to bear fruit – we hoped!! It was early on Monday morning…
While those of us lucky enough to have a lift to the start faced traffic jams, Dave Ravenhill had a different problem. Having set off from the hotel rather late, he discovered that he had left his transponder in the hotel. Fortunately after returning to get it, he was able to slipstream the Corsican National champion to the start at high speed, cheered on by the crowd (though he does not think the cheers were for him!) Another late arrival was Jeanie Longo, who has a formidable list of achievements behind her, perhaps hoping to add a first position in the Etape du Tour to her Olympic medals!
Meanwhile, the rest of us were waiting in the starting pensaccompanied by 7500 competitors from all nations. There were a few ominous clouds in the sky, and the temperature was 14 degrees. Excitement was rising, first timers wondering what was ahead, and others greeting friends from previous years – if they could spot them! I was delighted to see the familiar faces of Neil, Andy and Lucy, Paul Davison and Paul Oaks from Didcot Phoenix. Paul Oaks was going to do the Etape on a trike! He later had the pleasure of being interviewed by three TV channels at various points along the way. I was also pleased to meet Carl for the first time. He had previously visited this web site. The rest of my group was lost in the crowd!
The countdown was a long one. Finally at 7:50 we were off – stumbling along at first, edging towards the inflatable starting arch – then at last -- GO!! Several people seemed to have decided on a sprint start – a doubtful tactic I thought at the time, with 4 major cols and over 11,000 feet of climb ahead of us. It soon transpired that a sprint start was a good idea!
The ride up to Bourg St Mauricewas almost the only flat bit. 10Km of bliss, as riders jockeyed for position, overtaking through every possible gap, careering along at speeds of 25-30mph in between the steadier riders. Safe riding was the order of the day though, with over 7500 riders to contend with!
Then we hit the mountains.The first known Etape du Tour traffic jam! A motorcycle had brough down six riders. Thousands of riders slowed to about 4mph. Then we sped up. Then we stopped. And walked. Some riders adopted a cyclo- cross tactic and went cross country across the hairpin bends! Hopes of a silver medal were fading! Then suddenly it cleared, and we were off on our first climb, the longest – over 4000 feet of hill in one go, with an average gradient of 6%. Most riders attempted enthusiastic attacks on the steady peloton at some point, though most found it difficult to sustain a high speed for long. The temperature was now creeping up, though most of us expected bad weather later. Near the top the gradient increased, with punishing stretches of 12%.
The top of Roselend, and riders fought for sandwiches, water, Isostar, Decathalon energy bars and other goodies. Those who had brought food with them desperately tried to find their way through the throng. It was a good place to refuel, with time to digest food on the way down. And so the first descent. The bolder riders whistled down at speeds of 40mph plus, whistling past the more timid descenders. We flashed past the beautiful deep blue lake, then down the next section of descent.
Sighs of relief for some as they arrived at the bottom atBeaufort. One rider was not so lucky, when he hit the complex traffic calming measures of humps, guttering and cobbles at the wrong angle and fell off. I just managed to avoid running over him!
The second climb, Saises, was reckoned by many riders to be the worst, being totally unrelenting. We were rewarded by beautiful glimpses of the rounded snowy summit of Mt Blanc in the distance at one point. I allowed myself a major recovery stop at this point, as half the climbs were now complete. This turned out to be very refreshing. After another exciting descent, we arrived at Flumet, greeted by a crowd led by four girls chanting "tous ensemble, tous ensemble wey wey wey!" "Vous etes champions!!". They were thrown into slight confusion by a rider who told them it should be "tout ensemble!".
Flumet had made a real effort to decorate the village for the Etape and the vrai Tour. Flumet is the halfway point, as it was two mountains down and two to go!
The lead peloton had arrived here at 10:10, well ahead of the expected time at 10:29.
After the bridge and the tunnel, we were climbing again – this time up
After the bridge and the tunnel, we were climbing again – this time up
I was starting to get a little bolder in descending now, and was beginning to enjoy the hair raising yet graceful high speed descents, ever wary of items such as broken pumps, water bottles and gloves in the road. The thought struck me that it might be worth while collecting them afterwards, but I decided that a discarded bidon, a broken bike pump and a right hand glove might not be worth the trouble!
Paul Davison was hit from behind on a hairpin while descending Aravis. Paul stayed up, but the other guy went over the side wall. Paul managed to drag him up and fortunately he was OK.
The climb up Colombiere,though beautiful was the most grueling, with exhausted riders slowing to 5 or 6 mph. It may have been the fact that the temperature had risen to 29C, the 12% gradient at the top or simply that it was the last climb, but several riders got off about 1Km from the top and started walking. Then the top! And after the feeding station the real epic began.
At this point Simon Peters broke a spoke on his high tech back wheel, leaving only 19, and the wheel buckled so badly that he had to disconnect his rear brakeThere were over 4000 feet of fast dangerous descent from the Col de Colombiere to Cluses. The road started as a ledge cut in the side of the mountain with a 13% gradient. It wound down for mile after mile, speeds accelerating until speedos hit their limit of 99.9 Kph. We passed first an ambulance, then a victim lying motionless by a rock wall. Another rider left the road at high speed and plunging into a ravine.
I later asked Simon Peters how he fared with only one brake on Colombiere. He replied:
"I managed to creep down on the front brake.... a bit hairy, but still managed to wind it up for the sprint at the finish..... Just a bit difficult to stop!!!"
For most of us the descent was a little more pleasant, though I for one was quite pleased to arrive at the level bit at the bottom. As we approached the finish at Cluses, I was passed by Stan Ravenhill who had recognized me by my pockets bulging with cameras. "Hurry up Ron!" he shouted as he soared past, being a better descender than me. Rather than delve into my energy reserves, I slowed to take a picture of the finish – well it’s a good excuse!
Although there are very real dangers inherent in an event of this nature, the organizers did their usual thorough job. All the roads were closed to traffic, there were gendarmes on every corner and many ambulances were present. The feeding stations had a plentiful supply of excellent food, and even the last riders to arrive were well fed. The majority of riders went home satisfied that they had enjoyed a fantastic experience, having in many cases completed the hardest event they had ever attempted.
The results this year were impressive, with the lead riders being faster than many of the official Tour de France riders when they tackled the same course three days later.
Particularly impressive was Jeanie Longo, a local girl, who was the first woman to finish, in a time of 4 hours 45 minutes. She has been French National Champion 18 times, won the Tour Feminine three times as well as being an Olympic silver medallist.
The fastest man was Laurent Marcon, who’s time of 4hrs 23m was faster than the main peloton three days later (4hrs 26mins). The fastest rider in stage 17 of the official Tour, Dario Frigio took 4hrs 2mins.Most of us, however, were more than delighted to complete the stage within the 10 hours allowed, knowing that we had achieved a fantastic thing. One of the real rewards was getting back home telling collegues we had cycled 84 miles over 4 Alps with over 11,000 feet of climb. The usual reply was "Did it take you two days or three?"