We pre-booked our campsite in the Alps months ago as we anticipated the region being busy due to L’Etape du Tour and several stages of the actual Tour taking place in the vicinity while we were there.
We specifically chose to stay in the town of Embrun, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what that reason was as I clambered out of the caravan at 4:15am on the morning of the ride in order to drive the 45km to the start at Brianҫon before the roads closed at 6:00am and the first riders set off at 7:00am. It only added to my frustration that I had been allocated to start in the very last group of riders – at 8:52am. 16,000 entrants, and at least 15,000 of these would be going off before me.
As it turned out there was some benefit to being in that last group. There were a lot of cold looking cyclists waiting in their pens in the shadowy Alps at 6:45am as I wandered around still fully clothed. By the time my pen set off the sun had long since risen and it was already warming up quite nicely.
I had been fearful of absolute chaos at the start with so many lycra clad Froome-wannabes all heading off in the same direction, but this was unfounded and although there were endless large groups of cyclists, there was plenty of road space for everyone to get into their own rhythm.
My own rhythm caused a bit of a problem for the wife though. The route passed through our basecamp of Embrun after about 47km, where Laura and Evelyn would be waiting to give me a cheery wave, but courtesy of the largely downhill aspect from the start to this point, and the drafting effect of such a huge ‘peloton’, I got there much sooner than I anticipated. I raced through the town to the first feed station just the other side, at which point I called Laura, who had just made it to the road, not having been helped by a delay on my Garmin tracker still displaying data at about an hour’s delay.
Despite covering that first section at a nifty pace I was still feeling fresh so didn’t hang about at the feed station long, which was just as well as it was showing all the battle scars of having the vast majority of the field already pass through it – what was left of the snacks and fruit were either congealed into sweaty lumps on the tables or strewn all over the car park floor.
As the route went up the first significant climb of the day alongside Lac de Serre Poncon I really started to motor past big chunks of the field, many of whom would have started in waves ahead of me. Despite this, it was still slightly un-nerving to see the broom wagon – the coach for riders who are too slow or unable to complete the course – go past me several times, already picking up cyclists who had decided the route was too much for them or had had some unfortunate mechanical incident with their bike, no doubt gutted that their day was over so soon.
Naturally the first real descent of the day followed which allowed for some fun but potentially terrifying cornering around the cliffs high above the lake. Probably more terrifying for the guy on a BMX bike! I’m not sure what was least appealing – 181km on a BMX, or these roads with just one brake!
The route then followed a beautiful gorge, climbing gradually but consistently for the several kilometres to the next feed station at approximately half way (in terms of distance at least). If the first station was a mess, this one was sheer chaos! Now well into the masses of the field, bikes were lined up three or four deep against the fences, it was a scrum to get to the snack and water tables, and the road was blocked by cyclists simply trying to work out what the hell was going on where.
Having topped up my water bottles and somehow managed to grab a couple of bananas I was thankful to be off again and out of the melee. From here the road really started to ramp up until it reached the foot of the Col de Vars: 9km at an average gradient of 7.5%.
As I climbed I was passing so many other riders, many walking or stopped for a breather, that I started to feel quite good about myself, and there was really only a handful of people coming past me on the way up. Cheered on by many spectators lining the hill, I was determined to get to the top in one go. As the summit approached I had been so focussed on this goal that I had completely ignored the scenery around me until I heard someone exclaim, “wow, look where we have come from” and point off the side of the road. I looked back down the green valley with rocky outcrops towering high above, dissected by a grey slither of tarmac swarming with an army of cyclists as far as the eye could see. It was a truly remarkable sight, and one I now wish my ego had let me stop for a moment to take a photo of.
While I was relieved to reach the top, I don’t think I was ever really in danger of struggling at this point. I stopped at the feed station at the summit, this one being far easier to navigate in a much larger open space atop a mountain and also there were definitely fewer cyclists here – I must have been working my way through the field at quite a rate. I filled up on water and snacks again and got the nice Australian mechanic at Mavic Bikes to make a quick adjustment to my rear derailleur (possibly got bent in transit in the caravan).
Then it was off again, downhill to undo all that effort put in to getting up it in the first place. Principally a ski resort, the valley was wide and open, meaning broad roads with great lines of sight despite the twists and turns on the way. I got up some serious speed down here and 20km were gone in a flash, aided by the glory of closed roads, allowing me to snake across every inch of tarmac to get the best line around bends without the fear of what motor traffic might be coming up behind you or worse, around the corner in front!
Then it was just another 15km or so of gradual climbing before the big one. The biggest climb of the day, the Col de L’Izoard, with the end of the race right at its very top – some 14km distant and 1000m up, at a gradient of 7.3%. On paper, this climb probably isn’t significantly more difficult than the previous Col de Vars, but coming so quickly after having just completed that first climb certainly adds an extra layer of difficulty.
Before I had reached the start of the climb I was feeling the effects of the day and the energy levels starting to wane, so even the first kilometre of the Col de L’Izoard had me digging deep and fearing what was to come. Despite still making good progress through the field of riders with every pedal stroke, I had quickly abandoned my now usual goal of getting to the top without stopping. I was now just going to see how far I could get, then have a breather and a rest before going again – I still had a bag of sweets, some energy gels and plenty of water to help with re-fuelling.
My new target quickly became to not stop before halfway up at about 7km to go – my thinking being that if I did I would probably need to stop a second time.
With 10km to go the route climbed a long a straight road through a wide part of the valley with fields either side and a small town at each end. It was now well into the afternoon and the temperature was in the mid-thirties. The local spectators had lined the roads, waving banners and flags to not only cheer through these idiotic amateur cyclists, but offering up bottled water to grab, and even walking into the road to dowse those particularly struggling with a cooling pour of water. The sprinklers that normally provide much needed water to the acres of crops growing beneath the sun had instead all been turned towards the road to provide a much welcome shower to cycle through and some respite from the blistering heat. This was the thing that struck me most about this whole event – throughout the whole day, wherever we went, everyone had embraced it. There didn’t seem to be any animosity that all the roads had been closed for hours on end for a whole load of cyclists to struggle their way through – everyone just seemed to be enjoying the occasion. Whether they were actually cycling or not, they were all taking some part.
This kept me going and the motivation and encouragement bought me an extra few kilometres. Rather than stopping for a breather at my vaguely-planned juncture I forced myself on. Then, when I reached 5km to go my mindset changed. There was no way I could stop with just 5km to go – the end is so close! Could I fight my way to the finish after all?
By 3km to go I was regretting my new found motivation. I knew I would be gutted to have to stop so close to the finish, but I was starting to think I had no choice. I was bringing myself to terms with this when, with 2km to go, there was an extremely welcome respite in the incline – 500m downhill. Not particularly steep, but none the less, I pedalled very little trying to use up as many free metres as possible as the finish line got a little closer. The last kilometre hurt in a way I’m not sure I’ve hurt before. Back when I used to run 800m in athletics the pain was intense but short lived. I’ve run half marathons that hurt by the last few miles, but not to the same enduring degree with which these Alps had been grinding me down for several hours.
I had a flash back to the last kilometre on Mont Ventoux a few days back. That had dragged on and on and I feared the same would happen here – looking up I could still see several switch backs to navigate littered with shattered cyclists. I fought on to what I reckoned was about 500m to go (there was no official marker for this) and couldn’t believe just how long and how much effort this was taking, but then I rounded a bend and I could see the finish line less than 100m in front of me. I was there. I tried to sprint for the finish – I couldn’t, so I just carried on trundling up. This was the point where most people came past me actually, those who had a little bit left for one final flourish. But they had probably started an hour before me. Or stopped for a breather halfway up.
I crossed the finish and rolled a few more metres. As I tried to step off my bike my legs went to jelly and my head a little dizzy. As my bike crashed to the floor between my legs I had to grab the fence lining the road to keep myself upright. I really had given this everything I had.
After a few minutes of clinging desperately to that fence I stumbled off to the side of the road and lay out on the mountain side under the early evening sun. A gravel track had never felt so comfortable. I must have lay there for half an hour as a constant flow of cyclists continued to flood over the finish line, many of whom reacting in a similar way to me – not embracing the glory, but instead bowing to the effort.
Once I got myself to my feet I had a bit of a wander around, had some drinks and snacks (this final feed station had cheese!), took a couple of photos, then came the oddest reward of the lot. A cycle back to Brianҫon where it had all began. The problem when you start at Point A but finish at Point B, is you still need to get back to Point A where you left your car at 5am this morning. Fortunately, with the route being a rather elongated horseshoe shape, it was only 20km back to Brianҫon from the finish. And with the finish being at an altitude of 2360m, it was all downhill. Having completed the official ride, further cycling didn’t really appeal, but I quickly got over it as I descended through more valleys on wide and winding roads for a thrill filled 30 minutes that simply felt like a little extra reward for all that effort.
But I still then had to load my bike into the back of the car and drive the hour back to our campsite. All I wanted to do was reflect on what I had done and get back to see Laura and Evelyn, and thank them for patiently supporting my efforts in tackling this event. That drive was the least enjoyable part of the day, and actually took rather a lot of the satisfactory thrill out of me. Of all the things I learnt on this cycle, the biggest one was to camp near the start point!
12,162 starters; 11,234 finishers.
I finished (officially) in 8 hours 32 minutes and 19 seconds, placing me in 5078th position, just inside the top half (45%).
My cumulative time up the two major climbs was 2 hours 13 minutes and 25 seconds, placing me in 1876th position up the mountains, well inside the top fifth (17%).