I’m not going to get into what makes humans do stupid things in life, like the Etape du Tour, but whatever it is, I sometimes wish I could find the ‘off’ switch.
This year’s Etape looked fairly mild, especially when compared to epic ones like ‘Act Two’ in 2012. After all, there were only two big climbs and the whole event was less than a Century (148 km). But, as you can imagine already, looks can be deceiving. It all started with an Orange Alert from Météo France and this email from the organizers of the event.
Their ‘warm’ recommendation was taken to heart and I’m sure that all the gloves, rain gear and ‘hot clothes’ were sold out of the Village on Saturday. It was definitely a topic of conversation for the 4 of us (myself, Karsten, Anne and Pierre), with some saying they wouldn’t ride if it was raining in the morning, others reserving judgement till the day, and at least one prepared to go anyway (paid good money, dammit!). Pierre and his wife Ginette did a recce of Tourmalet on Saturday in the car and met a good many Brits who had decided to ride the route the day before, then go home. They were the smart ones.
It all began quite nicely, though. Here is Karsten on Friday, kindly adding some context to a photo I wanted in the event village.
We even found a beer tent and some grass to sit on to watch the end of Friday’s TdF stage.
Saturday was spent shuttling cars to and fro and trying to find a weather website that would tell us something good for the next day. None did, but all of us showed up at the crack of dawn to join nearly 10,000 other riders, from 94 different countries, in Place de Verdun, Pau.
Like I wrote above, almost 10,000 started the race. 8452 finished. 1500 riders succumbed to the cold and rain, or something else. How the heck did the organizers get them all off the mountain..?
It was an eventful day for most everyone, I think, but I only have four tales to tell here. If any readers would like to share their war stories in the comments section, be my guest!
I was – luckily it turned out – in the 2nd wave of riders who started. This had at least two distinct advantages: 1) I beat the worst of the weather, and 2) I had faster riders to hide behind on the flat-ish 70 km run-in to the first climb.
That run-in did have two categorized climbs, however, with a couple more smaller ones thrown in to slow the overall pace and keep pelotons from staying together. Till the foot of Tourmalet there is little to talk about, except for my chance meeting of a blog reader. After an hour and a bit I turned to a friendly-looking rider next to me and demanded to know how many kilometers we’d done to that point (I forgot my Garmin, so was riding ‘blind’). He told me and we chatted for a couple of seconds before he said ‘you look familiar’. I figured I had one of those faces, but it turned out that he reads the blog. Witt from Poland, if you’re there, can you send me that photo your girlfriend (wife?) took of us afterwards (I found my bike, btw!)?
If this next part is TMI, I apologize, but it’s crucial to the story. I had pretty bad diarrhea on the morning of the race and it sucked some energy out of me. When I hit the bottom of Tourmalet I knew something wasn’t quite right. I was turning the pedals, climbing up the mountain, but I couldn’t push like I normally would. This was the hardest climb of the day for me and I had the impression that everyone was flying by me. It was sort of depressing, to tell the truth.
But I made it to the top in the beating cold rain, zipped up my wind vest and proceeded to crash on my first turn. To make matters worse, I crashed on – and into – sheep shit. It was a crappy day so far. I was alright, other than cuts on my elbow and hip (found later), but my bike took a hit and caused some grief on the final ascent.
The descent off Tourmalet is probably the thing everyone is telling tall tales about this week to anyone who will listen, so I’ll do the same. First, after the shock of my fall, I had to decide to not ‘lose my nerve’, as you hear the commentators saying all the time when it happens to pros. Luckily I have little common sense on the bike and I made up as many places as I lost, and some more, on that 40 km descent to the base of Hautacam. But it was COLD. Oh, and WET. I had the shakes till I hit the feed zone 52 minutes later. Others had worse, as you’ll see, if you can get through the rest of this article.
The last climb of the day, Hautacam, is 14 km long, with an average of 7.8%, which makes it very comparable to Alpe d’Huez. It was a tough old climb. At the beginning – a sharp right-hander that ramps up off the main road from Tourmalet – there were hundreds of people cheering us on. I have never seen anything like it in my four Etapes and the line of people wasn’t limited to that ramp, either. For hundreds of meters there were folks along the side of the road, clapping, ringing cow bells, giving high fives. It gave you a lift that 11% couldn’t even dampen…for a minute or two.
I quickly discovered something about my fall on the top of Tourmalet; my bike was damaged. I couldn’t get into my last 3 gears. I dismounted and reefed on the derailleur to see if I could straighten it out and, unbelievably, it worked, sort of. I could now access all gears except one, the most important one of course. I had to climb in my 25, which could have been worse, but it definitely slowed me down. I did feel a bit better on Hautacam than on Tourmalet, but still lacking that umph that I can muster from time to time. Maybe my umph just isn’t present this season. It would make some sense, after the lackluster training I’ve been doing. It should make me feel good that hard, consistent training pays off. It should.
But I feel just fine about my results (see below) and have vowed to try and see how hard it might be to knock on the door of top 5% of my age category some day.
I saw Karsten as I descended Hautacam (the ‘village’ was in town at the bottom of the climb, so we had to go back down the same route as everyone else was climbing) and he looked in good spirits. It was only later, back at the car, that I learned that he had just gone through the coldest day of his life. This is from a guy who used to do winter backcountry camping in British Columbia (that’s in Canada, so you know it’s cold). He spoke of his ‘shattering teeth’ on the descent off Tourmalet, but I can confirm that they were still in his mouth as of Monday morning.
Other than the cold and wet, Karsten’s race went quite well. He had a great time up Tourmalet, I see from the splits, and although he never talked about ‘next year’, I also didn’t hear ‘never again’.
Anne took the ‘most eventful’ prize on the day. She started very fast and had a super time up to the top of the Col du Tourmalet. Then, apparently, everything went south. She was so cold on the descent that she stopped in Barèges and asked a police woman to help her out.
She was taken to a sports store (InterSport – give these guys your business if you’re ever in town!), where there were already other cyclists wrapped up in emergency blankets and trying to get warm. Anne said that the owner was giving out fleeces and other warm clothes to the poor souls, without, I gather, asking for anything in return. Customers came into the store thinking they were going shopping and ended up handing out hot tea and consoling shivering, skinny cyclists.
After a while the store got too full and the town decided to open a community center for the overflow. According to Anne, there were hundreds of bikes on the floor of this place. I got a text from her after I finished, saying she was ‘wrapped in a space blanket’, so I figured we’d go and pick her up (I wasn’t thinking clearly…the road was closed) later, but then, a couple hours later, I get a call saying that she was at the feed zone at the beginning of the last climb. She had thought to stop (the car was parked just across the river), but saw all those wonderful people lining the road and found her mojo. She finished pretty far down in the rankings (she was in Barèges for an hour and half) obviously, but she finished the whole course. Bravo.
Pierre (1st person account)
I thought the one two years ago, again at Tourmalet, was the worst I could ever experience but I believe I can honestly say that this one will win.
The day before started out with a group dinner to enjoy a nice salad and discuss any last minute advice one might have. We all knew the kind of weather we may have to deal with but I don’t think we had a sense of how dire it would turn out.
After starting in Pau in somewhat warmish weather, I started out by having to ride from the last closed point, where my wife dropped me off, before Place Verdun for the Grand Start. The number of riders participating are always a mystery to me but I was told it was in the 11000 range. I was in Pen 6 of 13, with each Pen holding 1,000 riders each, which meant I had some time to kill before my official start.
I started out getting in a group leading out to the first of two category 3 climbs which weren’t very long but somewhat steep. This is where I took a fall. It’s been a bad year for me on that front but with thousands of riders, and some who don’t always pay attention, I had someone cutting me off which caused me to hit his wheel and take a fall on the second of these climbs. I would suggest for anyone that this happens to, to learn how to swear in French. It’s much more animated and lets even those who don’t speak French know that you’re pissed at them.
As I mentioned, this is my third Etape, and I felt the crowds lining the route through each village was the most enthusiastic I have ever encountered. The ride through Bagneres de Bigorre had to be the most amazing experience of enthusiasm an amateur cyclist will ever enjoy. The town center was jammed with people on both sides with a live band and fans signing Basque songs. I wish I could have stopped to enjoy it more.
One planned stopped before Tourmalet to fill up a water bottle and get some needed nourishment. Up to this point I was feeling fine but had no urgency as to my position and how fast I was going to get up Tourmalet. I was feeling somewhat anxious and knew that the rain was going to start on the way up, which it did. I felt good and passed some and was passed by others, my breathing was under control and my legs felt strong. I finally made it up without much of a stop but just enough time to stretch out my back which was causing me some concerns. I also suffered a bit of a bruise on my right glute from the fall which was also starting to annoy me.
It was now time for the descent and I was warned by the security people at the top to be very cautious on the way down. I had seen numerous ambulances on the way up and I also heard there was a helicopter evacuation.
I thought I was ready for this descent but I was not ready for what I would experience as a cyclist. Being already wet as I was and more rain on the descent meant I was going to apply the brakes for the next 25 kms. I have never been so cold on a bike as I was having violent shakes and my lips starting to turn blue. It was enough to make a grown man cry! I finally stopped at the mountain village where they had set up a warming tent with coffee and hot chocolate. I did not take them up on this since the one thing I wanted to do was get off this damn Mountain as quickly as possible. I could not turn my legs very well on this descent and my legs were seriously cramping along with my lower back. I was not having a good time and had seen numerous people along the side of the road who had stopped and were being treated for hypothermia. There were also numerous people who had already abandoned this race altogether. This was one thing I was not going to do and just kept moving as quickly as my body would allow.
As we got to the false flat on a downward slope, my left pedal clip kept popping out making it difficult to keep a solid stroke going but this kind of stuff happens.
I finally got to the base of Hautacam where a huge crowd was waiting. Another awesome experience for those uninitiated with this kind of race in France. The last feed station and a quick bite before the climb. Hautacam, for those not familiar with it, is fairly easy for the first couple of kms but becomes relentless for the next 11 kms. At this point I was fairly slow going up with legs that were frozen and not much blood flow due to the cold. The back was achy but the crowds along the route was nice. I did expect this Mountain road to be so narrow and have so many little villages and homes dotting along the way. Its 13 km of sheer hell though. It started to rain again along the way again making it again more difficult. On top of this we could only use the right side of the road as the left was occupied with descenders. Very slow going for me and all I wanted to do was finish this and get the medal. It was another long rainy descent into the village to finally greet my wife and get some dry clothes on. I was trembling with cold but was happy it was over. I could finally get off my bike and truly walk as painful as it was. As I was walking I looked down at my brakes which were new when I started and they were completely worn down and melted from the heat and rain. I have been on numerous climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees and never saw my brakes look so destroyed.
I was happy with my result and what I had accomplished in the worst imaginable conditions. This was not about placement or racing today. This was about endurance and outlasting everything thrown at you. It broke a few thousands hearts today because most of these people worked hard to get here. This was twice that Tourmalet tried to defeat me and I’m happy to say it didn’t. I will have to wait and see what waits for me next year.
A Final Word
I’d just like to throw a shout-out to all the volunteers for the event itself, as well as the thousands of ‘fans’ that were lining the whole route. Your enthusiasm and generosity definitely helped perk up our spirits and make us all feel like heroes.
Out of nearly 10,000 starters, and 8453 finishers, here’s the damage from our little group.
Gerry: 988 (140/1437 in age category)