In the cycling gym I use, they have various quotes on the wall from famous sporting figures. Hardly an original idea, and bordering on the uber positive American attitude to life that we grim British realists find crap & cheesy when it suits us. But as I got back on my bike, on Sunday, 128km into a tour de France stage, 1850m above sea level, I had one quote going over and over in my mind like a Tory party election soundbite. “You can keep going, and your legs might hurt for a week. Or you can quit and your mind will hurt for a lifetime”
Naturally, the quote belongs to a chap from California who also just happens to be a 6 time Iron-man world triathlete champion. Mark Allen
If you read this blog you’ll know my last fortnight of prep for l’etape du tour was less than ideal. With my fall & subsequent panic over a suspected broken wrist. In hindsight, driving 8-9 hours thru France 2 days before the race, then driving over 2 mountain passes full of Tour fans in their huge motorhomes, the day before the race were also not the best build up. Not only did it leave me or my wrist very little time to relax, or even have a practice ride, it also showed me how narrow those mountain roads are, and how big the sheer drops were. If I was nervous driving a 4WD SUV on them, what would I be like on a bike?
Nevertheless Sunday morning came, and as I sat shovelling plain pasta with cheese grated on it into my mouth at 6am, I was starting to feel a little bit confident about it all. A nice 11k downhill ride to the start line, continued the good mood. Extra gel pads I had installed on my handlebars felt like they’d help my bruised hand/wrist. My 8:30am start meant I managed to get going before the heat starting rising.
The 1st 60k was rolling terrain but mostly downhill with incredible scenery. I skipped the first feed station, stopping only to remove my jacket then the first and by far the smallest climb came and went, with me passing people on the way up to be rewarded with the view below over Lake Serre-Ponçon. Stunning.
I was even enjoying descents now, which is my weakest skill. My usual fear of serious injury/death being extinguished by the sheer thrill of zig zagging down these incredible roads by the lakeside. I eventually stop at the 2nd feed station at 100k. Feeling pretty good. Past halfway, loving life. Next up is the 1st mountain, Col de vars and I’m thinking this will be tough but just get through it, and focus everything on the summit finish.
I have a cue sheet taped to my stem, so I know how long the climb is, and the average gradient. A long slow lead up at around 2%, pretty basic stuff then a little bit steeper towards the top, but it shouldn’t be as hard as the final climb. Or so I thought.
I start to hit the steeper parts and everything seems to be rising now, the altitude, the temperature, the gradient & my heart rate. I’m already on my lowest gear, but I’m struggling to turn the pedals. My cue sheet says 8% average, but my Garmin has been showing >8% for what seems like the last 10 mins. Even with the fatigue and altitude affecting my brain, I’m still mentally doing the maths that there as to be some 7 or 6% soon to bring down the average.
We’re now onto the switchbacks, a series of hairpin bends meaning you can see the road above and below you. I look at the next turn and see folk way above me cycling at what looks like a horrendous angle. My heart genuinely sank. Even if I somehow make it up that wall, I then have 50k+ and the Col D’Izoard afterwards. My etape is unravelling and it hurts. I could be wrong, but I don’t remember in any of my marathons ever having a point where I was so convinced I couldn’t carry on, this was new ground to me. it’s funny how much the head affects how the body feels.
I reached for my forward water bottle, and it’s empty. I know the back one isn’t but with my injured wrist, I can’t reach for it on this incline, I’m gonna have to stop and switch them over. I get to the flattest part I can on the hairpin and stop, legs, lungs & pride burning. As I look around, I can see lot of folk walking their bike up the mountain, I later described it to my wife like the beach scene of Saving Private Ryan, me standing, lost in my thoughts as all around me in slow motion, are walking wounded everywhere, one guy was doubled over, puking! I’m brought back to earth with Mark Allen’s immortal words. I can’t quit now. I switch my bottles, take an almighty swig and get back on. As I turn onto the incline I’d been terrified of, my Garmin says 10%. It’s pretty damn far from ideal, but it’s also not what I feared. Its not often we get to see steep roads from the side, so I expected 15% or more. turns out it’s not much steeper than the last 2k. This tiny boost gets me going again, and I’m turning the pedals using my core, not my legs before finally I see the “Sommet” sign. That was an emotional moment! I stayed at the top for a good 20-25 mins before descending onwards, recovering not just physically but mentally.
The rest of the ride was still incredibly challenging, and the final ascent up the D’Izoard pushed me to my limits, but I honestly never had any moments of doubt that I would finish. I’d even go as far to say I enjoyed a most of it! especially the lunar like landscape near the top of the Izoard and knowing I was pedalling over the path of some legendary TdF battles.
It’s strange how I could be so dead on my feet, and then that one piece of positive “Hell Yeah” style philosophy from Mark Allen turned it around for me. He was wrong about one thing though. I’m writing this blog 5 days after the race, and already my legs have stopped hurting 🙂
P.S. My Etape adventure took me 9hrs 10 mins, with 7hrs 48mins actual time spent on the bike, the rest on breaks. Yesterday I watched Warren Barguil win the pro stage over the exact same route in 4hr 40m with no breaks. Plus he & the rest of the tour have also been riding >180k almost every day for 2 and a half weeks before D’Izoard. My admiration for these guys is off the chart. They aren’t athletes, they are superhumans.
P.P.S I’m only halfway through my challenge (100 miles around London & Surrey still to come) so there’s loooooads of time to still sponsor me here.
My results from the etape are below and I’m pretty happy with my king of the mountains result!