I think I can, I think I can…

The Etape has been my little secret since October last year, when my L2P friend Kevin and I took the plunge and booked it.   That’s nearly 9 months of planning, training, plotting, scheming…  5 days ago I left here for the trip of a lifetime that feels like it lasted a lifetime.

It all started last Thursday when I cocooned my baby in bubble wrap, inside Simon’s very snazzy Scicon bike box, tucked a great many things in around it, and delivered it unto Andy Cook Cycling‘s tender care.   Rather than risk baggage handlers damaging the bike, or worse still, as happened to some last year, leaving it behind completely, our bikes made the journey there securely packed in a white van, driven all the way there by a cyclist who knows what our bikes mean to us and has been known to sleep in the van to watch over them :).

After over-nighting at Kevin’s place on Friday, where I failed to sleep well, it was up at hideous o-clock to catch our flight from Gatwick to Geneva, joined by Gary who was also along for the ride.  I love flying.  I love aeroplanes.   Plane food.  The view out of the window.   I’m less keen on all the waiting around which is a shame since, as it would turn out, there was to be a lot of that.   We arrived in Geneva around 9:00am, and had to kill several very expensive hours until our Ronan Pensec bus was due to leave at 12:30pm.   Which made the extra hour’s wait until it actually left at 1:30pm all the more tedious.  Angry Birds anyone?

The bus transfer took around 3 hours, as around us the mountains grew ever taller…*gulp*.  We drove through the start town of Modane, and I recognised the route we would be taking out, having watched it on my CycleFilm Etape preview DVD.  Useful before, and a souvenir afterwards – bonus!  Things were starting to feel a little more real now…and I definitely wasn’t in Kansas any more!

We arrived at our hotel, the Relais des 2 Cols in Lanslebourg, to find our bike boxes happily waiting for us in the basement along with everyone else’s, which initiated a mad Crystal Maze type of “who can build a bike fastest” competition, all carried out in deathly serious silence.   Hilarious if you happen to be me, getting grease everywhere, giggling a lot at my incompetence, and relying on Kevin to bail me out when I got it wrong and to tighten everything up properly. That would be at least one good reason for not doing this entirely on my own as I might well have done.  Bikes of many different varieties and price points slowly vanished up the stairs to the rooms, or out for test drives. Yes, cyclists sleep with their bikes… (bumper sticker anyone?).   We did a short run out of town just to check everything was ok, which what with the higher altitude and increasing gradient did not feel that great, so we, unlike others, cut it short and came home.   A carb heavy dinner, a quick stroll, and it was time for bed.   Where I failed to sleep well again.

Another day, another early start, and another session of waiting for a bus.  A couple of coffees, and plenty of nervous excitement, and I was bouncing around like Zebedee!  I must have been driving Kevin insane!  As we were waiting outside for the bus one of the organisers expressed concern as to how I was getting to the top after the event.  I suggested I was thinking about riding there…  Not the first person to assume my presence was because I was a “plus one”, and far from the last so to do.  She was a tad mortified, and I was mostly just amused.  Well I was the only girl in our part of the party.  Rumour has it there was another one in the other hotel but I never saw her so maybe that was just urban myth…

Once the bus finally arrived, having been delayed by some of our irritating transatlantic friends at the other hotel who thought schedules were for other people, we were off to the start village at Vilfréjus way up above Modane to sign in. Where once again, until I had signed in and had my own musette to prove my validity, I was generally assumed to be a +1. Yep – women were definitely in the minority.  I picked up freebies for the kids, bought a Virenque charity wrist band, and resisted the temptation to get royally fleeced.  Or to buy a matt black Canyon time trial bike…such willpower!

It was hot and sunny and high up – and the route up there was insane, as were the people who rode up to sign on!   No way would I want to have been taking that kind of mileage out of my legs the day beforehand.   In fact all plans for a two hour afternoon ride faded away in the heat, and after a chicken salad lunch, we ended up just doing the same short run as before, which luckily felt much better this time around.  Kevin, being gadget equipped, informed me that some of that road was actually 9% which, since it hadn’t felt too bad, was very good for the PMA.

This was followed by more waiting around as the bus to take our bikes down to where they were to be stored half way to Modane was…you guessed it…late.   The level of stress was racking up as the thought of the bus in the morning being late was just horrific, and ought to have been inconceivable. Eventually enough people expressed a concern that the organisers agreed to bring the bus arrival forward a little, and alllayed people’s fears somewhat.  My French language skills came in useful, which is always nice, and also gratifyingly impressed people.  I’m so talented *natch*.  All that was left was more carb consumption, and another early night.  Time to stop talking about the darn event and get on and do it – any more discussion of layers, carb consumption rates, gradients…and I might have lost it.  I needed a bit of quiet, some focus, and some rest.  Guess what?  Yep – didn’t sleep well.

When the alarm went off at 3:30am to wake me up, it was, even though I had finally fallen asleep by then, a relief to stop having to pretend to sleep!   Man it was early!   As we ate breakfast the sun did start making its way up but as we were surrounded by mountains, it was going to take quite some time for that light to reach us.  I may never think the Mendips are large again.

The bus was a little late, but we were on our way by 5:00am, the time it had originally been scheduled for, so all’s well that ends well.   My tummy was full of a million hatching pupae, butterflies proliferating.  All the preparation, the waiting, and the day was finally here.  Time to get on with getting on!  There was a palpable air of tension to go along with the high lycra quotient.

On to the bikes, on to the road, and a nice 10km easy and essentially downhill run down the valley under lightening skies to Modane.  Too much to hope for that the whole day would be like that 😉 .   After all that, we were in our pens with an hour to spare, which did at least put us near the front of them, and allow enough time to queue for the inadequate toilets.  Although watching men have to get in and out of bib shorts so as to use the cubicle (one per two pens) is quite funny…  I felt for the residents who were having their streets liberally “watered” as a result…ick!  In the shade, waiting with nothing to do, I got colder, and colder, and colder…   The cyclists were massing, the nerves were building, my legs were shaking, and my bottom lip was wobbling.  A proper girly moment I guess.  Nerves are weird.   My fight/flight reflex was recommending running for the hills…not cycling up them!

But, as is ever the way, the wheels of time turned, and as the pens were set free one by one, it was our turn to cross the start line.   Over the line, emerging blinking into the warming sunshine, and we were on our way…  OMG!

The first 16km or so followed the river down the valley, and we were fair flying along.   Closed roads took a little while to get used to, as did the amount of delightfully named “road furniture” to get in the way.  And enjoyable as flying along was, it doesn’t do a lot for warming up one very cold female cyclist!  It felt just like a normal sportive, but one that just happened to be in France, which had me a bit worried as to how the day might be.  After all, with all that build up, you want more don’t you?

And so the ride real begins.  I needn’t have worried.  An abrupt left turn, and the Col du Telegraphe had begun.   Fears had been expressed beforehand of bottlenecks and traffic jams here as the gradient hit but the organisers had taken account of this and spaced out the riders accordingly so this didn’t happen.  It was time to start going uphill…so I made a swift stop to stuff the now superfluous gilet in the saddle bag and to make sure Kevin got away.   This had to be my ride done my way and I wasn’t going to be able to do that if I was aware of doing worse than a ride partner.  Cycling’s mental remember?  Or is it just me who is? ;).

Being the control freak that I am, I’d read all I could about the route, watched the DVD, read the forums, and everything had said that the Telegraphe wasn’t that bad and should just be taken easy as a precursor to what was ahead.   Well, probably because I wasn’t really warmed up, I found it a bit harder than I’d expected. And, due to the forest nature of scenery there, and the fact that you’re usually looking in front of you to where you going, not behind you to views of where you’ve been, it was all about the climbing and not about the ride.   I quickly warmed up even more which probably didn’t make it any easier – I do not cycle well when overheating,  The sun was well on its way up by now and it was clearly going to be a very hot day.  As ever, the weather forecasts proved as much use as a chocolate fireguard…

Once reached, the “summit” was oddly unremarkable, being little more than a layby with trees, but I stopped anyway, ostensibly to stuff my arms in my back pocket, but also to mark the fact that I’d cycled up my very first mountain. A mountain!  Me!  Come on, that’s just a little bit cool, no? :).

Time to go downhill for an oh so short while. There was a food stop somewhere after Valloire, so I filled up the bottles and used the unsurprisingly empty female toilet before heading off again.  Onwards and most definitely upwards.  More dragons to be slain.   And the Col du Galibier is a real monster.   16.7km at an average of 6.8% to climb over 1100 metres to 2556m.  And that being an average means that it ranges from a tolerable and easy 2.5% to over 10%.   Being above the treeline the scenery is far more accessible, as well as impressive, bleak, and just massive!   The lower end of the valley has a little grass air strip and a small white aeroplane passed over us to land there, demonstrating the scale of the peaks ahead, before taking off over our heads, which added novelty value.   At the end of the valley the zigzags, and the real work, began…

Due to the heat and the effort being expended going uphill, eating on the bike was tricky.   Each time I got off on the ride from here on in I felt dizzy and wobbly, and the first couple of times I will admit this was a bit concerning.  Well it doesn’t sound good does it?  However after eating, drinking, and taking a few breaths, I always found myself feeling better and getting back on the bike!  Mind you, my body really didn’t want to eat and rebelled every time I put food in my mouth – the closest I’ve ever come to throwing up on a ride. However needs must and so forth…  Might be why I only ate 2 1/2 bars, some jelly beans, and one gel (near the end) though.

On to the zig zags.  Sheer on one side, barren on the other.   A multi-lane vertical highway.  Riders walking or resting.   Slower riders to avoid and overtake, and other riders doing the same to me.  Quite a lot to negotiate on a flat road, let alone a 9% gradient.   It was bl**dy hard work, but at least it was consistent.   I told myself that “all I have to do is keep the wheels going ’round.   It doesn’t matter how slowly they go round, they just have to go round”, and I kept telling myself this as I plodded doggedly up the slopes.   Every rider I overtook was another between me and the dreaded broom wagon.   The road could be seen wiggling all the way to the summit which seemed a mighty long way away but at least put the task in perspective, especially when I could look down and see how far I had already climbed.  A few km before the top where the route splits for the tunnel, and the ribbon of riders headed for the proper summit, there was a café where I bought a bottle of water to top up with, took another break, and girded my loins for the final ascent as I’d heard that it ramps up at the end.   Well, maybe it does, but I didn’t really notice.   I knew I was near the summit, and since no-one else was talking to anyone, I talked to my legs, and me and my insanity made it to the top of the world with a massive grin :).   I didn’t care what anyone else thought and quite frankly if you’re not impressed with yourself for getting up there, you shouldn’t be there!

No time for resting on laurels though, so I stopped but briefly, put my soggy arms back on, put on the over gloves that I had purchased precisely for this moment, grabbed the brakes, and took gravity on.   As we all know, descents are not my strong point, but I think I put on a pretty good front.  It was a toss up between my natural instinct to want to brake and slow down, and not wanting to overheat the brakes and risk a blow out.   As a result I probably ended up faster than I would usually.   My top speed was 41mph apparently, which has to be have been on that stretch somewhere.  It’s pretty technical at the top, easier in the middle, with a more tricky bit at the bottom.   And it goes on for bleedin’ ever!   The coolth (yes, I’ve invented a word) was blissful. The grippy bits on my gloves helped with the brake levers and thus my confidence.   The scenery was stunning, and as the riders had spread out, I didn’t get in too many other people’s way.   Result!   Finally I stopped swooping my way down at a conveniently placed food stop where I stuffed the gloves and arms away, grabbed more water, and then headed off again. Yet more glorious descending, with added obstacle value as I reached the tunnel section.

Ick.   The first tunnel contained what had clearly been a very serious accident, a salutory warning and a reminder that being as cautious as I can be is not necessarily a bad thing.   A few tunnels later and I ended up at the back of an accident induced traffic jam.   Another poor soul had come a cropper near the reservoir, and was airlifted away – leaving hundreds of riders penned up again, who wisely decided to walk through the next badly lit tunnel rather than risk the carnage that could otherwise have ensued.  The only bonus to the enforced stop was the opportunity to eat and drink, which I took.   The main downside was that once we were back underway there were masses of riders around again.   Good for wheel sucking on the one and only flat section (like all that testosterone would ever let me lead) where we flew along, but bad when it came to the last challenge.   May I introduce to you the one and only infamous Alpe d’Huez?

Would it be weird to say it was a little disappointing?  I somehow expected to be able to see it all laid out in front of me, though actually if I had it might have scared me witless!  It’s 14.4km long, so shorter than the Galibier, but then you’re facing it with the Galibier already in your legs.  It’s also very hairpin wiggly, and by this point it was well over 30C.  The trees hide the view in the same way as the Telegraphe.  Anywhere there was shade or breeze there were broken cyclists resting.   To add insult to injury cyclists who had already made it to the top were descending past the suffering masses.  A sort of alpine version of the Gates of Hell.  I decided that the wheels would go round.  That I would stop as and when I had to.  But that I was NOT going to be walking.  The mountain water pours down in streams by the side from time to time and after a while I joined those filling bottles from them and pouring the contents over myself intermittently.  Cold enough to take your breath away but blissful with it.  Having discovered this oh so wondrous tactic life got just enough easier.  As with the other climbs I think I could probably have pushed myself harder  but then I’m not sure I’d have finished, and it was always just about getting to the end before the broom wagon.  As the 21 bends counted down, sometime around 15ish I had serious concerns as to whether I’d finish.  Not because it was steep (the first section is the worst), not because it hurt (it didn’t really), but because I thought I might end up succumbing to sunstroke and just not being able to get back on the bike.

But as I believe I’ve mentioned before, I’m stubborn.  I stuck to my guns.  I stopped a few times.  I let the lovely onlookers  spray me with hoses, or pour water bottles over me.  I took heart every time I was told “go girl” – minority has its advantages, and my novelty value provoked a great response.  And bit by bit the bends went past.  The top got nearer and the town drew into sight.  My legs perked up their ears (what do you mean legs don’t have ears?), scented the finish (or noses?) and I was going to make it to the end.  That’s two hours spent going up a hill.  Sorry, a mountain.  The last section gratuitously takes you past the last bends, through the town, and THEN up to the finish.  Had I had company, a sprint finish would not have been out of the question – my legs are good like that – but as it is, I crossed the finish line all by myself and promptly burst into tears.  Man, I’m such a girl *grin*.

It was a little lonesome without someone with which to stand on a mountain, but once I’d done a curtain impression (pulled myself together!) and resorted to the wonders of modern technology, Kevin came and got me.  He’d not been there that long (allegedly) and wasn’t precisely ecstatic with his time.  Which, when you consider I was slower, was a tad annoying because I’m really proud of mine.  Apparently it’s very good; for me.  Which is not at all patronising…;).  Well, I’m a girl, so apparently my doing the Etape is more impressive *sigh*.  People have been doing that ever since so, you know what?, I’m just going to take it.  So I’m twice as awesome as I was anyway because I’m a girl and girls don’t do the Etape *grin*.

Cycling time: 7:05hrs.  Official time (which has 20 mins knocked off it for the accident jam) 7:32.
Distance: 70.39 miles
Avs: 15.9 kph/9.88 mph

My drugs did the job – my knee was fine, my shoulder never went, initial pain in my lower back went away.  So it was a sufferfest, but just not the usual variety! 🙂 I came 121st out of 188 “old women”, and 5345 out of 6461 finishers.  It’s not a race, and just finishing is amazing.  Especially in those conditions.  I look forward to watching the TdF do it in a third of the time next week, and shall feel suitably humbled.  Actually I’m lying, I won’t, because I ROCK! *grin*.

Etape Acte 1 2011 – done!



PS: after all that, I still didn’t sleep!  Day 2 Post event I am, as you might imagine, very tired – but I appear to be physically pretty much in one piece, though I’ve not confirmed that by checking in at the gym yet.  That will come tomorrow.  I’m also pretty emotional – the come down after a massive high.  The post-Etape blues.  But this too will pass…  I had an amazing trip, did amazing things, and the whole thing was most definitely an experience.  Thanks Kevin! 🙂


8 thoughts on “I think I can, I think I can…

  1. AJ

    Bloody well done woman! It’s certainly not an easy ride (the same roads broke me) and with your well known dislike of hills it makes it even better!

  2. Robin

    Not a bad effort for a plus one girl!. Its been a couple of years since I holidayed in the area, your blog brought back some good ride memories, and a bad one – meeting the 3 trailer Circus lorry in a tunnel. Blubbing at the end was poor show – this is reserved for middle aged men only.

  3. Herbie

    Loved the write up – so many emotions I can identify with. All the anxiety of your first Etape, not wanting to walk any of even the last mountain, and the tear at the end. Did my first Etape with others, and so shared the end with others, but my first Maratona I just took myself off with a view over the whole scene, with a tear, and phoned the other half – ‘I’ve only gone and bl**dy done it’ I think were my words.


  4. Parisorbust

    I remember it like it was only yesterday… It was epic and I must be honest I have been rather emotional since. Nice write up and great memories.

  5. Joseph Smith

    I just did the etape on Monday and have become so hooked on it that I
    am currently setting up a website for Sportive riders at sportive.com. I am writing to people who have blogged about training for the etape to ask if I might have permisson to reproduce their blog content (fully acknowldeged and linked to) on the sportive.com website. I’m asking six or seven people (plus I’ve written a 3500 word account of my own etape ride) so there’s a good range of different experiences.

    I’d be very grateful if you’d be okay with it but obviously understand if you want to keep it just to friends and family.



  6. Stuart Kinsey aka Bunny

    Bloody well done!! It explains a lot too – reading your blog over the last few months I’ve continually been surprised by the number of rides, and particularly the number of rides with hills, you’ve been putting in. Now I understand why! It’s a great achievement, and I’m deeply jealous of you going up Alpe d’Huez in particular (my Etape was in 2004 in the Massif Central; it was a mega-ride (242km), but without the iconic mountains, unless you count Puy de Dome). You do realise you’ll have made GB even more jealous though?!

  7. Eleanor

    Well done girl!! What a great report, it brought it all back to me. I also did 7.32 – I wonder if I saw you out there?! – but I didn’t get counted as a girl for some reason, I appear as a bloke in the results. I did just fine till Bourg D’Oisans – I was going really strongly until the heat hit me on the way up the Alpe and I ended up crawling up the switchbacks, collapsing into the shade at every other zig zag to try and drink and recover – by which time I had the shakes (sounds the same as you describe) and got worried about heatstroke – so had no option but to take it very slowly, (and I’m afraid I did walk the odd stretch) otherwise I’m not sure I would have finished in one piece – at the end I rode past a poor bloke who’d collapsed which made me think I’d made the right decision to take it slowly and keep stopping. I love your “plus one” comments! I did the Tourmalet Etape three years ago and then was the only girl in our hotel with 40+ male riders. Things have improved a bit – women were 2% of the field that year but were apparently 4% this year. I have mixed feelings about the implicit sexism evident on the course – it is all very well meant, and I felt so sorry for myself on the last climb that I was grateful for anyone’s words of encouragement – including a bloke at the end who told me he thought it was amazing that any girl could finish that event and that I was a “credit to my species” which I know he intended as genuine praise – that goes into the “make me smile” memory bank along with the “you’re not bad for a bird” comment from a chap I passed once in a mountain bike event! I’m still surprised how few women do these events – when you see how some women post fantastic results at the front of the field, and how many women do triathlons now and endurance running etc…. maybe as you say (and I hate to admit it) it’s the putting the bike together thing that puts us off! Anyway well done you for a great ride and also for a very enjoyable account which captured so well that combination of fear, nerves, excitement, suffering and finally, sense of achievement. Incidentally it took me days to recover, too – I was v. dehydrated for 36 hours of so afterwards which is probably the key, next time I’ll try and drink more.

  8. admin

    Thanks for all the lovely comments guys – I had an awesome time and am now totally hooked! Off in search of the next big ride… 🙂

Comments are closed.