I'd done all the preparation I could. Laid out my kit. My contingency kit. My documents. My spare tubes and multi tool (plus spare multi-tool). Pump, then CO2 + spare gas canister. My food for the ride. Spent an hour checking my gears. Packed sun cream and wet weather gear. Had a haircut and, ahem, shaved my legs.
I was packed and ready and I weighed in at 69.5kgs ahead of my carb loading.
How was I feeling? Empty. Not excited, not scared - empty. There was simply nothing I could do between Friday and Sunday that I hadn't already done or failed to do. The Etape was coming - all that was left was to ride it. I went and registered.
|Etape village where we had to register (and get a free T-shirt and backpack)|
We took a 40km tour of Lake Annecy the day before the ride - which was perfect. A bit of climbing, a bit of descending, and a flat spin to check out the bike and my legs - all was working well (although Pez punctured, and two inner tubes later headed to the Mavic stand at the Etape village where the mechanic found a piece of glass lodged in his tyre).
|Lake Annecy is pretty|
The pen was packed. Pen 11, the pen of champions. I spent a lot of time looking for idiots. I was hoping for lots of idiots. I really didn't want to think that the hundreds of people who fail each year were the ones that prepared well.
|Moody, busy, we prepared to roll out|
One person was stretchered out of the pen. Getting that far then not being allowed to start - gutting.
Then off we rolled, if a little delayed. I used my London to Brighton experience to get a jump on Pez and Paul - forcing my way further and further ahead among the packed cyclists. Fewer people in my way when we got rolling or hit squeeze points on the road was high on my agenda.
|Pen of champions|
I hit the left of the road - the fast lane - and pushed. Riding solo I was well over 30kph and frequently over 40. I eventually found a wheel going at a decent speed to follow and spent the last couple of ks of flat in a mini-group buzzing past slower cyclists.
A sharp right at a roundabout and then the first climb. The Cat 2 Cote du Puget. 5.4km at 5.8%
Now my plan - if you can call it that - was to use as little energy early as I could get away with, make up time going fast on the descents and on the flat, and keep as much in reserve for Semnoz as possible.
I cruised up Puget - but I never left the left lane. The overtaking lane. I was cruising in a low gear, spinning my legs and putting in as little effort as I could get away with, and I was passing cyclist after cyclist.
This was repeated on Col de Leschaux (3.6km at 6.2%) - which I rode up chatting amiably to someone in a Sky jersey who laughed when I compared the congestion to Ditchling Beacon at the end of London Brighton. Somewhere around here Paul finally caught up with me and rode by putting in - if anything - less effort than me.
Now I should point out I wasn't going fast, just faster than my pen-mates and the people in the pen ahead. But passing that many cyclists on a hill felt really wrong.
As well as being - incredibly - faster than most of the people around me I was also faster on the rolling country. In many cases a lot faster. My experience on the flat at the start was repeated.
People just seemed happy at 25kph on the flat. Madness. Although this time I didn't find a group to ride with, I did make the effort to remember to look right - at the scenery.
It's stunning. Beautiful. Magnifique, in fact. The blue lake surrounded by mountains. Rolling hills and green meadows filled with sheep and cows. The towns along the way as pretty as you like, and filled with people shouting encouragement.
I skipped the first drinks stop, stopped at the second to grab some food, and headed onwards towards the Cat 3 hills of Côte de Aillons-le-Vieux (6km at 4%) and Col des Prés (3.5km at 6.5%) where the same experience repeated itself. Not pushing but going faster than most, staying in the left lane. Passing people.
Then I learnt I was wrong about another assumption. Descending. It turns out I suck at descending.
|Stop posing and get your hands on the goddam drops!|
My climbing experience was reversed, all of a sudden it was me standing still as seemingly the whole of the Etape zoomed by me. It was the people as much as the road - I think - the ones in front, the ones going by, the ones behind shouting at me for trying to take a racing line.
The roads were closed but after almost coming off twice in the last two rides when people stopped in front of me I just didn't trust them. Certainly not when an off could end my day.
After refilling my bottles and downing a gel and most of a bar at the drinks stop at the bottom of Revard, Pez caught up with me. I'd expected it sooner if I'm honest. He's a better climber than me and I didn't get too much of a jump on him at the start, but had somehow managed to stay ahead over the first 65kms. That ended on Revard.
|65km - the serious bit begins|
Now, the 2013 Etape had two clear parts. The flat-uppy-rolling-uppy-downy bit, where none of the hills are that long or that steep and there's 1,500m of climbing over 65kms. Standard fare for a British rider really, if anything easier as they tend to throw steeper hills into sportives over here.
Then there's the Alpine bit. Two thousand-metre climbs. Both more than 10km long. And it was hot. Really hot. With no clouds and very little shade.
I started Col du Mont-Revard (16km at 5.4%). The plan was easy - sit, spin, keep the heart rate down and keep doing that for as long as it took to crest the summit. It took me 1hr 36mins.
Any concept of a fast or slow lane was replaced with a universal hunt for shade. Riders seeking out any scrap of cover they could. I drank a lot. I got hotter.
Eventually sitting for that long made the pain from my back too much, I got off and stretched and popped a couple of ibuprofen I had in my saddle bag. It wasn't my only stop to stretch and rest my back.
|Pain from back growing. Scenery nice, mind.|
After what felt like a geological epoch had passed I reached the top and a welcome food and drinks station. I grabbed some food, re-filled my water bottles, put my gilet on and headed down the descent. 12kms of it. Being passed constantly by everybody (I think I might have gone by one man on a mountain bike or similar, but that was it).
This should be spectacular in Le Tour - fast, sweeping bends. Even with my wimpy descending I averaged 40kmph down here, the pros will destroy it.
Then, at the bottom, I was off - 19 kilometres of rolling countryside as an aperitif to La Semnoz.
It was as glorious a stretch of road as I've ever ridden. I didn't find a group, although did find a couple of wheels now and again. But cruising along, out of the saddle, in the saddle, through the winding closed roads of France through villages and cheered on by locals (who were fantastic throughout) was a true pleasure.
I forgot I was in the Etape, I was just loving it. Almost done, sun shining and... wait. What the eff am I doing? Why am I thrashing myself just before the hardest hill I will ever ride? I slowed down. A lot.
And then, Montée finale du Semnoz.
It's officially 11.5km at 8.3%. It's not. It starts 3km sooner (with this 3km at 8.2%). And the 8.3% masks a multitude of gradients. The first 2km consistently over 12%, then a break, then hard, really hard, again.
I caught up with Pez at the food stop in Gruffy - with a band playing and volunteers spraying hoses over hot riders. I stole one of his super-gels (50g of carbs! Plus caffeine!) filled my water bottles (one with caffeine-carb drink, one with electrolyte) stuffed some cake and dried apricots in my mouth and set off.
It broke me.
Just 11km after the food stop there was another drinks break 8km from the finish. I didn't even make it that far.
In my bottom gear, going slow, the kilometre signs seemed light-years apart. I was weaving. I was the only person weaving. I had no clue why other people weren't weaving. Especially as I kept passing the non-weavers. Plenty were walking.
The heat got worse. It was about 3pm, as hot as it gets. There was no cover. I drank as much as I could stomach. It tasted bitter in my mouth. I wished, wished, I'd had the sense to have plain water in one of my bidons. I would have drenched myself in it.
Every. Pedal. Stroke. Hurt. My arms looked like they were glazed; such was the uniform coating of sweat. My head was getting hotter and hotter, my hands started to shake. I was 500m from the drinks stop and I couldn't keep riding.
I saw some shade by the side of the road, and threw myself and my bike into it.
"Oh. Hello Pez," were the next words out of my mouth.
After an indeterminate period sitting in the shade with Pez trying to cool down. Trying to drink the too sweet, too bitter, brackish liquid I had with me. Mostly not moving. We set out again.
Of course, this is when it got easier, almost downhill to the drinks stop. Obviously.
I learnt from my mistake and poured out the electrolyte drink and filled up on plain water. I also poured most of a bottle of it over my head, arms, neck and back. I absently wondered if this would break my phone. It didn't seem to matter much.
I set off again.
The final eight kilometres were hard. But also the last. Seven months training for eight kilometres. Only an hour more. That's barely even a turbo session.
Six kilometres. I got off and stretched my back. Five kilometres, four. That's half an hour. I can do this. It's not getting easier, but I can do this. Three. A stretch. Back on the bike, my god it's hot. Why isn't it levelling off near the summit!?
Two. Just two. I might only be doing 7kph, but even at that speed it's just over 15 minutes left. One. One kilometre and I'm done.
500m - it's time to kick. I went up through the gears. 200m. I shifted into the big ring. Sur le effing plaque - to paraphrase. I stood on the pedals. I sprinted.
I crossed the line, got a sticker, and promptly threw up. Somehow, I'd just ridden a stage of the Tour de France.
|Out of the saddle, big ring, sprinting with the last ounce of energy I had|
|The best sticker I've ever been given|
Rider Total Time Ranking (out of 11475 starters) Climbing time Climber ranking
Andy 6.12 2848 3.39 2194
Bobby 6.25 3543 3.52 3131
Paul 7.29 6768 4.36 6548
James 8.01 8213 4.48 7335
Pez 8.05 8353 4.45 7167
How did you get on?