It’s 7am, the sun lights the mountains in the distance, but here it’s cold. Metal barriers line the wide road and a huge crowd is gathering. Three riders cross the barrier, mount their bikes and gently melt into the back of a lean, lycra clad group. The commentator on the tinny PA builds the tension as he yells furiously. “Trois, deux, un… Allez vous en…!!”
Rewind seven months to the week after Christmas when Peter and Laetitia Sterling arrived at our apartment in Calpe. “I’ve entered this…” Pete said, showing me the image of his virtual bib. “Are you gonna do it with me?!” A couple of days later this arrived in my inbox –
Rachel Somerville was in Calpe too climbing and cycling and was quickly persuaded, so it was that, crazily, on July 16th the three of us would be tackling the massive climbs of the ‘Queen’ stage of the 2017 Tour de France, on closed roads, together with 12,000 other riders! Reality and Training – Ride, Ride and do more Riding
Cumbria in February, wet, cold, the dirty pot-holed roads uninviting and the enormity of the ride seeps in – a ride of 180km with 3,700m of climbing, to be completed in under 11hrs., chased by the relentless sweepers in the voiture balai and probably in disablingly hot conditions would require some serious training. Our ambition was to finish, likely to require turning the cranks for ten hours with sustained demanding climbs that could take up to two hours! Physically and mentally this would be tough, We set about this preparation each in our own way; Rachel jumped on her turbo trainer, I joined the twice weekly rides with my local club and threw in some audaxes. Pete was slower to start, yet seemed to morph from jelly legs to rouleur in a couple of weeks; muscle memory from his TT days? With the arrival of drier weather, by the end of April we all had a few thousand kilometres and a couple of Everests in our legs.
In May the schedule was interrupted when Pete and I spent a week in Cornwall climbing! Rachel scratched the Cornish trip in preference for a week in Majorca, thinly disguised as a family holiday. Early in June she had a climbing week in France booked, ticking the giant Col du Galibier at over 2,600m and the famous 21 hairpins of Alp d’Huez, by bike of course.The Route
The highlight of the route would be the final 70 kilometres, featuring ascents of the Col de Vars (2,109m) and Izoard; first and hors category climbs. For 20km the Vars climbs sinuously for 1,150m from the Ubaye gorge with the steepest gradients, averaging 8%, in its middle section. The Izoard is legendary, a very tough hors (outside) category climb. From Guillestre it rises 1,350m in 30 kilometres, with the first section gently following the beautiful Guil gorge. The real climbing is focussed in the final 15km, gradients consistently average 9 and 10% over the final 7km finally topping out at 2,360m; the highest finish of the Etape. We don’t have climbs of this magnitude in Britain, the two biggest offering only 650m of height gain, but what British climbs lack in length they make up for in brutality.
Despite our best intentions, we didn’t get to ride together until the beginning of July! With similar stats to the Etape, at 180km and amassing 3,800m of climbing, the Fred Whitton Challenge route, tackling all of the major Lakeland passes, would test our bikes and our fitness. We had a great day and sampled a brilliant ride!
We chatted, we pedalled, we ate cakes, relaxing and enjoying the company, arriving back in Staveley after about 10 hrs.. But would the short sharp English passes prepare us for the alpine giants?
While Rachel and Pete fine tuned their acclimatisation, sleeping at 2,400m on the col du Granon, Sandra and I secured a prime spot for the camper vans opposite the start. Keith and Fiona Sanders with Alison and Ian Athroll and Rachel’s mate, Andrea, all turned up and over a tasty meal we sorted logistics for the supporters; remember, the roads are closed!
Riding on closed roads would be amazing, no worries regarding oncoming traffic, the main hazards being other riders. The road closure comes at a price – strictly controlled by the gendarmes we learned that the closure times are ruthlessly applied. As the broom wagon sweeps relentlessly along our biggest fear was being caught. We had a late start time, so any delay, a puncture or mechanical problem, could mean abandoning the race. Pete takes up the story… “Our answer was blunt. We took advantage of our position parked alongside an early starting group (each group is 1000 riders, there are 16 groups) and simply leapt over the fencing as that group started. We’d bought ourselves an extra hour and a half buffer on being swept up by the Broom. Our biggest concern of failure to complete the course had been swiftly eliminated. Nice.”
Shady and cool at first, we rode comfortably south towards St Crepin, the smooth surfaces encouraging high speeds. Pete quickly hooked into the draft of a faster group whilst Rachel and I relaxed knowing we wouldn’t be swept up and began enjoying the long day. Our broom beating strategy had included bouncing the first feed station which came up a little over an hour into the ride at 50km.. Surprised to see him, I tapped Pete on the shoulder at the bottom of the first climb, the category 3 Cote des Demoiselles Coiffee, named after the distinctive tall rock formations found here. Pete climbs faster than I do and, in those 4km, disappeared up the road. A blistering descent led to the 30km drag, following the river Ubaye, to Barcelonnette. With 100km ridden we were now spread out across a few kilometres of the course and, starting with faster riders, it was proving difficult to join a group working at the same pace. The feeding zone was mayhem, bikes strewn across the road and riders frantically grabbing food and drinks – filling my bidons I carried on to the next drinks stop 16km up the road.As I started up the col de Vars the day had well and truly warmed up. Steep for a few kilometres, the gradient eased slightly as we gained height, yet the heat just intensified. Riders were already stopping to recover in any shady spot. Rachel passed by a couple of kilometres below the top and, after an amazing 20km descent, we met up at the final feeding zone in Guillestre. Alison, Fiona, Ian and Keith were here, although in the mass of lycra clad riders they missed Rachel and I, but caught sight of Pete. Only 30km remained…
Having to retrace to recover my ‘shades’ Rachel and I split up. We heard from Tish and Sandra waiting at the finish that Pete was already climbing. The first 15km of the climb follows the Guil river towards Italy, then an abrupt left turn across the timing mats heralds the start of the real climbing – 14km of sustained effort. The gradient is relentless and steepens in the upper section. Approaching Arvieux the road is straight and for 3km the climb is depressingly laid out before you. The drinking fountains are mobbed and a gendarme is pointlessly shouting “Drinks are available in two kilometres.” Desperate to cool down, nobody takes any notice.The aptly named ‘Recovery area’ is reached, 8km of the climb remains, I join riders sitting in the shade, outside in the sun it’s 38 degrees. Another 500m up the road an enthusiastic team use a hose to douse us with cold water, the road steepens as we enter the trees. For the next 5km the gradient averages 9%, the heat is debilitating, riders stop, many are walking some just lie prone at the side of the road. Ambulances buzz past. Every few hundred metres I have to stop to recover, let my heart rate fall, try and cool down. In the end I decide it’s better to continue to make progress and start walking, several riders are carrying their shoes and helmets. The climb seems interminable, but slowly the kilometre posts count down the distance and the casse deserte, an improbable area of scree and rotting rock towers, signals the final section. Finally I made the summit after 10hrs of riding. The official finish was in Briancon 20km away, mercifully all downhill.
Arriving at the Col D’Izoard the place was mobbed, hundreds of finishers milling around, smiling, taking photos and recovering from their efforts. Sitting looking around I hoped to see Rachel or even Pete. After ten minutes I put on my gilet and swooped down to Briancon. Pete was there as expected, but there was no sign of Rachel. Sand and Tish had been stationed right at the arrivee banner all afternoon and she must be down. Then, showered and changed, Rachel appeared, she had come into town the back way! It had been a tough ride, the last 15km in the heat desperately hard. We had earned our gongs…
Steve Scott – President