Surviving the Etape Du Tour

In 2006 a few months after he started cycling, David Quigley took on the worlds toughest Sportive, the Etape Du Tour.

I can’t remember exactley when it started, but I recall first thinking about doing the Etape Du Tour, back in October 2005. After succesful stints in Dublin as a rower and somewhat less succesfully as a soccer player, I had spent the better part of a decade getting all my exercise from necking pints, falling down the stairs of nightclubs and generally being less than a perfect gentleman. Determined to mend my evil ways, I started cycling in April 2005 to train for the Wicklow 200 that June. I cannot motivate myself unless I have a goal and a 200km cycle seemed like a good if somewhat unreasonable one. On the plus side however, in those days you got a free jersey for taking part and everyone loves a free jersey right ?

Of course this was not just a notion I had plucked out of the air, in fact I had always been interested in cycling having gone to school with local cycling legend Ciaran Power and grown up in the Kelly / Roche era.. not to mention an era where no-one had a car and we all cycled to school, indeed Waterford had more bicycles than Bejing in those days. Armada’s of cyclists would swarm the roads of Waterford in the mornings during the school rush. Simpler times, getting to school with a German Parka jacket that weighed 2 stone with all the rain water it had absorbed and a bag on your back that weighed 3 stone.

Perhaps that early life experience of suffering like a dog in all weather just to get to school on the bike which ensured that the Wicklow 200 turned out to be somewhat of an anti-climax. I was tired after 200km for sure, but it didn’t feel “Epic”. I looked at the cert they gave me which stated that the Wicklow 200 was “like a mountain stage of the Tour De Fance” – yes Fance, thats how they spelled it. I thought to myself, I’d like to put that to the test someday and thought nothing more of it for  another 3 months.

Every year the Etape Du Tour route is announced in October and all 9000 entries usually sell out instantly, so about 2 weeks after the etape route was announced I happened to hear that it was the very same Alpe DHuez stage that I had, like most cyclists, won several times in my dreams since childhood  (solo attack at the bottom leaving Kelly, Roche and Delgado for dead). I knew right then, I just had to do it. Stage 15 of 2006 tour (later won by a young Frank Schleck, the first time he rose to prominence on the world stage – no doubt helped by the training advice he was getting from a Madrid based gynaecologist at the time), 191.4km, 2 hors categorie climbs (Col D’Iozard, Alpe D’Huez), plus  the formidible 25km long cat 2 Col Du Lauteret in the middle. Right I thought, lets see if the Wicklow 200 really is like a stage of the Tour de bloody “Fance”.

I had however left it two weeks too late. There was not an entry to be got, the organisers laughed at me, so I emailed trailseekers, the official irish agents, plus the UK companies and even a few cycling websites to no avail. The mountaintop finish on Alpe D’Huez had driven demand higher than ever. I am not easily beaten however (except going uphill on a bike) so I saw a light at the end of the tunnel later in December when one of the websites got  back. They had 2 entries and would have a quiz to decide who won the right to purchase them (for £100 each). The questions were a series of questions about the UK domestic racing scene, which I knew nothing of. What I do know something of however is tracking down things on the internet where after 8 hours of research I had all but one answer and it was nowhere to be got. I had a brainwave however to find out which club had hosted the race in question, tracked down their secretary who put me in contact with someone else, who gave me the info I needed. Two weeks later, just before xmas 2005, the news came back somehow, I had gotten an entry. I had neglected to mention I was in Ireland, which annoyed the organiser somewhat but I brazed it out and I was in ! Game on. Of course, by this stage the last time I had sat on a bike was the previous August, but that was just a minor detail.

Then the hard part – figuring out how the hell to get a flight to an Airport near the start, find a hotel near the start, arrange transport to same, arrange transport on the morning of the race to the start village, arrange transport from the finish (which was closed to traffic) back to the hotel… in short it was logistical nightmare and headache time. I was saved however in early February and my saviour came in the unlikely form of a mad bastard from West Cork by the name of Sean O’Leary of Trailseekers. They had a cancellation, I didn’t need the entry but I did arrange to buy a package (transfers from airports, to start, finish etc.. plus hotels and meals etc….). All of a sudden all I had to worry about was getting me and the bike to France. This was almost too easy. Almost.

Speaking of the bike, over the winter I had been building a bike for the  event, a super lightweight, sub 15lb carbon fiber dream machine (see below – technology has moved on since then, but back then this was a superbike – by the way, the picture was taken in the hotel which explains the 70′s-tastic decor). Most importantly it was built for a beginner like me to be able to cope with the high mountains, coming with a compact 50/34 chainring on the front and a nice small 12-25 gear at the back to make my easiest gear a 34×25. Sure I could ride up the front of my house and on to the roof with that kind of gearing right ?

Of course getting the bike there turned out to be a far from trivial task. There was a lot of messing around right up to April with Aer Lingus and getting the bikes on a flight, (officially the story is that up to 6 bikes can be put on a plane and more if there is space), however so many were booked that they couldn’t be sure they would all fit on the flights to Lyon so eventually after much toing and froing and dealing with uninterested Aer Lingus customer service reps, I decided to go to a different airport where there would be less bikes on the place, Geneva, Switzerland in fact.

With the logistics out of the way it was down to the business of training, and let me tell you, this was the one area in which I had been somewhat less than dedicated (a trait which I retain to this day). I had done a little over the winter but not  a lot. Trailseekers ran an excellent 3 day training camp at the end of april in the west cork and kerry mountains and this was a great base, but it showed me that I was not ready, not even close, in fact I was in far worse shape than when I had done the Wicklow 200 the year before. I was starting to get a little worried.

To help my preparation and because I had never ridden in a bunch before, I started doing some leisure events like the cystic fibrosis Limerick Dublin Cycle (great event run by a great bunch of people). I had started and then promptly stopped training with my local club as they were all race guys doing short sharp efforts rather than long sustained efforts, not that I could keep up with them anyway !

By May it was clear training was not going well. I had barely 1600km done for the year ! A karting accident at a stag night put my back out and was complicated further by an illness which put me off the bike from April through to mid-May, so in mid May with mild panic beginning to settle in, I did one long spin a week including the Mt Leinster Challenge (the first time it was run), the Wicklow 200 plus 4 or 5 160km – 185km solo efforts in the local Comeragh mountains and coast road. I did all of this solo and it was painful stuff and boring to boot. Midweek I would go out for one sub 50k crawl on a Wednesday night. Long story short, I had done very little training by the time I got on that plane compared to what I promised myself I would do. 3200km for the year (and about 3400km in 2005). This represented my entire cycling career since I started a little more than 12 months earlier.

Last minute faffing about trying to get a bike box notwithstanding (I ended up buying one from Cycle Superstore, learning another valuable lesson the hard way… book your bike box months in advance if you are renting one because you have zero chance of getting on near the date of the Etape), I was  on my way.

On the first day in France the group of 50 or so Irish in the Trailseekers group I was with went for a wee 70k warm up spin. Unfortunately with one 1600m climb in the middle, which was to be my very first alp, the Col Du Noyer. It was time for a reality check. Under a sweltering hot sun which would have made a brass door knob mushy (and which had made the tarmac sticky like carpets in a nightclub) I ripped into the climb, blowing my colleagues away. About 8k in however, I blew myself away and crawled the last 4k with aforementioned colleagues sailing past me as I desperately tried to save energy for the big day, 2 days later. As if I was not demoralised enough, Sean had managed to find a hotel at the top of a mountain overlooking the town of Corps. It was a 5k climb averaging 18% gradient. Indeed it was remarked that evening that if we wanted to go to town, you could get there in one step (see picture below!).

Next day it was a 50k ride to the start village in Gap with the 1200m Col Du Bayard to get over en route (Luckily it is barely a climb at all from this direction, although some of us topped 85kph on the descent into the town) ! The start village was where it started to sink in. It was the first time I had butterflies. Lots of very fit looking cyclists, all the big bike companies there, very impressive. What had I left myself in for ? I left my bike in the cages, where it was to remain overnight picked up my dossard and goodie bag (backpack rucksack with etape logo and date on it, bottle, t-shirt and a few other bits and pieces) and was ready for action the next day.

We had to be up at 3:45am to get to the start. Tragically this co-incided with the 2006 World Cup Final, which I just had to watch, even more tragically it was between France and Italy and of course I was in a hotel on the France/Italy border, so there would be no sleep tonight until the match was over no matter what I did. Of course it was inevitable that France and Italy had to go to penalties and extra time to ensure that I only got 4 hours of sleep !

Barely had I closed my eyes than race day had arrived. I got the biggest breakfast I could manage into me and sleepily staggered onto the bus. Things were smooth at the start village, I picked up my bike with no fuss and began to take stock of the riders and bikes around me. There were no bangers here, all tanned and toned continental types on Carbon dream machines and is that Paul Kimmage over there ? Who are those two clowns in the AG2R kits and matching bikes ? Actual members of AG2R ? Bugger. I must confess, I was begining to feel a bit intimitaded. Sitting at the start for half  an hour I had plenty of time to reflect on my total capitulation on the climb 2 days earlier and the words of some of my fellow cyclists on the bus that morning when they heard my gear ratio, apparently a 27 would have been better on the back for this particular etape, or better yet a triple. When some seriously good cat1 and 2 racers (Johnny Murphy of Fermoy who was an A1 at the time) tell a newbie like me something like that, I get worried ! So worried I left my shades on the bus. Dammit anyway.

Anyway, soon enough we were off, out of the gates like a bat out of hell into the blinding sunrise. The first 50k from Gap to Guillestre were mostly flat on average, some downhills, some slight uphills. I got into Guillestre at an average of 37km/h, barely turning a pedal being swept along by the bunch. To avoid elimination I need to average 19km/h, so I had already put some daylight between myself and failure, a good start. This was easy.

Onto the first climb, the Col’dIozard some 2350m high and 16k long. Allegedlly, you see although the climb proper was 14km long, the lead up to it is a gradual 18km climb through sweeping valleys with rushing whitewater rivers and tunnels. I negotiated this with no problem but noted that it was getting a tad hot. Then abruptly a signpost and a sharp left turn, 14km to the top. Here we go, this is where the Etape really starts, and inevitably, this is where things took a turn for the worse, the speed dropped coming through the village of Arvieux. It was very deceptive really, a 10% gradient but looked nothing of the sort till you glanced at your speedo, this is where I first saw some
cyclists begin to walk, the fountain in the village was full of cyclists refilling their
bottles. There were hundreds of spectators out cheering everyone on, roaring encouragement. This, I had not been prepared for, spectators ? At a sportif ? This really is a big deal. Looking at the banners or kites as they are known, letting you know that you have 5km to go to the summit and watching the TV helicopter in the sky and bright yellow Mavic neutral service motorbikes going past, you could easily imagine yourself being in the Tour itself – which I guess is kind of the point ! I was proving to be quite an experience. Just like on TV in fact.

Onto the switchbacks, and this is where it started to get steeper, nonetheless I was climbing fine, holding back from giving it full throttle, trying to conserve, I could see all the other cyclists stretched out for miles on the valley below and on the snaking road above me. Eventually I ground my way to the top, or what I thought was the top, but was just a brief respite in the form of a very welcome downhill section to the spectacular and totally out of place casse desserte which looks more like Arizona or Mars than France, and then uphill again past the official photographers (see picture) and towards the summit. The last 14k were something like a 7.5% average and it felt tougher than I thought it would, but that was probably because by now the temperature was heading for the high 30′s.

At the top and the water station was like a the scene when you throw a pork chop into a pirhana tank, I eventually fought my way in to refill the bottles which had been long since emptied. Late arriving cyclists would find that the water had run out which was a rare cock up by the organisers, nonetheless, there was a shop up there which seemed to be doing a brisk trade in cans of Coke ! Onto the truly terrifying descent on excellent roads towards Briancon, I am a lousy descender so took my time here, cautioned by the pools of blood and pieces of broken bike I was seeing all over the place, one pink stripe on the road was the obvious aftermath of some poor sod losing a pound of fat from his backside. Anyway, safe and sound into Briancon which numb forearms from riding the brakes all the way way down. In Briancon (France’s highest town) a ton of spectators and a marching band playing blues classics cheered us over the thoroughly unpleasant 11% climb out of town. Where we started immediately into the 27k ascent of Col Du Lauteret. 4.5% average for the last 12k or something like that. A piece of cake I was assured, indeed I was told I could nearly stay in the big ring, and that was almost true. Almost. I got into a nice sized group of friendly frenchmen who I couldn’t understand but kept smiling and talking to me anyway and cruised along into the headwind at about 25km/h taking time to admire
the spectacular surroundings and the rather bizzare sight of an entire family dancing to vanilla ice on the roadside (disturbingly, the appeared to have rehearsed their routine).

8k to go and feeling the pinch a little I dropped it down a gear, my chain didn’t quite get the message and dropped the whole way off. I had to stop, it was wedged between the frame and the chainset, but eventually using brute force, ignorance and every swear word I knew I got it sorted, but my group was gone. I passed cyclists, some passed me but I couldn’t get comfortable in a group again. All of a sudden I was on my own into the headwind and struggling. My rhythm was gone and my legs were starting to creak. With 3k to go my legs blew and I crawled to the top feeling vaguely uneasy about my chances of getting over the Alpe D’Huez. The heat was killing me at this stage. There was no foodstop at the top, so I rode up to a counter of a cafe and whilst still in the saddle among the tables and chairs outside with one hand on the counter, I got a sandwich and water which I stuffed in my mouth and tried to digest like a snake trying to swallow a buffalo, no handed on the 40k long sweeping descent. Sadly I had to discard aforementioned tasty baguette on the very first bend. I was heartbroken about that feeling much like Tom Hanks after Wilson the volleyball went for a swim in the movie Castaway. Jungle fever was starting to set in, I was losing my marbles. The next 40k were fast, whipping along gorges and dams, through long tunnels (where you had no sensation of speed), before eventually I came to a flat road leading to Borg D’Oisans. 176K done. I had concentrated so hard on the way down that I saw nothing of the scenery (indeed I only got to really see it on my Tacx Imagic turbo trainer several years later on the “Alpine Classic 2007″ course). 14k to go.

My legs at this stage felt better after the descent. I decided to fill up on water at the water station before the attack on the Alpe D’Huez and set off to meet my fate, wondering where the mountain could be ? I didn’t look like there was a huge climb starting in the next few hundred yards…. Around an innocent looking left bend I glanced left and saw the Italian beside me look up and bless himself. I looked up too, it was the start of the Alpe, coming out of nowhere and well,  first things first. Forget what you see on the web, forget what you see on TV. When you are sitting on a bike, tired, hot and terrified, the Alpe looks an awful lot steeper. I had hoped to get up the Alpe in an hour. Maybe I will go back one day and do just that, but I knew straight away, I would not this day. Today I would be lucky to make it at all.

Straight away cyclists abandoned. The intervals between the first few harpins are much longer than you think. Cyclists were walking everywhere. 14k of 8% (and much worse than that in the first half of the climb) just too much to contemplate for them, I knew how they felt. The heat was rising, I later found out that the still valley air and late afternoon sun combined with the baking rocks to raise the temperature to 44C near the bottom of the climb. It was little wonder that I was cooking alive. I was the whitest cyclist in the race, a hairy legged imposter and I had convinced myself that I was going to die of heatstroke. Seeing a spectator pass out did little to dispel this notion. I was by now climbing steady in my lowest gear, cycling along next to other riders and every few minutes a rider I was cycling with would just pull in and get off. We started zip zagging across the road if there was a bush, tree or any kind of shade for a moments respite from the sun. I was going to cook alive and my spirits were dropping, the sunblock was melting and sweat was pouring from me, the top tube of my bike was stained white with the salt and sunblock mixture  now pouring down my face and into my eyes. (My already damaged eyes from the amount of insects that I had hit on the descents, I was cursing myself for
forgetting those glasses !).

The 21 hairpins start at 21 and count down to 1, by 19 I was hurting bad. By 16 I was in serious trouble. I was drinking on the bends where it flattened out, and pouring water on my head to cool down, trouble was the water was hot too, I would normally drink my tea at that temperature. I started to curse Ireland for having no significant climbs and being so cold in comparison, it was impossible to prepare for this in Ireland I thought to myself.

I got some grim amusement thinking back to my Wicklow 200 cert “Its like a mountain stage of the Tour De Fance!”, it is and my hole, by comparisson the W200 is a  gentle meander down some poorly surfaced roads with a few pimples masquerading as climbs enroute. By now I was starting to feel the first symptoms of heatstroke, my mind was wandering, I was getting shivers up my spine despite the heat, I passed a cyclist lying on the ground with a saline drip in his arm next to a medic, I saw an air ambulance lift off further up the mountain. A cyclist next to me just vomitted on himself and without a word pulled up to a stop. Another stopped pedalling and collapsed. Further up the road another cyclist ground to a halt, legs unable to maintain enough momentum to keep him upright, he just keeled over on his side and lay there panting like a dog on a hot day. Cyclists lined the side of the road on the bends, others jumped into the little streams and waterfalls to fill their bottles or cool down.

I was determined not to stop I had dreamed of doing this as a child, I had (somewhat)trained for this, I was not getting off, there was no shame in falling off, wasted, but no way was I quitting. I thought to myself, what would Sean Kelly do ? Besides, if I stopped I didn’t think I would start again. I soldiered on. After turn 15 the gradient eases apparently, I didn’t feel it, the heat had emptied my reserves by then and every stroke of the pedals was a hardship. The next hour was a blur, to this day I remember almost nothing of it. Some kind hearted local had put sprinklers out onto the road, the cold water providing temporary relief. As I got further up the  climb there were more spectators  screaming at you like you were the yellow jersey in the tour ! Courage Monsieur screamed one, Chapeau ! another and every now and then one would run up to you with a bottle filled with cold mountain stream water, I would nod my head and the water would be dumped on me, the shock was like diving into the sea on a  cold day, but it brought you out of the trance. These people were angels. I had about 10 or 12 buckets of water thrown on my head on the way up and I am sure I wouldn’t have made it without them.

Eventually I saw the 5km to go  marker. Now I could see the whole road to the top snaking away to my right, it was only 5k but it seemed like a million miles away, I put my head down and grit my teeth. 500m later another sign for 5km to go. I audiably screamed. Every metre counts when you are cooking in your own juices, even though at this altitude it had cooled to a mere 37C or so.

3km to go, was that a slight cramp I felt in my thigh ? I had been losing a lot of water and salt in the climb, why yes it was ! For half a k I was in that state where your leg half cramps
but not quite on every pedal stroke, it was a race against time now, it was getting worse. hairpin 2 and there she blows ! Full on cramp in the left quad. I refused to stop, standing,
sitting, twisting every way I could to try stretch it out. I couldn’t believe it, all that time and money and now cramp was going to take me off the bike with the finish in sight and the better half waiting for me (hopefully with a can of Coke which I had fantasised about all the way up). I got angry. I shouted every expletive I knew in french and english and some of the crowd started shouting with me. By now, I was completely losing my mind and was trying to use the power of swear words to propel me to the line.

It wasn’t long before another spectator cooled me down instantly and snapping me out of it by ambushing me with a ton of cold water in the face, gasping for breath and trying to clear the water from my eyes, the official photographer got a snap, damn it, thats not one for the album. A few metres on and another photographer, my leg is cramped, I’m in pain, better make it look good for the cameras, around the bend, in the drops, standing up, mouth closed (picture below), and that’s when I realised, when I stand, in the drops, the cramp goes away !

Great ! 2 seconds later, I realise there’s a catch …. this is tiring me out pretty quick ! Damn it. I get to hairpin one and relief washes over me until I realise… whats this ? Another 2k to go uphill – yep, they left that part out in the brochure ! I had enough of this, I wanted off that bike so I started to wind it up. I figured I was going to hurt anyway, I may as well blow the bank, and I started to push hard. In that last 2oom I must have passed 100 cyclists, I passed the final turn in the town, swinging wide on the barrier nearly hitting it with my shoulder and sprinted my heart out over the finish line collapsing into the arms of the guy who was trying to remove my timing chip (and unceremoniously dragged me whilst still clipped into the bike out of the way) to finish with a ride time of 8h 57m. Overall with stops about 9′ 30 good enough for about 3300 place out of 9000 or so riders about 3 hours behind the winner, Blaise Sonnery of AG2R. I would do a lot, lot better these days, perhaps 2 hours better, but back in 2006 I was reasonably pleased with that considering that nearly 3000 riders did not make it to the finish at all. The heat claimed a lot of people that day. It had taken me a miserable 1′ 42 to get up the Alpe D’Huez, I had hoped for an hour, maybe if I hadn’t done 177k before that in the baking sun, maybe if it wasn’t 44C, either way I was glad to get to the top without stopping !

I was quickly shepparded off to get a goodie bag and plate of pasta whilst my better half, Annette appeared like an Angel with a can of freezing cold Coke (half of which I promptly poured on my head to cool me down), I should have married her on the spot, but will eventually do so sometime in 2012, better late than never ! I stood for a while to cheer the other Irish on, seeing as how we all had to leave together on the bus so I was going nowhere anyway! Some of the Irish didn’t make, it and they were devastated. I felt bad for them, but there was no shame for anyone who went out and gave that a go on the day, no shame or dishonor at all in my  eyes. It was one of the hardest etapes in recent years according to the vets in our party and the feeling of elation at end was tangiable, it quickly gave way to relief then pure fatigue. The formalities were not over however, the bikes had to be dismantled, boxed and loaded onto the bus and we faced a 2 hour drive back to the hotel, where weighed myself to find that I had lost 5lb in fluids despite drinking 3.5 litres of water, so I emptied the hotels bar, demolished the buffet and slept the sleep of the dead.

I  don’t know if I will do another, but I do know I will never forget 2006. To do a Tour de France stage, especially the Alpe D’Huez, on closed roads, with thousands of spectators, organised by the organisers of the tour, with some of the best amateurs in the world
alongside some chancers like myself was a once in a lifetime experience and a must for any cyclist. Its not cheap and its not easy, but if you want to do it, here are my tips:

  • Entries are published in Velo magazine in October. Forget about those, you won’t get one, instead call Sean O’Leary in Trailseekers and book early. Go on a package deal, it is the only way to  do it. You have enough to worry about without trying to find accomodation, transfers, getting to the start, back from the finish etc… its great value and you get to do it with a bunch of great people. The people in my group were fantastic, there was a real sense of shared experience, many of us were newbies and many were vets of doing the event for the 10th time, as a result there was lots of good advice on offer and the extremely cheap training weekend in Kenmare was fantastic.
  • Put a triple on your bike or a compact and put a 12-27 on the back. I saw plenty of race cyclists lying on the side of Alpe D’Huez with their 7000  euro bikes equipped with 53-39 / 11-25. You won’t feel so tough after 190k in the baking heat ! Better to be safe than sorry and have a bail out gear. I would have traded a family member for one more gear on the Alpe D’Huez. The gradients and what you can do on similar gradients in Ireland mean nothing. The distances you are climbing combined with the heat can dramatically affect what you might usually be capable of. Better to have the easy gear and not need it than need it and not have it.
  • Book your flights early and make sure you specify you are bringing a bike. Get it in writing from the airline.
  • Buy or rent your bike case early, almost everywhere had sold out of them when I tried to get one. Many places rent them too, Staggs Cycles, Wheelworx, Cyclesuperstore. Don’t bring your bike in a padded bike bag, lots of people did this, most got away with it, one in our party though now has a broken 7000 euro Pinarello in need  of a new carbon frame.
  • Do a few races or sportives before you go or at least go out with a large club group a few times. Near the start the bunches are huge and you will be elbow to elbow with riders hammering down a hill at 70k ! It was quite unsettling to be hammering along at 5okph with another riders brake lever hitting me in the backside.
  •  Be able to ride the distance comfortably, do the wicklow 200 and as many  150k plus leisure events you can, there are plenty of them !!
  • Bring your own food and money on the day, the feed stations are unreliable and slow to get through, its nearly better to stop at a shop and lose 5 minutes than go to the offical stop and spend 20 minutes fighting your way through the crowd to find there is no water left……
  • Most of all I would say just go out there and do it, this is a once in a lifetime experience that every cyclist should try at least once. Don’t be afraid to give it a go, its expensive but it’s a small price to pay for what is an amazing experience. If you can get around the Sean Kelly 160k, you will make it around the Etape.

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