One again it was time for L’Étape du Tour – 172 kilometres, over 3,500 metres of climbing and at the end the mythical Mont Ventoux. L’Étape is generally one of the hardest, if not the hardest, stages of the Tour de France. It mostly switches each year between the Pyrenees and the Alps, and is held on one of the rest days of the Tour de France for the professionals.
Thisyear we were eventually a group of 14, including partners, and mostly Roche Bike and run Section, 3C3 members. Planning started in October 2008. The hotel in Orange and starting places were already ordered. Places for L’Étape are not easy to obtain for non-French residents and have to be brokered through an agency.
Training started for most in earnest in March, the thought of 172 kilometres,including six cols, (mountain passes) and then the 22 kilometre climb of Mont Ventoux with gradients over 12% was daunting for some. For others, even their sixth L’Étape that already included famous climbs such as Alp d’Huez, Col d’Izoard or the Tourmalet, they were once again confronted with the fear of another serious mountain challenge. Yes, this one is to be feared.
Training taken care of.Bikes maintained, packed and ready. Energy gels, bars and drinks all organised. Flights booked. Oh no, for a few: Genetech! For another flu. Yes, as in every year, work gets in the way, other personal situations and there were the inevitable last minute cancellations. For the rest, off to Montélimar the day before, the starting location. To the race village to collect race numbers. To meet up withfriends. To buy last minute bicycle things.
Then to Orange, to the hotel. This was a really pretty little hotel near the Roman amphitheatre. The service was excellent. Bikes were rebuilt and tested. Race numbers fixed. Water bottles filled. Last evening meal. Pasta of course, and no micera here. Then bed.
The day dawned with a light breakfast at five am. A short bicycle ride to the railwaystation, and the train to Montélimar. Stress levels rising. Some silent, some talking: All thinking of the challenge. Leaving the train after a thirty-five minute journey, the first challenge was to leave backpacks in the lorry (for transport to the end), then find the right start gate amongst the 9500 other participants. Then up to an hour wait in the starting gate for the off. Time to eat a lastbanana, drink a last bottle of energy liquid.
The weather was warm with clear blue skies and thirty-two degrees Celsius forecast. The loud speakers announce the start of gate one. That includes Erik Zabel and Alain Prost. Chris Boardman is there somewhere. Some of the girls adjust their makeup, clearly it matters for them. Then suddenly we were off, slowly to the timing mat, and then after thatthe speed picks up.
Very soon the first climb starts, nothing too difficult, there are faster people whipping through, you learn to have eyes in the back of your head. Soon a fast descent the early people in our group are already away. The first accidents are happening. You feel sick as you see the bloodied faces of early casualties, and just pray that you are not one of them. After 25kilometres the first of our group, Jim hits some road debris, from an accident, and blows his rear tire. He and his wife Kathy stop and get caught by the broom wagon. It’s already the bus for them.
By about the eightieth kilometre, you settle down to your own private rhythm. Your own kind of private hell, early pain, early fatigue, first signs of cramps. It’s hot, and important to drink: ‘Drink like afish eat like a horse’. Always in sight is the barren summit of Mont Ventoux, as if you need reminding. All around the beautiful Provencale countryside, fields full of lavender. Every village has the crowds out cheering you on.
A quick stop at the feeding zone. A few snatched precious seconds of rest. Another stop at the village fountain. Another mouthful of sweet sticky energy gel. More...