Tour de France adventure

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One of our great Kiwi friends, who is living in Germany with his family for 5 years recently sent me this account of his adventure on a stage of the Tour de France. We just have to share it with you!

Hi Rob

Cheers for that. If you have a spare 10 minutes, here’s my latest biking exploit;

Riding a stage of the Tour de France – how hard could it be right? That’s what I thought when I first heard about the Etape du Tour – a race in July each year riding a stage of that year’s tour on closed roads – which I duly signed-up for in October. I didn’t realise then how hard it could be.

The first wee problem was that I had ever only owned one road bike when I was about 15 years old – a old dunger 10 speed. Mountain bikes were my thing, and roadies were to be frowned upon in their  matching team jerseys and shaved legs – pooftas! (mind you, I did succumb to shaving my legs and was glad I did for this simple reason – guys on flash road bikes with lycra and hirsute legs simply looks, well, wrong).

A trip to the local bike shop in my new ‘hood of Rheda-Wiedenbrück in January saw me part with some Euros and come away with, well, nothing. What is the point of having a new road bike when it will be -5 and snowing for the next month.

I was ‘forced’ onto an indoor trainer (made a bit more attractive by discovering the ‘joys’ of the Sufferfest training videos) and the occasional freezing ride on my cyclo-cross bike. How hot water in a water bottle can turn to ice in the space of an hour’s ride is still a wonderment. I even had a ride in my mountain bike once – with the cold blowing the seals on my rear shock and brakes. Hmmm.

By now it was early March and, after acquiring and somewhat recovering  from a dose of pneumonia,  I was ready for some relatively warmer weather and my new road bike. The new bike arrived, but the weather stayed on, and on, and on, and on. Apparently this year’s winter was one of the longest and darkest on record (and records go back aways in Germany).

By the time the end of June came around, training had been a lot less than ideal. The local “RTFs” (organised club rides with lots of people) had either been cancelled because it was too cold/wet/windy or had interfered with family commitments. The weather meant that trips to the only decent hills (one hour’s drive away) were squeezed into late May and June (did I mention that this year’s Etape was a mountain stage?).

A decent couple of days in the Harz Mountains three weeks before the Etape had me thinking I’d be OK. That was until I picked-up a virus on the weekend before the big day. I guess that is all part of moving to a new country (new viruses) and having two small children, but not exactly what I needed. The doctor, under hushed tones of “doping”,  gave me a shot of vitamins to help me along.

Two days before we (my friend Andre and I) were due to make the 10 hour drive to France I was still 50:50 on going or not.  I took a short ride the day before we were due to go and pronounced myself 80% fit with two days more recovery to come. A short ride on the Saturday and I was 90%. Good enough – it will have to do.

Sunday, the day of the race, started at 4.45am. Well, it did for me. Andre’s day started earlier with reports of a call girl and associated noises from the room above until 3.00am. That was his story anyway, “yes Andre, the room above, sure”.

13,500 riders were due to start the Etape in Annecy this year. They are started out in ‘pens’ of around 1,000 – we were in pen 11 – a long long wait. The first pen started out at 7.00am, we finally got underway at 8.20am. Just as well as the smell of 13,500 people’s continually emptied bladders (anywhere!) was started to be a tad whiffy.

Finally we crossed the start line – 128kms and 3,500 metres of climbing lay ahead – the last stretch of 11kms up to the summit of Annecy-Semnoz being the crux – 11km at an average of 8.9% after 120kms in your legs. No worries, it’s only road biking.

We started the first 10kms of flat with a slight tail wind  averaging 40 kmph and then the first climb of the day – the Cote d’Puget. A relatively easy 5.4km at 5.8%. It was busy but not bottle-knecked. Easy just to click into a low gear and spin along passing and being passed.  This was the point that I first congratulated myself on getting a triple chain ring up front to give me extra low gears – and it was certainly not the last.

First climb done, feeling good, onto the next – the Col d’Leshaux. All good until, coming into the first feed zone at 35kms, pop hisss from the back wheel. No problems, a quick change of tube and a bit of assistance from the Mavic service guys in pumping and I was underway. Strange that I didn’t find the cause of the puncture though…

On the descent from a classic old French mountain village a few kms later another pop, hisss. This was a bit more serious. My spare tube was gone (first learning point right there). No worries, the Mavic motorbike was behind me somewhere and must be en-route. I walked up to the top of the village and sat with a French family on the footpath waiting. I inspected the tire and my finger went through the side wall – hmm, not a good look (I later discovered that I had amassed 3,000kms on these tires – second learning point).

At first hundreds of riders streamed past, then tens, then in ones and twos and then… nothing. No one. The road was empty.  13,499 riders were up the road somewhere. What a dejected figure I must have looked.  Where is that bloody motorbike and, oh how I hope he has a spare tyre and tube.

At this stage it is probably worth mentioning that the event has a Broom Wagon. This vehicle marks the ‘end of the race’. If you are passed by this vehicle you need to, if you can, get to one of four repatriation points where a bus awaits your dejected arse to transport you back to the start/finish in Annecy.

The motor noise in the distance could be one of two possibilities – the Broom Wagon or the Mavic service guy. Thankfully it was the latter, not the former. “Merci.  Merci. Tyre and tube?”. “I have a tyre but i think I have used all the tubes”. A search through his backpack revealed said tire and, right at  the bottom lay an old and dirty, but new, tube. Hooray!

After a total of about 45 minutes, I finally got underway again. No one had ridden by for several minutes and the spectre of the Broom Wagon lay large. With the vim and vigour of a dropped rider catching the pro peleton I sped along the empty road. After 4 or 5 kms I started passing stragglers – people with panniers and mirrors (says it all really) and them, uphill, passing small groups of riders. Whew!

Constant in the back of my mind was knowing that I had no spare tube and one more puncture was going to be the end of my ‘race’.

Looming ahead was Mt Revard – a 16km grind of 5.4%. To add to the joy of this climb the temperature broke through the 30 degree barrier. The heat and lack of wind was stifling. Many riders were sitting or lying under trees throughout the climb – not looking good! The medical teams (of which there were many on motorbikes and in ambulances) were doing a roaring trade.

I used my triple chain ring to great effect and passed hundreds of riders. At the feed and service zone near the top of Mt Revard I tried to scrounge a tube off the Mavic service bus, “All gone sorry” was the answer. The amount of punctures I saw was incredible. Heat? Rough’ish roads? Long fast descents? Who knows.

The next 40 or so kms into the town of Gruffy was pretty uneventful.  I recalled sage advice from friends of tagging onto a group of similar paced riders and enjoying being ‘dragged’ along with them. The nature of the course provided no opportunity for this, or advantage to be gained from attempting this (except for one stretch of 2kms leaving Gruffy) so it was all about riding solo and pacing myself as best I could. Forefront of mind was the final climb.

In Gruffy I learned that my firend Andre had blown his tubeless rear tire at the bottom of that last climb and was now walking his bike back to the service guys at Gruffy – some 8 kms back – ouch!

Reaching the base of Annecy-Semnoz the temperature hit 33 degrees and the heat rising from the freshly laid asphalt was intense, as was the first pitch of the climb. So many people were pushing their bikes – and they had 11kms to go! Another congratulatory pat on the back for that triple.

I ground up the first 3kms to the water station at Foret de Quintal and took a break under the trees. The heat, the climb and the lack of energy after the virus was starting to get to me. The remaining 8kms to the summit was close to a nightmare. I would grind my way past people walking their bikes but need to rest every 1 to 1.5kms for fear of collapse. People were in all states of disrepair – walking, sitting, lying, vomiting.

I was determined not to push my bike and, when I caught Andre at 1km to go, I had almost succeeded. The Mavic guys had come to his rescue with a complete back wheel. He had only pushed for a bit – sans shoes – but would have blisters from the hot road to contend with for days to come.

As he sprinted away to the finish, I contemplated taking another break only 500 metres from the finish line. I could see it even – but it just seemed a long way away and, at this stage,  I was a tad concerned for my survival. I plugged on however and, slowly, dribbled across the line. Finished.

No elation – just relief and the overwhelming desire to lie down.

After a long rest, and not having jackets (another learning point) we managed to scrounge an old carton and tore it up to make wind shields for the 17km descent back to the event village and medals at Annecy. I stopped half-way down thinking my bike was damaged it was shaking so much. No, only me being cold and exhausted.

With the medal securely around my neck I had time to reflect. I did it. I did it despite the trials leading up to the event and despite the problems on the day. My ‘time’ was total crap, but that is a by-product of many factors. I learned several valuable lessons and am proud to have completed it. How the pros do it day in and day out is amazing (and they will ride that stage in way under half my time). One of the biggest lessons was that this road biking lark aint as easy as it can looks and can actually be a lot of fun. Would I do it again – hell yeah.

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