My l’etape du tour 2004
In May 2003 a feature in Cycling Weekly on l’etape du tour caught my eye. Riding a stage of the Tour de France just days before the pro’s come through… surely this is every amateur cyclist’s ultimate adventure. To me it epitomised everything I wanted to do on a bike and it didn’t take long for me to get an early entry with sporting tours for the 2004 l’etape.
One of the most exciting things about a new challenge is the planning. And when the course was announced on 28th October 2003 my planning started. The course was from Limoges to St Flour a massive 240km (150 miles). Although not a classic mountain stage Limoges to St Flour was the longest stage of the 2004 Tour passing through the picturesque volcanic region of the Aurvergne (Massif Central) and into the Pyrenees. There were 9 categorised climbs with the Col de Pas de Peyrol, otherwise known as the Puy Mary, being the highest peak at 1589m. The key challenge was the epic distance and constant loss and gain of height until the 100th mile where the real climbing started..
The chat rooms buzzed with expert advice on training and articles reporting heroic feats in previous years filtered through the cycling press. It was exciting and easy to ride the waves of enthusiasm that consumed the event. L’etape results are graded on age and time taken to complete the course and in the 2004 event there were only 2 standards awarded to riders: Gold and Silver and every year roughly 10% of the 8,500 competitors are unceremoniously swept-up by the broom wagon for dropping below the 15kph average speed limit. The general view was that in order to avoid the broom wagon an average rider needed to put in about 2,000 miles training building up to a couple of hilly 9 hour rides of 150 miles. It was at this point I decided that just finishing wasn’t good enough I set my sights on a silver medal.
I started with the obvious… a new bike. My old Specialized Comp was replaced with a shiny new Trek 5900 and once I had stocked up on cold weather gear I set out for my first 30 mile training ride on Nov 1st.
By the end of January I had 800 base miles under my belt and had completed my first 100 mile reliability ride a week before the Sporting Tours training camp in Spain. It was on a 3000ft climb to Collossa on the 3rd day of the training camp that I realised I was in pretty good shape. It was my first taste of climbing solidly for an hour or more and I loved it. My confidence was again boosted at the beginning of April when Gordon Wright measured my MAP (Maximum Aerobic Power) at 445 and the psychological benefits paid off with a 10th place in the 100 mile E.184.108.40.206 Fred Cowley race.
My next key milestone was the Roger Whitton Challenge (The Lakes Challenge) a 113 mile (10,500ft climbed) race taking in all the major passes in the Lake District. Unbelievably Hard Knott pass was 30% in places! I came 6th overall in 6hrs27mins and, on re-visiting the results, discovered I beat Chris Young who was first Brit home in the etape.
I covered 1,900 miles in May and June and 600 of those were race miles. Next up was the much feared Surrey League 5 day race (25-29 June). This was to be my final race 2 weeks ahead of the Etape and I was delighted with 3rd place overall in the GC. This race and 1,000 miles covered in June marked the end of my preparation. I wound down the miles and the intensity to a couple of Z2 rides and got the bike serviced.
Having no hassles on race day is absolutely vital and Sporting Tours certainly removed all unnecessary stress for me. Our hotel was 1km from the start and at 05:30 on Sunday the 11th July we rolled to the start line. My only memory of the start was that it was extremely cold.
The 1st 30km’s were neutralised. For me this meant that the leaders of the race could not go over 30kph and it gave me an excellent opportunity to get as close to the front as possible. I went like a mad man to get to the front and by the time the lead car pulled over I reckon I was in the top 200.
As the car pulled over the race took off like a UK road race. I never saw them go but a leading break of 30 riders disappeared. This break contained the eventual winner Jean Christophe Currit and last year’s winner Loic Herbreteau. At 67km we reached the first significant climb, the Col de Lestards, 7km of 5% to 900 metres. I felt great during this climb and pulled through the field until I was in the top 50 of our break. UK road race etiquette went out the window and I had no problem hopping from wheel to wheel and taking no time at the front. As I took in the competition I identified just one potential Brit in a orange Marie Curie shirt. I was later to discover that this was Chris Young [an ex-pro rider].
It was climbing through Soursac (110km) that I really really needed a pee. I had seen a number of the guys peeing off their bikes and cursed that learning that particular skill hadn’t even crossed my mind. A rider in front of me pulled over and I decided to follow suit for what seemed the longest pee of my life. I regretted it the second I had stopped. We both flew down the hairy decent into the lush valley of Barrages de l’Aigle but made-up little time. As we crossed the picturesque dam at the bottom I realised with horror that this was the start of the 35km climb to the Col de Neronne. The climb out of the valley, the Cote de Mont Plaisir, was horribly steep and although I caught the tail of our break I couldn’t believe that my pit stop had cost me so dearly. Instead of a comfortable steady climbing rhythm I was working hard, pushing through the field at couple of beats below my threshold.
At the top of the Col de Neronne (1242m) I was back in contention but had expended more energy than I should have. As we rocketed down the steep descent to the base of Puy Mary (1589m)I was within 100 meters of the leaders of our break. Bobbing at the front was the orange Marie Curie jersey of Chris Young. We had done 173km’s and I knew out biggest challenge lay ahead. The climb started gently meandering up the mountain but soon I started to catch glimpses of the upper part of the climb and then I passed a sign that cheerfully announced 2km’s of 17% ahead. The road reared up in front of me and it was this exact moment that one of the riders in the leading group attacked. Chris Young and a few others went with him. I was not in touch and could not respond, my 83kg’s could only look-on as the bantam weights floated up the road. It was then that the pain really started. I took one hairpin at a time focussing on a steady rhythm and refusing to let my bike speed drop below 10mph. My legs and lungs were screaming and I repeated Lance’s mantra over and over in my head ‘pain is temporary quitting lasts forever’ breathing the words in time with each pedal stroke. It was only then I really noticed the spectators lining the road and the incredible motivating effect their encouragement had on me. Their cheers are pure energy and I can remember acknowledging their support by getting out the saddle and powering up through the corner images of the Alpe D’Huez time trial coursing through my veins. The exit from the last hairpin revealed the most terrifying 1km climb up to the summit. This was the worst 1000 metres of my cycling career to date. I was absolutely at my limit and if the race had finished right there it would have been the most draining and exhausting race of my life. I crawled over the top and saw riders strung out down a fast and sweeping descent. It was cold and my immediate thoughts were not of relief but cramp. My legs were complaining bitterly and beginning to seize up. I spun my legs, coaxing them to continue and concentrated on smooth fast cornering. My mind was blank…. was there another big climb?
The answer unfortunately was ‘yes’. I was riding with one other guy, a T-mobile junior I think. He was followed by his team car and I can remember think ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool, I am keeping up with a T-mobile Jnr!’ The road was wide and fast and we screamed downhill with a tailwind at 55kmh. We approached a feed stop and the T-mobile rider whizzed straight through and for some bizarre reason so did I. I should have taken some more water on board. We turned and tackled a short Cat 3 climb the Col de Entremont I clung to his wheel feeling the lesser man by far. 205km’s and I still had the last climb of the day to go, a vicious category 2 climb with 9 km’s of 6% to contend with. This climb actually redefined my physical and mental limits. The tailwind was now a headwind, the surface rough, my legs completely destroyed and there was hardly any water left in my bottle. Every last sinew and cell of reason urged me just to let him go. I desperately clung to his wheel.
They profile to the finish was meant to be flat it wasn’t. There was a final 1 mile climb leading up to a plateau. It was here we caught a group of 5 riders, I was hugely disappointed to see that Chris Young was not in it. As we rode the across the Plateau we were later to find out that this was the 1st 10km of flat riding since leaving Limoges. Our Group of 7 riders rode ferociously for last 20km’s to the St Flour. I remember one of the riders had white flecks at the side of his mouth. The pace was really quick and again I found myself hanging on for dear life. Then the euphoria of the last 5km’s kicked in and we raced to the line. The street lined with cheering spectators this really felt amazing. I felt like a Tour de France rider and as we turned the final corner we eyed each other just briefly before going for an all out sprint from 200m.
I wasn’t until the results began to be posted 30 minutes later that I read with virtual disbelief that I come 43rd overall and 22nd in my age category. I was the second Brit home.
HWCC Rider Simon Jackson