This is the official website entry for Act 2 of the Etape du tour 2011.
WHAT A GRUELLING SECOND PART
This 2011 second act will certainly deserves a place on the podium of the most difficult edition.
The roughly 4,000-man amateur peloton set off from the start line at Issoire this morning.
The stage profile already had everything in place to daunt the participants, with constant ups and downs which made it difficult to find one’s pace.
The drenching rain, strong headwinds and cold temperatures (hardly 7°C on the route) did not accompany the riders throughout the entire day, but they did stay with them the whole morning. Typical March weather!
Finally, there were only 1982 finishers in Saint-Flour. Congratulations to all those who completed this freezing adventure!
This hardly describes what really happened…..
I got to Clermont Ferrand on a hot summers day. My bike was in transit from London and I met the lovely Iona from Ronan Pensac Tours who drove me to our starting destination and the Hotel d’Tourisme. I was to rest here for two days, register, and prepare for the race.
In my transit to the hotel Iona picked up three other cyclists. Jono (Australian with a love for Pro cyclist Gilbert..Jono had to add that one in), Mark (very aggressive English cyclist trying to crack 8.40 hours and get a medal) and Jatin (English scientist who loves putting his bike together with meticulous care and wearing plastic bags on his feet when it rains). We were a hit team and on the way to the hotel we discussed our training regimes and predictions for bad weather on the race. Our predictions about the weather were not bad enough…
On the first two days I hung out with my new cycling mates. We were all excited about the race and went to the village to register. Mark wanted to spend some money and with a snipers eye for race memorabilia soon found a new race top, arm warmers, and cycle cap to buy. He is as aggressive shopping as he is cycling. We picked up our official “man” bags (small white shoulder bags with blue, purple and pink strips) from the race organisers. Mark and Jatin were great company and as with the camaraderie of cycling we shared many jokes. Jono wasn’t with us on the first day. He had flown in from Miami and had jet lag. I had lunch with him the next day to find out he Captains a 150 foot yacht around Miami and the Caribbean. He constantly follows the sun and never experiences winter. No wonder he looked so tanned and relaxed. I had no sympathy for his jet lag.
My bike finally arrived with my riding buddy, Mungo. He had driven 4.5 hours from his house in France. He was tired but we got on our bikes to test them. I have noticed at other triathlon races the bike can often have problems after transportation. We both heard unusual noises from our bikes and took them to the Mavic bike tent for servicing.
I heard a clicking noise and slipping sensation whenever I pushed down with my left foot on the pedal. The bike mechanic said it was my bottom bracket and he could not do anything about it. I did not believe him and pushed for him to tighten up the left crank. He did it reluctantly and surprise it worked. I also had Garmin issues as it was not picking up cadence as I rode. I went to the Garmin tent and they discovered my Garmin was picking up too many bike sensors in the village and could not identify my own. I left the village and after changing the battery found the Garmin was back to full operation.
Our final dinner before race day served up pizza, stewed chicken and rice. It was not the normal pasta and a nice change. Mungo and I put our numbers on the bike and prepared our race kit before heading to bed. Jono, Mark and Jatin were in great spirits. The biggest decision Mark and Jatin had to make was which racing top they wanted to wear. Was it going to be the Kingston Wheelers or official Etape racing top?
At breakfast, 5am, on the morning of the race Mark and Jatin appeared in their full Kinsgton Wheeler race tops. They looked proud to represent their club and actually looked like quality cyclists. They proved they were quality cyclists by the end of the day.
Jono, Mungo and I put arm warmers, gillets and shower proof jackets on because it was raining. The clouds were covering the sky and it was dark. We felt warm in our gear and as we headed to the start line we absorbed the atmosphere. Mungo and I decided to put plastic bags over our socks to test Jatin’s theory of keeping the feet dry in wet conditions. This year they organised 4000 riders into 11 groups and started each group with a 3minute interval between them. The three of us started in group 7 and we waited about 60 minutes before crossing the start line. The system worked well and there was plenty of space for everyone to ride safely.
I had brought my Oakley Iridium cycle glasses for a bright summers ride in July. They didn’t work well in the dark, wet and steamy conditions we were encountering as we started the race. In the first 35kms the rain picked up but we were sheltered from the wind and it was getting brighter as the morning progressed. Jono rode at a good steady speed as he knew this was a long race. Mungo and I followed suit and we were always with in touch of each other as we rode. The rain got heavier and Jatin’s plastic bag over the feet theory started to back fire. The bags were actually filling up with water and not draining. I could feel my feet swimming in my shoes. At first it was quite nice as the water got slightly warmer as we rode.
After the first hill climb at 40kms we were riding along open plains and totally exposed to heavy crosswinds, sheets of rain, and the plummeting temperatures. We were in our easiest gear and riding at the same speed we would climb an 8% gradient. Most cyclists formed small paletons to protect each other from the head wins. My glasses were too dark at this point so I took them off and my face took the wind and hail coming at me straight on.
I remember riding and thinking I had over 150kms to go and at the speed I was riding and how cold I was getting this was going to be a very long day. I was not the only one thinking like this as Mungo and Jono were exactly the same. We even saw many cyclists who were riding in the opposite direction to return to the start line. They had given up and ambulances were giving space blankets to some cyclists stranded on the side of the road. We saw many cycles abandoned along the way waiting for the truck to pick them up.
We finally got to the top of the first small climb. I could feel my body soaked to the core and my legs were starting to shake. The temperature had dropped to below 2-5 degrees as were riding. We started to descend down the hill to the first aid station. The wind picked up and my hands were freezing. I could not reach behind my back to get food and braking was very unsafe. On the way down the hill the temperature must have dropped to zero if not sub zero. Every cyclist going down the hill was braking all the way. I had never seen so many cyclist descend so slowly. My calf muscles started to shake uncontrollably and to stop them I purposely pushed them down against the pedal. It got colder and colder as we descended and it was painful.
The aid station appeared in front of us and I had never seen so many cyclists stopping for help. The aid station was so full I could not see where to continue riding as the road was blocked. Hundreds and hundreds of bikes were in reserved bays to be taken to the finish line. Cyclists were trying to find places to warm up. A gym nearby was open to cover cyclists from the wind. Mungo and I found a small house opened by its kind owners to help provide shelter, hot drinks, blankets, and food. They cared for us all and were extremely generous. For 1 hour Mungo and I stood shaking violently and I mean violently. We couldn’t hold our cups still and we sheltered in the corners of the room. We called our driver to come and pick us up.
40 minutes later Mungo’s car arrived to pick us up. The aid station was now deserted and buses had transported probably over 1000 cyclist back to the start line. The bikes were being packed on trucks. I could not believe this was the middle of summer and we were standing in temperatures reminiscent of the middle of winter in London. We got in the car and drove 30 minutes to the hotel at finish line in Saint Flour. I found out later Jono had also thrown in the towel at the aid station and caught the bus to the hotel.
I had a hot shower for 20 minutes and warmed up then realised I was starving. Being so cold and shaking for so long had burnt up serious calories. In the space of 1 hour I ate the following; banger and mash, apricot cereal bar, apple, cupcake, bag of crisps, soup and bread, coq au vin, fries, coke zero, 2 power bars and several biscuits and hot drinks. I was still hungry even after eating all that but I stopped incase I made myself sick.
We got back to the hotel to find out the Gendarmerie had stopped the race at one of the mountain climbs. The visibility was as low as 2 meters and the cold weather was making descending very dangerous. 2000 cyclists did get through before they closed of the road and I waited to see who from our tour party finished the race.
I knew when I finished the race I could not go on. It was too dangerous not only from a riding perspective but also from catching hypothermia. At the time I did not know how anyone could continue the race. I was in awe of those that did continue and even more in awe of those that finished.
There were 4 of our tour party who finished in times ranging from 9-11 hours. They said it was the hardest Etape they had done because of the weather conditions. Several pushed on only because they did not know how to get home. Mark and Jatin had not finished yet and the cut of time was 12 hours. Their bags were the only two left in the foyer of the hotel. I was intrigued to know had they got through the Gendarmerie blockade and had they missed the cut off time.
Sitting at the finish line Jatin appeared from know where and then Mark followed with a medal around his neck. It was a great sight to see these two battlers had completed the distance. They had both been caught by the broom wagon but both had continued the race. They were chasing the broom wagon at stages and Mark describes a yo-yo relationship with the drivers of the buses. He would overtake the bus and the bus would over take Mark. To beat the bus he rode past the last two aid stations straight onto the finish line. He made the cut by minutes and even though the official did not like the line across his race number indicating he had been caught by the broom wagon gave him a medal. Marks aggressive riding and shear anger at being eliminated from the race too early (race organisers shortened the elimination times) got him to the finish line.
Jatin on the other hand thought his race was over. He decided to finish the race anyway and along his journey stopped to take photos, video and have a pee. He was asked 5 times if he wanted to be picked up and 5 times he refused. He did descend the hills very fast and as he crossed the finish line the last timing mat was being picked up. There was no one giving out medals and even though he crossed the finish line he missed out on getting one. Jatin was in good spirits because he knew he had completed all the climbs. He is a real champion and I congratulate both Mark and Jatin for pushing on through the cold and completing the distance.
I could see Act 2 was a beautiful course and had the weather been better the race had the potential to be magnificent. I did not finish the race but I had a blast thanks to Jono, Mark and Jatin. I am happy I stopped and I enjoyed the entire experience. I have become an avid fan of the Tour De France, been to some amazing places, and met some incredibly funny characters. Cycling is a fantastic sport and I recommend anyone to try it. I am having a good rest from training and will review my plans in October when the next Etape entries come out.