Three friends are sitting at a bar one evening chatting about their respective sports .
One , a formula one enthusiast , is animated as he describes the roar of the engines as he stood just fifty feet from the cars as they thundered past . The grey blur of the McLaren driven by Lewis Hamilton was the most beautiful sight ever seen . He was a spectator at the Silverstone Grand Prix and this was one of the highlights of his life .
The second is a runner . He was in the birds nest stadium in Beijing to see Ussain Bolt win the Olympic 100 metres final . He has a 3.12 Marathon in his legs but watching that race was the highlight of his running career.
The third is a cyclist . He lets the others speak of what they have seen before he quietly introduces what he has done . ‘ I’ve raced the toughest stage of the Tour de France ‘ he says . The other two look over incredulously . Surely he means that he has been a spectator at the toughest stage of the tour . But , no , they have heard him correctly . He has ridden the toughest stage of the Tour de France . He has done ‘The Etape ‘
Last Monday morning , at 6.30 am together with 9500 other cyclists I lined up in the streets of Montelimar to face the 7.00 am start time of the 2009 Etape du Tour . Before a race there is normally a surge of nervous energy as the start time approaches . This , however was very different . The overwhelming sensation was one of excitement . The thousands of riders from the hundreds of nations represented all knew that this was the moment that they had all trained long and hard for . I was number 2474 and it was 7.09 by the time I crossed the start line .
As we left the nougat capital of the world in our wake some riders were content to settle into a relaxed steady pace . I was not one of them . As soon as I caught a glimpse of a train moving up the outside I jumped aboard and was soon being transported up past hundreds of riders at over 40 kph .
The first col or climb as we would call it , came after just 14k . I found myself riding along in the big ring ( a 50 remember ) and crested the 5.2 k climb which had an average gradient of just 3.9 % in relative comfort . A short descent followed and as we passed through the town of Nyons I found myself in a nice sized group which was clipping along at about 34 kph . Riding about 15 riders back I noticed three black clad riders at the front and one in particular seemed to be getting plenty of attention from the camera motorbikes . It was only a couple of kilometres later when they drifted back a little and I was riding alongside that I realised that Eric Zabel was in our midst . Time for moto worldwidecycles to get the camera out and take a few shots .
Approaching the second climb of the Col d’Ey the group had swelled to about 2-300 riders . I was chatting to Etape veteran John Murphy as a tandem rode up the outside and realised it was time to move up . Some big Belgian on a Pinarello had it lined out pretty quickly on the 5% climb and after just 1 of the 5 k I decided to pull out of the line in order to keep my powder dry for later in the day . As the 15 or so riders in front slowly pulled away I expected a stream of riders to come flying past . A dribble of ones and twos took a while to materialise and as I looked back at the lower slopes strewn with riders I realised that I wasn’t alone in wanting to keep a bit in reserve for later .
A very fast sweeping descent followed at the end of which was the first feed station of the day . This was pretty deserted as most riders in front had decided to keep going . This was my plan too and I was happy to keep going in the group of twenty or so that I was now in .
Rolling along through the french countryside looking at huge fields of sunflowers and vineyards , whilst inhaling the smell of fresh lavender was quite a bit different from the back road to Carrick and I was determined to take it all in . Sometimes , we would ride around a corner and come face to face with Ventoux rearing up in front like a majestic hawk waiting for its prey . It was waiting patiently for us to make our circumnavigational way to its lower slopes .
There are times , during a long day on the bike that your mind begins to wander .The normal hum drum of everyday life intrudes and you may find yourself riding a bike through the middle of France on the same closed roads that the pro’s will use in the Tour just 5 days later contemplating small things like wheather or not you remembered to put the bins out before you left home . Not that I was thinking anything like that 🙂 .
There are certain sights that do jolt you back into the present . A rider with just one leg flying along as fast as anyone was inspirational , as was a guy who descended in a bunch of thirty riders at almost 70 kph with only one arm . It really begs the question , What have we really got to be complaining about ?
The Col de Fauntaube at 86k was a pleasure on the new tarmac surface which was as smooth as glass and the water handed up in Sault without the necessity to stop was much appreciated .
Next up would be the second last climb of the Col de Notre Dames which was pretty steep in places . I found myself riding alongside a guy with a huge scar on his calf . At times spectators at the roadside were encouraging him with what sounded like Vive la Guare . from my pigeon French speaking to him I gathered that he was in the French Army and that his scar was a true battle scar . Pretty soon I would feel as though I was in a war myself .
The descent into Bedoin was on huge wide open roads with gradual sweeping bends . I managed over 70kph but some were even faster . Almost everyone stopped here for some water and a slice of cake or piece of fruit . Then it was back on the road , over the timing mat and onto the lower slopes of Ventoux itself .
The climb begins fairly easily with a steady drag until you turn left after about 2k and it suddenly rears up in front of you , and never seems to end after that . The heat was intense . Unlike Alpe D’huez where there is a chance to recover slightly on each hairpin , Ventoux affords no respite whatsoever . For the next 10k it just keeps on rising . It is very hard to eat in that sort of heat and I found myself in the throws of the Hunger knock . As my water was almost gone a gel which could further dehydrate me was out of the question . I was now in a fully fledged battle of will with myself . The main object was to get to Chalet Renard where I would be able to refuel . Each and every pedal stroke became a process which required a huge amount of effort . As the kilometres counted down , the gradient never let up but Chalet Renard was getting closer . Spectators were informing us that it was just around the next corner for the last 8 corners before the Chalet .
Eventually it appeared and the gradient lessened . I needed some food and this was just a water stop so I headed for the doors of Chalet Renard itself where I consumed the most delicious can of coke ever tasted along with the very finest of frommage et jambon rolls . There was a great atmosphere on the terrace outside with many cyclists stopping here to refuel . We could now easily see the top in distance and there seemed very little hurry on anybody as there seemed to be an awareness that once we reach the top , this day that we had all been anticipating for so long would be over .
Eventually , it was time to face the last 7k of lunar like landscape . The gradient was still very hard , 8 – 10 % but I had a new lease of life after my refuelling stop and was now cruising towards the summit . Approaching the Simpson memorial with 1.5k to go I heard a rider coming up my inside . I looked over to see the familiar green of the An Post Sean Kelly team colours on the back of former Belgian national champion Nico Eckhout .
I also stopped at the Tom Simpson memorial which now has an Assos cotton cap added to its collection .This is a huge part of the legend that surrounds the climb itself . Most who were riding on the day had seen the black and white images of former World Champion Tom Simpson as he weaved his bike up the climb before falling over with just 1.5k to go , where he lost life .
500m from the top a family were cheering on the riders whilst flying a large green white and gold Irish flag . The final hairpin bend kicks up once more just to remind you how tough the climb that you have just completed really is . A quick stop at the top to regroup and to take a few pictures including the essential one with the tower in the background was soon followed by a trip to the finish area food stop and a 15k descent back to our bus .
And that was it , the hardest stage of this years Tour was completed in 7.15 with an actual ride time of 6.35 . The winner did it in a time of just over 5.20 . Juan Manuel Garate did it today in just 4 hours 39 mins .
To experience the closed roads , the cheering crowds in the towns along the way and the feeling that you are a part of the Tour is something that every cyclist should experience at least once .