L’Etape du Tour 2009
Brit Pack Productions Brings You
L’Etape du Tour 2009:
Montelimar to Mont Ventoux
20th July, the Brit Pack comprising Ben, Dennis, Neil &
Deborah and baby George , Rob & Alex, Steve, and Tam and I, were due to
tackle L’Etape du Tour 2009.
in the pack were to ride, while the girls and young George treated us
like model pros, insisting we focused on resting and eating before the
in a house on a vineyard in the medieval town of Grignan in Provence.
With a pool to cool our nerves and toes in the lead-up to LÉtape, we
couldn’t have wished for a more gentle acclimatization to the region.
Eventually, we tore ourselves away from the pool, a gentle pre Etape
warm-up ride was required to ensure our toes hadn’t forgotten the art of
To ward off
any undue publicity the mass Brit Pack arrival in Provence might
generate, some of the party travelled by road, others by commercial
aircraft, while others still arrived under the guise of darkness at a
remote airfield. Bonne arrivee Steve!
On the eve of L’Etape, we packed in as much pasta as our bellies would
enable, topped this up with an additional bowl for good measure, before
the final piece in the jigsaw, tarte aux pommes. Stuffed, next came the
rather delicate part of trying to sleep at 10pm.
knew it, I was rudely awakened by my alarm at 4am (a painful 3am UK
time). After cramming down a huge bowl of porridge and completing my
King Carbo load, I dived into one of the two cars Alex and Deborah drove
dropped off a few kilometres from the start. This allowed us to stretch
our weary limbs out, before we joined our 9,500 fellow Etapistes in our
designated start pens.
least an hour to spend in my allotted spot, I made a final inspection of
the route of this year’s Etape. The organizers normally make every
effort to select one of most challenging and mythical stages of the
year’s Tour de France. This year was no exception, they had elected to
serve up the stage from Montelimar to Mont Ventoux, a tough 170kms
route winding South East.
can be broken into two sections: a gradually rising 149kms punctuated by
4 classified climbs, followed by the Mont Ventoux.
Côte de Citelle
(5.2kms at 3.9%),
Col dÉy (6.3km at 5%),
Col de Fontaube (4.7kms at 4.3%) and
Col de Notre-Dame des Abeilles (7.8kms at 4%).
official statistics overlook much of the gradual climbing to be done
before reaching the ‘official’ start of each climb. They also overlook
the 5km climb up to Sault.
section does not require much of an introduction. Mont Ventoux is the
Giant of Provence sitting so dominating and so exposed to the elements
that its bare scree slopes at the top have been described as the
“sloping desert, the Sahara of Stones.”
My start number
placed me in the second last, or 7th, start pen. With the
staggered unleashing of riders from 7am, by the time I crossed the start
line, it had already gone 7:30am.
Steady as we
My plan for
the first section was to find a suitable group with whom to share the
workload to each of the climbs, to ride each climb with something to
spare, before teaming up with my group to the base of the next col.
Rhythm and the conserving of energy were going to get me through this
Instead, I was
subjected to a lot of stop-start from bottlenecks on the climbs and
crashes on the descents requiring ambulances and the attentions of calax
honking police motorbikes. Rhythm was not going to feature today.
nature of the ride and my starting position dealt another blow to the
other part of my plan. Groups were not coming through, and so I began
chasing in the vain hope of making up time. Soon enough I recognised
that such a chase would not only ruin my economy of effort, it would in
fact ruin my entire day given the looming appearance of Mont Ventoux’s
neck wrenching gradients.
I quickly had to
re-think my strategy. I would reduce my work rate on the climbs in
exchange for maintaining the same effort of my solo charge across the
Once settled into
the new plan, I was able to take in the wonderful sights and smells from
the picturesque Provencal villages we rode through.
spite of it being Monday, villagers came out in their droves, offering
up cheers and songs or offering to douse our sweaty heads with cool
I welcomed all
such wonderful gestures, however one road side proposition I couldn’t
get my head around was the sale of nectarines. I left the nectarine
supply in tact, I wasn’t about to tempt unloading my carbo loading.
I reached Bedoin
at the conclusion of the first section, 149kms and some 5 hrs 15 mins
after setting off from Montelimar.
Given this had
comprised a stop-start solo ride, halting to fuel up at chaotic feed
stations that resembled the 11am feed at Regents Park Zoo, I pushed on
with vigour, and a slab of malt loaf crammed between my teeth.
On the up!
I arrived at
the foot of Mont Ventoux, faced with the prospect of ascending a climb
most steeped in history, the most revered among the legends of the
world’s greatest cyclists past and present. Eddie Merckx needed oxygen
immediately upon reaching Mont Ventoux’s summit, while Lance Armstrong
has said he fears this climb like no other else.
Unlike other ascents, Mont
Ventoux’s reputation has also afforded it a personality, one French
historian even referring to it menacingly as “a god of evil, a despot of
the Ventoux climb is
21.2km at 7.6% average, but with the last 6kms at approximately 7%
average and the first 5kms at 4%, that means that the middle section is
roughly 10kms of 10% average!
I went at the first 5kms of the
Ventoux deliberately steady, and felt fine.
I then felt the
road, and my heart rate simultaneously ramp up. We were at the start of
the most crucial section of the day, the forested part of Mont Ventoux.
I had heard countless
recollections about the forested section of Mont Ventoux. I had read
about how its brutality can suddenly rip the will from man, at will.
Yet, even with this knowledge, I was shocked with the world I had just
For the next 10kms, the road
simply rose and rose, there was no respite. There was neither a flat
hairpin to allow for even a momentary break in the slope, nor were there
sweeping S shaped turns in the road to allow at least for a break in
vision from the ghastliness of the wall that ramped up before me.
The relentlessness of the
climbing was coupled with the airlessness of the section. With the
forested surrounds, the air simply could not circulate. Add in 35 degree
temperatures beating down on riders, and this paints a picture of the
world we were now in. An altogether different one from that we had
inhabited several kilometres below.
Silence descended on the hordes
of previously exuberant riders, there was almost an air of serenity.
Many a rider here accepted the card they were dealt, some ground to a
halt and simply
fell from their bikes, others lay with their eyes shut
roadside, and I even saw one guy lying motionless on the road while
still clipped into his bike that was pointing to the road ahead. This
created a surreal illusion of a stricken person being watched over by
his loyal dog.
I should have
known that the torrid conditions were responsible for creating such
vivid thoughts, one of my fellow Brit Packers Rob saw a deer at the very
same point of the ride.
I got my head
down, tucked in and pushed on. I was a slave to my heart rate monitor
here, sitting right on my 87% max heart rate, knowing this was
sustainable. Of the 9500 starters in the E'tape, more than 2000 failed
to finish. I suspect most of these non-finishers were scattered in the
continued, mindful of maintaining my plan. I tapped my way up the climb,
and away from the carnage all around me, staying at 165bpms to the
came to Chalet Reynard 6 kilometres from the top.
had been my marker ever since I rose in the morning, I had focused my
mind and my energies on getting here. I knew that once I’d made it to
Chalet Reynard, the peak of Mont Ventoux, now visible, would draw me
At this point, the gloves came off and
I ditched sticking to any specific heart rate, I was going to gun it.
I went all out aiming to go as hard as
possible. In a matter of seconds, my heart rate darted up to 170bpms,
then when it went up to 174/175bpms (92% of max), I felt good enough to
remain working this hard for the duration of the last section. I was
As I neared the summit of the
Ventoux, cramps suddenly started whipping up in both quads. So near my
goal, I simply looked down at both quads dismissively, and admonished
them with: "sorry, today is all about me, it ain't your day, so bugger
on off, this ain't your gig”. And with that, the cramps disappeared!
Soon enough I crested the peak
of the Ventoux. The finishing line was laid out across a very narrow,
small strip of tarmac at the very top, and the organisers were busy
trying to move people off once they'd finished. In my case, the moment I
crossed the line, I froze on the spot, such was my pure depletion having
emptied everything I had by the finishing line. I stopped rock solid,
both legs gushing with cramp, not to mention a sore back. I thought,
‘’okay you sods, now you can have your moment if you really wish, go
cramp in style!’’
This showed me how controlled
my drive to the line had been, and how focused it was that any sideshow
such as cramp, just wasn't going to get even a peak, sorry lads!!!!
I'd made the 170kms stage in 7:05:28 ! Very nice!
The Brit Pack
started to find each other, every rider having his own version from his
day to recount. It was wonderful we had all come in to this together,
succeeded in this together, and were now able to dissect the epic day
that had unfolded.
Scores on the
9500 starters I came in around the 1300 mark (top 13%).
My ride up Mont
Ventoux of 1:49 was my highlight of the day. Riders finishing around the
100 mark overall were timed at around 1:45 for their Ventoux climbs,
could this mean the Cols de North London may soon feature on Pro's
Next day we
chewed on our emotions as we chewed on all manner of fuel to restock our
depleted stores, nectarines included.
from the Etape were ones of relief, the heat, the gratification, the
relentlessness of the Ventoux’s wall, the sense of achievement, the
sense of being overwhelmed, and above all else, the togetherness and
bond forged among every rider.
Will the Brit
Pack be back? Some day, somewhere, we will raise our glasses and fill
our bellies once again in celebration of another wonderful day!