Etape de Tour 2010 ~ Jason Stolte

Well what a day!

What a contrast from the 5.30am bike pick-up from a field in Pau where Chris and I had to deal with pre-race nerves in the foggy darkness behind a hedge as the organisers decided to remove the portaloos to the mad finish at the Tourmalet !

All very exciting at the beginning and thought the roll out was quite fast considering the distance and what was coming up. Chris and I started together but Paul and Phil had left us to our ablutions in the field so we never saw them again (thanks boys!)

Marie Blanque ~ Big
The first 4th Cat climb was lively as it was the largest we had done to date.  Oh dear!  I remember wondering if it was the Marie Blanque. I was soon disappointed.

 

The Marie Blanque (10k @ 7.5%) came next and my god this started to hurt with the gradient increasing to as much as 12-13% near the top.  After a while I found myself in the red and tried to calm it down. Not that I was going hard, but I guess it being the first real mountain climb for me, my system was just not used to it.

As it happened, it all came to a halt with around 3k to go to the summit.  I never wanted to have to walk any part of the mountains but I was rather relieved at this point.

There was plenty of shouting and noise as an ambulance or two tried to get past.  We were unable to move for a while due to either a bottleneck or too many riders dismounting on the steep gradient.  We then had to walk some way after that.  But will say for the record it cost me about the same amount of time behind by colleagues Labey and Pirouet!!!.

I managed to remount with 1k + to go and tapped it out in the 28 tooth ring to the top.  Over the summit with great relief and beautiful views I had a little punch of the air. Fuelled with adrenaline thinking one down two to go – simples.  Fool. 

The descent was great fun and allowed me to recover slightly.  The hour and-a-half of rolling roads allowed time to refuel and scratch off another 35km and take it all in.  Things were going well.

Soulour ~ Bigger
The Soulor:  12k @ 7.6%.  The good feeling was soon replaced with “What the f…?” 

Not as steep as the Marie Blanque, but the relentlessness was unwavering.  At 11am the temperature on my computer was showing 29c. 

My second ever mountain climb and its really starting to hurt. For some reason my big toes were on fire. Lots of lower back pain, shoulder blade pain, I was desperate to get to the top to start on the Ibuprofen.

I’d made a pact with myself that there was to be no stopping on climbs. I was going to do this properly.  Seeing the kilometre signs tick by, 12k, 11k, oh and by the way the next k will be even steeper than and last,  did my head in.   With every kilometre my body seemed to enter a new world of physical pain I’d not experienced before. How am I supposed to cope with this, this is ridiculous?

An hour and a half of climbing and I was at the top of the Col Du Soulor.  Baking hot, I drowned myself in water, refilled bottles – one with a hydration tablet the other cool water for the head and neck. 

A little stretch and dry of the hands.  I chose not to wear gloves which is something I am still regretting as I still only have partial feeling back in my right hand!  Refreshed I'm now ell up for some downhill speeding TW flamme rouge style!

Soon gathered some speed as a large and lively wild horse appeared within 20 yards across the road. The descent was amazing and considered one of the best in the Pyrenees. Registered 80kph max. Into the picture postcard valley, I was quite shattered at the bottom then the giant Tourmalet loomed.

Tourmalet ~ Biggest
Found myself in a group going along at a fair lick, I thought great I’m making up some time here.  Given that we were doing 40kph on the flat and they all looked far fitter than me (and didn’t have mass forestation of the legs), I figured I was in the wrong company and using up vital reserves for the Tourmalet, I let them go.

Which would have happened anyway as some mountain bugs wildlife managed to get through the vent in my helmet and sting me on the head.  It was quite painful and slightly freaked out I pulled over and poured water over it.  This was all I needed.

What’s the worst possible thing for a wasp sting?  Climb a mountain for over 2 hours in 32c heat.

Entering the valley before the Tourmalet and the last feed station, I fuelled up.  Feeling sick on energy gels and the heat and effort etc, I was soon humbled by the gent that rode up to the medical tent, sat down and unscrewed the bottom of his leg.  At this point I told myself I will finish and not moan a word!

 

Crack on son.  With 7h 42mins on the official clock and 100 miles down I started the ascent proper of the Tourmalet (20k & 7.5%). 

Spurred on by the last climb I said to myself that I would do this, but as the legs got tighter and tighter, the next pedal stroke could spell the end.  Thoughts of my two young boys and not letting them down brought waves of emotion.  The fight was on.  I was never going to give up or walk.  It was going to be physical breakdown or collapse that was going to stop me.  After all, how could it get any more painful?

 It could and a few miles into the climb I did not appreciate the cyclist coming out of the pub at Barege like some advert with a pint of Coca Cola full of ice.   My horizons had shrunk to barely a few yards. I dared not look at the markers that informed me of the next round of punishment. 12k @ 9% etc.

The last fuel stop with 10k of this Tourmalet beast to go and I refuelled for 10 minutes.  It was now painful to get off the bike, barely able to walk, my body was happier in the position I’d been in for the last 9 hours and so I remounted and said to myself “come on J, you’ve cracked it only 10k to go”. 

A renewed enthusiasm turned to despair when I looked at my computer that told me I could only manage 7kph.  Err, that will be over 1 hour of climbing left. 

Hell on Earth
Cyclists were frozen astride their bikes, their heads slumped over their handlebars.  Others had retreated to the shade of a rocky overhang, each folding his body into any crevice to escape the mind-numbing heat.  Several more were glassy-eyed, sprawled on the verge with the odd smattering of vomit.

Soldiers call it the thousand-yard stare: they were hearing but not listening, looking but not seeing – and I was on the verge of joining them.  In the distance the summit of the Tourmalet shimmered tantalizingly.  It was near, but as I began to veer across the road, overwhelmed with exhaustion, perhaps too far.

"Why don't you just pull over and the pain will stop?" said the voice inside my head, getting louder and more persuasive with every turn of the pedals. Yet as I got closer and the deal stronger there was to be no stopping.  Thousands of supporters at the side of the road cheered encouragement,  “Allez”, “Chapeau” and doused cyclists in cold water from the mountain streams. I took every opportunity to accept the cooling.

With 6k to go I must have entered some world of delirium. Convinced I was looking for the 5k to go marker I next saw the 3k to go sign.  What a relief but it still meant some 30 minutes of climbing. I remember looking up to the finish and shaking my head in disbelief at the sheer gradient wondering how on earth my now tortured legs were going to push the pedals.

The last hairpin bend and 150 yards to go, the gradient rose to +12%, I got out of the saddle to relieve the pain and my inner left thigh went into spasm and forced me off my bike.  A new dimension to my pain and with muscle cramp to deal with, I had to start walking.

My leg was locked straight.  Barely able to walk up the gradient I pushed the bike up to the shouts of the ever increasing crowd.  With the finish line in sight I’d walked 80 metres and told myself that I had not come this far to walk over the line. 

Thirty yards to go and I got back on, asked someone for a push and pedalled over the line to a triumphant roar and punch of the air.  I made it and joined the ranks of grown men and women now sobbing like babies.

10 hours and 11 minutes in total. 2 hours, 18 minutes to climb the Tourmalet. I never thought it would be so painful but the experience, the camaraderie and sharing it with my mates was well worth it and I learned a lot about myself.  As a friend said to me, “if the house burns down the first thing you do is save your Etape medal”.

Many a time on the day I said never, never again, but as the pain subsides I’m already thinking of the next challenge. A cyclist for life!

Thank You Thank You Thank You
Big thanks to my Etape buddies Chris, Phil and Paul. Great that we all finished and to share the experience with you.

My other training mates at home Al, Spencer, Smithy and Tony Williams who coached us there.  (Tony, I will get 100kph on a descent one day!).

And lastly of course, thanks to my wife Lisa and boys Jake & Byron to whom I owe a lot of time following six months of dedicated training. Don’t worry love, Tour De France finishes this week. Football starts soon !  X