It has now been two weeks since the Etape du Tour. I apologize for not updating my blog before now. However, since I failed to complete the ride, it has been difficult to write. On the plane flight home, I wrote my initial thoughts about the ride itself but never posted them. I was disappointed in how I rode. Here's how the actual ride went:
Somehow we made it into the starting gate by 6:30 a.m. That was a major accomplishment in itself. We had to get out of bed at 3:30 am that morning to get our bags delivered to our tour company drop off so that they would get to the hotel at the end of the ride. Then at breakfast we had to wait in line for 30 or 40 minutes to be served and almost had to skip that so we could make the bus at 5:15am which would take us to the start at Gap over an hour away. When we arrived in Gap we went to the conveniently located gymnasium where the tour company had us drop off our bikes the night before. Well, of course, none of our guides had remembered to get a key to the gym. Here we were 1 mile from the start and 15 minutes before pen position cutoff and 300 people could not get to their bikes. I thought it was over until the owner of the overnight guard dog showed up with a key at the last minute. We still had to figure out how to get to the start. That had to be accomplished by navigating through a maze of streets while moving against the grain of hundreds of cyclists most of whom were looking for their slot in a position other than me and Robert. We couldn't see the start line or anything resembling one and i had no clue how we were going to make it. We headed out and I discovered that in a bit of preplanning brilliance my brother Robert had memorized the map to our pen the night before and knew exactly where we were supposed to be and how to navigate. He even knew that we would see other cyclists pass against us and warned me not to be fooled into thinking we had gone the wrong way. All of this paid off as we made it with about 2 minutes to go before the stated cutoff time. We were at the very back of the pack in pen number seven.
At 7 a.m., the ride officially started; however, we did not move at all for at least 10 minutes. After we did start moving it took us approximately 13 more minutes or 23 minutes in total just to reach the starting line. There were 8000 or so cyclists lined up on a normal sized city street so I guess it takes a while. Once we crossed the starting line we quickly approached a good pace, or so I thought. We passed some people and some people passed us and we were going probably around 19 or 20 mph. We were not pushing it at this time preferring to let the pace dictate our effort. At some point during this first 35 miles I thought perhaps our pace was too slow. Nevertheless, it seemed as if we were making decent time, and again, there was no need to burn out early. Even in the first 35 miles the roads were quite scenic and Robert even found the time to take a few pictures. Looking back, I suppose the fact that Robert took pictures might have been an indicator of a pace to slow. Whatever, I never considered that I was in danger of elimination. Then came the crash. At somewhere around 51 km I noticed that my front wheel was closing in to about a half an inch away from the rider in front of me and I hit my brakes pretty hard. I cringed as I heard the sound of rubber contacting my rear wheel. I tried to accelerate a little to get away from the wheel but to no avail. Robert had crashed and so had the rider directly behind him. The other rider was able to continue; however, Robert had a broken spoke, a damaged brake, and an untrue wheel. After working on the bike about 5 minutes, Robert determined that he would be unable to continue and so he told me to go ahead and I did. With the elimination car lurking behind, I had no choice if I wanted any shot of finishing. At this point though, the fun was over. We had come all the way over to France, spent thousands of dollars and I am left to do the ride by myself after crashing Robert.
The first rest stop occurred at approximately 57 km. When I got there, the road was blocked with cyclists and I could not even see the actual refreshment stands. We came to a complete halt. There was a creek right before the rest stop and the bridge to get over it was too narrow. A bottleneck had formed. After not moving for 5 or 6 minutes, the bottleneck opened and I could see the refreshment stands. It was mass chaos. The ground was covered with discarded water bottles and other trash from riders trying to move through quickly. It was almost impossible to get near the actual refreshment tables because most riders, probably not wanting to lose their bike, had rolled their bikes up as close as possible to the refreshment tables leaving no room for late comers. There was an impenetrable sea of bikes in front of the tables. I was able to get three bottles of water after calling to a volunteer and having him throw me bottles over other cyclists. I had learned this trick reading prior accounts of riders in the Etape. It took me 12 minutes to get through the rest stop including a trip to the bathroom, or rather, a fence surrounded by some shrubbery. Given the chaos, I was happy with my time at the rest stop but noticed it was already 9:43 a.m. Even so, I still was not worried about my time.
For the next 15 to 20 km I think I made pretty good time. I hooked up with an English speaking couple going at a nice pace and we were passing more than being passed. I must say at this point that I did not feel good physically on the ride. I did not feel bad but I certainly did not feel strong. I just had the sort of low energy feeling one gets from having had very little sleep the previous two nights (see Cherohala post).
At 73 km we hit the beginning of the Col D' Izoard. There is a sign at the start of the mountain that informs you there are 15km to go to the summit. This didn’t improve my moral. The temperature was also going up and I had on a long sleeved Jersey. Not to worry though. After all, I had read how cold it would be at the top so I might be a little warm getting there but at least I wouldn’t be cold at the top.
In the beginning the mountain did not seem much more difficult than those I had ridden in North Carolina. The grade I knew averaged 7.8 % but I was not used to knowing the grade at home and I had imagined it would be far worse. Although I did not feel strong, I was going fairly well on the first third of the mountain. It was getting hot, very hot, and I am sure I was not drinking as much as I should have been. There was not another refreshment stop until the summit so I was conserving my liquid. That is never a good strategy but the unknown that lay ahead influenced my decision. About half way up or more there was a town and a transponder checkpoint. Rolling over the rubber mats of the checkpoint produced a beeping sound indicating you were logged at that point. It was about this time when I started to feel really, really bad. It was now very hot. Soon after the checkpoint, I slowed to a crawl and eventually had to stop when I thought my heart was going to explode. I didn’t have a heart rate monitor on but I knew I was pegging my max. I pulled over with some other riders and rested for maybe four or five minutes before continuing. I was now feeling very weak although I did not understand exactly why. I hadn’t been on the ride for more than about 3.5 hours. There is no way I should have been this tired even with the mountain. Maybe it was the altitude or maybe it was the fact that I did not get any sleep the previous two nights. Maybe it was dehydration. Anyway, from this point on I was barely moving, barely turning the pedals. I stopped twice more, the last time at 86 km. At this point, according to the published schedule, I had 30 minutes to make it to the top of the Col D' Izoard before being in danger of elimination. I had now completely finished my energy drinks and would have to refuel at the top in a couple of kilometers.
The next thing I know, a man is a walking up the mountain towards me and another cyclist. I wondered if his car had broken down or if he was someone with ride support who was coming to help someone out. Why I did not realize this was the elimination crew I do not know except that I still felt I had no chance of being stopped before reaching the summit. The man started talking to me in French and I understood none if it. But, I did understand when he reached for the transponder on my ankle. He must think I am ready to quit? “No fini, no fini”, I said. I was not sure that meant anything except it sounded French to me. And he said “Yes you are finished, you must stop.” I pointed to the published chart with the listed elimination points and indicated to him that I still had 30 minutes to reach the summit. There was a Hungarian next to me who had also stopped to rest and was not ready to quit. I enlisted him to help me argue the case and he did but the official didn’t care. He was adamant and took my transponder and that of the Hungarian and directed him and me to a bend in the road where I should wait to be picked up by the bus. It was over for me and I assumed over for Robert since he hadn’t passed me.
For the next six hours I took a slow bus ride on the course to the top of L'Alpe D'Huez. I must say the scenery was unbelievable along the way. When we reached the top of the Col D’Izoard, we learned that there were no refreshments left. Had I made it on my own, I would have had to go without until I had descended the Izoard to the next stop several miles away. That stop too had no refreshments left but was at least in a town. I could have bought some water and food and probably would have. Incidentally, the bus had no water or refreshments of any kind. I would have gone the whole 6 hours without replenishing my dehydrated body of anything except that one time the bus stopped and someone bought gallons of water and brought them onboard and offered it to poor souls like me. I didn’t have any money with me at this point because I had left that on my bike so I had to rely on this random charity.
I really regret not having been able to make the descent down the Col D’Izoard. It would have been incredible. The rest of the ride would not have been so nice. While we were on the bus the roads were opened up and they were packed with traffic. Riders who had not been picked up were riding with wall to wall traffic.
So the ride did not go well. As a matter of fact, it was a disaster. And I have to say, for being the biggest and most popular cycling sportive in France, the ride was poorly organized. They have been doing this thing for 14 or 15 years and they run out of water and refreshments for the cyclists who depend on them? They don’t have enough refreshment stands as it is and they position them so that cyclists have to come to a complete stop for several minutes just to get through even if they don’t want to stop? Other than that, the course itself was quite nice.
I will probably write more on this blog about the ride and my analysis of the miserable failure it turned out to be but for now I must sign off. One more thing though, I am going back and finishing this thing.