The Massif Central, looking down on Le Puy Mary
Cycling has sort of grown on me! It started when Duncan who worked for me lashed out some serious money to buy a Marin Muirwoods. For those not in the know this was a pretty good mountain bike in its day and as he wheeled it in to the office I sat and admired it! The up shot was that I got his old 5 speed racer with chrome (bent) forks! It didn’t last long and I was soon itching for a mountain bike. I got one but the deal was so did Karen, Kristian & Rosie - this really dented the budget!! Had to settle for Cycle King Ammaco purple and black mountain bikes that in hindsight weighed a ton and had some very iffy equipment. It did however get us all on the road and over the fields!
It led to several weekends away with the lads on the Tissington Trial, the Isle of White and even Northern France (Craig may remember this weekend!), it also led to many London to Brightons and then tandems and many things two wheeled. It also lead to reading what Edward refers to as Bike Porn - Cycling Weekly, Cycling Plus and in those days Mountain Bike Rider. Within these pages there were occassional reports of what was to become sportives. If memory serves correct the Pru Tour (think Kellogs or Milk and currently Tour of Britain) had one of its stages opened to the public. The other major event like this was the Etape du Tour and I remember the reports of the 2000 event which finished on top of Mont Ventoux - or rather would have done if the weather had allowed. They had to close the event, divert the riders and some 700 odd had to have medical treatment, now here was a real challenge!
After messing about on mountain bikes for several years I eventually rather rashly one afternoon strode into Michaels Cycles and ordered a rather outragously colourful Bianchi road bike with enough gears to ride up some of the pointy bits of France. This was in 2003 and in another rather rash moment a few years later sent off an entry for the 2006 Etape du Tour with little hope of getting in. It was a ballot system and I was one of the lucky ones! Hindsight is a wonderful thing and having no idea what 20 odd miles of cycling uphill actually felt like thought a longish ride in Bedfordshire would see me alright!
The 2011 Etape du Tour Act II profile - doesn’t look that bad does it....
So fast forwarding to last year, Stuart Brown and I had both forgone the Etape for a couple of years initially because it was going up Mont Ventoux in 2009 (we had already ridden a sportive over it) and partly because we wanted to have a go at La Marmotte. However the Etape seems to have a bit of a hold over me - the closed roads, the different location each time, the battle against the broom wagon, the support of the villagers, the organisation - for those that run its like a big city marathon feel. I had missed it! There where two available for 2011, Act I though was just a shortened version of La Marmotte so wasn’t of interest, Act II though was a different kettle of fish!
The Etape route as it wanders through the Cantal
Act II started in Issoire and wandered it’s way across the Massif Central for 130 miles before coming to a finish in Saint Flour. It was advertised in Tour speak as a moyen (mid) mountain stage. The initial information said that it was around 3000 meters of climbing. This was a little bit more climbing than the Forest of Dean sportive and much longer, but I thought with 9 months to train then it could just be possible for Karen to manage. So I booked Karen and Stuart booked Julie - bring it on! The first inclination we got that it wasn’t all that it seemed was when the Cyclefilm dvd came out. Mike Cotty (first Brit home on at least one Etape) rides the route whilst being filmed and gives his thoughts as well as some definitive information. Whilst he didn’t have the exact route his best guess route gave his Garmin 3800 meters. He also indicated several steep gradients - 15%+ and the possibility of it being subject to adverse winds. Not the best news we wanted to hear, it seems it was becoming more and more of a challenging ride.
Registration on the Friday afternoon
We all put in training (including those excellent spin classes) over the winter, I was still running a bit but the weather seemed to be crap and just missed loads of out on the bike training. Colds and skiing and life seemed to just get in the way of laying down a good base. Karen brought a new bike in the hopes that one the correct size would be much more helpful! We signed up for a series of sportives as training and as Spring approached we had much to look forward too. We also had four days of solid training in the form of the Flitwick to Paris of which you can find many articles and photographs dotted about the website.
At the start village watching the Tour on the big screen Saturday afternoon
Many of you would have seen/joined Karen and I as we took part in the No Excuses, The Quattro, The Risborough, The Forest of Dean, The King of the Downs, The Norfolk 100 and The Ride to the Horns. Some worked better than others, Karen & I rode them together and toward the last few we rode them on the tandem, this was partly as a fall back position in case Karen didn’t want to go solo. Stuart also rode many sportives - The Dragon Ride, The Exmoor Beast as well as the Marotona dles Dolomites. Stuart and I also rode the leg stretching Lake District Loop a ride put together by Stuart & Rob and sure to be a club regular.
Issoire Sunday 17th July 2011 - early!
Tamoxifen (which Karen has to take for 5 years) has a cumulative effect and as time has gone on (3 years in) Karen has found it harder and harder just to maintain her fitness. The Forest of Dean sportive almost broke her and she cut a small section out. The King of the Downs (we featured in Cycling Weekly) we rode on the tandem but Karen was having a particularly bad day and we settled for the Western Loop. The Norfolk 100 though was a great blast on the tandem, we rode there and back from my mum’s and did 120 miles in a ride time of 7.44 (elapsed time was much longer). This gave us some hope but Karen had decided it wasn’t for her. Julie also came to a similar decision and they became our support team - ably assisted by Robyn and Toby.
One of the lead groups on the Cote de Massiac (oh to have a low number!)
Watching this stage of the Tour de France (stage 9) on tv did nothing to change the girls minds, if you recall it was the stage where Vino broke his pelvis, two other riders broke bones in the same crash, Fletcha and Hoogaland got hit by a car and in total 7 riders abandoned!
The first fuel stop at Allanche, for many it was the end of the road
The Hollingsworth’s left early Thursday evening to zip round the M25 to try the Newhaven - Dieppe ferry and avoid having to drive around Paris. We had a very pleasant crossing, grabbed a few hours shut eye and hit France at 3.30 in the morning. By 12 we had arrived in Issoire and had the tent up, we later registered and then lazed in the sun. We had decided that rather than have a hotel some distance away with a really early start and a lengthy drive a campsite a mile from the start would be great. Strangely we had a massive pitch close to the amenities whilst Julie and Stuart had been put on the camping field a fair walk away even though they booked before us. We only had really small tents so the following morning they came and joined us on our pitch!
The highest climb of the day (Col du Pas de Peyrol) Le Puy Mary
As the Etape is a point to point route it does cause logistical problems. So we had booked for our car to be left at the finish and for us to be bussed back, so on Saturday morning Karen and I drove over to St Flour. We followed the Etape route to the first fuel stop, this was at 69 kilometers or in old money 43 miles. It was hillier than I expected but the views were pretty impressive! I did feel a little less worried than I had. However this was my worry - there was a narrow bridge at about 40 odd K, to avoid a bottleneck (there had been some really bad ones in the past) the organisers had extended the start time over a further 15 minutes to spread the field (45 in total). All good news. The broom wagon start time had also been delayed by 15 minutes - but the elimination times had not!
Col du Perthus. Oh! that was a steep one!
The Etape in general puts the fastest riders first so the field opens up - also good. The rub comes if your not very fast - Stuart and I were in the last but one pen and would rolling over the line at 7.40. We had 3 hours to do the 43 miles - no stops, no punctures, no bottlenecks, no hold ups, no bad weather, no wind and we might be ok, oh! did I mention that we had about 3000ft to climb too! We disembarked the bus back at registration and sat having some lunch with Stuart whilst watching the Tour on a big screen. There was a public address system on as well as a band playing - suddenly the PA broke into English and was giving out warnings about the following days weather - it was going to be wet, cold, raining and possibly stormy - things just got better and better! An early night was called for and after preping the bikes and kit and a couple of beers (was that wise?) it was off to bed, to be awoken several times by the rain.
We wanted to be as close as possible to the front of our pen of 500 so needed to be there on time. Working backwards the alarm went off at 5! Trying to dress, eat and get ready in what is little more than a 2 man wet tent was a challenge in itself, it’s also pitch black this far south! It feels warm, really warm and it’s difficult to make clothing decisions. In the end its normal socks but neoprene overshoes, no longs but knee warmers, no gillet but arm warmers and a paclite Goretex rain jacket. The gillet and long finger gloves would have been really useful!
Col de Cere, one more bites the dust...
We leave at 6am and cycle off the campsite into the throng of bikes and traffic. The ride is a short one, we find our pen and roll up to the front - there’s may be a dozen people in there! We park our bikes and try and get some shelter as a weather front comes storming in and the rain is almost horizontal as it’s propelled by the howling wind. We duck behind a wall and huddle with a few other riders - all Brits and we get nattering as we have over an hour to wait and to try and keep warm. Plenty of jumping up and down as we are all cold, nervous and have a fair bit of adrenalin to be on the move.
Col de la Chavade, only one big one to go now
In my mind I had broken the ride down into three chunks, the first is to the first fuel stop at Allanche and avoiding the cut off at 43 miles. The second section is where most of the hilly bits are and its end is marked at around the 100 mile mark at the top of the Col du Prat de Bouc (there are also three more elimination points to avoid). The last 30 miles is generally downhill with a few lumpy bits, one marked climb, one more elimination point and a final 1-2k climb to the finish. In my head I though of it as a 100 mile ride and then enjoy/survive to the end.
Not something you want to see on an Etape - broom wagon bike carriers!
Stuart cruising through Murat
And Rick a few minutes later
We eventually, slowly rolled to the start line and at 7.40 we crossed the line. We noticed that the pen in front of us was not completely full and that our own pen was also not as full as we would have thought for 500 riders. We rolled out of town and those intent on a good time, feeling strong or just pumped up pushed on. This was going to be a long day in the saddle though, the wet roads, new tarmac, a bit of debris on the road and a few inexperienced riders would make it even more interesting. I rode with Stuart - often in the same group but not always together, as soon as a gap appeared someone was in it really quick. The descents where taken carefully and slowly and we rode on into the head wind. It was nice to have driven this part of the course, knowing what was coming and knowing where you were. We seemed to be making good time and on one section up a gorge we seemed to be flying up hill. At the top of the gorge Stuart stopped for a leak and the guy that had been wheel sucking him was suddenly cast to the wind. It was a good group and whilst I could do with stopping I didn’t want to loose the momentum. We crossed the narrow bridge at Massiac and started the first climb, a cat 3 - Cote de Massiac (753m) 3.4km at 6.2%. I take a look at my clock and time has been ticking by, to make the first fuel stop in time I need to press on. However as we summit I also land on the plateau and its a howling headwind after being hidden in the gorge. It’s lashing down with rain too, this isn’t going to be fun as I still have to crest the Col de Baladour before dropping into the valley.
More of Mr Brown
I start looking round for a group but everyone is just plugging away without moving forward. I start to notice riders going the other way and bikes left at road junctions and at the side of the road - no riders though! Riders are hiding in police cars and taking shelter with the few spectators up here in this wild place. A large rider in a white jersey jumps off the group and I dive in behind him forming an echelon of one! He is very strong and fortunately very wide! I hate wheel sucking but today is about using your head and saving your legs. We catch and pass solo riders and the odd little group. We occasionaly catch a ride with a group whilst my lead out man catches his breath before we are off again. Then it’s descending time, I know it’s not too far and it will be over soon, the cold though is intense. Everything is wet, soaked from the rain or from the effort, with no heat generated on the descent it’s just a chilling time.
and Mr Hollingsworth too...
There are police slowing us down - they marshall the whole route - indeed we had been slowed down earlier in the day over some train lines where a rider had come to grief. In this case riders couldn’t feel or use their brakes are there was a steep descent with a couple of tight bends. A few people came to grief here too. With a bit of previous knowledge about feed stops it’s best to leave your bike and go on foot. I noticed the loo’s at the far end and rode straight through and dived in. I was bursting but some parts of my anatomy where not happy being so wet and cold! I was not happy at having to undo my jacket to retrieve my drinking powder either! I filled a water bottle and knowing the first big climb started almost straight away wanted to get climbing and warm again as soon as possible. As I returned to my bike I noticed Stuart making his way over to the food tables. I really couldn’t stop in the cold and headed out, as I left town I noticed my ride time said 3 hours I think I had missed mr broom wagon by a slight margin. Although after reading various reports he was kept busy that morning!
Col de Prat de Bouc the last big climb and we are 10 minutes up on the broom wagon
It was high too, should be mostly down now.....
First objective done and the time restraints where now a little easier although with the weather would still be really tough. Shortly after we left the organisers where stating there was sleet/snow falling on the next climb and they should take a short cut to avoid the next two climbs and re join the route at Murat. We though were through and starting the climb of the Col du Pas de Peyrol (Le Puy Mary, 1589m), this is the highest road pass in the Massif Central and a cat 2 climb - 7.7km at 6.2%. It certainly warmed me up and this side of the volcano was fairly clear as you could see into the crater. It did get colder as we climbed and with about 2k to go we went into cloud. I was really looking forward to views from here and was gutted when we hit the cloud. It was cold, very cold, some saw sleet and recorded temperatures at 0 degrees. I rolled over the chip mat at the summit before starting the long descent. The summit was almost the halfway point 102 of the 210.5 kilometers - on our way home! Later riders where stopped from descending and where held here when the weather deteriorated even further.
Stunning last climb up the Cote du Chateau d’Alleuze
It was certainly chuffing cold on the other side as I descended though the cloud. Stuart came past me as I gingerly made my way down to the next feed station - Mandalles-Saint-Julien (this was the descent that Vino had his off on). Whilst filling my bottle a guy sitting down near to me was shaking so much with the cold he couldn’t use his phone or open his water bottles or anything he was in a really bad way. The fuel stop was really muddy and starting to get a little bog like. I was soon out of there wanting to warm up but not wanting to start the next climb, this one was steep, the Col du Perthus (1309m), another cat 2 - 4.4 km at 7.9%. I had tucked into a little too much Malt Loaf at the bottom of the climb and would struggle/couldn’t face much solid food after that!
Saint Flour and just one more climb
I did spend quite a lot of time with a rider called Jon from Oxford and we would keep bumping into each other all day, sometimes riding together for long periods of time before drifting apart. It took your mind off the climb if you could have a natter! Jon was a veteran of 8 Etapes and we bandied experiences of various events. The summit was the site of the next elimination point, two down three to go, although if the timing car overtakes you are out. Between us we tried to keep an eye on our position relative to the broom wagon and what speed we need to make - a bit like the autobus for the sprinters at the Tour.
In true TDF style under the red kite - 1k (uphill) to go
Over the top another descent and the start of the next climb the Col du Fond de Cere (1294m) a cat 3 climb of 2.9km at 6.3%, the next elimination point was reached here. We quickly descended before starting the Cote de la Chevade (1162m) another cat 3 climb of 3km at 7.9%. I think it was on this climb that a rather animated Frenchman was pointing and shouting at us. In hindsight I think he was telling us our position in the race. This is a race and unlike UK sportives it carries trophies and awards. We where focussed though at this point on the timing car which had just overtaken us! Some riders up ahead had a discussion with the driver but it didn’t get back to us - we just carried on riding. The time on the roof of the car was 14.51, whilst there wasn’t an elimination point we needed to clear the summit by 14.55! We were close to the summit and put in something of a push but tiredness was kicking in and at 8% this climb was something of an arse! We passed the timing car parked up on the following descent.
That last left hander before the finish, support crew where on the right
We flew down into the town of Murat and I recognised a rather gorgeous looking woman with a purple streak in her hair! Karen and the rest of the support crew let out a massive shout, enough to warm your heart and give you that extra push. They later said that the timing car was 6 minutes behind me. They also noted a few riders joining the event from a strange direction - riders that had been re-routed it would seem. We then started the last climb of this central section the Col de Prat de Bouc (Plomb du Cantal 1392m) this a cat 2 climb with 8km of climbing at 6.1%. We slowly, slowly rode up with one eye on the speed and the other on the watch, this was the last but one elimination point!
The finish arch from the wrong side
There was a feed station at the top and I wanted to replenish my go faster juice. We opened up a 10 minute lead on the broom wagon by the summit but it was a real struggle to get up. I filled up on drink and also started to eat which I hadn’t done for several hours relying solely on drink. With the trend being downhill now and a few minutes in hand I started to feel the balance was swinging in my direction. Stuart says he waved at me as we both left the feed station - I didn’t see him and just as I left I dropped my chain so missed him completely! After little more than a few hundred yards the road went up again! It didn’t last though and I started to gain some speed. I kept eating various small bits of solid food and plenty of drink along with a couple of Iboprofen - cooking on gas!
Flew through Neuveglise the site of the last elimination point - almost there now!
The finish funnel
The last real climb was the Cote du Chateau d’Alleuze (872m) a cat 4 climb of 2km at 5%. At the top with just over 10km to go to the finish I finally took off my rain jacket as a bit of watery sun put in an appearance. I took the opportunity to take a gel just to make sure the legs would deal with the finishing climb. It was a great roll into town passing a few folks on the way. Got stopped coming into town to let the broom wagon busses come through before joining the last climb (another cat 4 climb!), under the lantern rouge - 1km to go. Round the hairpin bend and the climb up to town, a last left hand bend where the support crew are waiting and they are shouting, I just make the turn, under the arch, a food voucher thrust into my hand and that medal! I shake the guys hand after having the medal hung around my neck and he seems somewhat bemused! It’s over - job done!
That medal, bit understated for all that effort!
Big hugs with Mrs H before we walked over to the food tent to meet up with Stuart and get hot food and a massive bag of fruit and drink and bars and all sorts of stuff. Julie went and had a quick reccy and found us a cafe the otherside of the square to enjoy a well overdue coffee and talk the talk of the day. As we walk to the car the broom wagon was dispensing the bikes out to the riders, it is a very sad scene and I know how they feel and I feel for them. Today though I’m walking tall.
It had been another really big day out in France and even now three weeks later it still has hold! This Etape certainly lived up to its reputation of being a real challenge! A few Garmin reports put the final amount of climbing at 4200 meters, this combined with 130 miles in dreadful conditions makes for a long and hard day out. Stuart and I finished about 45 minutes up on the broom wagon and looking at my ride/finish time I had only spent 15 minutes off the bike all day!
It would transpire that 6000 people had registered to ride, slightly over 4000 started and 1982 completed the whole course. This Etape had the lowest finishing percentage, not sure if that makes it the hardest or not! I caught up with Jon as we walked back to our cars, he was with his two friends both veterans of 8 previous Etapes - both had given up!
Stuart finished in 10.26.32
Rick finished in 10.32.00
This video gives a flavour of the day, nicely titled Nine Hours in Hell: www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGvQwOMLr4k