Andrew Humroy writes…
L’Etape 2022 Journey (Tour De France stage 12)
Setting the Scene: It’s fair to say this is one of the toughest amateur sporting challenges in the world. To attempt it is no mean feat and this year was by far one of the hardest it has ever been. The course consisted of 3 HC (beyond categorisation) mountain climbs over a distance of 167km. Each mountain was progressively harder than the one before but included all iconic Tour De France climbs with the 1st being Galibier (35km, average 4%, ascent 1.4km, peak 2642km), 2nd being Croix de Fer (28km, average 5.5%, ascent 1.5km, peak 2067m) and finally the iconic Alpe D’Huez (14km, average 8%, ascent 1.1km, peak 1840m) in total over the course some 4.5km of climbing. Noting average gradients is just that, its only an average over the total distance and don’t be fooled by how low the percentages seem to be, some points it gets up to 10%+ for a few kilometres urgh. I’m not sure if there is anything I can compare it to that we can all measure against but will try my best, Box hill and Ditching are 3.9% and 6.2% respectively but for 170m ascents… child’s play in comparison 10mins of climbing. With these mountains it’s more like 3-4 hours of constant climb without little rest stops and shade aaahh. To give you some idea the biggest ride I have ever done before was doing Box hill 15 times in one day, I also went from Central London to Brighton and back which was 205km in total and 2.2km ascent and took me about 10hrs with quite a few pit stops in between, not to mention I did Octopus 8 which is climbing Leith hill area in Surrey about 100km and with the same ascent, and I would say this l’etape event is about 3-4 times harder than any of them, coupled with the extreme heat differential, changing oxygen levels with the altitude and as mentioned constant climbing for a long distance is something very hard for me to explain how tough it is.
Only the Brave and Stupid (me being the latter) would attempt something like this and it being so popular the organisers limited it to 16,000 cyclists, it’s sold out within the first week. Some cyclists believe due to the pandemic and cancelling the last two year events, they decided to make up for it this year all in one go, but it’s most likely due to it being the 30th anniversary they needed to make it epic. Whatever the reason it turned out to be one of the biggest challengers in the events history with only 8684 completing it within the allocated cut off time which apparently is the first time it has been under 10,000 cyclists.
In the Beginning: Why I signed up, who knows, I still can’t figure it out, but it was mainly down to a great work colleague of mine pushing me to do it. I didn’t quite appreciate at the time what is involved and with all other things in life taking over I didn’t begin training until the start of April, with the event in mid-July, I had signed up to EGCC and did my first ride with G1 in mid April, and it was the meeting with Ben and Giles and others on that ride that was the catalyst to start taking it seriously and gave me the appreciation of what to expect and to start preparing immediately, which may already be too late. Since then I have only done one G2 ride (where I fell over nearly taking out Angela after a few mins from the start when we stopped at the traffic lights, amateur) and half a G3 ride before the event, it was meant to be a big ride every week but as it turned out every week I was abroad or busy for one reason or another. However the point I wanted to mention even with the lack of cycling with EGCC, what was so unexpected and something I didn’t even account for in any of my training and thought process, was the level of support and advice and friendliness all the club members shown to me. It was incredibly overwhelming and was just blown away. Everyone was interested to know about the event and send their wishes and made me feel part of the team instantly. To this point I must say a massive thank you to Angela for making me feel so welcome and Ben who I honestly believe without his guidance especially within the last 48 hours of the event I don’t actually feel I would have completed it. The encouragement I have received prior, during and after the event, best wishes and messages of support from people I have briefly met or am yet to meet, really has been powerful in giving me that extra strength to overcome all the emotions I faced prior, during and after the event 🙂 , fear, stress, anxiousness and I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to the club and all its members for creating this bonus support for me, that I just didn’t ever considered at start would have happened and how much I would benefit from, for which I say to you all thanks.
Friday and Saturday the organisers and all the stalls setup, where you can meander around, meet other riders, get some freebie gels, buy a new cycle jersey and pick up your free bag. Also ask any questions you want to the race organisers. Me and my friends ended up renting bikes so we picked these up on the day (I took my own pedals). It’s debatable whether to do this, but for me I happened to rent the same bike I have Trek Emonda SL 6 and it was ok on the day it cost approx £150, the only thing was I didn’t check the brakes and noticed only after conquering the first mountain climb that my brake pads were rubbing against the discs (expletives soon followed). I would suggest getting there with a day spare, gives you time to relax and enjoy the atmosphere plus do some early recognisance of the course and acclimatisation if applicable.
The Attempt: Taking advice from Ben I stocked up with foodies, gels, and plan of how much water I will intake every 15mins and where the water and food stops are. The weather was looking to be outrageously hot with highs of 35 degrees but on the first mountain climb the weather would drop to 12 degrees with it being even colder when you descend down it so best to have something on you to wear to protect you from this. You MUST also put sun protection on (50+ I would suggest) all over your body, I had put some on my legs but unfortunately I adjusted my bib shorts at some point and got badly burnt as there was no protection on the area where I lifted the bib shorts up, as well as around the top of my arms where there was a small gap between my t shirt and arm coolers. Also worth mentioning to put anti chafe balm on your private bits, it will help with a ride like this. The sea of riders lining up is epic, because they all look like professional cyclists, their physique it’s quite intimidating but don’t let that deter you anyone can achieve anything if they put their mind to it no matter how they physically look (me being a perfect example). The anxiety was definitely high and nerves were showing as I visited the toilet I think 4 times that morning, well I have never ever conquered a mountain before and here I was doing three in a row, going at it immediately from the start. Luckily it means you can attack on fresh legs without having to cycle some distance up to it.
As you can imagine in the Alps some of the scenery was just unbelievable even if you were not doing a cycling event to hike around there is amazing. Having thousands of cyclist around you as you all tackle this mountain together at the start was pretty awesome to be honest as you cannot help but lookup and admire the views around and know you are attempting something absolutely epic it an absolute amazing back drop all together. It’s worth noting as well, I didn’t pass one cyclist, it seemed as though every cyclist passed me but again don’t be alarmed by this, as long as you know your plan and what you need to achieve that’s all that matters and stick to it.
Unfortunately for me my Garmin stopped 30mins into the ride so was flying blind but I had the cut of times written down for each checkpoint and stuck on my handlebars and used my phone to check the time of day and this was all the guidance I ended up needing. After conquering the first mountain taking in the views and selfies (by the way be wary of idiots stopping right at the cusp of the mountain), it caused a few accidents with people falling like my friend at the final hurdle and unable to clip out in time. I felt really proud I made it to the top after 3 hours and was ready to tackle the descent, this for me was one of the best things I have ever done in my life, just simply coming down the mountain for 30-45mins at speeds of 75km/hr. It is one of the best feelings in the world and to do it on closed roads where you can use the full width of the road is just fantastic, I would describe it as similar to downhill skiing, but I would build up some strength in your upper body to hold on to the handle bars and brakes. The whole ordeal of climbing the mountain made this worth it and the experience and feeling is just immense, but use this descent wisely to recover and gain time. Then there were the pit stops conveniently spaced out and utilise these, the food was nibbles affectively what you would get on ride prudential for example (bread, cakes, fruits, nuts, energy bars, water), with toilets and bike engineers around as well. For me I couldn’t afford to hang around so was in and out with few mins each time and even intentionally missed one just to make a cut off checkpoint which I did by 4mins, yep it was that close for me. The second mountain was so draining it nearly broke me, I was close to getting off the bike and walking or giving up, the heat was too intense and it was a 10%+ for 4km (yes I wrote that correctly) and then 7.5% for 2km. The mental resilience needed should not be underestimated, I feel you need this more that physical strength and just have to push through the pain knowing it will be over in an hour and there is a flat around the next next next corner “hopefully”, good idea to talk to cyclist and fans next to you who may know the course like I did that’s what they said to me and it was true 🙂 . I would say out of everything I did (completing three mountains, getting an official time, etc etc) conquering this second mountain without getting off the bike was my biggest and hardest challenge of it all, this 4 hours of constant steep climbing was brutal in that heat to say the least. The memories I have are solely on this second mountain it was my nemesis moment, I mean there was just no shade anywhere at 35 degrees, it’s the only time I recall being so mad with the mountain of why it’s well difficult to the point where I was cursing it every corner for being so ridiculously tough (I’m not proud of the language I used, but that mountain had it coming). One thing kept me strong knowing all the people tracking me back home, friends, families, work colleagues and also friends on the ride with me up ahead in an earlier wave, knowing they have been here a few hours ago. But it must be said for the fellow bystanders thousands of them, camping on the side of the road with their tents, campervans and just locals supporting you, cheering you on, hose piping you with water linked to their taps, refuelling you with fresh cold water from a watering can which tasted like heaven, people shouting your name, your country, shouting in French, English, any language, telling you how far you got to go until the climb is over, I just never seen so many supporters come out to show such passion in puts ride London 100 as a tiny blip in comparison. On corners going up Alpe d’Huez there were parties, music, singing, even a man wearing a mankini wanting to show their love for the sport and you participating in it, it truly is remarkable.
Which brings me onto the last mountain, which I have dubbed impossible mountain, there was no way I could conquer it, I had arrived after 155km with 7mins before the official cut of time at 18:07 and 18:14 being the cut off to start the climb, with the final cut of being 20:19 to finish. I started immediately on 2km of 10%+ 🙂 , that pretty much killed me as afterwards I had to step off the bike for the first time on the ride and start to walk some parts, it was just too dangerous to go on. I would say it wasn’t my legs that gave up, but more fatigue and exhaustion, I just wasn’t fit enough and was a real chance of me falling I felt the gradients were getting up to 15-20% and I just couldn’t do it. Do I feel sad I walked some of it, nope, I just wasn’t capable on tired legs and I don’t even think I could do it on fresh legs. The only way I think I could have conquered this mountain is to have started training from 8-10 months prior than 3-4 months like I did. Nevertheless I had a deadline to hit so powerwalked for some points which is not easy with cleats up a steep incline in heat and already tired pushing a bike with other people around you. Once I caught my breath I was back on it, trying to hit that finish time, there was no space to rest just constantly go go go on arguably one of the toughest climbs in Tour De France. I was extremely tired and was a constant switch of cycling/walking/cycling/walking but I came around the finish stretch at 20:20 knowing I missed the final cut off time by 1 minute, upon which I saw my friends who had finished earlier cheering me on. I waved to them but realised they were shouting at me and pointed to the broom wagon driving extremely slowly towards the line to close out the race… I still had a chance, I sprinted like I never sprinted before who knows where this energy came from, and raced up the 6% incline with 200m to go but I just couldn’t catch it in time and finished literally 2 metres behind it. I had been grinding this whole time and struggling for just under 12 hours and missed out by a few seconds crossing the line at 20:21:46, I was confused and slumped over the handle bars on the line itself trying to catch my breath. The medal lady tried to pull me to safety but gave up and just put a medal around me, a camera man got the pictures of this and was so happy he ran over and showed me, but I just couldn’t breathe and was glad I made it to the end. It turned out they extended the time by 6 minutes with the cut off being 20:28:00 so I made it, and so did 65 other cyclists after me. That’s how close I was and just so fortunate to be included in the official results with a total time of 11:49:03 (I did it in under 12 hours), and goes to show I just had to push all the time, no resting and that was exceptionally hard to do. There were moments where the emotion was overwhelming but I pulled it together and just kept going and was constantly on the limit of being caught out by the cut off checkpoints but that’s what made the difference never give up or relax, 6 minutes more and I would have missed out only 65 people after me made it in too. I did get lucky and fortunately they extended the time ever so slightly but I gave myself the best chance for some luck to come my way and just chuffed I got in before the official cut off.
Aftermath: It has been such an incredible adventure, the training with friends, families and work colleagues building up to it, getting to know new people at the EGCC has all contributed to the wonderful experience. It’s not just about the event its everything that goes with it, going to the gym at work, the long rides with the club and friends. Even the days prior to the event with my friends exploring and checking out the mountains, village and restaurants and everything since after the event, telling people about it. It’s not a normal sporting event, it is one of the most famous and toughest and extreme out there and that to me has made me feel so good that I conquered it and got a time, something I never thought possible, I DID IT, and to make my friends and family proud has been one of the best feeling ever and will live with me, I got a medal and an official time to show for it, not to mention a cold beer at the end to reflect on what was a totally incredible experience in my life 🙂 . So many memories flooding back especially when watching the professional go at it a few days later. They completed it in under 5 hours vs me under 12, top speed is 105km/hr vs me 75, average pace of 34km/hr vs me 14, but stats aside vs the pros, it’s just a great achievement knowing that just over 50% completed it on the day and to know that you are one of them is such a rewarding feeling, I just made it by the skin of my teeth… would I do it again… hell no
- Go with a great group of people, any challenge in life is more special when you share experiences together, and everything I have written about in terms of logistics I learnt from them, I didn’t organise anything accept turn up and pay. I mean I have never done anything like this before I was a complete novice. Not to mention having people to coordinate with on what they were doing for the ride and supporting each other cannot be underestimated. It turned out I had the wrong kit a fleece top, and they cobbled together items of clothing I could wear. Not the best preparation but it worked. These guys were like my rock and learnt so much from them and they really helped calm my nerves and so I would say to you all, one of the best things to do is to take on difficult challenges with others. Albeit this is my first ever Alpine challenge (and probably my last), if I was ever to do one again I would never do it by myself.
- Would I recommend this to anyone, absolutely if you want to do something extreme and crazy and really push yourself to the maximum multiplied by 2. But you do need to train for this and give yourself more time like 10 months instead of 4, but if I can do it (60kg with not much power and not enough training) then I’m sure you all could do it as well. I prepared to some extent for it but not enough, I’m not a great cyclist or a major enthusiast compared to a lot of people taking part in this event and unfortunately for me it’s also difficult to train in the UK if you don’t have a mountain in your back yard, but I still did it. Oh and practice descending, not many do it, but you need good upper body strength arms, shoulders and hands to grip and brake and hold the position when it gets bumpy and it will. However you can also do something less extreme by just doing one mountain, I would hugely recommend this in life for everyone to do at least once. I have never done a mountain before and that feeling of conquering it gave me such jubilation, and then you get to go down the other side, wooohooo 😁😁😁😁
- Know the course, learn where the pit stops are, what the cut of times are, watch videos ask others who have done it, what helped me was memorising the mountains and each section, when you are climbing a 10%+ gradient for 4km you may not know how much you have covered already and if you only got another 2km to go, but it does help knowing it’s 4km of 10%+ and then you got a nice easy 7%+ for the next 6km straight after… yikes
- Book everything early early early, flights, hotels, car hire, bus transfers if the route doesn’t return to the starting point, these prices and tickets get sold out and hike up fast.
- Worth considering a bike fit, niggles and pain only became apparent after long rides and pushing myself to high levels in a short space of time, unmasked some issues.
- Enjoy it, tell the world and you will find everyone would be there to support you and give you advice even strangers you just meet in a cycling club, on that point I will leave you with a story:
“I was cycling up the second mountain on a 4km black ascent as mentioned above where the heat was about 35 degrees and the oxygen was low and I looked at a bystander supporting all of us sitting in his chair and I remember looking at him and shaking my head to say I’m really hurting physically but mentally I’m broken and feeling in absolute agony knowing I’m not even half way through the course let alone half way up this bloody mountain, I was suffering and the pain was unbearable, and in that moment a cyclist from Sweden behind me must have noticed this reaction from me to the bystander, immediately cycled up to me alone and just patted me on the back giving me the encouragement to stay strong… it helped massively and I kept going. A memory that will last with me forever”
From Left (yellow helmet) to Right (red jersey): Gaurav (09:32:07), Kunal (11:45:47), Me (11:49:03), Kirt (10:38:42)… the only reason I was there was because of Kirt he convinced me to sign up for this insane madness and I am hugely thankful to him for it.