To make the day even more challenging, sweltering temperatures over 35 degrees Celsius would sap us all of our valuable salts and make hydration another factor to manage on an already difficult day.
Along with 16,000 other riders, Alpecin Cycling was at the start pens and ready to go. This is how my day unfolded…
The morning of the ride
I don’t like to be late for anything and so I set my alarm for 03:45 am to give myself plenty of time to get ready, including a good breakfast and plenty of stretching. Our transfers were due to leave the hotel at 04:30 to get to our base camp, just 5km from the start. From the base camp, we’d ride casually and roll into the start village at Albertville. The closer we got to the start, the more nervous I became. The mood at base camp was great; Sascha, Ollie and the mechanics had prepared our bikes and John and Alex – our local guides – had set up a small marquee with food and refreshments, chairs and even a speaker for some music to get us all in the mood.
We all crammed in some final carbs before a quick team photo.
Most of the riders in started in different waves, with a group managing to stay together in wave 5. I somehow ended up in group 1, but in truth, I was happy with this! The earlier I started, the more of that intense heat that was forecast I would hope to avoid!
We all wished each other well and headed off to our separate starting pens. I decided to sit on the ground and to just wait patiently. As 07:07 am (my starting time drew closer) I became increasingly nervous. I kept coaching myself in my head; “Don’t start too hard. Take it easy. Just go at your own pace”, I told myself.
An Ambitious Target? Perhaps.
Up to that point I had not yet set a target time. Back in Berkshire in the UK we don’t have anything that even resembles mountain passes and so anything I knew about my abilities and average speed and power simply didn’t translate to the route I was about to tackle. But I knew that my legs were good, I’m a confident descender and that nervous energy and excitement made me set myself an ambitious time of 7 hours.
As we shuffled towards the start line and the announcer’s voice switched between French and English, I managed to maintain a good sense of calmness. Then, as the Klaxon went off and we rode through the first chip timer, I started to put the hammer down and go fast! I didn’t know it at the time, but I had fallen foul, once again, of my tendency to not pace myself.
As we zipped through Albertville the first climb hit us almost immediately. Many around me started to drop back and were instantly panting for air. (I don’t think I was the only person that got carried away!). The difference between me and many others though is that I carried on pushing. I felt electric! I was leading out a train of people behind holding my wheel, I was overtaking cyclists that looked to be in fantastic shape and the knowledge that the Alpecin Jersey was proudly on everything I was wearing spurred me on. I felt proud and obliged to appear strong and to show everyone else around me that Team Alpecin means business.
Reality Hits. Burning Matches.
As much as the initial surge of enthusiasm and power meant I had covered some early ground quickly, as soon as I became aware that my habit of overdoing it had come back to bite me again, I immediately reeled in my enthusiasm. But by that point, I was cresting the first climb. So, I cruised down the descent and formulated a plan in my head to ensure that I wasn’t going to burn any more matches too soon.
On the descent and the short flat section that followed, I didn’t pull on the front of any groups but instead hopped from group-to-group to stay out of the wind and to minimise my efforts for the next few kilometres. I still powered along at 35kph, but I didn’t surge or attack – I went steady. It was the ideal time to eat a Squeezy Energy Bar and to take in some isotonic drink to try and restore what I had used early on.
Refuelled and recovered?
I was pleased with myself up to that point. I patted myself on the back for realising my mistake and for trying to remedy the situation. From there, I thought I had managed to get myself back on track. But I was wrong.
As soon as the road went uphill once again at around 2 hours in, I found that I just couldn’t do any more than 210-220 watts. My legs were turning and I felt okay, but I couldn’t get any more power! I looked down numerous times to check to see if I had a flat tire or if something was wrong with the drivetrain, but I then realised that it was simply me. I had overcooked it and now I was paying the price.
There was a fear that the rest of the ride would feel like this. However, after grinding away and fighting to the top after what felt like an eternity, the familiar roads of Cormet du Roseland came into view. Thankfully, we had reconned these roads the day before as part of our photography and videography session. Knowing the roads gave me a real lift, not least because I knew just how far I had to go to the top, but also because I knew that the upcoming descent was long, fast and technical; another chance for me to both go quickly and to recover. I skipped the feed station at the summit and I did exactly as planned! I made a great time on the descent, passing many riders that had earlier passed me on the climb and got a real lift. Another 30 watts were suddenly found and the next few kilometres rolled by nicely. I topped up at a freshwater fountain in the next village and felt great once again.
It was at this point it all seemed to come together. From there on out, I stayed on top of my hydration and my nutrition. My efforts were steady and measured (if not as fast as I would have liked due to the now searing heat beating down on me) but overall, I felt great. I put in a few accelerations on the next climb. I held the wheel of some faster riders for a short time to get a bit of a tow and was able to pass another water stop once again without needing to top up.
As part of our support, an Alpecin Feed Station was made available at Kilometer 99. I planned to grab a couple of bottles in preparation for the final 35km, stuff something savoury in my face and to go full gas and to empty the tank. I pulled in and was pleased to see a selection of cut sandwiches and to have a couple of fresh bottles put into my cages within seconds! It was like a Formula 1 Pit Stop.
Up to that point, I hadn’t seen another Alpecin rider. Not that I was racing against anyone else in my team, but I just knew that if I was on the limit on the final climb and was passed by a teammate that appeared to be in higher spirits than me, that it would potentially be soul-destroying for my moral. I asked hurridly “Has anyone else been through yet? Who’s been here?!”
“No one yet”, replied John. “You’re the first Brit!”.
This both encouraged me and made me more nervous at the same time. I hadn’t seen another rider on the route yet, so, who could have passed me? Or worse; what if they’re not far behind and I’m dropped at the bottom of the climb? I put the hammer down and gave it my all from there on out. Alex gave me a push to get me started again and I immediately joined a rapid looking train. We took a few turns to the bottom of the next climb before I broke away and went it alone.
Heading Upwards toward heaven, but feeling as hot as hell!
I was convinced that I would be able to once again breeze past the next feed & water station at 117.5km, but by the time I was at 112km I was empty and desperate for water. The final climb to Val Thorens was brutally long, exposed to the sun and offered very little respite. However, the support more than made up for what the mountain could throw at me. With empty bottles, I rode past a small group of homes where the locals had their garden hoses at the ready – spraying riders-in-need. I zigged and zagged through as much of the spray as I could. It felt amazing. Instantly, I had more power!
Now that I was drenched, the Alpine breeze also created a chill on the skin. Usually, it would be an unwelcome sensation, but on this day, it felt amazing. I arrived at the final feed stop and did a triathlon-style dismount to fill up the water bottles. I then re-mounted in the same fashion, got hit with one more jet of water from a hose-pipe and went for glory.
A sting in the tail
It felt as though I had reached Km 125 in no time. I was in my groove. I was in and out of the saddle. I was cutting the inside of the switchbacks to go uphill faster and the number of people that were walking at this point had increased ten-fold. Then I spotted my name painted on the road, alongside the names of my teammates and an Alpecin Jersey. Once again I found another gear and dug deep!
Shortly after we entered a tunnel, where there was some respite from the sun. The tunnel filtered the wind through faster, meaning I was cooling right down and able to recover. I came out the other side, some 100 meters later feeling great. After a minute or so in relative darkness, my eyes re-adjusted to the bright sun and when they did, what I saw was amazing; a sign reading “5km to go!”. I could see a village in the distance. I could see Ski lifts appearing to come to an end. I could hear music in the distance and what appeared to be metal barriers.
Unknowingly we had around 800m to from that point. Whilst 150m of it was downhill and around a bend, the last 600 or so meters were uphill. And Gravel. And there were lots of riders all over what was now a nightmarish drag to the finish!
I sprinted from 500m with my head down. I looked up expecting the finish to be within a wheel of me…but the signs to my left & right read “400m to go!”…how could this be?! I’d worked so hard. I went again, not learning my lesson from moments before. The next sign; “300m to go!”.
“I can’t do it!” I said aloud. The first time for the entire day that I doubted myself. But then I realised that despite being completely In the red, other riders around me were still going slower, with some having even unclipped!
The gradient had eased slightly. I was in the easiest gear. I looked up to see a timer above the finish line. I said out loud “One. Last. Push!” I changed down 3 cogs, got out of the saddle and emptied everything I had left to roll over the finish line. 7 Hours and 7 minutes the sign read.
A heavy medal was put around my kneck and I was directed towards tables of water, beer and fruit.
I stopped for a minute, like a Lycra-clad zombie with a bike and looked around. Everyone had one of two expressions on their faces; either complete and utter elatione sort of disbelief.
My phone rang. Steffen, our photographer, was calling to congratulate me and to tell me he could see my sky blue Alpecin Jersey in amongst the crowd. Steffen was standing atop a hill just past the finish line overlooking the crowd of finishers. He guided me to the exit and helped me up to the chalet that we had rented. A few more stairs and a lift later I was shown into a room where Bastien was waiting, already showered. I got hugs from everyone, pats on the back.
The Tour was on the TV, fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate were on the table and the shower was waiting for me. It felt great. I had done it.
Not long after riders rolled in. We greeted everyone and shared our stories of what had happened out on the road that day. One thing is for sure – we all suffered, but we all loved it!
Epic. L’Etap Du Tour 2019 will live forever be in my mind as not only one of my best cycling memories, but best experiences ever.
Image rights: Alpecin Cycling / Stefan Rachow / Henning Angerer