After eight months of training the 2007 Etape du Tour had finally arrived with a 03.30 alarm call for breakfast and a one hour coach journey to the start. In fact the coach dropped us off about 5km away from the start as the town of Foix was totally closed off to traffic.
The weather was predicted to be pretty warm maybe hitting the mid thirties although at 6am in the Decathlon carpark near Foix it felt chilly. I shivered in my gillet when riding the 5km to the start, as some of the local riders blasted past as if the race had already started.
I was lucky enough to be in the pen for people numbered in the 2000’s so in theory I was nearer the front than the back. There was nervous anticipation on the start line as we waited half an hour or so before the 7am start, with my jersey pockets packed full with energy gels and bars. While waiting to start the commentator interviewed a hero of mine, former Tour de France winner Greg Lemond. Surely he wasn’t was he?? It turns out he was along with ex world champion Abraham Olano.
It only took about 6 minutes for me to get across the start line and we were quickly underway. I was turning the pedals effortlessly and although it was too early to say I was feeling very good. As the huge Peloton thundered along at 40-50km on the twisting sweeping roads I noticed many of the French riders were flying past up the outside in an effort to move up the group even more. I decided to join in, which quickly brought my heart rate into the red zone and much higher than the limit of 160 that I had set myself for the early climbs. I decided that I had better take it easier if that was at all possible.
After 22km the first climb of the Col de Port started. This was a 2nd category 17km leg loosener and I quickly settled into a nice rhythm passing many others as I went up. The 17km passed quickly and soon I was on the descent, which was technical with lots of hairpin bends to negotiate. I was a little scared of the descents and on this occasion most people easily outpaced me as I decided not to take too many risks.
After the descent of the Col de Port we had an undulating 30km or so until reaching the first feed station at Saint- Giron. I was intent on hiding in a group for this section so ensured I was with a few other riders at the bottom of the Col de Port but soon the group swelled to about 300 people with the speed around the 45-50km/h mark most of the time. I stopped at the ravitaillement and had been warned than they can often be a bit of a bun fight so I piled in and grabbed two bottles of water necking one and topping my bottle with the other. I didn’t want to hang around long as I was aiming for a time of 8hrs 26mins for a silver award.
Soon after the feed I got back into a group and things were nearly over for me very quickly as someone dropped a large water bottle in front of me and I resigned myself to the fact that I would soon be pealing myself off the road or pulling myself out of the ditch. But somehow I just clipped the front of it and ran over it with my rear wheel. A lucky escape so time to get of with the job as the climb of the Col de Portet D’Aspet started. The early gradients were steady on this 2nd Category 18km climb but the final 6km were steep at around 10%+ and I was soon in my lowest gear but feeling good still. As I climbed I was getting nervous of the prospect of the very steep 17% descent as this was where 1992 Olympic gold medallist Fabio Casartelli was tragically killed in the 1995 Tour de France by crashing into the concrete blocks on the edges of the road.
I descended while hanging onto my brakes while not allowing my rims to heat up too much as a few others for the now thinned out field past me on the early sections. Then as I was entering a left hand bend a marshal and Policeman were waving a riders to slow down. Someone had crashed into the same concrete blocks and didn’t look in good shape. I continued passing the Fabio Casartelli memorial and I was glad I had safely got that one out of the way.
There was no flat section before the next climb of the 1st category Col de Menté, which was not massively long at 7km but the gradient was noticeably steeper than the others so far. I was almost instantly in my lowest gear and climbing well but feeling the effort by this point as I settled into a rhythm but not passing many as I had earlier. I spotted a talented young guy from the Wheel2Wheel travel group I was with as he caught me and we started talking. Unfortunately I was not able to say too much back due to the effort I was now having to put in. He soon distanced me as we approached the 1349m summit where a massive crowd had gathered cheering and air horns echoing. There was a feed station at the top where I decided to stock up and stop for a few minutes. I tried to lean my bike up somewhere before entering the scrum for ravitaillement but seemed to have lost all my coordination, as even a simple task like that was now proving difficult. I tried to chat to the talented young rider I was with for most of the climb but probably wasn’t making too much sense. He soon headed off in front of me to record an excellent time for someone that had never raced.
Being conscious not to loose too much time I was soon on my way descending the very technical Col de Menté with its 15 or so hairpin bends where on several occasions a split second of lost concentration resulted in me totally messing up my line into and out of the corners. At the bottom and through several villages where the entire populations turned out to cheer us through there were only one or two other riders in sight. Soon a smallish group of about 15 got together but it did involve me doing several turns on the front to catch riders ahead. Once caught I wasn’t doing any more work as the fearsome 1755m Col de Port de Balès was fast approaching.
I knew that the climb started at the village of Mauléon Barousse after 140km and all the write ups I had read suggested that this 19.2km Hors Catagorie monster would be the decisive (and hardest!!) point of the race. Although I didn’t believe it at this point as once again I was climbing the steady early slopes well but at my own pace as I made no effort to stay with the other riders around me. The gradient then increased to an unimaginable level as I entered what seemed like the gateway to hell. My legs exploded into a series of cramps and the soles of my feet screamed with pain. All this and I was over geared even with a compact chainset as the 25 sprocket was now not low enough.
I continued to haul myself along stopping a couple of times under shade to recover momentarily. The scene looked like a war zone with bodies everywhere as many were zig-zagging erratically or walking by this point or even laying at the side of the road totally exhausted. I was determined not to walk as I climbed over melted roads in 36 degrees temperatures at about 5-6km/h for what seemed like an eternity. In fact I was climbing the Port de Balès for about two hours and all hope of the 8hrs 26min target had now disappeared. I just wanted to make it round alive. I was really thirsty and was getting sick of my sweet gels and energy drinks and just wanted plain water. I took a cup of water from a spectator and after drinking half of it I noticed it was full of sand – nice, the rest went over my head.
After finally reaching the summit where the final feed station was located someone offered to fill up my water bottles. I just wanted water but even though I have been learning French for four years at evening classes my ability to string a sentence together in any language including English by this point had deserted me. I ended up with two bottles of a rather nasty tasting brown energy drink. I took some food and a few more bottles of water, which gave me enough energy to give it some down the other side.
The descent of the Balès was a newly surfaced very narrow road with no barriers but by this point being cautious on the descents was not even a consideration as I managed to stay with a group all the way down to the bottom where my water bottle cage came loose so I decided to ditch one of my bottles then the final climb of the Col de Peyresourde started immediately after with 175km covered. By this point my entire body was covered in a residue of salt and I was so thirsty despite drinking continually, I hope my one remaining water bottle would be enough.
The 1st category 10km Col de Peyresourde standing at 1569m high is a famous climb, which regularly appears in the Tour de France and on paper looks a nice steady gradient that I would normally enjoy. However as soon as the climb started my legs and feet started to scream with pain as they did on the Port de Balès. It was a case of grinding to the top as best I could as once again many were walking or out for the count at the side of the road. I saw ahead a self-service water station where I stopped to fill my already almost empty one remaining water bottle with plain water and took a gel, which I had been taking religiously every hour throughout.
The final 4km to the top where both painful and enjoyable at the same time as I knew that I only had a 12km descent to the finish but also the French crowds were amazing as they encouraged everyone every step of the way. A Mavic service car took pity on me and offered me another bottle of water, which I took and drank some before passing it to a competitor. With 3km to go I looked to my right to see a series of switchback hairpins to the top, which seemed like I would never get there. But get there I eventually did as I got additional cheers and shouts of courage from the spectators due to the massive grimace I now had on my face.
With 184km of the 196km covered it was now all over – well apart from the descent to the finish, which was a real treat on wide roads as I was now getting the hang of getting the right line into and out of the corners, as there were far less other riders around me by this point.
With the Peyresourde descent over it was just a 2km flat run in to the finish – well not quite as there was a sting in the tail 500m long climb, which hurt a lot before I could then sweep down to the line to finish in a time of 9hrs 4mins 26secs for 1087th position.
With many thousands of riders still to come in and equally thousands more that were eliminated I can now reflect on a good finish at the what most have said was the hardest ever Etape du Tour as my greatest ever achievement.
The whole experience was amazing and certainly something that every serious road cyclist should try. The fully closed roads and the support the French crowds were giving was unbelievable and a real novelty and certainly something we are not used to in the UK. So despite saying never again shortly after the finish something tells me that I will be back again on the Etape one day.
Finally I would like like to thank Gavin, Tim, Richard and Geoff for welcoming me into their winter training group after just joining the club as I may not have even made it round without these tough training sessions behind me.
By Leigh Smithers (Redhill CC)