In July 2010 I found myself sitting by the side of the road halfway up a mountain in the Pyrenees feeling very dejected. The verge was littered with hundreds of other sorry cyclists who had been caught by the broom wagon 104 miles, nine hours and three mountains into the Etape du Tour. We were only four miles short of the finish. It might as well have been forty because after training on my bike for a year and losing nearly two stone in weight I had failed.
The Etape is an annual cycling event that lets amateurs tackle a mountain stage of the Tour de France. It is not a race but if you fall behind the dreaded broom wagon you are eliminated and have the humiliation of finishing the event in the back of a coach.
Whilst waiting for the coach to pick me up I decided I was going to get stronger and faster and next year I would return and finish.
The following years Etape involved cycling up the climbs of the Telegraphe, Galibier and finishing up the twenty one bends of Alpes D’Huez . I signed up with Will at Better Body and showed him the route. He came up with a programme to get me into shape. The raw material he had to work with, i.e. me, was not ideal for cycling up mountains, a fifty year old ex prop forward with a sedentary job. It had been a very long time since I had been in a gym.
The first session had me doing squats with weights the size of polo mints. I had to stop the car on the way home as I felt sick and I struggled to walk upstairs for several days afterwards. However Will kept me going over the next eight months. The intensity of the sessions slowly increased usually finishing with some reps on the beloved sledge. My cycling speed increased as did my endurance.
Come the day of the Etape I found myself with a low starting number at the back of the field of ten thousand. This was due to the poor result the previous year. It took an hour to cross the start line. After three hours of hard climbing I made the summit of Galibier with three minutes to spare and the broom waggon close behind.
Then followed a thrilling 40km decent from the top of Galibier to the bottom of Alpes D’Huez. On the final climb the sun came out, the temperature hit 40c, the road started to melt, the effort of the long climb on Galibier took its toll and the next two hours are a bit of a blur. I remember people passing out on their bikes in front of me, huddling under rock faces to get out of the sun, standing in mountain streams to cool off. I have a memory of standing by a skip and throwing everything I was not wearing, apart from my phone, into it to lighten the load.
Towards the top I could see the broom waggon catching me up with every hairpin turn. Just outside the village of Alpes D’Huez it was only a few hundred yards behind me. A man and his son ran alongside me pouring water over my head and shouted encouragement for one last effort. I thought of Will and the pain I had endured on the sledge. I didn’t want to be texting him or anyone else to say I hadn’t made it. So I somehow stood up on the pedals and pushed up the last ramp into the town. As I took the final turn the broom waggon came up close behind with the driver honking his horn and punching the air. Of the seven thousand finishers I was fourth from last but I had made it. I had an emotional call home then I texted Will. I couldn’t have done it without him.
Three months later I was back in the Gym preparing for the following years Etape. With Will having left Lucy took me on as a challenge. This time we went back to basics and Lucy spent a long time trying to get me to perform the exercises correctly before lifting heavy weights. After a slow start the weights increased. By the following summer I was stronger than the previous year, had easily surpassed the previous years goals (which Lucy took great pleasure in telling Will) and I headed off with confidence to the Etape.
For the next two years Etapes the broom waggon was a long way behind and I could enjoy the event without stressing about making the next time cut. Lucy has been brilliant in keeping me moving forward and motivated. She has been a delight to work with. She was one of the first people I texted after crossing the finish line.
I started 2015 thinking I had cracked the Etape for good. I missed quite a few sessions with Lucy, didn’t lose enough weight and drank plenty of Belgium beer the night before. The temperature on the Glandon hit 42c and I had a nine and a half hour battle with my old friend the broom wagon which I lost.
So it is now back to basics with Lucy getting ready for the challenge in 2016.
Thanks to Lucy, Will and all at Better Body Group for your help and encouragement.