Its Sunday morning, the 7th of July. The day of the Rapha Womens 100 has finally arrived, after looming as a mountain emoticon in my google calendar for so long. Im sat at the long dining table, trying to eat a bowl of muesli, but the 5am time is making it harder than usual.
I quietly spoon in the Carrefour cereal, and observe the group of fellow etapistes staying in this lakeside chalet in Annecy. A wide ranging mix of riders, some serious, others novice, some even self confessed non-cyclists. Some wear excited and toothy grinning expressions, others chat nervously about the events that will unfold over the day, and a couple of our group are pretty much silent. Heads down, their lowly eyes perhaps giving their secret away that they are indeed rather terrified. Their downcast body language looks as if they are almost resigned to an unpleasant experience, perhaps mulling over the possibility of… dare I say…. failure?
The challenge that lay before us ladies was to ride the 2013 Etape du Tour, a punishing amateur jaunt around what will is to be played out as stage twenty of the Tour de France on 20th July by professional World Tour riders. 125km with six categorized climbs in 30 degree heat. Oh and did I mention the finish? A Hors Categorie hellish beast at 11km long with an average gradient of 8.5%... fab!
In the starting pen, I just wanted to get going, all the stood around waiting for our pen to be released was proving a little anxious. I was riding alongside Fran Millar, and my nerves were certainly abated temporarily as she joked about the lack of loo facilities. I guess the fact she couldn’t locate a toilet gave us a little extra impetus to get to the first water stop that bit sooner!
After a breezy first 50km or so, Fran had hurt her back. I panicked as I didn’t want anything to jeopardize her etape, and I dearly wanted her to finish with me, as I needed the moral support and relief in a shared joke to get myself around! Gutted for Fran, as she had been very strong in training, I knew it would be a cruel blow if she didn't hammer the Semnoz. So I set about being an annoyingly keen domestique, shuttling up the pack to commandeer some pain relief from a classy rider named Claire in our group.
As it was, after the frankly disgustingly long laborious slog up the Revard, a 16km beast that lay as the penultimate test to the legs and head before the finale of the Semnoz, Fran was riding super strong and more importantly was assuringly positive she would indeed be able to cruise the rest of the parcours and finish. I then set off alone for my showdown avec the Semnoz, not because I was stronger or faster, but I knew I needed to be alone for the battle that lay ahead.
Photo by Yoko Akoi
I was indeed glad no one I knew was around to witness my suffering – it was not a pretty sight. I adopted a zombie like state, staring blankly ahead with a hollowed out expression, legs barely turning and eyes sunken. My body began to cook in the unrelenting heat, and my Garmin only served to taunt to the length of time I would have to endure what was frankly a nightmare in Satans kitchen itself. The gradient never seemed to peter out, no respite to be found in a friendly flat few metres, just up and up and up.
My eyesight began to blur as if a heated mirage lay ahead, and tunnel vision crept in. To be honest im pretty sure I went into a mild hallucinogenic state – digging so deep it seemed as if I was having some kind of weird out of body experience…. I swear to this moment a man went past me Amy Winehouse's ‘Valerie’ blaring out from the rear of his jersey. I don’t know if it happened or not…. and I don’t think il ever know!
Riders vomited under the stress on their bodies, and the ditches on the right became strewn with casualties to the heat and the unrelenting gradients. Think something akin to a battlefield and your halfway there… only with more lycra and carbon. I don’t remember much of what happened in the last 5km… I think I may have sworn like a sailor, iv never had to dig so deep in my life. The heat was a major factor in sticking the boot in…
Its going to be pretty amazing to watch the pro’s on this parcours on the 20th, Im so intrigued to see at what point a break will go, and if a decisive move is made on the Semnoz. Proper exiting stuff.
(photo lovingly nicked from boom)
The highlight of my Womens 100 experience? It wasn’t the seemingly endless descent off Mont Revard, and it wasn’t cresting the Semnoz to an encouraging shout from Leo, nor was it even the amazing Nutella sandwich bestowed upon me by Gemma back at the starting village…. The true highlight of my etape experience was seeing those two solemn faces at breakfast conquer the etape, bury themselves on some of the most hideous climbs in frankly brutal conditions, and finish the course. The pride I felt in their achievement at completing it was unbelievable. I don’t think iv ever felt so proud of my sport, and of the achievements of my friends, both new and old. I know that day they endured suffering with grace and a steely determination.
To say the day was inspiring would be an understatement.
Footnote > If anyone can tell me where I can buy a big weird block of Almond Paste like the one pictured that would be amazing, I got it in Carrefour, and I swear that voodoo sweetness is what got me up the last climb...
Extra Footnote > HUGE thanks to Fran for hooking all the Womens 100 crew up with a very special pep-talk with currently-on-le-tour Mr David Millar himself, dispatching some much needed pearls of wisdom via speakerphone. A truly awesome moment!