Etape du Tour – DONE!
After months of preparation, the Etape du Tour took place yesterday and I’m proud to say, I finished it! Woo hoo! It was an incredible experience. Never have I felt such epic highs, followed by gruesome lows, so much pain, so much emotion or such a feeling of pride during an event. Out of 13,000 riders yesterday, there were only 600 women and it’s still sinking in that I was actually one of them.
I arrived in Annecy on Saturday morning and was staying in a chalet with about 20 other Rapha folk. After picking up our race numbers, it was decided we’d go for a little spin to loosen our legs up in the afternoon. Dominique, a Rapha ambassador and wonderful French guy led us on the ride and we ended up doing the first climb of the Etape. I hadn’t wanted to do it as I wanted my legs to be fresh for Sunday, but I went along. As the least experienced rider in the pack and not having done a climb like that since I was out in Nice in May, I watched as everyone sped ahead of me and I struggled to keep up. By the time I reached the top of it, I was so disheartened I was choking back tears. How the hell was I going to ride the Etape the next day if the first climb almost broke me? I’d spent all week calming my nerves but now they were back in full force.
By the time I woke up on Sunday, my attitude was very much like ‘Screw it. I’m just going for a little bike ride, through the mountains.’ If I kept thinking of it as this epic event, 130km, lots of climbing, I would’ve freaked myself out again.
We headed down to the start line at 7am and at 7:45, we started. I felt great, I started really well, had a good speed going and the energy and buzz among the riders was fantastic. After all my panicking the day before, I flew up the first climb, Cote du Puget. That gave me a huge boost of confidence. I was careful to pace myself and not overdo it. The next three climbs; Col de Lesheaux, Cote d’Allion -le-Vieux and Col des Pres I seemed to cruise through. I found them challenging, of course, but I had settled into my pace and wasn’t letting them overwhelm me. I knew there was one more climb before the final one, the Semnoz and I wanted to save myself for that big push at the end.
The views as you climbed higher were just unbelievable. People lined the streets to cheer us on and as there were so few women doing it, they’d get extra excited for us. ‘Allez les filles!’ they’d shout. It definitely gave me a boost every time I locked eyes with someone in the crowd and they cheered for me. One thing I hadn’t bargained for was the heat. I knew it’d be warm obviously, but temperatures reached 32 degrees at certain points in the day and it became unbearable. Staying hydrated was crucial. The descents were sweet relief, not just from all the hard pedaling while climbing, but because you got a wonderful breeze whipping you in your face that just felt like heaven. I had made a point to work on my descending while in Nice, since I knew I was a sucky climber. While it was definitely scary to descend among so many people, I tried to not let that freak me out and just relax and let go.
Then came the next climb, Mont Revard. Word to the wise: if you ever decide to do an endurance event in the mountains (which, you know, don’t, ’cause it’s a crazy thing to do), it pays to actually read the route map properly. For some reason I had it in my head that all the climbs before the Semnoz were between 5-8km long. I knew the Semnoz was 11km of climbing, so had mentally prepped myself for that. It turned out, Mont Revard was 16km long. At points, the incline was 15%. It was brutal. The heat was killer. I got probably about 8km into it and started to wonder why it hadn’t finished yet. This is where the wheels started to come off for me mentally. I tried to keep pedaling, but I just so desperately wanted this climb to be over. My lower back had really started to hurt. I had lost all the Rapha people and was riding alone and suddenly it was just all too overwhelming. I pulled over to the side of the road, unclipped and slumped over my handlebars. What the hell was I going to do? I came to finish this damn thing and now I found myself stuck on this mountain, teary, overwhelmed, in too deep to stop, but couldn’t figure out how I could go on either.
At that moment, Dominique, the Rapha brand ambassador, appeared out of nowhere. ‘Bangs!’ he said, as he pulled up beside me. ‘Get on your bike!’ I hung my head and sobbed ‘I can’t do this.’ In his very typical French way, Dom said ‘Ahh, but you are doing it!’ The man had a point. I was over half way. Six months ago, I couldn’t ever have envisioned myself even doing that much. He hugged me and told me to get on my bike again. I slowly clipped back in to my pedals and set off, Dominique right beside me, his hand on my lower back, pushing me as I pedaled. If we want to talk about guardian angels, any man who will literally push you up a mountain when you’re falling to pieces pretty much defines it.
From then on, Dominique and I were in it together. Laura, Rapha’s marketing woman, was with us too. She was also struggling and we clung on and pushed each other. Eventually, that horrible, beastly Mont Revard came to an end and the descent felt like flying.
There was a food station before the last climb where we stopped to regroup. I was checking Twitter when we were at food and water stops and the incredible outpouring of support was really keeping me going. After we refueled it was time to take on the mighty Semnoz. Again, the damn route map kinda lied. The climb is supposed to be 11km long, but they neglect to tell you that there’s 5km of climbing before you even get there. The route map says the Semnoz is an 8% incline – LIES! It was 15-20% for a great deal of it. It was such a long, tough climb, so many people got off and walked. I am not ashamed to say I was one of them. I did really well for the first couple of kilometres, but then it became unbearable. I pulled over to the side, took my cleats off and walked, in my socks, pushing my bike up this mighty hill. I was in awe of the people who could keep pedaling.
Dominique caught up to me again. ‘Bangs! Get on your bike!’ Ahh, I wasn’t going to get away with walking. I put the cleats back on, got my heavy, weary body back on the bike and Dominique told me to pedal for 2km, then I could have a quick rest. That seemed fair. I figured to get through this last bit, I’d have to do it in chunks. I saw a marker saying 8km to go. I pedaled for 2km – I’ll tell you, never has a kilometre felt so long. My pedal rhythm was horribly slow. It was like pedaling through mud. Just when you thought the climb would flatten out a little bit, you’d turn a corner and it would go up again. It was soul destroying.
With Dominique’s unwavering support and encouragement, I saw a marker saying 3km to go. Gah! So near yet so far! ‘Does it flatten out at any point?’ I kept asking Dom. ‘No, it gets harder,’ he’d say. I fought back tears. I reminded myself of my mantra ‘It hurts now, but it won’t hurt forever.’ I just had to push through this last 3km.
I’d had to get off periodically to stretch my back, which by this point, was just searing with pain. Dom wouldn’t let me rest too long though. The sooner I got back on and pedaled, the sooner this whole thing would be over.
1km to go and I wanted to finish so badly but the pain and fatigue were drowning me. Dom staying right next to me and told me to keep pushing. The incline was around 15% at this point and horribly difficult. I grunted as I got out of my saddle for a final push. 200m to go. ‘The finish is just around the corner,’ Dom said. ‘I don’t believe you anymore!’ I said through tears. ‘Look at you! You’re doing it! You’re doing great!’ We turned the corner and 100m away, I saw the finish. ‘Is that really the finish line or am I hallucinating?’ I asked Dom. Genuine question – I felt half crazy at that point. ‘It’s the finish! Go go go!’ And with that, I mustered whatever I had left and sprinted through the finish line.
When I got off my bike, I was completely overwhelmed. Training for this event was so hard. Being a runner and being completely out of my comfort zone, there were so many times in training I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. For six months, I sucked it up and got on with it. But when I crossed that finish line, I couldn’t hold it anymore. I let the tears flow freely. I hugged Dom, then hugged Laura and we sobbed together.
This was without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There was no way I wasn’t going to finish it, but there were moments yesterday when I felt utterly helpless. I’m definitely not built for cycling, but somehow I got my body up there. Your body will do what your mind tells it and the biggest challenge was staying mentally engaged, drowning out that voice that was telling me to stop and give up. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dom, without whom, I’m pretty convinced I’d still be stuck on that mountain.
To Laura and the folks at Rapha who got me involved in this, thank you. I didn’t know what I would learn from this experience but it’s been incredible. I left a piece of me on those mountains and it’ll be something that I’ll remember forever.
To Collyn Ahart, without you, none of this would’ve happened. Thank you for believing in me.
To the wonderful women at Cycle Cote d’Azur – yesterday would not have happened without you. Your expert coaching on that training weekend in Nice gave me the confidence to do those climbs. As hard as I found them, I thought of you guys as I did them and remembered everything you’d taught me. Thank you times a million.
To KX Gym and Gideon Remfry for your incredible help with my training. You guys rock!
To my incredible family and partner, thank you for putting up with me these last few months. I’m sure I have been unbearable at times, but your unwavering support has meant everything.
And to my Run Dem Crew family, the best friends a girl could have – thank you for supporting and encouraging me every step of the way. You guys rock my world.
And so, there ends another challenge. Will I keep riding my bike? Yes, I think so. I’d quite like to stay away from mountains though.
Huge congrats to all the women who took part in the #Womens100 yesterday – I hope you all had a great ride.
Finally, thank you all for taking an interest in my training and giving me constant encouragement. It was hard, I moaned and I definitely had more than a few moments where I questioned why the hell I took this on in the first place, but your support really kept me going.