As the front wheel slipped sideways from under me one more time, and my shoulder crashed heavily against the door frame, I had to ask myself whether this was actually any safer than mountain biking alone in the woods at night.
Not only is the etape physically demanding, it is also a test of a rider’s mental endurance. The final climb of Le Semnoz was carnage. The verges were a sluggish stream of broken cyclists trudging dejectedly upwards, pushing their bikes past the bodies of those who had completely given up and were sitting slumped, or even lying down, next to their discarded cycles. The temptation to dismount and join them, to stop the suffering for even a few minutes, was almost over powering.
To help me through these dark moments I imagined the day of ease and luxury I would indulge in the next day. A late start, a long breakfast, a leisurely spin beside the lake to a place where I could hire a pedalo; paddling out to the middle of lake Annecy, in the sun surrounded by the mountains, to the deepest part of the lake, then dropping my bike over board and watching it sink without trace and without risk of salvage.
There were brighter moments in the day. Being one of 11,500 riders marshalled in a herd through a funnel we each popped out over the start line like a cork from a bottle. We reveled in the novelty of the closed roads, the cheering crowds and motorcycle out-riders. Imagining ourselves to be the professional peloton, groups of riders split at the signal of a gendarme to flow both ways around the traffic islands. The lake was an artificial blue, the sun shone, the mountains hosted small swarms of paragliders, the only sounds were the whirrings of tyres and chains. The energy and excitement was palpable. Then the road turned away from the lake and the climb to Col de Puget began in a series of ramps and hairpin bends. We were soon in a world of alpine meadows and softly chiming cow bells. Five of us had set out together but the climbing quickly separated us as we each settled into our own rhythms. As it transpired Shane and I found ourselves to be well matched at the outset and rode together, being careful to ride within ourselves and conserve our energies for what lay ahead. Having tackled four categorised climbs in the first 30 miles or so, we were at last treated to a good, long descent. We joined the melee at the drinks station at the bottom to have our drinks bottles refilled by a man with a hose then immediately commenced the first of the day’s two big climbs, the first category Mont Revard.
Ten miles is a long climb. By now it was the middle of the day. Riding up the open road was like being baked in an oven. Riders hogged the meagre patches of shade at the road’s verge. By the time I reached the feed station 4 km short of the summit I was shaking and nauseous with the heat and the effort. Refreshed by the break from pedalling for a few minutes we continued to the summit and flew, whooping with delight, down 10 miles of glorious, uninterrupted descent. Even being mindful of the need for caution I hit speeds of over 45 miles an hour.
There followed a pleasant interlude of undulating terrain that should have provided some welcome respite and an opportunity to marshal resources for the assault on the final climb of the day, but Shane and I were enjoying ourselves too much and we time trialled it, powering over every rise in the road. All too soon we were at the feed station at the foot of Le Semnoz. Sensibly we refuelled with energy rich foods and replenished our drinks bottles. Then, not so sensibly, as we headed back to the road, we decided to sample to local Savoyard wine. After all, how much worse could it make us feel?
Le Semnoz is another 10 mile climb. I knew that, and, having done one, I had mentally prepared myself to do another. Unfortunately Semnoz is quite a bit steeper than Mont Revard. This was what Cycling Weekly means when they describe the stage as “viciously hard”. Having carefully controlled my efforts to keep my heart rate well below my training max all day, I was now struggling to stop it from soaring alarmingly. The slightest increase in cadence put me in the red. Every part of my body, my legs, arms, my backside, even the soles of my feet were crying out for relief. Not the remotest resemblance to the professional peloton remained. My head sagged between my slumped shoulders. I was moving so slowly that I would have lost my balance if I took a hand off the bars to take a drink. The gradient was relentless. At no point did the road level out. No false flats. It was better to keep your gaze fixed on your front tyre than to look up and be confronted by another ramp, another hairpin. Not even in the run in to the finish did the road level out. However at the 1 km to go marker Shane was waiting for me on the wall. I dismounted and sat with him for a few minutes, gathering myself for the final push. The last few hundred yards were eased by motivation from Trigg and then Boxy, waiting behind the barriers and shouting encouragement.
The finish is a bit of an anticlimax – a small, scruffy car park. The organisers encourage you to head straight back down the mountain to the event village in Annecy. On the way down we saw both Mark and Andy labouring the final few kilometres to the finish.
Gradually we regrouped in the event village and swapped tales of the day’s ride before remounting and riding the 10 miles back to our camp site.
The next day we rode to a beach on the other side of the lake. We had gone only a few miles when my chain snapped. That could so easily have happened on the final climb up Semnoz. Would I have bothered to fix it and finish the ride, or would I have taken the opportunity to abandon?
At the beach, whilst the others stripped off and dived in, I wandered off to see if I could hire a pedalo………….