When I saw Rob Kelly at the final feed stop which was at the base of Alpe d’Huez at 5:35pm I was reminded of the scene in Saving Private Ryan when an Allied soldier is wandering around on the beach looking for his arm, aimless and oblivious to the carnage around him. The cut-off to start the Alpe was at 6pm so there was still time. However, there was no sign of his bike and he had no food or bidon on him. I went over to him. “I think I have heat stroke” he said. I just hugged him until the tension eased out of his body. “Lets find your bike first”, I said, “then we’ll get you some cold grape juice from the lady at the isotonic table.” Chuck arrived shortly after. He was bollixed but at least he was coherent and he had his bike. We then made a pact to go up the Alpe together. 21 hairpins, 14k. Once we started before the cut-off it would be up to us. Our strategy had been to get to the base of the Alpe ‘nice and fresh’. Our plan had not survived contact with the mountains. Back in November it had all been so different.
A group of us had planned on doing Flanders in April, flat and cold with cobbles. Rob suggested a warm summer cycle with mountains would be the perfect complimentary sportive. 4,700m of elevation and 3 massive Alpine Cols for some reason didn’t deter us.
A group quickly formed with Andrew ‘Chuck’ Walker, John O’Leary, Gary McCarthy, Ed Crotty, Ellen Schilling, Jane Ryan, Brianne Mulvihill, Shane McCarthy, Tom Mousley, Sinead O’Connor, myself and Rob. We booked to stay in a hotel at the top of Alpe d’Huez where the stage finished. Our accommodation was basic enough. Not romantic weekend territory, more mountain bike mates style. Ed shrewdly decided to stay with John who was driving up from his summer residence in Nice and had booked his own chalet directly. Their butler had also been a bike mechanic during the 2004 Tour so Ed was very pleased.
The logistics were challenging. Rob and I arrived by car on Friday evening. We needed food before driving up the Alpe. We were hungry and tired and saw some lights in the woods at the bottom of the famous mountain. We pulled in. Amazingly, there was a wooden bar with stools and beer taps and a pizza van. Two guys in bandanas played a double bass and electric guitar, gentling putting out some ‘70s classics. An elegant lady sat at a picnic table reading a novel and smoking a cigarette with a glass of wine. ‘This is more like it’ said Rob pleased that his antidote to Flanders was already delivering. After a few beers, we drove our rental car up the Alpe. “Good job you booked an automatic” said Rob, “this is a tricky climb”.
The first night of a holiday is always dangerous territory. Ellen Schilling & Jane Ryan lead us astray and we didn’t get to bed until very late. Saturday was race prep and strategy day. Bikes were assembled and a few of us recce’d the final few kms of the Alpe. We then met for a lovely lunch. “What’s our race strategy” said Ed, unfolding a map on the table before the rosé could be poured. “The first climb is the Galiber, over 2600m. The air will be very thin and it’ll be Baltic at the top” I announced “bring plenty of base layers and jackets”. This advice was totally wrong but everyone bought in to it. “We need to arrive at the bottom of the Alpe nice and fresh, so take the second climb (the Col de Croix Fer) nice and easy”, I advised. Fatally, no one had really heard of this climb so we all moved on to a discussion about Alpe d’Huez. Our fate was sealed. In retrospect, the hardest stage of the hardest bike race in cycling should have given us pause for thought, but the wine and the “its so beautiful” and “we don’t need to worry about the broom wagon” lulled us.
With the Etape you have two choices. Stay at the start and have a normal wake-up time on race day but a nightmare getting home, or … stay at the finish and get up at ridiculous hour. We had to get up at 2.30am for a bus leaving after 3am. A long bus journey brought us to the start at Briancon, where we had breakfast in the luggage hold of the bus, just under the onboard loo. There was however a happy nervous energy. This was not really a race. The French Alps in summer are stunning. We were all planning on arriving at the base of the Alpe ‘nice and fresh’.
We had decided we would all roll out from pen 12. 15,000 cyclists do this event leaving in pens of 1,000 every 10minutes or so. You can drop back a pen but not move forward. The pens are seeded, but based on your own submitted assessment of your ability. Ed was assigned pen 3 and Rob pen 4. The people in these pens are semi-pros. As we entered pen 12 the marshall stopped a few of our group who had higher pen numbers. I looked at Ed. He nodded and moved down the pen and helped those with higher pen numbers over the fence. If you’re ever in prison, hope that Ed is in there too. We were now all in pen 12 and started on schedule.
The first climb was the Galibier. A beautiful mountain that emerges up from a valley with a river running through it. There were plenty of camper vans and fans on this and all the climbs waiting for the Tour. Galibier is long but not that steep and everyone got up it ok, taking it nice and steady. Jane and Ellen however had stopped after 5k to find a loo. They went into a nice restaurant and then felt guilty so ordered coffees. The barista took pride in his work. They needed quick coffees but this guy was like the guy wrapping the necklace in Love Actually (it will be ready in the flashest of flashes) – just when they thought the coffees were ready some further foam or presentational flourish was performed. When they emerged the cyclists from pen 15 were now rolling past.
The descent off Galibier was dramatic and fast but safe. The standard of cycling was very good and I saw no crashes. We regrouped at Valloire. Galibier is so high that even after a 30minute descent we only needed to climb 2-3k to go over the top of Col de Telegraph. Next was another descent and a valley ride of 20k or so. The plan here was to “wheel suck and eat”. “Is there a comma after wheel?” asked Tom. Half the group laughed at this subtle literary reference.
We were then in this pretty village at the base of the Col de Croix Fer. No problem. This was the random middle climb no one had heard of. I decided to roll out early as I could feel my legs weren’t great. I hit the first km with a 9% gradient according to the sign announcing the Col … & 29k long. The temperature was now very hot. After 5k of this climb I was pretty knackered and half my water was gone. There was no water stop until 22k into the climb. After about 8k I saw the first casualties. Soon, every hairpin in the shade had bikes strewn and cyclists lying distraught against the slopes. I was now grinding very slowly, cursing that my rental bike was not armed with a very gentle gearing. By 10k in, I was out of water. So, it seemed, was almost everyone else around me. Ambulances were now passing at regular intervals. Shane & Brianne spun past me very comfortable. Then John O’Leary, also very comfortable. Then Gary – huffing and puffing but making good progress. Next came Ed and Sinead and then Tom. They were bollixed as well. I was now taking breaks. A girl stopped an ambulance and asked for water. The kind female medic started handing out bottles. Soon, a group of cyclists emerged from the shade like zombies, arms out-stretched looking for water. The male driver emerged from the ambulance fearing they’d be overwhelmed and ordered everyone back. “Back I say” he ordered. It was like the Titantic when the orderly boarding of the lifeboats breaks down. The ambulance sped off and I pressed on. Eventually we reached a tunnel on the climb. There was no obvious reason for the tunnel except it provided extraordinary shade and cool air for about 200m. Perhaps the road engineer was a cyclist and lashed in the tunnel to provide relief. As I emerged from the tunnel the road was gentle for a few kms. At a bend I saw a cyclist emerge from some trees, his hair all wet and holding two water bottles like they were full. I stopped. In broken english he indicated that there was a river beyond the trees and down a treacherous slope. I hopped off my bike and trekked through the trees emerging at a clearing where there was a beautiful river. Amazingly Sinead literally emerged from the river, like a scene from the movie 10. Other cyclists were nearby getting in or filling water bottles. A bottle of cold water over my head confirmed that the scene was real. I was refreshed and headed on. The official water stop was now only a few kms away and the slope was gentle. Only about 10k of this climb to go. However the stretch of road we were on was surrounded by steep mountains. “How does the road get out of here” I asked a Dundee wheeler cycling beside me. “How do you think” he replied pointing at a cluster of campervans at the top of one of the mountains. It appeared there was to be no real respite. I arrived at the official stop with 7k to go. Ed and Tom were there. “Look”, said Tom, “its 6k to the top then a long descent and flat stretch to the bottom of Alpe d’Huez”. This advice was largely wrong but welcome nonetheless.
5k before the summit there was a car-park with buses and a sign announcing “repatriatment” (where you could drop out and get a coach back to the finish). The place was full. At least these cyclists had made it to here. Finally over the summit there was a stunning descent through mountains and past a reservoir in an area that must be some protected national park. There wasn’t a building for 30minutes of pure glorious descending. Finally I made it to the feed stop at the base of Alpe d’Huez where I saw the delirious Rob and we teamed up with Chuck.
We had a plan of picking off Alpe d’Huez one hairpin at a time. At each corner, riders were perched on the wall like pigeons. Eventually I took a stop at hairpin 6. There was a Trek corporate refreshment station. The Trek guys looked over. They could see I was tired and vulnerable. “All our clients are through. Come over. Join us” said one with a friendly beckon of his hand. He was Dutch, but the invitation wasn’t suspicious. I was sat down in a deckchair and handed an ice cold Fanta. Chuck came upon this scene and, stunned, virtually threw his new Trek Emonda at the side of the road and marched over. He was also provided with a cold beverage and a snack. We then pressed on. Rob had left us by this stage. Eventually we arrived at the summit just short of 12hours after our depart. The finisher experience is superb. Cheering fans hammering the race hoardings were still there. Shane & Brianne, John & Gary, Ed, Tom & Sinead & Rob had all finished. It was a gruelling day for all. Jane & Ellen sensibly decided to await the shuttle from the bottom of the Alpe. We celebrated with a wonderful meal that evening.
The Etape is a different stage of the Tour every year. It is an iconic event, usually in the Alps or the Pyrenees. The course, the heat and the lack of refreshment on the second climb made this one extraordinarily difficult. Almost a third of the cyclists didn’t finish. However, it is a wonderful experience that will test your resolve and bring you somewhere magical to cycle. If you are tempted, begin your training before Christmas, do it with at least a few friends and make your booking with one of the Sports Tour operators. Most of us used Destination Sport Experiences. Thank you to the 11 other members of this group for making Etape 2022 a very memorable cycle.
Oisín Quinn, 13 July 2022