Well it's been a while since I wrote one of these!
I wanted to take some time after France to reflect on what I achieved and what I felt I didn't achieve in order to write a very balanced blog post about the experience as a whole. This may end up being a long one so please strap in.
Before I start, I need to say a massive thank you to the whole Le Loop team. Sarah and her whole team go beyond what you could ever ask of them and they're absolutely the reason why this event is as popular as it is. Thank you.
1,029 km - 49 hours - 19,600m climbed - 22,700 calories burned - 6 days
Those are some of the numbers that stand out after the hardest week of my life so far, by quite some distance.
For any of you that aren't up to speed, let me fill you in briefly.
Back in October, I felt like some sort of direction was missing in my life so I took the decision to sign up to Le Loop (https://rideleloop.org/) to cycle the middle 6 stages of the Tour de France in July 2018. We would ride exactly the same route as the pros just one week before they did. In fact, it turned out that we cycled further as more often than not we'd ride straight from the hotel, or straight to the hotel!
There were a few different factors that led to me choosing these 6 stages but the main pull was that at the end of the third day I would be able to cycle up the iconic Alpe D'Huez - arguably the most famous cycling mountain in the world (it's probably a toss up between Alpe D'Huez and Mont Ventoux). But more on that mountain later.
And so, early on Monday 9th July I found myself in a taxi en route to London Heathrow airport knowing that in just a matter of hours I'd be in the middle of the French Alps, in a town/small city called Annecy where my first stage would start. I'm not normally a nervous person but I'll admit to having quite a few nerves that day and evening, wondering whether I'd done enough training ("Oh if only I had put in a couple more Zwift sessions", "I should have stopped drinking beer weeks earlier" etc etc).
~ How beautiful does Annecy look! Might have to visit here for a holiday ~
Day 0: It turns out that Annecy is absolutely flipping gorgeous. The contrast of the beautiful clear lake with the high mountains peering over its shores is a sight to behold, albeit a constant reminder of why I'm there and what is in store for the next few days.
Day 1: The etape stage. I had a good idea of what to expect from friends who had partaken in the official L'Etape du Tour a couple of days beforehand but the standout memories are the views from the Col de la Croix Fry (climb #1) and the heat! At the lunch stop everyone was cramming themselves into any shaded area - and this was to be a theme of the week.
The Montee de Glieres was very tough (medium length and very steep) but the gravel at the top was a bit disappointing really. Overall, though, a very enjoyable but tough entry to the Alps.
~View from the top of Col de la Croix Fry ~
Day 2: A much shorter day than Day 1, but somehow with 20% more climbing and our first mountain top finish. Which meant that a 120km stage still took 7 hours! Some of the climbs were horrible - the Col de Romme stands out as being particularly nasty for two reasons. It's consistently steep meaning little respite and it's actually fairly boring as the first half is just a road carved into the side of a cliff face so you're cycling next to a rock wall on one side and trees on the other. Listen to that... Day 2 and I'm already moaning that there weren't mountains to ogle on one climb. Spoilt much!?
~ Tour decorations were on full show all week as locals prepared to welcome the professional peloton to their literal doorstep ~
The next climb was probably harder but the scenery was gorgeous and, although we were being baked in the sun, I actually enjoyed it more than the Col de Romme.
Finally, we finished by climbing from Bourg St Maurice to the ski resort of La Rosiere. This was probably my second favourite climb of the whole week. It was paced amazingly and I felt really good as I got to the top, even catching other riders in the last 5km. And my good mood got even better as I arrived in time to shower, eat dinner, have a massage and then watch the world cup in a brand spanking new hotel!
Day 3: It's probably going to be a good day when this is your view from your bedroom window... Right?
~ The morning view from the top of La Rosiere. The start of what I thought at the time would be the hardest day of the week. I was right in some ways but also very wrong in others ~
Day 3 (Stage 12) was the one that everyone was scared of. Over 180km for the pros (we would ride closer to 200km as we descended from the top of the mountain instead of getting coach transfers - quicker, cheaper and much colder!), more climbing than anyone had seen on a Grand Tour stage for quite a while at 5,400m, and three of the hardest categorised climbs of the whole Tour.
The first climb was OK. 25km long, fairly steep in parts but with some shallower parts where you could get your breath back. Still, that took well over 2 hours.
Next we negotiated Les Lacets de Montvernier (The Shoelaces of Montvernier) so named because the road looks like a perfectly executed shoelace as it snakes up a sheer cliff face.
~ You can sort of see les Lacets de Montvernier climbing this sheer cliff. One of the most impressive pieces of road engineering I've ever had the pleasure of seeing and riding ~
After descending down from les Lacets we hit the foot of the Col de La Coix de Fer. This second large climb was much tougher - 29kms long with just as many steep bits and fewer shallow bits. It was also much hotter when we were on this mountain and the heat really took its toll. Personally, I really struggled here. I made the mistake of stopping too often and focusing on the negatives - my feet were really hurting at this point and I knew I was running low on reserves. In fact, when I got to the top of this climb I pulled into the feed stop and told Ian that I was done for the day and I couldn't do another pedal stroke. Luckily for me, a can of coke and a few choccy biscuits later I had perked up and decided that I'd crack on. After all, the whole reason I was on this Tour was all that was standing between me and the finish line so I'd regret it forever if I quit now.
That one reason? Alpe D'Huez with it's 21 hairpin bends over 12.4km at an average gradient of over 8%.
~ By the time the professionals came through this whole bend was covered with fans and all sorts of decorations leaving only a 2-3 metre wide piece of tarmac for the riders ~
Remember I said La Rosiere was the second best climb of the tour? Well this was my favourite. By a country mile. No, by 7.75 country miles (12.4km... see what I did there?! I'll see myself out). 4 of us left the drinks stop at the foot of the climb at about 7.45pm and we all said if we got to the hotel in the resort at the top by 9.30 we'd be doing well. Good, that gave us a target and I work best when I've got a target. [Incidentally, the latest rider to arrive that night was 01:15am!!]
We set off at our own paces and I was surprised by how good I felt considering what an utterly terrible state I'd been in less than two hours before at the top of the Croix de Fer. Soon I'd distanced myself from the others (although Steve was very kindly riding well within himself behind me to stay with others) and before I knew it I had found a great rhythm and was counting down the hairpins with alarming regularity. The sun had dipped below the peaks of the mountains in the background so the temperature was perfect and as I stopped to have a little snack at hairpin 10 I found myself thinking that there was nowhere in the world I'd rather be than right there, right then. There was no time to be sentimental or emotional though, so off I set and I didn't stop again until I unclipped outside the hotel 10 hairpins and lots of smiles later.
I stopped my Garmin and noticed two things. Firstly, it only had 3% battery left(!) and secondly the time. 21:17.
Day 4: A nice flat transition stage generally speaking. However this is where most of my problems started.
I decided to take it steadily after the day before and once we'd cleared the town (city?) of Grenoble I generally found myself riding on my own in between bunches which I was more than happy to do. For some of the quicker guys, a rest day on the bike consisted of moving fairly rapidly in a group then having a lot of time in the evening to relax. For me it meant taking my time and enjoying the scenery without caring what time I reached the hotel.
Unfortunately, later on in the day I got a string of punctures and as I was fixing them the freewheel hub stopped working. What this means, for anyone who isn't a cyclist out there, is that I couldn't just coast... It meant that as long as my rear wheel was turning then my pedals would be turning too, which is ridiculously dangerous as I'm attached to them! Out of inner tubes and without the ability to freewheel I had no choice but to call it a day and climb into the van to hitch a lift back to the hotel.
~ Puncture City. Watching the pro race, I could see this exact spot on the road and I found myself hating life all over again ~
Day 5: My worst day on a bike to date.
An easyish, albeit hilly day through amazing scenery should have been a wonderful day to ride a bike. Instead it was hell. The mechanic had not managed to fix my bike overnight and so we were all scrabbling around in the morning trying to find a spare bike that fitted me and to get that all set up ready to go. Luckily we did manage to get one up and running (thank you Ian!) and even more luckily one of the Grand Loopers called Andy was also setting off late having had a blowout puncture just a few metres from where we started. He is an exceptionally strong cyclist and let me sit in his slipstream all the way from the start to the first feed stop.
Now I'm sure many of you have experienced this before in some shape or form but whenever you have something that's yours and custom fit to you it is very hard to go to something that isn't yours and definitely isn't custom fit to you (and is probably a third of the price so is a massive downgrade). It's not so much physical, I mean a bike is a bike right - they've all got pedals and gears and handlebars and brakes and you use your legs to propel yourself forward, but mental. If something doesn't quite feel right then all of a sudden it's a massive deal and it's so easy to get down about it. Especially on the 5th day of hard riding and less sleep than is optimal! That's exactly what happened to me on this 5th day.
However, I did manage to take in the scenery and made sure that I lifted my head up to enjoy where I was in the world so instead of hearing me moan about how tough I found it, here are a few photos I took along the way instead on Bastille Day:
~ Excuse the chest - it was very hot and sticky ~
Day 6: The final day.
On paper an easier day than the day before but it started in the same way. Bike not ready (although not for a lack of effort - Ellie spent so much time on my bike I have to say a massive thank you to her!) so scrabbling along for another spare. This time though, it was a better spec and even had pink accents! I am a fan of a bit of the colour pink here and there!
Not much to say about this day other than we started by rolling underneath the Millau Viaduct which is an absolutely incredible structure, and that it was insanely hot (as you can tell from the blue sky). As we rode through a town towards the end of the day, one of the LED displays outside a pharmacy showed the temperature as 38C (and apparently when a later group went through it showed 42!!).
My feet were really really hurting by this point so I had to take it easy on the descents as well as the climbs but there was no way I was going to let that ruin the final day and end the week on a bad note. At the top of the final climb we were treated to the most amazing panoramic view which was the perfect way to sign off the last bit of uphill riding (see the video on my Instagram page for that). I descended from that final mountain down to Carcassonne with a Grand Looper who was clearly having a bad day and this put everything into perspective for me. This guy was one of the most cheerful guys on the Tour and yet here he was, in such a bad place. It showed me that everyone else was finding it tough as well, and reconfirmed to me just how tough this ordeal is on everybody.
The day ended on a great note, though. We rode into Carcassonne just as France won the world cup and experienced all of the celebrations, all the while saying that they've only waited 20 years... imagine if WE won! Oh, and I didn't even have to wait for a slot on the massage table :-)
I've never experienced anything with quite such contrasting highs and lows. Without a doubt, Alpe D'Huez was my favourite part of the whole week... it was the reason I went to France in the first place and it definitely did not disappoint. Strangely, my least favourite part of the week came only a handful of hours before that, from the plateau after les Lacets all the way to the top of the Croix de Fer where my feet ached liked never before and I was clearly running on nearly empty.
Physically I had some problems, but not the problems that I was expecting. My feet hurt so much from the middle of day 3 onwards and even now, 2 weeks after I flew back, I still don't have full sensation in the toes on my right foot. I also suffered badly with saddle sores, which have never been a problem for me before so that really took me by surprise. I think another bike fit is in store with a focus on saddles, as well as a new pair of shoes. Conversely, my back loosened up after a day or two and I had zero back pain, yet I was expecting that to be my largest issue.
Overall though, while I can't pretend it was enjoyable at all times, it was one of the most rewarding weeks of my life. It showed me that I was stronger mentally than I thought previously and confirmed to me that if I put my mind to something I invariably end up seeing it through.
I was lucky enough to ride with some brilliant people throughout the week - Ben. Scott and Nicole. Steve, Lottie, Alan and Howard. Andy S. Russ. The ever smiling Deano. Alex C-W. And Emily - what a brilliant lead cyclist. There were plenty of others as well. If any of you are reading this then I hope you're well and I want to say thank you for making it an amazing experience.
I need to remember that I only started riding a bike in 2014. In September 2014 I rode the London to Brighton course and that was a massive deal for me and yet now, in 2018, I've taken on 6 stages of the Tour de France. It's time for a little bit of a rest.
Until 2020 when the plan is that I will become a Grand Looper, along with a certain someone from Melbourne who has unfinished business from 2017's tour... After all,
Just because this was the hardest thing I've ever done, doesn't mean it should be the hardest thing I'll ever do...
Thank you to everyone who has read my blogs and supported me along the way. If you've enjoyed these then don't worry... there will be plenty more to come in the future.
Bye for now.