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Riding the 2014 Etape du Tour

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Howard Calvert of Team ShortList takes his training up a notch

Cycling training has so far been my focus in 2014, at the expense of running and swimming, in preparation for this year’s l’Etape du Tour.

148km, 4,000 metres of climbing, two hors catégorie climbs (Tourmalet and Hautacam), Stage 18 of this year’s Tour de France… formidable is the word.

To prepare: hours (and hours) on Wahoo’s Kickr, Human Race’s Dragon Ride in June - an epic 226km through the Welsh Valleys taking in four major climbs and almost as much ascent as the Etape, and Wiggle’s Wight Ferry - a 100-mile jaunt round the Isle of Wight on a horrendously windy Saturday in July. All this on my Eastway R.10 – 7kg of glorious carbon that has improved my climbing by approximately 100 per cent.

With the training behind me, I feel ready. After checking my weather app every half an hour in the days before the race (storms predicted one minute, sun the next), I arrive at the start alongside 13,000 other riders (one-quarter of whom are Brits, hence the delay to our flight as the luggage handlers attempted to fit 50 bike boxes on our plane in a live-action version of Tetris) as black clouds gather overhead.

Riders set off in eight-minute waves, and we are off third. The pace is staggeringly quick, and I have to stop myself pushing on, remembering to save something for the two mountains, Tourmalet first, beginning 70km in.

The rain holds off – for now – and I settle into a comfortable pace. A couple of tandems pass me on a descent, and there’s even talk of someone doing it on a Chopper (turns out it was David Sims, raising money for Autism Initiatives UK).

As I reach the base of the monster climb, the rain appears. A quick change into waterproofs and I begin the climb. At 1,000 metres we enter the low-hanging clouds, and the rain increases. My legs spin and grind on, turn after turn. There are no views to savour – it’s pure mist. I watch the height above sea level slowly tick higher on my GPS, getting closer and closer to that elusive 2,115m.

Eventually, the summit appears, the Octave Lapize statue gleaming through the mist (in tribute to the first rider to conquer this summit in the Tour, and afterwards labelled the organisers “murderers” for including it). I take a quick picture and refuel, unaware that 20 minutes of some of the most horrendous, soul-sapping cycling awaits me on the descent.

Nothing can prepare you for a descent in cold, wet, wind at altitude, especially when the biggest climb near me in the UK is the 224m Box Hill. I take it slowly, as one ambulance, then two, then three zoom past to reach stricken riders farther below. The hairpins are treacherous, and my hands rapidly begin to lock up, feeling disappears from my fingers and my arms begin to physically shake.

Eventually, I reach the bottom and stop at the water station to a scene of carnage. A rider’s wheels slip out from under him and he skids along the wet road on his stomach. Riders wrapped in foil blankets are being ushered into nearby bars to warm up. My arms are convulsing, my thighs lock up in cramps and I begin to wonder how I am ever going to warm up.

The only answer is Hautacam – the final climb, about 20km away. Get there quickly and my body will start to warm up, so I press on. And sure enough, the crowds at the base of the final climb lift me out of a pit of despair and give a glimpse of what it must have been like for the Tour riders in the Dales.

The climb begins, this time in sunshine, and it is, to put it mildly, brutal. In his book French Revolution, Tim Moore describes the summit as lying at the top of “a tiny, dead-end road drawn by someone, or rather someone else, with a degenerative nervous disease”. The road winds up 1,500m to the finish, at an average grade of 7.8%, but within 1km of the start of the climb I’m already in top gear with nowhere else to go, spinning wildly, as it dawns on me there are 10 more kilometres of this. I try to console myself with that fact that at least I am not on the verge of hypothermia. Or on a chopper.

The climb goes on. And on. But this time, it is inspirational – the sun is shining, illuminating views of the Pyrenees we were deprived of on the Tourmalet, and there’s a sense of camaraderie among riders, all of us digging deep into our own personal struggles.

As I get closer to the summit, there’s a final slap to the face: 9.5%, then 9%, then 10%… I silently curse the stage organisers. Then, the ‘1km to go’ sign. The longest kilometre of my life. It ends in a blur, the suffering over, and I cross the line in 7hrs 9mins, just as the rain starts again.

It’s a sense of achievement I’ve rarely felt before, and despite the, er, challenging weather conditions, I’d do it again, and would recommend it to everyone. Stage 18 of the 2014 Tour passes through the same route – my respect for the riders has been raised even higher.

Thanks to Le Coq Sportif @lecoqsportif_UK

Images: Rufus Exton

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