Eight things I learned cycling the toughest stage of the Tour de France
Today marks stage 18 of the Tour De France, one the organisers are calling the most brutal of them all. The route spans 180km from Briancon over the Alpine peaks of Col de Vars and the Izoard. Christian Prudhomme, the director of the Tour, describes the stage as “one of the most spectacular and surprising sports theatres there is to offer”. Having cycled the exact route on Sunday along with 15,000 amateurs as part of the annual Étape du Tour, here’s what I learned about it, the hard way. The Tour de France on its way into the mountains Credit: Getty Cheese and Wine are poor preparation A combination of writing a book, moving house and a never ending few months of breaking news meant my training had suffered in the run up to the race. Rather than spending the final days in crucial preparation, putting some miles into my legs, I stretched out on a sun lounger next to a pool in Languedoc, sleeping off lunchtime roséand comté. At the start line, surrounded by competitors in muscle-hugging lycra, I realised my folly was about to catch up with me – along with everybody else. Leg it Gruesome pictures of cyclists’ scary pins The Alps are really, really big The training I had done consisted of cycling in the Peak District hills above my Sheffield home, which I assumed would be decent preparation – but the Alps are something else entirely. The start of the ride at Briancon is already the highest town in France and the summit finish at Col d’Izoard towers at 2,360m, with the final 10 km rising at an altitude of 9 per cent. On the top the air is so thin you can gasp deep breaths without filling your lungs, and the rocks and roads are baked by the sun. Guide to the Tour de France jerseys 01:28 Pace yourself Chris Froome’s Team Sky are renowned for their expertly-timed attacks in races, often saving their legs to the very end. My plan for the stage was something similar: take it easy over the first reasonably flat 100km before letting loose on the climbs. Yet my attempts at haring up the 2,109m Col de Vars left me a broken man. At the top my vision blurred and hands started shaking like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. I slumped into a plastic chair under a parasol in the only available patch of shade, too exhausted to move. A stranger took pity and offered me a ham sandwich. I’m a vegetarian, but pulled the meat out and gnawed upon the bread anyway. Chris Froome leads the race through the mountains Credit: Getty Don’t have any energy gels Prior to taking part in the race I had been warned by a friend who failed to finish last year’s Étape that often your stomach goes before the legs because of an over-reliance on gels and powders. Sure enough, on the way up Col de Vars the road was spattered with piles of sick deposited by cyclists who had eaten too many gels in a bid to propel them to the top. At the risk of sounding smug, I stuck to a race diet more in keeping with the era of Jacques Anquetil: water, fruit, almonds, bread and cake (although less of the brandy and amphetamines). And riders take note, it worked a treat. My legs gave out long before anything else. Take it easy on the descents The great French hope in the mountains, Romain Bardet, may not agree, but my word some of those Alpine descents are terrifying. I spent them on the far right-hand side of the road in a self-designated slow lane, gritting my teeth and clutching the brakes as other riders shot by. The fact that four ambulances overtook me during the course of the race tells me not all were successful in their manoeuvres. TdF2017 crashes Accept all random acts of kindness The joy of the Étape is the spectators. The mountain passes are already dotted with the motor homes who have pitched up in preparation for the real thing and the road is scrawled with chalk messages. As we passed through villages we were roared on by residents, tourists and firefighters standing outside their station. In the 27C heat I quickly learnt to greedily accept every bottle of water being thrust my way, particularly if it was being poured over my head. A supporter of the Tour during stage 16 Credit: Getty Be prepared for some of the longest kilometres of your life The organisers had placed a sign a few kilometres from the summit of Izoard marking the point where the Italian Vincenzo Nibali successfully attacked on the Tour’s last visit to the mountain in 2014. While he reached the top in a matter of minutes, for us amateurs the final few hairpins proved an exercise in near unbearable agony. Progress was so slow that even the people pushing their bikes – of whom there were many – were tricky to overtake. Some were so exhausted they simply fell off. The rest of us were too fatigued to react, just inching on in an endless silent procession of pain. You definitely will burst into tears at the finish After nine hours and thirty minutes of riding, there was the finish line ahead and the figure of Didi the famous Tour De France Devil cheering riders as they passed. I had not prepared myself for the outpouring of emotion but wept uncontrollably as if I had just won the damn thing, not finished 7716th. For a moment, alone on a mountain with strangers, I experienced all the tears and triumph of the Tour.