I didn't sleep well the night before. I turned out my light early, snuggled into my sleeping bag and closed my eyes. And then the French kids in the glamping tent next door started chattering and going to and from the loo or something. When they stopped, there was a very long and drawn-out fireworks display going on. So I definitely didn't get as much sleep as I wanted, but I still woke before my alarm and was at the village dumping my bag and availing myself of free coffee and a rather excellent pain au raisin ages before I needed to. I got to my start pen early too, which meant standing around in the cold people and bike-watching for a while.
At just gone 7.30am my wave headed out. I knew from recce-ing the course the day early with my friends Soph and Pete that the first section was fast, with a particularly rapid descent about 10km in. Aware there was a long day ahead I tried to pace myself, not push the little ramps too much and not worry about the people racing past me. Later on I was extremely glad of this. The first part of the course was absolutely stunning, especially arriving on the shores of the Lac de Serre-Ponçon which is, apparently, one of Europe's largest artificial lakes. It's a stunning turquoise surrounded by mountains and it was beautiful to cycle past.
The first climb of the day was the easy Côte des Demoiselles Coiffées, literally the 'hill of the girls with hats on'. It was a nice little climb by the lake and again I tried to take it easy, without pushing too hard. The climb was followed by a really thrilling, stunning descent with the lake ahead, on a wide road with several hairpins. I'm not good at descending really but I rather enjoyed swooping around the corners (being passed by more fearless riders as I did so) in such stunning scenery.
After that we headed into a gorge with mountains ahead. I tried to take a picture but had left my phone on selfie mode after my morning selfie and couldn't manage to switch while riding, and I didn't really want to stop. I passed the 100km to go sign and felt okay and then as my Garmin ticked over to about 90km in, 90km to go I hit a mini-wall. Luckily some food helped and I picked up the pace again.
I reached 100km in within about 3 1/2 hours, well ahead of the four-hour limit I'd mentally given myself, and feeling pretty good about life. Every village had come out to support us, with the constant shouts of "Allez les filles!" particularly motivating somehow - the French, especially women and girls, are very good at supporting the few women who do the Etape. Only 594 women completed it this year according to the results, out of 11,206 participants.
Coming out of the 100km feed station I got chatting to a British guy called John, from Surrey, who had smashed out the first part of the race. We had a good natter which meant the next 20km flew by, although our attempts at creating a mini-peloton backfired when everyone who had hung on our tails decided not to play ball. John asked if I minded him cycling with me up the first big climb of the day, the Col de Vars, which was fine by me. However only a little way into the climb - which averages 7.5% over 9km - he was flagging. I was struggling to keep my pace at the same level as his and when he said "go on", checked he had enough water and food and then carried on at my own pace.
|Near the top of the Col de Vars|
The road carried on up a 'false flat' averaging around 2% gradient for about 15km, also through a gorge. There were several little groups it was easy to latch on to for a while and I enjoyed slinging my way from one to another. There was some shade, the climb wasn't too bad, I had plenty of water ...
And then we hit the Col d'Izoard proper. Izoard is a hors categorie climb in Tour de France parlance, allegedly 14km at 7.3% average, although I kept seeing10%+ on my Garmin so I'm not sure I believe that! And just after the start of the climb my back got suddenly very painful, I really needed the loo, and I stopped dead for a while. It was about 5km to the next water station and I could see the slope ahead. Somehow I got back on the bike and, with my stomach and back sore, struggled to the water stop.
At the water stop the place was full of prostrated cyclists. Bikes were abandoned all over the place and people were sitting in the few patches of shade panting and agreeing it was extremely hot. I caught my breath, had a drink, decided what my game plan was for the last 9km and got to my feet.
Essentially I decided that I'd stop every 3km to the summit. There was a little less than 9km to go. Every kilometre I had a drink and I stopped twice for several minutes of water and Jelly Babies (melted to a lump, but still capable of delivering a crucial sugar boost) before carrying on. But I got back on my bike each time and pedalled the whole way up. Lots of people had just given up and started walking. According to the official timer, including the stops, it took me just over two hours to complete those 14km.
|At the finish|
And then it was just another 20km, mostly downhill, back to the village in Briançon, where they hung medals round our necks and handed us water bottles (got to say the Etape did well on the stash front this year).
It was a good ride. I'd go so far as to say 100 miles of it was incredible. The scenery was phenomenal and there's a real buzz from riding with so many other people from other countries. But it was really, really tough at the end there. The comfort was that everyone was struggling, of all ages and genders, so I didn't feel too bad about it!
Will I do another Etape? Probably, because I'm a sucker for punishment and need a challenge. I just hope it's not quite so hot next time.
|My Strava data|