Each year, my wife Tania and I participate in L’Etape du Tour. L'etape is a one-day citizen’s bike race on one of the most difficult Tour de France mountain stages of the year. This year was our 10th annual ride and it was a BEAR. The course has more vertical climbing than any other stage this year and four of the five climbs rank in the Top 20 Climbs of this year’s Tour. According to Strava, we are in for a big day: 140 kilometers with almost 5,000 meters of climbing.
This year, we took a great group of people from Trek, some awesome Trek retailers, and a few friends. The night before the race, we held our pre-race meeting. Trek Travel gave an update on all the logistics, Trek's Mark Joslyn gave a weather update (two years ago I put Mark in charge of “weather” at Trek. Our business can be affected by the weather, and I wanted someone to be in charge), and having ten years of personal experience, I gave my “JB’s 7 Tips for a Successful Race":
1. Be Safe.
There are only two types of accidents at Trek Travel: 1) People crashing in parking lots because they can’t clip out of their pedals, and 2) Overzealous riders acting like idiots, screaming down the mountains. One is much easier to fix than the other. Stay on the right side of the road and don’t be a hero on the descents. Save your heroics for the climbs.
2. Eat Real Food.
During the day you will burn 10,000 calories. Eat like a king.
3. Drink early and often.
Dr. Timmerman gave some simple advice: Fill two water bottles at every stop, make sure they are empty by the next stop.
4. It is OK to walk when you have to.
There will be some climbs where the pitch reaches 14%. Don’t be afraid to walk if you need to. The winner is the one who finishes, not the one who looks good.
5. Don’t burn all your matches early.
It is a long day. Most of you will be on the bike ten hours plus. In previous races, everyone passes me on the first climb. I pass everyone on the last climb. Slow and steady, make sure you finish.
6. Have a Ride Buddy.
Always best to ride with someone in case something goes wrong.
7. Have Fun!!
This is the BEST day of the year for cycling. L’Etape du Tour, in my opinion, is better than a marathon, better than the Ironman, and more difficult than both. Keep a smile on your face.
Lastly, I told the story of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. At age 64, he petitioned his cousin, Franklin, the President of the United States to be allowed to land in the first wave at D-Day. The request was granted and the 64-year-old Roosevelt landed with a bunch of 20-year-olds in the first wave. Finding themselves 1.5 miles off course when they landed, the boys looked at Roosevelt asking “What do we do now?” Roosevelt tapped his cane on the sand and said “Gentleman, the war begins from here.” I told the group, “You will face challenges during the day. Just remember that wherever you find yourself, the war begins from here.”
Race Day arrives.
Our hotel is a good distance from the start. We are given the order from Trek Travel to be ready to go at 3:30 a.m. I let the group know that 3:30 means 3:30 – not 3:34 or 3:37, but 3:30. So don’t be late. We are all on the bus with one exception! We depart at 3:33. We arrive early at 5:15 am. We have an hour to burn before the short ride to the starting gate. The weather is perfect for the start, with predictions for thunderstorms in the afternoon. We get a final weather briefing from Mark Joslyn, take a team photo, and roll down to the starting line. Thanks to Trek Travel, we are in the first 1,000 of the 14,000 that will start the race. As we wait for the start, we take photos and swap war stories. After today, we will all have a few more.
Tania and I always have our riding group. This year’s group includes Tania, Pat Sullivan, Dr. Timmerman, Mark Joslyn, and our friend Chris. Every member serves a vital role. Sully does whatever it takes. Dr. T is our team physician. Mark Joslyn handles the weather and is the Boy Scout Leader who is always prepared. Tania is the Guide for Life. Chris is this year’s Honorary Friend (we always bring one to torture). And I am the timekeeper.
At 7:00 a.m., the race starts. Three kilometers downhill to the base of the Col du Chaussy, and we are FAST. All is good. We start the climb and the view is spectacular. With everyone riding well, we make it to the top in good time. We begin the downhill and it looks a little sketchy to me – it’s a very small road, with very tight turns. Halfway down, the ride stops. It’s the first time we have seen this in 10 years. Someone has crashed and a helicopter arrives. This takes 30 minutes and we wait. Back on the bikes we finish the descent and hit 30 kilometers of flat roads. The only flat kilometers of the day. We are masters of the flats. All good. Only problem is that there is another crash. The course is shut down for a second time, and we sit for another 30 minutes waiting for the helicopter.
The next challenge is the Col du Glandon. At twenty kilometers long with pitches of 12% plus, it is a beast. It is the hardest climb in the Tour this year. We take our time and wind up the hill. By now, Sully and Dr. T go ahead and we are left with JB, Tania, Mark, and Chris. The goal is to finish. I coaxed Chris into doing this event. It is his first real cycling event, and we start out his cycling career with more than 14,000 feet of climbing.
Working our way up the Glandon, we soon run into some trouble. With six kilometers to go, the massive amount of energy I am putting out breaks one of the spokes in my rear wheel. I have to walk my bike to the Trek Travel rest stop. My wheel gets fixed and we get back on the road.
Glandon Problem No. 2 rears its head with two kilometers to go. Chris gets a massive cramp in his leg. He is on the ground in pain. My solution is ice cold water, a few salt pills and telling him to suck it up. Tania’s solution is to give Chris a leg massage. After five minutes he is back on the bike, ready for more.
In this race there is a "Grim Reaper". You need to hit certain times or you are done. Having sat for an hour waiting for crashes, we are right on the cut line and I see the Grim Reaper coming towards us. We move faster. We get over the Glandon and the Croix De Fer and begin a massive descent to the base of the Col du Mollard. All is well. Not only are we good in the flats; we are also good at descending.
We reach the base of the Mollard and briefly stop for a water break. Chris says to me, “John, I have asthma and it’s acting up. I have no idea why, but if it gets a lot worse, I’ll to have to stop.” I am a numbers guy, who likes to quantify everything, so I ask Chris, “On a scale of 1-10, how bad is it?” His response is a four. When I ask if we should just stop now, Chris says says "No. If it gets worse, I will tell you.”
Up the Mollard we go and our group is rocking. Motivated by the Grim Reaper, we are really moving. We get within a kilometer of the summit of the Mollard, and I see the Grim Reaper right behind us. I am thinking, “Can this really happen? After all this are we going to be stopped? No, they would not do that to us. We have waited for over an hour because of crashes, I am sure they will extend the time.”
Upon reaching the top of the summit we find a huge crowd of riders standing behind the gate with a race official explaining that we have failed to make the cut off. The race is over. We all have our skill sets and in this case, mine is my phone. I know the head of the ASO - the organization that owns the race. I saw Yann earlier in the day, and I give him a call. “Yann,” I say. “I am on the top of the Mollard and they have shut the race down. Seems to me because of the closures, you should extend the time.” He says, “I am on it!” I walk over to the race official who is very close to having a riot on his hands. “Why did you close the race?” I inquire. “Direct orders,” he responds. I say, “Well, you may be getting another order in a few minutes, so you might want to be ready to open the gates.” I tell Chris, Tania, and Mark to get ready to go. My call to Yann works; in a few minutes the gates open up, and we are back on the road. The race has been extended by one hour - a great move by the ASO!
Back in the saddle, we move down the Mollard, carefully navigating the 40 switchbacks to the bottom. While a very technical descent, it’s incredibly fun. We are riding FAST, and we make it to the Trek Travel rest stop at the base. We eat and drink fast and head to the base of La Toussuire. If we ride well, we will make the finish. My prediction from Saturday night was correct. 95% of people passed us on the first climb. On the final climb we passed 99% of the people. It was a brutal 19 kilometers up to the finish. There were hundreds of people on the side of the road totally spent. With five kilometers to go, one guy about 20 meters in front of me, just stopped pedaling and collapsed. Mark and I got off of our bikes and helped this guy out and three others on the way to the top.
With about five kilometers to go it was clear that we would make it. We ended up finishing strong with 53 minutes to spare. We crushed the last climb! 14,000 people started the ride, 9,000 ended up finishing. It was an incredible day in the Alpes. “Rider of the Day” went to Tania. I have ridden many events with her and this was by far her best ride. Chris won the “Never Give In” Award. He was in the hurt box a number of times and NEVER talked about quitting. MJ did an awesome job taking care of the team all day. “Best Support Award” goes to Trek Travel. The rest stops were amazing, the logistics rocked. We spent 12 hours and 7 minutes on our bikes and had one of the BEST ever!