Etape Du Tour Act 2 2012
I was always a little unsure when was my sporting peak. In running finishing just a minute behind the Kenyan legend Paul Tergat at a cross country race in Belgium was probably it or at rowing maybe the win (and subsequent disqualification for being 0.1kg overweight!) at the National Ergo Championships. They were however always seen as highs on reflection years later. At the time I was forever far from satisfied and craving more out of myself. So it’s a relief to realise that at the age of 42 (and a half) I maybe now reaching a peak.
Pau to Bagneres de Luchon is a classic Tour de France stage, back in 1984 my first sporting hero was the Scot Robert Millar. I so much wanted to be a good bike climber in the mountains, but fate had me down a different path and I didn’t take up cycling until 2007. Millar won that stage in 84, so rare (until recently) that a Britain took a stage in the Tour. I now relished the opportunity to race that same course as Millar, so just 6 days after the heat of Etape Act 1 and after relocating from the Alps to the Pyrenees, it was time to go again. Over the last five Etapes I have perfected my pre-race rituals. Getting to the start line a full hour before kick-off means I am positioned on the front row, I have sacrificial clothes to keep warm that I dispose of just before the start and plenty of empty bottles to wee in! The first few miles are always the most nerve-racking, if I puncture or crash here I’ll have 8000 riders streaming past and my race would be over. I try and stay at the front out of trouble but with so many riders it is difficult. It’s a real buzz as we speed out of Pau on the dual carriageway, I cannot describe how good racing on 100% closed roads is, there are police at every junction, the organisation is second to none. Unfortunately today there are more idiots in the bunch than usual, one rider seriously gets on my nerves as he twice swerves and cuts me up, he then drops his energy bar in my path. 15 miles in and he clearly does not have the skills to be up front (but I have the last laugh as 2 hours after I finish when I am enjoying a pizza with my feet up along the finishing straight, I happen to see him finishing looking particularly spent).
Soon we are in the mountains and the field disintegrates around me. I know the Aubisque and Tourmalet well and conditions were on my side today, I ride well in the cold and wet. There was zero visibility on the summits and mighty cold but as long as you keep moving, it’s only a case of enduring a few kilometres of discomfort on the descent and you are back below the cloud base. (Nothing will ever be as cold as Issoire to St Flour 2011). That’s the key to cycling – enduring pain. It’s like no other sport I’ve tried. My support team (Davina and Lydia) were bang on, I never needed to stop for the 123 miles route. Grabbing a bidon with food gaffer taped to it is a real skill on the move. Into the second half and I was powering past riders but I overcooked it on the Col D’Aspin, although now into a top 10 position, my dreams had overtook my engine and a flawless race was not to be, my legs pretty much said no to the last climb, the Col de Peyresourde, but that was always the risk of doing both Etapes. I lost places and it was just a case of survival as the last 5km of the Peyresourde was agony.
So peaking in my eyes means just one thing, now I can plan my exit from cycling. Within a year I plan to hang up my cleats for good. I have no desire to witness my inevitable slowing and deterioration. As much as I love riding, the real joy is pushing my body to the absolute limits, being a recreational cyclist is just not me. It would be unfair for those close to me to continue indefinitely, I’ve been a selfish sportsman for 25 years, it’s nearly time for a new chapter in my life. Maybe one more go at the Etape next year, especially if the much rumoured double Alp D’Huez stage comes into fruition (I love that road up to the Col de Sarenne), or a Ventoux stage, that would be a good swansong.
So I may never have got to within a thousand miles of my idols but one person always makes me feel like a hero, sometimes I think she cuddles me in the morning as if it might be the last time she sees me and the hug I got in Bagneres de Luchon from Davina at the end of another exhilarating adventure, made me feel, for just a brief few moments…….like I was the heavyweight champion of the world.