July 11, 2011: “THE stage everyone is afraid of.”
The description of stage 19 on the official Tour de France website didn’t instil much confidence. But it did offer some hope: I was not the only one whose tummy flipped at the thought of taking on the Tour’s toughest stage.
Everyone, even the professionals, feared this one.
It includes the two most famous climbs in the Tour’s history, one of its highest — the Col du Galibier (2,556m) which was first tackled by the race 100 years ago, and the scene of its most famous battles, Alpe d’Huez (1,850m).
Pantani, Coppi, Merckx and Armstrong. Many men have been made legend by the Galibier and Alpe d’Huez.
I had my turn last week. Along with more than 6,000 other dehydrated, deluded and deranged amateurs, I crossed the finish line at the Alpe d’Huez in the 2011 Etape du Tour — the annual event that allows mere mortals to participate in a race stage.
“Entrez dans le legende” is the invitation to amateurs on the official website. After three years riding as a domestique in the Ring of Kerry and An Post cycle series and the Croí Tour de Corrib, I went to face my biggest battle alone.
The annual event offers similar conditions to the real event: closed roads, support cars, feed stations, poor toilet facilities, a few excited fans offering to push you up the hill and, of course, the dreaded broom wagon that picks you up in a heap of humiliation if you fall behind or miss one of the time cut off points.
My fear of the broom kicked in early. After rising to a thunderous sky at 4am, I had a two-hour wait at the start.
“Your first Etape?” an Englishman asked me..
“How can you tell?” I wondered. “By the way your knee is shaking,” he pointed out politely. “It will be the hardest thing you ever do,” he said. “But you’ll feel a happiness that you’ll never forget.”
With that, the whistle blew.
Just 12km in and we hit the first hill, the category one Col du Telegraph.
“They don’t have hills like this in Kerry,” one man pointed out to me after noticing my Irish jersey.
Climbing for 14km to reach a height of 1,566m was nothing like I’d ever done back home, but it was a mere warm-up for what was to come: the mighty Galibier.
“Allez les femmes” shouted the women that lined the streets when they saw me and the other 280 women taking part, along with 6,000 men.
Stretches of steep road dominated every perspective. The beautiful peak of the Aguille de l’Epaisseur, the rapids of the river Valoirette and the memorial to Tour founder, Henri Desrange are visions that define this climb. But I didn’t notice any. I discovered them in photographs afterwards. The agony of pedalling numbed all other senses.
When the first cyclists took on the Galibier back in 1911, just two were able to reach the top without having to get off and walk the goat-path across the mountain.
When I got to the last 2kms, the steepest of the climb, my senses awakened.
“C’mon Ireland, we can see the top!” shouted my second Englishman of the day. “That’s my biggest ever achievement on a bike,” he said. “Anything from here on is a bonus.” I was grateful for my friends in high places.
“Perched between heaven and earth” is how cyclists on the Col du Galibier were described one hundred years and one day before I made it. Surrounded by white-capped peaks, it was like being on the roof of the world.
I soon crashed back down to earth with a thump. As I whizzed my way down, reaching a thrilling 60kph, I marvelled at Sean Kelly reaching 124kph, when cameramen on motorbikes couldn’t keep up.
Unfortunately the cable of my speedometer got caught and I went tumbling, luckily into the ditch on my right rather than down the cliff edge on the left. A quick DIY repair left me pedalling along carefully until I got to one of the repair stops, and by the time I got to the bottom of Alpe d’Huez, I realised I had made all the classic mistakes.
I hadn’t eaten properly all day, I’d gone too hard in the first part and I’d cramped up all over. I had run out of water in the 38 degree heat.
The first four hairpin bends are the hardest and the Alpe d’Huez evens out after that, but it was the other way around for me. I pedalled hard on the first two km where the gradient reaches 14%. Then it all started to go wrong.
I sat at the roadside and cried. I wondered whether I was suffering from oxygen deprivation or heat stroke. Buses passed me carrying those who had been picked up by the broom man, and I’d have been with them only that the elimination point had been passed. I sent a text to my fan at the top and said I was having a Stephen Roche moment — remembering the image of him sitting at the roadside in 1987, with an oxygen mask pressed to his face and a glazed look in his eyes. If Roche had decided to jack it in, Ireland would never have had a Tour de France victory.
I looked at my Irish jersey and stumbled off the ground. The wooden huts of the Alpine ski resort, where my finish line beckoned, came into view. Soon I started to pass camper vans that had parked along the roadside, claiming their viewing point for when the professionals arrive.
Looking back down the mountain, I could see a thinning number of cyclists still crawling up the windy road. It’s obvious why it’s the worlds greatest amphitheatre, fitting one million spectators every time the Tour comes.
And soon I had cycled every one of its painful zigs and agonising zags, crossing the final hairpin and passing into the village through a line of bars and cafes with people I had never met before congratulating me on my success.
“Arrivé” read the sign. A group of Corkmen who had finished earlier congratulated me. “I think I’m in the last 20 but definitely not last,” I said.
I finished just over 7hr 50 minutes time allocated. But because of an earlier accident and a delayed start, they had extended it by 20 minutes. I was not in the almost 2,000 who didn’t finish.
“Go get that medal girl, you deserve it,” my Cork friend told me. I wore it proudly as I sat on the grass, lycra stuck to me with blood and munched on the replenishment provided by my soigneur.
“Shoot me if I ever sign up to do this again,” I told him. By the time I went out for a celebratory champagne later, I was planning next year.
But like the man at the start line said, nothing will ever beat my first Etape. It was a long journey that began in January, cycling in the most beautiful parts of Ireland, seeing Sean Kelly whizz past me in Sligo and feeling I was cycling with legends. Coppi, Pantani, Armstrong and Hinault have all gone over the summit of the Alpe d’Huez first and each hairpin is named after its winners. For me, my name will always be symbolically etched in hairpin number six. It’s where I met my biggest test to date, faced down physical pain and realised the mind can overcome anything. I climbed where eagles don’t fly and followed the wheels of legends.