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I have been looking back through some old bits and pieces and have come across some previous cycling reports. Written back in a time when cycling wasn't very cool and I didn't really know what I was doing (if I do now!). Someone out there may find these interesting!

Etape du Tour Adventure 2005

In addition to this report you may also be interested in looking at my photos or reading the diary I published daily during my trip.

Part I - L'Etape du Tour 2005

The first part of my challenge was to ride in a race called L'Etape du Tour - an annual event for amateur cyclists that follows the route of a single stage of the Tour de France. L'Etape takes place on closed roads and features many of the trimmings of the real thing - motorcycle mounted camera men, food and drinks stations, and mechanical assistance. However, the biggest draw to the 8,500 entrants is the opportunity to test themselves over the same high mountains that their cycling heroes will tackle only a week or so later.

The 2005 race started in Mourenx, a small industrial town some 25km from the Bearn capital of Pau. The route then climbed south into the Pyrenees before returning to finish on the Place du Verdun in the centre of Pau itself. The circuit totalled 175km in length but the real challenge would come in the form of the steep, long mountain climbs - particularly the famous Col de Marie-Blanque and Col d'Aubisque. The Marie-Blanque would represent the steepest slopes with percentages hitting 13%, whilst the giant Aubisque (itself a legend of the Tour) offered a drawn out 17km with an 8% average gradient.

The profile of l'Etape du Tour 2005

At 7am on July 11th the race started under beautiful cloudless skies. Separate pens of riders were released over the course of twenty minutes, with my high number (8068) ensuring a delayed off (and plenty of slow riders to pick my way through). The first 55kms represented a steady incline towards the first significant climb - the Col d'Ichere. Much to my disappointment, we hit something of a traffic jam with large numbers of riders attempting to negotiate the narrow route. After a slight delay cresting the top of the climb we were treated to a fast and technically difficult descent. With patchy shade masking the unconvincing road surface I tried to stick to a steady pace and conservative racing line. Nonetheless, after this exciting section the adrenaline was certainly flowing in advance of the next climb.

In my customary style, I ploughed up the early kms of the Marie Blanque sticking to the middle ring but generating a high cadence. As the kilometre markers began to warn of ever increasing gradients, I retired to the granny ring but continued to find myself passing the majority of other nearby riders. Finally as the slope hit 13%, the road became choked with a struggling band of walkers and the passageway impassable to those able climbers. To my annoyance I was brought down by an Italian rider, as he lost momentum and veered dramatically across my path.

Next came the mighty Col d'Aubisque... the road rose steadily out of the village of Laruns and I quickly found a steady rhythm, stepping out of the saddle when necessary to maintain my momentum. I thundered up the first half of the climb, leaving many struggling riders in my wake - by this stage the proportion of lower dossard numbers (riders who'd started before me, but were finding the going rather difficult) had begun to increase notably. I was tiring by the time we reached the striking ski village of Gourette, and again I resorted to my lowest gearing. The final 4.5km to the summit were covered more slowly, through the spectacular scenery. My failure to pause for photos was more than justified by the satisfaction of sprinting across the line, having completed the climb without stopping.

Throughout the day the temperatures soared, rising above 30 degrees in the afternoon. The fine weather certainly made for breathtaking views from the Cols, but also meant plenty of fluids were required on the long, exposed sections of climbing. The conditions were taking their toll on other competitors, who were to be found sprawled in every tiny patch of shade - in particular a section of avalanche tunnel cut into the mountain side was jam packed with weary individuals. Each refreshment stop was a heaving scrum of sweaty Lycra, with riders fighting for water, energy drinks, fruit, and cake. At the top of the Aubisque I was amused by the sight of squabbling Frenchmen (many of whom had been walking on the ascent) pushing and shoving as though every second was now vital. Given the carpet of debris, riders were slipping and falling with the inevitable domino effect in a crowd of bicycles.

After a sweeping descent, including a section through a blind tunnel, the road turned uphill again for the ascent of the Col de Soulor. A shorter climb but significant nonetheless, given that it followed so soon after the arduous Aubisque. The crowds of spectators were also at their densest at the top of the Soulor - mainly made up of the enthusiastic and noisy relatives and friends of riders.

With the final large climb of the day complete the road plunged perilously down the side of the mountain, clinging to rocky corners flanked by sheer drops. The descent required my utmost concentration, but was negotiated without incident. As we returned to a richer green landscape the road continued to descend alongside a fast flowing river, drawing riders together into large peletons. With a cruising speed in excess of 45km per hour we quickly devoured the remaining distance... until we hit another surprise climb! What had looked like an innocent bump on the route card thoroughly deserved its category four status. It became something of a battle of willpower to force my tired limbs to crank me over the summit. A local with a hosepipe at the top was certainly providing welcome relief to many a cooked rider.

The remaining 10km flashed past as I rode as part of a vast peleton to the final test, which came in the last kilometre - a short sharp slope to the finishing square. A steep section of road less than 100m in length that I'd breezed up a number of times in the previous few days, had me scrabbling for the granny!

Shortly after 3pm I triumphantly crossed the finish line in an official race time of 7hours 54minutes and 6seconds, good enough to secure me 3,954th place. [2015 EDIT: ha ha - #tophalf!]

Me, shortly after completing the 2005 Etape du Tour

With the first part of my adventure successfully completed, I rewarded myself with a pizza dinner (washed down with plenty of delightful vin rouge), and a good night sleep. The following day would be the start of a whole new challenge...

Part II - Pau to Cambridge

I awoke early on the morning of Tuesday 12th July feeling remarkably fresh after the previous day's exertion. My breakfast was consumed whilst I prepared my bike for the journey home. Whilst other etapers in the hotel were packaging their machines for the flight home, I was fitting my beam rack to the seat post and strapping aboard a single rack pack crammed full with spares and a limited wardrobe. Over the next week I would be riding my trusty bike the 1,100km back to Cambridgeshire.

The first day very much set the tone for the rest of the journey. Within fifteen minutes of riding I had left the outskirts of Pau and found myself cruising along a shimmering smooth road beneath a rich azure sky. Despite the early start, the temperature was already climbing into the high twenties - my plan of attack was to cover as much distance as possible in the cool of the morning, before stopping for an elaborate lunch. In the afternoon I would stop in a suitable bar to watch the daily Tour de France coverage before knocking off the remaining distance to my scheduled stopping point.

My daily route planning took place at breakfast time - I had already defined my 'stage finish' towns by ruling a straight line between Pau and Le Havre on a map of France, and dividing the distance appropriately. I wanted to avoid big cities, but instead I was aiming for a series of reasonably sized towns where I could ensure that there would be plenty of available accommodation. I had dismantled a detailed Michelin road atlas, packing only the relevant pages and each morning I would break my day's route into a number of key towns or villages. My handlebar mounted case allowed me to display roughly 25km at a time, so I would prepare my map to navigate to the next noted location. The task of selecting a precise route became something of an art over the coming week - my experience of various roads and their appearance on the map helped me to speculate which would be more pleasurable. For instance, I learnt to choose roads flanked rather than crossed by rivers as these would invariably have more delicate gradients. I also knew to avoid the busy lorry-laden rat-run routes between other major roads. Out of preference I would select minor roads on routes between nearby villages, rather than endless stretches of straight road bordered by view obscuring forest.

Throughout the day I was careful to eat and drink regularly to avoid dehydration and the dreaded bonk. My usual policy would be to start the day with full bidons and a hearty breakfast of pain au chocolat or croissants. Then throughout the day I would look to stop every 50km or so to purchase supplies from a local epicerie - usually water, fruit juice and some snacks such as peanuts, apricots or bananas. Lunch would generally be taken in a modest town, ideally in a café restaurant situated on the central town square. Almost without exception I'd take on board a healthy salad as a starter, followed by a protein fix of steak or omelette with chips.

During the final hour of the ride each day I'd turn my thoughts to the dinner menu... In the past I have experienced a prohibitive form of hunger, where I have been too tired to eat. Therefore I made sure that I knew exactly what I wanted to eat before I arrived at my destination for the day. So on the ride into town, whilst hunting for suitable accommodation, I'd also scout a suitable restaurant (or shop if I was planning a picnic dinner) to head to later.

Over the course of my journey I stayed in a variety of different accommodation including a room in an ancient chateau, a youth hostel dormitory, and a hired mobile home on a campsite. Given the infinite potential for disaster, finding a bed never proved to be a problem. Generally I'd spot a sign for a likely sounding hotel, campsite or chambre d'hote and seemingly within minutes I'd be settling up for the night and unloading my gear onto the bed.

On arrival, my first priority would be to get my kit washed for the next day, and I soon developed something of a routine for this - the clothes would be soaked in the sink with a drop or two of washing up liquid whilst I took a shower. Finally the clothes would join me for rinsing and wringing out, before being hung out to dry in the window. With my chores for the day complete, I would make a bee-line to my pre-selected dinner venue.

Whilst dining it was customary for me to write and mail out my daily diary entry (read the full diary for a day by day account of my adventure). I suspect that tiredness and hunger may have tainted the content of the reports, but nonetheless I am pleased to have gone to the trouble of documenting my thoughts.

The last day in the saddle was by far the longest (235km between Portsmouth and Cambourne) but on Monday 18th July I safely returned home.


Tuesday, 12/7/05


Pau --> Bazas (174.61km - 6:46:09)


Wednesday, 13/7/05


Bazas --> Cognac (176.47km - 7:16:14)


Thursday, 14/7/05


Cognac --> Parthenay (125.21km - 5:02:20)


Friday, 15/7/05


Parthenay --> Saumur (91.98km 3:35:27)


Saturday, 16/7/05


Saumur --> Mamers (153.69km - 6:03:30)


Sunday, 17/7/05


Mamers --> Le Havre (185.67km - 7:18:13)


Monday, 18/7/05


Portsmouth --> Cambourne (235.32km - 9:11:35)


Breakdown of my return route

After more than 10days of glorious French sunshine, it was somewhat ironic that the heavens opened in the final km of my epic journey. Even more oddly, I passed a small child in the penultimate village on my route. For some inexplicable reason he chose to shout:

"Keep cycling!"

He could not have known where I had come from, or what I had achieved... in fact it was difficult to gauge whether he was clutching for words of encouragement or a pithy put-down... Perhaps he was unimpressed and simply wanted more.

Throughout the course of the week, I managed to cover a total of 1143km, with daily rides ranging between 91km (on my rest day!) and 235km. The whole journey from Pau to Cambourne took me in excess of 45hours - representing an average speed just over 25kmph (which I'm certain is less than the average daily temperature!).

Me, after arriving home

I have now been home from my adventures for almost two weeks, and have returned to the normality of life. The memory of sweeping along lazy tree lined avenues and through the hazy morning sunshine has grown distant. The senses of delirium and tiredness have been replaced by romantic reminiscence of the daily chore of washing my sweaty kit... and the itch to plan another adventure may already be beginning to prickle!

In terms of fundraising I also consider my trip to be a huge success. Thanks to the kind generosity of my friends I have collected in excess of £900 for my two chosen charities - Aspire and Spinal Research. I am extremely grateful (as I know the charities will also be) for the support you have shown me.

Since my return, Lance Armstrong has put the finishing touches to his seventh successive Tour de France victory. The Texan's achievements are widely recognised, and certainly put into perspective my own personal accomplishment, but it is not so much the efforts of the cycling superstars that I have been thinking about...

Having satisfied myself that the test of a single tour stage was within my capabilities, albeit with my own limitations with respect to the speed at which a more accomplished cyclist would finish. And from my training (and particularly whilst I persist in playing two football matches each weekend) I knew that I could cope with the feeling of climbing onto a bike with countless aches and pains. However, the experience I was really searching for was that of the genuine tour pro, the hardened team 'domestic' - out of the limelight, not competing for honours, just fetching the water for the team leader. I simply wanted to appreciate the difficulty and significance of an event like the Tour de France.

In context with the real tour, my challenge was merely a taster. I set myself the obstacle of around 1,300km, with my ordeal only lasting a week. The full tour lasts three weeks, with riders covering more than 3,608km in significantly faster times - the last placed rider's total time in this year's tour was a mere 90hours 35minutes 26seconds.

I remain in awe.