Glandon wins my heart on first Etape

Map reference: L’Etape, St Jean-de Maurienne to La Toussuire via Col de Chassy, Col Du Glandon (last bit of Croix de Fer), Col du Mollard, La Toussuire. 140k, 4,357m climbing says my Strava

Carbs and caffeine: Torq gels, Nunn cola hydration tabs, soggy peanut butter sandwich, some nuts and a warm coke grabbed at top of Glandon

No dropped introduction here, no suspense, I did it in 8 hours 36 min ‘moving time’, or 9 hours 26 minutes total time. A quick blast of figures; 15,000 people signed up, 12,000 people showed up on the day, 9,877 finished and I came 6,348. So pretty much middle of the field and higher if you count the no-shows. I am pleased as punch. To bore on, I was 191 out of the 406 women that finished (and 850 women signed up to ride originally). Ok, enough, I’ll put the trumpet away now and try to describe the experience.

We had a long drive from our chalet which happened to include descending the Glandon, quite a nervy way to start the day at the best of times, but knowing I would be climbing this later, I have to confess to feeling a little queasy. My vertigo, inherited from my dear mother (luckily I don’t suffer as badly as she did), has been surfacing on these mountain passes.

The queue of cars entering the small town of St Jean de Maurienne was backed up to the main motorway, which we, and obviously thousands of others hadn’t allowed for. We abandoned our car on the side of the road and made our way on the bikes to our start position. We were going off in waves of a thousand, and yes that is every bit as crowded as you imagine. Our thousand were sharing two portaloos, and the last thing you do before a race is go to the loo. I’ll draw a veil over that particular practical hurdle.

Husband had decided to ride with me. It’s not an important event compared to others this year for him, but nonetheless it was a very generous gesture and I was, and still am, very grateful.

There were crowds to see us off and much cheeriness and finally I could feel my spirits rise too. I’m not a pundit, so there really is no point in me giving me a blow by blow account from here on in, but let me offer a few snapshots.

Before we got to the first col there is a small hill. As we crested that, a posh bloke rode by saying, ‘that wasn’t so bad’. I still don’t know whether he was joking or whether he was delusional about what he had signed up for.

The Col de Chassy is a lovely climb at about a thousand metres. Already some people appeared to be struggling in the heat. But the descent caused some real problems. It is very, very narrow and the crowd ground to a halt as an accident blocked the road. Thousands of riders were stuck now and more riders were coming behind, which is quite scary. There were lots of warning shouts as the penned crowd grew, with more riders joining all the time. Luckily Husband and I happened to have made our way over to the left, to the edge of the crowd and off the road, where it was less packed. As I looked around I saw a shirt I had been looking for. One of the thousands of riders was Meghan, who I had met in Italy two weeks before. And there she was, on the other side of the crowd, in the field. She was stretching her back, which confirmed my identification, and I was just about to shout when she suddenly ducked behind a log to pee. The moment to get her attention was lost; we made our way along the side of the crowd and escaped with the first wave that was being let through the barriers. Meghan, I’m sorry we didn’t manage to hook up, but hopefully we can ride together sometime.

The Glandon is the longest, and most beautiful, climb and took me two hours. Two hours and two minutes to be precise. I was 5514 out of the 9,877 finishers on this section, so not too shabby. I’m not flashy on the hills, steady at best, but it was like I was in the middle lane of the motorway. We all know the outside lanes on motorways are supposed to be overtaking lanes, but let’s face it, really you put yourself in the lane that suits your speed. So I was in the middle lane. People were passing me on my left. But equally I was steadily passing people on my right too.

At the top of the Glandon are a series of switchbacks (tight corners) which were up to 14 per cent. I was surprised that at this point, with 2k to the top, some people were starting to walk.

We stopped for food at the top. It was impossibly crowded, although, thinking about it, was set up as efficiently as possible. Water was handed out in bottles which is very fast compared to the barrel and tap arrangements of other sportives in England. The food was spread out on tables. Bars, nuts, bananas, and warm coke. We had our soggy peanut butter sandwiches from our pockets at this stage.

I knew we would be trying not to stop again, except for water, so I decided to pop to the portaloo. Just the two again, but thankfully a small queue. There was a man in front of me, who went in and immediately ran out again retching, disappearing behind the portaloo to throw up. I feared the worse, but it was just the normal level of grimness in there. He was obviously suffering from fatigue. In fact I saw quite a lot of men vomiting as the day progressed. I guess the testosterone gets to them and they push too hard until they literally throw up. The temperature peaked at 35 degrees and it was about 45 per cent humidity and this will not have helped. Thank heavens for my brutal Italian heat training.

There were a number of crashes apart from the big one early on. Of course they were all on the descents. I am a cautious descender. I passed four people all day, in contrast to the climbing. My nerves were not helped by my ‘slip’ the previous week, and the fact that we passed at least one stricken rider on every single descent. We were constantly being passed by ambulances and speeding motorbikes rushing to accidents. and then there’s the vertigo again; I forced myself to stay down on the drops to help my control, but were passing sheer drops, often with no barrier at all… not that a two foot barrier would stop you on a bike. It was scary as hell. My nerves were shot and my fingers numb by the time I got to the bottom of these runs. Also my back wheel in particular was getting worryingly hot under the constant pressure of my braking. This area needs some work for me.

Col de Mollard was much tougher than I thought it would be. It looked like a small climb compared the others on the profile, but by this stage a lot of people were walking. Of the 12,000 people who started, 9877 finished, which means, that the rest either gave up or were swept up by the broom wagon. There are cut off times along the route and if you fail to make a spot by a particular time, you are unceremoniously put in a van with your bike and driven to the finish line. These walkers will have known they were putting themselves at risk of this ignominy.

Finally it was La Toussuire, not a particularly hard climb at about 1,200m and not very pretty. The Glandon is gorgeous, cycling nirvana. I wouldn’t recommend this last climb especially. Nonetheless it had to be done. I briefly lost Husband in a confusion about whether we were stopping or not stopping for water at the bottom. Thank heavens for mobile phones, I needed the moral support by this stage. In fact, more than that, as we came into the resort and still the road climbed he gave me a couple of actual boosts. The crowd ahh-ed, one of the female riders tutted and speeded up. I don’t blame her. I’m sorry, it wasn’t fair. But it seems fitting that it was the Hand of Husband that boosted me over the line. He started all this after all.

Note to Mum: I would like to dedicate this ride to my mother who, I know, would have been so proud of me. Thanks for the legs, Mum. x

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