Although I’ve seen the Tour de France on several occasions from high up in the alps to jammed packed along the Champs Elysee, I’ve never been what you’d call a ‘true’ fan of the race. Although my all time cycling hero is Mr.TDF himself Bernard Hinault, I struggle with the present day race, for many reasons.
Don’t laugh… it could happen… why not?
From its sheer size and unwieldy chaos, to the fact that it is the only bike race non-cyclists know about leading to the inevitable volley of questions and opinions fired at you that usually revolve around explaining the fact that although the break currently has 10 minutes lead the yellow jersey still stays on the shoulders of the overall leader as the riders away are:
- a) 2 hours adrift on GC
- b) Belgium sprinters who are going straight out the back as soon as the stage hits the first climb
- c) both of these, or
- d) crap.
As a consequence I’ve always been slightly elitist about the tour and found myself preferring the breathtaking scenery of the Giro or the ‘more knowledgable’ appreciation of the crowds that follow the Classics…… however…
…all this changed for good after a once in a lifetime opportunity came my way to ride an actual Tour stage this year.
Back in May I was invited buy the guys at Rapha cycle clothing to join them on a ride across the rolling French countryside on the route of the 5th stage from Beauvais to Caen – a whopping (for me anyways) 225km. The emailed invitation gave a rough outline of what was involved but it was not until later on – having excepted the invite, I realised how unique the trip was going to be.
Stage 5: Beauvais to Caen – how hard can 219 flat kms be? Nick O’Brien found out…
Basically what was being offered was the closest I’d ever get to being a Pro for a few days, and being well into my late 30s with a palmares that lists a 5th place in a local training crit as its most recent highlight – I certainly wasn’t going to get any Pro tour teams beating a path to my door. The event was being organised by Sports Tours International, the first of only a hand full of ASO approved Tdf operators who had been given permission to organize a ride along the exact route on the day of the stage. This was not like riding the Etape where you are one of thousands doing the stage a week before the real peleton arrive, this was right on the day just hours before the top boys come through, with closed roads and full team cars etc.
Our tour’s 20 selected guests would get to experience the exclusive life of a Professional bike rider from team support throughout the trip, right down to pictures on the Podium if we made it to the finish. As you can imagine my indifference towards the Tour was already beginning to fade and I hadn’t even turned a pedal.
The Great Badger himself almost smiled – perhaps it’s because he’s on home soil? Still he’s a true legend from an era that helped cement the Tour into the hearts of millions of bike fans and more than a few French farmers.
I’m sure most of you are like me and kid ourselves we could handle a Tour stage, ‘if only’ we could train & had the time like the Pros to do it – which incidently gives us the perfect excuse because very few us actually do have the time and so with July only 2 months off I realized I had better try and find some form quick. I set about the ‘Hardmans’ approach to training – if it was nice weather and I didn’t have any meetings that day, I rode the 40km round trip to work, which combined with a weekend ride amounted to an average of exactly 40km a week.
It became clear that a more dedicated approach was needed and spurred on by the blind fear of 225km into a Normandy headwind I managed to get in some longer rides even doing a couple of 4-5hr. runs. July was fast approaching and I began to get a bit of form when bang disaster (it’s all relative) struck. I was out with my local chain gang and found myself struggling off the back on a climb that I’d normally fly up. My whole tour experience was in doubt, had I over trained, was I ill, was I just past my sell-by date, were my brake blocks rubbing – surely this was not good & the doubts started to creep in I was becoming a hypochondriac – just like a true Pro. I decided to stay off the bike for the next few days and hopefully any form that I might have had would return for the Big Day.
Tricky Dicky still looks like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
On our arrival in France we were picked up in Paris by our “Soigneur & Mechanic” Andy & Jimmy are both ex-riders with a wealth of experience that thankfully they were only too happy to share with us over the coming days. As a prelude to our ‘real’ Tour de France experience: when we pulled in at a motorway services enroute from Paris – the French Gendarmes searched our 2 vans full of bikes and kit – talk about authentic – obviously to play the part I nonchantly opened my case for inspection like I was ‘Tricky Dicky’ Virenque in person, thankfully power gels were all we had and we were soon on our way.
Not bad for our Team HQ.
Our base for the first night was a stunning Chateau in Chantilly about 40 mins from the start town and once we arrived we built our bikes up and went for a 1 hour leg stretcher. The group of 20 were basically ‘Friends of Rapha’ made up of customers, staff, journalists and a couple of riders from the Rapha Condor racing team – there was a real mixture of abilities and with my recent dip in form I was definitely considering riding the shorter version starting halfway along the route and finish at the same time in Caen approx.140km. Still a good distance and closer to my experience especially as once I started to talk to the other riders it soon became apparent that only 4 or 5 riders were up for the big one! Once back at the hotel the doubts were still nagging away when we met with our ‘DS’ , Peter Davies of Sports Tours International who briefed us on the itinerary for the stage.
No Time To Doddle
The agreement with the Tdf organizers was that we had to finish in Caen at least 2 hours ahead of the Publicity Caravan which was expected approx 1 hour before the race, this meant that we needed to get to the finish by 1.00pm. Working backwards and calculated on a mad average speed of 35km/hr. we needed to set off at around 6.00 in the morning to ride the full stage… the dream was fading fast as the enormity of riding in a small group for 7hrs at racing speeds began to dawn. But hey, would I ever get the chance again?
I was up for the full stage and at 4.30 the next morning I found myself stuffing my face full of scrambled eggs and toast before being whisked off to Beauvais for the stage start.
There’s no way back now – decision made I’m in it for the long haul.
As we prepared in the town centre car park pulling on arm warmers to halt the early morning chill – I realized what a truly bizarre situation I was in as guys I’d only met the day previously passed round a jar of chamois cream and stretched their legs, the atmosphere was one of excitement to get going… and the sun hadn’t even come up yet.
The only other people up at this ridiculous hour were the workers putting up the barriers for the day’s proceedings so the town was pretty silent – almost the calm before the storm as we rolled out for our seaside destination. The group was 6 strong made up of three Rapha Condor riders Matt, Guy & Dominique (all fit as butcher’s dogs and raring to go) Pat Hayes (a London based Club rider), Tystan Cobben (Rapha’s man in the US) …and moi!
In the stage briefing we had realized that the only way to get to Caen on time was to try and work together and ride fast but steady without trying to ‘attack’ one another, and so for the first hour we rolled across the still waking French countryside as an efficient “through and off’ unit with the only change in tempo being for the first of five 4th cat climbs. I rode at the front and felt quite comfortable with (If only I knew what was up the road!)
My confidence was returning and I felt good as we flew along in the big ring, chatting away and eager to eat up the miles. We started to pass through yellow clad villages and cross over decorated round-abouts with riders nick names scrawled all over them and the feeling of being a true tour rider began to flow over me.
Sean Yates & young ‘Jimmy’ Rutherford (our sougneir for the stage) gave us some great ex-pro advice – don’t do it!
I even felt good enough to drop back to the support vehicle and chuck my armwarmers inside and sprint back up to my ‘teamates’ with the news that we’d covered around 70kms in the first 2 hours and were just about on target. Too cocky! It was about this point that we hit the next climb, nothing steep but a long drag of about 3km my legs started to feel it and my turns started to get a bit shorter, I wasn’t the only one – jet lag seemed to catch up with Tystan (who’d flown in from LA the day before) and suddenly we were down to five with 150km to go.
Guy and Matt both gauged my discomfort and like Rasmussen & Boogerd pacing Menchov in the Pyrennes they very kindly rode tempo over the remainder of the climb – not so Dominique he was the ‘captain’ on the road (probably because he was French & could read the signs) and was gagging to get going so we hurtled down the other side at break neck speed.
The next hour was actually easier and as we turned off the larger ‘draggy’ roads into more lanes, the pace again picked up. We’d all been eating and drinking well so far in anticipation, but to be honest the drinking bit had got to us all and a piss stop was called, unfortunately this was about the time that the roads were beginning to close and it seemed that every suitable pull in had a Gendarme near by so it took us a good twenty minutes before we found somewhere at which point I’ve never seen cyclist dismount so quickly. We continued on as the weather warmed up, it was slightly overcast but humid (at least the Atlantic headwind that occurs so often in this part of France was calm) and it soon became necessary to get some more bottles which thankfully Guy dropped back to get.
Seeing The Sights
The roadsides were beginning to fill up and although I can’t recall the exact locations (just like the Pro’s it all blends into one) the weirdest, or is that the most French things I saw, were a group of around ten monks playing saxophones and four old French ladies gathered round a table playing cards… in the middle of a traffic island. You may think I’d had one to many energy bars but I did see some fantastic sites along the route and I began to realize how much this race must mean to the French, where else would you get a farmer and his family sitting in their field at 10am waiting for a race that wasn’t coming for atleast 5 hours.
Tradition runs deep in France – this guy could easily have outsprinted me for the stage win
We continued on, the towns and villages really were all blurring into one but we had goodish pace and my power gels seemed to be doing the trick, although after about the sixth one you do begin to crave a bit of real food. Ironically considering all the planning that we made to ride the stage not one of us had a computer on board (thousands of dollars worth of top end bikes but we couldn’t even tell how far we’d gone between us) so we were relying on Jimmy behind to let us know our Schedule.
Sods law around half way he gets held up in a town as we are waved straight through by the traffic police. Its guaranteed at this point our bottles start to run dry and we all start getting a bit grizzly. With true Gaelic charm Dominique decides to go all old school on us and do a ‘water raid’ and before I know what’s happening I’m having my bidons pulled from my bike by an old man who rushes into his house to fill them up, this fantastically friendly act is being repeated to my left and right all along a row of terraced houses and within minutes we are on our way with young kids running alongside us cheering us on – a truly priceless moment that took me right into a real tour Tradition.
The agony & ecstasy of riding a Tour Stage – drink loads of water, isotonics and liquid energy for three to four hours then just as you’re about to burst, realize that every suitable “pull in” for the next 30km has a gendarme strategically placed on it – now that hurts.
The next climb was looming and although individually these 4th cat hills aren’t to bad, ride them after 4.5 hours and you know about it. At this point both me and Pat began to struggle up it and it was becoming clear that we were slowing the pace, still we crawled over to the cheers of the ‘summit’ crowd and continued onwards with the other three guys still strong enough to contest the points sprint 20 mins later – I’d like to tell you who got it but I didn’t have the strength to ask. By this time I was missing all my turns – in other words barely hanging on and despite dispensing my 12th power gel. I was suffering big time, so it was a great encouragement when as we slowed up for a road junction our road captain turned to me and in his broad French accent said “you look f@cked”.
Undeterred I continued dangling on the back of the group, oblivious to the crowds and scenery, the only thing I can kind of recall was a row of vintage Citroen car enthusiasts looking like a much more appealing way to spend the morning. In short I was knackered and although the now returned Team vehicle informed us that we were around the 170km mark we were beginning to slip our schedule and there was real concern that the organizers would not let us through to the finish – so no pressure then!
Jimmy our driver came alongside and (like the old Pro he is) having done his calculations explained that the only way we (more accuratelly me & Pat) were going to get to Caen on time was by a little bit of what’s commonly known as ‘Wind Breaking’ and that he’d arranged for the Bike van to pull in front of us and pace us home at the required speed. Moments later I found myself millimetres off the back of a Ford Transit with solid doors (so I had know idea where I was) going at 50km/h. Pat joined me at the bumper with the other guys behind shouting encouragement (I think?) We tried to continue at this pace but it soon became apparent that it was doomed (not to mention downright scarey!) and rather apologetically the three stronger guys decided to forge ahead. As they rode round the van I got this enormous sense of being left behind and whether it was this or my 16th power gel kicking in, I actually amazed myself (and them) by dropping a gear and grinding back up to them past an amazed looking Mechanic in the Van.
Nothing like the motivation of being caught by a 6 foot squirrel to keep your head down for 225km.
When I tagged on I basically was a passenger and said to them to forget about me and do their thing – especially if the road turned up. Lucky for me they didn’t seem too concerned with me sitting in and the road seemed level. Amazingly minutes later Pat rejoined us with a little van man and the group was five again, until the final climb about 35kms out Pat lost contact again. Some how I managed to hang on over the climb although my Polka Dot points weren’t bagged at the top I glimpsed a sign for something “sur Mer’ only 6kms away this gave me false hope that we weren’t far off, with Caen being on the coast, Little did I realize we still had nearly an hour to ride – it’s amazing the little mind games you play but I started to try and visualize 6 km distances that related to rides back home – until I saw in the distance a large inflatable that as we got closer had 25km all over it.
Under the 25km Kite
Now 25km is normally a warm up even for me but coming after 200km it’s a different story and I can safely say they were the hardest I’d ridden on the flat it felt like we were climbing, my legs were cramping and the clock was ticking. The road seemed to widen and the crowds got thicker & thicker and suddenly after around 6.5 hours I started feeling good again, not good enough to take a turn as I’m sure my companions would remind me, but somewhere deep inside I was beginning to rejoice in the fact that I was about to complete a real Tour stage at a half decent pace, the cheering was getting louder, the sun was out and I was going to make it to the Seaside – I felt Superb.
Smiles all round as we roll on mass to the finish line – the end of a perfect ride in good company that enabled us all to feel like Pros for a day.
We swept under the 3km banner on the out skirts of Caen and all the agony was beginning to fade, the agreement with the larger group was that we would all meet up to ride across the finish together and we soon saw them pulled in on the side of the road. I’d made it, it wasn’t pretty but I’d done it and the final procession up to the line was going to be my moment of glory as we rolled through the cities streets to cheers and shouts from the ever bigger crowd – I began to appreciate the passion & pain that go hand in hand with this great event.
A man that knows a thing or two about Tour de France passion, Bernard Thevenet, who unfortunately didn’t know much English, which combined with my lack of French made for a riveting conversation about I believe, cycling websites – but still, what a nice bloke.
Later after our Podium photos, and a slap up lunch we saw Oscar Freire pip Tom Boonen from the stands and as these superstars got whisked off (still looking remarkably fresh – the bastards) a steady stream of nameless team riders and domestiques rolled through the crowds and I suddenly realized that these are the blokes those farmers in the field were waiting to cheer, yeah they might pick out the guy in yellow for a second but what they are really doing waiting by the side of the road is paying their respect to the unsung heroes of a sport that they know is tough, very tough and today I was lucky enough to experience a little bit of it.
Finally a big thanks to all the Rapha guys especially Matt, Guy & even Dominique for there encouragement & patience. RAPHA.cc
Made it… me and my Black lead out train that started leading me out a bit early. Still a certain Tom Boonen is getting his timing wrong this year as well. [That's Nick front and center - in the cap.]