Zoe Lathbury who participated in Etape de Tour send me this story. It inspires me and I thought it would be great if I could share this with everyone. It takes courage to make a decision like this. Sometimes it is better to stop! Thanks Zoe for sending this over.
One things for sure, we will never forget it as long as we live.
It started off so well, registration day went very smoothly. The hotel was in the perfect location, 100 meters from the start line. Drove to Argeles Gazost and found the car park no problem, got the shuttle bus back to the registration village in Pau, registered, had a wander around Pau, very pretty place, big bowl of pasta and a couple of beers before bed.
We had both been hydrating heavily and carb loading to the max for 48 hours prior to the race, the only negative was the weather forecast but they get it wrong so often we didn't want to focus on that. All we had to do now was get on with it.
So after a bit of sleep, more than I expected to get, we got ready as we watched the very low numbers arriving at the starting pen from our hotel window. Nick was really excited, my nerves were high, I’m surprised I wasn’t sick. We got to our pen, as we waited our turn to start all you could see was a sea of helmets, triathlon shirts, club colours, sculpted cheekbones and some good looking bikes.
As soon as we exited our pen and crossed the start line, I felt better and within 5 miles or so I was getting very used to being surrounded by 1,000’s of other cyclists and started to relax. Enjoy myself even.
We had a couple of Cols to climb and a few descents all before the first big mountain.
On every descent there was an ambulance and a medic attending to a fallen cyclist, probably taking it too fast. I just didn't look and tried not to think about it.
The atmosphere in the villages were insane, carnival like at times, the streets lined full of people, ringing bells and shouting “Allez, allez, allez, go, go, go” as soon as they saw that I was a woman the cheers turned to screams “Allez mademoiselle” mexican waves the lot. Very emotional, very lovely, very much appreciated.
I was riding the perfect ride, holding my heart rate back at my targeted zone and as Nick and I were riding side by side, doing it together, we were constantly being used as pacers.
The weather was a dream come true for the first 2 hours, cloudy, warm enough and no rain, but as each mile clicked away we were heading nearer and nearer to The Pyrenean mountain range and heavier, blacker skies and we knew it was only a matter of time, but we pedaled on.
My nutrition was perfect and the Cliff Bars and Maltodextrin drink on the hour every hour kept the energy levels at a constant rate and those carbs just kept drip feeding me, enabling us to ride straight past every feed station with no hunger issues at all.
We topped up on water twice, although didn't need anywhere near as many fluids as we expected too due to the weather conditions being so poor.
So we got to the start of the Col du Tourmalet and although very wet and wishing we had worn our boot covers, physically and mentally I was up for it. We started the 14 mile climb in a good place and passed raging waterfalls due to the heavy rain, although still beautiful. We climbed and climbed, I was riding the perfect ride holding my cadence and spinning those legs, keeping my heart rate at 160 all the way. Nick kept asking me “whats your heart rate now”? “Still 160” I would say, “perfect” was Nicks reply. I was cycling past so many other riders it was insane, another and another and another.
Not sure if a few people from above were helping, those little souls that I’m raising money for or my brother and dad and Nicks mum or all of them or none. Maybe all the positive vibes from the people on earth spurring me on, who knows, all I know is I was on top of this iconic mountain and it wasn’t beating me, no way, I was in control.
The atmosphere had changed dramatically from hearing the constant chatter from all the nationalities, French, Italian, Brazilian, Japanese, American, Dutch, Irish etc, etc, etc and of course the Brits, 20% of all the 12,000 entries apparently, to stark silence, everyone saving energy just battling on, another kilometer sign, okay now where’s the next one? We rode up and up and up, the road was like a river, the mist got thicker and thicker the higher we climbed, people were walking, the torrential rain relentless not stopping even for a moment. We were going through tunnels that just felt eerie and hard work, the mountain continued to ramp up even more and my heart rate raised up a bit with it.
Each time I repositioned you heard the rain water that was gathered on your arms hit the floor in sheets, my bum bones were moaning and shifting in the seat was all I could do to help, each time it did help but then a few seconds later it was moaning again. My legs at least were fine.
I needed to stop, having been desperate for a wee for over an hour, I even considered just doing it in my shorts but its not a natural thing to do and I don't think I could of. There was a feeding station almost at the top, we knew it was there as we had cycled past signs telling us but you couldn't even see it. Suddenly it was upon us, at last a quick wee stop, bit more fuel and then the final 3 mile climb to go, before the dreaded descent. I got to the loo took off all my wet gear had my much needed wee, struggled to get my arm warmers on as I was so wet, put my soggy shorts, top and water proof back on and went to find Nick. He was stood exactly were I had left him, shivering. The problem here was, Nick is an exceptional athlete and riding at my pace had meant he wasn’t warm, it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for him but at my pace it was alot easier. Unfortunately this meant the cold had struck him before we had even started to descend. “Come on” he said “lets go, I need to get warm”, “lets get these latex gloves on under our fingerless ones” I suggested. Someone had given us a pair each, you try anything in exceptional circumstances! Nick couldn't even get his gloves off, he couldn't press the stop button on his Garmin watch. This is ridiculous, absolutely miserable, I was thinking, what the hell are we doing? The whole time all I could think about was descending with very wet breaks and roads and the thought was terrifying. I started to walk towards the ambulance tent to see if I could get a blanket for a minute for Nick and this lady looked at me, I will never forget her face as long as I live, “Do you need help”? She asked, I think she was Dutch “What happens if we want to get off the mountain”? I asked. “Oh it’s very simple” she answered “you put your bike on that truck just there and get on one of the warm coaches next to it and we will take you back down to the finish” I think she may have been an angel.
“What if we carry on”? I said. She replied, “That’s it, if you carry on you are on your own, all the way to the finish”.
I thought of Frankie and Phoenix and an overwhelming sense of emotion hit me, I looked back at Nick “what do you think”? I asked him “it’s your ride” he said “your choice” a few seconds of pride made me think I can’t go home defeated but then the kids came back to me. “Fuck it” I said “lets get on the coach, after all it’s just a bike ride”.
Next came the exhilaration, we were safe, we didn't have to descend, we were on a warm coach, we were going to be alright. Our kids would see mummy and daddy again, it was over.
Everyone was chatting about their experience, one guy sat behind me, had spoken to his girlfriend, who had managed to descend and was huddled in a church with 200 other cyclists and a load of blankets trying to warm up. Others were crying, in relief no doubt. I sat next to Miriam an American woman who had flown in from Miami “were not used to these mountains in Miami” she pondered “overwhelming”.
Nick sat next to an Australian lad called Justin “you have to know when to carry on and when to quit” he said “we had no choice, we still cycled almost 58 miles of it”.
We sat in our soaking wet clothes for almost 3 hours on that coach, waiting for the broom wagon to go by. You could literally ring out your socks and gloves, all chatting, all gutted but all safe.
The respect I have for each and every one of the people that finished is huge. Guts, determination, experience and pig headedness must of seen them through.
As the coach finally descended and we caught the odd glimpse of the hair pin bends as the mist shifted and changed and the sheer drops and very narrow roads, I knew the right decision had been made and as we continued along the long descent we saw bikes just abandoned at the side of the road, 2 together and then a collection of 6 or more, further on a few more, all down the mountain, thats desperation!!
Retired cyclists were running out of hotels and cafes in the valley, trying to wave the coaches down but they were all full. Just more confirmation. When we finally got our bikes back, just to concrete the decision even more, my front tyre was completely flat. Nick couldn't possibly have sorted it out, he couldn't even turn his watch off.
A good friend said to me very recently, ‘make a decision, stick to it and move on’. Wise words.
So to summarise an overwhelming, exhilarating, nerve racking, amazing experience, a massive shame, gutted to the core but proud to have nailed the Col du Tourmalet, a definite sense of unfinished business but next time in dry conditions.
Would I ever do it again? I don’t know yet but one things for sure, my bikes back from France on Wednesday and I’m going for a ride.