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Last year’s Etape was hard, really hard, especially in the heat on the Joux Plane but at least there were some flat sections where you could sit in the wheels and recover. This year’s route however was simply suffering from start to finish on an industrial scale.

The course, the same as stage 20 of this year’s Tour is just a production line of climbs, one after the other, after the other. Each one sucking more life out of your legs and grinding your morale into the asphalt. Then following each climb comes a twisting, complicated descent, packed with hairpins to ensure you can’t relax there either, it’s 100% from start to finish.

Three of us travelled to France and we were on the back foot even before we lined up because thanks to the French government calling a snap election the date of the event was brought forward from the Sunday to Saturday which meant our carefully orchestrated plan to arrive fresh at the start was in tatters. We hastily and with significant extra expense rebooked our flights so we could actually get to Nice in time to sign on Friday and therefore had to ditch the day’s rest we had planned for Saturday. Ggrrrrrr.

Leaving London on Friday at 4am, flying to Nice, dragging our bikes to the hotel, heading out for a short ride, which probably should have been shorter and definitely shouldn’t have included a 20% climb (which was my fault) then walking around the village for an hour to register was far from ideal preparation. Going to bed the that night and my legs were in bits, I wasn’t too worried though and confident they would recover. Spoiler alert. They didn’t.

I was off in Pen 1 for riders 1000-2000 thanks to finishing just outside the top 1000 last year which was a blessing as the roads wouldn’t be too congested but a curse because it looked like everyone else was an absolute hitter with legs carved from granite (I get terrible leg envy). Sitting on the grass verge as the sun started to creep over the old hotels lining the promenade I was itching to get on with it and when our time came, keen to press on from the gun. Unfortunately this wasn’t possible as there was a lengthy neutralised section as we navigated away from Nice but once free of the city the speed soon picked up.

As soon as we stated to climb though, as soon as the first gradient hit my legs I knew they where shot, they were just sore right from the get go. I’d set myself a target of about 230 watts for each climb but looking down I was already doing 280 as the skinny guys around me were pushing a healthy pace. I really shouldn’t be going this hard early on but I guess this is what you get being so far near the front!

The first climb, the Col de Braus basically rose up right from the coast and dragged on for about 30 kilometres then we plummeted down the other side and right into the early slopes of the Col de Turini. I felt OK on the descent but as soon as the slope tipped back up I was uncomfortable again. My legs felt like they were in the final 20 miles of a 100 mile time trial, I wasn’t out of breath or fatigued, they were just sore and this simply made each and every kilometre a chore. I had to grind on however, up over the second peak then into the next valley to refuel. I’d done 80km on two bottles so stopped to fill up, grab an extra gel and take the emergency ibuprofen I carry just in case my back goes to see if it would calm my legs down. They had zero effect.

The penultimate climb of the Col de la Colmiane started steady and there were even some parts that, wait for it, where almost FLAT in the first half but once we reached the categorised section it was just a slog again. It wasn’t even that steep, with little if any gradient in double figures but my legs were having none of it. One last descent, and this time a faster one with some nice long straights and stopping again for two more bottles and a handful of sausages and crisps it was time to get the last one done, the Col de la Couillole.

This climb was like a mass slow bicycle race played out in almost complete silence. Every now and again riders would pass at speed, those who had started later who were on a good ride but for the most part the riders immediately ahead or behind just stayed in the same holding pattern the whole way up, their eyes locked on the few metres of tarmac in front of their wheels.

The final five kilometres were as they should be, pure torment and the moment I crossed the line I immediately cramped, but after downing a bottle of water I was able to roll down to the pasta tent and sit, a bit broken and totally relieved along with hundreds of others. I hooked back up with my mate Chris who should have caught me much earlier but didn’t thanks to two punctures and after a brief rest we hit the road to ride back to Nice.

90 kilometres seemed like a long way back at this point especially after banging my head against a wall for 7 hours and rolling past the thousands of parked cars in Beuil there was a point when I would have loved to see my old Octavia so we could stop pedalling. Such was the congestion though that anyone who thought they were being smart and parking just after the finish was surely going to be in for one hell of a wait to actually get off the mountain. The only quick way to escape was on two wheels and the descent down to the valley was, fast, flowing and just insanely beautiful. We stopped for a quick coke at the bottom then got stuck into the next 60 kms of slight downhill all the way to the coast. We were soon romping along at 40kph picking up riders one by one until we had a posse of almost 20, all swapping turns in one giant pace line. I’d suffered like a dog in the actual event but now I felt great! Typical.

The goal for the day had been to get back to the bar next door to our hotel with a cold beer in hand to watch the football at 6. We were just 15 mins late so I call that a result.

Even though I went through hell I still posted a reasonable time of 6.48.43 to place 1375 / 10506 and 91/1291 in my age group. The goal was to crack the top 1000 and improve on last year and I believe that would have been possible if it wasn’t for the hassle of changing date so I guess I’ll just have to go back next year and give it another go!

For some perspective the winning time was an incredible 4.40 something and god knows how fast Pog & Co will go when they race it on July 20th. The idea of covering that course at the speed they will ride it on day 20 of the Tour is utterly incomprehensible. Pro cyclists are simply a different species and I will always be in total awe of what they are capable of.

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