Etape du tour: To hell, the hard way

Many tried, many dropped out. Would Richard Lofthouse crack the 196km amateur ordeal?

If anything, the dreadful doping scandal that enveloped pro cycling this summer made us amateurs feel that our relatively slower, drug-free performances were a larger, more human achievement. Balancing jobs, families and training and still achieving a big day in the Pyrenees – now this was the stuff of real heroism, and it didn't come much bigger than this year's Etape du Tour, when amateurs got to ride the brutal Stage 15, 196 kilometres from Foix to Loudenvielle.

This year's Etape had free spaces on the start line. Some 6,500 riders showed instead of the 8,500 billed by the organisers – not least, suggested a local paper, because there had been much warning about this year's event being the hardest ever.

I was anxious months before the starting gun went at 7am on Monday 16 July. Training had commenced with a 100-kilometre ride in February, followed by other rides and culminating in the British étape from London to Canterbury. Yet I had missed some big rides, taken an ill-timed vacation and then suffered a knee problem. My brand-new, carbon-fibre machine had turned up too close to the event and had the wrong cranks, and I didn't know if I had the physical conditioning.

The rub lay in five Pyrenean cols amassing 4,400 metres of altitude gain. That's nearly 15,000 imperial feet, or half of Mount Everest. I had been warned that it would be akin to going to hell, getting there and then finding that it's even worse than I'd imagined.

I was thinking about all this on the start line, buoyed only by my super-duper Rapha & Sir Paul Smith jersey acquired specially for the day, brand new scarlet Santini arm-warmers and matching Assos bib shorts. If I failed, at least I'd be the best-dressed failure of the day.

Thousands of riders streaming out of the start pens at 7am on all sides quickly turned into vast, informal pelotons that I hid in, assiduously conserving energy. The Col de Port was followed by a descent along a road that curved down a valley next to a river, and the kilometres ticked over effortlessly.

But like everyone on that ride, I knew the Col de Port was followed by the Col de Portet d'Aspet, on which Fabio Casartelli died in 1995 after a crash, and that this would be followed by the steeper Col de Menté, and that this would be followed by the nearly unimaginable 19-kilometre climb of the Col de Balès. Finally, the Col de Peyresourde would kill us... or something like it.

The first signs of suffering came on the Col de Menté. The sun came out, the gradient steepened very much and suddenly I realised that all the banter and chatting between club mates had ended.

Then it was another epic descent and the start of Balès, innocuous to start with because of a long stretch of road with a median gradient of 3 per cent. But I knew this was a ruse to deceive me, and so it proved. As we entered the Forêt de Barousse, the gradient reared up more and more until my pace fell off to 6kph in first gear.

Two things then occurred that defined the horror of Balès. First, I rounded a hairpin bend to find the road oozing liquid tarmac, melted by the sun. Second, I realised that every patch of shade was filling up with riders who had pulled over to rest, some terminally. Others, in desperation, took their cleats off and walked in socked feet, while still others looked around with a look of dazed shock.

It was no surprise later to discover that 1,600 participants had dropped out – most, I suspect, on Balès. Once I'd conquered Balès I knew nothing would stop me reaching the end. The crowds swelled again and I hit 70kph on one of the admittedly hairy descents, jubilant at the whole business. I mean, who gets to descend a traffic-free col at speeds such as that on a pushbike? As someone said somewhere, "the Etape solved my mid-life crisis in just 10 hours." Then came the final climb up the Col de Peyresourde, all 10 kilometres of it, but when I reached Loudenvielle I felt strong enough to sprint across the finish.

I came 3,459th, having taken 11 hours, 14 minutes and 39 seconds, while the winner, Nicolas Fritsche (an ex-pro rider for Saunier Duval), did the whole thing in 6 hours, 21 minutes and 41 seconds. Vinokourov went on to do it a week later in 5 hours, 34 minutes and 28 seconds, except that he was in thrall to banned substances.

I was left musing that whatever shambles professional cycling has got itself into this year, it remains one of the most enthralling sports to participate in, perhaps especially if you're a humble amateur rather than a suspect pro.

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