Tomorrow is my 30th birthday. To mark the occasion, while I will permit myself a small glass of champagne (and probably a little cry) celebrations must be muted and existential crises need to be, if not entirely averted, then at least postponed. For at dawn on Sunday morning I will spray on a layer of lycra, don a pair of boots not made for walking and join several thousand others at the start of this year’s Etape du Tour. Ninety miles and some 30,000 revolutions later – barring disaster – it will be over.
L’Etape is an organised event in which casual cyclists race the same route as a Tour de France. Just as “Le Tour” follows a different route every year, so l’Etape takes place on a different stage of each Tour. Some years are harder than others (as Morrissey didn’t sing) but seldom do the organisers select a stage without a few big hills, which generally means visiting either the Alps or the Pyrenees. For 2014 they have chosen the latter. Stage 18, as it will be when the professionals pass through on Thursday, travels from Pau to Hautacam, promising a dramatic summit finish as it takes in the tops of two of the most famous hills in climbing.
As much of a challenge as it might be, l’Etape is far from the most grueling of single-stint, rides. In terms of toughness it barely compares to some of the Classics. Paris-Roubaix (aka, for good reason, “The Hell of the North/”), Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege: all are celebrated for subjecting their participants to suffering several times that of l’Etape. To ride l’Etape is to live out a fantasy. The roads will be closed to traffic, medical support and refreshments laid on, crowds will line the route. It’s a chance for the amateur to sit in the saddle, or stand up on their spurs, and imagine what it might be like to compete in the world’s most celebrated bike race. Heroes, just for one day.
And when three friends and I signed up for it last November, that’s all it was for us as well. Now, to me at least, it means something more.
Whether I complete the ride in a decent time or a disastrous one, climb comfortably or collapse to my (Pyre)knees, I will be one step closer to answering the questions that lie behind this blog and which have inspired what I am referring to as “the project”: What would it take for a thirty-nothing year-old ordinary bloke, handy enough on a bike but rather late to “capital C” Cycling, to reach a professional standard?
Can it be done? Will it be worth it?
And what was I saying about existential crises?
Of my closest group of friends – “the bro’s” as an ex-girlfriend once labelled them – I will be the last to tackle The Big Three-Oh. I have looked on admiringly as each has handled the occasion with impressive poise, dignity and decorum: none has overcooked his approach and only the most devil-eyed East German judge could have detected a stutter in any of their landings. Might this have inspired confidence in my own attempt? Could I not just do as they’ve done and aim for the same spot? Perhaps, but ‘fraid not. As I recently made clear, I fully expect to buck this particular microtrend.
As mortality-inspired madnesses go this may not go down as the most extreme – rather than looking at me like I’m a lunatic, no-one I’ve mentioned the idea to has been anything other than supportive – but I’m under no illusions about how difficult, and how much of a commitment, it will be. Plus, y’know, I’m not a great fan of heights – which rules out a skydive – I can’t drive, so no point buying a sports car, and I’m a bit sniffy about the whole “going travelling” thing. This is what I want to do and, with the clock ticking, it has to be done now.
As of the start of this year the average age of a UCI World Tour team rider was 28 years and one month, with the oldest team, Saxo-Tinkoff, clocking in at 29.43 years – almost my exact age at that time. Nothing in this year’s Tour has encouraged me as much as the sight of Trek Factory Racing’s Jens Voight, all of 42 years old, launching himself off the front of the main group for the very first breakaway of the race. Voight is however, very much the exception. Purely painting by numbers, the odds are definitely against me.
So why do I think it’s even possible at all? If I’m entirely honest I don’t think it is. Unfortunately I’m not able to be 100% certain it isn’t, either. Where this project (/challenge/act of lunacy – whatever you choose to call it) lies. is in that irritating, almost infinitesimal, sliver of sentience between the two, also known as “what if?”. What, then, makes me not definitely think I can’t do this?
Firstly, and this is where arrogance probably meets naïveté, it’s where I am as a cyclist. Thanks to Strava, a popular app that allows runners and riders to track times, distance and elevation, thereby reducing an indescribably joyous day on the bike to a series of nerdy data points, I’m able to compare my “metrics” (I’m sorry) with those of several tour cyclists. In most places they’re not an order of magnitude worse. In a few they’re actually better.
Less important than where I am now though, is where I was a year ago. Which is to say, nowhere. I’ve always cycled, but mainly for A to B purposes. It was only while on holiday with friends in Scotland last year that I realised how much I enjoyed cycling for its own sake, as well as that my legs are oddly suited to dragging me up long, steep hills, and it was not until October that I bought a bike with actual gears. In the nine months since I’ve undeniably, albeit reluctantly, become a “cyclist”, often getting up early and spending several hours a week out riding. But I still don’t think I’ve really committed to it, so what if I were to?
In the movie version of this (NB I don’t expect this to become a movie) I would be jacking it all in, selling everything I own, tearfully telling the woman I loves that “I have to do this” while one hand presses against the window of a slowly departing steam train. Unfortunately I can’t afford to quit my job, I have few worldly possessions to sell – except my bike, and I need that – and you generally need a ticket to get onto a station platform these days so most people say goodbye at the taxi rank.
I ultimately expect the experience to be rather less than romantic and rather more than grim. As I attempt to double or treble the amount of time I’m spending on the bike I probably don’t really know what I’m letting myself in for or how miserable it’s going to make me. But I do have a plan, of sorts. In future posts I’ll go into it in more detail as well as documenting my progress – or lack thereof. I may need to start going to bed earlier.