You may be more familiar with Will Johnson from his exploits on the pro rugby pitch, and rightly so... as a long-standing former member of Leicester Tigers first 15 and now, we're honoured, he is on the Hunt OpenDev Team. Will is a truly high appreciated contributor as he provides invaluable feedback on prototypes as well as where we can improve wheels designed for the most powerful riders. So with his input we designed the new Race Aero SuperDura wheels.
Like most of us who ride in day-in-day-out, Will may never be lining up for the Tour, a Monument or pull on a Polka-dot Jersey... and that is completely fine. Cycling allows us all to enjoy and push as hard or as little as possible. In this article, Will definitely found his limits and it can even be said he pushed a little beyond them. Sometimes, we need to step out of our comfort zone and see what we are made of, not matter if its a Sunday century or lining up for a national championship.
To start this article off I would like to not apologise for one thing, and that is talking about my biking exploits in a completely justifiable dramatic fashion. I am well aware that pro cyclists and people such as our own Josh Ibbett achieve unbelievable feats, and I would never put myself in their league in terms of performance. But, in my own little world I am pushing just as hard, giving just as much and much like anyone playing a rugby match or running a marathon they are giving it their all. Their experiences & endeavours can still be epic, even if their performance level is not! That being said, this is my story…
The Etape du Tour 2015 in La Toussuire stands head and shoulders above anything else I’ve done on a bicycle, or for that matter on a rugby pitch, gym or anywhere else. It goes down as the longest most arduous day of suffering in my life. A bold statement you may say considering that I spent my entire life training for and playing professional rugby. Professional sport is hard work, rugby matches are hard painful affairs, and training is even harder. The difference between this and the Etape 2015 is that each of these activities is broken up into small known events that you can go all out for, finish, and move on to the next. Crucially you know that the pain is only for a short set period, there’s always a little fixed objective right round the corner.
On July 19th 2015 there was none of that, the next objective was a shimmering mirage in the distance that seemingly never got any closer, and the ever lingering, ever growing possibility that I wouldn’t be able to get there. The toil was incessant, and all my mind had to occupy itself with was my own pain and suffering. For many people I spoke to the 2014 Etape was their hardest day, the route over the Tourmalet and Hautacam was already pretty daunting without the weather adding to it. A steady fine rain fell all the way up the valley to the Tourmalet, which turned into freezing sleet and snow as we approached the top. I think I’m quite naturally adept at coping in the cold, a combination of having more insulation than most riders and years of tromping around freezing rugby pitches serves me well. So on that day I crested the Tourmalet and passed hundreds of riders peering at the freezing sleety descent and deciding to end their ride right there. For those that finished that day, they said the descent was horrible, a massive 35km of descending freezing wet frosty roads with tight hairpins. For me it was my magical, in fact I went a bit too hard and used up my energy before the Hautacam, where I died. Anyway that’s a different story, suffice to say it was hard, but not Etape 2015 hard.
To set the scene for the Etape 2015, the weather the day before had been a real mix, a bit of rain and some sunshine had made it quite muggy. The forecast was for more of the same, mid 20’s with a strong chance of rain mid-morning. In essence, perfect for me, as much as I’m suited for cold conditions I’m equally bad in the heat, insulation and a big internal furnace don’t do well when the temperature rises. Following my (relative) success at the previous year’s Etape, and my time of six and a half hours, I set my target time (completely out of nowhere) at around seven hours, but was wary of going out too hard and dying like I did on the Hautacam. I’d done a sportive a month before that went up the Col de Turini in the sweltering heat. I didn’t do well up the steep humid slopes, I couldn’t replace the water pouring out of me quick enough, and then I ran out of fluid with a good 5km to go until the top leaving me in a bit of trouble. Following this humbling in the heat I had a new mantra to take with me into the Etape, “Keep it in Your Pants”! To me this meant don’t get too excited and waste all your energy early on leaving nothing left for the end, you can take it to mean whatever you want!
The parcours for the Etape was particularly hilly, 3 big climbs, Chaussy, Glandon/Croix de Fer & la Toussuire with a cheeky little blip thrown in between the last two, total climbing 4,079 metres. On paper the climbs looked doable for the larger rider, long but with average gradients of 6-7%. For those of you of normal cycling weight you may wonder why my obsession with the gradients, steeper hills are harder and if you are heavier it’s harder still. But the steeper the gradient the bigger effect weight has, looking at bikecalculator.com compared to a 70kg rider going at 10km/h on a 3% incline I will have to put out 40 watts more, at 12% it is 144! If you want a more graphic picture imagine you are an above average weight cyclist at 85kg, you drag your 20kg suitcase off the carousel at the airport, now put it on your back and ride up the escalator, if you’re Nairo Quintana then add your wife’s suitcase as well, and your hand luggage!
For anyone who’s ever done one of these big sportives they’ll know that logistics occupy 99% of your time. Luckily this year’s Etape start and finish were fairly close together so there was no big transport headache, all my thoughts the night before had been about whether I should wear my black “wet weather” jersey or my brand new hot weather top in dazzling white. Then before I knew it, it was ridiculous o’clock in the morning and a group of bleary eyed middle age men in lycra were stuffing all the food they could into their faces and glancing at their watches every 10 seconds, and then staring into space as they calculated (again) the exact time it would take to put on the rest of their clothes, triple check their kit for the ninetieth time and get to the start in time not to be right at the back!
As we waited for our start time in the cool of the dawn, again my only concern was where I could do my tenth toilet stop of the morning. The steady stream of cyclists heading into a little hidden grassy area indicated the ideal spot, and the steady stream of something else indicated that everyone was as hydrated as me!
I have to admit that I have a little problem in sportives, when someone says go, I go, so when our pen started off it took all my energy not sprint up through everyone and latch onto the quickest group I could catch. After 10 minutes of flat cruising, and maybe catching the odd group, I had "kept it in my pants" but my belt buckle had definitely been loosened. As the not insignificant 1st category climb of Col de Chaussy started, sanity kicked in, my "pant retention" heart rate was mid 130's, so I tried my best to sit at that. I soon realised that my starting number of 2486 was a little optimistic, hoards of actual real cyclists rode past, I kept to my mantra as best I could, as we neared the top, and crested, I let my heart rate creep over 140, but I felt good.
I stopped at the first drinks station, strategy number two kicked in, I'd already gone through a bottle and a half on the first climb so downed the rest and refilled. I'd been reading an excellent book by Michael Hutchinson (Faster) which stated that your stomach can only process around a litre of water every hour, so was keen to always have something for it to work on. The day was heating up, and yesterday’s rain was making it really humid.
The first descent was characterised by the squeal and smell of burning brake pads on carbon wheels, tyres popping and idiots trying to take hairpins at 40km/h and crashing. You have to wonder why people would risk so much to gain a second around a corner during a 7 hour sportive, I tried to stay well clear as they cut into corners and strayed perilously wide on the exit.
The 30km plateau before the start of the Glandon was my perfect terrain, flattish with the odd ramp, perfect to stretch the legs and maybe catch up with the odd quicker group. A little way in I noticed a yellow sign, as I drew closer I saw that it read "King of Sprint Challenge" -" Start", bugger. I was only rolling along as I went through the starting gate, but luckily as I accelerated a fabled 'quick group' shot past me, I managed to sprint and hang onto them and eventually lead them through the finish line. A bit reckless maybe, I’d kept it in my pants, just, I hadn’t quite made it to ‘Builders bum’ status but I’d definitely showed off my tan line, well it was the Etape du Tour!
We continued up the valley and I was happy with my lot, I'd drunk and eaten continually from the start, stopping at every feed point to completely refill my empty bottles. The temperature was starting to rise and the little ramps seemed a little more difficult than before. In my head everything was OK, I was maybe going a bit harder than planned but this was the day I'd been training for. As we turned the corner and started the build up to the Glandon it felt like the heat had really started to ramp up, my Garmin said 29 degrees, I looked down while on the 2% early slopes and saw sweat pouring off the bottom of my handlebars like two leaky taps, not dripping you understand, a solid stream. I thought back to Michael Hutchinson, 1 litre an hour going in, God knows how much streaming out, the maths didn't look good. I kept on, steady away.
Then it happened, a little twinge in my hamstring, a third of the way up the Glandon, just a little twinge, but it was definitely the onset of cramp. With another 70+k to go and the majority of the climbing to do it did not bode well. I backed off and tried to ease my way up to the next feed point. 10 minutes later, boom, cramp strong enough to sit me bolt upright and stop me in my tracks. I thought “don't panic” slowly stretched the cramp off, took some more drink, and had a little walk to loosen everything off. I was only a few km from the feed point, I'd take it steady and then regroup there. No such luck, as I struggled up to the feed point the intervals between cramps decreased, forcing me to stop every five minutes and stretch out. I was starting to get annoyed, my 7 hour target was slipping, maybe 7 1/2 was more realistic.
By the time I reached the feed point I had lost count of the amount of times I'd cramped, but I was pretty sure I'd cramped more in the last hour than I’d done in the previous 41 years of my life. A small consolation was that I wasn't the only one suffering, at the feed point I saw some people slumped in the shade, and even some asleep. So it wasn’t just me, and I was in a far better state than those guys, that picked up my spirits. I warily set off again, sub 8 hours would be OK, I was back on track.
After 10 minutes of soft pedalling my way up the mountain it started again, boom, stop, stretch, rest, go. At first it was every 10 minutes, then every five, then four, then three, then finally 500 metres was my target distance. The cramp was worsening, I couldn’t stand up as my hamstring cramped, I couldn’t stretch over as my hip flexor cramped, so I managed to find a position sitting on the top tube with my head resting on my hands on the handlebars were I could relax until the pain stopped. In short I was in a bit of a state, so much for keeping it in my pants, without feeling a thing my pants had been yanked firmly around my ankles and I was about to get a spanking of a lifetime.
It was horrific, but I wasn’t alone, there were about 5 of us doing exactly the same thing near to me, and we’d continually pass each other as we cramped up in turn and had to stop. Misery loves company, and it gave me a bit of a boost to see the odd cramp-buddy disappear behind me and a new cramp-buddy appear on the scene. Mentally it was tough, not only was I having to stop every 500 metres, but there was still a long way to the top of the Glandon and then another 1st category climb to do.
This is me and one of my cramp buddies sharing a rare moment when we’re both on our bikes, around the next hairpin we got our first glimpse of the top, impossibly far away with the gaggle of white camper vans waiting for the real Tour just tiny pin pricks on the horizon. A truly horrible realisation of how much I still had to do swept over me, all thoughts of time and goals disappeared, it was all about survival now, I just had to find a way to finish.
It was at this point, with the realisation that I was in real trouble physically just sinking in, that a new problem reared its head. As I pushed on my pedal to restart after a cramp stop the hub on my Campagnolo Zonda back wheel didn’t catch, and my cranks just span round. This unexpected free movement obviously jerked me to a halt and induced another bout of cramp. After stretching and recovering I tried the pedals again, the back wheel turned this time but as the freehub engaged it sounded crunchy and weak, brilliant. Post Etape I discovered that somehow I had managed to smash two of the three pawls in the freehub completely, and badly damage the third. So effectively all my power was being channelled through a couple of millimetres of damaged metal, which would occasionally not engage as all the other bits of metal floating round in there blocked it.
It was a pretty low point, my head was in a whirlwind, I was trying to think of a way to get a new wheel, and if it was better to not finish because your bike broke, or if I could stop now and say my bike had broken, and if I could live with myself for doing that…. Then another little voice kicked in, it came from a detached position, and was looking at me, a twisted sweaty mess, fretting over a little bike problem and some cramp. A smile crept over my face, “you idiot” said the voice and started laughing at the state I’d got myself into. I put my foot in the pedal, made sure the back wheel engaged and headed off up the road.
I’d like to say that my voice of reason stayed with me as I rode happily off into the sunset, but unfortunately life doesn’t appear to be like that. Up the long attritional climb to the Glandon my mood would gradually slide into a dark place before the second voice would step in to laugh at how I could be getting so down about everything. When I finally arrived at the top, and the feed station, I had a new plan, two of the three climbs were done, I could take some time to eat, drink, and recover. I was going to finish this, and I still looked in a lot better shape than a lot of the people strewn around the ground around me.
After what seemed like an age at the feed station I set off over the little saddle that connects the Glandon with Croix de Fer, I was cramp free, the plan was working. I kept my legs moving on the descent down the other side and the vision of me gliding serenely into the finish started to form itself in my head. At the bottom the road turned right and jumped straight into “The Blip” climb, which didn’t look much like a blip climb any more. It looked like a 2nd category climb of 6km at 6%, with the first km at 9% average. I eased my way into it, instant cramp, stop. I looked behind me, I’d done about 75 metres, my plan was smashed into smithereens within sight of the start! For the next 40 minutes as I climbed “The Blip” I returned to my Glandon cramp routine, cursing myself repeatedly for overlooking this substantial mountain that I found myself on, before the other voice stepped in to laugh at how depressed I was getting over nothing.
Never has a descent been so welcome as the 15km drop into Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, the temperature had risen to 32 degrees on the climb up so the sensation of cooling wind was a life saver. There was one climb to go, and despite still being in a world of trouble, I was improving slightly. I stopped at the feed station at the base of the La Toussuire climb, took my time, ate drank and stretched, took a deep breath and set off for the final climb.
If you ever wondered about the power of the mind and how it can control the body, then what I saw next would leave you in no doubt. As I rounded the first corner of the climb a long straight steep road appeared in front of me, on the right was a small sign that read “distance to top 18km”. Just after this sign there where around 50 cyclists slumped, on and off their bikes, completely broken by the thought of 18km more suffering! I commended myself for my mental toughness as I rode by these forlorn figures, promptly cramped up, and joined them.
Without wanting to overplay the pain and suffering motif, what I witnessed over the next 2 hours that it took to climb La Toussuire was on a near Biblical scale. Riders who lay where they fell on the side of the road, semi-conscious, either still entangled in their bike or in the foetal position next to it, those in better shape could be seen foraging in the woods for shade and moisture. I can still see the desperation in their faces as they searched for a way to alleviate the pain, and strangely it made me feel better, I was a full step ahead of them, close to exhaustion and heat stroke, but not quite there.
About four or five cramps later I remember clearly, stopping in my cramp reducing position with my head on my hands, and thinking, “This is not fun. This is not fun, why are you doing this”. My Garmin was reading 35 degrees now, my head was spinning, and my stomach was a massive ball of fluid. Hutchinson was right, only a litre an hour was going into my system, but I’d drunk God knows how many litres in the last 7 hours. So now I was carrying a good few kilos of extra fluid, which I’m sure was also doing a wonderful job of stopping any of the food I’d eaten get digested, brilliant work from me. “Remember how you feel now, before you enter the next one. Remember” I kept repeating to myself, so much for “keep it in your pants”, I’d been debagged on the Glandon (excuse the euphemism) and now the Touissure was pointing and laughing at me. I was always going to finish, no matter what, even if I had to fight off the broom wagon, I’d even planned what I’d say if they tried to stop me. But now another thought crept in, what if my brother caught me, he’d started half an hour after me, and there’s no way he could be going this slowly. There was no way I’d ever hear the last of it if he passed me, time to get moving again. Off I went inching up the mountain, edging ever nearer the finish, never knowing that behind me my brother was fighting a similar battle, the only thing keeping him going was the thought of having to tell his kids that he hadn’t finished.
Finally, and with my head still not believing it could be true, I turned into the finishing straight and saw my shimmering mirage turn into reality. As I got to the line I felt something well up inside me, it arrived on my face as a little quiver of my lip, and a glassiness in my eyes. Then for the final time that day my other voice chirped up “Noooo, you’re not going to cry are you!?!? Who the hell cries after finishing a sportive?” and the quiver turned to a smile and absolute relief, it was done.
As the rest of the riders from our group came in and told their tales it became clear that everyone had suffered, thousands had abandoned on route and were being bused back to the finish. The one high spot for me was that I got 564th out of 9877 on the King of the Sprints, looking at my Strava figures, I had 6,121m of climbing and burnt an estimate 8452 calories, the title said it all though “19/07/2015 Etape du Tour – Ridiculous”
I don’t know if I can leave you with a moral to this tale, or even a Grand Designs-style summary that finds meaning in what happened. Did I learn my lesson and “keep it in my pants” more in the future? -Maybe for a couple of weeks. Did I enter another long sportive after swearing to myself that I wouldn’t? -Within days. I may have to rely on the teachings of Homer J Simpson on this one, and say it’s “It's just a bunch of stuff that happened”, more than anything I think the experience of enduring and overcoming is what I take away from this whole saga.
Walking back from dinner that evening, as the sun was going down, we saw one of the vans still bringing back those poor souls who had abandoned on the Glandon. It was unloading another 100 bikes near the finish line and a group crowded round, eager to see if their bike was on board. As we passed by I saw a man receiving his bike back from a member of staff, he coughed and asked meekly:
“Erm, do I still get a medal?”
“Ah, No” came the apologetic reply
So things could have been worse!