Every year the Étape du Tour gives amateur riders a chance to experience a stage of the Tour de France. With this year's event due to take place in two months' time, Dallaglio Cycle Slam organiser Andrew Croker remembers last year's Étape, and his experiences following the pros on the same stage five days later.
Saturday 25 July, 2009. It’s 9.30am as I step down from the first class carriage at Montelimar station. Alex from Nike is there to meet me and gives me my VIP pass from ASO, the Tour organisers. Would I mind walking five minutes to the start village? No, that would be fine. I know where it is – I was here on Monday.
Monday 20 July. It’s 6am and I'm squatting in a bush behind a Shell garage on the outskirts of Montelimar. A French guy joins me. We share some friendly words that neither of us understand. I toy with, "Voulez vous un Imodium?" Maybe not. It's only my third crap of the day. Over the past two hours I've followed the usual routine, forcing as much as I can down my throat and out the other end before we join 9,500 others heading towards the start.
Dawn is breaking as I pull up my shorts, and the sky is clear, thank God. We've been here before, we can do this, we're in this together – we are Systeme Jacques. Over the years I've cut out coffee on the day – I know the pros swear by it (always black) but it increases my chance of bonking – and my pre-ride all-comers/goers record stands at seven craps, so three is a real result.
I've been handed over to Fatima by Alex from Nike. She is exotic, efficient, and under the illusion that I'm important. I've been promised the best seat in the house on the biggest day of the biggest race in front of the biggest crowd. It's the penultimate day of the Tour de France on the ultimate climb. Some 500,000 people are waiting for us on the Giant of Provence, le Mont Ventoux.
We are 25 strong, and we pedal to the start. Make note to buy shares in bike manufacturer – there must be £25 million of machinery. The Étapistes are strung out in one long line of pens of 500. The guys at the back will take 30 minutes to cross the line, but it won’t stop them trying to get to the front. No chance. I've given the Welsh pro Yanto Barker a number in the 3000s and he plans to catch up. I tell him to wait down the road and jump in, but he ignores me.
I am, as I have been since 1994, number 89. Great for getting away. I've now come to terms with the whole field streaming past me – I know I’ll see them later. L’Etape du Tour is cycling’s London Marathon. Run by ASO, it started in 1993 with 1,400 riders. We lined up in 1994 and since then it’s ballooned to 9,500 riders, with over 1,000 from the UK. Each year it follows one of the classic mountain stages. Tourmalet, Galibier, Alpe d’Huez, Madeleine – been there, done that.
The team area is jammed with buses, team cars, sponsors and crotch sniffers. Astana is a zoo. Lance’s Damian Hirst butterfly bike is strapped to the top of the car. He’ll ride it to Paris and it’s rumoured it will go for £1 million at auction – and you know that Damian just rang the bloke at Trek and asked, "Have you got any butterfly stickers?". Cav’s bike up close has the Memphis Belle and the five wings for stage wins – I’m surprised they’re not little Norwegian flags. Fatima asks if I’d like to meet him.
We're lined up in the first pen. I'm more Sancho Panza than Alberto Contador. Three bottles, goos, powder, money, gilet, phone, Flip video camera, drugs (over the counter). Michael is outside the pen. Like all of us he's wearing the team pink, but he has those ridiculous Lance glasses ("only £80 at the airport") and no bolt in his seatpost ("it fell out") – he looks like Darth Vader on a chopper. On advice, he takes a bolt from the handlebars. Yes, really. Joanna, my wife, is next to me and we're going to ride together, because she says so. It’s my 14th and her 12th; she was fourth woman in 1999 and won her age category, so she’s the boss.
Cav is sitting shirtless on the steps of the HTC bus. He couldn’t be more relaxed, but then today is just about getting round – tomorrow is High Noon in Paris, Billy the Kid meets Billy Whizz. We talk about the weather and Ventoux, which I've been up three more times than him. Frankly, he’s better not knowing.
Alain Krzentowski from ASO says it’s blowing 100km/h on the top of Ventoux so the finish village is shut and the TV helicopters may not fly. Is it possible that on my Flip I get the only video of Bradley breaking Lance as they pass Simpson’s memorial? I live off the royalties and get invited to Sports Review of the Year after a 30-year gap? I become the cycling Zapruder?
At bang on seven we roll out of town. It’s pretty simple. Fast from the off but we stay right of centre to let the loonies past and find a big guy to sit behind. In Joanna’s case I am that guy. Mrs C has been here before.
The riders sign on and we stand with them. There's a long line of cars at the start – commissars, ASO, neutral service, Mavic and the team cars – bristling with aerials and bikes, jammed with wheels and bottles. I haven’t seen so many motorbikes since the TT on Cav’s island. We meet our driver and I ask him if he’s a cyclist. Crass, wrong question. "Yes, sort of – I was world and Olympic pursuit champion, eight times Champion of France and rode nine tours." Francis Moreau says all this in a genuinely modest way.
We walk, and keep walking, and we get to the front. There are two red commissar cars and we meet the commissar, Jean-Francois. He's the referee. "If there’s a break we go with it," Francis says to me. "There will be a break, from the start." We roll out of town in convoy. It’s very gentle, the peloton strung out behind us. They’re going slower than we did. It’s a beautiful clear day. I wave to the crowds. I examine my packed lunch. We approach a sign that says ‘0km’. Francis and JF buckle up. It’s that moment in Bullitt. All hell breaks loose.
My chain comes off at the bottom of the first climb as I drop into my granny ring. Joanna leaves me in accordance with the unwritten code of Systeme Jacques. Jacques was Alexandre Dumas’s little known creation, the fifth musketeer. Jacques never fully grasped the ‘all for one’ collective philosophy and ploughed a lonely selfish furrow. We always say we'll ride together but in reality I know I'll never see most of them until the finish. I once pledged to ride with Chris but we got separated before the start line. Hence the ‘Jack System’, as in ‘I’m all right Jack’. The motto on our shirts is Pro se Quisque – every man for himself. Joanna calls me from the top of the climb. Bless her.
Pretty in pink: Our blogger Andrew in his Systeme Jacques kit
The group of 13 quickly build a lead of four minutes. They're hammering. Francis has driven eight tours and what we think is chaos is really choreography. The cars and motorbikes seamlessly interchange. We're jammed behind the riders and nobody comes past unless J-F says so, all done with an imperceptible nod. Three riders have covered the break and come tearing by to get on. I can touch everything – the crowds, the team cars, the riders, and Laurent Jalabert. He's doing live commentary later, but for now sits on the back of a Moto Guzzi on his Blackberry. He knows this is the warm-up act before the main event.
They reach the first climb, but they don’t seem to notice – big ring, 40k. A hand goes up in the bunch. J-F says ‘Cofidis’ into one of our four radios and, from the line of 15 team cars behind, the Cofidis car is coming past and up to the rider who takes a bottle, with him and the driver both holding it as he gives him the briefest of ‘madison’ slings.
We must be near a spa. Both sides of the road are lined with hundreds of people in white dressing gowns. It looks like a colonic irrigation convention. I never put my head or arm out of the window without looking first. The motorbikes are so close, with journalists in red helmets, but they and the VIP cars have to drop out at Mormoiron. After that it’s just us and the teams, and the constant clatter of the helicopters overhead. Henry rings from London and I wave to him on TV.
We drop down from the Col d’Ey and it’s business as usual. Keep away from the walls and the barriers to let the fly boys past – the wizened old walnut legged Frenchies may not climb so well in their dotage, but boy can they descend. But Joanna can too and we drop like stones to the valley floor.
On the descent we hit 90km hanging onto the riders. They swoop through the corners, our tyres scream and the motorbikes lean hard. The TF1 cameraman is Fred – it’s in big red letters on his helmet. His tattooed pilot leans into the corner, knee out. Fred is filming, both hands on the camera, the signal beamed live to the helicopter crabbing sideways above us through the gorge. Oh yes, Fred is standing up. Through the huge crowds at Sault. George and I catch a fleeting glimpse of our children, who have spent over an hour watching the caravan go through, and then us. They loved it.
The Ventoux is always there. Wherever you are it dominates the skyline. The massive weather station sticks up like a Saturn V rocket. For years I've believed and said that it’s an extinct volcano. No article has ever been written that didn’t describe the summit as a ‘moonscape’ (there, done it). In fact it’s limestone, and exposed due to over-grazing.
The last time we were here was 2000 and it was a disaster. Warm in the valley, it was zero degrees at the summit with -20 wind chill. The medical centre couldn’t cope with the exposure and they stopped the event after just 2,500 had gone through. We toiled up Ventoux in a hailstorm. I lost a spoke and Rob Hayles ‘kindly’ took off my rear brake in Bedoin, where I ditched my old helmet.
Locals were taking gloves and jackets from their supporters. I descended in fear of my life on one brake – I had no chance of fixing a flat with frozen fingers. I was scared, but not like that microsecond in the car when your stomach knots. This was 30 minutes of "if the brake fails I shall fall off on purpose". Anyway, looks nice today.
The lead is over 10 minutes and we're getting to the short strokes. We hear the locomotive Cancellara is driving the peloton for Saxo. Jalabert pulls alongside and points – we're approaching the Col des Abeilles. What looks like a solitary cloud is smoke. Right above us a Canadair firefighter wheels away and to the south we see a line of yellow planes heading our way. You see them lined up at Marseille airport and in the summer they drop their load to fight the forest fires.
On the descent we're all ordered to the right as the pompiers come up in convoy. There's simply never a dull moment. All the VIPs are announced on race radio. George and I get a name check – Sarkozy was in my very seat on Thursday, but it seems too much for him as we hear he's in hospital today with heart problems.
J-F says if they can get it down to five minutes by Bedoin they’ll catch them, but the gap suits the big names. At Bedoin the peloton splits. The gruppetto wave goodbye to the climbers. Cav and his mates will cruise up Ventoux with one eye on the clock. Avoiding elimination and the lantern rouge is all that matters.
We're in Bedoin. Joanna and I have ridden 97 miles over four climbs but it means nothing – this is the business end. There are only 210 women in the field; this is men’s business. Just 21km to go – that’s just 15 miles, two laps of Richmond Park – I know it’s mind over matter. Advice to anybody wearing a heart rate monitor – take it off, it won’t help. We start to climb. I’m doing 7k. Three hours. Can’t be three hours.
Andrew captures some of the ride for posterity on his video camera
I look over Francis’s shoulder. We're doing 20k on the lower slopes. We go under the 20k sign – the lead is bang on five minutes – and 10 minutes later under the 15k. It’s not possible. The break is spewing riders out of the back. The German Tony Martin and the Spaniard Garate are driving it at the front. J-F waves Francis forward. There are now only four riders ahead of us.
The Mondiale car pulls alongside. They want to give Riblon water, but it’s not allowed after 15k. They row with J-F and go ahead eventually. He takes the bottle and pours it over his head. Then he drinks from it and puts it in his cage. J-F shrugs his shoulders. The guy’s going backwards. I want to give him the hand of God, poor sod.
Over the last 35 years I've tried to watch as many significant sports events as I can, with not unreasonable success. I've also been lucky enough to tread in the footsteps of the gods, with varying results. Wimbledon (outside court, undone by Chris Gorringe’s bloody underarm serve), the old Wembley (lost nerve in penalty shootout in front of a dozen people), London Marathon (split the front and back end of pantomime horse), Augusta (hole in one at 16th, high spot), Brands Hatch (ran over girl in pit lane, broke her foot). Despite this, here I am on the D974, a minor road in France, and this is it. I'm in the race. I've never been this close to anything – it’s like standing next to Tom Watson as he lines up that putt and saying, "Well Tom, I see it more right half".
And who on earth are Mondiale anyway? I'm in the business but if I look at the team cars strung out behind us I have little clue who most them are. The best brand delivery in sport but what do they do? Cofidis, Bbox, Caisse d’Epargne, Lampre, Euskaltel, Skil, Agritubel. Rabobank must be a bank.
The worst of it is through the trees to Chalet Reynard, 6km below the summit and the start of the moonscape (sorry). On Alpe d’Huez there are numbered hairpins – 21 in all. In l’Étape two years ago Paul Kimmage stopped four times, Chris Hoy was down to 4k (not surprised), it was 40 degrees and two people died. Yes, this is a voluntary mass participation event. Last year it just pissed with rain – we flogged up the mighty Tourmalet and might as well have been on the turbo in the shower at home.
But on Ventoux it’s just a tunnel through the trees with no respite, between 10 and 12 percent. It's a relentless, brutal, claustrophobic grind – we aren't racing or even competing, we're just surviving. There are people camped out already for next Saturday. Why would you do this for a fleeting view of these guys? I ditch all ballast – the leaking bottle, unused powder, Nurofen and that last sticky warm goo I’ll never get down.
Martin and Garate are 100m ahead of us. Right in front of us is Rabobank’s Posthuma. A fan stands in front of him with a flag and catches him across the face, spinning his sunglasses into the road. We run over them – no souvenir for that idiot. Posthuma gives him the death stare. J-F shrugs. There is nothing of them – their legs are taut, they grind, they spin the pedals, aiming at the wall of people.
There are 500,000 on the mountain, they say. Forget ‘some people on are on the pitch’ – half of France is on the road in front of me. They part to let them through, then a little more for the team car, then J-F says we need to overtake. Overtake! How? But we do, and they just trust the crowd to step back, at the last minute. Elvis runs in front of us, the Smurfs are cheering, I lose count of the cross-dressers.
I'm in a dark, dark place. There are no marker boards – how far can Chalet Reynard be? Joanna and I have separated. We need to suffer alone in silence. Women endure childbirth but we guys never suffer. We aren't built for this. It must be round the next corner ... No. But all around me are those who charged past us this morning, chatting, laughing and shouting ‘a droite’. Where are you now? Well mostly sitting in the trees, or walking, their legs knotted with cramp, many in their bare feet, their shoes in the pedals, dragging along the ground. I'm passing them, I'm not getting off.
Garate and Martin reach the horseshoe at Chalet Reynard. It’s a vast bowl that's been transformed into an arena. They're holding the chasers at one minute. Pelizzotti is charging in the polka dot, and as we climb the ramp we look back across to our left at the other chasers, and we know from race radio it’s the Schlecks, Contador, Kloden, Lance and Bradley. My God, they're flying. Twice we hear Bradley is off the back, twice he gets back on. The last time I saw him was in London House in Beijing with a pint, and a fag behind his ear. Now he’s 10kg lighter, on a mission.
We stop at the water station at Reynard – they're almost out. I know I can get there from here. We're out of the tunnel and can see the road twisting all the way over its last 6k, across the barren wasteland (oh sod it, moonscape). Joanna says, "Andrew, you have to get me up here." I know this is rhetoric. She's done it 12 times so, counting children, she has dug deep 15 times. It's 2.30pm. We've been on the road since 7am. I say okay but I’m not sure. "Let’s just go easy," I say. "No, I need to be there by 3.30pm – silver medal." How did this survival talk turn into medal talk? On we go.
There are barriers for the last 2k. And I'm about to learn why people take a week’s holiday, drive across a continent and camp on a mountain for days just to watch some guys ride by. Why would you do this? We pull over to the side of the road. I stand by the car and below me they are coming. We're maybe 100m below Simpson’s memorial – I now know his daughter Joanna has walked up to watch. Pelizzotti goes by on the other side of the road, but he won’t catch them. And then they’re coming, in a dead straight line, nothing moving apart from their legs pumping.
It's the first time I've been stood still all day and they must be doing close to 30k. Contador, the Schlecks, Kloden, Nidali, Lance and there on the back Bradley, back on. The tour is in the bag for Contador, and with just two more corners Wiggins can’t challenge Lance for third, but he needs to hold off Frank Schleck. They're on my side of the road and brush past. I have to keep my hands by my side. I can look right into their eyes – they're suffering. I know what that pain feels like. They aren't climbing – they go past like a pursuit team.
The last left-hander. Joanna is exhausted and we take a break. The time is fine, I calculate, I think. Two spectators help us get started.
Back in the car, and on the last corner Bradley slips off the back, but he drives on 800m to Ventoux’s only hairpin, sharp right. We cross the line behind him and he's swept up. We don’t know the result, but he has a huge smile on his face. Race radio says he held onto fourth by three seconds.
We come round that last hairpin and cross the line. Eight hours, 18 minutes. Joanna sheds a tear, we kiss, we decide to get off the summit as soon as possible, we retire from l’Étape. How many times can one do this? Too many people, too hard.
Cavendish has cruised up in the gruppetto chatting. They would have all won l’Étape. It’s another world.
Get my medal and give it away – Cameron has two kids and they both want one. We meet at the finish village. No beer ever tasted better, ever. We dribble in one at a time, in the tradition of Systeme Jacques. We all make it – the oldest 65, David the fastest in ninth place, sandbagged by the Frenchies at the water stop in Bedoin. Some 7,396 riders finish. We're about 3,185th. We climbed Ventoux in 2hr 35min – the pros were under an hour.
To watch any great sporting event is a privilege. To be there is unique, to be in amongst it incomparable. This was a great day; they were both great days. You can keep your sliding roof, your arch, your Sky box, your paddock club, just get me to the D974, left out of Bedoin, and keep going.