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How an amateur cyclist conquered the Tour de France

BY Ceri Stone

26th Jul 2023 Sport

How an amateur cyclist conquered the Tour de France

One week before the pros race the Tour de France, amateurs cycle Le Loop—a charity event on the route. In this book extract, one man recalls the brutal ride

The Col de L’Iseran is utterly breathtaking. One of our gang stated that it felt more Himalayan than Alpine, such were the giddy thin-aired heights we were reaching.

This was the roof of the Tour alright. We approached it from the south with temperatures at a breezy 34°C leading away from the pleasant village of Bonneval-sur-Arc, which is protected from the looming monster above by a gentle valley.

The average gradient is close to eight per cent but it is steep from the off with the first ramp at close to nine per cent. Knowing that there were a couple of flattish stretches, these ramps would become ever steeper.

The punishing climb

Riding up Col de Liseran on Le Loop's race along the Tour de France routeCredit: Ceri Stone. Things took a turn for the worse on the Col de L'Iseran's steep incline

Richard led us up, patiently sticking to my pace. I expected a little adrenaline surge but none came.

I was aware of the dull grey tarmac meandering its way up the craggy green mountainside to a pointed summit. Warm sunshine and blue skies at the bottom with our goal of a snow-capped peak reaching into the heavens.

I saw a lot of darkness. I locked myself into a bubble. I dropped down to the second-lowest gear, hoping to have something in reserve for the steeper ramps and I focused on one revolution after another.

So it is on the road, so it is in life and so it was that Emily came to join us. For her this was effortless. Richard kept spirits high and she joined in. I wanted to quit.

"I saw a lot of darkness. I locked myself into a bubble. I dropped down to the second-lowest gear"

The thought crossed my mind. I wasn’t in pain but I was lifeless. I was devoid of energy or adrenaline and the pace uphill was sluggish at best.

Richard and Emily were brilliant. They chatted continuously about inane crap and races they had competed in. Anything but the challenge we were facing and the ultimate jour sans that was overwhelming me.

I tried to make a few cheap jokes to lift my spirits but I was better off focusing on the next pedal revolution. I banished thoughts of quitting from my mind very quickly.

I focused on photos in front of the Eiffel Tower and I concentrated on the next couple of pedal strokes and breaking the mountain down into tiny, manageable chunks.

A second wind?

Views of Col de L'Iseran mountainTo push through the brutal fatigue, Ceri Stone focused on the stunning views the summit would eventually deliver

My negativity was a fleeting moment and I had a sense that maybe the worst was over. I was wrong.

As was always the case on this Tour, just as I felt like I had nothing left to give, the Tour gave back. God bless the roads, they never lie. In the same way I cannot resist a cliché when I am devoid of creativity.

We caught up with a group of three relatively fresh riders. We reeled them in and chatted briefly before very kindly dropping them. I thought I was in a bad way but there were others who were worse off.

I make no apologies for the fact that their suffering gave me a lift. I was clinging on to anything that would get me through this. That was another 800m chunk ticked off a seemingly endless list.

We were only four kilometres in and then another gift. A flat section. It wasn’t long but it was enough. Enough to catch my breath, to drink some water and to gaze at the monumental peak above us.

As I had the day before, I focused on the views we would see from the top; they would make the whole ordeal worthwhile.

The power of positive thinking

I have seen footage of the Tour de France where mountain domestiques ride hard on the front for most of the stage and then all of a sudden, they come to a standstill.

They suffer the hunger knock or completely blow up and they have nothing left to give. They struggle to crawl up the hill and are borderline static while the peloton moves on without them, barely registering their pain.

That would best describe how I had been feeling but the calm lifted me. I wasn’t suffering a hunger knock, I was just tired and weak. That I could deal with.

"They suffer the hunger knock or completely blow up and they have nothing left to give"

A positive mood helps. I worked on that and focused on the next switchback or the next group ahead as every kilometre passed. I envisaged the reward of stupendous panoramas from the summit.

The terrain didn’t get any easier but I had a little bit more in me to be able to contribute. I was able to join in the conversations again.

Richard and Emily were making this look easy and I was embarrassed that I needed the help. I wanted desperately to be a helpful team-mate and to be worthy of their company.

Pushing past the wall

What lay ahead was just plain nasty. A further six kilometres of 10 per cent climbing into cooler, thinner air. What fresh hell was this? Miraculously my dark mood was lifting from black to light grey. Hardly a sunny disposition but the higher we went the brighter my outlook.

The power of positive thinking was having some effect. It was just brutal on the legs. The col was exposed, there was no shelter and the temperature was dropping but once again we caught and dropped a couple of other smaller groups. More suffering for others to ease my own melancholic torment.

It couldn’t get much worse, until it did.

The final three kilometres didn’t let up and we reached the maximum ramp in the double digits. Not that steep a punch, but at the end of 90km of constant climbing, with thin air and after 19 days of effort, I was on the ropes.

If it had been a boxing match the bout would have been stopped out of mercy. I kept apologising to Richard and Emily and they tried to reassure me that it was tough going for them as well.

Judging by how they kept checking on me I knew this wasn’t the case.

Reaching the peak

Reaching the Col de Liseran summit on Le Loop route of Tour de FranceCredit: Ceri Stone. After a punishing climb, the riders finally reach the summit

Vast cavalcades of snow and ice adorned the hillside, some forming mini tunnels above us. It was surreal, like something out of a James Bond movie: the hidden lair of a supervillain locked inside these pristine white outcrops.

Little rivers of melted snow drifted across the road and we focused on one pedal stroke at a time.

That was one of the most difficult climbs of my life but I was indeed right. The views were worth every inch of the suffering. We felt like gods looking down upon mountains, clouds and snow-capped peaks below us.

I had been forced to dig deep and I had relied on the moral support and backbone of two heroic individuals. I had long preached the value of teamwork and on this day I had reaped the benefit of it.

Le Loop book cover

Le Loop: How to Cycle the Tour de France by Ceri Stone is out now (Pitch Publishing)

Banner credit: Courtesy foxphotos.fr. Col de L'Iseran—My Jour Sans

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