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Sitting in the garden at half past six yesterday evening, we heard the patter of tiny cleats and Mike emerged around the corner of the house, walking like a cowboy…….he had just cruised down the mountain into Annecy and thence home along the lake after 8 hours in the saddle. All that remained of the 13,500 riders who had set out yesterday morning on the 128km cycle were directed down the offiial route back down through Annecy, though there was a much shorter road home to our house from where the Étape ended 20kms from the city. We started clapping and cheering, but Mike could only utter one word “Brutal.”
Having crawled into the swimming pool his talk was freer, though his limbs weren’t, and he could string two words together: “Never again” then, after a beer, a full sentence: “Now I can understand why the Tour cyclists take drugs ……” Waiting for the off that morning, a participant in the pens was stretchered through the Village Départ to an ambulance ever before the race began. At Col des Prés 54kms in, Mike had turned a corner to find thick pools of blood on the tarmac. A German cyclist, shouting the loudest, foulest string of Saxon and Anglo Saxon curses and swear words picked up his bike, threw it in the ditch and stomped off down the road. On the Mont Revard climb, his upper leg locked with cramp, Mike lay down on the grass in agony. A young German woman cycling behind stopped and put her hand on his leg. “Do what I say” she said “I’m a physiotherapist” and she began massaging his thigh until he could move again. At Le Chatelard the back tyre of a British cyclist blew out and he managed not to fall off, but just as he was dismounting the front tyre also blew out…….
“Never again” said Mike, sitting on the steps of the swimming pool, his head grooved from his cycle helmet. “And the food………..Ugh! never again!” At the feeding stations along the way there had been water, fruit and nuts, bars and gels and powders and elixirs……..but no sandwiches (a la the Ring of Kerry.) “You take it because you feel you have to but it’s disgusting!” Once he had rested, better memories began to surface; the spectacularly beautiful views, particularly from Mont Revard over Lac le Bourget; the quality of the roads, the good humour of the hugely supportive supporters, the friendliness and niceness of the young Gendarmes, the sense of camaraderie. Seeing his ‘Discover Ireland’ t-shirt, Mike talked to a fellow countryman, a Kellog’s staff member who was riding to raise money for soup kitchens in Dublin.
At seven, we got a ‘phonecall from Pat, who was also home safely. At Gruffy, 109kms in, one of his tyres blew – not just the tube, but the tyre – and he thought that was the end for him, but a group of Welsh cyclists with back-up saw his plight, handed over a complete tyre and off Pat went again.* Though also over sixty, Pat is even fitter than Mike; an athlete, a former sub-four-minute miler who has trained six days a week over the past 9 months since they decided to do the Étape. We thought he would not find the course too arduous, but Pat too was more than challenged, particularly by the last six kms to the top of the Semnoz.
Now it is morning and Mike is up, eating porridge and apricots. The ‘phone has already started pinging, arrangements being made with Pat and Mary to meet up for a cycle in an hour. Never again? Oh yeah.
* Pat took a card from the van man (Kevin?) which read “Cyclo Tour Chalet Annabelle” The Chalet is in Les Houches, and though payment was not expected, Pat is determined to contact them.