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L’Étape du Tour: How much pain you can take?

By Martin Roman

We didn’t plan on publishing another article about l’Étape du Tour from a single point of view, but when our colleague Martin sent us this, we simply had to change our plan. After reading this you’ll definitely start training for the 2016 race!

When I got a call from my colleague at Škoda asking if I was still interested in racing in one of the hardest stage of this year’s Tour, I couldn’t believe it. I’d helped pick the winners for our contest and now the good fortune came back to me like a boomerang. “These guys are animals,” I kept saying to myself. Will I dare to challenge them? Will I challenge myself?

It’s here, it’s happening. I feel like a pro, but I’m definitely not. Since the start of the year my volume was around 1,000-2,000k. But I have the mindset, I have the bike. And the race can’t break me.

“I’ve never, ever participated in a race where you can freely pour a BIG EVIAN over your head and nobody cares…ces’t bonne!”

It’s 3 km to the start of the first climb to Col du Chaussy, a 17 km sensation of the Tour de France with an average grade exceeding 7% and a closing 2 km section with an 8% grade. It’s not about climbing it, it’s about how much pain you’re able to bear and for how long. Every guy passing me is wearing a jersey full of sponsors and is so skinny my mum would send him to see a doctor and add at least extra ten dumplings to his plate.

I definitely need another water. The one I had with me I poured over myself during the climb. And here it is, just in time!

A 20 km descent – you can’t explain it with words. After first km’s I start to cry because of the beauty surrounding me. My max speed is over 70km/h! But passing several ambulances and guys covered with plastic blankets is definitely not a nice sight.

“Not to stop at the refreshment station before the climb was a BIG MISTAKE.”

Col de la Croix de Fer (2,067m). It’s a grueling and exhausting 22 km to the top. The average grade is around 8% and before the very top there’s a section with a 10% grade. What’s definitely helping to push me are signs that read: What’s a meter or a second in a life? And When legs say stop, head doesn’t say stop.

Spectators along the road are screaming “BRAVO, BON VOYAGE, BON COURAGE,” and an old guy is filling up empty bottles and pouring water over the riders on the steepest section. It’s on this part that I just can’t… I get cramps and can’t go any further. It’s so steep I can’t even mount my bike once I get off it. But the crowd pushed me along.

“The crowd was so good. They helped me get back on my bike and pushed me to the final climb.”

I need food, A LOT OF FOOD! Like a wolf after months of starving. Oranges, puff pastry with bacon, cheese, definitely some salt to stop the cramps. I drink something like 2 litres of Isostar and half a litre of coke, fill my empty bottles, take two energy bars and a gel, and mount my bike again. Keep moving! There’s no time for sightseeing!

The end is close, so close. Just another climb and it’s here, the final refreshment station before the very end. But my knees start to strike back. ITB syndrome is something that can happen anytime and will kick you out of the race. If it rears its ugly head, I’m done. No matter how much I want to finish, the pain would be so unbearable I wouldn’t be able to go further. Please let me to continue, I start to pray. Yeah, that’s right, I start to pray 20 km before the finish line.

“’Lets sprint together,’ I suggest and we speed up for the last bit to cross the finish line.”

The valley is like one BIG SAUNA. It’s very different from the top of the hills 1,000 m higher. Another refreshment station and the FINAL CLIMB. It’s hard, hard as hell. Just another 17 km!

Every next metre is more painful than the last. It’s so close you just can’t give up. I meet my friend whom I met 40 km back. We’re both happy to see each other and share the same feeling: it’s one of the hardest things we’ve each ever done. We want to cross a finish line as a team and we do just that, sprinting.