When I first rode Ventoux, the Mistral – one of the ‘three curses of Provence’ – was howling in raw fury straight at me. (The other two curses are the Durance river and the Parlement, any Parlement – France had several.) Mistrau in Provençal means ‘north-west’ but also, aptly in the context of oxygen debt and spent resources, ‘bailiff’. More than once it blew me to a standstill and all but wrenched the bike out of my hands. It was a gale out of the invention of primal wind. Aeolus or that vindictive Vin Tur had unleashed the entire sackful of the hurricanes that howl through elemental Chaos over that terrible rock. I straddled the frame, fighting to breathe in the blast of that ferocious gale. My shoes slid on a rink of wind, the bike leaped and bucked like a loose toe of canvas in a storm. Yes, Time died in my shoes.
On the ‘69 Tour, the Mistral smote the peloton at 70kph with main force throughout a stage in the Camargue. Jacques Goddet and Félix Lévitan, the race directors, took pity and allowed the riders to tuck in behind the support vehicles for the last 50 kilometres. As Raymond Poulidor described it: ‘An authorized en masse doping.’
The Etape du Tour can be one of the most challenging rides in any cyclist’s life, an adventure beyond the ordinary, not least because it is overlaid with the compelling sense that you are riding the route, albeit for one day only, taken by the Tour riders. This may – I hope it will – inspire; it may also tempt you into the folly of emulation. Guard against that. There is and can be no received wisdom as to how best to tackle so arduous a test of your physical and mental strength as the Etape but there is one piece of advice that you would do well to heed for certain sure: don’t be too hasty. Two men of my acquaintance who rode last year’s Etape said their plan was to buck the approved strategy and hit the day hard from the outset, banking on that momentum to carry them through to the finish. What followed was, they said afterwards, the worst day they had ever spent in the saddle.
The very fact that you are riding the event means that you are up for a long, hard endurance trial. Don’t add to your stress levels by over-confidence or misplaced bravado. Eat before you’re hungry, drink lots and try to keep your mind open to all that is going on round you and to you. Don’t compromise your choice of completing the Etape by the worst error you can make: taking it less than seriously. Enjoying it does not imply, either, that you have to relish every bit of it. Go with all the experience it throws at you.