"Do you want to do the Etape du Tour?"
When someone asked me that weeks before the event itself, I said yes. Never mind the trifling matter of having done no training. Save the occasional fair weather commute, it had become routine not to ride my bike this year. Cold winter, friends, girlfriend, work, guilty hours watching crap TV all sprinted past and took precedent. I'd be winging the Etape, certainly not winning it.
Unprepared, I had two thing going for me: the fact, in the words of Richard Hallett in Tim Moore’s French Revolutions, that I’m not a great big lardy pie man. And that it was a short Etape. Yes, apparently I was meant to be grateful that it was only 130 kilometres with six classified Alpine climbs.
I started to get really worried in the run-up when colleagues started to bandy words about like tapering and dinner plate cassettes. They were resting having racked up training mileage in the thousands; I’d done a few hundred kilometres and a hurried 50-mile ride the weekend before the Etape. I kept my standard 25 cassette for the test: the only mountains I'd been conquering with dinner plates were those of rice and tikka masala.
I had pre-Etape visions of sitting in the massive voiture balai, thighs incapacitated with cramp, race number torn off by a stern French man, fellow riders noting my Rouleur jersey and tutting. The shame.
Luckily, the nightmares didn't come to fruition. Climbing Alps on a bicycle is like assembling flatpack furniture: pesky and uncomfortable without ever being savage. You just have to remind yourself it’s going to take a while, keep referring to the manual (two words printed repeatedly: ‘pace yourself’) and settle into a rhythm.
The descents are a different matter, like someone handing you a sledgehammer to destroy the furniture you spent an hour constructing. You’re left with maniacal, grinning enjoyment, nailing apexes on closed roads. Alas, it’s all over too quickly.
Towards the end of the Etape, something strange happened. I stopped worrying about cramping and cracking and began enjoying it. Even the hour-long torture rack final climb of Semnoz. It was like going right back to the teenage throes of swooning, look-mum-no-hands bike love. Perhaps it was down to a feeling of brotherhood, sharing the road with suffering cyclists all day. Or the sensation of being in the Tour de France, Mavic motorbikes buzzing us all day and roadside French fans shouting “bravo”, “courage” and “allez les gars”.
I even had imagined commentary running through my head. “Two kilometres to go, McGrath, moving slickly past his rivals, out of the saddle like a pendulum heading into the King of the Mountains jersey.” Ridiculous, I know.
I should have left the Etape swearing off cycling. I should have suffered more. I should still have done some training. I was as unprepared for this blue riband sportive event as I was for how it made me feel afterwards. Bizarrely and unexpectedly, Sunday’s slog through the Alps made me love cycling again.
Now I’ve got what the French call passion pour le vélo. It didn’t fade that evening. It didn’t fade on the 14-hour drive back from Annecy where our depressing waypoint, Eurotunnel Calais, seemed to be populated entirely by leg-weary middle-aged men in white Etape du Tour T-shirts. It didn’t fade when I was doing a few laps round Regent’s Park yesterday evening. I don’t think it’s going to fade.
I’ve been looking at buying turbo trainers and entering time-trials in 2014. I’m threatening to shave my legs again, much to my girlfriend’s concern.
So sign me up for next year’s Etape. Maybe I’ll even end up doing some training for it.