Alpes Open Tour Stages 3 and 4 report by Squadra Donne’s Sarah Maidment.
Stage 3: Beaufort to Courchevel: 72.4 miles
It’s not often that a doctor gets a month off work! I decided to go in search of some real hills and spent a week in Switzerland, followed by a week in the French Alps with “Alpcycles”, during which I rode two stages of the Alpes Open Tour rando-sportive.
I’m not sure if I was just nervous, or whether it was the windy roads down from Méribel that made me feel so unwell, but when we arrived in Beaufort in the back of the van the last thing I felt like doing was getting on my bike!
I’d expected to see thousands of riders at the start, so I was really surprised that there were only about 100 riders preparing to ride. Maybe they’d been put off by the previous day’s rain. Looking around, there were a fair few women, including the girlfriend of a Cofidis pro rider, who looked as if she’d be a strong climber. One of our group joked, “I think you’ll have to aim for second spot, Sarah!”
We set off just before 10am and the pro riders (seven of them – from Cofidis and Team Sky) led us out up the climb. I was surprised at how slowly we started but my heart was soon racing – partly adrenaline, partly trying to stay with the peloton for as long as I could. I dropped off the back of the bunch after about 3 or 4 miles but I was joined by Nicolas Cofidis from Team Sky, who rode with me for the rest of the climb. He didn’t speak much English and I was finding it hard to string French sentences together while my heart was beating at over 180 bpm!
We were treated to stunning views of Mont Blanc as we came over Col du Pré. There was a strong whiff of Bikefood as I overtook a group of GPM10 riders on the flat section before the next climb (which made me giggle!) They were clearly not impressed at being overtaken by a woman…
I really enjoyed the descent from the Cormet de Roselend. Back in the valley, the Sky rider had waited for me and he paced me onto a bunch. We flew across the flat section to the next climb. I was now riding with the only girl who had been ahead of me (the Cofidis rider’s girlfriend) and when she stopped to take off her jersey, the racer inside me told me this was my chance to get away. I put my head down and pedaled hard!
There was another lovely descent followed by an extra surprise loop – climbing in the baking sun. I was regretting not having stopped at the 2nd feed station, as I was running out of water. Thankfully the organisers had added in an extra feed station just before the final climb (Courchevel).
My legs were really starting to hurt! The Sky rider helped me to get onto the back of a group before flying off up the mountain. I popped off the back of the group as quickly as I’d got on but a Swiss guy kept me company for the climb. I chatted away in French but he didn’t seem to appreciate my sense of humour (“Je pense qu’il y a un lac ici. Je veux nager!” to which he replied in dry monotone, “Il ya une piscine a l’hotel Mercure.”) The climb was tough and the heat didn’t make it any easier. I just about managed to avoid bursting into tears! I couldn’t quite believe it when we finally came into Courchevel 1850m. I even put in a bit of a sprint to the finish line.
Some of our group were waiting at the finish line and cheered me on, jumping up and down, as I came round the corner. One of them ran up to me, gave me a big hug and told me I was the first woman to finish. They were all quite surprised, as we’d all expected the French girl to “win”. With a look of disbelief all I could manage to say was, “I think I’m going to cry!” I was dehydrated, hungry and in pain! Then over the tannoy, I picked out “Felicitations Sarah!” What an end to one of the toughest days in the saddle yet!
A bottle of orange juice, a few more hugs and several photos later I was feeling much better! Bring on stage 4!
Stage 4: Courchevel to La Toussuire: 65.5 miles
It was a cold start to the day at Courchevel 1850m. The stage started with a descent from Courchevel. I was overtaken by 30-40 riders on the descent, so I sprinted to chase a couple of riders and then a bigger bunch, so that I could ride with them for the flat section before the Col de la Madeleine. For some reason, when I saw the sign for the col (28km), I assumed it was 28km to the base of the climb… wishful thinking! This was the climb itself! It was pretty steep at the base and then leveled off before our first feed stop. I wasn’t going to take any risks today, so I stopped, filled my bottles (and my tum) and then continued to climb. I was really grateful for my low gears, as it meant that I could really ease off and spin on the less steep sections of the climb. I had overtaken the 3 women ahead of me by the first feed station.
It was a lonely ascent – I overtook a few groups of men and then didn’t see anyone ahead of me until we reached the top of the col. I didn’t hang around, as it was so cold. My Shutt gilet came in handy – as did my arm-warmers…
It was a great descent down the other side of the mountain. It seemed to go on forever! There was a food station at the bottom and I was grateful for a warm cup of tea. The ladies serving tea announced that I was the premiere fille, which brought a big smile to my face. I rode with two “Team Lux” riders for the next flat section. I went on the front to do some work just as we got to the bottom of the next climb. However, when I looked behind me, I realised I’d “dropped” them and they were 200m behind me. Oops. (I did apologise later!)
I continued to climb on my own. I’d forgotten my route map and I wasn’t quite sure which col we were supposed to be climbing. The Col de la Croix de Fer sounded familiar but surely it wasn’t 28km until the finish line… Maybe they’d got the distances wrong again. I reached a junction with a route marker pointing right towards La Toussuire but I didn’t see any more route markers or riders for 3-4 km. Convinced I was climbing the wrong col, I stopped on the side of the road and reached for my mobile phone… Thankfully I then saw two riders behind me, so I jumped back on my bike and continued up the hill!
It was another lonely climb. About 3 miles from the top, I could hear the French guy on the tannoy at the finish. I could also see a rider coming up behind me. He was still quite a way away but just to keep myself going, I decided not to let him catch me! When we reached La Toussuire, I saw what I thought was the finish (it was actually a bouncy castle!) and decided to put in a sprint. Thankfully, the finish line was only about 300m further down the road. I was greeted with “well done you’re the first woman” in French and before I knew it, I had a microphone in my face and a random French guy trying to interview me.
Had he waited 5 minuntes or so, I might have been able to string some words together in French, or at least think of something imaginative to say! Instead, all I could think of was “I found the climb up the Col de la Madeleine quite tough but I enjoyed the descent!!!” So embarrassing! I could see some of the guys from our group chuckling away in the background!
I think I finished about 15th overall and at least 30 min ahead of the next female rider 🙂