For Anto’s 40th birthday present (and many month long celebrations, remember that Hong Kong and KL trip?) he wanted an entry into the L’Étape Australia inaugural race being held in Jindabyne, NSW on the first weekend in December. The L’Étape Australia by Le Tour de France is a cycling event run under professional conditions for amateurs, with closed roads, a challenging route, a Sprint and a King of the Mountain section. Seemed like a perfectly normal thing to do for your 40th birthday, right?
Anto is a keen cyclist but having been away for work (and our own trips) more often than he was home this year, the number of kilometres on the bike hadn’t been all that high. When he decided to enter the ride some serious training was scheduled. Anto wisely (in hindsight) entered the 126km ride rather than the 157km race. They shared the same route, with the race having another 30km of uphill at the end to finish in Perisher, rather than Jindabyne. Given that both courses had a very nasty mountain climb at the 100km mark, Anto thought he’d take the ‘easier’ option…….. I don’t do hills so neither looked easy to me!
After all the hours/days/months of training (and whingeing about sore legs), December was upon us and at lunch time on the Friday we all piled into the car, along with a boot full of bike and bike gear and headed off for the couple of hours drive to Jindabyne. Due to the early start to the race the next morning, and the need to do all the registrations and safety briefings the night before the race, everyone needed to in the Snowy Mountains the day before the race. As we headed out of Canberra and towards Cooma, we’ve never seen so many cars zooming along loaded to the hilt with bikes! It wasn’t hard to figure out where everyone was heading. McDonald’s in Cooma was filled with cyclists heading to Jindi.
The kids were pretty good on the relatively short trip up. Astrid was excited to be getting the afternoon off school, and Soren was studiously trying to avoid napping while spotting bikes! Both kids had been pretty excited about watching their dad in his bike race, but we figured the novelty would wear off after lots of hours of sitting around.
As we passed through Berridale, the excitement level rose as we saw all the painted bikes out through the town. The race was passing through here the next day, and this was the sprint section of the race, hence the green bikes (Jindabyne and other towns were decked out in yellow).
Pretty soon, we spotted Lake Jindabyne and we headed straight down to Jindabyne town centre to find the L’Étape village, so Anto could register, grab his race goodies, and do his safety briefing.
Meanwhile the kids and I roasted at the playground and checked out the ‘big yellow man statue’ as he came to be known.
With the formalities of registration and briefings completed, we headed to our accommodation for the next 2 nights. With over 3,000 cyclists competing (plus families) accommodation had filled up pretty quickly, so we are glad we booked ours a few months out. It wasn’t flash but the kids were more than happy with the bunk beds and it was walking distance into town (very important the next day). The entire 44 rooms of the motel were booked our with competing cyclists and there were bikes everywhere!
After a little bike maintenance, the all important race number and timing chips being added, and the kids had checked out their beds, we decided to venture into town for dinner. There were more yellow statues adorning the roadside, and it was a pleasant walk from our accommodation, along Lake Jindabyne and into town.
Due to Anto needing to be up at 4am, we opted for an early dinner. Us and a lot of other people! There were a lot of excited and hungry cyclists waiting for restaurants to open so they could be fed. We had found a Mexican restaurant that was happy to serve us drinks and give the kids colouring pencils until they started food. Margaritas and colouring in the afternoon sunshine was a pretty good deal! The food was pretty good too.
During dinner we noticed a bit of pre-race carb and alcohol loading going on, and there was no shortage of expensive bikes and lycra swanning around town. We didn’t have any Chris Froome sightings though…..
It was back to the hotel, and time to convince the kids on an early night before a long day of roadside supporting the next day! On the walk back we were impressed with how many bikes we saw sitting on balconies…….
Both the race and ride were starting at Lake Crackenback (Bullock’s flat). Due to the road closures for the event you either had to drive up there before the roads closed at 6am (and leave your car there until roads reopened around 4pm) or catch the race shuttles from Jindabyne. Anto had elected to be use the shuttle service, and was assigned a 4.45am shuttle! He was in the last wave of riders, so was starting his ride at 7:40am, it was going to be a long morning.
The night before the race we decided our best option for dealing with all the road closures the next day was to have Anto drive the car into town before his shuttle, loaded with all the gear the kids and I needed for the day. He was going to try to park in a location that we may be able to get out of and back to the hotel later in the afternoon. I was then going to walk in with the kids and not have to carry quite so much gear. Due to our hotel being right on the course for both the race and ride, it looked doubtful as to whether we could get back and forwards during the road closures, other than on foot. It was only about 2km into town, but there were some hills involved! It turns out our planning was better than many other families who had been caught out by some of the road closures.
From 4am there was a non-stop hustle and bustle of cyclists trying to grab some food and head out to Lake Crackenback. It was pretty much impossible to sleep with bikes being constantly wheeled past our door (yes, inside) and non-stop cycle chatter. The kids managed to sleep until at least 6am (I wasn’t so lucky) but it was going to be a long day for us too.
It’s here I’ll let Anto take over for his story of the ride……..
The morning started out with a fair amount of running around to get to the car parked somewhere Nic had a hope of finding before getting to the shuttle for the promised 04:45am departure time. Not surprisingly there were large numbers of bikes and their riders milling around waiting for the long line of buses and the trucks that would transport us up to the start. In a fairly short space of time the bikes were secured in the back of ‘our’ truck and we fairly quickly made our way to Crackenback.
Up at the start there was a fairly predictable amount of cyclists hanging around waiting….. and waiting…. The almost 3 hours until my starting time seemed like quite an age away. There was a single coffee cart running, they were doing a roaring trade with two big commercial machines running flat-out from when I arrived until I finally headed out of the starting pen.
To keep us entertained we had a string of interviews with fairly famous cyclists, most of which provided the fairly worrying news that the course looked ‘quite serious’ and ‘very tough’. As the winner of the little tour in France, Chris Froome was ‘invited’ to come out and ride in L’Étape, and as you can see in the above photo no expense was spared on his comfort, with his own big block of concrete being provided for interviews, photos and his race preparation. He was an amazingly good sport posing for endless photos and participating in all kinds of good-natured ribbing.
Eventually it was time for everyone to be grouped up for the start with waves for the Race heading out at 10 minute intervals, followed 20 minutes later by the Ride participants so we didn’t show the Racers up too badly. Seeing 1000ish cyclists bunched together for the start was a fairly impressive sight, with us all being warned to take it easy for the first bunch of descents, which were both fairly technical (read scary as all get out) and going to be in fairly close quarters to lots of other cyclists.
After allowing the Race participants (and Mr Froome) have a good head-start, it was time for the 800 odd Riders to roll their way out through the starting area. Almost immediately we were rewarded with a close to 200m climb, albeit at fairly gentle gradients, which provided a preview of what the day was going to bring, lots of going nice and fast (in my case downhill) followed by inevitably having to climb back up again and do it over again.
With the rush of finally moving, combined with wanting to get some warm blood into my now fairly cold limbs, I set of at a ‘pretty good’ pace, averaging well above the 25km/hr I was hoping to maintain over the course. I spent the next 8-10km happily passing people, as well as occasionally grouping up with some others going about my pace, until I used my gravitational ‘advantage’ to fly down the next hill….. At some point I thought that perhaps as the Ride was going to be a fairly long slog that I might back-off slightly and try and get some eating in before I ran out of energy. I’d spent the past month or so practicing eating silly amounts of calories while staying moving on the bike – training I hoped would put me in good stead later in the day.
The course had us making a fairly quick descent back down to Jindabyne, during which my first equipment failure of the day occurred, one of my contact lenses was just not sitting correctly & 50% of my vision was blurry. This combined with the silly fast speeds (at some point on this leg I hit 76km/hr) and having not ever driven/rode the course before, I managed to miss seeing Nic and the kids. In my defense it hadn’t occurred to me that she might have found somewhere with a better view to cheer us all on. I’m sure that subconsciously the support kept me flying through Jindi and out the other side for some lovely views across the dam as we headed back out of town.
The next 80 or so kilometres was a very pleasant meander through the countryside of the Snowy Mountains, punctuated with fairly frequent food and drinks breaks (it was heading towards 30C so the fluids became increasingly important). The whole way around the course locals had come out to cheer (and cow-bell) us on – although there were times their comfy chairs, champagne and picnics looked like a much better idea than however many more kilometres I had left to ride. I’m not sure if everyone was our supporting the ride because all the roads they usually used were blocked, or they liked to see others suffering, but every-time I rode past a group cheering us on it nicely distracted me from my legs telling me it was time to stop riding and have a good lie down.
Everything was going along charmingly, average speeds better than I had hoped for, legs not falling off, nothing mechanically wrong with the bike.. Until we rolled past 110km and arrived at the base of the Col de Beloka, which it’s been reported Chris Froome described as ‘riding into a wall’. While the climb is ‘only’ 2.98km at an average of 9.9%, within a fairly small number of meters from the start I made the mistake of glancing down at my GPS, which in its annoying ‘just show the facts’ way informed me the current gradient was 18% I had figured if I could keep my legs moving it was only 3km to the top – how painful could it be?
Apparently the answer is very….. If I had fresh legs I could have (possibly) pushed for longer than I did, but my legs were certainty not fresh & I quickly joined pretty much everyone else ‘stretching our legs’ by ever so slowly walking our way to the top. About every 500m I would get brave again, jump back in the saddle and manage to ride a couple of hundred meters before my legs gave out again. Eventually the peak was in sight so I bravely re-mounted the bike and rode my way to the top as if the pain of the last 30 minutes didn’t exist. Given I ‘only’ had 20km to go I flew (at a rather sedate pace) past the last drinks station, figuring there was going to be lovely cold drinks after the finishing line.
The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful, for some reason the last handful of climbs before the finish line seemed much harder than they would have in the morning – which made the support of the locals even more helpful. Before too long I made it around the final roundabout before the finish, with only a couple of little hills before the finish line. The finish line was on a nice gentle descent allowing for a fairly heroic burst of speed as you passed through the last timing gate, just after passing the wildly cheering family. Only to be somewhat surprised by finding people standing the in middle of the road for the first time in 5 hours, some ‘energetic’ breaking later and I rolled to a stop to have my medal put in place before staggering off the bike for a bottle of cold water and making my way to where Nic and the kids had been camped out awaiting my triumphant return.
Nic and the kids day……
With Anto anticipating heading through Jindabyne on the first section of his ride just after 8am, the kids and I had a quick breakfast at the hotel, well what was left of breakfast after the cycle hordes went through at 4am. We then ran down the hill from our hotel to the first point the race came into Jindabyne. Anto had estimated what time he would be coming through but as he was in the last wave, there was a constant stream of riders passing through by the time we got there and we weren’t really sure exactly when he would arrive. I was pretty sure we had arrived as the 2nd and 3rd waves were heading through and it turns out we timed it well. There were plenty of families and locals out ringing cowbells and cheering all the cyclists as they flew down the hill and into town.
Anto came flying through about when we anticipated, quite close to the front of his wave from what I could tell. Of course the camera gear was in the car parked in town, so no photos but we clapped and cheered, and he didn’t even see us as we weren’t standing where he anticipated. Apparently standing in the median strip a metre away from him wasn’t good enough!
With another 4-5 hours before Anto looped through again, we trudged back up the big hill to the hotel and got organised for the day. We then wandered down to town to locate our car and visited the L’Étape village for a play in the playground, but it was already getting pretty hot.
We had another few hours to kill before the riders made an appearance and it was scorching out so I decided to take the kids to see the ‘Trolls’ movie to enjoy some air conditioning for a couple of hours. The cinema was full of other families doing the same thing!
After the movie we made it down to near the finish line and grabbed a spot just as the first few riders from the 126km course started coming through. Anto had messaged me from 50km out and had given me an estimated time but we still have no idea when he would be arriving (he still had the very large climb to go). The kids amused themselves sitting on the picnic blanket on the edge of the road 50m from the finish collecting rocks and cheering. We had around a 45 minute wait in the hot midday sun but eventually a familiar figure was sprinting up the last straight and I managed to get a few shots of his finish.
He might have been a little bit hot and tired but he fulfilled my request to not crash and finish the race! The kids were very excited to see his medal!
Once the results were in it was clear that it was a pretty good effort for a first go at this sort of race. Anto finished in 5h:14:27, putting him 30th in his age group. He also did pretty well in the sprint section, 23rd in his age group!
After a quick bite to eat for a late lunch, under the shade of a tree, we headed back to the car and attempted to get back to the hotel. With some back road navigation we made it within a few hundred metres (and most of the way up the hill). The roads were still all closed and we could see some very weary riders still making their way into town.
The kids and Anto had a much-needed afternoon nap, while I went out for a walk to explore a bit more of Jindabyne and found myself back down in the village in time to watch some of the race presentations and speeches.
All a bit hungry and tired we made our way back into town for dinner, along with thousands of other hungry riders. Pretty much every restaurant was booked out but we did manage to find a table at Mexican place from the night before, so more cocktails, burritos and churros were had!
Jindabyne was full of weary riders celebrating surviving (or not) the race and I think some were in for a big night. We made it back to our hotel quite early, all tired but I think Anto was already planning his entry for the 2017 race……..
*Photos in this post are a mix of those from me, Anto’s iphone and some professional photos from Sportograf.