On Saturday 19 July 2021, I rolled out of Brest as part of a team of 18 cyclists aiming to ride the entire route of the 2021 Tour de France one week ahead of the professional race and in the process raise £1m for Cure Leukaemia. Just getting to the start line felt like a triumph…
The original plan was to ride the Tour route in 2020, one day ahead of the professional peloton, but like so many plans over the last 18 months, it was derailed by the pandemic. No problem, we thought: postpone to 2021 when the world is back to normal. Of course, as the months rolled on it became increasingly clear that 2021 was a long way from normal. As winter eventually became spring and lockdown restrictions came, went and came back again, the emotions of the Tour 21 team were up and down on a daily basis. We did the only thing you can do when facing such uncertainty: plan for the worst, hope for the best and with that in mind the logistical planning carried on throughout the spring and into early summer.
COVID vaccines, PCR tests, amber countries, green countries, antigen tests, quarantine, COVID passports, lateral flow tests, essential travel, non-essential travel, exemptions – it was new territory with seemingly endless and constantly changing rules and regulations to navigate to even get to France, let alone attempt to ride round it.
A few of our team went to Brest on 9 July and self-isolated. A handful of our team weren’t double vaccinated in time to allow them to travel. I was double vaccinated but didn’t have two weeks on the clock since my second jab, so my place was in doubt until I found a line on the French Consulate website that said if I could prove I’d previously had COVID then I would be able to travel – I was 99% certain I’d had it months ago so off I scurried to get an antigen test. Sure enough, the antigen test came back positive and I was cleared to travel. It was almost a disappointment to only be asked for my passport as we boarded the ferry in Portsmouth and we didn’t even have to show anything when we arrived in Caen, but no matter, I was finally on French soil and ready to ride!
A short 25km on Friday afternoon around Brest to stretch the legs after 36 hours traveling was welcome, if a bit surreal, and then all of a sudden it was 7am on Saturday morning and we were off! Lots of talk in the little peloton about pacing ourselves, taking it easy, it’s a three-week endurance test, don’t go into the red in the first week etc., etc. On that first morning, it looked like we were taking our own advice, riding nice and steady and ticking of the miles in a disciplined group. Having moto outriders stopping traffic certainly helped it feel like we were making good progress. We’re a team, one for all, all for one. Stay in the wheels if you need a tow, let’s stick together…until an hour after the lunch stop, with around 60k still to go, when without warning it all kicked off and suddenly ‘it’s on’, full-gas riding, hang on to the wheel in front, 30 seconds on the front before peeling off and desperately trying to recover before what feels like less than 10 seconds later you’re somehow back on the front and dangerously over your threshold. What the hell happened to pace yourself and take it easy, it’s a three-week test?
And so the pattern was set for pretty much every stage. Ride in a group till just after lunch, then hang on to your bidons boys and girls, all hell is breaking loose again! You could of course drop off and join the ‘tortoise’ group if you wanted to, but frankly where’s the fun in that? Well, by day five it turned out I could see plenty of fun in that and I was very happy to trundle like a tortoise now and again.
Having trained non stop for nearly 18 months I was in probably as good a shape as I could have hoped but nothing could have prepared me for the relentlessness of riding hundreds of kilometres day after day. It was physically and mentally draining, despite the brilliant logistics (police outriders in towns/cities, team coach, mechanics, decent hotels; there was even a laundry service every three days for your kit!). But despite the tiredness and the strain, the feeling that it was an absolute privilege to be part of this was always at the front of my mind. The daily routine was punishing but it was also crucial to follow it and minimise the faff. Oh god, the faff! If you’ve ever rolled your eyes at the level of faff when a club run gets ready to leave the café stop, trust me, that’s nothing compared to the frankly world-class level of faff from 18 tired middle-aged cyclists half-way round the route of a Grand Tour. The daily routine didn’t change much, irrespective of the stage. Up at 6am. Breakfast at 6.15am. Bags packed, kit on, bidons filled, helmet, glasses, gloves, gilet, arm warmers and rain cape at the ready. Main bag on the coach and in the luggage hold by 7.15am. Bike stowed in the bike trailer by 7.15am. Day bag on the coach by 7.15am. Coach transfer to start of the stage from 7.30am. Arrive at the start of the stage by 8.30am. More faffing. A good half hour of it. Has anyone seen the track pump? Where’s the SiS powder? Has anyone got today’s route on their Garmin? Will I need a gilet? Is it going to rain? How the four ride captains maintained their smiling and friendly demeanour, I’ll never know. 9am, start riding. 11am, water stop. 1pm, lunch stop. 3.30pm water stop. 6pm finish line. Wait for everyone to finish and get on the coach. Transfer to new hotel. Arrive hotel at 8.30pm. Dinner at 8.45pm. Shower at 10pm. Prep kit and bike for the morning. Phone home. Lights out 11pm. Repeat times 21 days.
I joined Strava a few days before we started, largely to give people at home the chance to see an update from the ride along with the odd photograph. It quickly became a daily highlight of the Tour, uploading the day’s ride during the coach transfer right after the stage, including a route profile and a few photographs from the day. The kudos and comments from home that appeared into the evening and the following morning helped lift my spirits and knowing that people were cheering us on meant a huge amount.
There were so many highlights that will stay long in the memory. Riding twice up the Mur de Bretagne on stage 2, the longest stage in 25 years on stage 7 (which included some km long ramps of 18% gradient I might add!), the thrill of reaching the Alps on stage 8 and 9. The dread of a 24km climb up to Tignes to finish that stage – I suffered that day. The high temperatures of week two, with Nimes, Carcassone and other iconic Tour destinations seeming like a heat-induced blur. The angst of climbing Ventoux twice after 80 miles of riding that day, in blistering heat. Climbing up into Andorra to the high point of the route above the clouds. Hitting the Pyrenees and the iconic Tour climbs: Col du Tourmalet, Peyrousourde, Luz Ardiden, Col de Portet.
We devoured highlights of the professional race whenever we could, largely on the coach transfer via phone or iPad, and the news that Cav had won one stage was greeted with huge cheers – as his wins stacked up, the cheers got louder and louder. Some enterprising soul managed to get live updates on the road as we headed towards the finish of stage 19 so when the news came through that Cav had picked up his 4th win, our little group rolling through rural France was cheering, high-fiving and crying tears of joy all at the same time.
With every passing day, Paris was getting just that little bit closer. The last few days seemed to fly by and what had seemed like a very distant dream three weeks ago was coming into focus – we were in Paris and ready to ride the final stage. It was a shock to the system to ride 75km in a city after the landscape we’d been revelling in for the previous three weeks. Once the Arc de Triomphe was in sight, we knew we’d done it.
So, what were the cycling highlights? The stats tell one story – 21 stages, 3490km of riding, 44,000m of climbing and 143 hours in the saddle – to say nothing of the hundreds of croissants, thousands of gels and energy bars, 7 to 8 litres of water for each rider every day, most it consumed, some of it poured over heads as the temperature went up.
But there’s really only one stat that matters. As we arrived at the Arc de Triomphe, the news came through that we’d just hit our £1m fundraising target for Cure Leukaemia. Whoever was writing this script knew how to come up with a Hollywood ending!
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) July 15, 2021
After the photographs, hugs, handshakes, tears and outpouring of relief in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, it was a race for the Eurostar and the dash home in time for kick off. And what better way to get back to reality than to see England lose on penalties in the Euro 2020 final?