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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 June, 2005, 18:55 GMT 19:55 UK
Stage nerves for amateurs
By John Sinnott

Belgian Eddy Merckx (L) rides uphill with Frenchman Raymond Poulidor during the 10th stage of the Tour de France between Aspro-Gaillard and Aix-les-Bains  in July 1974
Following in the pedals of Eddy Merckx (l)....
Precedez la legende said the blurb on the shiny L'Etape du Tour brochure, the bike race that allows amateurs the chance to ride a Tour de France stage.

Said "Follow the Legend" blurb was accompanied by pictures of beaming lycra-clad cyclists against a backdrop of the sunkissed Pyrenees.

Follow in the wheels of cycling legends like Lance Armstrong, Miguel Indurian, and Eddy Merckx just for a day.

It sounded too good an opportunity to pass up and in went my entry form.

Last week during my second 100-mile training ride in preparation for the race I felt many things, but legendary wasn't one of them.

In the middle of an incessant thunderstorm, with hailstones making vision almost impossible, feeling cold and hungry, 50 miles from home, the enormity of what I was letting myself in for began to sink in.

The physical pain was just about bearable, but not the solitude, that was unbearable. And that was only through the rambling countryside of Hertforshire.

This year's L'Etape du Tour starts from Mourenx in south-west France, winds its way into the Pyrenees, taking in four cols - the Col d'Aubisque is nearly 11 miles long, with an average gradient of 7.16% - before finishing in Pau 118 miles later.

The race doesn't just demand you finish the race; it demands you finish in a certain time and if you haven't completed the first 60 miles in just under five hours you are eliminated by the "broom wagon".

For the 8,000 plus riders who take part it is like getting the opportunity to play a game of football on your team's home pitch, though obviously its a lot more painful.

Not only will the riders have to contend with fierce heat, they'll also have to deal with intense cold for the mountain descents.

This is serious stuff - medics and mechanics are on hand to help the riders, while the roads are closed to the general public.

The Tour de France itself follows the stage from Pau to Mourenx on 19 July.

The Tour de France climbs the Cole de Marie-Blanque
The 1995 Tour de France passing through the Pyrenees

Before I began to train for the race I was definitely a home-to-work cyclist - 80 miles a week, 40 minutes each way.

But to ride L'Etape du Tour clearly demands a more intensive training regime.

And so for the last three months, together with a friend, I've been going out early on Saturday morning riding 40 miles in just over two hours.

Unfortunately over the last month my friend's work commitments have intensified just when we were supposed to be upping the miles, which meant I was on my own.

Riding solo has given me a small insight - and I say that as very much as a cycling novice - into just what professional cyclists put themselves through.

And I don't know how they do it.

They're probably riding twice as fast as I could ever manage, but it's not just that.

It's how they deal with the mind-numbing tedium of riding long distances, the games the mind starts to play as your reach the end of your physical and mental tether.

And how they do it, day-in, day-out, week-in, week-out, year-in, year-out.

I've read and heard about sportsman being in the zone - that state of mind which professional sportsmen aspire to.

It's a magical space, but for me it seems a space that I'm unlikely ever to experience however long I was to cycle.

I've got one more 100-mile plus training run before the big day on 11 July.

I'm just praying I emerge from it psychologically less scarred than the last one and that, come race day, I arrive in Pau in one piece.

One thing I've already promised myself - I'll never ride another L'Etape du Tour again.

Tackling the Tour
27 Jun 05 |  Cycling

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