I find a hard to believe that we are into June and it is over a month since the Etape!
Chris has been doing the odd other ride or two and we both took a spin out to Dunwich as neither of us are free for the Dynamo – quite a way to go for a pint at the Ship, but, if anyone knows the Ship at Dunwich, definitely worth it.
It also led to an amusing incident where, having thrown the bikes in the car to be given a lift to Darsham station, I demonstrated how much of a city boy I am by pointing out a convenient layby to pull into – unfortunately, and slightly unexpectedly, this turned out to be the railway at the level-crossing that I failed to recognise. Regardless, we made the hourly train with seconds to spare. Chris had more grease on his head than his chain – a point Henry had delightfully described as an odd smudge – which nicely offset his silver hair and caused the side of the guard’s mouth to spasm when we were buying out tickets.
Still, I digress.
The Marrakech Atlas Etape 2014 for me was followed by a run in with a taxi and injuring the pelvis. I foolishly managed to get the children back to the boat, collapsed down the hatch and then realised I was stuck. Misconstrued by my partner, on her return, as drunkenness she brilliantly slammed the hatch and went out for the evening – so it was not until the next day that a hazardous rescue crew came to the barge to reunite me with dry land, hospital and eventually the lucky escape of crutches rather than several months in a cage.
This did mean that a lot of the run up to the 2015 Etape was wondering if I would actually ever get there.
Eventually, I taught myself to ride and then walk – which may have been the other way around, but was a close ‘hobbled’ thing.
The ensuing months had not left either Chris or myself in very good shape with us both being noticeably more portly.
Training started late and in a bit of a panic – we kept telling ourselves this will prevent us peaking too soon and becoming complacent.
This was aided any further by the fact that we struggled to get a ride in where either one or the other of us wasn’t suffering – either from overwork and long nights at the office or from the excess to counteract such abuse of the European Time Legislation.
And then there was the threat of humiliation – our blog readership went up by 100% as Chuck stumbled across it, filled out the form and joined the team. Who was this dark horse, this ex US military, European dwelling, cycling ninja? We were cycling scared. So scared I almost lit an ‘altitude training’ cigarette!
Bikes crow-bared into their ever-so-slightly too small bags, covered in (more) grease and swearing at the jokers who design these things purely to frustrate. They don’t fit the bikes and there is that cycling smugness where they never supply instructions – somehow, this magical metal origami you need to perform should be second nature – at birth you howl in that first breath in response to a man in blue smacking you on the back and instinctively fold a bike despite the fact you are yet to open your eyes and brave the brightness of this new world.
Despite this and my self-indulgent rant, both Chris and I get to the airport early and with everything we need packed for once.
Time to change some money have a beer and jet to sunnier climes.
Ah, but despite all our meticulous last minute rushing around, we hadn’t allowed for Easy Jet – Or ‘Easy’ as they had temporarily rebranded, as they were not intending to jet anywhere.
Not knowing when the flight was going to be announced, we couldn’t really sit down to a sensible meal, so we carb-loaded at the bar with a view to eating whatever delights are on offer on the plane – and that’s where the plan backfired. The delay ended up being quite substantial, and when we eventually did get off the ground it transpires that they had forgotten to load any food!
Allowing for the fact you could have probably grown a balanced diet in the time we were waiting, we were less than impressed and had to drink through it.
Marrakech airport, late at night and perfectly timed to coincide with a group of rich party goers and their collective private jets –customs took so long we were sober by the time we left ‘airside’ and stepped onto Moroccan soil.
Astoundingly, our car was there and our driver smiled through his yawn and shrugged, ‘that’s travel’. Perfect. And minutes later we were in our hotel. Great rooms with doors opening onto a private moon bathing area, leading onto a lighter shade of darkness that was probably a pool – still, no time for that – food!
It appeared that Marrakech was closed! Deflated, we returned to the hotel re-affirmed the lack of room service, other than the sort that may land you in prison, and assembled the bikes before collapsing hungry and already hung-over.
While the dawn chorus of calls to prayer didn’t wake me, the alarm that followed on close behind did the trick and I rolled out of bed to roll on the far-too-tight lycra on auto-pilot. Catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror did at least raise a smile – A Carter USM cycling top fitted the bill allowing for their, ‘You fat bastard’, chant – although the top had swapped ‘fat’ for ‘fit’ which was slightly more debatable.
Some bread for breakfast was followed by a dash to the start where, maintaining the late theme, we just made it in time to register, turn around and immediately set off.
With the increased coverage and popularity of the event, more slim and professional looking people seemed to have turned up.
Richard Freemantle was looking fit and determined – as was his friend Simon Rich, while Derek Workman had lost enough weight to wear a cycling top, no doubt increasing the speed of his writing by lowering the wind resistance of his pen. Meanwhile, I sucked my tummy in, clenched and held my breath while hating them all.
Learning from last year, Chris and I did not chase these lean things with their lack of air friction over the opening leg. A gentleman in full GB gear of similar stature to me seemed to be setting a suitable 16+ stone pace, so I covered the first 30k chasing him – partly because he had bigger wheels and partly because people my size are great to draft.
Meanwhile, behind me I could hear an American accent commenting on the small wheels – finally, just as we were pulling into Scorpion City we had met up with Chuck and his son. – big accents, big hearts and big wheels!
A couple of banana’s and off before the legs seized – rolling hills through increasing rural villages as we approach the mountain proper. Then the road forks and, bang, the first hill hits. It was further away than memory had it, yet, at the same time, there was the advantage of knowing it was short and sharp and suddenly you are flying into a dip to the second stop. A further 10k on, with the effort being getting to the menace that is the hill, rather than the climb itself. From here on it is 30k of climbing with a further two stops – how hard can it be?
Carnet stamped and on. The answer is rapidly apparent to the ‘hard’ question. From 40 – 50k in there are a couple of pretty steep moments. One is increasingly more exposed, it is 34 degrees and there is no training one can do in the UK that prepares one for the constant uphill flog.
Still, the Pacific is much better on hills than the Brompton and there is always an end. Unfortunately, the end is almost just after everything feels like it is going to explode.
Stop 3. Banana, water, olives, carnet stamped, pain – despite everything, the back and pelvis are now giving me bloody hell. 20k to go and off – have to go, despite not having seen Chris for ages, if I wait I will seize up – and, in fairness, the fact it is a single road with no turning means that however bad our combined sense of direction is, neither of us could be lost. So, he either has a ‘mechanical’ or has collapsed and died. If the latter, I both envy him and can pick him up on the way down.
The going is tough. An old(er) chap pedals past in such a low gear that I am amazed that he can stay upright on the the bike – that is, until I realise that I am slower still and almost fall off in shock at my amazing balance.
I come across a chap who, albeit much younger, is flabbier and starting to struggle. I feed him water and energy gels and we cycle a way together – panting a broken conversation in a combination of French and English. Allowing for the fact I have only just mastered the latter will give one an idea of the level of coherence involved, however, there was a shared bond between the sweat and pain that somehow bypassed the need for language – a good job in the circumstances…
I get off to stretch my back. He goes ahead. I catch him. Overtake. Get off, stretch my back and so the pattern continues. And then I creep ahead while making a mental note not to break my pelvis before doing something so stupid as this again.
The air thins and the view improves. Hairpin upon switch-back as we gain altitude. And then the last water stop. Just 10k to go.
I remember previously feeling this 10k being longer than I can remember, but strangely can not remember any of the longer bits. It is only 10k, it can’t be too far, surely?
Having stretched, I feel better than I have ever felt at this point before. Crack on…
People are heading past me at speed, shouting encouragement with the cheerful voices of those heading in the opposite direction.
How many more turns are there?
And then my gel consuming friend drives past on the back of a scooter. For some reason he gets off to keep me company and lets the scooter go – why let the scooter go for god’s sake? It could have towed me to glory. I would have paid. I didn’t even have any energy gels left as I had given them to the kid who used them to hold his bike over his shoulder while getting a lift.
Anyway, anger aside, we ground on – he leads, I catch up and etc. It transpires (and perspires) that fat English men seem to be tougher and I left him behind – eventually.
It felt like the end. Every craggy turn should show the end. I must have covered the last 10k. No, please not more… This mixed with the cheery shouts from the gravity aided returnees was the tune of the last 5k. And then, at last, there is the dam, the ski station and that little drag across the impossibly uphill flat to the finish line.
Chris (McHugo) is a legend in his own lunchtime. He calmly marks my card and then casually releases a couple of beers from the boot of his car. Gratitude doesn’t cover it. I force one on the guy who, through suffering worse than mine, I had paced the last few k’s – it was probably the last thing he wanted, however, it is the thought that counts.
I waddle over to the food tent, ignore it and collapse on the grass, roll a fag and revel in the view, the pressurised hiss of the can opening and the sparking scrape of the flint as I lit the cigarette. Derek is a familiar face at the top and someone to chat to in that semi-rambling way of the drunk, stoned and exhausted. In my mind though I am lucid and feeling pretty good, I may have even enjoyed myself!
Must force some olives down while waiting for Chris, salt required.
Chris appeared looking wired, triumphant and having spent a lot of the climb overcoming cramp – maybe an olive?
Maybe not the best time to offer…
Mike, suffering from a lack of training, makes it up among the back markers. This is a man in his early sixties who has just cycled up one of the longest single ascents in the world without really training!
I must digress briefly. The previous year he cycled the 24 hour Le Mans. Allowing for the slope on the track, over the 200 odd miles he rode he actually climbed more in the day than the Ouka Monster – did I already say respect?!
Mike, being late to the top and having an evening to organise literally arrived, made sure the back marker made it – a feat of heroism as the back marker pulled his 16 stone + to the end (trust me it is an effort), realised his body no longer responded, went into shock followed by the ambulance and eventually the military hospital. Anyway, having checked up on the back marker, Mike was off without a break.
Gravity is a wonderful thing. Mike set a cracking pace as we cut through some of the world’s best scenery. He paused to put some gloves on saying his was fine – a good thing as my breaks were smoking and stopping was only going to happen the hard way.
30k down in under 30 minutes before the rude awakening of an upward gradient. Still the next 10k was made up of the sharp up and downs through the villages to Scorpion City – blasting through the dust and back among the traffic, powering forward like souls possessed.
And then the long straight run into Marrakech.
Head wind full of dry dessert heat. Cant take any more caffeine drinks as my guts are twisted and I need buckets of water. Cars screaming past and the kilometre markers not coming quickly enough. Here the Pacific can’t handle the flat – when Chris takes the lead I spin trying to keep up.
And finally, there is the race track – spinning off the roundabout and back to the start having battled through the journey to get here, the ride – literally the ups and the downs.
I am sure we would have been met with rapturous applause on our return if it hadn’t been for the fact that we were so slow that things were being packed up and the few people left were, rightly so, concerned as to Mike’s whereabouts.
Oh well, our 15 minutes will have to wait. Chris and I wended our way to the hotel – obviously having ensured Mike had calmly cycled home first – showered and donned our evening wear and headed out.
Chris had a dapper shirt on and I wore a skirt – always amusing in Morocco as men in dresses point and laugh at the kilt, no doubt in the same way landowners mock those with sawn-off shotguns…
…And to the EFA meal.
Chris M slipping Gordon’s Export in the punch at the head of the red carpet. A reunion with our American friends, who are both good value and smoking companions. Ambassadors, both English and Danish, the uncomfortable English reaction to a belly dancer and a chance to ‘meet the girls’.
‘Meeting the girls’.
I was not comfortable with this. Are they being put on display or are we? How does this work? One is shared out per table? Is it going to turn into the worst type of ex-pat nightmare?
Well, as it transpires, I met two truly inspiring people who, having gone through the system, are now in their second year at Uni, one studying law and the other biology, which at the risk of becoming a Nobel Laureate and getting distracted, is a science.
The evening was a lot of fun with amusing distractions; Chris M auctioning bank notes for higher than face value – before I fleeced him of his Fez – which, tassels and all, he still owes me.
Mostly, however, it made me realise what an excellent job the EFA do. It is run by volunteers and all, well, all but the Just Giving fee, but otherwise, all money goes towards educating these girls. Giving them a safe environment in which to learn rather than being married off early. The results and wider benefits from ambulances, bin collections, a council across the three valleys and, most importantly, the inspiring pupils who are truly amazing.
People working to do little things that collectively can add up to changing the world using the most powerful weapon you can give someone – education.
I am proud of the effort Chris and I have made, hugely grateful for the support and will be doing this again next year.
Tuffs 2015 x