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Women's 100: Allez Mademoiselle
Photos: Phil Gale
“The greatest battle is not physical but psychological. The demons telling us to give up when we push ourselves to the limit can never be silenced for good. They must always be answered by the quiet, the steady dignity that simply refuses to give in. Courage. We all suffer. Keep going. “
- Graeme Fife
“"Keep going. Keep going." My brain repeated this as I marched upwards. I was battling the last kilometres of the 2013 Etape du Tour, the same route as stage 20 of this year’s Tour de France. I entered it wanting to participate in the history of the 100th edition of the greatest sporting event in the world, and to know what the pros would see and feel when they took on this string of rolling and massive climbs. Now, I was regretting it.
Five and-a-quarter hours after gliding around Lake Annecy and heading into the mountains of the Haute-Savoie, I found myself, like the 11,000 other cyclists who had lined up for the sportive that day, in the darkness of extreme physical exertion. My legs seemed to have nothing left in them as I battled every physiological warning that my body was shutting down, one kilometre from the summit of the Semnoz and the finish. The road sign telling me the end was so near had cyclists littered beneath it, like ground troops taken down by enemy fire, so gripped by dehydration and exhaustion they were unable to endure even a thousand more metres of pedalling at a slow crawl.
This had become a familiar scene along the second part of the climb. Riders who had succumbed to the heat, misjudged the early stage of their ride, or who had failed to take on enough food and water were stopped by the side of the road to cry, sit down or slump over their handlebars. As I passed them one by one, the sight of so many people giving in to their demons tempted me to do the same.
The previous 127 kilometres had been comparatively pleasant. Rising out of Annecy along Col de Puget and then Col de Leschaux, I carefully regulated my effort, aware of the need to save my legs for the Semnoz. Word from my colleagues who had ridden the route in May for the Rapha Etape recce film was that the final climb would require the last of my reserves, and I tried to keep that in mind as faster riders blew by. It was hot, and staying hydrated with electrolytes and salt was becoming critical.
Just after the first water station near La-Motte-en-Bauges, I pulled up to a gentleman in Rapha kit. He had finished five or six previous Etapes and reminded me to use downhill and rolling sections to gain time before hitting the big climbs, Mont Revard (Cat 1) and the Semnoz (11km of HC). He soon took off with a group of hardened-looking cyclists and at his invitation I jumped into their slipstream as they rolled past. I stayed with them until Mont Revard, and at the feed station near the summit reunited with two other Rapha women who were riding as part of the Women’s 100. We gave each other a few words of encouragement, shook our heads at the heat, reapplied some suncream to our already-burned skin, and just after I resorted to pouring water down the back of my jersey to cool down, we remounted and soldiered on to the top. We separated on the descent and as I began to cross the rolling sections leading to the Semnoz, a train of Belgians came past. I employed the same tactic as I did going to Mont Revard, accelerating to get on their train and having to work to stay with them, but managing to arrive at the summit of the Semnoz in much better time than I expected and with my legs in fairly stable condition.
That all changed though, as I turned and headed through the village and cheering crowds, straight onto the climb. It was immediately difficult, with no break in the gradient and cruelly steep compared to the rolling hills I had been enjoying with the Belgians only minutes before. A spectating family who were shouting “allez monsieur!” over and over to the passing male cyclists saw me and suddenly changed to “allez mademoiselle!” A little girl chased me excitedly and her mother yelled ‘la seule femme!’ (‘the only woman!’). I continued up the climb with their delighted shouts following me, pushing on towards the goal.
While I was distinctly in the gender minority on Sunday, with just over 600 women starting and the rest of the 11,475 participants all male, I never felt isolated. The general sense of camaraderie was high and seemed especially so amongst women. We encouraged each other, from the little girl and her mother shouting from the side of the road, to the women who, during our labored breathing up the long, unrelenting Semnoz traded encouragement through brief nods or a shortened, quiet, and at the end, desperately determined ‘allez’. Just near the top, I pulled up next to a woman who looked to be in about as much pain as I felt. Graeme Fife’s “keep going” replayed in my head and I looked over at her and said the same. We crossed the finish within a few seconds of each other, drained, shaking, but victorious, proof that women are breaking into the world of serious cycling like never before and welcomed by the men who have held the majority for so long.
Allez, ladies. Let’s go.
- @CanyonUK Everyone loves a hug, thanks.
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