Cycling the original tour de france - 5439km
– Following the wheels of the first Tour de France, a 5,439km cycle inspired by the 1911 Tour.
I have a tendency of dreaming big! Many would say cycling 5,439km around the 1911 Tour de France would have been a massive challenge in its own right for an amateur cyclist, but something inside me, which I really can’t explain, has a habit of upping the anti! I decided to ride the route in 23 days, rather than the 30 days the original took in 1911. 23 days is the duration the professional cyclists take to ride today’s current Tour that is 2000km shorter.
The 1911 tour is regarded as the first of the modern Tour de France, despite there having been 8 previous tours. This is because it was the first year the Tour included the iconic mountain stages of both the Pyrenees and the Alps, as they have done ever since. It covered a distance of 5,439km, over 15 stages, each stage averaging 350km in length, with the longest stage totalling 470km. 48,000 vertical meters of ascent were climbed and no support vehicles on the road were allowed.
The race was run over 30 days, giving 48 hours per stage, and only 28 of the 84 starters finished. Todays Tour is quite a different beast. It’s 2,000km shorter than the 1911 route, its longest stage is 231km, riders have support vehicles, and it’s 21 stages are run over 23 days…continues below
On June 27th 2018, my partner Lee and I, completed our challenge, riding the 15 stages of the 1911 tour, without a support vehicle and returning to the Arc de Triomphe Paris in just 23 days. Exhausted but elated.
It was not a race nor an attempt to set records, it was purely an adventure simply for love! For my love of France and wanting to see more of it. For my love of the Tour, and wanting to feel in some way part of it. And for the love of riding my bike.
The Grande Boucle came about as an idea when I saw an old poster for the 1914 Tour, and I instantly had a burning desire to ride it. It appealed because it was a true ‘tour’ around the circumference of France. Particularly if you compare it with the modern tours, that sometimes visit other countries and then hop and skip around France using team buses and even planes. With a little research, I could see that 1911 was very similar to the 1914 route and with it being regarded as the first it made more sense to tackle this.
Of course highs and lows were inevitable. Between us we endured; dangerously acute sleep deprivation, strains, swellings, injuries, weeping saddle sores, cyclist palsy (loss of use in your hand), all types of weather and very near misses with speeding vehicles. But in return, we were rewarded with the beauty of France. The wildlife, the scenery, the architecture. Mountains, coastlines, cities and everything in-between, The Col d’Aubisque, just WOW!…continues below
My psychological battle
In the adventure/expedition world, it is very common for people to talk about accountability. You are often told that if you have an idea, a dream or a challenge that you really want to make happen, then you should tell as many people as possible about it. Once you have announced it, you are far more likely to follow through and succeed, as you feel accountable. Most of the time I would agree with this.
However, my biggest psychological battle on challenges and expeditions, that I am working hard to overcome, has always been the fear of what others will think of me if I fail. With back to back DNF’s for my last few races and adventures, caused by sickness and injury, I decided it was really important to try and reduce some of the pressure and expectation I was putting on myself for this challenge. So I told no-one. I am my own biggest critic and so my own expectations are big enough, without the worry of additional expectation from sponsors, press or even friends and family. I told myself if I could get through the first 5 stages without any serious injury then maybe I would update my progress on social media, so friends and family could follow along. Until that point, I would just ride my bike and try to enjoy it.
I believe I have a ‘tough mindset’. To succeed in ultra-endurance sport you must ask yourself ‘how bad do you want it?’ If the answer is enough to endure more pain and suffering that you thought was possible, then you are likely to succeed. I can do suffering… I can ride my bike for 24 hours straight with tears streaming down my face caused by agonising pain, whilst never once considering stopping or quitting. However, what I don’t have, and need to improve on, is a ‘positive mindset’, particularly at the start of challenges.
I had only done 2000km of cycling this year prior, which I suppose isn’t very much training at all for a journey of this size, and therefore I wasn’t sure how my body would hold up. But before departure I had already prepared myself for getting in an injury and having to go home after a few days, I had told myself it would be okay and just to think of it as training for the Silk Road Mountain Race later in the year. This is why I had given my self the stage 5 milestone. As I thought I wouldn’t get past it, as something was bound to go wrong. This is not the attitude to have on a start line. I was very relieved when I completed stage 5, as I then felt it was okay to think I could actually achieve this thing, I should have had 100% of my focus on succeeding from the very beginning and this is something I will continue to strive towards.
For the entire duration of the challenge, in a bid to keep me relaxed and take the pressure off, Lee would turn to me before we started each stage and say, in a nonchalant yet jolly tone, “fancy a bike ride?” Just as if we were at home and going to pop out on the bikes for a 50km ride in the sunshine for cake. This helped massively. As did keeping the numbers small. We tried to never think about the whole distance of the ride, in fact we tried to never think about the whole distance of the stage! We just rode our bikes for 50km or 60km at a time. We could focus on 60km, it always seemed doable. We would stop briefly to fill up with water, eat a quick snack and on we would go. 6 of these and before you know it you’re 360km stage is done!…continues below
My physical challenge
As for the physical challenge, well it wasn’t cycling the distance! In fact, I would go as far as saying that the peddling was the relatively easy bit. The human body is such an incredible thing and capable of so much more than we ever ask of it. I knew that if I just rode the bike slow and steady, in a bid to prevent the body from breaking, it wouldn’t have a problem covering the distance.
The bikes were also quite heavy, ladened with food, wet weather gear, cold weather gear for night riding, power packs to charge lights and garmins, repair kits and medical supplies. So being super speedy wasn’t ever really an option.
I believe the reason that the peddling never became the difficult bit, is because I finally got my eating right. Getting the food consumption right has been something I have really struggled with on previous endurance races and adventures. I have often not eaten enough or struggled with the pressure I have put myself under causing stress-related stomach issues resulting in failing to keep food down. At times I haven’t been able to even stand the sight of food without feeling sick. In addition, when my body becomes run down I suffer greatly from mouth ulcers and acid spots. These, in turn, make eating incredible painful, causing me to want to eat even less. Once you have exhausted all your reserves and your body is running on empty, hormones naturally suppress your appetite even further. It is a spiralling vicious circle. I have learnt the hard way that getting your nutrition right is critical.
This time, as I circumnavigated France I consumed a whopping 9,000 calories per stage. This was still a deficit, as we were burning on average 11,000 calories, but I think 9000 calories is pretty impressive. I was eating like a woman possessed. To the point I would sometimes run out of food and Lee would have to share his with me until we got to a shop. I just couldn’t stop eating. We would graze constantly on the bike and then eat more at our 60km breaks. Lee was constantly dumbfounded by this ‘new me’, that would hop off the bike and run into a bakery, order 5 massive croissants that I would eat then and there, hop back on the bike again and continue grazing my food supplies once more.
Last year I worked with Loughborough University Sports Nutrition department to help me improve my food intake on the bike, and I will never forget when I was told: “ice-cream is your best friend”. Hurray! So tucking into my fourth white chocolate magnum each day completely guilt-free was definitely a highlight of the trip. Milkshakes, ice-cream and rice pudding made up a large amount of my calorie intake, as they were easy and painless to eat when you have a mouthful of ulcers.
We would typically eat the following on each stage: 2 large hot meals (the likes of lasagna or shepherds pie with a large side of veg), 4 sandwiches, 4 x pieces of cake/flapjack, 2x bananas, 2 large snack bags (filled with sweets, toffees, dried fruits, nuts, pretzels and saucisson), milkshake, rice puddings, ice-creams, chips, large portion of granola, McDonalds or similar, tuc biscuits and a large amount of croissants!
If cycling the distance wasn’t a problem and I was getting the nutrition right, then surely this challenge was easy peasy? Well no! There was one physical test that I hadn’t accounted for being such a key player in the potential failure of this journey. Sleep deprivation!
During the preparations I knew some of the stages would take us 24 hours to ride, so therefore organised the challenge to be based on 1 ‘day and night’ being 36 hours not 24 hours. This ‘in theory’ allowed up to 24 hours to ride the stage, then 12 hours to eat, shower, sleep, and prepare food and get organised for the next stage. However, on a 36 hour day, every other day our sleep period would fall in the sunshine daylight hours, and despite how tired we were, we found sleeping impossible. We would lay down for a few hours, resting our bodies regardless, but just couldn’t fall asleep in the heat and light of the day. I wrongly had assumed that we would be so tired we would instantly fall asleep as soon as we hit the pillow, regardless of the time of day.
This lack of sleep, combined with riding through the night, completely messed up our body clocks. It turned out that in a 72-hour period (2 of our days) we only managed 6 or 7 hours of proper, ‘in a bed sound asleep’, sleep. This takes its toll after a few weeks.
Early on I tried to combat this sleepiness by drinking that repulsive black devil liquid, coffee! I know, I know… how can you be a cyclist and not like coffee I hear you say. I just can’t bear the taste, coffee cake, coffee chocolate, it’s all disgusting. Until this trip, I had drunk two cups in my entire life, but in a bid to stay awake (and the likes of red bull causing havoc with my ulcers and acid spots), I resorted to 2 or 3 cups a night, heavily ladened with sugar.
However, from about 14 days in, our safety was becoming a major concern. We had to start topping up our limited sleep with roadside power naps. Initially, we managed with just 20-minute naps but eventually had to change to a couple of 45-minute naps during each stage. We slept on the ground under our foil survival blanket anywhere that was sufficiently sheltered, such as toilet floors, restaurant terraces, shop doorways and bus shelters. I wouldn’t even take my helmet off, I would just dismount the bike, lie down out of the wind and by the time I had pulled the foil blanket over my shoulder I was asleep. Public toilets were always the best option if we could find them without too much deviating. Although they didn’t always have the best aroma, they were often relatively warm and we could take the bikes in and lock the door. We never once felt threatened or were even bothered by people wherever we did end up sleeping, knowing you and your bike were behind a locked door, and therefore not going to be disturbed, just meant you slept that little bit better.
There were a couple of times when we had only 10 – 15 km to go to finish the stage and were fighting so hard to keep ours open, but still we had to stop for a sleep. The scariest occasion being on a busy dual carriageway during the early morning rush hour. The sun was coming over the horizon and streaming straight into our eyes, there was barely a hard shoulder to cycle on, and it out took a split second where Lee had nodded off and veered into the traffic. He woke himself a split second later and screamed at such a close call with the passing traffic. As soon as instances like this happen we were quick to get off the bikes and take a power nap. Content with making the end of the stage an hour later, rather than never making it at all.
A few people have asked us since our return, if we were to do it again would we stick with a traditional 24 hour day, to help prevent the sleep deprivation. If we were looking to just ride our bikes 5,500km then yes, by riding as far as you can each day and stopping for a few hours all within a 24 hour day, would be much easier and more efficient. So much so I think we could have covered the distance in maybe just 20 days or less.
However that wasn’t the challenge, our goal was to ride the 15 stages of the Tour. Even the pro cyclists in years gone by had to take power naps to get through the stages…continues below
A few of the low points
On paper, stage 8 from Marseille to Perpignan was set to be the easiest stage of the tour, a flat 335km. We had mentally prepared ourselves that when we got to stage 8 we could just spin the legs, and almost treat it like a rest day. How wrong we were! We started at 8 pm with what was a strong breeze but nothing to worry about too much. Weather apps warned us that the wind was due to pick up in the next few hours, but still we hadn’t accounted for the strength of what was to come. It wasn’t long before we were riding into the black of the night across the flatlands of the Camargue being annihilated by Tramontana headwinds. So strong that going into the wind we were doing little more than a sole destroying 5 or 6km an hour, using every bit of strength we had. When the road turned and the wind was on our side, we would have to concentrate so much to not be knocked off our bikes, putting our feet down regularly to save a fall. At times I screamed at the wind, in both fear and exhaustion. At other times I told myself to be acceptant of what you cannot change and make peace with it. We battled on through the night but when the sun started to rise the wind was still relentless and our progress still demoralisingly low, but this was just the start of our problems.
Recreating the exact 1911 route was not always possible, as road networks have changed considerably in the past 100 years with some roads no longer existing at all. So prior to departure we had agreed to ride each stage unsupported from the same start and finish town, to ride the same distance and to include all the major categorised climbs listed in the archives and follow the route as and where we still could.
As we entered the Narbonnaise region we were met with lots of roads that wouldn’t let us cycle on them, despite being D roads. We set about finding alternatives, adding extra miles to our day, and often heading back the way we came, a soul destroying task. 200km into the day we found ourselves miles from anywhere on a dirt track, crossing the salt flat marshlands of the Narbonnaise National Park. We were carrying and pushing our bikes through sticky mud, taking our shoes off to wade through boggy streams, and covering just a kilometre per hour! Whilst being eaten alive by Tiger mosquitos. Despite having little skin showing and being covered in insect spray, they devoured us through our clothes, and boy do their bites hurt compared with your standard mozi. The mass of bites swelled and blistered almost instantly, driving us insane.
Just 60km from Perpignan, the end of the stage, we found our only option to move forward to be a very fast dual carriageway with no hard shoulder (technically it was still just a D road, but it felt more like a motorway). The Tramontana winds were now hitting us side on and I was concentrating so hard to keep my bike straight in a bid to not stray off the white line as the lorries hurtled past. About 20km along the road, a car shot in front of me at a slip road doing at least 110km/hr, and missed me by a whisker. I became hysterical, rooted to the spot, terrified to go any further. I have never had such a near miss with a car travelling at speeds where the outcome would surely be fatal. Lee eventually managed to coax me into riding on, I was still crying and shaking, but I had no choice if this stage was going to get done.
10km outside the city the road once again said no bicycles! Arghhhhh! Out came google maps to find an alternative. Every cycle path we tried just took us into farmers fields and dead ends. We tried again and again. A few times I would scream out loud, wanting to pack it all in then and there. How could it be so hard to find a way into the town of Perpignan? I would then take a long breath and try once more to find a solution, determined to not be defeated. Finally 27 hours after we started, on what we hoped would be a rest day spin, we arrived at the end of the stage, physically and emotionally broken. It had felt like the world was goading us to fail.
My biggest low came during stage 14, Cherbourg to Le Harve (361km). This was the penultimate stage, I was pretty much home and dry and yet I wanted to quit! I wouldn’t quit, as I’m not a quitter, but I wanted to every minute of the first 10 hours of the stage.
On many long expeditions or adventures, each day that goes by makes you feel fitter and stronger, giving you a sense that you could continue indefinitely. This challenge wasn’t one of those. With each day the sleep deprivation and general fatigue made me go a little slower, made my rest breaks take a little longer and made the bodies ailments intensify.
I was a nervous wreck before we even mounted the bikes, it was early evening so the stage was going to start with a night ride. Yes my saddle sores were excruciating by this point in the trip, yes my ulcers and acid spots had by now made talking and eating very uncomfortable, and yes the repetitive strain in my knees were very painful, but all of this is to be expected cycling such long distances. But I had become terrified to get on my bike and peddle through the night. I just didn’t want to crash. With every night ride that passed, the amount I had control over my eyes diminished. Not only could I not keep them open, but also when they were open I was unable to focus clearly often seeing double or treble of Lee, cars, road signs, or any other obstacles that lay ahead in the darkness. I cried my way through the night stopping for just two power naps, both of which I refused to get up from. I was just done, all I wanted to do was sleep. The acute tiredness had turned me hysterical, and I pleaded with Lee through floods of tears to be left on the pavement to sleep for a few more hours. Lee quite rightly got angry with me, we had come too far to just roll over and continue sleeping now. In two days it would all be over. Now don’t ask me why, maybe there is a science behind it, but on every trip I have ever done, when you are at your lowest your teammate will be feeling good and able to encourage, support and motivate you. And vice-versa when Lee was at his lowest I was feeling strong.
Once light, I calmed down and just repeatedly told myself “don’t think, just do” “you’re just going for a bike ride”. Over 5000km done, one stage to go, tomorrow is going to be a better day…continues below
Now for some highlights
Stage 5, Chamonix to Grenoble (368km), was the big milestone stage, which meant when I departed Chamonix I was nervous. I had told myself if I could get through this I could get all the way to Paris. My legs felt like they were made of lead as I crawled up my first climb out of Les Houches, thanks to the 4000m of climbing in yesterdays stage. This added to my nerves and apprehension. With the previous 4 stages, I didn’t know what to expect or what lay ahead, they were just numbers on a page and place names on a map. But for this stage, I was on home roads all the way. I could picture the route and knew every one of the monster climbs, and I knew that on any normal day no one would contemplate cycling from Chamonix to Geneva via the mighty Col du Galibier, it was laughable! After the first two climbs my legs had loosened and as we started up towards the Col des Aravis the nerves started to fade and the smile grew. It was a crystal clear evening, the moon lit up the steep rock face that flanked the climb, we chatted in between listening to podcasts. For me, I was engrossed in getting through the 150 Tough Girl Podcasts which gave me no end of inspiration and motivation as I peddled around France. Whilst Lee was enjoying the Rapha podcasts and Battle of Britain audiobooks. It was coming up to 2 pm as we reached the summit and were met with 100 or more partying wedding guests dancing the night away in one of the 3 restaurants that line the Col. We pulled over in the carpark to put on some warm clothes ready for the descent, to the gleeful sounds of Sweet Caroline blasting out of the speakers. Some of the wedding guests had spilt outside onto the terrace and were initially a little perplexed to see us cycling so late into the night, but alcohol inside them quickly took over as they turned into avid Tour de France supporters running alongside us screaming Allez Allez Allez! (This was something we experienced a lot of in the early hours of the morning as we made our way around the country).
By 10 am we had made it to St Michel de Maurienne at the base of Col du Galibier (via the Col du Télégraphie). After a quick run around the supermarket stocking up on supplies, I then devoured a family size tub of Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough ice-cream to be sure I had the energy to climb a further 2000m of ascent. I had made both these climbs a number of times before, but never as the slowest rider on the road and never with luggage on my bike. It didn’t matter how many cyclists overtook me during those hours, I was content in the knowledge that I had been peddling since yesterday evening and had done 1400km in a handful of days before that, it was okay if I was slow. The top of the Galibier had only been cleared of snow and open to the public just two days before our arrival. If it hadn’t been open we would have been hiking in the snow with the bikes on our shoulders, so I was very grateful that the roads were clear. The snow on the sides of the road added to the dramatic landscape on this mighty mountain. Its scale is vast. The climb from my ice-cream is just shy of 35km in length topping out at 2,654m at the summit. It is a must for any cyclist at least once in their life, it is magical. Lee had been at the top for some time when I limped around the final bend, but we were both overjoyed. The summit symbolised that we could get to Paris, we had a chance at this. On went every bit of clothing I had in my bag, I pulled the drawstring tight around my face on my two hoods that I had put on under my helmet, ready for the long descent. There was still a further 94km to go to finish the stage.
Similarly, my other stage highlight came on the biggest climbing day of the Pyrénées. Stage 10, Luchon to Bayonne, only 328km in distance but 5534m of vertical ascent, and would probably have been regarded as the ‘Queens Stage’. The climbing began immediately as we left Luchon, as the 5 epic cols of the stage, totalling 5000m of uphill, came within the first 170km of the stage. It was 5 pm when we started climbing the Peyresourde, and the suns rays were still hot. I rode most of the climb with my head down, weaving between pockets of shade and talking to the legs, as they were not amused by the 7 -10% gradient straight out of the blocks. With 4km to go to the summit, however, the landscape changed and the beauty of the Pyrénées was revealed in all its finery, including some spectacular switchbacks. There was no way you could do anything but look at your surroundings in awe. Soon as we rolled over the summit it was very easy to tell that this year’s Tour was coming over this particular mountain, as the tarmac on the descent was unbelievable! Weeeeeeee! Quick to follow was the Col d’Aspin, the sun was setting, deer were running alongside us and there was not a sole to be seen. It was perfect. By the time we descended from the second summit and arrived at the base of the infamous Col du Tourmalet it was nearing midnight, we stopped and had a sandwich and decided to have a 40 minute power nap as we couldn’t afford to be tired at the top, as the temperature would be low single figures, making a sleep not possible. Plus we needed to be awake enough for what would be a very long descent. We climbed under the clearest of skies, covered in a blanket of a million stars, reaching the 2115m summit at 2.30am. We were quick to put on every item of clothing we had with us before starting the descent. Even in 5 layers, including a down vest and a down jacket I was instantly freezing. We stopped every 4 to 5km of the 19km descent, hoping off the bikes, shaking our hands violently and doing lots of star jumps in a bid to get the feeling back in our extremities.
As we started up our fourth climb, the Col de Soulor, we were greeted with a spectacular sunrise to thaw us out. The road was absolutely beautiful, although pretty steep in the later parts, but then came the Aubisque. Wow! This Col has just been skyrocketed to the top spot of my favourite ever climbs. Just stunning. There were also no cars on the climb, as the road the other side had fallen away with a landslide and was only wide enough for bicycles to get through. It couldn’t have been more peaceful or perfect, and the weather was everything you could hope for, blue skies and sunshine, but still cool enough to make climbing pleasurable. We had descended from the high mountains by 9 am for a coffee and croissant (or 5), smiling from ear to ear. What a truly incredible and memorable evening that had been. We couldn’t stop for long, we were only half way, we rode another 160km to finish the stage.
Something surprising that happened during the 3-week cycle, that was completely unexpected, was my new found fascination with bus shelters! I mentioned earlier that we often slept in bus shelters, but we found ourselves in them for most of our snack breaks during the night as well, as they were generally lit by a street light and had a seat. I previously never noticed how much bus shelters can vary; they varied from brick, corrugated iron, glass or wood structures.. Some had no seating, others a substantial bench, and some a ridiculous slanted perch which was no use to man nor beast. You also had to look out for shelters where the walls didn’t go all the way to the floor, as these would allow the cold night air to whip up underneath making them pointless unless it was raining and you were desperate. The depth of the shelter is also important, if the end walls aren’t deep enough, again the wind whips around and in, reducing their quality score rating. I found myself looking out for them all day long, even though we didn’t need one until the night time. At each sighting I would analyse its credentials for a good break or power nap, I just couldn’t help myself. It is still happening now a month on from my return. In the car I automatically home in on every bus shelter I pass, and in my head, I can hear myself say “oooh that’s a nice one… and it looks quite new” or the likes of! I can’t help but mentally give them a mark for; weather protection, seating and sleeping availability as well as cleanliness.
The boss of the Tour, Christian Prudhomme, famously said that the Tour exists to allow people to dream. How lucky was I to get to fulfil my dream of riding the Tour, and enjoy the freedom that 3 weeks on a bicycle gives. Nothing to do or think about other than peddling, whilst enjoying the stunning views and eating ice cream.
A podcast interview about the ride