I rode the Etape du Tour, for the second time, in 2008 as part of Rapha’s Crazy Bet. Everything in this story happened to me, but even at the time it seemed to me that it wasn’t happening only to me, so when Guy Andrews asked me to write something for his big photo book, I tried as much as possible to write about all those other people without knowing anything about them except what I knew about me.
You’re timed and the course is mapped and marshaled, and you get a medal and a certificate. You can look up your finish on the internet and brag that you competed on an actual stage of the Tour de France and all that, but you don’t race the Etape du Tour, not really. You don’t go there to race your friends for any kind of definitive bragging right. (You might think you are, and they might think you all are, but a victory at the Etape will be wiped away a week later by a stunning sprint finish at the regular group ride back home.)
You don’t race the other Etape cyclists, either – seriously, do you want to claim citizenship of a pack that includes the 314-pound groaning man on a squeaky mountain bike, the restless ex-pro storming off the front, and the chatty lady in gray sweatpants and pink trainers spinning beside you up Hautacam on a bike with a wicker basket? You’re certainly not racing, not with any meaningful comparison anyway, against the Tour de France peloton that will frolic across the same course just a few days after you
You are racing you.
The fact that the Etape gives you the chance to ride a Tour de France stage is the way you legitimize your madness to your family, your friends, your accountant and even yourself. Before you start riding, you probably even believe that. But somewhere in the epic length and height of that day the mythic chases stop. Your friends and the ghost of Octave Lapize and even the chatty lass in the soggy gray cotton pants – all of them vanish. Fog shrouds the Tourmalet, and liquefied sheep shit spatters your face and fills the grooves of your brake pads, and voices quiver in the mist like bugs just snared in a spiderweb. And there is just you.
You: Your oldest enemy and oldest friend, as well as a curious new acquaintance you’ve just met out here on the road, pedaling on toward you forget what. You didn’t train enough. You ate too much. You stayed out too late. You didn’t prepare your gear. You didn’t want it enough. You wanted it too much. You no longer know why it matters. Or, finally, what it is.
But you ride on, lonely when you leave yourself in this strange race, jubilant when you rejoin yourself and, at the finish, there you are. You caught yourself, just in time.
Originally published in the Rouleur Photography Annual 2008