L’Etape Australia 2019: epic, friendly, challenging, fun, painful, satisfying, windy, community-oriented, sunny. What word would you use to describe your experience at L’Étape Australia? For me all these words describe a great day on the bike, in the village and an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for just how special the cycling community is.
This was the fourth and final year that L’Étape Australia by Tour de France will take place in the Snowy Mountains. As a foundation member of the event I’ve seen it grow so much over the years and I’m sure my fellow foundation members will agree that this was the best edition yet.
Some elements remained the same. Berridale once again won the best-dressed town award and you would be forgiven for expecting to see a French Boulangerie roadside as we passed through there on our bikes. The infamous Col de Beloka stood strong for the fourth year in a row and the sweat of thousands of riders continued to polish the asphalt with its salty presence. The wonderful volunteers ensured the event ran smoothly and were always there with a smile and a willingness to help that only made you want to push on and do more than your best.
I love the way the village has evolved over the years. Did you take part in the Tour de France quiz? Did you find your name on the wall? Seeing the huge line for the sausage sizzle and the tent for the Kozciusko Pale Ale reminded me that although France has come to Jindabyne in so many ways this event still has a distinctly Aussie touch. Just the way it should be.
Whilst some things have stayed the same each year there were other parts of the event that changed and grew just like we all have over the years – okay, maybe I haven’t grown so much in height over the last four years! Seeing Matt Keenan swap the microphone for lycra and take to the startline was a reminder of the shared passion we all have for just getting out there and riding our bike. Having Esteban Chaves and Steve Waugh there this year was a grounding experience and hearing about the work that both of them are doing with their charities ensured that we all put perspective on what we do every day.
Unlike previous years, this year I started at 8:30 am with The Ride. Whilst this moved me closer to those elusive ‘pro hours’ and ensured I had time for an extra coffee or two, more importantly it meant that I had the chance to ride with so many more of you across both the Ride and the Race.
My original plan was to complete the Ride loop and perhaps tackle the lower slopes of Perisher too. How plans can change – who could say no to a smiling Esteban Chaves??!! As I started the climb up to Perisher with Esteban we were passing riders and taking the chance to give as much encouragement as we could. Some looked over and smiled or had a chat. Others were so in the zone that the face remained focused on the task at hand. It was a position I could relate to so much. If there was a prize for the best suffer face I’m sure it would be found on this climb.
As we kept climbing up and I saw so many riders on the climb it occurred to me just how amazing the achievement is for everyone riding their bike on the day. I spoke to riders who were doing their first ever ride over 100kms; others who were so worried because the preparation hadn’t been right. What struck me was that when it came to race day none of this seemed to matter anymore. Whilst the climb may have looked like one huge collective mass of suffering, in between those suffer faces was a determination like I’ve never been before. I felt inspired.
Rolling under the Tour de France finish gantry and being funnelled down to the village reminded me yet again just how special this event is. As everyone collected their finish medals and made their way towards the sausage sizzle line stories were already being shared about the epic day on the bike. The final rider to cross the line completed the course in ten hours and fifteen minutes. I’ve never been on the bike for that long before. For me, that is inspiring. Courage, resilience, determination – these attributes were shared amongst all riders on the day.
One of my personal highlights was being in the finisher area and seeing some of the ladies from my ladies ride in Sydney arrive and excitedly tell me what they were able to do out on the road. These are riders that had never been able to conquer Col de Beloka, or riders that were told by riders at home they weren’t good enough to complete the course. What stood out for me was that what really matters on the day is how you challenge yourself. How you can push through those fears and achieve something you weren’t sure you could before. The finish time doesn’t matter. It made me so proud to see the huge smile on the faces of these riders crossing the finish line.
Each year I hoped that somehow Col de Beloka had been shaved down a little or that the wind would behave and continue to turn every time I did to ensure I had a tailwind all day long. But as a sport that jousts with nature each time we’re on the bike these hopes were always dashed. Instead I joined with thousands of other fellow cyclists to embrace the pain, the challenge and the camaraderie of another magnificent L’Etape in the beautiful Snowy Mountains.
We’ll all miss you Jindabyne, thanks for the memories. Now to look forward to making new ones in Kiama in 2020!