Right To Play asked me, Simon Klima, Strava UK Country Manager to join their team for three days of pro-am racing in the Pyrenees. With some last minute training and a col inspired bike tune up, I was off. Read on to see how I fared.

For an aspiring yet novice cyclist The Trois Etapes concept is something quite special. Thirteen teams of eight riders take on three looped stages in the Pyrenees, with timed GC sections strategically positioned on iconic cols to shape the leaderboard and fuel the competition. Motorcycle outriders clear the routes whilst the following team cars house the directeur sportif and soigneur. It’s fantasy cycling for real!

Team cars lined up and ready for the Grande Départ

Each team benefited from having a professional athlete amongst its ranks. The pro lineup included some stellar names, Evelyn Stevens, Chrissie Wellington, Nicole Cooke MBE, Emma Pooley and Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre.

My team wore the colours of Right To Play. The charity uses sport and play to educate and empower children, children who are born into poverty or trapped in conflict. Representing a charity that uses sport to alleviate child suffering struck a chord with the team. Lewis Spiers, our DS and the charity representative asked us to imagine our childhoods minus sport and play, we all found it an impossible concept to get our heads around. Sadly, for many children it is an unavoidable reality.

Stage 1 – Friday 8th August 2014
Length: 100km
Climbing: 2,497m

Departing our Tour HQ in Lourdes, a market town famed for pilgrims, miraculous cures and curious shops, we were led out by our pro, James Moss of Velosure – Giordana Racing. Stage 1 would see us tackle 2575m of climbing over two major climbs; Col du Soulor and Col des Spandelles. On our way out of town we stopped off at the Mayor’s office for some ceremony and pomp, by now I was desperate for the race to commence.  Eventually we were off…

Signing on at the Mayor’s office
Signing on at the Mayor’s office

GC1 came 40kms into our ride, where the seventh placed rider over the line counted towards our placing and points allocation. We worked as a team, stayed together and summited the 7.4kms of Col du Soulor. It kicked hard at the start and mercifully relented towards the top. The reward was our first incredible vista and for teammate Richard, his reward was an instant summit interview to camera. Each day a stage highlights film was produced and played after dinner and Richard was set to be the breathless star that evening. Onto GC2 and Col des Spandelles, a gradient of 8.3% over 10.5kms, scoring was based on the average time of the first four riders to finish the section. James set off at a sprint to take on the pros whilst natural order played its part in dispersing the rest of the team across the mountainside. My climb was punctuated by two events; cows in the road, they clearly hadn’t read the pro-am script, and overtaking Carlos Sastre. You can surmise and split hairs concerning the second event in a variety of ways, my preferred take on it is that I overtook a TDF winner riding up a col in the Pyrenees. End of.

 Emma Pooley, making her mark on the Col de Spandelles
Emma Pooley, making her mark on the Col de Spandelles

Stage 2 – Saturday 9th August 2014
Length: 131km
Climbing: 2,028m

Stage 2 arrived and my two weeks of training had paid off, I was feeling fresh. We rode out Westerly in a neutralised fashion for 75kms until we hit GC3, Col du Soulour (this time the opposing side to yesterday’s climb), 900m of climbing over 10.5km at an average gradient of 8.6%.  Points were awarded based on the time taken for the sixth rider to cross the line. I was that sixth man, this had become apparent during yesterdays GC2. I had spent the 75km getting to GC3 spinning in a low gear to conserve energy, I needed to keep the tank topped up for the climb because I knew the other five riders were stronger than me – I didn’t want to let them or the rest of the team down. This was it, one big effort and then I can roll back into Lourdes for a miraculous cure. No second GC today, so no need to leave anything on the mountain….

Eve Stevens and Chrissie Wellington enjoying themselves on the roll back into Lourdes
Evelyn Stevens and Chrissie Wellington enjoying themselves on the roll back into Lourdes

Tree lined roads with steep ramps gave way to open, stunning views and a more gradual ascent. Coached and cajoled by my imperious team mates, I had nearly made it, I went for the heroic sprint finish around 500m from the line, I misjudged it awfully, I faded horribly 150m from the finish and limped over the line. Some hefty BPM figures and a suffer score to be proud of, we summited in a respectable time, for me anyway.

Team Right To Play being led out by James Moss and Emma Pooley
Team Right To Play being led out by James Moss and Emma Pooley

Stage 3 – Sunday 10th August 2014
Length: 106km
Climbing: 2,148m

An early start took us out of Lourdes in an Easterly direction. Today we would ride GC4, the Col du Tourmalet, 1268m of climbing over 17.2km at an average gradient of 7.4%. Points would be rewarded for the average time across all eight riders. We gently climbed our way out of Lourdes for around 40km before we reached the start of GC3.

The highest road in the central Pyrenees, the Col de Tourmalet is the most ridden peak in Tour de France history. It is steeped in cycling history, a true icon of the sport. I started at a steady pace, the gradient begins at a gentle 5-6%, but I had been warned to keep something back in reserve for when the going gets tougher nearer the top. Good advice! Chalk messages written across the road were visible evidence that the tour had rolled through not so long ago and that this was a pretty special climb. Gradually ascending I was able to get a feel for how far I had climbed and how much further I had to go, thankfully rewarded with postcard views above and below.

I navigated my way through the tunnels and into the ski resort of La Mongie, positioned around 5km from the summit. As you come out of the resort the road really kicks and gives you something to think about for the final few kms.

Through the tunnel towards La Mongie
Through the tunnel towards La Mongie

I reached the summit to cheers from teammates and showed my appreciation with a now trademark sprint to the line. We swapped stories about the climb and took some souvenir photos. We then took on the descent with great relish, as far as descents go that one was sheer poetry.

The Col de Tourmalet was covered in chalk messages
The Col de Tourmalet was covered in chalk messages

Back at Lourdes we were given the final standings. We came fifth out of thirteen teams, not bad. We were all pretty happy with that.

It is hard to replicate a pro sport experience, however Trois Etapes seem to have found the formula for road cycling. Since its inauguration in 2012 the event has raised an impressive $6.5 million.

To find out more about Right To Play: righttoplay.org.uk
To find out more about Trois Etapes: troisetapes.org