Tour De France – One Day Ahead

by / Tuesday, 17 November 2015 / Published in sport

One Day Ahead-the ride of a lifetime (By Helen Russell)

As a triathlete I expected my summer to be the usual mix of swim, bike and run training and some domestic and international races. However after meeting the former Crystal Palace and England footballer, Geoff Thomas my summer turned into something quite unexpected. In 2003 Geoff was diagnosed with Leukaemia and given just three weeks to live. However thanks to a bone marrow transplant and ground breaking treatment he went into remission.  Just months later he rode the route of the Tour de France to raise money to fight Leukaemia and this year wanted to repeat his journey to celebrate ten years of remission whilst trying to raise £1m for the charity Cure Leukaemia. Geoff was looking for a woman to join his team of cyclists who were going to ride the 2,200 miles of this year’s Tour and somehow he managed to persuade me to take part!

It has been a few weeks since I got home after cycling just over 2,000 miles, including 40,000 meters of ascent and burning an estimated 95,000 calories. It was without doubt the hardest thing I have ever done and was a struggle both physically and mentally-not helped by the fact that I needed ten stitches on only the second stage!

Helen in the Peleton

Helen in the Peleton

The Tour started in the Dutch town of Utrecht with a leisurely team ride around the 13.8km opening prologue. If only each stage could be so easy! On paper the next day looked like it would be an easy first long stage, with a typical Dutch flat profile but things don’t always turn out as anticipated. Unfortunately at about 100km into the stage one of my team members got their wheel caught in a bridge extension track near the town of Hellevoetsluis and came down bringing another rider and myself down. I landed on the second rider’s disk brake which sliced open my thigh. I looked down and could see that the injury was serious and thought that my Tour was over before it had even started. However, the team medic reassured me that he could get me riding again and gave me ten stiches in the mechanics van at the side of the road. I don’t think he quite expected me to be riding again quite so soon, as I insisted that I get immediately back on the bike to finish the stage. I just thought of all the people that had sponsored me and didn’t want to let them down.  I think I rode the rest of the stage on pure adrenaline-there was no way that I was not going to finish the first long day. I however was dreading the next morning when the adrenaline would have worn off and a decision would be made as to whether I could continue.

Due to the excellent work of the medic I was given the go ahead to continue to ride. According to the pros the first week of this year’s Tour was one of the hardest ever with many of them abandoning due to crashes and injuries. The highlights (by that I mean most challenging parts of the of the week) included the Mur de Huy or ‘Huy Wall’- a 1.3km climb with a peak gradient of 25%, the seven cobbled sections in Stage Four and the battering rain and wind in Brittany.


The second week took us into the mountains and I was looking forward to my first day in the Pyrenees as I usually love mountain climbing. However, I got a shock when we reached the first mountain stage finish at the Hors Category Col du Soudet, making its debut appearance in the Tour de France. I didn’t have as many gears as I usually use in the mountains and felt like I was grinding all the way up the climb. I just couldn’t get into my normal rhythm and contemplated getting off the bike a few times. However that morning we had seen a video message from Leukaemia patients at the Clinical Centre for Excellence at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and I knew that the pain they had been through and in many cases are still going through, was much worse than what I was feeling and so kept on grinding to the summit, where my frustration took over and I broke down in tears. That evening the team’s mechanics realised that if I was to survive the rest of the Pyrenees then I would need some extra gears and so, much to my relief , they changed the gearing. This meant that I could ride the infamous Cols of the Aspin, Tourmalet, and Plateau de Beille more comfortably. In one day alone we rode over six category climbs!

Helen On One of the Many Climbs

Helen On One of the Many Climbs

The main challenge of the stages through the Massif Central towards the Alps was the heat with temperatures tipping over 40 degrees. Oh and also dealing with the masses of media that had turned up with the arrival of our special guest-Lance Armstrong. I was worried about what speed Lance would set but he was very kind and set a reasonable pace out of Muret to our lunch stop where once again we were met with the world’s media. I found the afternoon harder as there were three categorised climbs be eventually we rode into the town of Rodez, where there was a final kick of a 400meter rise at a 9.6% gradient.

The following day started again with a press entourage for company and an immediate Category 4 climb of the Cote de Ponte de Salars and the Col de Vernhette. We were joined by the women’s team Donnons des Elle who are also cycling the whole of the TdF route to raise the profile of women’s cycling and advocate for a women’s Tour de France. This was one of my favourite moments of the Tour so far as it was a real honour to cycle with them and share experiences of and visions for women’s cycling. Another highlight of the day was in the afternoon where a young boy in an Astana team jersey joined our peloton and was welcomed at the front by Lance where he gave his all to stay with our group. Lance pretended to be really blowing hard and struggling to stay with the boy and it was such a cute moment. It seems that most stages this year have a nasty end and today’s finish was up a 3 kilometre lung busting climb at an average of 10%! After battling through the press to get onto the team bus we said our goodbyes to Lance who gave a moving farewell speech and wished us luck for the rest of the challenge.

It was a relief to finally leave Provence and reach the Alps where storms cleared the air. The first day in the Alps featured no less than five categorised climbs, including the 14 kilometre Col d’Allos which we climbed in apocalyptic thunder and lightning. The following day featured an incredible seven categorised climbs including the 21.7km Hors Category Col du Glandon. The weather was a replay of the previous day with scorching heat in the morning and apocalyptic weather conditions whilst climbing the Glandon. In fact the weather was so bad that we were unable to ride the final climb of the day, the Lacets de Montvernier, due to rock-fall during the storm.

The final two days in the Alps were quite frustrating. The roads of the Col de la Croix de Fer and Glandon intersected each other, which meant that our paths were due to cross with the professionals for the next two days. This meant that many roads, including some on our route, were closed to allow for the professional peloton to pass through. Unfortunately, this meant that we were unable to follow the official route exactly, which was a disappointment to everyone but we were still able to cover the major climbs of the stages including the final climb of Alp d’Huez.  It was an amazing feeling to reach the summit of the Alp, knowing that all the hard work was done.

At the start of the final stage we emulated the pros and cracked open the champagne. Riding into the French capital on closed roads, over the cobbles to the Arc de Triomphe was very emotional, especially when we were greeted by cheers from family and friends waiting under the Arc. We were honoured to have permission to ride as a group down the Champs Elysees and back to the Arc before heading to the Eifel Tower, which was a welcome sight as it marked the end of our journey and the start of the celebrations. The team mate that I was cycling alongside started to say all the names of the people that had been affected by cancer who he had been riding for, which was incredibly moving and at that point the tears started as I thought of my mom, who I lost a number of years ago to breast cancer.

Helen at the Finish Line

Helen at the Finish Line with the One Day Ahead Team

It was a real privilege to be part of the One Day Ahead team and help raise over £650,000 for Cure Leukaemia. It’s not too late to donate and help us reach £700,000 which will pay for the development of clinical trials and fund research nurses at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham.

I was really grateful to have the support of Amphibia and my Amphibia equipment was brilliant. The the scarf was perfect to protect the back of my neck and head in the searing heat of Provence but then could be worn as a neck scarf on the chilly mountain summits in the Pyrenees and Alps. My plastic pouch was ideal to keep my mobile dry in on the rainy days and also stopped any sweat getting into the phone.

Helen’s Just Giving Page:

Photos: David Walsh

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