Helen Bridgman is cycling the route of the Tour de France – 3,360 kilometres – as part of the 10 women ‘InternationElles’ team aiming to highlight the current lack of women’s race. So far, Tour de France organisers, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) have brought only La Course, which though providing a spectacle every year since its 2014 introduction, has never made it past two days. As the InternationElles reach Paris one-day ahead of the Tour, here is the final update from the team in France...
After the second rest day we knew we were on the home straight. The end was in sight! There was just a question of a few big Alpine mountains to climb before Paris.
But first we had the heat and the wind of southern France to deal with. The canicule arrived and suddenly we were riding in an oven with the fan on. Temperatures topped out at 46⁰C on our Nîmes to Nîmes stage. I was downing water and electrolytes like they were going out of fashion. We knew we had a treat coming that evening so we peddled on.
The treat turned out to be meeting Team Ineos! George showed us around their amazing set up and then we met most of the riders. They all seemed genuinely impressed by what we were doing though, as well as thinking we were mad, especially when we told them that we'd survived with only one massage the whole time and just four support crew (they have 34). G even offered us the services of one of their team masseuses!
The heat was repeated on stage 17 as we rode to Gap and it almost got too much. That day we were saved by great rest stops. The first was at a school in Camaret-sur-Aigues, organised by our road captain Nicolas, who is from the region. The kids were there to welcome us and proudly showed us their drawings of the Tour (noticeably all male cyclists in their pictures). We hope we may have inspired some future champions there!
The afternoon stop was kindly put on by the guys at Serres des Ormes. They had laid out coffee and cake to celebrate SA's birthday and let us use their pool. Before we knew it Carmen had dive bombed into it in full kit and we all went for a splash! Near the end of the stage I thought I was hallucinating or delirious from the heat. Ahead amongst the sea of pink on our final climb was a splash of red. Didi the Devil had come out to cheer us on and show his support. What a legend!
Stage 18 was a long day with three mighty alpine climbs to tackle. Col de Vars, Col d'Izoard and Col du Lauteret/Galibier. The fear returned that morning. Maybe this would be the day where my legs finally stopped working and I wouldn't make it. Lucie said just the right words to calm me down and make me believe I could do it before we began an epic day and what turned out to be one of my favourite days of the entire Tour.
The first two climbs reminded me of why I love the Alps. Stunningly beautiful and magnificent in every way and steady gradients. Little did I know that an amazing surprise was waiting for me near the top of the Col du Lauteret. I was busy chatting with the girls when my husband suddenly appeared on the mountainside cheering us on! Apparently he'd been planning the surprise for months and I had no idea! He and I chatted all the way up the Galibier, barely noticing the kilometres tick by. The final highlight of the day was meeting the Beefeater Bend guys.
If you haven't heard of them you are missing a treat! Their party was in full swing on the Galibier as we came through in the vans. We couldn't resist jumping out and bouncing around to Sigala waving glow sticks. It was the perfect tonic to a long day in the saddle.
Our final mountain stage still had evidence of the Etape du Tour lining the route. I climbed the first of two long climbs, the Cormet de Roselend with Claire Foret from Donnons des Elles au Velo. She started the J-1 project in 2015, setting out on an adventure that would change her life and inspire so many, including me. Now in its fifth year, the project has gained worldwide recognition and support. Claire herself is a quiet leader who is clearly passionate about the cause. I'd love to see doors open for her in women's cycling so she can have an even greater impact on women's cycling and equality. The sport needs people like her to help it grow and flourish.
After our picnic lunch on a roundabout, the only shade we could find at a suitable moment along the route, it was time for the mighty Val Thorens, a mere 33km climb. Carmen, our youngest team member at 27, showed immense grit and determination that day. She'd often been struggling to eat whilst on the bike and had taken to eating up to eight bananas a day! Val Thorens was particularly tough for her as she vomited on the bike a couple of times as she climbed. She didn't stop once though, not even to be sick, such was her willpower to keep going.
Inevitably the team was split up along the mountain as we climbed but we all regrouped in the pouring rain at the ski village to do those last few kilometres together. When we reached the summit there was so much emotion. Joy, relief, excitement, disbelief, elation, pride and lots of tears. We had made it! We'd conquered all the mountains, routes and conditions the Tour had thrown at us and we'd done it together. United by our passion for equality and our love of cycling. I have never felt more proud.
And then there was Paris. A victory lap of the Champs-Élysées and a sea of family and friends to welcome us home from our epic adventure! There was an extra surprise for team-mate Lou when Rob, one of our awesome support crew and her boyfriend, popped the question by the Arc de Triomphe. What an end to our journey!
Looking back at it all now, it still feels surreal. It has been one of the longest and yet shortest three and a half weeks of my life. Packed with so many amazing memories that will last me a lifetime. It is truly the most epic thing I've ever done and I'm so proud to have been part of the InternationElles team and the J-1 project. I hope you've enjoyed sharing our journey with us and that we have been able to inspire others in some way to follow their dreams, say yes to challenges and push themselves further than they ever thought possible. The body is an amazing machine. Treat it well and it will even take you all the way round France - about 3,460km and over 52,000m of elevation!
All that remains it to say a huge well done and thank you to all my team-mates - Alex, Carmen, Helen, Julie-Anne, Louise, Lucie, Pippa, Sara and Sarah Anne - our crew who worked tirelessly to keep us on the road - Adrien, Mona, Nicolas and Rob - and our sponsors, particularly Skoda UK and Attacus, who had the vision, foresight and belief in what we were doing from the beginning. You are all LEGENDS!!
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