The Tour de France was created on the whim of a newspaper editor, convinced that the public (and his circulation) would be electrified by riders duking it out in the longest bike race there had ever been.
It was of course a contest for the professionals: when it started in 1903, Henri Desgrange, ordered his journalists to report on it – he never expected them to ride it.
The formula was wildly successful and so it continued for the first 90 years, until someone had the bright idea that amateurs might wish to test themselves by racing the same route as a stage of the Tour. Fast forward to Spring this year and my editor at The Sunday Times decided I should give it a go.
Which is how I found myself taking part in L’Etape du Tour, a 106 mile (169km) stage in the Alps with more than 13,000 ft (4,000m) of ascent over four major cols. A few days later, Geraint Thomas, the eventual winner, and Chris Froome, the defending champion rode the same stretch.
Annecy, the starting point for the race, is a genteel lakeside resort with tree-lined boulevards and a lively restaurant scene. That appeals to the well-heeled crowd who take part in these sorts of events, but when 15,000 riders (a third of them British) began to assemble at 6am the mood was far from relaxed.
Because I was a guest of ASO, which operates the Tour, and Rapha, the high priests of cycling designer wear, I started near the front of the pack. That certainly wasn’t merited by my likely performance: indeed, I’d broken a metatarsal in my foot a few weeks before and had scarcely been able to train since I’d got out of my surgical boot.
As I waited sleepily for the starting gun, I felt vaguely resentful of the single-minded drive of the ex-pros and aggressive- looking amateurs penned in around me.
Bang! And we were off. Sudden, frantic activity and then, as we reach maximum velocity, the nerve- shredding intensity of clinging on to the peloton. Hang on and risk early burn out; but if you let go, admit that it will be the first of a day-long series of surrenders.
After 20 miles (32km) or so I dropped off the pace, muttering to myself that I needed to ride sensibly if I was going to make it. The first serious test, the Col de la Croix Fry, higher than Ben Nevis, left me winded and the temperature soared into the 30s as I ground my way up the second col, Plateau des Glieres. The picture taken at the gravel track on the top is misleading: I was ahead of a bunch, but not as predator but prey.
I will spare you my survival story – because L’Etape served up a twist in the tale of which Desgrange would have been proud. At the finish line, as thousands of exhausted riders milled around in the village square, a furious local charged at them on a quad bike with a gendarme in hot pursuit. Now, where’s my reporter’s notepad and pen?