Riding the Tour21 with Steve Faulkner

Last month, as the professional peloton started out on their journey around France, a group of riders were ahead of them, riding the exact same course to raise money for Cure Leukaemia.  One of them was Steve Faulkner, who we have worked with on developing a number of our recently-launched wheelsets.  Here he tells the story in his own words:

The Tour de France. One of the iconic sporting events on the planet. It’s the first question you often get asked as a cyclist: “have you ridden The Tour de France?” Well now I can give the answer in the affirmative.

In June 2021, I was fortunate enough to be standing in the early morning sunshine in the centre of Brest ready to embark on riding each of the 21 stages of the 2021 Tour de France, one week ahead of the pro race. Why am I there? Cancer. The event had been organised by blood cancer charity Cure Leukaemia and the ex-England and Crystal Palace footballer Geoff Thomas MBE. Geoff has ridden all of the major Grand Tours, and this year was his 5th ride in France, but took on additional importance owing to the funding shortfall Cure Leukaemia experienced as a direct result of COVID-19, so not only were we riding the Tour, but we also had the aim of raising more than £1,000,000 to help fund the 12 Trials Acceleration Programme (TAP) centres throughout the UK. The TAP centres conduct life-saving clinical trials to improve the treatment and prognosis of blood cancers, both in the UK and across the globe.

CL is a charity that is close to my heart too, as at the age of 16 I was diagnosed with an aggressive blood cancer and at one point had only a 5% chance of survival. So when the opportunity came to join the Tour 21 team of riders and directly help fund the fight to find a cure for blood cancer, there was nothing to think about.

The build up to the Tour was a long one. Not only in terms of the training, but the 12 months delay owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant that me, my family and several of the other riders had to deal with more training, time away, stress and uncertainty than we had originally expected. Given my background, I had a good idea of the volume, type and intensity of training needed to get to France in good enough condition to get round and hopefully enjoy the ride. However, like for most amateur athletes, life gets in the way, so my plans had to adapt. This meant that in reality a typical week looked like was around 12-15 hours on the bike made up of a mix of endurance riding, with one 4-hour ride at the weekend and then a mix of riding in the rain, on Zwift and racing TTs, both in the real and virtual worlds. This helped to ensure that I was getting sufficient physiological stimulus by high frequency of training (6 days per week) and intensity to ensure I was both strong with a high sustainable power (for me) and good endurance. I was careful to plan my training to ensure the balance between endurance and power development was there and would only do 1-2 hard interval type sessions in any given 10-day block with maybe 1-2 races. Importantly, every 4th week I’d include time for recovery where I’d only train 3-4 days but keep the volume low whilst maintaining some intensity. Between January and June, I covered 6,700km, at an average speed of 31.4kmph, 190W and a relative intensity of 0.689. Following this approach, where I focused more on consistency over volume, I managed to come into June with the highest 5, 20, and 60 minute power outputs I’d achieved in a long time and felt physically I was in good shape and ready to take on the Tour.

Two weeks before I left for France, the DPD guy rang the bell at home with the delivery I’d been waiting for from Parcours as they had agreed to provide me with a set of Strade wheels, complete with important watt-saving Kogel ceramic bearings. Cue the expected battle of mounting and sealing a new set of Conti GP5000 tubeless tyres! I was quietly pleased with myself when I got both tyres mounted and filled with sealant in only 20 minutes! I was buzzing and now rearing to go. The wheels looked great once I’d got them on my custom painted Ribble SLR, that both Geoff and I had been given for the Tour as the only cancer survivors in the team. I had a few rides out on the Tour set up and it was immediately noticeable how fast the bike was. The wheels were super slick, but more importantly were really stable in the gusty winds of the East Midlands, and I was immediately knocking out my regular rides at an average of 2kph faster for similar power. This just goes to show the importance of optimising your aero set up for riding where aerodynamics will be a dominant factor!

The first few stages of the Tour took place in Brittany and were expected to be some tough stages, with leg sapping rolling roads, wind and rain, and expectations did not disappoint. Within the first 5 stages, I completed my second, third, fourth and fifth longest rides of the year, but also my first and second ever rides over 200km. I felt pleased that my training approach, coupled with great equipment meant that I actually felt pretty good and didn’t feel like I was having to work too hard and was able to conserve energy. Energy conservation became increasingly important throughout the next few days as I started to suffer with GI issues, so the ability to expend as little energy to move forward was really important if I was to stay on the Tour. As my ‘issues’ persisted through the next 7 days, and my reliance on Imodium continued, as was waiting for the physical explosion to happen as I was like a car running on fumes. A breakdown was inevitable. 

I kept going. We got to stage 11, which was the double ascent of Ventoux and I still felt ok. On the first ascent from Sault I felt pretty good and there were even parts of the climb where I was riding in the big ring and feeling like a pro. However, things started to bite on the Bedouin side as the rode got steeper to Chalet Reynaud. I knew that the inability to hold on to much food for the last few days was beginning to hurt and this was only compounded by the legendary wind on the bald mountain, where you could turn a corner and be hitting 350W for only 8kph! I got to the end of the stage, but it was a fight, and I was really drained. The next few days I continued to suffer with a complete lack of food staying in. I knew the bang was coming and it finally hit on stage 15 as we rode to Andorra.

That morning I actually felt pretty good and really enjoyed the first half of the day, which included over 2,000m of climbing and a 38km climb to Font Romeau in the Pyrenees. That afternoon though it became a struggle. I was 50-80W down on power and felt like I was riding through thick mud. We had another 30km climb up to over 2000m and physiologically I was in a hole. I battled to the top of the climb where I physically could no longer pedal the bike and had to be lifted off by our support crew. I had pushed myself as far as I could. Thankfully the next day was a rest day in Andorra and I was hoping this would give me time to recover, eat (and retain) some food and be back on the bike for the next stage. This quickly became evident it would be impossible and I was going to have to miss a stage and I was devastated.

I was next back on the bike for stage 19 and the Col de Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden climbs. It was great to be back on the bike, and the rest of the team were really happy to see me back having witnesses what I had been dealing with for the last two weeks. I wasn’t sure how I would actually feel, but my kit was gleaming in the Pau morning sun and I was rearing to get going. The first part of the stage was pretty flat and I was itching to get to the Tourmalet. I went up the first few kilometres of the climb trying to talk myself into riding easy, but it was the first day where I actually could push the pedals so rode harder than planned. The bike felt amazing and had more to give on the climb, the super light, stable wheels made a huge difference as I climbed through the cloud to the summit and I was glad of the weight and aero savings they provided me in my still somewhat depleted state. A rapid windy descent followed before the climbing began again as I hit Luz Ardiden.

Luz Ardiden was the final big climb of the Tour and now I was really motivated. I knew it was another long climb, so I set a nice tempo pace for the first ¾ of the climb. As I hit the hairpin sections towards the top I was fuelled by a mixture of anger, passion, and desire to really hurt and test myself. I kept riding past small boulangeries on the way up advertising pain (French for bread) and I just thought to my-self “I’ll have some of that” and really let rip for the last 2km, totally burying myself to the top of the climb. Looking at my files, I can now see I hit my highest 5 min power of the entire 3 weeks and over 400W for the final minute or so, even at over 2,000m of altitude. I quickly seized up as the three weeks of insufficient refuelling reared its head again and could not even drag myself onto the team bus, but crawled into one of the support cars to get back down the mountain, unsure whether that was it for me.

I got back to the hotel and had some treatment from our awesome physio Rhia The Body Mechanic. I was determined to do everything I could to be on the bike for the final stages even though I still had GI issues and was not even at 60%! The next day was a 210km flat stage and I was certain I could get through, so started the stage with a view to riding in ‘energy conservation mode’ surfing the wheels and expending as little energy as possible. The tactic worked as I think I only averaged 105W for the entire stage, meaning I did not have to rely too much on any sports nutrition that may aggravate my stomach. I was so please when we reached the hotel and I was relatively ok as the next day was only the short TT stage and then the final stage in Paris.

It would have been great to really test out the Strade wheels to their full extent more often during the Tour, but I have some great memories of riding solo through the Alps and Pyrenees on what I can only describe as some of the fastest wheels I’ve ridden, and it was even more gratifying to know that the work I have done with Parcours directly led to their design and development.

Riding the Tour as part of The Tour 21 is an experience I’ll never forget, both for good and bad reasons, but perhaps the most gratifying success was the knowledge that I have directly contributed to improving treatments and saving lives of blood cancer patients like myself. If you have enjoyed reading this and can help, any sort of donation can be made at www.justgiving.com/steve-faulkner5. If you’re also missing a few screws and would like to experience riding the Tour de France, Cure Leukaemia will be running the event in 2022 and 2023 and you can sign up here.

A bit about Steve, in his own words:

I’m fortunate enough that a large part of my job at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) involves cycling, from the physiological demands of the sport to the development of cutting edge techniques and equipment. It was in this capacity that I first became involved with Parcours in 2017, when I was setting up Sports Engineering at NTU. I have worked with Parcours on the development of some of their highly acclaimed wheelsets and currently ride and race the Chrono, Strade and Grimpeur wheels.