Belfast Telegraph

Former rugby stars are ready for the challenge of their lives

By Michael Sadlier

While most who follow rugby will have been keeping a close eye this week on all things British and Irish Lions, two former Ulster stars will instead be focusing on matters Tour de France and in particular their bid to tackle a certain mountain stage.

As the peloton marks its first week of action, both Paddy Johns and Denis McBride are ready to push themselves to the limit and beyond this Sunday to tackle this year's L'Etape du Tour – the event which allows amateur cyclists to test themselves over the same route as one of the main Tour's mountain stages.

This challenge is certainly not for the faint-hearted as the two former Ireland internationals, who have 91 caps between them and were at their playing peak during the nineties, have been training for eight months to take on the formidable course on July 7.

This year it involves climbing 12,000 feet on the lung-busting 80-mile (130 kilometres) stage – the penultimate for the actual Tour which rolls in on July 20 – and will require huge reserves of physical fitness and mental strength to get over six peaks starting in the town of Annecy in the Rhone-Alpes region of south-eastern France.

For cycling enthusiast McBride this will be his third 'L'Etape' and the 48-year-old will be hoping for a fast time while current Dungannon coach Johns, who is three years younger and keeps himself fit by doing triathlons, is facing his first taste of mountain cycling Tour de France style.

They are not alone though as 10 other Ulstermen will be joining them and rugby isn't the only sport represented as hockey Olympians Jimmy Kirkwood and Billy McConnell are also taking part. The trip is also intended to raise money for the Charlie Beverland Foundation to support the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast Liver Group and has been organised by former Belfast Telegraph Rugby Correspondent and now Advanced Studio Cycling Instructor Jim Stokes, who also completed 2011's challenge. The challenge is also being supported by the Bank of Ireland.

It is a hugely popular event and this year – the Tour's centenary – has attracted a field of over 10,000 cyclists.

However, this is no casual jaunt as the field has to be on its toes and make good time otherwise the so-called 'broom wagons', which follow on an hour after the final rider has set off, and are manned by the local police, will eliminate anyone who cannot stay ahead of them (a fleet consisting of 25 coaches and five lorries) and their pressing need to re-open the route to public transport.

Two years ago, 1,000 riders were scooped up early and two of Jim's then group were denied the right to finish under their own steam a mere 3km from the end. Last year, on a particularly punishing course, as many as 2,000 participants didn't make it through.

"I've never suffered like I have on a bike," states McBride when discussing this year's event.

"You have to be mentally strong to push yourself through the pain barrier, it is just lung-busting and you can really suffer as I did last year."

It makes you wonder why he does it, but the former flanker relishes pitting himself against the rising road.

"I originally did a few charity cycles back home and I just got the bug and then I started cycling to work," the Production Manager at AES Ballylumford states.

McBride completed the 2011 event in a very respectable five-and-a-half hours but last year saw a far more punishing course with added climbing sapping the energy in 30 degree heat and he took a gruelling nine hours to get round.

"The first objective is to finish and the second is to do it in a reasonable time," says McBride.

"It's not meant to be easy now," is former second row Johns' take on it all and he reckons McBride will be first home in the Ulster group who mostly hope to complete in around eight to nine hours.

"It's one of those things where you won't really know what's it's really like until you've done it. My aim is to finish and it's not so much my knees I'm worried about as my head," dentist Johns said.

"You really need to do a fair bit of preparation," McBride adds while explaining that nothing in Northern Ireland can come that close to replicating a Tour mountain stage.

"It's the length of the climbs that get you and I tend to go beyond the distance in my preparation and I've done a couple of 200k events as the time in the saddle is similar to the event itself."

Though they won't get round in one group, this bunch of Ulstermen are determined to stand up and make it all the way to the top while staying ahead of the dreaded 'broom wagons.'

What it's all about

L'Etape du Tour allows amateur cyclists to test themselves on a mountain stage of the Tour de France and attracts thousands of participants.

Registration opens in October and the 12 Ulstermen have been training at least twice a week on the roads, weather permitting, and on gym bikes for the July 7 event. It will take between five and 10 hours for all 12 to hopefully complete though if they are too slow elimination awaits. It starts in the town of Annecy in south-eastern France and the riders climb 12,000 feet over the 80-mile stage.

The Ulster riders are raising money for the Charlie Beverland Foundation. Donations to

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