GP Life: In my spare time ... I join the Tour de France

In my spare time I cycle - a lot. I was persuaded by an enthusiastic friend, over a pint in the darkness of winter, to enter the Etape du Tour, an amateur stage of the Tour de France.

Amateur it may be, easy it is not. On 10 July, I have to cycle 172km in one day over two mountains to reach the same altitude as the start, and then have a 15km climb up 21 hairpin bends to the ski resort Alp D'Huez.

I have to average 21kph to avoid elimination. Some downhill sections could reach 70kph.

I am mad, I admit it. I have hardly been on a bike since being a paperboy.

Admittedly I was a bit macho then, often cycling up hills in the top - then 5th - gear just for the hell of it.

But my cycling enthusiast partners have undoubtedly helped. They've amazed me with stories of cycling with their children all over Europe, and by volunteering to cover my visits on days when I've cycled the 15 miles to work. Home visits or cycle to work? It isn't a hard choice. The ride is peaceful and inspiring in the mornings and head-clearing coming home.

A great camaraderie has developed with consultant colleagues attempting the Etape, but training has sometimes been dangerous too. In January I slid on a wet road, with my feet cleated into the pedals. Unable to break the fall, I prayed the bus behind would stop. It did. Feeling rather sore and very sorry for myself I cycled home. Another night, on the way home, my light batteries died and I missed a dog-leg in the cycle path. I flew over the handle bars into a muddy bank of nettles and thistles.

Winter was long this year, and I often found myself with numb wet toes despite overshoes. Training in the Dales in appalling weather was 'character building'. In the blistering heat of southern France I expect to use some 10,000 calories and to replace 10 litres of fluid.

I don't know if I can endure the non-stop 32km uphill of the Col d'Izoard, 29km uphill of the Col du Lautaret and then the 21 hairpin bends of Alp D'Huez but I am about to give it a go. Even if I don't manage it, at least I will have become a bit fitter, lost some weight and raised some money for Ataxia, the British Heart Foundation, local hospices and Hearing Dogs for Deaf People.

- To sponsor Dr O'Connell, go to www.justgiving.com/sorebot

TOUR DE FRANCE FOR BEGINNERS

Tour operator: www.cyclomundo.com

A detailed link to the challenge of the 2006 Etape du Tour:

http://rapha.screen-play.net/index.php?page=183.

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