Angellica Bell's real Tour de Celeb story
Angellica Bell went from not being able to ride a bike at all to taking on the Etape du Tour in just eight weeks. Here she chats to Suze Clemitson about the work she put in to get there and what she learnt about cycling culture and herself, then sets the record straight about Bakewell tart gate…
Angellica Bell never learned to ride a bike when she was a child. Growing up, her mum never bought her one. “Then you get older and you think, oh well, I’ve missed that boat,” she says. So, when Tour de Celeb – the Channel Five show that followed eight TV personalities as they prepare for the Etape du Tour – came calling it seemed like the right challenge at the right time.
To take on the Etape du Tour – the uber tough Tour de France sportive – after just eight weeks in the saddle seems not just mad, but stone-cold crazy. Just to put this in perspective, the 2016 Etape du Tour covered 122km with 2,800km of climbing over the Col du Aravis, the Colombiere and the Joux-Plane. But she did it. And 9:05:32 hours after lining up on the startline in Megeve, she crossed the finishing line in Morzine, having conquered the Etape in truly brutal weather conditions.
The path to getting to the start line was seriously tough, with Angellica not only having to get to grips with the nuances of cycling culture – cleats, bonking, chamois cream, riding in a group – but having to master riding a bike as an adult first.
We’ll let Angellica describe the scene at the start: “I had to block everything out as it was really overwhelming - lycra everywhere, determined looks and a sea of helmets before my eyes. I won't forget that sight. So many people there had been training for years and, there I was, a novice, feeling like an imposter. I had that sinking feeling. I had no idea what lay ahead or how the day would pan out. I just had to hold my nerve and not fall over and knock down the hundreds of other cyclists around me before I'd even started. I just hoped for the best.”
“The Joux-Plane was carnage. I’ve never experienced a gradient like that before, but I just kept moving. The bits I could cycle I cycled and the other bits I simply walked as fast as I could,” she told us.
“There were proficient cyclists that just looked sick or like they were going to pass out with the heat but I just kept moving, and that gave me hope.”
With the temperature climbing way into the 30s that day, she knew she had to keep hydrated. So, had she finally nailed taking a bottle? “No, I just made sure I stopped for food and drink every hour,” she laughs.
When she crossed that finish line, she admits, “I felt really elated, but it didn't really sink in until I was back home in London going through the experience with Michael (Underwood, Angellica’s husband). It wasn’t until I watched the same stage of the Tour du France two weeks later that I realised what I had actually done. Looking at the professional riders complete the same course while I was sat on my sofa gave me goosebumps.”
The Etape is an impressive feat for an experienced cyclist, but when you look at the fact that Angellica has only been riding a bike for eight weeks, it’s all the more incredible.
All in the mind
Angellica credits Lindsey Thompson of London Dynamo CC for giving her the key to Etape success. “I learned to ride a bike in eight weeks. Most people wouldn’t go straight for a goal that seemed almost unachievable. But she was so inspiring. She said ‘you can do it - it's in the mind’ and that stuck with me.”
So Angellica focused on putting in the miles, getting cycling fit and proving the naysayers wrong. The eight weeks of training certainly weren’t easy. She was up at 4am putting in 2 or 3 hours on the watt bike before showering and then getting her children up at 7am or setting off for work. Her goal was to get leaner and put in the miles, going to bed at 7pm each night to be up for another long day in the saddle.
Did she carb-load like the pros? “I stopped eating takeaways,” she laughs, “and I cooked more pasta, but I just ate a balanced diet really.” And did she really spend the White Rose Classic stuffing her face with jelly babies and Bakewell tarts? “That was so untrue! During the White Rose Classic I fell into cars on the A59 because of a lack of confidence and bike skills on cleats. If you look at the part where I'm filmed talking about a Bakewell tart, I had actually just been crying for ten minutes because I wasn't sure I could finish the course. I also didn't stop at two feed stations because I wanted to make up time for the team.” Instead, she preferred a cheese roll or a peanut butter roll “because that worked best for me.”
Angellica credits Austin Healey and Darren Gough, her next-door neighbours Cristina and Fred, plus Jason Ross from Njinga Cycling for getting her Etape ready and beyond. “I met so many lovely people who believed in me and I also drew strength from the culture, friendliness and camaraderie of cycling,” she says.
She remembers one early morning solo ride when her chain came off. “I was thinking ‘what do I do, how am I going to get home?’ And a lovely lady stopped and helped me - she looked the part, had all the gear, was uber fit and put the chain on for me!”
Gradually Angellica started to improve. For her, finishing the White Rose Classic was a real high point in the journey towards the Etape. But she says it was hard knowing she was the weakest rider. “I was a bit gutted and embarrassed because no one wanted me on their team,” she remembers.
“When I rode Boston Peaks and Surrey Hills I was on my own so that was fine. For White Rose I was wearing cleats for the first time and they were a massive frustration in my mind and I felt stressed the whole way round the course, especially knowing my time affected the team result.”
Ah, the cleats. If you’ve been watching Tour de Celeb you’ll know the problems Angellica faced with the ‘two-stack cleat rite of passage’. She acknowledges they were a real problem and she badly hurt her shoulder and “my private bits,” trying to master them. “Some days I just didn't have the courage to get on the bike. I was an emotional wreck. But I didn't want to fail.”
She struggled with the fact that her fellow Tour de Celeb contenders had spoken about how the challenge may be way too big for her, but used that feeling to fuel her inner strength and prove them wrong. It’s something any cyclist recognises - the feeling that riding a bike is as much about what goes on in your head as in your legs.
“Doing the Etape was hard,” she says, calling it the most difficult challenge she’s ever done. “There were so many highs and lows, it took me to dark places, but you have to go to to those places to see the light, which then enabled me to cycle towards that light. To get to the moment where you can say anything is achievable…”
We ask her if she’d do it again and discovered she already has. Rapha asked her to ride the Manchester to London sportive, and she aced the challenge again, raising £2,000 for charity in the process. Rapha had helped her feel the part by kitting her out with some proper gear. “When I started I was cycling in a black sweatshirt and tracksuit bottoms, that’s how little I knew,” says Angellica.
She says picking up cycling jargon is “like learning a new language!” and recommends a proper bike fit, which really boosted her confidence. “I was properly fitted on my Trek Silque at Cyclefit in London and they did comprehensive tests, looked at my cycling position and told me I had a 50/50 pedal symmetry stroke, had great flexibility and mental/physical stamina, and if I’d started cycling as a teenager, could have been top class! That gave me hope especially before doing Rapha M2L.”
So, what advice does she have for anyone who wants to start cycling but thinks it might be too late to try? She acknowledges it can be difficult to take on a challenge when you’re older “because you feel so exposed, but I just conquered my fears and took control.”
And what’s next for Angellica Bell? The Bell clan are getting Islabikes for Christmas, “because I want cycling to be part of our lives, it’s about creating memories.”
We ask her what was her best memory of Tour de Celeb. “I remember getting on the bike really early one day, I saw the sun rise, I felt the wind on my face and I felt free. It meant so much more because I never thought I would be on a bike, in control of two wheels and have that freedom. It was so invigorating.”
And her next challenge? She’s starting swimming lessons again and she’s already conquered the marathon which means, as we point out, that she’s nailed all three disciplines for a triathlon.
Angellica bursts out laughing. But don’t put it past her - with her lovely blend of down to earthness, steely determination and love of a challenge, the next step might just be Angellica Bell, IronWoman.
If nothing else, she's certainly inspired a whole lot more of us to put the Etape on our list for 2017.
Angellica wish she’d known before she started cycling
If you’re planning on riding any further than the corner shops, you’ll discover all sorts of weird and wonderful cycling nuances you really wish someone had mentioned before you mounted that saddle…
1) Go commando
“This was quite a surprise when I started. You shouldn’t wear pants with your Lycra?!”
2) Top gear
“As anyone who’s pedalled up to a traffic light in a high gear will know, it’s a nightmare to get started again. People never tell you it when you start, but you should always gear down before you hit the lights to save embarrassment when you set off…”
3) Only Fools and Cyclists…
"Cleats? I felt like I was in Alcatraz, like I was never going to get out and was trapped for life! If you try clipless pedals and cleats, you will fall over. A LOT! Everyone does and apparently its a rite of passage!?"
4) Beat the bonk!
Be aware of bonking (stop sniggering!). Translation: “that catastrophic moment when there’s suddenly nothing left in the tank; when your legs turn to jelly, and you feel like you have no energy. This is where eating right is really important.”
5) Bum deal?
“Chamois cream is one of those great big enigmas. Where do you put it? No one really explained that, they just shut up shop, so I just put it everywhere.”