Etape du Tour Act II.
It all started many years ago glued to the television in awe of those gladiators on two wheels fighting for the honour and privilege to wear a coloured jersey, I said to myself ‘I’ll ride one of those stages’ (preferably flat) as a someone from Hertfordshire major climbs do not exist. Then a little while ago by chance I sat next to a gorgeous blonde in a bar and when asked to name one of my ambitions I repeated the very line muttered to myself. Anyway, that gorgeous blonde and I got engaged earlier this year and the future Mrs S got a diamond ring and this lucky lad got the golden ticket, bib and rider number 9656 of 10,000 entrants for this EdT act II – Pau to Bagneres-du-Louchon. A mere 125miles, 5000 meters of climbing, taking the Aubisque, the Tourmalet, Aspin and the Pyresourde.
Having arrived in Pau on the Thursday (12th), the city was just preparing for the arrival of the tour with parking bay being cleared and shop windows being dressed, like this chocolatier’s with solid bars of chocolate.
We took in a little of the city, albeit an overcast day and the mountains looked mere lumps and nothing we couldn’t cope with, we bolstered ourselves with a beer and toasted the tour and paid our respects to the mountains and we went back to the hotel.
Well what a contrast Friday was, glorious sunshine and those lumps that were nothing to worry about became monsters, a wall of rock laid out in front of us and the bravado suddenly had all gone. We assembled the bikes rode to the registration village to sign on and off we went for a little leg warming loop in to the countryside, hoping to stop at a cafe for a light lunch. Finding ourselves in the foothills and not a cafe in sight we returned to Pau hungry and dehydrated where a kindly madam whose cafe was just closing took pity on us and gave us something to eat and drink.
That night we settled down to dinner at the hotel at 19.30, where we tried to consume more carbs and calories before retiring for an early night.
After a 4am breakfast we rode off to the start in the dark and went to our holding pens, I was in the last (8,500 – 10,000). Then a good 45 minutes after the elite riders were long departed I rolled to the start line and 10 minutes later the broom wagon left to follow us. No pressure then, and for one poor sole who punctured at the start they were swept up before leaving the square.
Having packed every item of cycling gear I owned I settled on arm warmers shower cape, but no overshoes as the forecast was light rain but becoming brighter. Others however had decided to travel light.
Taking the advice of an Etape veteran at dinner the previous evening I took the pace steady arriving at our first climb Aubisque at 25 miles averaging around 20 mph. Then there before us was the sight of my first ever switch back, let the climbing begin. The higher we rose and further we rode the cloudier it became and by the time we reached our first feed station visibility was no more than 50 metres and the mist had soaked us. A short stop to refuel and there was stories of people being swept up by the broom at the base. The plan was to keep it steady and it was working, hoping from group to group ahead of me and beating out a steady rhythm and then after around 11 miles the summit, oh what joy! Time for a quick photo opportunity.
The decent was a hazardous 12 miles as visibility was poor and all those views that everyone eulogises about, they were somewhere beyond the cloud. At the bottom and along the valley it was dry and warm enough to dry us out and as on the previous miles the roads were lined with well wishers, adults and children offering food and drink, cheering ‘Bravo’ and ‘Allez Allez’, heart warming and somehow I don’t think it would happen here in the UK.
After brief respite the slow climb of around ten miles to the base of the Tourmalet began. Switch back after switch back people cheering cow bells ringing the sign said 1 km to feed station, I felt good, no one had passed me and the strategy employed to date was working. Another brief stop, the Mavic guys were luckily underutilised and ahead was the last brutal 8km shrouded in mist
In to the clouds we went and visibility was down below 20 meters and all around you could hear the clanging of cow bells, not spectators this time as out of the mist came cows walking in to the road, an unexpected obstacle, but I had been warned. On, and on leg sapping climbing, hoping from one group of riders the next, well wishers camped out along the edges of sheer drops there early for the tour. 1km to go and suddenly an unexpected ramp up in gradient, up out of the seat with the legs burning, in the distance cheers and then out of the mist the giant greeted me!
No time to stop the broom wagon was 20 minutes behind. Off down the decent. Now I like descending but this was scary! The rain was lashing down visibility at the top was almost nonexistent and the switch backs keep coming. Then policeman on a corner waving a slow down sign and blowing his whistle, round the bend and in the middle of the road 3 donkeys were walking toward me. Racing down, getting colder and colder another policeman slowing us; as a kind farmer had left the road covered in dung and it was like being in cow pooh alley. The time I was hoping to make up on the descents was evaporating it was too dangerous. People had stopped all along the road, ill prepared and freezing cold and finally I had to stop, I couldn’t grip the brakes any longer, I couldn’t feel them. A quick warm up and off again, passing a guy with a broken spoke on his front wheel, madness, he asked if I felt it was safe to keep going at 20mph downhill. I was looking forward to the climb up Aspin just to warm me up and as I entered the village of Saint Marie-de-Campan they closed the course and I become the latest victim of the broom wagon.
Only 3,800 riders managed to finish out of a supposed 10,000 and the fastest time recorded was 6 hours 44 minutes and I’m happy to say that Simon, my travelling partner is a lucky owner of a finisher’s medal – well done buddy!
Roll on October when next year’s tour is announced. The future Mrs S is wondering whether we’ll ever find the time to get married.