ETAPE 2005 – THE STORY!

 

It was 6:30am on 11th July 2005. Nearly 8000 people from all nations were standing in pens in the town of Mourenx near the Pyrenees. We were about to set out on the 2005 Etape du Tour! The sky in the east had a warm red glow as the sun prepared to rise. We knew that ahead of us lay 110 miles of mountain roads. Would we beat the broom wagon and complete the course? Would we achieve medals? The early morning temperature was 13 degrees – little did we know what lay ahead!

 

For once I was with a group of friends who spoke English – Norman and Mark who were fellow veterans of the Tourmalet and Ventoux Etapes, and Phil who had become very popular by bringing 23 bikes with him in a van for fellow Etappers!

 

At 7:00 am sharp the count down was complete for the first riders, and they were off! At 7:15 it was our turn, and we rolled under the starting arch in the early morning sunshine.

 

We rapidly accelerated to 18 or 22mph, setting off in one of the world’s largest and most straggling pelotons heading for the mountains. There were 39 km of almost flat road before Ichere – a great opportunity to put some space between us and the broom wagon, which was following us at around 15 mph! No time to hang around!

 

At the village Asasp we right turned right towards Ichere. ASAP might have been a more appropriate name!

 

 We followed a beautiful river valley which curved slowly around, the going getting a little more difficult, reducing my speed to 15mph at times. Then the mountain began at Lordoise Ichere. 50km had gone, it was 8:50 and I’d achieved a good lead on the broom wagon!

 

The previous spread out formation bunched until we were packed like commuters on the tube, slowly progressing up the mountain side, with a few fast riders fighting their way through – would they regret it later we wondered?

Ichere was not a difficult climb being only a few km long, and seldom reaching a gradient of 10%.

 

The climb was soon over, and we were faced with one of the most treacherous descents of the whole day. The views were magnificent, but the road surface was rather poor, and was made more exciting by loose gravel! At one point we approached a bend at high speed – anyone not making it round the bend would have been airborne for some time before hitting the ground far below! Fortunately I did not see any accidents, though Kevin heard a crash behind him and reported it to the gendarmes.

 

I bypassed the drink station at the foot of Ichere – I had not been able to drink much because of an unsettled stomach. This was not a problem at this stage.

 

And so to Marie Blanque. Infamous with the professional Tour riders, it starts with a modest slope of 2% which gradually increases km by km reaching a whopping 13% (averaged over 1km!) near the top.


Photo Credit H.Blackburn

All started well – most people pacing themselves – until around 4km from the top where the gradient is about 11% - when people began to stop and rest or to push their bikes.

 

 The numbers pushing their bikes increased from the odd one or two to an epidemic – Frenchmen frantically shouting to people to walk on the right … until only two people were left on their bikes in front of me – who were going so slowly that they fell off! I was (fairly reluctantly) forced to join the walkers!

 

With only around half a km to go from the summit I re-mounted with difficulty (not easy on a steep gradient with clipless pedals!) and victoriously rode to the top of Marie Blanque, fighting my way through the riders who had stopped for a rest.

The descent from the top of Marie Blanque to the Plateau de Benou is a pleasure even for those who fear fast descents. The crowds of riders thinned out, and the road gently wound its way through the woodland with a really nice gradient for several km – fun but not dangerous.

 

The trees opened out to reveal the Plateau de Benou – after a final fast downhill section the road surface suddenly improved and we were at the feed station. I stopped to top up my water bottles and grab a few slices of orange before continuing on some excellent roads across the plateau, mainly with slight down hill slopes – a real delight to ride on! However I knew what was coming next!

 

The gradient steepened, and after an innocuous section with easy bends we arrived at a series of fast downward ramps, each terminating in tight hairpin bends. Fortunately, everyone was riding considerately, and there were no accidents.

 

It was with a sense of relief that I arrived at the bottom safely. The next section was one of the most relaxing – slightly down hill with an excellent road surface. I took advantage of this section to gain some of the places I had lost earlier. It was a delight when I met Paul who I had ridden with on the Golden Valley Audax Wales last year, and later on, Bruce who took part in the training camp in Spain this year.

 


We arrived at the Elimination Point before it had even been set up, much to my relief! Christine had been watching the race, and later told me how the elimination took place. A van appeared later with a clock on its roof set to 12:16. Riders arriving after that time were stopped and either put on to coaches, or forced to ride back to Pau by the direct route. Some took it calmly, and were even relieved that their toils were over, but swearing was heard in a variety of languages! Personally I was very pleased to see her waiting there, and delighted when she produced a bottle of fruit juice!

 

The luckier ones who arrived earlier made our way up the series of hairpin bends through the woodlands at the base of Aubisque, knowing that we had a long, 17km haul ahead of is – with an average gradient of around 8%! The average UK difficult hill rises about 100 meters – this one rise 1300 meters – that’s around 4300 feet. Do it 7 times and you’ve climbed Everest from sea level! Once was enough though – particularly as the temperatures were rising continuously.

 

Even the attractive spar town of Eaux-Bonnes, a few km from the foot of Aubisque is built on a slope steep enough to challenge the locals – and it seemed that almost the entire population of the town were lining the route cheering us on. We needed every bit of encouragement we could get for what lay ahead of us.

 

 Speeds slowed to a few miles an hour as the great train of cyclists steadily moved up the side of the mountain, with occasional riders stopping for a rest.

 

As temperatures rose to 26 or 27 degrees, I allowed myself one minute's stop briefly sheltering from the glare of the sun in the avalanche shelter half way up, then continued.

 

As we neared the top the gradients steepened with sections of 10%, the tree cover disappeared, and magnificent mountain views were revealed. Thankfully a slight cool breeze sprung up. White patches of “neige eternal” were visible on the distant mountains.

 

A helicopter swooping over the slowly rising ribbon of multicolour lycra convinced me to put on a good show – in case we were being videoed!

 

The struggle of the last few kilometres was more than rewarded by the scenery!

 

At long last I arrived at the Col de Aubisque.

 

I joined the crowd at the feed station, and consumed some orange slices, spiced bread and water, allowing myself a short rest after the long climb. The sound of hundreds of cycling shoes crushing discarded plastic mineral water bottles was like thunder!

 

 

Next came one of the most pleasant sections of the whole ride, the section between Col de Aubisque and Col de Soulor. We descended the winding route with ease, appreciating the gentle curves and modest gradient. The tunnel with a sharp bend was worrying, being dark enough to render all other cyclists invisible! A crash in the tunnel would have caused a major pile up. Fortunately a police motorcycle passed through the tunnel at the same time as our group – the light from his headlamp was welcome!

 

The climb up to Col de Souler was more difficult than I expected, though we were entertained by a flock of sheep on the road at one point! I was very tempted to stop in the café at the top of the Col!

 

Then the long, marvellous descent, with great views and one sweeping bend after another, descending for nearly 30 km! As the road flattened, large pelotons were forming, cruising along at speeds between 20 and 30 mph. Strangely I noted more ambulances attending accidents on this stretch than anywhere else. Phil later told me that he was near the front of a large group riding at around 30mph when his front tyre punctured. Fortunately he managed to extract himself from the group safely, repair the puncture and finish in a very creditable time!

 

I had success in the bag – or so it seemed – cruising at a good speed up to the 100 mile mark, though dehydration was really beginning to set in now as I had been unable to drink very much. Then - a diversion ahead a sharp left turn at Pardies Pietat. I thought overheard a Frenchman mentioning a “petit Patate” – slang for a spud or a small hill – oh no!

Then we hit it – 7% to 9%. Not much in normal circumstances, but the temperature had risen to 35 degrees. The tarmac beneath my wheels was softening in places. As we struggled up the long hill, the temperatures hit 36 degrees! The thoughtful locals were hosing down weary riders. The riders in turn were vying to get near the cool water. Just as I desperately approached a cooling water jet someone nipped in and intercepted it. “Moi!” I shouted, and was rewarded by a jet of cooling water full in the face. Surprisingly it was very welcome! A local told us it was 300 m to the top. We arrived at the top only to see the next hill! Christine later told me that even a spectator had passed out in the heat!

 

The worst really was over then – until we arrived at the last slope to the Place de Verdun! A last effort took me up the slope, through the finishing arch to and to the finishing line, where unaccountably the person in front stopped for half a minute just before the sensor mat!

 

We were rewarded by our medals and food bags. The most treasured item was a bottle of cool mineral water which I poured over my legs to cool them off! Bliss!

 

The fastest competitor, Laurent Marcon, completed the route in 5 hours, 22 minutes. The following week the professionals, led by the Spaniard Oscar Pereiro Sio, completed the same stage in 4 hours, 38 minutes!


Many thanks to Gordon for following action photos the Etape finish: