With a group based in the village of Bertren in the Midi Pyrenees and staying with Chris and Helen of, I rode the bulk of the 2008 Etape route over two days on Sunday 17 and Monday 18 May.

After last year's epic I feel that there is a real danger of underestimating the challenge presented by this year's route, with two HC climbs, particularly the Hautacam at the end.

We picked the route up at km 30 near Nay. The roads are wide and well surfaced, with no pinch points. Here it is flat and pace will be fast. The first category climb is up the Cote de Benejacq finishing at Labatmale (3rd category), this starts with two hairpins and a gradient of 10% for a few hundred metres, then a steady 6-7% for 3 km or so. The relatively easy climb is followed by a nice descent to the rolling plains around Lourdes. We skirted around Lourdes although the Etape route goes through the middle of the town, as this religious centre was busy on the Sunday.

The second climb is Loucrup, also 3rd category, but with more of the feel of a real climb, the road hugs the left side of a wide valley, great views of the Pyrenean cols that are coming up over to your right. This climb has a more serious feel about it. A steady and longer climb than Labatmale.

The road then follows the valley up the River Adour; here there is a gradual climb at 1-2%; getting into a good group will help here. Then through Bagneres de Ignore, to Ste Marie de Campan, where Eugene Christoph built new forks in the blacksmiths in famous incident in the Tour of 1913. After this village the road flattens out for the next 5km, even falling for a bit.

The real Tourmalet climb, which is 13km long, starts at the aptly-named Gripp, with 7 then 8%. After Artigues into the trees with about 5km of 9 and 10%; enough time to get into a steady rhythm. The road passes a couple of waterfalls, in full flow after days of rain. Again a wide well-surfaced road. Over a bridge and all of sudden you look up to see the road high above you; here it started to rain on us steadily, the road opens out above the trees and after a number of avalanche shelters you hit the ugly ski resort of La Mongie. It continues for another 4 km to the top, by this stage the road was covered in snow and ice, and it was sleeting hard with thick mist (and 3degrees), so we didn't ride to the very top nor did we ride the descent, rather descending back down to Ste. Marie. The Tourmalet is known for unpredictable weather so, although the last two Etapes have been sweltering hot, I would still be prepared for potentially poor weather even in early July.

On the Monday we rejoined the route south of Argeles. The road here is fast and gently descends until the sharp right turn for the Hautacam climb.

A stunning climb, although at 11 km shorter than the ascent of the east side of Tourmalet it has parts which are more challenging. At the beginning it is relatively easy with a succession of pretty hamlets and the rather narrow road rising in steps. The real climb kicks in after Artalens. Some very steep bits (registering 16% on my Garmin) in the middle of the climb. Once you go over the cattle grid above the trees the last 3 km are easier.

Altogether a fantastic ride through the impressive scenery of the High Pyrenees.
By the way, I am told that although the finish is on the top of the mountain riders will be required to cycle back down the same road to the finish village on the edge of Argeles.