ETAPE du TOUR 2008
It was almost completely dark as we lined up in the starting pens at 6am, ready to attempt a 100 miles over the mountains, including the highest road pass in the Pyrenees!
Steady rain fell at least the heat should not be a problem this year! I glanced down at my backup speedometer it had gone blank! At least the main one was working registering 15 degrees and 200 metres above sea level rather worrying when we had a 2000 metre mountain to ascend!
There was a difference this year more people were chattering in English than in French, in our pen at least!
As I topped up my hydration level for the last time, the announcements over the PA system became more and more excited - the first bunch of riders were off!
The starting pens slowly emptied, shoes clicked into place and we drifted under the starting arch, greeted by chirps from the transponders!
We were on out way on the 16th Etape du Tour mountains here we come!
The first 60 miles were fairly flat! Drawn along by the almost endless peloton, it was easy to ride at 28, 20, 35 and even 40kph as the speed of the peloton increased. We made our way through the sleeping streets of Pau, then out to the open countryside. Many riders were enjoying a bit of healthy competition, but for my part I was happy to pace myself and enjoy being pulled along in the slipstream of literally thousands of riders, saving my energy for the colossal climbs to follow.
As we reached hill at Labatmale, the peleton slowed, but fortunately there was not a major hold up.
I reached the first feeding stop at Lourdes in good time, but without stopping, as I had reasoned that as the first section contained no mountains, carrying a bit of extra food and drink would not be a problem.
Many of the locals had come out to watch us at the top of the second climb at Loucrup, greeting us as we reached the top.
Stopping at the foot of the first mountain, Tourmalet, I rapidly consumed my food and drink, and then started the great climb!
The lower slopes of Tourmalet are quite pleasant, registering 7% to 9% on my VDO bike computer. At the pace I was riding it I could make good progress without any pain. It is only when we approached the avalanche shelters in the second half of the climb that the going got tough, with the gradient rising to 10%, then 11%, 12% and even 13%. At an altitude of around 1500 metres we entered the clouds, at an altitude normally more frequented by light aircraft than cyclists! The temperature dropped to a low of 10 degrees, and I longed to get to the feeding station.
The feeding station was rather a strange sight, with snow moving equipment alongside empty crates. Eventually the water dispensing table emerged out of the fog, followed by the food table where they were dispensing bananas and orange slices and putting ham sandwiches together. Hypothermia began to set in, as I started to shiver, and put an extra long sleeved layer on under my waterproof top, and put my gloves on. It seemed a mistake to continue until I was in good shape, as the way ahead was a difficult one, but eventually I felt warm enough to continue.
The road to the top of Tourmalet had been recently re-surfaced, but the free roaming sheep had undone the good work with a slimy layer of droppings! A rider in front of me on a blue bike was weaving rather erratically (maybe from the effects of the cold) and slipped on the slimy surface and fell off! I braked to avoid him, but had trouble getting going again due to wheel spin!
I warmed up after about a km, and quite enjoyed the rest of the ride to the col.
The view at the top was poor in the fog it was difficult to see the cafι on the other side of the road!
Very fortunately the rain had stopped as we descended the initial 15% gradients through the fog, slowing at every bend until we could see where the road went! Hands were hurting from holding the brakes on hard after a couple of Km, though those who had already tried out the route had a better idea of where they were going, and were able to descend a bit faster. In better weather, it must be a spectacular descent!
Eventually the tight hairpins opened out to long straight stretches and we descended at 50kph or more! This was more like it! Nearer the bottom were a series of sweeping bends great fun! After the town of Luz St Saveur we reached a long and scenic gorge, still descending effortlessly. After over 30 km we reached the first small rise heralding the start of the dreaded Hautacam climb. I casually glanced at my watch. My time advantage had almost disappeared! Not stopping to wonder where the time had gone, I put on a spurt. The long stop at the top of Tourmalet may have been a mistake.
At last we were on to the lower slopes of Hautacam. It was difficult to know exactly where Hautacam begins, as the gradient rises gradually.
It was even more difficult to believe that the average gradient of Hautacam is between 7% and 8%, as in the space of 1km the gradient typically rose from 5% to 10% and sometimes 14%! Everyone agreed that it was a tough climb. At around the 5 km mark I stopped briefly and pushed the bike to try and ease the cramp which was setting in only to see the broom wagon appearing! Decision time! Time to go for it regardless! The snail turned into a rocket never mind the pain passing everyone in sight!
Stories of the last 3 km being easy were a good magnet to get you to the top, but are inaccurate. 3 km from the top the gradient was 10%, 2km it dropped a little, but it was only in the last few hundred metres it really gets flatter.
Phew! I let out a cheer louder than the watching spectators as the finishing arch came it view Id done it!
It was good to be greeted by old friends and acquaintances that had already arrived, and excitedly chat about the perils of the ride, before the freezing 1000 metre descent to the Arrival Village below. We had cycled 170 km, and climbed a total of 3740 metres!
It was very satisfying to discover that all 10 of us staying at the gite had successfully completed the course within the time limit.
The star of the show in our gite was Kevin West, who completed the course in 6 hours 16 minutes, finishing in 111th place overall. Kevin is training for his third Iron Man World Championship in Hawaii, and considers that the Etape is good training for the cycling section. He spent most of the week before the Etape riding up Aubisque every day or trying out the Etape course, though he did taper down a bit just before the Etape.
Also especially worthy of a mention are the legendary Dave Thomas from North Wales who completed the Etape in less than 8 hours - four days after his 70th birthday!
Kostadinov Chavdar cycled the 1500 mile round trip, unsupported, from Stratford Upon Avon to Pau on his modified racing bike, then completed the Etape in just over 7 hours!
As Sarah from our gite said we had slain the dragon. Or was it merely hibernating until next year?
Time will tell!