I recently read an article describing the Étape du Tour as an opportunity for cyclists to emulate the pros, which reminded me of another journalist who ridiculed the amateurs for wanting to emulate dope-driven, juiced-to-the-gills pro riders.
So i asked myself - why are you driving 900km on Friday, to spend Satrurday stressing about the mammoth 148km ride up the Tourmalet (17+km at 7.1% average) and Hautacam (13+km at 7.8% average) on Sunday, and in the rain to top it all ? Well the answer couldn't be further from the journalists' claims about 'dreaming of being a pro' ! No i just wanted to ride in a beautiful place, on closed roads, with other cyclist nuts, over a tough, testing route.
Question of the day on Saturday - how much will it rain tomorrow ? The forecast was not good - it was warm and heavy all day and when the alarm sounded at 5 in the morning it was dark, but no rain... and even on the start line at 7.30 the sun was threatening to burst out from the grey clouds...but still, the question everyone was asking was "when will the clouds burst?"
I set off at 7h50, with number 6051. This meant i had over 6000 riders in front of me (and another 5 behind). It was a quick opening 50km - i skipped from group to group like a pebble skimming across the water... passing a lot of riders, latching on to a new group, passing, doing my bit on the front - you know because with a quick glance behind, a line has formed on your back wheel....it's exhilarating because you cannot break your speed.
The groups were quiet and concentrated all the way up to the foot of the Tourmalet - the monster of the Pyrenées. I had been extremely anxious about this for some reason, not helped by Jon who said he had driven up it on Saturday and said "It is a real beast of a climb...really really steep in places, dangerously so..." . Not the confidence booster i'd been looking for. As we entered the feed zone at Saint Marie de Campan I ungraciously stuffed a banana in my mouth and looked up at the sky - it was now very dark, and the rain was beginning to fall... i quickly got my rain coat on (didn't want to get my Rapha top wet now, did I ?) and set off ready for a long uncomfortable slog
So here we were - St Marie de Campan - the foot of the Tourmalet. It was not cold here, but the rain was starting to really fall. The black clouds in the distance meant there was nothing to see - even the hills to the left had become shrouded and veiled by the dark mist. Only one thing to do - pedal. The gradients weren't too hard here....but the ramp started to stiffen and the Garmin was reading 9 and 10%.
With the compact FSA crankset (50-34) and the SRAM Force 12-28 cassette behind, i felt well-equipped with a steady circular foot movement i continued to pass many riders.
The first tunnel appeared, and the gradient was steep. A few riders stopped to shelter a while, but as yet nobody was walking. Occasionally a higher numbered cyclist passed on the left...with a strong purposeful pedalstroke. I breathed regularly and continued on the trek. I ate every hour - Isostar cereal bar, Isostar fruit bar...i had studied the advice on GCN - eating solids was important before, and on the Tourmalet, after there was not much use as it wouldn't be digested. La Mongie was approaching at 2km, which meant a feed zone. The air was thinner already and the breath was visible as the temperature began to drop. The rain was lighter and so i stopped and removed my jacket. I wanted to have the benefit on the descent. Was i thinking clearly ? I thought so. No time to waste at La Mongie - i didn't need anything anyway. There was another feedzone at the bottom of the Tourmalet - so if i did feel peckish i'd get something there. People were out in force here, singing and cheering us on... 2 km more to the summit. The Garmin had stayed around the 8 and 9% it seemed for the past 4 kms but i was feeling strong.
Finally the summit - but there was nothing to see - the mist had gathered and the rain was starting again. I passed the Col sign, and the legendary cyclist statue - and stopped - time to dress for the 35km descent. Mike, my brother, had kept his Zipp 808s for this part - he'd spoken about the long winding, fast road, and was dying to ride fast, but i could feel the wind and cold already - so had it been a wise idea ? I knew he'd probably be at the bottom already, if not on the Hautacam at the end of the valley road, so i was curious to know how he'd done. I took off the helmet, put on a muffler, a hat, arm warmers, and raincoat and luckily the gloves i'd stuffed in my jacket as i left the hotel. I was ready. 3°c at the summit. It was going to be a long, cold descent, i knew it. Gendarmes were stationed at the first hairpins and with flapping arms warning riders to slow down, to be sensible....but once these first dangerous bends were out of the way it was a long winding way down, almost straight.... the rain was doing its best to slow us down - each drop like a dart on the face. I was cold already and could not feel my hands; my shoulders were also seizing up. I shook my arms back to life. It was dramatic. I was literally freezing - my legs had gone numb, and my feet had all but disappeared. This was crazy. What was i doing here ? It wasn't the ascension that had killed me but the descent. Get to the Hautacam in one piece and you can warm up there, i thought... i was actually riding quicker so i could get to do one of the toughest climbs in the region ! Was i mad ? I hit 63km/h on the descent....but with my hands constantly tweeking the brakes, and becoming numb as i did so. I knew that if i slipped and fell i would not be able to get back on the bike. I saw myself lying in a ditch and drowning, as cyclists whizzed by !
The road began to flatten - we arrived at the water stop. I checked my bottles - empty. I turned back and held out my bottle to one of the girls serving. She laughed as i could not stop my arm from shaking - and i had to place it on the table. It was funny but i couldn't even feel my face as i laughed. This was madness - did the pros suffer like this? I don't think so - they'd have the best gear - unlike my flimsy jacket with tears in the arm (tears as in rips, not 'tears' - they were running down my face!! ha ha) I started to shake uncontrollably....but i managed to take a sachet of energy drink from my back pocket - Isoxan which has a nice taste and passes easily for me. With a couple of gels - overstim's Red Tonic in my pocket i had all i needed to get me going again. The temperature was warmer here and you could feel the heat from the road. The rain continued to pour but as i shook myself back to life i knew i was riding an epic ride. The next 20km or so were fast as groups began to form again. I was with a group going at 45km/h through the torrents sweeping over the road and over bridges of the valley, we were almost at the same speed as the river running by us.
Suddenly though the rain eased and the clouds turned white, there was even a bit of blue in the sky. The garmin read 129km distance ridden. In two km the foot of the Hautacam. We arrived quickly. The crowds were dense here. I stopped and undressed and to the amusement of a crowd of spectators i wrung out my gloves - it was like turning on a tap as the rain water flowed out... i smiled and quipped how there'd been a light shower on the Tourmalet. Here the crowd was dressed for summer, tee-shirts, shorts. It was very warm now. I checked my bottle - ok for the final 17km ascension - so i didn't waste anytime at the water/feed station.
warmer on the Hautacam
The crowds at the foot were swarming on both sides of the road and formed a tunnel - they were cheering and shouting - "Allez, Rapha, Allez," (I was wearing the top and the shorts, so I smiled, this is what you see on the Tour - it was very uplifting. Ah!! It would be nice to be a pro sponsored by Rapha, i thought - so it was nice to feel like a pro for a while....i took this thought to the end of the village. and the road began to lift.
The Hautacam was a strange climb - many tough ramps at 8-9-10-11% punctuated by easier 6 and 7%s and even a couple of flat sections. Nothing as relentless as the Semnoz of 2013 - and as i had survived that, and the Tourmalet, and the torrents, and cold, i felt confident. I carried on pedalling and passing riders as i had on the Tourmalet - taking care not to cross onto the opposite side of the road where the finishers were descending, chatting and happy....i was glancing at their numbers - they were all high and none were in the 5 or 6 thousand - so i was going well.
looking a bit fitter than one year ago on the semnoz
Signs on the climb indicate the number of km to the summit and the average gradient of the next km. With 9 to go i heard my name shouted - "go on Martin"... it was Mike coming down. Too quick for me to reply, but as i tried to calculate the time difference, i was at 8km to the summit. I knew there was a really tough 2 or 3km section coming - and i kept my eye out for the average gradients -- 9.5%;10%; 9% -- then 7% - relief...only 7%, i'd been expecting higher. The race was almost done. The sun was disappearing as we climbed, behind grey clouds. Rain again. The air was thinner and my breath was now visible as i blew. The summit was above, final 2km, the road surface was new....a few drops began to fall - the red flame - can i get there before the deluge. Flattening out i put my head down and pushed again - final effort. Finish. The rain starts to really fall. Coat on, wet already, turn round and head down. The cold of the Tourmalet returns. What a feeling to get to the Village at the foot of the climb. Hot coffee, pasta, change of clothes in the bag i'd left - that was the best move i made all day - dry socks !!!!
263/1210 age category
Over 10000 started
less than an hour behind mike, and only 10 minutes behind Jon (6h45)
Our Mike - 6h00 - the Zipps couldn't fly in the rain ! pity.
when you consider that when i finished the Étape two years ago they had already waded through wo pizzas and god knows how many beers, by the time i arrived !
Conclusion - much better - improvement all round
The Boardman Air 9.8, the Rapha kit, and the training all help :)