Although the event started from Pau, our tour company had us staying in Lourdes. For the uninitiated, Lourdes has been a place of Catholic pilgrimage since a local girl claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary appear to her in a rock face in 1858. A number of subsequent claimed miracles have resulted in it being a destination for people seeking miracle cures for various medical conditions.

 

It’s sad enough to see throngs of poor people in wheelchairs with terminaStephen climbs the Telegraphl illnesses trying to find a miracle cure with their last throw of the dice. But it’s utterly depressing to see huge numbers of vultures preying on them in the form of shops selling everything from Pope soap-on-a-rope to empty holy water bottles with a picture of the crucifixation tastefully depicted in pink glitter. I promise you I am not making this up.

The place is summed up by the monument overlooking the town – a 50ft-high cross in blue neon. It truly is Catholic Vegas. Another reason the town didn’t endear itself to me was the fact that as soon as the wheelchair users go to bed, their carers go out on the tear. Every night, til about 4am. Not ideal when you’re trying to get some sleep before an early start. But after putting the bike together in a grand-scale faff, it did feel good to be riding the 25 miles to Pau as a warm-up on the Saturday. And here was the first indication that we were in France – the drivers. Our tour party was in a group of 250, and even with the best will in the world and some judicious kerb-hugging single-filing, there were times when we were impeding the traffic.

And we did get a few horns. Except instead of the expected 2-fingered gestures, the horns were accompanied by waves and “Allez!”s. Cool. So after a couple of hours of signing on, storing the bikes, eating, drinking coffee, browsing the trade stands and drinking more coffee, we were on the coach back to Lourdes. Event day dawned and after another night of trying to get some sleep despite the wheelchair-pushing revellers, we were up for a 4am breakfast. It really wasn’t very pretty, but needs must, and by 4.45 we were in the coach, in the pitch black, trying to avoid the wheelchair-pushers on the way back from the bars. We picked up the bikes in Pau, did whatever last-minute prep we had to do, and rode to the start area.

The bike lock-up was 2 miles from the start area, so inevitably, yes, we got lost. 15 minutes, lots of swearing, some futile map consultation and some pidgin French later, we were in the pens ready to go. I was shaking with nerves at this stage, but the early morning cloud looked like it was burning off, and the glimpse of the mountains in the distance helped to focus the mind. Apart from the tannoy giving us last-minute instructions, there was silence. 10,000 people making no noise at all is an eerie sound. And then it was 7am and we were off. I say “we”, I mean the lucky ones with low bib numbers. Us peasants up in the 5,000s had to wait for 20 minutes or so (the 9,000s waited for nearer 40), and then this was it, going over the start mat and there I was, riding the Etape. Très cool.

Within literally 50 metres of the start I saw the first of many punctures, the victim desperately trying to get the air in while we flew past and he dropped several hundred places. You did something bad in a former life, didn’t you mate? It was all a bit nervous in the first few miles with a lot of riders in close proximity and some tight corners but nothing too untoward happened.

The closest I saw to an international incident was a French rider cutting up an Aussie, causing some rapid braking and a Franco-Antipodean comparison of hand gestures. My suggestion to Oz that he use the Mark Renshaw cranial line-clearing technique was not best received. The first climb of the day was the Cote De Renoir which was rolling rather than steep, so a nice little leg-loosener really. And yet already there were one or two walking – going to be a long day for you I’m afraid.

My first minor mechanical was on a flat section after about 25 miles where a small section of the front tyre bead popped off the rim for no appparent reason. Eh? Oh well, better resign myself to getting off and fixing it while I drop several hundred places. I must have done something bad in a former life. Hope I wasn’t Charles Manson. Or even worse, Wagner. Fix it, get back on it and prepare to face the Marie Blanque. Although the shortest of the three major climbs on the stage, it is the steepest and consequently has a reputation for catching out those who underestimate the top section in particular. Cast your mind back to O Level/GCSE/8th Grade math(s). Remember x=y squared? This should jog your memory:

http://www.climbbybike.com/profile.asp?Climbprofile=Col-de-Marie-Blanque&MountainID=6258

Quite an eventful climb, this one. On the middle 7% section I saw the first of the two heart attack victims on the day being carried off in the “cardio” wagon. But I was feeling good. I was riding within myself – keeping the heart rate below 150bpm, spinning a low gear, and quietly moving up a good few places despite the increasing heat. And then on the top (11%) section it all went a bit wrong for an awful lot of people. At this stage the road was maybe 6 riders wide, and forcing 10,000 riders up it was always going to cause trouble. Somewhere a few rows up the hill, someone wobbled and fell off. The riders in close proximity unclipped instinctively and put their feet down, the action was replicated down the hill like a lycra-clad set of dominos, and suddenly we were all walking. For the remaining 2km of the climb. Not happy about that – it added about 30 mins to my time.

But then there we were, at the top, and at the feed station. It did resemble feeding time at the zoo, but a few judicious elbows got me what I needed (including some devilish French almond energy bar concoction that was basically marzipan in a wrapper – I got through quite a few of those as it happens) and I was on my way again. The descent was fantastic – closed roads allow you to apex the bends at daft speeds and 50mph looked possible until I approached a hairpin and saw someone who’d obviously thought the same as me, overcooked it, and ridden straight into a stone wall. The ambulance team was pumping him into a kind of bubblewrap stretcher. Time to back it off a bit maybe. Then into the lovely rural rolling section in the run up to the Soulor. The support up until this stage from the locals had been enthusiastic but nothing too out of the ordinary.

At this point though it all started to get a bit Royston Vasey. We rounded a corner in a beautiful wooded hamlet to the accompaniment of a man in a beret with an accordion. Not sure if he was playing for us or his pigs. Best press on. (NB: American readers – for Royston Vasey and an accordion substitute Deliverance and a banjo to get the idea. Leave the pigs though). And then the valley began to echo to the strains of what sounded like an alpenhorn. I could hear it bouncing off the surrounding cliffs and its siren call seemed to draw me further along the road.

And the illusion was shattered in an instant when I saw the source of the noise – a man over the other side of the valley on his balcony “playing” a vuvuzela. Blue, it was, with “France” written on the side of it. Most incongruous. I’d been worrying a bit about the Soulor, not because it was the longest (it wasn’t) or the steepest (ditto), but because it was the middle one. Like a three-lap Richmond Park session writ large, the second lap’s always the slowest – you haven’t got the adrenalin of just starting off, and you haven’t got the comfort of knowing that the pain’s going to be soon over. All you’ve got is the knowledge that it’s going to hurt, and it’s going to do so for the foreseeable. Here’s what it looks like:

http://www.climbbybike.com/climb.asp?Col=Col-du-Soulor&qryMountainID=6705

So 10k of essentially false flat and then a lot of x=2y. To be honest it dragged a bit, this one, and the increasing heat didn’t help. Again, peg the heart rate below 150 and spin. Look at the drop-dead gorgeous scenery and don’t get offended when the locals cheer the French riders louder than they cheer you. I have to say though, the support from here on in was fantastic – they don’t know you from Adam so they key off your jersey – “Allez Twicken’am”, “Allez Tay Say Say”. Brilliant. The few Brits supporting made a bit more noise when they saw one of their own and they all got an RAF-style goggle salute in return. Minor mechanical number two happened around halfway up the Soulor – my headset began to develop a nasty creak that developed into an even more nasty cracking noise. Hmmm – better sort that out at the top. Don’t fancy the front wheel leaving the rest of the bike at 45mph.

So more places lost but equal parts Allen key waggling and swearing and I was back on the horse. Suspect I might well have been Wagner after all. The descent of the Soulor was one of the highlights for me – brakes off, aero tuck on, 47mph on the straights, try not to paste yourself into the walls on the bends, apex tight. Top drawer. At this stage the knees were giving me a lot of grief. I’d stupidly bought new shoes and pedal cleats a month before the event and I clearly hadn’t set them up properly beacuse my knees were grumbling from the first ride. Throughout the day the grumble developed into a shout and then a roar that no amount of Ibuprofen seemed to have much effect on. The video clips on the Etape website show someone who seems to have developed a unique ability to limp while pedalling.

Not so much turning circles as squares with one leg and rhombuses with the other. Horrible, horrible, horrible. There was a bit of a headwind at this point, and I managed to get myself into a group of 7 or so. I have to say we worked pretty well together, encouraging each other and generally contributing to the entente cordiale. And then we rounded a bend on the flat to see a rider on the side of the road, covered in blood. He was standing up, swearing, but seemed to be more angry than hurt. We all looked at him and in doing so I managed to lock handlebars with someone. By the time we’d extricated ourselves from that little mess, we were too far down the road to stop. Hope the bloody rider’s OK. If not, I’m sure we’ll be making Zombieland 2 shortly. We’ll be looking for extras.

Our tour company had set up a feed station at about 95 miles and I have to say it was very welcome – ham baguettes and cold Coke has never tasted so good – man cannot live by marzipan alone. The run up to the final climb was very pretty indeed – a steep gorge filled with a tumbling glacial river with the road going through tunnels in the rock. My roommate passed through here a little later and told me that he’d seen a bizarre sight – rows and rows of riders lying down alongside their bikes, desperately trying to cool down in the shade, trying to escape the heat. It must have looked like some sort of two-wheeled suicide cult. I looked down at my computer and it ticked over to 100 miles. Quick status check – all good, feeling fine. Bit tired and knee hurting but nothing a quick marzipan bar and more Ibuprofen wouldn’t sort out. And then I saw the sign – 18km to the Tourmalet, and I passed over the timing mat at the start of the climb in 7 hours 25 mins. 18km – that’s less than my commute. No traffic lights so I should be done in around 40 mins, right? Might even sneak a sub-8 if I get a shove on.

1 hour and 55 minutes later I crossed the finish line, having been given a damn good humbling by the Tourmalet. It is two hours that I will carry with me to my grave. It’s not so much the gradient – 8s, 9s, a cheeky 10 in the last km – it’s the fact that it’s just relentless. Nowhere to hide from the gradient or the sun. A few bends, but basically a straight road that just goes up, and up, and up.  Like this:

http://www.climbbybike.com/profile.asp?Climbprofile=Col-du-Tourmalet&MountainID=26

It’s rare that the Etape and the Tour proper are so close to each other in the calendar, so since the pro riders were hitting this stage the Thursday after, every available parking space and vaguely flat piece of land was already filled with camper vans full of Tour spectators. They were well-prepared with solar generators, TVs linked to video cameras so you could see yourself suffering as you approached them, tables, chairs, barbeques. They got us as bonus entertainment, but they made us feel like we really were in the Tour. We were all suffering in the heat, but endless bottles of ice-cold stream water poured over the head by enthusiastic supporters helped enormously. Personally I think the guy who got his garden hose out was taking it too far but I wasn’t in a position to argue. And the mobile entertainer belting out French rock’n’roll needed a good punching (I assume he was a mobile entertainer but maybe, this being France, his band had gone on strike in a dispute over working hours and pension terms).

He’d managed to inflict pain on the only part of my body that so far hadn’t been hurting – my ears. Take that Jonny ‘alliday. Or at least you would if I only had the strength to lift my right arm off the bars. I had wondered why the organisers had put a water stop with only 8k to go but now it all made sense – the (by now 36C) heat had meant that I’d got through my two bottles in the last 10k so a refill was not just welcome but a necessity. Resist the temptation to have a breather and crack on. Carnage at this point – riders walking, puking, lying down, sticking heads in streams to cool down, crying. The Norwegian fans, however, were out in force on the upper mountain for Hushovd and Boasson Hagen, covering entire hillsides with Norwegian flags and generally taking over the place.

And God love’em, they’d built a bar. Not just a trestle table and a few cans of lager, but a proper one with wood, nails, a keg and even a pub sign – The Little Viking it was called. They were offering free beer to riders but to be honest I suspect once you’re in that little vortex you’re not going to get out in a hurry, so I pressed on. This was probably the low point for me. Not just passing up free beer (although that hurt, obviously), but seeing the summit for the first time and wondering how the hell I was going to get up to it. I was struggling to get my heart rate above 135, a sure sign that I was cooking up, so I had to rein it in and try to keep spinning. I have never seen km markers pass so slowly. With nothing left to give, the temptation to step off the bike was enormous, and in fact many did just that.

But I tried to remember that I was here by choice, had spent a lot of time, money and effort on the way, and when it was about to get too much I tried to look over the side at the stunning scenery. That helped a bit, but the final km was a bit of a blur. The spectators were trying to help, but clearly didn’t have much of a collective sense of distance – I got “seulement cinquante metres!”, “a hundred meters to go!” and “deux cent metres!” in short order. Either I’m going backwards (which, to be fair, I kind of was) or you lot don’t know a tape measure from a hole in the ground. So a final effort and there I was, over the line. Done.

Someone had helpfully puked right on the line, and in my borderline delirious state I remember thinking “Apple chunks. You see, it just goes to show, always wash your fruit in mineral water when abroad”. I got off the bike and out of the way and then thought it would be a good idea to get a photo of me with the Tourmalet sign. The only problem was that it was on top of a wall, and after two attempts it was clear I didn’t have the strength to climb up it. A French guy, who was 70 if he was a day, reached down, grabbed my arm and pulled me up as if I was a small child. I was about to give him a hug but realised I was drenched so reverted to a handshake and profuse thanks. So I got my photo, dropped down the wall, tried to keep the wobbly lower lip in check and set off down the hill to the finish village. The rest is a blur of carbohydrate.

As the official website rather archly puts it: “6888 riders finished this legendary stage before the time limit. A lot of participants were eliminated during the Tourmalet climbing, most of them were not enough prepared and trained”. Miaow. Luckily I wasn’t one of them. I got round in 9 hours,19 minutes, 3436th of 10,000 starters. And I had been feeling fairly satisfied with that, until I saw Andy Schleck do it on Thursday in 5 hours 3 minutes (shakes head).

So that’s that. Obviously I’ll be doing it or something similar again next year – just need to pick my moment (like in about 6 months time, after having made multiple large deposits in the relationship bank) to discuss with mission control.

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