At 0620 I decided it was sufficiently light to venture out and I found my way to the correct start pen by about 0640. The Avenue de Pyrenees and the area surrounding Park Beaumont was packed with 10,000 cyclists. At 0700 a siren sounded and around 8 minutes later I rolled over the start. There was an immediate slightly hairy dip down to the station and a sharp left over the Gave River followed by a fairly speedy undulating ride until we hit the Parc National du Pyrenees at Escot and the start of the day’s first climb the Marie Blanque, a vertical climb of about 1,000 m over about 6 miles. The terrain was wooded providing shade from the early sun and was comfortable enough. The road did narrow though and there was congestion particularly as we picked our way past ambulances and other slow moving vehicles. Fortunately I was over the top before the congestion deteriorated to the point where people had to dismount and walk.
Over the top there was a fast descent and a flat stretch through woods with a bubbling brook on our right hand side. Then came the Soulor which took us up to about 1,500m over around 9 miles. With the heat increasing I found this harder but still manageable.
Over the summit and as I was picking up speed on the descent I heard a Frenchman yelling at a sheep. He was scaring the animal across the road into my path. I missed by a couple of feet and that was my scariest moment of this year’s etape. There was then a long long descent which took us almost to the foot of the Tourmalet. The field was a t last beginning to thin and groups were forming with gaps in between.
As we started to climb again I clocked up 100 miles in a steep sided gorge with a river to the right and cliff to the left. At this point I had been going for 6 ½ hours and I thought a silver at 8h15m could be achievable. It would require just 12 miles in an hour and three quarters.
However I had not reckoned on the energy sapping properties of the Tourmalet on a hot day. I had climbed this mountain before in the 2008 etape, though from the other side and on a positively cold and wet day. Early in the climb I was offered a coke from a Cyclefit feed station but I felt I could manage without and didn’t feel like stopping – that may have been a mistake. Before long, like most of my fellow etappers to whom I have subsequently spoken, I cracked. My feet were killing me and I was draining liquid from my bidons faster than I could get them refilled.
The locals were marvellous with their pouring of cold water over our heads. Some of the water offered was said to be ‘potable’ so I gulped it down. At the water stop at the treeline I gulped, filled bidons and sprayed my feet with water (unlike Mt Ventoux last year this water was on tap). I took a couple of precious aspirins. Thus fortified I set out for the top. This could now be seen through the clear mountain air in the far distance. I ground on slowly as the kilometre signs counted down the distance to the summit. The last 2 km are the longest I have ridden on my bike. People were asking for and getting pushes up the mountain from the many spectators who had congregated near the top. Eventually after a final switchback to the left the summit was in sight and I passed over with a time of 08h40m for a solid bronze. Details of my ride can be found on my Garmin record..
I just had to rest my feet at the top before descending to La Mongie and begged a first aider for a half bottle of water shared with a similarly dehydrated rider. Eventually with loose shoes I headed down to the finish village and had my meal before heading down the mountain to Lourdes to catch a train back to Pau. On the way this sign caught my eye (1.5m = 5 1/2 feet).
Once back in Pau I just made it for the planned dinner at 7.30 with Alex but, alas, he struggled on the mountain too and did not make it back. (Postscript: actually he was busy recording a video for the BBC). So after a few bananas, snacks and whatever I could lay my hands on it was to bed for a deep sleep.