There’s no party atmosphere at the top of the Hautacam. No collective jubilation and no private sense of euphoria either. Maybe that would come later. For now the focus is food: Honey bread, salted crackers, orange segments, whatever there is. Then the rain, which had been kind enough to wait until I’d crossed the finish, begins again.
“Go and get your medal.” The older gentleman at the bottom tells me. “You’ve earned it.” I’d free-wheeled the thirteen kilometres down the mountain to the village, thinking the whole way not of medals but dry clothes, and stopped to ask him where the car park was.
“I think I’ve earned a bath and six beers.” I reply, resting my leg against my front wheel for warmth, the rim on fire after eight miles of firm braking. I didn’t think I had, actually, earned anything, I just really really wanted them. I certainly didn’t think a medal was in order. I thank him and roll on.
No sport revels in the vocabulary of martyrdom quite like cycling does. But I had just ridden 150 kilometres – 95 miles in old money – of which half were uphill, and at least half – not exactly the same half and at my own initiation, but still – during which I would say I had suffered.
And all I could think was “What was the point of that?”
So what’s it like to ride a stage of The Tour de France?
Erm, probably not much like that, if we’re being honest.
The ride starts from Pau’s enormous Place de Verdun at dawn. Riders enter pens based on their registration number and wait.
Ten thousand unnervingly hairless, scantily clad (mostly white) men. With everyone on one performance enhancing something or other, some chatting excitedly, others lost in solitary thought, the whole thing feels rather like the smoking area of a large Vauxhall club. Only except of course no one would dream of sparking up. Certainly there are as many string vests as you might see on a Sunday morning at Fire.
Most groups doing l’Etape bought their entries together, so have numbers near to each other. We didn’t, so don’t. This means Big Chris is in the 7000s on his own, and starts first, Mark and Lil Chris are both 9′s, two guns later, while I’m 10750, also solo and last to launch, twenty minutes back.
Passing under the gate I start Strava. We all have timing chips stuck to our number plates and everyone will get an official time but I want more data than that’ll give me. Believe me when I say this is not even the lamest part of the cycling experience.
I intend to go fast, as fast as is comfortable at least, maybe sharing the work with a few others. As beautiful as the scenery might be this is not supposed to be a gentle day out in the countryside. I’m not worried about burning out my legs before the big climbs, not on the flatish bits anyway, which make up the first fifty five kilometres or so before the start of the Tourmalet.
Most riders aren’t going as speedily as I’d like, though, so there are few wheels to latch onto. People are being cautious early on, which is fair enough. They also generally seem to be sticking to the right hand side leaving the left free, odd given that this is a closed road event. I find myself taking advantage of the space, and notice that I pick up the occasional hitchhiker who also wants to go a little quicker than the rest. Some would find this annoying but what difference does it make to me? If they want a tow they can have one.
On the first category 3 climb – a speedbump compared with what’s to come – I meet my man crush for the day. Rider 10621. We’re through the 10’s at this point, surrounded mostly by 9000 numbers and he’s going at a speed that suits me, overtaking people with plenty of space. Based on that alone, I decide he’s a decent guy so I don’t want to take advantage. Instead of clinging to his back wheel and letting him drag me along I keep a reasonable distance and try to mimic his pace. I’m only with him for a few kilometres, but I’ll see him again.
There’s a simple, well-honed technique for clearing your sinuses while cycling. You lean over a little, press a finger from one hand against the corresponding nostril and blow as hard as you can, efficiently propelling a ball of mucus to the tarmac. It’s gross but very effective. You’re also supposed to move to one side and look behind to ensure you don’t serve up a splattering to any others in your vicinity. As I’m passing one grizzled, mahogany gent, around the 50km mark, he seems to neglect this crucial part of the process and my face is subject to a stream of snot. It may not be all that sunny, but I’m glad I’m wearing shades.
With their half an hour head start I don’t expect to catch any of our group until I hit the foothills of the Tourmalet at the earliest. I’m surprised, therefore, when just over an hour in I spy the sleeves of Mark’s multi-coloured jersey and his black Boardman bike. After a quick hello we naturally begin to work together just as we do at home, charging through the little French towns and villages where, the weather still kind, the crowds are out in force. It’s as we take the racing line through a tight corner, with men, women, kids urging us on shouting “allez allez”, “bravo” and “bon courage” that I really imagine I’m riding Le Tour.
Mark’s a lot fitter than I am, but I’m better on the hills, and we lose each other on the third, and last, category three. I won’t meet him again until the finish.
A sign reading: “Col du Tourmalet: 22km.” Does that mean to the foot of the mountain or the summit? Either way it’s arrived much sooner than expected. As I approach, the weather begins to turn and my stomach does the same. This will be the first HC (hors category, meaning steep and seriously long) climb I’ve ever ridden. My first stop of the day is in Bagneres-de-Bigorre to put on my waterproof – early on I’d removed my gilet without parking up: what a pro – and pop a caffeine gel. Then the climb, and the fun, really begins.
And surprisingly it is fun. Cycling hills – good ones at least – often have signs marking the distance and height to the summit. You’ll either find them encouraging or intimidating depending on how you’re feeling and, at this point, fourteen hundred vertical metres over sixteen kilometres of road somehow doesn’t scare me.
The rain isn’t as bad as it could be, nor is it too cold. As my nerves settle. I begin to enjoy the mountain, passing other riders fairly continuously, including one lunatic on a yellow Raleigh Chopper. I want to tell him that he’s rather shattering the illusion for all us carbon heads here but merely shake my head in amazement as I overtake. As furiously as he’s pedalling he’s going incredibly well.
Around 8km from the top the rain gets worse with the only respite coming as we ride through the occasional sheltered section. Each about one hundred metres long one has CONTADOR daubed in massive yellow letters along its supports. Injured before this year’s Tour even made it to the mountains, he won’t be back in four days time.
Part of what keeps my spirits – and speed – up is the memory of watching the 2010 tour on TV. The aforementioned Alberto and Andy Schleck dance through five degree pea soup as the commentators smugly discuss the glorious sunshine they’re basking in on the other side of the mountain. That’s what I imagined waiting for me. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
We ride through a ski resort about three or four km from the top. A high point, both literally and in terms of my mood. It’s easy to lose the sense of where you are after forty minutes of nothing but uphill road, but if ever you need proof that you’re on a goddamn mountain, cycling under chairlifts would be it.
I spot the familiar number 10621 just ahead. I pat him on the back and say some encouraging words that he looks rather perplexed to be on the receiving end of. I’m not sure he actually noticed the bit where we rode “together” earlier, but returns my cheer as we pass the three kilometre marker. I don’t want to make him feel more uncomfortable so I head to the summit alone.
At the top of the mountain the clouds have spitefully refused to clear. Rather than relief at completing the climb, looking down into the grey I feel a sense of foreboding at what’s still to come. I’m carrying just one more item of clothing that I’m not wearing and although I don’t think it’s going to help, I put it on anyway. It doesn’t help.
I generally think of myself as a fairly nervy descender but I want to get down that mountain as quickly as possible. My reason for risking life and limb is as misguided on this side of the mountain as it had been on the other – it would be warmer, and maybe even drier, at a lower altitude, surely? Wrong. All I can hear as I drop is the rattle of raincoat against the wind, bouncing round the valley walls like artillery fire. As I began to lose the sensation in my digits – first the little finger, then the ring, then the middle – I sort of regret not bringing full gloves with me, then I remember how shit mine are, despite going by the name of “Sealskins”.
With each rider I pass the one good thing about this I think, is that everyone’s more or less in the same boat. No one is massively better prepared in terms of their outfit than I am, so at this point we’re all equally miserable. I’m such a dick. It stops raining for a moment, I feel a wave of relief, it starts again and I’m livid. I scream an obscenity in the direction of the omnipotent.
Aware of my susceptibility to cramp, my crapness in the cold, I give my legs a spin. I don’t need to gain any speed, it’s not about that, I just want to know what they might feel like when I call on them again. A couple of muscles in my thighs are complaining a bit but on the whole they feel like they’ll work when I need them to.
Between the bottom of the Tourmalet and the village at the approach to the Hautacam the sun makes a genuine appearance for the first time that day. There’s also a brief period here when I can see no one ahead of me, the only time I’ll experience that the whole day. A single moment’s tranquility in six hours of madness.
The foot of the Hautacam is where it gets really emotional, as this is where the participants’ families and friends have gathered to wait. As I make the turn around the village towards the mountain I’m met with two massive walls of enthusiasm lining the road, smiling faces urging us on, evoking the scene at the “Côte de Buttertubs” in Yorkshire on Stage One.
This is incredible, this is exciting and, as blue as the sky is, this is also where the darkness descends. Thirteen kilometres is all that’s left but they’re going to be the most difficult of the lot.
As much as I thought they were okay the muscles in my thighs have cooled down too much. The pistons just aren’t going to fire. The gradient isn’t too bad and I should be able to stay in my big front ring for a fair while yet but I’m quickly down into the small one. I normally spend a lot of the time standing up when I’m climbing but there’s no way this is going to happen now. When my muscles are screaming I can normally drown them out but it’s a different type of pain. One leg is going “I’m sorry, what are you trying to do? No, I’m sorry, no.” while the other is holding a knife to itself and threatening to ping me off the side. I pay attention, drop to my lowest gear and spin. Ten kilometres left.
At the eight kilometres sign (next km 7.9%) I wonder if there is there anything I can put “in” that’ll make this engine of mine work better? I don’t want to stop. At this point, of course there isn’t but I’ll try whatever is to hand. I bite off the top of my last energy gel and squeeze the thing down my throat. These things are horrible. I finish off my water and electrolyte drink as well. The magic fails to appear.
Five K from the summit I’m in agony. Through gritted teeth I’d been chatting with a guy with a Northern accent and discovered an extra gear. It may not make a material difference but I’m encouraged all the same and find some extra pedal power from somewhere, leaving him behind. It doesn’t last long, he’ll pass me again shortly.
We’d been a bit obsessed with hydration on this trip with Big Chris paying particularly close attention to the depth of colour in everyone’s urine. I see proof that hydration is not the issue for me when finally I give in, stop, and take what’s politely referred to as “a natural break”. My piss is crystal clear. Hardly Evian but at least I feel a bit less bad about spilling it on this beautiful scenery which, at this point, I’m struggling to appreciate. I sit down at the side of the road and massage my legs a little, which makes more difference than you’d expect, before I stand up again, clamber onto my bike and reach for the top.
The last four kilometres are a lot easier than the first nine. Unlike on the Tourmalet the weather is clear enough that I can see a line of cyclists above me, as the hairpin turns wind their way up the mountain. I know I’m going to make it and when I see the 1km inflatable sign, just above, I’m almost feeling comfortable again. Almost.
I see the last corner and turn into the inside. With the finish line in sight I have no right to sprint after the horror of that climb, and there’s no reason for me to do so either. I sprint for the line.
And collect my medal at the bottom.