It’s raining. Visibility is poor. And there are miniature rivers running down the road as my bike crawls up the iconic Col du Tourmalet. By now, my Peloton® jersey has soaked through, but I still hope I cut a dashing figure through the cloud and gloom. The chatter and japery of the opening 60km has disappeared now, replaced by a resolute silence. There’s the odd groan each time we pass another kilometre marking signalling 12km to go, 11km, 10…but mostly, we all trudge on, lost in our own thoughts. Thoughts of what? Not a lot really…
This year’s L’etape du Tour (an annual event taking in one of the mountain stages of each year’s Tour de France) starts in Pau and pursues the 148km route into the foothills of the Pyrenees before climbing the infamous Col du Tourmalet (18km at an average of 7.3% incline) followed by the slightly more vicious climb up to Hautacam (14km at 7.8% average).
If I ever thought finishing the stage was a given, with 8km left to climb on the Tourmalet, I don’t now. My body is drained of energy. It’s an odd sensation compared with other endurance sports. I associate distance running with exhausted leg muscles and I can well imagine the kind of muscle fatigue experienced by distance swimmers or rowers. Cycling brings about a kind of full body numbness that I’ve never quite experienced, but what was worse was the knowledge that with 8km to go on the Tourmalet, I still had 22km of climbing left to cover.
Roughly 1050 miles away, it’s Saturday 5 July 2014 and the opening stage of the Tour. My Peloton® jersey is crisp white and blue, with an orange trim – and it’s basking in the sunlight of Nidderdale, bordering the Yorkshire dales. A small fleet (I think it’s technically a “hover”) of helicopters approach from the distance signalling that the peloton is close – that’s the peloton of cyclists rather than loads of striped cycling jerseys. In a blink of an eye, they’re gone. The peloton is an impressive sight – the riders move with a fluid ease, which disguises their speed. It’s easy to forget that on the flat sections, the peloton can reach up to 50kph.
Now, back in the Pyrenees and two weeks later, the relaxed 80km day in Yorkshire is a distant memory. With about 5km to go, we approach the penultimate food station on the route. At this stage, I can’t look at another flapjack, biscuit or energy gel having consumed half my weight in sugar already. At 1,800m above sea level, with about 10 metres visibility, that cheese sandwich, which somehow succeeded in being both soggy and dry at the same time, is probably the finest thing I’ve ever tasted. My renewed vigour, however, lasts about 250m before I set back into my slow rhythm. The climb gets steeper past the ski station as you finally emerge from the treeline – not that this results in any views at all (the visibility by now is worse than ever).
The slow monotonous sounding of a bell rings out – which I mistake for the world’s least enthusiastic spectator before realising it’s a solitary cow, slowly nodding his head, oblivious to the stream of silent cyclists just metres away.
As the km signs reach sensible numbers – 4, 3, 2 my mood begins to lift. My full body numbness begins to fade and I’m now acutely aware of how cold it is (we’re now 2,115m above sea level). We enter the final few metres of the climb and there is no sense in stopping so we roll over the other side and begin the long descent from the top of the Tourmalet.
Far from a welcome respite, the descent offers its own challenges: the wet road and frozen hands make braking nearly impossible, but the tight switchbacks and constant flow of ambulance sirens highlight just how important it is to take care. The wind, rain and hail are also piercing and it’s a genuine toss-up as to whether the climb or the descent is more painful.
With just 6 miles of descent under our belts, it’s become dangerously cold. We stop and find shelter and warmth in a shed-come-refugee camp. Inside, over 150 cyclists huddle for warmth and queue politely for cups of hot water and sugar.
The run down to the foot of the final climb is a simple, but solitary one. We’ve spent so long in the shed that most riders have either given up or are nearly finished. With the pain of the Tourmalet now forgotten, some energy returns to my legs.
The Hautacam climb is noticeably steeper, but thankfully, the weather has lifted. By this point, the hard work is done and it’s just a case of time passing until the finish. Ordinarily, I might have a sprint finish left in me, but now the thought never crosses my mind. It’s pure relief to cross the finish line. The time, irrelevant (but for those who are interested – 10h8m58s including far too long spent in the shed), but never EVER again. Mind you, it would be good to do a stage in dryer conditions…
With thanks to Richard Lees for providing the Peloton® jersey. It’s simultaneously the most stylish but functional jersey I’ve ever warn with ample storage, and nice aesthetic finishing touches. I can guarantee that I was the only man in 13,000 entrants wearing that jersey, but next year, I surely won’t be!