Just a few thoughts, images and opinions from riders in the 2005 Etape
Mark Bell (no 5585) - 07h 12' 05"
A couple of really nice pictures from Mark who's only comment was:
"'twas a tough day" you can say that again...
|30 minute's worth of riders crossed the startline||the quiet before the storm... on the road to the Aubisque|
A Parents perspective by John Tapp
Having seen the Tour de France on television, I know the mountain sections are easy – the climbs are quite long maybe, but not very steep. I know that because the cyclists barely get out of their saddles as they ride over this col and that col. Everyone knows!
Wrong! The “hills" aren’t just long, they are interminable and I’d say a 10 to 14% slope is steepish. Mountains - even.
Having got up at 5 am (probably later than the majority of the 8,500 riders) and driven to the top of Marie Blanque to claim our road-side seats before the roads were closed at 7am we were already a bit tired! En route, we passed at least 200 gendarmes – one guarding each junction – each one heavily armed – each one ready, presumably, to stop cyclists taking shortcuts! To put this into perspective we had only seen about 205 police in the previous eight weeks touring round France – and 200 of those were doing the same thing for the Dauphiné Race near Annecy. I’m told we saw Lance Armstrong in that race, but we had made the strategic error of standing about half way down a long straight downhill section... but that’s another story!
As we had several hours to wait at the col, we decided to go for a stroll to the feeding station just over the brow. The gendarmes, who, at the top of the hill, actually had no junction to guard and therefore had time to talk to the crowds, told us it was just 2 km down the road. Well 3 km down, there was a sign saying “2 km to feeding station". My French isn’t too good, so I may have asked the wrong question – or misunderstood the answer to the correct one. However, I suspect it was just a vague guess on their part. Anyway, at the feeding station we blagged a couple of bananas and a piece of cake to sustain us on our return and, 10 kms later, we arrived back at the summit just in time to see the leaders come through. These were the serious boys who had no intention of stopping for a chat with friends and family. That was about 9 am.
We learnt a whole new French vocabulary – and a few repetitive songs – although I’m not sure we all knew exactly what we were shouting and singing! “Allez" and “Courage" seemed fairly obvious though. We also discovered that it wasn’t considered cheating for the riders to accept a bit of a push up the last bit of the slope.
By 10.15 loads of riders had come through and the peleton was becoming “continuous". I didn’t know there were that many seriously expensive bikes in the EU. Still none of our team had arrived. Well, with their recent training schedule, we weren’t surprised. Quite worried, but not too surprised! In fact, we had considered waiting at the bottom of the Col d’Ichere in case they felt like dropping out at that stage and wanted a casual lift home rather than a long, tedious, sweaty, ride in a “sweeper bus" for 10 hours. Neither Central London nor Connecticut are renowned for their mountainous areas suitable for training. Their acclimatisation to the temperature and road conditions was done on the two day drive down the auto-routes from London and one day (the Sunday) frantically trying to work out where to leave bikes, cars etc the following morning before dawn – and “oh no, the French supermarkets are not open on Sundays".
At 10.20 the first two riders of the Bikemagic.com/RoadCyclingUK.com team climbed into sight... but they cycled straight past with hardly a “Hi there"! Most unsatisfactory – from a parent’s perspective! We wanted to hear all the details. However, they did circle round and came back to us, but more to access our supplies of water and biscuits than to give us a full account of the race so far! They said they couldn’t just stop in front of us for fear of being mown down by all the other riders behind them. Shortly after, Robin came through looking cool – sweaty, but cool. He too stopped for a casual chat and drink. Well done Robin! The fourth member of the team arrived just ahead of the total jam up that resulted from over-crowding of narrow hilly roads. The final member was stuck in the walking group – many of whom were grumbling that this wasn’t what they’d come to do. Shame really – but I’d have seen it as a totally brilliant excuse to walk a bit! The heat was getting to us by now. Very tiring!
The frequent howling of the ambulance sirens was a constant reminder of the perils of (mainly) going down the hills. Problems were being caused by little things like French pot-holes (which are not so little, really) combined with reverse camber on hairpin bends and nothing but occasional concrete blocks marking the edges of precipitous drops to oblivion. I think the blocks are placed there to make sure that the unfortunate riders are properly catapaulted off the edge and so they don’t bleed on the road! Actually, I shouldn’t joke. The number of riders with serious leaks on their legs arms and faces told a story of earlier, unseen (by us) incidents involving near death experiences and of fallen riders being ridden over by their compatriots immediately behind them.
What seemed like ages later, the time car and the sag wagons rolled into sight. A number of very relieved cyclists were happy to jump aboard the buses even if they were a bit concerned about how their precious bikes were being “racked" in the lorries. For these folk, their races were over – but they had already achieved what most of us wouldn’t even prepare to think about contemplating to start to attempt!
We joined the queue which was moving at about 10% of the speed of the descending cyclists to try to get to Pau before our “team" got there. Our driver/navigator took us a tortuous route through the country lanes to avoid the main road which he thought would be shut – but which in fact was not! By the time we got to the centre of Pau – managing to squeeze into a road that was shut to all traffic, been told off by the ubiquitous gendarmes, found a parking spot within 200m of the finish line (imagine trying to do that in London, or Bristol, or Little Upper Nowhere in Britain…) the lead racers were all casually cycling home. Personally, I’d say anyone who could finish the race, then hop back on their bike for a 25 km ride back to the start line (or where ever they had left their car), hadn’t been putting anywhere near enough effort into the actual race! Slackers one and all!
The race ended with a little incline which would normally present no problem to these racers. However, once we were down into the 4000th plus place finishers, some of them were on their last legs. It was amazing to see how many of them missed the final down-gear-change with resulting disastrous de-chaining. Once off their bikes the cramps got them – and, bearing in mind that the finish was a bare 300 m away (up the hill, unfortunately), it was amazing how many had to be told which way to go when they had got themselves organised. I’m sure at least one went off the wrong way into the crowd – He’s probably still circling Pau as I write this.
You should know that the temperature by 4 pm - which was about the time that the leading three BikeMagic team members came in - was a gentle 37 degrees in the shade (if you could find any!).
Well, easy it may be for the professionals – but of course they get paid, don’t they?! For my money, these boys and girls (some of whom may have been old enough to be grandparents and, therefore, should have known better) are the real heroes of the Tour de France. They gave it absolutely everything and then some – finishers and non-finishers alike – and I’m proud to be a parent / spectator – but once is enough! An exhausting day!
Incidentally, I know there were other members of BikeMagic.com/RoadCyclingUK.com riding under other team colours – well done all of you – even if you were part of opposition teams! In fact, very well done, everyone. You must all be mad!
Neil Wragg - 06h 52' 39"
A group from High Wycombe CC entered the Etape way back in Autumn giving us loads of time to prepare ourselves for the 110 miles up four Cols in the Pyrenees. So we trained, we got advice, read accounts of the route and feared the worst! However, fearing the worst wasn't enough, we should have feared just a little bit more.
The heat of the day before was intense, we spent the day hopping from shade to cover in our freebie Skoda sunhats and covering my tribute to the Maillot Jaune - new yellow hair - it was the least I could do to show my allegience to the world's greatest bike race! We got registered fine and soaked up the huge atmosphere in the start village before riding back to our air-conditioned rooms back in Pau, courtesy of Sports Tours International. We had established the elimination and silver and gold medal times, I was aiming for at least, a silver.
The morning of the race day (it was a race remember) the temperature was great, a little chilly but then it was 5am! After that the day got warmer and warmer until the ascent of the Aubisque which was done at midday with no shade or cooling breeze. This is where I felt very ill.
The start went well, but I was spending too much effort trying to keep on temamate Clive's wheel - he does do 20 minute 10 mile TTs - so I dropped off and let him ride at his own speed. You climbed all the way from the start but because there were so many riders you didnt notice any effort in climbing, some riders were going quick but most started forming groups which I used to tag onto.
The first climb of the Col d'Ichere was fine, I went over my threshold for the last two thirds as it hit gradients of 13% but felt fine. My average speed from the race start to the top of the first Col was over 20mph so gold was looking possible. Crowds were already forming here, on a Monday and before 9am! Never happen in England eh?
After 10 minutes of flat you started climbing the Col de Marie-Blanque. This climb took 44 minutes and the last 20 minutes were again, over my threshold but I felt good. The heat was increasing but there was a large amount of shade from trees on this climb, I was passed at mach speed by another teammate at about two thirds of the way up. He had started a couple of 'pens' behind us as his number was in the 8000's but it serves him right for taking ages to send off his entry form! The rest of us had start numbers under 3500 so our start, although quick meant that there werent too many riders in front of us before we had started. A little further on near the summit & I overtook Clive who wasn't looking too happy, 10 mile TT's are quite a different kettle of fish to 10km mountain climbs.
The descent was fantastic, I was only overtaken here by a very suntanned and suicidal Basque rider, I couldnt believe the speed this guy was going at! I stopped again at the bottom to collect SIS energy drink, water and SIS energy gels from the Sports Tours International stand, this was very handy as stopping at the offical feedstop 20 yards further on would have taken longer to get refuelled. Clive must have passed me here because, straight away the climb of the Aubisque started and I overtook him again, I tried to offer encouragement but he didnt seem too happy.
It took me 1 hour 53 mins approx to climb the Aubisque but after 45 minutes of climbing at about 1000 metres I started to feel very sick, I'm not sure why but many riders I spoke to also complained of feeling sick when climbing the Aubisque. It could have been the altitude, the heat, the sun, dehydration or an overload of sweet energy drinks and gels. My legs felt fine as I could climb out of the saddle but you cant do this for too long, however as soon as I sat back in the saddle I would feel very nauseous and really thought I would be barking up at the side of the road. Any thought of medals now was sidelined as my speed slowed to 7mph and I just concentrated on the next six miles to the summit as I had serious concerns that I might keel over at any point. SIX miles! And I had already been climbing for miles, I hadn't feared the worst, I was living it. You get distance markers all the way along the climbs with gradient indicators for the subsequent kilometre, they didnt help. At least the kilometre markers were getting smaller in number and you prayed that once you got close enough to read the gradient it only said something like 8.5%.
Towards the end of the Aubisque with just a couple of kilometres to go you started to get optimistic that this summit was going to get bagged. However, in typical French awkwardness it then showed you exactly where the summit was, and it was far above your head. You would look up and see the crowds at the top and although only two thousand metres to pedal - "two thousand, a tiny number, in fact it's such a small number you could virtually count it on your fingers, tiny, yes" - it was a long way up into that very blue, very hot, sky.
At six minutes past midday I summited, it was a very emotional moment as I had completed the hardest portion of the race but now wasnt sure whether I could recover enough to get a silver medal. "Silver medal"? How does the human manage to forget about pain so quickly! A good thing I suppose, otherwise women would only do childbirth once or not at all. My average speed needed to be 18mph for gold, after the Marie-Blanque it had dropped to 17mph but knowing that the final 30 miles were going to be fast I was still quietly entertaining the hope. However, now after the Aubisque it was down to 14mph and I would have to work hard. Maybe I was back to the original plan from last October of 'just overtaking more than being overtaken' !
After 12 minutes of descending it was back to climbing but now I felt fine again, the legs were tired but there was no sickness. I could climb out or in the saddle and, aside from the normal pain of climbing I felt much better. The crowds up the Soulour were absolutely fantastic, crowds had been out since 7am all the way along the route encouraging you forwards. Up this climb though they were very helpful, they would shout the remaining distance to the summit and there was so many that the road had formed into a narrow corridor of screaming fans, exactly as you see on the Tour! Again on this descent I wasnt overtaken by any rider and overtook what felt like hundreds. It is amazing how quickly the French can ascend but descend so terribly. I found this also in the Cristalp, a mountain bike race in Switzerland where the descending demonstrated by the Europeans was scarily awful! Using the whole width of the closed roads, speeds of up to 47 mph were a joy!
Now down at the bottom of the valley the remaining kilometres up to the next pair of tiny climbs were fast. This was possibly my favourite part of the race, the descents were great but here I was pedalling at 30 mph, leading a large group of riders through villages and towns full of cheering people and flag waving gendarmes! Flying along main roads through towns and over roundabouts closed to everyone except Etapers is the way all road races should be!
There were now two small but very harsh climbs to get over. Pas de probleme as in the Chilterns we breed the hills steep and sweet! Ah, forgot we dont get 18km climbs on the Sunday club runs! Still, nothing else to do but get over them, I did OK on both and didnt get overtaken and a boy with a garden hose spraying all the passing riders was probably the best energy fuel I received in the whole day!
Maybe I should have stuck with less energy drink, more water and removed my helmet for the Aubisque climb, who knows, any ideas?
Out of the 30 or so riders that started the climb together we ended up with a small group of five for the remaining 3 miles. Here we took short turns at the front until the finsh was in sight. And what a sight! The last 100 metres were straight uphill, well at least it put paid to a 40 mph sprint finish!
I collected my medal in 6 hours 52 minutes which meant that I was about 40 minutes within the silver medal winning time, I was more than pleased to achive this after the way I was feeling on the Aubisque. Missing out on a gold by just 25 minutes is a good incentive for next year! And for my other plan? I finished in the top 17% overall so didnt get overtaken by too many French but I did finish behind an American, just like the real thing, eh!
Robin Tapp - Cat. B - 08h 45' 26"
180km, 3 mountains, and a bike I'd not even seen until the week before, all adds up to my improbable story. I knew this was going to be a huge mental challenge, but I was most concerned about the blade that was attached to the seat post. I'd been told it was supposed to be very comfortable, but I had serious doubts.
My goal was to just get over Marie Blanque and well up the Aubisque and that would have made me happy, but I really wanted to get to the end - if only I’d done that extra training. I knew the start was critical, too fast and I'd pay badly when we hit the mountains, too slow and I'd be joining the 16st Dutchmen on a coach tour of the Pyrenees. Granted that may be more pleasant but not what I was aiming for, not so soon anyway.
So we set off in a group of four, having been told we'd never be able to stay together. Sure enough the first 10k had us split into three groups, though this wasn't due to the 8000 other riders but more due to my concerns of making it to the end. My heart rate was climbing and although this could have been the effect of the mountains getting closer and looking bigger than ever, I felt the need to slow up and ride my own pace.
10k done and I was on my own and beginning to wonder why I was here, this wasn't a good start to the mental challenge. I picked up the back of a few wheels and kept a comfortable pace. Soon I caught up with a colleague that we'd set off in the same pen and were clearly riding a similar pace so I stuck with him. We rode together to the Ichere and got split up when we had to walk a km of that. This was frustrating as it was only a gentle slope and I knew there was much worse to come. Upon getting off the bike I realized that the saddle was actually not too bad.
Descending the Ichere was technical and hard work on the brakes, but after the food stop and a another quick pause to fix my speedo, I hopped back on the bike to find I was miraculously following Peter yet again. We rode to the base of the Marie Blanque together and again got separated on the ascent. A few stops for sun screen on the way up, at least that's what I told myself and another km walking due to the crowds and I was nearing the top of the Marie Blanque. I was reliably informed that this was by far the hardest climb - the Aubisque was longer but not as steep. I felt really strong when we got back on and started flying past people, up the final part of the Marie Blanque. At the top a quick stop to chat with my family, who had stood out in the sun all day just to see us ride past Now I was feeling really confident, there was no longer any doubt and the saddle was fine. I was going to make it, the hardest climb done I enjoyed a nice decent with a ham and cheese sandwich from the food stop.
Almost jovial at this point I followed a fast group along the base up to the start of the Aubisque and set off knowing it was just a long constant drag. After all this was easier than the last hill I'd just been over. Past the elimination zone and up I went, pains in my knee started which having had problems with my knee before was very concerning, but I'd passed the elimination zone and I wasn't going to ride back down the hill now. On I went, taking it easy with several stops in the hope that would help my knee, but by Gourette I was beginning to suspect I wasn’t going to make it and I was so close and in the final few kms of the climb I walked 2-3 hundred meters before riding the rest of the km. That seemed to relieve the pain just enough to get me up to the top, and on the final switchback I saw someone eating on a bacon butty. Somehow I managed to get a bite of that in my mouth and set off for the final 500m. Looking back I saw no sag wagon, that was it, I was going to make it. Now I was beginning to doubt the advice I was given about the toughness of each of these hills. That could just have been the knee and the fact I’d already done the Marie Blanque though.
Walking through the sea of people to get a final fill up of the water bottles and a bit of cake in me, I hear my name being called. Somehow I managed to meet up with two of the other four people I’d set out with. There and then we agreed to cross the line together, and they waited as I grabbed an armful of water bottles and a bit of cake. Of down to the bottom, the descent was great fun, I really enjoyed it and felt strong. Along the base and the final two quick climbs really took it's toll on Jeremy, which was probably good for me as had I ridden them on my own I'd have gone just that touch faster and probably felt as bad as him. Then the final cruise into Pau and we were there.
What a great day. If my knees don't have ongoing problems I hope to be back out there. The only good part about my knee was that I’d not been training on clipless pedals as this seemed to be the best option, and that meant that all the walking I did I could do in the comfort of my shoes. Congrats to everyone who set out on such an endeavour, just getting over Marie Blanque was an achievement but getting all the way to the end, WOW I can't believe I did it! Now how do the pros do it at twice the speed, then get up on to the podium looking all happy and relaxed and ready to go out and do it all again tomorrow, much respect. I'll be watching you guys show me how those climbs should be ridden on Tuesday.
Peter Keith - Cat. C - 09h 26' 13"
It was hell. Now that I've had a sample of what the pros do nothing but admiration for them. I took the ride out to the Ichere easy. Followed a few teams and without trying was averaging over 30kms. The climb up the Ischere was easy. Was passing people but the volume of traffic was so great everyone had to get off and push for 1km. The descent from the Ichere was horrible. Much too technical for me and I never felt comfortable.
The Marie Blanque was from a different planet. Never ridden anything as hard in my life. Was doing OK but blew up 3km from the top and pulled over at the water stop. Mistake as in another 500m everyone had to get off because off the traffic. Everyone had to walk over the top because there was no space to ride!
The ride down was much easier than I hoped for but still was getting passed by hundereds and I was feeling fine when I got to the bottom of the Aubisque. For the first few kms I was ok but as it got hotter and it became more relentless I started to blow up. With about 9km to go I had a break and got back on my bike and rode another couple of km. Then another break followed by another couple of km and then again.
After going thru the town I was feeling ok and then it became a slog again. Another couple of breaks and when I was riding I looked back to the valley and saw no more riders coming out of the town. The talk around me turned to time limits and elimination and over the last 2km of the climb I just kicked as hard as I could to make sure I was ok.
Chaos at the top as everyone was fighting their way to the feed station. I had a 15 min break getting drinks; food and then a magnificent descent. You could see the road stretching round the mountain and over to the Soulor and the climb became worth it. I turned from a cooked rider to a cycle tourer as I took in the scenery and then back to business as I swept through the descent and up the easy climb of the Soulor. The descent was easy but if I took 500 people on the climbs I was overtaken by at least 2,000 on the descents. I did my Good Samaritan bit and stopped when flagged down on the descent to lend one guy my pump to be immediately followed by a guy taking a spare inner tube.
The ride in to Pau was relatively easy except for a couple of nasty little climbs which at the start of the ride you wouldn't have even thought about but by 165km hurt like hell. As I'd passed a couple of quite bad crashes on the flat once I was on the flat with less than 4km to go I let the frisky boys go and just cruised to the finish. The last 20km were a drag. Physiologically I'd done the ride and it just seemed to drag but I think that was because I was cooked.
Felt shit for 3 hours after but after the nice Mr Andrews took me for dinner I came back to life but the boring bugger wouldn't go party!
Jeremy Tapp - Cat. B - 08h 45' 28"
Our start was messed up by having left the bikes in the overnight storage and not banked on the roads being completely closed 2km around the town. That was a long walk in socks into the town in the morning.
We'd all discussed the Marie Blanque being the real killer the night before. Hence I'd mentally prepared myself that Aubisque (at 8% or whatever it was) would be relatively easy after the 14%'s of Marie Blanque. I'd climbed it before and didn't remember it being that hard. How wrong I was. The heat and continual grind of 17km rock steady climbing was relentless and took it's toll. For me the final 8km of Aubisque was the tough point - particularly looking down at the speedo and realising that at 7.9 kmph there was over an hour still to climb. The earlier hills seemed faster than that when we got to the 8km marks.
The crowds were great, offering water refills, the odd push, and Allez! Allez! chanting.
And the final two hills (though very short) were more than I bargained for too. And the uphill finish was mean.
All in all an awesome day though. I can't believe the speed some of the entrants were descending at - some people were slipping past on the inside a good 10km per hour faster than I dared descend in a gap only a couple of foot wide.
We hooked into a good group to help us motor home the final 30k.
Jim Andrews - Cat. C - 07h 34' 39"
Sweat stings my eyes and the heat from the road scorches my face. The sun beats heavily on my shoulders. My legs burn with the effort of climbing the mountain, and ache with fatigue from hours of hard riding. I'm near the top of the Aubisque. Every muscle begs me to stop. But ahead is the yellow jersey. He's weaving across the road, head hanging, lungs gasping at the thin mountain air. I've been chasing him since he passed me at the foot of the mountain. Now he's at my mercy.
I keep my tempo, and catch him as we round a tight hairpin. "Allez monsieur" I mutter; "Courage" comes the reply. I glance up the road. Stretching before me is a river of cyclists. This yellow jersey isn't on the back of a fit lean Texan, but some fit lean old guy from a French cycling club. This is the Etape du Tour, and here on the slopes of the Aubisque it has become a silent procession of pain. Our homage to the Tour de France on this hot July morning is serenaded by a thousand crickets, and applauded by hundreds of spectators in every village we pass.
Earlier that day, I was an Etape virgin, shivering at 7am on the start line with 8000 other souls, wondering what lay ahead and praying that my meagre training would see me through to the end. I started briskly in the wake of RCUK's editor, cutting through the field of 7000 that lay before us like a pair of suicidal motorcycle couriers charging down the M1 in the rush hour. At that point, and later on the Col d'Ichere, the other riders seemed nothing more than an irritating obstacle. By the time we reached the Aubisque we were comrades, united in our battle against the mountain.
If you haven't ridden the Etape, you'll think it's "just" a stage of the Tour de France. It's more than that. It changes your attitude to cycling and especially to the riders in the Tour. Forever. For them, this stage will be just another day in the office. For us amateurs it's a challenge, an adventure, and a glimpse of the pro's world. We had great highs - the adulation of the crowd as we flew effortlessly through villages in a peloton at 30mph; and great lows - rounding the hairpin near the top of the Aubisque, to see the road snaking up an impossible gradient ahead. Lance Armstrong makes it look so easy on TV - but the Etape shows you that in reality it's an exacting test of body and soul. Ride the Etape and you can taste the agony and the majesty of the Tour de France.
Over the top of the Aubisque, the peaceful suffering of the slope is forgotten as we join the ruck at the feeding station. It's a free-for-all, like the first day of the January sales. I grab some food and water, and sit on the grass to drink in the view and the scene before me. The Pyrenees are beautiful in the July sun, with a few patches of snow as a reminder that we're high in the mountains. The rugged unspoilt scenery contrasts vividly with the multi-coloured pandemonium at the feeding station. The old chap sitting next to me looks knackered, so I share my hoard of bananas and a few words of schoolboy French with him. A few photos for the RCUK scrapbook, and the blur of the descent begins, as I weave around cautious descenders on the road to Pau.
Whoever planned this route saved some surprises for us in the closing miles, with a couple of nasty little climbs that literally reduced riders to tears. We would have scoffed at these slopes in the early morning, but now it's like the Aubisque all over again. Over the top, and into the outskirts of Pau, I could almost hear Phil Liggett describing my every pedal stroke. Under the 1km barrier and I'm near the front of a group, perfectly placed. 500m to go, still in good position and my legs are on fire. I twist every sinew and struggle uphill to the line, triumphantly holding my place.
The finish line is a door to another world. The brisk orderly camaraderie of the peloton dissolves into a jumble of tired bodies and discarded bikes. A goody bag of food and water in my hand, I sit beneath a tree and share experiences with fellow riders. A quick shower later, and we're sipping a cold beer in a bar overlooking the Pyrenees. Riders are still struggling in and sprinting for the line, each savouring a personal triumph. We raise our glasses and toast "The Aubisque", our final tribute to the Etape.
Until next year.
Justin McChesney Cat B (no 3413) 7hr 21"38"
The day started badly as although I set off in loads of time I couldn't manage to find the right pen! I entered the town from the wrong direction and had to ride round sidestreets, up hills, across football pitches to try to get around. Eventually ended up properly penned in by 6.30. Then a slight problem with nerves and my body's regular routine being interrupted but I guess everyone else suffered the same!
I was lucky to have a number that meant I got through the start in just 8-9 minutes. I spotted a guy from Gosforth I had raced with at the Sloan trophy and rode the first bit with him at a good pace more or less to the bottom of the Ichere. Here the crowds held me up a bit but pulling the shoulders in and riding in the gutter seemed to get me by. Not too many problems and enjoyed the descent.
On the Marie Blanc I had to ride at everyone else's pace as the climb was fairly narrow and very crowded, pushing up where I could. Feeling fine until the last couple of k where it really kicked up and it was mind over body not to have a quick rest! Having been lucky to get through the start fairly early there were only a handful of walkers as I went up and most people were able to keep riding. Nice descent off and feeling relatively recovered by the bottom. Refulled at the feed station. My wife was waiting to cheer me on after another few miles and handed me another banana (after eating 3 at the last refueling point!)
On reaching the Aubisque I felt in good form and was enjoying myself. The base of the climb wasn't too crowded and I could ride at my own pace. I was overtaking a lot of people and thought I was going to enjoy the next 17k. With about 6k left (at the tunnels) I felt wasted. Quick 30 sec stop to eat that last banana and set off again. Passing Gourette (4k to go) I had had enough and wanted the climb to end - this was no longer any fun! My speed has consistently been dropping for the last few k and I was now down to about 5mph. With 2k to go and in sight of the top I cracked and stopped for another minute or so. One last effort to the top and with the added incentive of trying to get a decent photo taken one last out of the saddle effort got me to the feeding station. I had a break for a few minutes to eat and cape up and set off on the descent to the Solour. The descent off the Solour was fantastic fun and went on for ages.
By the bottom I was tired but worked with a couple of Frenchies to get on the back of a big group of about 30 riders. No-one in the group wanted to do much work and we were travelling a bit slower than I would have hoped, but it was faster than I would have been capable of on my own so I stayed with it. The last couple of small hills were embarassing - in my lowest gear! These hills broke the group into pieces. On the final run in I was in a group of 3 working hard with everyone taking their turn. With 1k to go I got a second wind coming under the red kite and hit the front. When I realised it was an uphill finish I looked for 1 of the others to take over but they had dropped back. With a big crowd I just had to keep going to avoid looking like a prat! I was so tired crossing the finish line I admit I felt a bit emotional.
Overall it was a fantastic experience and I'll be back for more!
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