A few more thoughts, images and opinions from riders in the 2005 Etape
Tony Bradford (No 3406) – 6 hrs 40 mins 59 sec
“Never again” was my friend Andy’s comment as we arrived back at the car and loaded the bikes on board. Almost 12 hours earlier we had eagerly fitted wheels into drop-outs before joining the steady stream of riders flowing into Mourenx.
The flower beds of a French industrial estate can never have received so much attention – 8,500 well hydrated, nervous cyclists and 6 porta loos is never going to work. After a chat with the mix of French, English, American and South African riders standing nearby, we were off. It took us about 10 mins to cross the line before we were retracing our route back to Pau and the camp site we had left several hours earlier.
Through Pau to the foot of the Ichere and the first climb. Andy and I parted company here as we began to climb and the crowds grew a little thicker. We had ridden out to the climb the day before to reassure ourselves that our training had prepared us in some way for what lay ahead. I found the climb harder than the day before but managed to keep out of the 28 tooth cog I had added to the cassette for emergencies.
The descent of the Ichere was narrow and gritty but I came down OK and sped through the feed station without stopping, eager to get on to the Marie Blanc. 4km up and I convinced myself that the pain in my legs was enough of an emergency to warrant that 28. I crawled up the final 2km passing occasional walkers and one guy sitting by the road in tears.
Over the top, a quick stop for water and to grab a couple of gels before the most wonderful of descents; nothing like the tense, nervous drop down the Ichere. As the landscape opened out I flew down, only restraining myself a little with my mantra “wife and two kids, wife and two kids”. One French rider in white kit shot passed, over cooked the next corner and hit the wide verge. As I passed him he was still sliding across the grass. I kept my line and continued on only to be passed 10 mins later by the same guy; this time his kit looked more like a cricketer’s whites; smudged with green.
The start of the Aubisque sucks you in. I knew I was going too hard but I could not help myself. I was picking riders off as a moved on up in what I imagined was a Virenque style. 18 km is a long way and as the trees began to thin I reached for the 28 again. My disappointment came as I reached the ski station to find that despite the crowds this was not the top. The final 2km in the heat was unbearable but finally I reached the feed stop. The polite riders who had graced the queue for water were replaced on the Aubisque by a scrum of wiry grump bags. I shovelled banana, orange and bars into my pockets and refilled my bottles before rolling off towards the Soulor and the long descent to Pau.
The crowds on the final peak were Tour like. A real tunnel of “allez, courage” and even a “bon appetite” as I stuffed a GO Bar into my face: a morale booster before the decent to the valley floor. Keeping well in from the undefended edge of the road I passed the first bloody incident of the day, which put me on edge for the rest of the decent. But as I reached the more gentle slopes I hooked up with a small group of French and English riders and the pace picked up again.
I forced a gel in and flushed this down with water (not something I felt confident in doing on the main descent) before joining in the pace line the group had organised. One of the English mentioned that Gold might be possible and my enthusiasm doubled. As we drove on I forgot about the little hill just 20km short of Pau. Big mistake! At least I wasn’t the only one who struggled – the whole group suffered. How had I convinced myself that this Cat 4 climb was a hill? Once over and having received a friendly, cooling hose down from a French family, I was raring to go again. The group reformed and rode on with a young French club rider and I taking turns to keep the pace high. We took the kick up to the finish shoulder to shoulder and that was the last we saw of each other.
Gold was missed by 10 minutes but the chase was everything. I found some shelter from the sun as I awaited Andy’s arrival. He clipped in with a silver medal too despite having broken a cleat on the Marie Blanc. A full 2hours of recovery was required before we rolledback to the car.
What I will remember most from this, my first Etape, will be the absolute silence amongst the riders on the climbs and the fact that the Pros did the same course at 7mph faster than I did. As for Andy’s “never again” – well he put a deposit down for next year’s event as soon as we returned to the UK. I think he might have gotten the bug.
Chris Sharp (no 3399) – 08h 29′ 09″
05:00 The day started early with a 5am wake up call. Waking up in the back of the car and peering outside, the field I was parked in was substantially busier than the night before. The field was full of other Etapists who were either kitted up and ready to go or in the process, with more and more cars arriving as I wearily rubbed my eyes trying to come to terms with the situation. Did I also mention that it was dark and cold?
05:45 Having got into my gear and set the bike up, it was time for breakfast. Not easy to force yourself to eat so early and I struggled with my cereal. Trying to eat a bit more than usual left me feeling bloated.
06:25 Depart for the start.
06:30 Having not seen many riders on the way to the start, doubts creep in as to whether I’m in the right place! Just when I think I’m lost I suddenly arrive at the pen to find I’m early. I arrive at pen No.5 to find so few riders and suddenly realise I’ve left my pump in the car!!! Too late for retrieving it now, as in theory the pens close at 6.30. Don’t want to risk it anyway. Just hope my Rubino Pro’s hold out and remember to avoid the sides of the road.
07:08 We’re off and the group I’m in crosses the start line at 7:08.
Leaving Mourenx feeling slightly nervous and filled with trepidation about whether I’ll get up the Aubisque on a 39×27. A lot of the bikes in the starting pen had triples and I start to have doubts now about my double chainset.
In my back pockets I’m loaded up with 3 1/2 SIS Go bars, 4 Gels and 1 banana; and on my bike I’ve got 750ml’s of PSP22 and Electrolyte Go with a bag of PSP22 for mixing later.
08:08 The first hour goes by quickly and it’s difficult not to get carried away and ride above yourself and in the first hour cover nearly 19 miles. Riders continue to stream past and I’m thinking that a lot of them will be walking up the climbs later on, whereas I intend to ride up them.
08:50 Approaching the 2 hour mark and the foot of the Col d’Ichere is reached which is a narrow road and soon it is blocked with riders who have come to a standstill. A lot of the riders take this as a sign and decide to walk but I don’t and soon get going again. Can’t remember what sprocket I was in and hope it wasn’t the 24.
09:12 Over the top and I arrive at the first water stop. Decide to have a pee and peel a banana. After 2 hours of riding I struggle to pee which is a sign of things to come as that is the last time I do so until the evening! I eat the banana as I get going again but still don’t feel hungry but eat it anyway.
After the descent of the Ichere and on to the valley road where the speed increases and the high mountains get ever closer and our individual fates await us, the Haute-Pyrenees are ahead and are a constant reminder of what’s to come.
09:34 So soon after the Col d’Ichere the course turns off for the Marie Blanque climb infamous for the last 4k’s, which are apparently steep. The plan is to keep the 24 going until it steepens then use the 27. If I can do this seated then the Aubisque should be within my capabilities I tell myself as the climb starts in earnest. On the lower slopes I neck a tropical gel sachet for the final kick near the top. The road is narrow and there seems to be a lot of people walking already and I have to thread my way through the gaps, at times having to balance and wait for a gap to appear. Walkers are beginning to irritate the cyclists amongst us who neglect Etape Etiquette and fail to stay over to the right so it almost becomes a game of “frogger” darting for the gaps that open up. Twice whilst balancing I fall sideways when strong arms propel me forwards again and I manage a “merci” as I continue onwards and upwards. Matters are not helped by Tour vehicles forcing their way through, at one time an ambulance comes past and then the inevitable happens as it gets stuck and I catch it again. Then it all grinds to halt on the steep section and I have to stop momentarily before it gets going again, the ambulance starts going backwards amid the shouting as frustrated cyclists vent spleen. Two Gendarmes on motorbikes thread their way through the riders then suddenly pull over to the side of the road. One of the bikes has died on the ascent, and then when the Gendarme tries to get it going again the road is temporarily hidden in a cloud of exhaust fumes – just what you need when riding on the limit!! Many people take this as a cue to dismount and walk, I push on and count off the kilometres, the final section doesn’t seem too bad and I reach the top comfortably (though my memory may be a bit hazy?).
10:39 Over the top and the first proper feed is reached. I grab some water and make up a bidon of PSP22 whilst simultaneously sucking an orange quarter with great zeal all in the manner of saving time. Have a quick breather and take in the surroundings. Decide to have another orange quarter and get going again. Quite a short stop. Real time taken so far 3hrs 31mins. I calculate that if I can get to the top of the Aubisque in 6 hours then there is a slim chance that I could get a silver medal– to get a silver in my age group I would need to better 7hrs 27mins.
Off the Marie Blanque and on the road to Laruns. Like lambs to the slaughter the pace picks up as the road is fast and the Aubisque is getting closer. Before too long the Elimination Point is reached in 4hrs 04mins and my silver medal hopes are slowly disappearing.
11:16 On the Aubisque and the first 5-6 k’s are a gentle introduction to proceedings but the heat soon makes them feel harder as I continually try to ride in the shade afforded by the trees. The aim is to keep the 24 sprocket going until Eaux-Bonnes (12k) to go and then shift up to the 27. My memories of the climb are fresh as I only drove down it the day before and know that there is a short 13% section to contend with. All the way up the climb I trick my mind into thinking that I’m a kilometre ahead of myself somehow hoping it will make it easier. Eaux-Bonnes is reached which means there are 12k’s to go. Through Eaux-Bonnes and the aim is to tackle each k as it comes, try and stay seated and not climb out of the saddle. On occasions to relieve the monotony of climbing I stand on the pedals briefly and watch as my heart rate gets closer to my anaerobic threshold (AT) and I sit down again and try to get my heart rate back down to what it was before I stood. Between Eaux-Bonnes and Gourette I know that there are two snow tunnels and the 13% section of road so I have some markers to aim for. Into the first tunnel which is full of cyclists trying to cool down as mid-day approaches and as the temperature risers there are a lot of “cooked” cyclists. Ticking off the clicks and Gourette is reached and from herein on it’s 4k of exposed road to the summit, only 2.5 miles to go which are visible from Gourette as you can see the riders up above snaking their way to the summit. I try to stay cool and maintain my pace albeit between 5 and 6mph and not stop. The “sommet” is reached in 1hr 45mins of constant riding – real time 5hrs 54mins.
At the top I dismount and hobble over to the food and drink stalls, my feet are agony from the constant climbing and combined with the heat I can hardly walk. As I climb off the bike I almost cramp up but luckily it doesn’t set in. From the feed I grab some water, an orange and a bottle of what looks like orange squash. I instantly regret picking up the orange and leave it on the bonnet of a Gendarmerie vehicle. How are you supposed to be able to peel an orange having just ascended the Col d’Aubisque I’ll never know? Try the orange squash which turns out to be fizzy and instantly regret collecting that too, another present for the gendarme. I fill up my bidon with water, grab some banana halves for later and off I head for the Soulor and to get off the mountain as quickly as possible. But first the small matter of the Col du Soulor.
Descending the Aubisque was exhilarating, the scenery breathtaking especially going through the tunnel and riding so close to the vertical drops on the left, not that you could take your eyes off the road to really take in the vistas. The only drawback being my feet still hurt so I loosened my shoe straps to ease the pain on the descent, but that meant I couldn’t pedal as I was worried I was going to pull my foot out of the shoe. I could feel every contour of the road as the vibrations resonated through my feet. At the bottom of the Soulor you could see the end of the suffering as the climb was only 2k in length. With what strength I had left I tightened my shoes up and got stuck into the climb, can’t remember whether I used the 24 or 27 but it felt good to get to the top cheered on by the crowds. The café on the bend looked inviting but sadly I had no Euro’s to spend. I think some Etapists had succumbed as I seem to remember seeing bikes parked outside with race numbers on the front. I even contemplated using my “livestrong” band as currency for a can of coke but my frazzled brain would not have been able to cope conversing in French.
14:36 Sommet: Col du Soulor. The descent should have been bliss but again I couldn’t push on as my feet were still hurting and I had to be content to freewheel down. My neck hurt from my hunched climbing position and as a consequence I couldn’t use the drops. By now 6 ½ hours had elapsed and to get a silver medal I only had 1 hour left in which to cover the remaining 50-60k’s (?). So I reassessed my target time as 8 hours and set about beating that.
Off the descent and the road was fast in places with the odd rise in gradient. But by this time I couldn’t keep the big ring going and had to keep dropping on to the 39 before shifting up again. Big groups of riders would come past and I’d tag on to the group and then get shelled straight out the back. This happened numerous times until I consigned myself to the fact that I would have to ride alone to the finish as a combination of sore feet, heat exhaustion, coupled with no strength meant I couldn’t hang on. As Pau neared the temperature soared and as I hit the final two climbs my speed dropped significantly and I was reduced to using the 24 / 27 sprockets. Various roadside spectators were hosing down the riders, that instant feeling of water on skin felt like the best sensation in the world but was short lived. In between hose pipes I was pouring water from my bidon down my neck, face and arms in order to keep going as by this time the shade afforded by the trees was so inviting that I just wanted to lay down at the side of the road in the long tall grass and end this purgatory, but the end was so close – a dilemma indeed!!
Hope came with the 10k to go sign; then the countdown from 5k through to the red kite signalling the “dernier kilometre”. Into Pau and onto the long straight but can’t see the finish line, I start to scrutinise the road ahead to see if we turn off and then I my eyes follow the riders in the distance and watch I in horror as they dance up the hill to the finish. The climb up to the finish was just sadistic, fresher riders overtake me but I’m beyond caring now and just want to cross the line so my final time is registered. I don’t even notice my finish time I’m so whacked. My only concerns are to get off the bike, find some shade and lie down, drink some coke and find my wife (note – in no particular order!). Official time taken 8:29:09. I felt worse at the end than two years ago in Bayonne and I thought the run to the finish didn’t match the one into Bayonne. So, that’s it fini. Then again maybe 2007!!! Funny how the memory anaesthetises the painful ones.
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