Anyone who’s ridden an Etape will tell you what’s immediately impressive is the quantity of serious riders in one place. 8500 cyclists is a breathtaking sight. It’s nice to know that there are so many of us. We all knew that the 13th Etape du Tour from Mourenx to Pau was going to be tough, but only now, as we asemble for the off, will we find out how tough.
The weather was looking good but it was certainly cold at the start – but then again it usually is at 5 a.m. Sports Tours International had done us proud with a hotel so close to the finish that we could be showered afterwards and in the Cafe for a beer in a matter of moments. This did mean, however, that we had to drive to the start and this incurred a 4am wake up time penalty, in order to eat (try eating when you are still asleep) and get to the start for 7am. Some mad fools decided to ride the 20kms to the start and left Pau at 5… these boys are keen.
Assembly is like a marathon start. Toilets are few and far between so the local hedgerows are very busy right up until the off. The line up starts early a good hour before the start time of 7a.m. too, so leave it 10 minutes and you are another 100 metres further back. Starting from the 8000 numbers means you are never going to see the front. It’s a bit like riding up the M1 on a Friday night. Passing on the left is tricky to start with, many first timers haven’t quite got the protocol sorted, eventually giving way after realising that faster riders shout a lot if they don’t budge over. It’s going well though, with a puff of a tailwind, the sun coming up and, at last, the chance to stretch the legs. The bike’s going sweet the sun is warming the legs and the cheering crowd (at this time, are they mad?) really push you along.
All the talk of taking it easy for the first hour or so goes straight out of the window, there’s a mission to get to the first col in a bit of clear water. Sadly this is not to be, there are just so many riders on the road and even a short tunnel means a concertina tail back which means you’re going nowhere. Most riders ended up walking at some point, the crowds of spectators were incredible too. Frustrating as this was it emphasises the importance of this event and it’s popularity. You’ve never seen so many crashes riding up a hill, just because it was impossible to make progress without barging your way through, Entente Cordiale was being stretched to it’s limit. Anyone lucky enough to get an early start had a clear run through the melee, worth a good few minutes on the clock.
Although there’s a bit of frustration, the atmosphere is very well behaved, the strange quiet as everybody ascends in their own silent, private battle with pain and struggle. On the Aubisque no one is talking, it’s like a procession of monks on their way to prayer…
On the other hand the feed stations are a bun fight. The first is avoided by most because of this, also I was in a good peloton and there’s still plenty of food on board. Like a pack of marauding hyenas, cyclists struggle with bikes and bananas. The result of having to walk in cleats and try to grab as much grub as possible in as short a space of time. It’s pandemonium. Bottles are all over the road and who ever thought of supplying Perrier as a refreshment? The result was explosive bottles being chucked after realising what a mistake this was, drinking fizzy water quickly whilst trying to steer down a 1700m col is not recommended, it goes straight up your nose.
Col de Marie Blanque
Was steep, but came at point where most still had some riding left in their legs. So the pace is still keen. The descent is excellent and as riders start to thin out you get a chance to let off the brakes a little and enjoy the ride. The feed station at the bottom is like a sale day at Harrods. Chaos.
The Aubisque isn’t as steep as the Marie Blanque but is suitably relentless for an Etape route. the 17km sign at the bottom receives a few groans from the lumbering peloton. It’s only after 10km that you really do start to lose your sense of humour. Some riders have to push, partly through the gradient but mainly because there are still too many people travelling too slowly, the result means you can’t keep riding and hold your balance.
Col du Soulor
The Soulor just added insult to injury. Cramp is setting in, I think I’m paying the penalty for not taking on Go, or something suitably electrolyte early on. The descent from the Soulor is, however, magnificent – a bit rougher than the Marie Blanque but sweeping and fast nonetheless. A few crashes are inevitable as tired bodies and concentration lapses are setting in. My cramp is getting worse. On the way down there is a small rise in the road and like a sniper bullet, the legs lock up. The cramp is unbearable. Stopping was the only option, getting off the bike isn’t. I can’t move. A Dynamo team mate, Ed McKinley, stops to help, but it’s no good. I have to wait for it to subside. Two french farmers offer advice. Try to relax and let it go. After several horrendous spasms it starts to ease, the will to press on is greater than the pain.
The long road from the Soulor to the finish is wonderful. A peloton of willing riders drag us along at 40 ks an hour. Bliss. A chance to stretch out, eat and drink what’s left in the pockets. After some stirling work on the front Ed starts to cramp too, everyone just wants it over. The parcours shows a couple of small hills on the run in to Pau and these proved some trouble for many of the riders, too small for recognition but under the circumstances tougher than we needed. I actually started to feel a little less cramped-up and could push on again, soon after then the 20km to go sign – never has a sign be so greatly appreciated. I nearly got off and kissed the 5km to go one and almost choked up with 1km to go…
But at the finish in Pau was a 300 metre hill to the town square. It was too much for some as some had to walk it. It was the final sting in the tail from the organisers. It even had some people in tears. Fit guys who would, under normal circumstances, laugh at it – couldn’t attack it at all. Riders slumped around the final corner for hours on end, until the last rider arrived at 17.30 to cheers and applause from the crowd.
It was a great Etape. A classic. As usual it was hard, it made you appreciate what pro riders do for a living too. You get to experience first hand what they do almost every day for three weeks in July. The speed they go at should never be underestimated either, they are an inspiration. The weather was kind, the organisation superb (please no fizzy flavoured water next time?!) But to top it all, the views from the Aubisque are simply stunning. Worth all that effort.
But what did you think? how was it for you? did you have any time to take any photos? If so send in your thoughts, pictures and opinions to us at RCUK