Etape 2008: Pau-Tourmalet-Hautacom
The etape begins in the starting pens at 6.30 in the morning. Riders go off from 7am in groups of 1,000, according to their allocated number. I was 7070 - so that meant a lot of waiting. Now of course you are timed from when you cross the start line (7.25 for us) but in the etape it isn’t just you seeking a personal best, its you against the broom wagon. The broom wagon starts at 7.45 and, if it catches you, you are out of the race. Last year 3,000 out of 7,000 were eliminated.
Now we’d woken at 4.15, after a night of thunder and lightning. And the hotel, about 50% of whose guests are cyclists, opened breakfast then. We hadn’t managed to persuade them to do Lance Armstrong’s recommended pasta (carbs) and egg (protein) so settled for muesli and 2 boiled eggs.
As we waited in the starting pens, the rain started to come down. We chatted to a Dutch couple, doing it together. This was going to be a very wet ride. Finally we are off and, onto the main road into Pau its quickly up to speed. The advice had ranged from ‘go as fast as you can, to escape the broom wagon’ to ‘take it easy, conserve your energy’. The key in cycling is to avoid ‘bonking’. In cycling terms this is when you run out of energy and ‘hit the wall’. Suddenly it feels like you can hardly move. There is a huge range of entirely contradictory advice on what to eat and what to do to avoid the dreaded bonk.
We went for a quick start and started looking for the right peloton to join. Tucked in behind a group of riders, it is said to take 40% less energy. But you’ve got to choose one you can keep up with. They form and reform as thousands head down the road South from Pau. No traffic, police are at junctions to stop the cars and wave us by – and the occasional spectator up early to see us go past.
The first 15 miles are at a cracking 21 mph. I’ve carefully analysed the broom wagon times and its maximum target speed is 16.8 mph so we’ve got to keep ahead of that. Turning off the main road we hit a complete jam as cyclists head through the narrow streets of a local village. Its 5 precious minutes lost.
The First Hills
The blogs have described a 50 mile easy flat ride before hitting the mountains. The first ‘non-hill’ is 500-ft or so but we keep a steady 15 mph up it. The second non-hill takes us to 1,500 ft, higher than any hill in southeastern England, with rain now pouring down and drenching us. We’d cleverly taken off our waterproofs just before going up it. This hill is tougher & I lose Diye on the ascent. Coming down we see our first accidents as some skid on the wet roads.
By the end of the descent my average speed is down to 17 mph, too close for comfort. I sense the broom wagon catching up and need to pile on the speed. A fast group overtakes and I decide to go for it. We steam into Lourdes at speeds of up to 25 mph and my average is up to 17.5 mph. After 3 minutes at the packed feed station (I pick up a banana and a red tube of ‘instant energy’) the gap from the broom wagon is down from 20 minutes at the start to 12 minutes now. There is no margin of error for a puncture or the like and I need to speed. (Diye tells me later that he is blissfully unaware of broom wagon times but his time reveals he leaves Lourdes with only 3 minutes to spare.) It would be a terrible irony to do all this training and come all this way and be turfed off even before you reach the mountains.
So its full speed again out of Lourdes. I follow a rider jumping the gap to the next group, and decide to take the lead. That is supposed to be the done thing in pelotons, where the leader changes every 20 seconds, but here I’m not sure he isn’t insulted. I start to find it tough, and remember the advice that even 60 seconds beyond my endurance limit can lead to a total bonk. What is one’s endurance limit? The serious cyclists talk about heart rates, VOX2 limits, lactate thresholds and more. I kind of go with what feels right.
Ascending the Tourmalet
Another serious hill but my sights are set on Le Gripp, 4,000 ft up and 13 km from the top of the mighty Tourmalet. The broom wagon time there is 11.35 and I’m feeling confident. I chat to a guy from Putney who has trained in the Alps. There are increasing spectators, shouting ‘Allez’ and ‘Bravo’ and applauding as we go past and that feels fabulous. That first 2,000 ft of ascent up to Le Gripp feels fine and I’m there for 11.15. I’m 20 minutes ahead and allow myself a loo break. Finally I have enough spare time to withstand a puncture, with two-and-a-half hours allowed for the climb.
From here every kilometer is marked with a sign, including the altitude and the % ascent. The first two are 3% and 2.5%, nice and easy. At 13 km it starts to get serious, with 9.5% and we are down to between 5 and 6 mph. My target from here was 2 hours, but I’m feeling I can beat that. It is said you can see the top from here but it is lost in the mists. I take off my rain jacket and put back on my cycle top, which is soaked through. I somehow reckon the heat of the climb will dry it off?!
I had been told people would shoot past in the early stages and warned not to follow them, because they will burn out. But nobody is speeding here, and there is less chatting. Just quiet determination as we head on up. One rider messes up a gear change, can’t get his feet out of his cleats in time and tumbles over, taking two other cyclists with him. A group of locals are going wild by the roadside, waving French flags and getting especially excited whenever they see a woman rider (maybe one in 20 of those taking part). I’ve never before felt identity with people waving union jacks but here I find myself appreciating the couple of people who have brought them.
At 9km the sign reveals we are over 5,000 ft. I ponder on the fact that we are already higher than any mountain in the British Isles – and we still have over 5 miles to go! We are now in the mist and visibility falls as low as 10 metres at times. Fine on the way up but it could make the descent dangerous. With high trees on all sides, it feels like being in the middle of a rainforest. I get a sudden sense of achievement as I pass cyclist number 176 – almost 7,000 people ahead of me at the start.
It is slow and grinding. My eye on the mileage watches as the decimal points inch up. I know the broom wagon goes up at 4.3 mph so I’m feeling safe as long as I stay above 5. There is a feed stop at the ski resort of La Mangie, 5 km from the top. I refill bottles, ignore the strange tubes of energy, and grab a banana and its on and up.
We did this section as a practice on Friday in the bright sunshine and it really built our confidence. But now its after 70 miles and its tougher. There is something very frustrating about knowing you are only 2 miles from the top but it will take you half an hour to get there. I keep myself going with the promise I will phone home at the summit and tell them I’ve got there. I visualize that glorious moment. The sole spectator applauding wildly in the middle of the ski resort is much appreciated.
I ponder on why none of us can go faster. I don’t think I’m at my heart limit, I’ve gone up steeper hills. But its all in the mind and somehow my brain can’t tell my legs to go faster. I burst round a corner on my feet and overtake about 20 people but can’t keep it up. We edge closer. Spectators shout “cinq cent metres”, “tres cent metres”. It has taken the full two hours.
The Top of the Tourmalet
Finally I burst to the top, get off the bike, put my head down on a counter and sob my heart out. There is a statue of a cyclist at the top, in triumphant agony. I understand the feeling.
I’ve done it. I’ve got there. I ring home and speak to Rebecca, my daughter. She can tell I’ve been crying and calls me a freak. It feels like its about a lot more than getting up a mountain. Then my wife Dawn rings and I tell her the big news.
This isn't the end. There is a 6,000 ft descent and then the 5,000 ft Hautacom. But the time pressure is off and I spend probably 15 minutes at the top. Even after this I’m still 35 minutes ahead of the wagon – its downhill and then over 2 hours for Hautacom. Its then not about the broom wagon, its you versus the mountain.
But I can’t think straight. I try to calculate if I have any chance of a medal. You get a Silver for under 7 hours 5 minutes but my brain simply can’t calculate what time this would be given a 7.25 am start. I don’t know if it’s the exhaustion or the altitude. Eventually I calculate on my fingers and realize I’d have to do it in 90 minutes, and I know the descent will take an hour so now way. My original target was the time it would take me to get a Silver if I was female – 8 hours, 30 minutes – but all I want to do now is finish.
I take newspaper from the stall at the top. I’d heard about this. If you are not careful going down, the sweat from the ascent will freeze on your chest, leading to pneumonia. So you stuff the newspaper up your shirt to absorb it. Diye missed the newspaper and tells me he saw frost forming on him. He had to stop 5 times on the descent.
I hear later it was 7 degrees at the top and going down the wind-chill takes it to near freezing. I’m told if the wind had been NE, there would have been snow, though I don’t understand the complex meteorological explanation. I head down carefully at first, brakes on. My fingers do still work. (I had read the blog of somebody who gave up on the descent because his fingers were too frozen to pull the brake levers.) More prepared riders have brought full length gloves to put on here.
I am doing just 15 mph and lots of people are passing me. I am frozen. I am fantasizing about stopping for a hot chocolate when we hit the tourist towns. It is such an attractive idea but I’m worried I’ve calculated wrong – it will be terrible to be caught by the wagon as I sip hot chocolate in a café!.
Eventually my confidence builds up and I start to speed up and overtake. The difficult bits are well marked with huge Danger signs. We come below the clouds and I’m really speeding, without peddling, hitting 39 mph at one point on a long straight.
We rush through a couple of tourist villages and into a glorious valley, the ‘Gorge de Luz’ (gorge of light?). No traffic, a road winding down through an incredible gorge and a beautiful clear, transparent river rushing through rocks. It is beautiful and peaceful, possibly the highlight of the ride. It is warmer now but my legs feel like they are still frozen. I realize I must get them working for the final assault. I look out for somebody, not too fast, I can get in behind and start them rotating. Gradually they come back to life.
Onto the Hautacom
I get to the cut off point and am on the Hautacom. It is 2.30, I am 30 minutes ahead of the broom wagon and I now have almost 3 hours for the climb. It is me and the mountain. I am exhausted and promise myself a rest every 2 miles. The crowds are big here and one or two shout out ‘superb colours’ at me in my bright multicoloured lycra.
There are many legends about the Hautacom. All say the last 3 km are easier and there are amazing views from there. But there won’t be any views from there for us and the fact it is shrouded in mist maybe makes it easier. As you get high, you can only ever see two bends ahead. In the lower reaches there are stunning views of the valley below.
There is only one way to the Hautacom, so the road is divided in two and the successful riders are coming down. This is heartening in one way, showing it is possible. But the better performance is daunting, exaggerated by the way they speed down while we are all creeping upwards.
We are 11 km out but a spectator shouts ‘seit kilometre’. Dimly in my head I try and work out if this is really 7 kilometre. But the man is wrong and from 10 km appear the 1 km signs. These are agonizingly far apart, I hope always that I had missed one and suddenly we will be an extra km nearer – everybody I speak to afterwards say they had the same hope. My eyes focus as I see the sign, hoping it is 6% and not another 8%. But it is always 8%!
Half the riders seem to be walking up now, just determined to get there. Most of these have ‘compact’ gears, just two rings at the front. I made sure I had a ‘triple’. For the technical I have 30 teeth on the front and 32 on the back, making a better than one-to-one ratio.
Cycle shops scoffed at me when I asked for that. They tried to persuade me I wouldn’t need it but I’d practiced up the university hill in Bath. After 3 ascents of the one mile hill (500 ft rise) on my mountain bike I knew my one reassurance would be to be able to go to my ‘granny’ gears. Those cycle shops assistants had not done the etape and I was grateful for my determination now.
Why do Cyclists Buy Compacts?
I don’t understand cyclists. They spend £3,000 on the latest carbon fibre technology to make it a few pounds lighter & able to go faster. (They are obsessed about weight. We met Jean Paul on the train from Paris, he had got a Gold last year and come 200th. He looked at my bike and said “That bell. It is 2 or 3 ounces. It must come off.” It did. ) But then they choose a compact gearing that makes it 50% harder (compared to me) to cycle up hill and have to walk!
A police motorcyclist comes by and shouts something in French. I fear I have miscalculated and this is the broom wagon approaching. I ask another rider, who translates: “He was saying ‘You will go faster if you ride your bike’.” I laugh. I may take breaks but I will have ridden every inch of this route. Again I watch the mileage as it inches towards the point I have promised myself my next rest.
I bump into Andy, who I met in a café yesterday. This was his 4th etape and so far he has been in the broom wagon 3 times! But he was here on the Hautacom ascent and he is going to make it. I hand him one of my Clif Block jelly blobs (90% organic and no gelatine). A Welshman stops and says “Are those jelly babies. Oh please can I have one?” I give him a packet and he is overwhelmed. The truth is I have jelly blocks and power bars and electrolyte drink that I can’t imagine eating without throwing up.
I am dropping down near 3mph now. I am only just overtaking the walkers. Should I take the red pill, I ask myself? I mean the red tube of ‘instant energy’ I picked up in Lourdes. At 4km I search for it but can’t find it. But I do have a green tube from somewhere. I open the cap and sip the sickly sweet liquid. It makes me want to vomit. But shortly after I put on a sudden burst of speed and overtake several people. Maybe the green/red pill has worked.
My mind is working this time and I spot that the 4 km sign says 8% again and makes clear we are still 320 metres altitude from the top. That means 80 metres per km or 8% each time. There is no easy last 3km! On and on round bend after bend.
The Final Ascent
At 2km I rest by a stall selling chocolate crepes and hot chocolate. What a wonderful thought. I promise myself a stop there and a chocolate and crepe on the way down. I glimpse a big white inflatable over the road. Can it be the finish? No, it is the 1 km mark.
How can 1 km take so long? Finally the end is in sight and I get on my feet & burst the last 100 metres. The timer says 9 hours 30 minutes from the start, but I know my time will be 25 minutes shorter for starting late. (It is 9 hours 6 minutes.) I am handed water and my medal.
I have done it! I ring home and tell Dawn, and say that I see no reason to ever want to do it again. The first 64 miles were great fun but those climbs were agony and did my head in. I sob again and then join the men relieving themselves over the edge of the mountain (no, its not a big drop). The road has often been lined with men relieving themselves against hedges. I’m not sure what the women cyclists do.
I try and contact Diye but there is no response. (He sent a text at 12.52 to say he was at the Hautacom summit. That would be 13 minutes head of the wagon and I am worried – I know he is a very cautious descender.)
Hautacom is strange. There is no village and no apparent reason for a road, except for the huge car park that marks the top. Presumably it only exists for the Tour de France.
No newspapers here – Instead they cut holes out of plastic bags and put them over you. I join the queue to head down. I get to 1 km down and there is Diye – followed by 3 gendarme cars, one with a huge clock on top currently at 10:09:52. I suddenly realize this is the broom wagon and he has to get to the top by 10:20:00 or be eliminated. I shout to him that he can still do it but he looks totally exhausted. The car hoots and he turns round (saying later he was wondering ‘who the hell is hooting me up here?’). The man leans out and points to the clock.
I stop for my hot chocolate and it tastes wonderful. But they are closing up and have run out of crepes. I carry on. You can’t speed down this mountain, the endless bends and turns. It is brakes on all the way. As the valley emerges beneath the clouds, I am astonished. Did we really climb up this height. It seems beyond belief.
I head down to the cycling village, where a meal is promised. I find a barbecue with lamb sausages, but they are not for us You need a yellow ticket. I don’t know which lucky folk have yellow tickets.. Instead it is tabouleh & I eat my ‘Recovery Bar’. The results are already up. I find myself: number 5564. That means - given I was 7070 and started about half way down the 7,000s – that I overtook 2,000 people.
I look at the end. There is Diye’s name, at 10:16:00 (or 9:46 actual time) – he made it! I text him to congratulate. He texts back to say he is coming down. He texts again: “In an Ambulance”. He didn’t get the plastic bag at the top and was too frozen to come down, an ambulance picked him up – and his bike followed later. He has been completely unaware of broom wagon times but has been a couple of minutes ahead of it throughout. He understood only when he saw the clock and put on a sudden burst for those last 500 metres. He is fine when he emerges from the ambulance.
We did it! ‘Team Happy’ (as we call ourselves) made it. There are 6,168 finishers, which means almost 2,500 gave up or were eliminated by the broom wagon. We hear of one pour soul who was stopped at Lourdes. I can imagine the panic among the hundreds of riders at the Lourdes feed station as they suddenly see the broom wagon approach and try to escape….
And there is still 10 miles to go, as we need to cycle back to the hotel. We are told of a cycle path along an old railway and we join two young Australians on a glorious ride along the river into Lourdes. Stuart shares his favourite line from Lance Armstrong:
“Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.”
It is said riders like Armstrong would go up the Tourmalet in times around 40 minutes. That is just over 15 mph and is an incredible thought. It must take not just incredible fitness but an amazing level of mental determination. (It reminds me of one of his other great sayings: “It is not the fittest cyclist who wins, but the one who can endure the most pain.”)
But we are done. We have battled the elements and the mountains and our own demons and triumphed. And that feels good. For the next day, and all the way back to London, we exchange stories with other riders – virtually all proudly wearing the Etape t-shirt. We swap times but all agree the achievement is simply to have finished, especially with the weather conditions. Diye is told the last two finishers were given champagne and interviewed on TV and suddenly regrets his late burst past them!
Cycling time: 8 hours, 17 minutes
Elapsed time: 9 hours, 6 minutes
Allowed time: 9 hours, 45 minutes
Average speed: 12.4 mph
I was on a Giant SCR2. It cost me around £525, probably one of the cheapest in the etape. Most seem to spend between £1,000 and £3,000 with carbon fibre frames and the like.
But if you are a newcomer my advice is simple: save your money but make sure you get a triple with a ratio as close to 1:1 as possible. Ignore pressure tot he country and anybody who tells you it isn't possible. It is, I got it.
There seem to be more different approaches to what to eat than there are cyclists. I went for lots of pasta on nights before, a filling breakfast but then probably ate too little. I felt (a) that indigestion was stopping me going faster and (b) I'd vomit if I ate more. But it was probably lack of calories that was holding me back.
I ate: 1 banana, 3 packs of Clif blobs, one small power bar, half an energy gel. And I think that was it. Plus 2 litres of water, half litre of chocolate flavoured SIS drink. Definitely too little. (I had been planning to eat lots of bananas but some guy warned me of potassium poisoning. On Monday I met somebody who did it on 9 bananas, 7 gels and 6 power bars....)
Its all about getting the miles in. Jean Paul, the guy we met on the train (who came 96th in 6 hours 14 minutes) had done 7,000 km since the beginning of the year. Diye had done 3,000 km, which Jean Paul said wasn't enough and I calculated 5,000, which he thought would get me there.
So work up to 200 miles a week, with some sportives. I did four: 67 miles, 95 miles, 115 miles and 105 miles. The White Rose Classic (115 miles) is good preparation - 4 weeks before and as much ascent as the etape - though not all in two climbs.