Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Etape 2010: The Ecstasy and the Agony

It is 6.20 as we gather on the boulevard in Pau, ready to cycle one of the toughest stages of the Tour de France. The start point is atop a cliff with a stunning view of forested hills in all directions, the mist rising and birds flying between the trees. It is a big contrast to two years ago. Then we were fenced into a car park, drenched by torrential rain, and cycled out through the industrial areas of Pau, seeing no reason ever to visit again. I think the Tourist Board must have had some influence this time.

Last time it was a physical challenge like none I had done before. I rang home from the first peak to say “Don’t ever let me do this again”. So what has brought me here to the challenge of cycling 112 miles and climbing mountains? As I wait for the start I do wonder why I’m back.

We’re Off
There are 10,000 cyclists clustered here, ranked by our number. I am 6706. I chat to a Canadian who is worried about his 6,000 number – he has heard there will be traffic jam on the first mountain, the Marie Blanc, and is desperate to get there early. A friend of his is number 23. Mind you, that man had once won the Tour de Switzerland, so fair enough.

At 7am the gates open at the front and at 7.15 we are moving. It is a glorious sweep down off the cliff, past the station and out of town. The roads are closed, just like on the real Tour, and it is great to have no traffic all day. Soon we are gliding through a magical valley, past fields of corn with the sun coming up over the hillside – and hundreds of cyclists in front and hundreds behind.

It is a long day ahead. The 3,500 ft Marie Blanc, the 5,000 ft Soulor and the 7,000 ft Tourmalet - with temperatures predicted to hit 29 C (86 F). And all with the threat of the ‘broom wagon’ that will sweep you off the course if it catches you. The wagon has set times of arrival at each point and so I know exactly how fast I must go to keep ahead. Each year it is a different stage of the Tour that is open to the public. But this one is starting in Pau, as two years ago, and the Tourmalet is included again - though this time from the Southern ('more difficult') side.

This time I have tried to understand the nutrition, and move beyond my strategy of eating lots of bananas. Apparently you need to drink 1.5 litres an hour in the heat to stay hydrated. And 60 g of carbohydrates, ideally at 6% dilution to be ‘isotonic’, so I have lots of electrolyte packs to dilute in water. I have made sure of two 1 litre bottles on my bike to provide enough liquid.

We slow for the first climb, the Cote de Gaye. Just 2 km, this is an appetizer. As we come down through local villages, crowds are gathered to cheer us on. Most of the cyclists go straight past but I discover that if I wave back I get my own personal cheer. It feels good. I skid on some cobbles in a village and almost hit the cyclist next to me. I am hit with a torrent of French – I don’t understand a word but it is clear it is not complimentary.

Normally the aim is to join a group – you can go up to 40% faster by cycling in the slipstream of others. But there are really no groups, just a huge mass of cyclists. I try to keep together with James, my cycling partner, but after two hours we lose each other – and there is no way to re-find somebody amidst this number. I reach for my front water bottle and … it is gone. It must have fallen off on a descent. All my careful plans….

By 9.20 we are at the base of the Marie Blanc, a 9km climb. The advice is to take it easy early on as the last 3km are said to be the toughest of the whole stage.

In search of the perfect gear.
I hold to the philosophy of the perfect gear. I believe that for every gradient there is a gear for you at this moment. Other gears can be a struggle but hit that perfect gear and everything falls into place. How to find it? There is no way I know of, but I know when I am there.

At each km pt there is a sign to tell you the current height and the steepness of the next km. At 3 km to go, it reads 13%, the highest of the day. But suddenly I hit that gear. My legs tell my brain they can go faster. I move to the left into the quicker section and step up a pace. I am at one with the bicycle and the mountain, rising up through the trees, and feel truly in the zone.

(When I say faster, of course, I’m talking relatively - I go up from 7 kph to 9 kph. When the tour comes up this hill on Thursday they will ride up in excess of 25 kph and make it look effortless.)

And then the road is blocked. We have hit the traffic jam and everybody is walking. A loud Dublin accent shouts “riders to the left, walkers to the right”. But they are not walking from choice and there is no getting through. Though my gears allow me to cycle at walking pace and I am determined to stay on the bike.
An ambulance somehow comes through, reminding us of the risks here. There are 12 ambulances spaced across the route. I move in to cycle behind the ambulance, feeling pleased with myself for finding a way through the crush - until it suddenly rolls back, almost crushing my wheel. That would be a way to go, having to drop out because the tour ambulance crushed my bike! But I stay on and can say that I was about the only rider in my section to cycle the whole course.

At 1 km to the top it suddenly clears and we are all cycling, heading for the summit. As we approach, with a huge sense of achievement, a couple of spectators wave a union jack and I am moved almost to tears by the combination of achievement and belonging. I can’t say I’ve ever felt that about our national flag before!

We come down off the top and immediately to an ambulance, with a cyclist recovering from having overshot the bend. A useful warning sign – overshoot later on and you go off a cliff! On the Plateau de Benou I get to the first feed stop. Water, cake, bananas, dried fruit and energy shots. I refuel and am off down a glorious descent, sweeping round bends at 35 mph (being overtaken too) and with a glorious panorama of the peaks of the Pyrenees on all sides.

The Most Beautiful Place
A cyclist from Michigan, who has a French wife, tells me they have live in the US but have a house here for the summer. “For me, it is the most beautiful place in the world”, he explains. I can see what he means. From the luxuriant fields to the ancient villages to the mountain peaks, it is glorious to look at. I must come back with the family. Especially with all the activities available: canoeing, rafting, canyoning, cycling, horse-riding, walking, water parks. (This blog is not sponsored by the local tourist board…)

Down In the valley I find myself suddenly almost alone. Half an hour ago there were so many cyclists that the road was blocked and now there are just half a dozen in sight. Partly this can be explained by mathematics (at 8kph we are packed 5 times tighter than at 40 kph) but it is still weird.

We start to form into a group and then catch sight of a peloton, over 100 cyclists strong, in the distance. No words are exchanged but we all know what we must do. We form a line of 10, one behind the other, barely a couple of centimetres between the wheels. We pile it on and chase them down. After about 5 km we catch them and get our reward. Behind this massive group we barely need to pedal. We are carried through the most glorious undulating French countryside at 25 mph.

And now to a long wooded valley. As we pass a tavern by a bridge, by a bubbling brook, we are serenaded by a man on an accordion. Can it get more perfect? I get to the 2nd feed stop at Ferrieres and calculate that, even if I take 15 minutes, I will be an hour ahead of the dreaded broom wagon. I note a text from a friend who was caught by the broom wagon at the top of Marie Blanc.

Solour: The Long Climb
So onto the second big climb, the Soulor. This is said to be less steep but long and relentless, 21 km of ascent. We emerge from the shade of the trees with about 8 km to go and suddenly the sun is relentless. James tells me later that his Garmin computer measured it at the peak of Soulor at 98.6 F (36 C). This is a struggle. I begin to doubt the philosophy of the perfect gear. This is just hard grind in the beating sun.

I stop for a rest at 5km to go and notice the silence. As 100 cyclists pass, I hear only one conversation. Amidst so many people this is a strangely solitary activity. (My wife thinks this is a boy thing, a bit like fishing - just with more physical activity.)

It is a pity as chat makes it easier. On my last sportive in England, as we approached the biggest climb I was in conversation with my neighbour and she asked where I worked. “Happy”, she exclaimed. “I am in HR and Happy are HR legends. I used you as a case study to win flexible working in my company.” The ensuing conversation carried me effortlessly to the top!

But there is a beauty in the determination. And something about the human form, lycra clad, working at its best. On the Tour itself I love the sight of Contador (last year’s winner) as he stands up on his pedals and seems to dance his way up a mountain. Few people stay on their pedals for long but, as I restart, I am caught by a lithe form ahead. As they stand on the pedals for over a kilometre I am transfixed by the perfection of the movement and forget, for a while, the challenge.

At 2 km to go, the ascent suddenly falls from 8.5% to 6% and I find again the perfect gear. The others don’t seem to have reacted to the change and have their minds set at the previous speed. I move past, feeling on top of the world – both literally and metaphorically. We turn a bend and you can see the road twisting round the edge of the mountain to the pass, one long line of cyclists. We drove here yesterday but couldn’t see any of this. It was cold and covered in mist, with visibility down to 10 metres at times. What a difference a day makes.

This is beautiful. Absolutely unspoilt countryside, peaks on all sides, the sound of cowbells. Hardly a person in sight (apart from several thousand cyclists, that is.) It looks like Sound of Music country. (Yes, I know that’s the wrong country. If anybody knows of a film with stunning Pyrenean scenery, please let me know.)

This was the point last time at which I rang home to say “Don’t ever let me do this again”. This time I want to say “more, more , more”. What could be better than being in the zone, cycling to the top of a mountain and surrounded by some of the best scenery on Earth? Magnificent.

Is this why I came back? Having gone through the pain last time, is this the reward? Is this how life works. If you face the pain and return again for more, you get to the next level and reap the rewards? (Or maybe its just that cycling up a huge mountain when you are cold and wet, like last time, really sucks.)

Camper Vans Everywhere
Over the peak and the scene changes. I have never seen so many camper vans in all my life. (Though I am to see many more on Tourmalet.) Every flat space is crowded with them. Every parking spot has one, many sat on the edge of precipices. Now I understand where all those spectators on the Tour mountain slopes come from. These people have come for the week, to do some walking and some cycling and then to watch the Tour go past.

Another glorious descent, more stunning views, more groups of cyclists forming and re-forming. A group of women in pink, with pink balloons - dancing and cheering us by. A family of four does a Mexican wave for us. Kids hold out their hands to be high-fived. At one point I suddenly wonder where everybody has gone and notice they have all lined up behind me, on my wheel. I quickly catch up with a group ahead, to avoid the exposure of being at the front.

The third feed stop, I am out of electrolyte mix and I make the mistake of taking just water and no mix. And its lukewarm. As I cycle through Lus Saint Savour I fantasise about a cold bottle of water, a cycling shower (they had these at the Beijing Olympics, a shower above the track to cycle under) and an ice cream.
I turn a corner and a man on the pavement hands me a cold bottle of water. His neighbour has his garden hose out and drenches me. And then, as if a mirage, an ice cream stall. I feel fate is on my side.

I am still an hour ahead of the broom wagon and decide to stop and have an ice cream. I know it’s the ’wrong kind’ of carbs or sugar or whatever. It works for students at Happy Computers so why not for me? (Possibly because we don’t then make them undergo extreme physical activity, but there you go.)

It is an 18km relentless ascent, 8% all the way. We turn the corner and we see the entire route up to the pass, towering 5,000 ft above us. And my gears go. I am about to tackle one of the most brutal climbs in cycling and my climbing gears are suddenly slipping and unusable. I curse myself for never having learnt proper bike maintenance.

I struggle on in an impossible gear for 2 km and then find a Trek Travel stall. I throw myself at their mercy and a wonderful man called Jesse takes a look. “Its nothing, the cable has loosened.” He tightens it up and, like magic, all is well.

Tourmalet: water all the way
The Tour holidaymakers are out in force and here to help. Kids and adults eagerly pour water over us as we pass. A man refills my bottle from a mountain stream. One group is sitting on a bridge, with a bucket on a rope – pulling up water, filling bottles and then pouring it over passing cyclists. It is an incredible help. At times you can’t go for 20 metres without somebody offering to pour water over your helmet or down the back of your neck.

Many of us afterwards agree that, exhausted and dehydrated, we could not have made it up that mountain without being regularly drenched in water. It is a wonderful display of community and support. Have these people been doing this for five hours, since the first cyclists came through?

I stop to rest at 12 km and again at 10 km. With 8 km to go there is no shade. I am parched but can hardly hold down water. My body tells me it has been cycling for 10 hours, has climbed two huge mountains, and there is more? It is as though the mountain is teasing me, telling me I have to rest.
I pass people collapsed at the roadside, some with medics in attention. Nothing seems more attractive than the idea of laying down by the roadside and waiting for the broom wagon to pick me up.

But I repeat to myself Lance Armstrong’s mantra: “Pain is temporary. Quitting is
forever.” I meet somebody the next day who puts it another way. “You cannot quit. That would be no respect to the mountain. You must respect the mountain. And then you can conquer it.” I had hoped to beat my time of two years ago. I no longer care but I must finish. At 5 km, a couple lets me lie under their sunshade – the only shade anywhere in view - to keep off the sun for a few mins rest. It reminds me of the Jonah story, will it be snatched away?

On the bike I am in a good gear and am going at 8 kph. It doesn’t sound much (5mph) but it is fast enough. At least I’m overtaking the walkers! But my mind – fuddled and exhausted – finds it hard to concentrate. My legs will turn but it is hard to keep going. Again, looking back, I wonder what stopped me simply going for it. Calculating and re-calculating that I do have long enough. Half the cyclists are walking. James tells me later he saw a young man come back down from the top and say to an older cyclist, with 1 km to go and the broom wagon approaching, “Dad, get on the bike. You can do it.” The reply: “I can’t son, I just can’t”.

The last km. The sign says 10% but the first half is virtually flat. For the last half km there is a hairpin bend and then it looks like a 45% rise - its probably 20%. But I can do it. One last push and I am there. At the top. I shout in triumph, and get off the bike. The ascent of Tourmalet has taken me 2 hours 53 minutes. I haven’t beaten my time but I have got to the top, I have made it through the heat. And, finding a colleague at the finish line - in tears, I join them. And, yes, I am in tears too.

I have lost time on Tourmalet but still finish 25 mins ahead of the wagon. 6,600 finish – that means 3,000 did not make it. Definitely two experiences: The first 164 km were some of the most glorious I have ever done, a hugely uplifting experience. The last 18 km were total agony, staggering up the ascent with frequent rests.

Will I do it again? Maybe. Maybe somewhere dry and cool. Perhaps Iceland.

It is two days after the event and I know now why I came back and why I must return again. I feel already the call of the mountain. For I have climbed the mighty Tourmalet (twice) but, in my mind, I have not conquered it. And I will come back to do so. That is true respect to the mountain and to myself.

Elapsed time: 10 hours 52 minutes
Start place: 6,706
Finish place: 6,114

Breakfast: Muesli, banana, 2 boiled eggs
In start pen: Banana, electrolyte water (50 g carb)
On ride: 4 x electrolytes (200 g carbs), 3 bananas, dried fig, 3 energy gels

Bike: Giant SCR2, triple front gears


Marion said...

Wooooow! What an achievement and adventure! Thank you so much for sharing it with all of us. You write so vividly and elegantly - it made me even more thrilled that I'm sat at home eating M&S chocolate Colin the Caterpillars. Perhaps what's most striking is that there are so many additional obstacles beyond the distance and the impossible climbs and gradients. Cliff plunges, broom wagons, gear failures - and, surely a classic, nearly being run over by an ambulance!

mazel tov Henry. You are, once again, totally heroic.

love marion xx

Giles said...

A great piece - thanks for helping me relive the experience - especially the wonderful support, the magical sense of place and the strange beauty of climbing a danseuse. The Pyrenees rule. Raid Pyreneen anyone?