Perhaps after last year’s uncharacteristically daunting Etape du Tour from Foix to Loudenvielle, the anticipation may not have been quite so high when the route of the Tour de France and the stage that the Etape would cover was announced on October 25.

For 2008, the 16th edition of the event returns to the Pyrenees and, on paper, looks more manageable, covering 165 kilometres from Pau to Hautacam and ascending the 2,115m Col du Tourmalet in the process. Excited and eager to find out exactly what stage 10 of the Tour de France will be like on the road come July 6, I decided to examine it at first hand.

Within hours of the announcement of the Etape stage our SAS-style reconnaissance trip to the Pyrenees had been confirmed. Scheduled for October 31, there would be no margin for error, with a tight time scale in place. I could hear it now: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to infiltrate French territory and return with vital intelligence from Pau to Hautacam. Cover your back, ensure nobody is following and whatever you do don’t get yourself killed.”

OK, so maybe my imagination was getting away from me a little here, but in some respect isn’t that the whole point of the Etape? To bring the dream to life, to let your imagination go and live the life of a pro for a day, as you join the kings of the road to conquer a stage of the Tour de France. The dream soon became a harsh reality as the alarm sounded at 4.23am. This was it, the mission was on!

Getting going

The urgency had obviously evaporated at the Hertz rent-a-car desk when it came to collecting the hire car on arrival in France. Didn’t they realise this wasn’t your usual winter jolly? This was serious business! Finally on the road and heading for the outskirts of Pau, it was impossible to know at this early stage the exact route that Tour de France organiser ASO had planned for the initial flat valley section and run out of Pau. What was clear was that there were two blips in the profile at 50km and 77km into the route that needed some attention before you can even think of preparing for the Col du Tourmalet.

After a Clark Kent-style bike-build and kit change it was finally time to get the legs turning and take to the road. Heading out of Pau on the D937 towards Bizanos the road is narrow and attention must be paid to the combination of traffic islands and roundabouts in these initial nervous stages, especially when you think of the best part of 8,500 riders thundering out of town at 7am in the morning.

With a series of small French villages en route, the obstacles became repetitive — narrowing roads, traffic-calming speed bumps and road islands all thrown in to keep riders attentive. It’s a flat start so expect the pace to be very high as riders surge from behind to try and move up the pack and find a position closer to the front. You’ll need to be very alert.

Taking the rise

After Mirepeix it’s a left turn to join the D936, and as you pass through the village of Bénéjacq the road starts to rise with a 5.5km climb up to Labatmale. Still early in the day, and without too much to break up the field, there’s a good chance that you will be able to find some shelter from the wind by sitting in a pack to make it over this climb. The gradient is constant at around six per cent so it’s kind on the legs, and with a series of gradual bends through tree-lined roads, the excitement starts to build as the kilometres pass.

A short descent and right turn on to the D940 and you’ve now crossed over from the Pyrenees Atlantiques to the Hautes Pyrenees. Trying to second-guess the route, I headed for Lourdes, as it was a logical road to pick up the D937 towards the second known waymark at Loucrup. The 1.6km climb up to the village really isn’t any concern and will be over before you know it. At this point I did a distance check and had 53km on the clock; it’s clear that the route will be extended out of Pau somehow to get the extra 24km in, as this point should be 77km into the course.

Despite this, what is obvious is that any route that ASO has planned will be on very similar narrow roads, sometimes with broken tarmac and plenty of traffic-calming devices in place, so beware and be careful.

Terror of the Tourmalet

Although ASO puts the official distance of the Col du Tourmalet at 23.4km, the run-up on the D935 to the foot of the climb really is very gradual, on a fast open valley that would benefit you finding a wheel or two to hide behind.

The climb really starts as you exit the village of St Marie de Campan — incidentally the village where early Tour de France rider Eugene Christophe stoically mended his broken forks before race officials penalised him for gaining outside assistance to operate the blacksmith’s bellows. Certainly one of the most famous climbs of the Tour, the Tourmalet — or ‘terrible mountain’ as it translates to — is 17.2km in length at an average gradient of 7.4 per cent. With 1,268m of elevation to the summit at 2,115m, it’s easy to see where its name came from.

On the approach to St Marie de Campan the roadside signs were clearly reading ‘Tourmalet fermé’ (closed). Two days of heavy snow had apparently left the upper slopes impassable. My imagination started up again, the voice in my head saying, “What do you mean you’ve failed, the mountain was shut? That’s no excuse.” So it was head down and onwards with little regard for the closed signs to see what lay ahead.

The initial section starts gradually at 4.5 per cent on a house and tree-lined, narrow road where it’s possible to get good momentum and turn the legs quickly. The autumnal air was fresh and out of the sun the chill was ripe as the climb gained altitude. It’s helpful to have the information signs every kilometre all the way to the summit, indicating your current altitude and the average gradient for the kilometre ahead.

It’s a pleasant start to the climb as you edge closer to Gripp and the beautiful waterfalls at Arizes, but it’s here that the gradient starts to rise, rarely dropping below 7.5 per cent. With little in the way of hairpins to change the pace and seek recovery, it’s a constant effort all the way and there’s no hiding from the elements, apart from the odd open tunnel.

Sun-seeking and fog-dodging

In July this means you’ll need to be particularly careful if the sun is at its hottest. On this occasion that wasn’t a concern. The clouds were thick and the mountain was shrouded in an eerie cold fog. At 6km from the summit and I hit a 10 per cent section, the steepest on the mountain, just before La Mongie.

It was tough going as the road was awash with ice and slush, making riding conditions difficult and getting out of the saddle almost impossible.

As I exited La Mongie the cloud was at its thickest, but within meters I could see glimpses of blue sky and, a kilometre further on, with 4km to the summit, I’d risen above the cloud with a feeling of being truly airborne.

The headwind for these final kilometres was constant and bitterly cold, but the piercing blue sky and snow-capped mountains kept my heart beating and I could feel my breathing quicken, almost with laughter, at what I was blessed to be seeing — views that you don’t normally see from your bike in the winter. It’s this top section where the road begins to switchback and with the summit in sight it’s almost teasing you by taking the long way to get there. The Tour carnival may have crested the Tourmalet’s summit 74 times, but on this occasion it was quiet, pure and in all its natural beauty.

The temperature at the summit was –2°C which meant, despite the stunning scenery, I didn’t want to hang around at the top for too long. It’s important to remember that even on a hot day the sweat generated from the ascent will soon turn to a chill with the wind, so make sure you have appropriate clothing to fully enjoy the 18km descent to Luz St Sauveur.

The steepest section at 11 per cent is at the start as you traverse the initial slope through a series of bends. It quickly flattens out to a more gradual seven per cent but with less aggressive corners it’s easier to carry a higher speed. As your altitude is reduced you can look to the right and see the valley where you’re heading, but keep your eyes on the road as there are no crash barriers to prevent a tired cyclist from taking their first, and last, lesson in hang-gliding.

Within 3km on the descent I was suffering with the cold, becoming more concerned with the road conditions and the lack of feeling I had in my hands to apply the brakes and control the bike.

I decided to coast very slowly to limit the wind chill, which helped, but the road conditions were deteriorating a lot faster than I was descending. Rounding a gradual right-hand bend, at what can only be described as break ‘eye-lash’ speeds, suddenly the road ahead was an ice rink. With one foot out of the pedal and not wanting to pull the brakes I came to an eventual stop — I dread to think where I would have ended up if I had been going any faster. And there’s that voice in my head again saying “And don’t get yourself killed”. This time I had to tell it straight “Shut up!”. I needed to concentrate!

With a further 10km to descend, the only way was by car. The journey was quiet, and the weightless feeling of free falling on black ice in a BMW estate with summer tyres and a crash barrier-less bend approaching is not something I’d be keen to repeat in this lifetime.

Safe at St Sauveur

Finally back on dry tarmac at Luz St Sauveur it was a further 18km of fast descending through the Gorge de Luz, where it is a perfect opportunity to refuel before tackling the last ascent of the day. Taking a right turn off the D921 onto the D13, I headed to Ayros-Arbouix.

After a sharp right-hand turn you pick up the first signs to Hautacam as you join the D100 and the climb begins in the beautiful valley at Argeles Gazost. Initially the gradient is around 6-7 per cent but soon you’ll find yourself on steeper sections, so there isn’t much of a gentle ‘breaking in’ period to the climb. The interesting thing with this climb is that although you have signs telling you your altitude and average gradient for the coming kilometre, within that kilometre the gradient can vary quite considerably. This means that finding a rhythm and sticking to it is made all the harder, although there are some plateaux.

With 11km to the summit the average gradient is 10 per cent, the road is narrow and it’s hard going. The spectacular scenery will surely go a long way in keeping the motivation high, but be prepared for another 8km of between 7.5-10 per cent average gradient.

With little shelter it will once again be a case of being at the mercy of the weather conditions of the day. With approximately 2.5km to the summit you’re faced with a long left-hand bend at approximately 12 per cent gradient, it’s a really tough section of the climb but as you cross a cattle grid and turn to the right the gradient eases and you suddenly feel as if you’ve made it to the top of the world. The climb opens up and you can start to gain momentum on the run-into the finish.

If you’ve got anything left at this point it’s time leave it on the road. The gradient stays gradual and you’re safe knowing that in a matter of minutes you’ll be able to relax and bask in the satisfaction of completing a truly beautiful stage of the Tour de France.

IN THE WHEEL TRACKS OF LEGENDS

Riding any stage of the Tour de France is always going to be a special achievement, but none so much as the 2008 edition of the Etape du Tour from Pau to the Hautacam.

Featuring a course steeped in Tour history from tip to tail, it’s on these very roads that dreams have been made and shattered for decades.

The summit of the Tourmalet has been crested 74 times to date, and La Mongie has played host to three mountain finishes, in most recent times won by Lance Armstrong and Ivan Basso in ’02 and ’04 respectively.

While the Hautacam has only been used three times so far, each occasion has provided thrilling racing and created stories that will live for years to come.

It was here in ’94 that Miguel Indurain showed that there was more to him than just time trialling. Two years later Denmark’s Bjarne Riis made the remaining Tour contenders look like they were out for a Sunday clubrun as he continually surged forward, pausing to stare at his competitor’s faces, then delivering the final blow and securing victory at the summit. Unfortunately, Riis’s unbelievable performance that day was more than wind-assisted.

The last time the climb featured was in 2000, when Armstrong caught a lead group containing Richard Virenque and Fernando Escartin before going alone and all but sealing his second Tour.

RELATED LINKS

Video preview: Etape du Tour 2008