The same words that had passed the lips of a half-delirious Octave Lapize atop the Aubisque amid the toughest Pyrenean stage of the 1909 Tour de France, shot through my mind again.
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I’d come to the Pyrenees under the auspices of a magazine photo shoot. Yet, after the announcement of the Etape du Tour route, plans suddenly changed.
The CW editors decided that it would be an excellent idea for me to ride the stage, giving me 36 hours to gird myself mentally. From a molehill to (three) mountains…
And what a stage it is. 174 kilometres, taking in the Marie-Blanque, Soulor and Tourmalet as well as numerous tough bumps in between. All in all, it’s about 4,400 metres of climbing.
With Dominic, owner of our gite for the week, Pyrenees Pursuits, acting as a one-man driver, photographer and supporter, we set off in the mid-dawn freeze for Pau. After initially getting lost in the city’s circuitous streets, we got stuck into the parcours.
The opening 30 kilometres to Oloron Sainte-Marie are on Route Nationale dual carriageway: fine for a charging Etape bunch on closed roads, but dangerous for a lone rider. We drove this gently-undulating section, with me unwilling to play chicken with the giant HGVs.
The Marie-Blanque started inauspiciously, as I took the wrong turning, climbing up a goat-track for 4 kilometres (très Octave Lapize) before an even narrower and rutted gravel descent, spitting me out in front of a bull.
He eyed me, I eyed him and I passed by, silently thanking the heavens I hadn’t opted for the matador-esque red Cannondale top that morning.
As seemed par for the course that day, I was then chased by four rather large dogs as the descent opened out into a tiny hamlet, enshrouded in wood-smoke. Mercifully, I came out – having avoided both puncture and death by wild animal – on civilisation a few kilometres up the climb proper.
Back on track, the Marie-Blanque has an early steep-and-sharp section before settling down to more benign gradients. The first half reminded me of climbs in the Surrey Hills, similar both in gradient and vegetation. However, this swiftly changes nearer the top.
The last three kilometres don’t mess around, the steepest of the day at nine, twelve and then thirteen percent before the summit. The first feed stop of the Etape is also rumoured to be at the top of the climb, so prepare yourself for the traditional frenzy, where previously upstanding citizens become push-and-shove starving beggars for five necessary minutes.
From here lies the joy of descending on a bicycle. An hour of Pyrenean climbing is rewarded by fifteen minutes of speedy, harum-scarum descent. You sure don’t get anything like this in England. With sharp but safe turns and the road ahead often visible, I was able to open it up, pass a car or two and enjoy unadulterated speed all the way down to Bielle and the valley floor.
After a rolling and winding 30 kilometres through rural Pyrenean backwaters, the Tour then takes in the Soulor from its oft-unused north side at Ferrières. The 12-kilometre climb will certainly surprise a few, though I found that a cautious pace on my behalf meant I could sustain a good rhythm on the 7% gradients, saving something for the final climb.
As for the Tourmalet? Having already climbed several hundred metres up the valley floor on the stunning corniche road, both time and progress seemed to slow for the 18-kilometre haul from Luz Saint-Sauveur.
To put it nicely – much more sweetly than my under-the-breath mutterings in the final kilometres – it really is a pig’s ear of a climb, coming after 100 miles of Pyrenean riding. The final 12 kilometres from the ski resort of Barèges rarely drop below 8% gradient, with kilometre-markers smartly informing you of the altitude and gradient to come.
Vegetation and rock faces shade riders from the worst of the heat, ensuring that there will be fewer Ventoux-esque Etape meltdowns this time round, though the cumulative effort of the day will leave many riders on their last legs.
The scenery in the second half is terrific, with fine mountain views across to the west. Frankly though, I could only focus on the road ahead and the searing pain in my calves. The last kilometre is a hellish response to the question “what could make the last five minutes even worse?”, averaging a soul-destroying 10%.
Though the col-top signpost was removed, the sense of ceremony and achievement came from the stunning view at the top. The Tourmalet will be both the literal and metaphorical high point of the Tour de France. Despite not having ridden the whole route, I’ll admit that I felt great pride – and relief – as I looked down on the road I’d just climbed. Like the Galibier in the Alps, I felt like I was on the roof of the world.
The Etape route is always brutal and challenging. However, with the centenary anniversary of the Tourmalet’s inclusion, it carries a particular poignancy this year. Certainly, Octave Lapize’s “assassins”, barked at the commissaires, still rings true. The face of the Tour de France may have changed beyond recognition, but the mountains stay the same. The Col de Tourmalet broke men in 1909 and will do the same again a hundred years on.
See next week’s Cycling Weekly for a full Etape du Tour 2010 preview.
The steepest gradient of the day.
Sweeping bends and fine scenery halfway up the Soulor
The corniche road, built into the rockface, to Luz Saint-Sauveur
My mid-October recce was blessed with unseasonal warmth
Exactly what you want to see after 173 kilometres
The blessed final metres at the top of the Tourmalet
Thanks to Dominic and Liz at Pyreenees Pursuits for photos and hospitality.