Coming less than a week after the first Etape du Tour, on July 14 as the rest of France enjoys the national celebration of Bastille Day, all eyes once again return with a distant gaze towards the high mountains for part two of this equally feisty double act.
The last time the Etape set out from Pau was in 2008, with the Col du Tourmalet and Hautacam making up the menu of the day. On reflection this now looks like merely an hors d'oeuvre compared to next year's mouthwateringly monstrous 197km parcours to Bagnères
The run-out will once again be fast, with particular caution needed to avoid any crashes as the early nerves start to settle and riders prepare themselves for their first serious challenge of the day, the Col d'Aubisque.
Although it's 36 kilometres to its base at Laruns, the sheer volume of cyclists on the road could still mean a gradual filtering process may occur over the early section of the climb.
Up to Eaux-Bonnes (4km) the gradient is gentle, allowing your legs to adjust to the rigours of a 16.6km ascent and 1,190m of elevation.
From here, the real test starts with the road rearing up with a 13 per cent section towards the Cascade de Valentin. Over the remaining kilometres there's little time to draw breath and enjoy the stunning mountain scenery.
Although there is a sign at its 1,709m summit, it's the three giant steel bikes individually painted in yellow, green and polka-dot colours that will surely bring a smile to your face, reminding you that this is your Tour!
If the weather is good there'll be little need to pull on a gilet for the 6km descent before the road rises again for just under three steady kilometres to the top of the Col du Soulor, at 1,474m. If the weather is cruel it may be that you (and a million other pairs of legs, cattle included) are trying to acquaint themselves with the friendly cafe staff, at the only place of refuge, over a mug of chocolat chaud.
A word of warning: mountain weather can be unpredictable and volatile, even on what begins as the finest of days. Mountains have scant concern for anything on their slopes, even if you are dressed top-to-toe in your favourite kit and are riding your ‘special' bike. The fact is, they do not care.
The first five kilometres of the descent are simply magnificent. So fast and inspiring that you can't help but carve effortlessly across each apex on your way back down to earth. With the luxury of closed roads you'll be able to take full advantage of this, a rarity among sportive events, but try not to get carried away.
By Argelès-Gazost you're deep inside the heart of the Midi-Pyrénées and beginning the deceptively taxing 18km drag through the Gorges de Luz towards the fearsome Col du Tourmalet. It's crucial to take on adequate sustenance here no matter how you're feeling. Try to relax here and prepare for the second half of the stage.
The Tourmalet needs little introduction. A mythical mountain, 19km in length, and the highest road pass in the Pyrenees, standing proud at 2,115m. On little more than a goat track, 1910 Tour winner Octave Lapize famously vented his anger to race officials the first time the climb was used, shouting: "Vous êtes des assassins!" (You are murderers!)
Today the road is far kinder to cyclists (although you may not think this at the time) the gradient remaining constant at a steady 7.5 per cent and allowing a good rhythm to be made on its smooth tarmac as you climb over 1,400m in elevation. Rarely pushing into double figures, the hardest parts come after 8km as you pass through Barèges and with a final 10 per cent kick to the top it's certainly worth holding something in reserve.
One of the delights of having so many climbs is that you also have the beauty of rewarding your efforts with the adjoining descents, and boy have you earned it by now.
It could be that you need to pause 5km into the descent of the Tourmalet, if organisers pitch a feed station at La Mongie, but you'll soon be back on the road and heading towards Sainte-Marie-de-Campan at eye-watering and smile-inducing speeds. Hard on the brakes, and an even harder right turn, and you're well and truly tucking into the entrée of this five-mountain feast. No time for indigestion as you tackle the early kilometres of the Col d'Aspin.
At 12.8km in length, with 642 metres of elevation, you'll be glad to hear that the first 8km are relatively gentle, between two and four per cent. As you make your way back up to 1,442m it's the later section that you need to pay attention to with an average of eight per cent.
The final hurdle is finally in sight. After the descent of the Aspin you've now covered 162km and have another 12km of ‘refuel time' to the Col de Peyresourde.
Use the first few kilometres of this 10km ascent to bring the legs back around before giving it everything you've got towards its 1,569m summit. No doubt you will be feeling the fatigue of the day by now, but if it's any consolation the gradient remains constant and you know what they say? "What goes up, must come down." All the way to Bagnères de Luchon.
La joie du monde!
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Etape du Tour 2012: Act I, Albertville to La Toussuire-Les Sybelles
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