Stage 18 of the 2014 Tour de France – Pau to Hautacam, was to be my 15th consecutive Etape du Tour and the little voice of experience in my head was reminding me to always expect the worst possible weather conditions even though we would be in the south of France in the middle of summer. My elder sibling, Phil, was to accompany me once more, himself being a veteran of eleven previous editions.
I had been determined to go for a good performance this time following several previous years of decline and disappointment. Unfortunately, a debilitating back injury had interrupted my training schedule throughout April and early May but, with some heavy training in the Peak District, Clwydian Hills and Snowdonia throughout the four weeks of June, I was back on track and feeling fitter than I had done for a long time. The sadistic tendencies of my masseuse, Kate, also worked wonders in helping me along the way.
The schedule of events for this year meant that we could ride the Etape and watch all three Pyreneen stages of The Tour without blowing the annual holiday allowance in one go. I devised an ambitious plan, which meant ditching the car and riding the best part of 300 miles in 5 days, climbing 46,000 feet on the way. Phil responded in his usual nonchalant can-do manner – he’s got to blow on one of my rides sooner or later!
Day 1 – Travel
We set off Thursday evening in our Hyundai I40 Tourer from Afford Rent-a-Boat and headed towards le tunnel sous la manche for a midnight crossing. We surfaced in Calais where the superior intellect of the satellite-guided boat promptly took us off the A16 and on to the minor roads. The previous hirer must have set the Sat Nav to avoid the M6 toll road so, we spent a good proportion of the early hours driving around in the dark lanes of Pas-de-Calais many of which had been closed down for resurfacing work – it was extremely handy that the gendarme night patrols were all asleep!
A bit of guesswork using the touch screen eventually got us back on track at Abbevillle and by mid-afternoon we were looking for a mooring in the car park adjacent to the Etape village in Pau. We signed on, collected yet another Etape rucksack and wandered around the stalls assessing the best ways to waste our euros.
The only helmet that fits my misshapen head is kept at my house in Asturias so, to avoid even more nagging from my family and friends, I wasted a wedge of euros on a nice pearly white Giro Ionos to keep at home on my return. We spared just enough time to do our bit for the sponsors.
Next stop – Hotel de Luxembourg in Lourdes, very convenient for another obligatory whistle stop visit to La Grotte to seek forgiveness, pray for good weather on Etape day and check to see if Fabio Casartelli’s gigantic candle had eventually burned out – no chance, no chance and yes. We devoured our first protein rations of the week and a couple of Leffe Blonde’s for good measure at Restaurant Le Cabanon, a very nice eatery just up the rue from La Grotte.
Day2 – Preparation
The Etape routes vary from year to year and can resemble anything from a one-way straight line to a semi-circle. You don’t have to be a master of geometry to work out that with courses between 90 and 150 miles in length, the logistics of getting to/from the start/end points can be a nightmare. The organisers lay on shuttle buses so that you can leave your car at the finish village and return to your accommodation near the start on the day before the race. This arrangement means that you lose a whole day of your valuable holiday, driving and then sitting on a bus with another fifty or so, sweaty and apprehensive beings.
The beauty of this year’s route is that there is a plan B if you stay in Lourdes – drive 25 miles to the start in Pau, ride 20 miles downhill from the finish at Hautacam to Lourdes and then ride 25 miles the next day to pick up the car. This is probably one of the reasons that virtually the same course featured in the 2008 edition.
Anyway, we were planning a relaxing bus-free day – assembly of bicycles followed by a flat ride to Argeles-Gazost for lunch. On the outward leg my front Dura-ace STI lever mechanism locked up and, without serious use of force, refused to flip the chain between the two compact chain wheels. After a few unsuccessful attempts to adjust the movement I contemplated riding the whole week on the small chain ring – not an inviting proposition when navigating the serious terrain of the Pyrenees. Strangely enough I had the exact same problem with a 9-speed Dura-ace lever when I got off the plane in Palma, Majorca back in 2003.
We loaded the bike into the boat once more and headed off back to the village in Pau where we queued up at the Shimano maintenance stand, which was due to close in 20 minutes time at 6 o’clock. Even though I’d informed the chief mechanic that I had a problem with the STI lever, he insisted that the cable be replaced then, after a second opinion and much shaking of heads, handed the machine back to me saying that they had no spares for such an antiquated 9-speed system. Thanks boys! They did however hand me a flyer for a shop where they may have replacement levers – Sport 2000 in Lons, a suburb of Pau.
Back in the boat, we arrived at Sport 2000 at twenty to seven. They had only one set of Ultegra 10-speed levers left in their display cabinet. After some short debate about 9/10 speed issues, Anthony, the fastest bike mechanic in France, who also was due to do the Etape the following day, had the front STI lever and new cables fitted by five past seven. Thank you Anthony – my visit to La Grotte has not gone unrewarded!
I tucked the rear lever into my bag for the upcoming conversion project back in the UK and proceeded to waste more euros at the checkout.
Having eaten well earlier in Argeles-Gazost, on our way back to Lourdes we had a pit stop at the snack bar in the pet animal market in Soumoulou. Did our panini contain rabbit, hamster or guinea pig? ….. We’ll never know.
Stats of the day
- Total distance: 18.3 miles
- Total ascent: 693 feet
Day 3 – Race day
The hotel proprietor was very accommodating and made sure that race day breakfast, comprising yesterday’s dry bread, was ready for us at 5am. On our way down a very nice Brazilian lady wrestling her bike out of the undersized lift carriage confronted us. “I have no shorts”, she uttered in her far from perfect English “can I have your shorts?” This took me back to a dream I had in my early teenage years, which I won’t go into now. Apparently, she was also here to participate in the Etape but had travelled all the way from Brazil, leaving her cycling shorts behind. She had approximately 15 minutes to find another pair and was prepared to do anything to avoid the prospect of riding up the Tourmalet in her Copacabana thong – sorry, I’m back to my dream again! Phil took one look and, as though he was the world’s authority on Amazonian STDs, volunteered my services to fetch my spare shorts for this damsel-in-distress. She appeared in the foyer 10 minutes later, walking awkwardly, her curves straightened by man attire.
After all that early excitement we drove over to Pau, found an excellent mooring for the boat and had a pee in the fantastic wet room facilities of the main railway station where timing was of the essence in avoiding a sterilising shower of disinfectant. We coordinated our approach perfectly to witness the seeded riders speeding off from the start in Place de Verdun, down the steep descent of Rue Marca to the bridge over the river below. It would be another hour and twenty minutes before our numbers 9559 and 9589 would be allowed to venture over the start line.
Eight-twenty and our race chips beeped over the starting mat. We always ride our own races so I soon went off ahead. Phil’s a couple of years older than me so I have to give him a little leeway – I love to get that one in at every opportunity due to his annoying cycling superiority in our teenage years.
Some good groups formed and, due to tactical mistakes made in previous races, rather than through-and-off, I was practising my off-and-off technique, courteously inviting the last lead rider to fill the gap I’d open up whilst hanging off the back. Mischievous, I know, but still within the rules of engagement, especially when giving away so many years to the other riders in the group.
The grey gloom that had been hanging from the skies since dawn was confirmation that the weather was going to go from bad to worse as soon as we hit the foothills of the Tourmalet. A couple of dry category three bumps at Benejacq and Loucroup did nothing to preview the suffering to come.
Right on cue, the roads dampened as we started to rise towards St Marie de Campan. A couple of miles further on and it was, how you say? … piscine it down. Warmish drizzle rapidly turned to cold rain as we passed through the bunker-like architecture of La Mongie 2½ miles from the summit. I was now regretting the delay in donning my featherweight rain jacket, which now only served to allow the cold dampness to suck the life from my weary body.
An energetic spurt over the last few hairpins of the ascent generated enough heat to keep me adequately warmed for at least the first fifty yards of the ensuing 20-mile descent to Argeles-Gazost.
The road at the top of the descent had been resurfaced with stunningly smooth tarmac and the organisers had warned that this section might be a little slippery. This proved to be the understatement of the week. Those attempting to negotiate the hairpins at more than 20 miles per hour were unceremoniously dumped on their rear quarters as rubber aquaplaned over the black velvet. What is normally an enjoyable 45 miles per hour descent in the dry became a battle to stay upright whilst fending off hypothermia and shivery speed wobbles.
Halfway down, I was still shivering and wobbling through the town of Bareges, amazed at the recent investment there (€700m I believe) after a 6km stretch of the road was washed away last year. The normal thermal bands that you pass through on a mountainous descent just weren’t materialising and, by the time I was on the approaches to Luz-Saint-Saveur, I was definitely thinking of calling it a day. However, after this point, the gradient eased and once again, it became possible to generate a modicum of heat by putting some effort through the cranks. The short climb to Ayros-Arbouix and encouragement from the fantastic crowd at the foot of the Hautacam convinced me that I had made the correct decision to continue and I was soon into my stride again up the early 8% gradients of the final climb.
The rain began to fall once more but the finish line was in reach and the perceived temperature was about 20 degrees warmer than that experienced on the descent of the Tourmalet – I can handle extreme climbing but I detest being cold.
The finish line was a bit of a non-event as all the crowds were waiting for their loved, and wet, ones down in the arrival village of Ayros-Arbouix. As I crossed the finish line timing mat, I was smug in the knowledge that my increased hill training had paid off and I had achieved my best result, in terms of finish field percentage, for 10 years. All that remained was another uninviting descent for which I managed to acquire a heavy chunk of protective cardboard to stuff down my dripping shirt. After the descent I didn’t hang around long. A warm bath and some proper food were waiting for me back in Lourdes, a mere 10-mile ride down the valley. In hindsight, my Asturian expedition up the snowbound Farrapona and San Lorenzo in April had stood me in good stead for this wet and miserable day but every pedal stoke had been well and truly worth it.
By the time Phil arrived back in Lourdes, I’d already devoured three courses followed by coffee, at the local Pizzeria. We exchanged anecdotes at the table whilst he ordered his sustenance and I downed another couple of totally refreshing beers.
Stats of the day:
- Entries: 12955, Starters: 9876, Finishers: 8453
- Winning time: 04:47:39
- Me: 3767th in 07:37:04
- Phil: 7064th in 09:06:38
- Anthony the fast mechanic and obviously a fast rider too: 432nd in 05:59:51
- Total distance: 113.4 miles
- Total ascent: 16,063 feet
Day 4 – Rest Day (relatively speaking)
At breakfast, the Brazilian lady smiled and wandered over to return my shorts – freshly laundered albeit a little strained along the hip seams. We found that she had not ventured past St Marie de Campan onto the Tourmalet as the Pyrenees were “too hilly and too cold”. We weren’t so rude as to suggest this but we concurred that a little more research and preparation wouldn’t go amiss prior to her next trans-global holiday!
The skies were ominously grey again and the boat was still abandoned 25 flattish miles away in Pau. As soon as we stepped foot outside the confines of the hotel foyer with our bikes, the first spot of rain fell on to my brow building up to another torrential downpour as we dodged the soaking spray from passing HGVs on the D937.
This was the day that we were due to transfer to the municipal campsite in Arreau, our base for the next three days of punishing rides to spectate at the Pyreneen Tour stages.
We didn’t relish the prospect of pitching the tent in the day’s adverse weather conditions and, when making the initial booking, Phil had found, to a great level of frustration, that the manager of the camp site spoke no English.
We therefore decided to venture over to Arreau and explain to him that we would be a day late and would spend one extra night at the hotel. A quick boat trip over the Col d’Aspin saw the weather improve immeasurably so we pitched the tent before heading back to Lourdes, over the Aspin and the Tourmalet, for our final night of relative luxury.
Our rations in Lourdes were ingested at Café Leffe in the centre of town – a real poseurs bar where burger and chips, the quality of which Ronald McDonald would be proud, was traded at vastly inflated prices by a proprietor whose mannerisms made Basil Fawlty look like a diplomacy graduate from the local school of charm.
Stats of the day:
- Total distance: 26.2 miles
- Total ascent: 563 feet
Day 5 – Stage 16 – Carcassone to Bagneres de Luchon
We breakfasted then steered the boat over the Aspin once more to the Arreau Municipal, happy in the knowledge that the tent was already pitched and ready for habitation. An opportunity for name-dropping definitely arises here as, the parents of Laurens ten Dam, the eventual 9th placed Tour finisher, were roughing it in the adjacent tent. Anyway, a quick bike clean-and-prep would now see us off towards the Col de Peyresourde and our next little challenge.
The Tour was en route from Carcassone to Bagneres de Luchon today, the penultimate difficulty being the Hors Category Port de Bales at 1755 metres. The plan was to ride the west side of the Peyresourde and then up the Bales in an opposing northerly direction hopefully arriving at the summit well before the publicity caravan was due at 3:00pm.
Halfway up the Bales, the good old gendarmes started to enforce their sublime power, making cyclist dismount and walk even though the caravan was at least two hours away. At each bend, out of site of Les Bleus, we would remount and venture on to the next checkpoint. This cycle of events (no pun) continued until we reached the village of Cabous at 1240 metres where we decided to turn back, descend and watch the stage finish in Bagneres.
After downing a whole kilogram of paella and a couple of cans of full-fat coke, we waited in the baking roadside heat to watch the riders flash by at a remarkable rate of knots. This left one great opportunity for our return journey to Arreau – a “double-bagger” of the Peyresourde – a conquest from each side in a single day! This was an incredible challenge for us two days after completing the Etape but we made it back to Arreau well before dark to enjoy our ration of protein and wet hops on the pavement outside the originally named Hotel de France.
Stats of the day:
- Stage winner: Michael Rodgers
- Total distance: 50.3 miles
- Total ascent: 10,094 feet
Day 6- Stage 17 – Saint Gaudens to Pla d’Adet
Having had the opportunity to wash our kit for the first time, we set off smelling relatively sweet to bag the final two climbs of today’s stage ahead of the arrival of the pros. The Tour was on it’s way from Saint Gaudens taking in the Col du Portillion and the Peyresourde before chasing down two old blokes from Stoke-on-Trent over the Col de Val Louren Azet and up the final Hors Category wall to the ski resort of Pla d’Adet.
The eastern ascent of the Val Louren Azet is a challenging category 1 climb which comes a close second to my favourite Pyreneen climb of the Aspin from Arreau. Behold the breathtaking views towards the Peyresourde and down to the clear blue Lac de Genos-Loudenvielle. Superlatives abound as we continue over to the western descent with the brutal climb to Pla d’Adet clearly in view as a backdrop to the tourist town of Saint Lary Soulan – cue head-hunting from the French Tourist Board.
Despite all my experience in the Pyrenees, this was to be my first ever ascent of Pla d’Adet. I’d watched the drug-fuelled stage victories of Armstong and Hincapie in 2001 and 2005 and imagined myself gliding up the early 10% gradients with the same consummate ease – then I woke up! We had nothing like the previous day’s intervention from Les Bleus, leaving me free to struggle to within 300 metres of the finish line in the lowest available gear, stopping only once at the village of Soulan to replenish my bottles from a huge IBC containing cool fresh mountain water.
Phil’s arrival, sometime later, was never in doubt. We took a few photos and then descended to a makeshift bar for a simple but tasty barbecued saucisson-dog and, of course, the obligatory ice-cold beer in a plastic cup. Another short descent brought us to a comfortable spot where we could collect even more tat ejected from the windows of the publicity caravan. Phil was in his element as he has always prided himself in owning Europe’s largest collection of white Skoda bush hats.
The race passed us by through the eye of a video camera and we were left with the comforting prospect of a downhill amble through the valley to Arreau.
We took our place on the pavement outside the Hotel de France for our daily allowance of wet hops. What is it about the continentals? No food ’til eight? Thankfully, the Pizzeria across the square opened it’s doors at seven so we took the opportunity to refuel Italian style. Free entertainment was laid on in the square in the form of a proliferation of camper van pilots, with a great sense of humour, trying to work out why the cyclists were relaxing in the local bars whilst they were grid locked and unlikely to get back to base until the early hours. By this time the wireless kudos was flowing in freely courtesy of Strava and our efforts were summed up by a single gaudy comment from my Californian friend, Geoff – “u r on a ripper mr tilstone”.
Stats of the day:
- Stage winner: Rafal Majka – eventual polka dot jersey winner
- Total distance: 43.2 miles
- Total ascent: 9,119 feet
Day 7 – Stage 18 – Pau to Hautacam (the pros show us the way)
OK, day three was never going to be easy but we were not, I repeat not, going to divert from the plan. Phil was tired but I know from experience, he’s virtually indestructible. When he stops moving, it’s time to call the undertaker!
We were now going to witness how the pros would tackle the Etape du Tour – Pau to Hautacam in much more favourable conditions than five days previous. The plan? A “double- bagger” of my favourite Col d’Aspin interspersed with another easterly ascent of the Tourmalet from St Marie de Campan. Our target was the ski resort of La Mongie, 2½ miles from the summit where we would refuel and watch the suffering of others.
Les Bleus started exerting their authority again about two miles from La Mongie but we managed to avoid their unwelcome interference until the 5k-to-go banner. At an altitude of 1655 metres, we had an hour’s rest on a precipitous grass verge before the publicity caravan arrived. Phil then met his match – a young Dutch fanatic, hell bent on expanding his own collection of white Skoda bush hats! Unperturbed, Phil played his trump card – donning a polka dot IQ-reducer from his extensive collection.
Again, the race passed us by through the eye of a video camera with Vincenzo Nibali biding his time in the chasing GC group, patiently waiting for his time to attack and neutralise his opponents on the slopes of the Hautacam.
We “doubled-bagged” the Aspin as though it didn’t exist – it’s amazing what you can do on a bike when you know that you are on your final exertion of an extended set. I was sad to see the last of my favourite Pyreneen col (until at least next year) but we enjoyed our descent to Arreau, got cleaned up and went for our final protein ration of the week in the Auberge de L’Arbizon.
Stats of the day:
- Stage winner: Vincenzo Nibali – eventual yellow jersey winner
- Total distance: 47.9 miles
- Total ascent: 10,097 feet
Day 8 – A damp return
What is it about camping and bad weather? Three glorious days of sunshine then packing up in yet another torrential downpour!! We did, however, discover why we had been constantly tripping up on the ground sheet over the last few days – the pesky rodent population had also set up camp on pitch number 80!!
We threw the sodden tent into the back of the boat and commenced our 17-hour return journey. The boat was in it’s element as we splashed our way through Bordeaux, Poitiers, Tours and Le Mans, reaching the harbour of a balmy Stoke-on-Trent by 4am BST.
Stats of the day:
- Rainfall: 5.324 inches
- Total distance: 935 miles
- Total ascent: who cares?