Overall Distance 165 kilometres Time Taken 7:02
Height Climbed 3,267 metres Overall Position 319th
Distance Climbed 70 kilometres Category Position Gold 106th
Date June 2004 Country France
Entrants 4,800 Region Pyrenees

With the Quebrantahuesos and L'Areigeoise taking place on consecutive weekends, we decided to stay in the Pyrenees and I thought I’d take the opportunity to practice on some big hills.  So on Tuesday I rode the Tourmalet. from the Tour de France side, through La Mongie and on Thursday had a whirl up the Plateau de Beille. 

Follow that Camel
We arrived in Tarascon to blazing heat.  Although the L’Ariegoise is shorter and steeper than the Basque race, it's also hotter.  From the stifling Spanish 38 degrees, we're now suffering a 40 degree furnace-like, desert heat and not a breath of wind.  It' so hot your nose hurts when you take a deep breath!  So I don't.

Almost 5000 of us are lined up for the start in the middle of a quaint French village on the banks where the rivers Vicdessos and Ariege meet.  It's 7:30 am, warm and the disco is blasting out with Europop and the host is going berserk on the microphone trying to whip everyone in to a frenzy.  "Are you readddyyyy..."  How the locals love us!  Can't imagine it happening back home.  I just know someone, somewhere would be organising a petition.

Gently does it!
Unlike the charge that heralded the Italian and Spanish races, this one seems more leisurely.  No one seems to be in too great a rush and I find myself moving up through the rambling pack.  It's the first event where I've not needed leg or arm warmers and it feels good. 

Almost straight away we're climbing the second category Col de Port, an 18 kilometre and 1250 metre warm-up.  We're an hour in, I'm at the top of the first climb and already I’ve downed a bottle and a half  (750 ml bottles!) of energy drink.  Never leave a feed station with empty bottles I say and if ever that was to prove true it would be today.  I fill my bottles and move on to the descent.  For once I can descend and be warm.  This race is getting better. 


On the flat bit to the next mountain there's another feed station, we pass the "1K to feed" banner.  I decide to leave the stop this time and crack on.  But first I take a drink from my bottle.  There must be a hole in it, my bottle’s empty!  Good job I looked; another lesson learned.  Stop, fill the bottles, move on.  A one-minute pit stop.

Don't drink the water
Now we're onto the Col d'Agnes.  The climb that saw Tyler pack in the Tour and the strange Euskatel "will he ~ wont he" episode.  It's a killer and it's hot.  Before I realise I've run out of drink again.  Half way up there is a farmer's family taking water from a mountain stream and filling riders bottles with it.  I know I shouldn't, but I do.  I fill a bottle, it probably saves my day.

The descent of the d'Agnes is noticeable for the heat, the speed, the heat, the melting tarmac and the heat.  It's not until we get to a feed station, and another two bottles, that we realise how hot it is.  The gauge at the side of the road is reading 44 degrees.  It feels hotter.  I spray water on my shoes, drink as much as I can and even though the last thing I feel like is food, I eat.  As I leave I see the salt crusted face of other riders coming in.  They probably didn't take any water from the farmer and his mountain steam.  How good an idea was that?

The heat doesn't seem to diminish anyone's appetite for speed and a race for the foot of the Col de la Crouzette takes place.  I find myself climbing really well and no one overtakes me.  I'm moving okay, feeling okay and am beginning to get a bit of a racers tan!  Happy days.  Then a warning sign appears.  Three kilometres at 12%; gulp.  I've not used it yet but I think the inside of my triple is about to get a hammering.

Watch the pedestrians
I've never seen so many people zig-zagging, walking, and just sitting at the roadside exhausted.  This is a killer but I'm determined not to stop.  At what seems like a slow motion walking pace I'm probably one of about ten people I can see riding, all the rest are walking or sitting.  I keep going, staying seated all of the time and in about 20 minutes I'm through the worst.  Then the sign for “1K to the summit”.  Thank God.

God, however, must have been somewhere else.  The 1K sign is a cruel joke that tells you where the summit of the Crouzette is; the Col de Portel, which we need to cross, is a right turn and another 3.6K uphill.  I ignore the French laughs and settle back in to my rhythm.  There's a big car park at the top where people are handing out drinks.  I fill the bottles again and crack on.ariegoise ~ col de agnes

There's a fantastic 30k descent back into Tarascon where we started but don't finish.  The tar is still melting and so are my feet.  The heat from the road is unbearable and the heat hazes play tricks with your vision.  Any shelter you can find in the tree line is gratefully received.  However, the road to Tarascon is wide, flat and featureless.  We ride past the foot of the Platau de Beille.  This event normally finishes there but it's not being used this year due to resurfacing taking place for the Tour de France. So it's on to Tarascon.

We dive, in, through around and out of Tarascon village leaving by the biggest hill they can find.  We now head across a police marshalled roundabout to Auzat, but I've got no water.  I know where we are because I drove this bit the day before.  It's a doddle,  I stop at a house with a family sitting in the garden and ask if they can fill my bottle.  The little boy comes back and asks for my other, empty, bottle.  I say "nah", it's okay, not far now.

Almost there
Fifteen kilometres uphill at only two percent  So why does it feel like the Galibier?  Within a kilometre my bottle's empty.  It's the hottest part of the day and I've drunk everything.  Fourteen kilometres to go and already there are people sitting at the side of the road, people leaning over their bikes and others squeezed under trees for shelter.  Every other house on the route is spraying people with hosepipes and running out with wet towels.  I get one drenching and revel in the relief from the heat but my feet are on fire.  The next hose I get directed at my feet.  How can something so simple feel so good.

My mind begins to wander and I find myself thinking more about those at the roadside than what I'm supposed to be doing.  I take a deep breath,  burn my nose, change up and decide I'm going to ride at 100 rpm to the top no matter what.  I've been winter training for two years at 100 rpm.  Now's the time to use it.  I start to pick off riders one by one.  Then it's groups and all of a sudden I realise I've taken a hundred or so riders in the last two kilometres or so.  Most of them are from the other shorter rides but they all look knackered.  It's 10k to the top.  About thirty minutes.

I ignore the pain, the raging thirst and the heat and just pump out the revs.  I begin to feel strong and people encourage me as I go past.  Even other riders!  The odd hose is nothing more than a distraction.  All I want is to get to the top, to the finish, some water and some shade.  I'm overtaking riders like Kevin Costner in American Flyers.

Two K to go.  The revs begin to drop.  There's a little shade from the trees but it's short lived.  The sun is directly overhead and it's getting hotter.  The helmet has been over the front of the bars since the bottom of the Portel.  Although some people are still riding with theirs on!  I try to get the revs up but settle for 90 rpm.  I don't remember anything from the two K sign to the finish.  But I think I saw Kylie cheering me on.

Water! Water!
I get to the finish, cross the line and collapse into a seat.  Dianne fills a bottle for me and I know I shouldn't but I drink it in one go.  She gets another and that goes the same way.  It's not until the third that I stop. 

After what seems like half an hour I come to and decide I can make it to the car.  The shells of riders and their bikes lie everywhere.  No piece of shade is left unclaimed and everyone else is sitting in the stream.  Where my post-race water came from evidently.  I'm too tired to care. 

Since the event started I’ve drunk 27 pints of water!!  I took on three, pints at each of the six feed stations, I had, one from the farmer and one from the house, started with three and drunk three more after I finished.  It really was that hot.

I freshen up, change and head for the post-race free meal and drink.  I sit, drink the water, force the pasta down but don't have enough energy to chew the bread ~ shades of the Telegraph 2003.  After another half hour of silence I head for the results tent.  I look everywhere for my name and can't find it.  Then I realise it's in time order, depending on age.  There I am on the second sheet.  106th place and half an hour inside the gold standard time.  Maybe it was worthwhile after all.

Never too old
I perk up for a little bit, but need to get back to the hotel in Foix.  Tonight I'll eat like a horse and sleep like a log.  I'm hot, tired, tanned but very, very happy.  That night the TV station runs a programme on the event and they interview the event's oldest rider and finisher.  He's 85.  he may have only ridden the 50k course but he was out there.  I could be riding these things of another 40 years!  I wonder how many gears will we have by then and will they make climbing any easier?

Dianne road the last 20 kilometres of the course in the morning,  She parked at the finish in Auzat, rode to Tarascon and climbed the hill to cheers from the crowd.  She tried telling them she wasn't in the race but it didn't seem to matter.  A big improvement over the previous weeks effort.

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