last event of the year for Dianne and myself and the first ever for Chris
Stephens. Who'd been preparing hard through the summer with a
combination of trepidation and anxious excitement! Not sure it was
the best event to try as your first ever, but he'll never have to worry
about doing one as hard as this in the future! It was long, hot,
uphill day but one that will stay with him for a long time.
Another roll of the dice
As seems the norm this year, signing on was at the local
casino. With our hotel not a 100 meters from the start/finish and
sign-on area, it was a short stroll in the final heat of the day to pick
up our numbers.
Along with our frame number, dossard and timing chip, came
a kit bag, a t-shirt a few bottles of local water, an energy bar and a
drink mix. Not bad for starters. A quick visit to the laptop
and puce tester is always in order, just to make sure that the chip you
have is actually registered to you. Dianne was a little miffed when
she passed her chip over the pad as a loud chirp came from the machine as
it displayed her name, number, category and finally her age! Still,
it got a laugh!!
Off for a coffee and pre-event briefing with Chris, his
wife Amanda and baby Siena, we made our preparations for the following
Fuel the engine
To be honest the breakfast at the hotel the morning before
wasn't up to cyclist's standards. So I paid a visit to the
supermarche the previous evening and picked up some fantastic ham and
cheese. I eat a roll for breakfast, along with the usual fare, and
made one for the road.
I also took the opportunity to prepare three bottles.
Two for the bike and one for the back pocket. It was going to be a
long hot day (although at this point we didn't know how long) and I'd
previously been caught out through having to ration my drink in hot
events. Today I was going to be prepared. The irony of such a
decision would form on me later.
Trois, deux, un...
It was an 8:00 am start for us big ride riders. At 7:50 I
arrived at the line which was already stretching ahead of us. Chris
arrived a few minutes later and we sat at the back while I explained the
sequence of events that were about to unfold. Fully briefed, the
clock ticked away, the Gendarmes and commissaire's screamed ahead and we
all rode over the track mats to blast through the centre of the town.
As with Richard in events earlier in the year, I explained
the need to get to the front of the pack as soon as possible. Chris
was on my wheel as we headed through the town and I had every intention of
pacing him near to the front for when we left town, but things (as always)
never go to plan.
And here's why. Four kilometres in and we're maxed
out at 54 kph and averaging nearly 48 kph since the off.
Unfortunately, Chris took a drink at this point and as he looked down to
put the bottle back in its cage he lost the wheel in front and never
regained it! A harsh lesson learned.
Riding along side me, ten back from the front, was an
older, tiny, rider with not an ounce of body fat on him. He was
gliding and he just oozed class but something about him wasn't right.
I couldn't suss it but something was "missing". There was obviously
something about him, because he had number 1 on his back. Anyway at
this speed I didn't have time to faff about thinking of him; I had a
position to fight for.
We rode 5 kilometres out of town on the dual carriageway along
the Valley d'Oueil. Then a quick u-turn saw us head back to town on
a smaller inner road. Just before we reached the town outskirts,
after covering just 10 kilometres, we took a right and headed up the 21
kilometre Port De Bales.
This is where the real race started. Monsieur Petite
screamed up the outside before anyone actually realised we were on the
climb. Then it hit me; as I glanced across I could see he had no
bottles on his bike. No only did he have no bottles, he had no
bottle cages! It's already around 17 degrees and with 145k and five
cols to go it's going to be a dry day for someone. So, how come I've
got three bottles and he's got none? How does that work?
Of course the speed picked up and groups began to form.
I was going to wait for Chris at the top anyway so I thought I'd press on
and see how I would perform. The Bales climbs to 1755 meters, with a
total climb of 1131 metres. It averages 5.6% and has a 10.4% hump
around 5k in.
managed to stay in touch with the lead group until the hump! I
started to go over threshold and backed off to sit in the second group.
We all climbed at a nice pace and rode well as a unit. I was
constantly drinking from the bottle in my back pocket, saving the stuff on
the bike for later.
At Caubous we picked up some "droppers" from the lead group
and I finished my spare bottle and dropped it next to a eurobin.
This is where Chris got his second lesson of the day.
As the road flattened out he went to the front of his group
and began to push. Two older, wiser vets, in a good-natured way,
explained the folly of his ways and reigned him in. He was glad for
the advice and the company.
As we approached the summit I began to push on and left
"my" group. For the final kilometre I put it in the big ring and
grimped to the top. Work done, I pulled over and waited for Chris to
When he did, he looked fresh and in control. He's
paced himself well. I stuffed a gel in his hand and advised him to
get his gilet on. Now we descend!
The descents, how I live for the descents. This one rates
right up there with the best of them. It's soooooo technical it's
probably the only descent I've done where I've ever actually thought I was
going to take a tumble. I didn't but I thought at one point I might.
Within 500 metres of the top I encountered a cow heading
towards the road. No problem, I'll be there before it is. I
was, Chris wasn't! Somehow he managed to avoid it. The same
couldn't be said of the cow pats. They presented their own
The road to the summit was brand, spanking new and billiard
table smooth. The descent side was like the moon on a bad day.
There were craters, gravel and rocks everywhere. This was nearly my
undoing as I cornered at over 70 kph only for the back wheel to skip as I
hit a crater on the exit. Normally it's not a problem My bike
moves around underneath me a lot when I descend so it wasn't an issue.
What quickly became an issue was the corner now rapidly
approaching, while my wheels were off the ground. I decided to not
attempt the corner until I'd slowed down enough to turn in. I kept
straight, braked hard, held my nerve (just) and turned literally with the
front wheel on the edge of the grass and a drop that wouldn't have had a
happy ending. How exciting was that! Job done, adrenaline rush
over, it's crack on and start picking riders off.
Then, out of nowhere was a bloke with a red flag, standing
about 10 metres in front of a cattle grid! Before I had time to
register the best way of dealing with it, I was over it and away. I
survived the 18k, 6.3% descent in one piece and waited for Chris to join
Two for one
next two climbs, the Col des Ares and Col de Buret passed in quick
(comparatively) succession. Each was around 8k in length and took us
past the foot of the Col de Portet d'Aspet where
Fabio Casartelli was to sadly lose his life. That will be a climb
for another day. Today we had to climb the Col de Mente.
It's now the hottest part of the day and the water is long
gone. Obviously we've filled our bottles at the feed stations but
we're drinking it quicker than we have the capacity to replace it and
Chris is beginning to feel pressure on his back. He's never spent
this long in the saddle or this heat. We need a survival plan.
A few minutes later a small support van turns up with two
big women in it. They instruct us to pull over and we find the only
shade on the mountain, next to a road sign! The unlikely angels get
out of the van and give us some water. I take a bottle because you
never drink your own if there's other to be had.
We take in the magnificent sight below us; the Mente is a
stunningly picturesque climb. It's so quiet it's surreal.
There are birds of prey circling on the thermals and the air is thin but
aromatic with the local fauna. It's the first time I've ever stopped
on a climb so it was an opportunity I've never had the benefit of taking
in when competing. Then, standing right next to us, our
mademoiselles light up! Only in France!
Onward and upward
Our brief respite over, we begin the climb to the top and the
feed. Chris takes on more food and drink. I fill a bottle as I
always carry my own food for the day but some of the stuff looks too tasty
to miss. So I grab some, then go for a comfort break. Before
the big descent to Spain.
A fantastic, technical, twisty top and standard, open
middle to base, descent followed on good, smooth, consistent roads.
At the bottom I took the left turn for the Col du Portillon and waited for
Chris. I phoned the girls to let them know we were on our way.
The 20k run in to Spain was noticeable for its relentless
heat, head wind and "grippy" tarmac. The objective now was to ride
tempo but conserve as much energy as we could to hit the final 8 kilometre
climb with a flourish.
I'd driven the climb the day before with Dianne so she
could see what she was letting herself in for. Her 60k ride left
Luchon in a big loop to go in to Spain and ride the final climb of the big
ride. She's already finished, showered, eaten and found Chris' wife.
Dianne finished in a fantastic 169th and 10th lady. There were at
least 30 riders behind her.
first 500 metres of the final climb are a monster. The whole climb
averages 7% but the first section, especially after the day we'd had,
seemed double that! We knocked out a rhythm we thought we could
maintain to the top. Apart from the climb actually getting steeper
as it neared the summit it seemed a good idea. The heat is
I managed to break a cleat at the feed and was pedalling
with only one shoe locked on to the bike. It's not until you ride
without one that you realise how integral to successful climbing cleats
Forty six minutes after we started the climb we
began the final descent of the day and the run in to home. If you
think cleats are important for climbing wait until you try to descend
without them. It was interesting to say the least. At one
point I was taking a car coming out of a corner, pushing 720 watts, and 68
kph, when my foot ripped out of the pedal! Not a pleasant
experience, as I dragged by foot on the ground, ripped my new shoe covers
and scuffed my Carnac's.
Foot back in, regain composure and completed the 12 minute
descent to Luchon. I cruised at the bottom of the climb and waited a
minute or so for Chris to join me. he's a confident skier but
doesn't get the chance to descend mountains very often. It's better
to be safe than sorry.
We cross the line together after eight hours and eighteen
minutes to bring an emotional day to a close. Chris' story, and why
he put himself through the agonies of an 8 hour ride can be read here.
As for Dianne and myself, you'll be hearing more from us next year.
Our bottle-less friend finished 20th overall, and won his
category by an obscene margin. His name Michel Sacaze. Google
him and you'll find he finished 11th in last years Etape, the one that
finished at Alpe D'huez.
Season over. Until next time...