Riding L’Etape du Tour: Man vs Nature

© Tim Burt

How long can you sit atop a mountain before you start to miss the climb? Not long. Five minutes maximum I reckon, give or take.

That was about as much time as I could stop for at the top of the Col du Tourmalet, 2115 metres up and 94-odd kilometres into the 2014 Étape du Tour, although maybe that had something to do with the wind and the rain.

The Étape, for the uninitiated, is a sportive organised to allow cycling amateurs a chance to ride a stage of the Tour de France on closed road and, as we discovered, to undergo some serious punishment.

Weather-wise the day had started  pleasantly enough with the sun peeking out behind broken clouds as near on 10,000 cyclists gathered in the French city of Pau ready for the  challenge ahead. A challenge it was with 148km to cover and 4568m to cycle up over two category three and two hors catégorie (HC or in other words, bloody hard) climbs. The pros would ride the same course a few days later on Stage 18 of the Tour, where eventual yellow jersey winner Vincenzo Nibali would swipe the competition aside in a dominant display.

The pleasant morning weather had myself and many others thinking that the warnings Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), the organisers of the Étape, had sent out the day before telling entrants to expect wind, rain and cold temperatures and to bring with them warm clothes, rainwear and long gloves as perhaps a bit misplaced.

More fool anyone who ignored the warnings: the rain started as I reached the foot of the much-feared Tourmalet, the first of the HC climbs and didn’t stop at any point on the way up. But while the rain wasn’t particularly pleasant when you are climbing for 17.1 kilometres at an average gradient of 7.3%, it was the flood of cold to the sodden extremities at the summit which was particularly horrendous.

I stopped to take a couple of pictures at the top of the Tourmalet and almost immediately regretted the decision. Some say temperatures fell to 5 degrees at the top; all I can say is that caked in sweat and rain it felt much colder than that.

Hot air rises?

I decided the best course of action was to jump back on the bike and get to a lower altitude as quickly as possible where; hopefully, the temperature would rise to something akin to France, in July, in the Pyrenees. Luckily(?) I had packed my arm warmers and long-fingered inner gloves in the morning and they had stayed relatively dry in my back pocket during the climb, so I put those on and started on the descent. Many people didn’t have anything else and were just in a short sleeve jersey.

The descent was worse than anything I have ever experienced on a bike. The rain was still falling making the roads pretty dangerous and meant having to constantly having to ride the brakes. Then there was the windchill which refused to ease up and, due to the lack of pedalling while going downhill, meant not being able to generate any kind of heat to at least try and warm up.

Bodies littered the road, most people too cold to carry on many being helped by medical staff. The others still going sounded like a whole load of those wind-up teeth toys had just been set off. I pedalled backwards as much as I could to try and keep my legs going, but I have never known a pain like the one I felt in my arms and shoulders from riding the brakes. Agony.

Hitting the bottom of the descent though was glorious. It wasn’t raining, the temperature had risen and blood had started to recirculate to my feet and hands. But best of all there was a tunnel of spectators, like you see on the Tour, cheering us all on, which raised my morale no end. The realisation soon struck though that far from being at the end we still had the second HC climb of the Hautacam still to go to reach the finish…

The Hautacam is slightly shorter than the Tourmalet, a mere 13.6 kilometres long, but the gradient is steeper, averaging 7.8% and with some much steeper ramps in there. The horrors of the Tourmalet soon came flooding back. As the road went up, the rain came down and the temperature plummeted again. But this time the end was in sight. People looked broken. I felt broken.

Crossing the line felt great, but rather than stopping for too long, admiring the view and patting myself on the back it was a case of grabbing a coke and a bit of cake from a food station at the top, wolfing them down and heading straight back down to warmer temperatures, warmer clothes, warmer food and a celebratory beer. Rolling down was just as hard but I’d done it, which helped numb the pain of riding the brakes once again.

Same again next year? Definitely, although Parix-Roubaix first where I’m sure the weather will be nothing short of glorious. Gulp.

Bike and kit  

Bike – Planet X Pro Carbon

Tyres – Continental Gatorskin (23mm)

Gearing – 50/34 (front) 11/28 (rear)

Jersey – Rapha Super Lightweight

Gilet – Madison Genesis Pro Team issue

Jacket – Castelli Squadra

Bib shorts – Café du Cyclist Josephine

Helmet – Kask Mojito

Sunglasses – Oakley Racing Jacket

Food and drink – Cliff bars (x3), High 5 4:1 drink (one bottle), High 5 Zero electrolyte and magnesium drink (one bottle), Water (one bottle – refil) Zipvit banana energy gel (x1)

Étape stats and result

Distance – 148km

Climbing – 4568 metres

Finish time – 7hrs 10mins 10 sec

Overall standing – 2644/8453 (9876 riders started)

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