On July 1, Tom Borschel and I arrived at the Hotel Ibis in downtown Pau, France, the gateway to the Pyrenees. The hotel was the 2008 headquarters for Cyclomundo, the tour company Tom and I had hooked up with for the Tour de France Etape.
Etape is a one-day race for anyone who does not have an active pro license. It’s put on by ASO, the same company that runs the Tour de France. The race is on the same route as a full tour stage and is usually either in the Alps or the Pyrenees. This year, it was from Pau to Hautacam, through the Pyrenees. Tour de France announcements described it as one of the “shorter” stages, at only 169 kilometers (105 miles) with about 3,200 meters (10,400 feet) of categorized climbing.
ASO runs their Etape just like a tour stage: All the roads are closed to non-race traffic, thousands of gendarmes and volunteers keep intersections clear and warn the riders of traffic islands, roundabouts, etc., motorcycles with mechanics go up and down the roads, medical vehicles are always nearby. The downside here is that, just like the Tour, there’s a time limit. The catch is that it’s not just at the end. There’s a time cut-off in every town. If you don’t make the cut-off, even if it’s only 10 kilometers into the race, you’re done. You get a bus ride to the finish. There is no appeal; your race is over, see you next time. This year, 8,500 started and 6,100 finished. Some of the harder Etapes have had more than one-third who didn’t finish.
Non-French riders must get an Etape entry through a tour company licensed by ASO. This may sound like a trick to get you to pay more. But our experience with Cyclomundo convinced us this is the only way to go. They arrange the hotel, transfers, etc. What we paid them was worth every penny in reduced stress.
In the months leading up to the Etape, we had researched the weather for past years when Pau was a stage start. This convinced us the main weather problem was going to be heat and humidity (the last time a stage started here, it was 105 degrees by midday). We figured this might be a bonus due to the airline baggage weight limits: we wouldn’t have to take all those warm biking clothes.
So, naturally, at 6 a.m. on July 6, the day of the Etape, when we got on our bikes for the 15-minute ride to the start, it was mid-40s and raining. Odds were, it was a bit colder 6,000 feet higher at the top of the first hors category climb. By this time, though, there was nothing to be done—take the clothes you brought and believe all those training hours would pull you through. Stressing over things you can’t do anything about doesn’t do any good.
The start was in the parking lot of the Pau Hippodrome (horse-race track to us Americans). Each staging area was fenced off by assigned numbers (1-500, 501-1000, etc.). We were in the 2300s, which was a lot better than we could have been, since there were 8,500 entrants (Etape always fills, with many on the waiting list). We were told to be there no later than 6:15 for a 7 a.m. start. I was worried about bathroom needs during those 45 minutes, but there was nothing to worry about. Turns out that standing uncovered in the open before the sun comes up while getting rained on when it’s 45 degrees out, and being dressed for a hot, humid ride, are great distractions.
But, surprisingly, the time went fast. Even more surprisingly, at exactly 7 a.m., the gun went off. And nothing happened. At least in our “pen”. But, after a moment, I saw people heading out toward the huge Tour de France arch, which also was the location of the timing pad we had to cross to get our official start time. Our turn came and we rolled out. No one panicked or did anything stupid, so being packed in with 500+ other riders seemed like something that happened every day. In 6 minutes and 30 seconds, I crossed the pad and had to make a 180-degree turn onto the small boulevard that led out of the hippodrome grounds. Our speed crept up. Until, after maybe one-quarter of a mile, we left the hippodrome grounds and turned onto a real highway. It was a strange sensation, having a four-lane main road all to myself. That distraction didn’t last long though. Pacelines were forming and quickly picking up speed. I was struggling with trying to see through my biking glasses, which were steadily pattered with rain and road spray. At first I tried to clean them with a finger; then I pushed them down on my nose to look over them; finally, I just took them off and put them away. I wasn’t to put them back on until the descent of the Col du Tourmalet 120 kilometers later.
At this stage, I was wet and kind of cool but not terribly uncomfortable. Pacelines were passing us and we were passing others. Like any riding over a distance, you suddenly realize how things change. It stops raining, then starts again; the road surface goes from shiny asphalt to dull concrete to cobblestones; the road goes from four-lane to a wide two-lane. A town grows out of the fog in the distance. Crazily, the road narrows for the town. A sharp, pointed steeple with a cross at the top, the town center. Red tile roofs, stone walls just at the edge of the road, the stone walls give way to building walls. The walls hugging the very edge of the tarmac. Then a traffic island at an intersection, a car is parked to the left, cutting off two-thirds of the opening around the island. Somebody yells “A Droit! A Droit!” (Right! Right!) and the pack bunches even closer. Everyone puts their hands on the hoods to keep brake handles from hooking on anything; elbows out to be sure they’re the first thing someone touches when they get close. I sure hope no one opens a window shutter; that would be bad. No road through these towns is flat or straight. We snake along, keeping our lines, closing any gap. Hesitate a second and someone else has the gap and you’re suddenly back 20 feet from where you were. Then, like a mirage disappearing, the town falls behind and the road opens. Riders accelerate and some shouldering settles the paceline order. Rotation starts again, and we all eat and drink as quickly as we can.
It was like this for the first 30 miles. And then we reached the first categorized climb, called Labatmale, and any semblance of organization went to hell.
When we climb Sunnyside Road as a group, we naturally spread out as each person climbs more or less at their pace. Not here. Everyone knew that to be alone is to be lost, so if anybody passed you or if someone started to ride away from you, and you were not already cross-eyed with effort, you dug in and forced another few watts out of your legs. This climb was only about 3 km (little less than 2 miles) at 6%. But going up it at your max made it feel like it was 30 km long. You know what really helped? This was the first time there were big crowds. These folks knew their cycling and knew what a struggle it was, how everyone, whether they were fading back or charging up the climb, was going as hard as they could. The spectators, too, were out there in the rain, with their shiny slickers and goofy rain hats and umbrellas. Best of all was their encouragement. They didn’t care if the first group went by an hour ago. They weren’t just going through the motions for some nameless pack-fodder they’d never see again. They looked each rider in the eye and clapped and yelled just for you. And when you give them a pained grin, by God, they smile back and get even more excited. Talk about being propelled by emotion!
Like some especially gruesome climbs, this one didn’t really have a downhill on the other side. After the top, we spent a while on small rollers, trying to recover on the short downhills and then hunching over, deathgrip on the bars, to charge up the next climb.
After this first climb, we were to go through Lourdes (location of the Catholic shrine). I never saw the town. There was a feed station here, though, at 70 kilometers, just the other side of Lourdes. Unfortunately, I felt too good for my own good and made the mistake of getting only water. I had been eating ok but later problems might not have been so bad if I had taken 60 seconds and stuffed some more food down. Other Cyclomundo clients who had done other Etapes had stories about food stops that made them sound like food drops into a hunger zone. But these weren’t like that at all. It was crowded, but there were lots of easily accessible food and drinks and lots of volunteers to help. Maybe the “tall dogs” an hour ahead of me had it tougher.
One thing about this—there was usually someone to ride with. When I took off from this stop, I immediately joined a group and we pacelined like old riding buddies. This lasted something like a whole 10 kilometers, until the next climb. This climb was Loucrup, third category, and was a little shorter than Labatmale but a little steeper. Didn’t matter. Same situation: go as hard as you can and try to stay with the group. The downhill after Loucrup was at 80.4 kilometers. It was the last downhill until the summit of the Tourmalet at 119.8 kilometers. Hell, in fact, there wasn’t a flat road until way after the summit. Following the short Loucrup descent, things slowly got steeper for almost 40 kilometers (25 miles).
My goal for the section to Loucrup was to average 20 mph. I think I did that. My goal for this 25-mile stretch, which included the Tourmalet climb, was 3 hours, or a little more than 8 mph. I don’t think I made it.
I’m not sure what to say about the Tourmalet climb, because I don’t remember too much. It was wet. The roads were pretty good—smooth and clean, mostly. One thing I do remember is that, while the average grade is supposed to be about 7.5%, I’m sure some parts around hairpin turns were 15% or more. I couldn’t turn my 34-27 without standing up. The wet, slick roads didn’t help, either. Fortunately, those pitches weren’t too long.
One thing about the “big” climbs is that they all have signs that tell you how far you’ve gone, how much farther you have to go, how many more meters you have to climb, and, best of all (NOT!), the average percent grade of the next kilometer. Even here, an 8% sign can mean 500 meters of 4% and 500 meters of 12%. So I learned quickly not to kid myself. The signs just meant that, generally, 6% was easier than 8%, which was easier than 10%. The changes in gradient up Teton Pass are laser-level compared to the changes on these climbs.
Another thing was how the emotion of the group changed once we hit the real climbing part. The accelerations stopped, the tense hunched-over positions morphed into sitting up straighter and clearly more relaxed appearance. That doesn’t mean we weren’t working hard; we just realized we shouldn’t waste any energy on tension. Rhythms developed, based on breathing or cadence or R&B beats. Whatever it was, it wasn’t fast.
I seemed to remember there was supposed to be a feed zone on the way up. Someone said it was only a few kilometers from the top. In some ways, it seemed like a long time, but in other ways it was like I slept through it. But, suddenly, out of the rainy mist, a gulag-like fortress appeared. This was the high-end French ski area called LaMongie. It was a pack of concrete buildings hiding the tram and ski lift towers. Between the buildings and the road were what seemed like acres of tables and tents. Dozens of food offerings, all kinds of sports drinks. And not one porta-potty. As I stood at a table and ate and filled my water bottles, I realized I badly needed to get rid of some liquid, and I wasn’t sure I had time to get on my bike and ride a ways to somewhere secluded. As I was pondering my predicament, I happened to be facing the medical tent (big red cross; I guess that’s what it was). Just on the other side of the tent was a big bulldozer. It must have been an inviting target because a couple of guys walked up to it and began to water its treads. The people going in and out of the medical tent paid them absolutely no mind. So, hey, if they can do it, so can I. Any second, while I was making my contribution, I expected to feel the long arm of a gendarme on my shoulder. But I guess, When in France….
The last few kilometers were the steepest of this climb. But with the break and fresh food and water, it wasn’t so bad. Many videos have shown Tour de France riders coming up to the top (the tour de France has gone over the Tourmalet more than any other climb). This summit has a wall on one side and atop the wall is a huge statue of a guy on a bike. He’s looking up like he can see how far he still has to climb. And, like I would, he seems to be moaning in anguish. I guess that’s supposed to be inspiring. The other, uh, interesting things about this statue are that he’s naked and buff and anatomically correct.
Even though I wasn’t going fast, the statue was by in a second. I know you’ll think I’m exaggerating, but the peak of this climb is about 20 feet long and then it’s a 10% switchback descent on the other side. Despite stopping a few kilometers earlier, I stopped again as the descent started, so I could drink and eat some more. I knew I wouldn’t be able to for the next 45 minutes or so.
I sure have mixed feelings about this descent. I thought I would be able to go pretty fast and at least keep up with some of the Euros (who are mostly nuts anyway). But, with the rain, I wasn’t so keen on risking much. And neither was anyone else. We simply cruised. We couldn’t see a thing because of the clouds. So we really couldn’t position ourselves to take a turn at speed, since we had no idea if it turned left or right or was 30 degrees or 180 degrees. The heat we generated up the climb kept us fairly warm here. The road surface was still good, so it was almost a pleasure. After about 10 kilometers, the steep part of the descent flattened out but was still downhill. We turned into a canyon road that reminded me of some Colorado rides: windy roads cut into almost vertical cliffs, a river meandering back and forth under the highway, bridges with spectacular views and steep drop-offs. I’m sure the Etape organizers didn’t plan it, but this portion raised everyone’s spirits. Our pacelines could maintain 25 mph without killing anyone, the snatches of scenery buoyed us all. In the back of my mind was the thought “One more climb”, and that made me feel great.
After about 30 kilometers, we ran out of downhill and I started to not feel so great. The little villages leading up to the base of Hautacam, the last climb, were just like all the others we had gone through. If there was a steep little hill anywhere around, this was where the road went. After the long descent, it was an especially tough struggle to get my legs working again. But just as we came into Ayros-Arbouix, the town where the climb started, my legs finally warmed up. The rain had stopped and we were actually starting to dry out.
Unfortunately, it was also about the time my body ran out of energy. The first couple of kilometers were ok. But then it was like someone was slowly turning down the burner on a gas stove. I could feel my energy seeping away. About a third of the way up the climb, I saw my heart rate was steadily 150-155, when it is usually 160-165. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get it any higher. Mentally, this was the longest part of the ride. I was with a group that seemed to be in the same situation. We rode steadily but we were all cooked. I could see proof of that because everyone’s bike handling went sour.
Hautacam is a dead end, like Grand Targhee. So to safely get a few thousand cyclists down the mountain while a few thousand were going up it, ASO divided the road for 10 miles to keep everyone apart. Seems like an ok idea until you remember the road is only 16 feet wide. And our 8 feet didn’t seem like much room at all at times. On one of the steeper pitches, somebody wobbled or weaved and that was transmitted through the group until it got to me, who, stupidly, was at the edge of the tarmac and had only the road’s shoulder to weave to. As I rolled off into the grass, my first thought was to just hop back onto the road. Then I got a vision of my tire catching the lip of the asphalt and me flipping sideways into the next group. So I unclipped and swung off the bike and got back onto the road. This place was steep enough that I knew it would be a struggle getting started so I walked about 30 meters to a flatter place. I have to say, walking up a 10% grade is a lot harder than riding up it. But I started again and found, again, I was dealing with an empty tank.
A few kilometers from the top, the terrain opens up so you can see quite a ways. It was a good mindgame to pretend the highest point of the road you could see was the top. Then, when you got there, and it wasn’t….. Well, there was always another point to focus on. As the signs counted down to indicate 10 kilometers to go, then 9, 8, etc., the usual psychological ploy started: energy came from somewhere and we started going faster. I have no idea how we did it, but we did. Then, after a big left-hand switchback, a huge inflatable archway crossed the road. In the middle of the arch was a red triangle with the tip pointed down. This was the 1-kilometer-to-go sign. It was almost over, but 1 kilometer at 10% is still a long way. I don’t know if it took more time or less than any of the other similar kilometers, but it seemed like forever. The last right-hand bend and there was another huge inflated archway, this one with an electric clock that was just going past 08:35:00. I rode under the arch, over the timing pad, and was swarmed with volunteers. I didn’t have time for reflection or joy or any other emotion. They guided me through the chute, took off my timing chip, and handed me my medal, a snack bar, and a couple of bottles of water. Then I was deposited at the end of the pack waiting to go down the mountain. I saw some of the other Cyclomundo riders waiting also. We gathered and smiled at each other and shook hands and made sure everyone was ok. Then, we waited, and waited, and waited.
To make things safer on the descent, in addition to the divided highway, the Etape organizers were making people start back down one or two at a time. This meant a 20-minute wait at the top until your turn. And when we did start down, most every muscle was either cold, cramped, or exhausted. The first hundred meters or so weren’t too bad. But then I guess everything caught up with me and I realized this ride wasn’t over. My body wasn’t in any shape to be doing this.
I had to force my fingers to move. The result was like some jerky B-movie Frankenstein. At the same time that I was cursing to try and make my hands work like they needed to, I was thinking how ironic it would be: I finish 105 miles and fend off eight and a half hours of hypothermia. Then I top it off by a half-second brain fade, and the Hautacam descent spits me into oncoming riders or slams me into the sheer wall four feet from one side of the road or launches me into space off the barrier-less drop off four feet on the other side of the road.
Jeez, how much longer is this downhill? It seemed like half an hour later when a sweeping left turn opened up into the town of Ayros-Arbouix and the start of the Hautacam climb. People are everywhere clapping and cheering and smiling; enthusiastic waves at each rider as he comes by. I almost cry with relief. But, then, tears DO well up when I realize I don’t have a clue where the house is that Cyclomundo arranged for us to meet at so we could change into warm, dry clothes and get hot food, drinks, and a shower. Am I going to have to ride all over town, getting more and more deranged and desperate as I get more and more hypothermic? If I stopped, would I have the will to get started again? The road bends right and, just as I pass her, I recognize Tina, from Cyclomundo. She points to a road I just passed and yells, “The house is that way! Just up the hill!” I’m so elated to see her, I hit my brakes, do a leg-out 180-degree turn onto the roadside grass and pedal back to her. When I get to her, she points and says, “It’s just that yellow house there.” I hardly hear her; I just give her a kiss on the cheek and say “Thank you, Thank you. You’re wonderful. Thank you for being here.” She smiles and quickly turns away.
The house is less than a quarter-mile away and up a small hill. I didn’t have enough energy to be upset at having to do another hill. But I am glad there was no traffic because all I could focus on was the house’s wrought iron gate that opened onto the road. I wheeled through it and saw half a dozen or so other Cyclomundo riders sitting at tables piled with food and drink or on the brick half-wall around the patio, showered and dressed in clean, dry clothes. They all turned and let out a rousing cheer at my appearance. I slowed to a stop. Before I even got my helmet off, Lucile, another Cyclomundo angel, brought me a bowl full of hot, sweetened tea. It was the first warmth I’d felt in more than 10 hours. She turned away to help someone else before I could even say thanks.