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L'Etape du Tour 2008 - Martin's Pilgrimage

Last year’s étape was supposed to be a one-off for me but with this year’s route being significantly shorter (105 miles Pau to Hautacam) and more logistically convenient, I decided to give it another go and see if I could improve upon 3,740th.  Based initially upon a misreading of the silver requirements, I set myself a target of 8 hours and sellotaped to my handle bars the times required at intermediate points to reach this goal; alongside were the appointments with the broom wagon which permitted a total time of 10hrs20m.  I made no changes when I subsequently realised that I had read off the wrong category; 8 hours being silver for the octogenarian women and the equivalent time for 45 year old males a completely unattainable 7hrs10m.

Once again it was the train for me to travel to the Pyrénées.  In the bike bag this time was a shiny new Leggero frame which Grant and his team at Condor had kindly put together for me in a massive rush after my Squadra frame arrived back from the Dolomites bent a couple of weeks earlier.  This year I set off earlier on Thursday to avoid hotel problems.  My journey was punctuated by an awkward bus journey across London due to the illogical re-siting of the terminal from one of the most, to one of the least, accessible points in London somewhere north of the Congestion zone in the opposite direction to Paris

Martin bid's his farewells before leaving Blighty
I reached the Montparnasse area (Paris’s Croydon) by Metro arriving as the sun was setting.

After an exploration of the Montparnasse area, and a meal of pancakes in a nearby Breton restaurant, I opted for an early night to improve my chances of catching the early morning TGV from Montparnasse to Lourdes.  6 hours after my departure from Montparnasse I was met at the station and transported the short distance to my hotel, the Saint Rosa, conveniently located at the end of a narrow lane by the Marian shrine (making last minute sprinkling of bikes with holy water or the purchase of plastic reconstructions of the apparitions to St Bernadette a breeze.)

It was a gorgeous day and the weather forecast for the weekend ahead was frightful so, having got the bike together by about 3.30, I decided to go out for a ride.  The étape route ran through Lourdes and I knew it next went to Bagneres so I followed the road signs which took me out in the wrong direction and round a by-pass before I finally linked up with the étape route signs.  There was a modest climb up at Loucrup which afforded a decent view of the mountains ahead.

The Pyrenees in summertime!
I carried on to Bagneres and began the gentle upward climb towards Ste Marie de Campan (where Christophe famously repaired his forks with the assistance of the apprentice operating the bellows – I could not locate the Blacksmiths but this will be the church below)
The church at Ste marie de Campan

A couple of twists in the road later and I saw the first sign indicating that I was on the ascent proper to the Col du Tourmalet.

I saw a few cyclists coming down and none going up so I was probably the last one at the top that day at about 7pm.  The views were well worth the effort and a kindly couple in a motor-home took my picture

Martin at the Col du Tourmalet

Then came the descent:

On the way down the road was empty save for sheep and large brown cows so I was able to whizz down continuing on the étape route until I reached the turn off for Hautacam where I instead followed the signs back to Lourdes.  I sat down for my pasta and wine 2 hours late and became known as the crazy guy who did the Tourmalet before supper.  It probably was not ideal preparation for the Sunday but I have no regrets as otherwise I would have come away without seeing anything but fog.

The following day (Saturday) started reasonable but by the time we had cycled to the étape village 45km away in Pau a steady drizzle had set in.  An étape village is not, I discovered, a great place to be in the rain.  As instructed, we dutifully booked our precious bicycles into the ‘Park Fermee’ to be drizzled upon overnight while we took the coach back to Lourdes.

Well what does one do on a damp overcast Saturday afternoon in Lourdes;

visit the grotto of course

The big day

            On Sunday it was raining as we had breakfast at 4.30.  The 5.15 bus was a little late so, by the time we got to Pau, traffic was stopped everywhere with cars and buses blocking the roads to unload cyclists.  By the time the bus got us as close as it could to the Park Fermee it was already past 6.30.  The scene at the Park Fermee itself at 6.50 can only be described as panicked, with people shoving to get their tickets into the hands of the painfully few staff there to get their bikes.  I made it to my pen at about 6.55.  The rain was still coming down.  A distant hoot at 7am heralded the start for the lucky ones with low numbers which was followed up by a thunder clap and downpour.  My rain jacket went on and off 4 times while I waited to move.  Since I knew I was going to go hard off the start I wanted it off when I finally crossed the start line.

            At 7.25 I was finally away (at number 7063 I was in the penultimate pen).  For the first stretch it was difficult to pick my way up the field but then we did a sharp left onto a broad avenue.  Here it was possible to adopt more of a race speed though with a lot of street furniture and wet manholes to be avoided.  As we got out of town I latched onto a stream of high numbers flowing past increasingly lower ones until another sharp left brought us to a narrow road and a standstill.  There followed some gentle ups and downs to the first feed at Lourdes after 44 miles, which I reached at 9.40 within my target.  I stopped for food and really stuffed myself as I knew what lay between me and the next feed at La Mongie.

            Leaving the feed I was soon on roads familiar to me from last Friday (though now in persistent drizzle rather than sunshine).   I knew what to expect at the category 3 climb at Loucrup and that at the bottom of the descent there was a couple of wide sweeping bends on a good road surface before a flat section.  I therefore gunned down the hill only to find an ambulance on the right and a police motorcyclist blowing a whistle on the left with his motorcycle injudiciously projecting at an angle into the road.  I eased off and, as I did so, was hit from behind by a French rider just as we passed the motorcycle.  I wobbled violently and for about 1 ½ seconds thought that was it.  However the bike was surprisingly stable and righted itself while I concentrated on shouting ‘idiot’ in my best French.  I followed him down the hill and showed him my heels (and a contemptuous glance) once we reached the flat leading to Bagneres.

            Once past Bagneres the upward drag begins.  It was here (outside the hotel I stayed in after last year’s étape) that I was finally passed by a strong looking rider I had walked to the Park Fermee with and waited alongside in our pen.  He had stopped to have a leak into the adjoining pen (once its occupants had gone!) and I had expected to see him rather earlier.  I resisted the temptation to latch onto him preferring to take the Tourmalet at my own pace.  Again it looked very different in the drizzle.  As we got higher the drizzle stopped and we were simply in cloud.

  It was fortunate for me that the sun did not appear at this stage as I had dressed warm.  As it was I was a comfortable temperature going up.  I reached the La Mongie feed at about midday more or less on my schedule and again stopped for food and drink and a bit of a breather before the final few kilometres to the top.  There was nothing outrageously steep but it did go on a bit.

At the summit there was nothing to see so just a brief pause to put my rain jacket on for additional warmth before heading down the mountain.  Happily (or even miraculously) the roads on this side of the mountain were dry.  This (and the fact I had done the road before) made it a whole lot easier than the recent Grand Fondo had been.  Again nothing outrageously steep on the way down, and the field was now thinned out so that there was adequate room.  It was downhill pretty much all the way to the Hautacam though some work was required nonetheless to combat the headwind blowing up the Gorge de Luz.  This was a blessing in disguise as it gave a chance to begin to warm up.  Although the temperatures down in the valley were ok I was still soaked through.

At the foot of the Hautacam I stopped to remove the rain jacket and ground up the second Haute Category climb of the day.

This one seemed steeper though that may just have been tired legs.  It was awkward because only half the road was available, the other half being occupied by descenders from the finish.  It was tricky picking one’s way past slower riders whilst at the same time trying to leave some room for faster climbers to overtake. 

Once onto the second half of the climb, where there were a few walkers, fallers and zig-zaggers, things became worse especially as the volume of descenders was transforming from a trickle to a flood.  The temperature and visibility dropped and dropped as we returned once more into the clouds.

I did a small sprint for the finish largely to keep warm.  I crossed the line at 3.20 pm to achieve my sub-8 hours’ real time.

            At the top I picked up my medal, took a bottle of water and stopped for a feed and recovery and to put my rain jacket back on.  It was cold and there was a big scrum of cyclists waiting to go down the mountain.  We were being released in pairs in the pious hope that we would descend Noah’s ark like in pairs 50m apart.  Some chance; some raced down the mountain to get to warmer air.  Others, like me, took it more cautiously.  The separation in the middle of the road was getting less and less respect as the flow of people coming up the mountain began to peter out.  However there was still the odd cyclist coming up usually without a race number so I played it safe but as a result had a long cold ride before I made it to the arrival village where the tour organisers gave me a beer and sandwich.  They also had my rucksack containing dry clothing.  When I lifted my wet kit onto my back I realised how irrelevant a saving of a few hundred grams on my frame was today.

            I shouldered the rucksack and headed back to Lourdes on a disused railway line transformed into a usable cycle path (they do that kind of thing so much better in France).  Once off the cycle path I played dodge the wheelchairs to get back to the hotel for a shower and glass of champagne.

            Returning home the following day went smoothly until I hit Paris.  The Metro station is in fact a very long way from the railway station at Montparnasse and the stress became too much for my baggage wheels which buckled under the strain.  I humped my bike bag around believing myself to be short of time.  What I did not know was that there were chaos and delays at the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord.  I was tired and above all hungry.  Never take First Select on Eurostar (especially not if still running a calorie deficit from a bike ride), I asked for more food and water which was only very grudgingly supplied and was rewarded by an explosive outburst from the steward when I suggested his standards of service were not up to much.  Next time I will go second class and take a few sandwiches – much easier.

            My result from the website:

3211

1188

C

7063

PORTER

Martin

08h 20' 17"

2744

07h 54' 55"

which I interpret as significantly better than last year.

            There were 6,178 finishers this year compared to 4,655 last, and I was about 1,000 places closer to the top.