Anyway, apologies for the radio silence (if anyone is still interested in my exploits). Been a busy old week and I've been staying at a cottage in Mirepoix, about 20 miles from Foix. To say it is medieval is very appropriate - not only did I have no mobile reception the Internet has not been invented as far the locals are concerned. The medieval cathedral and oldie-world town square makes up for it, kind of a mini Stratford-upon-Avon sans traffic jams.
Getting here took 24 hours. Man, France is a big place. The Liversedge family battlewagon got loaded with bikes and all manner of equipment and clothing on Friday and we headed for the train at Folkestone. We arrived in France at around midnight and after a couple of hours of soporific driving decided to take an impromptu sleep stop in one of the many autoroute picnic areas. It would appear that most of France decided to go on holiday on Bastille Day and the roads around Paris were carnage, it took 2 hours to go 3 miles. We finally arrived in Mirepoix at 6pm local time.
We enjoyed the Etape village on Sunday and got nicely toasted in the heat. Glad it wasn't like this on the day, especially the high winds which thankfully were not present on the Monday. Bought some new sunglasses and drooled over some of the exotic machinery on display. Got to bed at 8pm for a 3.30am start. Slept for about 3 hours. I was like a kid waiting for Christmas morning.
We left Mirepoix at 4am and I got to my pen at 5am, the road closures causing Samantha a few issues when trying to get out of Foix (it took her nearly an hour to thread the battlewagon through that particular needle). I half expected a mad rush, I needn't have worried there was a mere handful of guys at the front of the pen, hardy souls. After just over 2 hours of eating from my little musette bag full of goodies I finally got to leave. I was definitely carbo loaded and raring to go.
The opening few kilometers to the foot of Col de Port were nervous, although most riders were being particularly well behaved, a kind of mutual respect and concern. I was also highly surprised at the number of locals that turned out to cheer on the amateurs, they were awesome all the way along the route. Saw a few unlucky guys with punctures in the first 15km - your worst nightmare come true. As soon as we started to climb the Col de Port things settled nicely, I guess the guys further back may have got stuck here - the 3am start was worth it.
Col de Port - Cat 2
The Col de Port climb was uneventful and reassuringly straightforward. As with all these Pyrenean Cols the views from the slopes were epic and breathtaking, enhanced by the colourful line of etapiste ants crawling up the switchbacks down the valley.
The temperature was a chilly 16C - I was glad of my knee warmers on the descent, which was a blast. The closed roads made for some real fun taking the racing line like pros on the descent. Didn't see any accidents although the Gendarmes sirens wailed past a couple of times. The 1L bidon I had was a real mistake, when full it was very difficult to hold and put back in the frame. That was a serious mistake that caused me real difficulties later.
Strangely, the flatter section to St Girons and then on to the foot of the Portet D'Aspet were one of my favourite moments of the day. Pegging along in a peloton of 60 to 70 riders was awesome, I day dreamed of being a pro and riding the whole tour, silly sod. I made good time and stopped off at the feed station which were all well ordered and a million miles from the scrum I had heard so much about. I easily got some of the abundant water and refreshed my bottles before heading off and hooking up with a slower group then jumping the gap to a faster group pulling a couple of grateful guys along for the ride. Yay.
Portet D'Aspet - Cat 2
The easiest climb by far. My nutrition strategy started to falter here. The temperature was increasing and the sticky drink was beginning to be quite unpalatable. I should know better, I still find it hard to believe that I ignored my beeping polar reminding me to drink. Big mistake. The drag up to the top was fairly uneventful and managed to keep to my strategy of keeping my heart rate below 170 for the day. The descent was superb, kept it safe and tipped my hat to Fabio as I breezed past his (larger than I imagined) memorial. Lower down the descent there was a nasty accident with an unfortunate etapiste lying against the barriers with paramedics in attendance. He was lying at an odd angle and I suspect the medics had decided not to move the poor guy for fear of neck or back injuries. Hope he turned out ok.
Col de Mente - Cat 1
After a little dig and then a drop off the Col de Mente kicked me in the head. I started to realise what the day was all about. I was still comfortably inside my heart rate and target speed targets but it was starting to get serious and the joy came from the views and looking back at the poor sods behind me rather than the feeling of making good progress and feeling optimistic about what lay ahead. Still failing to take on enough powder I chomped on gels to make sure I was getting some fuel in.
The drag to Malleon-Barousse and on to the foot of the Port de Bales was another chance to refine my descending skills and was a real blast. Hooked onto another large group of riders for the flatter approach and took turns pushing it along but soon realised they wanted to take it easy and hopped onto a faster group. In retrospect this was probably ill-advised, but hey I was having fun. In retrospect I was still not taking enough fuel on board.
Port de Bales - Hors Categorie
The Etape starts here. The rest was a warm up. The heat was now a factor and my knee warmers were no longer required with temperatures between 35c and 39c - the road was now starting to melt in places. As the ascent started I felt good, the early section were easy anyway so not too much to worry about, I knew it got harder after the first 7ks or so. As I got to the nastier 10% sections I was still feeling ok but the pedals were starting to feel much heavier. This was the start of the hurt.
I arrived at Port de Bales after 5hrs and 47 minutes, hopeful of that silver medal, as the pedals got heavier my breathing also started to get heavier at lower heart rates. Uh-oh. I stopped at a place with a big water trough that had a lot of cyclists around it and took a breather. After ten minutes I set off again. The pain came back immediately. I had empty legs, maybe I had bonked, maybe I was exhausted,maybe I had hit the limit of my capabilities, whichever it was the suffering now started. I was starting to pay for my errant fueling. My silver medal hopes switched to survival mode in the blink of a gear change. Some of the guys I had passed earlier started to drift past me. That made the hurt even worse.
The next 7km to the summit took me an hour. I rued my stupid mistakes especially that unwieldy (and heavy) Ron Jeremy bidon. I stopped again before the summit to get my heart rate down, 155 was the best I could handle and taking into account the 10bpm for the heat that was right on top of my aerobic threshold, I suspect that I did actually bonk, but maybe I'm just looking for an excuse. In the end the ascent took me 2hrs and 25 minutes, including 15 minutes of 'recovery' time i.e. off the bike panting by the side of the road. But no-way would I walk, not a step.
The descent on the other hand was great, a chance to get the heart rate down again and get ready for the 'easier' Col de Peyresourde. As the descent finished I gave the gendarme a scare with my (unintentional) late braking and wide turn on the sharp right hander that announced the Col de Peyresourde.
Col de Peyresourde - Cat 1
For some reason I had never looked at the profile for this one. Geez. 76 minutes of agony and grim determination got me to the top of this. I cannot explain how bad I felt with empty legs and heavy breathing. Every kilometer took an eternity. Litter was blown along by the breeze faster than my climbing! There was a poignant moment when, joy of joys, the 2km to the summit sign appeared. But looking up ahead you could see the fearsome 3 or 4 switchbacks that laid ahead. I was not going to fail - I would get to Loudenvielle in time even if I had to walk on my hands.
The descent of the Peyresourde was the most exhilarating and easy of them all, another high point of the day. For once I was largely on my own descending this one and could use all the road without fear of blocking faster more experienced riders. I even managed to get up to 65 kph on this stretch.
After the Peyresourde descent there was another little 1k dig before the last kilometer down to the barriered finish line. I was choking back the tears as I got out the saddle for a last flourish and saw my family waiting for Daddy. A mixture of joy and blessed relief, a really emotional moment of release.
I may not have done the time I hoped for (is there a pattern emerging here? setting myself up to fail? being to optimistic about my own limited abilities?) but I finished, no punctures, no falls and no sag wagon. Result. Maybe I'll be able to truly enjoy and appreciate this achievement after a few days - right now I feel a mixture of disappointment, frustration and relief. Some 4 days later I still feel that disappointed feeling which is such an anticlimax, its hard to explain why but I feel it stems from a performance that could have so easily been much better and all for something as stupid as remembering to drink and eat rather than anything 'out of my control'. Maybe in a few weeks I'll feel happier.
Having said all that, I might just, possibly, never say never, you never can tell, be back to suffer the Etape du Tour again. I've got a couple of sub 4 hour marathons to run first.