Pyrenean Inferno

Continued from page one . Mercifully though, the toughest sections of the Menté didn't last too long...

L'Etape du Tour 2007, July 31, 2007

L'Etape du Tour (literally, 'the Stage of the Tour') is now in its 15th year. From a humble 1705 - mostly French - participants in 1993, the event has grown steadily to its current level where the maximum allowable 8,500 entries sell out quicker than cup final tickets. The list of participants is still dominated by the host nation, but the proportion of foreigners has been rising steadily and riders from outside France this year number 2930, making up over a third of the field - the UK fielding 1319 (more than 15%). One of those happy few was Cyclingnews' UK Editor, and all round Fall Guy, Ben Atkins.

Continued from page one .

Mercifully though, the toughest sections of the Menté didn't last too long - it's 'only' a first category climb after all - and it didn't take me too long (by my standards) to grind my way up. It cost me a lot more energy than I thought it would though, and I hoped I wouldn't be paying for this later.

At twenty-one minutes and forty-one seconds past one in the afternoon, as I was floundering my way up the sun baked hairpins of the Col de Menté, 29 year-old former Saunier Duval and Francaise des Jeux rider, Nicolas Fritsch was crossing the line to take the win, more than ten minutes ahead of his nearest rival - some people will do anything to get to the showers before the hot water runs out!

The heat of the Menté had meant that I'd exhausted my water supplies, so I joined the scrum for the ravitaillment at the top to fill my bidons. As well as this I got a couple of bottles for my back pockets, just in case I ran short in the kilometres to come. Thankfully, the conditions on the way down were markedly better than they were when Luis Ocaña crashed out of the 1971 Tour, after finally having looked like defeating Eddy Merckx. Nevertheless, the knowledge of his demise did add a certain caution to my descent.

Once again, I managed to preserve my energy on the flat section before the next climb, as this was one I was dreading. The Port de Balès was only surfaced fairly recently, before which it was a real old fashioned Pyrenean goat track, so I wasn't feeling exactly confident about flying up it, to say the least. At only 1,755m It's not very high for a hors categorie climb, but generally the Pyrenees are lower than the Alps, and what they lack in height they generally make up for in intensity!

Like the Col de Menté, the climb began quite gently at first, but this is usually a portent to some kind of horrors to come. I knew from the sign at the bottom that it would rise around 1200m in 19km, which is an average of just over 6%. The problem is that with the first few kilometres averaging around 3%, it means that the climbing you're not doing now will have to be done later. In other words, the gentler the slope is now, the worse it will be further on.

Finally the climb decided that we'd had enough of an easy time and started to turn the screw. Suddenly, the average gradient signs started nearing double figures, and as well as this, the other feature of Pyrenean climbing in high summer made itself known. The surface had never been particularly great until now, the tarmac had been quite rough and gravely, but at least it had been solid! Just as the road kicked up, I was treated to my first ever melting road, not only were there large areas of molten tar bubbling up through the surface, but also large patches of asphalt were turning to porridge before my eyes. Not only did I have to contend with the gradient, but I had to fight my way through this gluey quicksand as well!

The middle part of the Port de Balès is testament to the fact that average gradient signs are really misleading and should be ignored at all costs! The slope was so varied, even in the space of a few metres that it became impossible to maintain any kind of rhythm. Many of my co-etapistes and I were reduced to a series of short rides, often in an attempt to hop between each small patch of shade, which were becoming at a premium under the early afternoon sun. I never actually resorted to walking - mainly to avoid ruining my carbon soles - but many did, in a bid to maintain some kind of forward movement on this ridiculous road. All this was performed against a background of the sticky sound of hundreds of tyres constantly peeling themselves from the tarry surface.

Eventually, the road left the woods and the gradient resorted to something more like normality. The climb took on the appearance of a regular mountain pass, snaking as it did through some picturesque alpine pasture, affording some magnificent views down the valley we'd just climbed the side of. The average never really reduced, but it all became a lot more consistent and I got a nice rhythm going for the final few kilometres.

Once again there was the opportunity at the top for stocking up with water and food (loads more of those pâtes des fruits!), despite there being less than 40km to go, it was still going to be tough with the Peyresourde to come.

For the first time today, the temperature had dropped slightly. This was the first time today where I wondered if I should have brought some extra layers with me. Some other riders were breaking up cardboard boxes to stuff up their jerseys to keep the wind off on the descent, but I simply zipped mine all the way up and started the long way down into the valley.

Thankfully the surface on this side of the mountain was in somewhat better condition than the other. No melting tar here, just beautiful, freshly laid black asphalt with crisp white lines. Granted, the road was narrow - just wide enough for one car at a time, with passing places - and it was a bit twisty at first, but after the first few bends it opened out and I could really enjoy the benefits of having put a bit of weight on. Combined with the bearings in my wheels, a slightly overweight cyclist can get some real speed up on a long straight section, I can tell you!

Sadly, as with most great descents, it was over all too soon, and the course spat me out right on to the slopes of the Col de Peyresourde, and I immediately ground to almost a standstill.

The Peyresourde is actually a beautiful climb, it's not that steep and the gradient is pretty even. The road is quite wide and the surface is fantastic, so on any other day I'd have really enjoyed this. Unfortunately, this was not another day, and I - and hundreds like me - found the combination of the heat, the distance covered and the fact that this was serious climb number five meant that this was to be a real Calvary of epic proportions.

Once again, the exposed road, under the intense afternoon sun, meant that every solitary tree became a temporary haven where people would stop for a few moments - some for longer - before braving the elements, and the gradient, again. At the beginning of the climb there had been people outside their houses with hosepipes and bottles of water offering to douse anyone who rode by. This had been much appreciated, but after a few kilometres there was no further sign of habitation and no more help.

For many people, the ordeal was proving too much and the few shady spots often had one of the many ambulances that supported the race parked next to them, its driver and staff attending to a rider suffering from the heat, or cramps, or dehydration. Luckily, I'd religiously made myself take on plenty of liquids at every opportunity and so there was no need of this for me, but my lack of dehydration sadly didn't make me climb any faster.

Eventually, I inched my way over the top of the Col, and for the first time of the day, allowed myself to relax. I had climbed up the other side the day before, in order to check out the last few kilometres, so I knew that from here - apart from a small blip with around two kilometres to go - it was downhill all the way. Once again, I zipped up my jersey and pointed my front wheel downwards, finally safe in the knowledge that the broom wagon wasn't going to get me this time!

The descent of the Peyresourde is a good one. Not too steep, and the road is wide and not too technical. The view is also spectacular, as the village of Loudenvielle and the lake come into sight. My first rule when riding in the mountains though, is to enjoy the view on the way up, not run off the road while enjoying it on the way down, so I managed to force myself to concentrate for just a little while longer.

With about two kilometres to go, the final little rise appeared. I had been expecting it after yesterday's reconnaissance, but many others weren't. I even managed to overtake someone on the way up, which had been a pretty rare occurrence over all the previous climbs!

As the road leveled out once more, the red kite over the road signified the last kilometre, and I shot down the final descent to the village. I even managed to muster a sprint, which pretty much emptied my legs of energy, and heroically took the finish cheered on by a pretty sizeable crowd - no doubt still waiting for their friends and relatives who were still floundering on the Peyresourde as I had.

My time put me slightly out of overall contention: eleven hours, nineteen minutes and thirty-six seconds meant I was nearly five hours behind Fritch's winning time, and also a good few shy of getting my Silver medal. Still, the objectives of the day were to keep the rubber side down for the whole course, and most importantly, to arrive in Loudenvielle on two wheels. Both of these were well and truly accomplished, and my position of 3542nd meant that there must be a similar number of riders behind me - either still on the road or in the multiple broom wagons.

Having said at the beginning that there are harder events out there than l'Etape: the choice of this stage, and in weather like this means that there can't be too many out there. The altimeter on my HRM tells me I climbed 4400m in the day, I've not done that for a while. A very long while!

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Images by Ben Atkins/

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