Etape du Tour 2008

By Bill Jordan 

Watching last Mondays stage 10 of the tour prompted me to write this report of the day that myself and Mick tackled the exact same stage one week earlier in the 2008 etape.

Our day began at 3.30am with a breakfast pushed down with strong objections from our bodies. The reason for this early rise was so we could catch the bus to Pau from our hotel at the bottom of Hautacam for our start at 7am.

The noise of the rain hitting the bus on our trip to Pau roused all however and was to continue through out the day. The bad weather didn’t seem to put off any of the 8,550 that had entered but did provide a constant queue to the many portaloos available at the start including my good self.

At 7am the first batch of 1000 cyclists rolled out and 8 minutes later we moved out in the third batch off.

The run out of Pau was fast but safe enough considering the wet roads and crowds. This was my first experience of closed roads where the cyclist is king and I can say it is something I could well get used to.

We quickly left Pau behind and made it to the rural roads that would take us to Lourdes where the religious could stop to pray for Devine help if they were so disposed. However, I think most of the peloton must have been atheist for the day as the only ones I saw stopped were nursing broken bikes or bodies and while envoking several gods names I don’t think it was in prayer.

The road to Lourdes was up and down and it was a conscious effort to pace yourself and not get carried away with the occasion as the real test would come much later in the day.

Apart from the cycling the thing that most got your attention was that on this wet and not very nice early morning the crowds giving a cheer to every rider had to be seen to be believed and really brought home how much cycling is part of life in France compared to Ireland.

Lourdes came and went soon enough and although a lot of eating and drinking was done on the bike I passed on through Lourdes and the feed stop provided and headed out on the road that would eventually lead to the bottom of the tourmalet and the first major climb of the etape.

More eating more drinking and a stop to answer the call of nature and we came to the first sign for the tourmalet which said 22km. This was where the constant climbing of mount leinster and events such as the mount leinster challenge would hopefully pay off.

With the constant thought of pace yourself I was soon in the 39/27 and making a nice 7 or 8 mph towards the top. Even if I had the energy to enjoy the view there was no view today as it was like riding in a very wet cloud and while the cold was not a problem on the way up I knew that the trip down would be a total different matter. However, for the moment I was just trying to get up to the top and passing the time by counting all the Irish in the peloton and as the Irish were the fourth biggest nationality after France,UK and U.S. to take part in the event I soon ran out of fingers and decided instead to be Pantani or Armstrong or maybe just myself beating all of those stars of the peloton.

 My imagination was helped by the fact that there were photographers on motor bikes and police on motor bikes taking care of us just like in the real thing.

 I continued on in this cloud, the real one and the imagined one, until I reached the village of Le Mongie and the last feed stop where I had to stop for food as I had used up all I was carrying and even in my imagined cloud I didn’t have a team car and helpers to go and get it for me.

 With 8,550 others with similar ideas to me it was a case of push your way in and grab what gels and bananas you could, all the while trying to drag your bike with you. Even with the crowds it wasn’t long until I was off again to cover the final 4km to the top and the ever thickening cloud.

 This was a hard slog and getting colder all the time but I pressed on and reached the top in good condition due to pacing myself and eating constantly.

 After a quick stop to zip up the gilet I was off into the big white wet unknown.

 The Tourmalet is over 2000 meters high with no flat on top so almost as soon as you stop climbing one side you are dropping down the other side and on this day it was 3 degrees on top so with wind chill it was below freezing on the way down.

 I descended well enough but it must be the most dangerous thing I have ever done on a bike and although I thought at the time that I couldn’t get any colder I was later to discover that I could, more about that later.

The descent from the top of the Tourmalet is about 12 miles long and would be pretty fast if you could actually see, had dry roads and could feel your fingers but that wasn’t to be to day especially at the top.

 Gradually the fog lifted as we got down and I could start to pedal which helped to get the blood flowing in the legs again.

 By the time I reached the valley I was approaching something less than cold again and started to eat the bananas and gel sourced at the feed zone earlier.

 The run from the top of the tourmalet to the bottom of the Hautacam is about 20 miles and mostly down hill so it wasn’t long until we were making our way to the final show down of the day with over 90 miles covered.

 As I dropped down to the final turn off for the Hautacam the size of the crowds was really amazing even compared to the crowds already seen on the route and really gave you great encouragement for the final effort.

 The Hautacam is a dead end so the road up is also the way down so the road, although narrow, was divided in the middle with cones with the right hand side used on the way up and the other side for the way down.

 It is difficult at the bottom with a slightly easier section in the middle and then horrible almost all way to the top.

 About a third of the way up I started to see the first of the first finishers on the way down, all with one thing in common, a total lack of any body fat what so ever.

 Anyway their talents and ability were of no use to me and my constant grind towards the top, the 100 miles coming up on my computer as the worst part of the climb started.

 Of course being Pantani or was that Armstrong I just dropped it into the big ring and powered my way to the top in record time!!!! Ok, so it wasn’t quite like that and more like grovelled my way up but up I did get up and completed the 105 miles from start to finish in just under 7 hours to qualify for a silver medal in my age group and a great sense of achievement.

 Now I thought all my suffering for the day was over but how very very wrong I was. As I mentioned earlier the road up is the road down and everyone was held at the top and only let down at 50m gaps due to the bad visibility with the fog and rain. This meant that I was already cold before I started my descent and have never been so cold in my life as I was getting down that mountain. My whole body was numb by the time I got to the bottom which meant I by passed the finish village at the bottom and straight back to the hotel and a hot shower.

This really was the best experience I have ever had on a bike and the only chance your average club rider will ever get to feel what its like to be part of something as big as the tour. Indeed our whole week in France with onyourbike.ie was fantastic and something I could recommend to anyone with a love of the bike and looking for that one thing you should do before you die sort of thing