One bit of advice I got (from a guy called Rae who was also riding the 2007 Etape) was to go out to France or Spain prior to the event and get some experience of riding in the mountains – specifically get some experience of sustained climbing in the mountains as we have little in the UK that compares – he was gently pointing out that there is a mental side to training as well as physical and that there is little that can substitute the training you get (mentally and physically) from riding continuous climbs.
Bryony was going out to the Pyrenees for an activity holiday (paragliding, mountain biking, gorge walking, canyoning, rock climbing etc) so I took my bike and went with her for three days of cycling.
On the first day I chose to do an easyish ride back to the Spanish border – this was mostly downhill, especially after the town of Mont Louis (built around a Vauban style fortress). This was just short of 42k in either direction and wasn’t too taxing but did include my first ever Pyreneen hairpin, a long, gentle one just outside the town of Saillagouse.
I crossed the border at the twin town Puigcerda/Bourg Madame – riding a few hundred metres into Spain just to have cycled across an international boundary for the first time (unless you count the Welsh/English border). I had my lunch of flapjack and banana on the bridge over the river that marks the border and then set off back for Espousille. The ride back was obviously the reverse of the outward ride, so comprised a reasonable amount of easy climbing. Apart from an impromptu workshop I gave a picnicking French family on How Not To Fix A Puncture the, ride back was uneventful but hot.
The next day started with a bit of a climb (in fact the only flat part of road the entire day was the 1.5 km just outside Espousille, the rest was climbing or descent). After that the road descended through the villages of Querigut and Le Pla and then climbed to Mijanes. Mijanes is part way up the Col de Pailheres – the remaining climb a fairly tough 10.4k at average of 8.4% and my first attempt at this sort of cycling (outside of simulating it on the turbo). The Col was a feature of stage 14 of the 2005 Tour de France and was classed as Hors Category (for anyone reading who doesn’t know, mountain climbs in the Tour de France are classified from 1-4 (where four is the easiest) and a fifth category HC, beyond classification. Classifying what category a climb is is important because it affects how many points are awarded for the first riders to top them and has a significant affect on the various competitions that make up the Tour. The category is dependent on height climbed, length of climb, gradient and how late in the stage the mountain appears at. The Col de Pailheres was late in the stage in 2005 and also appeared in Stage 14 of the 2007TdF. Go me.)
The climb was hard, there’s no other way to get up these things than just keep slogging away. I stopped here and there and took photos and a welcome breather but it was mostly an unending uphill ride. The large scale map I had was deceptive and the earlier part of the mountain seemed the hardest. The profile was a long climb from Mijanes up a valley, with occasional hairpins that then become continuous at the head of the valley. The end of each hairpin offered a temporary respite (on the outside of the bend they are generally flatter and hence are a slight bit of relief, the inside of the bend has a steeper camber but is shorter) but the road still grinds away towards the top.
After twenty two hairpins (on one of which the words “FUCK LANCE” had been painted) the top finally came into view – this Col is one where the road is virtually at the top of the mountain, at 2001 metres above sea level, only about 50 metres short of the actual summit. At the top there was a (closed) shop, a sign and lots of wild horses. Some other cyclists were at the top, one of whom was having his lunch stolen by a horse. I zipped down the road a bit before putting on my windproof top in preparation for the descent (and to avoid the attention of horses while I grabbed a quick bite myself). The top of the Col was my first decision point of the day. I decided in advance that if I felt in reasonable shape I would drop down the other side of the mountain towards Ax Les Thermes and then consider my next option. This was a fairly big decision as it would commit me to the long climb back up the Col (as well as the not insignificant climb back to Espousille from Mijanes). As I felt good, I decided to carry on.
The 14k descent proved to be quite unpleasant, steeper than I was then comfortable with at speed but was extremely useful practice in the technical braking skills I needed to learn. It’s more frightening when you are on your own anyway, something about seeing other riders around you speeds you up. This proved the case when a couple of other riders passed me at speed, I let go a bit and while they still sped away from me, I went a bit faster while they were still in sight.
I stopped at the junction which either led down to Ax or up the Col du Chioula, a shorter but moderately steep climb. I had my lunch then started up the Col du Chioula. I did about 4k of this before deciding to turn back; I could feel that I was tiring a fair bit by now and also noticed the weather worsening. I had been warned of the possibility of a late afternoon thunderstorm and wanted to get back over the valley before that (the way back was the only route home). I had already passed the 50k mark by then, so by retracing my route would therefore have ridden over 100k which was my hoped for achievement of the day. I had had hopes of doing a maximum of 120k but would be more than content with 100k in the mountains.
Reaching the junction with the Col de Pailheres again I stuffed down some more food (last banana and lots of the marzipan and almond flapjack I had baked especially for this ride) and then started up the 14k return climb. Being a bit tired by now, I found this harder work than from the other side and stopped more frequently than on the first climb. I could see the clouds thickening and greying up ahead though which kept me pushing on, I really wanted to be over the top before any deluge.
Eventually cresting the summit I didn’t hang about, the rain had started just before I reached the top so I was already wearing my windproof. The road isn’t too steep just after the top so I was happy to go along at a good rate with my unzipped windproof flapping away. Some chap was filming as I sped past so some French tourist has a picture of me with a big grin riding through the rain, the jolly roger on my cycling jersey clearly visible. Hurrah!
I stopped very briefly to take a few shots of the hairpins below, through the clouds, then tried to get down as fast as possible to beat the rain. This descent was nastier than on the other side and I had to stop from time to time to rest my cramping and cold hands. Fortunately, the frequent hard braking made the wheelrims almost too hot to touch and warmed my hands back up. I also learned about brake fade. This is where the brake pad and wheel rim become so hot that you lose much or all of your braking power – I had a few dicey moments with this and I am saying this with British Understatement cranked all the way up to 11.
On reaching the bottom I headed back up to Espousille by the previously mentioned climb and reached home after just over 100k of riding and more than seven hours in the saddle.
The next day I rode 40k to the village of Llo where I met the others for a quick dip in the thermal spa. On the way there I accidentally rode through some fresh tar and picked up lots of tar and stones on my tyres. “Tarry, tarry bike…..” I sang. After the spa we were back on our way home.
I learned a lot from those three days in the Pyrenees. I rode as hard terrain as I would later face on the worst parts of the Etape and did something like two thirds of the required climbing of the Etape route, in about half the overall distance. At that point I understood that my chances of completing had moved from marginal to possible.
I also learned that the entry level brake setup that came with my bike was very poor at dealing with the challenging braking conditions of the mountains – this became the second thing I would upgrade on my bike (I had already replaced the wheels with a pair of Shimano 105 ones).