Category Archives: Tour de France

Two!

In two days I set off from Land’s End as part of The Race Against Time (TRAT) riding a fast, six day cycle ride to John o’ Groats.

I saw my picture (in armour with bicycle) in the local paper this morning, which was fun. Then Bryony and I made the trip to Trafalgar Square to meet up with most of the team and support crew for a publicity photograph with news presenter Jon Snow. Sadly Mr Snow couldn’t make it but we all got to meet up, many of us for the first time.

Some overzealous rentacops did turn up while we were being photographed and tried to stop us for ‘security reasons’ (what is it with fat blokes and polyester?) which was on the high side of pointless. We were standing in front of one of the fountains in Trafalgar Square, with Nelson’s Column in the background which must be up there as one of the most photographed views in London. What sort of terrorist group dresses up in lycra and rides around on bicycles in a big group – “Britain is the Great Satan and we shall defeat the accursed dogs with our 1337 paceline riding Skillz, see if we don’t!” We should have explained that we were a situationist terrorist group and derided them as the Lackeys of Dada-ism, whatever that means.

What with images of Trafalgar Square already being freely available on Streetview, Google Earth, Flickr and anywhere else you care to name, I can’t see what on earth they thought was the problem (and the reasons changed as we went along I understand – first because it was “for security” (which means fuck all), then because we “didn’t have permission”, which when we moved to take pictures in front of South Africa House (who we *did* have permission from) transformed into “you’re breaking a byelaw”.

I’m quite tired now but looking forward to tomorrow – just got to pack up the last few things tonight and I’m ready. All is well with the bike, the fundraising is still going well (nearly £1,500 now, continued thanks for all your generosity) and there’s not much left to do other than ride the bike.

With all the work in training and fundraising it’s going to be a relief to get out there and just have to cycle – it’s going to be harder for Bryony I reckon, she has done the bulk of the fundraising work and doesn’t get the big payoff of getting out and doing the ride – while the ride is going to be a lot of work, it’s going to feel like the end of the process (apart from the party on 1st August of course!)

Almost on our way. Two days to go…

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The Tour de Chateau D’iff?

An interesting story here about a Tour de France style ride by French Prisoners:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jun/12/france-jails-prisoners-cycling-tour

It must be hard going back inside prison after tasting such freedom – not just the freedom from prison but the freedom available to anyone when riding a bike in spectacular countryside. I’m wondering if mentally the prisoners had to wiegh this up when contemplating taking part – is it harder to taste a small bit of freedom then return inside or continue without it for the full length of your sentence?

After the 2007 Etape: “I’m covered in beetles!”

After the long ride was over, we started our even longer drive back to our hotel – we drove parallel to the route on main roads rather than taking the twisting mountain roads. There’s nothing like going back on yourself to get an impression of distance – I’ll be doing this after TRAT too, as we will be driving back to London over the two days following.

On the way back we picked up some wine and some pizza as we expected the hotel bar to be closed by the late hour we got back.

The evening eventually ended with myself, Rupert and the hoteliers wife getting smashed on red wine sitting outside the hotel. On stumbling back to my room I found Bryony by the open window, naked, saying “Turn out the light! I’m covered in beetles!”

At some point in the night, the room had filled up with beetles, and Bryony was trying to shoo them out of the room.

I’m still not sure we didn’t hallucinate the beetles but real or imaginary, we chased them out of the room before falling in to a deep and well deserved sleep.

The next day we hitched in to the nearest town, found a bar and stayed there for much of the day, watching the Tour de France.

Etape du Tour 2007: Foix to Loudenville

After all my training and Sportive riding in 2007 by mid July I was finally ready and set off for France to ride the Etape. The event was a public event over closed roads, following the route of a stage of the real Tour de France that year. The route started in Foix and continued over more than 100 miles and five Pyreneen mountains to finish in Loudenville.

Bryony and I, with my bike in a bike-box, flew out the Thursday prior to the event in order to give me time to acclimatise to the weather and to hopefully relax (no chance).

I put the bike back together on Friday morning and rode a leisurely 45k or so, just to make sure the bike and I were ok. There was a heavy tailwind on the way out so it was a very fast ride for no effort in the outbound direction and a bit of work on the return.

The next day I had to go to Foix to register; public transport being non existent in the area and having no access to a car at this point, I had to cycle there (the round trip was 96k) which wasn’t ideal but did no damage. The Etape Village in Foix was great, registration was quick and easy with much free crap handed out along with the race transponder etc.

I met up with several other riders from my work and we had a good lunch before I rode back. The wind was very strong by now so the ride back was more work than I really wanted to do two days before the race but as I said, no harm was done.

The hotel was filling up with cyclists, some English, some French (including an older guy to whom the hotel owner said “Well, you’re not here for the Etape, I can tell”. On speaking to the bloke on Tuesday morning, he told me that it was his eighth Etape!). Two English guys who had arrived on the Saturday were badly let down by British Airways who mislaid their bikes (they eventually turned up, just in time, but must have been a huge amount of added stress).

My nerves were building now and I slowly got more mad over the weekend. Months of training and preparation leading down to one day, as well as providing focus, tends to build it up to an insane degree. I had to check with Bryony at one point that the flies buzzing around my head were real.

With both Bryony and I being non-drivers, the logistics of the Etape were a nightmare (especially the ending up nearly 200km away from where you started). Fortunately a good friend agreed to fly out and help us. My friend Rupert came out on the Sunday, picking up a hire car en-route, so all was set for the big day. Except my stomach/alimentary canal which showed evidence of some of the stress I was suffering – I won’t go into details.

A big pasta meal the night before the race set me up before an early night – it was noticeable who was drinking alcohol and who wasn’t. The two French riders that would finish in sub eight hour times were drinking water. I drank both wine and beer.

An early night was followed by a ridiculously early morning, getting up at 3.30 (2.30 UK time). A shower followed by breakfast and we were off just after five. I was even more grateful than before for Rupert being there to drive – my fallback plan had been to cycle from the hotel to the start if necessary, not realising that it would still be pitch black at that time (being that much further south). On the way there we saw cyclists riding in the dark, with no lights, on the hard shoulder of an unlit dual carriageway – could have gone very badly for them.

On reaching the outskirts of Foix, more and more cyclists appeared until they were almost a constant stream – we stopped and I got set up to ride the last bit to the start. I had to promptly stop and find a quiet spot as my previously non-functioning lower alimentary canal decided it wanted to resume function with a vengeance. I’ll spare you some of the horror, suffice it to say that there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England (well Scotland, but you get my point).

Feeling somewhat better, I made my way to my start pen and met up with the other riders from our company. Tension, excitement and nerves were all building together, you could feel the jittery, jumpy enthusiasm everywhere. Just before seven, Greg LeMond said some words, none of which I heard (I didn’t realise at the time but he rode it also. He beat me, obviously.) Then we were off, with our pen being released very shortly after the first.

I was completely overwhelmed by the experience and rode nervously among the bunch, quickly losing touch with my team. It was awesome though, the crowds at the start seemed as big as anything at the real Tour and the cheering and clapping was very moving; it felt very much like you were part of the Tour.

After Foix things started to settle down a bit, although faster riders still swept through – I probably lost time here as I was trying to avoid a crash, something that happens very easily in those conditions, and the road went up and down a bit before joining the dual carriageway south to Tarascon. It was here that I caught the first of the riders from my team; he would pass me again later until I retook him again on a later climb. I saw my first rider with a puncture and thought (not for the last time), “Glad that’s not me”.

At Tarascon the ride turned west and into the hills. It started climbing almost immediately – although the first mountain itself is only classed as 11k of climbing, you’re climbing for roughly 20k as the build-up to it is quite lengthy. The climb helped steady me and I rode it at as even a pace as possible – the gradient was manageable and quite steady which enabled me to keep up a good rhythm. While I got passed by a lot of riders on this ascent, I was passing a reasonable amount myself – imagine that there are four lanes of traffic with the one on the right being slowest, and the ones getting progressively faster towards the left, if so, I was alternating between the slowest and next slowest lanes (it’s not exactly like that but does as a rough comparison – the convention is that slower riders ride on the right uphill).

I took it easy and enjoyed it, helping to settle down my earlier nerves. Sadly after reaching the top, my nerves were blasted again by the long descent. I enjoyed this one least of all the descents, I don’t know why as the others were probably worse (they were all very different so it wasn’t a case of getting used to it). I lost time, confidence and road position on the descent and reached St Girons about twenty minutes outside my planned time, which was massively dispiriting.

As previously planned, Bryony and Rupert were waiting there and gave me food and water, which saved me from the time-consuming melee of the first feed station, and I was on my way in less than five minutes, sandwich in hand. Sadly the other two sandwiches fell out of my jersey somewhere, which was a blow when I realised later on reaching for one. Lots of stuff got dropped on the road, caps, food, bidons and some every expensive looking (broken) sunglasses.

Having lost planned time, I was extremely concerned that I wouldn’t finish; when Bryony had asked me how I was doing I was very negative – I only had an expected margin of about an hour over elimination and I had lost twenty minutes of it in the first and easiest 70k of the race. I didn’t see how I was going to finish in the allotted time but was determined to keep going. The next 25k or so were mostly flat and I attacked them with the intention of gaining as much time back as I could. I chased down group after group, breaking from each to the next until reaching the next climb – Portet d’Aspet. This one was deceptive, the long lower part was easy, the top half very steep. It, like the one before it was a Category Two climb, but had some of the steepest sections of this year’s Tour. Despite this I did ok, feeling strong on the climb and I was in good shape by the summit. At the top I was only seven minutes down on my planned time and considering I felt ok after two climbs, I now had some hope of completing.

After the summit was the descent, the one I was fearing. Partly because of the gradient 17%-19% in places, and partly for the shadow that the death of Fabio Casartelli throws over it. As it was, I didn’t find this too bad, possibly because I was expecting much worse after the previous one. Personally it was my second favourite/least worst. The bends were mostly ok, with the most dangerous bits clearly signed, so I did alright on that one. I still got passed by a lot of people, people who I had overtaken on the climbs but descending well is part of riding so I knew I would need to improve on this in the future.

Casartelli’s monument is quite stunning; some riders were stopped there, but I continued on as that seemed the thing to do to me – it’s saddeningly so close the bottom and shows how close he was to the end of the descent.

Immediately following the descent of Aspet, we rode straight onto the foothills of the Col de Menthe, the first Category One climb of the day. Bryony and Rupert did make it here but we later worked out that they had got there shortly after I went through; it was apparently a good place to view the riders, swooshing down one hill, then starting up the next with big grins on their faces.

Apart from the top third, I actually enjoyed climbing Menthe, possibly because my confidence was back and my nerves gone; it felt like a ride by now, not an impossible task. Other people were visibly suffering too which helps; from now on I would see riders coming back down the hill the wrong way or lying down by the side of the road. Numb faces watched riders continuing, some were doubled over their handlebars retching, others looking resolutely away. It’s cruel but I fed off their suffering. Every one of them in pain made it easier for me to keep going and showed me where hard training pays off. I was suffering too – I’ve seen the official photos and I’m in pain but I’m keeping going (the photo sites were quite funny in a twisted way, there was usually a sign giving 50 metres warning and we all noticeably tried that bit harder for the camera, and then noticeably slowed down afterwards – they should have done a shot 50 metres later to show the before and after, it would be very amusing to contrast the out of the saddle, confident cyclists becoming wheezing pedestrians 30 seconds later).

By now, the heat was up and more and more riders were walking; I would do so later but stayed in the saddle for Menthe. I did stop here and there for water and ‘comfort’ breaks, fortunately nothing like early in the morning. At the top of Menthe I was still only seven minutes behind, although like everyone I lost time in the resupply at the second feed station; these really are a mad scrum – there had been an unofficial one at the top of Aspet, a big trough marked ‘drinking water’ although I’m not sure how drinkable it was after riders had dipped their helmets in it. We drank it anyway. Water wise I went through a considerable amount – I started with three litres and ended with about one – through resupply I must have drunk about ten litres of water in total, a third of which were heavily loaded with electrolyte powder.

The descent of Menthe was the only one I can say I really enjoyed; it consists of lots of hairpins – having reasonable trust in my brakes, I could build up speed and brake quite late before the turn. It felt good to be three climbs in, especially being up and over my first Category One climb. I had passed another two of our riders on the way, in fact the hairpins on the climb were great as you could look back and see the scale of the event because as far as you could see, there was a steady stream of cyclists making their way upwards.
The organisation involved in the Etape was stunning, there were motorbikes riding through constantly which were in touch with support vehicles. I know of one rider who had a wheel buckled in a crash, and within minutes, the Mavic service vehicle was there with a replacement wheel – what would have been the end of his ride in a UK event became just another experience of the Etape and one a bit closer to the real Tour. There were care vehicles, ambulances, and doctors, all there to assist as required, and it made the task of riding a lot simpler.

After Menthe we rode into a headwind, making a mostly flat part hard work. We rode through a few villages; at one just before the start of Port des Bales Bryony and Rupert were there with the crowds cheering, which was a good sight – I was still only about 7-10 minutes down by now and felt fairly certain of making it.
The crowds on the day were brilliant, at the start, finish, in villages and on the mountains. Clapping, cheering and shouts of “Allez, allez!” and “Courage!” really helped, especially towards the end, so big thanks to all of them.

The Port des Bales was a killer, although the first eight kilometres were ok. After that it got steadily steeper, a short respite and then back to steep before finally levelling out at a little at the top. This one broke a lot of people, most certainly me included. A twenty kilometre HC (Hors Category) climb. It was brutal and the sun was out in full force; I rode through melting tarmac under a blazing sun and understood what it is that makes a Tour rider and that I don’t have it. I kept going up the endless slopes but I was walking here and there – once you start doing that it’s hard to stay on the bike at all but I had to as much as possible or get swept up by the broom wagon.

The melting tarmac stuck to my tyres and I was worried about getting a puncture as all sorts of crap was picked up by my tarry wheels. I can’t remember where it was exactly, Menthe I think, where someone’s inner exploded while climbing – about fifty of us heard it and it was immediately followed by an “Ooooh!” of sympathy from fifty voices (all thinking “Glad it’s not me…”).

I was in a lot of pain before the end of Port des Bales but eventually it ended. It’s hard to recall just how much it hurt but it was a proper bastard. After a short stop at the final feed station at the top I started the descent, which was another bad one. It was steep, narrow, unfenced with very steep sides and a dodgy rain gutter on the other side. If the surface wasn’t so new I think this could have been a lot more dangerous – watch out for this one on future Tour de France stages.

Straight after this descent we were on the last climb, the Category One climb of Peyresourde. It’s the one I have ridden lots in simulation on my turbo trainer, although never after such a hard day before reaching it. I found this one very hard too, although I think on fresh legs it would be very enjoyable.

I passed lots of riders who had cracked – more vomiting, lying by the roadside than on the previous climb even, and the ambulances seemed to be doing more work too. I knew what I was waiting for, the hairpins that finish the climb can be seen for some way and I had been looking forward to reaching them and looking back over the view. It’s the one on my turbo trainer DVD as mentioned and it was on the recce DVD I bought, a long sweeping look back down the valley, to the east and over the many miles already ridden – you can also look down and see the long line of riders making their way up the valley. The supporters were great here too and they helped propel me up the final slopes – I raced (a bit) for the line knowing it was the last real climb of the day; stopping to put on my windproof for the final descent, it almost wasn’t just sweat I was wiping from my eyes.

Barring accident or severe mechanical problems I had done it, I was over the Etape, just the fast descent to Loudenville (and a short but nasty little kicker of a hill before the downhill sprint for the finish). I descended alright on this one, it probably helped that it was one I ‘knew’ from my training DVD but it was also a good fast, straightish road.

After the fast descent, a left turn and then into the final climb, adrenaline pumping through me, I attacked the last hill, overtaking some riders struggling on the unexpected ascent. I felt good and was determined not to be overtaken by another rider from this point on and I wasn’t. The quick descent started and I went down it aggressively, not giving up the line and overtaking all I could – I saw the Flamme Rouge, the sign that there was only one kilometre to go and went mental, putting everything into it, overtaking a last few, one right on the line which felt great.

Across the line and into the finish pen, they took my transponder away, gave me my medal and sent me off for a bag of free food and bowl of pasta. It was over. I had done it.

It’s hard to describe how it felt, even shortly after I could hardly hold it in my mind. I knew it was a big achievement for me but having done it, it already felt smaller, although not undiminished. I suppose when something becomes achievable from having once been improbable, then the scope of it changes.

There’s a bit I’m fond of in the Ken Burns TV series about the American Civil War/War Between the States that I always remember. The historian Shelby Foote is quoting a Southern author (might have been Tennessee Williams) who wrote about the moment before Picket’s charge at Gettysburg – the moment is still unwritten, it hasn’t happened yet and so there’s this moment where anything is still possible. In a very small way being on the start at Foix was like that; it was an unknowable moment for me that can never be repeated, yet will always be there.

In reality I finished just over twenty minutes over my estimated time at 11 hours and twenty one minutes.
It’s important to add that it wasn’t just my training and preparations that got me through – there were the spectators on the day, my family who offered support, particularly my sister Mairi in training up for and riding with me in the Etape Caledonia. There were my friends whose interest and enthusiasm helped motivate me through the winter months when the Etape was an impossibility.

Especial thanks go to Rupert and his incredible selflessness in coming all the way out to drive endless miles in the hot sun.

Finally thanks to Bryony for her support throughout this – for her it meant some sacrifices in personal time (i.e. I was often never around, off cycling somewhere) and lots of stresses and strains.

I couldn’t have done it without any of you.

London to Canterbury

Before France and the Etape there was one final cyclosportive to ride – The London to Canturbury ‘British Sportive’. This ride closely followed the route that Stage One of the 2007 Tour de France would take a week later.

Here’s what I wrote back then:

After getting up at about 3.30, I was at the start sometime after 6am – Bit annoyed by a few club types who came across as quite self important at the start line, shoving their way to the front – including one from my local club who barged past quite aggressively then propped his bike against the fence and went for a pee.

I didn’t like the opening bit to Gravesend, and having ridden this bit before last year knew it was fairly rubbish. Having said that the traffic was pretty light at that time of day and I was surprised how quickly Rochester came up (the previous year I rode it with Barry Mason from Southwark Cyclists, who took us on a wildly diverging route taking in far too much of NCN 1, apart from the lovely bit through the marshes which is worth a sizeable detour).

The wet conditions had most people fairly damp early on and made me really, really wish that guys would not wear white cycling shorts. In the wet they become transparent and quite unpleasant to look at, especially with a muddy stripe up the middle. I swear I pushed hard in the early stages just to avoid transparently naked arses.

I was flogging along with a fairly fast group, some of whom were aiming for a six hour time and I was keeping up fairly well (I knew I would probably lose this pace at some point but at 50 miles I was optimistic of doing somewhere between 6.20 to 6.40 by the finish, a good pace for the distance)

A visit from the puncture fairy at 61 miles dropped me from the fast group I was with and lost me a fair bit of time – a lot of water had got in and the adhesive rim tape got screwed up as I took the tyre off – it left about four spoke holes exposed which I couldn’t get the tape to unravel enough to cover – fearing further punctures, I patched these with super patches (I knew I carried them for a reason) and the bodged wheel held up for the rest of the ride.

I tried to make up ground a bit and passed a fair few riders but I think I lost a good number of places due to puncturing (I’m sure I wasn’t alone though). I only stopped at one feed point which turned out to be the one with only water. Fortunately I had most of what I needed on me so just refilled on water for a very quick stop.

Cheers to the spectators who were out, especially the ones with the cowbell and the ones at Farthing Common – most spectators seemed more like onlookers though, and bemused ones at that.

I didn’t have a lot of power left at Canterbury and was almost glad that the finishing stretch was too narrow for a sprint. My rolling time according to my bike computer was only 6.25 but the actual time taken was 6:51:50.

It was interesting comparing it to the Etape Caledonia which I did the previous Sunday, which was much faster and better marshalled I thought (with better warning of dodgy turns). The closed roads in Scotland made it a much more enjoyable experience, with better surfaced roads too.

Overall I was happy with the British Sportive and was happy with my time. A fortnight later was France and the Etape!

In the Pyrenees

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).