Sunday, 14 September 2008


This will be the final and closing post for this, my Etape Blog.

It started last year as an effort to keep me focused, and has proved invaluable as an aid in the darker moments to remind me where I've come from and what it is possible to achieve.

I'm still a bloke who is fatter than he wishes, though I'm a shadow of my former self, and I'm significantly fitter. I have finished the Etape du Tour in front of the broom wagon (my original target) and without walking a single step of either mountain (an achievement beyond my wildest imaginings at the outset). I have cycled some 9,500 miles in the last 2 years, a number I can still scarcely comprehend.

So, was it worth it?

Even had I failed in France, the answer would still be a resounding YES. I have rediscovered the joys of fresh air and countryside, despite the downside of traffic, and my wife and I now spend a deal of enjoyable time on our bikes. My health has improved, and my energy levels are incomparable, stress is much reduced. And lest I forget, the four first time Etappers raised almost £3,500 for the Stroke Association.

As for the Etape itself, I'm afraid I still find the finish a bit of an anticlimax, maybe because of the weather and the isolated finish. That said, I'm beginning to feel pride in an achievement that most who knew me felt was beyond me. Part of the driver on the high mountains was the voice of a hospital consultant when he was treating me for IBS late in 2006. The conversation went something like:

Do you exercise? Yes.
What do you do? I cycle.
Often? I try, and I will be cycling a stage of the Tour de France in the Pyrenees next July
Good God man! You're far too big for that. Do something more sensible.

With the best will in the world, and with the greatest of respect. Up yours! No-one tells me what I am, and am not, capable of. My wife has remarked, when I have arrived back with bronze medal after bronze medal from every Sportive I've done (bar one) "If they gave out medals for being bloody-minded, you'd get a Gold every time". Tenaciousness, and application are everything. Never give up.

To anyone thinking of doing the
Etape, go for it. But train first. And when you have trained, train some more. It is so worth it, to say "I did that" when the professionals follow. Finally some words of semi-wisdom:

The biggest weight you carry is between your ears.

Thinking about it is harder than doing it.
If there is an ideal Etape bike for a beginner, I has a triple.
Ignore all 'minimum' amounts of required training, only at least twice as much will do.
You are stronger than you think you are, and you CAN do it.

That's it for me and the Etape (until 2012 when I'm in the 50+ age category) but it cannot, and will not, end here. Next year will be London-Edinburgh-London, 1400 kilometers of Audax in under 5 days, and beyond that the Marmotte, Paris-Brest-Paris and too many other good Sportives to mention by name.

Thanks for reading and commenting, you have kept me honest, and helped to get me up the mountains and over the line. The link to next years Blog is on the top right of this page, I look forward to seeing you there.



Sunday 7th September saw the final sportive that I had pencilled in for this year, the SpudRiley Gran Fondo, heading out of Woodford into the Peak District hills.

As has seemed normal since April, the weather was not the best, overcast and misty with variable visibility, if not raining. Since the forecast was not too good I broke out the Carrera, which has not seen serious action since February. It now has a 105 triple on the front (ex-Trek surplus from the 'left-overs' when priming the Trek proper for the Etape) so I was confident I could climb anything. How wrong I was!

Within 3 or 4 miles of the start we came across the first climb of the day "Pott Shrigley" and it became apparent that the mist-laden air was missing a vital component, oxygen. I was immediately right down through the gears and grinding. This set a trend for the rest of the day as the seemingly-never-ending Brickworks climb followed. By this point the new chain was receiving its first stretch, gears were constantly 'searching' and I was not having a good time.

Goyt valley followed, together with the rear derailleur throwing the chain off the big ring on the back at the start of the climb to the back of the Cat & Fiddle. By this time Mark was yo-yoing back and forth as he reached the top of climbs without me in sight and came back to look. Very embarrassing.

The top of the Fiddle climb gave some respite on the plummet towards Allgreave, but this was soon forgotten as the subsequent grind back up to Flash (which they keep reminding us is the highest village in England, as if I couldn't tell) sapped the legs once more.

The best descent of the day followed down towards Longnor, but this only brought my nemesis, Crowdecote ever closer. Once more the chain was thrown at the bottom of Crowdecote, and the hill was tackled from a standing start. Not that I was bothered by this point, and besides I was 0/2 for Crowdecote so far. On the Crich Tramway Audax I had to stop twice to 'take photographs' (yeah, right!) and on the Autumn in the Peak Audax I was so far gone I had to walk from 1/3 of the way up. At least this time I had the advantage of a 30/34 bottom ratio (I do mean 30/34 not 34/30) and ground all the way up to the first feed at the top of the climb.

It was apparent, however, that I would be out until the cows came home (about 5:45 locally) if I did the long course, so for the first time this year I wussed out and went short. Almost immediately the long drag seemed to start back up past Buxton Raceway to Axe Edge Moor, and it never seemed to end. Never steep, it just goes on forever in a solitary, soul destroying kind of way. I had long since dispatched Mark with the instruction to wait for me at the finish.

Descending from the second time off the Cat & Fiddle was a long slither, further slowed by a previous accident involving an earlier cyclist, and the subsequent steep descent back towards Pott Shrigley was gravelly at best. At least it was impossible to get lost here, you just had to cycle downstream following the river in the middle of the road.

I finally arrived back in Woodford in an elapsed time of 4:56, an average speed of only just 11 mph, and a full 25 minutes behind Mark. Memory Map, though, would eventually claim this 54 miles to have almost 2,00 meters of climbing. No wonder I was shattered. Positions were about normal, about 80% of the way down the pack, but I felt terrible.

Whether the coming down off the hype of the Etape has had a very negative effect, I do not know, but I am miles off being the cyclist I was in France. I'm heavier (we're all about 1/2 stone heavier) and the fitness levels are way down. Couple that with pushing an inferior aluminium machine and it was never going to be a good day. Nevertheless, I survived, something I would never have done this time last year.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

On Trial

Since having rediscovered the joys of cycling a couple of years ago, I have been keen to experience as many of its aspects as possible.

As this year progressed, and speed built, it was suggested that I might try a 10 mile Time Trial. I resisted up to the time of the Etape, preferring to concentrate on the ability just to keep going, and not wanting to post a time in excess of 30 minutes. For me, the ability to 'break evens' (20mph average) was key.

With the end of the 'Summer' approaching, a visitor to the 10th August Audax I was overseeing for a Tamworth CC colleague 'invited' me to try one of the Hinckley CRC "Tuesday 10's". Flat course, friendly welcome.

Both correct. I turned up (late as usual) on 26th August, to be 48th off of the maximum 50 riders.

The first unusual sensation is to balance on a bike at the start whilst the chap pushing off balances you. Weird. At the off, I was determined not to go off too fast (I've read that's a bad idea) but that's a little difficult when the road is gradually downhill.

The fellow 1 minute in front was long gone, but the procession of riders on the return part of the out-and-back course is a constant encouragement. Out of breath after the first mile, I dug in and kept the cadence going. The course is advertised as flat, but has lots of draggy bits that really give the legs a workout.

Round the roundabout on the A5 at the end of the out leg, I exited the roundabout as the rider 1 minute behind approached. Game on, head down, don't let him catch me. Focus for the next 4 miles was as much on the speedo as the road, as the expected noise of pedals and wheels from behind never materialised.

Passing the timing car, I yelled my number and warmed-down back to the car, being congratulated by the guy behind for being uncatchable despite his best efforts. Result!

Official timing gave me 27:30, well inside my 30:00 target, and only 48 seconds off my standard time for a 46 year-old. 21.81 mph and a good marker for next year, 38th of 50 starters.

If anyone out there is toying with the idea of a TT, go for it, its great fun.

A Black Day in the Mountains?

Having returned from France, I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up feeling a little flat and purposeless. This continued to the extent that very little time was being spent on the bike, and something had to be done about it.

Cue a late entry onto the Tour of the Black Mountains Sportive, starting from near Abergavenny. Scheduled for Saturday 26th July, we set our plans, and were joined on the start line by the British Summer (all 1 day of it!).

In truth, this event was (for me) the final confirmation that the Etape weather was in my favour rather than against me. Setting off at about 8:00 in the morning, the sun was already beating down and by the time we reached the top of the first climb of the day, the Gospel Pass, there were already beat-up riders sitting at the first 'summit' pouring perspiration. At this point I was already happy to let people pass, knowing that I would regret it later if I didn't. Somewhere along the road to the Gospel Pass I passed a 110kg Bumble Bee, but more of Howard from Team Cycling Plus later. The final summit of the climb soon followed, and we were greeted with hazy views over the Brecon Beacons before descending to Hay-on-Wye.

The remaining section to the first feed was a mixed success. I was going along nicely sort-of in the company of another rider (losing on the drags, gaining on the flat) when another two riders joined in. 24kmh rapidly became 28. Another 3 joined, 28 became 30. Then a group of 20 arrived and things got going nicely on the flat. 40kmh was achieved, and held........until the next hill. I tried to keep up, got stuck in the wrong gear, and had to haul on the pedals to avoid grinding to a complete halt. HRM shrilly protested 174bpm (never been above that) and a fellow rider said "Crikey mate, you're going to explode!". Explode I did, and the tempting peloton receded into my now less-than-immediate future, as a speed of sensible mid-20's khm was restored. Future experience would show the damage to already have been done.

After a few km on the dual carriageway after the feed, the route returned to the lanes for an uphill drag to Sennybridge, with the attendance of airborne military hardware showing us we were getting closer. As I passed through Sennybridge an Apache attack helicopter landed about 150metres away. And I thought my Trek was an impressive piece of kit!

After the turn south into the Beacons proper the 'real' ride commenced. By this point the full-fat route riders were on their own, and I was very much on my own being amongst the slower riders (as usual). The climbing continued, and the average speed dwindled. This was very tough going.

Very tough turned to 'mental' after Heol Senni and the climb up the edge of Bryn Melin round the so-called Devil's Elbow. From the bottom, this piece of road looks impossible. Once you are on it, it is merely difficult, but at least the second feed is at the top. First impressions are that the top is a cruel place for the feed, but the view is fantastic. The view alone is worth all the climbing to get there.

Leaving the feed, the marshalls let us know that "it is all downhill, until the bottom of the next climb". It certainly was, but the climbs came thicker and faster than ever after that. The road through the reservoirs back towards Pontsticill and Talybont is rarely flat, and it was getting hotter all the time. We rejoined the shorter route on this section, but those riders were all long-gone. Not so the MTB-ers who were out in force on this section, and who wanted to know, after being told the distance of the ride, how many days we had to complete it in. When told they were convinced of our madness.

Feed three was in the most welcome place at the top of yet another hill, but it was largely (steep and twisting) downhill from there towards Llangynidr. The road to Crickhowell follows the canal at this point, so it is flat. Therefore, the road turned off right, up Cwm Claisfer towards Beaufort. Up and up it went, with my exhausted body venting wrath at the cruelty of sportive organiser throwing in gratuitous climbs for no reason. Not so. At the top, a left turn delivers riders onto the road back down to Crickhowell, and what a road! Good gradient, flat surface (cattle grid excepted) and open bends. Yee-HAW!! 50mph, and that included bottling onto the brakes prior to the cattle grid. What a descent.

Through Crickhowell to more hills, and the final few undulating miles to the start/finish, I finally crawled over the line after 9:30 of the hardest effort of the year. In the organisers tent, the Bumble Bee was receiving oxygen and looking particularly peaky. A trip to the local hospital would reveal Howard was suffering from the effects of heatstroke. Despite being as sensible as possible, I don't think I was too far off either. Brett, by this point, was phoning me as he arrived back in Stratford on Avon having finished some two hours earlier. Git!

Looking back, this was a much harder proposition than the Etape, and is a cracking Sportive. Why it is not fully subscribed months in advance, I do not understand. Finally, my fame is complete. I made the photo montage on the Bike Radar review of the event, the photo below being subtitled "Slow and steady was the preferred pace for many riders". Damn right, enough said.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Cols for Cols sake

The morning after the Etape before was, to be frank, a bit of an anticlimax. Everyone was coming down off the buzz of weeks of preparation, and we were faced with the reality of filthy bikes in need of attention.

By lunchtime, the majority of french roadgrot had been removed, and following a light(ish) lunch, Peter and Brett retired to Pau to take in some culture whilst the other three of us took in about 30 miles of roads to remove the remaining aches and pains. It was on this ride that I remembered how easy it is to dislike Mike as he grinned his way past me cycling uphill on just one leg and leaving me floundering.

Tuesday was our last day in France, so we decided it would be rude to leave without checking out a few more metres of climb, eventually deciding on the Soulor and (possibly) Aubisque from the 'easy' side at Argeles-Gazost. Peter came along, determined to at least bag one Col despite suffering the after effects of a stomach bug, and the lingering effects of a long illness that has left him depending on EPO to maintain any sensible semblance of haemoglobin in his bloodstream.

Gone were the weather conditions of the weekend. Mountains beckoned. The planning process had worked on the basis that ascending from the Argeles-Gazost side would give us a nice long warm-up along the Val d'Azun before commencing the Soulor climb proper, and give Peter a gentle introduction back onto the bike. Passing Argeles-Gazost we slowly negotiated market day, which was all-but blocking the through road. Alas, we then noted that the first pat of the climb, an ascent of 350 metres starts in Argeles, and climbs to the Val d'Azun itself. Mike, Mark and Brett disappeared into the distance, myself and Peter ground along, stopping when needed.

We eventually decided that the others would carry on, and I would accompany Peter. Once in the valley we experienced several kilometers of picture postcard alpine cycling before the climb of Soulor proper at Arrens-Marsous. Pretty soon, the gradient was around the obligatory 8% and the odd rest was needed, although steady progress was being made.

Once reaching the 1,000 metre altitude mark, Peter sent me on ahead to catch up with the others feeling, I think, that he may have been holding me up. Quite frankly, I didn't mind, but carried on upward.

About 1km further on, a call from the others informed me that they were carrying on to the Aubisque, and they would see me there (if I made it). I was pleased to note that I only had 3.4km of climb to do before I reached the top, from where they were phoning. At this point, I felt that I was pushing on far more than in the Etape, and the average speed confirmed this as I reached the top of the Soulor averaging 10kmh, a full 25% faster than up the Tourmalet. Mr Trek had his picture taken to prove attendance.

At this point I noticed the road up to the Aubisque, and was stunned. There was no longer any doubt that I would get to the top of Aubisque. This is a road that simply has to be ridden. A proper 'corniche' road, blasted into the mountainside, with tunnels, walls (more of a 'trip-hazard' actually), tunnels, and a thousand foot drop at the side. Outstanding!

I don't know exactly what the Etape did to my hill climbing ability, but I seemed to fly up the Aubisque, arriving at the top to find Brett, Mark and Mike watching the Tour on TV in the bar in the company of Dr David Williams and his companion, two gentlemen I had last met at the end of the White Rose Classic. It's a small world, as was further proven by meeting Rob Ford from the Kelly's Heroes Etape Blog. I gather Alec and Karen were also up there on the Tuesday at some point, though we didn't come across them.

Once fed and watered, Brett and I decided to return to Argeles-Gazost, Peter and the car. Mark and Mike continued back to Pau down the Aubisque through Gourette and Eaux Bonnes. We fair flew down the Soulor beneath flocks of eagles circling round in the Val d'Azun.

Back in Argeles-Gazost, Peter appraised us of his day. Fate, it seems, has a habit of picking on certain people, and must see Peter as an easy target. He was absolutely determined to reach the top of Soulor, some 6km from where I left him. Having gone no more than 500 metres, his freewheel mechanism broke completely, leaving him with no option but to wobble back to the car on an unstable rear wheel.

The drive back to Pau was done over Soulor and Aubisque, during which we noted that we had drawn the short straw returning to Argeles. The descent of Aubsique is MAD! Some 20km of hurtling descent with hairpins a-plenty. It's on the list, I'm going back for that one.

Mark and Mike beat us back to Pau, averaging an enormous speed down the Aubisque, outpacing cars and enjoying themselves immensely. I'm still envious. As a day on the bike, though, it was a fitting end to a great trip.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Mountain Audax

Removing jacket and armwarmers for the forthcoming ascent of the Tourmalet, my calculations were informing me that I had two options:
1. Go out very hard for the finish, hurting lots, and missing a silver medal by about half an hour, or
2. Climb steadily and within myself, concentrate on the descent, and use as much of the 6 hours remaining to me as I needed.

Now, I'm not one for pain at the best of times, even as advertised at the bottom of the Tourmalet.
If silver for my class was 7:10 as advertised (surely it should have been about 7:30?) that gave 3 hours 25 minutes for the remaining 69km. Take away 1:10 for the downhill section, that's 2:15 for the 32km ascending Tourmalet and Hautacam. Not happening, forget it.

Option 2 it was, take it 'easy' and Audax my way round the rest of the course at a more relaxed speed.

Setting off in a low gear out of St Marie de Campan, I was surprised at the fact the gradient felt quite shallow at this stage (probably the fact my legs were rested) and turned the pedals quite quickly up to the Elan Service Station at Gripp where the climb 'proper' is reputed to start. More time gained on the broom wagon.

Conversations with fellow riders dwindled over the next section as we entered the trees and the clouds almost at the same time. The gradient increased steadily to about 7.5 or 8%, but the bottom gear on my triple (30/27) was still not yet needed. I was surprised by Mark on this section, as he enquired how I was as he went past. I thought he was already in well in front as he normally can only contact me on a ride by sending a postcard back down the course, he's normally so far ahead of me. He was struggling with the coat-on, coat-off decision making and regular stops were delaying him. Indeed, he was only 45 seconds ahead at the timing strip above La Mongie.

Bottom gear finally came into play on the sharp right bend 3km below La Mongie, and stayed engaged the rest of the way to the top. Heart Rate on this section was about 155, and stayed out of the red zone all day, maxing out at just 162.

La Mongie was chaos, the melee of riders being almost as ugly as the resort itself. It took me 10 minutes to dive in and recover 2 bottles of water and a couple of bananas. I didn't have the fight in me to go back for butties, so I got back on the bike, plugged in the MP3 player, and span off towards the top powered by 80's rock music. This helped for a while, and when I removed the headphones a couple of km later, the eerie atmosphere of the Tourmalet in the mist was all the more noticeable. As I mentally ticked off the bends from the DVD, and made corny gestures to the photographers, it occurred to me that I might actually make it to the top without walking. Sure, I had pulled over to take a drink a couple of times owing to a wish not to wobble at low speeds in traffic, but the bike was unpushed.

Minutes later, the clouds receded a little, and the uphill disappeared, to be replaced with a ruck of humanity shoving newspapers down their jerseys. I had made it to the top of the Tourmalet, and now it was time for gravity to strut its stuff!

Armwarmers deployed, jacket back on, Mr Trek was launched (carefully) down the biggest descent I had ever encountered. Someone told me later it was only 2 degrees on top of the Tourmalet. I'm not sure it was quite that cold, but it certainly wasn't warm.

By the time the first hairpin arrived, I was settled and comfortable, and negotiated it without alarm or mishap. It was apparent, however, that not everyone was comfortable, and some were cornering with great amounts of brake squealing and lots of wobbling. I noted at this point the road had been swept since the previous day. Gone were the loose rocks, if not the gravel, so the brakes could be left alone a bit.

MaindruPhoto were again in force after the biggest bend (about 220 degrees) at the top, so I tried to put on my best descending pose to make it look like I knew what I was doing. 500 metres later, and I briefly thought someone was shooting at me, as a loud bang came from behind me. A check of the tyres, and a look over the shoulder revealed that it was not me, but another competitor superheating his rims this time.

Over the course of the next 5 km, I saw over a dozen riders changing punctures, all of them rear wheels. At the speed of many of the descenders, a front tyre blow out would not bear thinking about.

As the clouds thinned, paranoia got the better of me and I pulled over to check the heat of my own wheels. Rear was very warm, but not hot. The front just barely warm. Note to self: on returning to England, fit Ashima AirFlow brakes to rear of bike, too.

From this point to Luz St Saveur, the descent was just a blast. I still kept the speed down, and didn't go above 42 mph, but descended swiftly and safely, making up many places round the hairpins below Bareges, which surprised me as I don't rate my cornering ability.

Exiting Luz St Saveur, I was alone and a headwind was getting up. In the company of a single french rider in Toulouse CC strip, I put my head down and went after a group about 400m up the road. 2km later, and nearly on the back, I heard a small noise behind and was surprised to find myself pulling a train of 12 riders.

Arriving at the water station at the bottom of Hautacam, I stopped to remove the layers, and heard my name being shouted, as Karen appeared from the other side of the road. I faffed, while she filled my bottles. Karen, I envy your enthusiasm in the face of your current difficulties. After chatting for a few minutes, I made my exit and headed for the hill, knowing that I now had the best part of three hours in which to complete.

Riders were already descending through the crowds who were lining both sides of the road. I remember thinking that I didn't want to change down for the small rise to the first corner, so I stood on the pedals. The crowd went barmy! They thought I was having a go. I soon sat back down.

Like the Tourmalet, I remember little of the Hautacam, my mind having retreated to a place of relative safety. I remember almost clipping a couple of very slow wheels, and riding on a rocky verge for a few yards as I tired, but little more. By the time I reached 3km to go, and the steepest part over the cattle grid, I still had not walked, so dug in and then managed to change UP a couple of gears. The final two bends encouraged a stand-up sprint and throwing the bike at the line for 8:56:30 and 5,083rd place.

The fat boy had not only finished the Etape, but actually RIDDEN the Etape. I'm still not sure I can quite believe it.

The wait at the top was cold and wet (5 degrees and raining) and the descent slippery and dangerous. On the descent, I got my one and only sight of the broom wagon, threatening the stragglers as they grimped up the final climb.

At the car park in Las Balagnas, I rejoined the others, all successful though a little disappointed with their times. As far as I can see, any finish on a day with such weather is a 'good' time, even if very few riders actually achieved their intended medal times. I have my medal, I care not about it's colour, that's not what this was about.

Obligatory Stats:
4 first time Etappers started
4 first time Etappers finished
Distance 167.5km
Elapsed time 8:56:30
Elapsed average speed 18.7kmh
Average HR 143
Max HR 162
Calories burned 7,234

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

'Lowland' Sportive

Having been worried about getting stuck toward the back of the start pen, particularly Mike who was drawn in Pen 9 with the other 7000's, and taking some stress for faffing en route, the First Time Etappers turned into the Hippodrome Car Park at 5:55 and were directed to within 10 yards of the front of their respective start pens. Result! Either the dire warnings of late arrivals being pushed to the back were wrong, or other riders had looked at last night's thunderstorm, and stayed in bed for the extra half hour.

Black skies gradually turned grey, revealing no chance whatsoever of breaks in the cloud. The layer of Piz Buin on my arms and neck was looking forlornly optimistic. Mist turned to drizzle, and as the hour to the start ticked down, drizzle turned to rain. Prized Lycra shirts were hidden beneath showerproof and full rainproof jackets, and arm warmers were deployed. Next to us a grizzled french campaigner slept on, stretched out on the tarmac, his helmet serving as a pillow.

Behind us, English voices accompanied similar rain protection, but beneath jackets, the St Georges Cross of Foska jerseys was visible. A quick question revealed that these gentlemen were, indeed, the Etape Virgins, all lined up and ready to go, and in ridiculously good spirits.

Acquaintances were made, and photographs exchanged (bit blurry owing to poor light and nerves), prior to 'race faces' being put on, as the swelling crowd of riders gradually quietened towards the start hour. Perhaps everyone was feeling as nervous as I was.

As the start point approached, and riders quietened, the french announcer was reaching fever pitch. Although my french is reasonable, I could only recognise the odd words..."slippery", "police", "dangerous descent", "tourmalet" amongst them.

Words I did recognise, however, were the countdown, and start. At this point a huge cheer went up, and the rain came down. 10 minutes passed motionless as the pens emptied ever closer, then the barriers were hauled back and we were away! The 13 elapsed minutes were noted as we rolled painfully slowly toward timing mats, finally bleeping our way out onto the soaking road with a 27 minute lead over the Broom Wagon.

At this point 'being English' paid immediate dividends, as a quick switch to the left lane of the divided boulevard put myself and Brett into clearer air. Within 100 metres, he was gone, not to be seen again until the Car Park at the finish. Mark crossed over at the next roundabout, together with many others and the pace inevitably slowed until the first left turn onto the main road. Onto the wide street, and the first casualties of the day appeared. Punctures after less than a kilometer! Please Lord, don't let it be me.......

The swoop through town continued, gradually gathering pace as the river of riders thinned out a little. Signs were good, and with the gestures of rider in front, those behind managed to miss the well-wrapped road furniture, even down the wet slither to the river and under the tunnel. At this point, fully grown men (and women) were whooping and hollering like 6-year-olds making echoes in the tunnel. I refused to enter into such childishness........much.

We seemed to leave town in no time compared to the previous day, and were soon at the turn for Gan, by which time I had my group. It wasn't difficult to find, it just sort-of coalesced into a mass of about 1000 + riders. All the while we were passing casualties of early punctures, and I was left hoping my new tyres could deal with the grit and mess on the road.

Between Gan and Rebenacq the first rolling road of the day appeared, and I found my comfortable pace creeping me up towards the riders in front. I'd been ridiculed by my colleagues in the start pen for consuming a bar and two gels from my extensive collection before the race even started, but I was feeling ridiculously good at this point. The empty left half of the road beckoned, promising elevation by several hundred places just for a few minutes thrashing effort. Not for the last time I resisted.

The narrow turn to Rebenacq revealed a stationary Mark, but my enquiries of his well-being were lost in the melee, which soon became a ruck as the climb through the traffic calming kicked in. I got up at very slow pace, but I'm sure that many others behind would have been forced to walk owing to sheer volume of humanity. I recall a picture of misery here, as a rider sat forlornly staring into the distance, his rear derailleur snapped off and dangling by its cable. In the end the climb of Rebenacq was an anticlimax, seeming much less severe than the previous day, the only difficulty being wet vegetation that had fallen from the overhanging trees. A quick glance back down the valley revealed a bobbing snake of multicoloured mayhem, all bent on escaping the dreaded wagon.

The descent was 'interesting' partially due to minimal traction, but also due to the ebb-and-flow, surge-and-stop effects of the sharp bends. At least the experience of seasoned sportifs meant the shouts of "Whoa!" were loud enough and early enough to prevent serious mishap on the narrowing roads. By the time we had undulated our way out to Arros-Nay, my speedo was proclaiming 30kmh average, I was gaining on the Broom Wagon.

I will admit that, in retrospect, I expected Category 3 climbs to be a little harder (but I'm not complaining). Labatmale came up in front, and the pace inevitably slowed, but I was surprised that there were riders slower than me. Not many, but some, and I kept pace with many. I remember another two casualties here, a guy just sat quietly in a space blanket, and a fellow inspecting a lightly spoked carbon wheel in the shape of a figure 8. At the top, some indication of the day's support was apparent. People had driven out from their homes to stand at the top and cheer us on. Amazing!

Lourdes from Labatmale is mostly downhill, and by now the groups were thinning out. I had to dig in a few times to avoid being lost off the back, and I think this paid dividends later on when there were fewer people around. At some point along here, the Mikey Express shot past, but I never saw him. As we thundered into Lourdes, we were met with a mass of stewards urging us to slow down "Ca Glisse! - It's slippery". Riders had already come to grief. By the feed at 70km, average speed was 27.8kmh against the Brooming Standard of 27.1kmh. I had time to pillage water and sandwiches, parking the bike on the opposite side of the road and joining the free-for-all on foot.

5 minutes later, I was back on the road, shoving sandwiches facewards as I exited the town. Loucrup seemed steeper than Labatmale, but was over quicker. Just over the top we were reminded of the dangers still present in the wet roads, as a lady rider was being recovered by ambulance from a deep ditch on the first downhill corner.

The turn into the valley heralded the start of the draggy climbing, speeds falling off gradually as the gradient increased. We rolled into Bagneres-de-Bigorre, noting that the bunting had been put up since the previous day. As we emerged into the town square, the public were 6 deep on the pavement and the support was deafening. It certainly brought a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat, and an extra 5kmh to the legs. Baudean came and went, the gradient remained. Campan came and went, the gradient crept upward and eventually, just after the 100km mark, we reached St Marie de Campan and the foot of the Tourmalet.

This was my first 'real' checkpoint, the one at which I would know whether I was in trouble or not. Elapsed time 3 hours 45 minutes. A personal best for me over 100km and, more importantly, a gain from the start of 10 further minutes over the Wagon. At this point it was due to slow down, and I could steal some time over the few kilometers before the climbing really started.

I leaned my bike against the cemetery wall, rewarded myself by answering a call of nature in the civilised surroundings of the Public Convenience, then removed the arm warmers and showerproof before setting my head ready for the Tourmalet, Hautacam, and remaining 69km.