03 August 2010

L'Etape du Tour 2010: Pau - Tourmalet. Part of "The Circle of Death"

(Passed over the top of Tourmalet. Very good road. Perfectly passable)

So read the telegram sent by Alphonse Steines to his boss when scouting the route for the 1910 Tour de France. What he didn't say is that he had to abandon his car because of snow and continue on foot. He got lost, fell down a ravine and was rescued at 4am. The first rider over the top in the race (just one of the climbs in a 289km day - others were Peyresourde, Aspin, Soulor and Aubisque - all monsters) screamed at the organisers "Assasins!".

The Lead-Up:
I flew into Toulouse on Thursday night and was almost an hour late thanks to British Airways. However, all my baggage, bike included, made it. Mine was the only flight to arrive at such a late hour so it was a mystery as to why it took the baggage 45mins to come out. It gave a chance for some irate Brits to practice their best rude holiday French on the airport staff, all to no avail as they merely shrugged their shoulders. "Qu'est-ce qu'on va faire?" Bienvenu en France.
By the time the bags did come out all public transport had finished and so I queued up for a taxi. Not many taxis can/will take a bike case so the wait was long. At least it wasn't raining. Finally got to my hotel to find the elevator too small for a bike case and my room (102) on the 2nd floor.... Bienvenu encore en France. The following morning I took the shuttle bus to the airport that leaves every 30mins on the hour and half past the hour. At 25 past the hour I was informed the driver had already left. C'est la vie, mon vieux.
Met James K and Jonathan D from London, rented a car and a van (part of our cunning plan for a quick escape after l'Etape), drove to Pau and checked into a pleasant hotel in the heart of the Pau and very close to the start of the race.
The Prologue (part 1):
Met up with Daniel, a Belgian friend who had travelled from NY with his beautiful Guru (bike, not person) and rode out to the registration area at the Hippodrome. It was good to do this on Friday, beating the Saturday rush. James had his bike serviced at the Mavic support booth. I'm told that in France if you want good service you should refer to the firm by it's proper name: "Ma-veek", not "Mavick". These mechanics take great pride in their work. The mechanic working on James' gears even called his boss out to discuss how to properly set up a combination of DuraAce and SRAM components. They did a great job. Meanwhile out the back of the Ma-veek tent was a trampoline with a man jumping/hopping on a fixie and doing and somersaults.
Rapha had a smart booth displaying all their wares including the new limited edition Tourmalet jersey. Some French riders were admiring the products but exclaimed "Zut alors!" when they saw the price list. Obviously not connoisseurs.

The Prologue (part 2):
It is said that preparation is half the battle. When in a new place one must try to acclimatise as quickly as possible so what better than dinner at La Table d'Hote in an ancient part of Pau? Great set menu and we enjoyed the local white (Jurancon) and red (Madiran).
The following day we drove in rain and fog to the top of the Tourmalet (photo) where the fog cleared momentarily but as we were above the cloud we could not get a clear view of what the next day held in store for us. It was stunning all the same.

We left the van at La Mongie, 4km down the other side with the idea of making a quick getaway after l'Etape. Back to Pau for a late lunch and then a carb dinner (pizza, pasta, a beer and some red wine) and to bed.

L'Etape - Sunday morning 18th July:
Up at 4:45am to ensure time for a good breakfast. We arrived at the start at 6am and waited for the gun at 7am. The hedges in the lovely Parc Beaumont will take a while to recover from thousands of nervous, overhydrated cyclists relieving themselves. In no time at all the group was moving. Even before we crossed the official start line riders were trying to push to the front. I learned a new overtaking manoeuvre from a French gentleman: push into a space just as wide as the handlebars and keep saying "pssscccht!" When you hear that coming just over your shoulder it takes you by surprise.

As I crossed the start line I said to myself that here I was, actually riding l'Etape. It is a far cry from when I first heard about this annual race a few years ago from a nutter in a spinning class back in Tokyo who was training for l'Etape 2006. That nutter was now riding beside to me and I have to thank him for getting me into cycling in the first place. It is difficult to explain why the organisers felt it would be appropriate to send 10,000 riders off on the first few hundred metres of the race on a narrow downhill section with hairpin corners. This then led through Pau to a bottleneck which caused a stop. All this would be a neutral zone for the pros who rode the course 4 days later. In fact they only raced for 174km vs our 181km. That might go some way to explain how they were twice as fast as me......

My overall impression was that the riders were fast and experienced, though over the day I did end up chatting with a lot of Brits who had not done much mountain training. The first proper climb was the Col de Marie-Blanque. With all pre-race chat about the Tourmalet climb this one and the next climb (Col de Soulor) did not get much mention. I had read that many pros do not like it because it is narrow and has an uneven gradient, thus not allowing them to get into a rhythm. Eddy Merckx, however, loved it because he said he could really make his rivals suffer. Although we had ridden over 50km the group had not really broken up much. It is difficult to climb on a crowded road because you cannot settle into your own rhythm. Motorbikes and the occasional ambulance or police car with siren reminding me of Inspector Clouseau movies would pass pushing riders over to the side. Once the gradient kicked up to 12 & 13% many riders dismounted and annoyingly, the road was blocked. We had to walk the last 1.5-2kms, thus losing a lot of time. The walk gave me the opportunity to talk to a Brit who it turned out used to live in Japan, is a good friend and roommate on the Paris-London charity ride of Laurent D. In fact he had even mentioned Positivo Espresso. Global reach!

The descent was beautiful and when the scenery opened up all that was missing was Heidi and a few goats.

On the approach to the Col de Soulor the group was serenaded by a professional Frenchman in a beret and stripy shirt playing an accordion. Set off up towards Soulor feeling good about good average speed maintained so far. As the Soulor goes on it gets steeper and more open. The last few kms were in baking heat and often at 8%. Unfortunately this is where James started to get very bad cramp but he soldiered on. I rode up alongside some 2 Japanese riders for a chat which rather surprised them. Every km there is a sign telling the riders how far to the top and the average gradient of the next km. At first these are useful, but soon become depressing and eventually, on Tourmalet, soul-destroying. I was amused on the way up to see"HTFU" in large letters chalked across the road. This is the important Rule 5. At the top I got James some salt water and ointment from the medical tent. The descent from Soulor is fast and gorgeous (roads are repaved for the Tour de France) but one had to be wary of over-enthusiastic Italians and the occasional pile of donkey sh*t. Hitting a pile at 75km would not be fun. James, a Frenchman and I took turns in pulling a fast train down to the feed-station at Argeles-Gazost, 1,000m below the top of Soulor.
And then it began: Le Col du Tourmalet (2115m). What many don't realise is that there is a 15km steady incline (3-5% gradient) leading up to the official start of the Tourmalet at Luz-St.-Sauveur. Having driven down this road the previous day I knew to take it easy, or as easy as I could in searing heat. The air was hot and still and we had the torment of riding alongside a beautiful, cool stream. I kept looking across to see if Jerome was wallowing in the water.
Le Col du Tourmalet is 18.6km long and climbs just over 1400m (ave 7.4%). In 36C heat having already ridden 160km it feels much more. It was as tough as everyone said it would be. All the way up spectators would douse me with cold water (some from the mountain streams was very cold) which would give me 30secs of respite. I even stopped for a glass of water in the shade of an elderly English couples property. They were too old and frail to ask for a push to help me get started on a 9% slope though.

All the way up people were throwing up, standing still bent over their handlebars, bodies were lying by the roadside in any shade there was and there was line of people by each crack in the rock from which water flowed. I rode up alongside a delirious Swede who thought he knew me and told me he just couldn't go on. I talked him up for another km before he basically keeled over.
The final drink station was just 10km from the top and felt like the final base camp on Everest from where the final assault on the mountain would be made. By this time James' cramp was so bad that he insisted I go on ahead without him. After all the hard training we had done together it felt like I was leaving a friend to die in the open (except it was 36C). These last 10kms took me over 1hr 20 mins. I was having to dig very deep. This was without doubt the toughest physical challenge I have ever faced. I stopped 2-3 times to drink, catch my breath and stretch my back. By this stage the road was lined with camper vans which had taken up position for the pros who would pass down this route in 2 days and then back up it in 4 days. I stopped at a van flying the Union Jack and Team Sky flags and enquired what had happened in the Tour that day only to be told Bradley Wiggins had dropped 5 minutes. There was a rider in full Sky kit enjoying a drink and shade of the camper van's awning who I was to meet later. I chatted with him at the finish and complimented him on his Sky Pinarello Dogma ("Nice bike" was a corny opening line). It turns out that this was a full-on team bike and that he was a director of Team Sky and the head of the British Cycling Federation. He explained that the max size rear cassette compatible with the Di2 is a 27 and because he was using a full size crank he was suffering.
The final few kms are at a gradient of 10%. There was an eery silence as riders slogged on, reminding me of some kind of death march described in WW1 poetry. Very near the top spectators would urge riders on with "only another 500m!" and then "encore deux cent metres plus, courage!" 60m from the top I got bad cramp and had to stop for a few seconds. Seeing my plight a kind spectator gave me an almighty push that gave me enough momentum to cross the line at a good speed looking like the climb had been no effort at all (I saw myself on the official Etape website video). I doubt anyone was fooled.
I spent 9hrs 33 mins in the saddle (longer when drink/food stops included). I covered 181km and climbed 4,400m. My goal was not to race but to complete. The winning time on the day was a little under 6hrs. Note that Jonathan D who has been riding for a little over a year came in 606th in 7hrs 34mins! The pros did the same course 4 days later and the winning time was 5hrs 2mins. My time up Tourmalet (not including the water stop) was 2hrs 8mins. The pros Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck did this 4 days later in 49mins! I watched this in a bar in Chamonix over a few beers and a copy of L'Equipe, the French sports newspaper. La Bella Vita.
Despite the pain and suffering I never once questioned why I had chosen to do this ride. The final climb made the ride much harder than I expected. Riding on closed roads and having officials flagging obstacles such as roundabouts and traffic islands (nowadays called traffic furniture apparently) made it feel very 'pro'. The crowds were wonderful and cheered riders along all the way with cries of "Allez, Allez" and "Courage" but what sticks in my mind is an Englishman sitting alone 3kms from the top slowly clapping everyone by. When I thanked him and he realised I was English he said: "No, thank you and well done. What you guys have done today is inhuman". When you are that exhausted emotions are exaggerated and I was very moved. I was also driven on by the thought of the children with cancer for whom James and I have raised Y3mn (close to $35,000).
If you are still reading, apologies for the long blog but it was a long day. A HUGE thank you to all the many generous donors to the Tyler Foundation (www.tylershineon.org) but also a big thank you to others who helped in other ways, with special mention for James M (http://team-machin-e.blogspot.com/) and to Simon L (www.lagazzettadellabici.com) for posting details of our campaign on his globally acclaimed blog.
Now I feel I can wear my Rapha Tourmalet jersey celebrating 100 years of the Tour de France in the Pyrennes.........


James said...

Outstanding guys.... very well done!

David L. said...


In really hot weather, making it up the 15 km "pre-hill" stretch of a 3-5% grade is difficult enough ... then the real climb.

It sounds like it was absolutely brutal, but from the photos looks beautiful. I think Jerome is already planning a week of riding out from a friend's place on a hilltop not too far from Pau for 2011 or 2012.

Manfred von Holstein said...

Dominic and James, many congratulations on making it! I was never in doubt you would - you trained hard for it. By contrast, it is amazing how some people think they can just do this without proper training, and then almost die during the ride. Which is also why I to admit I'm not keen to do this with 10,000 riders - would have my paramedic compulsion to help everyone lying by the road side, and would make no progress myself... One day, I want to do this ride just by myself, or with 1-2 friends.

Dominic, I really loved reading your story - incredibly well written and made it impossible to stop reading and getting back to work. Maybe a newspaper/journal might be interested in publishing an abbreviated version?

Cheers, Ludwig

TOM said...

Totally awesome - mighty story too.
Bravo to Dominic & James!

Jimmy Shinagawa said...


I appreciate your compliments, but Dominic omitted to mention that I sent him on as I was unable to continue to the finish.

He was extremely kind in waiting for me on the top of the Souloir (where he wasn't sure if I was joking when I told him I couldn't get off the bike as I couldn't straighten my legs without agony ensuing) and then at several places up the Tourmalet, but I was suffering from bad leg cramping and was unable to do anything about it. It was unlike anything I have experienced before and I am at a loss to understand why it was so extreme.

Given the my most recent rides I was very confident to complete the course, and was more interested to have a great day out on closed roads amongst thousands of enthusiastic riders. It was not to be.

I crawled up to the last feed station located about 9km and 700m from the summit and realised it was time to call it a day.

For me it was more like a mechanical failure that I couldn't fix. I need to do some research on cramping.

Manfred von Holstein said...

Sorry to hear this, James!

I would think it was the nutrition. We are really so well off in Japan with convenience stores at the right spots with the right food. I never suffer from cramps anywhere, but I have certainly noticed that I don't manage to develop the same kind of performance on the bike in Germany which I can put down here in Japan - and I don't think it is just down to the slightly heavier bike. I put it down to what I eat outside the rides (heavier!) and on the rides (less frequent).

mob said...

I concur. It looks like a great riding adventure and the story is very well written.

It would be nice if we could organize a bigger group for 2011.

ray said...

Excellent reading Dominic. Pity James wasnt able to finish it but knowing Knotty he will be back again. An amazing experience and a great feat. Looking forward to hearing more about it.

Anonymous said...

Well done guys and Dominic great text.
David C