The 4am alarm went off, and the cooking of porridge commenced, it was either Mountain Mayhem, or the Etape. This time it was the Etape, and this year the Etape was running from Pau to a mountain top finish on the Hautacam in the Pyrenees, taking in the famous climbs of the Tourmalet & (obviously) the Hautacam. A total distance of 92 miles (148k) and around 15,000ft of climbing!
This year however the weather wasn't looking great, and the few days before the event were spent looking at various weather forecasts and trying to work out just how many layers will be needed, how many gloves, and just how poor will the visibility descending off the Tourmalet be...
My bib number was 1128 (out of 13,000 entries), so had a 7:08am start time. Arrived into Pau at 5:45am, grabbed a coffee and went to my start pen, and waited with all the other 1000 bibs riders. It wasn't raining, but you could see the weather over the mountains, the cloud was low, and it was certainly going to be grim, very grim! 7:00am and the first riders went out, our group then moved down and at 7:08am we were off, a rolling start over the timing grid, and down out of Pau.
After looking at the profile, the first half of the ride was mainly flat, however did include 5 hills, 2 of which were the Cat 3 climbs of Chemmin D'Ossau and Cote de Benejaq. The pace was fairly hot from the off and groups were quickly forming, of varying sizes. I managed to get into a good group of 5 riders, and for the first 10 miles we were alone, and all seemed to be working well, taking turns on the front, that was until we caught another group of about 15. The group was now 20+ with two people taking turns on the front, me and one other daft french man. We then proceed to tow this group for the next few miles until I found I was the only one doing the work... I sat up, looked around, looked around again and nobody was going to come through, sod this I thought! So off I went and let the group work on their own. After 2 miles I was predictably (and thankfully) caught by a quick group of 4. We had now passed the first feed stop, the weather was looking ominous, and up ahead I could see Miles Butler (from from club), he set off in the same wave as me, however a few minutes earlier so nice to see I had gained a bit of time. Up to this point, apart from a few climbs the route had been mainly flat, and fairly fast at around 21mph average for first 45 miles.
I was feeling strong, had 2 gels upto now and seemed to have my clothing right (for now) For the next few
miles upto the Tourmalet I rode with Miles which helped, and was nice to see a friendly face and was good to chat about the climb and the route so far. Miles thankfully gave me some tips, and what bits were hard, and what to expect... The rain, or rather low cloud was now setting in, and we were onto the Tourmalet. A 10.7 mile climb at 7% average, Miles and I rode together for the first few miles, however I was starting to feel it a bit, and decided that maybe not trying to follow Miles' wheel was the best idea... I settled into a rhythm and for the next section felt good, I was now at the 4k to go sign, and also the feed station! I was hungry, and needed some food, so dived in and grabbed Pizza and a glass of coke! That was the right move, for the next 4k to the summit I felt great and passed everybody, I was quite clearly just hungry. The rain was now hard and consistent, I was soaking, I did have my gloves on but not my jacket. The summit was horrible. Windy, heavy rain, no visibility and cold, around 5 degrees! I stopped, pulled my jacket out my jersey pockets and tried to put it on. Couldn't feel anything now, hands were wet, in fact my jacket was also wet. A few spectators helped me put my jacket on, zipped it up and told me to be careful! Their warnings were right too, god this was truly scary, and the first corner off the summit was a very tight hairpin. I negotiated this fine, however the three riders behind me didn't and all went down. I gave myself a talking to, it was not worth the risk flying down the descent at top speed, so I took it steady, very steady! By now I couldn't feel my fingers, my legs were cold and my body was shaking so much I couldn't really control the bike. I was however still moving, and still on the bike, which was a positive... I was also on my own, with the odd person going past me (crazy speeds) as I got further and further down I could see a glimmer of blue sky, and what's that? The sun? It was still cold, but there could be light (sun) and the end of the tunnel.
Now on the lower slopes on the Tourmalet and there was a small group of 3 riders in front of me, I got on the back, however the road spray wasn't nice, and to be honest I needed to get the legs moving again. So I went past and span the legs, just needed them to move again, it was still raining and I just wanted to get onto the Hautacam, the final climb of the day, where I would hopefully get warm again, maybe...
Just 10 miles left! I was near to the bottom of the Hautacam, which was 8.6 miles at 8%, I felt good and stopped at the food stop, some more Pizza and a load of coke, bottle fill up and I was off again. I felt fresh and started the pass lots of riders, the crowds at the bottom were amazing, lining the road in true Tour style. To make it even better the weather was getting better, the sun was out and the jacket and soaking gloves were off... I could see riders ahead who passed me on the Tourmalet, I then passed them, and I kept on passing riders, I still felt good, I shouldn't feel this good should I? As Miles had correctly said earlier, the Hautacam is quite undulating, so a section may average 8% for the next 1km, however within that section parts could be 12-13% which after 80 odd miles hurts. 5 miles in (up) and I the cloud came in, it was getting cold and that meant the rain was coming again... Not to worry, almost there I told myself, just 5 miles (I kept on converting that into running time, I reckon that's how long it takes to ride up here) 3K to go! That's less than 2 miles... Well these next few Kms hurt, it was cold again now, and raining, I was in my lowest gear, spinning, (well not really) standing up, sitting down again, anything to try and ease the pain in my legs... I was still passing everybody, which was a huge confidence boost. 1K to go, what? This averaged 9%... I was hurting now, but I clicked down a few gears, stood up and pushed. The metal barriers were lining the road now, I could see the finish, 200m, 100m and there, DONE! Whilst I was happy to finish, I was mainly wet, very wet, very cold and wanted to get off this mountain! Quick dive into the food tent, and a chat with Miles who just beat me by half a minutes and it was then back down the mountain to collect my medal and EAT.
So that's that Etape done for the 4th year now. This was the second hardest ever (2012 anybody?), but I was very pleased with my time and stats, which were:
- 16.1mph Av
- 92.4 miles
On reflection as I knew what 2012 was like (wet & cold) this year I made sure I had enough layers, so base layer, jersey, arm warmers, gilet and jacket was just enough, how people were descending in just a jersey and no gloves I don't know. I suspect this could well have been the reason only 8500ish finished!
That's it for another year though, thanks for reading.