l’Étape du Tour Daily Blog – The Event
by Barry Doyle
Sean O’Leary has been out genial host for the five intensive days we have spent here. He is a character of a specific nature, buzzing from one moment to the next. He leaves current conversations just before the finish of the present one, his mind a rush of activity and already focused on the next action, way before you have finished the past one. He has been a constant for us, providing advice, support, service and ever needed sustenance. He has been our crutch and we have leaned heavily on him at times.
Today we bore on his demonstrative qualities with full force, our descent from the Tourmalet resembling the swirling images of D’Antes Inferno, each of us arriving at the base of the Tourmalet in an extremely bad condition. Wet, freezing, tired, in need of nourishment and support, both mentally and physically, we entered Seans “home on wheels” in desperate spirits to leave in slightly less desperate spirits.
I pulled up outside with Kevin and Brendan. Brendan turned to me and muttered something along the lines of “Fuck, that was something else……”. I looked at Kevin to witness his upper and lower jaws chattering resembling those wind up teeth that vibrate their way across a hard surface. “I’m grand, I’m grand” he kept repeating, more to persuade himself than in response to my queries. Me? I was in a bad way, frozen, almost broken, all those days of indoor training to get used to the 35 degree heat rendered useless in two 50 minutes descents and along with it doses of spirit that pushes you beyond your boundaries towards finishing an event like this. Dave, Rob, Trevor, Dermot, John, who knows where they were. Probably lost in the myriad of bodies scattered up and down Pyrenean climbs. Wrapped in foil? Trying to warm their hands? Cramping up whilst attempting to stay on the brakes? Balancing bikes on grease covered roads? Trying to avoid the dung that only made the descents more treacherous? We cared but didn’t have time to think too much about it, this was a war of attrition now and we needed to focus on the finish.
Three shivering souls sat in Sean’s van when I clambered aboard, my cleats trying to plot a route between the foot deep piles of discarded wet clothes, banana skins, mars bars and tea bags. Oh, the Tea bags. The elixir for each of us, these are the wet Irish cyclists power bar, the spirit replenishing supplements we needed to recharge our depleted motivation and encourage us to move on. None of your EPO or blood transfusions for us, Sean made us a cup of tea. Each shivering body wrapped their frozen hands around a mug and slowly found some colour in the greys that rested outside. The van was like a war zone, lads coming in, pain painted across stretched expressions, lads leaving, the thoughts of another 80k’s of punishment etched in the furrowed brows. This was the point of no return, we bravely pushed on from here or more bravely packed it in. You found your way to the finish or called time, given the conditions no one would hold it against you but the choice needed to be made.
We had departed Pau that morning after a 4.30 rise. Spirits are never the best at that hour of the morning, well mine anyway. Rob is in great form most of the time and cunningly snapped a couple of shots but for most of us weary riders we just wanted another couple of hours sleep. Arriving at the “depart” for 6 am we filled our pockets with food, bidons with water and allowed ourselves be sheparded into the starting pens, 10,000 cyclists all waiting to be unleashed at 10 minutes intervals, by 8 am we were all off.
I nervously pushed off with John Brennan and was immediately surprised by the pace of the first few kilometres. The roads were rolling with great surfaces and echelons formed into winds coming from the east. We felt like proper tour riders as large crowds turned out at each town we passed. There is great support at these events and this was to be often repeated throughout the day.
The first 70k went in a blur of following wheels, worrying about the pace, revelling in the thrill of the event and fear of the coming ascents. Also, it was dry. Overcast but little to concern, with the sun ladden forecasts to the forefront of our minds to ensure the outlook remained positive. We passed a picturesque town called Larun, the road sweeping to the right and onto the lower slopes of the Col d’Aubisque. We described this climb in our column last Tuesday and other than the presence of thousands of fellow cyclists nothing had changed other than maintaining the heart rate at lower levels than previously. We were managing the pace carefully during the early stages of this event in the hope of unleashing some real hurt towards the final two climbs. The real torture was to follow on the descent. We rode into rain for the first time on the long ascent and the concerns had started already as we crested the crowd laden summit and started the descent to the Argeles-Gazost. Fifty long, wet and cold minutes later, having witnessed several accidents, one almost somersaulting the edges of the mountain, we entered the first allotted food stop to be greeted by large crowds of cheering locals, food, water and foil blankets for the thousands of shivering riders within nothing more on than lycra shirts and jersey.
With what can only be described as fabulous foresight, our hotel was located in the town and just beynd this food stop. As was planned earlier, we stopped at the hotel, re-provisioned, changed wet clothes for dry whilst also ensuring that the appropriate gear was selected given the drastic change in conditions. This took us about 30 minutes but was time well spent. I am not sure that without this stop we would have seen things through, again the wisdom of the font of knowledge, Kevin McNamee, being instrumental in how this was originally set up.
We pushed on for the Toumalet, our 2115m nemesis, that goades you into serenity as you wind your way through a stunning valley towards it hellish rise. Whilst the Tourmalet is 19k’s in length there is considerable 4 to 5% gradients to painstakingly negotiate as its lower slopes come into view. Hard work, but nothing compared to the real thing, it has constantly amazed us how our perceptions of gradients has changed in the last few days. Brendan, Kevin and I hit the lower slopes of the Tourmalet together and stayed together through its torturous ascent. We kept at each other, encouraging yet respectful of each others climbing styles. Only vocal when needed, we remained silent to each other, respectful of the climbing rhythm each of us generated. The numbers had thinned out at this stage and we seemed to pass more than were passing us. We ascended into the clouds, mist and rain, cresting the bitter summit after two painful hours. Then the horrific descent, tea and our point of no return.
Dave rolled in as Kevin, Brendan and I climbed out of Sean’s mobile house of tea filled horrors. We looked at each other knowing there was no way any of us would let each other pull the pin at this stage. We forged on, the weather improving slightly, still freezing but pushing on to generate some much needed heat. It was a this point that we all set our own pace, pushing on into the Col d’Aspin to be followed by the Col d’Peyresourde, both category 1 climbs rising to 1500 metres at gradients of 8%.
The Aspin is a 12k climb that really only kicks seriously over the last 6k. If there was a climb that was enjoyed, in the loosest possible use of the word enjoy, it was the Aspin. The gradient is deliciously steady and tapping out a rhythm whilst keeping your tiring heartrate at higher percentages was a reasonable ask. Many other riders were passed as this climb was ascended. Cresting to a large crowd framed in camper vans a quick stop allowed the cold weather jacket be put on prior to a fabulous and speedy descent to the base of the Peyresourde. I hit 70kph on this beautiful twisting road and whilst this pales into insignificance when compared to the speeds others achieved it provided great sensations as we dived into the valley below. The miserable weather had improved, the roads were drying and in the back off tired minds was the assurance that there was one climb left to be conquered.
We were going to finish this, too complete the targets we had set many months ago and achieve what we set out out to achieve some 11 hours earlier.
An so it was, with nine and a half hours on the clock, that we hit the lower slopes of the Col d’Peyresourde. 12 litres of water drunk. 7000 calories burnt. 180 kilometres cycled. 4000 meters climbed. It was now 14 fearsome hours since we woke to the dark of early morning. The mind and body are tired asking you to be logical, stop for gods sake, you’ve had enough, but your not listening any more. One more climb, one more 15k slog at 8%, cadence at 65, pushing on but not achieving the heart rate levels from earlier in the day, giving it everything you’ve got to bring it home.
The Peyresourde is a lush landscape, sitting in a rain belt of the Pyrenees, green grass, quaint villages and small crowds cheering as you ascend the climb. Tapping out our rhythms we passed many, many riders on this final test. Men walking, women sitting for a rest, one guy sitting cross legged vomiting between his legs, everyone shattered. Three kilometres to go and you can see the summit, the camper vans parked at then crest toying with your mind, tantalisingly close, so very far away. 3k to go, average gradient 8%, nearly there, your not going to stop, not now. 2k to go, average gradient, 9%, the pain is something else now, remembering the Aubisque, Tourmalet, our training rides, our preperation. 1k to go, gradient 8%, remembering Luz’Ardiden & the Hautacam, what a stunning week, great bunch of teammates, immeasurable sense of achievement, tortorous enjoyment. The legs feel no pain anymore, adrenalin coursing through you counting the last 100 metres, we know we’re there. Cresting the line to the cheers of a small crowd, an Italian cyclist pats me on the back, I him, “trés bien ascént”, “et tois” I reply.
We’ve never enjoyed such a fabulous descent as this with its on camber apex’s, beautifully surfaced roads, well marshalled crossings. Hitting speeds of 70 kph we entered Luchon to be greeted by a large crowds. Under the Flame Rouge we soaked up the vociferous cheering and loud applause, giving it every last bit of energy to cross the line. Bastille Day had treated us to this finish and to our delight fuelled the local crowds desire to applaud all finishers, we all got a small taste of what it is like to be a Giant of the Road.
10,000 cyclists left Pau between 7 and 8 on an overcast morning. 3820 shattered bodies finished in Luchon between 7 and 11 3/4 hours later. Included in that 3820 riders were all eight of the St. Tiernans riders, a marvellous achievement given the difficulties that some of our riders encountered, both on the build up to the event and on the day of the event. Immensely proud and totally shattered we barely managed a beer and retired to being the process of packing the bikes and ourselves for the journey home.
Kevin McNamee sent us all an enticing e-mail eight months ago as he enthused about the route. “it’s a great route….they’re never be another like it”. We reminded him of this on our homeward bound journey to the airport, confident in the knowledge that he was right on both counts.