l’Étape du Tour Daily Blog – Tuesday

by Barry Doyle

An Education

What have we gotten ourselves into. Only Kevin and Dave knew what was in store and even then we sensed some unease. Today was a lesson. A class in what we do not know about climbing, a tutorial in how small the mountains are at home and a grind in the grim reality of the Pyrenees. Brendan Bonnie described it as the Hurt Box. Yes, it hurt. Yes, your boxed with that hurt for long periods of time.

We set off at ten this morning. Heading towards Lourdes, the roads were undulating, rolling and inviting. The smooth surfaces and wide sections a joy for anyone used to Irish roads on a wet day. On the subject of wet days today was miserable. The weather is truly awful and made worse by, etape master extraordinaire, Kevin McNamee’s uninvited partings with anecdotes that this is first wet day he has ever had cycling in France. We put him on the front and left him there.

Our early route took us 60 kilometres to the west, then south of Lourdes to a small town called Laruns. We crested some climbs that would be similar to what we are used to and smug in our abilities stopped for lunch. We were cold, our clothes soaked through, but sprints were generally high. 70k’s done and we all felt reasonably good. The reality of our location had not sunk. Laruns, is at the foot of the Col d’Aubisque. It’s daunting summits hidden by low lying cloud, the cloak over its hidden routes, waiting to tear us from our comfort.

There is nothing you can do, in Ireland, that can quite prepare you for a climb like this. Nothing. It is my first experience and it has opened my eyes to the sheer scale of the task that awaits on Saturday. The climb is 16k’s in length. It is an average 8% gradient. There is no let up, there is no break, you will yourself to keep going, don’t stop, keep going, don’t stop. It is the relentless, painful, torture that cyclist’s seem to live for.

On all of the famous climbs each kilometre is marked. I can only assume this is done to mock the rider, remind him of how far from the summit they are, how much higher they must go, what gradient they have to deal with.

Col d’Aubisque: 1709m
You are: 700m
Distance to finish: 11 kilometres
Gradient for the next kilometre: 10%

Bren and I tackled the first 7 kilometres together, sharing the dawning realisation that this was no holiday. It is an exercise in pain management. The Hurt Box, that’s what Bren muttered from behind me, ’cause that’s what it is. 8k’s done, keep going its not so bad, this kilometre is only 8%. 9k’s done, shit this is 11%. 10k’s done, oh god, there’s still another 6 to go. 11k’s done, 8%, this is really hurting, quads sore, calfs sore. Keep drinking, keep tapping out the rhythm. 12k’s done, 10%, there’s a closed down ski village off to the right, signs for Après Ski bars. It dawns on you how high you are. 13k’s done, 8%, heartrate has been just below 90% for the last 50 minutes but it may be wise to throttle back a bit. 14, 15, 16, all a blur as you crest the summit, passing the giant bicycles that illuminate the tour de France helicopter shots each summer. Elated, shattered and wiser we pose for photos, trying not to dwell on the grim realities.

Never have I experience anything like it on a bike but I better get use do it as this is only the start of it. There are four of these to do on Saturday.

It was 30k’s to the hotel and we took these gingerly given the wet roads. Your body temperature gets very high during the ascents, however the descents, particularly on a day like today, can be just as difficult. A combination of horribly wet clothes and no physical work on the descent results in a very cold state. The complete reverse of the ascent. Throw in flocks of sheep, wandering herds of horned cattle and some wild horses meandering along the roads for the perfect mixture of potential drama. We all made it home safe. A lot wiser. A lot more educated.

Continue to Part III

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