The Circle of Death stage. After a precious rest day in Pau, legs and minds were just about sufficiently rested to be able to face the 5000m+ of climbing over the 200km. But at at the rest day dinner a mix of excitement and edgy nerves was quite apparent. Nevertheless, this brave bunch laughed and chatted buoyantly, feeding the positive vibe of our group even more. Some slept better than others; others woke up with food poisoning from a restaurant they had been to for lunch on rest day. Despite 'emptying' themselves they were still determined to get through this epic stage.
After a particularly good feedstop in Laruns, with the entire stock of "pain aux raisins" bought from the local bakery, we all hit the Aubisque in fine spirits. I had announced that this climb, at 13km long, was not nearly as hard as it's reputation. Three sections of near-10% ramps interrupt an otherwise steady climb. However, the views at the top, which usually provide such a rich reward, were completely hidden by thick, wet cloud. We all got to the top more than a little damp and lost little time in getting over the Soulor and down to Arrens-Marsous for our next feed. Many arrived shaking with cold, despite rain jackets and limb-warmers...it was cold. At least the section from Argeles, through the Gorges de Luz, and up to Luz-St-Sauveur, gave everyone the opportunity to warm up again. Even the 'restaurant victims' managed to beat the elements, despite holding nothing in their stomachs...or guts!
At the next stop, just before Luz, one rider had to concede to domestic priorities : his wife had just gone into labour. Bike in the van and into the physio's car as soon as they had finished helping the riders, he was whisked to Tarbes train station en route to Toulouse airport.
The Tourmalet may only be 4kms longer than the Aubisque, but everyone found this noticeably very long. Possibly more to do with the thick cloud that gave little sense of progress and no views for distraction. They coped with the gradients with agility, but the cold and wet air sapped energy from many. The descent further enhanced this impression : once again riders arrived at the feed at Ste Marie de Campan, shaking with cold, yet keen to get moving as soon as possible in order to knock this giant stage to the ground.
The climbs of both the Aspin and the Peyresourde are preceeded by a nasty section of nondescript incline that wears the legs down all too easily, taking away more precious energy before the real climbing begins. Rain held off but the cloud and low mist never cleared : a thankless visit to the Giants of the Pyrenees in some ways, yet most riders still rated it as one of the best days on a bike they had ever had. It represented so much, justifiably so, to most of our riders, so simply to complete it was a thrill in itself.
The first riders got into Luchon roughly 10 1/2 hours after leaving Pau, door-to-door time, not riding time. I came in with the last one ( a super-determined restaurant 'victim' who somehow managed to ride the whole stage on a couple of cokes and a few bites of banana! AND almost an overdose of determination to NOT give in!) at 22.55, a ride of nearly 15 1/2 hours !!! But what a sense of achievement for all of them! I had not said a word about stage 17 : one stage at a time, of these back-to-back mega-stages, was definitely enough for them.
Shorter, yeah, but as we all found out 18km into the stage, steeper! After another night of 'reduced' sleep, which at least wasn't shortened further by a morning pre-stage transfer, sluggish bodies slipped into the saddles again and headed down the valley to St Beat. The first 4kms of the Col de Menté wake everyone up very effectively! Gradients stick to 10% for far too long: it hurts some, but merely hinders others. There are some tough characters here! Back into the mist again at the top, some are doubting my confident prediction of sun in the afternoon! Another cold descent chills us all once again, but the gentle climb up to the Col des Ares raises spirits. This time the descent seems almost warm.
We then head 'cross-country' towards the cheeky mid-stage climb of the Cote de Burs, with its three ramps touching briefly 20%. It may only last for just over 1km, but it's an effective leg-buster! Lunch in the village square of Izaourt is where we spot the first 'bule bits' in between the clouds. There is hope! The Port de Bales is one of my five favourite climbs of the Pyrenees (Pailheres, Pierre St Martin, Agnes and the Col de la Core are the others). With its steep sections, in between some welcome flat bits, I just love the woodland it carves its way through; the way the landscape opens up with 3kms to the summit; and the views at the barren, wild top of the climb. Miraculously, the sky opens up for us at the top, revealing the true beauty of the Pyreneean range. The light is crystal clear.
The valley down towards Luchon is flooded in sun- we are all very grateful. The descent is also one of my favourites and, in the evening, everyone else tells tales of their thrills-without-spills down all of the descents on this superb stage. The climb up the Peyresourde is as hard as ever: a busy road; unsubtle contours, and ramps that seem to last too long. BUT, this is our final climb and the sun by now is actually warming our souls even more than our bodies. The new road used for the first time up to Peyragudes is suitably dramatic and very spectator -friendly, and brings another "Giro-flavour" to the Tour: a 3km descent back over the Peyresourde, followed by a 4km climb, with a couple of 10% small sections, is a perfect setting for some end-of-mountains drama. Our field were again well split up, but all confirmed to me that they just LOVED this stage.
Tomorrow, after a 05.00am breakfast, we leave the mountains behind us as we had for Blagnac. Mixed emotions that are more about not wanting this 'Travelling Circus' to end than regret about heading away from the 'Hills'. We will be on the pedals once more at about 08.30 for a long ride (220 kms) up to Brive : NOT an easy stage, but a quite beautiful one in places. More sunflower fields and with sun forecast at last!
These two stage have delivered all their promise and despite the weather; riders seem to have come away with an immense sentiment of both achievement and affection. The soul of the Pyrenees works on us all. I will soon be back for the Cent Cols Challenge, but some of the riders have already begun to plot their return here together. That Mountain Magic has cast its spell on more than one!
I must grab some sleep now!
First started in 2010, Tour de Force is a unique event for those people that have ever wanted to ride the entire route of the Tour de France (without needing a pro contract!).
Riding the 3497km route one week ahead of the race, the riders will roll up the Champs Elysees on 15 July. Lead cyclist Phil Deeker (who also organises the Rapha Cent Cols Challenge), is sending us daily blogs from each stage, which will service as a interesting preview of the stages before the pros ride them a week later.