Eleven hours and twenty minutes in the saddle, 200Km, 5000m of climbing and 8000 calories burned. Act II from Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon was hell on wheels.
Crossed the start line at seven fifteen. I carried only a Gillet . I left my arm warmers at the hotel (80Km) and my rain jacket at Sainte -Marie de Campan (139Km)- Big mistake.
The streets of Pau were deserted as we rode through. Unusual for L’etape . The only cheer we got was from 3 guys in evening wear returning from a night out. It was like a scene from a Zombie movie.
I struggled to find a group with a pace that suited.I found the wheel of a guy completing the course on a folding bike but he proved too fast for me.
One hour gone, brief comfort break, first food of the day and 28km covered. Next up, the Aubisque. 16.4km long with an average gradient of 7.1%. Gentle climb through the woods then a steep kick through the town of Faux-Bonnes . I was feeling fine and was having no trouble keeping my heat rate below 150bpm. We climbed through the clouds and by the time I reached the top I was cold. Comfort break and water and then descent. The road was wet and greasy and I descend slowly with both front and back breaks deployed. Bikes descend in a line with cloud meaning you could only make out one bike ahead. Occasionally a Ghost bike would emerge from behind and whiz by, disappearing into the mist . Road tunnel. One eye closed before entering and immediately adjusted to the dark. After a cold and miserable few minutes I was pleased to start the 2Km climb of the Solour. I had been here before in etape 2010. The descent to Argeles-Gazost was painful and slow until we emerged from the clouds and the road dried. Great buzz in the town and I rode by the food stop. Jinked my way through the steep, narrow streets and pulled off the route at our hotel. Spectators watched in amazement as I dipped my hand in a bush and pulled out a mussette full of goodies.
The first think I looked for was my arm warmers and jacket. No jacket . Warmers would have to do. I refilled my gel bottle and grabbed a fresh bidon. Others from my group arrived as I departed. Now, up the gorge to the foot of the Tourmalet.
The time in valley past quickly and I was soon turning a hard left to begin the Tourmalet. I recalled my immediate distress on starting the ascent in L’etape of 2010. I also recalled the ease with which I went up it three days ago. This time was half way between the two extremes . I stopped for food and a rest at Borg and continued to the top. Near the top the mist was thick and the last 1500 metres took for ever. I past the first walkers of the day. Then the bike next to me veered. I thought he was in distress but then the cause of his distraction became obvious. A tall slim blonde lady cycled by. Her smile burned through the clouds and she chatted freely with all the love struck cyclists before disappearing into the mist . I checked with the guy next to me to make sure she wasn’t a mirage or that due to exhaustion that I had mistaken a tall long haired Scandinavian man for a women. This happened on Ventoux in 2009 and I had exchanged numbers before I realized my mistake (Bjorn still rings occasionally).
Now a hard left and only 300m to the top. This is where things for funny. The hill got steep and many cyclists got off their bikes in exhaustion not realising that three top was less than 50m away through the mist. At the Col I huddled under the sign and put on my Gillet and arm warmers and started the 20Km descent. The next 40 mins was the worst of the day. Cold and pain reigned as I inched down the hill. Eventually a sign said 2Km to the water stop.
Pulling hard on the brakes as I arrived in St Marie de Campan I saw a tri colour being held aloft by my Guardian Angel Sean O’Leary. He rushed me into his van and provided me with a mug of Cola and a ham sandwich. I dried off and warmed up. I grabbed my rain jacket and headed of determined to continue and keen to minimise my time. 1Km out the road and I past the first sign for the Col d’Aspin . Reached for a drink- damn! No bidon . Left it at Sean ‘s van. I slowly made many wake back through the river of cyclists and retrieved my bottle. Back on the road once more.