Today’s stage was 117km long incorporating 3300m of climbing. The principal ‘difficulties’ as the French beautifully describe climbs in bike race, were the Col du Tourmalet and the Col du Couraduque.
Yet again, fantastic conditions greeted us at the start with a nice, warm day ahead of us. Despite the big altitude differences in the stage clothing and keeping warm at altitude was not going to be an issue, one less thing to worry about!
As we assembled at the start the stronger riders were all at the front. As an event like this unfolds a certain hierarchy seems to develop as riders prepare at the start. The leaders and stronger riders naturally head to the front with everyone else keeping a respectful distance. We headed out of Argelès Gazost for a short 1.7km neutralised section. As we rolled out I chatted away to Robert Jan, the young Dutchman who’d saved me on day 1. He’s a super strong rider on the flat but his climbing speed had meant that he’s slipped down the overall rankings a bit. He said to me that he was going to attack as soon as the timing started, the same as what happens at the beginning of most Tour de France stages. He knew he had no chance of staying away all the way to the finish but, quite frankly, he just wanted to do it for fun. To be out on your own leading a bike race is very exciting, the race director’s car right in front of you, no one else in sight, for a while at least. It feels really good. I’ve only ever experienced it once and I could totally understand why Robert Jan was keen for his few kilometres of glory.
As soon as we went over the timing mat, sure enough he was off. Now, I was the only one at the front of the peloton who knew he was only after short term glory. If everyone knew what I knew the peloton would have let him go and let him enjoy his moment. But they didn’t. The chase was on. Robert Jan’s acceleration at the very start effectively changed the whole dynamic of the early part of the race. It was game on! Fast and hard, for me at least!
The course took us through forested lanes and we started to climb a series of short ups. I was riding with Mark and Felix from our team and Alastair was a few wheels ahead. On the first sustained descent the peloton started to string out as we snaked our way through the forest in a fast, single filed procession. You have to have 100% trust in those around you, one mistake and things can go wrong very quickly. And they did. I approached a left hand bend and carnage ensued in front of me, 4 or 5 riders on the deck already with others running off to the side. I managed to find a passage through, I was lucky. Other’s weren’t. My racing friend Joris Simond came down in that crash, his race was over. As I passed the drama I could hear shouting, swearing, all the usual noises from frustrated riders looking for who to attach the blame for the whole thing.
The crash had split the peloton, the slowing I’d had to do to negotiate the crash site left me and the others behind me with a gap to close. At first it looked serious, if we lost touch with the front group at this point it could be disastrous and maybe defining for the day. I put a big effort in, as did the riders behind me and we were relieved to bridge the gap after a couple of kilometres.
The next 20kms were fairly subdued. The peloton’s pace was moderate, the wide roads made everyone comfortable and we were transported nicely to the foot of the Tourmalet which started at the 48km mark. Tourmalet from the west side we did today is around 17km long. Most significantly it’s final 12kms average about 9%, that’s pretty tough. All the expected selections started to happen at the foot of Tourmalet. I was patient, I let Alastair ride up ahead and I stuck with riders who I knew I’d be more comfortable with like Xavier from France and Andrew from Canada. Everyone wears there name and nationality on their ‘dossards’ and you find yourself riding with a closely knit sub group of people during the week who are at a very similar level to yourself.
Tourmalet went OK, I felt tired, my power numbers were pretty low but I was OK, hanging in there better than some. With 5kms to the top I felt a little stronger Markus from Germany was on the front of our small group and I eased past him feeling better. Jim from the UK then moved up the road and I committed to his pace while the rest of the group stayed behind. Jim and I rode to the top together, he was strong and provided a good wheel for me as we pulled out of La Mongie, the ski town perched 4kms from the top. In the final kilometre I came to the front and pressed on to the top emptying myself of effort as much as I could. The image below might confirm that I do try quite hard sometimes!
The descent down the other side was neutralised so it made sense to ride hard to the timing mat and then have a breather. The top of the Tourmalet was filled with the 30 or so strongest riders in the event. All taking advantage of the feed/drink stop that was provided and enjoying the luxury of not being timed. The timing would resume another 29kms down the other side meaning that the descent could be enjoyed safely and relatively leisurely. The descent on the Bareges side is fantastic but too busy with traffic to keep the clock ticking. Certainly a good decision from the organisers to neutralise it avoiding all sorts of potential disasters.
The second half of the neutralised section became flatter and a group of us formed chatting away and basically trying to conserve energy for our forthcoming efforts on the final climb of the day. I heard the chirpy voice of Ruari Grant, the overall race leader, looking very smart in his leader’s jersey. He’s a very friendly character, race leaders are not always! He’s a good friend of Oliver, our regular guide for Alpine Cadence. I had a great chat with Ruari where it became very apparent that he rides his bike for all the right reasons. Sure, he’s an amazing athlete trying to win the event but you could see that he was looking at the whole thing with more than just that in mind, it was great to hear how much he was enjoying the whole Haute Route experience, the stunning Pyrenees and the new friends he was making. I felt quite honoured to ride with him for a few kilometres, as soon as the timing resumed he was off into the distance.
The final timed section was 22kms long, mostly up. The final 6.5 km to the Col du Couraduque averaged a deceptive 7.5% with lots of ramps far steeper than that. The run in to Couraduque was going well for me. I was in the perfect group for me. Around 15 riders including Alastair. There were a few in the group a bit stronger than me and the rest about the same level as me. A perfect environment for me to be transported to the foot of Couraduque. My legs were feeling better than on Tourmalet, I felt for the first time in 3 days that things were starting to fire properly.
I went well up Couraduque. I let Alastair and a few other clearly stronger riders head up the road but I was feeling strong. Couraduque is beautiful, spectacular views and I know every bit of it’s 6.5km well. I felt inspired by the scenery as the views unfolded and the knowledge of how the road went and how to attack it gave me a huge psychological advantage over the riders I was with. I gently accelerated and soon gapped the riders behind me. I knew what was coming around every corner, what gear to be in and when to push. As I crossed the line I’d only gained an extra minute or so with my final efforts but to my confidence levels it was immense for me to finish on a high.
Alastair had recorded another very solid ride and I was straight over to him to congratulate him for a third day running. He finished 8th on the day and I was very happy to learn that I’d ended up 17th on the day.
As we rolled back to Argelès Gazost we were able to see how the race was unfolding for the rest of our team. The first rider we saw was Felix who finished today in an outstanding 34th place in the men’s event. All our riders finished safely and the new General Classification positions are as follows:
Melanie Bachelor 17th lady
Alastair Roberts 8th
John Thomas 17th
James Richens 45th
Felix Hoddinott 46th
Mark Fairgrieve 52nd
Duncan Carrier 115th
Brian Moher 109th
Riccardo Clerici 111th
Ian Arthur 191th
Tomorrow promises to be the toughest stage of the week, 4000m of climbing crammed into 103km. Tourmalet, Hourquette Ancizan followed by the Col de Portet. Portet is the new kid on the block of Pyrenees climbs, higher than Tourmalet and sealed for the first time this year where it was used in this summer’s Tour de France. Hot temperatures forecast tomorrow and that last climb are going to test all of us to our absolute limits. Hopefully tomorrow’s blog will still be a cheery one!!