Stage 4 was always going to be massive. 4000m of climbing crammed into 102km takes some doing. Today we would scale Tourmalet again, then the gorgeous Hourquette Ancizan, with the Col de Portet providing a vey tough finish to the day.
Again, perfect conditions. The forecast was for even warmer temperatures. Suits me fine. I’m happy riding in the heat although many of the field would not be today. The only adaptation I make on hot days is popping electrolyte tablets into my drinks to manage the salty losses I sweat out on days like this.
I was positioned right near the front at the start. We had a neutralised 8kms to start the day. I was in the second row, just behind the race leaders Ruari and Hannah. I loved those first 8kms. Being right at the front is very cool. No stress, no jostling for positions, the rest of the field respects the riders at the front and doesn’t barge in. The race director’s car along with the gendarmes and security motos make us feel very special and for a few minutes I can pretend to be a pro. I love it.
The timing started and the pace quickened as expected. The peloton stretched as we travelled gently up for about 15kms to the foot of the Col du Tourmalet. All was good with me, legs and body feeling OK. The Col du Tourmalet from the Luz side is 17kms long at an average of nearly 8%. It’s tough enough but fairly regular. The pace up the Tourmalet was firm but not too frantic. Everybody, including myself, was showing the day some respect and fear. Everyone would need plenty of beans left for the end of the day up Portet. The leading 40 riders started to split, for me it’s a relief when that happens. The very strongest 10 or so riders moved up the road and I found myself in a group of the ‘best of the rest’. I was really happy with how I was feeling, my power meter and heart rate numbers tallied well with how I felt. I felt good and the numbers confirmed it. I was really happy with the riders who I was with too, Alastair was there, Hervé too. Riders that I’d struggled to ride with in previous days now became easier to ride with. All the signs were good.
Mike Cotty who I’ve raced with on previous Haute Routes started to press on up the road from our group along with a couple of other riders. I was happy with where I was and not interested in chasing. One of the riders who went with Mike was Kristof, just ahead of Alastair in the overall GC. I told Alastair that a split was happening and that I was staying put. Alastair started to chase, he wanted Kristof’s wheel. Alastair chased for some time without success, he looked more laboured than I’d seen him in previous days. He ended up being absorbed back into our group and I kept encouraging him to ‘sit in’, to just follow another rider in our group and get things under control.
He did so and in fact got stronger at the top of Tourmalet. Hervé, Alastair and I crested in quick succession. A super efficient bottle delivery from Martin kept Alastair and I on the move without any delay. Then, ahead of us was a 17km descent to the foot of the next climb. That descent is very fast, after a few bends at the top there a long open sections where a rider can really let things go if they have sufficient skill and knowledge of what’s coming up.
The roads for are not closed for the Haute Route, they are controlled and marshalled but there are still public vehicles that need to be safely overtaken on such descents. Most drivers pull over out of the way as soon as they realise they are in the thick of a bike race but a few screams and gestures are sometimes required too to get past. I lead a group of 4 or so riders down the first 5Kms, I had no idea who they were, just 100% concentration on the task. As we sped through La Mongie one of the riders came past me, it was Bruno Bongianni. This was perfect. I’ve raced with Bruno before and he is as good a descender as I’ve ever seen. I’m no slouch myself but to be able to follow his line for the next 12km was fabulous. The road surface was immaculate and we hit speeds of 85km/h as we hurtled down to Ste Marie de Campan.
We turned hard right and started our climb of the Hourquette Ancizan. This climb starts very steadily and doesn’t really challenge until it’s last 9kms. It’s not a super tough climb but very beautiful and as quintessentially Pyrenean as you’ll ever get. It’s gorgeous and every time I ride it I promise myself I’ll come back to it one day without a bike and just enjoy the area. As we headed up the early kilometres we were joined by more riders, I was delighted to see Alastair among them. I was concerned that the speed of the descent might have ‘gapped’ him too much but far from it, he’d only taken 20 seconds more than myself on that descent. He had worked hard as the descent flattened to get back on board our group, brilliant.
Our group forged on up the Hourquette together, everyone content to push on at a nice firm pace. The descent off the Hourquette is narrow and rough, the organisers sensibly neutralised it meaning a relaxed descent and plenty of time to eat, drink and contemplate our finale.
Col de Portet is big. At 2215m it is now the highest sealed pass in the French Pyrenees, a full 100m higher than Tourmalet. It’s steeper too. 16km at an average gradient of 8.7% is hard, especially at the end of a day. It was used for the first time in this year’s Tour de France and we were ‘lucky’ enough to be the first amateurs to race up it today.
Just before the final climb I had a minor panic as I realised I had no food left in my back pocket but I was rescued by the ladies leader in the event, Hannah who slipped me an energy bar just before the climb. The first few kilometres of the Portet are particularly tough, lots of double figure gradients and a very hot experience with no shade whatsoever. The road scribes it’s way up the flank of a valley with very few significant bends and therefore offers no rewards or changes in scenery like a ‘switchback’ road does. For about 8km the road just doesn’t change, hot and steep. Our group started to fragment on this stretch, sure it was tough but I felt on top of things and I found myself riding just behind Bruno Bongianni who I’d descended with earlier. Alastair was up the road and going well. About halfway up this beast of a climb it changes it’s character suddenly, we bear right and head up a series of hairpin bends up into the meadows. The gradients ease a fraction, it’s a little cooler and the changing panoramas help to anaesthetise our pain a little.
I’m still going well, still hanging on to Bruno. We have to negotiate cattle meandering on the road and the front end of my bike is slapped hard by a swishing tail. I’m knocked off balance and close to falling. That got the heart rate up even more. I’m now counting down the kilometres and just wanting it to be over. As we get 3kms from the finish we can see the red inflatable arch at the finish, it looks a long way up. The final kilometre is a beast at nearly 11% most of the way but the pain is short lived and the finish is there. I’m so happy, my legs have done there job, I feel like I’ve finally had a good day from start to finish and to do it in a place like this is incredible. As per routine I congratulate Alastair again, he finished 8th and maintained his 8th position overall. My 13th on the day lifts me to 15th overall in the men’s rankings, very happy to be moving in the right direction.
Alastair, myself and several of our group spent some time at the top to recover and just savour the moment, you’re not often in places as special as this so let’s make the most of it. I reckon it had been one of my best ever days on a bike, and I’ve had a few good ones! Eventually we headed down the same road back to our overnight in St Lary. On the way down we were able to cheer on each an every one of our Alpine Cadence team members as they toiled their way up the Portet.
No dramas to report, all the team finished safely with Riccardo’s 66th on the day perhaps the most outstanding result. Tomorrow we have the Individual Time Trial, just 23km and one 1400m climb to do, almost a day off!