Stage 2 was a big one. 137km from Pau to the top of the Port de Balès. 2900m of climbing to keep us occupied on another stunning, sunny day.
The stage was very much about two jobs to do: the 118km lumpy journey from the start and then the 19kms of the Port de Balès climb. Two very different jobs that both needed the right approach for success.
We headed out of Pau for 23kms of neutralised riding. Stephen Blackburn and I had both finished in the ‘seeded’ top 25 riders on Stage 1 so had earned our place in the ego boosting ‘Top Riders’ pen. This made for a great and unstressful experience as we were able to jam ourselves right up behind the Commissaire’s car for the duration of the 23kms without getting any interference from the rest of the field behind.
23kms was our kilometre zero for timing, the flag went down and game on. Straight into a 3km climb at about 7%. One guy broke away and was ignored by everyone. I found myself at the front of the rest of the field and for a minute or two able to dictate the pace to everyone else. I kept it very steady in the hope it might stay that way. After a couple of minutes patience ran out behind me and riders started to come past, the pace went up and I feared we’d be in for another erratic and energy sapping dash to the big mountain finale.
The first 90kms of the day were a series of ‘lumps’, never climbing for longer than about 3kms but enough to create a lead group of about 50 riders fairly early on. At around 60kms we faced a tricky, short, gravel strewn descent that would prove pivotal in the results for the day. I was near the back of the group of 50, the leading 6 riders descended quickly and safely but behind them a series of minor shunts and off road excursions held back the rest of the group. By the time we’d negotiated that descent our 50 strong group was spread and split and the 6 leaders were away and would stay away all the way to the finish.
For me it was all about getting back with the front of the others. I was positioned badly and found myself in a group of 10 or so with another group ahead of about 20 in which Stephen was. I got the feeling that my group wouldn’t pull the gap back so I decided to bridge the gap myself. Turned out to be a good decision. A fast descent followed by another lump and I was back with the ‘best of the rest’ group with just the 6 breakaway riders up front and out of sight.
I could relax for a while. I was happy where I was if maybe a bit annoyed at how I’d needed to burn a couple of extra matches to get back on board. Not as many matches though as Jon Bray. As I was chilling and enjoying my ride in the group Jon turned up behind me, he was wrecked. He’d bridged the gap too but it had taken him longer and he had put in a huge effort. I was so impressed to see him there and relieved for him that he would now earn a decent rest in the group.
The biggest lumps had split our team with Adrian Beer missing out on the group that Jon, Stephen and myself were now enjoying.
At 89kms we had a feed station with Martin ready to replace our bottles. This was potentially going to be a problem. The station was on a very fast flat stretch where we’d have to slow or even stop to get what we needed. If other riders in the group stopped too it would help so that we could ride back together to get back with the group.
As we approached the feed station I worked my way forward and got my hand in the air to help Martin spot me and to make it clear to other riders that I was stopping. We pulled up and Martin brilliantly got myself Jon and Stephen back on our way very quickly. Chaos surrounded us. A couple of crashes near us, the process of getting what was needed at that station turned out to be a disaster for some. Feed stations are dangerous places. We were away and very quickly reunited with the rest of the group and those that hadn’t stopped. Some riders would be planning to get there water at the next station but we were sorted now until the end of the stage.
The next 35kms of riding was pretty flat and the pace was very comfortable. This was perfect for me and I suspect most around me. The 6 breakaway riders would get to the base of the final climb about 6 minutes ahead of us but they were class riders, I was in the right place. As we got nearer the foot of the Port de Balès we were joined by Adrian and a few other riders that he’d towed back to the main group. He’s super strong on the flat and combined with the fact that we were riding fairly relaxed he’d got back on board no problem.
So we hit the climb with 19kms to go. 6 up the road and then about 40 us in the group. Balès starts with a mile or so of 8% and then a flatter section of about 7kms. The pace up the first part split the group but by the time we got to the 11kms to go point most of the group was back together. This was where the real climb begins. The next 11km would take us up about 900m with some steep and rampy riding ahead of us. As the road ramped up the field split. I was about 10th in the group and on a mission to just ride my own climb. My power meter had failed that morning so I had no figures to work with but I was feeling good. No cramping issues today and legs that felt ready for the second job of the day.
As we rose up the climb Richard Scales headed up looking strong and I was comfortably uncomfortable about 20 seconds behind him. I was about 5th in the group now, Stephen just behind me and Jon a fraction further back. As the climb went on I felt good. I know the climb well which is a big advantage. Knowing where the ramps and flats are helps anticipate efforts and gear choice and really does save time. I was enjoying myself, I was on my limit but it was all going to plan.
I love that climb, it’s your classic bracken lined Pyrenean rampy beast, so different to the more engineered, consistent gradients experienced in the busier Alps. I was gaining on everyone ahead of me. The km markers came at me nice and often as they seem to do when you’re feeling good. With 4kms to go Richard was up the road and then it was me just a few seconds behind. At one point he’d got about 40 seconds on me but the gap was coming down quickly. I took advantage of my experience on the climb and with 2km to go got into a big gear to exploit the flatter section coming up around the next corner. I caught Richard with about 1.5kms to go, we exchanged a few words and agreed we’d both had a decent day. With 200m to go I couldn’t help myself and made the most of my good legs and crossed the line a couple of seconds ahead of Richard to finish in 7th place on the day. Very happy indeed.
Jon Bray was the star of the day, he rolled in just behind me for 10th place. Stephen was 11th and Adrian finished solidly in 37th. Riccardo was 127th and Duncan 129th completing a successful day for all our team. The General Classification now takes shape, I’m in 8th, Stephen 10th, Jon 21st, Adrian 36th, Duncan 130th and Riccardo 149th with all of us either moving up or holding our position from yesterday.
A whopping day ahead of us tomorrow starting in Bagnères de Luchon and eventually culminating at the Hospice de France climb.
Time to rest now!