Stage 3 was our first full on mountain stage with climbing from the off. 131kms and 3600m of climbing. Port de Balès, Col des Ares, Col de Menté and finishing on the vicious ramps of the Hospice de France.
Just 2km of neutralised lead out today and the flag went down as we left Bagnères de Luchon. Port de Balès ahead of us, 19kms of climbing, steepish start, flatter middle and tough finish. As expected the pace was pretty stiff from the outset, the 5 strongest riders in the field made sure of that. I’m a slow starter and my legs felt heavy and chucking out the best part of 300 watts that was required to stay in touch seemed very hard indeed. The legs lightened though and those 300 watts started to come easier. Down came the rain, after a dry start we were soaked within a couple of minutes. Glasses off, dirt and stuff everywhere, our day had just got a bit harder.
After about 4kms of climbing Carlo and Pierre, the first and second in GC had already broken away. Another 3 riders rode away from my group including Roedi Weststrate who is a bit of a legend in the over 50 category and a significantly stronger rider than me. Those 3 riders were within reach for me and I made the call to get on the back. I did so quickly and I looked back to see no one had followed and there was a gap increasing. This could be good. I got a fantastic ride from those 3. I was on my limit but it gave me a launchpad to take a lot of time from my rivals behind. Roedi did most of the work on the front and as we toiled through the fog we reeled in Pierre to form a group of 5. I looked down from a loop in the road about 6kms from the top, we’d got a gap of over a minute. This was still looking good. The elastic nearly snapped but I stuck with it and rode all the way to the top with that group. The timing stopped at the top of the Port as the following descent would be neutralised due to it being too steep and narrow to race down. That timing stop effectively turned the day into 2 races and I’d done well in the first one. Jon Bray headed up the following group arriving at the top nearly 3 minutes behind my group. Richard Scales, Stephen and the usual suspects were all there abouts
The timing resumed after a cold, damp and miserable descent of the Balès. A group of around 15 riders gathered briefly and we headed over the timing mat for Race 2. A fast, flat run in to the Col des Ares and we were all together and I was feeling comfortable. Warmer now and glad to be pedalling after the cold descent.
Col des Ares is 6kms long and very humble gradients. Does that make it easy? No, it makes it very fast and intense. Carlo Fino the race leader occasionally came to the front and kept on injecting pace that I struggled to cope with. He and 3 others moved away from myself, Jon and Stephen. We had already dropped some riders behind us, this was a climb on which we were averaging about 25km/h on and it was too hot for some. We kept in touch with the leaders and rolled over the top just behind them. Important, so that we could utilise their strength in the following kilometres.
A fast descent of the Ares went safely and well. Next some lumpy riding to transport us to the Menté. If we could get a ride to there and then get dropped that was fine in my book. The likes of Stephen, Jon and myself were not going to be able to compete with these strong boys on the steep slopes of the Menté but if they could at least take us there that would be great.
That all went to plan. With the 8 toughest kilometres of the Menté remaining we waved goodbye to the leaders and were left to get on with things at our pace. Menté went pretty well for the three of us, we rode up firmly within a few seconds of each other and it was reassuring to look back at various vantage points and see no chasing riders in sight.
We topped out on the Menté where we got our new bottles from Martin. A very damp, foggy and technical descent followed, 10kms down to St Béat. The plan would be that the three of us would then ride together on the flattish 19km to Luchon before the final climb. Having topped out a few seconds before the other two I took the chance for a quick pee on the go and cruised down at a safe a gentle pace knowing that the others were unfamiliar with the road. At the bottom I looked back and there was no one in sight. My legs felt great but I needed someone to ride with and so did they. 19km on the flat on your own is a nightmare for a climber type like me, an exposed situation where the chance to lose huge amounts of time to riders organised in a group is massive.
Jon came into view, I kept on soft pedalling waiting for him. No Stephen though. ‘Where is he?’ I said, ‘might have stopped at the top’ Jon said. What do we do? We needed to ride. We approached a long straight and agreed that by the time we got the end of it if Stephen was not in sight we needed to press on. No sign of Stephen, our 19km time trial began. We discovered later that Stephen had got stuck behind traffic on the descent and he end up riding the flats with more riders that caught him from behind.
I was frustrated and anxious that all the good things we’d previously done could get undone. I’m not fast on the flat and Jon was spent. Things could have gone badly wrong. Maybe that frustration made me stronger. My legs were still good and we made good progress on the flats. We took our turns on the front with me doing longer turns to exploit how I was feeling. It was a measured effort. We had a really tough climb coming up very soon. We needed a solid swift ride on the flat but not at the expense of that final climb. It went well. Looking at all the post ride data we rode those 19kms well and didn’t lose much time at all.
Our final climb up the Hospice de France was tough. About 10kms long but the second half being by far the toughest with kilometres averaging over 11% and plenty of sustained ramps of 15%. It’s hard. The first of the steep ramps, 6kms from the finish split Jon and I. I forged on, my legs were still ok, power number were still respectable, I felt good (or as good as you can in these circumstances). With 3kms to go I was the best part of a minute up on Jon. It was all about the clock now, I was pretty sure that I was going to finish 6th on the day now knowing that the ‘big 5’ were ahead. It was all about time differences now and putting time into those unfortunate souls whose legs were not feeling so good just as they would do to me given the chance.
The final couple of kms are really hard but I almost enjoyed them. I was in control although the photo above maybe won’t suggest so! That’s my controlled look! I was able to alternate sitting and standing and plan my gear changes for the ever changing ramps and I felt totally on the case. I crossed the line strongly with Jon coming over about 2.5 minutes later.
The rest of my usual rivals all turned up in the next 5 to 10 minutes and I felt really happy with the job done. This was potentially the toughest day of the first week and it was done.
Results wise I was confirmed as 6th, now up to 6th on GC too. Jon finished 12th (15th GC), Stephen 16th (11th GC), Riccardo 117th (132nd GC) and Duncan 125th (121st GC).
So how have the first three days gone? Brilliantly. I’ve had 3 really good rides with good results. I’ve still got 13 days of racing left though. My power output is good but my heart rate is not reaching the high levels it did on day one, a sure sign of fatigue. I’m expecting a decline in performance and I have to expect things to go wrong. Whatever happens I’m very proud of the level I’ve got to over these 3 days that no one can take from me. The weather forecast tomorrow is very poor, heavy rain forecast and we’re due to take on the Tourmalet at the end of a three peak stage. Things might get adjusted, we’ll wait and see. A shortened course will be fine by me if the commissaire goes down that line!