A beautiful, mild morning greeted us in Argelès Gazost for the start of Stage 6. 131kms ahead of us with 2700m of climbing provided by the ascents of the Col du Soulor, Col d’Aubisque, Col de Marie Blanque and then a fast and lumpy run in to the finish just outside Pau.
The neutralised section lasted 3kms and incorporated the lower slopes of the Soulor climb giving us a chance to warm the legs up nicely. For the first time this week I’d had a really bad night’s sleep and I was feeling very tired. I was less optimistic about the day and just wanting to get through it.
As the flag went down the pace, as always, cranked up. Not too severe though. A pace that about 25 riders were able to stay with. After the first 5kms the climb flattens for the next 7kms or so. I was very content to sit in on about 10th wheel and enjoy a very fast ride. The Soulor only really shows it’s teeth with 7.5km to go. More or less an 8% average for that stretch and it was unlikely that those 25 riders would top out together. I found myself at the front, dictating the pace for a while. No one too bothered to push ahead. As we got further up there were a few moves off the front from a few riders down the GC but nothing that would stick. Carlo, the leader looked very relaxed and said ‘Don’t worry, they’ll come back to us soon’ when he saw doomed attempts at riders getting away. If he was happy to chill then so were most of the rest of us.
With about 3kms to the top the pace ramped up. The group started to string out and splits appeared. Carlo, Pierre and Ibon were up ahead and I stayed back in about 6th. Krzysztof tied to go with them but couldn’t quite hang on. Jon was right with me all the time, riding well. The last km of the Soulor was tough. The leaders went over and I followed about 20 seconds later with the rest of the 25 well and truly spread behind me over a long stretch. Soulor is an ‘intermediate’ col, a hill you have to do the get to the Aubisque. A short descent of about 2.5kms followed before we’d hit the 8km climb to Aubisque.
I rolled fast over the Soulor, I didn’t care what was going on behind me but I knew I had a shout of getting onto the leaders as I knew that descent well and they didn’t look as they were pushing as much as I was. Head down, smooth lines, the gap got smaller. The Commissaire’s car was stuck behind the leaders on the narrow road rather than it’s usual spot in front. Perfect for me, as I got closer the draft of that car sucked me in and I was right on the bumper. The car couldn’t get past the leaders and I’d have been happy to sit there on his bumper for a while but he saw my game and I was waved past to join the big boys.
The early section of the Aubisque is easy and therefore really fast. It’s stunningly spectacular too. A precipitous, balcony road clinging onto the steep face of the Cirque de Litor. We passed through a couple of tunnels and the leaders were pretty relaxed with their pace. I came to the front and pushed ahead. I had more reason to push than the leaders. I could exploit gaps on those behind if the pace was high enough whereas the leaders were content to be where they were and save any battles they would have until further up or later in the day. So I found myself leading the Haute Route with the Commissaire’s car in front of me on perhaps the most stunning climb ever used in the Tour de France. Does bike racing get much better than this!
It’s such a good ride too, twists and turns that flow and reward good lines. I was feeling good. As we got to 3kms from the summit the climb steepens to around 7/8% to the top. We started to split. The pace from the top guys was above me but I was still very happy where I was. Jon Bray was right with me, riding brilliantly having worked well to get onto the leaders. As we approached the top Jon managed to get a pull from Carlo who was still pretty relaxed. I was just behind and comfortably ahead of the bulk of the original 25 riders who were now spread over probably a kilometre of beautiful road behind me.
We topped out and the timing was stopped with the following descent already planned to be neutralised due to too much traffic and hazards to make it safe to race. Jon passed over the top in 5th and I was a few seconds behind in 6th. I was chuffed to bits for him with how he’d done, he was just getting better and better every day.
It was nice to descend the 16kms of the Aubisque untimed. It’s a great road and we all got it done safely and swiftly. In Laruns, the village at the bottom our timing would resume. I spoke to Jon about us making sure that we went over the timing mat with enough of the right riders to make sure we set ourselves up for success. If, for example, the leaders went over the mat with just Jon and I we’d probably get dropped at some point and absorbed by a group behind who would have benefitted from going over the timing mat later. There are a few tactics when it comes to dealing with all that stuff but basically you stay on the ball, keep watching what the others are doing and make sure you don’t miss out on an opportunity to be in a good group. The final 40kms of today’s ride would be very fast and being in a group was paramount. The planning needed to start now.
Decisions were made easy. Carlo and the other leaders were chilled and he certainly wasn’t in a hurry. He was dictating things. As we waited for him to look like he wanted to ride other riders arrived from the Aubisque to swell the ranks. By the time Carlo and the others committed to gong over the mat there were a good 25 or so that joined them. Perfect, this gave more options to make it easier to be in a group later.
The next 7kms were fast and gently downhill transporting us the foot of the last major climb of the day, Col de Marie Blanque. It’s more famously climbed from the other side where it’s reknowned for it’s very steep last 3kms. We’d be heading up the easier side but still an 11km climb rising over 600m with the vast majority of those metres being climbed in the early stages followed by a flatter finish.
We hit the climb and the pace was uncomfortably high. My legs were tired and not happy. I’d already decided in the approach to the climb that I just wanted to go over the top with the likes of Jon and a few other similar level riders and then concentrate on riding with them to the finish. Just riding with those guys seemed hard. I started to doubt myself. Might my body be letting me down now after performing so well in previous days? I’d ridden hard every day and maybe this would be the cracking point. I felt like that for about 5 minutes. Then being there felt ok, the legs were back, maybe it was just the decent and inactivity of the legs for a while that had made me feel bad, maybe.
I rode with Jon and various others including Xavier and Rod. Up ahead the leading riders were almost out of sight with a few riders like Krzysztof stuck in no man’s land ahead, not able to catch the leaders but most probably needing the shelter of our group once we’d got down the other side.
The 5 steeper kms passed quickly and we were onto the flat section. Martin Palmer came through like a train and sucked our group up to Krzysztof and the other riders who were ahead. Martin is as good a wheel to follow as you’ll ever find. Super strong, not in GC contention after missing stages with sickness but now riding well and very much available to help in situations like this.
By the time we got to the top we were a group of about 14. Jon and I crested somewhere in the middle. Martin, our support driver delivered new bottle to us. It only took a few moments of slowing down but enough to put us to the back of the 14. The group attacked the descent more aggressively than I expected. Jon and I needed to be totally on the ball here not to get detached. Lose this group and all our hard work up the Aubisque would be well and truly wasted.
I like descending and I’m fairly competent but this was something else. So steep for 3kms, I felt like we were dropping like stones. The group rode at a good level, and took good lines. Post ride info would show that we were heading down there at over 90km/h, and for some time. The bends were open and I could see the serpentine group ahead giving me a great line to follow. Concentration levels were through the roof, this was serious stuff. I love and hate it. It’s exciting but can be ridiculously dangerous too. I was so happy to feel the gradients ease. Then the serpent snapped! Just ahead of me one of the line had lost touch and 7 or so riders were away. As we continued the descent to the village of Escot the gap got alarmingly big, maybe 15 seconds. This was pretty serious. We worked to pull the gap back on the easier part of the descent but they were extending their lead. That group of 7 ahead was full of the strongest riders, we needed to be there.
Round the sharp right hander in Escot and on to flatter terrain. We needed to engage quickly, work together and get back. The road was narrow and twisty. Tricky to take turns on the front, the perfect road for the lead group to stay away! Martin worked hard for us on the front, so did I and so did Jon. Through the twists and turns of the forest we got a glimpse of the Mavic car just behind the group. We are about 20 seconds behind and closing. Massive efforts, we have to catch this group, work, work. The reward if we get back on will be huge.
We got there. It took longer than we’d like, a good 5kms, but we did it. Some respite for a few minutes, we sat in and recovered before the next instalment of action. The road continued to twist and turn in a narrow thread through the forests south of Pau. Strong riders kept trying to break away, particularly James and Louis-Paul who seemed intent on getting some glory on the stage. Every time they went we chased. More and more work.
As we got closer to Pau the roads widened and I suspected that the frolics off the front might reduce. No way. Daniel, James, Ibon, Louis Paul all having a go and some of them eventually getting away from us.
I was happy. With 10kms to go there were 4 or 5 riders up the road and I was now with a group that was working well together and I’d be happy to finish with them. In those final kilometres I was feeling really good. I knew exactly where the finish was and started to pace my efforts accordingly. 1km to go and we were still all together. 500m and we could see the finish, slightly uphill. As you’d expect we all emptied the tank in a sprint for the line despite our climb times on the Aubisque earlier being the main determinants of our result. I was second over the line in the sprint, with all of us recording more or less the same time on that section.
What a ride that had been. Stunning scenery, tough climbing, super fast descending and a proper high energy road race at the end. A brilliant day and another job done.
When the results came out I was a predictable 6th on the day. Very happy indeed. Our results pretty much mirrored the order we climbed the Aubisque in. Jon was an amazing 5th leapfrogging 2 riders up to 9th in GC! Top man! Stephen had a minor spill and recovering from a chest infection is hanging on to 18th in GC, Adrian finished strongly and now sits 39th in GC, Riccardo had his best day yet and is up to 102nd on GC and Duncan finished well after a struggle on the Aubisque and sits 113rd.
One more day to go in the Pyrenees, then the same again in the Alps for myself Duncan and Adrian. Tomorrow we’ll tackle the Aubisque again from the other side and then a dash to the finish near Pau and 127kms to finish us off.
Fingers crossed for another fantastic day!