The final stage of the Pyrenees event. Despite some of us heading to do the Alps version tonight, we were all looking forward to getting this part of the job done. There would be a massive feeling of achievement if we could get through today regardless of how the Alps pan out.
Today’s stage was 127km, starting and finishing in Pau, with the ascent of the Col d’Aubisque from Laruns being the main obstacle standing in our way. A few lumps and bumps on top of the Aubisque would give us about 2300m of climbing to scale.
Yet again a glorious day to wake up to, stunning. Fabulous view of the distant mountains and a bit surreal to contemplate that we’d be up one of the biggest of them in a couple of hours time. The Pyrenees are a defined range. One minute you feel you are in the lowlands, next you are in high mountains. I love the contrast and the dramatic change.
I slept well last night, deeply. I woke up at 5.30 to my alarm and was really relieved at how well I’d slept after a dodgy night before stage 6. 10kms of neutralised riding eased us into the day. I was in the second row behind the commissaires car and I enjoyed a relaxing time chatting with team mate Stephen and Peter Rowley riding on my flanks. The flag went down just after Gan. I was third wheel and comfortable. A couple of riders well down the GC were riding hard in front of me and that was just fine. Along came Adey from AlpCycles, he’s one of the ‘Lantern Rouge’ riders who the organisers use alternately to help and motivate riders at the back. Today was his day off those duties, for a while at least. He steamed past on to the front. He carried on steaming for what seemed like about 8kms. I was in awe at the pace he sustained. I was 4th wheel, comfortable but still chucking out healthily big power numbers and trying to get my head around how Adey could be sustaining this on the front. It was great though, having someone so strong on the front for a good period strung us out and made attacks from frisky youngsters unlikely if not impossible. That meant a steady effort and no sudden chases.
All good things come to an end. The power houses of the peloton, the big boys like Daniel, Ibon and Carlo appeared and the game started to change. Now there were attacks, all of which were chased down. Chase down, relax, chase down, relax. Do we really need this on the last day? Some obviously thought we did.
Our big climb of the day would start after having ridden 43km. As we approached that point the peloton had settled a little. A good pace but less erratic. There were lots of us there. Maybe 80 riders. No ‘selective’ climbs thus far meant we still had a big group of mixed levels. That would change very soon.
The Col d’Aubisque climb is 17km long. On the version we did today we started on 5kms of narrow lanes before joining the main Aubisque road with 12kms to the summit. I positioned myself well going into the climb, really important on narrow roads. The top guys road off and I was left in my increasingly familiar ‘best of the rest’ position. All good, legs ok. This climb was always going to be intense. A change of plan last night meant the bulk of the descent off the Aubisque would be neutralised. This had the effect of intensifying the climb as our times up the climb would ultimately dictate where we came on the day. It was very much a race to the top with every second important.
James Chesher came past me early on in the climb. I hadn’t ridden with him during the week, or at least I hadn’t noticed him alongside or near me to this point. He was looking really strong. I got on his wheel. As we joined the main road up the Aubisque with 12kms to go I’d guess the group was whittled down to around 25. Leaders a few seconds up the road, then me and the others. We headed into the village of Eaux-Bonnes which ought to have had a drinks stop you’d think with a name like that. The road through the village is odd, up around a block then a short descent, then a hard right. It’s one of those roads that would surprise you. I knew it really well and I knew that if I went hard on the descent and got the right hander nailed it would open up gaps behind me……my legs were good and that’s what I wanted. It went to plan, got the line right and found myself with James and a gap behind us. 11kms to go. I was on James’ wheel for a while and took the occasional turn. We were slowly but surely opening a gap on all those behind us. Legs still good. James seemed so strong. I couldn’t work out why I hadn’t seen much of him on previous days. With 8kms to go we were joined by Roedi Weststrate. He’s a strong man and he’d bridged over to us and then sat on our wheels.
The three of us pushed on. James doing the bulk of the work, me a bit, Roedi quietly hanging in there. Glances back saw the next group including Krzysztof and Jon Bray about 30 seconds back. 5kms to go, still good and highly impressed with James’ strength. A lull in the gradient and I grunted to him, ‘Where are you on GC James?’. ’26th’ he said. ‘You’re not a 26th GC rider today though’, ‘No, I had a really bad second day which put me down the rankings, finished 7th in the time trial though’. ‘Ah, that make sense now’. ‘And I’ll have what ever you had for breakfast thanks’, I added. He was such a good wheel to follow. Not sure things would have panned out as well if he hadn’t been there.
2kms to go, reaching a point where I know this is going to be ok. On my limit but I know I can hold on for another 7 minutes or so to get the job done. Round the right hander, past the hotel and into the final stages. Our trio starts to split. Roedi loses touch and I do too as James powers on. With 1km to go I look back and I can see Jon Bray chasing. He’d clearly felt the chasing group was not doing enough and was doing the job alone. This was the last climb of the week and like the majority of my rivals I totally emptied myself to the top with every sinew of muscle available. I came over the timing mat about 7 seconds after James and about 15 seconds ahead of Roedi. Jon came in about 50 seconds behind me. I reckoned I was 5th fastest up there with 3 of the big boys out of sight. Job done. Very happy indeed to be able to climb like that after 7 consecutive days in the hills.
A quick drink and snack and then we gathered and rode the 8kms of neutralised descent down from the Aubisque. Back along the famous Cirque de Litor stretch that we’d negotiated in the opposite direction the previous day.
The timing would resume again at the foot of the short Soulor climb which would have us ascending for about 2.5kms. We’d then have 49kms to the finish line, 17kms of descending followed by just over 30kms of rolling terrain.
The top 3 leaders had already embarked on the next leg by the time we got to the timing mat. I was with a group of about 20, all the usual suspects and we headed over the mat at a fairly gentle pace. That pace hotted up as we got nearer the summit, one or two riders maybe looking to get away and they needed to be reeled in. Hard left at the Soulor and then a long descent. One that I like. Technical, varied and one that rewards prior knowledge. I’ve had a few good rides down there before and I was up for another one. I found myself about 4th wheel. The descent went really well for me. The chances are that we’d all end up together in the valley at some point but I didn’t want the stress of risking getting dropped. I rode it well and as the road flattened I found myself with about 10 of the original 20 that had started the descent together. Not much further on and we were joined by the rest, including Jon who had worked hard to get back on.
Now all that remained was a fast 30kms of lumpy riding to the finish. All I and Jon Bray needed to do was get transported to the finish, finish with the group and reap the reward for our good times on the Aubisque. Jon, I and Roedi were the fastest up the Aubisque of all the riders around us so we had no need to push the pace, just let the others work.
As per yesterday there were a series of attacks, especially from James O’Connell. Always reeled in and creating an uneven effort for us to all stay in touch. That said, James’ big efforts certainly kept us moving at a good speed.
10kms to go, legs are good, only a mechanical problem or crash is going to spoil my week long party now. 5kms to go and I start to think about the finish. I’m good at researching course details and I knew what to expect at the finish more than most. The last 500m would be uphill and narrow. Other riders had joined us now and the 30 riders that were were would need to be positioned well at the end. 2kms to go and the terrain is tougher than everyone expected. The peloton stretches and snaps, riders all over the place, shocked by how hard some of the ramps were. 1km to go, I’m about 6th. Downhill for a bit then the final dig of 500m. Total emptying yet again and I came over the line a handful of seconds behind Jon and few ahead of Roedi.
Haute Route Pyrenees done. What a relief. What a bike ride. Especially stage 6 and 7, such good bike races. I was buzzing. We chilled at the feed station after the finish and waited for team mates Adrian, Riccardo and Duncan.
We had a beautiful post race ride into the centre of Pau to collect our medals and polo shirts for some proof of what we’d achieved.
Between us we all done so well. 6 riders, 5000kms, 100,000m of climbing and no big problems. Fantastic. Just got to do it again next week!
I finished 5th on the day and still, predictably in my bolt hole 6th on GC. I was only 50 seconds off the stage winner. The three big boys had not ridden the last 30kms quite as fast as we had. Makes me wonder if our group had worked together rather than just reacting to attacks, maybe James Chesher could have won today with me just behind. Anyway, I’ll take what happened today, and all week, without hesitation. Superb week.
Massive congratulations to Jon Bray. 7th today, 9th overall, incredible. He’ll be able to say he’s a top 10 Haute Router for ever! Brilliant.
Stephen Blackburn finished well today after battling a bad cold and chest. He ends up 15th which all things considered is very good indeed.
Adrian was solid all week, good up the Aubisque today and finishes 38th on GC.
Riccardo Clerici was with the lead group prior to the Aubisque and has ridden stronger every day. He finishes 100th on GC!
Duncan Carrier, our ‘Perkins Diesel Engine’ also moved up the ranks all week and finishes 110th.
Well done all of you. I’m proud to be part of it all.
So now we travel overnight to the Alps. I expected to be exhausted at the end of this week. I’m tired, but on top of things. My bike riding is a level above what I’ve managed before. I honestly don’t know if I’ll maintain it. Great if I can but I’m not going to beat myself up if things deteriorate in the Alps. I’ve had a fabulous week with my team in the georgeous Pyrenees and nothing will every take that away from me.
See you for Alps Stage 1 on Sunday!