Haute Route Pyrenees Stage 7

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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.

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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.

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miserable bloke on the left doesn’t seem keen at the start for Stage 7!

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.

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thanks Adey for a fantastic start!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Haute Route Pyrenees Stage 6

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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.

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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.

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Roedi leads us up the steeper section of Soulor

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

Haute Route Pyrenees Stage 5 ITT

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Stage 5 was the Individual Time Trial, the ‘race of truth’. Riders against the clock. Starting at 20 second intervals. One hill. No hiding.

For many in the event it would be regarded as an easier day, certainly a lot less time on the bike, a bit longer in bed, a bit of respite from the 4 previous tough days.

Our hill was the Col de Spandelles from Argelès Gazost. 15.2kms and 930m of ascension. A fairly humble average gradient of around 6% but in fact a climb that includes huge variations as you can see from the profile below. With steeps and flats and a tricky surface too it would be a good all round test of pacing, fitness, gear choice and even bike handling.

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As with most time trials we started in reverse order of where we stood in the General Classification. Slowest riders would start at 9.00, the leaders at around 11.00. 20 second intervals between each rider with the exception of the top 5 riders who would have 2 minutes between them to reduce the chance of them getting embroiled in duels.

Argelès Gazost was buzzing. A great atmosphere and a superb location in the middle of town to launch an average of about an hour of pain on each rider. We’d ridden from our hotel in Lourdes which gave us a nice 12km warm up. I then headed up the first 4kms of the course itself to do a few ‘openers’. A few hard efforts, just a few seconds each one, to get the heart rate up and give the body a little taste of what I’d be inflicting on it a little later. When I’m fresh for something like this, without what we’ve done in previous days, I would easily get those ‘openers’ to get my heart rate into the 170’s (Beats per minute).  Today 150’s were all that were happening with the fatigue of the first 4 stages. I expected that though, more importantly my legs felt good and I was feeling quietly confident that my body could deliver a decent ride.

 

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As my time approached I stepped up on to the rather dramatic start ramp. A very quick gel sucked in at the last minute. Presenter Fergus Grant asks me how I feel, ‘excited!’. It’s my turn, Richard Scales has just departed and I’m ready. I’ve already selected a gear that suits the first couple of hundred metres. Here we go. I’m happy to be pedalling. I find all the anticipation and waiting quite nerve racking. It’s a relief to get on with the job. I settle into a good firm rhythm. The first 2 or 3 kms were steady and up at about 6/7%. The crucial thing in any time trial is pacing. You’re looking for an even effort throughout your anticipated time. So easy to go too hard too soon when you feel good. A power meter is really useful in that regard as it helps cap your effort and keeps you ‘out of the red’. For the 48 minutes that I expected to take, I can sustain around 315 watts when I’m on good form. Go over that for too many seconds in the early stages and I would pay at the end. The other aspect on a course like this is trying to even out the power on the changes of terrain. Easy to make the mistake of going too far over ‘threshold’ on the steeper bits and then easing too much on the flats. You need the opposite. A measured effort on the ups where the hill provides you resistance and forces you to work anyway. On the flats, with less resistance the perceived effort needs to be greater to achieve the same output. I hope that makes sense! Basically the flats are not a resting opportunity, completely the opposite, they need to be ridden hard.

 

All was going well. I gradually reeled in Richard and passed him after about 2.5kms. He’d had a tough day yesterday with major frustrating mechanical issues. I moved on, I felt strong. I didn’t need to look back, I knew that I was in catching mode rather than being a ‘catchee’. A couple more kms and I could see Krzystof ahead. He’s just behind me in GC and had started slightly out of order about a minute ahead of me. I was gaining on him which confirmed I was going well. Was I going too hard though? I kept looking at my power numbers, everything under control, high but not quite in the red zone of the dial. Legs good and heart rate going up nicely into the high 160’s, my heart and body were not quite as tired as I thought. I forged ahead. I dealt with the flat sections well. Being pretty light and more of a climber type the flat sections could easily be my downfall. I was really happy with how I geared them though and kept the power on. Passing more of my rivals who are just behind me in GC was spurring me on. So good to get encouraging words, those ‘Go John!’ shouts from the likes of Stephen and Andrew when I went past them are like an added 10 watts straight away. It feels fantastic to get encouragement from your peers who totally get what’s going on and can see you are going well.

5kms to go, more checks, too hard early on? Will I pay for my efforts? Still good. One right hand bend sticks in my mind. Flattish section, gravel on the road, I nailed it. Got such a good line and carried plenty of speed around it. I was pleased with myself. I could here shouting from a few spectators on that corner and I knew I was one of the quicker ones through there.

3kms to go and still all good. A tough and sustained finish coming up. I was still reeling people in and no one had caught me. Roedi Weststrate, 5th on GC had started one minute behind me and then the leading 4 riders starting 2 minutes apart. None of them passing me was good as I’d fancied Roedi taking a couple of minutes out of me on this climb. With 1km to go I saw 42 minutes on the clock. This was good, I was heading for a 46 if I could keep this up.

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Nearly there, I remember passing Xavier just before the last bend and then I’d got 200m left. What an atmosphere, shouting, cheering, a brilliant place. I glimpsed Adrian Beer on the left, ’50m John! Go!’. I tried to absolutely empty the tank and finished strong up the steep and gravel strewn last few metres.

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Over the line and few moments to recover away from the crowds before taking in what had happened. I knew I’d gone well and the result was almost incidental, I’d done as well as I could regardless of what my position was.

I ended up 7th. Very happy indeed. 46 minutes and 20 seconds. Carlo Fino won in 42.18. To be 4 minutes off a rider of that quality was fine by me. Roedi ended up 15 seconds ahead of me, so happy just to be in the same ball park as people like that!

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So a good time trial done. Still 6th overall with bigger time gaps now back to those behind me. Jon Bray rode a fabulous 12th place today and is now up to 11th in GC. Stephen maintains his 14th in GC, Adrian moved up to 41st with a solid 51 minute ride. Duncan and Riccardo also comfortably broke the hour to both move closer to the magic top 100.

Back to ‘normal’ business tomorrow with an early start and a triple mountained jaunt planned for us including the beautiful Col d’Aubisque.

Bye for now!

 

Haute Route Pyrenees Stage 4

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The Stage 4 route somehow managed to cram in a whopping 3250m of climbing into just 82km. 3 classic and contrasting climbs: Col de Peyresourde, Hourquette d’Ancizan and then the Col du Tourmalet.

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The weather forecast was shocking, heavy rain for the duration of the stage and cold conditions particularly at 2115m atop the Tourmalet. Our pre stage briefing made it clear to us that adaptations to the course on the day could happen and we were ready for every scenario this morning from a totally cancelled stage right through to a normal completed day. With rain almost guaranteed the decision was made pre stage to neutralise the main 2 descents after the first 2 climbs. We would only be timed on the ups and few flats in between.

We awoke to the expected heavy rain and headed to the start just before the scheduled 7.30am roll out from Bagnères de Luchon. I’d already checked emails in the hope that maybe the organisers had pulled the pin on the day but no such luck. I was really not in the mood for this at all. A non riding day would be fine by me and another step closer to getting my 2 weeks done!

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I spent some time alone sheltering near the start and trying to get my head around what to take and wear to keep me warm. I was going to get soaked pretty quickly anyway so I went for a fairly economical approach with a light rain jacket that I could pack into a pocket if conditions improved. As I lined up at the start my gloves were soaked within a couple of minutes so they went straight in a pocket.

2km of neutralised riding as per the previous day took us to the start of the timing and straight into the 14km climb of Peyresourde. Usual story, the leading 5 riders in GC headed up by overall leader Carlo Fino set the pace. I went with them feeling fairly comfortable despite not having any sort of warm up that morning. After about 1km there was a clear split, the ‘big 5’, myself and Polish rider  Krzysztof Szuder. I stayed with the group for a while, it was a very similar situation to the previous day. We were building a good gap on the rest of the field very quickly. The pace was too high for me but I knew if I could hang on for a while it would give me a great launchpad to gaining time on the riders behind. After about 4km up the climb I let the group go and to my relief Krzystof lost touch too. This was good as I’d have someone to ride with over the mid part of the climb where the gradients eased a little.

The leaders moved well up the road but Krzystof and I were still going well. There was no one in sight behind, time to settle in and find a sustainable effort that would get us to the top where the timing would stop. I was marginally stronger than Krzystof and spent more time on the front than him. I felt great, my reluctance to ride in the morning had turned into very different emotions. I was loving every pedal stroke and really felt on form. With 5kms to go Krzystof gasped a few words out, apologising for not being able to work on the front. ‘No worries, hang on for as long you can’, I was more than happy to pull him up as he’d done his turns earlier in the climb. ‘I might need you later in the week Krzystof!’. Then he asked me if I was an ex pro! That made me feel on top of the world. ‘No way Krzystof but maybe I’ll become one when I’m 60!

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3kms to go and Krzystof started to lose touch. As I peered up to the finishing hairpins I was astonished at how far up the road the flashing lights of the Commissaire’s car were. That car is always with the leader, Carlo was there and he ended up topping out 5 minutes ahead of me. Different league altogether (and a fair bit younger!) I was still happy though, I reached the summit strongly with Krzystof about 20 seconds behind me.

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Duncan Carrier still cheerful in the weather as he crests the Peyresourde

We then faced a long descent into the valley, untimed. The rain was still lashing down and I was relieved to get to the valley floor unscathed. I headed over the timing mat with another 6 or 7 riders. The ‘big 5’ were already ahead. We then faced about 8kms of gentle downs and ups until the next climb, Hourquette d’Ancizan, 10kms at an avarage of about 8%. The group I was in included Krzystof and other riders just behind me in the GC. Having taken time from them all on the Peyresourde I’d already decided that I’d most likely ride up with the group take some pressure off myself. I knew I had no chance today or in the coming days to catch any of the guys ahead of me in GC (unless they messed up in a big way) so for the first time in 4 days of riding I started to think about the big picture of surviving the 2 weeks. I’d done enough for the day and I could afford settling down and also conserving some energy for the Tourmalet, and beyond.

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Hourquette is a wild and beautiful place, or at least it is when you can see it as I’ve been lucky enough to do on several occasions in good weather. Today’s rain and low cloud shrouded much of that beauty and it became a focussed trudge up a coarsely surfaced ‘heavy’ road. I enjoyed being with the group, I spent a bit of time on the front before I eased to let Rod Archibald lead things for a while while I sat in and ‘sucked wheel’. The weather was still bad, raining gusting and almost a hint of hail or sleet in the air. Krzystof pushed ahead with 1km to the top and I followed for both of us to reach the summit and timing mat about 15 seconds ahead of the group. 2 climbs done, one to go.

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We pulled up at the feed station to get some calories to keep us going and Carlo shouted to me ‘No Tourmalet, race finished!’ Music to my ears. The race was cut short due to concerns as to the conditions on Tourmalet whose summit is 600m higher and a good deal colder than where we were on the Hourquette. I was relieved. I double checked with the officials and then helped spread the word and called Martin to get our post race logistics in place to get all our team off the hill and back to civilisation and warmth. Generally everybody was really happy with the decision. Just a few characters disappointed at not getting to tackle the ‘big name’ of the Tourmalet. It can wait for a nicer day. It’ll still be there for a long time to come! I’m convinced it was the right thing to do, especially after seeing the same conditions in 2014 on the Tourmalet for the Etape du Tour where having lots of lycra clad cyclists up in the ‘death zone’ cause a lot of distress and difficulty.

We were still credited with our times so far for the stage. A very similar scenario to what happened in Stage 19 of the Tour de France this year when the stage was curtailed on the top of the Col de l’Iseran. Just like that day, if we’d known that the stage would finish on Hourquette we’d have all given it a bigger effort and raced for the line but it was the same for everyone and I for one was happy with my ride and the decision.

I came in 6th again and consolidated my 6th in GC. Other results were Jon Bray 11th (GC 15th), Stephen Blackburn 28th (GC 14th), Adrian Beer 73rd (GC 42nd), Riccardo Clerici 84th (GC 115th) and Duncan Carrier 124th (GC 112th. Great results, especially Riccardo today who is accelerating up the GC.

The weather is clearing now and it looks like the next 3 stages will enjoy fantastic weather after today’s difficult episode. Tomorrow is Individual Time Trial day, one climb against the clock. Col de Spandelles providing what will be about 45 minutes of pain and toil for the leading rider tomorrow and a fair bit more for the rest of us!

Goodnight!

 

 

 

 

 

Haute Route Pyrenees Stage 3

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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.

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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

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Jon near the top on the Port de Balès

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.

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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.

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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!

Until tomorrow!

 

 

Haute Route Pyrenees Stage 2

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Haute Route Pyrenees Stage 1

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Stage 1 took us from the centre of Pau right up to La Pierre St Martin close the Spanish border. 96kms and 2700m of climbing destined to keep us busy. We woke to a stunning clear day in Pau with the mountains around our summit finish in sight at the start and providing a dramatic backdrop.

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After a slow and rather awkward 10kms of neutralisation the flag went down near Gan and we were off. The pace was high with an annoyingly large number of riders who clearly wanted to give it some beans from the off. I’d hoped for a relatively settled run in to the climbs of the day but it was not to be. I found it stressful and twitchy. My lack of many race days this summer probably contributed to how I felt, I was out of practice in a hectic group environment. A few short ‘lumps’ separated the field and I found myself in a ‘lead’ group of around 50 riders. In fact, one or two riders had already broken away off the front at that point but with 2 massive weeks ahead of me that was not a concern for me. I tried to chill towards the back of the group where I could get the drafting benefit but not too much stress. The problem though with being near the back is that you are vulnerable to things going wrong, crashes and splits that can happen ahead of you. There were a couple of small crashes ahead but nothing to spoil my plans.

The pace remained ‘pulsy’ with efforts going on at the front of the group from various riders to bring the breaking riders back. I just wanted an easy ride and the whole thing was more erratic than I wanted. I needed a hill to sort things out and it came.

The first classified climb of the day was the Bugularan. 5kms long and it’s humble average gradient of just over 5% disguised the fact that some of it was properly steep. As we approached the climb on narrowing roads I needed to move up. This was going to get strung out and I needed to be in a better position. That climb whittled the group down to around 35 but will have hurt many in their efforts to stay on. It was tough for me too but my legs were good and I was relatively comfortable.

A short descent followed that I was relieved to get down safely with the bunch. 65km in, another 10kms of flattish riding and we’d hit the biggest climb of the day, Hourcère, with 11kms of climbing at an average of 9%, that was going to sort things out!

Also with me in that main lead group were team mates Stephen Blackburn and Adrian Beer. I’d not ridden with Stephen until this week but I knew he was strong and it was no surprise to see such an experienced rider where he was. I was pleased for Adrian, he’s a super strong rider but not your skinny climber type. He’d done well to stay with the group over the Bugularan and looked in really good shape.

We hit the Hourcère at 75km and in many ways it was a relief for me. Now we were on a big climb where our fitness levels would show up and separate us all pretty quickly. No more worries about group dynamics and avoiding crashes. Now it was just man against the mountain. All went well. Although I’d not ridden the climb before I knew what to expect. The first 3kms would average more or less 10% with the rest easing a little. I was happy with how I went, our group spread itself as expected and I found myself somewhere around 10th position. One of my rivals from Haute Route Alpe d’Huez, Richard Scales was right there and Stephen was just behind. I was happy where I was. If I could get to the finish in that position I would be happy. On the way up the Hourcère I was able to take in the stunning view over to our left, back towards where we’d started 3 hours earlier in the lowlands. It was spectacular, the Pyrenees really are beautiful. I had my usual safe encounters with livestock on the road which is a very normal occurrence in the Pyrenees. Cattle negotiated I was nearly at the top.

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Our trusty support driver Martin handed me an essential bottle of water at the feed station just before the summit, I headed over the top feeling I’d done a good job.

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Just 11kms to the finish now. 6 down and 5 up. The narrow descent was negotiated safely, the mapping on my bike computer helping me see the worst of the bends ahead of me and I was happy with how I got down there without too many unnecessary dabs on the brakes.

Into the final 5km up the finish. The moment I started to put power through the pedals after the descent my legs started cramping, badly. All those punchy small hills at the start of the day had taken their toll. I might be in trouble. I knew I’d drunk enough, this cramp was simply due to the efforts I’d put in and my body was arguing with me. I rode the next few minutes worried. I was still putting out reasonable power but the pain and muscle spasms were bad. I eased off a little with my efforts. I tried standing but that was a no go after one attempt as it put my quads into huge cramps. I needed to sit down and ride though it as I’ve done before, usually. I had a margin on the next riders behind me so as I tried to manage my cramp my position in the race was preserved. With 2.5kms to go the legs were coming back and I’d got through the worst. I still couldn’t stand but my seated power was good and I was back on track. Panic over.

The last few minutes to the finish are always hard but the gradients were more humble and I got into a bigger gear and got the bike moving. Louis, a young French rider who I’ve not ridden with before nearly caught me but I finished really strongly and crossed the line happy and relieved.

Stephen finished a minute or so behind me, a very solid ride for him. He ended up 10th on the day and I managed 8th. A really good start.

Jon Bray came in 30th, despite missing the lead group he’d climbed really well and worked his way through the field. Adrian finished solidly in 38th. Duncan and Riccardo not too far behind them. All in all a job well done.

Now it’s all about rest. I’m already daunted by what’s ahead of us. 13 more stages, most of which will be considerably harder than today. Tomorrow we culminate on the Port de Balès after 137km of riding. Rest time now!