Stage 6 had a bit of everything, 129km and 3300m of climbing with a huge variety of riding wrapped up inside it. We set off from Saint Lary in the perfect conditions that we’ve become accustomed to this week. It was pretty much racing from the gun today, a neutralised first few hundred metres and then the 10km climb of the Col d’Azet at an average gradient of about 7% to very much wake us up.
There had been talk among some of the leaders of going up the Azet a bit easier and no attacks. For a moment I thought we might be in for a nice steady climb with everybody preserving themselves for the rest of the day’s challenges. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was very much game on as soon as the flag went down. I was not in the mood for this. I’d been riding well over the last couple of days but I was tired and could really do without a maximal effort right now. As we got a couple of kilometres up the climb about half a dozen of the very strongest guys started to get away. Then a second group formed with about 10 riders including Alastair who had got himself exactly where he needed to be. I was then at the front of the rest of the field. Gaps were getting bigger all the time. Decision time. Do I settle in and ride as one as one of the stronger riders in the group or do I bridge the gap to the group up the road. It was like a game of chess. On the other side of this climb we would have a descent of about 7kms and then about 60km of flat and sometimes rolling terrain. Every rider today was thinking about that 60kms, being in the right group in that valley section would be crucial.
I went for it, I squeezed out a big effort and got closer to the group ahead. No one followed me, I was in the void. I got closer to the group ahead but couldn’t get onto it. I timed the gap in my head a few times I was within 20-30 seconds of them and the gap stayed steady. Brent Holmes was with me, that’s cool. He’s become a great rival to me this week, he’s in my over 50 category too and we’ve been having a good battle for the podium of the old blokes. He’d been with the group I was trying to catch and had dropped off, I’d come the other way. We worked together for a while. It’s hard to speak at these intensities but I uttered enough to suggest that the gap was staying steady and that was good.
I had a plan. I convinced myself that if I could get over the top of Azet within 30 seconds of the group I’d be able to reel them in on the descent. There were some good descenders in there but some weaker ones too. As Brent and I came into the final kilometre of Azet I pushed on as much as I could and rolled over the top about 25 seconds behind, Brent was a further 10 seconds back.
I knew the descent fairly well, 14 hairpins to negotiate. 100% concentration, get this job done. Cattle on the road slowed me a little but not much. 14 bends to come, surely I can pull back a couple of seconds per corner. No. I passed Swiss Marco quite soon, he had lost touch with the group he’d crested with and was struggling on the descent and would be of no help to me at this point. Every corner I rode smoothly, my line was pretty good, power back on at just the right point. Why can’t I see my prey? The group was staying away. I’d underestimated there abilities. When I eventually got to see them at the bottom of the descent they were still around 30 seconds ahead. Pissed off. Plan not happening. What do I do now? I chased for a couple of kilometres, big effort. Maybe the group would cruise and hesitate for just long enough. No. I look back and there is no one, Brent and Marco are a minute or more behind me. I’m totally isolated. My only hope is a vehicle coming past that I can draught. Not totally legal but we all do it now and again. If a Mavic car came through I knew I could get on the back, I’ve done it before with them. It’s harder with the public as they come past too fast. I looked back for suitable vehicles, nothing. I chased for a little longer and then the fight ended. Well and truly pissed off. At exactly that point Brent and Marco came into view behind me, I sat up, cruised and waited for them to catch me.
Brent’s good on the flat, no slouch on the climbs too but certainly stronger than me on the flat. The three of us talked briefly. My opinion was that the group ahead would be uncatchable and that whatever we did together would inevitably get swamped by the next group behind. 3 riders, unless they are incredibly strong cannot compete with groups of 10 or more that are working together.
Brent and Marco wanted to work. I said the group ahead was at least a minute away but they wanted to give it a go. Outvoted I worked with them but my heart was not in it. I felt I was wasting energy for an unassailable cause. For around 15kms we worked smoothly taking generally one minute turns on the front. Marco went hard up a short climb. ‘Let him go’ I said to Brent, ‘this is not worth it, another group is going to come through anyway’. I was irritated, annoyed, still pissed off. Not with the guys but with the fact I’d ended up in no man’s land. I love the tactical side of cycling and my decision making is usually pretty good. This had gone wrong. Then I got stung by a bee that had got into my helmet. Now a bee sting is really not an issue compared to the pain of cycling but it still added to my general pissed offness.
Just as we were deliberating, the anticipated group from behind came past us. About 20 of them, perfect. They were moving well and there were enough of them for me to hide for a while and chill at the back. I was back where I belonged and I knew the next few kilometres would now be ok. I was just annoyed at how I’d got to this point. I could have cruised up Azet with these guys I was with now and I would have been a lot happier and more comfortable. Ok, forget what’s happened, I’m here now, let’s look forward.
My attitude changed and I enjoyed the transport that was provided for me. It was perfect. Fast enough but not too hard. Coming through from behind came Austrian Jurgen and Dutch Robert. Jurgen was sitting 4th overall in the rankings but had had a mechanical problem so he was working his way back through the field. Robert was the super strong time trial rider that had rescued me on day one. Jurgen and Robert drove things along at a fantastic rate for 20kms or so. I was hiding. My legs felt tired. The Port de Bales was coming up.
Port de Bales sells itself as a 20km climb but the guts of it is 11kms long rising about 1000m. The run in to it was fast thanks to Jurgen and Robert. As we hit the first steeper ramps with 11kms to go the group of 20 or so riders exploded. I stayed near the back and ignored everyone else. I wanted to find my own rhythm and pace myself carefully for the hour or so of climbing. Half of the group chased Jurgen, big mistake. He’s a class act and they would discover a couple of kms up the road that they should have let him go. It was classic tortoise and hare stuff, I held back and took my time, at one point I was the last in the group on that climb and by the top I was, by my reckoning, the fourth fastest up there. I went well and passed the majority of those that had all gone too fast too soon.
Bales felt good, my legs did the job, my efforts earlier in the day had not caused any major problems or repercussions so far. I knew the climb well and I was pleased with how I’d dealt with it. Brent and I had ridden most of the climb in close proximity and I took 30 seconds advantage from him at the top.
After a neutralised descent the next job was Col de Peyresourde. 9.8kms at an average of 6.5%. It’s not too tough but it’s a bit of a drag with no spectacular bends to look forward to until the very top. The rest of it is relatively straight and mind numbing.
I started up it with Alastair, Brent and a couple of others. All went well, Alastair soon moved up the road and he ended up topping out on the Peyresourde 3 minutes ahead of me. I was happy, I rode with Brent for most of the way and then pulled away in the second half to gap him by a minute or so.
Then for the spectacular finale of the day. We flew down a short descent of about 3kms and then turned left up to Peyragudes. 3kms of climb left and the day was done. I had no riders in sight ahead and Brent was still a minute back. Now it was all about the clock and just getting to the finish ASAP, no one to race. The next 2.5 kms posed very little concern but the jewel in the crown of the day was still to come. We were to finish on the Altiport runway at Peyragudes. 350m at an average gradient of 18%. The same finish used in the Tour in 2017 when Bardet won the stage. He got up there in just over a minute then, we wouldn’t.
I’d ridden it before and I knew what to expect, I was looking forward to it. My only objective was to ride straight up. Most of the field behind me would end up tacking their way up it in an effort to contort the gradient in their favour. I went straight up it, agonisingly slowly taking over 2 minutes to scale what Bardet did in about half the time.
It was an incredibly painful finish but truly spectacular too to have the airport closed just for our event. As per routine I saw Alastair at the top, great performance from him again. We were both happy with what we’d achieved. Alastair finished 9th to stay 8th overall and I finished 15th to remain 15th overall in the men’s event. I need to highlight the fact that I’m 15th in the men’s as I’m 16th overall. Hannah Rhodes Patterson is riding incredibly well and beating me most days and lies ahead of me in the ranking. Sophie Poza, today’s ladies’ winner is only just behind me too. Those girls are really impressive and great to see quality lady riders in this event.
Big shout today for Felix who finished a superb 29th, his best day yet. Well done to all the team, all finishing safe and sound and relatively happy!
One day to go. One major climb. We’re nearly there!