Cycling: Aidan O'Hara - 11 hours on the road to hell
The boulangeries advertising their bread seemed certain of what was to come for the thousands of cyclists rolling out of the southern French city of Pau last Saturday morning.
As approximately 10,000 amateurs began the 201km Etape du Tour race from Pau to Luchon, the red neon signs outside the bakeries flashed a word which would be the theme for the day: 'PAIN'. French for bread but for English speakers it was prophetic.
Today, the professionals will ride the same route but for the majority on the start line on Bastille Day the goal was simply to get to the finish before the broomwagon could sweep them up.
Give or take a few withdrawals, the riders are numbered 1 to 10,000 and held in nine separate sections before being called to start. The first 500 go at 7.0 and the final group follow about 45 minutes later, 15 minutes ahead of the broomwagon. The schedule allows until 7.40 that evening to finish the stage.
Based on my limited experience -- and this being my first organised cycling event -- I get bib No 8144 and am put in the second last group. Being 6'3" and around 90kg may be good for tackling centre-forwards but for cycling up mountains it's as useful as a chocolate teapot. (By comparison, Bradley Wiggins is the same height but, even with those sideburns, is 21kg lighter).
Unfortunately, this stage involves over 50km of ascending where the gradient averages around 7pc with the highlights being the Aubisque, Tourmalet (both the hardest category of climb), the Aspin and Peyresourde (which are the second hardest).
There's some chat for the first hour until the foot of the Aubisque when all goes quiet other than the sound of heavy breathing and churning pedals. There's 16.4km at 7.1pc average gradient to get to the summit, and the banter never returns. Slow and steady won't win the race, but it might finish it.
Sometimes it is good not to know what's around the corner and, on this day, fog makes it impossible to see the summit, which limits the psychological battle. The problem, though, is that such cloud brings rain and temperatures of only about five degrees so that, at the summit, a sweat quickly becomes a shiver. Of course, not being able to see on the way up also makes things perilous on the descents when you're cold, on wet roads you don't know, with visibility of barely 50 metres and reaching speeds in the mid-50s kph.
The halfway mark passes after almost five hours but everyone knows they've only come through the easy bit. The Tourmalet doesn't officially begin until 104kms, at which point it's a 19km climb at 7.4pc to an altitude of 2,115m but, before reaching its start, there's a spirit-crushing drag of about 16km of slow incline where the roads have netting above them to stop falling rocks.
My first mishap occurs after 3km of the climb: with my eyes focused on my front wheel, I don't notice a cyclist stopping in front of me. Our pedals collide, we stay upright but my apology which comprises two words -- "s***, sorry" -- probably doesn't help the situation.
Like the Aubisque, the scenery around the Tourmalet is apparently beautiful but, having been on it for almost two hours, it's the fog and gruelling slog which are most memorable. To prevent the brain from becoming logical (and probably quitting), I distract myself by trying to name 20 Premier League teams or the 32 counties, but even this is too mentally taxing.
Instead, I count the white markings on the side of the road from one to 250, back to one and repeat several times. It's mind-numbing but it's a distraction which keeps out the thoughts of painful legs and stiffening back.
Again, the cloud makes descending difficult and, after 140km, the most in-demand item at the food, drink and medical stations is the foil blanket to warm up shivering bodies.
After over eight hours in the saddle, the 12.4km Aspin begins comfortably but then bares its teeth to show why it's a Category One climb. With visibility improving and 4km to the summit, the second mishap occurs when, after stopping, I try to remount but my left foot slips on the pedal, my weight goes entirely to the right, I fall and wrench my left shoulder while attempting to keep hold of the bike.
Fortunately, I had stopped on the left side of the road so, as I fell, the main danger was being hit by other cyclists. Had I stopped on the right and the same thing happened, the fog had lifted enough to see how far I might have fallen.
The 12km descent from the Aspin is treacherous but, with the final climb to come the end is getting nearer -- although so too is the broomwagon.
The rise towards the Peyresourde starts at about 170km, with the climb itself a 9.5km drag at 6.7pc and by now the bib numbers are scattered all over the place. Those who came in groups are trying to cajole each other to the final summit, as are some wonderfully enthusiastic locals.
Going over the top brings a feeling of exhausted euphoria. There are 14km remaining but, mercifully, it's all downhill with crashing now the only danger. Passing under the famous red 1km-to-go mark brings a relief and joy that should be impossible to feel 11 hours and 40 minutes after starting in a town 200km away. I am the 3,436th to cross the line but, of the near 10,000 who start, only 3,819 manage to finish.
In total, I get through about 10 litres of water, 25 energy bars and gels as well as sweets provided by strangers, raisins, bananas and cakes which are handed out at the food stations.
Had Marie Antoinette been talking about this stage when she said 'let them eat cake', she might have held on to her head. On this, Bastille Day, with the task completed, the riders could now eat whatever they wanted.