On the high road to hell
Riding a stage of the treacherous Haute Route is a painful experience never to be forgotten
There are some words I wish I'd never read. There's a passage from Paul Kimmage's 'Rough Ride' that's whirling through my head as I struggle up the middle slopes of the Col du Tourmalet.
"I am resigned now to abandon," Kimmage writes.
"As I know there's no way I can make the time limit in my present state. I look for a place to end it. A place void of people so that I can retire with dignity. I have cracked. It is over."
I've had these words spinning through my head for a few kilometres on the final climb of a long day, as my legs feel weak and empty, my back is in danger of seizing up, I'm finding it painful to breathe and my head boils in the 35-degree heat.
I'm standing out of the saddle, then back sitting again, I'm trying to find a rhythm. I can't go on like this for another 9km. Resignation has won. I'm looking for a place to end it.
I spot Louis Armary, the former French hooker and celebrity rider for the day, perched on a grassy bank having called it a day already. His large frame and the ambulance that's pulled in beside him, draws me like a magnet. It's as good a place as any.
I had accepted an invitation to ride a stage of the Haute Route Pyrenees, and boldly picked the hardest day of the seven-stage event.
A few weeks' notice was probably not the best preparation time, but having completed the 160km Sean Kelly challenge, I was feeling bold. And having ridden in this spectacular part of the world before, any chance to return would be hard to resist.
The Haute Route Pyrenees is a seven-day sportive, billed as the 'toughest in the world', and tailored to cross from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic on some of the Tour de France's most iconic roads.
The event is timed and very competitive at the front of the peloton, but at the other end it's just a battle to survive the time limit. Make no mistake, though, there are no muffin-tops bulging over lycra shorts. There are more shaved legs than a Miss Ireland contest. With impressive logistical support, the event gives the 350 amateur cyclists the opportunity to ride like a professional for a week. Almost everything is taken care of, so they can concentrate on their own survival.
So 12 hours after arriving in the Bagneres de Luchon, there is barely any sun light when I make may way to the 7.30am start in my Haute Route gilet and with my time chip tied to the handlebars. Having missed the stage briefing the previous evening, I'm invited to the front to get my own run-through of the Queen Stage.
Stage 4 of the Haute Route, or High Road, is not intimidatingly long at 133km, but when almost half of that distance is pointed towards the sky you know it's going to be a long day in the saddle.
First up on the shark's teeth profile, is the Col de Peyresourde (14km), which starts almost immediately after the start line, followed by the painfully steep Col d'Azet (7km), the Col d'Aspin (11km) and the biggest brute of them all, the Col du Tourmalet (17km); 4,000m of climbing – or 38 times up Howth Hill.
I'm also warned about the cut-off time, which is a feature of each stage. Today the first 100km are timed with the clock stopping on the final summit followed by a 30km neutralised downhill section. The early-summer floods turned the east side of the Tourmalet into a building site, so racing down it would be impossible.
Louis Armary is introduced to the crowd as the countdown to the start begins, but those around me look too focused on the job at hand.
I need to get out of this group of race leaders.
So, as the flag drops and we roll under the start banner, I let myself slip back to the middle of the pack to find a comfortable speed. I'm wary of starting the day too fast, but the sight of the early morning sunshine hitting the Peyresourde's rocky outcrops makes my legs spin faster.
The beauty of the area is unrivalled – if you get a chance to enjoy it.
It's barely 9.0am when I reach the 1,569m summit and after a quick stop to refill water bottles and take on some energy bars, the riders are hurtling down the other side. Hitting speeds of 70kph, the descent flies by, so there's little time to recover before hitting the second climb of the day, the shorter but steeper Col d'Azet.
The gradient through the climb's opening hairpins splits the many groups to pieces. For now, I'm comfortable enough to get chatting to an American rider, Patrick Sweeney, who's moving gingerly after coming off his bike the day before.
Sweeney collided with a car going through a roundabout, but escaped with a few cuts and bruises. While the event is well marshalled by hundreds of volunteers, giving the riders the right-of-way through most junctions, it takes place on open roads meaning caution is still required.
In fact, some of the more dangerous descents, including our second of the day, have been neutralised to discourage people from racing down the gravelly, twisty roads at top speed. This means that the clock stops at the top of the Col d'Azet, so we can take our time at the next water stop, and enjoy the amazing views.
But not long after rolling down the second descent of the day and I'm regretting my lack of urgency at the summit when my front wheel punctures and leaves me standing on the side of the road. Ten minutes are lost as I make running repairs and I spend the rest of the descent and valley roads trying to make up for lost time, ahead of the Col d'Aspin.
At the bottom of the Aspin, the small white signs on the road – which mark each kilometre's distance from the summit, altitude and most importantly gradient – are kind, so I'm quickly able to catch sight of riders up ahead. I ride slightly out of my comfort zone just to catch up with an experienced English cyclist who admits Stage 4 is a battle for survival. He has taken part in sportives all over the world, but this is shaping up to be his toughest week in the saddle. He cried with pain on the final climb the previous day.
This chat distracts me from the feeling that I'm approaching my own breaking point and, 5km short of the summit, the kindness of the Aspin wanes. The roadsigns bring the bad news, as the gradient kicks up to 9.5pc and physically and psychologically I almost grind to a halt. But grinding is pretty much all I can do as I stand on the pedals and crawl my way towards the third summit. I'm clearly going backwards in the group now, but it hurts too much to bother me.
Although the clock may still be running at the top, I decide to take my time here and replenish my food and water supplies. An Irish voice at the food stop is comparing the gradient to that of Killiney Hill. I feel a little more at home as I roll off the mountainside towards the day's final obstacle.
But as the road flattens out, and I continue to stuff oat bars and gels down my throat, I realise my front tyre is deflating again, and so is morale. I change the tube as a Mavic mechanic pulls in to make sure I'm okay. He confirms he's the last mechanic on the road; only the ambulance and broom wagon are behind.
After another wasted 10 minutes, I'm back on the road speeding towards the Tourmalet, but by now very conscious of the time limit. On a bad day, the 17km of the Tourmalet could take the best part of two hours to climb and it's beginning to feel like a bad day.
It already seems like I'm the only person left on the road. And the sound of the Mavic van crawling along behind me isn't helping me as my pace slows on the increasing gradient.
My morale is pretty low when a jolly Englishman decked out in a red Haute Route jersey and shorts pulls alongside me, encouraging me forward. His good-humour distracts me for a while, until he reveals his identity as the Lanterne Rouge, or last man on the road. A smiling grim reaper that makes sure no-one gets left behind.
The heat, the hills, my legs are all telling me to stop. I admit out loud that I can't see how I'm going to reach the summit. the Lanterne Rouge cajols another few kilometres from my legs, but admitting my difficulty comes as a relief. I know it's almost over for me.
I spot the ambulance for the first time, as it pulls in beside Armary. Better the broom wagon than the ambulance.
Climbing off the bike seems like the only option and in the 10 minutes we wait by the side of the road I don't think about changing my mind once. I'm comfortable with this defeat, even more so when the broom wagon turns out to be luxury coach equipped with a fridge full of drinks.
While it still takes the best part of an hour for the bus bandits to reach the top, we can fully enjoy the stunning setting and admire the efforts of those still struggling on. By the time the coach draws up alongside the famous statue of Octave Lapize, enthusiasm has returned when we're giving the chance to mount our bikes again for the downhill ride to Argeles-Gazost. It also saves us the ignominy of crossing the finish line in the broom wagon.
When we arrive, the race village is busy with riders already finished who are preparing for the next day; food, massage and rest.
I'm slightly relieved to be on the first flight out of Lourdes the next morning. I drop in to find a cure for the temptation to return next year to do it properly.