Hands raised, resplendent in yellow, Vincenzo Nibali crosses the line on top of the Hautacam on stage 18 in 4:04:17, one minute and ten seconds ahead of nearest challenger Thibaut Pinot, to all but seal his place as the winner of the 2014 Tour De France.
Watching these superhuman athletes grapple mano-a-mano up the biggest, toughest mountains is why we all tune in year after year and listen to Boardman and Liggett-isms. But, and let's be honest here, we all may have been guilty once in a while of thinking, how hard could it be?
"Mr Voake your velo, eet az not arrived..." The dreaded words everybody fears when flying abroad for a cycling event. Ok, pretty terrible news, but at least I have my kit and shoes in my other luggage, so all I need is a hire bike. My other luggage has arrived, right? Ah, non. Alas, lightning does strike twice and I leave Pau airport empty handed, 14 hours before my start time. A quick call to my co-ordinator and the Norwegian cycling federation and a spare bike is found. So off I go to register and spend several hundred pounds on cycling kit, and to pick up a spare bike that I am predicting will not be equivalent to the 6.8kg carbon machine I had meticulously packed into my bike box as I left Norway that morning. They say never to experiment with new kit on the day of the event; well I was going to be taking this to a new extreme!
A carnival atmosphere greets me in the tour village on the Avenue Gaston Lacoste in the centre of Pau, music pumping out of various stalls alongside beautiful bikes and every shiny piece of kit or cycling paraphernalia a cyclist could ever dream of. I hand over medical forms, and receive a rather nice t-shirt, rucksack and start number, and hit the shops, hard. Unfortunately there is no time to enjoy the atmosphere, I have a mystery bike to pick up and it is already 6pm. So, off I go in my hire car to the Specialized concept store to pick up my reserved bike, which they have, of course, already loaned out. Great.
Now burdened with all new kit and facing the prospect of running up the Col du Tourmalet, I check into my hotel, meet my team mates for the first time and do what any 26 year old in my position would do: I go for a beer to calm down. 9.30pm and two sips in, we are discussing where I will be handing out bidons when the phone rings. Air France has my bike, and it is just landing in Pau. Midnight rolls around, my (old!) kit is laid out next to my bike and I settle down for far less sleep than I had planned, after a much longer day than planned!
Race day and up nice and early, the sky is clear and weather warnings from the organisers seem a bit over the top (I don't think any of them have ridden in the winter in Norway!). Following the crowd to the Place de Verdun, the scale of the event really hit me. I rode the Wiggle Dragon Ride Granfondo earlier this year as my first sportive outside Norway, but the Etape is really something else.
I must start off by saying that I am not a strong cyclist, and definitely a baby of the Bradley Wiggins era. As such, I began towards the back of the race with number 8971 out of around 13000 that had been assigned.
The start area consists of 13 pens of a thousand cyclists, with start numbers being checked upon entrance by serious-looking French men with clipboards and superb moustaches. The atmosphere in the pen is a mixture of nerves and posing. I decided that the best course of action therefore was to try some nervous posing. This was the first time of several during the day where I was amazed at the volume of British riders at the Etape, it honestly felt like 50%. This obviously is a shining advert for the love of cycling in the UK, and for me as an expat Brit, was actually really nice and I quickly struck up conversation with a nice chap from west Suffolk cycling club.
Meanwhile, announcements in French over a booming PA continue as successive groups of cyclists are rolling under the famous stage start line of the Tour de France. The inevitable bottleneck cleared quickly, and the equally inevitable adrenaline-fuelled sprint over the first few kilometres ensues, averaging well over 40kmh.
The race quickly left Pau and entered rolling B roads through the countryside, tree-lined on both sides and for the most part only slightly undulating. Lots of medium sized groups formed, and everybody was clearly relaxing. All roads were exceedingly well marshaled and completely empty of traffic as we continued towards Nay. Weaving through small French villages and charming towns like Pontacq at speed with groups splitting on either side of cobbled traffic islands was a joy.
Though not drawing the crowds of the Tour, every local was out in support, sitting on a deck chair with shouts of "allez allez" and several mischievous French children waiting until the last second before deploying air horns feet from your face. Lots of pretty Red Cross girls cheering were the talk of my group for several kilometres, and smiles and laughter abounded when an elderly French woman took to the front of the crowds lining the road at the first food stop and, unable to clap, repeatedly banged her Zimmer-frame on the pavement in support.
Even this "flat" section of the stage contained two categorized climbs, firstly the Cote de Benejacq (2.6km at 6.9% average), and then the Cote de Lourcrop (2km at 6.9%) which certainly got the legs going. For the first time I engaged what was to be my new best friend in my 34x28 gear. My god, I am glad I bought that cassette before I left for France...
After 47km we skirted Tarbes-Lourdes Pyrenees airport and the landscape became more open, with the Pyrenees looming in front of us. The kms were clocking up and up to this point I had averaged a not unhealthy 28km/h, despite really holding back to save my legs. Everybody knew that come kilometre 95, the only way was up. At this point we had completed around 1000m of vertical climbing (which in no way would I ever classify as flat!) To make matters worse, the sky was darkening; we continued and the road was then wet, before the heavens opened.
The Col-du-Tourmalet officially begins in the town of Sante-Marie-De-Campan but the road had been rising gently for the last 30km and we were now 260m above our start point in Pau. Riding mates said goodbye to each other, heads went down, gears clicked all around, and we all settled in for the most famous Pyrenean climb in the Tour de France, all 17.1km of it, with an average gradient of 7.3%. The lowermost slopes are actually quite gentle, and the road is still reasonably wide. Slopes then begin to rise on either side as the road narrows and twists through green trees and past picturesque waterfalls.
All this time rain was lashing down; everybody was soaked to the skin, and I was beginning to get pain in the legs. The first riders started climbing off and walking and some larger riders were crawling along, which I suspected was not a good omen for their chances of completing the day. On and on went the climb, on and on went the rain. I had looked at images of the climb on google, and wish I could tell you about the beautiful views over a winding mountain pass, but in reality we were in a cloud. Glad I had been sensible enough to bring a rear light, I clicked it on and continued. There was something eerily wonderful about climbing through the numerous avalanche tunnels in near darkness, where other than heavy breathing and rubbing of chains on derailleurs there was an eerie silence.
Signs marked every kilometre with a distance to the top, and an average gradient for the next kilometre, and they were tortuous. At this point we had been climbing for over 90 minutes and there were still 5km of grinding up an 8-10% gradient to go. The morale boost of reaching the feed stop 4km from the top was huge (though I had secretly hoped to cycle the whole thing without stopping, I didn't see one person cycle through the stop!). It was only at this point that I noticed the temperature. A balmy twenty-something degrees in the valley had given way to high single figures by the top. Soaked to the skin and still in the middle of a cloud I felt the first shivers go through me and decided to push on for the summit. Another 25 minutes of grinding and the top was in sight, though the water stop just before the summit at 2115m actually meant most of the road was blocked with cyclists anyway!
On the back side of the Tourmalet the road drops off in a series of tight hairpins to begin the 18.6km descent to Luz Saint Saveur, and here marshals were waving flags everywhere to tell people to slow down. Ambulances had been passing regularly on the way up and there is always the thought in the back of your mind that it would be very easy to overcook a corner. I had to stay in the drops and I rued my decision to go for full carbon tubulars, the braking performance in the wet just isn't good enough. The rain kept coming down and everybody was crawling down a 1000m descent doing 25-30km/h. The wind was going through me, and other than my already sodden rain jacket, all I had in my back pocket was a soggy headband. At least it kept the wind off my ears.
Then the shaking began. I was cold. Like really, really cold. My body's feeble attempt to shake some heat into me threatened to knock me off my bike, and I didn't want to be there. I cycle to work in the snow for several months of the year, but I had never felt cold like this. Every bus stop was full of cyclists, and as we entered the first town every shop had bikes parked outside and cyclists trying to heat up. A marshal waved me on when I tried to stop, telling me a food stop to warm up was imminent. I foolishly continued on and spent the next hour wondering how the lady marshal had thought a cup of energy drink and no shelter was supposed to have warmed me up.
The descent went on forever but finally gave way to the valley bottom, and warmth through the Gorges de Luz. My Garmin read 130+ km and it felt like the race was over: only 18km to go! I happily sat on the front of a group and got some heat back into my body.
A huge crowd welcomed us at the bottom of the Hautacam, where the event village (and my car!) were located. Twenty minutes before I had been ready to climb off and here I was with a second wind, ready to climb the Hautacam. A couple of energy gels from the final food stop slurped down and off I went. The Hautacam is 13.6km at 7.8% and is in many ways far tougher than the Tourmalet. Its gradient is forever shifting, and I began scaring myself when I was happy to see signs indicating that the next km was "only" 6.8% average, so that I could get a rest. Signs indicating average gradients conceal ramps that hit mid to high teens in gradient and destroy any rhythm you might have had been building. In particular, the ninth kilometre, and 144th of the day averaged a hugely unpleasant 11.3%. The road was very narrow, and the fact that all the finishers were coming down on the opposite side of the road looking particularly smug really didn't help motivation. I spotted a Welsh flag, waved and say hi and received a verbal onslaught of Welsh encouragement, which made me wish I had paid more attention in Mrs Evans' GCSE class.
I looked down and saw I was averaging 7kmh and realised this could be a very long 13km. Grassy slopes gave way to exposed upper slopes and cloud, and after what seemed like an eternity of pain, and many hairpins and extended sections of 10% plus, looming in the distance was the famous flamme rouge, its air compressor noisily thrumming, rather than being drowned out by noisy crowds. The final kilometre was mercifully an easier gradient and I forced myself to click up a few gears and put in the obligatory mini sprint between rows of barriers, imagining adoring fans hands reverberating off them as they cheer me to the finish. It was pouring with rain, but I just didn't care.
For the record, I finished in a mighty 5764th place out of 9786 riders that began the day, with the broom wagon claiming many victims along the way. 8 hours, 28 minutes 17 seconds. Take that Vincenzo.
I took my finishers sticker, a glass of coke and some bread, called my mum to tell her I was still alive, and rolled back down the Hautacam to the finishers' village, smugly.