07:44 it read at the foot of the Tourmalet as I swung left over the timing mat and up through Luz Saint Saveur.
“No danger from the voiture balai here. Should be able to do this in under ten hours still – this is good.”
“Good” had stopped happening some time ago, somewhere along the valley floor, as I emerged from a series of tunnels that offered brief respite from the heat of the afternoon sun. Like walking into a hammam, it hit me again and the strength faded from my legs as I slid back through the group at 13kmh.
There had been a point somewhere in the day when my optimism had me swearing I could get round quick enough to achieve the silver medal standard. Now, barring a miraculous upshift in pace that was never going to happen.
Perhaps I was feeling a little to euphoric at Argeles-Gazost and pushed on too hard to get to the foot of the Tourmalet. Perhaps I mistook myself for a better rider than my fitness would allow.
Whatever the cause, the outcome was simple: I was going backwards at a steady rate and no amount of energy food and drink was going to put me on the right side of “good”.
A can of coke put me near enough functioning to get me up the first half of the final climb, as far as the Cycelfit guerilla feed station and within reach of the finish.
At least I’d managed to stay upright that far which is more than my friend Rune had managed. He’d fallen on the Marie-Blanque, refused the offer of an ambulance and now realised that riding the etape was all a horrible mistake. He had a point.
We rode on together until the trees disappeared and the bald, sun-bleached tarmac traced its remaining 7km to the summit. There I stopped in the last patch of decent shade and settled that this could still be done in under 11 hours.
A kilometre at a time, hopping between the shade of camper vans and overhanging rock, I made my way to the point where the gleaming statue and path cleaved through the rock told me it was done.
Pau to Col de Marie-Blanque
I’d started with a good number and tried to stay with Jules from Cyclefit early on then settled for tracking Graham Bell’s bright pink jersey as far as the Cote de Renoir. The pace was fierce as we shuttled through villages like the TGV cuts a path down from Paris.
Cote de Renoir was a proper climb, albeit short, enough for me to see the futility of chasing a very strong rider and former international skier. “Let him go, ride within yourself” I told myself as the gap stretched between us.
My pace was good and Escot – the first marker on my schedule – drew near, bringing with it the Marie-Blanque. I reached it feeling ready for the climb, fed and watered with adrenaline still pumping.
Like good Catholics at Mass, a hush fell on the congregation as we made our way along the lower slopes, waiting for the gradient to bite at our bodies. Conversation was perfunctory as more serious thoughts filled our minds.
Only 4k of it to endure as a ethereal mist slashed by shards of morning sunlight hung over our heads. The whispering groan of thousands breathing hard, sweat rolling down our forearms and dripping from the elbow, brushing our hips as it fell.
And then it was done. I hadn’t gone deep into myself to make it, I wasn’t hurting yet. Or the pleasure of achievement masked the pain of getting there.
The dark tarmac ahead suggested a still wet road and with a few bend there were signs that some had not given the respect due to both sides of the mountain. The sound of gendarmes’ whistles and cyclists braking, scattered bikes, an ambulance: someone had fallen.
Don’t look, just keep focused on the curve ahead and the space around. The usual inconsideration of those who confuse being fast with being good as they cut across a wheel was a menace all the way down.
Fast down into the valley, skip the feed station at Plateau de Benou and push on to Ferrieres. In good groups as we continue to descend, the valley floor hits the legs hard, straining them once again and stretching the time to the 112km marker and food and water.
Col du Soulor
Like the least reknown of the Pelissier brothers, the Col du Soulor has its own merits but between Marie-Blanque and Tourmalet, it shines less bright. Never underestimate the potential for surprise from the least feared opponent.
Interminable the winding slopes through the trees and the distant summit along an exposed road. Around me riders start to wail with cramp. I offer them a bottle of electrolyte drink to quieten them and allow me to resume my focus.
The clatter of loose rocks, the low belching bleat of a mountain sheep, a brebis, as it drops off the roadside above and onto the tarmac just behind me. A day nearly brought to disaster by “a local” out for a walk. Someone at the roadside chases it away as I sigh with relief.
At the top, the cheering, the family handing out beer and pretzel sticks to anyone who wants them. TC and Wei from the Rapha gang, both smiling through the suffering.
Stop a moment to remount camera and lose them in the crowd before the descent. Should have just ridden on. Thought I could catch them but saddlebag coming loose puts paid to my brake-free pursuit downhill.
On to the Tourmalet
The chaotic noise of the town square at Argeles-Gazost with the kindly spectator volunteering to hold bikes while riders refuel. Feeling good now. Descending always does that for me.
Cracking on strong groups, saddlebag comes loose. Have to stop and re-attach, work hard to get back on this fast group. This is starting to get annoying now. Why wait until today to give me grief?
Keep on moving forward through the groups as the collective will ebbs, following stronger riders across. Perhaps I should have eaten more.
Somewhere we turn right along a river and a moustachioed man on his terrace serenades us with accordion music. Typically camera is in pocket when you want to capture such a beautiful moment. Or am I remembering something from earlier?
Le Col du Tourmalet
Left past the timer clock, reading 07:44 and into a town, Luz Saint Saveur perhaps, most certainly the start of the Tourmalet.
Now I’ll stop briefly, I’m going well. Craving a can of Coke, two euro in my jersey for just this moment. I’ll not quibble the price for the quenching of that desire.
Swelling sensation of the achievable as I push on towards the Cyclefit stop near Barreges. Too much food in the pockets of my Rapha Lightweight jersey, bottles replenished, so offload the Percy Pigs and jelly babies to Sandy who has spent the day watching us pass when he could have ridden it quicker.
All well here, even as Geoffroy Lequattre of Radioshack passes us, not even breathing hard as he pushes his girlfriend up the Col at a pace few of us can hold. Past the final water station without stopping and into the final stretch of shade along a wooded rise.
7km to go and time has slid away from me. Nine hours is passing, ten is hope, eleven more likely. Just getting through now. No fun, no fun, no fun.
I can see the summit and there’s a gang of us hopping between each meagre patch of shade like the flies hop from cow to cow in the valley below. A sense of massive distance as we stare glassy-eyed towards the ridge.
Three to go, or is it three and a half? The french can’t decide but the sign says three. Ticking away at it, huddling beside the final camper van shade before the summit.
Then on, on, on. Two comes and goes as I blank out the walkers and finishers descending on the left and those hurting too much to ride on the right.
Pass the inflated obelisk of the final kilometre, stop for video then clip in and keep going past that final bend. The shouts of support ring for the individual and the collective mass.
Two hundred meagre metres, fighting for breath, the gradient eases, the bleep of the timer mat and it’s over.
No chance to take in the summit, to savour the moment, just to slump against the barriers. The pain wells up, the emotion pours out, choking on my breath through exertion and elation.
Find the road to Pau
Not having organised my travel properly, I had only one option: ride to the nearest town for a train back to Pau.
The ravitaillement pack consumed I feel almost alive again, hunger no longer haunting me.
Down through La Mongie, Campan. Past the static traffic descending and the Tour packages with their hotels on the descent. Weaving through the caravane like the real thing.
Bagneres de Bigorre. No taxis here on a Sunday to save my legs. On to Lourdes hoping the road is flat.
Over my left shoulder, a climb, the road to Lourdes. Cars passing toot and cheer me as I ride, number still pinned to my back.
The evening sun is still hot and my patience is thin. But I’m over it and there’s only 10km to Lourdes, another interminable ten.
Head down, in the drops, draped over them, time trialling to Lourdes across the flat valley. You wouldn’t think I’d ridden 220km already.
Through the town to the station. There’s a train, 20:45, to Pau. 20 minutes to spare. Chat to some locals who had come to watch us ride like they do every year it passes through the region.
Train to Pau with another Brit making their way back. He’d ridden further to Tarbes to avoid the hill.
Pau station and find the lift to the town level is working. Blessed be the mechanical elevator.
At 21:30 I’m back at my hotel. I left at 06:00 this morning. My computer says 235km today.