La Lapabie ~ Chris Stephens

Overall Distance 156 kilometres Time Taken 8:18
Height Climbed 3400 metres Overall Position 139th
Distance Climbed   Category Position 40th
Date June 2007 Country France
Entrants 932 Town Luchon

The race was due to start at 8am. At 7:45am I was still making the final preparations and filling my rear shirt pockets with the various required paraphernalia: a pump, energy bars, arm warmers, a gilet, energy drink tablets, croissants etc, etc. By 7:55am I was just about ready and rode to the start line. Everybody was ready, and in a flash we were off.

I felt under prepared; an amateur in a field of professionals. This wasn’t to be a leisurely ride through some picturesque mountain villages; quite the opposite, I had entered myself as a novice in a proper race over some of the most severe climbs in the Pyrenees.

This dawned on me as we accelerated to 50km per hour on the flat leading to the first climb. I hung on near the rear of the group trying to slipstream other riders, who all looked far more prepared than I.

 As we hit the first incline I realised it was time to dig in and hit a rhythm that seemed comfortable. Pretty soon I started to pass some riders and found myself in a small group being led by a couple of wily old mountain goats. Between the two of them they seemed happy to set a pace, with me happy to follow.

This first climb through Borg D’Oueil and on to the Port de Balès was to be the longest of the day at nearly 20km. After a while of climbing I felt pretty good so ventured on to the shoulder of one of the goats. He immediately looked across to me and uttered: “non, non, non” while shaking his finger. “La dernière 6km sont très dur. Regardez.” And with that he pointed to a steep winding road that loomed above us.

I sat in behind him and started the final ascent on his back wheel. The next 6km seemed to take forever. The road seemed steeper, air seemed more difficult to take in, and my heart rate soared to its maximum. After over an hour of climbing I finally reached the top. A friendly face handed me an energy gel, and we hurtled towards the descent.

Littered with pot holes, cow pats, cows and rubble, the long and winding route to the base of the mountain was treacherous to start with, but as the road opened up so my speed increased. I felt somewhat relieved to have survived what I thought might be the toughest climb of the day (how wrong I was to be).

The next two climbs seemed to fly by and were relatively small in comparison (roughly 7-8km of climbing each), but were by no means easy. The fourth climb of the day was to be Col de Menté, a nemesis of many riders during this year’s L’Etape du Tour and I was soon to find out why.

At 11km, the Col de Menté is not particularly long, but it is certainly steep. At the mercy of the sun for the entire climb, we started at a leisurely pace. It almost seemed too easy, then after 2.5km of climbing it hit us: a 10% gradient that seemed to rise up from nowhere.

Suddenly my legs felt tired, my lungs felt tight and my heart started to pound. My head seemed to be swelling and air became increasingly difficult to take in. I had to stop. Bent over my bike, the relentless sun, altitude and accumulation of hills were taking their toll. I felt spent.

My colleague reminded me why I was putting myself through this and with that I laboured back on to my bike and pushed on. A small descent offered a brief respite before an 11% gradient hit us. Once again I had to stop, and we were not even half way there.

The pain enveloping me started a conflict in my head, with one side telling me to stop and the other hauling me back on my bike. I am pretty sure the former would have won if I didn’t have a companion who kept willing me back to life with words of encouragement. I am not sure how many more times I stopped before the summit: maybe once, maybe twice, maybe more. By this point I was in a trance and no amount of liquid seemed to quench my thirst.

A couple more leg breaking and lung busting 11% gradients saw us to the top, where food, water and a rest waited. At this point I was very unsure whether I would make it. We were two thirds of the way there and a final uncompromising climb waited for us, leading to a long descent into the finish.

The next descent provided time for reflection and to pluck up the courage to see this through. As we reached the flat and the busy road to Spain the heat seemed to melt the tyres off the bike. A hairdryer blew warm air into our faces and we laboured towards the final climb of the day: the Col du Portillon.

A final drink stop and a couple of handfuls of food before the final push, and before long we were there. 8km left of climbing, and then a 10km descent to the finish in Bagnères de Luchon. 8km didn’t seem far, but took the best part of an hour.

Much of it in the sun, the cumulative fatigue and the effects of the heat and height above sea level had left me numb and close to breaking point, but having come this far there was no way I was going to retire before the finish. There was also no way that I was going to reach the summit without a couple of stops to stretch the knotted cramp out of my legs and down as much water as possible.

The final kilometre seemed to pass in a blur as sweat poured relentlessly from my chin and onto the handlebars. At last the summit, and by this point I was spent.

The euphoria would follow as we hurtled towards the finish. The descent was emotional as I was drained, relieved and looking forward to be being reunited with my family. A few tears welled in my eyes and splintered my view, which suddenly made me realise: at 60km per hour and with tight hairpin bends, there was no time for sentiment. It was time to pull myself together.

The finish loomed and the relieved faces of my wife and daughter were a sight for sore eyes (and legs). 8 hours and 18 minutes of ups and downs, both on the road and in my head. But I had finished…time for a beer.

Thanks: to everyone who sponsored me, especially to all my friends, family and work colleagues at UBS, all of whom helped the cause by raising cash as well as donating themselves.

A huge debt of gratitude is owed to Tony Williams, who not only helped by coaching me through the winter and up to the event, but also waited for me at the top of every climb and descent, and virtually dragged me through the rest of the race.

And finally to Harry Boxall, who provided the inspiration to complete this gruelling task and made me realise that everything I was going through was nothing really.    

website La Lapabie
hotel Hotel D'Etigny