La Lapabie ~ Chris Stephens
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
to Harry Boxall, who provided the inspiration to complete this gruelling
task and made me realise that everything I was going through was nothing