A lot of people from Armidale head north in the winter in search of warmer temperatures, the coastal towns of Coolangatta or Tweed Heads are popular destinations. Other, more adventurous types head a little further afield up into northern Queensland or maybe even overseas to Fiji. Not very many people travel to the Pyrenees in Southern France however, and it’s a pretty safe bet there was only one of that elite group who rode up a couple of those mountains on a bicycle this year. But then again, there’s only one Andrew “Swanny” Swan.
We are delighted to bring you this exclusive, inspiring and highly entertaining recount of his adventures last month. Thanks Swanny!
On Sunday 20 July I finished L’Etape du Tour 2014, organized by ASO (the Tour de France people) on the same 148km route the pro’s raced on stage 18 from Pau to Hautacam a few days later. The course firstly went up and over the famous Tourmalet (where Andy Schleck ‘lost’ the Tour in 2010 when he dropped his chain changing to the big ring for an attack), before finishing on the slightly less famous Hautacam (where Bjarne Riis ‘won’ the Tour in 1996 when he changed up to the big ring on a 10+% slope and casually rode away from his disbelieving rivals).
I would have to say that this was probably the hardest ride I have ever done, particularly in the last few kilometers of the Hautacam where I was dying a slow death (when you see a sign that says 8km to the finish and 8kmh is about all you can manage, you realise you still have an hour to go, and as for changing up to the big ring? That’s just beyond comprehension!). But at the same time it was a great experience. I would definitely recommend L’Etape to anyone thinking of doing it.
I opted to go on an organized tour with a company named French Cycling Holidays, which turned out to be a good move. The tour covered bus transfers to and from Toulouse, accommodation and meals in Lourdes where we were based, and importantly our own dedicated feed stations on the route so we didn’t have to fight through a thousand riders to get half a bottle of water.
The day started at 3.50am when I got up and dressed, down to breakfast at 4m, and to assemble at 4.30 for the bus to Pau to leave at 4.45 sharp. At this point, the FCH people had to get the bus driver out of bed and he turned up at 5.15 sharp and we were on our way shortly after that. Fortunately there was plenty of time, and after an hour long bus trip we picked up our bikes which had been left overnight in Pau. From there it was down to the start to be greeted by the sight of almost 10,000 starters. Actually there were only a couple of thousand there when I arrived but it quickly built up to look something like this:
Note that I could have taken the same photo in any direction from where I was standing. Riders were arranged into starting groups of around 1000, with the fastest in the first group. I was in the 5th of 13, with groups starting at eight minute intervals. While that many riders might seem somewhat intimidating, at the start we were put through a narrow gate which strung people out, so it wasn’t too bad really.
When I eventually it made it through the gate and out onto the course proper it was such a relief to be finally riding. So in the early stages I set about trying to find a bunch to ride with, or in other words, a reasonably fast group I could just sit on the back of and relax. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way. I just kept catching up to small groups of riders and rode straight past when I found they were going too slow, and set out for the next group. Probably spent too much energy but I was definitely having fun at that stage. Later on some faster riders from the groups behind started coming through and it got a bit easier to find someone to work with.
There were two cat 4 climbs in the first 50km, several kilometers long, around 5-6%, and on smooth roads. I felt really good on these small cols, and just cruised along overtaking many riders. Unfortunately this wasn’t to last on the big climbs to come.
I got to our first feed station just beyond the small town of Bagneres-de-Bignorre around 70km in a bit over two hours, and had been having a great time. The weather was kind, the French countryside was beautiful, and we were regularly riding through villages with tiny winding roads and the walls of the houses right up to the gutter. You’d have to be careful if you lived in one of these – open the front door in the morning to step outside and you might get you leg knocked off by a passing car! Like everyone, I’d seen these on TV coverage of the race, but seeing it first hand was something else. But what really amazed me was the number of people lining the route to cheer the riders on, shouting ‘allez, allez, allez’, just as if it really was the Tour. And in the town of Bagneres-de-Bignorre, I kid you not but there was a 20 piece brass band playing with great enthusiasm. It truly was a great atmosphere.
But from that point on things took a turn for the worse. It started raining, quite heavily at times. The top of the Tourmalet was 27km away, and although for some reason the climb is classified as being 17km long, I cannot remember a time when that 27km section of road was not going uphill. The rain also continued steadily for the whole of the 27km, although it wasn’t particularly unpleasant while going up hill. What was really tough was the second half of the climb. It was just relentless, changing gradient all the time without ever seeming to get much easier. I was still passing a lot of people, but was struggling along in the 34-23 or 34-25 at around 12kmh. In the last couple of k’s I started to run out of steam and had to resort to the 34-28 quite often. Thought to myself at one point this looks like the place Andy Schleck tried to go the big ring to attack in 2010 but had to immediately put it out of my mind. Needless to say I didn’t pass very many people in the last couple of k’s.
So it was with some relief that I reached the summit where it was still raining and all of 5 degrees C. Stopped briefly for a picture (it may look like a smile but it’s more of a grimace):
From there on it opened out and wasn’t nearly as dangerous. Except that it was just so cold. The descent was at least 20km long, and in the wet conditions I couldn’t fully let the bike go, so I was conscious of the fact that it would probably take up to half an hour. I maxed out at about 60kmh, and read later that one of the Tour riders on Strava hit 113kmh! Of course it was dry for him.
The further I went the more I started getting the shivers, and the more my legs started seizing up (some people ended up being taken to hospital with hypothermia while descending the Tourmalet). I just focused on staying relaxed, tried to keep my legs turning over, and riding as fast as I dared. Eventually the worst was over as it started to warm up on the lower slopes, although there was a brief hail storm at the bottom just to add insult to injury.
Then there was a short stretch of flat road between the bottom of the Tourmalet and the start of the Hautacam, and I joined up with a good group and managed to get my legs going again. A quick stop at our second feed station for some hot coffee and food and I was starting to feel pretty good again, ready to finish off the ride.
And so I arrived at the village of Ayros-Arbouix at the foot of the Hautacam where it seemed to me there were thousands of people lining either side of the road cheering us on (looking at the videos subsequently showed it was a bit more subdued than the real Tour de France but it was pretty impressive all the same). This continued for a couple of k’s, including passing a huge stereo pumping out AC/DC’s TNT, and a group of kids high fiving every rider (they were still at it when I came back down an hour or more later).
Then I started overheating and pulled off the road to take off my coat next to an older French gentleman and some of his lady friends. He started rapidly issuing instructions to me to which I shook my head and gave my by now familiar response of ‘pardon, je ne comprands pa, je ne parle pas Francais’, to which one of the ladies cried ‘he speaks English, he speaks English!’ (how could they tell?). The man immediately switched to fluent English although for the life of me I cannot remember a word he said, but he took my coat off me, quickly folded it, and shoved it in my back pocket. We all had a laugh when the goosebumps on my legs were noted, and then I was on my way again with renewed vigour and a smile on my face at their generosity.
And so I went well for a while with the thought of the finish not too far away. But about half way up the climb, the road started to get steeper, the legs started to give out, and the head started to have serious doubts about whether I was going to make it. There were signs every kilometer but these didn’t help at all, as they also noted the gradient for the next kilometer (which always seemed to be increasing), and the remaining altitude gain. The last couple of kilometers were the worst with a series of hairpin bends, where you would look up at the riders above you and think ‘how the hell am I going to get up there?’. But eventually I got over the top of the final crest to the finish, and while I’d like to say I stuck it in the big chain ring for the sprint, the truth is I could barely push the 34-28.
At that time, it didn’t really sink in what I’d done. I just turned around immediately to ride back down the mountain to our meeting point in Ayros-Arbouix. And if anything that was just as bad as the descent of the Tourmalet, because it started raining again, and we were riding down the hill against the traffic of the riders still to finish, and they had most of the road. It wasn’t until much later over a few beers and story telling that I started to feel happy with the fact that I had finished, and made it to the top of these two famous mountains without stopping (apart from taking my rain coat off).
So how did I go? Well Vincenzo Nibali won the stage a few days later in just over 4 hours, and the slowest rider was around half an hour behind him. The fastest rider finished L’Etape in 4:47:29, not that far behind pro’s. As for me, I finished in 6:59:22 (around 6:36 riding time), in 2,246th place of 8,452 finishers (just under 10,000 started). The 13.6 km climb of the Hautacam took me 1:21:32 (not much different to the longer Tourmalet). That’s around 10km/h! By comparison, fastest time in L’Etape was 56:28, and I read somewhere that Nibali did it in around 37 minutes (and Riis more infamously in 34 minutes in the big ring).
Puts it all in perspective really. I would have to say this was harder than the 3 Peaks ride we did early in the year, despite the fact that it was 80km shorter and around 1000m less vertical gain. Partly this might have been due to the weather, and partly due to my relative fitness. I was in good shape before I left Australia, but the three week taper was probably a bit too long in hindsight (if drinking two pints of ale and eating a plate of fish and chips had been compulsory every 50km I might have placed more highly!). Mainly however, I think it is just because these Pyrenean climbs are harder than those in 3 Peaks: the Tawonga Gap is just a roll over, more like the two Cat 4 climbs early on in L’Etape, and Hotham is not particularly steep until the end. The back of Falls Creek comes close, with its steepness after 200km in the legs, but I reckon it’s the continual changes in gradient that get you on the Tourmalet and Hautacam.
So, anyone interested in coming to France with me next year?