I would do it again today…..
On Wednesday we left Cyclefit HQ in Central London an hour and a half behind schedule, someone thought it would be a good idea to close Oxford Street and it took Phil an age to get from Marylebone to Covent Garden; I took the first call from the wife as we passed Look Mum no Hands "Jules, my back's gone, I can hardly move"
Oh, I thought, good timing…
"Get yourself to the Doctors and see if they can give you any painkillers" I helpfully suggested.
We were heading to the Channel Tunnel and picking up our new podium's from my house en route when I took the second call:
"Jules, my back's gone and I'm on the floor in the chemists on the High Street, I can't move". She was crying and in a lot of pain.
"Oh fuck" I said and swung the van hard left and headed to the High Street. Picked up the wife, the car, fed and bathed the kids and cooked dinner.
Walked the dog in the morning, dressed and fed the kids, took them to school left the wife in tears on the bed and drove to Euro Tunnel.
The two day journey turned into a twelve hour epic and we arrived in Pau at midnight, driving at eighty miles and hour with the windows open (no air-con) can get a little wearing; not a good start.
For the next 48 hours we manned the stand at the Expo, making footbeds and fitting riders, fettling, chatting and generally enjoying ourselves. By Saturday evening my legs were very tired from standing so I decided to ride back to the hotel but managed to get lost and rained on in my t-shirt and baggy shorts.
Sunday morning I've been awake since 3:00am, I creep out the room and do all the pre-ride faffing in the hotel lobby. I'm in the start pen and look around for some familiar faces and find two, no longer am I Billy no-mates.
We wish eachother luck as the countdowm starts.
We toodle over the line and then everyone nails it, it has to be the best part of the event 40km/h through the town all over the road and chasing wheels; it was fast, maybe it bit too fast but who cares its the feeling of release that is addictive.
The French Natonal Tandem Champions come steaming through, I hope they don't get on the front, that will put the pace up.
On the short descents the smell of smoke fills my nostrils, and I realise it's the pads heating up on the bikes with carbon rims, yikes!
I pick up 'Sir' Alex Bastin and stick with him; he is a seasoned Etape rider and I know he will keep a lid on his wattage, nothing over 300 if he could help it.
There's Nigel from Trek UK, mmmm not sure about that position, he needs some Cyclefit magic I think.
Still fast over the Col de Comte we tried to conserve energy and not get left behind by the faster moving riders…..then we popped out at the base of the Marie Blanque and we twiddled along the lower slopes.
No point in rushing we concurr its going to be a long day. Climbing through the morning mist I feel OK in fact even comfortable, such a contrast to my last visit. I pass the layby where I had stopped before "Who's the daddy now?" I ask it.
Out into sun light at the top and the descent to the Plateau de Benois, taking on food and drinking, I still have a full bottle and plan to stop at Farriere at 100km and I motor through the feed station I'm having too much fun to stop. We are an hour twenty minutes in, that's good going I thought.
A large brown mare and her foal stands firm on the road despite the best efforts of on-lookers to shove her away.
Fast down the newly re-surfaced road picking up riders as I go, braking late into the corners I pass a skinny guy on his carbon rims who is feathering the brakes he has to take it wide.
Psssstttttt someone behind me gets a puncture.
Is that Kevin Connor on the side of the road? Something's happened, puncture, crash?
In to the valley I latch on to the back of Mr and Mrs 'Laurent Paris' and we make a nice a menage-a-tois, Mr Paris tows us along to the large group ahead. No sign of Mr Bastin.
The pace hasn't really slowed down and I'm wondering how long I can keep it up, rations are getting low and I'm starting to feel thirsty. On our Etape recon trip Mark paced me behind the van on the same roads to the foot of the Soulor and I swear we are going the same speed now. Stronger riders were moving to the front and stretching the group out. Not many Brits about mostly French or Spannish riders, I just kept pedalling.
The elastic frist snapped just before the feed station, I had to let the wheels go as I was getting out of my comfort zone. The feed station was efficient and simple we rode our bikes to the trestle tables handed over our empty bottles and once re-filled reversed out and continued - upwards unfortunately.
I think that for every person I passed on the climb five passed me, young and old male and female. About half way up two handy looking individuals in fluorescent green and white kit passed by chatting, they had no numbers on and must have been out for a training ride I was climbing like a toad on a Brompton.
They were so lean, their legs smooth and tanned and their long white socks pulled up just below their sculpted calves. Bye then.
I trudged on up.
At the top I took on more water and had a pee, just over the top answering the call of nature I passed Mr Bastin.
Whoosh down I went again, faster, faster oh joy. On to the back of a group again I headed for Agnost le Bain. Hanging in there out the wind but it was still pretty quick, you're gonna pay for this later Jules I mused.
Through the town now and there were people three or four deep cheering us on, it gave me goose bumps, the group sped up ping I was on my own and a few of us stragglers regrouped. Leaving the town we rode past two young lads displaying their wedding tackle to us, why they thought twenty salt encrusted cyclists would be interested I do not know; a couple of local slappers getting them out for the lads would proabably increased the tempo a little more.
A few of us tried to form a pace line but it was unsuccessful and the pace slowed on the drag up to Luz St Saveur, then it inreased by about 0.5 kmh.
I rolled up the valley on my own, not good now Jules you're empty. I heard voices behind me that I could understand, just.
"You're the first English people I've heard all day" I exclaimed.
"Oh, ay?" the three of them replied, "Where have you come from?"
"Pau I said same as you"
"Nay not us laddy we're just out for a spin".
"By 'eck, of course it must be the Etape" they exclaimed, "we wondered why the roads were closed, can we get t'top of Tourmalet?"
"If you want" I said to the one on the Ribble, who could do with putting his saddle up.
They rode off I carried on, oh boy here comes the ramp in Luz St Sauveur…and I'm over it and looking for our feed station, now I know how riders felt last year on the Ventoux.
"How's it going Jules?" asks Sir Alex as he comes up beside me.
"I have one bsicuit left" I croaked
"Mine are all gone" he replied and then clicked up two gears, got out the saddle and rode off. Funny, I don't believe you.
I churned on up finally seeing the signs, not far now. I see the boys surrounded by Frenchies dishing out the water, easy lads we'll run out. "It's OK" they chorused. "We're getting it from the river behind us".
It was the best water I had ever tasted, and so cold!
On I went, only a few kilomtetres left now but it was a struggle, I came up to Sean our Mavic rep "How much for your compact chainset?" he begged.
Up through the hairpins in to Bareges - it's steep here but there are lots of people cheering us on, water is being poured over over-heated heads and bodies and still we trudge on in silence unable to respond with a smile or a thank you.
Groups of riders are sitting in the shade now its the middle of the day and well over thirty degrees, the road levels off just before Super Bareges and the second half of the climb.
I know where I am as we reconned the route in May, through the car park and then left; but the riders are going right, surely that's wrong it's left here not right, I SAID LEFT!
I unclip and stand motionless trying to comprehend the change in direction, I really can't face any more pain, shall I just turn around and head back to the Cyclefit tent? I find some sweets in my back pocket that Konrad had put in despite my protestations and nibble away at them, I could eat more but my pockets are empty. I'm thirsty as well and make a U-turn for the water station and fill up again.
OK, this is it, let's get it over with, I join the line of weary bodies climbing the mountain and continue.
"Jules, hello mate" Bonzo rides up behind me. "We need to do 10kmh to get silver, come on". "How fast are you going?
10kmh he said as he left me behind on the hill.
This is worse than I thought, ten minutes later I stop, forget my old mantra 'Don't stop 'til you get to the top' what bollocks. I feel like a climber on Everest, if only I could just stop for a while and close my eyes, I'll feel better later.
And I keep on going.
It's Peta, resplendent in her Sky kit, she glides past sucking out my last few remaining male chromosomes, filling her bidon with them and chugga lugging down my masculinity, I am a shell, an empty husk of masculinity, what am I to become?
The legs are just moving around now, there is no power in them, my brain is forcing my body to move lost in a desert shuffling ever forward looking for that oasis over the horizon.
1km to go, motor homes are parked all over the mountain in anticipation of the Tour de France, their owners baptising the pilgrims with pure mountain water, I feel cleansed, I have emptied my body of all impurities.
The final ramp, the final 300m and I see Bonzo again, I stand up to pedal and then sit down immediately I crawl on two wheels over the timing mats.
It is done.
We retire to the cafe for a pint of chilled milk and a Mars bar, the omelette and chips looks nice.