Ride bikes? Follow the Tour de France? Chances are you’ve heard of the Col du Tourmalet.
It is hors catégorie – beyond categorisation; an exceptional climb.
I was quite happy not knowing what HC meant on Strava prior to the final stage of the Trois Etapes. Hearing from my team mates about how tough the 17.2km/1268m climb was; did not instil me with a lot of confidence.
As expected, Day 3 did not begin at the foot of the formidable mountain, it started outside of the hotel in the car park on a somewhat chilly morning. Fatigue had well and truly set in my legs and overall, I felt tired. I fought constant surges of nervous energy and heard Scott Sunderland’s words in my head “nervous energy is wasted energy, you’ll need it on the bike“. So I concentrated on the task ahead.
I broke the final stage into four sections:
1. The Warm-Up – Lourdes to Pouzac – 25.7km/334m
2. The Prep – Pouzac to St-Marie-de-Campan – 14.3km/323m
3. The Climb – St-Marie-de-Campan – Col du Tourmalet – 17.2km/1’268m
4. The Finale – 48.3km/-1’734m
The Warm-Up was surprisingly tough for most of us. The humidity and short, sharp pinch climbs got the body nice and warm and sweaty. The difficulty was short-lived however as we descended into Pouzac. A quick stop for food and water followed before we headed off with a couple of the other teams.
The Prep section was exactly how it sounds. We rode with some of the other teams and postured ourselves for the upcoming climb. This was the time to eat and drink and get the mind ready for the mountain looming ahead of us.
The start of The Climb out of St-Marie-de-Campan was incredibly daunting for me. I made the decision to ride by myself the night before and tried to block out everything else around me. For the first time since January I was sans beard and hoping it wasn’t going to end like the last time I rode without my beard (hint: I crashed, was injured, got stitches and had months of limited feeling in my left arm).
For me, riding Col du Tourmalet was always going to be cathartic experience. I was going to carry some demons on my back up the mountain; and by finishing I was hoping to leave some of them on the top. After the initial disappointment of not riding it days before on my birthday; I was quite content in the knowledge that I would face the mountain for the first time on race day.
The Climb itself was tough and I found myself constantly out of the saddle, taking back a few gears to charge up the mountain; albeit for a fleeting moment.
The majority of the team finished the stage well ahead of me. At La Mongie, 5km from the summit, I was briefly held up by a herd of sheep crossing the road. A quick dismount, the bike on it’s back wheel and some select swearing at the woolly beasts ensured I was able to weave my way through the throng and get back to the business of finishing off the ride.
To be honest, I don’t remember much of the climb itself. I focused on not grinding away; instead I focused on maintaining a constant rhythm and getting to the next distance marker. My cadence dropped the closer to the summit I got. I was standing more often, taking gears off the mountain and not giving them back; I was slowly building to a crescendo. This was my chance to push myself past my threshold, through the boundaries and drop some of the demons I had carried up the mountain so far.
After I crossed the finish line, I felt a wave of emotions. I lost my breath and had to take a few minutes to compose myself; but I knew the team hadn’t finished just yet. Adam was powering up the mountain after pacing himself early on; making the best of the individual timing on this stage.
We each took a few moments to talk amongst ourselves and revel in the realisation that after all of the training, all of the riding and numerous setbacks we had, as a team, climbed and conquered Col du Tourmalet.
We didn’t stay on the mountain long. Soon we started the descent down the other side of the mountain. It was time for the Finale. Something that I truly enjoyed. There were many “whoop! whoops!” as I sped (for me) down the winding roads towards Lourdes; all the while thinking to myself “I actually finished!” and smiling.