Trois Etapes 2014 – Part 5 – Stage 3: Col du Tourmalet

Ride bikes?  Follow the Tour de France?  Chances are you’ve heard of the Col du Tourmalet.

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.:Col du Tourmalet:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

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.

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.:The Warm-Up ride:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

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.

.:Jo doing it easy:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
.:Jo doing it easy:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

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.

.:Starting the Climb:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
.:Starting the Climb:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
.:Soldier On Clare encourages the team:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography
.:Soldier On Clare encourages the team:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard

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.

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.:Matt leading Dan up the climb:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography
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.:Matt after owning the mountain:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
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.:Dan bringing it home:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
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.:Jo coasting it in:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
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.:Justin finishing off an exceptional stage:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
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.:Andy being all cool and collected:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
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.:Matt cutting cool down laps:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
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.:Shane backing up after a huge day before:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard

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.

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.:Almost there:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
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.:Choo! Choo! All aboard the pain train:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
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.:That’ll do pig, that’ll do!:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

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.

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.:An undressed Adam bringing it home:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
.:Digging deep at the finish:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
.:Digging deep at the finish:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

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.

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https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography
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Trois Etapes 2014 – Part 4 – Stage 2: Col du Soulor Redux

Day 2 of the Trois Etapes started exactly the same as Day 1, except for the stiff legs and the requirement to become a walking billboard for Rocktape!  Thanks to my time in the Army and numerous injuries I no longer have much meniscus in my left knee.  Combined with a constantly strained and stretched patellar tendon, previously torn medial ligament and a fractured patella that often dislocates my left knee is somewhat useless when made to work.

.:Mucho Rocktape:.
.:Mucho Rocktape:.

Luckily for me, the main issue from Day 1 was in fact an iliotibial band (ITB) strain in my right leg.  Even luckier for me was Jenine, the team swanier, who was able to strap my knees and quads so well that almost all discomfort disappeared as soon as I was warmed up on the bike.

.:The team starting Stage 2:.
.:The team starting Stage 2:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
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.:Typical mountain biker pose:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard

Stage 2’s timed section was 75km into the day’s ride, which made for an interesting and extended warm up.  We were only about 5km into the ride before Dan suffered a flat and had to swap out his wheel.  This short stop was followed up with a couple of quick roadside toilet breaks and food stops.  There were a few small climbs and lots of winding roads for us to enjoy on the way back out to the Col du Soulor.  A few blind corners equated to a few close calls with cars which just made the ride more interesting and raised the heart-rate.

The timed section began at the small village of Ferrieres, at the foot of Col du Soulor.  This time we would attack the mountain from the other side; the more scenic route to be honest.  The race format for the day was the fastest six riders of each team completing the 12km section.  This meant Adam and myself would lead the team out of Ferrieres at speed and then drop off when we could no longer maintain the pace.

More by my lazing position in the shade than anything else; I was chosen to lead the team out and onto the climb.  I was a little nervous about this as I wasn’t the strongest climber in the team and by going flat out I was risking bonking before I had even started the stage proper.

I put this aside and decided to just go for broke from the start.  I basically went as fast as the gradient would allow me to go.  Almost immediately the rest of the team called out to back off a little, but this was replaced moments later by calls to speed up again.  I held onto the front for close to 1.5km before I had to drop off.  I watched as the team sped past me and a minute later watched as Adam dropped off from the front as well.  By this stage the climb had well and truly started and the rest of the team settled into a slower, albeit, still faster than me, pace for the next 10km up the mountain.

.:The fast section of the team powering up the climb:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard

I struggled to keep my heart-rate up as I went further into the climb.  Unlike the day before I wasn’t getting passed as often and soon found a good rhythm alternating between sitting in the saddle and standing up for the climb.  In my head I had a little mantra each time I stood up and sat back down “I take two gears and ride”/”and the mountain takes them back”.

Eventually I saw the end of the climb at about the 2km to go mark.  Up until then I had been enjoying the beautiful vistas around me.  By the time the 1km mark appeared I decided to up the pace and sprint towards the line.  I won’t lie and say I broke any records; but for me being able to give everything I had to the mountain meant a lot.

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.:Me finishing Col du Soulor:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard

When I reached the top of the mountain I learnt team-mate Shane had pushed himself so hard, he had an impromptu nap on the side of the road with the local sheep.  Once he was given the once over and was ready to get back on the bike we headed towards to the hotel with a short stop for coffee on the way.

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.:Jo leading the team down Col du Soulor:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography
.:Re-org before a well deserved coffee:.
.:Another quick tyre change before a well deserved coffee:.

Trois Etapes 2014 – Part 3 – Stage 1: Soulor & Spandelles

As I said in Part 1 of this series, the journey to get to France was a long one both in distance and in time spent preparing.

But it seemed on the morning of Stage 1 of the Trois Etapes, it had all crept up on me and I was left wondering if I had done enough training or was I going to embarrass myself and the team.

My race preparation was simple: breakfast, shower, get dressed, pack my bag, FaceTime the family and finally downstairs to the bikes.

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.:Cosaveli flags:.
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.:My ride bag:.
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.:Team Soldier On Bike:.

When all the riders were downstairs, Scott – now race director – gave us the rider’s brief and all the teams headed off for the short ride to the Mayor of Lourdes’ residence in the heart of the city.

.:Team Soldier On and our Pro-Rider Jo Hogan:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography
.:Team Soldier On and our Pro-Rider Jo Hogan:.
https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

We arrived at the Mayor’s residence and signed on for the race.  From there we lined up in front of our team car and started the 40km ride to Arrens-Marsous for the start of the first climb and timed section; Col du Soulor.

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.:The team starts signing on:.

The first 40km of Stage 1 was relatively easy, but soon we felt the temperature and humidity rising, which was going to make the next 7.4km of climbing somewhat more difficult.  The first timed section was based on the first six riders of each team crossing the line.  The decision had been made that the team would ride together until the two slowest riders couldn’t keep up and would drop off the pace.  For me, I dropped off after about 1.5km but never lost sight of the team while on the climb.

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.:Team Soldier On leaving Arrens-Marsous:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography
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.:The team sans me:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

The climb up Soulor was the first real climb that I had done in months and was a very big challenge; both physically and mentally.  I set a reasonable pace from the start but stayed below my threshold; something I found difficult to do as the gradient increased steadily the further into the climb I got.

After what seemed like an eternity in the saddle, I crested the top of Soulor and crossed the timing mat.  A quick lunch followed with before we rolled down the sweeping decent towards the second timed section of the day; Col de Spandelles.

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.:Just after finishing Col du Soulor:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

We reached Eschartes, a tiny village at the base of Col de Spandelles, and prepared for the next section.  This time our four fastest riders were to set the team’s time for the stage.

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.:All the teams at Eschartes:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
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.:Team Soldier On with Jo Hogan front & centre:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard

A few minutes after the frontrunners were well and truly into the stage the rest of the riders started the difficult 10.5km climb.

I dreaded this climb but decided to just grind my way up to the top.  It was hot, it was steep and the little bugs that kept stinging my back were not helping at all.  The climb seemed like it wouldn’t end and every-time I looked up to the summit I could see other riders at various stages on their way to the top.

I had my jersey undone and I was sweating profusely, as I neared the marker signalling the final kilometre I ran out of water and steadied myself for what would be a difficult final few minutes until I crossed the timing mat.  When I rounded the final corner and saw our driver Bruce cheering me on I took a moment to zip up my jersey and started a little sprint towards the line.

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.:That moment when you fight the urge to vomit:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard
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.:Andy ignoring my attempts at breathing:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard

The 30km ride back to Lourdes incorporated the other side down the Col de Spandelles; a somewhat sketchy road complete with potholes, gravel and hairpins.  By the time I arrived back at the hotel I was exhausted but extremely elated that I had completed Stage 1 of the Trois Etapes.  After a difficult lead up to the event it was a massive confidence boost to finally have finished the first day of riding.

Trois Etapes 2014 Update

In less than a week Team Soldier On will be in France preparing for the Trois Etapes.  The journey so far has been a tough challenge for all riders with some injuries, a car VS cyclist incident, two training camps and thousands of hours spent on our bikes.

The ride will be tough and but with the support of our family, friends and supporters Team Soldier On will power up those big climbs in the French Pyrenees.

Team SO Info

Soldier On TE Jersey