“We’ve got seven minutes to get our bags on the van”
We’ve over-slept and it’s all gone a bit Four Weddings And A Funeral.
Throw things in bags.
Stretch cycling clothes on.
Final ablutions, zip up bags, crash out the door, act casual and nonchalant.
Toss bags into the back of the van with a measured display of indifference and quickly turn back into the hotel to minesweep what remains of breakfast after the lycra locusts have given it a good seeing to.
This wasn’t meant to happen.
Roomie Tom and I had set our alarms but had both made the fatal error of shutting our eyes again for just a little bit and now we’re in what could be described as a bit of a flap. And it’s exactly the wrong day for this sort of thing. Today is a big day, The Big Day of my four days on the Tour De Force and one of the big days on the proper Tour itself. It’s the major stage in the Pyrenees; 215 kilometres with five major cols, the day you “work from home” to watch on telly, a day that if you were to ride it you’d get up with plenty of time to sort your kit, eat properly and ride out in a big group to gently tap it out for the first bit before the mountains. None of this has transpired.
Because of the length and severity of today’s stage a rolling start over the course of an hour has been announced so slower riders can leave earlier and steal an extra bit of time on the day. The original plan was to latch onto a group and hide in the wheels to the start of the mountains, it’s a cheeky stage with a rolling 100kms before the base of the first col so it plays to be tactical. In theory. As it is Tom and I are about the last to leave the hotel so it’s going to be a lonely first 40kms or so to the usual regroup at the first feed station. I could leave Tom on his own and play catch-up but that would be poor form. Old-school etiquette indicates that you look after your room-mate, especially if this is their first ever day cycling in the mountains. We’ve all been there, we’ve all felt that sicky fear and bile of dread, be nice, pay it forward.
The morning is cool, grey and misty and after the crackling heat of the previous two days I can actually feel the core of my body sigh and cool down as dew collects on my fore-arm hair. Spinning some of the previous days kilometres out of the legs on the straight rolling roads out of Pau we’re joined by a rider in blue kit who wants to help but consistently goes 1kph too fast so we let ourselves drift apart. Tom isn’t quite feeling it yet, he’s just done the two longest rides of his life so it’s going to take a while for his body to come round to the idea of a massive day in the mountains. Shortly afterwards we’re joined by Gareth who is the on-the-road Tour De Force captain and we shoot the breeze a while before he has to speed off to check on other riders. There’s a wide gentle nothing climb to summit that would be a Strava hotspot in the UK but isn’t even named on the route map here, a wiggle through the one-way system of Tarbes and we finally catch up with the back markers just before reaching the first feed stop and the rest of the Tour De Force peloton. Now we can eventually relax, it’s been a nervous few hours.
Sign in, grab some nuts and cake, top up on water, wee in a bush and remount. Tom has decided he’s going to take the short-cut option that cuts out a col or two if he’s going to have any chance of making it to the finish in Peyragudes so I latch on some wheels and leap-frog from bunch to bunch until I find one I’m comfortable in. By the bottom of the Côte de Capvern, the first named climb of the day, I’m in a happy place and our group winds up the easy ascent in a chatty mood. I’m slotted next to a Lifer, a rider who’s ridden the whole Tour De Force, and we swap tales. The Lifers had a torrid time in their first week with torrential rain and tortuous headwinds and there are stories of riders feeling their way down the last descent of the day in the dark and getting to the hotel with little time to recover for the next days efforts. It’s been harsh but that’s the Tour. The Lifers are a tough, humble, kind, friendly, helpful bunch that are obviously tied together by an invisible thread of camaraderie that this sort of endeavour weaves and there’s an air of quiet respect towards them. They’re also tired, most of them are carrying some injury or niggle and there’s a lot of kinesiology tape on show, they’ve ridden more than you can know, always offer them a wheel if you can.
Dropping gently off this climb we land on a plateau that takes us to the first proper challenge of the day in the Col des Ares, and the group I’m in fairly clatters along the easily undulating valley floor making good time. We’ve ventured onto roads I know well having spent a lot of time in this part of the Pyrenees, from here on in I’m familiar with every inch of tarmac to the finish and it’s definitely knowledge used as power as I know exactly how to pace myself to get to the end in one piece. As the road rises in a nippy little climb our peloton shatters and I find myself in a select and fast group. I’m not familiar with the other riders so I figure they’re fresh legs that arrived last night to ride the four days of Tour Taster 6 that will eventually deliver them in the Massif Central, they’re certainly riding like it’s their first excitable day. I make use of their enthusiasm and hang on as things get a bit tasty through Loures-Barousse and up along the Garonne river. I’m sure the one in the London based jersey thinks this is all one big Richmond Park. This train dumps us at speed at the second feed station at the base of the Col des Ares and it’s time to stock up on food, not for this climb, or the next, but for the trepidation of the one after.
I sidle up to a bunch of riders that I recognise from previous days and join them for the ascent. Having done the Ares before many times I know that it’s an easy introduction to the Pyrenees at a measly 797m tall with a consistent gradient that’s a good way to warm the legs for what’s to come. I’ve had a good time up and down this hill with many friends over the years, it gets a bit emotional.
Stop at the signed summit for pictures, drop off the hill, climb for a bit through that village, past those trees, and descend again before taking a sharp right to follow the up and down road with the sound of the river to the base of two famous climbs, turn left for the Col de Portet d'Aspet or turn right to do the Col de Menté. We follow the road to the right just as the sun finally burns off the cloud of the morning and it heats up just enough to make the col that little bit harder. There’s a naughty little pre-climb and short sharp descent before you hit the real meat of the Menté where there’s a nasty ramp to the first switchback before the col settles into a nicer rhythm. Despite the effort involved it’s a lovely climb up through tiny villages and alpine meadows, if in doubt always look up at the view, that’s why you’re here, you can stare at your stem at home. The photo-friendly spaghetti switchback section means you’re nearly at the top and the last few kms of trees where the road slowly levels off to the summit and a well-timed food stop. With a donkey.
Jam and cheese sandwiches, waffles in the back pocket, drop like a stone down the fun technical descent of the Menté and along the valley towards the quietly brooding horror of the day, the Port de Balès. I’ve struggled up here several times before and I know that it’s a horrible brute of a climb and there’s not much you can do but just grind gears and teeth up it, so I’m prepared. The group I’m in are full of questions and all I can answer is with those words above. The first few kilometres of the overall 19kms of climb lull you into a false sense of security as the road rises gently enough against the flow of the river and even flattens out through the small village of Ferrère, then after about 9km of this tease the road runs out of valley and you cross a little bridge, turn left and have to start climbing properly. To a chorus of gear changing and swearing.
The climb winds up through trees to a constantly annoyingly changing gradient that tops out at 13% and with the Tour De Force riders spread out over most of the Pyrenees it’s very easy to be alone on this climb. Whether that’s in your own little world of pain or bubble of serene quiet as a small person in a big landscape is open to discussion.
“Do you have an energy-gel, I’m bonking real bad”
“I have a waffle”
Somewhere over halfway up I see a man desperately scrabbling about in the gutter scavenging for empty food wrappers, I put a foot down and this Lifer and I share the waffle that I’d shoved in my pocket at the top of the last col, he gets the bigger half. We have a bit of a chat and he promises me a beer later. I bump into him the next day and he says he had to further scrounge a banana and some baby food to make it to the end. We fistbump.
I cling on to the fact that when the road sneaks through a gap in the rock and opens up into high meadows the gradient levels off and there’s only about 3km to go to the summit. It’s still a long 3km though and people are feeling it. Stop to have a brief motivational chat with a chap who is stood astride his bike. Carry on. Last corner, straight 100 metres to the top and the last food stop of the day. Whilst the Tour De Force van is a good windbreak it’s also hiding one of the best views in the Pyrenees of a wide dramatic frieze of snow-capped mountains just over there. Snacks and coffee for the final push and the fall off the Bales, which is amazing. Technical at the top then plain old gigglyfast at the bottom, and with no barrier to the side if you get it wrong you have plenty of freefall time to ponder your life decisions, but survive it and it dumps you on a hairpin part way up the Col de Peyresourde.
The 1569m high Peyresourde is a Tour de France classic and from this Luchon side is disappointingly scruffy and ugly on the lower half only breathing out to countryside for the last few kilometres. Winch up this steeper section with the uninspiring stone wall on the right slowly making its way past you to eventually turn right onto the summit road with its evenly spaced trees catching the late evening shadows. Riders are stood by the side of the road all the way along here, taking a moment with just the last few corners of the climb to go. There are camper vans already parked by the side of the road waiting for the Tour to go through and their occupants offer encouragement to this amuse-bouche, the temptation to sit down next to them and share a beer is pretty strong. The summit is a place to stop briefly and admire the sun gently dipping into the peaks of a whole handful of other famous cycling climbs before dropping down the hill a bit and turning sharp left onto the final ascent of the day.
The Peyragudes became infamous early in its career as a Tour de France climb when Chris Froome definitely didn’t attack Bradley Wiggins up here, and even before that it saw fame when the mountain top airstrip that’s used as the finish drag was featured in a James Bond film. It’s a bit of a hefty kick in the teeth at this stage of the day but after an initial steep section it levels off to something more manageable and there’s time and breath to look around at the walls of encircling mountains. There’s worse places to be on a Thursday evening and for a moment it’s all been worth it. Luckily we’re not diverted left onto the ridiculously steep black airstrip that the Tour will finish up, although it wouldn’t take too much to nip round the metal barriers and we take the easier flatter road to the right. As the light finally fades I roll up to the finish and the tired sorting of room allocation and somehow a lot heavier than this morning bag carrying. That was a day, a big day on its own, a bigger day with the two long days preceding it. Luckily tomorrow’s only 100 kilometres, where’s all the food? What, we have to walk five minutes to a restaurant?
With the strung out dribs and drabs arrival of riders today there is no rider briefing during the evening meal, and no awarding of the “Chapeau” or “Frog” prizes. Each night the Chapeau award of a French beret is given from the previous recipient to the rider who they feel has embodied all that is good about the Tour De Force, be that an act of kindness or generally just being an inspiring person to be around. The Frog prize, of a squeaky handlebar mounted plastic frog, is given to the person who the current incumbent has brought the ride into disrepute. All tongue in cheek of course. During my stay it was awarded to the rider who turned up with a set of tri-bars, without end-plug nonetheless, and then to a rider who wore a sleeveless top. And they took it in good jest, mostly, not that there’s anything against these types of people of course.
My final day on the Tour De Force is the 101 kilometre Saint Girons to Foix stage, the shortest proper stage in Tour de France history, but what it lacks in distance it makes up for with attitude as it packs in three major climbs. It’s going to be punchy. We have a coach transfer from Peyragudes to Saint Girons so there’s a split breakfast of cereal in mountain-top car park and then croissants in a café at the start with a bit of a nap in-between. A hundred or so cyclists descending on a café for coffee and baked goods is as chaotic as you might imagine, and a bit of a shock to the regular punters, who probably didn’t need to hear a stage briefing either.
It’s all climbing or descending today and from the get go it’s a long and gentle climb out of town and up a river valley. Long strings of riders form for the 25 kilometres to the start of the first of the three Cat 1 climbs of the day. The 1,111 m high Col de Latrape is an easy 6km long effort with a gentle gradient and the incentive of the first feed stop at the top where there’s lots of apple and pear tart. There’s a longer wait than usual here as we have guest riders today, Josh and Julian are here from Chaos Theory, a charity that comes under the William Wates Memorial Trust umbrella, a group dedicated to helping to keep the most disadvantaged young people away from a life of crime and violence and fulfill their potential.
To ride the Tour de Force you have to commit to a fundraising target for the William Wates Memorial Trust of anywhere from £800 to £2500 depending on the length of your stint. The Trustees Andrew and Sarah take an active roll in the event and turn up, mingle with the riders, join in with dinner and even ride parts of the stages and the pair from Chaos Theory hauled themselves valiantly up a col despite having less than limited cycling experience. Of all the chapeaus that have been handed out this week two belong to these guys.
We drop off the Latrape en masse and are straight into the climb of the Col d’Agnes, which has very very little to redeem itself. The road winds up at a fairly consistent rate of climb and with very little initial interesting wiggle to it, and today comes with a full order of heat and the constant annoyance of horseflies who can easily fly at the speed of a panting cyclist, the bites of which add a scratchy high note to the dull ache of muscles. At 1,570 m high and 10km long it’s not an epic climb and worthy of its “never heard of it” status but the heat and the flies make it a special drag and only in the upper reaches where the cooling breeze is too much for the insects and the views open up does it become a much more pleasurable experience for everyone and the fed-upness dissolves.
And that grumpiness completely disappears on the descent which, again isn’t in any books on the subject with arty full page photos but is wonderful nonetheless thanks to swooping corners, amazing views and a lake settled in the bowl of rocky peaks. It’s a descent of two halves with a tiny rise in the middle at the crest of which is today’s lunch feed zone, it also happens to be next to a café so proper ice-creams are on the menu alongside pulled-pork and salsa wraps which might have been the best I’ve ever tasted, or I’m on Day 4 hunger.
The descent continues after a probably too long a lunch stop and is of a kind that might encourage singing, unless you get a puncture like Tom. Stop to help fix that because he’s my roomie, rules apply, carry on. With barely a pause for breath we’re off the Agnes and onto the Mur de Péguère and a thumping wall of oven-like heat. This’ll be fun. Again it’s a relatively short climb of less than 10 kilometres but the top section promises to be nasty, the route profile goes into the black as there are sections of 18% in the last 3kms. This will be fun. The clue’s in the “Mur” name, which as you know from your Belgian classics means “wall”. This is immediately obvious as soon as you turn left off the steady main climb onto the narrow road that has the definite feel of being a farm track not that long ago. There’s a group of riders sat in the shade here, gathering their strength, discussing walking up, what it’s like to ride with piles, and tonguing jam from a little pot. It’s steep right from the junction and any easing off is only relative, it’s a ridiculous climb by any standards. Riders are stopping and having trouble getting going again (I had to diplomatically ride away from a brewing hissy fit at one point) and others have given in, taken their shoes off and are walking. If you can divert your gaze away from the slowly creeping tarmac under your front wheel and see through the sweat in your eyes there’s a great view to your left. No, really.
Collapse at the feed stop at the top, scarf Fanta and crisps whilst mending the front tyre slow puncture I just noticed, that will have helped enormously over the last ten minutes. From here on in it’s 25 kilometres of downhill all the way to Foix, no messing. It’s a fast un-technical descent with the odd switchback and tightening corner and then a straight line into town, past the castle on the left and round the one-way system of the central square and it’s all over. Leave the bike by the van, grab a can of drink and left over wrap from lunch and jump on the coach that’s just about to leave for Toulouse and the start of the next days stage, or plane home in my case. That was the hardest 100 kilometres I think I’ve ever done, not withstanding the 600kms plus in my legs from the previous three days riding. There’s a ride near you that would probably put that down as Epic, but it wasn’t, it was just damn hard, and in the lexicon of the Tour just a quick sprint with hills in and back before tea. Riding the Tour De Force will adjust your perception of what a long ride is, and what a hard ride is, and that will change again the next day.
That’s it for me and the rest of the Tour Taster 5 riders, it’s an odd feeling leaving a cycling event knowing that others have to carry on, whether that’s just for a few more days or over a week. I allow myself two beers at supper. It’s been the toughest and yet most friendly event that I’ve ever done. Simple as that. The feeling from the very start is welcoming and inclusive, and the rider support is always cheerful, efficient and frankly amazing. What happens behind the scenes to make The Tour De Force run smoothly would be worth a story in itself, and working back-stage is probably as tiring as riding. If you tire of 100 mile sportives, or you’ve done your fair share of Étapes and Gran Fondos and are looking for something new then you absolutely need to step up and do the Tour De Force, no question. Pick your length of stay. Set two alarms, always carry a waffle.
Tour De Force