Those familiar with Billy Parker's writings know he's not one for brevity, but he has outdone himself. Clear your schedule to digest this emotional rollercoaster of a ride up and down the Tourmalet, a skirmish with hypothermia, and (hopefully!) the final ascent of the Hautacam!

L'Étape du Tour 2014

(or: one of the hardest hours of my life on or off a bike)

Billy Parker

There are certain things you do not need to know as you begin a descent from 1500 meters off a hors catégorie climb. One is that your front wheel bearings are shot. Another is that your brakes are so tight you need to open the brake clip for safety reasons. Not high on the list I expect, but certainly adding to the mounting pressure, is that we will miss dinner unless we boot down.


And so I am at top of Col du Hautacam in the Pyrenees on a pre Étape spin. It is Wednesday evening, about 8pm, sunny and warm despite the high altitude, spectacular views, 4 days before the Sunday Étape, and Sean our very fit and gregarious trip organiser from Trail Seekers is casually imparting to me the news about my front wheel and about my brakes and about the dinner time.

He does this in such a manner as to suggest I can equally casually make the appropriate adjustments to my descent strategy. My descent strategy, which came as no surprise to even myself, included my front wheel and my brakes. And I wasn't even meant to be here!. The Ryanair flight was delayed from Dublin and so we arrived at our hotel in Argeles Gazost over 90 minutes later than expected. This left less than 45 minutes to unpack the bikes, put them together, check into the hotel and get up and down the 15k climb in time for dinner at 8.30. 

Naturally I said I would skip the climb. A bowl of porridge at 6.45am, a Ryanair chicken Caesar wrap during the 3 hour flight to Biarritz followed by a 2 hour bus ride to within 11k of Lourdes with no air conditioning, was hardly ideal preparation for what is regarded as a very difficult mountain climb. No thanks lads. Off you go and fair play. I plan to sort out my bike, get some food and do a short flat spin around the town to make sure all was working. Stephen Hayden and John Anslow my fine Orwell travel companions thankfully agreed with this and we met outside the hotel about an hour later. This coincided with Sean turning up on his bike and suggesting we at least cycle to bottom of the Hautacam which he said was only a few kilometres out the road.

Good idea I thought as I was planning to have a go at it anyway on Friday and it would be helpful to know how to get there. I might also be able to identify the funny noise in my front wheel and sort the brakes which did not feel right. Grand and so off we pedal to the foot of this ferocious mountain. And shur why don't we do the first few kilometres. And then shur we might as well push on and then shur we are only 5k from the top and so shur we might as well see the summit. And so to my complete surprise (and momentary delight) we completed the full climb in hot evening sunshine and all agreed that while it was full of steep stiff ramps there were also many moments of respite along the way and so it not a relentless 15k slog. It has been described as a schizophrenic climb and that is an accurate portrayal. No rhythm at all to it. However John A was justifiably delighted to have completed his first hors catégorie climb in comfortable fashion. The summit was already filling up with camper vans in preparation for the Tour stage finish the following Thursday.

Following the startling revelations about my bike, I descended like I had just been placed on a unicycle. As I rolled off the top I was of course hugely reassured by the last minute advice to the group to avoid braking so that we don't over heat the wheel rims resulting in a blowout. Well as I didn't really have any brakes at this point a blowout was strangely not high on my list of concerns. It was a very scary 35 minutes. However despite my clown like performance on the descent, we made it in time for our surprisingly tasty melon starter.

Was all of this an ominous omen for the Étape on Sunday? I sense I am getting more superstitious as my biking experiences unfold (which happens to coincide with me getting older). Equally when something positive happens on the bike I am overjoyed. About 3k into the Hautacam climb I had reached down to return my water bottle to the safety of its cage. It can be a seriously stubborn vessel at times and it chose this moment to refuse to behave. It fell from my hands just as an enormous tractor and trailer came in the opposite direction on an otherwise traffic free road. Sacre bleu! It would take an experienced computer programmer some time to work out the chances of my bottle missing each of the 8 gigantic wheels while taking it's roll rate, the gradient of the road, my speed as the bottle fell and the speed of large oncoming tractor all into account. The French tractor driver seemed to me to snigger with his eyebrows as he too realised the odds were millions against and that I had taken my last sip from my fatal flagon. Mais non, it was not to be cruel death by crushing on a quiet French mountain in the hot evening sun. It quietly and safely trundled through all 8 spinning and grinding wheels and came to rest in a smug and comfortable fashion at the side of the road. Merveilleux et formidable.  I swear I could hear it giggling at me and I could only smile back with joy.  I took this to be an important omen. One of survival against all odds. Enormous odds. 

And so it would prove to be on Sunday, on the day of the Étape, only more so than we could ever have imagined or believed possible. 

Having gone temporarily blind on the Alp d'Huez during the 2013 Marmotte I could be forgiven for electing to pass on all future demanding cycling events. My eye allergy and my body's not unsurprising dislike for extreme exercise in extreme heat at extremely high altitude both suggest that I give them no further consideration or contemplation. However when the Étape du Tour 2014 route was announced it was the Tour de France stage in the Pyrenees and included the iconic Tourmalet. At 148 kilometres the stage was also shorter than the Marmotte (175k) and with less climbing (3500m v 5200m) and so there would be less training required. An additional attraction are the closed roads although an unwelcome consequence is that the road closures are very strictly managed by the local gendarmerie with the result that time limits are imposed at designated sections and if missed the desperate and unfortunate cyclist is picked up by the broom wagon. Despite my pledge to not attempt this type of event again, the lure of the Tourmalet, the Pyrenees and ticking of the Étape box overcame all else and before you could say allez allez I had my Étape entry secured. Following words of advice and encouragement from the legendary John Lanigan I booked through Trail Seekers. John promised me an entertaining trip and he was absolutely correct. The one matter John got wrong was his own appearance at the airport on Wednesday 16th July as we left for France. John did not appear. He was at home in bed on antibiotics. We were very disappointed for him but myself and Steve, knowing the toughness of the man, reckoned we might see him a few days later – and sure enough, we did. It was great to have him join us and the trip would just not have been the same without his presence.

L'Étape du Tour has been in operation for over 30 years and now attracts up to 13,000 entries with over 20 different nationalities. Each year the organisers pick a stage of the Tour de France, usually in the Alps or Pyrenees. It takes place some days before the main Tour stage but otherwise is the exact same route with closed roads and thus gives amateurs a sense of what the pros endure, their speeds, times etc. Your starting number and time is based on experience and so the fast boys and girls get a low number leaving from 7am onwards and the slowest at 8.45am. We were allowed 10 hours to complete the course. Ironically and somewhat perversely the ones least worried about the broom wagon are placed furthest from it and the converse is also the case.

I was number 9301 and thus in Pen 9 with a 8.12am start time. I would be about 30 minutes ahead of the broom wagon. My concern had been my calf injury suffered in March which had me off the bike for 6 weeks and confined my vital and essential Andy Kenny spin classes to very light gears until a few weeks before we left for France. A big thanks to Andy for his help and advice. It resulted in a decision, a week before departure, to place a 30 ring on the back (Mr. Weymes will be pleased to note).

We were staying in a small family hotel which I grew to appreciate more each day, basic but very clean, provided good wholesome food and had a shower with more power than the tractor that nearly killed my bottle. I shared a room with John Anslow, a great roommate and travel companion. Sean proved to be as entertaining as he was experienced and together with his wonderful wife Brid, they are a dynamic duo and took fantastic care of us all. He had a group of about 40 in the hotel, all male, mostly fine Munster men and an exceptional bunch of lads they were. Sean is a firm believer in the more cycling you do right up to an event the better you will perform. He explained that the usual concept of resting the week before or week of an event has those cyclists at the start line brim full of energy and bursting to get going. The cyclists he brings away on the other hand turn up with tired legs and a little short on enthusiasm. However his group recover half way round and get stronger while the others just weaken as the day progresses. He asks that we trust him on this. He has seen it happen each year. And so his plan comprised the Hautacam (1500m and the final climb of the Tour stage day for the mountain finish) on the Wednesday evening of our arrival (done that- see above) Thursday Col du Tourmalet (the other main climb in the stage at 2115m) and Friday Col du Soulor (1474m) and Col du d'Aubisque (1709m). All hors catégorie climbs and which would include about 100k of the Étape route itself and of course both major climbs. I remained unconvinced that I was suited to such an intense level of cycling and climbing just before the Étape and even less so after jumping from a plane onto a bike the first evening. I decided to try a modified version of his plan and so trust Sean (but not entirely).


Thursday was a big spin day. Thanks to Steve, an absolute whizz at fixing bikes and an all-round great comrade, I got my brakes sorted that morning and one of the lads on the trip, Raymond, who had heard about my front wheel trouble, very kindly gave me a spare wheel in perfect working order which I used for the rest of the trip. Cyclists are a very generous bunch when it comes to helping a fellow cyclist and I was very grateful to the lads.

And so off to Lourdes, then across country to join the Étape route at about the 40k mark, followed by a stop for coffee/lunch at Bagneres, then on to climb the Tourmalet, descend to Luz Saint Sauver, then up to Luz Ardiden and back home. That was Sean's plan. My plan was to skip the Luz Ardiden climb and head straight home. It was a baking hot day and using some rudimentary but nonetheless reliable calculations we reckoned we would be heading up the Tourmalet at around lunchtime and thus would be on the mountain through the hottest part of the day. Shur why not. Extreme exercise in extreme heat. It is 41c at the bottom of the Tourmalet and just a bit cooler, around 37c as we get up the mountain. It took me 2 hours and eleven minutes to get to the summit with four stops along the way for rest and water. Put your fan cooled oven to 140 degrees (Gas Mark 3) for half an hour, open the door and stick your head in. That was Tourmalet that day. Pasta and photos at the top as we knew we would not have the time and possibly the weather on Sunday. With the smell of burning rubber in my nostrils for a worryingly long time, due to my excessive braking and not unreasonable desire to remain upright, we descended to Luz, another coffee and a great spin home. Many of the lads did the Luz Ardiden climb and some even threw in the Hautacam on the way home. Tres grave.


Because Steve knows his stuff, he is getting more disturbed each passing day with the various noises emanating from different portions of my bike. And so he spends the best part of an hour trying to eliminate or at least reduce the irritating clamour. With a good deal of success and a more silent steed, we head off on Friday morning to tackle Col du Solour and then Col du Aubisque. Sean recognises the fatigue in his men at breakfast caused by the gruelling heat the previous day and limits the route. Effectively my planned modification. The scenery is spectacular and the road across from Solour to Aubisque is breath taking. Food and drink and a fast descent home. Only about 60k but lots of climbing and not as hot as Thursday.


We have been watching the weather and know it is due to break on Saturday with possible rain on Sunday, the big day. Cyclists are truly obsessed with weather and clothing and with good reason. Saturday is registration day in Pau and we are to get the bus in that afternoon. The first indication of really bad weather is imparted before we leave. Some of the bikes are to be transported in that evening and left in a secured area. Both myself and John A have volunteered our bikes for this early shipment. Word reaches the hotel that torrential rain is due in Pau overnight and the bikes might be washed away in the storms. Jasus! So much for all of our intense pre Étape training. Without a bike this would be somewhat futile. A prudent decision is made not to leave the bikes in Pau overnight and Sean works out alternative measures. And so our minds are more focussed on clothing. Sean dispenses invaluable advice about the start line where you can have a wait of up to an hour, a small plastic bottle of water to sip from so preserve your own bottles, bin bags for warmth which can be discarded, a roll with ham and cheese and so save your food, long fingered gloves, extra gilet and so on.

Myself and John A packed that night. I decide that I will do a full dress rehearsal and see what fits in all pockets and my food bag. I decide on my Orwell jersey, a rain jacket, a gilet, arm warmers, pump, sun cream (because you just never know) tube of electrolyte tables, phone, money and tucked away in a plastic bag to ensure dryness will be a fresh pair of socks, long fingered gloves and some light overshoes. Food bag has 7 fig rolls, 2 nutri grain bars and 3 gels. And some toilet paper because again you just never know.


Showtime. 4.15am Sunday 20th July. Étape day. I am exhausted. Sean's training plan, I assume, must be working perfectly. But the reality is I have not really slept since getting to France. Having read Dave Fitzgerald's brilliant article on the Grand Fondo Stelvio, I use a great tip which he shares with the reader. Porridge Pots. I was unacquainted with these interesting inventions until I went in search of them on Dave's advice. They are the business I have to say and stuffed four in my suitcase. As it happened Daddy Bear Sean had made a huge bowl of porridge for the group. I devoured my Pot that morning along with a few bananas and at 5.30am off we bussed into Pau. The weather was perfect. No rain. Not too cold. Sky looking promisingly bright as the sun rises to greet the 13,000 riders who are streaming into town from all directions. We park a few kilometres from the start, sort bikes and clothing and pedal off into our pens, like obedient chickens. A few chickens fly their coops and end up in earlier pens thus getting away sooner. Cheeky but worth it if you can get away with it. John L is in 3, myself and Steve in 9 and John A in 12. Also in the adjoining pens are fellow Orwellians Paul Perry (fresh from a great ride in the Marmotte just 2 weeks previously) and Joe Chester, back for another Étape. I scanned the pens but could not spot either of them. Music, colours, selfies, helmets, garmins, tyre pressure checks, toilet queues, greetings and laughter ring through the air as we chat away trying not to contemplate the challenge ahead. Sean spots us and takes a few photos while wishing us well.

Right on time we begin to roll. I lose Steve in the first 100m and never see him again.

I consider taking off my gilet as the temperatures are rising and the sun is breaking through but now that I am moving I decide to keep going and so we fly out of Pau with a wonderful downhill start. The pace is high as we swish through the town, a massive peloton bristling and crackling with energy and anticipation to rapturous applause from the thousands of family friends and fans along the streets and out into the countryside. In fairness to the French they were just tremendously generous supporters throughout the day along the entire route, young and old all screaming allez allez, bravo, courage and clapping enthusiastically for each rider. I expect they use the Étape as a warm up for the main event and get the opportunity to fine tune their voices, survey their vantage points and decide on their attire for the big day.

I had formulated a general plan, based on some of Sean's suggestions and advice, using some of the official food and water stops along the way. Assuming the day was not too hot, two full water bottles should get me to St Marie de Campan, about 70k into the route and a few kilometres from the start of the Tourmalet. My own food should also get me there and so all going well there would be no need to stop until then. Thereafter at least 3 stops on the Tourmalet for water and rest, firstly 11k up (not an official food or water stop), then at La Mongie which is a town 5 kilometres from the summit of the Tourmalet and lastly a stop at the summit itself (not official). Thereafter the descent, stop at Luz which was 25k down and then again at the bottom of the Hautacam. Grand.

There were three Category 3 climbs before the Tourmalet. Nothing too strenuous, a bit like 3 Shay Elliotts. I didn't know where the first one was but it let me know very quickly as my legs suddenly introduced themselves to me and my heart rate rose to over 165bpm. I eased back immediately as riders whizzed past. There was a long day ahead and my plan was to stay out of the 165+ zone. I got in with various groups but had very little conversation with anyone which surprised and disappointed me a little. I passed and got passed by some of Sean's lads but largely was on my own in and out of clusters of cyclists. The weather was perfect, pace was under control, heart rate was where it should be and I sped passed all of the official stops thus making up some ground on the field. However, after Bagneres at about 70k the skies darkened and the looming mountains gradually lost their majestic yet gentle beauty to be replaced with an angry and menacing cloak of cloud and mist. Tout a changé.

The rain starts. It is light at first and indeed welcome as it refreshes the skin. I pull in at Campan as planned. A toilet break, fill the bottles and as I munch on a banana and a few of my fig rolls, the rain gets heavier. Time to reassess my apparel and consider my ensemble given the climb ahead and the certainty of being saturated but warm. I decide to discard the arm warmers and gilet and put on the rain jacket over my jersey. Not bad. I reach for my over shoes and when one zip and then the other zip come off in my hands these former over shoes are given a decent burial in a box of banana skins. Oh well, there is enormous doubt anyway as to whether anything other than a wet suit and flippers will keep you dry on a bike if the rain is intent on remaining over you for a sufficient period. I remount my bicycle and join the continuous slip stream of riders winding their way to the foot of the Tourmalet in what is now very heavy rain. I am soaked in minutes.


In fairness it is an honest climb that seeks to assist as much as possible by presenting a constant gradient. The Tourmalet is 17.2 kilometres from here at an average of 7.5% and a max of 10%. It is also a cheese, made from sheep's milk produced in these mountains. For the moment the climb rather than the cheese had my full attention. The gradient increases and so the climb begins. With the rain and the cool temperatures the climb bears no resemblance to last Thursdays sweltering furnace. The result is that, to my delight and great cheer, my heart rate remains around 150bpm and at that level I can pedal comfortably for hours. My kind of conditions. And so I pass a multitude of riders as I spin like a hamster in my 30 up the fast lane smugly chirping away to myself as I realise I am actually enjoying an hors catégorie climb while some others battle away in their own world.

Enjoy it while you can I repeat to myself because these moments are few and far between. Such is my new found confidence and feeling of being undaunted that I barely raise an eyebrow at the 11k sign (my planned first stop on Tourmalet). I cruise past it and upward. Again I notice the lack of conversation amongst the riders and in the rain and mist and high forest trees and overhanging rocks of the winding and twisting mountain road, populated by dense groups of men and women whirring away under their own sweat and steam, this silence makes for a surreal and somewhat haunting atmosphere. It was however punctuated by something more frightening than the sound of silence. It was the sound of ambulances which intermittently roared up and also down the mountain, their sirens piercing the damp dripping air. They caused brief murmurings among the riders and then silence resumed.

La Mongie was approaching, a town some 5 kilometers from the summit and containing the steepest sections of the climb. The cadence of the converging hoard of riders slows considerably as we pass the various snow tunnels wherein many seek some shelter and brief respite from the rain and following one final push we arrive at the official food stop, which I promptly spin past. Stopping now would only slow or extinguish the momentum I feel within and I then devise a new plan to stop at the top of the Tourmalet. I would take on some food and put on dry gloves and the gilet. I badly needed a toilet break as well. Just past La Mongie it starts to rain very heavily and the wind picks up. I could feel the temperature dropping, a function of the higher altitude and also the very bad cold front that had arrived at the summit to welcome us.

I rounded the final turn and pulled in. I was pleased with myself and the progress I had made up the climb without a break. One hour and 36 mins as against 2 hours 11 mins in the heat of last Thursday. However the place was a bit eerie. There were very few people around. Cyclists were just rolling through and down the mountain. I went into the restaurant to use the toilet. There were no customers and the toilets were blocked off. I went back out to go around the side for a wee and it was all railed off. There was a bizarre sight of an outdoor bar with a big umbrella and a bar tender huddled behind the counter peering out at me through the wind and the rain. I wanted to ask him for a pina colada with lots of ice for the craic but my brain told me to conserve energy.

I decided to call home and let them know I was safely on the top of the Tourmalet. I was only talking for a few minutes when I got a shock as to how quickly my body temperature was dropping. My mouth was not forming the words properly and my arms and legs were starting to shake. I said I had to go and quickly hung up. I unfurled the plastic bag from my back pocket and pulled out the thankfully dry long finger gloves and the gilet. I was now shaking badly and my brain was searching for more clothing. I then remembered the bin bag. Was it still in my pocket or saddle bag or did I have it at all? I couldn't recall. Well check for f*ck sake. Ok. Ok. I will. Check now please. I was starting to have a ridiculous conversation with myself about a bin bag. Mental confusion, a sure sign of the onset of hypothermia. I checked and found it in my saddle bag. Thank God. I took off the gilet, punched 3 holes in the bin bag, put it over my head, my arms through the other holes and put back on the gilet to keep it all together and prevent myself becoming Mary Poppins on the first bend.

Mark, one of our group, would tell later of how he went desperately searching for something to keep warm. He rummaged in a waste bin behind the souvenir shop and found a cardboard box. He tore it up and stuck bits of it down his jersey. Bear Grylls stuff. It saved him on the descent. John A would recount that but for the loan of a dry base layer from Andrew in our group, he would not have made it down the mountain.

I thought about going back inside the restaurant and trying to warm up. I remembered the Kerry 3 days (TKAS) event only 6 weeks previously when we ascended the Conor Pass in the driving rain and descended into Dingle stopping at the official food stop. We all stared to shake and poured into a local coffee shop to warm up. The problem was I couldn't stop shivering and even after 30 minutes and a few coffees I was still very cold. That was the Conor Pass, Dingle, sea level. This was the top of Tourmalet, the highest mountain pass in the Pyrenees and at 2,100 metres, twice the height of our highest peak, Carrantuohill. I knew if I stopped for much longer or sat down inside my race was over. I would not get back on the bike. Decision time and there was only one decision. But first I needed to check that cyclists were actually able to get around the first hair pin bend. As I viewed the rivers of water running down the narrow mountain road I did have my doubts. I edged my bike to observe them going over the top and saw cyclists crawling around the first bend. None seemed to disappear over the side (well none that I could see through the rain and mist).

And so off I went. I was like jumping out of an airplane with a hankie as a parachute, praying that you landed on a conveniently placed oversized bouncing castle. I negotiated the first bend which for some reason had a red cone placed in the middle of the road and a marshal directing us left (perhaps an oil spillage or something more unthinkable). Very slowly but thankfully upright and without any back wheel sliding (and not a whiff of burning rubber) I managed the next few bends. Braking was however becoming a challenge as my hands were now close to freezing.

Alarmingly, somewhere near the fourth bend, I realised that my front wheel was badly buckled. What the f*ck. Had someone knocked over my bike in the few minutes that I had walked into the restaurant? Surely this was not happening. I looked down again. Now my handle bars and front wheel were moving rapidly from side to side in unison. So not a buckled wheel then. It slowly dawned on me. Something much much worse was happening. My two arms were shaking so uncontrollably that, in turn, because they were still thankfully attached to my hands and my hands were not letting go of the handle bars on a steep descent, the whole bike was shaking. Holy crap and merde and feck.

By the time my brain absorbed the full enormity of what it had forced my body to do, I was about 2k down the mountain and in panic mode. In so far as the shaking of my bike was a serious cause for serious concern, an even bigger concern was the very strange noises coming, not from my bike, but from me. My mouth was emitting these peculiar involuntary groans and moans. Nothing to do with my brain. It was as if my breathing was constricted or out of control and so I was gasping for air and then expelling air in a most peculiar fashion. I realised there and then, that for the first time in my life, my body was entirely out of control, while entirely sober.

As Sean Kelly would say, it was time to make the calculation. If I crashed I was as good as gone. My body temperature was too low to survive regardless of any other injuries. If I punctured or stopped for whatever reason I was also in difficulty as I could experience severe hypothermia. Going back up the mountain was not an option I even considered at the time although as I think about it now it would have got my body working and thus increase its temperature but I would have most likely been mown down by those descending as no one would have expected a lunatic cyclist coming back up.

And so the only option left was to press on and pray. I knew the next town, Luz, was about 15k away, all downhill, which was a big problem as there was very little opportunity to pedal and get the body moving. If I could reach Luz there would be blankets and shelter and medical assistance if required. After Luz the gradient of the descent eases which would allow for some pedalling and eventually the valley levels out completely. Decision made. I thought about those I loved and the special people in my life. I thought about Rule 5 (in cycling there are a number of established rules, the most quoted being Rule 5 – harden the f*ck up). If there ever was a Rule 5 moment, I was in the middle of it on this descent.

To put this in perspective, John Lanigan, one of our finest and toughest cyclists, admitted later that for the first time in his cycling career, he gave some contemplation to abandoning an event. Of course he did not but the thought did cross his mind, such was the degree of difficulty and danger.

And so I am perched on this flying carbon machine, front wheel and handle bars rocking feverishly, hands and arms shaking hysterically, lungs constricting and expanding erratically, peculiar sounds erupting insanely from within and despite this I need to keep it all under some level of control. The mind, you find, in these moments, is amazingly and unexpectedly strong, provided the will keeps burning brightly.

I am keeping her lit as I whizz past a cluster of cyclists huddled in a bus shelter all shivering and trying to keep each other warm. I pass a motor bike who has stopped beside some cyclists who are warming their hands off his rere exhaust. I later hear about Mick, one of our group, who had the composure to get off his bike every few kilometres and extract a little warmth for his hands from his brake pads. Incroyable.

I arrive in Luz. It is like an evacuation centre from a natural disaster. People huddled in blankets, some walking around in tin foil capes, others shivering on the ground and in doorways. I had to make a snap decision. If I stopped it was almost certain that I would not get back on the bike. But then if I stopped I would get a blanket, get a hot drink, stop shivering eventually and get a bus home. Mark (of the cardboard) told me later that he was inside in one of the recovery rooms with the said blanket and hot drink when they were all told the bus would be leaving now to bring their bikes and their hopefully now heated bodies back home. Mark was only stopping to get warm and so throws off the blanket and jumps back on his bike. I don't think I would have been capable of that.

And so I push on. I know the gradient is about to ease and so I can start to pedal strongly again. I see that the sky is beginning to lighten ahead of me. And so it did and when I reached the bottom of the valley, the temperature rose just enough and the pedals pushed just hard enough to stop the shaking and the honking. A sense of normality begins to return along with heat in my body, after what was one of the worst hours I have ever experienced either on or off the bike. I had fallen from the sky and landed on my bouncing castle. I was so grateful for those, past and present, who took care of me on that difficult journey and positioned the castle so well. I am still bouncing.


Nevertheless, there was still some work to be done, another mountain to be climbed and a medal to be collected. My sense of relief at surviving that descent fuels my legs with natural and raw energy with the result that I join a fast passing train and we skim across the smooth surface averaging 34kph for the next 15k in what is now sunshine and almost dry roads. The euphoria I am experiencing converts the Hautacam, the final climb, from a raging beast into a tame cuddly toy, in my mind. We swoosh into the crowded section at the base of the climb. The spectators are in carnival mode, dancing, singing, cheering, clapping and there are thousands of them. A most unexpected but uplifting and memorable sight. Another shot of natural exhilaration and we are swept up the first few ramps on a cushion of support and goodwill with allez allez and bravo ringing in our ears and narrow corridors of spectators clapping us on the back. You could only smile and nod and continuously say merci. A real Tour pro experience, I have to admit.

But hang on now. This is a serious climb with real danger because with narrow roads and tired ascending cyclists there are also descending tired finishers coming the other way. Collisions are a distinct possibility. So I settle in and concentrate on getting to the top safely. I pick my way through the slower struggling riders and I have the advantage of knowing that no matter how steep the ramp, it is invariably followed by a flatter section and so recovery is possible. At about 8k and with another 7k to go I feel like my bike is starting to slow me down. More bearing or brake trouble perhaps. I soon realise that it is not the bike but the engine. My body is suddenly protesting at the demands being placed on it. With a sense of consternation and exasperation it dawns on me that I have not eaten since St Maire de Campan, about 70k and nearly four hours ago. Mon dieu, after all my planning I forget the most basic of requirements, food. Imbecile. Right, pull in and eat and get yourself to the finish line. I find a convenient spot, get off the bike, scoff about 4 fig rolls, one nutri grain bar and a gel. I wash it all down and wait for the strength to flow back into the tired body. Ten minutes later I feel much better, remount and despite nearly being clipped by reckless descenders on a few occasions I reach the flame rouge. 1k to go and I know it is an easy kilometre so I sit up, look around me and take in the enormity of it all.

We are funnelled through a series of narrow barriers and up towards the finishing banner, the same one that the stage winner will pass under next Thursday. I take a swig from my bottle and give it a gentle pat. We have both made it, against all of the odds. We are cheered past the line by more enthusiastic supporters and a warm smile breaks over my face. I expected to be more emotional after such a traumatic and apocalyptic day. The emotion would arrive later, for now it was just massive relief. The clock showed 7h.43m elapsed time and moving time 7h23m.

I meet Joe Chester in food tent. We congratulate each other, exchange horror stories and compare the making of strange noises on the descent from Tourmalet. I meet Paul Perry, equally relieved to have finished safely and two massive events for him in the space of two weeks, a serious achievement. Myself and Paul descend together as it begins to rain once again. An unpleasant slow, tricky but very welcome return to the bottom. John L, Steve, John A and all of our Trail Seekers group finished well and most importantly finish safely, a remarkable result. Understandably there are lots of stories that evening and everyone has some tale to tell.

And so the Étape box has been ticked. An unforgettable tick of a memorable box. Main lessons learned: the pre Étape climbing certainly benefited me as Sean promised and …always keep a 50L bin bag in your saddle bag because you just never know!

Billy Parker

July 2014