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Km 0-25: Pau to Rebenac
Flat but fast
Pau takes its name from the wooden posts or paux of a hill stockade that eventually grew into a great city and one that, down the years, has been revered for a variety of reasons. In the 19th century, for example, it was a popular tourist destination. The British visited in their droves, attracted by a favourable climate and picturesque location. Nestling in the shadow of the Pyrenees, Pau was regarded as a tranquil retreat from the worst of the British winter. More recently, it established itself as a venue for top-class motor racing: Pau was the first city in the world to stage a grand prix of any kind, in 1901, and until the early 1960s provided the opening race of the Formula One calendar. Its main industry is oil and for that reason it was the birthplace of that one-time engine of the French economy, the Elf Aquitaine Oil company, now part of Total.
The city’s association with the Tour de France is a long and distinguished one. This year Pau will host its 62nd Tour stage, making it one of the most visited cities, outside Paris, in Tour history. And when the vast peloton of this year’s Etape rolls out on 6th July, it can expect nothing like the calm, relaxing experience so enjoyed by those early British visitors.
The first thing to note is that the start is not at Place Verdun, which provided both the start point for the Etape of 2003 and the finish in 2005. Instead, both the start itself and the start village (where visitors to the Rapha stand will be made extremely welcome) are located on the northern edge of town, at the new Palais des Sports. Situated on the horse racing track (Hippodrome du Pont-Long), it’s a far bigger space than in previous years, even if it lacks the charm of Pau’s old town and is rather too close to the A64 motorway. If you’re coming into town on the A64, it’s less than a kilometre from junction 10 but if you’re staying in the centre of town, the start village is a 10-minute ride.
The start of the Etape route takes you back into town, down the long Avenues of the N134, Didier Daurat and Jean Mermoz. Here, you will dive down to the river, and the railway tracks, through a tunnel under the Parc Royal, passing signposts to Spain (‘Saragosse’). Perhaps conscious of the congestion that has occurred at previous Etape starts, the organisers have chosen a circuitous route through town, heading south and then onto a western bypass. The road here is broad and safe and in the distance, further south still, you can see the snow-capped Pyrenees.
Within minutes you’ll be back on the N134, heading to Gan and Nay.
The next 15km are fast but relatively straightforward. The huge pelotons will pose no danger on the wide, tree-lined Route Nationale. This is one of the rare sections on this year’s Etape course where you will be able to get in a group and save a lot of energy.
Turning left off the N134, the road passes through the centre of Gan before taking a left at the roundabout, to Rebenac. This road, the D934, actually climbs steadily but you’re unlikely to feel it as it’s fast, smooth and beautiful as it rolls alongside the Nez river. Get into a group that’s just slightly too fast, sit in and take a moment to gather your thoughts. After all, you’re riding the Etape du Tour into the Pyrenees to face two of the most famous climbs in cycling.