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Km 156-169: Hautacam
Jeckyll and Hyde
After 156km of riding you’ll be physically tired. After your ascent of the Tourmalet and having spent a long time riding on your own, your spirit will probably have taken a few knocks, too. What you need now is a manageable, straightforward climb to the finish, like the Peyresourde in 2007. Unfortunately, the unpredictable, schizophrenic climb of the Hautacam is not so accommodating and is going to surprise and challenge a lot of riders.
A 13km climb to 1,520m, with an average gradient of 8%, doesn’t sound too bad but there are also three sections of 10% and one of 13%. Add to that constantly changing gradients and direction, slopes exposed to the baking hot afternoon sun, and the Hautacam could prove to be a destructive as the Alpe d’Huez was at the end of the Etape of 2006.
At the bottom it feels like the Mortirolo – a steep, narrow lane, aimlessly winding up through pretty meadows, woods and villages. The climb starts with a severe ramp of 1-2km, through Arbouix, followed by a short breather – of 30 metres – before another steep pitch of 9.5%. You gain height really quickly and soon have great views over the valley to your right.
With 10km to go, the road slackens off to 6% for a couple of kilometres of respite, through Artalens. At this point you may be tempted to think you’ve cracked it. But then the next 3km shoot up to 9-10%, through Saint Andre. The road climbs aimlessly, with no sign of the summit. Its only purpose seems to be to make you suffer. At this point many Etape riders will lose the will to keep riding and start walking.
With 5km to go, the gradient eases back to 8%, the trees thin out and a slight downhill should restore the spirit. The road now cuts right, across the face of the mountain and with spectacular views to the south-west. Ahead, a left-hand corner seems to hang in the sky, its newly-painted safety wall crying out for some Rapha graffiti. What a climb.
For the steepest pitch of all, close to 14%, the road then turns left and up the mountain again. But there’s only 3km to go now. You can see the ski lifts and the finish is, literally, in sight. A humble cattle grid marks the beginning of the end. It’s only 7% from here and you’ll be able to see the crowds at the finish.