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Part 1: Foix to St Girons
0-70km, climbing 12km (900m total vertical gain)
The town of Foix stands sentry at the entrance to the Pyrenees, its 10th century fortress dominating the Ariège valley. Foix has a long and bloody history and was one of the Cathar towns suppressed by the Catholic church in the 13th century. Its history of suffering seems appropriate for the 2007 Etape du Tour. The town will be bustling with nervous riders at 06.30am on the 16th July.
The start ‘pens' will stretch down a number of roads from the main square: Cours Gabriel Fauré. The official race start point is 3km outside the town, but the roll out will be along the narrow D8 through the non-descript southern suburbs of Foix. But you're soon out of town and bowling along through lush farmland.
Unlike in 2006, the road is quite narrow for the first section of this course. The usual chaos of 8500 riders settling in, while crazed locals push past on the outside will make things interesting. Expect to hear plenty of “A droite, A droite!” The road narrows further at Payrols and two short sharp climbs after only 6km at Ginabat will cause a lot of bunching and frustration. Pay attention here. Everyone will be changing down to their small chain ring, crunching gears and standing still while pedal strokes adjust.
Once over the two digs, the road snakes down through fast curves to Arignac. The road narrows alarmingly in Arignac (be careful) before you sweep down under the motorway to Tarascon. You won't see Tarascon at its best. Rail yards, cement factories, and the sudden foul smell of the local sewerage plant. Graffiti welcomes visitors with “Breathe in the perfumed air of Tarascon.” Best not.
At Tarascon the route joins the D618, a smoother, wider road that heads up the valley towards the Col De Port. After a gentle preamble up to Bedeillac, the road descends, annoyingly, and you've lost the meagre few metres of height you had gained. There follows a long false flat through Petarques and Saurat where the real climb to the Col begins.
The Col de Port is an 11.4km climb with a flattering average gradient of 5.3%. The maximum gradient is around 8%.
You've only covered 27km to this point and there will still be huge groups of riders swelling the mountain road, so it will be tempting to hammer up this first Col, keeping up with those around you. But the Col de Port is relatively easy and there are still 170km to go with sterner challenges in store. The best strategy will be to try to ride at your own pace, keeping within speed or heart rate limits that you know from your training are sustainable.
The first 5km of the Col de Port winds up through lush woodland. The road is narrow and the field will still be bunched up, so take care. Cow bells, lush pasture and deciduous forests, then the gradient starts to ease off for a welcome breather along a section of false flat. The road widens at this point and you get your first glimpse of the Col as the trees thin out.
You're likely to get to the upper section of the Col by 08.00am, but if the skies are clear it could already feel hot up here in the sun. A couple of fantastic hairpins give great views down the valley and are followed by a fast run in to the Col.
Accelerate over the Col and you're into a fast but tricky descent to Massat. The road surface on this descent is patchy and the corners unpredictable. There are some particularly acute ‘S' bends after 3km where you'll need to be very careful. Just after the hamlet of Faujeannes there are some particularly nasty pot-holes on a left hand bend.
Coming so early into the course, the descent of the Col de Port will be dangerous. Large groups of riders will be squeezing down the narrow upper sections. Watch out for over braking as nervous novices negotiate the varied corners.
The road widens before Massat (look out for the old St Raphael advert on the left) and things get easier. There will be breakfast crowds in the charming village of Massat. A 200m drag straight uphill will get you back into the small chain ring again.
From Massat it is an easy 28km descent to Saint Girons. This welcome breather will give you a chance to get comfortable, take on some drink and plan the rest of the ride. The main road follows the rivers Arac and Salat down a beautiful, winding valley, through the gorge of Ribaouto and out onto the fertile plains around Saint Girons. Latch onto the back of a fast group and you'll cover the ground from Massat in 45 minutes of easy riding.
The first feed station at Saint Girons is ideally placed after 70km of riding. You should get here by 09.30am and the weather should be warming up. Avoid the temptation to speed past the feed station. Stop instead and take on food and more water. It's also a good time to stow away your gilet and arm warmers (you won't need them for the next few hours unless the weather's bad).