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Part 4: Col du Peyresourde
162 -196km, climbing 9.8km
(790m total vertical gain)
At 1755m the Port de Balès is the high point of this year's Etape. Having covered 162km successfully you're likely to feel that you have the course beaten.
You haven't. There's a small matter of the 1569m Col de Peyresourde to contend with first. The Peyresourde is a lovely first category climb, well within our limits on a normal day. But exhausted bodies, numbed minds and hot afternoon sun will make it hors categorie for most etapistes this year.
The descent from the Port de Balès is on a new road, a slick black tarmac snake sweeping down the south face of Mont Né. The descent is extremely fast, with long straights, but it's dangerous too. Quite narrow, with no barriers at all. You'll need to concentrate hard and not overcook the corners. Deeper into the valley of Oueil and you swoop down through a series of small villages. The road can be tight here, there is a particularly sharp right bend in St Paul d'Oueil.
The road spills out onto the main D618 and you're straight into the climb to the Col de Peyresourde. This has an average gradient of 7-8% and will feel quite steep right from the first 100 metres. Unhelpfully, there are no kilometre or gradient markers until much higher up the climb. You'll be lost in your own little World of pain. The broad valley up to the ski station of Peyragudes will probably have been bathed in sunshine since 09.00am. If the temperatures hit 40 degrees like last year the steady 9.5km will be a terrible slog, taking well over an hour for those who are really suffering.
After a short, steep section at St Aventin you can see the ski station and high peaks ahead. The Col is up there, only higher. The road at the village of Garin (no relation) eases slightly and there are a few trees for shade. With 6km to go you pass the turning to the ski station and the road skirts a shoulder on the left. The first marker sign on the climb comes with 3km left and you will immediately see your target, the Col, hanging in the sky on top of 5 switch-backs.
The climb gets steeper as you hit the hairpins, but it's OK because you're almost home now. The hairpins also give you the chance to look back at the long tail of riders, trailing back down the mountain as far as you can see. Summon up all your energy to sprint up the final 100m of the climb and launch yourself over the summit and into the descent.
The descent from the Col de Peyresourde is beautiful and fast, with only one major turn. You'll be exhausted, but try to avoid imitating Jan Ullrich with a tumble here! You will plunge into the gorgeous Louron valley – a perfect Pyrenneen scene, complete with lake and a cirque of towering mountains.
A sharp left turn takes you off the main drag down and you'll race the final 3km through Armantuelle and Aranvielle. With only 1km to go there is a sharp little rise over a ridge that will have the old French riders swearing. From the top of this short climb you can see Loudenvielle and the finish, just at the other end of the lake.
You've made it. 196km in probably 8 to 10 hours of the toughest and most beautiful riding in the Pyrenees. Now, the only challenge left is to find your accommodation…