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by Guy Andrews
Graeme Fife's account of the Tourmalet was in issue one of Rouleur. Sadly we've sold out of our maiden edition, but if you can't find one on eBay, here's an excerpt from Graeme's essay. Bear in mind one thing when reading this – tarmac was first patented at the turn of the 20th century and the first Tour de France was in 1903.
The Tourmalet is not only the highest col in the Pyrenees it is the mountain most visited by the Tour de France. For that reason alone, riding it at least once is obligatory for any serious student of the alchemy of suffering on two wheels. Since the first inclusion in 1910, it has been omitted from the Tour itinerary only 12 times, including 2005, and once, in 1922, at the last minute, because the road was blocked by an avalanche. When the race bypassed it in 1992, someone commented that a Tour which missed the giant of the Pyrenees was like a visit to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower.
In 1910, the Tour riders rode a 289km stage from Perpignan to Luchon over the cols de Port, Portet d'Aspet, Ares, then a mammoth stage, from Luchon to Bayonne of 326km. Crossing the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, Soulor and Aubisque. On roads that are no better than tracks for donkeys and packhorses, worn by use, the surface strewn with stones and fallen rocks, perilous at every point. Treacherous in the descents, narrow, pitted with ruts and potholes and deep hollows gouged by logs dragged by foresters' mules, choking with dust in dry conditions, awash with mud in the wet. Adding in the ever-present threat of hungry wild bears on the prowl, this imposing ring of cols, Peyresourde to Aubisque, came to be known as the 'Circle of Death'.
The idea of taking the infant Tour de France to the Pyrenees came from Alphonse Steinès, Henri Desgrange's assistant. Desgrange, who was no soft touch, was flabbergasted. He once remarked that the ideal Tour would be a race that only one rider had the strength and fortitude to finish. He told Steinès he'd gone crazy. 'You're asking cyclists to cross mountains on roads that don't exist ?'
How do you know they don't exist?
'People have told me. The roads to the thermal stations are badly maintained. Many of them get washed away every year when the snow melts. It's the same along the whole range.' (Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV's mistress, had visited the thermal springs at Barèges in 1677 and started the fashionable craze for mountain water cures.)
Steinès, a young adventurer and sportsman, was unabashed. 'Why don't I go and look ?' he said. 'Very well' said Desgrange 'we'll talk about this again.'
That July, the man they call 'the father of the mountains' recconnoitred the Tourmalet by car. Halted by a snowbank at 6pm 4km below the eastern crest, he told his driver to head back via Lourdes and meet him in Barèges. Then, in his town shoes, he set off alone, following the poles marking the road under the snow. Night fell. He slogged on to the gendarmerie in Bar'ges and, when he had recovered, telegraphed Desgrange in Paris: "Tourmalet crossed. Stop. Very good road. Stop. Perfectly practicable. Stop. Steinès".
The Pyrenees were in.
If you rode the Etape this year, Chapeau. But if you think you did pretty well just consider those statistics from yesteryear for a moment. Crossing the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, Soulor and Aubisque in one day would involve five of the toughest 1st and HC climbs the Pyrenees can muster and an overall distance of almost double what we rode. Their bikes would've been pretty awful too. And fixed gears. And no support, at all. (Needless to say that a 'modern' Pashley three speed sit-up-and-beg would be lighter and probably faster – just take a look at some of the pictures from 1910 here: http://www.letour.fr/2008/TDF/COURSE/us/histoire_home.html.) Some finished in the dark, then had to get out of bed a handful of hours later just to do the same again (the bed was probably the floor of a stable).
So thank your lucky stars for; 34×26, heartrate monitors, 15lb bikes, carbon forks, powergels, etc, etc. Oh, and – how could I forget – tarmac.
Actually to bring things up-to-date, after you have considered the words of Mr. Fife, consider for a moment the time of the last rider to finish the stage in this years' Tour de France too. A certain non-climber called Mark Cavendish 'crept' over the line in 4h-54'-22". The 'winner' of the Etape was Frenchman Laurent Four, who took over 40 minutes longer than the Manx flyer and well over an hour longer than stage winner Leonardo Piepoli (4h-19'-27"). OK, so the weather was a little kinder on the pros, but it's pretty humbling stuff.
And Laurent Four's very impressive 5hr-37'-38" was nearly two hours quicker than me. Ouch. At the time, and under the circumstances, I was pretty happy with 7h-49'-14". But not now. Buried in the harsh reality of the Etape website results section, I also noticed that my age group winner was former World Champion Laurent Brochard. The ex-Festina rider's mullet has sadly gone, but his form is clearly still there as he belted around and finished 5th overall, nearly seven minutes behind M. Four.
So here's the final statistical analysis (and some excuses). I reckon that riding the Marmotte the day before probably cost me half an hour in the Etape. A few [several] late nights and hardly performance enhancing stimulants cost me another twenty minutes or so… then collapsing, walking, stretching and mincing up the Hautacam cost me a lot more (of both pride and time)… but that's no excuse. I knew a long while ago that I will never be 'good', on a very good day I am average and things like the Etape just make you realise, as a coach said to me recently, you have to work bloody hard just to be average.
I'd go further. The fact is, I know you have to work really hard just to be crap.
Guy Andrews is editor of Rouleur Magazine.