Morning. We emerged bleary-eyed, having been subjected to the local om-pah (um-pah? Ompah?) band for most of the previous night. For some reason this part of the Pyrenees is riddled with them, probably due to the lack of other basic entertainments - TV, radio, internet, badger hunting.
It was hot. Hot hot hot. About 20C in the morning, 30C by midday, and just kept rising through the afternoon. Thankfully I'd packed plenty of white-based jerseys, so I wasn't suffering in black like some of the fashionistas on the trip. After some gentle rolling roads we came to the bottom of the first real climb - the Col de Marie-Blanque. 9.3km long, average gradient of 7.7%. Last 3km are about 11-12%, which is nasty by my standards. Generally a Cat 1 climb in the Tour.
That's the geeky description. The real description goes something like:
Hmm. Bit steep this. Not too bad, we did worse yesterday. I can just about sit down and turn the pedals without falling off. There's a bloke up ahead, weaving all over the road. Oh, he's fallen off. Ah, I see. This bit is steeper. And this bit is steeper again. How can that be? Who build this stupid road? What kind of garlic-steeped, goose-liver stuffed, beret wearing excuse for a road engineer decided that this was a good idea?
Better stand up. 2km left. 12%? Must be a misprint, surely. 1.2%, that's what they mean. Ow. Ow. Ow...
The top. Relax. Take picture.
I know, I know. It's only 1035 metres. But we did start at about 300m.
Next, the good bit. The descent. At this point I realised that I was competent at going down, but not exceptional (insert joke here). I was about 3rd or 4th, but thankfully I never felt like I was going to hurtle over a ravine.
We continued. At the bottom of the descent (which was pretty awesome) was a little town, which we explored in order to find water. Then on through another little town (using a rare "flat bit") before we started climbing again. These were the lower slopes of the Col D'Aubisque. We had lunch in Eaux-Bonnes, which meant that we had to do our first Hors Categorie (i.e. frickin' hard) pass in, oh, 40C heat. On full stomachs.
"On the west, the climb to the Aubisque starts in Laruns. From there, the Aubisque is 16.6 km and rises 1,190m, an average of 7.2%. The first kilometres, to the spa resort of Eaux-Bonnes, are fairly easy [dislocatedMTB says "yeah, I could actually spin my legs for this bit]. After the Cascade de Valentin comes a section at 13 per cent. [13%? Probably, I had my eyes closed]From there to the top, the climb is 8 km at eight per cent average, passing the ski resort of Gourette at 1,400m.[Ah, the ski resort. I wanted to stop for ice cream. It wasn't open]"
"The Aubisque is one of those hors catégorie cols that make the legend of the Tour. The climb is in three parts. The first is fairly easy. The road is good and the specialists use 39 × 19 or 53 × 21[Odd, I was in 34 x 19]. Then, at Eaux-Bonnes, you [stop for a long lunch and the] turn left and get to the real climb. This part, as far as Gourette, is a lot more difficult. The hardest part swings between eight and ten per cent from the seventh kilometre until Pont-du-Goua at the ninth kilometre and you need 39 × 21[No, you need 22 x 34, the lowest standard MTB gear. Unfortunately I only had 34 x 26]. Then, after 300m of flat in Gourette, a hairpin goes up to the Hôtel des Crêtes Blanches. Riders use 39 × 17 over four kilometres before going into 39 × 16 in the last two kilometres [No, they use 34 x 26. It's all we've got. We also pedal really really slowly, about 60rpm]"
By the top I was dehyrated, shivering and baked in the sun. I needed a Coke, a coffee, an ice cream, a couple of cereal bars and a massage. I didn't get the massage.
I did get a picture though.
The descent went on for ages... it was ace. The only scary bit was the melting tarmac, but hey, it probably makes it stickier.
Next. The big one.