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L’Etape du Tour, 2014. Tourmalet. Hautacam.

L’Etape du Tour 2014 took in three monsters. Tourmalet, Hautacam and the weather. Warnings from L’Etape organisation had put most on edge, clouds hanging over the build up like the grim reaper. Hourly, even by the minute, checks of latest weather forecasts on smartphone apps had not helped, neither did constantly looking out the window. They had just created either more doubt or more fear. Neither was helpful.

An early start and I was at the start to see riders rolling through the gloom towards the start at Pau and it confirmed the worst fears for a tough day ahead. The predicted overnight epic storm, however, had not appeared. Small blessings. The imposing weather just confirmed how I felt about these events. I am a bit of a loner perhaps, or more a sharer of smaller rides with mates or where I can meet people in closer knit small groups.

But, I get it, these one day mass chaos efforts. I can understand why it appeals, but I would rather organise a ride and to it with my mates. Or with new mates, it’s my route, your my and you can decide to bail, or at least modify the route in the event of the perfect storm. Or at least stop for as long as need be in a cafe after being brave or foolish enough to challenge the elements. My preferred recourse, the foolhardiness and then the cafe refuge.

Anyway, after the gloom of the early start I whisked myself over to the bottom of the Hautacam, via a stop for coffee in Argeles-Gazost, one of my favourite Pyrenean towns. I avoided Tourmalet, I have a connection with Hautacam and preferred to bed in there. And, avoid Lourdes like the plague.

12,000 participants and France in the midst of it’s Tour – albeit a week away from arriving in this very spot – yielded a fair few spectators huddled up under anoraks. Friends, partners, families and locals nipping out of there house to see all the fuss, lined the street to sing, dance, cheer, eat and drink the time away.

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As the riders arrived, the cheers took over, for strangers and connections alike. A endearing camaraderie. As more and more riders came through, the tales began to filter through of just how tough Tourmalet had been. The weather had finally arrived, particularly on the descent and there were more than a few people huddled at it’s base in space blankets, in shelters shops and cafes. Warming up and fighting off the shivers and in some cases hypothermia. So the tales went.

A couple of mates who I suspected were here, passed by. One stopped en route, in ‘race’, happy to chat at length, putting off the final climb up to his finish. Not like Simon, he is a machine and a finisher in the upper echelons of the field normally. Turns out he had been in a outdoor sports shop for over half an hour, in a space blanket and decided to buy a base layer fleece in part to get warmer and in part because he felt guilty for sitting in this shop for so long. The tall tales of the chill seemed to have some credence.

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