Well, last Saturday I took part in this year's Acte 2 of the Etape Du Tour which was a 201km ride from the city of Pau to Bagneres Du Luchon, taking in the four Pyrenean passes of the Aubisque, the Tourmalet, the Aspin and the Peyresourde. I'd managed to secure places through the British Etape organisation, in part due to the charity nature of my ride. I raised my target and the story behind my charity you can find in the JustGiving link below. I'd really trained for this one; I'd only done two previous sportives before, both 100 miles, last summer and I knew therefore it would be tough and require going that extra mile but I still wondered whether I would have it in me..? Last Xmas I was close on 15 stone and I knew by this time that I had a place on the Etape and that some hard work was in order. That training constituted 5000+ miles of riding and a lot of hill repeats - luckily I live near the Mendips and so I had places where I could at least simulate the similar gradients I would be encountering in the Pyrenees. I was accompanied by my father - a lifelong aficionado of the TDF and a mate from Yeovil CC, Richard. The preparation had begun months ago in other ways too -we'd opted to drive down with the bikes and camp. By the time we reached Pau on the 11th July, the weather was poor and we wondered whether the long range forecast I'd read back at the beginning of July was right after all? You've guessed it, rain. British weather in southern France? On the Thursday however we woke to sunshine and I thought to myself how this was all so much more like the weather I had always been accustomed to in this part of France and as planned we decided to take a cheeky look at the Aubisque, being the nearest climb. We drove the 35 odd km to Laruns at the foot of the Aubisque, left my dad at a cafe, and rode off. The weather was amazing and I got to the top of the Aubisque in just over an hour and a half without stopping. My weight being down to 13 stone now and all those hill repeats on Cheddar Gorge had made an impact, all the mystique and fear had gone...or had it? We had four to do on Saturday. My friend, a far better climber than me followed my line on the descent, telling me only afterwards how I could have made up a few minutes on him that he gained on me on the way up! Come Saturday we were ready as we could be. I hardly got a wink of sleep and at 6.15 we were dropped off by my father on the outskirts of Pau. I was seriously impressed with all the fuss, the early road closures and the police presence - all this for cyclists? We set off at a serious pace, the weather was overcast. We were in one of the front three pens and the pace of some at the front was a little intimidating. I knew I had to do this at my own pace or not at all. I had no option to bonk out too soon; for me, finishing would be good enough. I reached Laruns around 8.30 and began the Aubisque where the mist informed us all that rain wasn't far away. I have to say, it felt easier than the Thursday and I was pleased to reach the top again psychologically. What followed however, was pretty hideous - the descent from the Aubisque down to the foot of the Soulor (a small but significant addition to the Aubisque) was treacherous. You could barely see 30 feet ahead and as this was an unknown quantity the sheer drops, the tunnels and the cold made for a lot of unpleasantness. Thankfully at the top of the Soulor there was a hefty crowd of around 100 people egging us all on and fair play to them - the weather by this time was wet and cold. The descent down wasn't much better despite the addition of arm warmers and my Mavic Helium. As we arrived again on flat ground the temperature soon became too stifling for such additions and so I took them off again as my ride moved inexorably on toward the Tourmalet. This legendary climb needs no introduction and as I approached Luz-Saint-Sauveur I felt perhaps for the first time a part of something bigger than just a sportive. I swear that so many of the hundreds of people at the foot of this climb could sense the trepidation of a first-timer like me. The sun was out and each old man I passed took a look at me, as if to say, you ain't going to get half-way sunshine. The 19km was a huge psychological barrier which once surmounted, I reasoned, would make the rest of the day so much easier. I didn't find the gradients hard at all but I believe sincerely that the lack of wind and the better road surfacing also added to the huge amount of training I had done, and I got to the top. But there was no time for photographs or nostalgia, or fists punching the air - the weather was vile again and though there was no rain the visibility was ridiculous. So on went the warmers, the buff this time over my face and the waterproof and off I went, slightly more confident than the Aubisque/Soulor as there was not as much surface water. With a few teeth-chattering miles however it became apparent that that was due the temperature and the surface water appeared lower down, with Gendarmerie and marshalls slowing riders down on gritted parts of the surface. At the bottom many were freezing and as I later found out, some with hypothermia. The party rolled on and I felt like a massive barrier had been crossed. There was a longish flattish section with a small incline that seemed to slow everyone down remarkably and before I reached the Aspin, what I'd figured would be the easiest climb, my first major fatigue came on. I was knackered. All along I'd drunk, taken gels, eaten bars, bananas etc but I was starting to get worried. The French energy gels Overstim.s however seemed to come good and whilst I struggled up that easier climb I felt better at the other end, where again there was a food-stop and hundreds gathered to cheer us on. As I expected I then began to fear the Peyresourde. Only then did I allow the possibility of failing the last climb enter my head. If I'd have allowed such thoughts earlier in the day then I'd probably have failed. I managed the Peyresourde with a new lease of life and felt such a sense of relief at the summit. All along the signed km indicators, which also told you the average gradient for the next kilometre on each of the climbs, I'd met with a certain degree of anxiety and then relief as the 19kms in the case of the Tourmalet came down to, say, 2 or 1km. Now they seemed like an old adversary. Thankfully, for a descender like me, the Peyresourde was dry going down and I kicked it home with top speeds of 70+km an hour. Having the whole road to oneself, I will not lie, was truly incredible. I rolled into Bagneres Du Luchon in 10h 27' having spent around 5 hours in the mountains. I later found out that of just over 8000 starters, just under 4000 finished and I was glad to be one of them. My ranking was around midway. I learnt a few things - namely that endurance is not the same as being fast. I'm not that fast (yet) but you train according to what you're doing. I also learnt for the first time perhaps, that aside my long affiliation with France due my step-father, that cycling is on a different plain there. The amount of support us amateur riders received was truly amazing. I also learnt to handle a bike better in the rain on a descent, that French energy gels are pretty good and that Thomas Voeckler, who managed the same feat with slightly nicer weather, a mere five hours less than me, must be some kind of superhuman. Allez allez allez!!!