Monday, July 25, 2011

TDF Stage 14: Plateau de Beille

Stage 14 turned out to be a very long day. I stayed up quite late last night planning today's route and got up at 445am (after 4 hrs sleep) for the 2 hour drive to a village named Massat. It was the most convenient place to park the car, intersect the TDF route, ride the final ~100km of Stage 14, and then loop back. 

I was in the saddle by 830am and looking forward to the day's climbs. Four climbs were on the TDF route: Col de Letrape, Col d'Agnes, Port de Lers, and Plateau de Beille. I would then have to cross Col de Port to get back to the car.

I intersected the route in a town called Seix and expected to see hundreds, if not thousands, of cyclists following the stage. But, I would guess the actual number I observed was closer to 20. I rode with a Welsh couple for most of the first climb. They thought the road closures explained the lack of cyclists on the stage route. Gendarmes had closed portions of the roads on Luz Ardiden and Col d'Aubisque, but I managed to either beat the time cut-offs, or in one case, sneak around the the Gendarmes. I knew I had to beat the road closures again today, and that was why I got such an early start. 

Plateau de Beille would be today's big climb - 14km in length and 1200 meters of ascent. The mountain-top finish, plus today being the last Pyreneen stage, promised fireworks. But I was nowhere near Plateau de Beille just yet. Col de Letrape was a nice warm-up for the day; approx 5km over a steady gradient. Then it was down into a village and straight up again over Col d'Agnes - 11km in distance and 800 meters of vertical (really just another warm-up with some slightly steeper gradients). 

Descending Col d'Agnes, a Gendarme stopped me and told me the roads were closed and I could not go any further. I was speechless. I explained how far I travelled to see Le Tour. He wouldn't budge. I then told him I was meeting my wife and kids at Plateau de Beille and they were expecting to see me shortly. That still didn't do it. The Gendarme told me that the only way forward is by foot, and then warned that he would lock me inside his car if he catches me riding on the roads. 

Well, I was in a jam now. But this was also quite rediculous. The time was 1130am and the peloton wasn't expected for another 3-4 hours. I know the Gendarmes are quite strict as the caravan approaches, but that was at least 2 hours away, minimum. There was no point in riding back to Massat. My best option was to walk the route, at least until I was beyond his patrol area, and then jump back on my bike. 

I ambled along in my cleats for about 10 minutes. I stopped to ask a couple of other Gendarmes on the cycling policy; they said cycling was ok. I don't know what the first Gendarme was talking about (his English was pretty good) because I saw other cyclists riding their bikes. So, as soon as I got around the corner, I was back in the saddle and making my way to Plateau de Beille. Disaster avoided.

I had a long, fast descent into Tarascon. Another Gendarme stopped me to tell me the road would close in 20 minutes. Ok, thanks for the helpful information. I got into a paceline with three Catalans from Girona and we pushed hard for the next 25km to Plateau de Beille. 

Pleatea de Beille was quite a beast. Its length and pitch has made it almost a TDF regular. I rode it conservatively, as the temperautes were well into the 30s and I had another climb (Col de Port) to face at the end of the day. 

Being a Saturday, there were several hundred thousand fans lining the road up Plateau de Beille. Like Tourmalet, Luz Ardiden, and Col d'Aubisque, many had been camping out for days already. Orange was the dominant color again. The Basques were out in force. 

I watched the race from near the '4km to go' banner. The peloton had been ripped apart at this stage. In fact, I'm not sure there was a peloton at that point; only the remnants of it. The racers were quite spread out; far more than in the two previous stages. Thats what three days in the high Pyrenees will do, especially to the non-climbers. 

My last climb, Col de Port, was quite tough. I'd had three long days in the Pyrenees and all the climbing was taking a toll. I think that if a driver had offered a lift in his car, I might've taken it. It was 8pm by the time I got back to Massat and I was pretty wasted. I got a bite to eat and started the long drive back to Barcelona. My day ended at 430am - a full 24 hours after it started. 

And that brought me to the end of my three days following the 2011 Tour de France. They were three long, intense, and exhausting days, but I wouldn't do it any other way. I rode the stages, climbed the hors categorie monsters, met dozens of cyclists from all over the world, and saw the peloton up close. I can't wait to do it again.

Col d'Agnes, my second warm-up climb. 

France's national champion, Sylvain Chavenel.

A rider on the Basque team, Euskatel-Euskadi. 

Jens Voigt of Trek-Leopard.

I had to cross Col de Port to return to the car at Massat. 

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