Explore: Riding the hardest stage

The hardest stage of any Tour de France is worthy of our close attention and admiration. The hardest stage ever? Well, that we simply had to go ride for ourselves

This article was produced in collaboration with Factor Bikes. 

I previously rode the longest ever stage of the Tour de France, a 482 kilometre behemoth that schlepped down most of France’s west coast. I wanted to experience and share what the riders went through, or at least a modern version of it. The answer was a violent rollercoaster of self-doubt, enjoyment, transcendence, boredom, fragility and confidence.

Next to do, logically, was the hardest ever stage, but first it had to be identified. While the longest stage is a question of empirical fact, the hardest stage is a matter of subjective judgement and there is no shortage of contenders. Through the decades the Tour has included many parcours which now challenge believability, stages of almost comedic monstrosity.

The 1919 Tour is often said to be the hardest edition owing to the devastating toll taken by World War I on the riders, food supplies and the roads themselves. It had the fewest ever finishers, just 10, and the slowest average speed at 24.0kph. It also included the introduction of the aforementioned longest stage, the fifth, from Les Sables d’Olonnes to Bayonne, and featured the longest ever stage-winning time, the 21 hours and 4 minutes it took for Firmin Lambot to ride 468km from Metz to Dunkerque on stage 14. Every stage looks like a sick joke.

But it’s the 326km haul from Bayonne to Luchon which has fascinated me since I relocated to the Pyrenees myself. This route famously debuted in 1910, the Tour’s first taste of the high mountains, but it ran the opposite way for three years until the entire Grand Boucle was reversed in 1913. Reversing the direction created a backloaded nightmare of a parcours, with the second half comprising the Col d’Aubisque, Col du Soulor, Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin  and Col de Peyresourde. Imagine Milan- Sanremo, but 10 per cent longer and all the capi at the end are HC and cat-1 mountains... The climbing totals nearly 7,000m. No Tour stage ever had more.

To top it off, this was the race’s sixth stage and, from 1919 to 1924, therefore followed the longest ever stage. What a combination.

My ride begins shortly after 7am from the mayor’s office in Bayonne, exactly where I had finished the longest stage at 10.30pm a few weeks before, and a much more palatable hour than the midnight start imposed on the pros of a century ago. The roads are slippery from a heavy shower that blew over while I was getting ready, making the escape from town through edgy, early commuters additionally stressful. What’s more, the route is immediately lumpy, plunging directly into the famously rolling French Basque Country, and then it rains again.

My plan had been to cruise the first half on flatter roads, saving my energy for the mountains to come. The hardest stage has other ideas. Hidden in the sheer scale of a profile which includes the 2,115m Col du Tourmalet, lies a long series of small, leg-sapping climbs, their amplitude increasing in turn. For all the time spent on planning accurate route recreation, I hadn’t registered the difficulty of the first 60km. Look at the profile and tell me your attention wouldn’t also be on the big mountains.

Forty minutes into the ride, my feeling is one of confusion at the dense, steep Basque hills that surround me. Their distinctive, over-saturated, felt-tip pen green looks beautiful as the morning sun breaks through the patchy clouds, but it’s only a temporary distraction from the fear that ratchets up another notch every time the road rises beyond 10 per cent. How on Earth am I going to manage this one?

My approach – I won’t go so far as to call it a strategy – had been focused on the Tourmalet. Get to the mountains fairly fresh, climb Aubisque conservatively, and then get over the Tourmalet without cracking. After that, only Aspin and Peyresourde would remain and I figured they’re not as hard, so I could tap up them in a low gear in almost any state. How hard can it be?

The Col d’Osquich begins after 79km and three hours. Of the early climbs, it’s the only one that shows on the profile, though at 495m it still looks like a speed bump. It’s 4.5km long but only six per cent, so it actually feels easy compared to what has preceded it. Settling into a rhythm uphill for the first time is a good sensation. The flowing descent, recently resurfaced, is fantastic...or at least it would be if the roads were not still wet.

The tarmac finally dries after four hours of riding, so I stop and change my shoes and socks from the photographer’s car that’s doubling as a support vehicle. The road has flattened out, too, so I get in the drops and take the opportunity to cover ground faster.

By Laruns, at the foot of Col d’Aubisque, I have ridden 170km and climbed 2,500m, and I can feel it. Fresh, I am not, and it feels like the whole ride is still ahead of me. On the upside, the weather has perked up and I’m now on home roads that I know well. There will be no more surprises.

The Col d’Aubisque is sensational: long, tough and varied. After an easy start, it kicks up from the thermal spa town of Eaux-Bonnes, the former ele - gance of which has gone beyond faded to dilapidated. The ski town of Gourette, 12km up, is another punctuation point. The road narrows and this final quarter of the climb is much twistier, the gradients more irregular.

It’s cloudy at the top – obscuring views I know to be astounding – and just 13°C. A modestly sized bust of Lucien Buysse sits next to the restaurant, in commemoration of his 1926 victories on this stage, the one that followed, and, as a result, the GC. That year was arguably the hardest ever edition of this hardest stage, thanks to a ferocious storm that lashed the riders and turned the high-altitude dirt roads into mud pits. Buysse’s winning time of 17:12 is the slowest of the 13 times this stage was used, though he may have been taking solace in the suffering; following the third stage a week earlier he had received the tragic news that his infant daughter had died. Continuing must have been unthinkably hard, unless his personality inclined him to channel the pain into the pedals and to flee from it around France, in which case finishing as the winner in Paris must have been an exquisite agony.

The iconic balcony road on the eastern side of the Aubisque is, thankfully, below the clouds and as fun as ever. After a short climb up to the twin peak of the Col du Soulor comes another fantastic descent to Argelès-Gazost. A few minutes south down the valley, I pass within a few hundred metres of my house, where I’m greeted on the roadside by my fiancée and our baby daughter. Eight hours into the ride, I had expected to feel a powerful urge to climb off and join them for dinner and a hot shower. I’d imagined writing about the conflicting  voices in my head and an argument narrowly won, leading me towards the Col du  Tourmalet, rather than my sofa. Perhaps – minded of Buysse and his tragic loss – the sight of our smiling baby coupled with the fatigue might even make me cry.

Instead, the moment is nothing but joyful, its result only motivation, and I set off along Gorge Luz renewed. The feeling lasts onto and up the Tourmalet; my power remains consistent and I reach the summit  in just under 90 minutes. It’s a big confidence boost, but there’s a long way to go  and some pressure to beat nightfall, despite it being late June, so I pause only to pull on my jacket and then attack the well-known descent.  

At the base, in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, I nod to the statue of Eugène Christophe, whose fork broke on this descent in 1913 while he was poised to take the race lead. He walked 10km to a smith’s  at this site, whereupon he repaired it himself, only to be given a 10-minute penalty by the ever-present commissaires because the smith’s young son operated the bellows and that counted as prohibited outside assistance. Incredibly, in both 1919 and 1922  Christophe would again be denied overall victory by broken forks. By that point, an unempathetic assessment might question his preparation and testing.  

The Col d’Aspin is friendlier than most climbs in the area but steeper than  I remember. I’ve never ridden it while already so tired. The lower slopes up to Lac de Payolle are easy, as is the final kilometre or so, but in between, as it climbs through its characteristic pine forest, first with switchbacks and then with S-bends, it means business.

My legs are still okay, I have no knee pain this time, and my stomach is holding out under the onslaught of all the home-made ride bars and rice cakes I’m hurling at it. These rides wear you down from every angle.  

The descent of the Aspin, recently resurfaced and as smooth as glass, is fast and fun. It tips me out on the edge of Arreau, which lies at a fork in the valley. Its centre presents a choice and I head south-east on narrow, quiet, quaint streets in the direction of the day’s final obstacle, the Col de Peyresourde.

While its western approach is similar to that of Aspin, up a rising valley at moderate gradients, it’s longer and, as my Garmin’s  display ticks past 300km, it feels harder. The accumulated fatigue is a lot to carry and it’s starting to feel like it might topple  me. I remind myself that the finish is basically the top of this climb, that I can get  there no matter how tired I am if I keep turning the Factor’s generous SRAM 35x33 bottom gearing and how badly I’ve wanted to do this ride.

Hitting the Peyresourde proper shocks me into life like a defibrillator. It’s 9km to the top, my legs are still with me, and the excitement and anticipation of the finish are helping me to dig out decent, mid-zone- two power. The last three kilometres, with the summit in view, seem interminable, until finally I’m on the last ramp and sprinting to the top out of sheer joy as much as for the camera.

The sun has melted into the horizon as I begin the descent but there’s just enough left in the dusk, and in me, to take the descent at full speed and without lights. The fast lower slopes fling me into Bagnères-de-Luchon to the finish, where I get to celebrate on my own in a Lidl car park and then wash under a bottle of water. That’s probably a period-appropriate level of glamour. No matter, because the feeling of accomplishment and of a dream realised tastes sweeter than any champagne.

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