Stage 15: Embrun - Prato Nevoso, 183km
In what is perhaps the most beautiful Tour de France route in a long time, today's stage was the most dramatic in terms of its scenery. Climbing the Col d'Agnel (all 40km of it) in perfect conditions up to its grand 2,744m summit dividing Italy and France was an awesome experience despite the effort.
These cols, known as 'grand cols' or monster cols, are what Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange described perfectly when he referred to the Pyrenean climbs as mere cheap wines in comparison! They are super long, high altitude and often steepest at the very end just when your body is beginning to suffer from the thin air. Looking down at my water bottle was a true sign of the height - it had shrunk just as it would on an aeroplane.
The tunnels, iron ore rock gorges and mint green glacial rivers further down the slopes make this one of the most impressive climbs I have ever seen, possibly more so than the mighty Galibier. The good news for me was that judging from the 70km (yes, 70km) descent on the other side, we had it easy on the France approach and less steep . That said it was more than enough given the stage length and the heat (35 degrees in the Piemonte valleys) today.
Towering over the summit was the Monte Viso range of mountains, just under 4,000m and covered in snow and patches of mist moving rapidly in the winds. And so it was over to Italy into a massive valley, the temperature rising mid/late afternoon and the legs beginning to feel the strain of a long day, knowing that there was another climb to come at the finish, a little known ski resort called Prato Nevoso.
I passed though a big town called Cuneo en route with magnificent piazza and architecture - very Italian and probably average by their standards. Apart from the main valley roads, the views around were stunning as I eventually started the 11km ascent of Prato Nevoso. The road surface was brand new like a formula one track for most of the way up. But for the first time in this Tour my lower hamstrings and calves were beginning to show signs of overuse, being inflamed and sore to the point that I had to climb the mountain 50% out of the saddle to keep them from hurting. This uses a lot more energy of course, but I was feeling strong and fresh everywhere else so thus able to do it taking things easy and finish the stage with a little spare capacity.
Tomorrow is my second and final official Tour rest day and I will definitely be having a thorough deep leg massage. Good timing.
A small yet interesting point from today. I have been cycling around France on little more power than it takes to keep 2 x 100watt light bulbs running ... that's a pretty accurate estimate by the way. It makes you realise how efficient bike riding is. It's still the most efficient form of transport known to man!
Time in saddle: 7hrs 5 mins
Fell good factor: 9/10 (felt great but lowered at the end given the muscle strain)
Conditions: 35 degrees in the Piemonte valleys, around 15 degrees high up. Powerful sun and humid in Italy....