L'Etape final report: cold, damp and fast

By Lindsay Crawford, L'Etape correspondent | Friday, July 11, 2008 10.18pm

BikeRadar's L'Etape du Tour diarist Lindsay Crawford, 67, finished the 105-mile event from Pau to Hautacam in 6 hours, 53 minutes on July 6. This was Crawford's seventh L'Etape.

To put his effort into perspective, the overall winner, a 31-year-old Frenchman named Laurent Four, finished in 5:38. Former pro and 1998 world road champion Laurent Brochard, 40, finished in 5:44. Robert Mackey, a 41-year-old New York Times web journalist, finished in 8:05, roughly the same time as Neil Browne, editor of Road Magazine. Riders faced the exact course that this year's Tour de France contenders will tackle on July 14.

The day finally arrives - Hautacam awaits!

After two weeks of riding in hot, dry conditions, the heavens opened up with thunderstorms and rain the evening of July 2.  Thursday and a relatively easy ride out of Luchon, with one moderate climb over the Col du Portillon in cool (10C/50F), wet weather.

No ride on Friday.  Those that know me probably find it hard to believe I took a day off the bike. 

Drove to Pau to pick up my race packet and check out the various sponsors’ display booths. Promptly at 2 p.m., Madame Martine Lignières-Cassou, Mayor of Pau, cut the ribbon to open the host village. Continued the drive, in the afternoon, to Argeles-Gazost and our hotel for the next four days. Last October, the day after the 2008 route was announced, I booked the room for four nights right at the base of the final climb to the finish at Hautacam.

Saturday and one day to go for L’Etape du Tour 2008. No rain but, still cool as I rode out to climb part way up the Tourmalet from the west side. About a third of the way up, I turned around and rode the final kilometers, including the Hautacam, of Sunday’s route.

Could hear the rain all night and hoped it would pass by morning.

At 4 a.m. I'm in the car driving to the start in Pau, the skies seemed to be clearing. However, minutes before the 7 a.m. start, the heavens opened up and rain was falling as we started our long day in the saddle.

Several notables seen at the front for the start. Among the women, Karine Saysset, winner of the 2006 and 2007 editions; Marion Clignet, owner of six world titles and two Olympic Silver medals. For the men: Laurent Marcon, winner in 2005; Tony Doyle, retired successful six day rider and two time Professional Pursuit World Champion; Laurent Brochard, 1997 World Road Race Champion; Francis Quillon, former competitive cyclist, founder of Cyfac Cycles and builder of my 2002 Cyfac. Also, from other sports, Japanese retired F1 driver, Ukyo Katayama; race car driver Paul Belmondo, Biarritz Olympic rugby team trainer, Patrice Lagisquet; Olympic downhill champion Antoine Dénériaz; 1996 Davis Cup winner Guillaume Raoux; 

Fortunately, with my start number (434), I was able to start with that group in the front of nearly 8,500 riders. Forty three nationalities represented:  5,827 French, 1,757 British, 177 American, 98 Dutch, 65 Australians, and 53 Swiss. 

Transponder indicated it took me 10 seconds to cross the start line as Mayor Lignières- Cassou sent us on our way.

With those at the front (this writer included) trying to maintain their position and other fast riders that started farther back attempting to quickly improve their position, it was pretty sketchy as we rode out of Pau on wet roads. Successfully avoided the few crashes that occurred in the first 15 to 20 kilometres.

About 10km into the race, I saw a rider on the side of the road holding a broken chain in his hand; race over for him.. 40km and riding through Ney, I could still see the front of the race. I was in the second group about 2- 3 minutes behind the leading group of 100 after 66km and entering Lourdes. Starting the second minor climb at 80km, and a rider’s saddle came off. Reportedly, he finished the event minus his saddle!

Held my position in the second group until 103km and Saint Marie de Campan for the ascent to the Col du Tourmalet. Settled into my own rhythm, as usual, and set a steady pace to the top. Passed by many but also passed a few that started out too hard for the 17km climb into cold, wet conditions. My cyclometer read 8C/46F and saw one report indicating 3C/37F on the summit. 

Descent for the first several kilometers required full attention for the roads were slick from the rain and cows that take their “natural breaks” on the road. Adding to the entertainment, visibility was very poor.

In spite of the conditions, my cyclometer indicated a maximum speed of 97kph/60mph somewhere during the 18km descent to Luz Saint Sauveur. Another 18km of mostly gentle downhill and start of the final 13km climb to the finish at Hautacam.

I arrived at the finish line in 6:53:02 for 12th in Category E (60+) and 488th overall, 45 minutes after Cat E winner Yves Le Brun who finished a very creditable 60th overall. Laurent Four was first with a time of 5:38:04. 

I didn’t have any mechanical or physical problems but can see, as I get too close to 70, the youngsters in their early 60s are faster. This was my seventh L’Etape du Tour (first time in the rain) and in previous years, when on a good ride, I would finish about one hour after first place overall and take two hours longer then the pros when they rode the same course a few days later.

My previous L’Etape du Tour diaries were written to give a perspective of the event from relatively close to the front since most articles posted were from those not vying for a podium spot. Maybe, it’s time to pass the baton onto a stronger rider willing to write how it is at, or near, the front.

As usual, thoroughly enjoyed my time riding in Europe for the past three weeks. My hope is readers of this diary are inspired to make the trip someday and consider the fun in riding a sportive while there.

May the wind always be at your back...

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