Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Death by Tourmalet - a play in two acts

Meeting your maker is generally something all of us set out to postpone as long as possible. Accidents and old age are going to take their toll, but to go seek it? The 2010 version of the hardest sporting event on earth has decided to turn the clock back, a hundred years to be exact, and reenact Henri Degrange's passion play "Death by Tourmalet", or as the lead actor Octave Lapize in the 1910 version of La Grande Boucle remarked, "You are murders, yes, murders."

The Tourmalet is a monster. It's one of the few Pyrenean climbs I remember with great detail from our two weeks crossing the mountains from Perpignon to St Jean de Luz in 2007. The western side, from Luz-Saint-Sauveur, is 19km long, climbing 1,404m at an average of 7.4 percent with a maximum of 10.2% near the summit. Starting from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, the climb is 17.2km, gaining 1,268m, an average 7.4% with a maximum of 11%. And as if the climb was not hard enough, the road department has been kind enough to mark your journey skyward, with little tombstone looking markers (I'm certain there was nothing
"murderous" in that choice) - each kilometer is inscribed by the distance to the summit and the average gradient of the next kilometer - in case your burning legs needed any additional reminder.

We, three of us, Todd, John and me, approached from the east through the now famous (thank you Phil & Paul) village of Ste Marie-de-Campan where the forge used by Eugène Christophe (more below) is now an official monument; it's on the left of the road, as you start through the village. From this side the granite monster is unseen for most of the climb; in fact, since the chopper views each July spare us most of the run up, I was actually a bit caught off guard. After Ste Marie-de-Campan the road flattens and dips a slight bit through a small valley. I'm racing along thinking -
"what's this about?" Then I began really getting concerned, less road and still all that climbing means the gradient is definitely going to bite and bite hard. It does, it did!

From the east it's a wonderfully long strange climb, that's why I loved it. It gets steep, 9%, 10%, 11%, and opens to the world. A couple kms from La Mongie you disappear into a couple of snow tunnels - that only look out to the north - kind of an erie feeling that something above you is happening that you are privy to, but who cares, your in your own little personal pain chamber. It's in these tunnels, at 11%, where Armstrong attacked on Stage 11 in 2002. That year the Tourmalet just watched it all from 4 km further above, they finished in La Mongie.

As I struggled through the ski town of La Mongie I remember shaking my head at how insane this was - the gradient - it was just plain stupid! To be riding through the center of any town, even a ski town, at 10-12% was crazy; I had to pedal or roll backwards! I kept thinking about all those orange shirted Basques that line the road here, mouths agape and flailing about like fish on a beach. If one of them trips they'll start rolling down through town, launching an avalanche of orange, it'll look like a giant pumpkin smashing contest. The image distracted me from the pain - just kept trying to turn the pedals over at a respectable rate. Above the town there is a since of relief, the road begins to switchback, and you have the illusion you are going faster, making real progress, the top, the Tourmalet, is somewhere close, you hope.

The Tourmalet is at the very heart of the Pyrenees - and it will be there for many many Tours to come. Like a giant splinter of granite thrust skyward through a limestone crust it is 100-150 million years and youthfully rugged - not a good glacier or rounded erosion to mar its flanks. It's the Andy Schleck of the Pyrenees peloton, young, raw, angular and enormous potential. So PS - Lance, you have years of comebacks ahead of you and the Big T will still be there.

The summit has a historic café filled with old Tour
velos, mementos and pictures - and on a cold rainy day, hot tea, fresh crepes du chocolat as well as other foods. We were glad to see it and Jenn with the van and took refuge there. What it doesn't have is a couple of decent cycling jerseys. Why not? They could make a killing. This coming year alone the etape du Tour rolls through the summit with thousands of cyclomaniacs clamoring for their piece of history - seriously, is there not one enterprising Frenchman (or woman) open to the idea of selling a few hundred or more jerseys????? And then there are all the folks - mostly drunk and clad in day-glow orange of the Basque country - who will camp out for there for days and the ultimate prize - seeing their heroes suffer over the geant twice:

Stage 16: Bagnères-de-Luchon - Pau - 196 km

Km 11 - Col de Peyresourde - 11 km climb to 7,4 %
Km 42,5 - Col d’Aspin - 12,3 km climb to 6,3 %
Km 72 - Col du Tourmalet par La Mongie - 17,1 km climb to 7,4 %
Km 128,5 - Col du Soulor - 19 km climb to 5,3 %
Km 138 - Col d’Aubisque par le col du Soulor - 5,4 km climb to 6 %

Stage 17: Pau - Col du Tourmalet - 174 km (pictured above)

Km 57,5 - Col de Maris-Blanque - 9,5 km climb to 7,5 %
Km 118,5 - Col du Soulor par Ferrières - 22 km climb to 4,9 %
Km 174 - Col du Tourmalet par Barèges - 19 km climb to 7,4 %

Some History

I love cycling history, and few races have more drama filled days than the Tour. So it was in 1909 when first Director Henri Degrange was looking for the same thing every director since has sought - a way to just spice things up a bit. Tricky bit for the riders of the coming 1910 edition of La Grande Boucle was that Degrange had every Col and goat track in the land to choose from - nothing had really been climbed yet, his palet of pain was wide open, so why not choose the most painful? The Tours to that point were largely left to the rouleurs (those tireless fellows of the rolling lowlands) - the 2010 Tour will give then their due: the roly-poly hills of Medoc, Bordeaux, the infamous cobbley
“trouée” (the trench), in the northeast near Arenberg (where stage 3, Wanze-Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, will include 7 cobbled Paris-Roubaix sectors over a total distance of 13.2 km). But a century ago this coming year life in the young peloton was about to change - and it has since.

In the summer of 1910 riders must have approached the much anticipated
geant Tourmalet with some trepidation. Octave Lapize (the eventual winner of the Tour) reached the top of the Tourmalet first, followed by Gustave Garrigou. Garrigou was the only cyclist to reach the top without dismounting and received an extra 100 francs.

This next July as the boys cross over the summit (2,115 m / 6,939 ft, it is the highest road in the central Pyrenees) climaxing the initial fun ride up the east side on stage 16 (the easy side) they will be greeted by the large statue of Octave Lapize gasping for air as he struggles to make the climb - oddly it's a memorial to Jacques Goddet, director of the Tour de France from 1936 to 1987; why not poor Lapize? He's the poor schmuck who did all the work. The best part of stage 16 is whizzing down off the Tourmalet, with every rotation of the wheels, is a reminder - "Crap, we have to come back up this side!"

I've only seen the west side in a cold rain; a cold rain from behind the windscreen, following my stubborn friend Todd as he descended as cautiously as I have seen him come off any summit. If July 20th is anything like "our" Tourmalet, I can't fathom racing off that monster - yet the
maillot jaune will likely hang in the balance and it will be full on, like wheeled falcons stooping for golden glory.

geant Tourmalet has been crossed 73 times since Degrange tossed it in there in 1910 based on a trusted collegue's appraisal - After reaching Barèges (with the help of rescuers), Steines sent a telegram to Degrange: "Crossed Tourmalet stop. Very good road stop. Perfectly practicable." , after mushing to the summit in the snow. (Even the Vuelta a España has crossed the pass several times.) In first year the poor peloton, all 110 of them that started dwindled quickly, but the monster was the main culprit - only 44 near dead riders finished Degrange's little experiment. The Tour now had Grimpeurs!

Three years later, 1913, comes one of the most painful and retold acts of this play. The famous cyclist, Eugène Christophe, known as 'le Vieux Gaulois' (the Old Gaul), worked feverishly in village of Ste Marie-de-Campan to repair the front-wheel fork of his bicycle there after being struck by a car during the descent of the Tourmalet. Director Degrange's rules were strictly enforced and prevented him from obtaining assistance and he had to walk 15 km to do the repairs himself. While in the forge he solicited the "assistance" of a young boy to work the bellows - on top of the four hours he lost in repair the unsympathetic King of the "murders" tagged him with a 10 minute penalty. This gave the leading pack an advance of four hours and Christophe's dreams of securing the
maillot jaune went up in the forge's fires.

When the lads-n-lycra ascend the west wall it will only be the second time since 1974 that a stage finishes on the Tourmalet - and it may yet be the most dramatic final act in "Death by Tourmalet" since it was first crossed a century ago.

In the 'modern era' have there been tougher Tours than 2010? One thins is for certain - "Death by Tourmalet" should separate the men from boys, and the rest from the will to go on.

Inside Cycling - Perspective on the 2010 Tour route

By VeloNews' John Wilcockson

Slide show of the Tourmalet

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