Stage 8 - 195km
So here's the plan - let's ride for about 100 miles, then start climbing one of the toughest stages of the tour so far, up a mountain 10 miles long, with an average climb of 8% . I sometimes look at the percentage and think, it doesn't sound too much. But believe me, you can feel the difference between every 1%. I climb comfortably up to 5% (subject to the pace of course) but every notch above that just makes it harder. Then you add on top of this the heat, time in the saddle and that you have ridden over 800 miles over the last 8 days and you get to understand how every % higher can really be felt.
However, the Col de Pailhères was still appealing in some strange way. The profile looked impressive, but challenging. I've found that the best way of getting over these mountains is to start steady, not hard, steady and consistent, keeping the rev's going. This technique was key, especially with a two hour climb, in the middle of the day. What thrilled me though was the sheer expanse of the wonderful vista. With the mountains high above, snow capped, we realised that actually this was where we were heading, above the snow, and above the cloud baseline.
It's bizarre to think that in one week, up on the mountains, it will be absolutely packed with spectators waiting for the main Tour de France to come through, following us in our wake. In fact camper vans were already parked on some of the corners, equipped with satellite dishes, barbecues and their own mountains of tins of beer. Some even cornered their patches off to stop others settling next to them.
The climb was blistering hot, but so tranquil, only disturbed by the bells of the cows roaming the hills and wild horses leaving their trademarks all over the road - slippy stuff is that! Looking to the top you think you see it, but it just kept on going, until eventually we came across Neil's parents, a Scottish family following him on every stage, sat at the top waiting for all the riders. His parents are living in a camper van, emblazoned with the Scottish flag. His mum (not a sprightly young thing) is seen daily hanging out of the van, ringing the bell to the peloton. In fact, if we have a stage where we do not hear the bell or see them on the road side waiting for us, it would be a disastrous stage.
Arriving at the top, the cold hits you - it's snowy, windy, clear and beautiful, but you need to wrap up quickly, especially with a long, long descent, being careful to avoid the trademarks of the locals of course.
We drop into a small town called Ax-3 Domaines, which is where we're based for the night, problem being we have to ride another 8km mountain first! It's a ski resort, where on arrival, we simply turn round and come back down. Wonderful descent, great surface, with wide roads dropping back into the town where we finished.