Stage 8 was pretty tough, but stage 9 was brutal! I was up at 0530 for breakfast and then a transfer into Spain, over a misty mountain pass, the weather clearing to morning sunshine as soon as we crossed the border. We found our bikes and were moving from the start at Vielha by 0755.
Today’s stage started with a Category 1 climb, the Port de la Bonaigua, rising more than 1000 metres to 2072 metres. It was a pleasant, gradual climb in morning sunshine, with good views of rocky mountain tops and forested slopes, tree pipits and serins singing. The descent was fast and thrilling, on broad, dry roads – going fast downhill for 20km we realised how high we had climbed. The first feed stop was by a pleasant lake, then we headed down a scenic river valley, watching white water rafters speeding down the rapids to our right. There was a bit of a headwind and I started off riding in a group, but then chose to ride at my own pace and take in the scenery, aware of the many hilly miles to come.
The weather was warming up when we turned left onto the Port del Canto, another 1000 metre climb. I didn’t enjoy this one at all – the sun was overpoweringly bright, even with dark glasses, my eyes filled with a stinging mixture of sweat and sun cream, and my right foot was rubbing painfully on my shoe. In a brief moment of clear vision I saw a red-backed shrike on a roadside wire. I arrived at the summit, cursing the hot weather – I was one of the few of us missing the damp, cool, misty, atmospheric conditions of yesterday. I perked up with coffee and sandwiches then enjoyed an exhilarating, twisting descent.
Soon afterwards we passed the border into Andorra, following a busy main road through the valley, passing through a ribbon of sprawling modern development set inside a mountain fringed valley. The busy main road did not make for a relaxing ride, but the cycling was not unpleasant, with a gentle uphill gradient and slight breeze in the afternoon sunshine. I rode for many miles on my own, following the tour de force signs without seeing another cyclist. The third feedstop was beside a river, with a pair of nesting dippers gathering food for their young, and crag martins hawking insects overhead.
The afternoon was well advanced as we took on the short but steep 2nd category Cote de la Camella, where locals were partying in a hilltop park, before dropping a couple of hundred metres and climbing the 1st category Col de Beixalis. This was the hardest climb of the day, with narrow steep roads, including one kilometre that averaged 12% and ramped up to 16-18% in places. Feed stop four saw me greeted by a collection of almost broken bodies, riders crashed out in the shade, taking in fuel and trying to summon the energy for the final climb of the day, the hors categorie ascent to the ski resort of Andorra Arcalis. After a rapid descent, I began the climb at 6.15pm, with more than 100 miles in my legs.
The slopes were now in shade, which was a pleasant relief, and the gradient ranged between 6-9% over the 18km to the summit. It was a slow, steady climb, which didn’t seem too difficult, but quite a grind after 10 hours and 170km in the saddle. Flags – alternately yellow then white with red polka dots – advertised the coming of the Tour de France on 10 July, reminding me that Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana would be battling for the yellow jersey in a week’s time. After such a tough day, it was not hard to believe the predictions that this, the fifth and final categorised climb, would be a real decider of the winner of the race.
I counted down the kilometres, taking a drink after each one, and finally arrived at the top at 8pm. I hugged a fellow cyclist in relief, and we exchanged photos before heading back down the valley, shouting allez-allez-allez! to Tour de Force colleagues still battling the slopes. I reckoned I was about 20th to the top, and about 35 more riders were still on the slopes below me, others having headed straight for the hotel on entering Andorra. I was able to count down the distance of each rider to the top, and it was clear that many would struggle to make it before dark – a big issue for the Lifers aiming to cover every mile of the Tour. I spotted my colleague Indy at 8.23pm with 11km still to climb – I shouted encouragement but was concerned that he would not make the summit. I later found out that he just made it, before being transported back down the mountain in a van.
From the bottom of the slope the TdF signs directed us several km further down the valley to our hotel in Andorra la Vella. I reached the hotel at 9pm, with 215km on the Garmin and after 11 ¼ hours in the saddle. This day broke all cycling records for me – distance, time, metres of climbing – the lot. Strava reckons I climbed 6265 metres but I think it may be exaggerating.
I enjoyed a big dinner, beginning to replenish some of the 9,000 calories I had burnt, and a few glasses of red wine, to celebrate having made it.
Monday is rest day – I’ve only done two stages but I think I need it!