We’re up at 4 a.m., and straight off to the racetrack in Pau. When Jean-Paul drops us off, the place is still closed. We are among the first, with numbers 30-39 VIP (which, may I remind you, stands for “Very Invalid People”, as far as yours truly is concerned). There will be 9,500 cyclists in all : 1,382 girls, 44 countries, and only one short cut! It’s XXXing down, with a temperature of 13° Celsius. They give us our final instructions, and we’re off. They’re going fast, and I keep to the right because I know someone will overtake me in the next thirty miles. They keep on going fast, and I get myself behind a group, so that they will pull me along in their wake and I’ll be able to relax a bit. I keep on pedalling and pedalling. The ground is relatively flat, and every village, every hamlet is full of people. On the first slope (a doddle, with a mile and a half at 6%), the group get up into standing position like ballerinas, I’m pushing along no problem, and a lot of cyclists come along and congratulate me, but I tell them : “Wait till the finish!”. On the downward slope, one of the other cyclists ends up in the ditch. It’s still pouring down, and I’m a bit worried about the speed I’m going at : twenty an hour, and I’m not used to going so fast. We arrive at Lourdes, where we get a hero’s welcome : thousands of pilgrims lined up along the side of the road to cheer us on, it’s like being in the Tour de France. 50 miles already, and we stop for refreshment. I take what I need very quickly, and get back into the race as soon as I can. It looks as if the rain just will not stop, and there’s another little slope coming up : just over a mile at 5% : come on, we get our asses off the saddles and we dance it. Bagnères de Bigorre is chock-full of people, with banners and flags. It certainly gives you the motivation to keep going. I feel fine : I don’t know where the others are (ahead of me, no doubt), but I don’t think about them and I just keep on going; I still have plenty of energy, and I know I’ve got two big mountain passes coming up, so I try to keep it zen….
60 miles : not bad, the Tourmalet is coming up, and a cyclist comes up alongside me to congratulate me and to tell me he also belongs to the “Bout de Vie” association. I’m still on my saddle, and about to start the ascension.
I’ve managed to keep my energy reserves stocked up so far, and I don’t feel at all tired. Even the rain is an advantage, because it means that it isn’t so hot. I feel brilliant : once I get onto a flat bit, I phone Véro to tell her how I feel, and I’m there with tears of joy streaming down my face. I alternate between first gear and the standing-up position, and I’m getting euphoric, I even start overtaking people….
It starts getting colder, and our breath is coming out in little puffs of steam. We are all wrapped up in fog, like cotton wool, and we can’t see more than 30 yards ahead of us. There are still three miles to go to the highest point : some of the other cyclists have got off their bikes and are pushing; I try to encourage them, but they just can’t manage it. Here we are at La Mongie at last : I just stop for a few seconds, so that I don’t lose my momentum. I’m up at the highest point : it’s 9° Celsius, in the fog and the rain, I zip up my windcheater as far as it will go. The first six miles downhill are hell, the road is soaking wet and the cold cuts through my legs. I mean, “my leg”, since I’ve only had the one of them for some time! What with the bad visibility and the steep slope, there’s no way I can keep pedalling and get the lactic acid out of my system. But I get down just fine, and the road eventually evens out, and I go for it. I’m off like a bullet : in the 12 miles downhill I must have overtaken at least 200 people, no kidding. Hautacam is coming up, and that’s the moment of reckoning. I’ve been going for 100 miles now, and I’m an hour and a half ahead of the “sweeper” car, so I decide I can afford a break. The rain has stopped, and I’m about to attack the last mountain pass : 6 miles with a 9-10% slope. The little road is chock-full of people on both sides. It’s incredible : thousands of people on both sides of the road making a gateway for me, cheering me on, congratulating me, and it’s tear-jerking time again… I know that this last haul is going to be hard, but this is no time to start complaining. The rain starts up again, and a cyclist from Carqueiranne with a strong Southern French accent encourages me along, saying : “God, man, you impress me, you really do”.
I mustn’t think about what it’s like at the top. It’s the pits : more and more people at the side of the road, recovering from cramp; others have decided to get off their bikes and hoof it to the finish line, and I’m happy to be there, with 178 beats a minute. And I’m across the finishing line !! The crowds are applauding, and the speaker must be saying something about me, but I’m not there any more. As usual, I’m 25 years back in time : if they’d told me then that I’d be where I am today, I wouldn’t have believed them : 120 miles on, 9 hours and 25 minutes, two “exceptionally difficult” mountain passes into the bargain….
The “Bout de Vie” team came 8th out of 8.
Thank you all for your support.