Today's Tour stage familiar to 7500 riders

The pros will take just over four hours to complete today's Pyrenean stage of the Tour de France, 179kms from Mourenx to Pau. Last week, keen amateurs took up to 9 and a half hours to do the same route. The 13th edition of l'Étape du Tour Vélo Magazine saw 7885 riders set off from Mourenx to climb the Marie Blanque and the Aubisque, the editor of BikeBiz.com among them, just one of 2000 Brits taking part.
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How did I do? Made it round in 7 hours 25 minutes. Next time I'll get some pre-Etape miles in. Cycling the kids to school each morning is not adequate preparation for the kind of stage that's par for the course if you're a pro roadie but Hell on wheels for riders like me.

I cramped at the top of the Aubisque (a new sensation for me) and had been distinctly wobbly on the first climb of the day, a steep, slow ascent up the Marie Blanque. My feeding strategy must have been wrong, I shouldn't have been bonking at this stage of the ride. I drank and ate in the shade to recover, and to steal a few seconds respite from the sun and the gradient, and soon regained some strength for the pulls to come.

Ready for a plug? I was able to ride and recover on the Marie Blanque because of the Dura Ace triple supplied to me by Madison. With just a double I'd have been walking, I felt that bad.

Even though the Aubisque is the real climb of the day, I found it easier than the Marie Blanque. I especially enjoyed the mentally fast descent, blanking out of my mind the fact that four or so sportif riders are killed on these sort of descents on these sort of events in France each year.

The road surface on the lower slopes was brand new: an indication of how highly the French regions regard the Tour de France.

The best bit of the day for me was the chance to shimmy on to the back of the many 'road trains' on offer. Guilty secret: I wheelsucked, no thoughts whatsoever of taking any turns on the front

At the finish (I don't want to dwell on the last two 'pimples' of the route, it's still a painful memory) I headed for the giant truck of Giant Bicycles, my host for the Etape. Former pro Abraham Olano, riding in the same bunch of invited guests, had been back for the best part of two hours. Clearly, his eating strategy had been spot on.

Giant's guests also included Simon O'Hagan of The Independent on Sunday and Lewis Blackwell, group creative director at Getty Images.

On the day before the Etape, the Independent on Sunday ran a feature on the motives of those on the ride.

Were they (most are men, 35 years of age or older) trying to hold back the tide of age?

"I prefer to see myself as a novice rider representative of the general growth of interest in cycling as a healthy and functional sport," said Blackwell.

John Sinnott, a BBC reporter, finished the ride in just under nine hours.

"I made an unexpected new friend," he said. "Pain."

For Sinnott it was "a friendship that started on the Col d'Ichere, grew on the Col de Marie-Blanque and almost broke me on the ascent of the Col d'Aubisque.

"The race was an unforgettable experience, an assault on the senses. The sound of 8,000 road bikes - the switch of gears, 16,000 slick rubber tyres turning on tarmac - was like an avant-garde symphony."

Why did he do the Etape?

"Like the London Marathon, it provides amateurs with a brief taste of just what it's like to participate in one of the world's great sporting events. Hurtling down a mountain at speeds of 40mph, you become very aware of your mortality."

He finished in 6067th place. "A long way behind the winner, but a victory of sorts nonetheless," he said.

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