This is a true story and given the 2021 Tokyo Olympics are currently taking place it seems timely to tell it. It's not one of my finest moments, in fact, I am deeply ashamed of my arrogance.
The year is 2008 and the Beijing Olympics were taking place that summer. Britain had a very strong cycle team with high medal hopes, but more of that later.
The story starts with my belief that there is a sport for everybody, whatever height or build they are. I’m small and light so even at school I had realized rugby and basketball were not for me. Instead, I ran, mainly to avoid being caught by the larger kids that wanted to hit me. From there I drifted into football, first 5-a-side then local league games. However, I always loved cycling as a great way to keep fit and get out and see the country. By my mid 30’s the football clashed too much with family life and had to be reluctantly dropped. I filled the void by cycling more and entering local duathlons. Over time the cycling became a way of life and something I loved doing. As a result, I joined a local cycle club and I must confess that I had started to dream that maybe there was a sport for me after all.
Yes, “cycling uphill” that’s what I was clearly built for. I would excel at this! I would soar like an eagle.
Whilst I did take my bike on my family holidays, I felt a strong urge to test myself on the big mountains of the Tour de France. But how? With a wife and kids, this was not going to be easy. This needed a plan and a cunning plan at that!
Stage 1. Bait the hook. This took the form of talking to my wife (several times in a subtle way, as only men can) about how lovely it would be for the kids to have a perfect English summer holiday at the seaside with her, whilst I toiled relentlessly earning money.
Stage 2. The wife takes the bait and plans to go on holiday with her sister and niece. They choose Whitby! Their choice, nothing to do with me!
Stage 3. My years of being messy come into play. The wife realizes the house will be wrecked on her return and to avoid this, it will be best if I’m not there. I reluctantly agree.
Stage 4. I quickly book flights to Carcassonne, France.
Stage 5. Buy a map of the Pyrenees, open a bottle of wine, and bask (sorry for the pun) in my own cleverness whilst working out which Cols I would conquer.
Day 1: First thing in the morning I flew to Carcassonne and I am met by Steve, the host of the guest house in Galan. This makes it a good base if you want to cycle the Col du Tourmalet or the Col d’Aspin.
Once there they made me lunch and I unpacked my pride and joy from the Bike Box. I had time for a ride in the afternoon. Woo! I was instantly in love with the place. I had been expecting dry sun-scorched fields and instead I had super smooth empty roads going through green undulating farmland. Absolutely stunning. What can I say? I was in love.
Day 2: Time for some climbing. The route would take me up my first big col. From Galan, I would skirt Lannemezan, follow scenic roads past the Roman ruins at St Bertrand de-Comminges, then climb over the Col des Ares and onto the base of the eastern side of the Col de Mente. Once over the top, I would descend into St Beat before retracing my way home.
Well, the day started ok, clear blue skies, and off I went. I must say I had a smile a foot wide as I cycled through some of the most wonderful countrysides I have ever seen. The Col des Ares was easy. A pleasant café stop under a tree at the summit and onwards. At the base of the Col de Mente, I briefly thought about cycling onto the Col de Portet d’Aspet to see the monument to Fabio Castartelli but decided I would save that for another day. It was high noon now, 30C. For the next 1hr, I got my first taste of climbing in the Pyrenees. The road was devoid of either cars or cyclists as I worked my way up the successive hairpins which make up the 750m climb. Once at the top, I was treated to the most miserable café in France that seemed to delight in not selling water in anything like the quantity I needed. Now to another confession — whilst I dream of soaring like an eagle my descending is less elegant. The descent of the Col de Mente scared me. I stopped to take photos on the bend where Ocana lost control, but that was just an excuse to rest my hands from working my brakes. Once in St Beat, I was a tired man and it was one of the longest journeys of my life back to Galan. My total time in the saddle was 9 hours, 2000m of ascent, and about 150km. I can honestly say I have rarely been that worn out. Coupled with this was the fear that I would be too tired to ride again over the next few days. How stupid had I been to try so much!
Day 3: I woke surprisingly refreshed but decided that I would rest in the morning as the Beijing Olympics was on and the British track stars were winning everything. Now I was not alone at the guest house. A couple and their two children were staying. As a keen people watcher, they had amused me. The wife was tall and very sporty and kept dragging her eldest son on a ride. The husband heavier-built preferred the deck chairs by the pool but still went running every day. They had already stayed a week and undertaken a local sportive up Port de Bales and undertaken a timed ride up the Tourmalet with the owner of the Guest House, Steve, who was also a cycling coach. They loved the Olympics as well so who better to share my knowledge and witty comments with. I spent much of the day enlightening them on the finer details of the Olympic cycling events.
Day 4: This was my big test. I had arranged to do the Tourmalet challenge with Steve. We put the bikes on the roof of his LandRover and drove to Ste Marie de Campan. It was during this car journey I had a humbling experience. Steve asked me what time I expected to do. I replied that I thought he would tell me this and indeed he said he did have a pretty good idea of my capability (from size, body fat, etc and probably the way I had crawled into the guest house on return from the Col de Mente). I knew that the fastest club cyclists that stay with him and do the Tourmalet challenge in 1hr 1min. “Heavy bloke” by the pool had achieved 1hr 21min and “Sporty woman” had done 1hr 28min. Not that I’m competitive, but I had my eye on sub 1hr 21min. Now for the shock! Steve calmly mentions that “Heavy bloke” by the pool competed in 4 Olympic Games and “Sporty woman” had done one as well. “Heavy bloke” was in fact one Richard Stanhope who rowed in the 1980 Moscow Olympics (Rowing Eights — Silver Medal), 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (Rowing Lightweight Pairs), 1988 Seoul Olympics (Rowing Eights), and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (Rowing Fours). He had also done 8 World Championships. No wonder he needed the chair by the pool! “Sporty Woman” was Rachel Stanhope (nee Hirst) who had competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (Rowing Eights).
Never ever have I felt so stupid! How could they sit there and watch the Beijing Olympics and not say anything whilst listening to a fool(that’s me!) chatter on as if he knew something? If it was me, I would have been on the sofa with the medal (newly polished) around my neck for all to see and admire. What else do you do with them! Richard and Rachel if you ever read this, SORRY.
Once at Ste Marie de Campan we assembled the bike, started the stopwatch, and off we went. The climb was long but not too bad — by now I had learned that 6% is easy, 8% starts to get tough and above 10% it hurts. Steve rides along beside you coaching you along. He is a good rider. I don’t know how many times a year he goes up the Tourmalet but he must know it like the back of his hand. My one pleasure on the holiday so far was that no cyclist had passed me on a climb– that ended 200m from the top of the Tourmalet. A young rider cruised past me and Steve ended up sprinting with him to the summit. I made an attempt to change gear but there was nothing left. My time was 1hr 25min for the 1260m of climbing.
My time would be added to the list of times in Steve’s garage which resembles a less famous list of names than Top Gear's “Star in a reasonably priced car”. I want “mildly moist” by my time as the conditions had been overcast and damp for most of the ascent.
I do not soar like an eagle and you should never judge men on sun loungers.