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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 July, 2005, 06:50 GMT 07:50 UK
Rites of passage in the Pyrenees
By John Sinnott

BBC Sport's John Sinnott on his ride in the Pyrenees
Only another 110 miles to go...
Riding a stage of the Tour de France in the amateur race L'Etape du Tour through the Pyrenees last week, I made an unexpected new friend - pain.

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 Col d'Aubisque is 11 miles long with an average gradient of 7.16%.

Spiralling to within touching distance of the gods, it's beautiful, but beast is also a word that springs to mind.

Riding the first few miles of the Col d'Aubisque was bearable - a good road surface with plenty of shade. I was averaging about 10mph.

Then the road got worse, the shade diminished allowing the sun to beat down mercilessly, and the gradient steepened as the corkscrew twists became sharper and sharper.

I tried everything to manage the pain. Changed gears, stood up, sat down, crouched lower, held the handlebars in different positions.

I talked to myself, thought of my wife and three children - but nothing worked as the pain ratcheted up a few more notches.

Four miles from the top of the summit, plenty of riders had stopped to pause for breath in two tunnels protecting the road from landslides.

By this point my speed had slowed to about 4mph. Gasping for breath, my legs were struggling even in the lowest gear.

I'd never got off a bike before, but at that moment I was desperate to dismount.

The one thing that kept me going was the thought that if I got off I was convinced I would never get back on it.

So I stood up, moved up a couple of gears and redoubled my efforts. I was soon back in the lowest gear, but I was still pedalling, still moving.

The Col D'Aubisque is the third of four cols on stage 16 of the Tour

At times I was going so slowly my computer stopped registering my speed, though by now at least I could see the summit.

The relief I felt when I finally reached the top after an hour of climbing was indescribable.

All the training I had done over the last three months finally fell into place, finally seemed worthwhile.

The Tour de France itself follows the 110-mile stage from Mourenx to Pau on Tuesday 19 July. It could be the last chance for Lance Armstrong's rivals to snatch the yellow jersey from the American.

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.

A symphony with its very own audience as thousands of spectators lining the route shouted encouragement - "allez", "courage" - with some kindly souls cooling the riders with their garden hose pipes.

Out of the nearly 8,000 riders that took part, an astonishing 2,000 are British. Why do they do it?

It's a question I'm still asking myself.

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.

It took me just under nine hours to finish - Armstrong and the Tour de France peloton are likely to complete the course in about four.

That's the huge gap between an amateur and a professional.

After the way I felt when I had finished the race, I couldn't imagine reducing that deficit even if I trained for seven hours a day.

After I crossed the finish line, I phoned my wife to tell her I had finished in one piece.

As she relayed the news to my six-year-old son, I could hear him questioning his mother: "Did Dad win?"

I laughed out loud as I put the phone down. I finished in 6067th place. A long way behind the winner, but a victory of sorts nonetheless.




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