21 July 2019

Le Tour-One Day Ahead blog: Tough climbs in the Pyrenees

July 22, 2015

It’s the day I’ve been looking forward to for ages-the second rest day of the Le Tour One Day Ahead challenge for Cure Leukaemia. Since my last blog a week ago I’ve cycled 824 miles in about 54 hours and climbed 58662 feet- no wonder I’m ready to put my feet up!


The last week has been immense-not only did we take on the first mountain stages of Le Tour but we also had a well-known Texan cyclist pay us a visit!

I was looking forward to my first day in the Pyrenees as I usually love mountain climbing. However, I got a shock when we reached the first mountain stage finish at the Hors Category Col du Soudet, making its debut appearance in the Tour de France. I didn’t have as many gears as I usually use in the mountains and felt like I was grinding all the way up the 15.km climb.

I just couldn’t get into my normal rhythm and contemplated getting off the bike a few times.

However that morning we had seen a video message from Leukaemia patients at the Clinical Centre for Excellence at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and I knew that the pain they had been through and in many cases are still going through, was much worse than what I was feeling and so kept on grinding to the summit, where my frustration took over and I broke down in tears. That evening the team’s mechanics realised that if I was to survive the rest of the Pyrenees then I would need some extra gears and so much to my relief changed the gearing.


The next morning there was a sense of trepidation on the team bus as we would be climbing the infamous cols of the Apsin and the Tourmalet. After my struggle up the Soudet I was really hoping that the extra gears would make a difference. We reached the Category 1 Col de Aspin in the afternoon and much to my relief the new gearing meant that I was able to comfortably reach the summit.

The second major climb of the day was the Hors Category Tourmalet- at 17.1 km at a gradient of 7.3% it is a legendry mountain of the Tour de France. Lots of the Cols have kilometre markers which count down how far you have left until the summit. I focussed on reaching the various landmarks of the climb, including snow protection tunnels, hotels and shops whilst counting down the kilometre markers. As we rode into the finish at Cauterets we had climbed six categorised climbs!

On the final day in the Pyrenees we were due to climb three Cols and have our second mountain summit finish. However, after climbing the Porte de Aspet and the Col de la Core we were informed that the Port de Lers was closed due to someone sprinkling tacks on the descent and therefore we wouldn’t be able to do the climb. I was absolutely shattered at this stage and when given the option of going up an alternative col or heading straight to the final col I took the latter option and joined the others in the team who had ridden the alternative col at the foot of the Plateau de Beille.

This was without doubt my favourite climb so far.

Almost the entire route of the 15.8km climb was lined with spectators from all over the world encouraging us to keep going and many recognised us as being part of the ‘Geoff Thomas Challenge’.

There was an incredible party atmosphere with music and pop-up bars along the climb. I reached the top just after 8pm to be greeted by my local BBC News presenter and even had enough breath left to do an interview! It had been an incredibly long day but we were all excited and slightly anxious about what the following day and our guest arrival would bring.

At breakfast that morning the team were introduced to our guest cyclist for the next two days-Lance Armstrong.  Most of us, including myself, had met him before at our training camp in Aspen and it was good to see him again. As we arrived at the stage start we were met by a melee of press and fans. It was actually quite scary rolling out on the bikes as the press were cycling all around us.

I was worried about what speed Lance would set but he was very kind and set a reasonable pace out of Muret to our lunch stop where once again we were met with the world’s media. I found the afternoon harder as there were three categorised climbs and I lost touch with the rest of the team on the final descent of the day. One of my team mates, Ciaran Doran very kindly held back with me and we rode together into the town of Rodez, where there was a final kick of a 400meter rise at a 9.6% gradient.


The following day started again with a press entourage for company and an immediate Category 4 climb of the Cote de Ponte de Salars and the Col de Vernhette. We were joined by the women’s team Donnons des Elle who are also cycling the whole of the TdF route to raise the profile of women’s cycling and advocate for a women’s Tour de France. This was one of my favourite moments of the Tour so far as it was a real honour to cycle with them and share experiences of and visions for women’s cycling.

Another highlight of the day was in the afternoon where a young boy in an Astana team jersey joined our peloton and was welcomed at the front by Lance where he gave his all to stay with our group. Lance pretended to be really blowing hard and struggling to stay with the boy and it was such a cute moment. It seems that most stages this year have a nasty end and today’s finish was up a 3 kilometre lung busting climb at an average of 10%! After battling through the press to get onto the team bus we said our goodbyes to Lance who gave a moving farewell speech and wished us luck for the rest of the challenge.

Of course Lance is a controversial figure but his presence on Le Tour undoubtedly raised the profile of our challenge with media reports being broadcast worldwide.

This attention has translated into more money for the charity Cure Leukaemia, which is what is important. At the end of the day this challenge isn’t about cycling it’s about raising money to fund research nurses and clinical trials. Some of the patients we met at the Centre for Clinical Excellence knew very little about Lance Armstrong but what they did know was that more money was needed to fund the pioneering work of the Centre. I was actually surprised at the positive response Lance received along the route with the vast majority of people cheering and applauding him as we passed.


After the excitement of the last two days, stages 15 and 16 were more peaceful and almost mirror images of each other in terms of their profile. Stage 15 through the Rhone Valley had two large descents whilst stage 16 was a day of long and steady climbing into Gap, the gateway into the Alps. The final descent of the day was down the Col de Mense, where in 2003 Lance Armstrong has to cut across a field after Joseba Beloki came off and Armstrong was forced off the road! Luckily I managed to stay upright all the way down the descent into Gap and am enjoying my rest day, before tackling four brutal days of climbing in the Alps.

We have just five stages to go until Paris and I’m not ashamed to say that I can’t wait. I have found the Tour gruelling, especially after getting 10 stitches in the second stage.  There are at least a couple of times each day where I just want to give up but I am determined to keep pedalling until the Champs Elysees as I know that the longer I keep going the more money I can raise.

Click here for Helen’s Just Giving Page

Read Helen’s previous posts here:

Le Tour-One Day Ahead blog: Nine days in

Le Tour-One Day Ahead blog: Nerves set in

Le Tour-One Day Ahead blog: Riding with Lance

Le Tour-One Day Ahead blog: What the hell am I doing?


Helen is a Great Britain age group triathlete. She is a former age group World and European Duathlon champion and European Triathlon champion. You can follow Helen’s progress at @helengoth and in her series of blogs for Sportsister.

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