We have never been so far... “The Assassins stage”

We have never been so far...

“The Assassins stage”



Credit : Dom Daher

May 1910

Two months before the start of the 8thedition of the Tour de France, Alphonse Steines drove his car to the foot of the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees.

He was a journalist at L'Auto and was responsible for planning the route for the Tour de France. For quite some time, he’d had just one idea in mind: he wanted to find out if it was possible for the riders in the next edition to enter the Pyrenees for the first time. No one had ever dared to try this before.

Four kilometres from the summit, the snow forced him to continue on foot. He wanted to reach the top of the pass before nightfall. On his way back, a thick fog settled as night fell, significantly reducing visibility along the path. He fumbled a few meters to find his way before finally slipping into a ravine.

Groggy but certain that he would be found, he was finally rescued at 3 o'clock in the morning. The next day he quickly sent a telegram to Henry Desgrange, director of the Tour: “Tourmalet Pass. Stop. Very good road. Stop. Perfectly passable. Stop. Signed Steines”
Two months later, on 21 July, 1910 at precisely 3.30am, the 10th stage of this edition of the Tour de France got underway from rue d'Etigny, in Bagneres de Luchon. It was a difficult stage of 326 km with 59 riders still expected to be in the running. With no less than five mountain passes to negotiate on the first part of the course and more than 170 km of plains, punctuated by a small basque pass before reaching the finish in Bayonne, this stage was scary.
It was on the slopes of Aubisque, the last great pass of the Pyrenees, when Octave Lapize, exhausted but still aware of the journey ahead, screamed the words that would later be part of the legend of the Tour as he passed the organiser's car: “You are assassins. Yes, assassins!”. “The assassins stage” 


Taming the darkness

Credit : Dom Daher

Wednesday, 20 June, 2018 - 3:30 am - Bagnères de Luchon - 0 KM.

The small spa town at the foot of the Pyrenees is still in a deep sleep. Like the riders of 1910, I agree to cycle to the gangway at Etigny for the start. The clatter of my freewheel echoes in the silence of the night. The air is still fresh when I set off on this long day. 108 years ago, there were 59 riders starting this stage of the Tour de France which would become legendary. Today I am alone. I have never had the opportunity to ride in the Pyrenees; this baptism promises to be memorable!

I take my first pedal strokes around 4 am. It is still cool, there is no wind, it's nice because I know it will be a hot day. I leave the city quickly, the lampposts move away, and I quickly arrive at the foot of the first pass, the Peyresourde. There is no one about, no cars, no noise. Just me and my bike.

I think about all those riders who have attacked this journey with their heavy steel fixed sprocket bikes, as I ride on the new generation Xelius SL. A bike weighing just 6.8 kg, with electronic transmission and ultra-powerful lighting.

While the Pyrenees are a first for me, riding at night is another. While the first gradients were hard, I discover new sensations. I hear my breathing which sets the rhythm of my pedal stroke, the sound of my transmission, the bells of herds that I guess are in the meadows bordering my route. My senses are aroused and the bike becomes a pretext for discovering an environment cradled by the darkness. The sky is clear and the stars are shining.

I mentally divided the course into two parts: the mountain passes stage up to the Col de l'Aubisque, and the plain stage with its valleys down to Bayonne. While the night does not yet allow me to enjoy the landscapes that lie ahead, I am eager to discover them, but I dread the second part in the plain, which I already imagine to be hot and monotonous. I know the day will be long and hard, but it will be beautiful.

After an hour in the saddle, I'm already at the top of Peyresourde. It is still dark and I decide to make a stop at this symbolic milestone indicating the summit at 1563 meters above sea level. I don a windbreaker and plunge myself back into the darkness of the descent.


The majesty of the peaks

Credit : Dom Daher

Col d'Aspin - 49th km/2hrs 27mins of rolling / 1730 m positive cumulative elevation gain

After a careful descent, I see the first light of the day on the outskirts of the Col d'Aspin. As I climb again, the dawn reveals little by little the magnificent landscapes that will serve as scenery for the day. The mountain timidly delivers its treasures as the summit approaches. I want to take advantage of the moment when the sun resumes its rights, above the snow-capped peaks.

After 2 hrs 30 minutes of rolling I reached the col d’Aspin. I stop, I want to enjoy it. The sun is finally rising, the spectacle is magnificent... I am on first name terms with the peaks. The snow covered Pic du Midi whose clouds are very often the custodians, is visible in the distance, while I marvel at the panoramic view.


Credit : Dom Daher

Tourmalet - 79thkm / 4hs 05 mins of rolling / 3000 m positive cumulative elevation gain

If there is one pass which is more symbolic than the others, it is the Tourmalet. I know that it is here that I will really feel the impact of the assassins stage. How many times have I seen Octave Lapize's iconic statue on TV? How many cyclists proud of having faced her will she have seen pass at her feet? It will only be one stage but I am eager to do battle.

The foot of the pass is quite merciful. It's still early and I do not come across many people. The gradients are increasing rapidly. I know it's one of the hardest passes of the day, and I manage my exertion. After more than 10 km of ascent, I arrive at La Mongie and I appreciate the difficulty that the riders of that time must have experienced. Although the flocks of sheep are at their most content, the altitude is becoming more apparent, snowdrifts line the roads and the slopes are now around 9%.

Despite the fact that I was in my bubble up to that point, the moment of arrival was quite folkloric: herds of llamas accompany me on the last few meters, with a horde of Dutch people on the other side on a pilgrimage by bike or on foot. This ultimately gives a rather pleasant Tour de France atmosphere.

Rocked by the festive spirit, I decided to stop at the bar/restaurant of the pass for a sweet drink. To my great surprise, I discovered a mini museum inside. It's a journey back in time which brings it all back to me, with old posters, photos and especially vintage bicycles hanging on the walls. I imagine myself for a brief moment on these ancient frames, traversing unpaved roads...


Credit : Dom Daher

Cols du Soulor and Aubisque - 146thkm /6 hrs 42 mins of rolling/ 4380 m positive cumulative elevation gain

The emotion of Tourmalet passed, I go back to the thread of my adventure. The heat is more prevalent and fatigue begins to set in. A routine is established. I go back down into the valley, the vegetation is very thick, before becoming less dense until almost disappearing completely at the foot of the 4thpass of the day: the Soulor.

The pass is long but the gradients are less pronounced. I recorded my arrival at the top, but decided not to stay too long. The distance to the next summit (Col d'Aubisque) is only 7 km, and I should be able to get there in 30 minutes. I decided to stop at the chalet for supplies before diving into the valley.

I know that I just finished my “first stage” of the passes. The second stage of the adventure begins across large rolling plains to Bayonne.


The plain, between heat and fatigue

Credit : Dom Daher

Laruns - 164thkm /7 hrs 06 mins rolling/4380 m positive cumulative elevation gain

Laruns is at the bottom of the descent of the Col de l'Aubisque, but it is also the starting point of the second part of the course... It's the beginning of the afternoon and the heat is intense when I arrive at the small square in the village.

This is the part I ultimately feared most... long winding roads, sweltering heat (the meter reads 34 ° C), small bumps that accumulate and break the rhythm. It becomes progressively monotonous, before giving way to a battle with myself. I raise, get up on my bicycle often, I also want to keep tabs on the pace in order to forget the pain.

Time goes by, the road and its straight lines through the fields are less interesting than the peaks I covered a few hours ago. I also come across more traffic, and more cars. I am less lucid due to fatigue, and I appreciate the security offered by the GPS and Garmin Varia warning radar.


Credit : Dom Daher

Col d'Osquich - 205th km/9 hrs 58 mins rolling/5023 m positive cumulative elevation gain

The Col d'Osquich is the last known challenge, but at 70 km from the end of the journey, I feel that the forces are leaving me gradually. I stop again to stretch, take on some water supplies and eat a little. The heat and the hours in the saddle are slowly doing their job of sapping my energy. I splash water on my face, neck and legs often. The latter become heavy and I think back to the first moments of the journey, the morning freshness, the excitement... I feel that it is already so far away. Every little bump becomes difficult, I grimace a lot; these small climbs which are quite easy when you are feeling strong, become small passes which I have no other choice but to climb: I must grind on!


Bayonne... deliverance

Credit : Dom Daher

Bayonne - 318thkm/12 hrs 12 mins racing / 5800 m positive cumulative elevation gain

The end of the day and my journey are approaching. The signs follow each other now, indicating the direction of Bayonne. I am now feeling that I will win my bet and my morale is also on the rise.

I unleash my last reserves of strength in this adventure, I am galvanised by the thought of the end which is so close. I feel a special trance-like state gradually overcome me, the one where you know you have pushed yourself to the limit, after you have completed a difficult challenge. The pain is forgotten, my strength returns and I feel as though carried along.

I follow the left bank of the Adour until I enter Bayonne. I pass the rectangular sign with a red border which will be my finish line for the day, I stare at it, and cannot resist touching it.

More than 12 hours of effort, nearly 320 km and not far off 6000 m positive cumulative elevation gain on the counter... I have no words to describe what I feel, but a thought for these men who, in 1910, were the first heroes of cycling.


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