When you wake up in Lourdes at 4:30 on a Sunday morning, chances are you’ll be looking for some sort of divine inspiration.
Last Sunday week, four Letterkenny cyclists were among the 13,000 who would leave nearby Pau to undertake the Etape du Tour, an annual excursion for amateurs to partake in a stage of the Tour de France.
This year’s was the 146km up and down the Col du Tourmalet, finishing atop the ski resort of Hautacam.
The Tourmalet is famous among cyclists as one of the Tour de France’s ‘hors catégorie’ –’exceptional’ or ‘unclassified’ – climbs. It has featured in Le Tour more frequently than any other mountain – 84 times in 101 years.
As Terence Gallagher, Garvan Mulligan, James Byrne and Stephen Fowley trained for France they’d imagined guzzling gallons of water whilst climbing the mountains with the tar gently bubbling beneath their wheels as the sun warmed their backs.
They would’ve pictured cycling the winding hairpins to the 2115m summit, which would provide a panoramic view of the Pyrenees landscaped by a blue sky.
“We got a weather warning on email, from the organisers Etape, saying there was a possibility of thunderstorms and very cold weather,” says Byrne, a native of Hawthorn Heights who works in Dublin as a marketing manager with PML Group.
“There’s only so much training you can do for something like that,” Mulligan, an operations manager with Gartan Technologies, from Carnamuggagh Upper, says.
“We’d done events like the Malin to Mizen, the Inishowen 100 and the Wicklow 200. Nothing, though, could prepare you for the Tourmalet.”
“It was a matter of spending as much time beforehand on the saddle as you could without getting sick of it,” says Gallagher, originally from Falcarragh, who now works as a project coordinator at Letterkenny Community Centre.
Together with friends Brendan Murphy from Meath and Kerry native Terry McDermott, at 5:15am a hired van was loaded for the 40km scoot from Lourdes to Pau.
As the sun began to rise, a nervous energy cut the morning air.
On the saddles. Off they went. The Bénéjacq and Loucrup passes of the first 75 kilometres were uncomplicated, mildly testing climbs.
The group, who’ve always possessed a competitive edge, dotted the route in their green An Post jerseys, content at their own pace to begin with.
When they pulled in briefly for the first food stop, it was, pardon cliché, the calm before the storm.
Two days later, it would be idyllic as they would stand as spectators wearing Donegal shirts and carrying a tricolour, even getting an acknowledgement from Nicolas Roche as he passed by on the Port de Balès on Stage 16 of Le Tour.
“It was just like a nice day in Ireland,” Fowley, a Dublin-based accountant with Kerry Group, from Cullion Road, says of the early stages. “But we could see we were cycling into the storm.”
“The weather was perfect at ground level,” Gallagher says. “It was when you hit the mountain it deteriorated.”
A lingering mist could be seen clinging to the Col de Tourmalet in the distance.
By the time the entourage entered Sainte Marie de Campan, thunder barked from the grey skies.
“The drizzle was horizontal,” Byrne says. “You couldn’t really see in front of you and I was talking to a fella from Cork who said at least with it being that way, we didn’t have to know what was ahead of us.”
On the 17.1k ascent, which, at a steady and slow grind took between 90 minutes and two hours, the temperature plunged from 22 Celsius to almost freezing point when the wind chill was factored in.
“The climb wasn’t overly difficult,” Mulligan adds. “It was just a matter of sticking at it at a pace that suited you. But it was getting really, really cold.”
The perception of such climbs is that the ascent is the hard part, whilst the descent is a chance to recuperate and get the wheels peddling to get the blood flowing again.
“Once you crossed the summit there was no shield from the wind,” Fowley adds. “When you’re planning something like that, everyone was talking about making a quick descent.
“But it was ridiculously hard, like cycling down a stream. We’d heard the problem was the heat and dehydration. For us, the potential problem was hypothermia.”
“On the descent, the wind starts to cut through you,” Gallagher adds. “I didn’t realise why the bike was shaking but it was because I was shaking. It was like the first stages of hypothermia.”
Some participants began to dismount. Ambulances with sirens and motorbikes whizzed around the hairpins.
“I couldn’t control the brakes,” Byrne says. “My teeth were clattering. It reminded me Slieve League in November. My sole focus was to stay on the bike.”
Conditions had deteriorated so badly, in Luz Saint-Sauveur, a village towards the western base of the Tourmalet, a small community centre was hastily opened.
Inside, shivering cyclists lay wrapped in silver blankets; hugging one another for heat. Tea and coffee were hurriedly dispatched by local volunteers.
“It was like a refugee camp,” Byrne recalls. “By then, time wasn’t a consideration. My priority there was to get dry as quickly as possible and to get back out there.”
“I was going to jack it,” Mulligan adds. “With no outer layer nor warm clothes, it was freezing. My bottom lip was blue.
“I sat and drank a cup of coffee. And then another. I was for heading home. And then I changed my mind.”
“It was like a scene from The Walking Dead,” Gallagher says. “People were in shock. They weren’t leaving.
“I was there for, say, 20 minutes. I got a cup of tea and the paramedics tried to stop me from going back out on the course.
“Once they turned their back I ran out the back door and was back on the bike. I was still cold. The last thing I wanted to do was get back on the bike. But I did.”
“I didn’t stop,” Fowley says. “We had driven a course beforehand and knew the temperature would be much higher the further down the mountain we went. I just wanted to get there.”
The valley between the Tourmalet and the Hautacam was like a different world with the sun belting.
Supporters, in their thousands, lined the road and created a carnival atmosphere that warmed the bones.
Along the roadside, Fowley, who was first through, saw Paddy and Libby Harte from Letterkenny, whose son Patrick, based in London, was also on the route.
“It was lovely,” Gallagher says. “You were dry, getting your momentum going and starting to enjoy it. The crowds made you feel like you were in the Tour De France.”
The final leg of the trip was the 13.6km ascent to Hautacam - considered by many as a more draining climb than the Tourmalet.
“I was shattered,” Fowley admits. “The Hautacam has every kilometre and gradient of the climb to the summit marked on the road. I just hoped it wasn’t be too severe.”
Gallagher, on the Hautacam, found himself side by side with a former teammate from Tír Chonaill Gaels in London, Frank Glynn, who told him Mulligan was behind.
“I hadn’t actually seen Frank in almost 20 years,” Gallagher says.
“I’d been in contact with him but had missed him at the start. So I eventually met him up the hill.
“Garvan passed me at one stage. I then overtook him. Then he passed me out again. Eight hours on the saddle and there was only three minutes between us at the end.”
From the 13,000 who started, only 8,452 finished. So Letterkenny’s five from five certainly bucked the overall trend.
Stephen Fowley was the one who headed back to Lourdes with the local bragging rights with a time of 7:02:58; Garvan Mulligan clocked 7:50:23, just ahead of Terence Gallagher with 7:53:53. James Byrne came home in 8:33:01, with Patrick Harte crossing the line in 8:39:07.
“I think I must’ve been in the pasta tent for an hour afterwards,” Fowley laughs.
There was no re-union at the summit of the Hautacam. Phone signals, like the temperature, had gone down again.
Gallagher set off on his bike again and cycled alone back to Lourdes. The rest waited for a lift.
“I just headed off and was first home,” he says. “I made it back maybe three hours before the lads as the traffic was mental. It was great to see everyone again when they came.”
“It was great to have achieved it,” Byrne says.
“It was hard, and that’s because of the weather,” Mulligan says. “ But I’m delighted we all managed it. We’ll blitz it next year!”