Some time this afternoon the Tour de France riders will arrive in the pretty village of Campan in the foothills of the Pyrenees. They will be bracing themselves. As the houses peter out, the road rears up through overhanging trees, and a collective metallic clicking will be audible as the men drop down into a smaller gear. Breathing will become heavier, expressions will darken, and all chatter will cease.
It's the start of the Col du Tourmalet, one of the classic Tour climbs, rising to more than 2,100 metres, the highest point on the Tour. When the Tourmalet was introduced to the race in 1910, it famously provoked one of the riders to vent his anger at officials as he passed them. "Assassins!" he shouted.
I've got a lot of sympathy for that chap. Last week I tackled the Tourmalet myself, and my bike was a lot better than his. I was one of 7,500 people taking part in the Étape du Tour, the amateurs' stage of the Tour de France, and this was where the real business kicked in. I'd already cycled 102 kilometres (64 miles) just to reach Campan, and been on the road for just under four hours. From here it was 17km(11 miles) to the top, with an average gradient of more than seven per cent. There were stretches of more than 10 per cent. It was hard. Unbelievably hard. And there was even harder to come. Having reached the top of the Tourmalet, we plunged down the other side before beginning the climb up the Hautacam to the finish. The Hautacam was 15km (9 miles) long and even steeper. In other words, it was agony, and it went on for ever. And did I mention that it was cold and wet and foggy?
The Étape is an extraordinary event. Now in its 16th year, it offers amateurs the chance to ride a mountain stage of the Tour, on closed roads with full organisational back-up. It has inspired hundreds of other similar events called "sportives", but the Étape's association with the greatest bike race in the world means that it is still the most prestigious.
An Étape distance is one thing – on this occasion totalling 169km (106 miles) – the climbing another. For an amateur, it's a massive undertaking, requiring months of training (years is preferable) and a readiness to push yourself to extremes of pain and suffering. "You must be mad" are words that Étape riders get used to hearing from friends and family. And who's to say the friends and family are wrong?
All of this has you wondering how on earth – drugs or no drugs – the pros cope with a succession of such challenges during a three-week race in which, bar a couple of rest days, they are cycling between 150km (94 miles) and 200km (125 miles) every day. I made sure I was well rested going in to the Étape, and it took me days to recover afterwards. There is no way I could have woken up the next morning and even thought about riding the stage again. By contrast, when the Tour riders set off this morning it will be their 10th successive day in the saddle. True, they have a day off tomorrow, but then it's back on to the bike, with another week and a half of cycling ahead of them (including three and a half days in the Alps), and only one more day off.
In some ways an Étape is comparable to running a marathon (which means the full Tour is like 21 of them in 23 days), but an important difference is that an Étape has a time limit.
If you want to shuffle round the marathon in six hours, you can (not that I'm saying even that is easy). Do the equivalent on the Étape and you'll be hauled out of the ride long before the end and put in the broom wagon. I know all about this. It happened to me on the Étape last year, and it's a crushing experience. This year it happened to 1,300 people, some 18 per cent of the field.
It's this added pressure which in part explains why nobody ever turns up for an Étape in fancy dress. But mainly it would be regarded as an affront to a tradition that demands respect.
The Tour is an institution from which the Étape derives its values. Underneath our pro-team replica kit we might just be office workers dreaming that we're David Millar, but that doesn't mean we're fun runners. Étape riders understand that it's only fun when you take it seriously.
This year's Étape began in Pau. I was relaxed after travelling out by train, and as a guest of Rapha, the leading cycle clothing company, I had good people around me. But the weather forecast was troubling. There were storms the night before the ride, and it was still drizzling as we all gathered for the off at 7am. We looked even more anxious than usual because wet roads are dangerous.
Nervous chatter ensued. I talked to Stéphane from Lorient in Brittany. He'd run marathons but this was his first Étape. He sucked on a tube of gel and told me he was hoping to do it in about nine hours. After last year, I was just hoping to get round.
The surge of adrenaline always causes people to hare off at the start, and we hurtled through the outskirts of Pau. Then things settled down on rolling roads, where the art of cycling lies in getting yourself tucked in to a nice big group and using others' energy to tow you along. This way I managed to cover the first 70km (44 miles) in 2 hours 25 minutes – pretty good going for me. That took me as far as Lourdes and the first feed station, where I filled up my bottles. Soon after, we turned off and were on a steady climb to Campan. It was the only hint of what was to come because you couldn't see the mountain. It was covered in cloud, and soon after Campan we had ridden up into it. Rain hung in the air, and silence descended on the peloton.
The ski station of La Mongie, about four kilometres from the top of the Tourmalet, was the next goal. There was a feed station there, and I wolfed down two ham and cheese sandwiches. On up higher and higher. Speed down to about 8kmh. We were now above the tree line, but there was nothing to see except the fog rolling in off the high pastures. It would have made a great location for a vampire movie.
Finally, I made it over the top, and what followed was the reward for all that effort – a 30km (19 miles) descent that was possibly the most exhilarating moment of my cycling life. But it was over all too soon and now the final challenge loomed.
The Hautacam was where Lance Armstrong destroyed his challengers on the way to his second Tour victory in 2000. He flew up the mountain – I crawled up it. It was unremitting, and by now a lot of people were walking. I'd done that myself on previous Étapes, but this time I was determined to stay on the bike.
Every kilometre a sign by the side of the road told you how far it was to the top. I lived for those signs. With two kilometres left, the gradient eased off slightly. The end was almost in sight.
I must have seemed in quite a bad way when I eventually made it over the line because as I stood there, slumped over the bars, a medic came up and asked if I was all right. "Non, non, c'est bien, merci," I said. And it really was fine. In fact it was great. I'd finished – in 9hr 32min.
Now I'm looking forward to seeing the pros do it in half that time today. But I bet it hurts them just as much as it hurt me.
How spinning sessions and 1600 miles of hard graft gets you to finish
It helps if you are already a commuter cyclist. In fact I would say that a year's worth of cycle commuting was essential before embarking on such a serious challenge.
Then, starting in January, cycle a minimum of 2,500km in training in the six months leading up to the Étape. This is what the organisers recommend just to stand a chance of finishing the event within the allotted time. That translates into regular commuter cycling (say 60km a week), plus a three-hour training ride every weekend (60km to 80km), gradually building up the distances and the difficulty of the terrain.
By the time of the Étape you need to have completed three training rides of 150km each, one of which should be seriously hilly. It helps if those long training rides can be tackled as part of an organised event such as a "sportive" or an "audax", in which you learn how to ride in big groups.
If you have the time and money, it's worth getting across to the Continent for a long weekend's riding on the kind of extended climbs (10km-plus) that cannot be found in the UK. But British hills still make good training.
Living in London, as I do, is no excuse not to be able to train for an Étape. In Highgate, within a couple of miles of my home, is a seriously steep hill. It's only about a kilometre long, so you have to go up and down it a few times in quick succession to feel the benefit. But it's good training, and I've lost count of the hours I've spent on it this year.
Even better is to head to the Chilterns, where I do most of my longer hilly rides. There are climbs there that are far steeper than anything on the Étape.
The gym should play a part. Spinning sessions provide intense training, and one a week will make a huge difference. Alternatively, invest in a turbo-trainer and cycle on the spot in the comfort of your own living room. Finally, team up with others. Training is fun but hard, and it's much harder on your own. Join a club.