My 2001 Lonely planet guide to cycling in France has been a constant thing of wonder to me since it came in to my life some 11 years ago. In those 11 years I have, mainly, cycled the routes described in the earlier sections of the book; those being circuits of Normandy and Brittany. On those dark winter days I occasionally look to the back of the book and examine the gradient profiles of the seemingly un-rideable alpine and Pyrenean Mountain routes and wonder about the kind of effort required to ascend such heights. Normally I replace the book on the shelf, pour another whiskey and think no more of it.
Since first declaring interest in the club-organised trip to the Pyrenees I have repetitively headed straight for the back pages of the book to remind myself of what the trip would entail. The answer to that question is: a monumental physical and mental effort. Such a trip should not be undertaken without thinking otherwise, at least not if this is to be your first ride up the iconic mountains of southern France and therefore the preparation is key to not only surviving the week long effort but in going beyond survival and having a good time of it too; after all the other group members would be experienced and expecting me to be sufficiently good enough to keep up with them.
After a fairly horrid British winter that left me (at least physically) almost back at where I started in January 2012, it became evident that there was a lot of work to be done to get in shape and not just with the following August in mind. I bought a turbo trainer to counteract the inability to get out during the week and built up some endurance and strength that way. As boring as turbo training seemed at the time, the benefits were apparent. Training started in earnest in April however and I had a schedule of 1 club ride and 1 mid week ride to start with, leading up to doing a Saturday and a Sunday club ride for most weekends in July in combination with a smorgasbord of midweek rides. The latter consisting of a 50Km with hills and an easy ride on Monday night to ease out the legs and build endurance. As the months rolled on I found myself going from about 600-700Km a month to almost a 1000 -1200km a month
Hitting the Hills
But distance was not the only concern I had and so during the late spring I headed for Britain’s best hill climbs, some of which can be found in Cumbria and North Yorkshire. What they lack in length and overall height, they make up in steepness and in-consistent gradient. Tan Hill is a favourite of mine, largely because I held it in awe for so long. Climb by bike, a useful hill climber’s guide, states that the average grade over 6Km is 3.2% with sections of 25%. Big by British standards, but perhaps, not big or long enough. It felt tough at the time though.
To get an appreciation of bigger climbs which require a consistent effort over an hour or so I signed up for the Club’s trip to Lucca – you can read about it on the VCGH website and it was there, In Lucca, where I found a confidence on long climbs whilst gaining experience of consecutive and multiple day riding expeditions. It’s a very different experience to riding the short sharp hills of Britain, requiring different technique or so I found. The Pizzorne is a climb of almost 870m over 13Km and was a real challenge. My time to the top was about 1Hr. I had controlled heart rate well and left something in the tank for the following day. This regime, as it turns out, worked very well for multiple day rides.
On my return home from Lucca, no climb in Surrey or indeed Britain seemed the same. I had found form and a renewed confidence. Only one last mental barrier to get over and this was the 100mile mark. I completed the Epic Mega Meon sportive on the 28th July 2013 with one month left to the Pyrenean trip.
To The Pyrenees
A gloomy morning in Gatwick airport’s South Terminal did not make for a promising start to such an epic adventure. Less so the prospect of an early morning easy jet flight to Biarritz. But the sky brightened as we left la Manche behind and flew smoothly to the south west corner of France. I hadn’t slept well due to the asthma inducing humidity of West Sussex and so was apprehensive of being dropped by the first corner on what should have been an amble out to the beach and then further on to the first night’s hotel. The milder climate of France however improved my breathing and I had no such problems until strangely returning home a week later.
Do you remember your first Col?
The following days looked long and hard, at least on paper. Pointy masses of ink on the day plan print outs suggested a toil ahead. Day 2 was a 140Km ride with three minor cols totalling about 2000m of climbing. I don’t recall how first Col looked or its name (later discovered to be the trifling St Ignace). Like a pre-programmed automaton and dropping into a steady cadence and pushed about 80% max heart rate - the technique I had first experimented with in Italy – deployed as it would be time and time again on this trip. The second opportunity being the less trifling Col de Pinodieta. Bigger, much, much bigger climbs were to come however, but surviving Day 1 proper was a relief. Now I could enjoy the rest.
Tourmalet et al.
I loved the routine of getting up out of bed early, dressing for a bicycle ride, dropping off the bag you packed the evening before at the van, eating sufficiently and then making my way to the start line. Watching everyone lovingly ensure that their tyres were at the right pressure, their chains lubricated and that all minor adjustments to saddles and bars had been made prior to the off added to the ambience. The buzz and excitement of the (lucky) 13 riders prior to something like a climb up the Tourmalet was extraordinary; absolutely everyone was looking forward to the 35Km, 1600m climb to the top of what is, one of the most iconic Tour de France mountain passes which has been used since the inception of the race some 100yrs ago. After several hard days in the saddle it’s a testament to the enjoyment of such an expedition that everyone was smiling and laughing. Would it be the same vibe at the top I wondered?
It’s a long way up the Tourmalet for sure. The lower slopes offered an opportunity to make progress relatively quickly but the cold steel grey torrent of a river by our side heralded a warning that the terrain was about change. In June 2013, the road on the western side of the Col had been washed away in several places. The morning’s gloomy flat light and dark heavy skies weren’t promising for cycling; the threat of heavy rain, the washed away buildings and remnants of people’s lives at the newly built roadside added to a dark ambience, like cycling through a war zone. In this guise, the Tourmalet was not how I had imagined. On one particular turn in the road, the local gendarmerie passed by in their downmarket pope-mobile and with the side door open, an officer shouted something which I can only imagine was in admiration of the group’s strong riding ability.
There came a point when the grey steeliness of the inhabited valley road gave way to open fields and mountain views. This is where I had a cycling epiphany, “this is what it’s all about” I thought, the majesty of the monumental climb. It took about two hours to get to the top, neither particularly quick nor particularly shoddy; I did pass people along the way however and in one rather rash moment near the very top, engaged the big ring and stood up on the pedals to pass by some Dutch riders, the excitement of the finish had overtaken me. Then, as I struggled up the last 200 steep metres in an altogether smaller gear, I saw the statue of the man atop his bike, the summit, the cafe! But more importantly the rest of the group were there and the sense of achievement followed.
I’d like to say that only a descent of the Tourmalet remained between me and a well deserved rest, but the Queen stage was not yet finished with us. Two more cols would make sure that there was absolutely no doubt that this was the Queen stage. Over 3000m of climbing including the torturous Peyresourde, coming at the end of what was the most pivotal day of cycling in my life so far. The 13Km of the Col D’Aspin passed by in a blur (59 minutes actually!) and rated no worse than an inconvenience. The Peyresourde, however, with its 7.8Km section of an average incline of 8.4%, pulled at my aching legs and shoulders in a bid to remind me that cycling in Pyrenees is tough – it was tough. Grinding sections out in the lowest gear possible, moving only one or two cogs up (and then inevitably back down) on the 11-28 cassette over the entire climb. The faces around me grimaced with every metre upwards, victory in every turn of the pedal; we would sit down for a while then stand up on the pedals for short periods to get comfortable, to be in a different position for a minute. 2Km to the summit and still grinding away – so close. What seemed like more than a kilometre later, as it always does, the last kilometre marker came into view. Tired, hot and now collectively dreaming of an ice-cold Coca-Cola at the top, the Queen stage looked to be conquered and with one last effort it would be. Coca-Cola never tasted so good. We rolled, if not glided to the hotel. There would be a few more climbs to come over the next two days, but nothing was to be feared now. I went to bed that night with still aching legs and still in some disbelief at the day’s events. I slept well and in the knowledge that the Tourmalet, the feared giant I had read about so often in the lonely planet guide was now “in the bag”.