My body is so wet, I’m starting to worry it will dry out completely. As I stare at the sign that slowly dissolves through the mist, it’s not what I want to see when I am on my limit. Yet another kilometre of climbing at 8.5%. The humidity below the low cloud line is taking its toll on me, but more than that, my back is literally screaming at me to stop, straighten up and just rest. If only for a minute. I can’t though for two reasons. I need to learn to ride through these moments, and I need to hold the pace that is being set, albeit rather leisurely by the Colonel, as he leads one of his troops up the side of the Tourmalet.
When we drove off the ferry into the cold and quiet morning of Dieppe at 5.00am on Wednesday morning, the mini entourage of Graham, Julie, Martin, Archie, Stuart, Nick, Andrew and myself set-off on our very own sort of pilgrimage to the Pyrenees. It was a trip that in its own way had been down played a little, hidden in the shadow of the Dragon for what felt like an eternity. Now though, as we contemplated the 600 mile journey south to the Pyrenees it wasn’t the sacred Sanctuarary of Our Lady of the Lourdes that we sought healing from, but the mountain 10 miles south known simply as the Tourmalet. I’ll get to the point. It’s hard to explain why you ride a bicycle up a mountain, almost as hard to explain as it is to do it. It’s not that I don’t know why I do it, because I know exactly why I do. I just can’t explain it to you unless it’s something that you also do yourself. Fortunately, I seem to know plenty of people that do, and this is what we got up to when we do.
Twelve hours later, as we pulled up at the house it was clear that the only real incident throughout the whole journey was slamming the brakes on in the Range Rover to avoid running over Archie’s sunglasses that were now bouncing across the road in front of us. A long story, but needless to say he recovered them as quickly as he cycles.
As reward for our crisp fueled journey we decided to find the finest restaurant in town. But we failed. So instead, we ordered a Spaghetti Bolognese from one of those places where the woman who serves you only notices you are there because she can’t wait for you to leave. Our Bolognese literally arrived within two minutes of it being ordered and it was as small as it was tasteless. Overall, it was a pretty swift and uninspiring experience – bar the company of course.
Fortunately though, on the way back to the house we opted to investigate the village and stumbled across a 21st June music festival just as we had in Provence two years before. You could be forgiven for thinking that this festival wasn’t up to much as the English band, with an average age of 67, rolled through some classics from pretty much every decade they had lived in. But it was great. It was silly, it was fun, it was harmless and it was very relaxing and a wholesome reminder that we were in another country, surrounded by nothing but locals and they were all having a great time.
The plan is as always to break ourselves into the area, to keep the legs fresh for the main challenge, and to be bicycle tourists for the day exploring a new and hopefully beautiful area. Looking back, this Day One was one of the most enjoyable bike rides I have ever undertaken. Within about a mile of leaving our house in the sweet and very personable village of Luz St Saviour we found ourselves rolling along some beautiful smooth jet black tarmac roads lined by trees, stone walls and a bubbling mountain river. If ever there was a more serene riding experience I would be surprised or perhaps in Yosemite. It was one of those roads where as it started to sneak up the gradient scale, it still looked smooth, sometimes tricking the mind into thinking it was flatter than it was. The Pyrenees were giving us a little nudge to let us know they were there, and I think quietly we all started to realise these next four days might well produce some beautiful scenery, but they sure are also going to make you work for it.
First coffee stop was in Gedre, and despite the cocky Irish guy who repeatedly asked the same question of each of us – only to promptly ignore the answer anway, it was the perfect mid morning stop off for a cafe-au-lait and coke. From there we plotted our way to the top of the Cirque de Gavarnie, which I must confess proved to be a much tougher introductory ride than I ever imagined. Cycling wise it was the perfect climb with a mixture of hair-pin bends, long straights with steady 7% gradients, coupled with random unexpected bends that forever left you guessing where the top of the mountain was. The roads were so hot the tarmac was literally melting in places and it was no coincidence that the only traffic we saw on this journey were the various sheep that inhabited the verges and often the road itself.
I can’t remember how long it took me, and I know that I stopped once to take a drink and stretch out my aching back, and I know that riding buddy for the afternoon Graham didn’t seem to mind doing the same judging by his face and the sweat that seemed to continuously drip from his helmet. But I do remember that I didn’t for one minute care how long it took me, how fast I was going or not going or how many metres from sea level the top of this mountain was. I just wanted to ride to the top of it and it’s only now when I look back on the rest of the trip is it that I realise how important that aspect to this day was.
Like all good climbs, the reward also comes in the descent and this was a cat-and-mouse scatletrix track, clearly designed by people who ride bicycles. Fast. Our usual approach on any descent is to form a natural line, to turn a few pedals and to roll along at a comfortable but fast speed, nudging the brakes as and when required and hopefully not too hard at any point. On this occassion we thought we would mix it up a bit and see how far we could descend without hitting the brakes at all. Quite far actually, at least until we all bottled it on a bend with a choice of granite or crash barrier as the alternative.
By the time we reached the stone bridge that marked the near conclusion of our day we were all buzzing. Soaked through with sweat and guzzling our last mouthfuls of water, but we were buzzing and talking non stop as we rolled the last couple of miles slowly down the hill back to Luz st Saviour.
What we now needed to end the perfect night out was a great meal, a cold beer and the chance to prepare for our Tourmalet adventure that we had agreed would be the following day. What better therefore then a classic Martin BBQ fully supported by a fridge full of cold beer and table overflowing with Carefour’s finest selection of stuff that we would all agree was food. A great first day.
This was the big one. We had decided that we all wanted to take the Tourmalet the opposite direction from where we were located, and this meant adding about 40 miles to the journey. It was a pretty good idea to be honest, especially as our village of Esterre was literally at the very base of the Tourmalet and therefore we would have been climbing from the moment we set onto the bikes. I’m one of those riders that needs at least an hour to warm up so this worked well for me. The route would be an enjoyable meander through the gorge away from Luz St Saveur and back towards the wider and busier roads of Lourdes. Little did we know at this point that Nick was going to attempt a new land speed record through the gorge, and to be puffing hard and going so fast that not one car wanted to consider going past us, did make me wonder if this was after all the best preparation for a big climb. Fortunately, after about ten miles we found the smooth cycle path that lead us to Lourdes as between Archie and Nick they managed to keep the pace down to a mere 20mph. Not bad given how many obstacles Nick helped us navigate around with his frequent hand signals.
Before long we met our lunch point which was a not so quaint small town with not too much to say about it other than it took us two laps of the main road to decide upon where we could eat not where we would eat. We didn’t choose well. Although I will admit my Spaghetti Carbonara looked great and probably would have been really nice when it was first cooked, I looked at it as energy and nothing more and stuffed it in. Thank goodness you can rely on the old favourites of a Coca-Cola and a coffee to round of the edges to any crap meal.
After leaving the town the ascent started pretty quickly, but not too aggressively. We knew we were not at the base of the Tourmalet just yet, but the more LED road signs we passed that advised us that the Col was open, the quieter the group went. Almost discretely, many of us slid an energy gel from our back pocket, not wanting to draw too much attention to how we were starting to feel as well as think.
And the climb began. I could talk you through the climb stroke by stroke, bend by bend and yes even the gradients of each kilometere that we progressed. I won’t though. If you want to know what it’s like, get on your bike and climb it. If you want to know what staring through the clouds at the 2200m high mountain top is like then find out. If you want to know what went through our minds as we did our upmost to hold any sort of cadence in the bottom gear, just look at the photos of our faces as we did. And if you want to know whether that Carbonara did it’s job, ask Graham how he felt when he removed his bib shorts in the toilet at the top of Tourmalet. It’s the quickest he moved all week!
This time our reward was definitely not going to be some cheap pasta. Having got to know the village a bit better, we went to what must be one of the finest pizza places in the area. We arrived not just as proud cyclists glowing inside and out from our achievements, but as matching T shirt wearing holiday reps from Club 45-70. The Tourmalet T shirts brought over by Martin and Julie were a great touch. Sadly Graham couldn’t make it that night as he was still blowing a bit on the Carbonara but other than that it was a great evening.
Waking up to a grey sky wasn’t the best start, especially when your bib shorts that you thought would dry on the terrace were still soaking wet. Fortunately Archie was knocking up one of his amazing bowls of porridge and with one KG of Nutella on the table along with 30 bananas I was happy to soak up all the energy and flavours available. Today we were heading to the top of a little climb that would, on a good day, give us a view over the Spanish border. Today wasn’t a good day.
We took the gorge slightly slower today, but I must admit with its -2-4% percent gradient it was still a great road to whizz around, even if you did feel like you were dodging all sorts of wet and uneven surfaces in the tarmac. If ever there were a place someone would crash it was here, but fortunately this never happened.
The first part of the climb was uneventful but for a wonderful and quite unique chicane in the road that looked like it had been created out of necessity after the old road alongside it collapsed into the fast flowing river below. A series of bends on new tarmac and all uphill was easy and interesting, coming back the other way though would be a technical challenge that will require significant body shifting on the bike if it is to be taken at speed. Which of course it would!
Coffee was outside, and dare I say I was a bit cold and wet! But not miserable. A double shot of espresso and the usual laughs kept the spirits warm and before too long we had started the climb through the mist and our legs had warmed up again too. Not a stand out climb to be fair, very tough in places, restricted views in all others is how I could sum it up. The waterfalls that greeted us on most bends certainly entertained us and gave us the much needed excuse to stop, grab a blurry photo and regroup.
Eventually as we reached as far as the wheels could travel we decided to opt out of the cable car to the final summit and instead slowly and carefully descended to the midway point and to a brasserie that looked like it could fill our stomachs and warm us up a bit. Well it certainly filled us up with its burgers and hand, egg and chips, but it failed to warm us up. Even our attempts to do so under the bathroom hand dryer failed, as rider after rider left with scorch marks on their heads, neck and probably other bits if we dared to ask. It worked well for Andy though who had the sense to dry his helmet. His crash helmet that is.
The race back to the base of the mountain more than made up for any of the challenges and coldness experienced in the morning. One by one we set-off at the top of the chicane, as much in vanity to ensure we were captured on Graham’s camera and Stuart’s Go-Pro. As Martin desperately raced to tail-gate a fully loaded bus, Andy set-off shortly followed by myself and with one goal and one goal only and that was to catch Martin. Sadly we didn’t manage it, but I must admit that a combination of the speed, adrenaline and effort required to do so as we drew a straight line through as many bends as possible was everything I wanted the trip to be about. As we eventually re-grouped, our hearts racing and our gilets now surplus to requirements we offered our usual expletives to each other and regained some of our lost oxygen.
The route home wasn’t something I looked forward to, especially due to the 2-4% gradient that served us so well on the way out of our village. With tired legs it was a case of recognising the need to grind it out and hope it just went as quickly as possible. Which is why it came as a huge relief that Nick found a short-cut through a tiny village better known to us as Cheese. If you were to draw this route out on a map you would acknowledge the immediate saving in metres and perhaps even kilometres, with every one much sought after when the tank is empty. However, when you drew it out on a 3D terrain map it was another thing altogether. With an average gradient of about 6-7% and a length of over 1km the last thing we needed was another granny ring battle up a mountain and I will admit at one point I was cursing the Colonel for his best laid plans. So much so, that the frustration got me out of the saddle and lifted me to push harder through the pedals to get it out of the way. Had I known where the actual Strava section ended I might even have made the top half of the riders but alas that didn’t happen either. Of course once down the other side we all saw the funny side. I think.
Day 4 – Col D’Aubisque
The last day can usually be an anti-climax when the previous days have been so good and often the knowledge that the next day is spent travelling can help elevate the status of the ride itself higher than it might have normally been. On this occasion, the ride needed no extra assistance, not that we knew that at the point we set-off.
The Col D’Aubisque is quite a gentle climb by all accounts by reputation and, although the weather was again cloudy and misty, it kept it cool and mainly appealing on the way up with no need to enter into the bottom gear at any point. In places it would level off and give Graham & I, who once again matched each other for pace, the chance to chat and ride. With a brief interlude at a small village to re-group we were all in good form and ready for the final part of the climb. Well at least that was what I thought.
The next part was great. Great in that way only those people who like cycling up steep hills can appreciate. The tarmac was literally days old and perfectly smooth, unspoiled even by white lines or other road furniture. The climb though was tough, and for each bend that was captured, it got tougher again. Our group started to spread and full credit to Martin it was at this point that he found the legs that showed great promise the day before and pushed through hard to do some great climbing. I am sure Graham totally appreciated him going past and I am also confident that his old mate Martin made sure he knew about it before, during and after to.
The summit was a lively place. Within minutes sheep were running around through the pedestrian ‘compound’ and this resulted in everyone’s bike ending up on the floor. Just when we thought we could relax we were greeted with the French equivalent of unwelcome carol singers, except on this occasion we couldn’t turn our lights out and pretend we weren’t in. Jesus! We were trying to enjoy a nice cup of coffee and the driest baguette known to man, but all they wanted to do was be joyful, noisy and annoying.
Happy with our ride and rested from the climb, we had even managed to persuade Julie that it was well worth staying awake to take on the next and final part of the climb. With the clouds clearing and the sun warming it’s fair to say the spirits were as high as our hopes of an enjoyable afternoon. Regardless of this, I don’t think we could have prepared ourselves for what was around the corner. If I were to think of one of my favourite views it might be the ‘balcony road’ in the Alpes that provided so many opportunities to stop and take beautiful pictures of the poppy filled valleybelow. It might be the bright purple lavender fields in Provence, or even some of the beautiful South Gloucestershire countryside and it’s Rapeseed yellow canvass on a summer’s day. The bar though is now set higher and it’s difficult to both capture the scene in a photograph or describe it, but here I hope I have done my best.
The road was chiselled into the side of the granite and green mountain and the low brick wall trimmed the black tarmac as well reminding you of the certain death that lay beyond it should you fall. In fact, I will go as far as to say that at times it felt like we were extras in the film Avatar. The mist sat thinly across the thick blanket of tree tops like dew on a spring grass with the wind swaying gently through it, meant the view had changed before your eyes every time you dared glance over the edge. Add to that a huge vulture swooping above our heads as we clung to the mountain on our way to the top and you have yourself a beautiful bike ride.
As much as we wanted to stay around to take lots of photos, we needed to get to the top and to start thinking about the long descent home. Not really in the mood for more climbing physically, but emotionally happy to grind through the pain a bit, we all made it to the top. Unlike Tourmalet, there was no need to recover, no need to sweat and certainly no need to slap each other on the back. What we did all do though was wonder around taking lots of photos, taking in the wonderful views on both sides and appreciating that today might just well have topped our best ever day in cycling.
As downhills go, this was also a cracker and with the knowledge it was to be our last we were all pretty determined to make sure we made the most of it. Nick especially. My goodness can that man descend; with both hands on the hoods and the most up-right and non aero position you could ever wish for, Nick set off at the front at an inconceivably fast pace and immediately became the rabbit that the Marshfield dogs now had to chase. And chase hard we did! On the drops we tucked in our knees and our elbows, sucked in air, and did our absolute best to read every bend before us as well as we could in order to not scrub out too much speed on the brakes or through the tyres. It was here we realised that the new tarmac that had served us so well on the way up was now our biggest risk as we now had to place huge confidence and hope that our tyres would hold our speed and weight as we lent in to the bends. With great relief they did but I must admit I did at times ease off a little nervous and I do also acknowledge I completely messed up on a bend whilst over-taking Andrew & Stuart and was saved only by the reliability of my Mavic wheels and their Exolith brake pads. In short, one of those downhills that leaves you dripping in as much sweat as you shed going up it!
As we reached the bottom, grinning like the children we had rediscovered inside ourselves, I washed my face under a public drinking fountain and surveyed the village seen as the cold water ran down my back. I’d been wet through with sweat, I’d been in agony through back pain and I’d even shed a tear at the top of the Tourmalet as I sent my two sisters the photo I would usually have sent my dad. But throughout all of this I had been happy. And that’s the simple answer to the question of why I do it.
Until next year…..
3 Comments Add yours
Paul, this is brilliant, and great to be part of the story too – especially in a porridge making capacity. I can certainly relate to the emotions on reaching the top of a mountain such as Tourmalet. As you say – until next year….
Thanks Archie. I can only share the experience we have and they are always well worth looking forward to.