Apologies, this is a long one...
As my tan fades, it seems an awfully long time ago now, but at the start of September I headed out on a flight to Biarritz to hook up with a group of 15 friends to have a crack at the Raid Pyrenees. In brief, for those that don't know, it's a long standing challenge to make it from the Atlantic coast down to the Mediterranean coast across the mountains taking in most of the famous mountains the area has to offer in under 100 hours.
All we had to do was get to the start in one piece. Bike packed, I headed to the airport straight from work to meet a few of the guys. Unnervingly smooth check in with no one even raising an eyebrow to our awkwardly large baggage regardless of the budget nature of the flight. Quick coffee then time to board.
Now, I know nice children exist. I've met a number of them. Many of my friends have produced them. Why is it then that none of the nice ones ever sit behind me on aeroplanes? After a couple of hours of biting my lip we touch down, get the bags (bikes still in one piece) and grab a cab to get to the hotel and meet up with the rest of the group. 5 of us squeeze into a taxi made for 4 and were treated to one hell of a white knuckle ride. Our driver was a bit over keen to get to his next fare, spanking along the motorway at 120mph and only marginally slower on the minor roads. Getting to the hotel we necked a few calming beers and caught up with the rest of the guys before assembling the bikes.
Breakfast was hearty to get fueled up for the first big day of the ride. After some degree level faffing we finally got going up to the coast at Hendaye to ritually dip our wheels in the Atlantic and set the clock running. At 8:38 we officially started the Raid.
In mileage terms this was going to be the longest day at 185km. But as we were coming in from the coast the early cols were pretty minor. We ticked off the Col de Saint Ignace and Col de Pinodieta barely noticing them. Moving further inland the climbs started lasting longer making me ponder how the decided what makes a Col. Some of the lumps we rode over were without a doubt longer and steeper than the initial two official Cols but didn't have a signpost in sight. Regardless we moved towards the bigger climbs, the first of which was the Col d'Osquich. Its only 500m or so above sealevel, but it was a good few km's long and the temperature had risen to the high 20's so a nice way to ease into the more substantial hills.
Our first coffee stop took longer than really needed. We have a tendency to enjoy sitting about in the sun drinking coffee and chewing the fat a bit too much. This meant we ended up missing lunch. France had shut up shop by the time we needed to eat. Plus it was getting hotter. In desperation a stop into a shitty little local shop was all we could do to get something to eat. Whilst I was keeping an eye on the bikes everyone else cleared the shop of the remaining limp sandwiches so all that was left for me was a packet of dried apricots. Thanks guys.
With hunger at bay for a moment we ploughed onward and upward until we hit the first proper climb of the trip. The Col de Marie-Blanque is, in my humble opinion, a bit of a swine. It's only a Cat1, but in hindsight it was in many ways the toughest climb of the whole route. It's not that long and it's not that steep, but it was definitely a swine. Perhaps it was the heat, or missing lunch, or maybe because we'd already covered over 160km that day, doesn't matter - it was hard. I stomped up the first half of the 10km climb with no bother at all in the 52t, but at halfway the gradient raise up to about 10%, then up to 13% for the last 2km, so I found sanctuary with the 36t ring. I'd liken it to a doubly long UK climb ridden in an oven. No switchbacks, just straight up unrelentingly.
After regrouping for the customary photos by the sign at the top of the climb, we dropped down the other side to find our next hotel, beers and food.
Didn't start too well. I went to bed the night before setting my alarm on my phone. Overnight said telephone decided to adjust itself to local time setting the alarm off an hour early. My roommate for the night, Jase, was not impressed.
This did allow an early breakfast which was stuffed down to allow us some extra faffing time before cracking off (late) on a shortish mileage day. Just the 115km to ride, but that included well over 3000m of genuine ascent. A short warm up before we were on the lower slopes of the Col d'Aubisque. It's been classed as both a Cat1 and an HC in Le Tour, but I reckon we must have done the Cat1 side. Irrespective of category it was another brute, climbing up to 1709m. By the top the morning mist had lifted and we were treated to blue skies and stunning views in every direction.
Pushing on we dropped a little altitude on a steep descent before going back up 2km to the summit of the Col de Soulor (1474m) and then getting out teeth stuck into the long super fast descent back down to the valley. Not wanting to make the same mistake as day one we stopped as soon as possible for food. This time we made the opposite mistake and ate far too much, consuming absolutely massive pizzas. We'd all soon be regretting that.
After lunch we didn't have all that far to ride. Just a minor Col before the Tourmalet started looming ahead. It's one of the most iconic HC climbs in the world, but it's not all that steep. But what it is is long. 20km straight up at an average gradient in excess of 7%. It also seemed longer as the temperature had crept up into the 30's. It seemed longer still with the lingering taste of meaty pizza rising in my throat all the damn way.
The markers every kilometre were dead handy, giving the average gradient for the next km, plus how far to the summit. A great tool for breaking the bugger down. That being said I really enjoyed that climb. I do like riding up hills anyway, but the views kept on getting more impressive the higher I rode. Plus there was a great headwind. Headwinds are usually kinda miserable things, but this one was ace. Coming right down the valley keeping things a bit cooler (albeit slower). The occasional switchback into the other direction suddenly became oppressively hot yet the tailwind eased the pedaling for a bit of a rest before turning back into the wind.
What also made that climb fun was some of the left over Tour graffiti on the road. Every now and again something would make me smile. Spotting things like "HTFU," "I wish I could use drugs," Box Hill's easy!" plus a few classic Voigt quotes. Also there was a couple of hundred metres painted somewhat confusingly with massive err... tadpoles. Yes, they were definitely tadpoles. Massive ones. Everywhere.
I spent a few minutes at the top enjoying the view, then noticed a few tourists enjoying the view of my bike! After another regroup we made the most of the long descent off the mountain, dodging motorbikes, campervans, cattle and goats. Stopping at the base and after popping ears we settled in a local bar waiting for the rest of the group and the broom wagon which had our bags. We supped away on a few local cidres, which were very nice if very expensive. They refused to sell them to us in bigger glasses. It was 300ml or nothing. 4Euros per 300ml that is. After 3 of those we made the financially driven decision to switch to beers. A couple of grande bierres later everyone had made it down and on to the hotel where we were greeted by a hotelier who must have been Gordon Kaye's inspiration for Rene out of Alo Alo. His hotel certainly hadn't been renovated since the war - the plastic sliding doors were simply charming. Food, wine, sleep.
Back to the longer miles. Another 100+ miles and 6 Cols. The first of which was straight out of the door with the ascent up to the summit of the Col d'Aspin. Another Cat1 climb to kick off with, easy in relation to the Tourmalet, but still pretty noticeable without a warm up and a belly full of breakfast, it goes up 1489m over about 12km, topping out at 8%. At the top we regrouped for the customary signpost photographs where an over friendly & massive cow lumbered down the hill to see what we were up to. Rog was the most experience cow wrangler among us and so quite literally took it by the horns. After a bit of steering it calmed down, but took particular interest in Andy's bars, wrapping its mighty tongue around his tape, enjoying the salty goodness I assume. Oh how we chuckled, particularly Andy relishing the thought of descending a mountain gripping on to cow spit soaked tape.
Down the Aspin for a cracking descent before promptly turning back uphill to tackle the Col de Peyresourde, another lovely Cat1 back up to 1569m. The following descent was amazingly good fun, really fast and swoopy. By the time we'd got to the bottom the temperature had hit 36degrees. A couple of smaller cols either side of a light lunch before chalking off yet another monumental climb - the Col du Portet de Aspet. It's pretty long and reasonably steep, yet it's noteworthy as it's the scene of Fabio Carsatelli's fatal crash in the 1995 Tour. We had a quick stop at the monument commemorating the '92 Olympic champion before getting back to business... Smashing up to the summit and back down the other side and onto our next over night stop.
Arriving at the hotel we found that the only beer they had on draft was Leffe. You can only imagine how disappointed I was. A couple of cheeky Leffes were sunk before food, some nice local wine with it followed up with a reasonable slab of cake. All good stuff.
Day four ended up being the most eventful day of the trip for me. The inevitable morning faffing meant that I left the hotel after everyone else with just one other, Rob, for company. Once again we ere on a major climb straight away. This time it was 3 Cols squashed into one; the Col du Fort which merges into the Col des Caoughans, which goes straight into the Col de Port.
I thought that the others in the lead group were trying to get one over on me on a climb. I thought I heard the sound of a gauntlet being cast to the ground, so stuck it in the big ring and rode like a manic spazz all the way up at race pace, counting everyone off as I passed them. Only once I was at the summit of the 12.8km climb did it become apparent that I'd miscounted and had been chasing down a non-existent cyclist for the last 3km. Balls.
Hey ho. It was a great spot. So nice I decided to stop early on the descent to take a few photos of the guys riding down and off into the distance. I did this, but probably for a bit too long, getting separated from the fast end of the group. Once off the mountain there was an open drag down a main road for 25km before the the next coffee/pain au chocolat/faff stop. I thought it'd be clever to try and ride across to the fast group on my own. I rode full gas again for seemingly ages, knowing full well that they'd all be working together whilst I was sat in the wind on my own. Finally caught them after 20 joyless kilometres.
Once the next set of coffee/pain au chocolat/faff was complete we headed off in the wrong direction (just to get some extra climbing in) and then the right direction to deal with the HC Port de Pailheres. It's certainly worthy of the HC rating. It goes on for 18km, ramping up in gradient all the way to the top to the slightly dubious altitude of 2001m. Once again we got some amazing views and even more amazing descents as a due reward.
The descent off the Pailheres was only short, but a laugh. The next summit (Col de Trabesses) was less than a kilometre away and only 80m lower at the top. Basically the two peaks sit right next to each other with a dip in between. We thought it only right to see if we could freewheel down one and up to the summit of an official Col without pedaling. Yes, it is entirely possible. The descent off the Trabesses was excellent though, very tight switchbacks early on, then opening up into some full throttle open turns and straights lower down.
The roads rolled on for a while and our beautiful 30degree blue skies started to turn black. Incidentally, this was the only day of the trip that I didn't check the forecast in the morning. Getting a tad complacent with ace weather I didn't bother sticking a jacket in my pocket. It started raining. All I had extra to put on was a pair of arm warmers. It started raining more - a full on mountain storm really. Heads down we plugged on until we stumbled across a little boulangerie/patisserie in a small otherwise dead village. We took refuge as the storm continued and the thunder & lightning got bigger. Chomping down on bread based products and some rather fine cake we watched the rain bouncing off the road and eventually seem to ease. Seeing our opportunity we headed back out. Half a mile up the road the rain got really heavy again. Sheltering under a tree on the side of the road I was starting to get really cold and shivering heavily. The four of us decided to keep moving as a better way of staying warm. The road was open and reasonably flat for a few km's so we could push on and keep the body temperature up, regardless of the depth of the standing water and the piles of hale stones on the side of the road. We dropped Jase and so huddle under a building for a minute to wait and I got cold again straight away. Soaked to the skin and having a low bodyfat percentage I was getting properly cold. I would have probably warmed up again if it wasn't for the fact the road was about to go downhill for 20 miles. Usually a 20mile long descent would be amazing, but on this occasion my skinny wet body didn't mix well with the now wintery temperatures and 40mph windchill. Early on the descent I had to pull over as I was shaking so much that I couldn't hold the bike in a straight line. One of the guys kindly gave me his jacket and I pulled back onto the road. But the damage had been done and I was getting worse. It was just stupid for me to try and ride in that state. Into the next layby and I was in bits, shaking violently and hyperventilating. Remarkably moments later a German couple pulled into the layby (nothing dodgy, there was a great viewing platform of the valley) and saw I was in trouble. The chap gave up his jumper and jacket so I could get out of the wet kit and then sat me in his car with the heaters on full blast. The others called for the broom wagon which took over half an hour to get to us. All of that time I was seriously cold but slowly thawing out. I've honestly never felt cold like it. It was quite, quite horrible. I can't thank those mysterious Germans enough. Without them I reckon we might have needed an ambulance.
Once the Broom arrived I was still cold but back down to regular shivering and chucked on fresh dry kit. Lots of it. New base layer, jersey, a fleece, a windproof, a waterproof, a cap and a borrowed pair of winter gloves that someone far less optimistic of the weather had packed. On a normal day this particular descent would have been breathtaking, but as I was having such difficultly hanging on to my breath it was simply a case of getting down in one piece. The rain had stopped though and I could feel the air warming the further down we rode. It was another half an hour before I felt back to normal. Thankfully this coincided with us rolling up to a bar near that night's hotel, time to drink a few pints and eat chips. More food and booze was consumed back at the hotel just to make sure I was back to normal.
Note to self: Always check the forecast, dickhead.
After the many ups and downs of the previous four days it was pretty straight forward finish. Just 100km, mainly downhill to the coast at Cebere to finish before our cutoff time of 12:38. We kept the whole group of 15 together as best as possible, one of us dropping back to pull things back together if we up'd the pace a little too much and caused some gaps. Plain sailing all the way, feeling good, no lasting effects of the previous afternoon's drama. Once the sea was in sight and the roads were rolling nicely we started to up the pace, mess about and make the most of the last few km's of the trip. Across the group there were a few crazy efforts and sprints for random signposts as we tore into Cebere. A quick stop to get our accreditations stamped to confirm we'd made it in plenty of time and a cheesy group photo. Officially finished at 11:33, could've had an extra hour in bed. Then it was down to the beach to dip the wheels again so that we had genuinely made it from the Atlantic to the Med. Me, being a fool, rode straight into the sea. A great photo opportunity, but the salt water has now destroyed all the bearing in my bike. Surprisingly beer, wine, nasty local brandy and food finished off the trip nicely.
Total ditance covered, 718km
Total ascent, 12,132m
Actual riding time, 29hrs 37mins.