We pedalled off from Hendaye on 17 September and safely arrived in Cerbère a little less than 100 hours later at around mid-day on 21 September. According to Garmin / Strava, we cycled 717.8 km and climbed 12,300 m, a hair less than the 720 km and a bit more than the 11,000 m that was anticipated.
2 of our team of 21 had cycled in the Pyrenees previously in soaking wet conditions. More than half the Youtube videos of the Raid completed by other people showed rain, rain and more rain. Therefore, we were expecting to encounter rain, and there was much banter (and stress) about being suitably equipped. We were checking the weather forecast regularly only to find out that it changed significantly every 12 hours, not that we were surprised, given that the region does have a reputation for changeable weather.
The dark clouds were threatening to rain all day the first day, but we actually ended up with only a few spots of drizzle. The 150 km and 2,400 m elevation gain was done before the clouds made good on their threat. All the pre-ride banter about having the right sort of brake pads probably kept the rain away, just as carrying an umbrella in anticipation of rain somehow does not lead to actually having to unfurl it.
In fact, we were so lucky that the following 4 days were sunny, with the notable exception of a very thick fog at the summit of Col du Tourmalet.
Day 2 was anticipated as being our ‘Queen Stage’ with Col d’Aubisque and Col du Tourmalet on the menu, otherwise known as one half of the Circle of Death.
In reality, it was meant only as a warm-up before a hop over Soulor and climbing Tourmalet.
… into the thickening fog. We had been warned that the restaurant will shut at 17:00. And I think I rolled in at about 10 past 5. The staff were kind enough to stay and continue serving food for those that were trickling in, with the last one entering the restaurant at around 18:00, perhaps a little later. If it had been in the rain, I’m certain that I would have been in tears.
The restaurant somehow did not get the message about dietary requirements for a couple of our team members. As they were both for medical reasons, it was not an ideal situation after a long, hard slog. I’m not sure how I would have reacted had I been in their shoes. Solutions were improvised, but the whole drama was avoidable.
We started to refer to lunch bookings on subsequent days as first dinners…
The first half of the descent from Tourmalet was so cold that both Jonah and I stopped to check if our headsets were loose, only to find out that we, not our respective handlebars, were the ones shaking violently. A sense of relief following the realisation that it wasn’t a mechanical problem betrays a somewhat warped sense of priorities…
Based in an area as flat as a pancake, I always take about 3 days to find my rhythm in the mountains. I was forced to arrive in Hendaye a day early because of limited flight availability, which actually gave me the opportunity to go for a leg-loosening ride to San Sebastián with Jonah and Mark D a day before the show officially started. Consequently, I found my rhythm on Day 3 rather than Day 4. I was pleased to find myself in my own little equilibrium of sorts climbing Col d’Aspin first thing in the morning.
I don’t pretend to have found Col du Peyresourde effortless, but I was enjoying it in the sense that I didn’t keep wondering whether the summit was around the next bend. I just pedalled and took in the landscape.
Before I left home, I did wonder whether I should wash my leather gloves and decided that they weren’t soiled enough to warrant a wash.
Which, of course, was a mistake.
At this point, they were so malodorous from all my perspiration that they could easily be considered a biohazard. I simply couldn’t wear them any more until I got home and washed them thoroughly…
The small beast that turned out to be a monster climb that day was Col de Portet d’Aspet. Two of our guys had climbed it previously, also from the west, but somehow neglected to mention what a monster it is. Only 4.4 km in length. but the gradient tops out at 17.5%, with an average of 9.8%. Everyone thought that the road sign at the start of the climb announced the average gradient being 4.8%, so to say that we were astonished to face the actual gradient is an understatement. We all moaned about the grossly inaccurate information given on the said sign, but with the benefit of hindsight, I think the sign probably did say 9.8%, but we all tricked ourselves into reading 4.8% as 9 and 4 do look very similar depending on the typeface. Wishful thinking at its worst. [Update: Alistair provided photographic evidence that the sign said 9.7%.]
As we climbed past the memorial for the late pro cyclist and olympian Fabio Casartelli, who crashed and died descending the west side, I noted that the local authorities have no clue about road safety as the tarmac in the area was full of loose gravel. A future accident waiting to happen on a fast descent. If you climb the east side and plan to descend the west side, take extra care when descending or better yet, consider reversing your itinerary.
Portet d’Aspet is tough but it is a very pretty climb. Well worth riding up if you’re heading to the area. Some pundits have rated it as the toughest climb in the Pyrenees, but I’ll leave that subject matter for a future blog.
Regardless, it is definitely one of those climbs that separate the men from the boys, as far as climbing is concerned. Here’s Briggs smashing it out of the saddle in a bid to bridge the gap with JT, whilst I’m just taking photos because I already know my place in these matters.
After the feed stop atop Portet d’Aspet, it was off to lunch at Saint Girons 31 km away. Fuelled by 2 little packets of French supermarket crisps, I bombed down the last 25 km of flat roads to record the fastest speed amongst the group. It could have happened only on the flat bit, couldn’t it.
I was too distracted by the total distance (180+ km) and total ascent (3400+ m) for Day 4 that I didn’t really register the actual route profile. I did absorb the fact that the day will end with a 35 km descent, but that only got my mind to focus on the fact that all the climbing will be squeezed into the first 145 km. The important bit that didn’t sink in whilst staring at the route profile is that after descending from Col de Port, it is basically a 52 km climb to the summit of Col de Puymorens. If you try to look up Puymorens’s profile on the web, various sites tend to describe the distance in the single digit. Whatever the logic is, we didn’t see it on the ground. It’s not steep by any standard, but the 52 kilometres of a single climb can do your head in. I was seeing a flock of winged pizzas floating past my face in the last couple of kilometres despite being accompanied by Dennis and Bruton. I strongly suggest you ride in the company of others in order to remain lucid. I probably would have cracked had I been alone on this stretch.
Day 5 was a relaxed 90 km with a few bumps along the way. (‘It’s all downhill from here.’ Of course, it wasn’t.) The landscape evolved to a more arid one as we approached the Mediterranean. The approach to Cerbère had a certain ceremonial air about it, now that we had climbed all the major mountains in the preceding days.
We safely arrived at the beach in Cerbère to dip our toes in the Med to mark the completion of the Raid Pyrénéen. Several guys commented that this was the hardest route we’ve done so far. It certainly was hard work, and the numbers do support the view that it was the hardest. For me, the pain tends to be compensated signifcantly by the company of these boys wearing skin-tight clothes that push the boundaries of decency, so the Raid might have been the hardest so far in objective terms, but the first things that I recall are not numbers.
Each of us had to deal with our respective struggles during the Raid, and everyone deserves to be congratulated for their efforts and accomplishments. That said, here are my picks of worthy mentions.
3 of our guys never saw their own bikes on this ride, courtesy of bungling British Airways / Iberia. JT was one of them. He had packed all his kit, save his cycling shoes, in the bike box. Consequently, everyday he wore the same Timothy Everest-designed team kit that we all received upon arrival in Hendaye. After each long day, he did laundry for the next day. (Well, I think he did.) The icing on the cake was that his rental bike, despite having some flash features like a Di2 groupset, had a tiny cassette. Luckily, it was equipped with a compact chainset, but I suspect the largest rear sprocket was a 25. JT was wise enough not to count the teeth on it for fear of the number messing with his head. But it looked a lot like 25… With that sort of gearing, there is no going slowly on an ascent as you would simply come to a halt and keel over. He said that he almost did on a couple of spots going up Portet d’Aspet, but the fact is that he didn’t. Chapeau.
I’ve said this before, but Nick is the fittest sexagenarian I know. I really don’t know how he does it. I can’t even hold his wheel for more than a few minutes. I’m really impressed every time I see him riding. Humility and the ability to leave you in the dust seem incongruent, but here they come in a single package. A role model.
The dinner on Day 3 claimed 3 food poisoning victims: Hoppo, Boothie and Drew. (Things do seem to come in 3s…) On the night that Japan collected South Africa’s scalp in rugby (which caused our 2 South African riders to get their bib shorts in a knot), the red wine they served us smelled like fertilisers as if it were the elixir of cow dung or a liquified form of some offensive soft cheese, but it seems that the wine was the least of the problems. Hoppo had it worst and was not able to get back in the saddle for the remainder of the trip. Dennis and I, it seems, got off easy: we were farting all day long on Day 4. Just wouldn’t stop, couldn’t stop.
Hoppo is also amongst the three who never saw their bikes arrive. He was on the phone every evening with the paper pushers at Iberia to sort out the missing bikes — I don’t even want to know what his mobile phone bill will be like. The two worst things that happened on this trip happened to him.
Many, many thanks go to Charlie for initiating and organising this trip. It is an enormously time consuming effort on behalf of all fundraisers and other participants. The trip would not have materialised if it weren’t for our captain.
I am also very grateful to the Classic Tours team. It is always a pleasure to be accompanied by Gideon, Pete and Julian, and to meet Serge for the first time.
Every trip like this needs at least one resident jester to keep things in perspective, lest we come to take ourselves too seriously, become supercharged with testosterone. James wasn’t the only one (we were blessed with a few, including the ever-reliable Bruton), but he posited the best question on this trip. He wondered aloud whilst climbing one of the cols, ‘These cows have all this mountain, so why do they have to shit all over the road?’ Someone else answered, ‘Because they can.’
Why do we expend so much effort climbing mountain passes on a non-motorised bike? Because we can.