In the beginning there was a bike in a box, and at the end likewise, and in between there is much to write of, to show, and maybe even after all that, conclusions to be drawn. If patience is not one of your virtues, I suggest you skip to the end, as this may take some time…
And so the ACG trip to the Pyrenees begins…in the Hotel Kyriad in Toulouse. The hordes have gathered, mostly, our number but one short as we (Guy, Jon, Trevor, Dave, Chris and myself) head out to dinner at L’Entr’acte – presumably the interval between the journey and the trip real? A good time was had by all. Much, possibly too much, wine was consumed, along with grilled meat that possibly wasn’t grilled enough…
But come the morning, after-effects were as yet unheard of, and we were joined by Steve in time for The Magnificent Seven to be collected by Chris from Pyractif and shuttled to our base in Bertrens. A Friday as it happens, though days of the week soon ceased to have any meaning…
Welcome to The Pyrenees. Where the sun was shining, and the first order of the day was bike assembly. Which, with somewhat less assistance than usual, I mostly managed to do by myself. Enough assistance however to ensure that the job, having been worth doing, had been done well, and as we set out for our first ride, all was well with the world. Well, apart from when the world went up, as ever. Out there, on quiet roads with the sun shining, I mostly held my own however, right up until the coffee stop at a village on top of an up where, as if laid on for us, the local cyclists were doing some kind of time trial race…
Lycra, lycra everywhere…with espresso and Orangina to drink, as per tradition. Very nice As we left, they may have been hurtling off at speed every 5 minutes, but since the next part of the ride was the Col des Ares, I think you are safe in presuming that I was not. Not a big Col, more of a nice bimble up through the woods, with Guy kindly keeping me company and letting me witter on in my usual fashion, while the others waited for me at the top, in their usual fashion. I actually quite enjoyed it all, especially the down afterwards, quelle surprise, but deep down, something was stirring, and the further we rode the worse I started to feel inside. And no, I don’t mean my usual worrying about my comparative form self-indulgent rubbish, I mean actual physical stuff. Oh dear…
…yep. It would appear that I should give up eating. Another bout of gastro-enteritis was heading my way. Be it resurgence of the last one or a brand new variety, I was due for a sleepless night, stomach cramps and worse…
So Day Two did not go according to plan. Whilst the others heading off to do Cols beginning with the letter P, I did not. I got up, drank coffee, and went straight back to bed, where I ended up sleeping the entire morning away. Well, if that’s what the body needed, best it were given it. Still, having finally left the land of nod, and with the sun shining outside, I decided I would go and visit the bastide town of St Bertrand de Comminges, as suggested the night before when it had become clear that my way and their’s were to part ways. It’s only just down the road you see, so duly kitted up, and with map in pocket, I figured I’d head out, see how I felt, and take it from there. Which I did. And very pretty it all was too, although walking on the cobbles around the cathedral in cleats proved an interesting challenge, and re-enforced my belief that Paris-Roubaix is not for me. Since I was feeling relatively ok, thanks to the immodium now keeping a lid on life, and meaning that the cramping/gurgling was all I had to deal with, I carried on and ended up doing a nice little, though inevitably slow, flat loop, which was good for my head, and probably also my legs. Ok, so there were no Cols to boast of, but there were some to come in the days ahead that I really wanted to do, so it was a case of rest today to live to ride another one.
Which brings us to the next one, Day 3, the one that really mattered to me. Now I’m sure Col ticking is a daft hobby, and luckily my list of those to cross off is a fairly short one, but the Tourmalet was on it. And now it isn’t. Now I’d have preferred not to have done it in the pouring rain, to be honest, but there was something oddly amusing and English about slowly meandering up a mountain in the rain, with sheep, and cows and Guy for company. Company for which I was very grateful, as it took an awfully long time, and I could have hit the slough of despond very easily otherwise. Steve, having had a coffee break somewhere en route, ended up with us near the top too, which made the last few km practically sociable, and gave everyone else time to have lunch and warm up in the cafe at the top I knew it would take me hours, I knew I would feel rubbish and I frequently did, but I also knew I would make it, because I wanted to, and I’m fairly stubborn that way. (No comments please, practice some restraint). And I made it. Greeted at the top by cameras and smiling faces, I have to admit I was pretty proud of myself
It didn’t take long for wet through but warm to become wet through and freezing though, and after a hot chocolate and orangina and a bit of enforced food, I ended up in quite possibly the most bizarre ensemble ever. Good thing we had a support car with us – otherwise my options would have been non-existent. I wound up in Guy’s spare base layer, my Rapha t-shirt, my hoodie and a gilet! The sun may have been coming out, but it was still only 5C up there, and I didn’t want to risk not enjoying the downhill I’d just earned, right? And it was fun. SO much fun. As we descended the skies brightened, the roads dried, and the grin grew. The Cheshire Cat would have had nothing on me
I’m afraid I cheated, and took an uplift to the top of the Col d’Aspin, while the others did the hard work in the sunshine. Chris, our support crew, seemed a little worried about the time schedule, and I knew how much I was holding everyone back, so it seemed only fair, and possibly also wise considering my insides. I was still freezing sitting in the van waiting at the top for everyone else, and really should have stripped the odd layer off – being the wrong layers they were holding in the cold not warming me up! But once that was done, as we gathered and prepared to go down again, I did finally warm up, and man, the down was, yet again, an absolute blast. I even managed to stay with the group as we hurtled off for coffee and then raced for home – fast flat and sunny. Now that I can do – my legs work just fine unless there’s a gradient
So what next? Day 4 of course, which came with a change of base camp as we decamped to a very friendly little hotel in Lorp-Senteraille, outside St-Girons. Once again, it was a route that for most included many Cols, but what was to be just the one for me. I’d decided that all things considered, I was probably a one Col a day girl! I joined the others for the outward leg, through the very scenic Ariège region, and to coffee at the bottom of the Col d’Agnes. Though I set off before them, not before enough, and before long they were all well ahead of me, leaving me to pootle up as usual. Though the early sections were long and wooded and grindy and a bit tedious, once it opened up into switchbacks and sunshine and stunning views, it was lovely. I wasn’t far from the top when Chris came down, enjoying the bends, to escort me to the café on the other side of the summit where the others had gathered, presumably bored of the usual waiting for me, for which one can hardly blame them.
We sat outside in the sunshine for a reluctantly served lunch, though I stuck to fluids – as it seemed safer that way, and my Cols for the day were done, unlike them. All too soon we were off again and after a truly fabulous descent to Massat, they were off to do battle again. Me? I had the most gorgeous (sorry) ride back in the sun, down the pretty gorge cut by the river Arac. The river was flowing loudly along with me on the right, there was dappled shade from the trees and rocks, and even a few nearly scary little unlit tunnels, but they didn’t stop singing from time to time as I went. Yes, singing. There was a song in my heart and I just couldn’t keep it in I guess. Well, if you’re happy and you know it…and clapping your hands is unwise when riding
And so to the final day which, by my reckoning, makes it Day 5. Also known as Wednesday. Today’s aim was to ride from St Girons back to our original base at Bertren with, as ever, a great many Cols en route. Well, for some anyway. This time I made my break for the hills early, all of ten minutes down the road. They headed off to take the high road, and I took the low road. Man, I had such a lovely day out. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do precisely, but I had a map, my legs, my music, and wall to wall sunshine. Was there to be one Col in my future, or two? I put off worrying about such things as I cycled along through countless pretty villages, admired roman ruins and churches, played leap frog with the local postie in his yellow van, and was cheered on by random pensioners. After a tedious re-surfaced section, the road climbed in a sort of gradual fashion out of the valley, towards hills, through trees…but I didn’t realise I was on the actual Col de Porte D’Aspet until I saw the 3km to go sign! Presumably also a sign I was on the mend OK, so it got steeper and wigglier after that but I figured if I was going that well, then today was going to be my first two Col day. Well, it’s not like I had anything else to be doing, right?
Having made it up, I took the obligatory photos at the top, drank the can of orangina that had been weighing my pocket down, and hurtled off down t’other side, a descent which didn’t last half long enough. No sooner had I taken the obligatory photo of the memorial to Fabio Casartelli than I was turning left and a sign was informing me that I was now on the 11.1km, 7% average, Col de Menté. Goody goody. And I actually mean that. Just for once, you cannot detect a hint of sarcasm As I started up, a whole fleet of classic Austin Healeys screamed down and round the bends past me, in a evocative cloud of motor oil. I waved, they waved, it was all jolly good fun. As the dust settled, I was left on my own again, pootling along roads that seemed at first relatively flat, followed by a reasonable down bit…all the time with my head busily working out what, if the average was 7%, that was doing to the gradients to come!
But it really didn’t matter. I worked out roughly how long it was likely to take me, and just settled in for the duration. Nobody waiting for me, no deadlines, no agenda. The sun was high and hot, and I was getting higher and hotter. Conversations with myself and other animals…lizards, beetles, millipedes, butterflies, even the odd cat. Views of the valley below opening up, switchback after wiggle after hairpin, going out into a cooling breeze, back boiling with it behind you, up and up and up. Time for a quick cooling stop at a road side cold spring, where consumption was advised in moderation, and I was on my way again. The road went on, my mind wandered off in ever decreasing circles, and inexorably, unavoidably, and as ever, after a final less interesting drag through the trees, I made it to the top, in one very very happy piece. I can’t explain why it was so lovely, but it really was. It was all oddly zen. Extremely good head space
After an exchange of cameras and photos in polyglot fashion with some Spanish cyclists, I took myself off to the cafe for a drink. A couple of typical old French gents shooting the breeze on the balcony outside looked askance at me as I passed, and as I emerged with my coffee and orangina, having sadly rejected the very reasonably priced range of Belgian beer, said “was it hard, coming up?”. I shrugged, smiled, said nonchalantly, “a bit”, before casually taking my seat as if I do such things all the time *grin*. Funny
Time to hurtle down…one last time…but not as fast as I’d have liked. The road was hot and the tarmac sticky, with a frequently dubious surface, ascending cyclists and motorists, and enough debris that my back wheel lost it a couple of times, quite enough for me to engage restraint mode for sure. Not that it wasn’t fun, but… Still, better home in one slower piece than not at all, right? Only one salutary lesson per day needed I feel. All too soon I was back on the flat, and doing the ten mile or so flat stretch back to Bertren, frequently convinced I was lost, and doing that thing where I get faster and faster in order to try and get to where the next road sign will enlighten me. Eventually I resorted to my phone and Google maps, when I turned out to be exactly where I was supposed to be and hoped I was, and was shortly back at base, hours ahead of the more intrepid band. Two Cols will do me, thank you Time to sit, read, rest, recover and reflect. Oh, and drink a well earned beer of course
And so, having opened the bike box, and let me and my steed loose on the Pyreneen world, it was time to put it and me away again, though conversely, a little hope may have escaped from that box. I did ok you know? I did. Maybe this sign is for me…?
Ok, so I did feel a little left out of the bragging rights that the others had all quite justly earned, and a bit of me wishes I could have done better, but I had a fabulous time nonetheless, I really really did. Guy organised a great trip; Chris and Helen of Pyractif were great hosts, providing all the maps, support, meals and more that you could ever need. (Though I don’t think the circus coming to town, or the giant roaming toads can be put down to them ). I managed to do things pretty much my way without, I hope, putting everyone else out too much, and the ACG were great company. Thanks to you all. I’d do it again. I’d like to say I’d do it better, but let’s not go making promises I can’t keep, hey?
Cycling time: 19:11
Distance: 235.3 miles
Climbing: 20,800 feet
ODO: 6715.4 miles