Saturday, 14 September 2013

Pyrenees - Pan Y Agua

Just recently back from a great weeks cycling in the Pyrenees with a few friends. Though for some reason I'm struggling to write down some words that'll do the trip justice. So I've come to the conclusion that it's because each day 'just' comprised of cycling up a mountain or two and rolling back down them! Therefore I thought I'd just put down a few words and pictures diary style, so here goes.
Arrived Tuesday afternoon at Bagneres de Luchon with fellow Belgian Phil and Fraser who's apartment we would be staying in.
Phil and Fraser went out for a late afternoon ride, while I stayed back nursing a bad eye. Good start.
Day 1; Coffee and croissants followed by a half mile warm up and straight on to the Col de Peyresourde (1569m) at the summit we had a quick coffee and a few crepés. We then donned gilets and arm warmers and descended out of the damp mist into the warmth of the valley bellow. Your first Pyrenean  descent reminds you of how important a good working bike is. They don't do barriers here, one slip and you could be joining other cyclists in that great road trip in the sky. Once down you can savour the warm sun and pocket your cold weather gear.  Next up was the Col d'Azet (1580m) This is a stunner of a climb, that once out of the tree line gives you superb views down onto the lake below. It was on this climb that I started to use my HR monitor to judge my efforts, it's amazing what you think is easier and what actually is. Out of the saddle I was in the early 160's sitting and spinning and moving faster it was in the early 140's.
Once over the top we enjoy an equally rewarding descent and stop in the valley for lunch. We extend the ride to cover some of the flat lands, warmth, corn fields and fine roads what more could you want? That was a long hard 85 miles.
Day 2; Again a climb from the doorstep. This time up the Col de Portillon (1293m) a mere baby compared to yesterdays climbs, but this baby kicks and screams and proves that size isn't everything. Some of the hairpins are followed by vicious  kicks upwards. Once at the summit you are on the border with Spain and the roads change. The descent is great twisting and turning through warm pine forest. And a gentle run in through Spanish villages brings us to the valley floor.
What follows is a bit of a disaster. We were supposed to be tackling another climb before lunch, but the whereabouts of the said climb eludes us. The road we're on becomes a path and that in turn becomes a rock strewn scramble. It's not long before we decide that however good our cyclo cross skills are, that we are on the proverbial road to nowhere. We turn back for lunch. We'd already scoped our lunch stop, a great café in   a cobbled square serving Pintxos...yum yum. I'm yet to realise that the several fresh chili options were to be a big mistake. With the day lost we head back over the Portillon where the chili atom bombs decide to explode! We leave Spain behind and descend into the welcome warmth of Luchon. We cap off the afternoon with a few hours in the local spa sweating in the 42 degrees of steaming heat.
Day 3; Coffee, croissants and onto the big one. Col du Tourmalet (2115m) oh hang on, first we have to get up and over the Col d'aspin (1489m) two absolute cycling classics. Today Fraser isn't riding, and instead is indulging in his passion  for photography. Phil and myself abuse the moment and get Fraser to ferry up our helmets, gilets and warmers, allowing us an air cooled ascent of the summits. The Col d'Aspin has a lovely steady start, I refer to these as 'free kilometres' Prior to us starting on the climb three locals rode past, I guess they've got a good kilometre on me, in other words fair game and I give chase. The first rider is caught as the mountain shows it's teeth for the first time. The other two are ahead and working together, I settle into a tempo that allows me to make ground on them, and once on their shoulders I kick down. I keep up the pace for a few hairpins and soon they've dropped back out of sight. Next is the descent to the base of the Tourmalet. The descent is massive, how can any road point downwards for so long? We stop at the base of the climb for a quick coffee and to fill our bottles. No gels, energy bars or magic potions have passed our lips this whole trip. We fill our bottles with mountain water from the village fountain just as those pioneers would have done a century ago. Next we're on the climb and I'm savouring every pedal stroke, every great racing cyclist has passed this way. The heritage is like a drug and the climbing is easy. Well until the ski resort of La Mongie on the Tourmalets slopes were the gradient kicks in. This part is made doubly hard by all the construction vehicles working here. My rear wheel is spinning in the mud and dust and I start to suffer. It's then I realise I've climbed the Col d'Aspin and most of the Tourmalet on a coffee and a croissant. But as good fortune would have it Frasers on the next bend taking pictures and has a buscuit to give me, it's enough to get me past a few riders ahead and to the top of the Tourmalet. After a quick lunch of cheese ham and coffee it's helmets on and back down again. However we car it back to Luchon from the base of the Tourmalet.
Just metres to go

Day 4; Rest day with a cable car trip up to the summit of Superbagneres. From the top I recalled 'retro' finishes of early Tours up here. I think one day I'll ride it in lurid lycra smoking a cigar like the mulleted hardmen of yesteryear!
Day 5; A day with the crazee French. We've signed up for the 117km La lapébie sportive. A ride that takes you over four Tour De France summits finishing with the Hors catagorie Port de Bales. We line up with some very serious looking guys, in serious kit on serious bikes. I got the feeling that this wasn't going to be the usual British Sunday bun run. The mayor sends us off. The roads aren't closed 'technically' but in practice they are. The Gendarmerie keep us safe as we hurtle down both carriage ways stopping all traffic, not that that bothers the average French motorist. As much as I hate to mix my units of measurement, the first 20km are ridden at an average of over 26mph. They are mad, nose down slipstreaming any motor vehicle in their path, you can actually smell burning rubber.
Then we hit the first climb, the Col de Menté (1349m) and it all quietens down. Strangely this boy from the flatlands of Bedfordshire is passing every rider he can'd have been proud. A couple of young guys pull up to me and start a bit of banter, they're clearly miffed that it's a Brit pushing the pace and a 53 year old one at that. I carry on after dropping them. Now if you'd have been proud of my climbing, you'd have face palmed at my descending. Well actually I can descend pretty well, but these lads are either brilliant or raving mad. Still it's only a handful that pass.
Next up are the lumps of the Col de Buret (600m) and Col des Ares (797m) I hook up with some fellow senior riders for this long section of the ride. You can instantly tell when they're a good rider, you can fit in without a word being spoken, they might have been from Mars but you can ride with each other as if you've been together since you were kids. It's all the little nuances.
As much as I enjoy their company I start to drop them as we begin the final climb of the day, the 'without' category  Port de Balés (1755m) This is real leg buster. So I work with my monitor to keep things under control. It's on this climb that I get passed for the first time, there is a longer tougher option running at the same time and the Elite/professional class riders from that event pass me on the early kilometres of the climb.
I still pass everyone in my event, even if it hurts on the near 11% slopes. Some are now walking, a few are off their bikes on the floor in agony. Their pain is my gain...sorry! I summit without stopping to put my warm gear on, I can see the valley bellow is sunny and I hope to be down there pretty damn quick. Still a dozen or so crazies pass me on the descent. Some are risking death by cutting off the corners, they can't see around the hairpins and people have been killed doing this, absolutely fucking stupid.
The descent is fast and difficult. The parts where it passes through the tiny villages on it's slopes are worthy of your best attention. How a whole Tour gets down here in one I don't know.
As we ride to the finish in Luchon one of my old buddies from earlier joins me and we cross the line pro stylee.
Day 6; Superbagneres, or it should have been. I started on it's slopes but started to feel all biked out. That and we had to fly back on this day, so I about turned vowing to ride it first next time.
All in all it was a great trip. Fraser and Phil were a pleasure to ride with (good luck in the 3 peaks Phil). The food was excellent, the Fondue being the highlight and it's cheese induced nightmares. Belgian beers every day, good coffee and croissants to die for. And the Spa, I'd recommend that after a tough day. Hopefully Fraser will invite me back another year?
Textbook piccy Tourmalet with Phil

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