It had been a year since we were last in the midst of the Pyrenean giants, but here we were again Fraser Neil and myself all set for a week of riding some of the best cols the Pyrenees can offer.
We've just landed in Toulouse to a very welcome twenty eight degrees, just like starting summer all over again! we collected our car and drove to our destination Luchon De Bagneres. The rest of Saturday was spent getting supplies, showering (not together) and getting familiar with the cafés before getting an early night.
Neil was on a hire bike, or would be at midday, I'd brought mine over and Fraser was on his bike in residence. The plan was to ride over the Portilon and into Spain on the Sunday afternoon, that was the plan. Then there was the hire bike, Neils hire bike was a bit of a character, quite a nice carbon LOOK on some nice Ambrosio blues. However the running gear was eclectic to say the least; Shimano Dura Ace, Ultegra, 105, Tiagra and Sora, but it didn't stop there Campagnolo and FSA and that's just what made up the gears and brakes. But hey ho off we went. The first problem comes when Neil can't change down, not ideal on a cat 1 climb. After getting off and moving the chain by hand we continue to climb, but Neil isn't happy on this bike and to make matters worse the heavens open at the summit.
We take stock and conclude that Neils bike is a piece of shit and unsafe in the mountains in this weather so head back down the Portilon to swap the bike. Descending off the summit in a downpour at full tilt is a special experience, great but scary at the same time. I hit the bottom and then bang, my tyre blows out, I'm very thankful it waited until I was off the mountain. The tyre is badly torn, we're soaked through and Neils bike is still shit. The day is called. Tomorrow we'll do a big one.
We'd spent the evening deciding on a circular route taking in at least four Cols, we spent the night deciding on what beer to drink so with perfect planning we get ready for the off. By now Neil is sorted and is riding a Scott with envy inducing triple chainset. Fraser is on a sublime Time road bike and me? well I've just blown another tube so Fraser is now in pursuit of a new tyre and more tubes while I faff myself into a sweat. Fraser returns with a nice new Conti which is duly fitted. Finally I'm ready to go.....except my Garmin wont locate, I eventually give up and set off. We set off down the valley road at a cracking pace, the sun is shinning it's about twenty nine degrees, all is good. Then we cross over a railway line and I loose my drink, the lids are off and the bottles are emptied, my day isn't getting any better is it? I salvage a few drops to last the next 100km, the next four summits and the increasing heat.
The valley takes us out 30km and then it's onto the first Col, the Col Des Ares a steady 797 metre ascent to warm up the legs. Soon we get our first hairpins, this is the stuff. We press on yo yo'ing each other to the top and passing local riders on the way. It always surprises me how well our club members climb considering where we live! We stop for the customary Col top photo, and push on, well drop off the top nose to stem.
|Blurry summit piccy first of four today|
The next Col is the baby one, the Col Des Buret at 599 metres. These two might be babies amongst .the giants, but the Tour comes over these. That said the Buret is easily done, We're now on our way to the Col de Menté, but first we have to encounter a mountainous forested road, not a major climb but a road that tricks the brain into thinking the big ring would be ideal. You start to question yourself about how you're feeling, my bikes hardly moving but the road seems to point downward. We eventually look at each other with that 'is it me or is this bloody hard' look, it's not just me. We slip the big ring, sit down and tempo to the end. I didn't need that.
We are now at a junction, a real juicy one. Right and it's the Col De Menté or left and it's the Col d'aspet. Last year I came off the Menté and missed my turn during the La lapebie sportive. Instead of turning for the 599 metre Buret I got onto the 11% gradients of the 1069 metre Aspet. Luckily a kind soul chased me down and told me of my error. Today though we would venture onto the Aspet, but just to pay our respects at the memorial to Fabio Casartelli who during the 95 Tour crashed and died on one of the Aspets bends. I wonder how sobering the white stone memorial must be to current day riders as they push the limits on the descents. (Fabio Casartelli 1970-1995)
We stay longer than expected at this spot.
Next for us is the Col De Menté at 1349 metres. I sneak off ahead knowing there is a short drop at the start of the climb and use it to catapult me up the first few metres! The Menté is not technically hard, but it's a hell of a toughie a real 'time stands still' climb, It's also exposed and therefore hot. We spread out and do our own thing to get to the top, passing a few locals is a bonus, but not enough to take the niggle in my back away and it's only day two. I'm sitting high on my bars and wondering if I can get a 27 or 28 cassette in town, I even press my Ergos hoping for another gear. The 25 tooth is making it real now. Although seemingly spread out over the mountain we summit within seconds of each other. The summit of the Menté offers great views and a piccy opportunity, but nothing can keep us from descending the fantastic road below us, especially when it takes you into another country in this case Spain. We descend batshit fast, Fraser has gone and myself and Neil are in tandem. I spend moments nose to stem hoping for a 100kph moment and other times up on top gob smacked by the views. We come across Fraser already with his wheel out after blowing out on the fast descent, lucky boy is still upright. We get it sorted and finish the descent, we've also ditched clothing, it's so warm now even the descent is hot. We reach the bottom, grab the big ring and turn left for Spain.
It's only about 16km to the start of our final ascent, but we're into a full on headwind that's dragging upwards and its pretty hot. Neil does a sterling job of pulling us to our water stop in Bossost, though his hard work isn't going to be rewarded later on. We down iced Cokes, watch a man drive his pick-up into a fountain and move on.
It's the Portillon again, the Col du Portillon at 1293 metres. One more climb and it's out of Spain and back into France and a favourite descent to Luchon and home. I'm doing 'my usual' feeling cheeky as we near the end of the ride, so after settling in I up my pace for fun! Near the top I can hear a Flute? It's pretty annoying and sure enough at the top there's a bloody hippy sat cross legged on a rock playing the flute. To misquote the Inbetweeners 'there's always some c@@t with a flute' It also starts to pour down, so it's a soggy hippy. We file into the summit top café for some mountain food and to sit out the passing storm. Bread ham cheese and coffee, classic. We grab the Col top piccy and hoon off down. Twice down the Portillon in two days, I am therefore expert at this, convinced I'll not have a second blow out I push it a bit until one bend nearly catches me out. I reign it in we regroup and roll home. Day over, four Cols 110km.
Day three is our rest day, we always have a day off for something different.....or a rest. I think we shot ourselves in the foot with this years 'day off'. Hiking was the cunning plan, so we'd all packed walking boots for a nice restful gentle plod in the Pyrenees. Our chosen destination was Pic de Céciré. You simply summit Superbagneres at 1790m and hike the rest to 2410m. It was bloody gorgeous, pretty hot as well and definitely not restful. A walk like this is hard on the cyclists legs even with the Leki poles taking some of the strain. I certainly start to wonder if this is a rest of actually harder than riding. I'm also sunburnt now! We finally summit and sit for lunch of bread and cheese. Going down is far quicker, but it feels like my feet are trying to break out of the front of my boots it's so steep, I'm convinced my socks have melted. Soon though we are down and phase two of the rest day is about to start. We're off to the Thermes to sweat it out in the 42o caves and pummel our legs in the spa pools. The Thermes are better than anything man made and we stay there until closing time. I feel ready for day four.
Day four is a single climb, we're going up the hors catagorie (HC) Port de bales 1755m. This is an absolute favourite of mine if done from the 'hard' side and the 'hard' it was. The ride started off with a great 30km warm up going down the valley from Luchon. This time there were no blown tyres, no Garmin problems and no water bottles spilling over the road to ruin the start, just a 35kph ride in the sun. After 30km the route turns off the D125 to Siradan and follows a beautiful route that undulates through farmland and village to Mauléon-Barrouse where soon the route turns right over the waters that have come down from the mountain we are about to climb. The first kilometres of the climb are steady through forest. The warmth of the farmland below has given way to fresh cool mountain air, so far the climb is pleasant. Then there it is, the first hairpin....things are about to get all very pointy from herein now. Last year this was the last of four Cols I climbed in the La lapebie, then the climb was strewn with riders in all sorts of pain, I find great pleasure in other peoples pain when riding, not my friends of course, but when you're on your chinstraps as we were then, it's who can manage the the pain the best.
|Spinning on the early slopes of the Bales|
Neil has gone on ahead, whilst I adopt Audax mode for a while to ease in the legs. As the gradient steepens the mountain becomes more exposed and it becomes damn hot. It's quite nice to be alone climbing this beast. The kilometre to go signs act as a torment, especially the one that says 9.5% average but then starts with a slight drop, you just know you're in for a beasting at some point. When it comes I literally wobble to the top it's all I can do to avoid the rockfall that litters the road. Even the sunbathing Lizards don't rush to get out of the way.
I'm given a gentle breather as the road cuts through the Pas de Canadien, last year there was a feed station here, no such luck this time. \however the gradient drops to 7% for a while, just enough to ease tired legs before the summit appears 4km away and before the final exposed push starts. I see Neil a few hairpins ahead, but he soon disappears. I think he is close, but the road zig zags away seemingly taking me further away from my summit goal, Neil is clearly further away than I thought.
Finally I'm almost there with just the metre markers to push home the effort. 300......200.....100 and I'm at the top. I hadn't noticed the sun being replaced by cloud and wind in the last few kilometres, but now it was cold so arm warmers and gilets go on. We take the obligatory col top piccy and head down.
The descent is one of the finest, and I'm a little surprised to find I can recall most of the turns. However that doesn't help when a car takes a hairpin too fast and comes head on at me, only diving into the storm channel alongside the road saves me from a visit to the Pearly Gates. It doesn't slow me and I'm happy with my off road 'skilz'. It's crazy what you do sometimes. Neil got to the top first so I want to get to the bottom first, ideally sat drinking a coffee when he comes in! I get to the bottom ahead, but I've no cash damn it.
Port de bales is a real tough one, and one col today is enough as it's three big ones on day five.
Day five is three cols. The Peyresourde 1569m then the Col d'azet 1580m then the Peyresourde again two Pyrenean and Tour classics. We start the climb or the first climb of the Peyresourde virtually from the front door, which I can tell you is plain ugly. Fraser on fresh legs is well up the road, followed by myself then Neil who must be paying for his blast to the top of the Bales?
|First hairpins on the Peyresourde|
We regroup at Garin and take a detour that traverses Portet De Luchon before spitting you out on the main climb just before the climb becomes serious business. We summit almost together and stop for coffee and frites at the small summit café. Again the weather dictates arm warmers and gilets for the descent. It's another fast one, not too many bends you can get down this pdq. From mountain top to lake, we're now riding along the edge of Lac de genos-loudenvielle and slow down to absorb it's beauty. It seems an ideal place to stop and replenish drinks, so we do. We tempo along the other shore of the lake to the start of the climb of the Azet. This is another favourite of mine, with me it's not all about the height it's more how you get there and this one gets you to the top by pure hairpin bend! I go to the front, sitting standing sitting again it's a climbers treat. Fraser is a little way behind me and comments on my shoulders, you see I don't like a rider that rocks his shoulders when riding, looks messy. Well my shoulders are well and truly rocking and I start to laugh at his comments, problem is laughing and trying to keep your lungs in don't go together too well and I fall back while Fraser passes. We group at the top and sit a long while taking in the views. And of course get the piccy.
Now for some fun. The descent of the Azet ooooh! Everything you know about balance, position and braking, actually everything you know about riding is needed to descend this one at full tilt. You get momentary glimpses of the lake bellow which just adds to the feeling of altitude. I could descend this all day or until my pads wore down to nothing! All to soon we spill out onto the shores of the lake below. Deciding we're hungry we head off for a café only to find that our extra long stay at the summit has robbed us of eating time, all the cafés are closed. Luckily there's a small supermarket serving the ski resort so we dine in the car park on bread and cheese.
All that's left to do now is climb the Peyresourde again. I really don't fancy this, I don't mind climbing, but the Peyresourde from here is a slog. I scarper off ahead to get it over and done with, but Neil and Fraser both come past. I curse the fact that Neil chooses this moment to find his legs again and it's all I can do to keep them both in sight. Neil is ahead, but I manage to ride in with Fraser. Lets say no more about that climb. The descent however!, not technical, but it has some run outs and I manage a good 53 mph plus chasing Fraser back to the front door.
Day six and the last day of riding is a climb to the top of Superbagneres 1800m and I think HC. I've been looking forward to this all week as I didn't manage it last year. The start is the hardest start of the week, we're climbing hard and we've not been riding five minutes! On top of this there's a strong headwind. I press on hard convinced I'm now a Belgian headwind specialist, I'm way ahead of Neil and Frasers out of sight. However today Fraser is on a hire bike after exploding a freehub. I know what's happened, he has landed another shit hire bike that doesn't work. Turned out that I was right.
I turn out of the wind and onto the hairpins, Neils a dot in the distance. I feel so good I can hardly feel the efforts of climbing. I'm just 3.5km from the summit when all of a sudden.....TWANG my back goes big time. This has never happened ever. I can't pedal and have to fall against a signpost to stop. I manage to slide the bike out from under me and await Neils arrival. I explain what's happened and we wait for Fraser, but I know deep down he won't be coming up the mountain. Sadly I have to descend, I roll down a few kilometres and wonder if it's worth trying again. I loop around, but my legs won't work, so back down it is. Two years running Superbagneres has beaten me.
So day seven is spent sitting it out watching the world go by. Next year I'll tackle Superbagneres before anything else.
So there it is another summer in the Pyrenees. It wasn't all riding, there's the good food, the finest beers, musical Whippet club vans, Spaniards crashing into fountains, after beer movies icluding the best use of the C word in a movie and in particular French Madams who just do a tight jean so well.