We all met on July 31 at Nick and Jan’s Cyle Lodge in Biert. There were six of us, 4 hilarious Brits (Martin Newsted, Terry Beach, David Ward and Kevin Brown) and 2 US riders (myself and Bill Dussler). We had a few days to explore the area and get to know each other before starting on Monday. We climbed my first Pyreneen climb, the Col de Saraille, then Col de Latrape and the ascent to Guzet Neige. It was hot! We all had lunch at the top before the descent and a long ride back to the Lodge. The next day, Bill, Terry and I headed for Col de la Crouzette (a very steep bugger at 13-14%), Col de Peguere, Col de Caoughnous, and Col de Portel where we had some spectacular views from Tour Laffon of Mt. Valier and the surrounding peaks. David, Kevin and Martin headed to St. Giron because Martin’s crank spider was cracked and needed replacing. Every evening Nick cooked us up some fabulous meal and we ate and drank in the fading light. Sunday we drove to Hendaye.
The Raid started on Monday August 4th in Hendaye on the Atlantic coast and we got there a day early to play in the surf and drink beer on the promenade. Nothing like topless beaches and big waves to pass the time! It was a nice casual break before the days of climbing. Monday we headed out of town in what was to become ever increasing heat…how hot we were soon to find out. We had 100 hours to complete the 720 km route.
The first day was just under 190 km and the enthusiasm was high as we kept a fairly high tempo on the coastal road and onto the first small cols and two control stops to get our cards signed. We dipped briefly into Spain at Dancharia and followed the valleys as they slowly went into the mountains. By early afternoon it was over 100 degrees and the headwinds were vicious, like having someone point a hot air dryer in your face…we followed the “Route de Frommage” to Larceveau and the temps had gone over 110 degrees. Three of the six riders had already abandoned due to heat problems. I felt really bad for them but it really was hellish. Myself, Bill and one English time trialer Dave remained on course. I was dizzy with heat exhaustion. The climb to Col d’Osquich was so painful it took every ounce of concentration to simply pedal forward; no trees to block the sun and no wind to cool down with. I really wondered what the hell I was doing, but also knew I would not quit.
At the summit cafe I was having problems getting off the bike and walking over to the shade to sit down, as even there the heat was intense. I sat for over 45 minutes consuming lemonade and water, trying to cool my core temps down. We were barely half way through the day! Dave was faster and headed off and Bill and I slowly pedaled our way to Tardet where the next control was. There we really had to evaluate if we could even finish as the amount of liquids we needed to consume were not nearly enough, every sip immediately evaporated out of my body. We had scores of bananas and salty chips. Dave headed on and we found some shady pave in front of a store and lay on the cool stones. We slept for a brief time and as evening approached we were glad to feel a slight drop in the temps. There were rolling hills now to the hotel at Arudy and the sun started to go down. We turned on lights (the other raiders thought we were foolish to carry the weight! Ha!) and finally arrived at Arudy after 10 p.m. Nick the ride organizer was frantic with worry, but relieved we were OK; he had never had anyone come in after dark, nor have anyone ever DNF on the first day. We were happy to be done and reveled in the cool night. Martin, Kevin and Terry helped get our bikes put away and made us feel at home after a extremely challenging day. The owner of the hotel, an older woman shook her finger at us and then proceeded to find us some things to eat. We must have looked too pathetic to admonish for long…
Day 2 we needed to start earlier and avoid some of the heat which was already building and would be our constant challenge for the rest of the week. By 7:30 a.m. we were on the road, first up the Col d’ Aubisque and Col de Soulor, both beautiful climbs. The Gorge de Luz on D921 was hot and long on the way to the Col du Tourmalet, but I was feeling better knowing today was only around 110 km. The final climb was spectacular, and we stopped at the cafe in Luz-St.-Sauver for drinks and a secret control. Then the big one, the Tourmalet, lots of switchbacks, dodging sheep on the long ascent and hearing the thunder and lightning as we approached the top of the col. I was the last one to the top (my usual position) and enjoyed a good mocha and photos before we plunged down the other side to Le Duex Cols Hotel in St. Marie de Campan. Descents are my forte and I was able to catch everyone on the downhill. 75-80 km speeds and the occasional bull or auto passing as we streaked down the switchbacks through La Mongie to the hotel. It was a great day and helped ease the turmoil of the first.
Wednesday, day 3 dawned hot for the coming 176 km and surprisingly I felt better and stronger than the first two days. We all headed out together in a fast paceline first over the Col d’Aspin, on a beautiful morning and with a tree-shaded climb it allowed a good pace and some great quiet riding. Next came the Col de Peyresourde, which was long and came up from the valley floor into ever decreasing tree cover. By the last 3-4 km the road was bathed in sun but even though the temps were high again, I must have been getting acclimated to it as I felt very good. There were a number of other day riders out for the climb and a couple of Basque team riders came by me quickly ascending the slopes ahead. I would see them coming up from the other side as I was heading down later on. At the top of the col, a small cafe had these funny wooden puzzles that you could make into windmills and when they were built the owner would show you how to blow into them to make the wheel spin…except that when the unwitting tourist tried it, talc blew into their face! It was very funny and every one in the cafe got a good laugh. I had a couple of lemonades and filled my bottles with Nick at the truck. It was time to head down and I left before a French rider could continue his story of how Armstrong wins because of EPO…Dave and I stopped for lunch at a cafe in Chaum, being a good hour ahead of schedule and Bill came by to say hello before he jumped ahead. The next climbs were the Col des Ares, Col de Buret and the Col de Portet d’Aspet. Each progressively more wonderful even with the heat. I stopped at the Fabio Casartelli Memorial and thought about all the great riders that had ridden these same mountains, some of the switchbacks would be nearly 15% grades and here I was toodling up them -at race pace this must be incredible! The descent from the top of Col de Portet d’Aspet into St. Lary was one of the most memorable for me, though the pavement had started melting again and I nearly “Beloki-ed” myself coming around the first curve into St. Lary. After that was the long valley ride to Biert where we stayed at the Cycle Lodge and enjoyed another wonderful meal of paella and wine prepared by Nick. We met up with Steve from Australia who had just ridden the same 3 day route we did in just 2 days!
Day 4 was another day of sunshine, but cooler in this part of the Pyreneens. We started with the small Col de Caougnous and then climbed the Col de Port on our way to Aux-le-Thermes. Steve and I had lunch together after battling some traffic on the N20. It was very nice and I enjoyed his company a great deal. We saw Bill and Dave come past and then headed up the Col de Puymorens after enjoying a refreshing cassis beverage made with local spring water. The rain started falling here and the traffic was horrendous as people were driving to Andorra for cheap cigarettes and booze. We just rode in the oncoming lane and passed them all as the crawled up the long slopes. At the top we had sandwiches and I borrowed some arm warmers from Martin for the descent. The next few climbs were gradual and the terrain and environment was changing to reflect our entry into the Mediterranean-influenced side of the mountains. Even the smells were different. We headed over the Col de Louis, Col de Rigat and the Col de Perche before ascending the very long slog over Mt Louis. It was wide open country and you could see for miles. We powered down the gorge on the first real rough pavement and I lost a bottle on the way down, thinking it was going to knock Steve over! This was also the first place I was nearly taken out by an idiot in an SUV that was passing two caravans going uphill as I headed down. I could feel his mirror brush by my shoulder as I hugged the rock wall. It was quite terrifying…. The stop for the night was in the town of Villefranche-de-confluent, a beautiful walled city where I went out for beers with Terry, Martin and Kevin.
Friday the 5th and final day of the Raid sent us quickly into Prades for the control and then screamed along as the route dropped to the Med. Dave and the rest set a mean pace of over 35 km an hour and I was dropped within the first 15 km. They waited a bit later on the shortcut past Ille-sur-tet and then started the fast train again. I could barely hold onto their wheels as we streaked along. At one point they curved to the right at a carrefour (roundabout) and in my rear view mirror I saw Nick turn the support truck on another road. I stopped and went back but the others continued on and when I caught Nick he said to just keep going and maybe the others would find their way. Now I was in the lead for once! I rode along for two hours and didn’t see them at all as I glimpsed the sea for the first time and headed up and down through Argeles-Plange and Port Vendre, each coastal town choked with traffic and pedestrians. I powered up the last few climbs in the big ring until the Cap l’Abelille, which was a long winding climb that seemed to never end. That was OK as I knew I was in the last 20 km of the ride and at only 6 km to go Dave caught me! He motored ahead and then Terry passed me in the last 2 km. We streaked into Cebere and got cards stamped at the Hotel la Dorade just before 12 noon. Minutes later we were enjoying a well earned beer and congratulating ourselves on a great ride. A 12 hour party ensued with my Aussie friend Steve and I breaking into someone’s hotel room at midnight as we had forgotten the keys…Dave felt the effects of our generous consumption…a few hangovers the next day kept us all reserved as we said our goodbyes and everyone headed off to other places. I’ll miss them all!
In retrospect, the Raid Pyreneen was a stupendous ride, with beautiful cols, lovely towns and villages, new friends and great support from Nick and Jan at Pyreneen Pursuits. The food was fabulous and only the heat really challenged the soul. It was the hottest temps in recorded history and we survived. I felt stronger every day and my Heron Road bike was reliable and steady both climbing and descending. I hope to ride again with my new friends Martin, Terry, David, Kevin and Steve, who were a never ending amount of fun to be with. Terry’s conviction that “cheese is the work of the devil” makes me want to mail him some for X-mas…
I spent a total of 14 days in the Pyreneens, and when not riding the Raid I headed to St. Giron for two days of trying to get a new bottom bracket and fixing a creaky pedal and the rest riding some other nearby cols: Col de Catchaudegue (that one twice as I forgot my pocketknife on a picnic one day and had to ride up again the next day to retrieve it!) and the rest of the time I hung out at the Auberge du Gypaète Barbu with owners Cam and Pascal.
Raid 450 miles (725 km) in about 98 hours. Total mileage in the Pyreneens was around 1100-1200 km.
Lessons learned: Heat can kill! Never under estimate one’s gut feeling of bringing along lights, they may come in handy! Lower gears are your friends. Descents are best done with every ounce of fear removed from the body, then making those swooping drops through switchbacks between oncoming and descending traffic doesn’t seem quite so insane…take more pictures.