Adventures, Cycling, Inspiration, Training

Crossing the Pyrenees – How hard could it be?

In the military I was always fond of the saying ‘no cuff too tough’ and would often resort to this policy with great success.  Not prepared for that meeting or presentation?  Just cuff it, it will be fine.  Not trained for your fitness test, just rock up and give it a go, you know you can do it, ‘what could possibly go wrong’ (another favourite saying…).  However, there are limits to this approach and I think I found them about half way up the wet, cold and misty Col D’Aubisque…

You see, I had this idea that I somehow wanted to prise a crossing of the Pyrenees, Atlantic coast to Mediterranean coast, into our 2013 summer holiday road trip.  This was fine in principle but there were a couple of problems, particularly the fact that other commitments meant I would barely be able to ride a bike in the 6 weeks prior to the trip.  To add to this I then suffered injuries that extended this period to almost 12 weeks so in affect, I did no training for the crossing.

Undaunted, and still under the impression I could ‘cuff it’, I carefully highlighted the proposed route on maps during the ferry crossing from Portsmouth to Santander.  I was roughly following what I understand to be the official RAID Pyrenees route and this was to involve 5 days of riding well over 100km per day with between 2000m and 3500m of climbing; each day was a challenging ride in itself!!!  Still I ploughed on determined.

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Leaving the Atlantic coast at Hendaye

After a couple of short warm up rides in country I started the ride from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast of France.  The first day involved just under 150km of undulating roads with only 3 minor cols to conquer.  This still accumulated over 2000m climbing but with regular support stops at The Dub with the LSW (Long Suffering Wife) the day went pretty well.  After dinner and preparing for the next day I felt pretty good but knew that the real tests would come when I hit the mountains.

The next day the legs felt ok as I got myself kitted up whilst the LSW prepared breakfast.  Off I rolled for a fairly straightforward and fun first 30km to the foot of the the Col D’Aubisque.  However, this was to be the first test and things soon got ugly.  The first 9km or so of the climb, relentless in its about 7% gradient, I actually felt pretty good but then a number of negative factors came together; the clouds set in and visibility became about 20m; the cloud brought drizzle and the temperature dropped; the fatigue started to take hold in my body.  The net result of these was for the climb to gradually feel more and more like a wall and I was forced to inch my way up one pedal stroke at a time, staring at my Garmin and willing the km’s to pass.  Eventually I arrived at the summit exhausted where I ate a bit, sat a bit, felt nauseous a bit, lay down a bit and then finally got going again as my day wasn’t done.

I finished the planned riding for the day, another couple of hours over the Col de Soulor, down to Argeles-Gazost and then a long drag up to Luz Saint Sauveur, but by the time LSW guided me into the campsite she had found I knew I was in trouble.  My legs were gone, proper tired and painful to the touch, and I was so exhausted and stiff I struggled to move around the campsite and perform simple tasks.  And the following day was due to start with an ascent of the Col du Tourmalet, the most feared climb in the Pyrenees.  I needed a miraculous overnight recovery, and wasn’t sure a protein shake was going to heal me…

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Broken, but smiling…

The reason people are drawn to riding a road bike in the mountains is because it is challenging.  On a standard road bike you need to generate a substantial amount of power to climb a gradient of 7% or greater, even in your lowest gear, probably more than you realise unless you have experienced it.  Put simply, if you cannot keep pushing hard on the footrests the bike stops and you fall off!  When I woke the next morning my legs were in no condition to deliver this power for even short periods let alone for the 2 hours it would take to climb the Tourmalet (literal translation – nasty detour!!).  I hated to be defeated but to carry on would be self destructive; I needed a rest day to recover.

Over the day LSW and I discussed options and although she was characteristically supportive and willing to help me continue the quest, two things became very clear; pressing on would start to impact on the plans for the rest of our holiday and more importantly, even if I went on to the Mediterranean and finished I would still see the ride as a failure because I had needed to take 6 days.  It was game over, this cuff had turned out to be too tough.

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Breathtaking, literally…

As a show of defiance and, if I am honest, to restore self confidence, I got back on the bike after my rest day for one last big day in the mountains.  The clouds cleared, the sun came out and I had a glorious ride over the Col du Tourmalet, the Col D’Aspin and the Col de Peyresourde, covering almost 100km and climbing over 3100m in the process.  It was a fabulous day on the bike and firmly put a marker down that I will be back to the Pyranees at some point in the future and will complete this challenge, perhaps after a little training next time…

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Winding upwards again…

If you are interested in trying to cross the Pyrenees yourself I personally found this blog really useful for route details and overview.

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