Another go at the Pyrenean Raid
A matter of months after abject failure in 2015 as part of an organised tour with flights and a hire bike. This time I would tackle the Pyrenean Raid on my own in the heat of the summer. Is this wise? Time will tell.
Firstly – what is the Pyrenean Raid?
The Raid Pyrénéen is a timed bicycle challenge over a route that traverses the length of the Pyrenees between Hendaye on the Atlantic coast and Cerbère on the Mediterranean keeping close to the French/Spanish border. It can be completed in either direction – I have chosen West to East. Around 300 people complete this “randonnée” each year, between 1 June and 30 September, either entering the event as an individual and riding independently, taking care of their own arrangements, or joining an organised event run by one of the many tour companies.
The event began in 1950 and is organised and overseen by the Cyclo-Club Béarnais in Pau. There are two official versions: a 720 km route to be completed in under 100 hours for randonneurs or a 790 km route to be completed in under 10 days for cycle-tourists. I was aiming for the 720km under 100 hours climbing some 40,000 feet in 4 and a bit days.
This time I would take my own bicycle; and this time it was with our own car – 1,000 miles from Edinburgh to Hendaye the last French town on the Atlantic. Two days of solid driving on the motorways of England and France with a break on the overnight Portsmouth to St Malo ferry. I am very fortunate to have support for the trip and the challenge ahead.
So to our Hotel Jardins de Bakea, four or so miles from Hendaye start, and literally a stone’s throw from the river which separates France from Spain. It was rather nice, I’d forgotten I had booked a ‘premium’ room for two nights.
Monday morning dawned with piercing blue sky …. and a lie in on what was a ‘designated’ rest day to recover from the travel. We would have a short cycle around Hendaye, nipping in and out of Spain in the process.
The sun was hot – it touched about 25 degrees – but the air was still fairly fresh for mid July in the south of France (thankfully). We coasted gently up and down the huge expansive beach the last on the French west coast at Hendaye. This is where the cycle will start tomorrow.
The afternoon was spent snoozing in the grounds of the beautiful hotel gardens overlooking the valley to the Basque country in Spain. Evening was spent at Carrefour supermarket buying cakes, fruit, biscuits and water. Lovely meal in a bar in St Jean de Luz with the most sullen proprietor you could imagine. Not sure he takes kindly to people who do not speak French fluently.
DAY 1, TUESDAY – Off and Running, 98 miles and 7,200 feet ascent into the Western Pyrenees.
What a difference a day makes. Dawn broke damp and misty. Excellent cycling weather for the first day at least.
Left Hendaye at 9.05am. No point leaving any earlier – it only means a rush on the final morning to achieve the under 100 hours. Few wrong turns on the stretch up the Atlantic coast but Garmin worked fine. Liz had tougher job in support vehicle through some busy towns. Lunch in Ttipia restaurant in Saint John Pied de Port: risotto and salad. All a bit frazzled as it is a very popular tourist town. Weather was overcast and still …. but humid. This will do me fine.
Last few pulls to the Hotel Bon Coin in Lurbe St Christau. Last September I had nearly cycled through the hotel front door such was the ferocity of the thunderstorm and the absence of brakes with all the water. Bit more sedate this time. Good start. Hotel was not great to be honest, very damp and dark … but they did make us us a nice enough meal.
DAY 2, WEDNESDAY – Brutality on a bike, 84 miles and 11,500 feet over the L’Aubisque and Le Tourmalet
Awoke ridiculously early so decided to get up and away by 6.30am. It was damp and misty climb up through woods my lights flashing front and rear. Worst road surface so far – in general the roads are fantastic compared with home and make such a difference, especially giving downhill confidence. Stopped in at roadside Patisserie on the road to Laruns to warm up with a cup of tea and a croissant. The irony of being chilled and in need of heat (see later in day!).
The next stretch to Laruns had been erased from my memory (such was the focus on the two big cols coming up) but comprised a 20 miles stretch on a gradually increasing rise. But the real fun starts when you turn a sharp left and see the first of the km markers to the Col d’Aubisque (1709m) – there would be 18 of them. Most of the first half up through woods on a reasonable 4-7% rise its easy to get into a rhythm and count down the markers. Then l’Aubisque cranks up to between 7-9% up through a ski resort called Gourette, out into the open, above the clouds and exposed to the strengthening sun. I was determined to protect the knees early on in the trip ….. so I spun out on the lowest gears.
Unlike last time the views were simply breathtaking above the clouds. All I could hear was the cowbells and the pounding of my heart. This is why we do it!
Lots of photographs on the last kilometre thanks to the support I had ….
support vehicle in danger of being trampled over.
And so it was onward to the fast descent with the relatively small rise up to the Col de Soulour between us and lunch. The scenery was breathtaking up high at 6,000 feet above an inversion.
So it was a long, sweeping descent down into the town of Argeles-Gazost for an early lunch of pizza and salad. However I had planned or shaped this day I would be looking to tackle the dreaded Tourmalet in the stifling heat of the afternoon. And this July day did not disappoint – piercing blue sky. This was the stretch I had feared most so I was keen to get going – I had forgotten about the 10 miles on the busy D921 up a steadily rising river gorge … thankfully wind assisted. At the village of Luz St Saveur the real stuff begins – over 18km of relentless up and up … and up. The first ‘half’ is – in my humble opinion – the worst with long ‘straight-up’ 8-12% sections with no shade.
The next bit of the story would be something normally kept out of heroic cycle blogs. But the truth of Le Tourmalet has to be told! A stop in the village of Bareges for a drink and a crepe did not do the trick (as I had hoped) – by the time I had reached the Ski centre (a sort of half way transition before the hairpin bends begin) … I was in trouble. Every conceivable genre of cyclist was passing me (thankfully no unicycles out today). Over-heating, no energy, felt sick, trembling – not the stuff of dreams: the Robert Miller’s of this world – king of the mountains – ghosted up the Tourmalet dancing on the pedals on a few bowls of cornflakes for fuel. I was a wreck.
So after half an hour shut eye, plenty fluids and forced cake feed I crawled back into the sunlight, gingerly mounting the Focus Cayo and began the last 10km grinding it out to the lofty Col (you had to crane your neck to see it!). There had been a steady stream of camper vans passing all day looking for their roadside slot for Le Tour coming through two days later. They were lining the road erecting their flags marking out their European distinctiveness. For me they offered brief respite in the form of slithers of shade.
the last few kilometres crank up to 10% plus in places – was this a second wind?
On reaching the Col and getting the necessary stamp (for the verification) all the horrors are forgotten. Composure resumed, snot wiped away it was a veritable photo shoot in what was now a lovely late afternoon temperature. It has to be said that Le Tourmalet is also a gruelling ascent for Liz in support. Not easy to drive … and to wait … and wait … and wait.
Now for the descent all the way to the hotel – last time in wet and freezing conditions: this one I would enjoy. There were still a stream of cyclists picking their way up through the hairpins, but they were not so daft as the temperature much cooler in the evening.
Main hazards on the descent are beasts – goats, sheep, cattle and in my case horses. Enforced stop half way down as they crossed the road stopping to wind up the motorists for good measure.
We rolled into the famous village, Sainte Marie de Campan, and the equally famous ‘Deux Cols Hotel’ to a warm welcome (I would start with the second col tomorrow). Great three course meal served (even had wine), comfortable room with a view. The only slight downer was Wales being put out of the European Championship by Portugal. So that is Day 2 and Le Tourmalet out of the way. Let’s see if I can go further than last time into Day 3.
DAY 3, THURSDAY – into new territory, 100 miles and 10,000 feet from Saint Marie de Campan to the hippie town of Massat
Determined to keep up my early starts I was on the road pedalling by 5.50am. Only two minutes into the day I had already gone further than my last attempt, passing the lay-by where the left knee gave in back in September. I had two Cols to conquer in the morning both up at 5,000 feet and no pushovers. The conditions were perfect – and the sunrise over the mountains was a scene to behold: unfortunately for the memory rather than the camera. The route was also packed solid with camper vans lining the Tour de France sprint sections through town and on every bend up both the mountains. It was all a touch eerie cranking my way past them all – apart from the odd soul stirring they obviously don’t get up in camper van land until at least 8am.
First up was the beautifully paced Col d’Aspen (1489m). Most of it through wooded sections with early morning bird call and the odd deer scurrying across the road. Cranking up to 8% gradient at the end I felt it …. but nothing of the previous day exertions (.. yet). The descent was a pleasure down to the village of Arreau.
Second up was the Col du Peyresourde (1569m) and with the sun getting up and a testing little headwind for the last 2 kilometres I definitely felt this one.
Awaiting me at the top was a wonderful Creperie – best crepes in France for 0.50 euros a shot. I had four washed down with a cup of tea waiting for Liz in the support vehicle! Unfortunately I was to witness a tragic happening. A gentleman in his sixties made it up the other side of Peyresourde but in the now searing heat of the Col he simply keeled over sideways in his cleats. The helicopter ambulance was swift in lowering paramedics down to try some resuscitation … but I fear he may have died. We were waved past the makeshift medical gazebo (for shade) – left to contemplate one of the fastest, sweeping descents of the entire week. Concentration needed.
A distressing sight – the paramedics dropped in by helicopter against the searing heat of the day.
After the descent I missed a turn and got lost further up the valley in the heat of the day. Found myself on 12% inclines up through quaint villages forgotten by time. Thankfully the Garmin spat me out near Antichan de Frontignes back on route. Unfortunately I was greeted by a ‘Route Baree’ sign in the middle of the road. A rather professional looking road cyclist sped past shouting ‘the pass is closed’ (they just know you are not French or Italian!). So what else to do but lie sprawled on a bench waiting for Liz in the car.
This was not good. All this effort … to be scuppered by road closures. I enquired at the last house before the road closure and the gentleman and his friends were most encouraging. They reckoned a bike could slip past. I was all for giving it a go. We had lunch on the village park picnic bench and I said farewell to Liz who would re-trace her steps and (hopefully) meet up after I had cycled the two cols.
So with some trepidation (and extra vigilance) I cranked up through the woods to Col de Ares (797m). The only blockage was a work van and more significantly a steamroller occupying the width of the narrow road. I gave a couple of confident ‘Bonjours’ as I slipped by on the thin strip of tarmac. So that was it – so glad I had persevered. I was through. Did not even notice Col du Buret (602m).
The last Col of Day 3 was what’s known in the trade as ‘a b*****’. Col de Portet d’Aspet may not be the longest at 10km but has a real sting in its tail with the last 5km going from 8% to 10% (with short sections well above this). With tired legs this one hurts. I teamed up with a Frenchman who was tacking his way up with sweeping movements using full width of the road. At first it looked ridiculous but I’ll try anything to stop the knees from going again. Before we knew it – it was done.
The late afternoon and early evening featured stifling heat and humidity. Although mainly downhill the cycle to St Girons was a real effort. I was wilting. After an abortive stroll around the town of St Girons looking for food … it was clear we were both getting fractious. So we headed out on the wooded stretch some 14 miles up a river valley to the laid back town of Massat. Last stretch was in the rain as thunderstorms brewed.
Hotel room in Massat was directly opposite a hippy squat with bongo drums and chanting in the ‘garden’. Everyone to their own … but not here, not now I’m sorry.
A quieter room was found in the excellent Hotel and cafe Le Maxil, a restaurant standard meal was served and we experienced the excitement of the semi finals of Euro 2016 where France defeated Germany much to the delight of the locals.
DAY 4, FRIDAY – More brutality up over the massive Col du Pailheres, 97 miles and 11,500 feet climbing from Massat to Prades
The starts were getting earlier – I was leaving nothing to chance on the final big day so I hit the road just before 6am.
After a circuit of the town until the Garmin kicked in – it was straight on to the climb up to the Col de Port (1249m). I really enjoyed this in the coolest temperature yet up through the forest. Did not encounter a single vehicle or person on the climb.
I didn’t hang around and for the first time on the trip a flimsy wind jacket was not ideal for the fast descent. Time I got down to Tarascon I was in need of a cup of tea and a croissant. The next 25km on a busy road to Ax-Les Thermes was a bit of a struggle, eventually I hooked on to the back of a peloton for the last few kilometres and the turn off on to the 18km climb up Pailheres (2001m). What a slog this one was – the top does have the incentive of being the watershed between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, but that thought escaped me as the gradient cranked up and up.
Extra clothes on for the descent … which turned out to be quite eventful. Firstly another collapse this time by a woman cyclist who was scooped up by a van, thankfully recovered. Then I had a blow out on my front wheel on one of the ramps to a hairpin – could have been nasty at the speed, certainly gave me a jolt.
After coming off Pailheres (a little more gingerly) the heat was building again. Lunch stop in Mijanes lay-by then onwards to the half-way climb up to Col de Moulis (1099m). I will remember this for using the music on my I Pod from winter spinning classes which acted as a real spur up the medium gradients. The Col houses a pig farm and a rather friendly border collie dog, not the most salubrious of spots.
Col de Garavel (1262m) did indeed come and go without even noticing. After a head dip in the watering hole in Roquefort I was ready to tackle the very last Col of the Raid – Col de Jau (1503m). It was no pushover – a few 8% kilometres in a row – but the incentive of being the last one and with some music for the last few kilometres it was soon all over. Great encouragement from Liz who was glad to see the back of them too.
What an utterly wonderful descent off the Col de Jau. Partly the elation of having conquered all the cols, partly the wonderful Mediterranean feel, mostly the downhill momentum to a rest and a meal.
Thoughts of cycling beyond Prades were put to bed – I was very tired and in need of rest. The Prades hotel reception very friendly and gave us a nice, quiet room. Pizza restaurant in town just the trick before an early night and before the final push tomorrow.
HALF DAY 5, SATURDAY – So this was it: a coast to the coast, 59 miles and only 2,000 feet of rising from Prades to Cerbere on the Mediterranean.
My attempt to get away at 6am thwarted by my bike being locked in a cupboard near the hotel reception. No matter, time to sort out the mess in the car and eat loads of provisions from the car. Receptionist arrived at 6.30 and I was off and pedalling 10 minutes later. First stretch out of Prades arguably the most dangerous of the trip. The low rising sun like a glow ball immediately in your face and more crucially in the face of speeding motorists. I was ‘hugging the gutter’ for the first 10 miles or so. Otherwise downhill and downwind it was an utter delight – I made the Mediterranean coast well before 9am.
After a good hour having breakfast at a Patisserie in Argeles ‘by the sea’ the hard work down the coast was yet to come. Heat had built to near 30 degrees and the coast road was very busy indeed. Add in the coast road ‘undulations’ (one quite big) – there was much work to do yet. Liz having an awful time navigating in and out coastal resorts, at least two restricted by local markets and pageants.
The arrival in Cerbere – the last French town on the Mediterranean coast – was sweet as sweet. It was nearing midday Saturday – a whole hour to spare from the 100 hours allowed. The 9am start in Hendaye on the Atlantic back on Tuesday seemed a distant memory. Hotel Dorade is the final destination and the proprietor an official guardian of the Pyrenean Raid fraternity.
If you have got this far in the blog – well done for the stamina and thanks for tuning in. I will leave you with some finishing shots including a beer and a dip in the Mediterranean – it was in that order!