Saturday, 29 September 2012

This dream, I don't ever give up

Life is moving, turning and twisting on a-pace and I want to wrap up the Pyrenean blog and write about other stuff.

So this is the last tree days, nearly a month ago now, all in one bumper post. Day 4 was on paper a sort of transitional stage. For those of you who know the Tour, you will know that a transition stage is a relatively flat one which takes you form one set of mountains, the Pyrenees say, to another, like the Alpes.

On this trip there weren't really any flat bits, so the Col de Mente, Portet d'Aspet, Peguerre and Port will have to suffice in relative terms. First was Mente, a climb Stuart and I did last year on the first day of our mini-break cycling holiday. We had a nice rolling flat start of 10-15 km guided by Pyractif's resident helpers, as Chris was coming up with the fast group and Helen was busying preparing our picnic lunch for later, and they made pretty short work of it.

Mente is quite steep, averaging around 8% I think, but it has the obligatory views, as well as delightful hairpins and switchbacks on its upper slopes, which all help to break things up and keep it interesting. It also has history, as you can see from the photo I took last year.

A friend of mine has been complaining recently about the intricacies of the French language, but at least they know how to put up a good memorial. Can you imagine a similar inscription on Cheddar Gorge, it would be something like "Bob fell off and had to give up".

After a cafe stop at the top of Mente, it was down the other side, this time in the dry, which made for a fantastic this way-that way corner-sweeping fest of a comedown. Or something like that. And then it was up past another memorial, this time slightly more grandiose, to Fabio Casartelli, killed descending the Portet d'Aspet in 1995, and Olympic Champion three years earlier in Barcelona. This picture was taken last year as you can see from my profile (half a stone heavier than 2012) and the rain, fortunately absent this year.

The climb itself and short and steep, and after 4km we all re-grouped together at the top. For logistical reasons connected to the access for the support vehicles, Chris had decided to ditch the Col de Saraille, meaning we would have just two climbs left that day. On reflection I realised that the week would end quite quickly and I wanted to spend a bit of time in my own head, and stop and admire the scenery a bit.

So I eschewed company on the long descent to St. Girons, and stopped to reflect on just what a beautiful landscape I had been riding in, and how fortunate I was to have the opportunity of riding through it.

Eventually I rolled into St Girons, and Chris guided us through backstreets to a lovely spot by the river where we could enjoy Helen's picnic. I enjoyed the pizza particularly, plenty of calories and plenty of taste.

A special mention must be made for these two guys from the Middlesborough area. Both amazing cyclists, they rode the entire trip on standard 53/39 doubles with 12/25 cassettes. Which in view of the afternoon's exploits is absolutely amazing.

And as you can see from this photo, innately stylish as well as immensely strong.

The afternoon's ride was one of two halves. First was a gradual ascent up to Massat, through a gentle wooded gorge, and unfortunately a bit too much traffic. After a short spell riding with different groups I reverted to plan "Enjoy the scenery on my own". The day was turning into another warm one, so I got rid of base layer, helmet and prepared myself for the hardest climb of the entire trip. The Col de Port is a very easy climb, and also tranquil and beautiful. Possibly my favourite in the whole world.

But halfway up is a turning up to the Col de Peguerre, 3.5 kms at an average of around 12%. Sounds doable on paper, but when you think that is the average, it's like Draycott Steep but three times as long. And hot, although thankfully fairly shaded for much of it. Once again, many of the group passed it by on the way to the top of the Port, but I couldn't do that. Signed up for it, had to do it.


Once back down, it was about 6kms up to the top of the Port, before the descent to Tarascon and the hotel for the night.

Day 4's route

Overnight I was woken by the ominous sounds of rain, and true enough Day 5 dawned damp, drizzly and dark. This was the day when every inch of road was to be new to me, with some lesser-known climbs and isolated roads to be ridden.

In riding terms I think it turned into the nicest day of the whole trip, although it was harder and a lot longer than we all expected, mainly due to the weather. The Route des Corniches is a road that runs along the top edge of the valley between Tarascon and Ax-les-thermes. Some steep bits to begin with to get you up there, but mostly just meandering, undulating isolated tarmac, with spectacular views across the mountains and gorges, and ruined castles to point the way. What is not to like?

Well, I suppose the rain was one thing. What had started as drizzle, became proper rain, then all-enveloping mist and rain, then just a total immersion in dampness. And of course at altitude, that means cold. So by the time we reached the Col de Chioula, the temperature was hovering around 5-7C, and the group was fragmented and separated by a large distance and a couple of puncture stops. People were getting grumpy!

Quite rightly, Chris made the decision to take everyone down into Ax for a re-group and a re-think, pending some intelligence on the conditions at the top of the Port de Paillheres, the 2000m+ climb that was next on the itinerary. We descended, then invaded a slightly surprised cafe while Chris worked out what to do next. Everyone was thawing out, searching for dry clothes, and trying to get hot food and drink inside them, after a 10km descent in cold and wet conditions. Not as cold as Aspin 2010, but in the my top 10 worst cycling weather moments list.

It turned out to be near 1C at the top of the Paillheres, and with no shelter or changing facilities up there, and a 20km descent down the other side, Chris took the sensible decision to change the route for the day. And as it turned out, instead of a hard day's climbing, we ended up with a long loop around the northern side of the range, through some of the most stunning and fantastic scenery you can imagine.

This blog gets these superlatives all the time, but really, there were gorges, wooded valleys, tumbling streams, isolated villages of character and mystery, and also a lot of extra distance. We ended up doing over 160km in the end.

And though we missed out on the big climb, it was a not a flat day by any description. We still had to go back up the Chioula that we had just come down, up the minor Clo de Sept Freres, and then up the Col de Jau, with its first three km averaging 10%,  followed by a further 10km of staedy gradient - not for the feeble-legged.

We had a brief stop and re-group for a hot drink in a small village, and occasionally I would catch up with or be overtaken by some of our group. But for most of the afternoon I was deep in myself, my thoughts and my feelings. It was one of the most intense days I have had on my bike, if not my life. As I started up the lower slopes of the Col de Jau, knowing that I was one of the last on the road, I was overcome with emotion about my Mum.

I had no idea that her health was taking a huge turn for the worse at just about that very moment, and looking back now I am wondering about this, it sounds crazy but are there bigger forces at work in the world? Was there some kind of connection being made across all that space and time?

I stopped by the side of the road, and thought to myself that I when I got home I would tell her all about this wonderful and magical place, how I was thinking of her at that very moment and took this picture that encapsulates everything about the trip. I was tired, quite hungry, a bit teary but, as ever, utterly determined to carry on. This was the picture I took.

As it turned out I never got to tell her about the trip, and a lot of me feels guilty for having gone. But my logical side tells me that she was clear with me that I should go, and that it would have changed nothing had I stayed. I must hold on to the good things as I continue that journey.

After that it was just about slogging on up the hill to the top of the last Col, the Jau. A 20KM descent followed as the weather slowly brightened. I overtook a couple of groups on my way down, through picturesque villages, and the land began to take on more of a Mediterranean feel. The penultimate hotel was a motel on the outskirts of Prades.

It had been a tough day, and with the back of the mountains pretty much broken I looked forward to a last hurrah down to the seaside the next day.

Day 5 route

Day 6 dawned hot and dry, and we all tagged along in a big group down the road towards the Mediterranean. With only around 80kms to do, we were there before you knew it, there was one small climb up to the Col de Fourtou, through a hot and arid gorge, past a tiny village with its traditional war memorial. Odd to think that a place with little more than a few houses and a surrounding farms had nonetheless lost around 20 men in the First World War. It seemed a world away from the tranquillity of the mountain and the heat of the that gorge.

Unfortunately one of the Canadians, a nice chap currently living in the French Alps, had an accident whilst taking off his jacket and riding at the same time, takining a nasty tumble in the process. The search for appropriate medical intervention fragmented the final morning somewhat. But with the last climb done, we all headed for the final blast down across the plains to the sea at Argeles sur Mer. Once again I saw in some of the final miles on my own. Before the final festivities and celebrations, with people jumping in the sea, knocking back the wine or eating normal-sized food again, I paused to look back, reflect and take one last picture.

The final day's route

Of course this blog post has been written a month after the events it describes and so much has happened in the intervening period. I'm currently winding down for the winter, doing a few rides here and there, riding to work, and coming to terms with what has happened.

Like all these things, I have to do it my own way. Just like the ride in fact, I did it, did it quite well be my standards and loved most of it. If that didn't show enough to the people I was with, I am sorry. Few of them will read this in any case, but I had other things on my mind. Helen and Chris were wonderful guides and hosts, ably supported by Pete. If you are thinking of cycling in Europe, check them out before anyone else, definitely A* for the experience.

And as is also my way, I tend to look forward more than back, and I'm mulling over various things for next year although I have a lot to work through before I get that far. But it is ironic that most of the photos I took were of the views of where I had come from, like this one. Whilst I work out some of that stuff, this blog will be off the air for a while. I hope the few readers I have will still be there when I come back.

Don't ever give up

Sunday, 23 September 2012

I made it through the wilderness

The morning of Tuesday 28th August dawned misty and damp. The night before had seen, and more impressively heard, a mighty thunderstorm cracking and rolling around the surrounding peaks and valleys, and dump a huge volume of rain outside the hotel. As it turned out, it was just what my poor lungs needed as it cleared the air of a lot of its humidity.

I dosed the lungs up from both my inhalers and set off up the road.

Even so, I still spluttered and wheezed my way up the moderate inclines of the gorge that separated our starting point from the Luz St. Saveur, and the start of our first proper climb of the day. That morning I was all on my own, as the mixed nationalities convoy displayed their team time-trialling prowess up towards Luz. A couple of them worked, or are connected to the Virgin group, one at as senior level as you can get without having a beard and a jumper. As soon as the climb proper started, their larger engines started to catch up with some of them, and I overtook some of them, including the Virgin duo, as their group splintered.

On paper this was a big day, with the climbs of Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde ahead of us, followed by a run down to the Pyractif base in Bertren, a shallow descent but likely to be into a hot headwind later in the day. Though all are tough climbs, I had ridden every inch of the road at least once before, and some sections of it twice, so I knew what I was up against. Which lessened the apprehension.

I was also on postman duty, returning a small purse (a long story) to the  Hotel du Tourmalet in the town of Bareges, about halfway up. My friend Kara works there and runs associated businesses in the area so it was a shame not to be able to hook up with her for logistical reasons. I wouldn't have made good company anyway, so I'm looking forward to her visit to the UK soon.

You can just see the Hotel in the background (on the right) of Chris's picture here, I decided to represent Devon for the iconic climb, and by the time this photo was taken I was starting to enjoy myself as I got my breathing under control.

 Slowly I emerged into the upper reaches of the climb, the tree cover fell away, the sun came out, it was still cool, and I got into a steady rhythmic cadence. If Chris ever wants to embark on an alternative career I think he would make an excellent sports photographer, as he gave me instructions on where to ride so he could frame these two shots on the Tourmalet.

I particularly loved this next one, as I have said before, it almost makes me look like a real cyclist.

Eventually after 20km I reached the final 12% ramp that leads to the col, the cafe, the statues and the chaos of the continental grockles. During the climb I had felt comfortable. Slow, yes, but I had enjoyed it and completed it about 25 minutes faster than in 2010. But once off the bike and into the cafe I began to feel very cold and started to shiver, despite the warmth of the surroundings and my gilet. I rapidly took on board some more fuel, put on my arm warmers and headed for the descent.

I had put new brake blocks on the bike before I left the UK, along with new tyres, and they certainly proved their worth. But for some reason the brakes decided to start screeching and juddering on the Tourmalet, a bit disquieting and detracted a little from the enjoyment of the descent.

Not that there was too much time to think about it as we rolled straight onto the moderate early slopes of the Aspin as we headed for our early lunch stop at Payolle. Learning from the previous two days I stuck mainly to fluids and sugary sweets, and that certainly paid off as I had a good afternoon on the hills.

This was the third time I had climbed the Aspin, and I really loved it. Although by now it was quite warm, most of the steep slopes are through woodland or partially shaded pasture, and the views at the top were once again quite outstanding. Regular puffs of salbutamol also helped, as was the thought of the descent of the other side. In 2010 it had been pouring with rain, leading to one of the coldest 20 minutes I have ever experienced on a bike as I slowly lost touch with my fingers and toes.

No problems today though. The road was bone dry, there were few cars, and as I knew the road I was able to come down the long straights and sweeping hairpins at a reasonable speed. The brakes still screeched though. A fair-sized group formed as we got to Arreau, only to split apart again as we rolled up to the early slopes of the Peyresourde.

The climb itself is a steady 7-8% for most of the time, and eventually leads out into a V-shaped valley a couple of km below the summit. Where you find the best crepe cafe in the Pyrenees, and its ebullient host. There was quite a collection of cyclists outside, and I had to wait my turn to get my summit photos. As well as the standard one by the col sign, I took one of the mile marker, you see these dotted alongside all the roads, much nicer than our old rusty things, and remind me of the old-fashioned milestones we used to have in the UK.

The descent of the Peyresourde into Luchon was also one I had done before, and, after the first big hairpins at the top, is long, straight and fast. I was nearly caught out by the new roundabout they have put in half-way down and for some reason I found myself as the first of the group down into Luchon.

Luchon is a spa town, which I suspect explains this picture.

Unless they are providing some luxurious waiting facilities for public transport in the Pyrenees.

I was now faced with a 25km straight rode, with an average 1% downhill gradient to Bertren and the Pyractif base. I started slowly as I quite fancied hiding in a big group and taking it easy at the end of a hard day. But no-one was about and I didn't really want to hang on forever, so I put my head down into the wind and went as hard as I could. I kept expecting to be passed by the multi-national express, but it never came and I arrived into Bertren just before their train swung into the courtyard. With all that weight they still couldn't catch a little puffer from Bristol, hope they don't lose their franchise.

Here is the day's route.

Friday, 21 September 2012

The heart is a bloom

It's been a long week, it's been a hard week. The funeral was on Wednesday, and I realised just how hard it had been up until then. Not that it's easy now, just that the day was so beautiful, and I use that word deliberately, that it somehow helped moved me on and transcend some of the horrible thoughts in my head.

I've mentioned before how my Mum persisted in the face of adversity in so many situations, and thinking about it, a little bit of that blood must have been flowing in my veins on the second day of my holiday. The day had dawned bright and sunny and it was clear with a few misty wisps brushing off the top of the now not so distant peaks of the high Pyrenees.

Marie-Blanque. A short roll up the valley, lead by Helen, saw us deposited at its foot and start the lung-busting climb to the top. It is a beautiful climb, if quite steep. No, make that very steep. But with the road snaking up the valley in the peace of the early Monday morning, few cars about and a manageable temperature, it was doable. From memory I think the first part is fairly easy, before four or five kms at 10% or more.

Chris was halfway up with his camera, and took this great shot.

Do not be fooled, it was hard, and once we were over the top we were into some truly stunning scenery, a wood, a plateau and just stunning views.

I really loved the descent down into the valley that leads up to the market town of Laruns and beyond to the Aubisque. Familiar territory again, this time it was a bit hotter as by now it was mid-morning. Although the Aubisque is as long, if not longer than the Tourmalet, somehow it's more forgiving and gentler. Although towards the top I was starting to be quite the reverse, and did stop a couple of times to hydrate and cool down, as well as resorting at an early stage to that miracle food of athletes, Haribo!

The Aubisque is also the col where they have those giant bikes in Tour colours, with another magnificent backdrop to match. There was even a bit of snow still on the top of one of the peaks.

I was about 15 minutes quicker on the climb than in 2010, and most of the group were already sat outside the cafe basking in the sun. And the wind, which was whipping up quite ferociously, at one point sending all the stalls from the next door shop into the air and all over the car park.

After just half a baguette this time, and more sugar, in the form of full-fat coke and more sweets, it was onto the Cirque du Litor, perhaps the most iconic cliff road in cycling. Clinging to the side of the mountain it circles a wide amphitheatre on the descent before ramping up towards the Col de Soulour. It includes a tunnel, and a rock bridge, and with just a small wall to save you from the drop there can be a tendency to cling to the inside.

By the time we had all re-assembled down in Argeles-Gazost it was mid afternoon, and very, very hot. 37C in fact. Given the option of a 15km climb up to a ski station, or a short 6km spin up to a nice hotel, what would you do?

How many times can I describe something as brutal, impossibly steep, unrelenting, and perhaps the hardest climb I have ever done? Well, this must rank in the top 3 of those. I thought my head was going to explode I was so hot, and I stopped repeatedly in the shade to cool down. Despite my open jersey, divesting myself of my helmet, pouring water all over myself, I started to doubt that I could do this. About half the group had taken the straight bail-out option, so there would be no shame in it, would there?

At around 7 km from the summit, I stopped in some shade and seriously considered riding back down, then and there. After a couple of minutes I was joined by one of my colleagues, Graham I think. We chatted for a while, exchanged expletives before he carried on.

A minute later, I followed him. And that was that really, it got slightly cooler towards the top, but not much. The shade disappeared as the tree cover fell away, but eventually, slowly, doggedly I got to the top of Hautacam.

I couldn't wait to get down, eventually descending into the stifling heat of the valley. A few of us formed a small group and rolled up to Pierrefitte-Nestalas and the superb Grande Hotel de France.

Those of us that had done all three climbs on that day, mainly the Brits it has to be said (though not exclusively) deserved a wry smile for what was truly a Rule 9 day.

And for the statisticians amongst you, here is the route of day 2. I did it painfully and slowly, given the almost snail's pace I climbed Hautacam. At one point Helen, who attained a Queen of the Mountains on Strava on the Marie Blanque in the morning, reassured me that it didn't matter when I finished.

But finish I did. So as I reflect on the week, and my Mum's life and character, it is that day that I think I will remember most of all. For while I live, I may never win a single Strava segment, but I will never, ever give up if I have set my mind to do something and I am still physically capable of turning those cranks.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Wide awake and I can see the perfect sky is torn

I'm not a good traveller, my nature is too haphazard. In daily life I can counteract this by filling it with routines so that I don't have to think too much, not get distracted from the essential business of cleaning my teeth and getting my son to school on time.

Three weeks ago today I took the day off to pack my bag and my bike in readiness for my latest odyssey across the Pyrenees. Needless to say, it took me a whole day to pack. Too many choices and some seized pedals resulted in too much kit in my suitcase and a new pedal wrench in my bike box. Then it was Gatwick, a hotel, and Easyjet on the Saturday morning, flying to Biarritz to join Pyractif's pro-strength coast to coast trip.

Although this was the third time in three years that I had ventured out to the Pyrenees this was the different. For starters there was no question that it was more and tougher than I had ever attempted before. And I was without my Bernie Eisel, the man-machine that is Stuart. Our numerous trips together over the last few years, including Land's End to JoG, Raid Pyrenean, and a MTB English coast to coast, had engendered a certain juvenile and carefree existence.

I am sorry to say that without this, and of course with events at home gnawing away in the back of my mind, I was a little too serious and sombre during the week, and tended to keep myself to myself more than perhaps I would like. That said, my roomie for most of the trip, proved to be a very affable and encouraging replacement, and also an awesome cyclist.

That first night, in the Hotel Campanile in Biarritz, all our bikes built and tested, but with a few teething problems still to be ironed out, the 20 members of the party gathered for a briefing from Chris Balfour, co-owner of Pyractif, ably assisted by his wife Helen and number 1 oppo, Pete. It was obvious that the week was going to be tough, lots of mountains, lots of miles, but hopefully lots of food and camaraderie to match.

I was scared. Scared of the mountains, scared that a residual lung infection, which exacerbated my asthma would render me useless, and scared of being the perpetual back marker. Above all I was scared that I should have stayed at home. Set against that I was half a stone lighter than last year, had my own bike with me, have sorted my neck problems as far as I can, and was riding as well as I ever had.

Sunday morning dawned a bit overcast but mainly dry, after a torrential downpour overnight.

As soon as breakfast was over we packed up, day bags in the bus, faffing over, gilet on. Time to ride. A few thousand km away the ACG were riding out in Somerset, so in honour I decided to don my club kit for the day. Off we went into the drizzle, which soon cleared up, down a long straight road to the beach, for the obligatory starting photo. I'm in the Natalie Imbruglia position as you look at it.

In just a short while we were away from the coast and riding onto back roads of the Basque region. The morning was just an easy warm up really with a couple of small cols, St Ignace and Pinodietta, thrown in to spice things up. It was a reprise of 2010 for much of the way, riding on a lot of the same roads, stopping at the same first cafe in Espelette, with its hanging chillies, and enjoying the beautiful countryside. Just as we started to descend the first hill, Francois, one of a mixed international group of Canadians, Aussies and others, heard the dispiriting sound of a rear tyre blow out, and Chris asked me to guide the group to Espelette. It's lovely spot, and was very pleasant in the sunshine, the day was warming up.

Lunchtime saw us arriving at the delightful town of St Jean de Pied de Port, nestled in a bowl of mountains, two of which we would have to climb that afternoon. Eating and riding don't go well together for me, so I knew I was chancing it by eating a whole ham and cheese baguette and gulping down a full-fat coke. Meanwhile one of the Canadians, John, had been having problems with his seatpost. He was a big chap and unfortunately his post had slid down to almost its lowest point and was refusing to budge upwards. Feeling desperate at having to spend the morning in the support vehicle, he resorted to desperate measure.

Involving a block of wood and a heavy spanner.

And surprisingly it worked, and John was cheerfully back on the bike, as we headed into the mountains to tackle the first serious climb of the trip.

I have ridden mountains before. I have ridden in heat before. I have done the two together before. But the Col de Burdincurucheta came as a very, very nasty shock. After a draggy 10kms out of St Jean, it suddenly rears up for four kms at between 10-12%. If that doesn't sound tough, imagine Winscombe Hill going on for the length of Cheddar gorge to Black Rock gate. And for me it was on a full stomach with my lungs starting to play up too.

This year my asthma has been more under control than ever before, mainly because I have taken medical advice to use a daily preventer of a steroid inhaler. But I think the cold I had two weeks prior to the trip was not out of my lungs, and it all started to go pear-shaped on the fist climb as i wheezed my way up. The racing snakes, including Helen, who is an absolutely amazing climber, zoomed off into the distance, while I pedalled squares up the 10kms to the col. Chris was on photo duty, and he even managed to make me look good, even if I didn't feel it.

Unfortunately my stomach and lungs conspired against me a bit, but after reliving the former of their lunchtime contents I felt a lot better. This also led to a certain amount of ribbing, particularly from the Canadians, unaccustomed to the health benefits of barfing while cycling.

Eventually I made the top, with about a dozen or so there before me. Going down was a different matter, and I was surprised to find it was a lot easier than it used to be. I'm still not fast, but I had a lot more confidence to hit the corners and take a better line, mainly because I knew what the Trek would do, ie stick to the road. Some of the faster climbers were slower than me going down, so my fears of rolling in last proved a bit unfounded. In any case, it soon became apparent that everyone was going at their own pace, and Chris and Helen managed the groups really well to keep things together. Not only did it help with logistics, but it meant that each rider got to enjoy themselves without feeling under any pressure.

Once down the short descent it was up the next mountain, the Col de Bargagui, which although higher, was less of a shock. Nonetheless, I still was a bit punch-drunk from the first one, as you can see.

With some 60 kms still to ride for the day I decided to take it easy and conserve some energy, rolling over the undulating terrain and spinning up the two small climbs near the end. Once again I was back on roads from 2010, before heading off down a valley to Gurmencon and the Hotel Le Relais Aspois. Good news was I had my own room for the night. Bad news it was like a furnace! So I had a coolish bath, interspersed with an alternating hot and cold shower, and threw open the windows.

It had been 26C at the hottest part of the day, and tomorrow was promising hotter temperatures. I knew that the key to my enjoyment on this trip was active recovery, so I did my stretches, made sure I had a walk after dinner, wore my compression clothing and tried to get an early night.

The countryside in the mountains was stunning, and this continued all week. Photos can only hint at just how lovely the views are. I have an affinity with mountains, if there is a God, I bet he, or she, lives there. I would if I was an all powerful deity.

It had been a long day over 170kms, and although all the other days were shorter in distance, they more than made up for it in climbing. I slept as best I could, waking in the middle of the night, and hoping all the recovery tricks worked.

A feature of the entire week was that Charlie did not record satisfactorily. So although he was great with the route-finding and stats while riding, when I returned to the UK I found that the stored data was very patchy. So I will be using the Pyractif routes to show you where we went, and you will have to take it on trust that I rode them all as I show them.

The route from the first day is shown on this link:  Sunday 26th August.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Lady of the Forest

For those of you that don't know my Mum died last Tuesday. With hindsight it seemed to happen very quickly, but for the three days between coming back from France and her death, time seemed to do all sorts of strange things.

If the topic of death or cancer disturbs you, don't read this because I am going to be quite open, but respectful  I think.

A small mercy is that she was able to die at home in her sleep surrounded by her family, and though cancer is such a horrible thing, I am glad that we had the support and assistance of so many people, not least my sister, herself a trained nurse.

When she was in hospital I asked her if she minded me writing about all of this on the blog, and she she was happy for me to do so. It's all still very raw and painful, but if you think this is being too open, all I would say is what I always say. This is my blog, it's for me, and this helps me.

People have said that my Mum held on until I got back from France, and my elder brother returned from his holiday. Maybe, probably. She did promise me after all. One of the prognoses we had was 4-6 months, so I did think I would have more time, but then there is never enough is there?

The day before she died I had my last really lucid conversation with her, more of an exchange really. For the previous week she had been having increasing trouble with her speech, a sign we think of mets in her brain. So on Monday afternoon when I said "I love you Mum", I was quite surprised when she opened her eyes wide and said "I love you too Guy".

She was a bit confused about time too and said "you be careful in France".

"I'm back Mum", I said.

"Ooh you're back, that's good".

I can't yet do my blog from my Pyrenean trip, because of all that's happened it is too wrapped up in my Mum's passing. I want to do both justice, so be prepared for this blog to take something of a different turn in the weeks to come, with everyday posts of sportives and ACG rides, maybe some commuting, interspersed with a Pyrenean journey.

One thing I will say now is that Pyractif are absolutely brilliant as a road cycling holiday operator in the Pyrenees. Chris and Helen Balfour have got the experience down to the perfect balance, so if you are thinking of taking a European cycling holiday you will have to look very hard to find anyone better than them. Here is my favourite picture taken by Chris Balfour, of me on the Tourmalet:

Thank you to all the good wishes, texts, e-mails, kind words and just thoughts and prayers that you have sent me. I don't think reality has really hit home yet, but it's nice to have so many people helping me through this, and the virtual world has made that so much more possible than ever before.
Today it was all about a bit of catharsis for me as I joined Gary and Martyn on an ACG ride. I haven't ridden for over a week, and it was nice to do something that is so straightforward and requires little in the way of thinking and emotion. We kicked off with Shipham Hill, and I was like a bull at a gate. There may have been faster people cycling today, but there can't have been many with the emotional intensity that I put into it. 
Gary lost his chain just as we started to come down. His shifting wasn't quite right so we pulled over but couldn't see anything obvious. By the time Martyn and I had waited two minutes at the bottom of the hill in Churchill we realised something was up. So we cycled back up to the garage at the top and attempted to fix Gary's broken chain. Unfortunately my extra link was not compatible with his chain (message : the future is 10 speed people), so he had to trudge the 4 miles back home. At least he had SPD MTB shoes though.
Bryan and I pressed on with a shortened ride, up Burrington and across to the Rock Cake Cafe. Where we were royally entertained by this:
Every first Sunday of each month, this jazz combo play a set at around 11.30 each morning. It was a bit surreal, and I'd guess a little relentless if you were after a quiet coffee, but it cheered me up a bit.
There was just time for us to bomb down into Wells and then climb up Ebbor gorge, down into Priddy and then grockle-avoidance tactics in Cheddar gorge.
As I said, it was nice to just concentrate on getting up the hills, taking the corners and listening to the music. Here is our route.