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.
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.
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.
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.
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