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.

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