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.

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