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.

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