720Km, 18 Cols, 100 Hours
How did I find myself grovelling up the final ramps of the Tourmalet with a bunch of people I’d never met before, whilst trying to convince myself that my right leg was still working?
It all seemed a good idea several months before when I started thinking about my annual cycling trip. I’d always fancied riding the Raid Pyrenean, but worried about my ability to ride the 720kms and at least 11000 m of ascent within the allotted 100 hours. I had completed a lot of England’s hardest sportives, but had never ridden such hard days back to back before.
It’s amazing what you are prepared to commit yourself to when there are still a number of months to go before reality sets in.
I googled the raid, and found the website for Marmot Tours. I immediately liked the fact that this was a small company, with an informative website which managed to squeeze the trip into a small time frame. All the arrangements for registering for the raid would be taken care of by Marmot Tours. It was a case of being picked up from Biarritz airport on Monday, starting the raid on Tuesday, and being delivered to the airport on the Saturday afternoon , having hopefully completed the raid by 12 noon of that day.
An email to James at Marmot Tours with a description of my state of fitness and experience received a swift and positive reply, so I signed up for the ride. I opted for September, in order to have a full summer to train for the trip.
The forthcoming trip made for good motivation throughout the spring and summer.
I’ve ridden a good number of sportives over the last few years, but this year I decided to ride one a month from April onwards. My biggest month of cycling was in August when I rode the Cumberland Challenge, a recce for a yet to be unveiled sportive, and fitted in several hundred miles of riding during the family holiday in the Cevennes. In between I rode a lot of steady miles, in which I concentrated on riding a lot of hills at a moderate heart rate.
By the beginning of September, I felt I was as ready as I was ever going to be, and I flew out on the 15th September whilst trying to keep the pre event butterflies at bay.
James and Alan met us at Biarritz Airport, and we were quickly whisked off to the first hotel in Hendaye.
As is often the case we were a disparate party, some like me travelling alone, and others who had come in groups. A group of Northern Irish riders had arrived the day before and had already established a precedent by finding themselves cycling on the motorway during a warm up ride! Their high spirits, good humour and enthusiasm did much to enliven the trip. It is amazing how a shared interest, particularly cycling, can bring a disparate group of people together, who all then get on as if they had known each other for years. In the next few days, I found myself riding particularly with Duncan, Rachel, Ewan, Chris and Shane. I shared a room with David for several nights, and discovered that he only lives 20 miles down the road from me. What was particularly notable was the wide disparity of experience among the group. John from Northern Ireland was an experienced racer, whereas Rachel had only been riding seriously for about six months (she did have a long history of taking part in sport though). Shane was on his first visit to Europe, and had flown in to do the raid, and was flying straight back afterwards. That showed real dedication.
The hotel for the first night set the pattern. It was slightly eccentric, with plumbing and electrics of varying efficiency, but had a lot of character and an excellent restaurant. All through the trip we were served copious quantities of locally sourced regional food.
The First Day: Hendaye to Arudy. 183km and 1990m ascent
Sand, sea, rolling hills, vultures and self- restraint.
We set off from the hotel and headed for the sea.
It was a glorious morning, still reasonably cool and with bright blue skies. After dipping our feet in the water, we posed for a group picture at the start.
The route set off along the coast then inland through green rolling country. The improbably pretty villages boasted unpronounceable Basque names, white and burgundy houses and perfect cycling roads. Throughout the first day, we regularly saw large flocks of vultures. I had seen them before in the Aveyron gorges, but never in such numbers.
Lunch was taken in one of the aforementioned villages, St Jean Pied du Port.
The first couple of cols were almost unnoticeable, and it wasn’t until we reached the Col d’Osquich. that the climbing really began. Even so this was only 500m high, so hardly counted. It was very easy to push the pace over this sort of terrain and I found myself riding with Duncan who was similarly tempted. In the end caution, and the knowledge of what was to come on the next day, meant that common sense prevailed.
The level of support from James and Alan became apparent throughout the day. By using two vans, they were able to support the front and the back of the group, and always seemed to appear when water, food, or the picking up or disposal of clothing was required.
We rolled into the little town of Arudy with 183km under our belt and the knowledge that tomorrow was going to be rather more challenging. The hotel was in the central square, and the room looked out over a view of rooftops and hills.
The Second Day: Arudy to Campan. (Over the Aubisque and the Tourmalet)
120km and 3100m ascent
Legendary climbs, sweeping views, a troublesome knee, and dummies.
The morning dawned clear and cool, and riders set off from the hotel with varying combinations of arm warmers, leg warmers and jackets. The road led us through a steep sided valley to the small town of Laruns, and the foot of the Aubisque. The road started innocuously and wound round gentle hairpins in the steady climb towards the rather incongruous spa of Eaux Bonnes. I’ve seen this described as a Paris street transported to a Pyrenean mountain. From here the climb increased in intensity and the real work began. By the time the ski resort of Gourette was reached, the larger end of my cassette was in full use. The top of the col at 1709m had wonderful views, with high mountains in all directions.
From here the next col was visible. We swooped down from the Aubisque around a beautiful horseshoe shaped terrace and made a short climb to the top of the Col du Soulor at 1464m.
The descent to Argeles Gazost made it easy to forget about the effort involved in climbing the Aubisque, and we all revelled in the delights of our first long Pyrenean descent.
A long lunch break was taken here, as James suggested it would be a good idea to defer our climb of the Tourmalet till the temperature had dropped a bit during the late afternoon.
After a while though impatience prevailed over common sense, and we set off while it was still very warm.
As we set off for Luz St Sauveur along a busy road, I began to feel a slip or a click in my pedal stroke, and a slight ache in my right knee. At the time I didn’t think much about it and concentrated on maintaining a steady pace within our group.
It was starting to get very warm as we hit the lower slopes of the Tourmalet.
The group completely split as everyone got into their own rhythm.
In British terms, the gradient would be slight, but the length of the climb took its toll. About 5km from the top, Alan was waiting with one of the vans and this made a good excuse to stop and stretch weary limbs. After a top up of the water bottles I set off again and shortly rounded a corner. Ahead, and a long way up, were the upper slopes of the climb. The green meadows were replaced by grey rock and scree and I could see that the angle increased on some steep ramps. Reaching the sign for the last km, the indicated gradient was 10%, but the road immediately flattened out before a bend. Sure enough, on rounding the bend, the road kicked up steeply and exacted its last bit of pain before the summit arrived. Elation and exhaustion were combined as I met up with some of the other riders at the summit café. A double espresso and a coke were quickly downed, and warm layers were put on as the air felt cold at this height after all the exertion.
After stopping a while, to watch more of the group get to the top, it was time to descend. The first few hairpins were wonderful, but on approaching the first tunnel we encountered the curse of many French roads. The road was covered in gravel, so immediately the pace had to be dropped. Fortunately the gravel only lasted a short while and I was able to let rip down the rest of the descent. All too soon the valley was reached. On arriving at the flat valley section, and needing to pedal, I soon realised that all was not well with my right knee, and the last few kms to the hotel in Campan became painful.
Campan was an extraordinary village. Doorways and balconies were populated by life- sized dummies, in a great variety of costumes. Some of these, seemed to possess more life than the 20 tired cyclists who were descending on the town. After an excellent meal and a couple of beers in the bar, I retired to bed elated by having ridden the two hardest cols of the ride, but rather concerned by the state of my knee. I began to wonder if the uneven wear sustained by my new Look Keo cleats was responsible for my problem. I took two ibuprofen tablets, and hoped for the best. Tomorrow would tell!
The Third Day: Campan to Massat over the Cols d’Aspin, Peyresourde, Ares, Buret and Portet d’Aspet.
173km and 2952m ascent
Gentler climbs, rain, sunshine, gravel, monuments , pacelines, monsoons and punctures.
The morning dawned reasonably bright, but there were a few clouds around. My knee was extremely sore as we set off in the cool morning air. After riding through St Marie de Campan, we set off up the steady and beautiful slopes of the Col de Aspin. The road zigzagged through trees and eventually into an area of green meadows. Once again there were wide views, but the clouds were looking more threatening. The descent to Arreau was a welcome relief for my knee. As we descended the clouds lived up to their threat, and unleashed large drops of cold rain. We all arrived at the bottom in an extremely cold state. We decided to forego a coffee in the pretty town of Arrau, and headed up the road. The rain soon stopped, and we were well on the way to the foot of the Peyresourde. This was a steady pleasant climb, and I found I could relieve some of the discomfort from my knee by stopping it turning inwards during the pedal stroke. We arrived at the col, and headed for the café for yet another espresso.
The descent to Luchon was magnificent, with big sweeping open bends that encouraged good descending style. As we arrived in Luchon, the heavens opened again, and we all descended on a take away pizzeria for lunch. Huddling under a tree in the square felt just like being at home in the Lake District.
Heading out of town we were all wrapped up in waterproofs and leg warmers etc. Predictably, a few miles down the road the sun came out and we were all steaming. We l tried to stash the extra clothes in pockets, and the back of jerseys, and were about to set off ,when Alan’s van appeared, and we were able to dispose of everything rather more comfortably. The next stretch undulated for several miles over a series of rather insignificant, but pleasant cols. We gradually headed for the foot of the Col de Portet D’Aspet. As we turned off the road, a few miles short of the climb, the rain started again. Then to add to our delight we found that the French roadworks brigade had excelled themselves. The road was under several inches of loose gravel!
Starting up the climb, I felt immediately at home again. Not only was it raining, but the hill was like a steep Cumbrian climb. Even the relatively short distance was familiar. Just as I began to get into a rhythm, I arrived at roadworks. These were located just by the Casartelli memorial, so I didn’t get off my bike to look. I’ll have to come back another time! After the roadworks, I dug in, and derived the usual perverse pleasure which, for me usually accompanies this kind of climb. The top soon arrived and as usual the van was there. Most people waited until a group had gathered and we set off on the long steady downhill to the next carnet stop in St Girons. A quick dive into a tabac, for the necessary stamp and an espresso , and we were ready for the promised 30k of gentle uphill to our lodgings in Massat. The rain was persistent now, and this was definitely a stretch to be despatched as easily and rapidly as possible. We soon got organised into a paceline and were bowling along at 20 mph+. It looked as if we would get there in good time. Then, the steady rain became a downpour, and Chris had a puncture. After much fumbling, the tube was replaced and inflation started only to be followed by rapid deflation before the wheel even got on to the bike. After what seemed hours, but was probably only 10 minutes the tube was replaced again, and forward progress was resumed. Soon, we arrived at the hotel. We were late so it was a very quick dash to the shower before dinner. The rain had made this a tough day, and made us realise how lucky we had been with the conditions up to this point. The Irish crew had also had punctures, so perhaps the gravel at the foot of the Portet d’Aspet had taken its toll.
It was heartening to discover that the forecast for tomorrow was good.
I cut the rubber grips from my Keo cleats, having decided that this was a possible factor in my knee problems. My knee had improved a little today, so I was hoping that the worst was over. I slept like a log, after another hard day.
The Fourth Day: Massat to Prades over the Cols de Port, Puymorens, Col de la Perche (and other minor cols).
169km and 2560m ascent.
A beautiful climb, a spa, busy roads, the last big climb, a glorious descent, and a couple of beers.
We had been warned that today’s ride featured some busy roads. In retrospect parts of today’s ride have become a bit of a blur. I remember a pleasant start over the Col de Port. I was delighted that my knee seemed to be settling down.
At the top we met Cathy, James’s wife and partner in Marmot Tours. She was sitting this trip out due to the imminent arrival of a new family member. We then descended to Tarascon and on to the busy N 20, which we followed to Ax les Thermes. We stopped in the square for lunch and sat in the sunshine. Some of the group dipped their feet in the thermal waters, but all too soon it was time to get on the road again.
The Col de Puymorens is a brute in terms of height (1920m), but not gradient. It is however a long climb on a busy road, which carries a lot of Andorra bound traffic. For most of the climb I rode in a steady bunch of about 6 or seven riders. When the gradient increased in the last few kms, I got itchy feet so I struck off on my own. After most of the traffic had disappeared through the tunnel to Andorra, the top of the climb was very pleasant. It was a bittersweet moment to arrive at the top , knowing that this was the last major climb of the trip.
The sun was out now, and the descent looked pretty exciting, with a big sweeping hairpin for starters. Unfortunately it didn’t go on for as long as might have been expected. The foot of the decent was at about 1100m, so we soon had to pedal again.
The Cerdagne plateau is a strange place. Green fields and rolling roads belie its altitude. After a café stop we found ourselves fighting a head wind over a series of long draggy climbs. Eventually we arrived at the Col de la Perche.
After a small climb to Mont Louis, there then followed an inspiring 38k descent down the side of a gorge, all the way to Prades. Even the roadworks couldn’t spoil this. Rock walls, stone villages and viaducts all flashed by. For the only time on the trip, I regretted my 13, 29 cassette, as I was spinning out on some of the more level sections. Towards the end of the descent the landscape became distinctly Mediterranean, and the walled town of Villefranche de Confluent was mentally put on the list for another more leisurely visit.
The hotel in Prades was modern and lacked the character of the previous lodgings, but had the advantage of fully functioning electrics and plumbing. As usual, the food was excellent.
As it was the last night of the trip, a number of us headed into Prades for a couple of beers after dinner. It almost felt like being on holiday!
Heading back to the hotel, I didn’t know whether to be happy at being on the verge of achieving a long- term ambition, or sad that the trip was nearly over. As usual though, as my head hit the pillow all thoughts were rapidly extinguished.
The Fifth Day: Prades to Cerbere. 91km and 300m ascent
An early start, another paceline, a dash for the coast, a last hill, adrenaline, journeys end, and champagne by the sea.
To take the pressure off and give everyone a good chance of beating the 100 hour deadline we agreed to set off early. However this meant starting breakfast rather earlier than the hotel’s normal time. We trooped into the dining room to some rather unhappy looks from the staff. After explaining that we didn’t mind missing out on coffee, and were really just wanting to eat what was already out, and the usual array of cereals and fruit provided by Marmot tours, the situation was accepted with something of a Gallic shrug.
We hit the road at about 8.15 and immediately set off riding through and off at about 18 to 20 mph. This was made easier by the fact that the road was mainly downhill almost all the way to the coast. We swept through vineyards and small villages, only pausing to refill bottles and raid the banana and flapjack supplies in the vans.
The route finding became a little more complex at the coast, but thanks to the concise, but accurate route notes, we were soon there. There was still work to be done though. From Argeles onwards,the road dropped into a series of little seaside towns, each in its own bay, and each followed by a short but sharp climb over the next headland. Notable amongst these towns was Collioure, which was improbably pretty with its old buildings and the Mediterranean gleaming behind.
My leg was completely recovered today and as the end was near, I allowed adrenaline free reign over the last stretch. I caught Duncan and Shane who were slightly ahead and we then hammered over the last climb, and flew down the hill to Hendaye. James was waiting on the quayside with a glass of champagne, and we all went to dip our feet in the sea. The last riders to arrive were John and the Irish boys. There was a certain symmetry to their trip. On the last day, like the first, they had found themselves on the motorway. As they reached the finish, Kevin and John leapt from their bikes and threw themselves into the waves, fully clothed. They had thrown themselves into the whole trip with the same enthusiasm and had enlivened the week for all of us.
Now, reality dawned. Arrangements had been made to use showers at a nearby hotel. We had a bit of a dash to shower, pack bikes, and get something to eat before being driven to the airport at Girona for the flight back to Stansted. By the evening, I was back in England, and all that had occurred during the intense and exciting last few days was merely a memory.
Writing this account has helped to piece together the events of the 99 or so hours in which the raid was completed. It’s surprising how quickly the body and mind adapt to a regime of riding, eating, and sleeping, with no time for anything else.
At the end of the ride, I was struggling to remember which col was which, and in which order we had ridden them.
The Raid Pyrenean overall is a totally immersive experience. For the time you are riding it, it becomes your whole world to the exclusion of everything else. The variety of landscape is staggering. Each day went through very different scenery, and the Basque villages of the first day, and the Catalan villages of the last could almost be in different countries.
This was the best week I’ve ever had on a bike. I was glad that I had put a lot of training in beforehand, as it meant that I was able to feel reasonably comfortable with the mileage and the climbing, despite having knee problems for a couple of days.
I was glad of my 50-34 compact chainset. I did use my 29 sprocket, but would have got away with a 26.
The official estimate of total ascent is 11000m. As you can imagine this was the cause of much debate during the ride. Before doing the raid, I read a suggestion that this figure only accounted for the ascent of the named cols. My feeling is that 11000m is a reasonably accurate estimate. However I must admit that the first and last days seemed to have a little more climbing than the figures suggest.
I cannot speak highly enough of Marmot Tours. From being picked up at Biarritz, to our arrival at Girona airport, everything was done to make things as easy and trouble free as possible. The use of two vans for support meant that every time one was needed, it was there. The hotels though sometimes a little basic, fed us magnificently and and with good humour. The enthusiasm of James and Alan helped keep spirits high when the going got tough. The route notes were spot on throughout, and made some sometimes complex navigation relatively easy. I will certainly do another trip with them.
In conclusion, I would recommend the Raid Pyrenean to all sportive riders. Before riding it, I had worried about the idea of riding the equivalent of 4 or 5 sportives in 100 hours. I didn’t find it as hard as hard as that, because there is no need to ride at sportive pace.
It is a hard, but attainable challenge over some famous and beautiful climbs and I found it an unforgettable experience.
Would I do it again? You bet I would!