THE POSSE’S PYRENEES PICNIC

By Nick John

28-30 JUNE 2017

D-Day finally arrived, with the Posse meeting up for dinner in Portsmouth on Monday evening, before an overnight ferry to Caen (cabins required, athletes need their sleep ……. and of course their medicinal red wine before bed), then a leisurely drive down through France, arriving at our ride start point, Lourdes, late on Tuesday afternoon.

Lourdes welcomed us with no miracles, black clouds and torrential rain – joy! If you’re thinking of visiting ………… don’t. It’s a dump. Blackpool on steroids, with fluorescent strip-lit shops selling plastic statues, plastic containers to fill with holy water, and lots of other plastic tat, all at bonkers prices.

The only saving grace was that we found a bar with a Welsh flag (although the patron had no idea it was Welsh!).

Sorry about Timbo’s head spoiling the picture!

Dinner was the obligatory Italian pasta frenzy, the restaurant chosen by the fact that the chef opened a window as we passed and hurled an uncooked pizza base at us like a frisbee – our sort of place!

All washed down with medicinal red wine, of course!

WEDNESDAY – LOURDES TO ARGELES GAZOST VIA COL D’AUBISQUE AND COL DE SOULOR

Wednesday dawned – well not exactly dawned, it just turned from dark grey to light grey, but at least it wasn’t raining.

Our route for the day was a very manageable 105 kms – well, it would have been manageable if it was flat, but our route planner couldn’t seem to find the flat sections of the Pyrenees!

But at least it was dry and soon sun was threatening to break through.

After a flattish 35 kms or so to warm the legs up, we turned up into the mountains, meeting our support at the bottom of the first climb to get rid of all excess baggage (couldn’t get rid of Keith, sadly!).

Realisation hit us that we’d just done 35 kms flat, which meant that the whole day’s climbing was compressed into 70 kms – bloody hell, fear started to sneak into our thoughts!

Don’t be fooled by the bike on the car – no-one’s given up yet! Our support man brought his bike in case he fancied a little ride as well – foolish idea!

So the serious stuff started, the Col d’Aubisque, today’s first col – a 17 km climb averaging 7.5%. Trouble is that “averaging 7.5%” meant that some bits were significantly steeper. For some of the team, welcome to big mountain climbs – you just don’t get 17 km climbs in the UK, so it was a bit of an eye-opener for what was ahead!

Don’t tell anyone, but Timbo and Nick stopped for a rest about half way up!

Scenery’s nice.

Mountains aren’t bad either!

The last 4 kms averaged 10%, serious stuff for “fat lads on tour”. Necessary to try to shut your mind off from what’s going on, count pedal revolutions, sing stupid songs in your head, whatever works to get through the pain. What the bloody hell are we doing this for – it’s still the morning of day1!

Then finally it’s over, we hit the summit …………

Massive bike sculptures on the summit – or maybe even the giants got pissed off and left their bikes on the summit as a monument to man’s stupidity!

No group photos at the top of this one – it was bloody Baltic and howling a gale – this, coupled with our cleverly staggered summiting times, meant that no-one wanted to hang around outside and risk exposure!

But there was a little café at the top, so we huddled inside with a few other bikers (including a pretty young lass on a solo tour who had just climbed Aubisque with her worldly goods in paniers – made us feel pretty small!).

Mountain-top lunch of omelettes, spuds and full-fat coke, trying not to think of what’s ahead for the rest of the day! Smile everyone, this is fun!!

Off we went again, a beautiful and very rapid descent, very cold, vultures circling overhead – very impressive, but just a little scary – what do they know that we don’t?!!

The only problem with descending is ……………… you’ve got to go up again! Rather demoralizingly, we could see the top of our next climb, the Col de Soulor, from the top of the Aubisque. Everyone wishing we could hang-glide across the valley rather than head down just to go up!

So after getting frozen heading down, we turned and plodded up the Soulor, again averaging 7.5% but only about 5 kms and feeling much easier after the last few kms of the Aubisque, in fact quite pleasant to warm the legs again.

Time for a happy family photo at the summit here, a little lower than Aubisque, out of the wind and almost warm!

Then it was all downhill (or nearly all) to Argeles Gazost and our overnight stop. Had we headed straight for the day’s finish, all would have been good, but rather predictably, the lure of a pretty roadside bar about 5kms out was too much and we had to stop. By the time we came out, the rain had set in, our gear was elsewhere in the support truck, so the end of Day 1 was slightly less pleasant than it could have been! Will we ever learn?!!

THURSDAY – ARGELES GAZOST TO SAINT LARY SOULAN VIA COL DU TOURMALET AND COL D’ASPIN

In everyone’s minds, this was the big day, the Tourmalet, highest road pass in the Pyrenees, iconic Tour de France climb, and the most used climb in Tour history. Were we up to the challenge?

After a pleasant and fairly flat 10 kms along the Gorge de Luz, the ascent started, gently at first, leading to the village of Luz Saint Sauveur. From there, a sharp left turn leads to the climb proper, so coffee stop required – all artificial stimulants greatly appreciated!

From here it gets serious!

Sorry if you can’t read the gradients, but at our first coffee stop, we had done the green section, 3.6%. Now we had 18 kms to go, mostly over 8.5% and with a nice little 10% ramp for the last km.

We couldn’t put it off any longer – time to mount up and head off! For “blokes with bikes” like us, you can’t think about an 18 kms climb, you just have to switch off the mind somehow, get into some sort of rhythm (however slow) and NEVER LOOK UP!

We worked our way ever upwards, the group now fragmenting big time, every man for himself on climbs!

After about 10 kms of fairly relentless climbing, a second coffee stop was needed in the ski resort village of Bareges (about the only place that day that we found anything open), where our support truck was waiting with flapjacks, jelly babies, 50 kgs of electrolyte tablets and plenty of encouragement!

The exit from the village was a fairly nasty 13% for about 500 or 600 metres, so before our nerve went, back on the bike and more climbing.

This was supposed to a really dramatic picture, but the camera flattens everything, and it looks flat! It wasn’t!

This is anyway the ski lift base station above Bareges.

Nick and Timbo about 5 kms from the top. Another stop required. Don’t be fooled by the smiles – we were bloody knackered.

Weather starting to close in, but at least we have the very flattering, dayglow ride shirts to make sure that we stand out in the crowd!

On and on, ever upwards, now we started to reach the pain zone! A group of American cyclists staying in our hotel the previous night had warned us that the last 3 kms was really tough (and they looked like proper cyclists!), so I suppose that we should have been ready for it, but it’s damn hard, even at our speed! There are markers every km on the climb, and it’s so disheartening to see the summit almost within toughing distance above you, only to pass a marker saying 2 kms to go! Don’t forget, DON’T LOOK UP!

Just passing 1 km to go we were flagged down by a couple of Brits who were descending. Gave us a great excuse for another quick stop, but they just wanted to say that there was one steep ramp to go and then it was done, but to beware as it was very windy on top.

Didn’t care by that stage, just wanted to be up!

And then we were there, puffing and panting, hot and sweaty, and then instantly cold as soon as you stop. We now have snow below us in places, the wind is howling, and it is absolutely bloody freezing.

Into the café at the summit, wait for the team to regroup, tarte aux myrtilles and coffee – joy, guilt free calories, could have eaten the whole tarte! Nice and warm inside, but the support crew arrived, so it’s time to get outside again. Wind now seriously blowing, clouds very black, full winter gear for a very long descent – windstoppers, long-sleeved gloves, leggings, put on whatever you’ve got!

Nick at the summit of Tourmalet, dressed for the descent (it’s only extra layers for warmth, honest, it’s not all my “natural padding”!).

Apologies to the other riders, but this is the only photo that I have from the top of Tourmalet, perhaps we were just too shell-shocked to care!

Anyway, that’s what 2115m looks like!

Some riders in the summit café who had ascended from the other side warned us that there were a lot of stones and rocks on the road, so with some trepidation and a lot of brake testing, off we went for a very long descent.

First stop after an exhilarating 10 kms or so, was the ski resort of La Mongie, our planned lunch stop, as the guy who planned our route said that there were restaurants, cafes and loos there. But, surprise surprise, this is France, so everything was shut!

Downhill for about another 10 kms taking us almost to the foot of our next ascent, and we passed through a small village where, miraculously, a café was open. Ham and cheese baguettes, and coffee, to refuel us, and as the sky darkens, we set off for the next col.

Col d’Aspin, advised on our route plan to be 12.8 kms averaging 5%. A little surprise therefore when the first of the km markers at the bottom of the climb showed 16 kms! Maybe our route planner started half way up!

Anyway, after the pain of Tourmalet, this was a pleasantly enjoyable climb, great scenery, comparatively reasonable gradients, the Pyrenees seeming like fun …………….. until the heavens opened!

And wow, did it rain! It hit us about 2 kms from the top, like someone pouring buckets of water on your head. No point in wearing glasses, waterproofs proving that they’re anything but! At it didn’t let up!

Rog at the summit of Aspin, looking as though he’s loving every minute!

He must have had the storm behind him, as he doesn’t have a gut like that in real life, honest!

And if we thought climbing in rain wasn’t a lot of fun, descending was downright scary!

Roads like rivers, almost zero visibility in the clouds and the mist, loose gravel on the road, and no brakes, however hard you pump.

Timbo was OK with his discs, the rest of us resorting to clipping out one foot on bends in case an emergency dismount was needed!

Just a little scary in places with some seriously big drop-offs on the sides of the road!

When it started to become bloody stupid, we sheltered in a deserted barn and waited for the support truck. It arrived, and after a team discussion, we decided on safety grounds to bin the day.

With all bikes except Timbo’s and Nick’s on the truck, the rained started to ease. With unbelievable stupidity, these two idiots decided to finish the day – a great idea for about the first km, then the heavens opened again. So, another 6 or 7 kms of bloody cold and very miserable descending with the support truck coming down behind us with hazard lights on (no need, no other idiots on the mountain!), then a 10 km dash along the valley floor in an effort to warm up, before finally arriving at our overnight stop about 7.30 pm (an 11 hour day!).

Hot showers, a drying room for kit and shoes, an inviting bar, and a good dinner. Easy to forget all the shitty bits, isn’t it?!!

FRIDAY – SAINT LARY SOULAN TO THE SUMMIT OF PORT DE BALES, VIA COL DE PEYRESOURDE AND PORT DE BALES

Opened the curtains – SUN! Beautiful snow-capped mountains in the background, what more could we want! Our kit had dried out, and our last day of riding was bound to be fun! Two comparatively gentle climbs to come and then it would all be over. How little did we know!

Back along the same valley as the previous night, retracing our steps  for about 10 kms, before turning sharp right and hitting the Col de Peyresourde, which appears on this year’s Tour.

Our route plan informed us that this climb was 8.3 kms averaging 7.6%. Again, where the bloody hell did the “official” ascent start, as we did at least 15 kms of climbing from the base!

About half way up the climb, Nick caught up with a local rider, feeling good about the fact that he was actually going to overtake someone on an ascent, only to find that the guy was about 80!

Nice old chap, happy to chat, dropped into the conversation that “yes, he was getting on a bit, but still did this climb almost every day”! Bloody mad!

Strangely, 7.6% now seemed quite manageable, and we all reached the summit without too much difficulty, the weather overcast but dry, and little or no wind – a pleasant change!

Quick coffees and crepes in a little shack on the summit, then on went the “descending gear” (although Timbo was a bit of Southern Softie putting on leggings), photocall by the summit marker, and away we go ………..

Bloody magic! A long, long descent, sunshine, no wind, great surface recently relaid for this year’s TdF, no traffic – time to let it rip, and scream and shout at the pure exhilaration of going fast on a bike!

But all too soon it’s over, and we hit the point where we were to meet our support truck, at the bottom of the final ascent, the Port de Bales.

Port de Bales, 15.4 kms averaging 5.7%. A piece of cake for us hardened climbers. Nothing to stress about, climb this last one and then we’re done. So easy! Cold gear back in the truck, stuff in a couple more flapjacks and we’re ready for the off.

A quick glance up the hill ahead showed us a rather scary ascent to the first bend, but as the climb only averaged 5.7%, it was bound to flatten off after that.

Really …………………

If we had bothered to look at the cross section, we would have seen that the first 3 kms of Port de Bales is stupidly brutal, averaging well over 10% (Nick’s Garmin showed 17% at one point), followed by about 7kms of fairly flat riding (less than 3%), finishing with 5 or 6 kms of 8%+ to finish off.

Looking back over the central “flat” section of the Port de Bales from the base of the final climb. Again the camera is a little deceptive – looks like such a pleasant rural valley!

The first part of the Port de Bales nearly killed us off. So unexpected, minds not ready for it. Time for some serious grit and determination.

For the second, and flatter, part of the climb, the rain started, and the road surface seemed to be made of small pebbles compressed into tarmac. So much drag on the wheels, amazing how much effect the road surface has on the effort that is needed.

This flatter section seemed to go on for ever. Bloody hard work. Every village we passed through was deserted, a coffee would have been wonderful!

Then we turned up to the right and into the final climb. No km markers here, this route has only been used in 2 Tours. We’re above the treeline, it’s deserted. No traffic, just sheep, just like home!

And this was hard, relentless climbing, possibly the hardest single section of all 3 days (or maybe we were just knackered!).

But finally it’s done, we’re at the summit of the Port de Bales, the end of our ride!

Sorry everyone, we seemed to have forgotten a group photo here, so you’ve got to put up with the delights of Timbo and Nick, but what more could you ask for?!!

So, it was all over, 3 days, just over 300 kms, just under 8,000 metres of climbing, no punctures (although Nick punctured about 100 metres after the finish point!), no crashes, 7 kgs of flapjacks, a complete box of Welsh cakes, several plantations of bananas, two lorry loads of electrolyte tablets and 4 jelly babies (we lost the rest of them somewhere)!

RIDE AWARDS

TOP RIDER

Undoubtedly Rog, who ended up doing most of the climbing solo, huge mental strength, massive effort!

TOP FARTER & BURPER 

Timbo, and even in his sleep, bloody unbelievable!

NUMPTY OF THE TRIP

Nick, who in the excitement of finishing and still being alive, left his “almost new” cycling shoes on the side of the road! If you see a sheep in cleats in the Pyrenees, please get them back for him!

And finally a big, big thank you to our support crew (couldn’t have done it without you guys), and to our very generous sponsors Fordthorne, Enzo Products and Allmetex who stupidly paid good money to appear on our ride shirts – did you confuse us with the TdF? You certainly woudn’t have if you’d seen us!

And then off to Bordeaux for 2 days of intensive recovery …………..