Training in Europe

What do you do when it's cold and it's been raining for days in Montreal? Yes, you pack a bike, hop on a plane and head where it's nice, warm and mountainous! More than a week later, here it finally is: our week in Europe. Beware, it's a long post.

Our trip started on a very high note, we were treated to a wonderfully good pre-flight meal courtesy of Cut Chef. Probably our last meal not involving pasta for over a week so it was memorable. Then we headed to the airport for our trip's low point: Air France... Their website had many confusing info concerning traveling with bikes but I guess they have to charge ridiculous rates anywhere they can to pay for the planes they lose in the Atlantic. No more Air France for us. A mixed blessing was the airport security going through our bike cases. We had to open them, have them checked by hand and Nic's case apparently had some kind of dangerous stuff on his. We never learned what it was but it got us to go through customs very fast, no waiting and Nic getting searched. The trip is promising to be action packed! France: here we come!

After an okay flight to Paris during which I could not get a single second of sleep, then a quick transfer to Bordeaux, we came to pick our car to learn it was already gone, no Kangoo! That turned out to be nice as we got upgraded to a brand new Renault Scenic, much bigger, more confort, and cheap on diesel. In no time, we were off to Biarritz... Actually, Bidart which is just next to Biarritz. We had a small condo for the week with the pool just outside and only a golf course between us and the beach. Yeah, the golf was an annoyance... After many hours without sleep, our first evening was short, get some groceries, eat and re-assemble the bikes.

Our first ride would start right from our place, then get away from the coast into the hilly Basque Country. The small roads were smooth with lots of up and down, many corners and curves and the scenery was great. Our maps were not too precise though so we took a few wrong turns but it wasn't too bad, we came here to ride our bikes so the few extra kilometers were not a problem.

We zig-zagged our way across the border and the roads in Spain were just as nice. Most small villages in Europe are beauties but when we got to Zugarramurdi, we were charmed!

After a quick stop there, we got back down to France and got to climb our first col although it was a small and easy one; le Col d'Ascain. Going up at a good pace on my big ring, we catched, passed and dropped an older local cyclist, only to have him crawl his way back to me... He seemed to be a cyclocross fan and noticed that we were not riding road bikes. Having a hard time talking, he points my 9-ball, just saying "Cyclocross?" then asking me if I was a cyclocross champion. I don't know if he knew a bit about my Cannondale-cyclocrossworld.com team bike or if he tought we were going too fast not to be champions of some sort but after I told him I wasn't a champion, Nic either but that we were more mountain bikers, he, out of breath, gave me a thumbs up before dropping back to his own pace. Funny guy with his face expressions completing his short sentences...

The climb was done in no time and the descent that followed was even faster. Nic was actually going much faster than the traffic with a big smile, I was a bit more cautious. I found TRP EuroX brakes to be pretty scary at times... We then came back through some more hills back to our homebase. I have never been to fond of road riding but on such nice roads surrounded by such views, I was hooked... and that was only our first ride!

For the second day, we wanted to save ourselves a bit for harder days to come so we opted to go north where terrain is flatter. We drove up to Saint-Paul-lès-Dax for a loop that turned out not to be so great and not that easy either with some strong winds. Not much to talk about here but roads were rough and we missed a lot of turns since the french apparently don't judge it neccesary to put signs with road number or street names at intersections.

We got big chunks of our routes from a site we discovered about two days before the trip, routeyou.com lets you download routes, maps and gps files uploadable to some devices such as Garmin Edge 605 and 705... Our Edge 305 can't be uploaded with routes though so we used good old printed maps, not too precise but more adventurous, it also allowed us to freely modify some itinarires on the go. After a few days, we were getting pretty good.

It was also a holiday so it was weird to see all the village completely empty, no traffic, nothing opened, not a soul in sight, felt like after the end of the world. We called it quits after a bit more than 80km that drained us more than we taught.

Our third day was supposed to be THE ride, the one that we had in mind ever since we planned this trip. We had a nice loop that includes about half of the route of stage 9 in this upcoming Tour de France with the focus point being the famous Col du Tourmalet. Unfortunatly, a late departure and a closed highway left us frustrated and back to our place.

Since trips are all about going with the flow, we thought it might be better that way since our legs could feel the previous two days. We opted to push that ride to the next day and going for a short ride in the area instead.

I took it really easy, pedalling at a smooth easy pace that would let me stay in zone 1 and 2 to have fresh legs for the next day. We followed that ride with not much effort either, a walk through Biarritz and getting some sun on the beach! Life's hard!

Wednesday morning, our timing is perfect, weather too, a few coffees, croissants, eggs and Nusticao and we were off, direction Argelès-Gazost, the start and finish point of our anticipated loop through the Pyrénées!

This ride was making me nervous, kind of like a pre-race nervousness. I'm not sure why, might be the fact that we were going to climb a small col and then the famous Tourmalet from the east side. It climbs pretty much non-stop from Campan to the top, about 23km later and over 1800m higher. Such a climb is unheard of in my area and I had no clue just how hard it could be. The nervousness might also be from what that climb inspires. It's an historical route for a cyclist, many of the biggest names have fought their way up as it's been featured about 70 times in the Tour de France. As soon as we get on our bikes though, we started to enjoy the ride and it's surroundings and the nerves came back to their senses.

There again, we crossed a lot of little nice villages but the hills were more steep and more frequent in the first part of our route. After a while we hit a small col that's about the length and steepness of the Col d'Ascain on our first day. It ends on a plateau where the views on one side is full of fields but the other full of snowy sharp peaks.

"Is that where we're going?" I ask? "I think it is!" We had a nice pace from the start and the roads down to Campan made the Tourmalet approach pretty fast.

By the time we were on the flat heading toward the base, Nic says something along the lines of hoping the Tourmalet is opened, he read somewhere that it sometimes stays closed up until July... Say what? And now you're telling me? Now we were doubting and the good mood pushed aside. And then we saw a huge sign: Col du Tourmalet: FERMÉ! NOOOOO! That sign didn't make us smile. We weren't sure if it was closed due to snow, road work or what but at that point we were ready to try it anyway and see how far up we could go, we are on cross bikes after all!

Moments later, we got behind an old cyclist, slowly but surely riding down the valley. He stopped because he was annoyed by having two quebecers talking right on his wheels I first tought, but we stopped to ask him about the climb and learned that he was stopping to double check his map. He was more than happy to have a chat with us and we were really relieved to learned that the climb was closed to cars only. The winter left the road on the west side pretty banged up so they didn't open the road to traffic and were doing some work, maybe getting the descent ready for the Tour. Now we were smiling and excited again so after a re-fuel stop in the middle of Campan, we started the climb... And climbed we did!

At first, I didn't even noticed we were officially on the Tourmalet. The steady climbing of the first kilometres have not too bad grades. After a while though, it gradually steepens and I noticed the official signs. Every km, a sign tells you the distance to the top with the average grade of that part. Seeing 7% is not so bad but the distance to the top is still pretty big, it's a long climb.

There is a point when you drop off the big ring that makes a climb feel more serious but on the Tourmalet, I have no clue when I did. Passing a first group that are taking a break on the side, I'm definitly on my small ring and a few pedal strokes later, at the first sort-of switchback, I noticed Nic is not on my wheel anymore, he's just a bit behind and it's getting hot, the temperatures are dropping as you go up but the effort is getting more intense. I stopped a second to take off my glasses and put them in my Camelbak (yes, we have Camelbaks, we are mountain bikers after all) and let Nic catch up to me but we opted to each go at our own pace. So, wanting to test myself a bit and see if I could still go by the nickname of 'la chèvre', I pick the pace.

In no time, I'm in my own world and it's going pretty well. Next switchback, another group are having a pause on the side and they all stopped talking when I passed by and waived them a silent hello... Having no idea what it is to climb something that big, they got me thinking. Am I going too fast? Will I blow up? A quick glance at my heart rate and I'm well into zone 5 but I'm feeling good so keep my pace while I pass another sign letting me know the next km has an average of 10.5%... I still have one bigger cog and here again, no idea when I got on it but my pace is good, steady, I'm smooth and in the distance, I can see another cyclist climbing. I caught him when going through the first of three semi-tunnels. The old man is grinding slowly at an unbelievably slow cadence, focused. I opted not to bother him with a hello or anything and he didn't look at me so no hand signs either, his front tire seemed too interesting. I was more interested by the walls of the tunnel anyway.

Years of fans painting their favorite rider's names and cheers was nice too see. Zabel, Schleck, Schumi, Mayo... I was starting to understand why these guys use all sorts of doping methods, the climb is hard and I'm only going around 10km/hours! Two more tunnels and not many trees later and I'm going through La Mongie where the road splits. One way continues, another goes to le Pic du Midi and some don't go too far too access some condo, resorts or something. I keep going like the Energizer bunny, the face maybe as pink but I'm not 100% sure if I'm on the right road...

I don't want to stop though and it's the steepest parts of the climb. Names are painted on the ground so I must be on the right road. I was definitly not home now. Way above the treeline, there are patches of snow here and there and the only thing I hear apart from my breathing is the bells all the lamas are wearing.

My thoughts drift back to Nic, wondering how he's doing and hoping he keeps going on the right road, I decided to stop, take a few pictures, take a bite, drink a little (bottles are almost empty), chat with the lamas and rest my right foot. I'm not happy with all my cycling shoes but brought those I thought I could endure the longest. They are making my big toes hurt and go numb but it takes a while, my other pairs are painful much quicker, maybe a new pair of shoes is in the close future.

After a few minutes, I see the old guy coming, he's smiling and tells me there is less than one km to go. Damn, I shouldn't have stopped so close! I'm getting cold and knowing how easy my legs cramp when I get cold and take a too long break, I throw my leg over the bike... then I hear Nic yell my name. I waited for him so we rode side by side until the top that was stupidly close for me to have stopped there but at least it gave me the opportunity snap a few pictures of the east side, not really possible from the top.

So we did it! It wasn't so bad after all. I'm a good climber but I was doubting the small climbs I can train on would be enough to prepare me for this but I was pretty pleased with my legs. I didn't felt drained either at the top so I must be doing alright. Why aren't there any hill climb races back home? That would suit me well! Back to the Tourmalet, there is a small café at the top and we took a few minutes to have a coffee and check all the old photos and bikes of yesteryears.

It's like a small museum in there, the admission fee is the climb! A nice detail saved our unexperienced asses... well, chests. It's cold up there and after sweating our way up, you're cold standing still, going down the other side would be freezing. Of course, we didn't think about that so we don't have arms, legs, knee warmers, no wind jacket.

Thankfully, there is a box full of newspaper in the café for people like us to put in our jerseys. Merci l'ami!

Going down, we couldn't go too fast at first, not because of the cold but because the road is pretty banged up, reminded us of our crappy roads back home. It's also dusty with lots of small rocks because of the construction, certain corners are downright dangerous...

I'm not too bothered by that since my brakes are barely powerful enough to stop me and the front one makes a not so confidence inspiring vibration when applied just more than lightly. I wished I was on a Super Six down there...

The view on the west side is much more impressive than the east side. It's really something and it would be a shame to not take it and bomb the descent only concentrated on the road ahead, we stopped frequently to take pictures and enjoy one of the greatest sights I have ever seen. Nic was going much faster than me though.

Just after Luz-Saint-Sauveur, the roads are still going down but it's not as steep and it's much more managable to hit serious speed. I'm thinking that on stage 9 of the Tour, some will try to escape on the Tourmalet, if they can get down the steep parts in one piece, and bomb those fast twisty roads, the stage could very well be won by some fast descending opportunist. So, on our tallest gears in the drops, we got back down the valley and then back to Argelès, happy, satisfied and hungry.

So we drove back home to eat...


And as Ivan Basso would say, go to massage, Dan Gerous style with a french touch.

The next day, we had a smaller ride planned, easier too with only one climb to do. That's on paper only though. From Cambo-les-bains, we were constantly going up and down.

That wasn't so bad, our legs recovered well from the previous day it seemed so we were ticking kilometers pretty quickly. Then we got to the day's main climb.

We judged it by it's length and total ascent but we didn't have a profile or other data. So we had no idea that close to the whole climb's ascention was all in the first 1.7km. We started and after the first corner, we hit a wall... or so we thought. one switch back after another, the road always gets steeper and 11-15% are the easy parts, at one point, I saw 20% on my computer and it wasn't over... I stopped looking. The best technique seemed to be to alternate from pedaling in and out of the saddle. To make things worst, the little road that goes nowhere is about the width of a car... and I don't know why but there was lots of cars and trucks coming up and down that day. We both stopped and walked at one point, Nic reported that he had a hard time walking up the steep grade, his road shoes sliding down the road, he had to climb on the grass. Like the previous day, I was frustrated to see just how close I was when I stopped. A few steps and I was at the top. Hard on my ego not to have sticked on the bike for just a few more turns of the pedals... but I learned that day that my max HR was higher than I thought.

The rest was a succession of steep up and downs, nothing too bad though and we eventually turned around and headed back to finish our loop that still had plenty of hills to cover. That night, the forcast didn't like good for our last full day with rain and storm alerts. At first we had another ride in the Pyrénées planned, a loop over 100km featuring the Col d'Aspin but now we weren't sure we'd ride at all.

We woke up to grey skies but only to a gentle mist kind of rain. Wanting to make the most of our trip, we quickly geared up for the wet and out on our bikes we were. Of course, as soon as we were riding, the rain got stronger and stronger but what are you going to do? We're already completely wet so we kept going, imagining ourselves as if we were in a spring classic: cold, wet, lots of kicky hills and going hard non-stop. Being the last day, I was hammering the climbs out of the saddle throughout the ride and I was surprised how much kick I had in the legs! I expected the week to make me stronger after some recovery but I guess it already showed. After the ride, we cleaned our bikes, went for a quick visit of Biarritz and then packed our stuff to finally leave the next morning, we were getting kicked out by 10AM.

The trip back home was uneventful apart from a radar/automatic/something on the side of the road taking our picture, complete with a flash while driving back to Bordeaux, a bit too fast lets say. Oh and Air France still sucks.

Now after an easy week of recovery, I'll try to get back to training well, I just find the already small climbs even smaller now. I went for just a few 30 seconds intervals on Camilien-Houde (the main climb of the Montreal Women's World Cup course, one of the steepest climb in Montreal) wednesday and I couldn't believe how easy it seemed to go up on the big ring. That's the problem with such a trip, I miss the wonderful riding already, and like most trips, it was way too short, maybe I should start checking job listings in Biarritz...


Carl Buchanan said...

Awesome. No better way to describe what you have written about your trip. Sounds like it was a great time. Hopefully someday I will be able to do something like that as well.

electric said...

Sounds like you enjoyed yourself, hope your Montreal "play-pen" doesn't seem too small now!

How much did it cost you for the bike carrier/air france luggage fee?

Dan Gerous said...

I missed lots of things, stories and pictures but it's hard to put a whole trip into one post. But, we did have a good time! Thanks a lot again Nic!

Carl: you have to do it one day! I can't wait to do it again... Maybe mountain biking next time, Colorado? The Alps? Italy? Gotta replenish the travel account for now...

Yeah, riding in Montreal has always been pretty crappy but it's even worst now, I try to go in the Appalaches mountains as much as possible, it's definitly not the Pyrénées but it beats Mont-Royal!

Air France charged us 150$ CAD per bike to go, 150€ each to come back! Next time, I'm using Air Transat, sport equipment can be brought free of charge whatever the size and weight... unless you bring a rally car or something.

Nic said...

It was a Great trip, and not the last!
Thanks to my uncle for the apartment! It was wonderful to have a nice place at night. next time will go for two weeks! OK now we are training in my backyard Jay Peak this weekend, more K for us.

dnk said...

very nice report from very exciting rides!
i felt rush of blood in my veins as i red it! :-) the feeling of hard long climbs to the cols... am getting ready for our third trans-alp trip on MTBs :-) in 3 weeks time!

10km/h up the col is pretty serious pace!!!

thank you for sharing this adventure, Dan!
Ride On!