Pyrénées, 2010 edition

Well I'm a bit late for that one but with the Tour de France starting in just a few days, I better post about my trip in the Pyrénées before Alberto Contador steals my title of the first man atop the Tourmalet. So here it goes, I'll try to keep it, maybe not short, but not too long.

The trip started after pushing my bike through the scanner at the airport with a broom to make sure it didn't get stuck. Nic was a bit late and his bike case didn't fit (just an idea, the oversize scanner, at the oversize luggage line should be oversized... no?) so he had to open the case and all. But, we made the flight, just no time for a pre-boarding beer. We quickly zoomed through the night and got in Bordeaux early in the morning, got our car and headed to Biarritz.

As we didn't have our condo until the next day, we had the luck to be invited to stay at a very nice apartment in downtown Biarritz by even nicer hosts. Again, thanks a lot for everything Véronique and our hosts.

We opted not to unpack our bikes until we got to our place so we basically hanged out on the beach, ate, drank and watched France's Rugby final. Okay, enough beach, drinks and food, time to pedal!

After adusting to the time zone, of course the sun left... But it wasn't raining either so we started with a not too hard loop from Biarritz that went across the border to Spain. We tackled a few cols but they were small ones, appetizers of things to come. We climbed le Col d'Ibardin, a short and not too steep col with a weird summit with some kind of shopping center.

Then we bombed down the other side and dropped in Bera, a beautiful Basque village in Spain. From there, we climbed toward Sare and then climbed le Col de St-Ignace (this one was close to our place so we did it once/twice almost every time we decided to do smaller rides from our homebase) before zig-zaging through nice roads back home.

The next two days it was a bit more of the same, nice hilly roads from Biarritz, one to Zuggaramurdi and another kept us in France (with a nice wooden road where we crossed not one, not two but about twenty old yellow Citroën 2CV doing some kind of rally we guessed).

The next day, we were going to meet a friend from Montreal in Argelès-Gazost for, this time, some meaty climbing. So we bought a 3 euros bbq to fuel up for a harder ride.

We also pre-hydrated with some basque climbing beer.

We got there, met René-Pierre and Phil (more about him later) and we decided to make the same Tourmalet loop we had done the previous year. Just out of Argelès, I stumbled on the Hautacam sign again and made myself a promise to climb it... but not today. We turned left.

In the Bagnère-de-Bigorre area, we had to stop as René-Pierre's rental bike was starting to be tired from a week of riding in the area under some serious horsepowers... A few broken spokes needed to be fixed thanks to our support vehicule.

What? Support vehicule? Yes. You see, the Phil we were riding with was none other than Phil Deeker, the man behind the Cent Cols Challenge and one of the four riders who did the 1910 Challenge, a tribute ride of the 1910 Tour, they did a ride as Tour de France stages were back then, a 326km stage from Bagnère-de-Luchon to Bayonne. You can read Phil's story on that one. Phil was staying at the same hotel as René-Pierre so they rode together on a few days. He was in between guiding some nasty cycling tours but he wasn't resting his legs but exploring the area, scouting for future routes. His significant other was driving a support van which made this ride one of the most luxurious I have done. No need to carry too much food, water, spare clothes... Thanks again!

One quick stop in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan except for Nic who keeps on going while we eat a bite, I throw my glasses in the van (might as well get the most out of it) and we start the climb, the legendary Tourmalet. Nic was already ahead, I started to ride along with Phil, chatting about cyclocross, Micheal Cotty and what not while the climb is not too hard. A bit after crossing Gripp, I had to stop to... you know, a call of nature, a long one too! Haaa, that's why I didn't feel good on the bike! I had to do that before the Tourmalet gets hard. Now I got into a nice climbing rhythm and I eventually caught back to Phil, who in the meantime had caught Nic.

I like to climb steadily, keep a good pace all the way when I climb, or start slightly conservatively and gradually accelerate as I get closer to the top. So I went past them, keeping my pace. Of course, my pace was not a problem for Phil who was quickly back on my wheel just when the climb is starting to get steeper. He eventually stopped midway as his wife was stopped to take some pictures and film us. I kept going, not wanting to stop.

I would do the last half alone, at a good pace that was much faster than last year. Maybe the SuperSix had something to do with it? It also helped that there was a lot of cyclists this time. After La Mongie, it's hard but I didn't find it as hard this time. There were other cyclists every few meters now, suffering, some more than others. It made for some motivation to accelerate and keep the pace high so I ended up switching from, so far pedaling in the saddle, to alternating between sat down and standing up while shifting on a taller gear. It made the last few kms go pretty fast, passing riders along while last year it felt like it was never going to end alone on the road with a few lamas...

There were more people than last year (we were three riders plus a lot of snow at the top last year).

I still haven't posted a review of my SuperSix and now is not the time but, that bike is ready for anything. It climbs, descends and cruises on the flats always looking back at me and saying, like a kid: again! more! It's very hard to find any fault in this bike, in fact, I can't find any. When climbing the Tourmalet, the bike did as it always does, it does it's job exceptionally well and almost disappears from under me, making me feel like it's me against the climb, it's there but is not making it's presence being something to think about, it just helps me do my thing as good as possible without losing any of my power.

Since I wanted a trouble free trip, I put the stock Ksyrium wheels as they are bomb proof, reliable and very easy to work on if anything ever happens. They are also a good bit heavier than my other wheels, especially with heavy duty tubes and training tires. I took this trip as a training camp so I figured having a few hundred grams more in the wheels would only be a good thing.

After a few minutes, here comes Phil, followed and filmed by our van driver.

Then Nic arrived.

And finally René-Pierre who, when changing his jersey in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, forgot to take his food from his previous jersey pocket... Oups.

The obligatory group shot as I refuel a bit while trying to warm-up after being at the top for a while now. Thanks to Phil, I got to use a Rapha vest and keep it for the descent.

Time to go, the west side toward Luz-Saint-Sauveur has much nicer scenery.

Wasn't René-Pierre in front on the descent? No he was behind me...

Isn't this a nice place to ride bikes? Sure is. Turns out René-Pierre took a wrong turn, ended up in the parking lot of a restaurant but was back with us in no time. I had a very nice memory of the last section of the ride, from Luz-Saint-Sauveur to Argelès-Gazost. It's a twisty road down a valley that's slightly descending for a good part, that meant being out of big gears and out of skin stretchability to smile last year. This year, we had a very strong head wind so it wasn't as fast and fun. But we were four and Phil and René-Pierre took some strong pulls.

Back at the Primerose hotel, all smiles, almost an hour faster than last year (to my and Nic's credit, we were only two and took a few wrong turns last year, but still, according to the little guide cards, we were beyond being 'strong cyclosportifs' and were apparently 'competitors', that's good to know)... Thanks for another ride Tourmalet. Thanks for the van, the jacket and of course for the ride Phil. I hope we meet again. We went for a few cold ones with René-Pierre and for a first of three cheeseburgers before heading back to Biarritz, happy with our ride.

Since Phil told me I was the King of the Mountain of the day, I got to pop the champagne bottle!

And so we enjoyed the evening while making plans for the next few days rides.

The following day, we went freestyle and it showed. We drove to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and rode from there without a planned route.

At first it was very nice, a little road down a very green valley. The roads were nice and smooth, no traffic, sunny, just great.

When you see this sign, it usually means it either descends or climbs, with hairpins.

Good news, it climbed.

It climbed a lot.

The scenery was pretty nice, but the nice smooth pavement gave way to some of the nastiest road surfaces I have rolled on. It was all broken up and it was oozing tar and the hot sun made the sticky liquid bubble on the road surface. As we rolled, we could hear the bubbles pop like pop-corn! Yuk. But we kept climbing.

The climb was actually harder than the Tourmalet, and I think it would still be even if we had not did the Tourmalet the day before. The average grade was steeper and there was some pitches well over 20%...

Fresh bacon. As always, animals are pretty much left to roam free in the mountains. There are horses, cows, porks, sheeps, but no fences. Good for them. We then turned around, we were not sure where this road was heading and we thought we missed the main road that would loop us back to our starting point. The descent wasn't fun, as was cleaning the tar off the bikes afterwards. And you know what? It turned out we actually were on the right road. I'll need to suggest this climb to ASO, if it could get re-paved, it would be one of the best climbs I have seen.

The next day was split between the beach and the road. We wanted to do a race or something during our trip and we found one that was in a driving range during our stay: l'Albigeoise.

So we drove to Albi the day before the race.

We woke up to grey skies and as we prepared to start, thunder and rain. Great... I was not feeling like riding in the rain in the cold but hey, we were registered, we drove there and all, we'll make the most of it. I ride in the snow in winter back home so what's rain?

The race was around 135km long and I thought it wouldn't climb too much. I was wrong. The start was a bit disorganized but when we finally got going, it felt pretty special to be among all those french getting out of Albi with architectures and roads that made us feel like we were in the start of a Tour de France stage. And like sometimes in the Tour, there was one hard crash, right in front of me and Nic, I think a guy hit a roundabout or another road furniture.

As soon as we were out of the city and on more racable roads, the controled pace was off and the speed picked up a lot. I don't like starts much, too much traffic, too much crash risks and I always need some time before my legs and heart get comfortable. Thanks to Nic, who's a better starter than I am, we managed to get back closer to the front. The pace was fast and with the heavy rain, it was messy but safer now.

At the first real climb, things broke up... the peloton pretty much exploded. Some people at the front were quickly going backwards, some were going forward. I managed to slalom around slower riders but the dense traffic got me stuck behind some a few times, it's weird to have to use brakes on a 10% average climb with max gradients just shy of 20%. At the top, some riders regrouped but by then, I had lost Nic and I wasn't sure how far from the front I was. I knew I was not in the front group though.

For a while, I was riding in a group on the flats, then using the climbs and descents to move up. I knew I could use the climbs to make progress until I reached some riders that are similar to my speed but I didn't expect to make so much progress on the long twisty downhills. I was going faster than most by a huge margin. I know it was wet but still...

I eventually settled in a nice group, we were about 15 maybe but we were a few good climbers in there and we were dropping one here, one there on every climb until we were just 5-6-7 of us, not sure now. We eventually gained a bit of ground on the next 4-man group in front but we could only see them in the distance when it was pretty straight, once we could see them far away, we didn't seemed to be making progress.

Then I remembered Nic's speech to me before the race. "You better go! And go fast! If you don't go hard, I'll kick your ass!" Alright, I was going pretty hard so far but then on a long steady climb, I decided to try to bridge to the 4 in front, I just went hard, kept the speed I had on the flat before the climb and managed to catch them before the end of the climb. Yes! Unfortunatly, 3 had followed me, making it an 8 man group. Well, at least, 8 would make a faster group.

I was trying to recuperate a bit after that, 135km with much more climbing than I anticipated left me wondering if I would be able to keep going like that until the end. At one point, one guy was a bit pissed at me I think. As I moved beside him and he talked to me in a hard to understand south accent, I understood that he wanted me to pull more often. He was of the 4 in front and saw me bridge to them quickly so I guess he didn't want me to sit in and attack and drop them later on. Fair enough, I was almost recharged anyway now so I went up front and took a long pull and doing hard and long pulls from now on. I would find out after the race by talking to the others that the pissed off guy was pissed off at almost everyone and that most of us were at our limits, one telling me he and others could not take any pulls and that he really suffered during some of my pulls.

We stayed together until the end, I half sprinted, taking second of our group of 8, I didn't want to go too hard and then get a speech because I didn't pull for about 15 minutes... But I should have sprinted for real. After the finish line, the organizers asked us to keep our finishing position to scan our numbers. Guess who didn't respect that and squeezed in front of me? Yes, the pissed off guy. It wasn't worth it to fight him or something so I let it go, officially finishing 38th out of around 200. Not too bad, but the winner was a few minutes ahead.

We were left very wet, very dirty but I was happy with my ride, still pondering and looking back, asking myself if I could have done better, if I should have made a move earlier to get closer to the front but I was riding much better than in any of last year's road events I did and it was a first race of the year. Let's hope I can improve.

Of course after the race was over, the sun started to shine. At least it would make for a better drive back.

A nice sculpture at the l'Aire des Pyrénées under the return of a rainy sky. Back in Biarritz, we checked the weather forcast to plan the last part of our trip... It didn't look good. The next day would be a mix of sun and eventually clouds but all the other days were rainy. Crap. And we wanted to take it easy after the hard race but we also wanted to go back in the heart of the Pyrénées. Hell, we're not going to chill on the last sunny day. We decided to go back to Argelès-Gazost and climb le Col de Soulor and Col d'Aubisque, two climbs that will be featured in the action packed last week of this year's Tour.

Before we know it, it's late but we are on the Soulor. It starts to climb right out of Argelès but then gets easier for a while.

We cross a few small villages on the way up.

7km to the top, 18 to the top of Aubisque.

And it gets steeper.

We crossed a few cyclists coming back down... and one guy descending on his wheelchair, as fast as he could go, much faster than he should. His front wheels were out of control, shaking and rattling. But the guy was cooler than lemonade and responded to my little wave of the hand with an enthusiastic 'Bonjour monsieur!' Nice to see, I just hope he didn't crashed in a corner later.

As we climb, the views are getting nicer and nicer, the clouds closer and closer.

A Canadian on a Passage Canadien? What's that you ask? I didn't know before but it's a device meant to stop animals to cross roads. It's a metal grid that, because they see it as a deep ditch, animals wont attempt to cross. Or something like that. The climb was nice but they were resurfacing some parts. We had to deal with gravel sections that were ridable but some freshly tar coated sections had us ride or walk off the road.

At the top of the Soulor, lots of old people dropped from tour busses were reminding me of the free roaming animals on mountains, slowly moving, looking at you wondering what the hell are you doing there on a bicycle...

The road between the top of the Soulor and Aubisque has to be one of the most beautiful roads I have seen. Just look at that, the line carved on the mountain side is where we are going, on our way to the Aubisque summit.

There is a tunnel or two, basically just carved into the rock, no lights, just a concrete wet road.

Here is another Passage Canadien from above.

The ride is not hard from the Soulor to the Aubisque, it's not long, and not very steep so we can actually enjoy the nice scenery.

The last part is very open.

You can actually see the building at the top from far down.

Yep, the bike is still amazingly good, the legs are surprisingly not bad either.

I'm telling you, the SuperSix is impressive, whatever you throw at it. I guess I missed cyclocross, at the top of Col d'Aubisque!

Time to go back to Argelès, I have an idea...

Same road we came with is used to get back to our starting point.

Another dark, wet tunnel.

Back in Argeles-Gazost, time to share my idea with Nic... Remember the Hautacam sign? I do. So as it was getting late, we bought some food for supper now because by the time we climb Hautacam and come back, stores would be closed.

The first part of Hautacam is a mix of steep and easy parts so it's not too bad to climb as you have places to recover and look back down the valley. But that wont last. Maybe it's the race the previous day and the Soulor and Aubisque duo but the second half of Hautacam is pretty hard. It's a pretty steady and steep climb with very few places to rest until you get close to the top.

From the parking at the top, looking back from where we came. The sky doesn't allow to see the view too much... And it's getting cold. After a few minutes with a wet jersey, I can't take it and decide to head back down and meet Nic as he finishes climbing. He was close so back up I go along with him.

My bike is still keeping his cool, taking every climbs, descent with a stoic and inspiring confidence.

Cold, a bit tired but we finally did it and happy we did, Hautacam. The descent back down is incredible. I didn't get past 60km/h for safety but mostly because I was freezing! With more clothes and a closed road to traffic, this could be even more of a thrill! We were both thrilled from the descent, everyone's happy.

Well, not everyone.

I almost hit a huge bird on the way down, I'm happy I just hit some small bugs...

The next day was a day off, then another ride but without pictures, I took plenty, even a video but the computer and the memory card had a fight and the victims were my photos. Not sure if it would rain or not, we did a ride from Biarritz, climbed St-Ignace again, the headed toward Spain but by a small road between the one to get to Zuggaramurdi and the one we took from the Col d'Ibardin. We found a long twisty climb in a deep forest. It was pretty nice but the road was a bit rough... but as we crossed the Spain border at the top, we were treated to a 10km descent that was just stunning. No traffic, perfectly smooth pavement, race track like corners, impressive!

We ended up in Etxalar, another nice small Basque village in Spain. Then we figured we could get back to Bera and climb the Col d'Ibardin from the other side, a more twisty climb than the one we did on our first ride. We ended up on yet another road in construction, with workers applying a fresh coat of sticky tar (that ended up everywhere on our bikes, a mess) and after that on a highway! Crap, we found another road but it would lead us way too far so we came back. The bad: more tar, the good: the 10km heavenly descent was now a very nice climb. We ended up doing a much longer ride than we planned and that was sadly that: last ride of the trip. The next day we went shopping a little, then packed our bikes and stuff, cleaned the place and didn't sleep much, we had to wake up at 3h30 in the morning to head back to Bordeaux to catch an early flight back to Montreal

As far as Airport Ninja skills are concerned, this one was good. 20 euros for the bikes, the plane wasn't full so we each had our own row of seats with armrests that can be lifted out of the way. That was the first time I managed to sleep in an airplane.

Hopefully, we can do this again next year. Until then, I now have the climbs in the Eastern Township to play on. Montreal is a nice place but for cycling, not so much. Okay sorry, I wanted to make this short but I got carried over.

1 comment:

Ron said...

Great story Dan! I am hoping to have a similar adventure in Germany this coming September.