Words by Sir Guy Litespeed, 2007 | Pictures by Andrew Watkins
THE SECOND DAY
I came awake slowly. It was silent. I removed my ear plugs and started to move my feet. Slowly at first, searching for pains that might stop me riding today. I moved them slightly faster. Still OK. I moved my legs next, then my back and neck. I was surprised to find that I felt fine. The acid test would be standing up. I did it slowly, but was still OK. Day Two was ‘on’ after all. I smiled to myself.
The night before had been a blur of recovery and preparation for today. It went like this: arrive at finish, recovery drink, find hotel room, take some pain killers, shower, stretch, eat until full, then eat some more, drink as much as possible, discuss next days’ route with team and support crew, then back upstairs for acupuncture and massage courtesy of Bernie and then sleep. Six hours later, wake up and start all over again………
Day Two had dawned dry. I felt happier already, but still dressed for mixed weather, adding arm warmers, leg warmers and a gilet. Breakfast was an interesting gathering – four riders, perhaps feeling better than they expected to, but still apprehensive – we all knew that we wouldn’t really know how well we’d recovered until we got onto the bikes and turned the pedals.
And the feeling of apprehension was shared by the support crew. Only Bernie had prior experience of this sort of thing, having previously worked with the Australian cycling team and having raced in his youth. The others were witnessing ‘bike suffering’ for the first time and were clearly shocked with what they were seeing. Apparently, as I toiled up the Marie Blanque the day before, Andrew and Lucy had discussed whether either of them knew much about CPR and how big their first aid kit was, or wasn’t! Unknowingly, I added to their concerns by asking them to stay well back on the descent in case I fell off! Half an hour later they’d had a call from Bernie in the lead support vehicle along the lines of “they’re in the car. I think they have hypothermia.” As I sat in the car trying to warm up at the foot of the Aubisque, Andrew had taken Lucy aside and shown her the profile card: “This isn’t possible. Look.” She’d seen the biggest mountain of the day still ahead and imagined it would be as bad, or worse than the Marie Blanque. The result was that our support team was now more sombre about the whole affair – this wasn’t the trip they’d expected, where they sat on sun drenched mountain tops sampling fine wines and local cheeses. I think they’d realised that failure, or worse, was a real possibility.
At 8.00 am, we rolled away from Argeles. The profile card told us the next 23 miles were uphill, easily at first to Luz St.Saveur and then steeply up the Tourmalet – the stuff of legends. The first ten minutes or so were crucial and I think we were all pleasantly surprised that none of our respective pains seemed terminal. I was personally amazed and reminded myself to bring an acupuncturist along more often – I really shouldn’t have felt this good.
We hit Luz in under 45 minutes, which told me we were going just fine. We started up the Tourmalet a little cautiously, eating and drinking as we went. I was eating every 15 mins and carrying just one water bottle. It was part of our tactics to lighten our load, but it necessitated very close support. Likewise, I was also riding with fewer spares than normal – a micro tool, one CO2 canister, one spare tube. On a ride of this length, the little things would make a difference. It was also necessary to deal with physical issues really quickly – I’d ignored a rubbing overshoe the day before and was now sporting raw wounds on my left ankle. I was also discovering that clothing that I thought was perfect was being put to the extreme test. I applied chamois cream four times during Day Two.
The Tourmalet was long, but beautiful and it wasn’t raining. It was also an interesting climb, with enough twists, turns and views to keep my interest and as a result, it felt fine. I climbed with Rob, happy to discover that I seemed to be evenly matched with someone else today and therefore less likely to end up alone. We topped out in swirling mist and quickly donned our warm descent gear.
The descent off the Tourmalet started narrow, bumpy and dirty and only really sped up after La Mongie, which looked truly terrible without winter snows to mask it’s concrete drabness.
One of the things that made day two so difficult was the speed with which the first three climbs followed one another. The next climb, the Col d’Aspin, started as soon as the descent off the Tourmalet finished, although the first few kilometres were easy. Rob had ridden on when I stopped to remove my warm clothing, so I climbed the Aspin alone. The sun was out and for the first time on the whole ride I felt warmth that wasn’t purely self-generated. I climbed quickly, trying to bridge the gap to Rob, although I never quite made it. This was a lovely climb – never too hard, twisty and forested, with fine views in the last mile or so.
At the top, I found Rob and both support vehicles, suggesting that Dan and James couldn’t be too far ahead. We now had our routine well practiced: fresh water bottle, fresh gel and bar for the pocket, banana and flapjack for ‘there and then’. Helmet, gloves, warm top, go. It took no more than a minute or two.
The descent off the Aspin was another belter – long and fast, with some great corners thrown in as well. Just as I started it, I realised that I’d now been riding almost four hours and still hadn’t needed to stop for a pee. The realisation hit me immediately – I was still dehydrated from yesterday. I started to drink even more, nervous that this could be a real problem. Like the Aspin, the ascent of the Peyresourde started immediately after the descent. We rode through the lovely town of Arreau and then onwards. The sun was still out, we had our friendly tail wind and we were riding our bikes – despite the ridiculous nature of this ride, life was good.
The Peyresourde is very different to the Aspin – where the Aspin was densely forested, the latter was open and exposed. We looked at ‘Ullrich’s corner’ half way up – the scene of a famous Armstrong/Ullrich incident from the 2001 Tour, when Ullrich crashed and Armstrong waited for him.
The top of the climb was open and sustained and we felt we’d earned the summit by the time we arrived. We repeated our summit routine and then headed down the long, fast descent into Bagneres. I was smiling to myself – the hardest climbs were behind us today, we all seemed to be riding well and the Peyresourde had always approximately marked the mid point of the whole ride in my mind. Even better, we were heading down to lunch and I no longer seemed to be dehydrated.
As we neared the bottom of the descent, Lucy overtook us and waved us down. Bernie, Tom, James and Dan had found a café in the town square and we were invited to a lunch of proper food – wonderful. I find that I can ride a 5 – 7 hour day on energy food alone, but anything beyond that requires real food – at worst sandwiches, at best, something hot and filling. The café produced wonderful ham and cheese omelettes, along with fries. When we’d finished, Rob and I looked at each other, smiled and ordered another main course, this time a croq monsieur. Duly ‘full’, we pedalled away, leaving Tom and Bernie to pack up and Lucy and Andrew to download pictures and file the BLOG report. The BLOG was set up as part of our website, to enhance our fund-raising. Lucy had been taking calls from interested parties and concerned relatives ever since yesterday afternoon and we’d realised that a fairly large group of people were watching with a mixture of interest and dread! This made us want to give them news faster, so Lucy had decided to file as many reports as possible each day. She did however have to predict where she might get wi-fi reception, which was easier said than done!
Rob and I got back on the bikes fifteen minutes behind James and Dan, having stopped for half an hour. It was the only real break we took in three days.
We rolled north away from Bagneres, downhill towards Fronsat. This largely involved a main road, but there was no alternative and the gradient was with us, meaning it never seemed that bad and the traffic was light. After an easy 30 minutes, we turned right towards Fronsat and the start of the Col des Ares. At a mere 797 metres, this was the easiest climb of the day and I knew from prior experience that there was nothing to fear here. I stopped to apply some more chamois cream and hand my helmet to Lucy, as Rob cruised onwards. The climb was beautiful – never hard, but varied, with good views and easy enough to work up some real speed. was even beginning to feel confident enough to give it a little more effort than was strictly necessary.
We rolled straight over at the top and headed for the infamous Col de Portet d’Aspet. It’s reputation was based on two things: the death of and subsequent memorial to Fabio Casartelli in the 1995 Tour and the fact that its top few kms involved an average gradient well over 10%, with short sections up to 17%! With 140km already in our legs, this was a potential issue and I’d worried about this climb for a while.
The approach to the Portet d’Aspet involves an easy climb along a wooded river valley. After 7km, you suddenly reach a junction – right to the Col de Mente, or left up the d’Aspet. Turning left, the gradient hits you immediately: 3% becomes 13% and it doesn’t let up much for the next 4km. The plaque on the wall, built after Fabio’s tragic death and the memorial, just around the corner, come straight away. Above, the climb is very steep in places, but varied enough to give a little respite from time to time and twisty enough to keep your interest. Compared to the Marie Blanque, it’s a doddle, or so it seemed to me. Again, I felt good and gave it a little more than was strictly wise.
At the top, the sky turned dark grey and a few spots of rain blew around in a chill wind. We didn’t need any further warnings and after some flat coke, gels and bananas, we headed down. My route card told me it was 28km to St. Girons and Rob announced it was then another 32km from there to the day’s finish at Massat. I continued to eat and drink as we descended.
Rob and I worked together as soon as the descent flattened out and we were glad to find our friendly tail-wind was still with us. We raised the pace, desperate for the day to end. It was a very fast run down to St. Girons, but the darkening skies were causing us concerns – we were fast running out of daylight and I knew from the 2005 ride that the final 32km to Massat were along a dark, tree lined river valley. We picked up the pace even further – the road was rising again now, but we were still averaging almost 30kmh.
Back in the hire car, Lucy took a call from Bernie who was worried about the failing light. Did we need an escort from the car? Should he break out the emergency lights? James and Dan had also whipped up the pace and were now very close to the hotel. We declined the offer – we couldn’t be more than half an hour away. We were going gently uphill now, but the pace remained around 30kmh. The road dragged on. I suddenly realised that I hadn’t eaten for the last hour and that I was about to ‘bonk’. We came around a bend into what was supposed to be Massat, only to find it was Biert. I kept my head down, but about 3km from the finish I blew up, or more accurately, ran out of steam. It was like someone had just applied both brakes and I had that familiar light headed feeling and my legs turned to jelly. I cruised the last couple of kms to the hotel, arriving just behind Rob and about 20 minutes behind Dan and James. I climbed gingerly off the bike, with c.230km on the clock. Everything ached a bit, I had lactic building up in my legs now and my right ankle was very sore.
I followed the usual routine: recovery drink, find room, shower, quick stretch and then back down for the evening meal. The Hostellerie des Trois Seigneurs’ dining room was full of about 20 people riding the Raid Pyreneen. They asked what we were up to and we handed them a press release, including the maps and daily profiles. One of the guides came over and quizzed me about the route – he seemed to think it was a big improvement over the current Raid and he proceeded to recount tales of lorries and near misses on the main roads between Tarascon and Prades. He also wished us luck for the next day, which he regarded as very long, but marginally easier than the day we’d just ridden. I privately shared his view, but how could I feel confident when I still had so far to ride and so many more mountains to climb?
As we ate, I handed out the next days’ laminated route profiles, maps and directions. We had a long day ahead – some 240km, with almost 5,500m of ascent, spread over eight climbs. However, with the exception of the Pailheres, none of these climbs were too scary. I also remembered this part of the ride as being one of the most beautiful and very remote – it was a day to savour. I warned Bernie and Lucy that they needed to stock up on provisions and fuel in Tarascon, because after that they wouldn’t find anything until Prades, some 120km away!
I ended the evening face down on my bed with 16 of Bernie’s acupuncture needles in me: right shoulder, left popliteus, left ilial sacral joint, right medial ligament, right achilles. Interestingly, Dan, James and Rob all seemed to be converts to acupunture, despite earlier misgivings. At this stage in our epic journey, we were all prepared to try anything that would relieve the increasing number of aches and pains. Somewhere around midnight, with Bernie’s attempts to patch us up finished, we all went to sleep, deeply weary.