Words by Sir Guy Litespeed, 2007 | Pictures by Andrew Watkins
THE THIRD DAY
I lay awake. Was that rain I could hear outside, or the river? Or was it just the wind in the trees? If it was wind, I hoped it was still behind us. Until yesterday and the day before, this would have been the hardest day of road riding I’d even done. Harder and longer than any of the sportives. But on this trip, all reference points had been blown away and we were well into uncharted territory, for us at least.
I repeated the tentative body checks of the previous morning. Move everything slowly, starting with the feet and ankles. As suspected, things hurt worse than this time yesterday. Bernie’s magic wasn’t quite so magic anymore. I stood up and winced. Yep, today was going to hurt. We had another eight cols to cross and 250km to ride. So near and yet so far.
Breakfast was well practiced now. Eat until full and then eat for another ten minutes! Drink as much as possible. Then finish kitting up, pack the gear into the car and check the bike. Mine appeared to have a soft front tyre and closer inspection revealed a nasty gash. Time was short, so I changed both the tyre and the tube and we rolled away at 8.00 am. I was happy to find that the earlier noise had been the wind in the trees and it looked set to be behind us again. The roads were dry and the day didn’t appear to be heating up particularly – perfect.
There was no time to warm up – we hit the lower slopes of the Col de Port straight away. This was an easy, but long climb of 12km and I contemplated that every pedal stroke today was going to hurt a little. My ankle, my shoulder, my left and right knees all hurt. And then there was the general lactic build up, meaning everything was now painful to the touch. James rode up alongside and we spent a few minutes working out how many pedal strokes might be needed to reach the coast. He estimated 70,000 and I grimaced. 70,000 things that hurt today. Oh great!
As we warmed up, things got better. Rob was ahead and Dan accelerated away to bridge the gap. I suggested James ride on too, but he seemed happy to conserve his energy and we carried on at a reasonable pace, chatting, eating and drinking. We reached the summit easily and headed straight down, with the obligatory fresh water bottle and bananas from the support crews. The descent was damp in places under the trees, but we flew down, arriving in Tarascon well ahead of both support vehicles. A traffic jam slowed them up even more and we were through the town, across the Ariege River and onto the lower slopes of the Route des Corniches before they caught back up. We left helmets and descent jackets at the side of the road for Bernie to collect and carried onwards. Not really a col, the Route des Corniches is simply a small road that parallels the normal Raid Pyreneen route to Ax les Thermes, but it’s 1,000 metres above the main road. It’s remote, quiet and beautiful. The climb itself was actually steep, but only 6km long and the amazing views on the long, high level traverse that followed made it well worthwhile. It was amazing to think that down in the valley below, the Raid Pyreneen aspirants that we’d met the night before were battling it out with articulated lorries. Crazy!
We rode onwards through some amazing scenery – sheer rock walls, ruined castles, quiet villages, olive groves… and the roads remained virtually deserted. The climb that came next was actually quite long and comparable to the Col de Port. It took us to the summit of the Col de Marmare, but at the top we turned right and climbed a little bit further, to the top of the Col de Chioula. Here, we caught up with Rob, Dan and both support vehicles. James was close to bonking and I wasn’t far away, so we ordered turkey and cheese sandwiches from Lucy, who had fast become adept at producing these out of nowhere. Bernie massaged our legs with warming gel and Tom produced a couple of deck chairs. This was wonderful, but leaving again ten minutes later was a wrench! The weather remained cool and dry, helping to keep dehydration at bay.
The descent to the foot of the Pailheres was twisty and fast and we’d turned left and hit the lower slopes of the climb all too soon. The fifth climb of the day was a tough one. It had featured in several recent Tours and was upgraded a few years earlier to HC classification. It was probably marginally harder and certainly prettier from the other side, but even from this approach, it was still 15km long and had several sections well over 10%.
Easy at first, it steepened considerably through two sets of trees until we emerged above the tree line. Then it got even steeper, through a long set of switchbacks. The last 5km were very open and consistently hard, with the summit visible from a long way below. It was mentally tough therefore and it felt every bit an HC classified climb. As we climbed, Andrew was never far away, clicking away with his Nikon.
At the summit, we quickly re-stocked with food and drink, added helmet and jacket and munched more bananas. The hardest climb of the day was behind us, but we still had 120km to ride and three more cols to cross. We sent Lucy and Andrew ahead to photograph us on the most amazing set of bends: a crazy set of hairpins, laid out beneath us like a map.
The descent turned out to be beautiful, but the road was narrow and very bumpy and it was difficult to get the lines right, meaning that all of us were left tired when we reached Rouze.
We were together as we turned right through the hamlet of Escouloubre, but split up again as we traversed up and over the next two cols – the Moulis and the Garavel.
Neither was particularly difficult and the roads were deserted. We’d spent virtually the whole day so far on some of the most remote roads we’d ever seen and it was wonderful. The flora around us was also changing perceptibly, from mountain to arid: the sea was getting closer.
The descent off the Garavel was fast, steep in places and the surface was often loose, meaning that we had to keep our wits about us. A crash now would be disastrous.
James and Dan were ahead and I waited for Rob at the bottom of the Col de Jau, our last mountain. At 12km long and Category 1, this was a genuine obstacle before our long descent to the sea. Rob and I rode on, but I was keen to give it a little extra effort and accelerated away, aided by Rob’s battle with a gel that didn’t want to be opened. I climbed fast, through dense pine forest. Apparently, this area was so remote that it still had black bears roaming wild.
Towards the top of the climb, I started to bonk. With no reserves left, our bodies were consuming the food we took in even faster than normal. I searched my pockets for food, but found nothing. Both support vehicles were ahead at the summit. Damn – this was the risk with trying to ride so light – you could suddenly find yourself without food or drink.
I put my head down and dug in. The top came 4km later and I pulled up next to Lucy and Andrew’s car and climbed stiffly off the bike. My body actually felt better on the bike now than off it! Once I tried to walk, supporting my own weight, it was a different matter. It was also freezing up here. Grey skies, swirling mist and a strong, chilling wind whipped across the Col. Rob arrived, looking like I felt. He announced that was the longest 8 kilometres he’d ever ridden: a reference to the wrong distance I’d mistakenly given him at the bottom! Lucy and Andrew kindly gave us their seats in the car, heater working overtime and produced more sandwiches, coke, gels and bars. Suitably fed and recovered, we headed down five minutes later. Again, the descent was narrow and bumpy and required real care. My front tyre deflected off a small stone and I slowed down a little, anxious to avoid a crash at this stage. It was 5.30 pm and there was 80km still to ride. I figured a really fast run could land us at the beach by 8.30 pm, assuming we worked together and avoided any mishaps.
We caught up with Dan and James on the descent – a 24km drop to the busy town of Prades. Emerging back into traffic and civilisation was an unwelcome shock, but for a few miles at least, it couldn’t be avoided. The weather was dry and warm and the flora and fauna was now distinctly arid and Mediterranean.
Emerging from the narrow streets of Prades, Rob announced that if we could make it to the coast in two and a half hours, we’d be inside of 60 hours elapsed time from start to finish. Two years ago, this stretch had taken us at least an hour longer than that, so this was no mean task.
We put our heads down and started to work as a foursome again. The problem was, we seemed to have picked up a strong head-wind/cross wind. It proved to be a slog and coupled with the traffic, was hard going for the 7km stretch of main road. But as soon as we turned slightly south, heading for Thuir and then Aregeles, it became the tail-wind from heaven. We streaked along at an average speed of well over 40kmh per, causing numerous cars to misjudge their overtaking manoeuvres – one particular incident very nearly ended in disaster when an Espace managed to insert itself in the six inch gap between James’s and Rob’s wheels to avoid the oncoming vehicles. It was a really close shave and sobered us all up.
The other problem with our newfound speed was that we were rapidly losing Lucy and Andrew. They’d stayed behind to file the BLOG from near Prades and were going to struggle to catch up in time for the finish. Even Bernie and Tom were struggling to keep up – they’d mark the correct turn into each village, but we’d then gain a real lead on them, often disappearing into the next village before they even reached it! I could see that it was proving stressful for them.
I remembered this section of the route as difficult to navigate correctly at speed and it was proving to be the same, exacerbated by our rapid progress. A couple of times we almost crashed when we suddenly had different ideas as to where to go!
Just after 8.00 pm we neared Argeles sur Mer. Tom and Bernie were with us, but there was still no sign of Lucy and Andrew. We turned south-west for Port Argeles and after a little confusion as to which beach was the best one to finish on, we eventually came to a final halt at 8.35 pm, just as Lucy and Andrew arrived to record the moment. We were deeply weary and tempers were frayed by the confusion in the last hour, but we’d made it. The distance for the day was 243 kilometres, or 145 miles and we’d climbed c.5,500 metres. We’d ridden for a shade under 36 hours and had covered 435 miles and almost twice the height of Everest in just three days. It had been the most amazing, epic ride that any of us had ever experienced.
We took a few ‘finish’ photos on the beach and headed off to the closest restaurant for a well earned glass of wine and copious amounts of food.