A note from Sir Guy Litespeed, Nov 2017: I’m a lifelong cyclist, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I did my first really hard, multi-stage ride. Shortly afterwards, I wrote it up for a couple of magazines and then forgot all about it. I came across it recently, ten years later and decided to re-publish it here.
I chose not to edit the text at all – so this is exactly as I wrote it, back in 2007. My late sister Lucy accompanied the trip – her first real insight into bike riding – so I revisit parts of this with a heavy heart.
I’d like to dedicate this Pyrenean story and our achievements to her memory. I’ll never forget arriving at the top of the Col de Marie-Blanque, freezing cold and full of doubt. I sat in the boot of her hire car and she draped a towel over my head and put a sandwich in my hand. I knew then that I’d make it over the Col d’Aubisque. Good memories.
We were also accompanied by professional photographer Andrew Watkins, who captured some amazing images. Click on them to view full screen and then use your back button to return to the story.
I’ve recently become an ASSOS Équipe Ride Leader, so it’s funny to look at these pictures from ten years ago and see my allegiance to the brand come full circle. Coloured shorts were in, jerseys were worn looser and sock length… well, let’s not go there! Notably, I’d already worked out that for a ride like this – 3 x 250km/5,000m days – there was only one brand of bib-short to wear.
This was the year in which Apple released the iPhone. Danilo di Luca won the Giro d’Italia and Alberto Contador won the Tour de France. Chelsea won the FA Cup and England played their first game at the new Wembley Stadium, against Brazil. Tony Blair stepped down as Prime Minister and Northern Rock was bailed out by the British government. The credit crunch was upon us, although few of us would have realised it in late June 2007.
Note: this ride was split over three days and each day forms a separate post within this section. The story of Stage One follows below, with Stages Two and Three appearing as separate menu items i.e. please return to the Menu to access the next day’s story.
Words by Sir Guy Litespeed, 2007 | Pictures by Andrew Watkins
I opened my eyes with a start. It was 25th June 2007. I’d spent the last two years preparing for this day.
My room seemed darker than it should have been, although it was still only 5.00 am. I lay still for a few minutes, trying to locate the strange noise that had woken me. And then I realised what it was: rain, driving against the window. My stomach tightened – my second worst fear had just become a reality. My first fear was heat……..some chance.
I dozed fitfully for the next hour or so, too nervous to go back to sleep. My mind was full of logistical matters and the weather had only made things worse. I was just a few days from my 40th birthday, but today was probably going to be the hardest day of my life. I had 250km to ride, with 5,000m of ascent and the last 60 miles would include the Col de Marie Blanque and the Col d’Aubisque.
It had all begun three years earlier, when a friend suggested we ride the Raid Pyreneen and we completed the ride in the autumn of 2005. It turned out to be 750 km long, with almost 15,000 m of ascent and took us five and a half days. It was the hardest ride I’d ever done and it was also beautiful – almost entirely ‘traffic free’ and it followed a natural line on the map.
A few weeks later, I started to ponder how quickly it could be ridden. The standard benchmark for the Raid was 100 hours, elapsed time – five and a half days of riding. Unfortunately, a drunken moment in a pub with a friend and the thought of raising money for charity took me into a conversation about four days and then three!
I pulled out the maps the next day. If we went for three, Day One would be 250km and would run from the Atlantic coast to Argeles-Gazost, taking in eight climbs including the infamous Marie Blanque and the Col d’Aubisque in the last 90km. Day Two looked even worse: 250km and 6,500 m of ascent, including the cols of the Tourmalet, Aspin, Peyresourde, Ares and Portet d’Aspet. Day Three was 240km and took in a further eight climbs, starting with the Col de Port, followed by Marmare, Chioula, Pailheres and Jau, amongst others. The cumulative ascent weighed in around 15,000 m. Any one of these days would be horrendous and harder than anything I’d ever ridden before, but back-to-back it looked impossible. I breathed a sigh of relief and reported back to various potential team members that three days looked impossible and I’d prepare the logistics for four.
But somehow, I just couldn’t shake the idea of three days and around October 2006 I set my heart on it and changed the overnight stops. Team members evaporated with alarming speed and I had to recruit an entirely new group of riders and support crew. Given what we would be attempting, I included a masseur in the ‘must have’ column and also added ‘press’ to the ‘ideal’ list. The following months were a blur of training, perfecting the bike, my equipment and all the other things that needed to be arranged prior to departure – the list ran to three pages! To further complicate matters, I decided it would be too self-indulgent to do all this for purely personal reasons, so I chose a local charity and asked 500 people I knew to sponsor me, thereby hugely increasing the pressure to succeed.
So here I was, in a hotel room in Bidart, just south of Biarritz, listening to the rain against the window and contemplating 12 cold, wet hours in the saddle and a hugely increased risk of a crash on one of today’s numerous descents. I got up at 6.30 am and the next hour passed in a blur of eating, drinking, packing our overnight bags into our support vehicles and giving the bikes one last check over. There were four riders – me, Rob, Dan and James. We were all ‘accomplished amateurs’, but nothing more than that. Our Palmares were distinctly limited, with the exception of Dan, who had rowed across the Atlantic Ocean the previous year and was therefore certifiable. We were however pretty confident in our ability to ride 10 – 12 hour days at average speeds of 27kph and we had all completed gruelling endurance events over a period of many years. Only I was here from the 2005 team however: everyone else either couldn’t be here, or just simply didn’t want to be!
We would be supported by two vehicles, which seemed like overkill at this point, but would turn out to be a lifesaver, literally! One, a huge 4×4 driven by Tom and crewed by our soigneur, Bernie, contained all of our cycling kit, spare bikes, food and drink. The other was an unfortunate hire car, driven by a journalist, my sister Lucy and crewed by Andrew, a professional sports photographer.
We left the hotel in rain and strong winds. I’d imagined that we’d pose for nice photos on Bidart beach, but the weather was terrible and we just wanted to get riding to generate some warmth. Andrew took one quick group shot and we were off at 8.05 am, heading for our first climb, the Col de St. Ignace, some 25kms away. The initial route finding was difficult, but I’d recced it the previous afternoon with Bernie and we covered the ground in well under an hour. The rain was actually quite light and the wind seemed to be behind us, so it wasn’t all bad. The climb was an easy one, never steeper than 7% and only 4 km long. We were over it quickly, but I rode through the group warning everyone to be careful on the descent – two years previously we’d had a crash here in exactly the same conditions and I was keen to avoid any mishaps.
In the event, we were fine and I was happy to find that I was feeling much better and stronger on this section than in 2005. Our lead support vehicle was also working superbly, jumping ahead and marking the junctions, meaning that we simply rolled on without stops, except to grab a new bottle, a banana, or a gel – we quickly perfected hand-offs from both cars.
The first real climb came at 95kms – the Col d’Osquich and we flew towards it, aided by a strong tailwind. As we hit the initial slopes, we split into two pairs, Rob and Dan in the lead, followed by James and me. For the normal Raid Pyreneen, this is the largest hill on Day 1, but knowing that we had the Marie Blanque and the Aubisque ahead kept us conservative and we cruised up the climb, chatting as we went.
However, I suddenly realised that we still hadn’t seen the second support vehicle. It had stayed behind at the start so that Lucy and Andrew could do a major supermarket shop for all the things we would need to eat on the road over the next three days, but now we were only ten miles from our planned lunch stop in Tardets. I started to worry. Success over this sort of distance was completely dependent upon staying well fed and although we had plenty of gels, bars and drinks, we really needed proper food – bread, cheese, meats, bananas, fruit juices etc. What could have kept them?
A kilometre or so from the summit they finally appeared. I breathed a sigh of relief – lunch was back on! It turned out that the shop hadn’t opened until 9.00 am. It had then taken them an hour and a half to find everything, queue, buy it and set off. They were then shocked to find that we were already well up the road and that catching us was going to be extremely difficult. However, Lucy was an accomplished, if slightly scary driver and managed to close the gap. Andrew started to take photos and we cruised on, over the top and then flew down the descent – well surfaced, nice and open, with beautiful views to the east. The weather was grey, slightly damp and the roads were wet, but it was better than we’d expected when we set off and I felt fine with our progress and form so far.
James gave me his wheel on the 14km transfer to Tardets and we rolled in five minutes behind Rob and Dan, who had already found the support vehicles and were tucking into sandwiches, whilst Bernie massaged warming gel into their legs. We ate as much as we could in ten minutes and then set off again.
And then the weather changed. It started to rain quite heavily and the temperature seemed to be dropping as we neared the big mountains, now only 25km – it was down to about 14 degrees C. Two sharp but thankfully short climbs either side of Arette were a sobering taster of what was coming.
It was here that I got dropped by the others. I’d known for some time that I would be riding with three people who were stronger than me and had feared that this might happen. As the rain got heavier, the only way to keep warm was to work a little harder and that’s when the differentials became most obvious. I realised that I was facing the next 90km on my own, in worsening conditions over two really tough climbs. I gritted my teeth, checked that I was drinking and eating enough and put my head down.
With 160km under my belt, I hit the initial slopes of the Marie Blanque, a category one climb. It was raining steadily and the temperature had dropped to 10 degrees C. Life was about to get ‘interesting’. This was a horrible climb: easy for the first 5km and then hideous for the next 4km – averaging 12 – 13.5% in the final stages. Two years previously, it had been the first climb of Day 2 and even then it had been really difficult. This time, the weather was considerably worse and I’d already ridden the equivalent of a hard day in the Welsh mountains!
I caught up with Lucy and Andrew just before the climb steepened and handed them my helmet and waterproof and was encouraged to hear that the others were only six minutes ahead. I munched a banana, squeezed down a gel and carried on, wondering if I could catch them before the top.
Suddenly the road kicked up and I felt tired for the first time. The rain got a little heavier and the temperature continued to drop as I climbed. I’d brought along a secret weapon for this climb and I deployed it now: a 34 x 29 sprocket. But even then it was tough – relentlessly steep and pretty straight, meaning there was no chance to ‘explore’ the climb. I was grinding. Andrew took some more shots and I was conscious I probably looked terrible, but didn’t really care. All I could think about was turning the pedals. I kept my eyes off the roadside markers showing the next kilometres’ gradient – I knew from previous experience there was no solace to be found there. The Marie Blanque was the climb I feared most on the whole route and it was living up to expectations.
Eventually, I crested the top, shrouded in rain and mist. I looked and felt terrible. I knew I had to keep warm now and that life was about to get even worse – a slick descent. I got off the bike next to Lucy and Andrew’s car and gulped down some coke. I was much in need of an energy injection and tried to eat and drink as much as possible in about three minutes, sitting in the boot of the car with a towel over my head. I felt awful, but knew I had to get back on the bike and descend before I got any colder – it was now just 6 degrees C and I was soaking wet. Annoyingly, I realised my warm descending gear – thermal top, cap, full finger gloves – was in the front support vehicle and I was going to have to go down the mountain with nothing more than a rain cape. I set off, but started to shiver almost immediately, sending shimmies down my frame. This continued for ten minutes or so and it was scary as hell. How did you know when hypothermia had got you? Did you just fall off your bike? It was a complete ‘Catch 22’: the only hope of warming up was to go down, but going down was making me colder. I skidded my way through a particularly tight hairpin and realised things were almost out of control.
But luck smiled on me and after another couple of minutes I emerged into dry weather and looking up, I spotted a pale sun. I smiled to myself: maybe, just maybe, I could make this after all. I continued the plunge down to the valley, whilst Lucy and Andrew, following, were discovering for the first time that a car couldn’t catch a descending bike in full flight. A slight plateau half way down allowed me to work up some heat and I gulped another gel and drained another bottle of water.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but Lucy and Andrew were having a really tough time. They’d heard of our ride just a week earlier and had decided to cover the story, probably with the idea of sitting on sun-drenched Pyrenean mountain tops, sipping claret and tasting the local cheeses. Neither of them had ever witnessed ‘bike-suffering’ and the Marie Blanque had been a rude awakening. As I’d sat in the boot of their car on top of the climb, shivering and covered in towels, Andrew had quietly offered Lucy the profile card and muttered “This isn’t possible. Look.” What Lucy saw looked grim. It was also still 80km to the finish. Searching for some comfort, she asked me how this compared to other rides and I answered that the day was longer and harder than anything we’d ever done before, so I didn’t have any reference points. When I then suggested they shouldn’t follow too closely in case I fell off, I only made matters worse.
Down on the valley floor I was relieved to find that I still seemed to have some form of tail-wind, although it was pretty light now. I rode hard up to Laruns, trying to generate more heat and arrived at the bottom of the Aubisque feeling considerably better than I had an hour ago. Some of my training rides from the last year had been very long and tough and I’d discovered that if you kept eating and drinking, you could pull through a bad patch and start to feel better. This was happening now and I started to feel like I could reach the day’s finish after all.
Up ahead, the others, battling the same issues and desperate to keep warm, had carried straight on up the climb and the 4×4 had gone with them. Lucy spotted the look on my face and immediately called the vehicle back – it was only a little way up the climb anyway. I transferred energy foods, warm clothing and drinks into her car and changed into a dry jersey and gilet.
Setting off again, I felt physically OK and mentally strong. I knew this climb was long and hard, but somehow, it just wasn’t as scary as the Marie Blanque. I quickly climbed into dense fog, although it seemed to have stopped raining. Lucy, following, suddenly realised that I was virtually invisible in the white-out and decided to ‘ride shotgun’: she followed, in first gear with lights and hazards on, about 50 metres back, for the hour and a half that it took me to climb to the top! Don’t ever buy a used hire car!
Unknown to me, another drama was unfolding further up the climb. The cold and shivering that had caught me on the Marie Blanque had just hit the others at the top of the Aubisque. Bernie and Tom bundled them into the stationary vehicle on top of the Col and turned the heaters to maximum. Dan was apparently shaking so much he couldn’t operate the heater controls himself! Just as this had alarmed my impromptu support crew an hour earlier, so it alarmed Tom, who had never seen anything like this before and had only volunteered for the trip a few weeks before when our original driver had dropped out. Only Bernie was relatively unmoved: he’d raced as a pro earlier in his career and had been soigneur/manager to the Australian cycling team when it toured Europe some years ago. He knew what could be endured on a bike and was more relaxed with what he was witnessing.
Lower down the climb, I soldiered on, first through Eaux Bonnes and then Gourette – a ‘summit’ finish for that years’ Tour. I remembered the section from Gourette to the summit as being pretty steep and it was, but in the thick fog, I couldn’t see a thing and the climb passed pretty easily, aided by various snacks and another couple of bottles of energy drink.
When I reached the top the others had already gone, having successfully fought off the onset of hypothermia and remounted their bikes. This time I was prepared and having added winter gloves, a thermal jacket and a cap, I was off again after just a few seconds. The descent of the Aubisque is bumpy and technical and in the wet, it wasn’t much fun. I waved Lucy’s car through to lead me through one of the tunnels, which I knew from 2005 was dark and had a kink in it and then I was climbing again, towards the summit of the Soulor.
This was an easy climb and disappeared quickly. At the summit, I checked the little laminated route profile that each of us had in our pockets and realised that the final twenty miles were downhill. Even better, I remembered the descent from the Soulor to Argeles-Gazost as the best of the whole ride and it seemed to have dried out. I grinned and headed down.
Sure enough, the descent was amazing and I didn’t hold anything back – no need now, my work was done for the day. Following behind, the hire car struggled to stay in contact, but it didn’t matter – we were beneath the cloud base and I was visible to other traffic again. And I was celebrating – this was the furthest and hardest that I’d ever ridden in a single day and if it wasn’t for the fact that tomorrow was even worse, I’d have been grinning from ear to ear.
I rode into Argeles and stopped at a street map to help find the hotel, which turned out to be just up the road. With exactly 250km on the clock and twelve hours since leaving the Atlantic, I rolled up to the finish and climbed stiffly off the bike. The day had really taken its’ toll: my right ankle was showing real signs of tendonitis and the first rib in my right shoulder had popped out and was digging into my shoulder muscle. My left VMO was sore too and I was generally pretty beaten up. I was there, but I was scared I might not be able to start the following day. Maybe, if Bernie could work his magic, if the hotel could feed us well and I could get some sleep, I just might be OK?