CCC – Day4

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

The roll-out from the hotel first thing in the morning put the one kilometer warmup on Day 3 to shame. We rolled downhill for 300m from the hotel, looped around a traffic circle and headed off up the hill. Before we’d been riding even three minutes minutes Phil had found us a 10% grade. By the time the computer ticked over the first kilometer we had already gained 50 meters, considering we started on a downhill advertising a 5% average grade for the first kilometer would be pretty misleading.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

The temperatures were cool and there was fog hovering over the fields adjacent to the road as we made our ascent towards the Col de Spandelles in the morning. The Sun was rising behind us casting golden beams of light over the peaks above Hautacam behind us and onto the peaks of the ridge to our right. The temperatures drifted between cool and cold as I rode through patches of forest and pasture. The road ramped several times well into the double digits but flattened out between so we while were averaging about 6% as we made our way towards ticking off a vertical kilometer (completed before 9am mind you!) it didn’t seem to be all that difficult. This was a great relief as I had been worried the day before about compromising my ability to ride today based on how poorly I was faring the day prior.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

The forest broke open at the col opening a spectacular view ahead of us into the national park. The mountain fell away in front of us into a valley so deep that it was impossible to see the bottom of it. To our left we could see up the valley towards the Aubisque and the high mountains and to the right we could see out towards the foothills. Behind us, a ridge of peaks above the Hautacam indicated just how far we’d come. Blue skies in all directions comforted everyone that despite the cool start this morning we were going to have a hot afternoon. Perhaps we had forgotten what it felt like to melt on the slopes of the Pailheres three days earlier.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4
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The descent was an exciting one. The road surface was marginally better than the intermittent gravel sections seen a day earlier. This one was paved the whole way, but grass had managed to start breaking through the pavement between the tire tracks in a few spots. Exciting stuff by my standards, but not exactly the kind of thing that everyone found fun. The descent was on average quite a bit steeper than the side we had climbed in the morning and it was easy to find yourself travelling very quickly at only a moment’s notice. The road dropped through some very steep cuts in the hillside and looped back on itself in all sorts of very interesting configurations, it was a delight to ride and as Paul and I were really getting into it we came across a tiny little farm truck on it’s way up. You wouldn’t find as small of a truck in the whole of Alberta… but that didn’t stop it from blocking the entire road as he made his way up the hill. Up onto the grass I went, tucked the elbows and knees in, leaned the handlebars out of the way of the side-view mirror and managed to fit my 42cm handlebars through at most a 50cm gap between the truck and the bank of dirt and rocks to the right. I kept myself upright through the whole ordeal and got myself back off of the slippery grass and onto the pavement just in time to hit the brakes before the subsequent switchback. Right back into the rhythm of the descent. We stayed on a heightened alert looking out for approaching vehicles through the rest of the descent but found only switchbacks and sheep. Popping out at the bottom of the climb Paul and I decided to wait for the two who’d been following us so we could ride the valley transfer together. By the time they’d arrived safely at the bottom, I was cold from standing in the shadow of the mountain and as soon as we rolled out Paul and I needed to ramp up the effort level a bit to re-warm ourselves. The big boys pushing the pace on a gradual descent were no match for the skinny climber types and our wait had been in vain. We couldn’t ride slow enough while staying warm and they couldn’t draft fast enough to keep up. No contracts were earned as domestiques that morning.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

We rolled out into the foothills at the end of the valley and made our way over a few lumpy climbs past a number of picturesque churches and down some beautiful farm lanes before catching up with a bit larger connecting road and finding ourselves behind a tractor moving a number of bales of hay. Stephanie, whom we’d caught en-route, Paul and myself tucked in behind the tractor and drafted him along at about 30kph for a while as bits of straw and hay blew off into our faces. Not deterred we sat there for about 5 kms, enjoying any form of energy conservation possible. The tractor’s draft helped us gain time on the main pack of CCC riders and as we approached our first feed stop everyone was getting a bit grumbly. The previous evening our first feed stop had been advertised as ‘50 kms’, and as the kilometers rolled past in excess of 50 it felt like we were being cheated. Everyone could handle the riding, I doubt anyone had run out of water, everyone still had pockets full of food… but the nerves were starting to wear thin on most of us based on three days of incredible fatigue. Nine kilometers later we came across Tom at the side of the road. The fragility of the situation was eye opening, just 9 kilometers was enough to push us nearly to wit’s end. While people were holding themselves together, it was starting to show that everyone was being stretched. With as much re-application of chamois cream as was going on it was clear that it wasn’t just nerves that were wearing down.

The beautiful weather continued to distract us from our physical and emotional maladies and as we rolled out to begin our ascent of the Col de Marie-Blanc it became clear that today was going to be a hot one. The Col de Marie Blanc has a reputation for being one of the fastest descents in the Pyrenees. It’s a pretty good road, it’s steep and it’s incredibly straight. The motorbikes carrying camera men for the tour often lose contact with the riders on this descent. Phil had reminded us of this fact the night prior and so it was in my mind as I made my way up the hill. A small frenchman who looked to be about 60 years old came flying past me on the way up the hill. “Don’t worry, he’s not doing 200kms today” I thought to myself as he went past. When he continued to climb so quickly that I lost sight of him a few kilometers up the road I was thoroughly impressed. There’re not a whole lot of ways to ride up a 10% gradient and I was working hard, yet he was riding away from me like I wasn’t even trying. Impressive stuff on the Marie-Blanc.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

After passing through the town, and entering the forest for a bit of shade, the grade flattened out and the road started to meander out of the trees again into a bit of a meadow. The col itself was visible ahead of us and after suffering on the 10% earlier in the heat it was nice knowing that there wasn’t going to be much more steep climbing coming our way. I rode easy up over the summit and by the time I had eaten (having learned the hard way on the Col d’Aspin the day before) and dug out a gilet for the descent I had been caught by Jan. I took off from there down the other side, the side that is typically climbed during the tour, and really gained speed. The road was excellent and it was very easy to pick up speed. So much so that it was a bit un-nerving how fast I was going early on through the curves. By the time I reached the lower slopes and things straightened out I had apparently become a bit numb to the sensation of some crazy speeds and topped 97 kph on one straightaway after a pitch of -11% without really being aware of how fast that actually was.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

I regrouped with Jan at this point and we rolled along together out of the valley, hopped on a larger road for a couple kilometers to transfer up the valley and soon enough we were pointed off to the right. It was a sharp corner, and we needed to come to almost a dead stop from the 30kph we were doing in the hot sun and we disappeared into the shade on a small lane heading off up an adjoining valley. We climbed together for the first few kilometers and some movement caught my eye up above. Atop the hillside and cliff way above us I’d just seen the side-view mirror of a little truck go whizzing by. “Did you see that?” I asked, Jan hadn’t. “I’ll bet we’re going straight up onto the top of the cliff up there”, and a few hundred meters later we hooked backwards from the valley bottom and started to climb back under the cliff, I was probably right. It was quite a grade, an average of ten percent for most of the kilometers. Just keep it going, enough effort that I’m not going to come to a complete stop, but not a watt more. ‘Not a watt more’ still translated into a really serious effort. Up, up, up. The kilometers ticked by and the climb broke out of the tight valley onto the side of the wider valley we’d been passing through on the larger road. The views up to my right were incredible. Reminiscent to how some of the mountains had looked this morning, these were unlike anywhere I’d seen back home. Patches of ruggedness, and patches of domestication, there were sheep, cows and goats all the way to the top.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

The road bent around back towards the cliff I’d seen from below, but not before passing a big pasture complete with sheep being herded with the help of a sheepdog receiving whistle commands from the shepherd. The shepherd was standing on the running boards of his land-rover, so not quite the same image as you’d conjure up of how it was done hundreds of years ago, but definitely close. The grade didn’t slow down and I kept trucking along towards the summit, the kilometer countdown along the road keeping me focussed and motivated. What a surprise it was when I approached the 1 kilometer to go sign at the same time that the summit of the col came into view. It was going to feel downhill from here, with an ‘almost flat’ 2% grade all the way across the valley to the top. I waited up for Jan at the top of the climb as we had started together before flying off down the back of it. Sheep-bells were the only sounds, not an engine within earshot. It was easy to see down the valley from here towards the Col de Lie upon which we’d be eating lunch. The valley was sliced up into fields and little bits and pieces of woods, incredibly bright green all the way down the bottom, darker green along the sides and reddish along the ridges on either side where some of the bracken had started to turn with the season.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

The descent was incredible, fast but not steep and the road was lined with little fences, hedges and stone walls. It wasn’t possible to look quite as far through the corners as on many of the other roads we’d been covering in the past days and so even though the speeds were a relatively tame 40-50kph it was absolutely exhilarating to weave from side to side, cut through the corners, and jump back on the pedals to eek out a few more kph on the few straightaways where it was possible to do so.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

As soon as we reached the bottom of the descent we crossed the intersection at the bottom and started into our next climb, a short two and half kilometers up to the Col de Lie. The views back up the valley we’d just descended were beautiful and within moments it seemed like I was rolling in to the lunch-stop. Chris was just finishing chopping endive for the salad as I pulled up and hopped off my bike. We had a couple picnic tables under some huge shade trees and it was nice to hop off the bike and have a seat that greeted the bum in a slightly different manner. We dug in to a fantastic selection of cheeses, pickled beets and a great salad. Some nice pieces of french bread helped to deliver the nutella from jar into belly and eventually I was again on my way. Jan and I had started the Marie-Blanc alongside ten others but had made such good time through the intermediate hills that there was no sense in waiting up for them to eat before proceeding from here. The descent after lunch gave the belly a chance to try and digest the big dose of food I’d put down and spit us out into a wide valley bottom right on the edge of the mountains. After some nice flat sections to pedal easy we hung a left in a small town and headed south back towards the high peaks.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

The afternoon’s conquest would be a visit to the Plat de Soudet. A high plateau just on the French side of the Spain-France border. The Pierre St. Martin ski village and a road leading into Spain were at the top and the road was relatively large compared to most of the roads we’d actually done much of any climbing on to date. There was even a center-line painted on the road, clearly an indication that this was not an ancient ox-path that had just had pavement put down over it. Jan and I rode together on the long approach up the valley, being stopped by a herd of a few hundred sheep for a few minutes along the way. Eventually the grade picked up and we split off to ride our own paces. The Soudet would prove to be relatively unique among all of the climbs during the first week of the trip. The road settled in to roughly 10% grade and just stuck there. The pavement had been re-done in recent months but there was no traffic to justify it. The road exists largely for transporting thousands of people up to the ski areas on the plateau during the winter but today it was almost completely ours. At first the monotonous grade felt good, the road is relatively well known as a place to spot pro cyclists out training. Unfortunately, with all of the grand tours done for the year and the world championships only days away, the elderly frenchman from the Marie-Blanc was as close to a pro as we would see today. The steady but steep grades make it a favoured spot for them to benchmark climbing capabilities. I’m sure Dr. Ferrari has followed more than a few cyclists up this road with a stopwatch in hand. Motivated to measure a benchmark of my own I settled into a rhythm and made good progress for a while. Keeping my breathing right on the edge of aerobic threshold I plugged away just on the edge of real effort, just enough discomfort to remember that I was working, not so much as to cause any repercussions later in the day. I could average about 850 vertical meters per hour at that effort on this grade.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

Eventually though, the monotony caught up with me and my muscles really started to groan and beg for a change of pace. I had abused them so much in the previous three days that my quads were sore to the touch when I felt them in bed that morning and I was now approaching 6 hours of riding already today. It took a while but I settled in again to find a rhythm, this time standing out of the saddle. It lasted for a kilometer or so until my feet were about ready to declare a mutiny, back to the saddle. At ten percent there’s only so long you can ride in the saddle before your quads and glutes demand a break and you have to get up and use your body weight to your advantage. Today though, the standing breaks had to be short. In my dazed and confused state the evening before (after coming face to face with my limits on the Hautacam) I’d strewn everything I owned around my half of the hotel room trying to get it to dry. The insoles of my shoes had been out drying in one spot and my cycling shoes had been drying in another. When I woke up and was rushing around the hotel room to get my overnight bag into the support van before it left I closed the lid with my insoles inside. That bag headed off to the next hotel while only my small day-bag that would go in the support van stayed with us through breakfast. When I went to put on my cycling shoes after eating I was standing on the bare carbon bottoms. Sh!t. I was very happy to discover that I could at least pull the insoles out of my runners and pop them inside my cycling shoes so I’d have something to cushion my feet for the day. Unfortunately by the time I was climbing up the Soudet, the flimsy little insoles had lived their life and were smashed as flat as pieces of paper.

The climb up the Soudet continued to challenge in an unrelenting but also not overly oppressive manner. It had taken a few kilometers to make peace with the pitch of the road but as soon as that had happened there was nothing left to debate inside my head. There were no surprise pitches like there had been on the Port de Bales, just kilometer after kilometer of sunlight, heat and climbing. My stomach was feeling good and I continued to eat, my energy levels were high and despite the aches in my quads and the bruises developing on the balls of my feet I could not have been happier. This climb embodied everything I had hoped for and dreamed that this trip would be. Perhaps the euphoria was enhanced by some incredible fatigue, but none the less I was in good spirits. The climbing levelled out as I arrived at the Plateau and the road made its way through some rolling and rocky terrain as the forest thinned out. The lumpy road eventually broke out to a little intersection and with no pomp or circumstance I rolled past the sign indicating I’d arrived at the Col de Soudet. The views were beyond belief. To the left, the peaks of the Haute Pyrenees stood out at the horizon. In front of me, the ridge behind the ski area and it’s windswept patches of trees and barren rock, and to my right, the Basque Pyrenees. The heat of the afternoon made things a bit hazy, but with the exposure to the wind up on the plateau I was now anything but hot. The road curved back to the north and I began descending along a ridgetop, it fell away quite quickly and speeds were up again after an hour and twenty minutes of slow and solid effort. I was completely out of water but hoped to make good progress down the hill towards Tom’s stop.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

After some tight descending through the trees, reminiscent of the top section of the road up to “Meadow in the Sky” just outside Revelstoke, I crossed over a narrow point on the ridge and began climbing again up towards the Col D’Issarbe. This portion of the ridge was full of trails cut through the forest for Nordic skiing, heading back and forth through the trees. The barren plateau of the Soudet and Pierre St. Martin would be incredibly cold if the wind was blowing in the winter and so the piece of the ridgetop with trees was where most of the nordic trails were concentrated. I encountered a young Italian cyclist who seemed to be lost. He spoke not a word of English and I not a word of Italian. We did our best to speak broken French to eachother and I got him sorted out. It took some convincing for me to explain that yes indeed I had started the morning in Argeles Gazost. Only after I explained that four days ago I had been at the Mediterranean did he figure out that I was a total nutter and wished me ‘bon-chance demain, mon ami’. I did the same and with a laugh continued on up to a little restaurant at the peak of the Issarbe plateau. Phil had recommended it as a spot to stop for a late afternoon coffee or beer or glass of wine. Knowing that I was miles and miles ahead of most of our group and already run out of water I decided to stop and enjoy the outstanding view. Unfortunately after parking my bike and walking up to the little restaurant on my bruised feet it turned out to be closed for a floor renovation. I got back to my bike after gingerly walking back down the path and pulled out a rather unappetizing bar from my pocket and plugged it in my mouth. Despite Tom’s afternoon stop waiting for me at the bottom of the hill I wasn’t willing to chance it with my blood sugar dipping and kept the stomach going.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

The descent had a much different character than the climb up the Soudet even though it was only a few kilometers to the west. This road quite likely was built following the route of an old footpath when it was widened to accommodate carts and eventually vehicles. The grade changed frequently and the hairpins were sharp and plentiful. The road fell off onto the shaded side of the ridge down into the valley below. The air was cool and the road almost completely empty of cars. I only caught one local driving a beat up little van down the hill rattling and bouncing along the entire descent. My feet were starting to hurt immensely at this point and standing up to keep the bum from absorbing all of the little bumps was only intermittently possible. Eventually the descending was over, and I made my way leisurely down the valley bottom towards a much desired foot break, food break and water stop with Tom. I hadn’t been very coherent by the end of dinner the evening prior and while we had all recalled that food-stop number one was supposed to be at 50 kilometers I had no recollection whatsoever of where the third feed stop would be. Thirsty and aching, I just wanted to get off my bike but because the road was still gently descending along a river I kept my head in the game and didn’t stop until the welcome sight of our little white van eventually came into view.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

The eating and drinking commenced and I sat and chatted with Tom about how great this stage was. With no pressure on my feet they started to feel better quite quickly. I kept eating chips until Jan rolled up. He had found himself getting very stiff after stopping so long for the hot soup lunch break the day prior and was keen to keep making progress without a rest. After filling his bottles we set off together to take in a couple more cols in the foothills before a long gradual ascent to our Auberge back in the heart of the mountains.

We finished the gradual one or two percent grade descent alongside the river in short order and joined up with a bit larger of a road to connect over to our next excursion onto the backroads. Progress was again quick with a full stomach and ever so slightly rested muscles. We surmised at where Phil’s route might take us and I’m proud to say that between Jan and myself we were correct in guessing where we were generally headed before we got there. It was a good feeling to be coherent towards the tail end of my fourth day, a sea change from the day before and I knew it. Our arrows soon took us off of the larger road and we started to wind our way off through some rolling hills towards our final climb of the day, the Col de Sustary.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

The rolling pastures gave no warning that we were going to encounter such a beast in the middle of the Pyrenean foothills. One moment we were rolling along chatting and the next we’d made our way in and amongst some forest and were into our easiest gears and out of the saddle. The climb crept up on me from out of no-where and I was still in the big ring when the grade went over 10% for the first time. Fortunately we knew it had to be short and so it wasn’t completely defeating to the morale. The road was tight, shaded, and the pavement was in acceptable shape to get traction despite being broken up and having grass growing in between the tyre tracks. I kept checking the road grade on my garmin as it pitched up steeper and steeper around the few corners, generally though this road was headed straight up hill with minimal landscaping. 12%, 13%, 17%, 19%. Incredibly, I somehow had the strength to do it and do it well. It was an end-of-the-day finishing sprint for the likes of Joachim Rodriquez. Unfortunately I’m not quite as skinny as him, and I didn’t have to beat anyone, but the drifting imagination helped. The legs just pumped and the heart just beat and the lungs just breathed. And then, as soon as it had started, after less than a mile it was done. Out of the trees, and tada, what a climb.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage4

Jan emerged a few minutes later, with a similar sentiment to myself. “Phil didn’t tell us about that one”. We laughed and headed off a much gentler grade on the descent back to the main valley. As we neared the main road we both shared that we’d already concluded that we probably had a headwind to finish the day and were happy to have one another to help the final kilometers to tick away. It wasn’t great news, the headwind that is, but as we got onto the bigger road it became apparent that the valley was quite tight and so the wind would be swirling and not directly in our faces the whole way. This was a relief as we settled in and began to climb the long valley into the finish. Jan tucked in behind me and we just settled down and got to work. The river flowing out of the valley indicated to me that we were climbing pretty steadily, but after spending so much of the day standing up in my easiest gears tackling 10+% for hours at a time the 1% average grade was a fine compromise. Jan told me I’d have to slow down if I wanted to draft, or he was comfortable staying tucked in behind. I agreed to keep pulling into the headwind as my feet were getting sore again and I just wanted to get there. I didn’t admit it though, just made up some BS about loving headwinds and feeling like home. As the valley narrowed and narrowed we found ourselves in the shadows and as the long slog went on it seemed that twilight was approaching. My feet certainly agreed that this had been the longest day ever. This would turn out not to be the case, upon arrival at our little Auberge nestled deep in the valley it would prove to be one of the earliest arrivals of the whole trip.

Yesterday: CCC – Day 3 – Bagneres-de-Luchon to Argeles-Gazost

Tomorrow: CCC – Day 5 – Larrau to Oloron

Photos are mine and Phil Deeker’s. Refining of my lousy shots was done by Reuben Krabbe. Please do not re-publish in whole or in part without prior consent.

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CCC – Day 3

We were clearly in one of the less ‘traditional’ of the little french hotels overnight as for breakfast we found ourselves some scrambled eggs to heap aboard the baguettes alongside the requisite cafe-au-lait and croissant. The group assembled out front of the hotel gradually, most folks having some chain lubricating to do following the thunderstorm the day before and the long day of damp weather ahead of us. The aches and pains of two enormous days of riding were also slowing folks down and navigating the stairs in particular was a slower affair. Eventually the crew assembled at the front steps kitted out in rain gear, and generally smiling faces, ready to roll over to our first climb of the day.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

It didn’t take long to start ascending, just less than a mile to be exact. By about quarter to eight most people had found themselves in their easiest gear and trying to conserve energy as we began a long wet climb towards the Col de Perysourde. The grade backed off after the first few kilometers to a slightly less demoralizing pitch and it was possible to grab a few more gears and get going with the climb. The rain was on and off, but more off than on, for the ascent and banks of clouds floated around the mountainside as we passed through a series of villages on the way up. The views out across to the valley to our right were entertaining as they came in and out of view obscured by bits and pieces of cloud or fog drifting about, I was reminded specifically for the troutbeck valley from year spent in England. The sheep looked depressed by the weather and the varying shades of grey in the skies weren’t doing a whole lot to keep me excited either. The public fountains designated as ‘Eau Potable’ were overflowing as we climbed past dozens of them alongside this road but it was hard to be thirsty when you have a half liter of orange juice and three or four bowls of cafe-au-lait already waiting in the bladder. Stopping just seemed like a cold idea so it was postponed for another kilometer, and then another, and yet another.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

The frequency of the cars rolling past decreased the further from the valley bottom we got, giving some sense of progress, at least we were getting more and more remote. We were finally alerted to being within striking range of the summit when a series of switchbacks appeared out of the clouds ahead of us. Phil had warned us the night prior that switchbacks always look more difficult from below than they actually are when you’re on them. They looked positively ridiculous from below, and I hoped for something at least manageable upon arrival. I decided to try and believe him about that one and started to look forward to the descent which was promised to be quite fast and on a nice road. The switchbacks broke the monotony of the climb thus far with a host of names painted on the pavement and I was reminded that this was a pretty special opportunity. Something I had forgotten about for the better part of the last hour.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

Having arrived at the summit, I decided that my brain had won the game of chicken it was playing with my bladder and paused before the descent. The western slopes of the Peresourde were wetter than the east and very quickly after picking up a bit of speed water had been sprayed and driven into the last bastions of dryness my rain gear had been maintaining on the inside. That was a turning point for the morning, mentally at least, and it was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to get any wetter because it wasn’t physically possible. My mood picked up and I started to let it rip on road into Arreau. By the time I’d finished the main descent I could feel that I’d picked up a bit of grit between my teeth from the road. Evidence of a smile on the face despite being rather cold.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

After rolling through main-street of the old medieval town we hopped out onto the main road for a minute to connect over to the climb up the Col d’Aspin. I had regrouped with Ben at this point and we made our ascent of the first half of the climb together, talking and pedaling again through the clouds. There was no indication visually how far we had to go when we looked up into a bank of white which was probably for the better. No reason to push the effort, just go at the all-day pace. The kilometers passed and we did some winding around on the side of the mountain in the fog. So many turns that it was rather disorienting and on the odd occasion that the clouds broke beneath us it took some though to piece together the bits and pieces of scenery into a mental image of the path we were taking up the hill. Eventually I split from Ben as the grade picked up towards the summit and the road began to be cut into rock rather than a dirt hillside. If there hadn’t been signs every kilometer counting down our progress towards the summit, this would have been encouragement that it was finally getting close. Topping out at a little gap in the ridge at the top I had a little rendez-vous with Carl, the CCC mechanic. A quick derailleur adjustment and I was on my way down the other side as quickly as I could to stop from getting cold.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

Within a couple hundred meters a stop resulting in getting cold seemed like it wouldn’t have been much of a loss. As least if you stop and eat and get cold you get to do the eating part. Now I was on the way down, cold, and hadn’t eaten. It was very cold in the forest on this side of the Aspin but the road was curvy and entertaining so it kept my mind off of it for the most part. Sooner than I would have thought we pulled off to the right and headed off on a gravel track through to forest towards the Col de Beyrede.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

The forest reminded me of the western slopes of the Roger’s Pass and the road looked an awful lot like the forestry access roads that go straight up the side of the mountain there. Knowing that we didn’t have all that far to go up this track through the forest it initially seemed like a short entertaining detour. The fact of the matter was that this detour, while short in length was not going to be short on time or effort. The pitches ramped up to in excess of 15% a number of times. Speeds dropped to the ‘barely perceptible’ level and I made some really slow progress. Not eating at the top of the Aspin was a mistake and while I dumped a bit of sugar into my stomach the effort level on this climb was preventing my body from getting it from the stomach to the muscles. The gravel road was interspersed with some rather crazy steel trenches. They were spaced out along the road to allow the rain to drain from one ditch across the road into the other. About 3 inches wide and 6 inches deep, it was going to be the end of your wheel, and quite possibly a few of your bones, if you rode into one. Fortunately on the ascent I was moving so slowly that I had a full minute to contemplate crossing each one before arriving at it and could ride across on a perpendicular. Where the gravel was loose it was tricky to stand without losing traction, and it was necessary to grind the gears from the saddle while negotiating the grades. A minute of this would have the quads and glutes aching for a rest. I’d then decide that the surface was probably intact enough to try standing and hope I could keep the rear wheel from slipping and would get out of the saddle and grind the gears from there. The lats and lower back would be complaining only moments later and I’d be back to seated at 40 rpm in my easiest gear winding my way up through the trees. The track through the forest backed off in steepness to a very welcome 5% or so as we broke into a meadow and we rolled past a little Auberge and around the corner towards the col proper. Tom was there with our first feed of the day and was certainly a welcome sight. A cup of hot tea warmed things up and we were able to rummage through our bags to replace wet apparel with soon-to-be-wet apparel.

As we rolled out from the top of the Beyrede Tom reminded us to be careful on the descent. “Pay attention to the trenches”. How could we forget to the steel drainage system waiting to devour our front wheels and send us sprawling headlong onto the graveley tarmac. The descent through the trees warmed appreciably as we lost elevation. We was a loose term. I had started the descent with a group of 7, but by the time I’d woven my way through the forest I’d gained more than 10 minutes on my companions. I rode the entire vertical kilometer cautiously and worried about coming around a corner and being surprised by a steel trench, they must have been absolutely terrified to go that much slower. The foggy-grey broke into a patch of sunny sky midway down the mountain and the occasional view out through the trees showed a beautiful and tight valley forested on all sides, a reminder that we were in the National Park. The trenches became less frequent the closer we got to the valley bottom and were interspersed with a few wet cattle-grids for additional excitement.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

Dropping out into the valley bottom we had a group-disrobing and pedaled onwards, north to the foothills. As soon as the valley opened up we left the side of the larger road and were back off on a little country lane winding up and off away from everything else. The next couple hours before lunch were completely different from anything we’d seen yet, short climbs five to twenty minutes in length followed by equally short descents that wound through pastures, farms, and a series of tiny villages. There was always a church steeple somewhere in view, standing out prominently in each dale. The kilometers ticked by and we ascended a long list of little knolls, some signed, most of them not. It wasn’t strenuous climbing for the most part in the foothills even though some of the pitches were still steep, in excess of 10%, but nothing lasted for too long and so it was simple enough to climb things a bit harder and rest on the upcoming descent. Lifting the effort intermittently felt a lot better on the muscles that had been abused on the first 3 huge climbs that Phil had snuck into the first fifty kilometers of the day. I did whatever effort was required to keep the legs turning at a comfortable cadence rather than slow way down and abusing the muscles to remain conservative cardiovascularly. Whether or not this was a good strategy, time would tell. Right now, it seemed like a necessary strategy because the body was pretty sore.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

As we made our way through the foothills the skies turned back to grey although the actual drizzle was minimal. The final ascent before lunch up to the Col de Palomieres took us back through a forest. The pastoral views were replaced by forest and so we grouped up together and entertained ourselves with discussion. I learned that I was riding with a Master’s ITT champion from New-York. Certainly not the smallest of states to be state champion in! We also got to hear some stories about riding Paris-Breast-Paris and dealing will some very full-on hallucinations mid-way through night three. The Cent-Cols-Challenge wasn’t really for average cyclists, or even for above average cyclists. It seemed to be for rather exceptional cyclists. While I was feeling good at this point, chatting, contributing tales from riding from coast to coast and our local racing scene, it was only to be a matter of hours before I’d be coming to grips with what kind of cyclist I was.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3
Click to Enlarge

We popped out of the forest at the top of the Palomeires and were greeted with an enormous panorama. From the edge of the hill where Chris had set up a lunch stop we had more than a three-quarters turn panorama looking west, north, and east through a few foothills and out into some gently rolling countryside around Pau. The sight was incredible, tiny village after tiny village, church steeple after church steeple. I started counting but recognized the futility when I realized the panorama continued right to the horizon. After standing outside the tent and gazing off into the distance for a few minutes I made my way under the tent and settled down on a bench with a bowl of hot minestrone. Delicious stuff, accompanied by some fantastic bread (the bread is always fantastic in France), and cheeses from a farm that Chris had stopped at a few kilometers down the road. The hearty meal warmed me up from the inside and while it did nothing to improve how wet I was, it made it big difference to how cold I felt. The meal dragged on for a fair while longer than it should have. The fast trio had been remounting their bicycles as I arrived but I wanted to ride with someone so I stuck around for another few people to get sorted so we could be on our way. More chamois cream, some changed gloves, some adjusted layering. Eventually our little group was on it’s way.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

We had some fun twisty bits on the descent from the Palomieres and the road was tight in some spots, entertainingly so. Precision steering required. As had become the pattern when things got technical I put a lot of time into my riding partners and by the time I’d hit the valley bottom. I waited up on a little streetcorner and we started the valley transfer southbound towards the Tourmalet and the side of the Col d’Aspin that we had descended before turning off and up the forest-track to Beyrede. Before we’d made it too far up the valley our trusty arrows directed us off the main drag and off between a couple houses on a little winding lane. The winding lane started to pitch up and it was only a matter of meters before we were up-up and away on our way towards the Col de Couret. Our group splintered immediately and the road kept pitching up steeper and steeper. A few arrows reassured me that despite how outrageous this little road was, it was indeed the course I was supposed to be following. A little creek tumbled out of the same valley we were climbing, providing an odd point of reference to think about as I stood and pressed slowly on my cranks. The creek was really more of a continuous waterfall than a stream wandering along the valley. I thought back to following the edge of the Saskatchewan river along the bottom of the valley in Edmonton, or the edge of the Bow in Calgary. It looks almost completely flat when you look at it, but there’s a distinct advantage when you’re running or cycling downstream. There was no illusion here that the water was ‘flat’. Following the creek for a bit made it abundantly clear how much elevation I was really gaining.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

The Col de Couret was truely insane climbing and while the pavement was in far better condition than the Beyrede before lunch it was still enough to make one consider route choice to maintain traction. A couple steel trenches were encountered and as the meters ticked on, the legs started to really groan. Some forestry work alongside the road, some debris to dodge, some dense forest to look into alongside the road. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to distract me from the discomfort and it started to become abundantly clear that the legs were suffering from the steepness of it all. The knees and lower back started to hurt towards the top, a solid ache, and a sensation through the rest of my body of almost feeling like I was going sour, pickled from the inside out by my own lactic acid. The duration was so long that the byproducts from a hard effort were accumulating and I was not feeling good by the top. I wondered if I’d eaten anything abnormal at lunch and concluded that no, I hadn’t. It wasn’t the digestion system rebelling, it was my body diverting blood supply from the stomach and deciding that the digestion was low on the priority list when I was telling the legs to get me up this hill. I was specifically trying not to do this to myself, but the mountains didn’t really care what I was trying to do.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

I crested the hill and rolled along through the mist at the top as we wound our way along a little ridge. I put some more food in my stomach, drank some water and hoped beyond hope that my body would figure out how to pull itself together again before I had to go uphill. I started to panic a bit as I contemplated the fact that Hautacam was looming yet this afternoon. I turned the pedals gently, perhaps waiting for someone to catch up, perhaps waiting for my body to recover from the beating I’d just dealt it on the slope of the Couret. I’d ridden myself up to Jan and Paul who were ahead of me and George was within sight behind. Pleased that I had some people to ride with I kept moving rather than getting off the bike to regroup. The gilet and arm warmers were pulled on for the descent as we wove our way through a dip and to the other side of the ridge. I felt like I had collected myself enough to head down the hill.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

The lane was narrow and paved but it had also amassed a fair few loose pebbles, dirt and patches of gravel down the center between the tyre tracks. It would only be safe to ride on one side, the left or the right. No preference really. An oncoming car would be in the right lane as much as it would be in the left lane and so I crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t have any surprise encounters and set off. It was a good thing I’d had a moment to collect myself as we traversed the little ridge up top as this was requiring complete attention. The corners came in quick succession, the steel trenches that I’d learned about this morning made a re-appearance, and the edge of the road on the left was at times a steep hill heading down for a couple hundred meters. If you go off here, you’re not getting back on your bike for the rest of the season, maybe for the rest of your life. The whole thing needed to be navigated within one of the two tyre tracks, an 8-12 inch strip down the right hand side of the road or an 8-12 inch strip down the left. If for some reason it became necessary to change, perhaps to dodge an errant sheep, or to evade a missing piece of tarmac, or to criss-cross a steel trench without it swallowing your front wheel it was necessary to navigate that loose strip of gravel down the center. Naturally in this situation, having been at the borderline of stopping for a rest in the ditch, I instinctively decided I had to fly down this hill. All of those moments commuting on icy Edmonton roads with a pile of cruddy snow piled up between the tyre tracks were coming back. Resigning myself to not steering nor touching the brakes every time I wanted to switch lanes I managed to weave through the corners at will. The sheep milling about on this road must have been scared by the dropoff as well because they had sh!t all over it. A thin sheen of it accumulated on my shins and shoe covers, slippery stuff, as if the traction on broken wet asphalt wasn’t dodgey enough.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3
Click to Enlarge

I hit the valley bottom and waited for Paul before transferring down the valley floor. Secretly I was just hoping for someone to draft, and I got away with it this time. Another ten or fifteen minutes later we found our next arrow, pointing us around a nearly 180 degree bend and up the side of the valley we were traveling through. We waited for the whole crew that had been in contact back at the top of the Couret to assemble and I tried to put some more food in my stomach. As the group pulled in and we set off up towards the Col de Lingous I noticed that my rain-jacket had been dropped. I’d had it tucked in a stuffsack and strapped under my seat, now it was gone. Somewhere between here and lunch, more than two hours of riding. Fortunately the choice was clear, keep riding, there’s almost no chance that even if I rode the two hours backwards and forwards I would be able to find a little navy-blue stuffsack that had bounced off my bike and into a ditch. Today was already going to be 12 hours on the road and making it sixteen wasn’t an option. Forget the jacket, keep going.

Losing a jacket is unfortunate, even though it was a nice one that I’d got for my birthday, but it is something I can handle. This day though, it was too much. I had to lift my effort and ride away from the other guys because I was starting to cry and there was no way I was going to let any of them see it. Luckily my body had managed to absorb a bit of energy from the food I’d been forcing down the hatch and I could get ahead. An odd tactic considering I’d just waited up for everyone so we could ride together. Onwards though, I hadn’t cried in more than two and a half years and I’d forgotten how it felt. I think every human being is aware of it on some level but there’s something very raw and physical about crying, and it’s not just in the tear ducts. A good cry has a whole lot of hormones involved and boy was I getting a solid dose of them. The whole thing was weird, I didn’t really have much to cry about, but here I was, riding a bike in the middle of nowhere and totally sobbing. The hormones that come out when you cry are incredibly comforting, they relax muscles that are tight all through your back and neck, they allow you to breathe out much more completely than you normally would, especially when exercising, they relax your jaw. I think my body needed to cry if it was going to keep pedalling, it needed to be re-booted and this was how it was going to happen.

It was as close to an out of body experience that I’d had since perhaps kilometers 35-40 of Ironman Canada in 2010 trying to will my body to run under the ten hour mark after committing the previous 16 months of my life almost entirely to that one goal. I had a general idea of where I was and my body was just holding itself together when my brain was falling apart. I was somewhere on the side of a mountain in the middle of the french countryside with a bike and a few arrows to follow. All of the corners on the previous descent had me totally disoriented with the grey sky above and I had no sense of which direction was north or which way we were generally headed. This was unsettling to me, normally I can keep track of these things, even in places I’ve never been before. I can pay enough attention to the terrain as I ride through it that I could easily backtrack it if needed, or I could easily do it again with almost absolute certainty that I could would be successful. Not a chance here. I was reduced to an animal on a bike, following arrows aimlessly through some fields of sheep.

The next 20 kilometers are a total blur. As I got to the top of the hill I had mostly stropped crying and I blew my nose and wiped my eyes before the others would catch me. Unfortunately I blew so hard that I gave myself a bleeding nose at this point. Hopefully it would go away I thought and just sniffled for half an hour, hoping it would stop, blood running down my throat, the taste of steel in my mouth. Completely unappetizing.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

I asked the guys if anyone had something to cram up there to stop it and eventually Jan remembered he had a latex glove for doing mechanical work on his chain without getting his hands greasy. That would do I suppose, and now with a big chunk of latex crammed up my face and blood dribbling down my upper lip I sat on the back of the group and followed the wheels of the guys with me down into the valley below. The top of this descent was cold as it had started drizzling and I was wet with no rain jacket to wear. I remember shivering and being concerned that I was going to be hypothermic because my body probably didn’t have much energy to spare to keep itself warm. I remember a close call with a passing car but not much more of the details beyond the fact that I was following the other guys and they had some choice words for him.

Things come back into focus when I was sitting on a lawn-chair at the next feed stop. I’d got my nose to stop bleeding and I was wearing almost all of the clothes I had stashed in my bag in Tom’s van. The guys whom I had been riding with were rolling out and I hadn’t even started eating or filled my bottles. I waved them on and started to get going myself. Eat, eat, eat. Fortunately my stomach had turned around after I felt like I’d shut down my digestive system on the slope of the Couret. Maybe all of the blood I swallowed was acting like gravol. Probably not. In any case, Tom’s buffet of treats went down well, followed by a cup of coke. My bottles filled and my pockets re-stocked with bars and a few bags of candy from my day bag I was ready to roll out by the time that Phil Deeker was on his way. The crew knew I was in rough shape but they weren’t going to pull the plug on me, but they made the option pretty clear that the climb up to Hautacam was optional. We’d ride past tonight’s hotel prior to the ascent. In return I made it pretty clear that I wanted to at least try and tackle the Hautacam. It was one of the climbs I’d most looked forward to. I’d watched the youtube footage of Bjarne ‘the eagle’ Rijs winning here and securing his Tour de France yellow jersey while doped to the gils on EPO more than any other video in the past year. I’d watched Lance Armstrong (also doped to the gils) ride away from Pantani in 2000 only a week earlier sitting at the kitchen table with Keegan one night at around 11:30 pm when I should have been going to bed. I was going to try, maybe I would be defeated, but I needed to be defeated to a further extent than I had been defeated so far before I gave up. Maybe I was going into the fourth quarter of the game down by a dozen baskets, but that’s when the game really gets going I’d just have to start shooting three-pointers. I wasn’t going to quit because maybe I would be able to do it, and I was dead set on finding out. We transferred up the valley on a rails-to-trails bike path which was nice, the grade stayed low and the surface was good. I got my legs going again and my body still seemed to know how to pedal. I tried to think of very short questions that would require very long answers and by so-doing I managed to get Phil to talk to me all the way into Argelès-Gazost. My stomach managed to digest the food I’d added to it but the taste of blood unfortunately wasn’t going anywhere.

I had rolled out on the bikepath wearing a huge bundle of clothes including a full-on spring cycling jacket and so as soon as the road really started to pitch up I needed to stop and undress before I had sweat through everything. That split me off from Phil, and after I’d re-layered my outfit and stashed the jacket inside the back of my jersey (Quasimodo style) I got on with the climb. There’s not a lot of mystery where the road is going with this one. The Tour de France always ends in the parking lot at the ski resort near the top of the mountain and it’s possible to see some of the ski lifts now and again along the way. They make it possible to figure out generally where you’re headed even from quite a distance. In addition, the kilometer markers are laid out as a big long countdown to the parking-lot indicating the average gradient for the next kilometer, giving just often-enough information about what’s ahead to keep you focused at just infrequent enough to make each one a meaningful milestone. In true Cent-Cols fashion our destination wasn’t the ski-hill parking lot, it was the actual peak of the ridge, the ‘proper Col’ another kilometer or so beyond the parking lot.

The climb to Hautacam starts out passing through a bunch of little villages. The villages become smaller the further up the road you get and eventually it’s just a few farm-houses here and there. Some very expensive looking ski-chalet style mansions and some pretty run-down farmyards. Interesting scenery for the occasional distraction if the road is on a flat-ish section. Around the next curve though we’d be up to 10+% grade and I’d be standing again in my easiest gear. The early kilometers ticked by slowly by steadily. I was fueled all right from whatever I’d been able to digest on the transfer up the valley but after that had been burned I started to notably slow down. It wasn’t until I was trying to down my bottle of perpetuem and choked on it between panting for breath that I realized how hard my body was working. My power output was nothing impressive, I was averaging around 800m per hour for climbing speed, about 70% of threshold wattage, but I was breathing like crazy, sweating and muscles burning like I was in the middle of a TT. My heart was pounding out of my chest but only at a rate of 130 bpm, severely suppressed by the fatigue. I stopped at the side of the road rather than choking myself to death trying to drink and caught my breath. It took 3 minutes for my heart-rate to calm down while standing still before I could contemplate eating anything. I shovelled food in, 600 calories of straight sugar, leaned on my handlebars for a while and contemplated whether or not this was where I needed to turn around. No, probably not, I thought to myself. I can probably handle another couple kilometers if I let my digestive system get some of this sugar in. As I stood at the side of the road trying to prevent my body from having to multi-task digestion and bicycle riding I started to get pretty cold. Deciding that trying to multi-task thermo-regulation and digestion was probably also going to be bad news I set off to try pedaling again. Immediately I was back standing in my easiest gear, but within a kilometer I broke treeline. Not bad I thought to myself, treeline is probably the edge of the ski resort so it can’t be too far. I don’t remember much of anything for the next three kilometers until I crested the hill into the vast parking lot of the ski-hill. Hautacam done!

I decided I was going to roll over to the other end of the parking lot and see the ski resort before heading back down. I didn’t need to or want to go up to the Col de Tramassel. Lance didn’t do it, Bjarne didn’t do it. I’m almost dead. There’s no way I was going to do it.

Maybe the flat bit of parking lot helped flush out the legs from the ache of monotonous climbing and I felt 1% better. Considering that I was feeling like I was functioning at about 1%, an improvement of 1% would have doubled how well I felt. By the time I made it to the other end of the parking lot my instinct had switched. Retrospectively I cannot fathom at all how I motivated myself to climb the last piece of that road. There is no part of my body that wanted to do it. There was not another human being within probably 5 kilometers of me on the side of that mountain. The tourists were all gone because the sunlight was starting to wane. All of the cyclists ahead of me had been there, turned around and had already gone down and all the cyclists behind would be kilometers back unless they’d all been intelligent and gone straight for the hotel. I had no certainty that anyone at all was behind me. I could have just waited another 10 minutes, about the time it would take me to ride up that kilometer at 6kph, and then turned around. No-one would have known. Clearly it wasn’t for anyone else. For myself, I didn’t need to do it either. I had brought myself to my absolute limit today, my conscious mind had pushed my body as hard as was possible to push my body. I had given 100% by the time I arrived at Bjarne’s finishline. Some instinct had me turn the corner though and stand up again in that easiest gear. My unconscious mind took over at that point and it figured out how to summon even more effort from my physical body. Another 1300m passed by. I recall none of it.

The sign on the side of a little emergency shelter came in to view and like a robot I stopped and pulled out a bunch of sugar and debated whether or not I was going to make it back down the hill in one piece. I ate the last few granola bars I had in my pockets, finished off the last half bottle of water and pulled on all of the clothes I had stashed in various pockets. As I turned around, I realized that what I had just done was completely unbelievable and pulled my camera out, took a picture of the sign as proof to myself that it had indeed happened and then set off down the hill.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage3

It’s scary to admit, but I don’t remember much of the descent either. At least not until I had started to pass by the farms and villages on the bottom half. There are huge portions of that mountain that are completely blank in my mind and I’m not convinced that I could remember the second half of the descent aside from the fact that I remember seeing those villages and farms on the way up. By the time I was back at the bottom I had caught Ben in his pink Rapha jacket and we rode together back across town following the arrows to the hotel.

It was sickening to learn at dinner that Antony had crashed on the descent of Hautacam and wouldn’t be riding any more of the challenge. He’d been following Brian on the descent and had lost control in a corner and separated his shoulder. That easily could have been me. If I had a wheel to follow down that hill I would have been even less alert than I was and a crash could have been a very real possibility. I was grateful to be intact after putting myself through that.

Yesterday: CCC – Day 2 – Ax-les-Thermes to Bagneres-de-Luchon

Tomorrow: CCC – Day 4 – Argeles-Gazost to Larrau

Photos are mine and Phil Deeker’s. Refining of my lousy shots was done by Reuben Krabbe. Please do not re-publish in whole or in part without prior consent.

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CCC – Day 2

The crew assembled on morning number two on the patio out front of the hotel, tyres were pumped and water bottles added to the cages. The shattered look that most people had arrived to the hotel with had been washed off with a night of sleep and people were once again eager to get going. The forecast was that we would likely stay mostly dry until lunch and then there were no guarantees. The morning sky turned from black to pink to orange while we got things in order and soon enough the group was rolling out through town. It was a fast descent to Tarascon with Phil Deeker on the front ‘leading the way’. The crew had opted not to hang arrows for the first hour or so as we’d ride as a group and Phil knew where we were going. That meant that everyone needed to stick with the group, but when 19 cyclists get strung out in single file along the side of a highway there can be a bit of accordion going on. This was indeed the case and the five of us sitting at the back were really starting to groan and laugh at how unnecessary it was to do the first hour at speeds well in excess of 40kph.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage2

No-one got permanently dropped from the pack…and therefore no-one got lost. Rolling around a roundabout on the edge of Tarascon we found our first fluorescent yellow arrow of the day pointing us off up and hill and we breathed a sigh of relief. The accordion ride was over at the back of the pack and we backed off the gas. Morning clothes came off as we pedaled along and people began to dig into their pockets for pieces of fruit that they were able to nick from the breakfast table back in the hotel. By the time that most of us had recovered from Phil’s intense start to the morning the 3 fastest guys from the day prior were already well out of sight. I rolled along, settling into my ‘all day pace’ not willing to raise my effort above what I believed to be sustainable for a full day on the road. I had learned my lesson yesterday, or so I thought.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage2

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage2

The ascent of the Col de Port wasn’t particularly steep and quite quickly the temperatures seemed to rise and we eventually rose from the clouds out into sunshine. The farms and villages alongside the road were all tightly packed and squeezed into all sorts of interesting shapes between the road and the edges of various hills. The compactness of it all kept me entertained as the kilometers rolled by. Signs counted down my progress kilometer by kilometer towards the summit and eventually the col broke into view as I passed the tree-line. The hills were covered in bracken on both sides and some sheep-bells were ringing from higher up the slopes. From here the road followed a long switchback away from the pass before turning again and making the final traverse across the mountainside to the summit. An hour after departing the valley bottom the arrival at the top seemed to come quickly, I’d already somehow mentally wrapped my head around riding all day long for the next 9 days before ten in the morning on Day 2. I would be lying if I said I was mentally prepared for this by the time I left home, but one huge day in the saddle and I was forced to confront it, riding was all I would be doing all day long. With the first col out of the way today I had already ascended 700m of vertical. The long valley we’d ascended stretched out behind me, the long valley we’d descended earlier was even further behind, and in the distance the heights of the Pailheres stood tall reminding me of the need to respect the mountains.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage2

The descent off the west side of the Col de Port seemed quite different than the eastern ascent, curvier, off the valley bottom, and lined with trees right from the summit. The air was cool and moist and the road appeared to be pretty slick in spots but I didn`t need to test it. It wasn’t the fastest descent, but only a few kilometers later our next arrow of the day indicated a sharp right hand turn. The road took off at an incredible pitch, 18% average for the first 400m according to the sign. I was immediately in my easiest gear and going hard, up, up, up. At between 2 and 3 meters wide the road seemed more like a bike path than a road. At 18% it seemed more like a joke than a bike path. It was fun for about the first 5 minutes but became incredibly difficult thereafter. There was no stopping possible. There was absolutely no way it would be possible to get going again if you did. The road wasn’t wide enough to start sideways and then turn up the hill, in fact if I decided I was going to U-turn and head back down I’m not convinced that I could have even done it without unclipping and putting a foot down. I thought back to watching Sagan climb this hill in the Tour earlier this year. He’d been gapped on the lower slope and then ridden himself back into the lead group on the second half, evidence that it was going to get less steep eventually. Less steep was a very relative term and I never really gained the capacity to sit down in my easiest gear as it ‘flattened out’ at the top, it was standing only on this one.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage2

Twenty three minutes later I’d managed to make my way to the top having covered a meager 3.6 kilometers. Riding nearly a maximum effort the whole way, the grade had indeed dropped off enough to make it possible to keep climbing as loaded up the muscles in my legs with all sorts of aches. I came into view of the guys above me before I could see them and started to hear a couple cheers, by this point everything from my armpits to my ankles was full of lactic acid, sore and tight, an incredible feeling and oddly enough it felt actually pretty good. I was obeying my own guideline about doing everything as easily as I could, but the easiest way up that hill besides getting off to walk was a full fledged max effort. My heart was pounding so hard I could feel it hammering the inside of my entire ribcage as I unclipped and leaned over the bars at the top climb to catch my breath. Two months earlier the Tour de France had been shaken up here by all sorts of flat tyres due to tacks spread on the road but today I didn`t need any tacks for the shaking up, the hill was enough on its own.

The three fast guys who had disappeared ahead of me back at the bottom of the Col de Port were still milling around at Tom’s feed stop at the top of the Peguerre. I was encouraged to come ride with them at least until lunch, they promised to go at my pace. I agreed and hurried through the routine of filling bottles and snacking on the selection of breads, cookies and fruits. Soon enough we were rolling out along a misty ridgetop over the Col de Portel towards the Col de Crouzette. The pavement wasn’t very smooth, but the ascent was hardly something you could call a hill after what we’d just encountered. I rode with Antony and chatted, we were in no rush to get anywhere and going fast on this pavement wasn’t terribly appealing. Things started to speed up over the crest and we followed the ridgeline a bit further west before turning and plunging off of the side of it down to the north. The road was incredibly narrow and I quite honestly would have struggled to drive my car down it without scratching one side or the other along the way. There’s certainly not a pickup truck in the whole of Alberta that would have fit. The north-facing side of the mountain was shaded and the misty weather made for a very cold descent through the forest on wet and crumbly pavement. Neither the cold nor the wet could put a damper on how exciting it was though speeding along a small track cut into the mountainside. On occasion we broke out into a patch of pasture with a little stone barn and maybe a sheep or two before heading off through the forest again. What seemed like moments later the forest would open up for a couple switchbacks, a house or two and then continue off through the trees. Eventually we got off the side of the ridge and into the valley bottom, passed through a town and got a smile and nod from a couple men standing on the street whom I could tell had been watching us approach from the switchback above. If I’d have been flying down a tiny lane at the speeds I was going back home I’m sure it would have been a scowl rather than a smile but cycling seemed to be appreciated. This is France after all. We spilled out onto a slightly wider road and things opened up into pasture as we completed the descent with a few more kilometers along the valley bottom. The mist threatened to turn into rain and we dug out rain-jackets as we rolled along but the threat turned out to be an empty one after the first few warning drops. Only a few kilometers later we were packing jackets back into bags as our quartet joined a larger road for a short valley transfer over to our next climb.

The Portech started out gentle but disorienting and it took a while to figure out which side of which mountain we were going to go up. It would turn out to be the direction my instinct was least suggesting we were headed. With an almost 180 degree turn we headed back across the first valley and climbed up into an adjoining one. The rain held off but the clouds were thick around us as we rode through a series of pastures full of sheep. I unhitched myself from the others who pushed the pace a bit too much for my liking but I was insistent on not winding up a complete wreck like I had the day prior. I arrived at the top to the waiting crew and hurriedly swallowed some food and got dressed again with a jacket for the descent. What a descent it was, the small farm track wove back and forth across the valley past a series of little farm buildings, dozens of cows and hundreds of sheep. The weaving seemed to be excessive but the road’s route had clearly not been planned or designed, it just happened to evolve out of the patchwork of fields that had been tended and grazed in this valley for hundreds of years. Eventually the slope flattened out and we popped out of the valley onto a larger road again for a quick transfer up towards lunch.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage2

These guys just wanted to push, push, push and after sticking in their drafts for a while I figured that the town that lunch was in was only a couple kilometers away and I let them ride off without me. I have to work hard enough to get up the hills I thought to myself, there’s no way in the world I should be out of breath during the valley transfers. We rolled up to the roadside patio and cafe that was hosting lunch for us, parked our bikes and found some chairs. It was good to pause for a bit, and with a waitress to wait for I was pleased that someone was going to slow these guys down for a bit. I knew that with my progress this morning I’d be waiting the better part of an hour if I wanted to drop back and ride with someone else so figured I would just continue with these guys over the three smaller climbs in the early afternoon and then ride the Port de Bales alone. We had some delicious baguette sandwiches for lunch, local meat, local cheese, local tomotoes, and a small glass of beer. After dawdling around for a bit our group stood up to get going just as the next riders started to arrive.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage2

Following the lunch break we had a long gentle climb to let the food digest as we made our way up the valley towards the Portet d’Aspet. It started gently and we swapped duties setting the pace for a few kilometers until we passed through town and the grade started to ramp up. I dropped off and settled in to my own effort, riding up through town and back and forth on the switchbacks above. The views back down the valley were great even though clouds obscured the mountaintops. The grey skies had a way of drawing the attention down into the valley in a way that was unfamiliar to a prairie dweller. When the terrain is flat, a low hanging grey sky can seem to press down, this did everything but. I arrived at the top by the time the other three had already dug out their rain jackets for the descent and eaten, and drank, and were clipping back in to their pedals to get going. I took the hint, and hurriedly crammed a bit of food in my mouth and chewed while I pulled on a rain jacket to head down the misty road leading off into the forest. With a mouth still full of food, I was on my way, ride now chew later. The descent off the west side of the Portet d’Aspet was a steep one. We’d been reminded the night before of Fabio Casartelli’s death on this descent during the tour in 1995. With wet roads and being completely unfamiliar with where the next turns might be I was cautious and kept things well controlled through some of the switchbacks up top and down some of the ramps that hit 18%. The off-camber pavement in some corners, the completely blind corners, and sections lined with unnerving sections of stone walls added to the nervousness but also to the mystique in the thick woods. This was no average road, it had personality like no other I`d ridden prior. The momument honouring the life and marking the death of the Barcelona Olympic road race champion flew by out of the corner of my eye, there would be time to stop next week when we passed back through here on the way up. Despite trying to go slow the descent was steep and I still topped out at over 80 kph. Sometimes it’s just safer to stay off the brakes.

The pace was high as the road kept descending gradually for a few kilometers once we`d reached the valley bottom. Soon enough though we hung a sharp left and started to climb up through a tight gap in the mountains. The climb to the Col de Buret was short, and after the first steep bit, averaged only 5% or so. I managed to stay in contact with our little group all the way but lost contact just at the top when I was digging around for some more food in my pockets. I wondered when those guys had time to eat, and then quickly remembered that they were doing the waiting at the tops of all the hills. I had to make up time some time on the descent but with the wide road and good pavement they were going full gas and it took some serious pushing for me to close back on them. We tore down main-street in a little town halfway down the hill under the banner announcing an escargot festival. We were 5 weeks late for the fete d’escarot so no stopping here, it was go time. Soon enough we were down across the valley an onto the next climb.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage2

The Col des Ares, not to be confused with the Col d’Ares to be encountered the following week, was next on the menu. Nothing steep here, just another 7 kilometers of going up. I settled into my own pace pretty quickly and let the others ride away. I wasn’t feeling the slightest need to chase like a maniac any longer and settled into my own pace. Tommy Voekler had snagged the leaders points here en-route to the mailloit a pois this summer, but I was well out of contention for the climbers jersey so made a groupetto of one. The kilometers ticked by quite nicely and I enjoyed the scenery of pastures interspersed with forests as the ascent wound on. Eventually reaching the top the others had one again waited and it looked like Rudy had taken a nap by the time I got there. I was pushing enough I thought to myself and even though I could feel the pressure to speed up I reigned it in and reminded myself of the fact that I had to climb well over a vertical kilometer up the Port de Bales before I got to stop for the day. I don`t think I`d be subjecting myself to this pressure again, slow and steady would do it for me, the big banner across the street with snails back in Juzet d`Izaut was right on the money.

The descent into the valley was great fun and I stuck on Antony’s wheel as we tore down through the curves and out onto the flats. We looped up the valley for a while to get to a bridge and then back down the valley towards our next stop of the day. The flat kilometers felt wonderfully familiar, finally a few moments of familiarity. I enjoyed them while they lasted but soon enough we’d rolled into the next town and found Tom set up in a tiny little park waiting with hot drinks, and all sorts of food. A cup of tea hit the spot, a few pieces of bread slathered with Nutella, some fruit, and then 10 minutes standing around with the group debating how much clothing to lug up the final col of the day. The forecast was for it to start mid afternoon, but it was already 3 pm and it was only misty. There are few things more irresponsible that carrying not enough clothes when riding in the mountains, but similarly, there are few things more ridiculous that carrying extra weight straight up a hill for no reason. The eventual choice was to go with full gear for the descent and no intermediate clothes. If it started to get wet on the way up there would be no partially clothed option, the choice then would be to get soaked or overheat. Risky but not irresponsible.

Setting out, my 20 minute stop had been enough to get the energy levels up, but also enough to turn my muscles into concrete. There were about 100 meters for them to limber up before the climbing began. Of course it wasn’t enough but there were no other options and so we were on our way. With roughly 1200m vertical to climb there was no rush for anyone to start ramping up the pace and so we rode as a group for a couple kilometers before I dropped off and wished them luck. “Don’t wait for me, I’m not going to be anywhere close behind you,” I offered, giving them clear conscience not to get hypothermic at the top waiting for 20 minutes. I don’t think they were planning to wait, but I wanted to make sure. I didn’t need any extra motivation to ride quickly, I just needed to get up this one. The valley we were climbing into started out full of various bits and pieces of pasture and a couple little clusters of houses and farms but for the most part we were disappearing off into a pretty remote valley. Within roughly forty minutes we passed what I was pretty sure would be the last house, crossed the river tumbling down valley and after forty minutes of climbing it started to feel like the real climb was beginning. I`d caught some sort of disease, forty minutes of climbing is about as much as one can find in Alberta and that was just my warmup today.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage2

The signs marking progress were telling me that I had about 800 vertical meters left to go and I knew that would take me roughly an hour. I wisely paced myself as if I had two hours of climbing ahead of me and settled in as much as I could. The Port de Bales however, was unlike any climb I’d ever been up before and settling in was hardly possible. The grade would roll along at a very pleasant 5% every once in a while before rocketing up to 12% only a couple hundred meters later. The temptation every time it flattened out was to grab a few more gears and speed up, but after being tricked into making that decision a few times I eventually learned that I was wiser to use the flat sections to rest for the steep bits that came between. The route was signed every kilometer giving the average grade and marking progress towards a very vague destination, ‘the top’. The altimeter on my computer indicated a rough estimation of progress, but eventually all of the markings and measurements started to lose their meaning and I started to resign myself to a ‘get there when you get there’ attitude. The Port de Bales has only been a proper road for 7 years, being paved in advance of the 2006 Tour de France connecting one dead-end valley to another. There used to be an old cart track here but no-one really needs to use this road for any purpose other than sight-seeing, the big road that goes around the mountain is far more useful for any and every transportation need. On a Tuesday when the entire mountain is shrouded in clouds and rain there is no reason for any tourist to come sight-seeing either and so the road was almost completely empty. While near the valley bottom the sound of the rushing river provided a bit of a sound-track, but as I climbed up the side of the valley that soundtrack disappeared. In the middle of a deep woods in thick fog there was nothing to hear. Occasionally I’d roll over some leaves or gravel that would make a noise, or there’d be a bird, or I’d change gears and have a few clicks, but for the most part there was no sound. Just breathing. Breathing in the cold moist air and breathing out a hot steamy cloud.

The road started to switchback a bit more often and soon the trees started to break up. The silence gave way to the sound of cowbells and sheepbells (not that I can tell the difference) as I started to make my way across the meadow. The views were nonexistant, a couple dozen meters in front and to either side, but that was enough for now. Progress continued with the added entertainment of having huge cowpies to avoid all over the road. The grade backed off as the kilometers wound to a close and I rolled up to the top feeling quite contained, pleased and happy. The lack of markings or reference points eliminated almost all the sense of accomplishment, but it wasn`t a loss. The beauty of the moment atop that mountain was the reward, peaceful and calm. I could hear thunder in the distance as I stuffed some food in my mouth and got dressed with all of my clothes and started to descend off of the other side. With not a tree in sight being on a bike made me definitely the high point on the mountain for any lightning strikes and so after pausing and briefly enjoying the moment I got on my way as quickly as I could.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage2

The visibility was fortunately a bit better on the south side of the mountain, but what had been mist was now drizzle. I was happy to make such a trade off as it would allow me to get down a fair bit faster as visibility wasn`t going to limit my speed. The slipperiness of the sheep shit on the other hand added a confounding factor to how quickly I could get down the mountain. The cold blasts of air into the neck of my jacket causing me to tense up, and the absence of any sort of guard rail made for a couple unnerving bits and pieces early on but pretty quickly the descending was underway and I had reacquainted myself with the bent over position after spending almost the entire previous two hours climbing. Things came to a screeching halt a few times on the way down when the road was entirely blocked by hundreds sheep huddled on the asphalt for a bit of warmth. A few kilometers later the road flattened out from the steep descending into a bit more of a gradual run out of the valley. The opportunity to pedal again was definitely welcome as the rain was starting to come down and I was getting cold. The rain continued to intensify and the thunder kept rolling down the valley as I eventually found myself in what I was pretty sure was the middle of the storm. With the rain sheeting down out of the sky I could do nothing but laugh and pedal, glad that I hadn’t gambled with how much clothing to lug up the hill. I passed through a series of small towns as the elevation continued to fall away and eventually joined a much larger road for the last few corners into the valley. I was very pleased at this point that I could just continue down to the valley floor into Luchon. Wiggins, Froome, Nibali et al had to turn right and make an ascent of the Peyresourde here this past summer en route to Peyregudes, but I got to save that one for tomorrow morning. Once finally at the bottom it was just a quick jaunt up the street to the hotel and I knew that I needed to start making progress at getting my kit to dry. It was going to take every minute between now and tomorrow morning to dry out because everything was as wet as if I had worn it into a swimming pool. A fun day indeed and despite being completely soaked I would mark it down as being a fortunate one with the weather, I was certainly happy to have stayed mostly dry all day until the final descent.

Yesterday: CCC – Day 1 – Riversaltes to Ax-les-Thermes

Tomorrow: CCC – Day 3 – Bagneres-de-Luchon to Argeles-Gazost

Photos are mine and Phil Deeker’s. Refining of my lousy shots was done by Reuben Krabbe. Please do not re-publish in whole or in part without prior consent.

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CCC – Day 1

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1
Click to Enlarge

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1

We rolled out of the little town of Rivesaltes after a requisite ‘before the carnage’ group photo a bit before 8 am on Monday morning. The pace was relaxed as we made our way under overcast skies across the coastal plain towards the mountains in the distance. With a forecast high reaching 30 degrees we were happy to have some cloud cover to begin the day. The route made its way through a variety of orchards and vineyards, past wineries and through a couple villages before we reached our first climb, the 5km relatively gentle ascent of the Col de Bataille. We crested the top as a group with no ceremony and shot off down a beautiful twisting descent. I was in heaven. Despite the fact that my body was operating at what was now about 1 o’clock in the morning back home I was handling the jetlag and demands of cycling without any indication of distress. I was so overstimulated by the scenery, the amazing quality of the cycling and just the whole concept of actually finally being in France to ride a bike that I had no capacity for fatigue.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1

We rolled on together, still as a group, up the valley past a vineyard being harvested, and through the town of Maury and up to the Grau de Maury above. At 4kms long, and averaging 6 percent it was the first place that our group really spread out. I rode what I felt was a conservative effort and found myself well off the climbing pace of a few guys ahead and well, well ahead of the climbing pace of others in the group. We regrouped almost entirely at the top before setting off for a rolly descent into the adjacent valley in search of our first feed stop of the trip. We met Tom in the next town after having covered about 60 kms who had spread out quite a table of goodies for us. By the time I had filled my bottles and had myself some nutella on baguette there were already people getting going on the road. I jumped up and got going.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1

We continued a long gradual ascent of a valley topping out on the Col de Linas. A group of eight stuck together on the way up but as soon as we started to go down it was myself, Brian and Antony who distanced ourselves from the group. Adept bike handling would prove to be a significant advantage on this trip, every bit of momentum that can be carried around the hairpins and curves of a descent mean the more rest you get while descending, not having to pedal yourself up to speed out of the corners. By the time we had reached the bottom the rest of our group was literally kilometers behind already and so we started up the next climb on a little connecting back-road with some unnerving gravel sections that would pop us out, after bagging a couple more cols, at the summit of the Col de St Louis. The descent was an exciting one. It started fast and swooping as we wound our way down a valley and out across a bridge built just to facilitate a cork-screw corner built into the valley to help lose elevation. The road straightened out and dropped off sharply thereafter at grades of -10% & -12% for a couple kilometers and we topped 70kph without giving it a thought.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1

We joined a larger connecting road for a short while as we transferred up the valley towards lunch on the banks of a small creek where Chris was in the middle of peeling eggs for Salad Niçoise. I got a reprimand from Ed for not taking it easy enough on my first day after the huge day of travel and jet lag and I assured him that I wasn’t letting anyone set a pace that I wouldn’t be comfortable with. After enjoying a leisurely lunch, some excellent bread and some fresh fruit we set off from creekside at 400m elevation for the 2000m summit of the Port de Pailheres, no jokes, a vertical mile above us.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1

We began with a riverside climb through a couple towns and the spectacular Gorges de St Georges. The cliffs hung over us and I remarked to the guys I was riding with that the scenery was blowing my mind. I got a few laughs, but I was being serious. The climbing was notable but nothing serious. At 2-4% gradient we were continually swapping turns on the front of a little group until things kicked up and we started to climb out into a branch of the valley that looked to go on forever. I knew it would be a long ways and settled in to a comfortable climbing effort and let the others ride off ahead of me. At very nearly the height of six Mt. Norquay access roads stacked end to end there was nothing about the task at hand that filled me with confidence. As I progressed up the valley I started to scope out possible places where the road was headed and estimate just how much work was left. This was a strategy that I would soon learn not to employ while climbing on this trip. At all points, it’s necessary to pace yourself for what you can do forever and not to pace yourself for what you can do to get yourself to the top of this climb. Nevertheless, I was a rookie when it came to climbing Cols in the Pyrenees and as I progressed up the valley I started to calculate how much climbing I had remaining and estimate how long it would take. How many meters left, what’s my average climbing rate, how many minutes are left if I can maintain this rate?

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1

My jetlag also started to creep up on me as I neared the 6 o’clock in the morning mark. Things were getting a bit bleak and luckily Tom came past in one of our support vans on the way to setting up our third feed stop for the day and offered to fill my bottles. I gratefully accepted the extra 3 lbs of water weight as the trees had started to break up, I could feel the sweat running off of me and the sun’s rays were starting to feel oppressive. All of the fuel I loaded in at lunch seemed to have vanished and I was just about to cross the 1500m elevation mark. Still more than an entire Marmot-Basin access road ahead of me I thought to myself. I found some shade, pulled off the road and had a break, not quite a break-down but close. The mountain was crushing me. I had a couple humbling moments draping myself over my handlebars and I got some sugar into my stomach. When your brain starts freaking out it’s often the case that it can be calmed down a bit by correcting your blood-sugar and for me that was partially the case. I worried that I was in way over my head with this trip. It was still early afternoon on Day 1. I was unlikely to make it to the hotel before 6pm and I had 9 more days of this ahead. I used all of the calming techniques I had in my book to settle myself down and once my breathing and heart rate were under control I set off in my easiest gear. There are 3 guys ahead of me and 14 guys behind me, all I have to do is keep up with last place today and I’m almost certain that I am a couple hours ahead of him right now. I set off, spinning myself up the hill in my 34-27 gear trying to go as easy as possible. ‘As easy as possible’ when the road is pitching up at 8 or 10 % is anything but easy, but I felt a bit more in control of the situation and with less than an hour to go on this uphill I was doing all right.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1

I had been sight-seeing all morning as we rolled along as a group, but had narrowed my focus to just the road ahead after I was riding alone. It was about the 1500m elevation mark that names started to appear on the road. HUSHOVD HUSHOVD HUSHOVD. Bright white paint from ditch to ditch. Then Sanchez, then ANDY, then Contador, Voekler, Rodriguez. I started to get drawn in by the names, heroes, the road had been ridden by the TdF in 2010 when Riblon won at Ax 3 Domaines and in 2007 when Contador won at Plateau de Beille. Reminded of why I was in these mountains on this trip, my perspective changed. I’ve just got to ride and see all of these famous places and roads. I wasn’t racing, I just needed to pedal and look around. It was a good thing I reminded myself to look around because the final series of 20 hairpins in the last 5 kms were fantastic. I rolled out of the last stand of trees alongside the road into the edge of a huge alpine bowl below the summit of a mountain and proceeded to wind my way around the south facing aspect of it before reaching the ridge. The sun beat down and it was incredibly hot, I was going through my water at a worrying rate, but sooner than I would have imagined while slumped over my bike in the forest only 40 minutes earlier I crested the ridge and made my way over to the summit of my first Pyrennean ‘Hors Catégorie’.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1

I collected some full bottles of water from Tom who was waiting at the top and then shot off down the western slopes towards the Pailheres ski area. My approach to the ski area was an unconventional one, at least for north america. I basically entered the ski area from the top. The descent was quick and within 13 minutes of leaving the summit I was down to 1200m elevation and ready to begin another ascent. The climb towards Col de Pradel was largely shaded which was a welcome relief from the baking I had received on the slopes of Pailheres and much of it between 8 and 10%. Steep stuff as far as my relatively un-accustomed legs were concerned. I stopped for a break partway up, reminding myself I had absolutely nothing to prove and continued up towards the final feed station of the day. The sight of our little red tent alongside the road was a welcome relief and I climbed off and tucked in to some food. What a climb.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1

I eventually got myself going with Tom’s encouragement that it was just a ‘lumpy’ 40kms in to the finish from there. I naively took ‘lumpy’ to mean ‘lumpy’ by Alberta’s standards and set off down the back of the pass. After not turning the pedals for more than 100m of the next 10 kms I should have revised my expectation of what he meant by that term, so much descending usually means just one thing: climbing. Eventually the steep and narrow descent on a farm track through a forest turned into a gradual and slightly wider road spotted with villages and farms through the bottom of a tight valley which narrowed twice to pass through a vertically walled canyon just wide enough for the road and creek. As the valley began to widen to the point that sunlight was reaching the bottom and it became apparent that I had the sun at my back. Having previously been descending the Port de Pailheres with the sun in my face and road signs indicating that Ax-les-Thermes was ’straight ahead’ I got myself a bit worried that I was off-course now that I was bearing somewhat east again. Before I could get myself too worried I came across an arrow pointing me off of the larger downhill road and onto the smaller uphill road.

Photo from gallery: CCC 2012 - Stage1

I thought to myself that the ‘lumpiness’ was going to begin here and set off up the hill once again vastly overestimating the amount of effort I should put into the climb. Apparently I hadn’t learned my lesson on the big Port de Pailheres. I am so used to riding harder than I need to that I instinctively started to head up the hill at a speed that felt like I was going to accomplish something. A whole lot of energy is going into getting up the hill but a whole bunch more is going into doing it quickly. The consequence caught up with me again as soon as the hill turned out not to be a lump, but rather a 350m vertical climb, one quarter longer than the climb up Norquay my mind’s best measuring stick from home, albeit a vastly insufficient one. I’d burned myself in the first 5 minutes and found myself standing in my easiest gear struggling to keep the pedals turning on a grade that certainly shouldn’t require that. I was cooked again and dug into the pockets for some more sugar. The climb eventually flattened out and progressed through some nice bits and pieces of forest interspersed with pastures and sheep before heading down again. I was hesitant to go down again, certain that it meant more up… but not really having a choice in the matter I made the most of the descent and enjoyed the cool shade before emerging into a wide valley spotted with towns. After traversing the length of the valley for half an hour on roads that in the Pyrenees I would retrospectively call flat (and going off-route only once) I started another ascent. Fearing for the worst I settled in right from the beginning prepared for a huge climb and was pleased to reach the sign indicating the summit long before I expected it. (That or I was such a wreck that my brain failed to record memories of a long and painful climb). I was in a better mental space after conquering what would prove to be the final climb of the day without being reduced to a lump of incoherent meat on wheels this time around. The successful strategy for going up these hills apparently is to go slow enough that you could ride at that pace absolutely all day long. Hopefully I’d be able to employ that strategy first thing tomorrow morning and not be as devastated by the late afternoon as I was today.

The final descent to Ax-les-Thermes from the Col de Chioula was well paved, wide, and amazing fun. Most of it wasn’t so steep as to cause a cyclist to gain momentum at a dangerous rate, only -7% on average, but steep enough that there was no reason whatsoever to turn the pedals. Speeds topped 70 kph on numerous straightaways and I caught some good views of the ski-hill across the valley where Carlos Sastre himself earned his first stage win. It was here that he’d honoured his two year old daughter at the finishline and by doing so gave a nod to all fathers in sport, by pulling a blue soother out of his jersey pocket for a victory salute that will never be missed on any list of ‘best victory salutes’ in cycling or otherwise. The turns tightened as the kilometers blew by and some very entertaining and steep switchbacks were mixed in for good measure before I arrived in town. The hotel was easily found and day 1 was in the history books, complete.

Tomorrow: CCC – Day 2 – Ax-les-Thermes to Bagneres-de-Luchon

Photos are mine and Phil Deeker’s. Refining of my lousy shots was done by Reuben Krabbe. Please do not re-publish in whole or in part without prior consent.

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