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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.