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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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.