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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.