70seventy Challenge Blog #02
27 July 2017. The Haute Pyrenees.
This morning at 6.30 I opened the curtains of our hired motorhome and there were the tops of the Pyrenees lit by early morning sun – they had been shrouded in cloud yesterday. This was the day for the Tourmalet. I’d been telling everyone willing to listen, and probably a few that weren’t, that I was going to do it as a way of committing myself – tell enough people then there is no backing out.
This being my first alpine climb I felt a real novice. I wasn’t sure about how much clothing to take for a start – how cold would it be, even on a sunny day, towards 7,000 feet – and what about Simon’s story of cold hands on the descent making feeling the brakes tricky – what if it rained? Sun at one moment in the mountains can become dense cloud and drizzle the next. Waterproofs? And would altitude play a part – the air is thinner up there isn’t it? Take my inhaler. Leggings or shorts, long or short-sleeved jersey? Food supplies? I would need energy replenished that’s for sure – I had some energy bars and protein replacement gels – would they be enough? Decisions, decisions.
After a protein and carb packed breakfast I was off. Our campsite was an hour and a half ride from Ste-Marie-de-Campan – the start of the Tourmalet route proper – which itself was mostly uphill. That wasn’t in the deal – albeit it was along a beautiful valley with rolling hills and craggy mountains beyond, and sun shining out of a clear blue sky.
I arrived, suitably warmed up, at the start of the climb at 9.30. A group of three riders in team colours posed for photos beneath the statue of Eugene Christophe – a legend of the Tour from 1913. One of them offered to take one of me before they jumped into their saddles and disappeared rapidly into the distance.
There is a supportive camaraderie among riders on the Tourmalet – and all the way up serious riders [by which I mean real athletes – thin as rakes, fit as fiddles] had encouraging words for me as they passed me as if I was only just moving – which sometimes I felt I was. At least I assume they were encouraging words – mostly in French or Spanish. I just about managed “Merci” in response – eloquent eh? The first few kilometres were reasonably easy – not too steep, I even overtook one rider – a member of the team from the photo opportunity – but very soon the unrelenting uphill was evident – and he overhauled me never to be seen again. I kept hoping that beyond the next bend there would be a bit of levelling out to catch my breath – it never came.
But what did come, thick and fast, were the most amazing views of the Pyrenees –tree clad slopes lower down with craggy screes leading to spectacular summits peaking against deep blue cloudless skies. I felt so lucky to be doing this. Such beauty demanded a pause in the pedalling – no point climbing several thousand feet and only seeing the front wheel and a few meters of tarmac is there? So in deference to the beauty of the surroundings you understand, nothing else, I took a break and then three more during the 3 hour climb.
I took on protein gels and water before getting back in the saddle for more pedalling – I counted the times the pedals turned – a hundred on my left leg then a hundred on my right and then again – and again – into the shade of pine trees and then into the sunshine – under the avalanche shelters where it was cold and dark. I passed a km marker – 8 km to the summit – over half way – then 6 km then through the almost deserted ski-resort of La Mongie – 4 km to the summit – getting there – a clutch of riders passed me slowly and I kept up with them for a while – maybe I can do the last few km without stopping. No I can’t – I take a final break to admire the view – no other reason obviously. I was glad I did as the Tourmalet kept its steepest until the end. The final 2 km was the toughest – the steepest gradient and something I had never imagined – photographers rushing beside me clicking away as I dragged myself around the final few hairpins up towards the summit and running after me tucking business cards into my jersey – I don’t care to repeat my responses here. And into the final climb – can’t give up now – and then suddenly there is the famous statue astride the summit of the Col du Tourmalet. Done it! Exhilaration. I mingled amongst the other riders – mostly belonging to teams of uniformed cycling clubs it seemed – a few individuals – one man from Scotland I spoke to is with his brother in law who is doing five – yes five – of the major climbs in the Pyrenees today. I guess that we will be doing several during the 70seventy trans Pyrenees challenge in May next year!! Lots more training to do – but at least I know now that I can get up this climb.
So that was the hard part accomplished – now the scary bit. The bit I had been concerned about. Going down. During the climb up riders has been hurtling down passed me at terrifying speeds – my plan was to stay on by brakes for most of the time – and this I did – still fast enough – carefully round the early hairpins – bike shaking – my shoulders tense, not a good thing I know, but with self-preservation in mind I was holding on tight. I took a break in La Mongie to rest my hands and relax my shoulders. Then on, with the steepest gradients now behind me, I flashed passed the familiar landmarks in seconds, still with a few riders flying past me at what seemed like 200 miles an hour – until suddenly the gradient evened out, nearly down – I relaxed off the brakes completely for the last couple of km until I was at the bottom. 31 minutes. Phew!! Everything ached – legs hands shoulders – but all in one piece. The café bar at the bottom does amazing coffee. After a lengthy and refreshing rest with a couple of grande cafes I powered back to the camp along smooth tarmac that is in stark contrast to most of the roads in Leicestershire. In France, around here at least, they revere cyclists – and now I know why.
Next time I do this it will be with 29 others – if you are willing to be one of them then please sign up on the website. We’re going to raise lots of money – £70,000 is the target – so that disabled kids, who will never have the chance to do what I did today, can have the opportunities that they deserve.
Thanks for reading – until next time