I don't have a touring bike and one of the aims of the trip was to see if a future investment in one would be worthwhile. Instead I was using a racing bike, a Campagnolo Chorus equipped Pinarello Stelvio. I'd bought the bike at the beginning of the year and so far my impressions had been extremely favourable, 440 miles in a four and a half days could change this.
The Sporting Tours group, led by Rocco Richardson, consisted of around thirty cyclists ranging from the mid-twenties to their mid-sixties and we travelled down to Hendaye by coach, a journey probably as gruelling as the one that lay before us - up to two days cooped up on a coach itching to get on your bike. As we travelled through France a few acquaintances were made. I spent most of the week sharing a room with Colin Clegg. He'd been preparing to ride a stage of the Tour with Sporting Tours but a lack of numbers had meant that this trip had been cancelled so instead he signed up, literally with days to go, to ride the Raid. He was extremely apprehensive about completing the ride. Other people who will be mentioned in this account are Robert Millar, who, like his namesake, is Scottish and climbed like a mountain goat, and Denis and Gerry, two Irish guys who were a source of constant amusement and encouragement. After what seemed like an age we arrived in Hendaye on the Sunday evening and stayed in the Hotel Campanile, which was very comfortable although everyone felt that dinner had been a bit short on the quantities we were hoping for.
We left the hotel at 9.30, purposefully leaving late so that our 100 hours deadline to complete the ride left us until 1.30 p.m. on Friday. After everyone got their photos taken we rolled out of the hotel car park and headed down to the sea front in Hendaye. After a quick stop to wet a toe in the Atlantic we were back on the bikes and heading along the coast road towards St Jean de Luz. This road was fairly rolling and those of us at the front rode a steady tempo as we were trying to keep the entire group together until after we'd reached St Jean de Luz and had turned inland. As it turned out this was harder than we'd imagined as major roadworks in St Jean de Luz meant that we had to take a diversion and various people tried other routes to get around the problem, causing the group to fragment.
I remained with the front group as we rolled along at a steady 18-20 mph through Ascain before tackling the first climb of the trip the 169 metre-high Col St Ignace. This was a fairly gentle climb that twisted and turned its way up to the summit where a mountain railway attracted a lot of tourists. We rode straight past and shot down the twisty descent through Sare and on past Cherchebruit heading towards Ainhoa and the Spanish border. A quick detour around the customs post took us, albeit briefly, into Spain and, with the gendarmes giving us a look that suggested they thought we were mad, we re-joined the route and headed up the second climb of the day the Col Pinodeita. Like the Col St Ignace this climb was very short but it gave me a chance to see how my form held up on the climbs and I was encouraged by how well I was going.
At the foot of the descent we stopped in Espelette where we had to get our control cards, the Carnet de Route, stamped. This was to be a daily task as there were eight places where we needed to get a stamp, a tampon, to confirm that we had completed the proper route. Whilst I was in the cafe I browsed through a copy of L'Equipe and was stunned to read of the death of Marino Rojas. A further terrible blow for Spanish cycling.
We headed out of Espelette and wound our way up the twisty climb of Mont Urzumu. After nearly taking a wrong turning we joined the D918 and sped down the valley toward St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, our designated lunch stop. There was a big group of maybe 15-20 of us on this road and we maintained a high pace. The road followed a river and whilst we seemed to be heading slightly downhill the river seemed to be flowing up the hill in the opposite direction. Very odd.
We arrived in St-Jean at around 1 p.m. and stopped at a cafe for a drink and a light lunch. Some of the group headed on after a brief stop but I was in no real hurry and enjoyed a fairly leisurely lunch before buying some fruit in the market and teaming up with Robert, a Scottish guy of my own age who was to be a fairly regular companion in the next few days. We both felt that the pace during the morning had been a little bit too quick considering the route that lay ahead so we decided to ride along at our own pace for the rest of the day.
The road to Larceveau rolled gently up and down and on reaching the village we turned right and began the ascent of the highest climb of the day the Col d'Osquich which climbed up to 500 metres. It was a fairly stiff climb with a gradient of around 8% but we rode up at a steady pace and began to pass some of the riders who'd not stopped for lunch. As you looked up the climb you could see the summit not too far ahead but when we arrived there we found that the climb continued for a further 1.5 kms off to the right, to the actual summit. Once over the top we descended quickly down a fairly straight descent which was a little bumpy in places and caught up with the two Irish guys, Denis and Gerry, as we approached the town of Mauleon-Licharre. After taking a dead end we found the right turning and headed down the 13 kms of flat road towards Tardets, our third control point of the day. We chatted as we rode, talking about the Osquich, what was to come and how the weather wasn't looking too bright.
As we moved closer to Tardets the scenery began to change dramatically as the hills became mountains. We were further south and east and into the Pyrenees proper now. Tomorrow we'd be going over some of these huge mountains and it still looked a daunting prospect. Into Tardets we rode into the square spotted the cafe with the bikes outside and joined some of our fellow raiders. Cards stamped and throats refreshed Robert and I decided to push on, we had another 30 kms still to go today and time was getting on.
The ride to Lurbe St Christau was fairly uneventful according to the map, following valley roads on the whole but a couple of little climbs, one just past Montory, and another one out of Arette meant that the legs felt that little bit heavier. But the descent down towards Issot was worth the effort, a twisty fast road with a river thundering down along the right hand side. At the bottom we turned left, rode along for a couple of kilometres before a right hand turn, a slight climb and then the hotel.
The room I was allocated, sharing again with Colin, was fairly spartan and to begin with there was no hot water as the initial rush had emptied the hotel's tank. However, after an hour or so of lounging around resting my legs there was enough hot water for a shower to get rid of the day's grime. Dinner was extremely substantial and everyone eat heartily, glad that one day was over but slightly apprehensive about the following day with the Aubisque, the Soulor and the mighty Tourmalet to climb.
A group of French riders came up behind us and we exchanged a few pleasantries and they asked us where we were heading. When we told them we were going over the Aubisque they expressed surprise and informed us that it was closed for resurfacing work before the Tour came over it a few weeks later. We had a brief discussion amongst ourselves, but the consensus was that we would ask in Laruns and see what the situation was. Alan, the coach driver, was going to be waiting at the foot of the Aubisque and he, we figured, would know what was going on.
We were all very quiet as we approached Laruns. This was the first big climb off the trip and we were only at an altitude of around 400 metres so we had an altitude gain of around 1200 metres in 18 kilometres - a tough climb in any language. Once through Laruns we came to the foot of the climb where Alan was waiting in the coach. We stopped to find out the situation with the road and Alan informed us that the road was shut on the descent but the gendarmerie in Laruns had said that cyclists would be able to get through the roadworks without any problem. This wouldn't be a problem for Alan in the coach as two tunnels on the descent off the Aubisque were too narrow for him to get through so he was heading up to Pau and going the long way round. After a topping up our water bottles in a shop with a very friendly patron, Robert and I set out on our way up the Aubisque. The start of the climb is superb, a steady gradient on an excellent surface and we easily maintained a speed of around 12 miles an hour as we began to wind our way upwards.
After around 4kms of excellent riding we passed through the village of Eaux-Bonnes and here the road steepened as we turned left in the village. The next section was tough as the gradient was around the 13% mark for a kilometre or too. But we were now finding a good rhythm and we passed Denis and Gerry and were joined by Geoff, who, with his triple chainring and low weight, seemed to climb almost easily. Denis shouted encouragement as we headed on. Our speed was down to around 8 miles an hour on this section and I had to use my bottom gear of 39x26 for the first time on the trip. The rain was still falling but you didn't notice it much through the sweat and effort. I'd taken off my long-sleeved jersey due to the heat build up and was riding in a short-sleeved jersey with my rain cape open at the front. We'd stopped talking, the intensity of the effort required to sustain a steady pace leaving little breath left for idle chat. Instead occasional glances across to one another conveyed a sense of how we were feeling.
I checked my computer and worked out we'd covered around half of the climb in around half an hour but the next 9 kilometres were sure to be tougher as the gradient remained at around the 10% mark and the temperature was begin to drop as we gained altitude. The clouds were still very low and this meant that we couldn't see much. The road followed the course of a river which was flowing swiftly back down the mountain but this gave us now real impression of the scenery around us.
As we approached the ski resort of Gourette we noticed large amounts of sheep droppings on the road and the reason became apparent as we rounded a bend to find a large flock of sheep being herded up the road. The shepherds kindly herded the animals to one side of the road to allow us to pass by. We shouted our thanks to them, grateful that we didn't have to stop and break our rhythm. Once through Gourette we had just 4 kms to go but this felt like the hardest part even though the gradient wasn't as steep here as it was further back. But a combination of the weather, the length and severity of the climb and the altitude made this section tough. The road had also narrowed once we'd passed through Gourette and it was a lot twistier with a more uneven surface now. We'd been climbing now for an hour now and I was looking forward to getting something to eat at the cafe at the summit. With about 2kms to go we encountered the first lot of roadworks but it was easy for us to ride along the side of them without getting in the way of the workmen. They nodded as we passed and shook their heads at what we were doing.
Over the last 2 kms the road became a lot more exposed with no trees around and it became noticeably colder. Before I'd left for this trip I'd been worried that the heat would be a major problem for me, but so far I needn't have worried. Finally, after an hour and 15 minutes of constant climbing we rounded a final bend and before us was the summit, with the magical sign; Col d'Aubisque 1709 metres to the right. We had to get a control stamp at the cafe here so we pulled into the car park, leant the bikes against the wall and dived into the warm cafe. Bliss - a large fire was going and we ordered coffee and a sandwich and got our carnets stamped. After about 10 minutes of getting warm Denis and Gerry arrived and they elbowed us out the way so they could get warm.
After 20 minutes we decided it was time to press on and put all the clothes we had with us on to ward off the cold on the long descent. We quickly took photos of each other in front of the sign and then re-mounted. A barrier was across the road stopping cars from heading down the descent but we rode around it and headed off down the mountain. The descent was fantastic, fast sweeping bends and with plenty of visibility so you could see that the road was clear ahead. After around 4 kms we came to the roadworks and, as we'd been told back in Laruns, we had no problems passing. However, Robert must have hit some kind of debris on the road as about 500 metres beyond the roadworks his rear tyre was flat. The others carried on but I stopped to give him a hand.
After quickly changing the tube Robert pumped up his tyre only to notice that he'd actually split the sidewall. Luckily we were both carrying a spare tyre so we whipped the wheel out and fitted a new one. We were both rushing to get the job done as it was extremely cold and we were beginning to feel it. A couple of our fellow travellers passed by, offering assistance, but we declined and soon had the new tyre fitted, inflated and got the wheel back in. A quick drink and we jumped back on our bikes and headed down the mountain.
A few kilometres further on the road began to climb again, the two kilometre leg-breaking ascent of the Col du Soulor. I really struggled on this bit as the cold had really got into my muscles and my legs weren't happy at being asked to climb again. I pushed on and we soon crested the summit and began the fifteen km descent into Argeles-Gazost. It was on this section that the heavens opened and the rain absolutely lashed down on us. Within minutes the road was awash and we had to be very careful on the corners as they were very slippery. As we approached one of them Robert was around fifty metres ahead when two cars came around the corner abreast. From where I was there seemed to be nowhere for Robert to go but somehow he managed to steer up onto the verge and miss the mad bastard. Crazy French drivers, overtaking on blind bends in the wet. I caught Robert up and he seemed to be okay. We carried on bemoaning the weather and the skill, or lack of, of French motorists. At one point, with both of us soaking wet and cold, Robert said it could be worse. I was incredulous. "How could it possibly be any worse than this, it's cold, it's wet and we've got 40 miles to go today ?". "We could be camping", he replied. Fair point.
Once into Argeles-Gazost we turned right and began to head down the valley towards Luz-St Sauveur, the town at the foot of the Tourmalet. As we passed a cafe on the outskirts of Argeles I heard a shout and Denis and Gerry came rushing out waving us back. We needed no further prompting and joined them inside. They'd commandeered the open fire and we stripped off some of our wet clothes and draped them across chairs in front of the fire. It was only now that I'd stopped that I realised how cold I was, and I spent the next few minutes shivering by the fire.
The owners of the cafe were very friendly and in a mixture of stuttering French and English we explained what we were doing. They thought we were all mad, and, at that point, I had to agree with them. I was gradually getting warm, drinking lots of coffee and eating a delightful bowl of homemade soup. The patron then informed us that he'd heard that the Tourmalet was shut as it was snowing at the top which put a dampener on things. However, he said he'd phone the gendarmerie and find out the situation for us. I immediately declared that if it was snowing I was going over in the coach, I'd had enough of the cold today.
After an hour or so of getting warm and drying out some of our clothes we decided we'd press on. The patron made the call and told us that the snow had stopped and the road was open so we thanked them for the kind hospitality and headed on again. About two kilometres down the road we found the coach parked outside another cafe and we took this opportunity to get some dry clothes and to dump any unnecessary luggage. At this point Robert lost me, as he thought I'd gone and headed off up the road to catch me. By the time I found out he'd gone he was out of sight so I set out alone. After a few kilometres I caught up with Denis and Gerry and they said that Robert had just passed them so I headed on after him pushing on fairly hard. With hindsight this was probably not the wisest thing to do with seventeen kilometres of torture about to come. As I approached Luz-St Saveur the cold really began to get to me and it was at this point that I decided I was never, ever going to do anything like this again.
I finally caught Robert, and Geoff, at the foot of the Tourmalet where they'd stopped to answer nature's call. I didn't want to stop, for fear of not being able to get going again, so I told them I was heading on. From Luz-St Saveur to the summit of the Tourmalet is seventeen kilometres with an altitude gain of 1400 metres and the authorities in the area have placed kilometre boards all the way up the climb - in itself not a bad thing but amongst the information they'd included was the average gradient for the next kilometre, just what a struggling cyclist needs as s/he struggles on.
After a couple of kilometres Geoff and Robert caught me but they were climbing at too fast a pace so I let them go and just tried to keep a steady rhythm going. The early kilometres weren't too steep, averaging around 6-7%, but I was still finding it extremely tough. Before the trip I'd asked for advice in gearing and someone said that although I'd might not need it, a bottom gear of 39x26 would be handy. I needed it now as I ground it round trying to maintain a pace of around 7-8 mph. I was really suffering, wanting to climb off but also wanting to complete the day's ride and the Raid itself. Maybe I should have waited for someone who was climbing at my pace, often having someone to suffer with and to cajole one another makes rough patches a little easier, but I pressed on, concerned that if I did stop I'd not start again. It is hard to convey how torturous this climb really is, the combination of the distance, the gradient and the weather combine to present a formidable challenge. After seven kilometres I passed through the town of Bareges and, as you come out of the town, the gradient rears up and I was out of the saddle and fighting my gear with all my strength. I passed Geoff who'd stopped for something to eat, but I wasn't going to stop now. With the gradient, easily 10% here, I don't think I'd get going again.
Onwards and upwards. The kilometre boards were gradually passing and I was praying for an easing of the gradient. After 10 kilometres my prayers were answered, the next kilometre averages just 5% and it felt almost flat. Some weird, warped humour thing kicked in and suddenly I was out of the saddle and changing up onto the big ring and really hammering. After maybe 50 metres of this, I changed down and laughed quietly to myself - at least now I could say that I'd done the Col du Tourmalet on the big ring.
This mad moment lifted my spirits and I pressed on with renewed vigour. However, I was very hungry and, fearful of the knock, I stopped at the side of the road and devoured a Power Bar. As I attempted to restart I encountered a serious problem. My left pedal had been playing up for some time, the engagement mechanism at the rear wasn't being retained properly by the retaining pin, and it had finally given up the ghost. I repeatedly tried to re-engage but the pedal just wasn't allowing me to get my cleat in properly and every time I tried to pull up on it my foot came away. I stopped and relaxed for a moment, trying to clear my head. I could go on but only at a slow pace but I knew that the coach would be passing by soon and I may be able to get a temporary fix from Rocco, who'd abandoned for the day. So I pressed on, being passed by Geoff, who offered assistance but neither of us could work out what to do so he pushed on. After a kilometre or so of soft-pedalling I could hear the diesel engine of the bus fighting it's way up the gradient but with the mist couldn't yet see it. But to ensure Alan didn't pass me without stopping I moved in to the middle of the road and stopped. The coach loomed out of the mist and pulled over to one side just behind me. Rocco got out, I explained the problem and he produced a spare Look pedal from his toolkit, and, whilst he changed it, my hands were too cold to even attempt this, someone appeared from out of the coach with a cup of coffee. I drank this, and with a pedal fitted that worked I thanked everyone, remounted and carried on.
The final five kilometres were extremely tough, I was cold and wet, although the rain had eased, and very tired after nearly 6 hours in the saddle. One thing that I kept thinking about was how anyone could ever race up these monstrous climbs. Here I was doing one hundred and thirty kilometres at an average speed of little more than twelve miles an hour. The top pros do two hundred kilometres over identical terrain with an average speed of double mine. This continues to amaze and astound me. The Tourmalet has a real sting in the tail as the last five kilometres are probably the toughest, with the gradient averaging around 8-9%. But I kept going, grinding around my gear, and soon came up to the one kilometre to go board - which also informed that this last kilometre averaged 10%. I was out the saddle now and pushed on hard only for the gradient to rear up in the final few hundred metres. This final section must be close to 20%, a real horrific way to end and it was a desperate fight to not come to a complete stop. I struggled over the line at the top, no energy left for a sprint, and freewheeled across to the cafe.
Once inside I ordered a coffee and swapped congratulatory remarks to the few guys who'd already got this far. After five minutes Denis and Gerry arrived and we related our horror stories to one another with Gerry telling the best one as he'd taken his cycling glasses, with prescription lenses, off when they'd stopped further down the climb and had carried on without them. Apparently there was no way he was going back to get them. All we had left now was seventeen kms of downhill to St Marie de Campan where we were staying the night.
We descended fairly quickly, apart from Gerry who couldn't see too far ahead without his glasses, with the temptation of a hot shower proving too much to resist and the damp roads suddenly held no fear. But the sheep in one of the avalanche shelters caused a few heart-stopping moments as we flashed past them at around 45 km/h, whilst they scattered in all directions, bleating loudly. After little more than twenty minutes we were in St Marie de Campan, and found the hotel easily and checked in. Then it was up to our rooms to get out of our damp gear and to warm up with long, hot showers.
We'd been warned the night before that this hotel wasn't very generous with the food portions so, after a the shower, it was across to the supermarche to stock up on cakes and fruit for later on and the next day. This information turned out to be misleading as the staff in the hotel did us proud with huge amounts of pasta that everyone wolfed down. There was even enough left for the late arrivals who reached the hotel at around 8 p.m., just 12 hours after leaving St Christeau. These four had been reported to be walking up the Tourmalet but they persevered and made it in the end.
Straight away we were climbing with 14 kilometres to the summit of the Aspin and, without a sufficient warm up, I really struggled on this climb. Partly this was due to the fact that I thought I was in my bottom gear when in fact I still had one to go down, but I only realised this less than a kilometre from the summit. The Aspin is fairly steep in places but what I found hard about it was the terrible surface, which was extremely uneven, necessitating constant weaving from side to side to avoid the worst potholes. The cold didn't help much either and, after 45 minutes, I was relieved to reach the summit.
I'd been told by Rocco a day or to before that the descent of the Aspin was excellent and the fun we had coming down off the climb went some way to making up for the problems I'd had going up it. At the top the road is fairly straight and this allows you to get a good head of steam up before you enter a long, twisty section. Robert and I flew down, passing Alan in the coach on one of the straighter sections, and really flying around the twisty bits. We were touching speeds of around 40 mph, which isn't that fast but when the road is twisty it really does feel fast. Too soon we reached the bottom and began the ride along the valley road towards the Peyresourde.
At the foot of the Peyresourde we encountered more roadworks and managed to pick up some fresh tar onto our tyres which necessitated us to stop and clean them. Later on, back in the UK, I discovered that the combination of the tar and the tight clearances on my Pinarello had led to the paint being badly scratched on the rear of the seat tube. I guess I should have ridden around the roadworks rather than through them.
Once we were onto the climb Robert began to pull away. He was a lot smaller than me and although I'd stayed with him on the Aspin, he now seemed to be that little bit stronger than me. I carried on at my own pace, latching on, eventually, to Gerry who'd been dropped by Denis. We pushed on and Gerry upped his pace to stay with me and with a few kilometres to go we caught Denis. I was climbing better than I had on the Aspin but I still wasn't feeling too bright but once I could see the summit, which is visible for around 2-3 kilometres, I felt much better. We only really had one climb left to do today, the Portet d'Aspet, and that was a long way ahead so hopefully I'd get warmer and feel better by then.
At the top we stopped at the coach and stocked up on food and drink and then started the fast and fairly straight descent down towards Bagneres-de-Luchon. This would have been a super fast descent if it hadn't of been for the coach that we managed to get held up behind that we'd catch on the corners but which would pull away on the straighter sections. The driver knew he was holding us up but wouldn't let us by. Quite a group of us had formed and on a hairpin bend one of the Westbury lads, Simon, dived down the inside and tried to pass the coach on the inside. The coach driver tried to cut the corner and for a moment it looked like Simon was going to get hit. Somehow he managed to avoid doing so. This caused Phil, one of his clubmates, to have a go and he dived past on the next bend while the rest of us shouted warnings about the van that was coming up the hill towards him. But he also got past and these two were away and descending quickly. The rest of us erred on the side of caution and continued the descent behind the coach, which pulled away for good on the wide, straight section towards the foot of the descent.
At the bottom, Phil and Simon waited for us and we harangued them about their crazy manoeuvres. It seemed like water off a duck's back to them. Despite our gripes we were pleased with their company for the next 20 kms and we hammered along the D125 towards Chaum. The two of them and Mark, their other clubmate, got a paceline going and Denis, Gerry and I joined it although I was reluctant to push too hard given how I'd been going so far today. But the next 20 kms flew past as we rode along at a steady 25 mph with them now giving me a hard time for doing less than my fair share of the work. I took it upon myself t do the map work and it was a good job I did as they missed a turning that we needed to take. I called them back and we continued on to the short ascent of the Col des Arres.
The Westbury train continued on, but Denis, Gerry and I were able to climb at their pace so we took it steady on this short wooded ascent. We'd passed a few people stopped for lunch in the village of Frontignan, and we were tempted to join them but decided to push on towards Juzet d'Izaut before we stopped. Once over the top of the Arres we sped down towards the village only to find that the sole cafe in the place was closed for a week. Luckily I had 3 Powerbars in one of my pockets so I issued these out and they gave us enough juice to get over for the climb of the Portet d'Aspet.
The approaches to the climb were fairly gentle but the climb itself is horrifically steep with section as tough as 20% - you ascend from 600 metres at the bottom to 1069 metres at the summit in four kilometres. We'd planned to stop at the monument to Fabio Carsartelli which we'd hoped would be around halfway but it turned out to be just about five hundred metres from the bottom. As you climb you pass the actual accident site on the left, a row of concrete blocks have been placed at the side of the road to prevent people going over the edge in their cars. The accident occurred on a nasty left hand bend on a very steep section and poor Fabio struck one of these blocks. There is a small plaque, with a photograph, on the actual one. Then a hundred metres further up the climb, again on the left hand side, is the monument to Fabio and it is a beautiful sight. The climb itself is heavily wooded and is a long way from even the smallest town so the whole area is tremendously peaceful - it is such a beautiful place and it seems tragic for such a terrible event to happen here. I paused for a few moments and reflected quietly on the events of that day, then remounted my bike and headed on up the climb with the memory of a delighted Fabio winning the Olympic road race in 1992 to the forefront of my mind.
The climb seems a lot longer than four kms and it is very steep. I was out of the saddle for virtually the entire length of it and at one point was down to just 4.5 mph. I rode at my own pace and pulled away from Denis and Gerry. Thankfully the weather had warmed considerably and with it my climbing legs had seemed to return. After what seemed like an eternity but was probably only around fifteen minutes the summit came into view and I pulled over outside the cafe at the top. This is one of the great things about the climbs in the Pyrenees almost all of them seem to have a cafe at the summit where you can revive yourself. There was an Australian lad here with a heavily laden mountain bike who'd just come up the climb, mainly on foot. He'd been touring in Europe for six weeks and was on his way to Barcelona. We had a chat in the cafe, waiting for Denis and Gerry, who arrived shortly after me.
We enjoyed a quick drink before dumping some of our gear on the coach and heading off. Denis had gone on ahead and I tried to catch up with him but I didn't see him again until we arrived at the hotel that evening. Instead I rode the thirty kms to St Girons on my own. This was fairly easy with the long descent of the Aspet and then a fairly flat valley road all the way into St Girons. This was a control point and I headed into the centre of town to find a cafe and get something to eat - the cafe at the summit of the Aspet only serving drinks. The Westbury train hove into view and they joined me for an excellent sandwich from a very friendly lady in the cafe. Again we explained the ride we were doing and she was very impressed and proceeded to tell all her other customers about our endeavours.
We had thirty kilometres to cover to Massat and again we got the paceline going all the way, picking up riders as we went. We rode steadier this time, keeping the pace at around eighteen mph, but I still think this saved me at least twenty minutes if I'd been riding alone. Catching the Westbury train became a favourite way of covering distance quickly. After an hour's ride up a river valley we arrived in Massat and found the hotel.
I got lucky in the allocation of the rooms as there were too many of us to all stay in the one hotel so I got a double bed to myself in a hotel a couple of hundred metres down the road. I slept well for the first time on the trip. Again dinner was excellent, good food and plenty of it, Graham Baxter certainly briefs the hotels well in relation to what we want to eat and how much we are likely to get through.
After dinner we watched the Euro 96 semi-final between England and Germany and were disappointed when England lost in a penalty shoot-out. A couple of beers were drank to ease our slight sorrows before retiring to bed.
I carried on climbing, spinning a medium gear and really pushing on but I failed to catch Geoff who was waiting for me at the summit. It really was a gorgeous day and the view back down the valley, with the mist still lying way down below, was superb. Denis arrived and went straight on past and I decided to set off after him, thinking that Gerry would catch us later on. However, I forgot that he didn't have a map and should really have waited for him but with the warm sunshine and the long descent down to Tarascon sur Ariege waiting I set off after Denis.
This was another good descent, with a couple of technical sections, and I really went for it, knowing that Denis would be flying too. I passed a few of the other guys who were taking it more easily but it still took me about ten kilometres before I even sighted Denis up ahead. He could really crank the 12 sprocket round on these descents and when I caught him he was grinning, obviously enjoying the speed. Everyone seemed far happier today, the sunshine really seemed to lift everyone's spirits.
We soon arrived in Tarascon and had to join the main road, the N20, which we'd be on for most of the rest of the day. The increase in traffic was immediately noticeable, the first three days being spent on relatively minor roads with much less traffic. After checking the map we figured that we had 25 kms of fairly undulating road to the town of Ax-les-Thermes, followed by the 27 km climb to the summit of the Col de Puymorens. Denis and I rode fairly steadily along the main road, mainly in single file as there was too much traffic to ride two abreast. As we passed through the village of Les Cabannes Denis said he was going to stop for a coffee and give Gerry a chance to catch us up. We found a cafe at the roadside and sat at a table outside, enjoying the sunshine. Whilst we drank the coffees a few of our fellow randonneurs passed by but there was no sign of Gerry so we decided to press on and wait for him at the summit of the Puymorens.
When we arrived in Ax-les-Thermes we were greeted by a big traffic jam caused by some roadworks in the centre of town but we were able to avoid being held up by riding down the centre of the road. Once through the town the road began to climb almost at once, we had 18 kilometres to go to L'Hospitalet, and gained 700 metres in these 18 kms. The climb wasn't too hard but I still began to pull away from Denis and we agreed to meet at the top. Once through the gorge a couple of kms outside Ax-les-Thermes the road opened out into a valley and I rode steadily upwards, passing Rocco as I went. It was beginning to get quite warm now and for the first time since the first day I opened my jersey to allow some air in.
It was pleasing to note that I was climbing pretty well today and just before L'Hospitalet I caught Geoff who'd stopped for a drink. After a quick commune with nature we continued on our way and hit a horrifically steep bit out of the village, as the main road entered a tunnel that took the bulk of the traffic straight through the mountain. The climb levelled off a bit after 500 metres or so but remained fairly steep, we were ascending to 1915 metres after all. We caught Robert who was following a policy of not stopping and was looking a bit worse for wear at this point. I set a pace of around 10 mph and the other two seemed content to follow. We had a brief moment of concern when we noticed a road way above on the mountainside but this is the climb of the Port d'Envilara, across into Andorra, we went straight on at the junction a couple of kilometres up the climb. The actual junction was a bit hairy as there seemed to be no clear road markings and we had no idea who had right of way so it was out of the saddle and a quick sprint to get across. Luckily there were no large trucks around to squash us flat.
I continued to set the pace but Geoff and Robert decided to up it a bit with about two kilometres to go and I just didn't have enough to go with them so I carried on at my own pace to arrive at the summit shortly after them. This was a pivotal moment for all of us, apart from the climb to the summit of Mt Louis later in the day, it was basically all downhill from here on in. A truly great feeling. The coach was waiting for us at the summit of the Puymorens, a windswept, exposed place and I sat upstairs in the coach while I waited for Denis, determined not to get a chill. The old fella must have been climbing pretty well too as he arrived about 5 minutes after me so we decided to have a bit of a break and wait for Gerry.
About half an hour later Gerry arrived, without the map he'd got a bit confused and had started to go straight through the tunnel, only to realise he must have gone off course. Apparently a truck driver couldn't believe his eyes when he thundered past a lone cyclist riding the opposite way ! After giving Gerry a bit of a break we decided to continue agreeing to stop for lunch at Bourg-Madame, some 27 kilometres downhill. This would have been an excellent descent but for one small problem, a vicious headwind which prevented us from getting any real speed up. The road is wide and smooth and I'm sure if you had the right conditions you could touch at least 50 miles per hour but we were lucky if we touched 40. But it was still a nice fast road and we quickly arrived in Bourg-Madame and found a cafe that looked okay.
Whilst we were eating the Westbury train came thundering by and we shouted greetings as they passed. Shortly afterwards they re-appeared, having decided that they fancied lunch too. Later on we'd be grateful for this. After a fairly leisurely lunch we settled our bill and remounted for the gradual climb to the summit of Mont Louis. According to the Carnet de Route we had about 400 metres to climb over the next 20 kms before 40 kms of descending to Prades, our final overnight stop. We figured this would be fairly easy but we hadn't taken into account the strength of the wind. It was blowing right into our faces and, as the road was very exposed, we really struggled even though we had a good paceline going. Occasional downhill sections gave us some respite but with close on 375 miles in our legs the majority of us really struggled on this section. I hate to think how anyone riding on their own managed, I was so relieved to be in a group of six as we could share the work and get a bit of a rest.
After what seemed like an eternity we crested the summit of Mont Louis and could see the road descend down the valley for miles ahead. The Westbury train got up to full speed but Denis, Gerry and I let them go, preferring to use just our side of the road rather than the whole width. Across the other side of the valley a railway weaved it's way up to the summit and it looked like a fantastic journey, as the views were superb. However, you couldn't look for too long as the road was fairly twisty and you had to concentrate hard on keeping on it. To begin with a queue of traffic had begun to build up behind us but as the road twisted and turned we pulled away from them.
I'd been sceptical of Rocco's claims that it was downhill all the way to Prades but he was absolutely right. With the wind blowing in our faces this proved to be a big relief as I think I would have struggled with a headwind on the flat. After close on an hour of descending we were into Prades and found a few others lounging around in the sun outside the hotel enjoying a beer. We had no hesitation in joining them.
The road was slightly downhill to begin with and the combination of this, a noticeable tail wind and a good road surface meant that we moved along at a fast pace. Once we realised that this was going to last we got a paceline organised and began to eat up the miles, passing some of the early starters, some of whom tried to stay with us but most of whom shook their heads as we thundered by.
After 15 kms on the N116 we came to the village of Ille-sur-Tet where we left the main road and headed down the D615 towards Thuir. The surface worsened but by now we had the bit between our teeth and we kept the pace high. We were sharing the work evenly and after 4 days of fairly slow riding it felt superb to be hammering again. The sun was beginning to warm up but the tailwind kept blowing so on we went. We got a little lost on the way through Thuir but once out the other side we regrouped and picked up the pace again. This was great fun and we pushed on, averaging around the 21 mph mark for the first hour. The countryside was pancake flat and mainly farmland so there was no spectacular vistas to distract us. A quick stop to pay homage to nature, then it was on again. I don't think my bike had spent so long solely in the 53 chainring for days.
Going through Bages we had a slight mishap when a furniture lorry caused a bit of chaos with it's open tailgate but we eased only for a moment before picking up the pace again. Into Elnes and we had some trouble trying to find the road out the other side which probably caused us to do an extra kilometre or so. Once out of Elnes we hit a very busy dual carriageway road but we kept the line going in the nearside lane and after 3 kms we came off the road and into Argeles-sur-Mer. By the sea again, finally. Somehow we mucked the navigation up here and ended up back on the dual carriageway and not long after it reared up sharply as the first of the few hills on the coast kicked in. Suddenly the group exploded and I was the first out the back, paying the price for not eating whilst we'd been riding, but I dug in and over the top I was about 30 metres behind Gerry and after a bit if a chase I caught up with him on the descent. Up ahead Robert, Geoff and Denis were going hell for leather as we dived through a tunnel before hitting a long sweeping descent down towards Port Vendres.
The other three were now 500 metres ahead and when they hit the climb out of Banyuls we lost sight of them. Gerry was convinced that we'd catch Denis as he wouldn't be able to stay with Geoff and Robert on the climbs. We carried on, suffering on the climbs, hammering on the descents and after 10 minutes or so we caught up with Denis on the last climb before the long descent into Cerbere. Once over the top lunacy took over and we attacked one another out of the bends as we tried to get a gap on the descent. There was a real urge to finish quickly so we took it to the limits as we speeded down into Cerbere. Then we were into the town and after a couple of bends we dropped down a steep hill onto the seafront and we were all done. A feeling of euphoria swept over us. Lots of hand-shaking and back-slapping before we ordered a beer, got our carnet de route's stamped, and sat out on the terrace enjoying the sun. Robert and Geoff had beaten us by around 2 minutes, their superior climbing skills coming to the fore in the last 20 kilometres. After downing our beers we jumped on the bikes, rode back up the hill to the coach and changed into our swimming gear. Then it was a gentle roll back down to the beach before we all dashed headlong into the chilly Med - journey's end..
The conclusions on the Pinarello confirm what I thought when I first rode the bike, this is one very special machine, a true thoroughbred. On long twisty descents, such as the Tourmalet or the Aspin, it did everything that was asked of it whilst managing to instill confidence in it's rider. I crashed heavily on a descent in 1995 and it has taken me over a year to remove all the mental blocks that this accident left. The only mechanical problem I had was with the pedal on the Tourmalet and that was fixed that evening after dinner. However, the Pinarello is designed to be raced and I am currently in the process of selecting and purchasing a touring bike so that I can undertake similar trips in the future but without the need to have a coach following along behind with my luggage. Trips currently being planned include a visit to the Basque country in October to coincide with the 1997 World Road Championships.
The organisation of the trip was superb so an unashamed plug must go to Graham Baxter's Sporting Tours. This is the third trip I've been on with them and they always provide excellent value for money.
Finally a word on the friendships I made on the roads of France. Special thanks go to the Westbury Wheeler's trio of Phil, Simon and Mark, for the high speed pacelines they organised to get us from col to col at high speed. Robert and Geoff also deserve a mention for their unstinting pacemaking on some of the longer climbs. But the biggest thanks must go to Denis Dodd and Gerry Tyrrell as their humour, support and goodwill turned this trip into a truly enjoyable one. Thanks guys.