Saturday, 8 October 2011

Classic Cols of the Pyrenees

Col du Tourmalet, Hautacam, Col du Peyresourde, Col d'Aspin are all mythical cols used by le Tour de France and these are just some of the cols we hoped to ride in the next week.  Two years ago I booked on the Classic Cols of the Tour de France run by Marmot tours, in conjunction with Exodus.  I was back to repeat the trip with my husband, Mark. 

Life’s too short to repeat a holiday right?  Well the beauty of this trip is that everyday you have optional routes to ride.  There is the “basic route” which is around 60 km with 1,500 metres of ascent per day. On some days there is a green route, which gives a slightly easier option or the blue route that involves an additional “bonus” col. But the real challenge lies in the red route or The Classic Cols Challenge.  This involves riding up to 3,600 metres of ascent a day and you get a free jersey to commemorate this epic achievement. Before we get too carried away I was on holiday so was deciding my route every day depending on what I felt like doing. My aim was to ride a slightly different route to the one I did two years previous when I took the easiest options. 

Monday morning found us waking up to blue skies and perfect cycling temperatures, which would stay with us for the entire week. The night before we had studied the route maps to decide what to ride.  This usually involved me reading out the gradients to Mark.  Not sure what the neighbours thought of me reading out 5%, 6%, 6% oooh 2%, 3%, ouch 9%, get the idea.  Not that this really meant anything out on the road as the gradients are an average over 1km.  So 8% could be a mix of 2% and 15%!    Over breakfast there is the inevitable conversation amongst 20 people.  So what route are you riding today?  And then comes the inevitable change of plans as people feel the peer pressure of doing that additional col. 

So after a lycra clad breakfeast, a bit of pre-ride phaffing it is out on the road to put those legs and route maps to the test.  I have to confess that some mornings I woke up thinking I really couldn’t face another col but as soon as I start pedalling I know I want to ride all day.  A couple of hours later and a fair bit of suffering I would find myself at the top of the col to the welcome sight of the Marmot Tours van and the friendly face of James.  Usually I was one of the last out on the road so it was always great to catch some other people here to discuss who was doing what and what lunch plans were.  Then it was my favourite part - a 20 minute descent.  I think anyone can ride up a col and we all suffer the same, albeit at different paces, but the key to enjoying this type of riding is learning to love descending.  Keep your hands on the brakes the whole way down and it is a miserable experience.  The real way to do it is to learn to let go on the straights, easy on the brakes coming into hairpin corners, take a good line and let go coming out of the corner.  It is better than any rollercoaster ride I’ve ever known. 

Of course on the descents you feel like a million dollars, and the pain of the climb is forgotten, so I usually opt to get the second col done before a late lunch. And of course the second col is always harder than the first but is easier than struggling up on full stomach.  After cresting the second col it is time for another buzzing descent and then find somewhere for lunch. This usually involves an omelette, French fries, coffee and a friendly French waiter topping up your biddon with fresh water.  Then after an hour or so relaxing it is time for the ride to the hotel for that night, hopefully with some of the team that you have had lunch with. Time for a bit of group riding and team navigation to find the hotel. 

Late afternoon brings the recovery session before dinner.  This is a compulsory beer or two, a recovery drink, shower and nap. Not necessarily in that order.  The beer is most essential as is a shower. Unless you are like one of our trip mates who claimed to not need a shower because he had “already had a shower that morning”.  Bags not sitting next to you at dinner then!

Dinner is typical French affair. Three courses, maybe a cheese course, carafes of wine should you choose and endless supplies of baguette. This is topped up by the not so typical endless supply of pasta, which had been prearranged by James for ravenous, carbo loading cyclists. This then results in a quite bloated feeling as you hit the sack feeling quite satisfied, having read out the gradients for the next day, ready to repeat the experience again.   Rather than bore you with a description of everyday I have decided to highlight my top 10 moments. Admittedly this ideas is stolen from Chris Evan’s as I was reading his autobiography whilst on holiday. So here goes;

Top 10 moments

Being cheered up the Tourmalet by onlookers.
Restaurant Baluchon
Bonne cuisine on our rest day.
Ricky’s bucket
While we all had small day bags for our essentials to go in the support vehicle, Ricky, another Kiwi on the trip had a bucket for his kit.  It was bought initially to put ice in to treat a swollen ankle, but was amusing all the same.
Café stop after Col de Port
I stopped at a café before doing the Col de Saraillé to get a caffeine fix.  One of the locals, who spoke better English than my French, said to my ride buddy Adrian.  “It is a tough climb the Col de Port” and then to me, “but even tougher for a woman”.  The look on his face was priceless when I let it drop that I have ridden Galibier.
Col D’Aspin
Cruising up Col D’Aspin, which is a truly beautiful climb.  I passed a few guys struggling up, and their mates at the top thought it was tough.  Coming after out rest day, and now being acclimatised to the heat, we found it facile. Oh, and the best was the cows at the top with massive horns who took great delight in blocking the roads.  Luckily I got through okay but I think it was too much for some to face on the last few metres of ascent.
Joe & Jenny doing a double Tourmalet
Jenny hated riding hills previous to this trip but somehow got talked into booking onto the classic cols trip.  On the last day Jenny and Joe decided to ride back up the Tourmalet.  Only thing is they couldn’t get their classic photo at the top as the big statue had been put away.
Coralie completing the Classic Cols Challenge
Coralie has only been cycling since May last year and managed to complete the Classic Cols Challenge.  Chapeau Coralie!
The “Joe Tow”
Riding the last 20km into St Giron in a tight group of four, led by Joe doing 25mph.
Descending off the Col de Menté
Brilliant switch backs that throw you out of the corners, similar to berms on a mountain bike track.
Riding the Tourmalet and the Hautacam on the same day. 
Halfway up the Tourmalet I decided I would also ride the Hautacam. While they looked to have similar gradients on paper, the Hautacam was a lot harder. The climb was scrappy as you would get 2% or even downhill sections followed by a brutal 10% section for 3 kms.  I stopped for a rest at 5km to go and text Mark to tell him where I was.  He was at the top and had been speaking to an old French couple how were amazed at what we had ridden that day.  They stopped their car when they saw me riding up to shout “Bon Courage! Bon Courage!”.  That made my day - as did making it to the top of the Hautacam.

Cols Ridden
Col du Chioula (1431m)
Co du Port (1250m)
Col de Saraillé (942m)
Col de Porte D’Aspet (1069m)
Col de Menté (1349m)
Col du Peyresourde (1569m)
Col d'Aspin (1489m)
Col du Tourmalet (2115m)
Hautacam (1535m)

My personal distanced for the trip:  400km, 8,700 metres of ascent.

6 people completed the Classic Cols Challenge, an eye watering 600km with 15,460m of ascent.

Everyone finished the route and no one spent a single moment in the support van. 

Trip Details

Highly recommended trip.  I wasn't the only person repeating this trip so that says a lot about how good it is.

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