La Pyreneenne

Overall Distance 174 kilometres Time Taken 7:34
Height Climbed 3250 m Overall Position 259th
Distance Climbed   Category Position 100th
Date June 2007 Country France
Entrants 1020 Region Pyrenees

Here we are for the first of our weekend double header, climbing the Tourmalet from both directions.  Event one is to be the 174 k, four valley, three cols of La Pyreneenne.  An epic ride in epic cycling country.

As ever the collection of dossards, goody-bags and assorted paraphernalia was a doddle.  Fire up to the Casino at Bagneres de Bigorre, on the Friday afternoon and give them your name, show them your licence and it's all there in a pack ready for you to take away.  Run your chip over the laptop tester to make sure it comes up with your name and number and it's all boxes ticked and ready to roll.  Now it's off to find the hotel!

We'd booked to stay in Tarbes, about 20k away.  Not ideal but not really a problem we just need to get up half an hour earlier than normal.  First we thought we'd find the start for the morning.  It's 2k from the casino and sits in the grounds of the Laurent Fignon cycle centre.  As we were pulling away I missed the turn out and ended in the hotel complex whose car park is the start of the event.  I asked Dianne to dive in and see if they have a room while I turned the car around.  Not a hope in hell but it took away the embarrassment of my dodgy navigation.

She came running out all thumbs up!  Not only did we have a room, it actually overlooked the start area!  And to cap it off the Agritubel team were staying there on a pre-Tour recce.  Also, it was five to six so they even cancelled our other reservations before the six pm deadline, so no penalty!  How lucky are we?  Before dinner with the team we strolled across to Fignon's shop to look at all the kit and his Giro and Milan San-Remo trophies.  Couldn't see a second place Tour de France one though!

What's the rush?
Next morning it's stroll down to breakfast, get ready for the off and pack the jerseys with food.  As ever, I'm almost last to the line.  But it's going to be a long day and I know I can get to the front before the going gets too tough.

We kick off by riding through the centre of Bagneres and head out on the road for Lourdes.  The pace is quite hectic but at every twist, turn and roundabout I make up places.  Leaving Lourdes, and a few lumpy bits, I'm still in the first twenty and getting a nice easy ride.  There's a massive tail behind us and the speed in the first hour is around 37 kph.  I'm sure it'll drop once we hit the Tourmalet! 

Leaving Lourdes I spot two Bouyges Telecom riders and three Agritubel boys.  You know they're pro's because they've got their tights, overshoes and long sleeved jerseys on.  Also, they look anorexically thin and are spinning stupidly low gears at ridiculously high cadence and while everyone else is breathing through their exhaust port they're all chatting away without a care in the world.  How fantastic must that feel?

We pass through Argeles Gazost and I see a fantastic hotel that sits at the base of the Aubisque and the Hautacam.  The pace is still hot. We've been doing 45kph since we left the start, then all of a sudden I'm passed by a lady of mature years, doing a quite obscene speed with almost no perceived effort.  I clock her number and decide to check her results out at the end.

Are we there yet?
Leaving Argeles we head for the beautiful but infamous Gorges de Luz with it's slab sided walls and long, long, long false flat.  The speed doesn't drop but the effort increases substantially.  I start to slide backwards.  I decide not to fight to stay at the front and ride within my threshold.  I'm sure it's going to be a long day. 

Groups of older riders begin to pass me and I struggle to hold wheels.  I know I'm stronger than these riders so why am I struggling; contradictory images and thoughts mess with my head.  A group of around 50 break away.  I see them snaking up the gorge ahead of me and I'm powerless to stop it happening.  I find a group whose pace I can hold and sit in.  It feels like I'm breathing through a straw!

We cross a chicane-like bridge and head up the long slope to the small but famous town of Luz Saint-Saveur.  I've stayed here a few times and now know exactly what to expect.  It's time to say good bye to my second group of the day.

We are now!
We leave Luz Saint-Saveur at 711 metres and almost immediately the road goes up.  There's a sharp rise then it flattens out to a not overly super steep 3.6%.  However, we're now heading on a one way, 19 kilometre trip to the 2115 metre summit of the Tourmalet at an average gradient of 7.4%.  So once the first k is out of the way I know it's going to get steeper, a lot steeper!  Let the Col du Tourment begin.

I decide to ride within my threshold minus a bit.  It's my first day at altitude and to be honest I'm taking a while to "warm-up" and still don't feel as comfortable as I'd like.  So 200-220 watts it is.  Which is a bit hard to do as riders are passing me on all sides and I feel like I really want to jump on.  But I've come with a plan and I should have the willpower and confidence to stick to it; so I do.  Sort of.

Plan B
We head through Bareges where it's a leg-sapping 8.5% for two kilometres.  The road is lined with supporters and people shouting encouragement from the road-side cafes.  At the 10k mark the mountain flattens out a little bit.  When I say flattens out, this is of course a relative term.  The gradient drops off to 5.5% for a kilometre before it begins to go on a dizzying spiral of steepness to the leg-snapping last kilometre of 10%.

So at the half-way point I decide to up the pace.  I'm warm now in all senses of the word.  I pick up the pace on the flat bit and maintain it as the road gets steeper.  Riders begin to come back to me in ever increasing numbers.  As we near the summit the groups I'm overtaking are becoming bigger and bigger.  At last I'm beginning to feel good and can't wait for the descent.

One down two to go
An 86 kph descent begins the second you crest the summit.  The drop to La Mongie is the steepest, fastest, and most dangerous of the day.  We had to bypass a landslide at the side of the road, cow stuff in the middle of the road and a herd of goats all over the road, before we even got to the avalanche tunnels just below the town.  From then on though it was plain sailing to the foot of the Aspin.  I claw back at least 50 places on this descent alone.

Col de Aspin ~ Pyreneene Sportive 2007This is where we picked up Dianne's ride.  My wife was doing the 97k ride that left Bagneres and went straight up the Aspin to begin climbing to it's 1780 metres summit. 

I was still climbing well at this point and felt good as I crested the top.  Once more I rode through the feed station as I didn't want to lose time and had paced myself well enough to get to Saint Lary Soulan where I'd planned to stop.

Dianne raced up the mountain with a small group and sprinted for the peak to beat a fellow competitor!  However, she was too ashamed of the photo recording this "victory" and wouldn't let me use it!

Almost there?
The descent of the 1490m Aspin is tricky, fast and open all at the same time.  The sun was now well up and the heat was great to feel on your back.  But as soon as you started to descend it was decidedly chilly so the gilet (and the helmet) had to go back on. 

At the foot of the climb we dived over the river and through the picturesque hamlet of Arreau to head for Guchen and the feed at St Lary.  It's now very hot and the roads are the "draggy" type that feel as though you're riding with your brakes on.  As you head to St Lary you have the Plat D'Adet on your right.  You see it snaking up the mountain and you pray it's not the Hourquette.  I've seen this mountain before but I can't remember it's name.  I ride on knowing there's only one more mountain to climb; the Hourquette d'Ancizan.

At the feed I fill my bottles and pockets and leave this quiet, beautiful town without a second glance.  It's been like a Formula One splash and dash.  No time for pleasantries, I've a mountain to climb.

No we're not!
The road leaves St Lary and we pass the Plat D'Adet which is now on our left.  What a relief, it looks a killer.  We head down a road parallel to the one we came in on and we now have a head wind.  I'm in a group of around ten riders and no one seems in a rush to go to the front.  So I go to the front and soft-tap.  No change there then!  After 5k we take a sharp left in to the village of Ancizan.  The last mountain must be close.

Didn't think it was this close!  With no warning whatsoever the road hits 10% for the first kilometre.  It's 10k long and climbs over 800 metres at an average of 7.7%.  This is a sting in the tail we weren't ready for. And it's so hot and getting hotter. 

The first section of the mountain winds around the edge of the landscape and the sun is blaring down on our left.  People are stopped everywhere.  Some are climbing in the saddle, some out, but all at walking pace plus a step.  Some are taking shelter in what little shade there is.  This isn't what I expected.  I stay in the saddle and grind it out, saving a few gears at the back for when I get in to real trouble.  I begin to think how Dianne is going to manage.  I also begin to wish we'd climbed D'Adet.

Dianne said she stopped twice to take a drink as she felt she was climbing too slow to take a drink and remain stable.  I knew exactly what she meant.  There were people wobbling and zig-zagging the climb all around me.  I tried to maintain a tempo but at times I dropped on the real steep bits to just 8kph!  At St Lary I thought I was on for a top ride.  Now I was beginning to wonder if I'd even get a bronze!

As Dianne neared the summit and started to overtake people more and more riders began to congratulate her.  This was a truly enormous task.  The Aspin was to be her first ever mountain climb.  We thought the Hourquette would be a quiet ride to the finish.  It didn't look that bad on the profile. 

The Hourquette was the Col du Marie Blanque in disguise.  I saw at least four people being sick and at least twenty lying next to their bikes in a trance; with a stare that only cyclists can relate to.  Marshals and volunteers were dishing out water and encouragement in equal measure.  There were also road markings for the following weeks Route du Sud,  They were going the opposite way to us.  The pro's descend what we're now climbing.  Lucky buggers!

The Shame
Finally the top arrived and the 30 kilometre descent to Bagneres began.  After 3k I was just getting in to a flowing rhythm when we began to go uphill again.  I was not happy.  I was even less happy, and found out how tired I really was, when a bloke on a shopping bike wearing flip-flops over took me!  Pride kicked, I woke up and changed up, then  got out of the saddle and completed the final 1k of upness with increased vigour.

A perfect end to a perfect day
Finally I began to descend again for what I hoped was an uninterrupted ride to the finish.  With 15k to go I spotted a familiar sight in front of me.  "I'm sure that was a flamme rouge top."  I normally descend quite well; fast but safe.  But I chased harder and took perhaps a few more risks than I should to catch up.  With 10k to go I caught her.  She descends quite well for a girl!!!

What better way can there be to finish such a hard day in the saddle than to ride to the finish with your best mate (sorry Dave), team mate and wife all rolled in to one.  We cruised in side by side with all the riders I'd left on the descent calling out (in a nice way) as they passed us on the run in to the finish.  Forty riders passed us on the run in but we didn't care.  Our race was over and we were going to enjoy the moment.

We came over the line with a time of 6:03 and 7:34.  Dianne's ride started an hour and a half after mine. Her greatest achievement for her was that she wasn't last.  The fact that she'd climbed two massive mountains, never got off and finished looking fresh seemed to pass her by.  We handed in our timing chips and went to our room for a shower before returning to get our grub and results.

My stats for the day showed, 174k at 23kph with 10% of the ride at tempo power output, 4% at VO2max and 6% above anaerobic threshold.  The descents were good though!

After an hour or so, with our stomach's full and tiredness beginning to kick in, we returned to our room and watched everyone slowly disappear over the next few hours.  Come early evening it was as quiet as you could imagine.  It was though no one had ever been there and the calmness you can only get in the mountains had been restored.  It must be time for tea (or dinner if you live in the South).

Oh yes...
The lady with number 1 on her back.  It was none other than Marion Clignet.  Six times world champion, two Olympic silver medals, and winner of numerous French and US national titles (dual nationality).  You meet all sorts on these rides.  I just wish she'd hung around enough for me to say hello, but she had a race to win.  Which she did in 6:30, two hours ahead of the next woman and an hour ahead of me. 

We stay at the Fignon Centre for three more days then move to that nice hotel I saw at Argeles Gazost.  The Hubert Arbes is next week and I need to get some mountains in and that seemed like the perfect base.

Until next time...

website La Pyreneenne
hotel Laurent Fignon Centre