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Cycling adventures of a time trialist in the Pyrenees Pt1

“There’s no excuse now”. So said the Facebook post from Ian at Pyrenees Multisport as the UK Government announced that it would no longer require self-isolation for travellers returning from France. And with SWMBO’s (She Who Must Be Obeyed) blessing, I booked a short five-day half-board trip to the Pyrenees.

I would have normally automatically gone for Mallorca, but the Pyrenees felt like a nice change and frankly the idea of being fully catered for rather than fending for myself sounded pretty good, too.

So, on Sunday August 22 I ventured back to Heathrow for the first time in 18 months. It felt weird, but surprisingly busy in the first-class lounge. No shortage of people jetting off here and there for expensive holidays.

I arrived at Toulouse and was met by Julie for the hour-odd trip to Multisport Pyrenees in the little village of Luscan. On arriving I found I was one of three guests, alongside a track runner and a Kona-qualifier triathlete, Keith.

We introduced ourselves and agreed to buddy up for the coming days.

Day One – Portillon and Arres

Day One comprised a ride to Bagnères-de-Luchon for coffee before tackling two climbs, first the Col du Portillon which led us into Spain and then we headed up (and back down) the Mirador D’Arres.

I was perhaps a little too enthusiastic on Portillon which is an 8.75km climb at an average of 7.4% (including having to dismount and clamber over the roadblock designed to stop cars using the road to get to Spain!). Trying to learn my lesson, I deliberately stuck behind Keith on the Mirador D’Arres (7.3km, 8%). Both descents were great fun, but being on unfamiliar roads I found myself descending much more cautiously than I would in Mallorca.

The descents, however, made my choice of bike for the trip worthwhile. Having ummed and ahhed, I decided to take my Giant TCR 2021 disc brake bike, equipped with Roval CLX 64 Rapide wheels. Not the lightest bike in my stable (I could have gone with the 2018 TCR SL rim brake with 34mm climbing wheels), there were times on the climbs I was wishing I’d brought the SL, but on the descents the disc brakes were very welcome. The CLX 64 Rapide wheels were a mixed bag; on the flats they were great and definitely helped maintain a decent speed. However, I had read reviews that said the wheels became very ‘nervous’ over 65kph and that’s exactly what I experienced.

On some faster descents there was a definite speed wobble over 60-65kph that didn’t really inspire confidence (I only ride a 90mm stem, so that doesn’t help stability much). It’s a shame for what is otherwise a really nice wheelset (albeit a little on the heavy side for so much climbing!). Having bought them second-hand with well-used GP5000 tyres, perhaps fresher rubber would have behaved better. Or maybe I should have left the CLXs at home and just taken the regular Giant SLR wheels which, although less aero, would have been a bit lighter and perhaps not so fidgety on the faster descents.

We had a lovely lunch (Patatas Bravas and Calamari, can’t go wrong!) in the Spanish town of Bossost before a thankfully downhill run in the sun back into France.

Day One Stats

Distance: 111km Climbing: 1,740m Time in saddle: 4h 27m Calories Burned: 2,700

Day Two – Peyresourde and Azet

After a delicious evening meal and a good night’s sleep (no doubt aided by a half-bottle of wine) day two featured the Col du Peyresourde and Col d’Azet, thankfully with a fairly flat run-in to our first coffee stop of the day in Luchon again.

The Category 1 part of the Peyresourde climb is 9.5km at an average of 7.2% (688m climbing) but you can add another 2-3km of uphill before you even get to that part! However, the road surface was sublime. If you’re going to have to slog your guts up a hill, this is the surface to do it on. I was mindful to not be as enthusiastic on the first climb of the day as I had been on day one.

At the top Keith and I shared the famous “12 crepes for €6” before donning our jackets for the descent. Then it was a little flat riding before climbing the Col d’Azet (Category 2, 7.4km, 8% average, 585m climbing). Towards the top of the climb, we could see back over the valley to the Peyresourde and a mountain-top runway that was once a location for the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (the one where he ‘steals’ the jet plane from an Arms Fair). The surface of the Azet climb wasn’t so good, and there were a lot more switchbacks, but reaching the top certainly felt like and achievement and the descent into Sailhan was enjoyable.

We stopped for lunch in Saint Lary, but of course it was after 2pm and we were in France, so most places weren’t serving food! Thankfully we found a pub and fuelled up for the remaining 50km or so to home (again, mostly downhill!).

Day Two stats

Distance: 129km Climbing: 2,097m Time in saddle: 5h 3m Calories burned: 3,100

Day Three – Aspin, Tourmalet and more

This was always going to be the biggest day of the week: Tourmalet. But to flush the legs out, we had a nice flattish 45km or so to the first climb of the day: Col d’Aspin (11.6km, 775m climbing). For me, this was the standout climb of the week, I absolutely loved it. Billiard table smooth tarmac and an average of 6.7% it suited me really well, as I could spin away keeping my cadence in my preferred 80rpm+ zone. Of course, it helped that the sun was shining and the views were stunning. Exactly what you’d expect of the Pyrenees in Summer. I reached the top about 3-4 minutes before Keith, who had no doubt been doing a better job of keeping his powder dry for what was to come.

Then it was a nice fast descent before the start of the Tourmalet. Except like many climbs, there’s a climb to get to the climb. So, what on paper is a 15.3km ascent with 1,171m of climbing is exactly that and then a bit more to even get to the start of the official climb.

For me, the Hors Category climb lived up to its reputation. The first half was fine and I was sticking with Keith, keeping my power in check. But with about 1.5km to go to the skiing resort of La Mongie, Keith started slipping away and I started to really not enjoy myself very much. I was blaming the heavy bike, the aero wheels. And for sure, they didn’t help, but I’m just not a climber (you only have to look at me to know that!) and even the 30-tooth cassette on the back wasn’t enough to keep me in my preferred cadence zone.

Through La Mongie and I both convinced myself I was nearly at the summit (I wasn’t) and that I’d soon be back in La Mongie for a nice big pizza (that bit was almost true, it just wouldn’t be that soon). In fact, it’s still 9.5km from La Mongie to the summit of the Tourmalet. But the views were stunning, even as I ascended into the clouds and started to lose sight of Keith who was proving much stronger than me on this climb.

Just before the top was a little pro photographer station, so of course I had to play up to the camera. Reaching the summit marker provided a real sense of achievement, but I have to admit I’d stopped ‘enjoying’ myself about 45 minutes prior.

Near the summit of the Tourmalet
Playing up for the camera station on Tourmalet

At least we only had to descend to La Mongie for lunch (and of course, more posing for the photographers). Lunch was a delicious pizza (as promised to myself), eaten indoors as both Keith and I were chilled from the descent.

Then we had to descend the rest of the road we’d just climbed. It’s not the nicest of descents, or maybe I was just cold and tired. I was glad to get down into the warmth of the valley. We’d been warned the route home from Tourmalet wasn’t flat. And indeed, it wasn’t, with another Category 3 climb midway home that I’m embarrassed to say took me 40 minutes to do just over 6km. I could have probably run it faster on foot. It’s fair to say this time trialist was spent.

And that was despite decent fuelling (better than normal for me!). Before I left, Alan Murchison (he of Performance Chef fame) gifted some of his soon-to-expire Maurten energy powders and gels. I’ll do a write up on those soon.

I’m glad to say I’ve done the Tourmalet – and have the photos to prove it! – but in all honesty it ended up being a tough day and I was ready for the ride to be over long before we made it back to the Pyrenees Multisport base and another delicious evening meal cooked by Julie.

Day Three stats

Distance: 165km Climbing: 3,076m Time in saddle: 6h 50m Calories burned: 4,020

Three days down and two days left to go… Pt 2 coming soon!


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